The 2015 season is now a failure of epic proportions for the Dallas Cowboys. With one last game to go, they have locked themselves into a top eight pick and could go as high as second, currently standing fourth in the draft order. A spot near the start of the draft is certainly valuable, especially in a draft class that is not seen as particularly deep this year, but it is far from what fans and the team itself were anticipating going into this season.
One of the things that led to optimism before things ran so quickly off the rails was the vaunted offensive line. That group was seen as a key element in the often dominating offensive performance the Cowboys displayed in 2014. With the league's leasing rusher, by a wide margin, and a generally well-protected Tony Romo, Dallas scored a lot of points. That went away almost completely. Obviously the injuries to Romo and Dez Bryant played major roles, but the struggles on third and short and in the red zone seemed to indicate much more was wrong. Add in the league leading number of false starts, and it is not surprising that many began to question whether the group, which now has four first-round caliber starters, was in fact overrated.
One theory has it that the Cowboys underestimated the value of Bill Callahan as the line coach (although there was not real way to retain him after the de facto demotion of 2014 when Scott Linehan was brought in).
The Bill Callahan affect...His loss is a big reason for Cowboys struggles too https://t.co/Wk02riZlNd— Clarence Hill (@clarencehilljr) December 27, 2015
There certainly are reasons to question the effectiveness of the coaching staff in Dallas, no matter how many injuries they had to deal with. But are there perhaps other reasons for the apparent struggles up front for the Cowboys' offense?
At Football Outsiders, Ben Muth, who was an all-Pac 10 left tackle, has been tracking the performance of Dallas' line, and he doesn't think they are the problem.
Just because they underachieved according to their massive preseason expectations does not mean that they are a bad unit. In fact, I'd say they are a really good line that is about to get a thousand yards out of an aging Darren McFadden (who wasn't even that good in his prime). You could take an all-decade offensive line and it would struggle to run the ball with the skill talent with which the Cowboys played this year. I just don't think Dallas' offensive line ever had a real chance to live up to its hype as a potential all-time great unit.
When the running backs are Darren McFadden and Joseph Randle; the quarterbacks are Brandon Weeden, Matt Cassel, and Kellen Moore; and the No. 1 receiver is Terrance Williams, Cole Beasley, or a not-100-percent Dez Bryant, no offensive line is going to look good. That's not even getting into some of the most conservative play calling seen in the NFL is this year. At the end of the day, so many things were wrong with the Cowboys' offense that no offensive line could have salvaged much. The pieces are still in place, however, for this to go from a really good offensive line in 2015 to a special one in 2016.
At a time when we as fans are looking for any straw to grasp at to give us hope for the future, that is something that we all probably are hoping is true. It is an interesting thought. There are some other factors that could support this.
One thing that may be undervalued as far as its impact is that McFadden, now the lead back, is not well-suited for the zone blocking scheme. DeMarco Murray was a near perfect fit. While the Cowboys have never been exclusively a ZBS team, that was the predominant way they blocked, and that they practiced on before the season. As has been mentioned here before, McFadden was limited in preseason, so the team did not have as much chance to adjust to his style and skill set. This frequently seemed apparent, especially in short yardage situations. There were times when the Cowboys went with an outside run in those rather than trying to win the battle in the middle, and they seemed to find more success. But the fact remains that there was something of a mismatch between the skill sets involved that the team has not fully compensated for.
There is also a possibility that the constant shuffle in quarterbacks may have had a little to do with the false start issue. Different cadences can throw off the timing. While the linemen have to take responsibility for their mistakes, it has to be something of a challenge to have to adjust to a new signal-caller so many times during the season.
Meanwhile, despite Romo's two broken collarbones, the pass protection has generally been good this season. Against the Buffalo Bills, Moore was not sacked. The line also generally afforded Weeden and Cassel good protection, and neither of them are exactly nimble in the pocket.
The Cowboys thought they could depend on the offensive line to help carry things, but as the year wore on, they largely wound up with very little to carry. Quarterbacks that looked increasingly lost, running backs that just were not nearly as capable as the one that was lost in free agency, and receivers that had little chemistry with the quarterbacks and at times failed to hang on to the ball were far more the problem than the play of the big guys up front.
Now it is on to next season. The Cowboys have a lot of things to address in free agency and the draft, but outside of possibly looking to make a change at right tackle, they are set on the offensive line. It is one thing to have a little optimism about.