While the debate over the Cowboys offensive line has been at the center of Jason Garrett's head coaching career in Dallas, there is still no consensus on whether he has tried hard enough to successfully improve the situation, whether he has ignored the problem to the detriment of the team, or whether his attempts have simply not been enough to warrant any credit.
Depending where the fan or pundit stands on the spectrum of the debate, you will either be pointed to the two first-round picks in three drafts, the single drafted olineman in the past two years, or the continued weakness of the oline in terms of team strengths. Some will point to the turnaround of age, potential, and cap hits for the olinemen on the roster; others will point to memories of Romo running for his life, or the number of first-round picks on the 49ers offensive line.
However, no one seems to be acknowledging the greatest evidence that Garrett has indeed improved the offensive line since he took over. In 2012, the offensive line performed better than the 2009 version that helped the team earn its first playoff victory in over a decade.
That's right. Surprisingly, in contrast to the myths and memes in the media, the evidence is clear. The '12 Cowboys oline was better than the '09 version.
|Year||PassAtt||Sacks||QB Hits||Sack Rate||QB Hit Rate|
Despite being one dimensional and throwing 100 more passing attempts than in years past, the '12 oline had a better sack rate and QB hit rate than the playoff oline of '09. And remember, in both instances Tony Romo was the quarterback, so his ability to avoid sacks cannot be used as an excuse for the stats. In fact, Tony also had more rushing (avoiding) attempts to go along with the far fewer passing attempts in 2009. These are the plays where Romo doesn't have time to work his magic and throw the ball after avoiding the pressure, where his marvelous escapes from potential sacks are so perilous that he actually runs the ball. And the year he was throwing the ball far more, he had to tuck and run less.
Now, the obvious objection to be raised is the '09 offense was clearly better at running the ball. In fact, '09 was the best rushing attack the Cowboys have had in a decade (and Romo's best season and first playoff victory in over a decade...coincidence?). With over 2000 rushing yards, a 4.8 average, and 14 touchdowns, the '09 running game puts the '12 version to shame. And for the record, the effective rushing attack was not based on the winning in the 4th quarter rushing myth. In '09, the Cowboys rushed 219 times in the 1st half, and 214 times in the 2nd half.
However, it must be noted that the team in '12 was also without Murray for over a third of the season. So while the '09 Cowboys team rushing average is over a yard better than the '12 average, the comparison of the starting RBs is not nearly as drastic. Marion Barber was the primary RB for the Cowboys and averaged 4.4 yards per carry (214). DeMarco Murray averaged 4.1 yards per carry (161) in 2012. It was the rotational RBs that did the most damage in '09.
The other important word to note in this difference is - commitment. The '09 Cowboys were committed to running the ball. Not that they were a run first team, the rushing attack was really opened up by use of the passing game, and the Cowboys used this balanced attack to keep defenses guessing and taking advantage of mismatches to the benefit of both their rushing and passing efforts. Some interesting notes on the 2009 rushing attack:
* When comparing Shotgun, I-form, and Single Back sets, the team had a far better rushing average in shotgun formation. (6.3, 5.6, 4.5 respectively)
* When comparing 0, 1, 2, and 3 TE sets, the team had a far better rushing average in 2TE sets. (4.5, 5.0, 5.5, 0.7 respectively)
* There was virtually no difference in rushing average between 2 and 3 WR sets (4.9 and 5.1)
* The success running in Shotgun and 2 TE sets in '09 could be a sign of things to come in 2013, and an explanation for why Felix Jones had an incredible 5.9 rushing average in '09.
This deeper look into the 2009 rushing attack starts making things a little bit clearer. The Cowboys didn't have a smash mouth running game behind some dominant oline (like the 49ers in '12) and so the rushing attempts of '09 Barber were not much better than those of Murray in '12. Rather, they were committed to creating an effective rushing attack and did so by utilizing 2TE sets and Shotgun runs to force situations that would make rushing more favorable.
So while the '12 oline was certainly not effective running the ball, they certainly did not commit themselves like in '09 and were without their starter for far too long. However, even while one dimensional; they were better in pass protection than the oline that helped the Cowboys win a playoff game.
Feeling better about the potential of the '13 oline yet?
Not only is this the second year with Bill Callahan, and the second consecutive years for Smith and Free on their respective sides of the line, both showing improvement on their performances from last season. And now, instead of having new team members Livings, Cook, and Bernie as the interior starters, the Cowboys have them competing for starting spots with young guys like Frederick, Leary, and Arkin. There are plenty of reasons to think the '13 oline will be better than the '12 version...and now it is clear that the '12 version was already better than the one that helped the team win a playoff game back in'09. Not to mention they are younger, more likely to improve than degrade due to age, and are taking up far less of the team's salary cap.
So, do I think Jason Garrett has improved the team's offensive line? Absolutely.
Does this team have a younger offensive line with more upside and greater potential for improvement than it did in '09? Absolutely.
Do I think Garrett has made enough investments to improve the oline to provide the team a chance for playoff success? It remains to be proven, but every sign (and history) point to yes.