The Morning After: Center of Attention
The Dallas Cowboys' 3-0 victory Monday night over the Oakland Raiders to open the 2012 preseason was certainly better than losing 3-0. However, beyond that, let's just say that there are very few things that can be learned that we should take too much stock in for the parts of the roster that significantly decide your season.
From a standpoint of this starter's performance versus that one, there is merely anecdotal evidence from one snap to another. Dez Bryant's back shoulder fade looks like something Tony Romo and Dez can go to just about anytime they see man coverage and it should work like a charm. As Aaron Rodgers has demonstrated, it is unstoppable if the offense can get the timing down. There is literally nothing a corner can do against that. Also, DeMarcus Ware looked ready to rush the passer and it should be noticed that the Raiders ran a screen right to his side again with great success. That is becoming habitual.
Gerald Sensabaugh made a splash play interception, showing great lateral range it seemed to get over the top of the receiver - until you noticed it was more a poor throw from Carson Palmer to attempt with Sensabaugh cheating outside the near hash at the snap of the ball. Sensabaugh's range is limited - unless you allow him to start the play halfway over your receiver and throw it anyway. I will credit him for making a play, but wonder if a QB in regular season form will disregard a cheating safety like that.
Barry Church offered a few flashes, including closing down a dump off play underneath with very impressive conviction. Meanwhile, other players that you wanted to jump off the screen in the first half were merely on the screen; Bruce Carter, in particular, still looks like he is thinking more rather than attacking when he is on the field. He needs to have a more firm grasp of his assignment if this is going to yield the results everyone is hoping for with him.
Potential reserves that showed up well were led by Andre Holmes who flashed a moment or two that puts him front and center for the third WR job. Remember, with Holmes, he has the versatility to play outside and move Miles Austin to the slot if the Cowboys wish to go that route. Danny Coale, Dwayne Harris, and Cole Beasely do not offer that option. If they were to earn the third spot, they seem to be strictly slot options and not as ideal. That is why it might be Holmes' job to lose. You are not necessarily looking for the best slot receiver. You are looking for the best option to fit with Austin and Bryant.
Then, for your fourth and fifth options at WR, you are looking for players who can contribute on special teams. Especially receiver No. 5. And we are not merely talking about punt return or kickoff return. We are talking about guys like Sam Hurd and Jesse Holley used to be - guys who can play on all four special teams as foot soldiers who can cover kicks and block. Both of those guys would almost never get on the field via the offense. Their value to the team was that on game day, they would be on both kickoff teams and both punt teams and help things go smoothly there. That is why Kevin Ogletree is a candidate for the third WR, but not necessarily as good a candidate for the No. 4 or No. 5 spot. Conversely, if Holmes wins No. 3, then a guy like Dwayne Harris is likely a lock for No. 4 or No. 5.
Remember: As you are filling out your roster, you always have to consider a guy as either a starter or a special teams soldier. If a player doesn't fall into either category (aside from QBs), then you are going to run into math problems on game day. Special teams liabilities do not make teams unless they are players who play a multitude of snaps for the offense or defense.
Kyle Wilbur demonstrated a nice burst around the edge from linebacker, but then left the game with a broken thumb. Ronald Leary looked extremely green and not quite ready to bring his technique to the top of the depth charts at guard. Adrian Hamilton is a guy we need to see plenty more of if that is what he can do in the fourth quarter as a pass rusher. And, Stephen McGee looks like he is hanging on to the roster by a thread.
Now, on to the meat of this post. Let's talk center:
First of all, I am really enjoying the thoughts and reviews of so many in the media on Twitter or websites that indicate that David Arkin did a nice job last night. I believe this is generally because he did not have any sloppy snaps and limited moments where he stopped the game because of a penalty. I also believe our bar around here for what constitutes a good job from the center position must be very low.
He did not play very well. He was overpowered at the point of attack on several occasions.
* Cowboys first snap, 12:42 first quarter: Arkin is pushed back into the backfield by Tommy Kelly, causing DeMarco Murray to change his path on a simple zone running play to the right.
* Cowboys second snap, 12:05 first quarter: Arkin is jolted again in pass protection by Kelly. Play is a success because Romo delivered the ball quickly to Bryant.
* Cowboys second snap of second possession, 2:17 first quarter: Arkin is supposed to hold up Kelly for a 1-count before releasing to block for the screen. Instead, he barely touches Kelly and Kelly sacks Romo for a 12-yard loss. These are the types of plays that can potentially ruin a season.
* Cowboys sixth snap of fourth possession, 4:15 second quarter: Arkin is unaware of a tackle-end stunt on Raiders line on a Cowboys inside zone run. Carl Ihenacho stunts to the inside and Arkin spots him too late and must hold him. Despite the hold, the play is still blown up on rather simple inside movement.
All of this is not to suggest that didn't battle hard last night. He certainly played more than anyone on the roster. It is simply to sound the alarm on this entire "Phil Costa, Kevin Kowalski, Bill Nagy, and David Arkin center project" that has gone on long enough.
There is simply not a center who is NFL starting quality in the group from what watching these four players battle over the course of two seasons of football. The Cowboys are clearly marginalizing the job of center in an "anybody can do this" sort of way, and it is not working out. There is a reason that the Cowboys' playbook has been a disaster in most road games recently, and it is because they are outclassed on the interior of their line. They think they have addressed the two guard spots, but early returns are spotty. The center position, though, is either very poor or a complete disaster. Still, after having an entire offseason to hope and dream that it would be better because of big work in the weight room.
It would still be prudent to let Costa prove that he is either the same guy who was struggling so much last year or a player who is developing. But, based on what I have seen at training camp, I am going to ask him to prove it with live ammunition. In the meantime, the Cowboys need to be taking this issue far more seriously than they did in the 2011 training camp when they fooled themselves into believing that Costa would be fine. But, none of the four in the group look like promising prospects from what they have shown in their action in games of both the preseason and regular season variety.
Incidentally, there seems to be a lot of poor information floating around about this position. There is way more than snapping the ball that goes into the position. So much information to go through for a center in pre-snap that it seems that with each passing day, the odds of being able to bring a new guy in and expect him to know mentally what he is doing are growing longer and longer. He must know the offense and his opposition as well as anyone but the quarterback.
I have heard that he is always part of a double team, but even casually watching last night you can see that the center is asked to make plenty of solo blocks especially in the running game. On zone plays, he has a guy that he must move and must have the strength to do so, or the play fails. On man plays, he is often a part of a combination block, and then must go get a linebacker once the combo block is secured. In pass protection, if there are no blitzes, he often has help. But, as we have seen in the Costa era, teams quickly sniff out the weak link and send stunts and blitzes to both A gaps when they need a result. And don't think for a minute that this doesn't affect your QBs mentality and faith in his line to hold up. If he has happy feet, you know why. And Tommy Kelly refreshed that memory last night.
Snapping the ball is key and Costa certainly did not handle that well last year, nor did Andre Gurode the year before. But, now, we are seeing the opposite with Arkin. Good snaps and poor awareness. People will say he is not a center, so cut him some slack. Sure, but if he is guard, shouldn't he have a little more anchor that would allow him to push back a bit?
The Cowboys are using two undrafted kids, a seventh-rounder, and a fourth-round guard to fill this center hole by committee. At this point, it looks like they are getting back very little on their modest investment. Will the center position be aided by stronger guards? Yes. But since we have not seen the new guards together yet on the field, we are starting to employ hope as a strategy. And that never works.
The question must be asked: How many of these four would make another roster? How many would start? If the answer to both questions is either zero or close to zero, then we have a giant problem.
And Monday night did not ease the worry about the center of the offense. Surely, the front office is focusing on this closely. Right?