By Matthew Postins
I think most people who follow the Dallas Cowboys would agree that this year’s offensive line is better than last year’s offense of line. But how much better?
The Cowboys rebuilt the interior of the line through the draft, player development and free agency. They started by drafting Wisconsin center Travis Frederick in the first round. It was a controversial selection, as the Cowboys traded down into the bottom half of the first round to pick a player most draft pundits believed was a second-round pick. The Dallas Cowboys believed Frederick, who had spent the past two years clearing the path for Montee Ball, would improve their overall interior line play.
But he wasn’t the only change. The Dallas Cowboys pitted Ron Leary, their undrafted free-agent signee out of Memphis last year, against Nate Livings, their free-agent acquisition from 2012. They didn’t get a chance to compete in training camp, as Livings spent most of training camp injured. Halfway through the preseason the Cowboys had settled on making Leary a starting guard.
Livings is now unemployed. He was supposed to be one of the two players the Dallas Cowboys signed last year who would solidify the interior. That never happened.
Last year’s other starting guard was Mackenzy Bernadeau. He spent most of the off-season hurt and didn’t return to training camp until about halfway through. He saw some time in preseason and since the Cowboys had a dearth of options behind him he became the other starter on opening day.
The Dallas Cowboys tried luring Brian Waters, a 12-year veteran, to camp. He didn’t bite. That is, until the Cowboys offered him a deal just before the season started. I guess Waters, like Atlanta tight end Tony Gonzalez, didn’t want to go to training camp. By Week 2 Waters was sharing time with Bernadeau. By Week 4 he replaced Bernadeau.
While the Cowboys developed Leary and drafted Frederick ready-made for the center position, many argue that Waters has made the biggest impact. His veteran leadership has added ballast and security to a line that leaked like a sieve last year. His presence is permeating throughout the offensive line.
The tackle play has gotten better, too. Doug Free spent most of 2012 as a local whipping boy for his performance. He ceded time to Jermey Parnell toward the end of last year and was asked to take a pay cut this offseason, which he surprisingly accepted. When training camp started Free took over the starting role again and, aside from absorbing three penalties this past weekend against Philadelphia, he’s had a great regular season. The other tackle, Tyron Smith, continues to develop into an above-average lineman.
This remade offensive line passes the eye test. Overall, they’re better than a year ago at this time.
So why don’t the numbers back it up?
I dug into some key statistics from the first seven games of last year and this year to see if there was a big difference in numbers that would directly reflect offensive line play. I was surprised by what I found.
Two key areas are sacks and penalties. Sacks would imply how well they’re protecting quarterback Tony Romo. Penalties would imply how much they’re impacting field position due to mistakes.
Last year after seven games the Dallas Cowboys had allowed 13 sacks. Through seven games this year the Cowboys have allowed 16 sacks. Yes, they’ve actually allowed more sacks this year than last so far.
Here’s something more interesting. In all four Cowboys victories this season they have allowed two or fewer sacks. So there is some validity to the logic that if you keep Romo upright the Cowboys offense will be more successful.
What about penalties? Free and Smith were two of the most penalized offensive lineman in the NFL last year. As a group the offensive line committed 32 total penalties last year, or two per game
Through seven games this year the offensive line has committed 14 penalties, or two per game.
Given the fact that sacks and penalties don’t reflect a change, why do we perceive this offensive line to be better than last year’s?
Some of it is subjective. We’re talking less about protection breakdowns this season. Perhaps some credit should go to offensive line coach Frank Pollack, who handles the day-to-day coaching of the line now that Bill Callahan is calling plays. Pollack has done fine work getting this disparate group of linemen on the same page.
The Dallas Cowboys also have a winning record through seven games (4-3), something they didn’t have a year ago (3-4). The team overall is perceived to be a little bit better, and a win over Detroit on Sunday means a two-game swing (5-3) over last year’s record at the halfway mark (3-5).
But there is one number that is markedly different from last year to this year. It’s the yards per carry average for the run game. This year’s offense doesn’t look any better balanced than last year’s and the Dallas Cowboys have fewer rushing yards through seven games this year (583) than a year ago (602).
But the average is significant. The Cowboys averaged 3.56 yards per carry through seven games last year. This year the average is 3.93. So there are fewer yards and fewer attempts, but more yards per attempt.
Why is that important? The NFL considers 4.0 yards per carry to be the baseline for a productive running game. The Cowboys were well off that baseline at this time last year. Now they’re just .07 yards per carry away from being at the baseline. So while there not running the football as much as I’m sure most football purists would like them to, they are getting more production out of the running game on a per carry basis, which puts the Dallas Cowboys in better position to convert on third down.
Earlier this year head coach Jason Garrett acknowledges the Cowboys’ offensive line woes of a few years ago and admitted that it takes time to build up a good offensive line. It’s a tacit admission that the Cowboys didn’t have the depth behind veterans like Kyle Kosier, Marco Rivera and Leonard Davis and had to rebuild on the fly.
“We’ve certainly improved immensely the last couple of years,” Garrett said. “We’ve allocated resources there. We’ve drafted players like Tyron Smith and Travis Frederick and players like Ron Leary and Brian Waters have emerged for us inside. Doug Free has played well. They’re playing well individually and they’re getting better together each week.”
It takes time to build a standout offensive line, and in the new NFL player development is key. It’s not a surprise that as the Dallas Cowboys get better up front its due to players they found and cultivated and not free agency.
It’s not a perfect group, and it may never be. But what the Cowboys needed was progress, and progress is what they’ve gotten from a group that can grow together over the next two to three years and, potentially, become very good.