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Fearless Season Prognostication: Does Cowboys' Elite Talent Trump O-line Woes?

[Ed Note: As you will see below, rabblerousr has become our resident pessimist. It doesn't mean I dismiss what he's saying, I just prefer to look on the sunny-side of the street until proven wrong. So my 'Fearless Season Prognostication' prediction is 11-5 and another NFC East crown for our 'Boys. Now, proceed on to read rabblerousr's prediction, and sharpen your pitchforks! - Dave]

Rabblerouser: one that stirs up (as to hatred or violence) the masses of the people: demagogue.

An examination of the comments section following our first Pickin' and Grinnin' post of the year, in which I chose the Redskins over the Cowboys, will confirm that I am definitely living up to my chosen moniker.  Hatred? Check. Violence? I dunno; it could be on the horizon, after this here season prediction post. To determine whether you, the Cowboys-lovin' masses, want to grab the nearest torch or pitchfork and storm Castle Rabble, read on.

At about this time last year--as my buddy, Big Melly, a fellow Cowboys fan in Eagles country, can confirm--I predicted that the Cowboys would go 12-4 and capture a division championship. I based this largely on a series of offseason moves designed to cultivate a roster filled with singularly focused players. This had been confirmed by all the reports from training camp, and then again by the demeanor of the team in preseason games. Despite stumbling out of the early-season gate, the Cowboys were indeed a much more focused and cohesive unit; this particularly began to manifest during the late season push and two stompings of the despised Fecals Eagles (which still, as I remember them, bring a smile).

A couple of weeks ago, Big Melly asked for another prediction. My response was two-fold. After the break, I'll expound upon each of these two strands of thought.

First, a bold statement: I believe this is the deepest and most talented Cowboys team that I have seen in some time, perhaps ever. At almost every position, Jerry, Stephen, Tom Ciskowski and the other front office folks have built a roster that is two- or three-deep in legit NFL-starting caliber talent.

A quick comparison with the 90s Cowboys will, I hope, illustrate my point. This team's depth is particularly evident at the offensive skill positions. Although I wouldn't dream of trading Romo, Austin or any of our RBs for one of the Hall of Fame triplets, I would take this team's skill position depth over that of any of Jimmy Johnson's teams. Think abut it: would you rather have Martellus Bennett or Alfredo Roberts? Dez Bryant or Kelvin Martin? Felix Jones and Tashard Choice or the two Derricks, Lassic and Gainer?

And, even though those 90s Cowboys were fathoms deep on defense, I think this squad's depth is equal to the comparative task. I'd take this squad's CB depth (who do you like, Orlando Scandrick or Clayton Holmes?) call the LBs and DEs a wash (counting Ware and Spencer as DEs for the purpose of this camparison) and give the triple-champs the edge at DT (I'd rank Rat right up there with Lett, who had two Hall of Fame years before flaming out, but the 90s teams had sooo much depth here) and safety (less because of depth, which I'd rank about even, but because this team has no Darren Woodson).

In short, this team is stacked, and compares favorably with one of the greatest teams this sport has seen--in all positions save one. I can't say I'd take a single offensive lineman on this team over one from the 90s. Doug Free vs. Mark Tuinei? Maybe the 2013 version of Free, but not this one. Leonard Davis vs. a young Larry Allen? Are you kidding me?; I'm not sure I'd take Leonard over Kevin Gogan. And I'm pretty sure I'd rather have Frank Cornish than Phil Costa.

This brings me to my second strand of thought: this team will go as far as the offensive line can take them. In recent years, as media pundits have been so quick to remind us (and again, and again), the Cowboys have bogged down in December. The lion's share of blame for this has fallen on Tony Romo's shoulders. Certainly, his QB rating dipped late in 2007 and 2008; but a reasonably close examination of the mitigating factors behind this will reveal that this is largely because his protection had fallen off considerably. From my view, the '07 and '08 O-lines got tired and/ or beat up at the end of those seasons and offensive production fell off considerably as a result.

Last year, they seemed to drink a refreshing late-season elixir--at least until the Minny game, when they hastily reverted to old form. Perhaps this resurgence happened because of the injection of youth provided by Free; maybe Hudson Houck earned every cent of his paycheck. Whatever the case, they performed well in December and January for the first time in the Wade Phillips/ Jason Garrett era. To my mind, the burning question for 2010 is: was 2009 an aberration, or the beginning of a new trend?

The view from the starting gate is less than thrilling. Marc Columbo, the spiritual leader of the line (and by spiritual, I mean the one most likely to hit someone wearing another jersey in the throat), and Kyle Kosier, the most nimble and cerebral member of the fraternity, are both out. This line can probably survive the loss of one lineman, but not two. While this is certainly bad news for the Redskins game, if such multiple injury woes become a recurring trend, we risk having nightmarish flashbacks to 2005 (remember Torrin Tucker and Rob Petitti?) and the Cowboys will rely on defense and special teams to scratch together wins.

So, we have two competing narratives for the 2010 season: 1) the Cowboys' talent and depth give them a significant advantage, especially over the length of an NFL season, during which the bulk of a 53-man roster is called into action, and 2) a suspect offensive line will plague them to such a degree that their talent advantage is often, if not usually, compromised.  Depending on which of these you subscribe to, you're looking at a 12-4 division champion or, depending on how lingering the O-line injury problems prove to be, a middling 9-7 to 7-9 squad. Given my introductory gambit, you may be sensing which way I'm leaning.

But before making my bold prediction, allow me briefly to defer to our resident numbersmith, O.C.C. In his brilliant "Gridiron Academy" post a while back, he opined that, according to O-ring Theory, an otherwise equal production process (i.e., a collective entity such as a football team) is only as strong as its weakest link. Applying this to the offensive line, he postulated what he termed "The O-line Conundrum":

The four theories above all assume an upward trajectory of each player's quality and performance. But what if there is a drop-off in a player's performance? Following O-ring theory logic, a decline in the play of one Cowboys offensive lineman would have a knock-on effect on all the other linemen, the extra TE's needed for blocking assignments, a more nervous QB etc., etc. This would not be a good place to be in, so here's hoping the coaches have plans in place that would ensure a consistently high quality of the O-line.

The fearsome possibility to which O.C.C. gestures is that it might not matter how many Pro-Bowl caliber skill position players the Cowboys possess; the offense will play to the level of its weakest O-lineman. At present, we have two candidates for this honor, Montrae Holland and Alex Barron, each of whom can contribute to breakdowns in his own inimitable way. When the starters return, sending these gents back to the bench, there will be any number of candidates--anyone, really, other than Free and Kosier--for weakest link. The upshot is this: I'm not a numbers guy, but I do specialize in the nuances of group dynamics and I find O.C.C.'s theory very persuasive. As such, I'm going to subscribe to it until proven wrong.

And believe me, I WANT to be proven wrong.  I want to eat my words and suffer the collective mockery of Cowboys Nation. I want the Cowboys to open the season with a stunningly easy 38-10 victory and sustain that throughout the season. This doesn't mean that my heart's not rooting for 13-3 and home-field advantage. It is. But my head just doesn't trust the offensive line enough to take such a stand. I see these two narratives engaging in a season-long cage match down to the very last contest, the week 17 tilt against the hated (and, ooohhh, how I do mean hated) Eagles. Depending on the outcome of that game, I say we're looking at 9-7or 10-6 and a wild-card berth.

Okay, ya'll, consider yourself roused: cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war...

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