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Changes Inevitable For Cowboys Offensive Line

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In many statistical aspects of the game, the Cowboys are a top ten team on offense. They are seventh in the league with 364.6 yards of total offense. Their 5.7 yards-per-play average is eighth in the league. Through the air, the Cowboys average 263.8 passing yards-per-game to place fourth in the NFL. Dallas' average of 7.5 yards-per-pass ranks fifth in the NFL. And unlike last season, their points scored are in line with the total yardage: the Cowboys are averaging 24.7 points-per-game - eighth in the league.

But on the ground, Dallas is averaging only 100.8 yards-per-game which is 23rd in the league, and the 4.0 yards-per-rush ranks 22nd in the league. And despite giving up only 22 sacks in 13 games (tied for the eighth-fewest sacks allowed in the league), it's no secret that the offensive line is by far the weakest link on this offense.

We see the often poor performance of the O-line with our own eyes in games, but is there a way to measure the performance of an offensive line in more detail than with the stats above? It's not that easy, because success is often only measured by what didn't happen: the quarterback was not sacked and the running back was not stuffed in the backfield. But there are a couple of people out there that do measure offensive line performance. We'll review them briefly after the break and then take an in-depth look at one of them

BTB favorite Brian Burke of recently devised a new methodology to measure the O-line. His method ranks the Cowboys O-line 18th in the league.

Another favorite of ours, Football Outsiders (FO), rank the Cowboys O-line 19th in run blocking and 6th in pass protection.

A more recent ranking by Stats Inc has the Cowboys in the 9th spot, but since they are using a proprietary formula, I have no clue what this means, I can only assume that they are giving pass protection a lot more weight than run blocking.

The fourth one is (PFF), who 'grade every single player on every single play' and are therefore able to provide a grade for all offensive linemen in the league.

For those of you unfamiliar with (PFF), below is a summary of what they do. Follow the links provided for more information.

PFF have a unique way of grading players. They look at game tape, assign a grade for every play and then ‘normalize’ the data so that the average player for a given position is graded at zero. The higher the positive grading the better the performance and vice versa. In their own words:

"The grading takes into account many things and effectively brings "intelligence" to raw statistics. For example a raw stat might tell you a Tackle conceded a sack. However, how long did he protect the QB for before he gave it up? Additionally when did he give it up? If it was within the last two minutes on a potentially game tying drive it may be rather more important than when his team is running out the clock in a 30 point blow out." From the PFF Q&A.

"In our opinion [our approach] is at least a step change above what anyone could get by simply "tracking results". We can give you two examples:

1. A cornerback is beaten badly on a post route and the wide receiver drops the ball in the end zone. Tracking the result gives this as an incompletion against the cornerback (a positive) whilst we will mark this down as a significant negative.

2. A QB throws a perfect strike over a linebacker to hit his open slot receiver on an out. Once more, the wide receiver drops the pass and it cannons off his chest to a Safety who catches the ball even though he'd initially made a bad job of the coverage. The QB gets a INT listed against his name and the free safety gets an undeserved INT against his. How is tracking this result more accurate?"

Clearly there are limitations as to what is shown on TV. The biggest issue is that of not being able to see downfield coverages on untargeted defenders and we accept this as an inherent error in what we do. That said, nobody outside the teams has access to this either so should we stop our "more accurate" analysis on the basis that it's not 100 percent perfect?
" From an interview with Sam Monson at PFF.

PFF assigns each player both an ordinal ranking (e.g., a player ranks 10th out of 100 players at the same position) and a relative value (e.g., a given player is a +10 or a -10). Using the PFF data therefore allows us to evaluate all the Cowboys players relative to each other and relative to their NFL peers at the same position. Minor caveat: The ranking data includes only those players that played at least 25% of their team's snaps.

The average grade, or what could typically be expected of the average player, is zero. A negative grade denotes a below average performance, a positive grade denotes an above average performance. 21 linemen through week 14 have a grade above 10.0, so that number should probably be considered elite, 21 other linemen have a grade between 5 and 10, I'd consider those players good. If you're below -10, you're probably a significant liability for your team. 14 players are ranked below -20, that's where you may want to think about alternative career paths than playing in the NFL.

2010 vs 2009

Before getting into the details of the individual player grades, I'd like to start off by looking at how the Cowboys players grades have changed vs. 2009. The '09 and '10 grades were done by (probably) the same people with the same methodology, so they will provide a fairly accurate assessment of how players have progressed or regressed. The table below shows how the current Cowboys starters are graded compared to last season.

Free Kosier Gurode Davis Colombo
2009 +5.6 +15.9 +12.7 +13.4 +6.1
2010 +9.9 -0.2 +10.0 +4.8 -30.2
Change +4.2 -16.1 -2.7 -8.6 -36.3

Not a pretty picture overall, and largely as expected, perhaps with a surprise or two. Keep in mind that these are cumulative grades, i.e. the grades of each game are simply added up, so we're effectively comparing 13 games this year to 16 games last year.

Doug Free is the positive surprise, as has been pretty clear all season. Through 13 games, Free ranks as the 7th best left tackle in the league.

Marc Colombo grades out as the 80th ranked tackle out of 82. Last season he was ranked 25th among all tackles. His knees look to be shot and it doesn't feel like he's ever fully recovered from the broken leg he suffered last season. I'd be very surprised if the coaches would grade Colombo significantly different from what we see in the table above. His time with the Cowboys and in the NFL is most likely over in three weeks. Thank you Marc, for the heroic efforts week after week, but it's better for your long-term health and for the team if you focus exclusively on making music from now on. 

Popular opinion holds Kyle Kosier to be the best of the three interior guys, the table above suggests this may not be the case. We'll look at that in more detail below as we examine pass protection and run blocking grades.

Pass Protection

As I noted in the intro, the Cowboys have allowed a fairly low amount of sacks this season, which could lead you to think that our line is actually good at pass protecting. Well, you'd be very, very wrong if you thought that. Rabblerousr pointed out recently that the Cowboys are gameplanning around the deficiencies of the O-line:

Protect the quarterback by calling passing plays with shorter drops so he can get the ball out quickly, and hopefully stay out of obvious pass rush situations. Then, once this has been established, take occasional shots downfield. This strategy was a departure from the past three seasons, during which Tony Romo boasted the highest yards-per-pass rating of any NFL quarterback--indeed, of almost any QB who has ever played the game.

Keep this in mind as we review the pass protection grades. Because sacks allowed weigh heavily in these grades and the Cowboys haven't allowed a lot of sacks, the pass protection grades look okay-ish for the Cowboys O-line. This is simply not true. The line is atrocious in pass protection, needs constant TE and RB help, and needs the QB to throw within two seconds (When was the last time you saw Kitna take a seven-step drop?).

Free Kosier Gurode Davis Colombo
2009 +2.9 +4.1 -0.8 -1.4 +3.1
2010 +0.6 +2.2 +4.8 +2.6 -19.5
Change -2.3 -1.9 +5.1 +4.0 -22.6

Again, take these grades with not just a grain of salt, take them with a couple of pounds of salt. Gurode and Davis look like they've actually improved in pass protection, and their stats would indicate that they in fact have. Take the example of Gurode: Gurode has only allowed one sack, two hits and six pressures all season. Those nine penetrations allowed are only one more than Nick Mangold or Jeff Saturday have allowed, the number one and three ranked centers. But all these numbers show is that Romo could scramble like a man possessed and Kitna gets rid of the ball faster than you can blink.

Run Blocking

We've tried three different running backs in different roles and different situations all year. The fact that none of them was particularly successful is a clear indication that poor offensive line play is at fault here, much more than an individual RB. And the PFF grades seem to support this: 

Free Kosier Gurode Davis Colombo
2009 +2.7 +9.8 +17.7 +13.3 +3.7
2010 +11.6 -4.3 +5.2 +0.2 -9.3
Change +8.9 -14.1 -12.5 -13.1 -13.0

Doug Free has emerged this season as the best run blocking left tackle in the league according to PFF. Unfortunately, with the exception of Free, all Cowboys linemen have seemingly regressed at an almost identical pace. I noted above that the Cowboys are 22nd in the league with 4.0 yards-per-rush. If we look only at the numbers of our RBs, that figure drops to 3.6 and ranks 30th in the league ahead of only the Ravens and the Colts.

The 2010 Cowboys running game is characterized by a complete lack of any big play ability. The running backs hardly ever make it into the second level. The Cowboys like to run draws and counters with guards pulling and the tight ends crossing, ideal plays for athletic linemen who can move. Sadly, the Cowboys linemen don't move that well anymore as age and injuries have taken their toll. What you regularly see are linemen not getting to their blocks fast enough and runners forced to avoid defenders in the backfield. 

I wish I had an easy answer for how to fix this line, but I don't. The thought of what Colombo's knees must sound like when he walks has me wincing in pain, and the sight of Leonard Davis lumbering over the field in a vain attempt to throw a block on a linebacker makes me want to cry.

Based on these grades, Marc Colombo is gone for sure, and Davis is too expensive to keep as a backup: He’s scheduled to make $6 million base salary next year, and has a cap salary likely to be a little over $9 million if I did the calculation correctly. Colombo is on the books for a $1.9 million base salary and a cap salary of $3.2 million in 2011. Kyle Kosier is a free agent in 2011 - perhaps he could be enticed to stay for another season or two, but he'd likely slide into a backup role sooner rather than later.

Releasing Colombo and Davis would easily free up enough money to sign at least one, perhaps even two very good free agents at right tackle and guard (Of course, signing Free to a long term deal might eat up part of that money immediately). Add to that a solid second round lineman, and with a little luck, the Cowboys may have a respectable O-line again next year.

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