A little less than a month ago, we looked at the average age of the offensive lines around the league and found that the Cowboys could field the second-youngest O-Line in the NFL in 2014.
For some Cowboys fans and many more non-Cowboys fans, this in itself was a revelation. After all, hadn't we heard pundits drone on and on for years about how the Cowboys' O-line was too old? No more.
Assuming a starting lineup of Tyron Smith - Ronald Leary - Travis Frederick - Zack Martin - Doug Free, the Cowboys' O-Line will have a combined age of 124 years on kickoff Sunday in September. Those 124 years mean that the Cowboys could end up with the second youngest O-line in the league. And that's not just any ho-hum offensive line, that's a line that features three first-round linemen who are all under 25 years of age, a 25-year old Ronald Leary who had a third-round grade on the Cowboys' board (but went undrafted because of concerns over his knee), and 30-year old veteran Doug Free.
But age alone may not mean all that much for an O-line. The Jaguars will probably have the youngest O-line in the league next year, and despite having Luke Joeckel at left tackle, nobody is predicting they'll be a top unit this season. And besides, haven't we been hearing for years how bad the Cowboys' offensive line is, and how the play of the offensive line has been holding back the Cowboys?
So before we venture into speculation about what the 2014 O-line could potentially play like, let's look at how the 2013 O-line did play like by reviewing a few key stats which summarize last year's O-line performance:
Advanced Football Analytics (formerly Advanced NFL stats) ranked the Cowboys O-line No. 1 in Expected Points Added and No 2 in Win Probability Added.
That's right. First. As in number one. The best. Top o' the heap. And coming in at No. 2 on the WPA metric is nothing to sneeze at either.
Football Outsiders ranked the Cowboys No. 4 in Adjusted Line Yards, a measure of how much push the O-line generated in the ground game, and ranked the O-line No. 10 in Adjusted Sack Rate, which measures sacks per pass attempt adjusted for down, distance, and opponent. Pro Football Reference shows the Cowboys ranked No. 8 in Sack %, which is also a sack rate per pass attempt, but without any adjustments.
Pro Football Focus grades the Cowboys as the number two team in run blocking and number nine in pass blocking. And while these grades include everybody involved in blocking, the majority of players involved in that are the offensive linemen.
So you've got four independent sources with seven metrics, all placing the 2013 offensive line close to the top or at least in the top ten of O-lines in the league. That should count for something, no?
Well, not if you've been listening to claims about how "the Cowboys O-line couldn't get it done on the ground on critical third downs."
For many people talking about the Cowboys, "critical third downs" mean the same thing as "must-win games." Must-win games for the Cowboys are only must-win games if the Cowboys lose them, just as critical third downs for the Cowboys are only those third downs the Cowboys didn't convert.
So let's take a look at the data. Let’s assume "critical 3rd downs" means third-and-short, so a third down with three yards or less to go. Here’s what the Cowboys did in those situations last year:
Run: 15 runs, 9 first downs, 60% conversion
Pass: 28 passes, 15 first downs, 54% conversion
Without context and on their own, those numbers don't mean all that much. So here's a look at how last year’s four conference championship participants fared in those same situations.
49ers: 27 runs (41% conversion), 17 passes (65% conversion)
Seahawks: 24 runs (58%), 42 passes (52%)
Broncos: 20 runs (65%), 35 passes (66%)
Patriots: 24 runs (67%), 41 passes (49%).
We can conclude from these numbers that
1. The Cowboys may have had concerns over their ability to "punch it in" on short yardage downs and therefore favored the pass, but they're in good company: three of the four teams listed above, the 49ers being the notable exception, also favored the pass over the run on third-and-short by a factor of about 2-to-1.
2. The Cowboys’ run/pass split is not much different than for leading teams in the league, nor is their conversion rate much different. What does stand out though is that the Cowboys faced a relatively low number of 3rd-and-short situations (43) compared to three of the four teams here (SF: 44, DEN: 55, NE: 65, SEA: 66). That is something worth considering.
3. Over the entire season, there were just six third-and short runs that didn't net a first down. Six. In 16 games. Remember how I wrote that critical third downs for the Cowboys are only those third downs the Cowboys didn't convert? Those are your six critical downs.
All of which is my roundabout way of saying that perhaps, maybe, possibly, the Cowboys already had one of the top O-lines in the league in 2013, and with the addition of Zack Martin, the arrow of this unit can only be pointing up.
Mike Tanier of Sports On Earth even believes that the Cowboys O-line could turn out to be the number one offensive line in 2014:
Cowboys bashers can scoff if they like, but the team has a tremendous line. It all starts with Tyron Smith, one of the best offensive linemen in the NFL right now. Smith allowed just three sacks last year and is the best run-blocking left tackle in the league. Right tackle Doug Free is a solid run blocker who rarely makes mistakes in pass protection and has not missed a start in four years.
Smith is outstanding and Free is good, but the prospects are what bring this line to the next level. Travis Frederick had a fine rookie campaign and will start at center for the rest of the decade. Rookie Zack Martin moves over from collegiate tackle to give the Cowboys a massive, athletic, nearly game-ready guard to fill the line's biggest hole from last year. Martin is already counterproductively clobbering Cowboys defenders in minicamp, but gains on the offensive line always come at the expense of the defense in Dallas for some reason (see Frederick's early selection at the expense of a much-needed defender in the 2013 draft). That's a problem for a later series of articles.
As for the Cowboys bashers, bear with me … if Jason Garrett is a ninny and Tony Romo is a chokity-choke and Dez Bryant is a headcase and the running backs are all Lance Dunbar types that Jerry Jones fell in love with while eating caviar and barbecue in front of the 230-inch television on a Saturday afternoon, then how do the Cowboys average nearly 28 points per game? Somebody besides Jason Witten is doing something right. Five somebodies, to be precise.
In situations like these where we're discussing how good a certain aspect of the Cowboys is or could be, somebody will inevitably feel the need to point out that the 1990s O-line/unit/player/coach/turf/weather/whatever was much better than today's version. There really isn't much you can say to something like that except to point out that it's 2014, not 1992.
The Cowboys have every right to be confident about their offensive line - and by extension, their entire offense. Now let's see them focus their attention on improving the defense.