It is the season of what-ifs and should-happens. This year, there is a lot of optimism about the chances of the Dallas Cowboys to get back to the playoffs after a three-year drought. Well, among us fans, anyway. But at this time of year, we always feel that way.
Even at our most optimistic, we all acknowledge that there are always things that can make or break a season for an NFL team. In talking about just why we feel good or bad about the chances this year, Joey Ickes posed the question to the rest of the front page writers: What would we each choose as the thing that has to happen for the Cowboys to make it to the playoffs? Several of us have decided to give our opinion. For me, the answer to Joey's question popped into my head instantly.
The offensive line has to stay intact.
Having said that, I have to explain, because that is a more complex thing than seven words convey.
First of all, the line obviously has to come together. And I think this is something that has to happen no later than the third pre-season game. The staff cannot afford to keep tinkering around with the lineup. Above all, they can't keep waiting for some players to get healthy enough to go. Yes, Nate Livings and Mackenzy Bernadeau, I am talking about you. I know Jason Garrett wants to go with his five best linemen, but I think that has to be expanded a bit to "the five best linemen who can get on the field and become a unit as quickly as possible".
I firmly believe that some of the problems that plagued the line in 2012 came from the injuries Livings and Bernadeau had last year that kept them out of practice. This year, if they are not ready to go day one in Oxnard, they should be fighting to earn a spot as backups. I think the advantages of getting the unit lined up and putting in as much work as possible outweighs any slight advantage the injured guards might have athletically or in experience. If they are ready to line up on that first day in training camp, then they should get a look through the first couple of pre-season games. The Hall of Fame game gives Dallas an extra four quarters to look at the linemen and figure out what really is the best combination. But by then, they have to get it figured out, and go from evaluation to training and honing as a unit. The last few weeks before the season opens have to be dedicated to getting the starting five, whoever they wind up being, working together.
And then they need to keep the same five on the field for most of the season. Dallas had too many different combinations through the last campaign. They need health to hold up, and they need players to be ready to do their job in the first game, not have to get a fire lit under them somewhere down the road. Yes, Doug Free, I'm talking about you. The team does not need any rotational work or special motivation. It needs five guys who know what they are doing and who are willing and able to go out and do it week in and week out.
They don't need sixteen games with all the starters in place, but they probably need at least twelve or more. If they can get that, then I think the rest will work out. Yes, I am putting a lot of blind faith in Monte Kiffin and Rod Marinelli to get the job done defensively. But when your core concept seems to be telling DeMarcus Ware, Jay Ratliff, Jason Hatcher and Anthony Spencer they are now on a seek and destroy mission with the opposing quarterback as the objective, you would think there is a high probability of success. Oh, and the second line of defense is two-thirds made up of Sean Lee and Bruce Carter. Like I said, I have a lot of faith.
Offensively, I think everything hinges on the line. After the past couple of years, it is hard to not think that. Tony Romo has done a lot with frequently poor protection. Imagine him with a consistent pocket to work in. That in turn lets him find his targets, and he is looking to have some good ones this season. No matter what formation the Cowboys wind up using, Dez Bryant and Jason Witten are still going to be targets 1 and 1a, with Miles Austin probably the third favorite. Not even counting the other players who are contending to make the team, that trio should lead to a lot of yards downfield.
It also will allow the team to get back to some running. While the health issues of DeMarco Murray have been the focus of much of the discussion about the lack of punch in the ground game, I think the frequent disarray up front was more important. When you are putting someone like Bernadeau in at a position he is not really prepared for, as the team had to do last year when they ran out of centers, you probably have to worry first about pass protection. Run blocking involves more in the form of accomplishing an assignment, and it is harder for the guy next to you to cover your deficiencies in a run play than it is stopping the pass rushers. You can help out against a strong pass rusher. You can't really help out the guy who is supposed to pull and lead block.
I'll take it a step further. If the offensive line comes together and stays intact for at least 13 games this season, then I think that will carry the Cowboys into the playoffs. I believe all the other pieces are in place or will be there by the time they break camp. This is the one question that has to be answered correctly. If they get five good guys together out of the candidates they have and work them as a unit through most of training camp, and then keep them on the field for the bulk of the season, Dallas will take the NFC East. And that is largely no matter what else might come their way.
More Cowboys Coverage
- Will Tyron Smith Begin To Put The Pieces Together In 2013?
- Judging NFL QBs By The Company They Keep
- Dallas Cowboys News & Notes: Callahan as Playcaller, DeMarco Murray's Health, More
- 40 Days And 40 Nights Until BTB Makes It To Dallas Cowboys Training Camp
- Poll: Which 2013 Dallas Cowboys Starting Spot Are You Most Worried About?