The Dallas Cowboys are in a little bit of a rut after losing three of their last four games. There are a lot of different factors playing into the team’s struggles in recent weeks with one of them being the offense's inability to move the ball. Opposing defenses have challenged the Cowboys' offense and the team hasn’t been able to deliver. As the team continues to fend off defenses, the Cowboys have experimented with many different offensive linemen arrangements.
Head coach Mike McCarthy preaches continuity along the offensive line and implies every week that he leans toward sticking with something that is working; however, this is completely contradicted by how often the coaching staff is changing things up. Through 11 games this year, the Cowboys have already gone with six different offensive line arrangements.
Granted, some of these changes are unavoidable. Due to injuries, suspensions, and COVID, the coaches have had no choice to adjust on the fly. But then there are other changes that are a little more confusing. It’s no secret that the team has a couple of extra offensive linemen that they don’t want to waste just sitting on the sidelines. That has led to some unconventional formations where they might line up in the backfield as a fullback or outside with the wide receivers. Surely, that’s not something to complain about, right?
While the surplus of quality blockers is a good problem to have, it’s still head-scratching trying to understand what the Cowboys are thinking with their offensive line group. Thursday’s game presented the most puzzling moment to date when they didn’t start who we thought they’d start, and then they subbed the reserves into the lineup on the team’s third drive of the game. What in tarnation is going on? The explanation we were given after the game was that the coaches had planned to give those guys work all along and that they had earned it. That seems like a strange decision to make in the middle of a regular season game where the offense is trying to get back on track. Did we miss something? Were those other guys not performing? That’s an odd thing to do in general, but it’s extremely baffling coming from a coach who repeatedly preaches about continuity.
Mike McCarthy: "Continuity" pic.twitter.com/q9Ll3YEN6U— Dan Rogers (@DannyPhantom24) November 26, 2021
It’s almost as if the coaching staff isn’t sure who the best five guys are and need more evidence to help make a decision.
It feels like the majority of fans were under the impression that La’el Collins was going to retake his starting right tackle position once Tyron Smith returned from injury. And why wouldn’t they be? LC said point-blank last week that he’s starting at right tackle when everyone presumed that Smith would be returning to left tackle. And it was being reported that Steele would go back to the swing tackle role. Of course, what we didn’t realize at that time was that Smith’s status wasn’t as clear as we thought, and in hindsight, the Cowboys appeared to be preparing to roll with Steele for another game at left tackle against Kansas City. Maybe Smith wasn’t completely ready? Maybe the team wanted a little bit of extra rest for him and preferred to see more tape of how both Steele and Collins are playing right now to help them determine who should be the starting right tackle gig once Smith returns?
A lot of fans don’t agree with the Cowboys' decision to go with Steele over Collins at right tackle. We know what Collins is capable of after a stellar 2019 season. We also know Steele’s 2020 performance (albeit, he was a rookie) was a far cry from what Collins gave the team. But none of those factors matter now. Both Collins and Steele are different players and it seems like the coaching staff views the youngster Steele as the better option at the moment. This is a controversial take, but it’s one I happen to agree with and even mentioned on an episode of Cowboys Roundup last week.
The team also prefers to go with Connor McGovern over Conner Williams at left guard. While Williams gets a lot more criticism than he deserves, he has trouble at times. McGovern, while not perfect, appears to be doing a better job at the position, so it’s hard to fault the team for making that decision as well.
The elevated play of both Steele and McGovern has pushed a couple of veteran starters to the bench, but does that mean this will now be the new normal? If so, the coaching staff still doesn’t seem fully convinced as they don’t know what to do with Collins and Williams. Are they still trying to figure out the ultimate lineup that will produce the best results?
Based on the data we have available, there is some information that points to one group being better than the rest. Let’s put up that same offensive linemen chart from above, only this time let’s add the outcome of the game, the rushing yards gained, and the sacks allowed.
There is no pattern when it comes to sacks, but there is a huge correlation when it comes to the effectiveness of the running game. If you look at the second combination (games 2 through 6), the Cowboys dominated the run game. They averaged 185 yards per contest over this five-game span and never had less than 122 yards on the ground. The Cowboys were 5-0 with this group. Is this a coincidence?
Is it possible that the Cowboys are just a better run blocking team with Williams at left guard? Or are there extenuating circumstances that are also contributing to this variation (like say, no Amari Cooper)? It’s also fair to point out that while Collins is on the wrong end of this data, the actual results are inconclusive. He has yet to start a game this year with both Smith at left tackle and Martin at right guard.
If there is a saving grace to the offensive line shuffle, it’s that the team is doing everything they can to figure this out. Granted, these experiments are happening in regular season games, but as long as they eventually figure it out, it will be worth the journey.