By Matthew Postins
Through two games the Dallas Cowboys’ running game looks suspiciously like last year’s running game – inconsistent and at times non-existent.
I wrote earlier this week that there has been plenty of talk around Valley Ranch about what’s wrong with the running game. You could pick any number of issues, but I’m going to focus on the offensive line, which exposes a key flaw in Dallas Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones’ ability to put together a high-quality team.
Jones loves flash, and there’s little of that in drafting offensive linemen. That’s a fundamental reason why the running game has been ineffective since the start of last season. Only in the past couple of seasons has Jones finally given in and started drafting linemen, but only out of necessity.
Let’s deconstruct this a little bit. In the past three drafts (2011-2013) the Cowboys have selected four offensive linemen – Travis Frederick, Tyron Smith, David Arkin and Bill Nagy. Only Nagy is gone. Frederick and Smith are starters. Arkin could become one. On the face of it, that’s pretty solid drafting by Jones.
But go deeper and you’ll see the problem. From 2007-2010 the Cowboys drafted four offensive linemen, and only Doug Free remains on the team.
From 2003-06, the years that Bill Parcells was head coach, he drafted seven offensive linemen. In fact, Parcells drafted at least one each season.
So, in four seasons Parcells drafted nearly as many offensive linemen as the Cowboys have in the seven successive years. Why?
It’s not because Jones sold out to free agency several years ago to bolster the offensive line. Marco Rivera, Kyle Kosier and Leonard Davis all came to Dallas for free-agent riches and, in some measure, played well. It did swallow up plenty of cap space, and there’s nothing wrong with spending money.
It’s because Jones doesn’t have a backup plan, nor does he think, say, three years down the road when it comes to talent. He hangs on to players too long and when he is finally willing to let them go, he hasn’t done the due diligence in player development to replace them smoothly.
So as the bodies of Rivera, Kosier and Davis broke down, Jones had to keep them because the options behind them were less than ideal.
That’s part of the reason why the Cowboys are where they are. The Cowboys should have continued to draft offensive linemen instead of keeping their fingers crossed they could address the position through free agency.
Here’s something to think about. The Green Bay Packers have had two starting quarterbacks the past 20 years – Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers. Guess how many quarterbacks they’ve drafted during that time?
The Packers take the philosophy of “you never know” when it comes to that position. During that span the Packers selected Mark Brunell, Matt Hasselbeck, Aaron Brooks and Matt Flynn. So they’re not throwing away picks, either.
Now consider the drafts of the Dallas Cowboys during the eras of Troy Aikman and Tony Romo. The Cowboys selected four quarterbacks, and one – Isaiah Stanback – was selected to play a different position. Throw in the time between Aikman and Romo and the number swells to five. So, in Jones’ 25 years as a general manager he’s drafted a half-dozen quarterbacks, if you include Aikman. Remember – Romo wasn’t drafted.
Jones has a propensity for leaning on what he has and not looking ahead, and these two positions are perfect illustrations.
Out of necessity, the Cowboys are committing new resources up front. No one believed that Nate Livings and Mackenzy Bernadeau were anything more than stop-gaps when they were signed in 2012. The Cowboys already cut Livings, making way for the undrafted Ron Leary. Bernadeau is hanging on by a thread and may be replaced this week by another stop gap, Brian Waters. They appear to be keeping the seat warm for Arkin, who is progressing nicely.
Next season the Cowboys could have an entirely home-grown offensive line in Smith, Leary, Frederick, Arkin and Free. Or the Cowboys could draft more offensive linemen next May and create more competition up front. In fact, let’s hope so. Rebuilding projects at position groups take time, and the Cowboys have been in need of a remodel in front of Romo for a couple of years now.
The offensive line isn’t the only problem when it comes to running the football or protecting Romo. But think of how much easier things would be if the Cowboys – meaning Jones – had kept thinking a step ahead.