I think most of us would claim more confidence in the Dallas offense than in the Dallas defense going into Training Camp 2014. I think that might be an understatement. Most of us, in our wildest hopes and dreams, envision the Dallas Defense could maybe even be average. Frankly, just not allowing a team or league record in points or yardage would be just swell...
Now, the Offense on the other hand... Murray coming off his best season... new, solid Offensive Coordinator... Witten still Witten... Escobar looking good... TWill is SNEAKY getting downfield... Cole Beasley anyone?.... Healthy Dunbar.. Tyron Smith is like a T-Rex but with Brontosaurus Arms..."Oh how's Romo's back though?".... "Romo's back is gonna feel fine when he is pirouetting around your DE and launching it 40 yards downfield for a touchdown TO "WHO"???TO "WHO" YOU ASK???? D-E-Z B-R-Y-A-N-T #88 THAT'S 'WHO"!!!!!!!!!!.......eh em......... I think we can say we are more optimistic in their ability to carry us to victory.
With that premise in mind, I'd like to propose the hypothesis that improvements in the interior of our offensive line could be the key variable in Dallas taking its next step. This team can score points... boy howdy it can. Your Dallas Cowboys were 5th in the NFL last year in points. Look at all these points. Do they make you sleep better at night? Probably not as much as another playoff win. They're like Chuck Cheese tokens to someone who doesn't have kids. You can use if you wanna, but you're gonna look bad doing it. In order for the offense to be able to carry the defense, AND in order to contend with sudden prevalence of up-tempo offenses, the Offense will need to do more than just score points. They need to dictate game tempo. They need to be able to consistently string plays into long drives, consistently convert third downs, and finish games. The saying goes, "it all starts upfront", I will argue that it should all finish there as well...
The Importance Of A Reliable Run Game
This offense needs to be more physical in order to kill any fight a team might have late in games. Too many wills were left unbroken. Dallas allowed opposing teams' hope to live, teams who then mounted comebacks, sometimes from record deficits. "Eliminating hope" sounds like a Defense's job, but it can be done by the Offense. It takes domination in the ground game and a stoutness in pass protection on key third downs. Being assignment sound, and in lock step is also part of creating a sense of hopelessness for a Defensive Line. Facing a group like that play after play will wear you out physically, mentally, and emotionally.
Let's forget strategy for a second, just as a fan of a physical sport...If your team's "Bully", their "tone setter", is the offensive unit... doesn't it need to be its most physical unit as well? That belief may not line up with actual results, I have no stats or tape review to back that up, but doesn't that feel right? This team's offense has had it all in recent years. An All Pro TE, All Pro WRs, and a top 10 QB. But when Romo was at his best, he had a tough solid OL. When Romo didn't have to be the only engine that made this offense go.
Besides being strategically, and intuitively correct, it also would seem statistically correct as well. The Cowboys averaged 4.5 yards per carry (8th in the NFL) in 2013 which is a more than respectable number. So why so few attempts? Some want to just blame coaching ineptitude for this. Maybe it's more about reacting to what they saw on the field. I think seeing the offensive line fail time and time again at the moments we needed them most left an impression that is hard to shake. Short yardage, goal line, these are the situations that truly great lines should thrive in, and Dallas specifically struggled in. We need more physical play out of our Guards and Center if we want to be a more consistent run team.
Running When They Know You're Coming
As I mentioned before, the area where it seems this OL really struggled the most was in short yardage situations. I actually think it's broader than that. I think the issue was when this team tried to run when the defense KNEW they were going to run the ball. The stats bare this out if you look at them situationally. Pro-Football-Reference.com (whom I'm going to refer to as PFR from here out) gets a serious nod for this section. I compared the yards per attempt in the run game from last year, and sorted them out from 3 different perspectives.
First up . PFR breaks down the yards per attempt (y/a) by down and distance. The three sub categories where they struggled the most were: "3rd and 1-4yds" (1.5 y/a), "3rd/4th and short" (1.6 y/a), and "2nd and 10+" (2.2 y/a). I would argue that all 3 of these are obvious running downs (with the idea that 2nd and 10+ taking place mostly after an incomplete passes on first down). Some might argue that these are three difficult scenarios for any team to run against, which may be true. But each of these averages for each sub-category happens to be around HALF of the league average. So where the Boys are averaging 1.5 y/a on "3rd and 1-4", and 1.6 on "3rd/4th and short", the league averages 3.2 y/a in both. For "2nd and 10+" the league average is 4.4 y/a to the Cowboys' 2.2 y/a.
Next, let's look at PFR's break down of y/a sorted using field position. The Cowboys run game becomes anemic once they cross midfield. When looking at run attempts from their own end zone to their own 20, they average 1.9 y/a more than when running in the Red Zone. I understand those two parts of the field are a tough comparison, but I would argue, the main strategic difference between the two areas of the field is the amount of pass plays from your playbook that are still available to you. Once in the Red Zone, passing windows close quickly with the lack of space for WRs to get open in. But to be fair, let's do the more "apples to apples" comparison of how the team does in the between the 20's. On the Cowboys side, from the 21 yard line to midfield, Dallas does 5.4 y/a. Once they cross midfield and on to their opponents 20, that number drops to 3.7 y/a.
The last categorial breakdown is by rushing y/a sorted out by score differential. How the team ran the ball while leading, tied, or losing. Obviously when you're leading, you're theoretically more likely to be run the ball in an attempt to shorten the game. Unfortunately, when leading, the Cowboys have .5 y/a less than when they are tied, and .7 y/a less than when they are losing. They also had a 3.5% less chance, per rushing attempt, of obtaining a first down on the ground while ahead in the score.
I know that it's completely unfair to compare this offensive line (or any for that matter) to what is retroactively being called "The Great Wall of Dallas" (but here I go anyway). One of the great things about that offensive line was, even if you knew they were running the ball with Emmitt Smith behind the LG, there was very little anyone could do to stop them. 3rd and 1, 2nd and 4, 1st and 15, it didn't matter. You weren't stopping them from getting their 4 yards. This offensive line isn't quite built that way. This is a Zone Blocking crew with more athleticism than the raw power of the 90's crew. But they still must be able to displace defenders, and cut off backside pursuit well enough for them to be able to do what they need to do. Even if the defense knows it's coming.
Keeping The Pocket Clean
There is one more reason that the 2013 Dallas Cowboys made so few attempts at running the ball. This team can sling it. When Tony has time to scan the field, he picks teams apart. Once pressure is applied though, Tony becomes more of a "feast or famine" type. When the play breaks down on Tony Romo, something amazing usually follows. Good or bad. Momentum is about to move. He may evade four professional quarterback sackers, ducking and sliding until he looks downfield and finds (insert name) all alone in the back of the end zone.... But as amazing as he has been at times, the other side of that are the games we all would like to forget. That "moment after it happened" morphs from being of the "DID YOU SEE THAT?!?!" variety, to the "Why didn't he just take the sack or throw it away?" sort. But that's not all that of what Tony is. He doesn't have to live or die by the sword. If we could make his job just a little bit easier, would the result be a Tony who doesn't always need to take risks to win games?
Interior pressure has especially given Tony some issues. Whether it's the big hits he takes, or the pocket collapsing into his plant leg area, it has always been a cause of serious disruption. He seems to handle outside pressure better by still being able to slide up and around in the pocket. He usually then can further extend the play by rolling out to the vacated area left by the evaded pass rusher. What makes him special is his ability to do all this with eyes looking downfield. That combined with his release speed to be able get the ball there quickly makes him extremely dangerous on broken plays. But with quick interior pressure, you take away Tony's ability to do both at the same time. He can't look downfield with a defender in his grill. If he does get away, he usually struggles to settle his feet back down to make an accurate (or advisable) throw.
Again, improvement from the 3 previous starters at Guard and Center, and a talent injection from a young versatile Guard should greatly reduce how often this happens. This is one area where I feel Fredrick in particular, improved the most as the season went on. He played pretty good in the run game from the get-go. His pass blocking was where he struggled. As the season wore on he got more stout to the bull rush, and was able to grab the quicker guys before they got loose and past him. It's an area where he still needs improvement, but I feel momentum with him.
For most of the season, it felt like 4 of the 5 offensive lineman were doing their jobs correctly on any given snap. Early on, the culprit was usually someone in the interior. It effected our ability to string together long drives. But what if one of those players could turn into a "plus" player? That's why you get a guy like Martin if he falls to you. I understand the Cowboys had Ryan Shazier ranked higher, and were ready to select him, but maybe this was a blessing? Turning what, at this point last year, was still a huge weakness, into potentially a huge strength? Again, Linebacker is an important position. I'm certainly not suggesting Guard is MORE important than Linebacker, but maybe what adding Martin does to your offensive line IS more important. Maybe having a strong offensive line is more important than having even an average (a Post-Sean Lee) Linebacker core.
Where We Started
Let's look back to opening night last year...
We had the "big and bad" New York Giants coming to our house. Brian Waters had signed less than a week before the game, but wasn't ready to play yet. Your starters are Smith, Leary, Fredrick, Bernadeau, and Free. The very first 3 offensive drives, of the very first game of the season, were almost prophetic with their prediction of how the interior offensive line would look for most of the season. All it takes is one mistake on a third down to kill a drive, and on each, an offensive lineman provided it. Each was ended with some help from an offensive lineman's blunder.
The Cowboys' first offensive drive of the season started after a DeMarcus Ware interception. Dallas got the ball on the Giants 18. After recovering from a False Start on a 2nd down, Dallas faced a 3rd and 8. BernieMac over extends and Justin Tuck pushes him back into the pocket, and then comes across Mac's face. Tuck comes barreling down at Romo, interrupts his throwing motion while trying to hit Murray in a tight window on a wheel route. Dallas settled for a Field Goal, after getting the ball on the Giants' 18 yard line.
Next drive. 3rd and 8 again. Romo drops back and initially has time. Cowboys pick up a stunt , that was passed off well from Fredrick to Leary, but as Fredbeard engages the DT, he gets a swat from his left arm, then falls right over, providing an open lane to Romo. Tony gets the ball out quickly to Witten, but well short of the first down. If Tony had just moments to go back through his progression, Miles Austin had broken open in the middle of the field past the marker.
The 3rd drive was a nightmare for Fredbeard especially. On a 1st and 10 he fumbled a snap (Which I guess is worse than snumbling a fap, as I almost wrote), and then two plays later... On 3rd and 11, quick pressure from a 1 tech who gets right past Fredbeard to Tony, forces him to throw hot. TWill wasn't aware this was happening and seemingly runs a route upfield and does not appear to be expecting the ball. It gets tipped up and then intercepted and returned all the way back to inside the Dallas 5 yard line.
These 3 drive endings were pretty indicative of what the interior OL went through the first few games before, and then after Brian Waters was in the lineup. I think after Waters got hurt, and Mac was back in the lineup, this group really grew together. Leary, Fredbeard, and even Bernie had each gotten better individually, as well as a unit, as the season went along.
It All Finishes Up Front
If this young interior can turn the tables on some of the failings of last year's offensive line, can it change the fortune of the Dallas Cowboys...? I think potentially it can.
The addition of a first round technician at guard will stabilize one spot at guard. He doesn't need to be an elite physical player yet, just a guy who gets his assignment right and can execute the job. Both Leary and Mac should be improved on where they were last year. The winner of that battle is your starter at LG, and the loser is a solid backup. Whoever the starter is, they should already be an improvement on 2013 Leary. Fredbeard, who came on strong at the end of last season, should also be a lot further along than he was this time last year. This hopefully means offensive line execution should be better this season. Better execution means more confidence in the run game. More confidence means more belief that sticking with the run will pay off. Sticking with the run will allow this team to grind on defensive lines throughout the game. This will lead to more worn down defenses late in games. ALL OF WHICH adds up to the opportunity for the offense to finish teams off, by killing clock in the run game.
Even before we drafted Martin, which is a huge addition, I expected the offensive line (the interior in particular) to be a much better unit in 2014. If just for the simple logic that it takes time with some young offensive lines to gel, and they've been given some time together. The returning young Guards and Centers need to take a big jump forward, and Zach Martin needs to hit the ground running. And so do the Dallas Cowboys.
As I said before, that "all starts up front", but this season, it needs to finish there as well.