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Phil Costa Is The Center Of Attention

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Phil Costa has become a highly debated topic on BTB. Will he improve in 2012, or will he be replaced next offseason?
Phil Costa has become a highly debated topic on BTB. Will he improve in 2012, or will he be replaced next offseason?

One of the most important positions on a football team is the center position. While it's not a glamorous position, the center is a vital piece of the offensive line. Cowboys center Phil Costa has become a hot topic of discussion ever since he took over the starting role from Andre Gurode. The Cowboys' front office obviously saw something in Costa, and they placed a whole lot of faith in him when they released a five-time Pro Bowl center in favor of an UDFA who lacked starting experience.

When Gurode went down with a knee injury last summer, the Cowboys gave Costa an opportunity to seize the job. Gurode was a permanent fixture on the offensive line since he became a starter back in 2002, and that was a lot of experience to suddenly replace. Jason Garrett began to change the culture in Dallas when he was officially named the head coach, but he also brought in the mentality of playing the best players regardless of contracts or experience.

"What we've said right from Day 1 is it doesn't really matter where you came from or what you've done in the past," Garrett said. "We're going to try our best as coaches and evaluators to see what you're doing right now and see what you can do for us going forward. We try to do that individually, we try to do that collectively. We're not in the business of trying to send a message to the rest of the team. We're trying to make the best decision for our team."

The decision to release Gurode in favor of Costa was probably a salary cap-related move. The Cowboys did save $5.5 million when they released Gurode, but the Cowboys also believed in Phil Costa. Even before the Cowboys released Gurode, Jerry Jones spoke about Costa having a future with the Cowboys.

"I thought Costa took every advantage of his opportunity in terms of the snaps," Jones said. "He really played well and Costa is going to play a lot for the Cowboys. Now. I don't know how that works, boy I'm glad we got him and at this juncture. I don't know of anyone that's had a better preseason than he's had. I would put him right at the top from my perspective of preseason work and how impressed we've been with him."

Take the jump for more...

At first glance, the situation looked like a good one for the Cowboys. They were releasing a player who was beginning to wear down, and they replaced him with a younger player who the coaching staff and front office held in high regard. Not only was Jason Garrett the head coach, but as the offensive coordinator, he was also in charge of running the offense. Garrett spoke about Costa after the release of Gurode, and he had nothing but praise for the undrafted center from Maryland.

"We have liked Phil right from the start," Garrett said. "He came in as a free agent rookie and just made a real positive impression from Day 1. He took charge of it, showed he had some position flex at center and guard. He was a little undersized guy. That was the reason he wasn't drafted, but if you looked at him as a football player, you liked what you saw. He transitioned really easily quickly and smoothly to play the offensive line position for us last year. He was a backup in that role and got a few snaps. But he stepped in. It didn't seem to big for him. He handled himself well."

This was a big decision that would have a major effect on the offensive line, but I was totally behind the Cowboys and their decision. I believed that Costa was going to be an upgrade for us at center, but I was wrong. Costa managed to say healthy in 2011, starting all 16 games for the Cowboys at center. Costa struggled throughout the season, often getting pushed back into the backfield. There were also the snapping issues, which we also saw with Gurode, but Costa had a lot of trouble in that department last year.

Players go undrafted for a lot of reasons, in Costa's case it was probably due to his lack of athleticism, size and upside. The Cowboys list him generously at 6'3, 314 pounds, but his size doesn't really concern me because he makes up for that with his strength. Costa is considered to be one of the strongest players on the team, and a full offseason in the strength and conditioning program should enhance his strength.

The area that Costa must focus on is technique. There has been a lot of talk about Costa's size, but that really isn't his problem. As OCC pointed out in one of his recent posts, Costa isn't the first center to lack large arms.

4) The hate for Phil Costa has reached endemic proportions. I'm thinking about writing a glorious post about the future center of the Cowboys - and just to piss off everybody, it's going to be a Phil Costa fluff piece.

Here's what I think about Costa: Costa has phenomenal upper body strength, but was lacking lower body strength, which caused issues in his release and his ability to maintain leverage against defenders. A full offseason should fix that. But everybody keeps harping on about how short Costa's arms are. Two points:

  • First, if Costa's arms were really too short, wouldn't the Cowboys have released him by now? Costa can work on his lower body, but his arms aren't going to get any longer, short of some very complicated surgery.
  • Second, can anybody find an actual source confirming Costa's arm length? And don't come back with some nonsense where somebody spews Skip-Bayless-like-generalities about Costa's short arms. I want the exact length. In inches. Then I'd like to compare that length to Jeff Saturday (31 1/4), David Molk (32), Jason Kelce (32 1/2), Ben Jones (32 1/2), Kevin Zeitler (32 3/4) and Peter Konz (33).

I have to agree with OCC that arm size isn't that much of an issue for Costa. The issue that I had with him last year was that he didn't play very good football. Pro Football Focus listed the need for a center as one of our most pressing issues for the 2012 offseason.

After cutting ties with long-time center Andre Gurode last offseason, the Cowboys started second-year Phil Costa in 2011. Costa was not only a liability in pass protection (-5.7) and run blocking (-3.1), but he also struggled at times with the bare basics like snapping the football. In the end, Costa graded out overall as our sixth-worst center for 2011. Simpy put, Dallas can do better here.

I admit that I was very hard on Costa last year, but I am beginning to come around on him. It's a leap of faith, but I am willing to place some faith in him. Now hear me out before you come running at me with your digital pitchfork. The Cowboys clearly see something in Costa, and they believe in him. New offensive line coach Bill Callahan coached Nick Mangold when he was with the Jets, and Mangold became one of the best centers in the NFL. Costa has been watching tape on Mangold, so hopefully he picks up some good habits. Spending more time in the film room should also improve his overall game as an offensive lineman.

While Costa clearly doesn't have the pedigree that Mangold does, he does have room to grow as a player. Last year was his first experience as a starter, so there were bound to be some growing pains and bumps in the road. If Costa works on his technique, he could actually become a decent center. With a full offseason to prepare, a new offensive line coach and a full season of starting experience under his belt, he could grow into a better football player.

I was upset when the Cowboys didn't target any centers during free agency or the draft. Maybe they feel strongly about fellow UDFA Kevin Kowalski as the center to push Costa, but a backup plan would have made sense. I believe that the Cowboys may also have something with Kevin Kowalski. He was impressive when he was thrown into fire last year. Like Costa, Kowalski also lacks prototypical arm length, but he is a physical player who possesses superior strength.

If Costa doesn't improve, the Cowboys will have trouble on offense. The center is a huge part of the offensive game plan, so we need to see improvement. I am still concerned about the center position, but I am going to give Costa one more chance as the starting center for the Dallas Cowboys. He is going to be one of our most important players this year. As scary as that thought may be, we need to see improvement from our center if we want to contend for the NFC East title this season.

Will Phil Costa step up and become a better offensive lineman, or will we be back to the drawing board next offseason? I ask you, the BTB community, how do you feel about the center position?