Two swings. Two misses.
That's the story of Bill Parcells and the Dallas offensive line in 2003 and 2004. When he took over the team, Parcells targeted the line as a priority. While he has spent a lot of free agency capital and draft picks on the problem, the problem stubbornly persists.
In 2003 Parcells assumed a line in flux. LT Flozell Adams was up for free agency, and the consensus among many Metroplex pundits was that he was not worth a big contract. LT Larry Allen was coming off a subpar year and there was growing concern that his lack of conditioning was catching up to him. The center position was a mess. Right guard looked optimistic, with rookie Andre Gurode coming off a promising debut. Right tackle, however was a black hole.
Parcells attacked the right side of the line. He signed Ryan Young away from the Texans and spent his second round pick on Wisconsin center Al Johnson. He settled the issue at left tackle by signing Adams to a long term deal, citing supply and demand as he reason; Adams play may have been sub-par to that point, but there was no suitable replacement for him on the veteran market.
The final piece of the first year puzzle was signing offensive line coach George Warhop from Arizona. The changes brought mixed results. The number of sacks allowed decreased significantly. Adams greatly improved his play. On the negative side of the ledger, Gurode regressed, and struggled with his pass blocking. Johnson impressed the coaches and had already been named the starter by week two of camp when he injured cartilage in his knee. Exploratory surgery found significant damage and Johnson was given microfracture surgery, which scuttled his rookie year.
The biggest disappointment was Young. He suffered chronic tendenitis in his right knee and never lived up his past standard of play. He was cut immediately after the season ended. The Cowboys finished 2003 as a left handed running team that could generate yards behind Adams and Allen, but could not create a push in the right side. Furthermore, the Cowboys were poor in short yardage running situations.
The 2004 offseason brought an infusion of youth. Parcells spent his second second round draft pick on USC tackle Jacob Rogers. The plan was to plug Rogers into Young's spot at right tackle. The Cowboys drafted LSU guard Stephen Peterman in the third round with the hope of pushing Gurode, or possibly replacing Allen, who was shopped to Detroit and Oakland in the offseason. Johnson returned and was platooned early in the year with Tyson Walter.
Johnson made good on the promise he showed in 2003. He took over as the sole center early in the season and produced steady if unspectacular play. Johnson admitted his lower body strength was not up to par, since he kept his weight as low as possible while rehabbing his injured knee. A full offseason of conditioning suggests even better play this year. Allen reported to camp in his best shape in recent memory and showed flashes of his old dominating self.
Again, as in '03, the improvements were wiped out by failure. Gurode started well, but regressed as the year went on. He was benched in the final games for Ben Noll, a waiver claim from the Rams. Adams' level of play dropped off considerably. He looked disinterested at times and gave up an unacceptable number of sacks. At right tackle, Rogers had trouble adjusting from left tackle, and never made a start. That left the position to second-year-vet Torrin Tucker. The undrafted free agent from Mississippi State looked like the converted guard he was; he, like Adams, struggled in pass protection and was erratic on running plays. The Cowboys again found themselves being left handed, as Gurode and Tucker showed as much, if not more inconsistency than Gurode and Young displayed the year before. This was especially disappointing given the emergence of RB Julius Jones.
Dallas again enters the offseason with a hole at right tackle. There is a question mark at right guard, though Parcells this week cited Noll's late season play and the return of Peterman as reasons for optimism. His failure to mention Gurode should concern the third year pro from Colorado. 2005 is probably his last chance to impress.
And Gurode will have a new coach to impress. The up-and-down play of the line cost Warhop his job. Parcells replaced him with tight ends coach Tony Sparano, who has some o-line experience from his days at Jacksonville. Sparano has a lengthy list of chores: he will have to re-inspire Adams, keep Allen fit and motivated, keep Johnson healthy, find a young option at right guard and plug in whomever the front office provides at right tackle.
That player will likely come from free agency, since Parcells told the Dallas Morning News over the weekend that Rogers will play left tackle when he returns from offseason shoulder surgery. He also has no intention of moving Adams from left tackle.
The list of options will be short and expensive. The supply of starting quality tackles is small while the demand is high. Topping the list of veterans are Jonas Jennings of Buffalo and Kareem McKenzie of the Jets. A third option is Packers LG Mike Wahle, whom I have been tracking over the past week. Wahle has the skill to play either tackle position and will be one of the most sought after players once free agency starts. The Cowboys will have a chance to sign him if nobody offers him a contract in line with a quality LT. If some team does, the Cowboys will likely have to move on to their next option, even with $15 million in cap room.
-- Rafael Vela
What are Dallas Free Agency Needs? Part Four, Offensive Line
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Two swings. Two misses.