For over a year, it has always been something with the offensive line of the Dallas Cowboys. After the absolute train wreck of last season, we already faced arguably the toughest game on this year’s schedule missing right guard Zack Martin. Now we go into a perhaps less intimidating, but still tough, road trip to play the Los Angeles Chargers missing suspended right tackle La’el Collins. Despite the team losing that opener against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Martin’s replacement, Connor McGovern, actually played well against one of the absolute best groups of interior defensive linemen in the league. It probably should not have been a big surprise as McGovern was playing well in the patchwork line of 2020. According to Jerry Jones, Terence Steele is the choice to fill in for Collins. He faces the Chargers and their stud pass rusher Joey Bosa. Even more so than the case with McGovern before the first game, Steele does not exactly inspire overwhelming confidence, as our own Brian Martin has pointed out.
Yet we faced much the same trepidation leading up to the first game, and although Dak Prescott was pressured and hit a good bit, he only had one sack and delivered a big performance with his 403 yards passing and three touchdowns. Despite some who still insist on claiming he does not look 100%, that certainly seems like an all-out job by him. Part of the evidence cited for him not being fully recovered from his ankle injury last year and his training camp shoulder issue is that he did not throw the deep ball. Yet both he and Tom Brady each only had one pass go for over 30 yards in the game. No one is slamming Brady for that despite him only making the one deep chunk. Both the quarterbacks worked the short and middle depths well in providing us a thrilling offensive shootout. It is also worth noting that Prescott’s sack was the only one by both teams.
That leads to a theory that has been floated out there in social media: Sacks are a quarterback stat. Most can be avoided with even mediocre protection by an alert QB with good vision and awareness. By logical extension, that also means that effective performance against a good pass rush is also mostly driven by how well the passer is accounting for oncoming defenders and getting the ball out quickly and accurately to the receivers, or putting it in a safe place to avoid interception risks while not getting flagged for intentional grounding, even if they are not one of the quarterbacks like Brady that almost never get called no matter how obvious it is. (Yes, I’m still a bit miffed at him getting away with one on the game-winning drive.)
That’s why, despite the title of this article, the Cowboys are not in deep trouble. That may be a hard sell for many fans, of course. The favored idea among fans was to move Martin out to RT and keep McGovern in the lineup, with the poll included in the article linked above showing 70% of respondents voting that way. (I voted for Steele, in the interests of full disclosure or something.) But that was never as likely as many thought. The fact that the normally durable Martin got injured last season only after he kicked out during the desperation late in the year argued very strongly against it. Martin was also reported to not a fan at all of the idea, and his opinion carries a lot of weight with the staff. What happened last year should just make his voice more compelling.
Having Steele at RT is often considered a recipe for disaster. That is somewhat disrespectful to him. Much of the concern about him reflects his major struggles early in 2020 when the UDFA rookie was forced onto the field. It disregards the clear growth he showed by the end of the year. It also discounts the fact he had to switch from LT to RT as the injuries mounted. His improvement came mostly after he settled into the RT job.
Besides his own strengths and weaknesses, there are ways to help out. The obvious is to put a tight end on the right side to help out. The Cowboys also have Ezekiel Elliott, who is one of the best running backs in the league when called upon to pass protect. Combine that with the skill and ability of Prescott, and this situation seems much more manageable. It is still not ideal. Nonetheless, injuries and suspensions are something all teams have to manage. Despite the dismal results of last season, line coach Joe Philbin and offensive coordinator Kellen Moore got a lot of experience dealing with that necessity. Against the Buccaneers, they proved up to the task.
Nothing will be more important than Prescott, however. After the season opener, there is every reason to have confidence he is truly up able to meet the demands of this situation. He still has Tyron Smith and Elliott to make sure the blind side should not be a major issue. With Martin expected back, pressure up the middle should not be as challenging as it was against Vita Vae and company on Thursday. Moore will also be important with his game plan and play calls. The evidence from that game also instills some confidence that he has this. One more thing working for the Cowboys is that they still have two wide receivers in Amari Cooper and CeeDee Lamb that showed they could get open, quickly if needed. Michael Gallup is unfortunately out for several games, but Cedrick Wilson looked quite capable in the first game, and Noah Brown is expected to be back this week as well.
The ideal outcome would be for the Collins suspension to be unexpectedly overturned, but that is very remote at this point, especially before the Chargers game on Sunday. It still seems that there are multiple ways to mitigate the problems. It is no doubt a challenge. All the evidence still points to there being ways to meet and overcome it.