The Dallas Cowboys Offensive Line Will Improve:
Review and Grades
Sunday afternoon I made the bold statement that the Dallas Cowboys offensive line will improve in 2013. Considering how poorly they performed in 2012, I suppose it’s not too bold of a statement, but you get my point. Despite only one known upgrade (Frederick at Center) the Cowboys starting unit will still show a marked improvement. Here In Part 1, let’s look back at their play in 2012. We will discuss and grade their performance.
Phil Costa/Ryan Cook
Original 2012 starter, Phil Costa, didn’t get much of a chance to prove himself as he rarely played due to injury. When he did play, the back issues clearly bothered him and he was nothing short of terrible. Ryan Cook, acquired via trade for a seventh round pick, was serviceable at best.
I suppose a little gratitude is owed him considering he came fairly cheaply and basically saved the season at the center position. But one can’t simply ignore the poor quality of play. With Costa out and back-up G/C Kevin Kowalski out the entire season, the Cowboys had no other option in 2012.
Mackenzy Bernadaeu was acquired, in part, for his positional versatility. He could theoretically play Guard and Center. Well, he proved that wrong in his limited (and pathetic) action at center. One could also argue he couldn’t even play Guard very well but let’s save that for a little later in this column.
When Cook came in, he struggled calling the blocking assignments and forced Tony Romo to pull double-duty for another year. Romo needed to call blocking assignments, identify the coverage, and call the plays and/or audible. And we wonder why it took so long to snap the ball!
2012 Grade: D-
Nate Livings battled injuries throughout the 2012 preseason and into the regular season. He was never able to develop continuity with his fellow linemates and it clearly showed. He might not have been specifically hand-picked by offensive line guru Bill Callahan, but Callahan certainly had to sign off on Livings.
It’s difficult to see why.
Regardless of how much you value Pro Football Focus (PFF) scores in general, Livings has never rated very high by any scouting report – not just PFF. Callahan and the Cowboys must have seen something or they never would have signed him to contract of this size (5yrs/$18.7M). Livings underachieved at nearly every point last season and did little to justify a starting role in 2013.
The structure of Nate’s contract makes it virtually impossible to cut him entering year 2 without significant salary cap consequences. Year 3 (2014) is a totally different story. Livings will have to play and play well in 2013 to justify his for contract in 2014 so this season should be considered a make-or-break season for Livings.
2012 Grade: D
Similar to Nate Livings, Mackenzy Bernadaeu was also signed in free agency prior to the 2012 season. Also similar to Livings, Mack spent much of training camp and the preseason nursing injury and missing practice. As a result both starting guards failed to develop any chemistry with their neighbors leading to blitz pick-up failures and run blocking whiffs.
Mack began the season playing terrible football. He was beaten because of mental errors and physical short-comings. He would have been a complete failure if he hadn’t have shown marginal improvement as the season progressed. His contract situation is structured very similarly to Nate Livings. He will cost more to cut than to keep at this point. For that reason his roster spot is secure for 2013 but he will be assured of nothing beyond this season. Much like Livings, Mack will have to step up considerably to keep his starting spot this season
2012 Grade: D-
Doug Free has been the scapegoat of the offensive line. As the highest paid Right Tackle in the league, big things are expected of you. Free failed to meet all expectations. A fairly young lineman at age 29, it’s mindboggling how much his play regressed in 2012.
While Free deserved all the criticism he received he wasn’t nearly as detrimental to the team’s success as the guard play was in the middle of the line.
Since Romo is a right handed QB, Free is charged with protecting Romo’s front side. For a mobile QB like Romo, eluding the pass rush from the right side of the line is much easier than from the blind side or up the middle. Romo scored one of the worst QB ratings in the NFL when pressured up the middle but did fairly well when pressure came from Free’s side. Therefore Doug Free still deserves criticism and poor grades for his performance, but not the blame for the team failures of 2012.
2012 Grade: D
Tyron Smith typically gets a free pass because of his age (22), his pedigree (top 10 pick), and his potential (a physical marvel). The reality is, Smith didn’t play that great in 2012. He was technically unsound throughout the season and was beaten my lesser athletes far too often.
He did not give up the devastating hit but he also wasn’t the stud we were hoping he’d be either.
Perhaps expectations were just set too high, too soon in his young career. He is still fully expected to be a top-5 LT at some point, and nothing from 2012 said otherwise.
The Offensive Line’s true weakness was up the middle. They were unable to consistently protect Romo and could never open holes for the running game. I have never seen a running back hit in the backfield so often. When the HB is forced to break tackles BEFORE the line of scrimmage – you have major problems. The run blocking element is arguably more important than the pass-protecting in 2013. It’s on Bill Callahan to make sure they both improve. Tomorrow I’ll tell you why I think it will.
Tuesday: Part 2 of the Dallas Cowboys Preseason Offensive Line Profile. We will look specifically at the Bill Callahan Scheme and discuss the difference the transition to a Zone Blocking O-line from a Man Blocking O-line.
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