It was only seven seasons ago that the Associated Press started giving out an award for the top assistant coach in the NFL, following the guide of the NCAA’s own Broyles award. Not surprisingly, all six winners of the AP Assistant Coach of the Year award have been coordinators, and four of them were hired as head coaches the following year.
But the NFL has a golden opportunity to change that this year, and with good reason, by giving the award to Cowboys offensive line coach Joe Philbin. It’s often hard to assess the relative value of position coaches, but every now and then a situation presents itself wherein it’s undeniable that a position coach had a big impact. For example, Eagles quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo nearly got hired as a head coach after the Eagles rode backup Nick Foles to a Super Bowl victory.
The Cowboys might not be ready to plan any parades in downtown Dallas just yet, but they’re in a similar position with Philbin and this offensive line. Obviously, the Cowboys have incurred some serious injuries to their offensive line, and when Connor Williams went down for a play in Sunday’s win over Philadelphia it cemented one fact: not a single one of the Cowboys’ original starting five in the trenches when the season kicked off has managed to avoid an injury, even a small one.
In fact, the Cowboys have had 10 different offensive linemen playing on offense at various points this season, and that’s without counting La’el Collins. Terence Steele, an undrafted rookie from Texas Tech who barely made the final roster, has taken the most snaps of any offensive tackle this year; Williams, who has faced competition for his starting job each of the last two years, currently leads all Dallas linemen in total offensive snaps. Zack Martin missed a week with a concussion, later moved to right tackle to take over for the struggling Steele, and then got hurt again before being added to the injured reserve.
And yet, the offensive line is not in shambles. Far from it, actually. In the last six games, the Cowboys have allowed 10 sacks, with three of those coming against the Washington Football Team’s vaunted pass rush. For comparison’s sake, they allowed three sacks in each of Andy Dalton’s first two starts, a much higher rate than they’ve been giving up lately. In fact, their adjusted sack rate after Sunday’s game is 5.7%, the 12th best figure in the NFL.
But what’s more impressive is that the offensive line has managed to excel in the run game. Despite all the changes along the line, the Cowboys rank 12th in run block win rate. Before both went down with injuries, Martin and rookie center Tyler Biadasz were in the top among their positions in individual run block win rate, while both Williams and Connor McGovern have spent at least a week each among the top ten in run block win rate among guards. As a whole, the offensive line ranks ninth in adjusted line yards and 12th in power success rate.
On a larger scale, the Cowboys have been able to put up some really solid offensive performances lately while working with this patchwork offensive line. In the first four games since Dak Prescott was lost for the season, the Cowboys offense posted a negative total expected points (EPA) in each game. That included 12 sacks, an average of 164.5 passing yards per game, and 114.25 rushing yards per game. Since then, the Cowboys offense has posted a positive total EPA in every game but their loss to Washington. Over that stretch, the Cowboys have allowed ten sacks, averaged 253.3 passing yards a game, and 89.8 rushing yards a game.
This offensive line, after incurring so many injuries to their key starters, should have become an Achilles heel that tore a hole in the offensive gameplan every week. And while that was the case for a few weeks, Philbin was able to devise a really good plan of attack alongside Mike McCarthy and Kellen Moore to maximize the talent they had with this hodgepodge group of players.
And now the Cowboys are entering Week 17 with a chance at making the playoffs, due in large part to their offense being able to score points consistently. With the offensive line’s improvement, Dalton has been able to get into a groove and find his talented receivers down the field. But none of that could have happened without this offensive line hitting their stride, a seemingly impossible feat on paper. Philbin has pulled off a miracle in his handling of this line and all its injuries, and he certainly deserves recognition for it. That’s why the NFL should recognize him as their Assistant Coach of the Year.