One day it will be over. One day, we will look at the offensive line of the Dallas Cowboys with confidence that they will be able to protect the quarterback and open holes for the running backs. One day.
It's not today.
Although there are actual historical records of the Dallas Cowboys having a competent, even dominating line, and some of us actually have hazy memories of those near-legendary days, it seems like we have been talking about the problems on the line since, oh, at least the last century. The team has tried to address these issues through a raft of free agent signings and used three draft picks in 2011 to bolster the line. After an effective game against the New York Giants, despite having to insert newly signed backup Ryan Cook on the second series when Phil Costa hurt his back, the line took a step backwards against the Seattle Seahawks. Then against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, they became a sieve in pass protection, nearly getting Tony Romo turned into a waffle, and forcing DeMarco Murray to try to run with defenders meeting him two yards deep in the backfield.
Getting these problems solved is likely the key to Dallas having a successful (read, making the playoffs) season. Coaches and players alike are obviously very aware of the issues and striving to solve them. Bill Callahan was blunt speaking to the press about it, but also optimistic that there will be a solution.
"There's no question," line coach and offensive coordinator Bill Callahan said. "I'm not going to sugarcoat this. We're not playing well right now. But, there're a lot of individual plays on the film that give you great hope because you see guys playing with effort, you see guys playing hard.
"I think we're not far. We're really not that far. We've got a clear-cut identity. We know who we are; we know what we want to be. It hasn't manifested itself yet, but it certainly can if we do the things we need to do to get it fixed."
The analysis by Callahan is that the problems have been because of technique errors and communications problems, not that the line has been dominated by the opponents. In other words, they are beating themselves through mistakes. The line is not inadequate on a player by player basis, but individual breakdowns, like Doug Free's failure to complete his assignment on the sack/fumble by Tony Romo or the almost innumerable false starts, are leading to repeated negative plays.
This is a continuation of the ongoing issues the team has had since training camp, when injuries kept the starting line from working together, and then compounded things when Costa went out just minutes into the first game. But the major concern is that these largely mental malfunctions have not been corrected already. Callahan thinks the team has the problems solved for the game against the Chicago Bears, but surely he thought the same thing last week as well.
The players are also discussing the issues. Free has been the subject of a great deal of the criticism so far, and he admits it is justified.
"It needs improvement, definitely," Free said Wednesday. "I haven't pass protected well enough, (we) haven't run the ball well enough and (I) definitely contributed to (that with) what I've done. I don't think I've done a good enough job and we got to get it fixed, and I have to fix it and I have to take the good coaching and keep working the techniques that I have been taught and really focus on it."
Taking responsibility is all well and good, and fits in with the Jason Garrett philosophy, but what you say is a lot less important than what you do on the field. The team has already lost punter Chris Jones for at least a while because of bad protection (which shows that mental errors are not just limited to the offensive linemen), and Romo is pretty much taking his life in his hands to try and get a pass off. Add in the difficulty factor of having to constantly take penalties to lengthen the drive, and it is truly remarkable that the Cowboys are 2-1. Even worse, this is hardly a new development.
Talk all you want about the new OL, but the #Cowboys have 28 false start penalties over their last 10 games. This isn't just a 2012 issue.— Brandon George (@dmn_george) September 26, 2012
Obviously, something has to be done. However, it is hard to imagine what else the team could do. They acquired two new linemen for this season, swapped Free and Tyron Smith, and then had to plug in a third, just acquired, new face at center in the first game. They also hired Callahan, who has an excellent reputation as a coach. All indications during training camp were that the team was constantly working on line issues. So what is the problem? Callahan does offer one thing he believes can be worked on.
Cowboys offensive line coach Bill Callahan, who also has the title of offensive coordinator, said part of the team's problem with all the false start penalties has been with the cadence of quarterback Tony Romo and everyone along the offensive line getting on the same page.
He does indicate that specific aspects of this have been identified and corrected, and were partly because the team has used a different count each of the first three weeks due to the situation (such as the notorious environment in Seattle), but he did not go into details so as not to give upcoming opponents any ideas.
While this could become a matter of some dissent on the team, there are no indications that it has started to affect the locker room yet.
Is DeMarco Murray comfortable with his offensive line? "Definitely. I’m very comfortable with those 5 guys up front. They do a great job."— Jon Machota (@jonmachota) September 26, 2012
While I like seeing teammates stand by one another, there is such a thing as being too forgiving. But maybe Murray has at least some reason to not get down on the guys up front. As OCC has already noted, Dallas has already faced some of the toughest defensive lines in the NFL this season, based on the early returns, and the task hardly gets easier with the Bears coming to town. This has got to improved. 2-2 is a lot different from 3-1.
This story is likely not over yet. No matter how tired we may be of it.