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Dallas Cowboys 2011 Midseason Review: Offense

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Wide receiver Laurent Robinson checks in as 2011's most pleasant offensive surprise
Wide receiver Laurent Robinson checks in as 2011's most pleasant offensive surprise

As Cowboys fans, we embarked upon this season with more uncertainty than we had at any time since 2005: how would the team fare after 2010's epic collapse and the phoenix-like resurgence? Which, if either, represented the "real" Cowboys? What would be the ramifications of offensive line and defensive overhauls (of both personnel and philosophy in both cases)? Would Dallas make the playoffs? Finish around .500? Pick in the top ten of the 2012 draft? An eloquent case could be--and was--made for each of these outcomes.

Now that we find ourselves at the midpoint of the season, I'm not sure which, if any, of these has become any more or less certain. After five games, the Cowboys could well have been 0-5 or 5-0. Since then, they have jumped off the "4 our fewer points" train and enjoyed some more decisive scores--but haven't always been on the positive end of the drubbings. So, what do we know about this team? I'm not sure we can assess the team using something so concrete as criteria. Instead, I'll offer a version of "Rabbie's midseason awards." Today, I'll look at the offense; later in the week, I'll apply the same categories to the "D."

Who makes them go: At this point in the season, this answer is the same as its been since Tony Romo took the offense's reins in 2006: the quarterback who boasts the best YPA in the modern era. However, this number had been declining since 2007--a decline that correlates pretty clearly to that of the offensive line and the ability of the running game to keep safeties in the box and focused on their run keys. With the emergence of DeMarco Murray and the outside-the-tackles running attack, the answer to this question might change by season;s end--or it might help Romo to underscore the above response more emphatically. It should be fun to watch.

More Cowboys wit and wisdom after the break..

What's holding them back: The interior of the offensive line. This is no surprise. When healthy, Dallas has good--if overrated--talent and fairly impressive depth at the various "skill positions." As we have learned all-too painfully, none of these dynamic cats can do their job when the center and two guards not only can't get a push in the running game, but are often pushed back into the pocket or backfield, allowing for profound disruptions to occur. As long as these embarrassing beatings continue, the offense will struggle: to sustain drives, to score in the red zone, to establish and maintain an identity.

The poster-child position has been left guard, where Bill Nagy, Derrick Dockery and Montrae Holland have all started, with varying levels of success. Offensive coaches all agree that the key to offensive line success is continuity. Want the opposite? Check this out:

Game 1: @ NYJ: Nagy (injured, missed next game)

Game 2: @ SF: Dockery (gets injured. misses games 3-6)

Games 3, 4, 5: Wash, Det, @ NE: Nagy (who gets injured in game 5, out for the season)

Games 6, 7, 8: StL, @ Phi, Sea: Holland

While there is some continuity (Dockery returned to health and dressed for the last two games), the Cowboys long-term plan--to get younger and more athletic on the offensive line--has been put on hold thanks to injuries to Nagy and the failure of David Arkin to develop. Arkin was inserted into the starting lineup in training camp, started the first preseason game, was replaced by Nagy and hasn't dressed for a regular season game.

Most Pleasant surprise: Laurent Robinson, a seeming afterthought when he was brought onto the roster (and then let go to make room for Bryan McCann), Robinson has been a revelation. When one of the Cowboys' first offseason moves was to cut the underachieving Roy Williams, one constant source of speculation has been who would emerge as the third receiver behind Austin and Dez Bryant. Throughout training camp, the likeliest candidates seemed to be Kevin Ogletree and Dwayne Harris. Neither impressed, leaving the door open for Robinson. The former Falcons third-round draft pick fits Dallas' receiver profile: long and lean (6'2", 197) and seems to be a smoothie who runs good routes and has soft hands. What's not to like?

Biggest disappointment: Doug Free, who was Dallas' number-one offseason priority. The thinking was that, after a breakthrough 2009, he had established himself as one of the league's top (and most consistent) offensive tackles in 2010. If he continued this trajectory, the thinking went, the 4-year, 32 million dollar contract the Cowboys offered him would be money very well spent. Instead, he has appeared to regress. Perhaps this is due to the absence of an offseason, perhaps its because of a rumored back injury which has limited his mobility. Whatever the case, he has played with poor technique and has been beaten more in the first eight games this season than the rest of his career.

Question answered: Can the Cowboys finally find a blocking fullback? Aside from Robinson, the early season's most pleasant offensive surprise has been the blocking of Tony Fiammetta. Take a look at the rushing totals and yards per carry of the games he's played, and the correlation is obvious: when he's in the game, Dallas runs the ball well; when he isn't, they don't. Given the general unsteadiness along the Cowboys' offensive line, they are going to need to develop a running game to keep defenses honest. When number 24 checks in tot he huddle, the 'Boys have the running game they need.

Lingering doubt: Will Dez Bryant ever play up to his immense talent? I suspect we all thought that this would be Bryant's breakout year--that, free from the injuries that slowed his rookie season, he would explode, vaulting into the upper echelon, alongside similar physical prototypes Andre Johnson and Calvin Johnson. Instead, he has yet to register a complete game. The reasons are legion, and oft-told: he began the season out of shape; he doesn't know the playbook, etc. Whatever the contributing factors, I fear its becoming increasingly clear that he's nowhere near the threat that many of us imagine him to be. Think about it: how often do opposing defensive coordinators double number 88?

Most likely combo to see in 2014: OTs Free and Tyron Smith. When the Cowboys re-signed Free after drafting Smith in the first round this year--and then Smith immediately played well--it became clear that they had found what every NFL team seeks: two young, athletic bookend tackles with upside, who will protect their most precious investment (read: quarterback) into the foreseeable future. It wouldn't surprise me to see them flip-flop after this season, given Smith's superior athleticism. Regardless of who plays where, its comforting to know that this absolutely critical aspect of offensive success has been taken care of (if you doubt this, hearken back to 2005: remember Torrin Tucker and Rob Petitti?).

Offensive coach of the half-season: Skip Peete, RB coach. Peete entered the season with two untested rookies (one of whom, Murray missed all of training camp with an injury), a supremely talented yet brittle veteran (Felix Jones) and another vet (Tashard Choice) who was also sidelined. Oh, and he had no fullback on the opening day roster. Since then, he's seen one of the vets dismissed, watched another go out for an extended period, and nurtured his two young-uns--all the while encouraging all of them to keep their heads up when the offensive line was failing utterly to create running lanes. His patience seems to have been passed down to his charges, who are now waiting for holes to develop and playing with energy and toughness.

Offensive MVP:  An indication of the Cowboys' offensive problems in 2011: I can't think of which player has been the most valuable through eight games--and if I can't think of one, then opposing defensive coordinators probably can't either. Who keeps them up nights? Who do they have to game plan against? Austin got off to a great start, but has been too often injured; Witten has had a solid year but, perhaps because of Austin's injuries, has been bracketed with double coverage for most of the season; Murray has done work, but only for three games, which is too small a sample to merit MVP consideration.

I suppose if I were pressed to answer, I'd say Romo, who willed this unit to victories in consecutive losable games. But he's also responsible for a couple of well-documented el foldos...I dunno, BTBers, what do you think? Who gets the midseason hardware?