It is puzzling. During 2021, many decried how poorly the offensive line of the Dallas Cowboys performed, especially when compared to the outstanding units of just a few seasons ago. Yet according to PFF, who attempts to grade out players on an objective but often questioned measure, four members of the unit, Zack Martin, Tyron Smith, La’el Collins, and Connor Williams, were among the top 101 players in the NFL. Williams received further praise from PFF as one of three Cowboys ranked as some of the most underrated free agents in the league. How can these seemingly contradictory things be true? Was this a case of the parts being greater than the sum of the whole? This is a bit of a mystery that could have a very significant bearing on this season for the team.
During 2021, the Cowboys were forced by injuries to use multiple lineups. To see if that might have some bearing on the results, I compiled a table including who started on the line each week and where, along with the results of the game. It also has a column for sacks each game and the rushing yards, two stats that are influenced by the performance of the line.
2021 offensive line groupings
In the table, each bold face name indicates a change in the player at that position. As you can see, only center Tyler Biadasz played each game, while Zack Martin only missed the first game of the season recovering from a minor camp issue.
But the rest of the line was a bit of a mix and match situation. The only extended period of stability was in Weeks 2 through 7, when Martin was back but Terence Steele was pressed into duty at right tackle while Collins had to sit out due to a suspension. It is noteworthy that this six game stretch was the longest winning streak of the season. While that was also impacted by the partial PCL tear suffered by Ezekiel Elliott during the first game against the New York Giants and Dak Prescott’s calf strain that forced him to sit out game 7, it does raise the possibility that having Steele at RT was actually the best composition for the line. Steele did have some early struggles, but settled in over this stretch and was part of the Cooper Rush game where the Cowboys somehow managed to pull out a win.
However, Smith suffered an injury in that game that forced him to sit out the next three games. Collins was able to return at RT, with Steele switching to LT. Dallas would lose two of those three contests, as well as the next one where Smith returned and Steele once again subbed in for Collins at RT. And game 10 saw the beginning of the ill-fated Connor McGovern experiment. By my count, the Cowboys used six different starting combinations, with some not being consecutive, as well as the various times they had to substitute other combos in game. Over the last ten games, the team rolled out a different line from the previous week six times.
Continuity is seen as particularly important for offensive line performance, and it seems more than coincidental that the most successful stretch of games came during the longest time the same five players were lining up. While we have studied how quarterback play and offensive play-calling might have led to the inconsistent performance during the latter half of the season, the table above hints heavily that the turmoil on the line could have also been a major contributor. This was the time that the team was beating up on less formidable opponents but was unable to get the job done against most of those that were in contention for the playoffs.
Football is the most interconnected sport in the world, in the sense that the different parts of the team are so dependent on the performance of others. Each player on the field has a distinct role in each play with assignments that must be successfully accomplished for the play to succeed. Line play includes pass or run blocking, passing players off, setting up screens, and pulling to lead. One player getting it wrong can collapse everything. That is where the continuity enters in. Everyone has different strengths and weaknesses, so for instance Smith may have to worry more about McGovern than he does Williams. When you have multiple switches, as happened in game 14, it is even more of a potential issue.
The sack and rushing totals further support this idea. While it is fairly clear that Elliott’s injury really hurt that part of the game, there was not a truly strong rushing performance down the stretch until the blowout of the Philadelphia Eagles in the season finale. Two of the three worst sack totals for the team also came after things started changing almost weekly on the line, and four of the worst six. That often correlates to how much overall pressure the quarterback is fighting through. Once more, the interconnected nature of play surfaces. Prescott’s struggles could well have been influenced by the churn in his main pass protectors. It is not unreasonable to also think that those line problems made things more difficult for Kellen Moore. The best play will not work if things break down in the blocking scheme.
Most of the changes that are suspected to have caused problems were driven by injury or suspension, which is out of the staff’s control. But the move to try McGovern at LG was a self-inflicted problem. It appeared to be triggered by the multiple holding calls against Williams in Week 9. Whether that was simply a bad outing for him or a symptom of the general poor officiating that seemed a problem throughout the league last season, the attempted cure just made things worse and the team had to move back. PFF makes an argument that Williams is more of an asset than many fans and other observers think. With LG the one position that is unsettled going into 2022, he perhaps should be a priority to sign back before free agency arrives.
Meanwhile, Steele looks more and more like the answer at swing tackle, at the very least. He started 13 games last year, and at times looked more than just adequate. He is about as good a player to fill a role you hope you don’t have to use as they could have.
When combined with the high marks PFF gave the bulk of their line, the key for the Cowboys may be to just figure how to best use what they have locked down while finding a way to plug the hole at LG. That puts a lot of the onus on Joe Philbin. Last season was a mixed bag for him. Early on, he seemed to be getting strong performances out of his players, but as the shuffle began, things did not go so well. There is no indication there will be a coaching change there, so we have to hope he can find the answers this time around.
Whether running the ball or throwing it, things start up front for the offense. Staying healthy would almost certainly lead to better performance for the line, but there is no way to insure that. How the Cowboys deal with adversity is going to be a huge key this fall.