Winning in spite of clear shortcomings
NOV 19, 2012 8:49a ET
But, wow. Nothing comes easy for your 2012 Dallas Cowboys. And they proved that by needing nearly 70 minutes to take down one of the least frightening teams in the entire league. At home. In a critical matchup.
Before we get to the countless concerns that this team seems to have right now as they frantically prepare for their next nail-biter in 72 hours time, let's say something extremely complimentary about this crew under Jason Garrett: This team competes hard. I am not sure every reader will agree, but having watched many Cowboys teams over the years - some who played as hard as they could and some who looked like they picked their spots - I would like to report that the 2012 version of the Cowboys compete as hard as just about any team. From a perspective of "want" and "desire" and "effort" and all of those keywords that denote the characteristics of a professional earning his professional-sized paycheck, I think Jason Garrett's teams play their tails off.
I know that won't make anyone forget legendary Dallas squads that have Lombardi Trophies in their possession, but in the chaos that is modern-day Cowboys football, it would be easy for teams to lose their competitive edge amongst the constant pressure, critique, and distractions of pizza and lingerie promotional events in their own stadium. Very few teams have "art tours" to navigate around, and the fact that this Cowboys team competes as hard as they possibly can on just about every play of every game is something that I don't think should be completely disregarded.
Now, I will be reminded by many of you that discussing how hard a team tries is the same mentality that makes us award trophies to every team in little league sports, but I have seen several Cowboys teams quit. 1997, 1998 (in a playoff game!), 2008 (44-6), and 2010 (Jacksonville and Green Bay, anyone?) all come quickly to mind. So, the fact that this team looks like effort, desire, and accountability are all sufficient should say something. I like that this team doesn't look like dogs and that this team looks like they play hard for their coach, franchise, and most importantly, each-other.
I think their leadership is strong and the players on the roster look up to the Wares, Wittens, Romos, and Ratliffs on this team and compete like they compete. There are no questions in my mind about this team fighting its tail off until the final play has been played. I like that trait, and it might have won another game for them yesterday.
OK. That is about the extent of the positives for certain parts of this team.
Here is the thing about effort. It is a word defined 2 ways: "The use of physical or mental energy to do something: and as "a difficult exertion of the strength or will". So, in a nutshell, what that means is that you or I could put as much effort into playing on the offensive line of the Dallas Cowboys as anyone of the current members. Right now, you can go try just as hard as Nate Livings or Doug Free. You won't play as well, but effort? You can try just as hard. You could put the same amount of effort forth on Thanksgiving Day as anyone one of them.
And that is why effort is only worthwhile if there is ability attached to it. And, to be clear, we would never accuse the Cowboys offensive line of having no ability. But, we might argue that there are very few (if any) teams that have this little ability linked together in one offensive line unit amongst the 32 teams in the NFL.
Put another way, despite thinking the offensive line could not get worse than it was in 2010, they might have actually downgraded in 2011. And then we figured out that the offensive line was even worse in 2011, we felt any change would clearly be an upgrade in 2012. And I am now about ready to admit that I may have been wrong again. This 2012 version may actually be even worse than 2011 and 2010.
Think about what that says.
They have gone from being a weakness on this team to a unit that seems incapable of allowing the offense to call any play - run or pass - with any degree of consistency. Provided that Jason Garrett turns things over to Tony Romo so that he can attempt to escape another sack, all the while, making things up as he goes, they at least have a chance to compete.
But, beyond that, they are being held back badly by the big guys up front. And, Larry Allen is not coming through that door.
Yesterday, against a Browns defense that appeared to feature no pass rushers with any sort of league reputation, the Cowboys made them look like one of the best defensive lines in the league - something we said earlier in the season when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers accomplished the same feat. 7 sacks against Tony Romo is now his career high for bad days at the office. In fact, the fact that the Cowboys were not allowing a huge number of sacks seemed to get many people to believe that the team wasn't that bad up front. But, they weren't looking hard enough. The Cowboys were not allowing their line to have a chance to fail at pass protection because they were running an offense that did not have the QB hold the ball in the pocket with deep drops and deep routes for the receivers.
But, see, you can't have it both ways. And when the offense was not scoring points against teams like Carolina or Atlanta, they realized that short, quick passes were not going to amass enough yards and ultimately, points to win games. But, those same short, quick passes were keeping Tony Romo from getting hit over and over again.
So, then what?
Well, over the last two games, Philadelphia and Cleveland, Jason Garrett and Romo have decided to "go for it" a bit more with the offense. Try more play action passes that required a bit more time in the pocket. This is rather basic offensive theory. To get deeper routes, you need longer amounts of pass protection time. There is no other way around it. A receiver needs about 3-5 seconds to get 25-40 yards down the field (depending on whether they are being pressed or have a free release from the line of scrimmage and how deep you want the route). You simply must protect long enough to let them get downfield and to find open space. There is no other way around it.
So, deep routes need protection. Shallow routes don't need as much, but then the defense can keep receivers in front of them and there is no explosion to the offense and ultimately, no points. Add to that this issue of a very inconsistent running game and you have most of the issue in front of you.
But, wait. It get's worse. Now, you introduce attrition from injuries. Down goes your left tackle, Tyron Smith, with what could be a prolonged absence. Hold your breath on that one. Center has been a major issue all year due to health, and yet, the man who played nearly all the snaps in training camp, David Arkin, has not been allowed to take the field. This should speak volumes of their belief that he is not even close to these current low standards that are on the field. And yet, they continue to employ him.
What happened yesterday could likely be a sign of things to come. 7 sacks against and a victory that required your Quarterback to take a beating again. The offensive line that finished the game; Jermey Parnell, Livings, Mackenzy Bernadeau, Derrick Dockery, and Doug Free is likely to be the line that will take the field on Thanksgiving against the Redskins. They all had moments on Sunday where you could see they were unable to handle the responsibilities with any level of passable grades. When the Browns ran the simplest of stunts, they had free runs at Romo as confused linemen looked at each-other.
At times, it was flat-out pathetic.
If you have followed this blog for any length of time, you know where we point the blame for this sort of showing. We have written for years that the Cowboys have not emphasized the trenches enough and have not built well-enough from the inside-out. Given the choice of a major investment on a 300 pound player versus a glamourous 200-pound player, Jerry Jones and his staff always seems to spend on small and fast, rather than big and strong.
When they have a chance to put their draft resources on big players who are ready to start right away, they put all of their eggs in the Roy Williams, Felix Jones, Dez Bryant or Morris Claiborne basket. What makes it all the more difficult to understand is that everyone saw this offensive line betray the Cowboys last December to the tune to 19 sacks in one month.
So, what did they do? They signed a Bengals discard and a player who had 1 start in 2011 in Carolina. Then, they hired a new offensive line coach, Bill Callahan, because why? Hudson Houck didn't know how to coach anymore?
It reminds you of what they did in the spring after the 2010 season. They hired Rob Ryan to fix the defense, but did not hire new players to actually do it. Presumably, they hired a coach to fix everything by bringing in concepts that had never been conceived. Well, Ryan is fixing the defense, but many of the fixes appear in the form of newer, younger players that arrived 1 year after he did. When he was asked to fix the defense without personnel upgrades (major ones), he had no answers.
So, now, Bill Callahan has what is mostly a waiver-wire offensive line. He will get blamed with each sack for not having these guys ready to play. And everyone will hopefully realize how foolish this is.
It isn't coaching. It isn't effort.
It is, however, another indictment on the continuing failures of this current front office. I am sure when the 2012 season ends, like the secondary last spring, we will hear how fixing the offensive line in 2013 is the top priority. And they will use many of their resources to attempt to do just that. But, why it takes years for them to see things that are obvious to those watching their games remains a mystery.
Then, if it is fixed, the shell game of personnel fixes will move to another department of the squad that will be overdue for renovations, too. These are the effects of too many mistakes over the years in the personnel department. The holes out-number the plugs, and before long, you have issues that cannot be addressed because you are out of picks and cap space.
Once you leave the port each August for another season at sea, you cannot replenish your supplies until the season voyage is over. Meanwhile, in the middle of it, you are stuck with whatever you took with you. From week to week, as people complain about the coaching and the players, those who remain on the voyage do the best with what they have. But, clearly, what they have is not good enough, and no amount of effort is going to fix the issues for the long-term.
So, with the division title within reach and 6 more games to play, the Cowboys take their below-grade offensive line to battle on Thursday. They almost cannot call run plays anymore, nor can they ask their offensive line to pass protect for long. They seem to have dynamic weapons on offense, but barely can use them for fear that the next sack (and perhaps fumble) is a moment away.
The Cowboys won yesterday. It wasn't pretty, but they have won consecutive games for the first time since last Thanksgiving week. They are fighting and scratching and clawing out results wherever they can. Like I said, effort and will are not issues with this squad.
But, what you see right now is what you get. They are going to battle each Sunday with an offensive line that scares nobody (unless you count those who cheer for Dallas). Until March and April of 2013, this is what they have. They were warned plenty about this issue and largely ignored it last spring, despite people in the league wondering about their logic.
They will need to stay out of 3rd and long and they will need Romo to play almost completely mistake-free football. They could use defensive plays that switch momentum and maybe a trick play here and there.
Basically, they will need to use smoke and mirrors to figure out how to win 9 or 10 games this season. Because man-for-man, they are trying to overcome a significant disadvantage at the line of scrimmage every time they take a snap.
Football is a simple game that is often complicated with strategy. But, at the heart of the matter, can our guys block yours? And can your guys block mine?
For Dallas, they are trying to overcome this obvious answer.
They cannot block yours.
Even if you are Cleveland.