I spent a bit of time this morning, as I sipped my orange juice and enjoyed a bowl of raisin bran, perusing the last two weeks worth of BTB FanPosts. There is a lot of excellent, passionate work therein (much of it FPOTW-worthy), the bulk of which concerns the many, well, concerns, along the offensive line. Because of this, I'm going to focus this look at our top FanPosts exclusively on the hottest topic this spring and summer: the O-line.
Earlier in the offseason, we saw a lot of hand-wringing about Doug Free's play in 2012, and the Cowboys' inability or refusal to pursue an upgrade at any cost. Now that the team's patience has been rewarded with a Free who looks to be much improved, the focus has turned to the offensive guards. In the last 36 hours, the big story has been Ron Leary's knee surgery and whether or not it will prevent him from playing in the season opener. Our sudden anxiety about Leary is rather amazing when you think about it; consider that, two weeks ago, he hadn't yet practiced and observers were wondering whether he could offer Nate Livings a legitimate challenge. Now, we are tearing out our collective hair over the loss of a starter.
I'm going to assume that Leary comes back (the operation is "just" a scope, and isn't on his balky knee; as a level-headed member writes, we need to "come in off the ledge for a moment"). It may not be for the opener, but he'll play in September. When he returns, assuming that Free continues to play well, four-fifths of the Cowboys offensive line positions will be manned by good, young players. Four out of five, with room to develop? That's an excellent situation to be in. Ah, but it's that fifth position, right guard, that is the object of so much consternation.
A scant week ago, the big story, as you will recall, was team's negotiations with Brandon Moore (which appeared to be universally hailed as a good thing) and then, in an emotional roller-coaster, about the subsequent reactions to his decision to retire (BTB member HEPennypacker, in the comments section: "This is just our luck isn’t it? Damn"). As we were gasping for breath after this wild ride, several comparatively sober observers stepped in to help talk us off the proverbial ledge. One writer, CharlesinChicago, reminding us that "All is not lost," offered a fulsome list of alternative OGs to pursue after the big fish got away.
Another, by the prolific and always excellent The Real Dirk Gently (also the author of the "off the ledge" post cited above), meticulously broke the Moore situation down into its component parts. arriving at the following conclusion:
I think what Garrett saw in that game film [after the Hall of Fame contest against Miami] was a team that could make a deep run. And that team starts off with 4 very winnable games, which are very important to put in your pocket, both for momentum and to store up wins against adversity (injuries) later. But the problem is 3 of those four teams have a very good pass rush.
I think Dirk is onto something here - but what jumped out at me was his opening declaration about what Garrett sees in this team.
Allow me to expound on this notion for a moment. Going into training camp, this was a team with myriad questions: who would play RT, and at what level? Who will be the F/H back? Will someone step up as the third receiver? How will the offense function without a fullback on the roster? Can DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer make the transition to playing with their hands on the ground? Who will be the backup linebackers? Will any safeties step up? Will they have any depth in the defensive backfield?
Almost miraculously, all of these questions have been answered in camp, most of them affirmatively and very positively. As a result a team that looked to be a year away began to consider that they could make a run this year. The result was a crucial shift in the organization's thinking. The lineup was complete enough, and the depth good enough, that they could pursue a limited "one player away" kind of thinking - or at least a "one position away" process. And that position was, of course, right guard.
This was confirmed by BTB's resident O-line scout, Longball, whose yearly assessment of the collegiate big uglies is pre-draft required reading. Generously responding to a conversation in a comments thread (who can say no to Fernie?), LB offered a scout's eye view of the line play thus far, and arrived at more or less the same conclusion that Dirk suggests Garrett and the Cowboys coaching staff has: four of the five guys can play; Mackenzy Bernadeau, on the other hand, he declares to be "an interior backup OL at best." Thus the pursuit of Brandon Moore and, since his retirement, Brian Waters (who I fully expect the team to sign once they return to Dallas after Saturday's game in Phoenix).
But there's more to this. Consider the gameday O-line roster. Typically, teams like to suit up eight offensive linemen on game day: the five starters, a backup/ swing tackle and two interior guys. If Bernadeau starts, then they have to suit up Phil Costa, who can only play center, as well as as backup guard like Livings or Arkin, neither of whom play center (or, in Arkin's case, play it so badly that it would be sure to derail the offense). What coaches want from the gameday backups is position flexibility; this way, they get maximum coverage with a minimum of bodies. With Costa and Arkin as the two interior backups, for example, they'd get almost no flexibility.
If, however, Bernadeau was moved to second string (where LB claims he belongs) if and when a veteran such as Waters is brought in, Big Mack could be a serviceable backup at both guard and center. This would give the coaching staff much more flexibility in the case of injury to multiple O-linemen in a game or, if they need to carry extra guys at other positions, the ability to suit up just seven O-linemen, with Parnell as the backup tackle and Bernie as the backup at all three interior spots. One of the many things that Bill Parcells' press conferences taught me to appreciate was how much coaches agonize over gameday rosters. Having position flex makes that difficult job much easier.
It's for these reasons that I expect to see Waters in a Cowboys uniform next week. But don't let the OG maelstrom distract you from the larger story: so much is going right that the team is focusing on this position - and this position alone - as the key to the 2013 season. One hole, and at one of the least difficult positions to fill?
All is well in Cowboys land...