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2013 Cowboys Benefit From Offensive Line Continuity

In 2012, injuries forced the Cowboys into an uncommonly high amount of personnel changes along the O-line. That changed in 2013, and the Cowboys benefited from a high degree of stability on their O-line.

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

One of the positives to come out of the 2013 season for the Cowboys was the offensive line. Football Outsiders rank the 2013 O-line fourth in the league in run-blocking and tenth in pass protection. As Cowboys fans we have a built-in distrust of anything related to the O-line and still find it hard to believe that the 2013 unit ended up being a top ten unit in the league.

It certainly didn't look that way in the 2013 offseason:

  • The 2013 offseason started off ominously for O-line-scarred Cowboys fans when 2012 starting left guard Nate Livings underwent knee surgery in mid February.
  • In March, 2012 starting right guard Mackenzy Bernadeau had shoulder surgery. Bernadeau had undergone hip surgery the previous offseason and had missed most of the offseason condition work with the hip injury.
  • In April, Cowboys fans, who had been dreaming for months of Jonathan Cooper or Chance Warmack, were treated to relative unknown Travis Frederick in the draft, a player who we were quickly told was a third-round talent "at best".
  • In May, Doug Free took a significant pay cut that reflected his woeful performance of previous years.
  • In June, backup center Phil Costa got engaged to Brooke Hogan, and that was not a good thing either.
  • In early August, Nate Livings had his second knee surgery in eight months and would eventually end up on IR as a result.
  • Also in early August, veteran guard Brandon Moore signed a one-year deal with the Cowboys, only to retire the next day.
  • At the end of August, backup center Ryan Cook was placed on IR with a back injury.
  • In early September, the Cowboys signed veteran guard Brian Waters off his couch. There were concerns over his conditioning level and his lack of familiarity with the other members of the offensive line or Coach Jason Garrett's offense.
  • On September 8, the Cowboys opened their season with a rookie under center and Ron Leary, a UDFA guard with a degenerative knee condition and no NFL experience, at left guard.

Nobody can tell me they went into the 2013 season without some significant concern about the O-line. Yet here we are, looking back at a top ten unit. A lot of things happened to make that possible, but the one element we're going to look at today is the continuity along the O-line.

Fortunately for us, there's even a way to quantify that continuity. Our good friends at Football Outsiders have developed a fairly straightforward metric they call the O-line Continuity Score. In their own words:

Continuity score starts with 48 and then subtracts:

* The number of players over five who started at least one game on the offensive line
* The number of times the team started at least one different lineman compared to the game before
* The difference between 16 and that team's longest streak where the same line started consecutive games.

Sounds complicated? It isn't. It is basically a number that measures the amount of change along an O-line over the course of a season. If you have the same five linemen starting all sixteen games, you get 48 points, and the more change you have along the line, the lower your score. FO explain the numbers as follows:

Continuity Scores above 41: Teams with excellent continuity average 1.87 points per drive and commit about 21 false starts in a season.

Continuity Scores 27-40: Teams with average continuity score 1.70 points per drive and commit about 23 false starts.

Continuity Scores below 26: Once teams start shuffling linemen, those values drop to 1.49 points and 26 false starts.

It's easy to confuse cause and effect in this situation -- poor play leads to personnel changes as much as personnel changes lead to poor play -- but the numbers suggest that teams should be wary of changing linemen just for change's sake.

FO have not published their official numbers for 2013 yet, so I went ahead and manually calculated the score for last season. Applying FO's metric to the 2013 Cowboys gives us the following:

In addition to the five Week 1 starters (Smith, Leary, Frederick, Bernadeau and Free), only Brian Waters started games for the Cowboys, so that lowers the score by one point from the initial 48. The starting line changed twice, once to include Waters and once again when Waters was injured, which drops the score by two more points. The longest stretch the Cowboys played with the same line were the final eight games of the season after Waters was injured, which further decreases the Continuity Score by eight points. In total, the Cowboys' Continuity Score for 2012 is 37.

Here's a pretty simple visualization of the Cowboys' starting lineups along the O-line in 2013, with the switcheroo at right guard being the only changes.

Cowboys O-Line Starters by Week, 2013
Weeks 1-3 4-8 9-17
LT Smith Smith Smith
LG Leary Leary Leary
C Frederick Frederick Frederick
RG Bernadeau Waters Bernadeau
RT Free Free Free

That's not a lot of change in one season, and you could make an argument that 2013 saw more stability than the score of 37 indicates, as Waters and Bernadeau were simply playing musical chairs. Even the other metrics FO quote look very good for the Cowboys: With 2.25 points per drive, the Cowboys ranked fourth in the league, and while their 17 false starts (19th in the league) are quite a bit more than the Giants' league-leading eight, it's still in improvement over the 28 false starts called against the Cowboys in 2012.

Apart from 2012, the Cowboys have done quite okay in this measure in the recent past. They finished in the top half of the league in four successive years from 2008 through 2011, but that changed in 2012. Here's the development over the last six years:

Cowboys Continuity Score 2008-2013
2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013
(NFL rank)

*Until FO publish their 2013 numbers, we won't know how that 37 Continuity Score ranks in the league, but between 2008 and 2012, 37 points were ranked 9th in the league on average.

The Continuity Score is fairly simple (but time consuming!) to calculate, so I added up the scores for all four NFC East teams in 2013, but didn't go further than that. Here's how those numbers compare:

NFC East Continuity Scores, 2013
Team Continuity Score Longest Stretch Number of Starters Line Changes Proj. Rank*
PHI 48 16 5 0 1st
WAS 48 16 5 0 1st
DAL 37 8 6 2 9th
NYG 24 4 9 8 29th
* Average league rank of Continuity Score from 2008-2012
  • The Eagles and Redskins both achieved perfect scores in 2013, starting the same five guys in all sixteen games. The fact that the Redskins ended up with the second-worst record in the league goes to show that while O-line continuity is important, that alone is not enough to win games.
  • As outlined above, the Cowboys had a lot of question marks about their O-line heading into the season, but played with remarkable stability - and success - despite those question marks.
  • The Giants had a lot of issues on their O-line, starting nine different guys and changing their lineup on an almost weekly basis. That can't be good.

Unfortunately, there is no way to plan for O-line continuity. It's still too early to say who the starters on the Cowboys' offensive line will be in 2014. But the odds are the line won't look that much different from last year's line. After all, if continuity is such an important aspect of the O-line play, wouldn't you want to maintain as much continuity as possible?

Continuity is important because it can make communication easier, the familiarity linemates have with each other can ensure they know where their linemates are going to be in any given situation, and it can even help with some of the more intangible stuff like camaraderie and synergy.

Back in January, Seattle's Max Unger brought all this up in an interview:

"Our (meeting) room has really come together this year," Unger said. "What we're doing in there seems to be working pretty well. There's obviously a lot of room for improvement, but kind of getting the same guys to start the majority of the games together is really a step in the right direction."

At the same time, not everybody is sold on continuity as the end-all, be-all of O-line play. Buffalo Head Coach Doug Marrone for example thinks O-line continuity is an overrated concept.

"It's a position I coached for a very long time," Marrone said. "I'm not as sold as much on the continuity factor than what other people may be. That has never been my type of philosophy."

"I've always wanted to put the best five players in there. ... I think as long as they can communicate and they can go on the field and do their job, that's what really creates the continuity. That's the way I've always pretty much played them."

The Cowboys saw some pretty good play from their O-line in 2013. The data above suggests that continuity may have played a part in that performance, but that performance may just as well have been a result of good coaching, individual talent, or any number of other factors. But if nothing else, the Continuity Score provides some additional food for thought as we contemplate what the best strategy is for the Cowboys to win more than eight games in 2014.

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