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Operation O-Line: Rebuilding On The Fly, Dallas Cowboys Style

It's still too early to say who the starters on the Cowboys offensive line will be this year. But it's fairly certain that the line will look significantly different from last year's line. As it should. But when does too much of a good thing - in this case: change on the offensive line - become a bad thing?

Two years ago, the Patriots' Matt Light remarked on the benefits of continuity along the offensive line: 

"The obvious part is the familiarity," Light said. "It's not impossible, but it's a heck of a learning curve trying to get used to playing next to another guy and all the mistakes that come with that. When you've been able to keep a group together, you are able to get through camp so much easier. You're able to install things quicker."

But continuity was not the answer for the Cowboys, whose running game was ranked 15th in yards per carry last year, the lowest rank since 2005, when the Cowboys finished the season ranked 25th in YPC. And that year, 2005, carries a special significance for the this year's O-line predicament: a year later, in 2006, the Cowboys had jumped to 14th in the league -- with a completely reworked O-line that returned only one starter from the year before. After the break, we look at how the line changed from 2005 to 2006 and compare it to what's happening this year.

Here's how the starters changed from '05 to '06. The age shown is the player's age at the end of that calendar year.

2005 2006
Player Games started Age Player Games started Age
LT Torrin Tucker 10 26 LT Flozell Adams 16 31
LG Larry Allen 16 34 G Kyle Kosier 16 28
C Al Johnson 16 26 C Andre Gurode 16 28
RG Marco Rivera 14 33 G Marco Rivera
16 34
RT Rob Petitti 16 23 RT Marc Colombo 16 28

Flozell Adams would of course have been the starter in 2005 if he hadn’t been injured after six games. And Gurode had started at right guard in 2004. But even if you take those two players into account, 2006 still saw a significant revamping of the O-line in one year. Can the Cowboys pull it off again this year? The table below shows what the O-line could look like this year compared to last year.

2010 2011
Player Games started Age Player Games started Age
LT Doug Free
16 26 LT Doug Free
- - 27
LG Kyle Kosier
13 32 LG Arkin/Costa - - 24/24
C Andre Gurode
16 32 C Andre Gurode - - 33
RG Leonard Davis
16 32 G Kyle Kosier - - 33
RT Marc Colombo 15 32 RT Tyron Smith
- - 21

Note that I've penciled in either Arkin or Costa at left guard in place of Montrae Holland. But regardless of who will actually start at left guard, the Cowboys line in 2011 will feature new or different players at three out of five positions. In some ways, this is comparable to the 05/06 switch in terms of numbers. But there are a couple of critical differences.

Depending on who the coaches ultimately choose to start, there could be two rookies starting on the line. All '06 linemen were veterans. Additionally, the '06 line had a full offseason to get acclimated to each other. This year's O-line has only been together for a little over two weeks.

At first glance, it therefore appears odd that seemingly every practice features a new O-line, with one or more players playing in a different position than they did the practice before. Wouldn't you rather have each player focus on one position to get to at least a base level of proficiency at that position?

Not according to O-line coach Hudson Houck, who thinks the crash course in positional versatility which especially the younger guys are getting is going to be beneficial down the road:

"If you're going to play the five best guys you got to move them around a little bit so they can get comfortable at other positions," offensive line coach Hudson Houck said. "You need the options. These young guys coming in have to be able to play not only at right tackle, but left tackle, and the guards, of course, having to play either side. The center has to play guard. When you go into a game you're going in with seven offensive linemen."

Nobody expects this O-line to turn into a top 10 unit right away. In fact, it's quite unrealistic not to expect growing pains and early struggles for this O-line. But the consensus seems to be that the line will very likely improve as the season progresses.

The Cowboys are rebuilding their line on the fly. And if history is any indication, good things lie ahead for the Cowboys. Here's how many sacks the Cowboys allowed after rebuilding their line heading into the 2006 season:

Cowboys O-line 2005 2006 2007
Sacks allowed 50 37 25

Of course, having a mobile Tony Romo replace a somewhat less mobile Drew Bledsoe midway through the 2006 season helped with those sack numbers, but there is no doubt that the line play also improved significantly.

The Cowboys may be rebuilding on the fly, and they will not have the benefit of continuity on their O-line. But the Cowboys have shown before that they can pull off such a change. And if early reports from camp are anything to go by, there is reason believe that the team should see significant returns from that rebuilding process already this season.

Nevertheless, don't be surprised if the Cowboys add some last-minute veteran help via free agency or the waiver wire. After all, one of the key pieces to the rebuilt 2006 O-line was Kyle Kosier, whom the Cowboys signed in March of 2006 to a relatively modest 5-year deal. That is also the Cowboys style of rebuilding.

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