Did the Cowboys Really Improve The Offensive Line?

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I am taking a break from the ongoing series about the Dallas Cowboys’ 2012 NFL Draft and rookie FA signings to address a reader question. One of the most talked about issues with the Dallas Cowboys in recent years has been the offensive line. Based on all of the talk coming out of Valley Ranch, it appears that Jerry Jones believes he has addressed the problem. Many of the articles out there seem to hype up Livings and Bernadeau quite a bit. Traditional OL stats are flawed because they are usually based solely on the number of sacks allowed. If an OL is being judged based exclusively on the number of sacks allowed, then surely an extremely mobile QB like Tony Romo will make an offensive line look better than it really is. What follows is an analysis of the Cowboys OL using more than just sack stats to try and get a fuller understanding of their real level of play.

Carlos in Austin Texas wrote:

"“Do you think the Cowboys offensive line will be better in 2012? What is your take on the signings of Nate Livings and Mackenzy Bernadeau? I have been following your breakdowns on the draft and liked what I saw. I would like to see one about the offensive line if that’s at all possible.”"

Very good questions Carlos. I have been meaning to do a story on this subject for a while. The gurus at ProFootballFocus.com have a very elaborate way of grading players at any given position. PFF focuses solely on 1 player at a time and assigns them a grade on their performance on every single play. They come up with an average grade for each game and an overall grade for the entire season. To get a better understanding how the grading system works click here. Once you understand the grading system, you will be better prepared to grasp the rest of this article. The grading system is structured around a baseline of zero for an average performance, so a positive grade indicates a performance that was above average. A negative grade is the last thing you want to see. Looking at the table below, you can see a breakdown for every game that Nate Livings played in the 2011 season. It’s based on every single aspect of his position and how he performed in each respective category. Keep in mind that a positive number is good play and the (-) before the number means poor play. (All grades are courtesy of Pro Football Focus).

If you look at the table below showing the Cowboys OL,  you can see all of the categories that PFF utilized to generate the grades for Livings. The alarming thing is that Livings overall grade for the season was (-13.4). This was based on the average of his 1,169 snaps that resulted in the following grades: pass block, 0.4, screen block, -3, run block, -9.1, and penalty, -1.7. (That is actually worse than any offensive lineman on the 2011 Cowboys roster.) In fact, Livings has never shown a positive grade in his career as a starter. So, the question now becomes: did the Cowboys really upgrade the LG position?

Livings was the 56th ranked OG in the NFL; Montrae Holland  was 16th, so it is difficult to think that Livings is an improvement. In fact, when you consider that Montrae Holland had a positive grade of 5.9 (second on the team behind Tyron Smith, 13.7), the Cowboys have seriously downgraded the position. During the 2011 season, Livings allowed, 7 penalties, 3 sacks, 6 QB knock downs, and 17 QB pressures. Tyron Smith, as a rookie, had a positive grade of 13.7 to Livings -13.4. What’s even scarier is the fact that Phil Costa, who was clearly the weakest link on the interior of the OL, (as a 1st yr starter and an undrafted free agent), had a better grade of -9.7, than Livings did as a seasoned veteran. What scares me even more, is the NFC East competition has clearly upgraded their pass rush. Livings hasn’t faced the NYG or the Eagles yet.    

These are the results for the entire 2011 Cowboys offensive line.

Play Counts Ratings
Pos. Name Total Run Block Pass Block Overall Pass Blk Screen Blk Run Blk Penalty # of Pen QB Sk QB Ht QB Pr
 OL  Doug Free 1080 439 641 -11.9 -8.9 -0.5 0.9 -3.4 10-0 10 5 34
 OL  Tyron Smith 1074 433 641 13.7 6.6 0.5 6.5 0.1 7-1 8 1 21
 OL  Kyle Kosier 1051 433 618 -6 -0.2 2 -10.5 2.7 3-2 3 4 17
 OL  Phil Costa 1024 423 601 -9.7 -5.7 -2 -3.1 1.1 2-0 3 2 15
 OL  Montrae Holland 641 280 361 5.9 4.4 1.5 2.1 -2.1 5-0 2 1 8
 OL  Bill Nagy 283 112 171 -9 -1.5 1 -9.8 1.3 0-0 0 1 6
 OL  Derrick Dockery 133 43 90 -3.8 0.9 -0.5 -2.8 -1.4 2-0 0 1 2
 OL  Kevin Kowalski 114 32 82 -0.5 1.4 0 -1.2 -0.7 1-0 1 0 0
 OL  Jermey Parnell 10 10 0 -0.5 0 0 -0.5 0 0-0 0 0 0

These are the results for the entire 2010 Cowboys offensive line.

Play Counts Ratings
Pos. Name Total Runs Passes Overall Pass Blck Screen Blck Run Blck Penalty # of Pen QB Sk QB Ht QB Pr
 OL  Doug Free 1105 437 668 16.9 1.1 1 17.3 -2.5 11-2 5 7 21
 OL  Andre Gurode 1105 437 668 13.2 3.9 3.5 8.6 -2.8 7-1 1 2 8
 OL  Leonard Davis 1077 428 649 6.7 2.6 2 1.6 0.5 4-0 5 1 16
 OL  Marc Colombo 1027 412 615 -34.1 -25 1.5 -8.1 -2.5 9-1 7 11 40
 OL  Kyle Kosier 849 354 495 2.2 4.2 1 -3.9 0.9 3-0 1 2 14
 OL  Montrae Holland 177 70 107 1.8 -0.9 0.5 1.4 0.8 0-0 0 1 4
 OL  Phil Costa 109 24 85 -3.3 -0.2 -0.5 -2.1 -0.5 1-0 1 1 1
 OL  Alex Barron 80 27 53 -1 1.1 0 0.9 -3 3-0 0 0 3

As you can clearly see, releasing Andre Gurode with a positive grade of 13.2 for Costa, with a negative grade of -9.7 was a big mistake.  The same with releasing Leonard Davis with a positive grade of 6.7. All that was necessary to have a solid OL was replacing Marc Columbo with Tyron Smith. If it isn’t broke, don’t try and fix it.

Below is a table from advanced NFLstats.com that compares the efficiency of the Cowboys line compared to the N.O Saints. To see the glossary of terms for the table click here.

2011 Regular Season Offensive Line Advanced Statistics

  Team OL -WPA OL -EPA Sks Allwd Sk Yds QB Hits Tkls Loss Run -WPA Pass -WPA Run -EPA Pass -EPA
  N.O 1.87 54.6 24 148 50 48 1.05 0.82 26.5 28.1
  DAL 0.22 16.8 38 247 72 70 -0.14 0.36 7.7 9.1

As you can clearly see, the effectiveness of the OL plays a major role in all aspects of the offensive production. Take note of the sacks allowed, tackles for loss, and QB hits. Keep in mind that Romo is much more mobile than Drew Brees, so he is able to avoid a lot of the sacks and/or hits. The key factor here is the cowboys have a negative score under Run-WPA. Now lets take a look at Dallas in 2010.

2010 Regular Season Offensive Line Advanced Statistics

Team OL -WPA OL -EPA Sks Allwd Sk Yds QB Hits Tkls Loss Run -WPA Pass -WPA Run -EPA Pass -EPA
N.O 0.4 10.4 22 105 56 40 -0.04 0.08 10.8 -0.5
DAL -0.71 12.3 25 174 54 52 -0.41 -0.3 8.2 4.1

These statistics show that the OL didn’t improve at all from 2010 to 2011. In fact, it got much worse.

C. Joseph Wright: Yes, I think it is a foregone conclusion that the Cowboys OL will be better in 2012. I wrote an article a few weeks ago arguing that the improvement of the OL as a unit was one of the reasons that Tony Romo is going to have a career year in 2012. I was never in favor of drafting David DeCastro in the first round, or even using one of the first 3 picks on an OL. The Cowboys have so many needs on their roster, they can’t afford to draft more lineman until they know what they have in the four young guys (Kevin Kowalski, Phil Costa, David Arkin, and Bill Nagy). They won’t miss the play of Kyle Kosier; say what you want about his intelligence being so important for the young guys, he was average at best in pass protection and completely ineffective in run blocking.   They had the right idea when they signed two free agents for the OL. The goal of having some security in two veteran lineman while evaluating the young guys before spending more Draft picks was sound, but I am far from convinced that either Nate Livings or Mackenzy Bernadeau were the right choices. I have not seen very much of either of them play, so my opinion is based primarily on reading about them. As the ProFootballFocus stats show, Nate Livings did not play well last year, and Bernadeau only started 1 game ( he played in 5, but in 3 of those games he played less than 10 snaps).   It was also a bit surprising that they did not sign a veteran with experience playing center. They Cowboys don’t have a real center, unless you consider Phil Costa a real center because of playing their last season. I don’t.   There are many reasons that the OL will improve from last season. But just because they will be better than last year, doesn’t mean that they will be really good.   Having Tyron Smith at LT will help immensely; it may not be in 2012, but he has Pro Bowls in his future. If the OL improves even a small amount, the offense should be able to score enough points to win most games. The Cowboys averaged 23.1 points per game last season, only 4 teams averaged more than 26 points.

The story continues on the next page…