Issues in Oxnard: Building the Offensive Line

Great, awesome, fantastic news finally reached Cowboys camp yesterday as Tyron Smith has been locked in as a real foundation piece for the many years with the signing of a extension of 8-years, $98 million.  This, added to the 2-years left on the deal, make the whole of it all 10-years, $109m with $40m in guaranteed money.  

Now, that is a ton of money.  A ton.  An average of $12.25 over the extension and the biggest offensive line contract deal in the history of the sport.

Contracts like these often give fans indigestion because of the size and the implied risk of what could happen in a worst-case scenario.  And there is no doubt that if Tyron Smith faces a major injury or if somehow this money changes his desire to be the best he can be, then that amount of guaranteed money can really turn into a problem.

But, that is the beauty of this deal.  Tyron Smith has been as solid as a rock.  In 2013, Tyron Smith surrendered 1 sack (Denver) and 1 holding penalty (Detroit).  He has really never looked like he was out of place or up against someone better.  You can watch him all day and never see a crack in his foundation.  He is simply – at Age 23 – already an elite left tackle.  Those players don’t come along very often.  And when they do, you lock them down.  It has certainly been said that the Cowboys would be in a different spot in this NFC if they had taken JJ Watt with this pick in the 2011 draft, and that is a fair hypothetical.  But, the truth is that while Watt is flashier and certainly more famous, most GMs will tell you a elite pass rusher and elite left tackle are the two priorities after a QB when building a team.  

And with a decade ahead of him, there is not another tackle in the sport you would rather have than Smith.  

So, now, with the contract done and dusted, it allows us to get the conversation about how the Cowboys have built a fantastically young and potential-filled offensive line over the last few years.

Of course, they have done so at the most expensive price possible – with 3 1st round picks in 4 seasons.  Then, they have just put $100m on their left tackle, so it isn’t like they found an offensive line in their couch cushions.  But, sometimes if you want quality, you have to pay the price.  And the Cowboys have.  

In doing so, they have ignored other departments of the team that might have equally required a 1st round pick or two (Defensive Line, Safety, and yes, Quarterback), but it is clear that after the debacles of 2010 and 2011 in the O-Line category, they knew they had to get serious about throwing resources at this problem immediately.  

And now, with Tyron in 2011, Ron Leary in 2012, Travis Frederick in 2013, and Zack Martin in 2014, the Cowboys are banking on the idea that at least the 3 1st rounders are all the basis for the line in 2016, 2017, and 2018, too.

Here is the history during the Jason Garrett era of the offensive line, including ages of each player when the year ended to show you how the Cowboys went from a line that averaged 30.6 years old in 2010, to a line that averaged 25.2 in 2014:

Year Left Tackle Left Guard Center Right Guard Right Tackle
2007 F Adams 32 K Kosier 29 A Gurode 28 L Davis 29 M Colombo 29
2008 F Adams 33 C Proctor 26 A Gurode 29 L Davis 30 M Colombo 30
2009 F Adams 34 K Kosier 31 A Gurode 30 L Davis 31 M Colombo 31
2010 D Free 26 K Kosier 32 A Gurode 31 L Davis 32 M Colombo 32
2011 D Free 27 M Holland 31 P Costa 24 K Kosier 33 T Smith 21
2012 T Smith 22 N Livings 30 R Cook 29 Bernadeau 26 D Free 28
2013 T Smith 23 R Leary 24 T Frederick 22 Bernadeau 27 D Free 29 
2014 T Smith 24 R Leary 25 T Frederick 23 Z Martin 24 D Free 30

With the Jones family’s decision making, you do always wonder if these decisions get made without the salary cap forcing them.  In 2010, they were sinking huge dollars into an old line, but there were no signs of a youth movement until that cap space was needed elsewhere.  That may remind you of the defensive line exodus in 2013 when they went from Anthony Spencer, Jay Ratliff, Jason Hatcher, and DeMarcus Ware at around $30m total to a projected starting defensive line that totals a little over $5m against the 2014 cap.  

Did they want to do it or did poor financial management force them to do it?  In other words, if they were left to their football decision making and convictions of who makes them a better team, I will bet you a dollar that Ware and Hatcher are still starting on this defensive line.  But, with this team, financials seem to drive the bus.  

Regardless, the 2010 exodus which just about got Romo killed in 2011 happened.  From there, they had to rebuild this thing and make it sustainable.  They appear to have a chance to have something pretty special building here right now, although I am on record being skeptical about the wisdom of taking a guard that high in the draft (John Manziel and Calvin Pryor).  If he turns out to be a fantastic successor to Doug Free at Right Tackle, then they gambled right.  But, we have very little basis to prove that he can do that in 2015.  Martin played left tackle throughout at Notre Dame, although NFL scouts seem to like him as a flex guy and not a left tackle in the NFL.  And, unless you forgot, the Cowboys have LT pretty settled until 2023.  

Now, because they hide it so well, we wonder about their game theory convictions.  In other words, if you have decided the foundation of your team is going to be the offensive line, then I trust you are planning to use them.  For instance, San Francisco has placed tons of resources into their front.  They utilize that by attempting to physically wear teams into a fine powder over the course of a game or a season.  That is done by physical play and running the ball right at you with pulling guards and bully tactics.  

But, to do that, you feel like you might need a coach like Jim Harbaugh who believes in that style.  He learned at the feet of Mike Ditka who wanted to turn football into a street fight.  Jason Garrett learned at the feet of Norv Turner who once believed in that, but his resume in the last 15 years show a man who thinks shotgun and 60% pass rates are great.  Garrett and Scott Linehan have no problem going even higher still as the Cowboys were at 65% and Linehan’s Lions in 2012 were 67%.  Playoff teams are down around 55% in today’s NFL, but that memo hasn’t quite reached everyone.  

But, everyone swears they are going to make this work.  And soon, we will discuss the run rates and run successes that were there in 2013.  Maybe this will actually become their philosophy.  Or, maybe we will sit here next year and the Cowboys will have hired a new coaching staff that will get to enjoy all of these young OL types and they will have those Harbaugh sensibilities.  

Either way, the cupboard is full again and now they hope to be transformed from a finesse offense to a physical offense that can ground out big leads and not remain the 1-dimensional offense that only knows how to throw in the 4th Quarter.

It looks great on paper.  Now, let’s see it done.