I have been thinking about this off and on since at least the draft, and started putting my thoughts together last night. I really don't see any reason why the Dallas Cowboys should not be better this year. They have all their best players back from last year, mostly in better health, they are adding some key personnel both as potential starters and badly needed depth, and the bulk of the real weak links from last year are gone. I have seen several predictions that have Dallas taking the NFC East this year, although there are also those who feel that the Cowboys will be last in the division. There is little in the way of middle ground out there, and this may be another thing that is being influenced way beyond reason by the saga of Jerry Jones and the offensive play calling.
I could do a position by position or player by player breakdown of why I think things are going to be better, but there are other posts here almost every day detailing the good things. I could point out that all the other teams in the division have their own issues to deal with, ones that may be bigger and deeper than those Dallas has. But in all that happy talk, there continues to be one looming potential black cloud that hangs over the Cowboys. One we have been talking about, and the team has been trying to solve, for years.
Yes. It's the offensive line. Again.
I almost didn't do this article, because we have heard this song so many times before. But this morning, I read Dan Graziano's take on the Cowboys' chances in his NFC East blog at ESPN. And it was like he was inside my head.
For me, the Cowboys are all about that offensive line and whether it can play beyond its pedigree and expectations.
I am getting a bit weary of this being the issue year after year. It started in the last couple of seasons under Wade Phillips (remember Alex Barron), but the real efforts to address the problem started under Jason Garrett. He has tried to fix this, but the results just have not worked out. His first season, the team used three of its eight draft picks on the O line - 1st round Tyron Smith, 4th round David Arkin, and second pick in the 7th round Bill Nagy. Smith has worked out well, but Arkin is still to be determined, and Nagy was injured, then signed away by the Detroit Lions when the Cowboys waived him. In 2012, the team tried to fix things with free agents Nate Livings and Mackenzy Bernadeau, but that was not resoundingly successful. Meanwhile, Smith, who had done quite well at RT his rookie year was switched to LT to try and fix the issues Doug Free was having, and that certainly caused a its own problems. And of course center became a season long headache, as injury to Phil Costa forced Ryan Cook into the job, and then Bernadeau had to fill in later on. Having a changing, uh, backside facing the quarterback from week to week is not a formula for success in the NFL.
Now, the team has spent a first round pick on a linemen for the second time in three years. Travis Frederick is the expected starting center for this year, but outside that, there already are a lot of the same old unsolved problems out there. Doug Free, who seemed to have about as many problems at RT as he did at LT, has taken a pay cut and is still expected to be the starter. If he is not able to play better, the most likely option would be to go with Jermey Parnell, who has great physical traits, but is very, very raw as a player who converted from college basketball to football in 2009.
And Bernadeau and Livings have been missing time in the OTAs as they recover from injuries. This has allowed Arkin and Ronald Leary to get more time on the field, but continuity is more important on the O line than anywhere else on the team. The Cowboys need to figure out who their best starting five are, then get them together so they can function at their best.
On the topic of putting the best five out there, a lot of people are pulling for Parnell, Arkin and Leary to all break through this year. I understand the frustration with the players they would replace, but some of the issues last year were more about the line as a unit. The constant changes in personnel may well have been the big problem, not the individuals who, for the most part, were having to shuffle around and get used to different faces on each side of them. More importantly, do you really want to see those three get the starting job? You realize that a Smith - Arkin - Frederick - Leary - Parnell line would represent four brand-new starters, anchored by a player in his third year? Do you really want to put your new $108 million dollar quarterback behind that line? With a rookie in the middle who is almost certain to have make some first year mistakes? I am going to take a whole heap of convincing before I get on board with that idea.
I figure that Free, Livings and Bernadeau are the most likely starters to join the brace of first rounders on the line, with an outside chance of Leary supplanting one of the guards. But I don't see that as really a bad plan. As I mentioned above, I think the best chance for improvement is to get the starting lineup together for training camp, and keep them healthy and working together all the way to the start of the regular season. Dallas does not need an outstanding offensive line. Graziano agrees with me on that, too.
They do not need to be a great offensive line. They just need to be an acceptable one.
No NFL team is great across the board. Dallas has a budding superstar wide receiver, a very good #2 when he can stay healthy, one of the best and most complete tight ends ever, two very solid options to become the second TE in the 12 formation, a running back that also is very good when healthy, and a quarterback who not only is very talented, but who must be developing a huge chip on his shoulder from all the people who label him unable to win the big game. Add in a defense with a couple of defensive ends and two linebackers that are going to be in the conversation as the best combos in the league, and you have to admit Dallas has some very strong parts of the team. The offensive line just has to be adequate. Not great, just somewhere in the middle third of the league. The anticipated move to that 12 alignment and a more uptempo offense should reduce the load on the O line as the defense is forced to stay more and more in a base alignment, making the blocking assignments simpler. An average performance with the other weapons Dallas has should lead to an overall top 10 or even top 5 offense.
But they have to at least achieve that average level. Jason Garrett, Jerry Jones, and company have done all they can to make it happen. They may have missed a bit on players like Arkin, Livings and Bernadeau, but with the time they have all had in the system, some of the current players should start to emerge as the ones the team needs to go into this campaign. They should.
It's that big difference between "should" and "will" that give me pause. At some point, all the effort that has been put into this is going to pay off. I keep telling myself that. But at times, I feel like I am hanging in Missouri. Somebody needs to show me.
Meanwhile, just like it was the past two off-seasons for the Cowboys and the offensive line, the song remains the same.