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The front office has played a dangerous game over the past few years with their offensive line strategy. It may be costing Tony Romo the prime years of his career.
Confidence... thrives on honesty, on honor, on the sacredness of obligations, on faithful protection and on unselfish performance. Without them it cannot live. - Franklin D. Roosevelt
How Tony Romo has any belief he will survive through the final whistle is beyond comprehension.
For the last three years, he has been put at risk behind dishonest, dishonorable and unfaithful attempts at protecting the cornerstone of the franchise. Yet, his confidence in this team's ability to attain their goals remain intact, even as he has to be more and more vigilant.
The Cowboys offensive line has not gotten better. Period.
It was supposed to; that was the plan of action that everyone sold themselves on since the off-season. Heck, since two off-seasons ago.
First, it was the belief that relieving the dead weight of overpaid veterans would be addition by subtraction. Then, it was the belief in new offensive line coach Bill Callahan. Then, it was half-hearted belief in the guards brought in to replace Montrae Holland and Kyle Kosier. Finally, it was the belief that things would start to gel once everyone returned from injuries and finally got a chance to work together.
While the last one hasn't had a full opportunity to sort itself out, the clock is ticking on whether Romo will be sipping through a straw if and when it finally occurs.
When in a vacuum, the strategy can partially be defended. The Cowboys secondary was atrocious; it had to be reworked completely. The salary cap was under assault by older players reaching the end of their usefulness; they had to be let go. The previous offensive line coach wasn't adept at integrating young players; he, his scheme and his philosophies had to be replaced.
While there are some that have doubted the moves made by the franchise, most of us, somewhere along the way, have invested some faith into one or more of the franchise's company lines.
They all feel like hollow excuses once you get down to the fact that the Cowboys are, game after game, trotting out a plan of protection akin to poking holes in condoms while the women is taking fertility pills. Unfortunately, the results in the middle are growing exponentially.
This was never more exemplified than last week against Tampa. Facing a limited Bucs rush, the Cowboys had double-teams on the left side and should have had another. OT Doug Free stood alone on the line searching for someone to block while TE Jason Witten, off to his right, was getting bull-dozed over so that Romo could be skewered.
For what it's worth, the team knows that they are under-performing. Free, who has returned to his familiar right tackle perch after struggling on the left side for 2011, came out this week and admitted as such:
"It needs improvement, definitely," Free said of his play. "I haven't pass protected well enough. [We] haven't run the ball well enough, and [I] definitely contributed to [that with] what I've done. I don't think I've done a good enough job, and we've got to get it fixed. I have to fix it. I have to take coaching and keep working the techniques I've been taught and really focus on it."
The heralded offensive line coach, supposed savior Bill Callahan, isn't pulling any punches that his troops have to improve their play:
"There is no question [we have to get better]," Callahan said. "I'm not going to sugarcoat this. We did not play well [against Tampa Bay on Sunday] and we are not playing well right now. We've got to improve. We've got to become a more consistent unit across the board. We are not pleased where we are at. Certainly not our standard."
"We have to do a better job keeping Tony clean," Callahan said. "There is nobody that takes more pride in protecting the passer than this group of guys. Talk is cheap. We have to go out there Monday and show people we got it right."
That they do. The clock is ticking, but for now both hands are pointing up as if to signify not having a clue how to fix it.
Callahan has implemented a zone blocking scheme, much different than what Hudson Houck used. It takes a lot of coordination by the linemen and the fact that they never spent a single week together during the preseason must make it more difficult than they would like to pick up the nuances.
Here's how the zone blocking scheme is introduced in Sports Illustrated's Tim Layden's wonderful read "Blood, Sweat and Chalk":
In zone blocking schemes, offensive linemen attempt to use the speed and pursuit of the defense against itself. Each offensive lineman, instead of firing forward and blocking the defender directly in front of him, slides in one direction, together with he others- "like a railroad track" as Anthony Munoz describes it.
The theory is that this opens running lanes as the defenders are spread thin. I wonder how DeMarco Murray thinks things are working. To be fair, this does take a lot of work. Not just learning the blocking schemes, but forgetting the techniques you've used your entire careers.
Callahan inherited his two tackles: second-year Tyron Smith and sixth-year Free. The Cowboys handpicked the players currently on the interior and as such they should be capable of being quickly indoctrinated. Otherwise, why did you chose them?
Let's take a look at the men charged with protecting Tony Romo, as well as the jobs they've done this season:
The Line As a Group
Basic Stats: The Cowboys have allowed eight sacks (eighth most in the league) and 11 additional quarterback hits (17th). They've also allowed 12 tackles for a loss (9th highest) and committed 14 penalties (13 accepted) -- 18 if you want to include TE Jason Witten.
While the team has faced three of the NFL's stiffest run defenses in 2012 (Tampa 1rst, Seattle 2nd, Giants 6th, and that's after eliminating their games against Dallas) there is still plenty of blame to go around.
Advanced Stats: Adjusted Line Yards (FootballOutsiders.com) is a metric that takes all running back carries and assigns responsibility to the offensive line based on yards gained, formation, down, distance, situation and opponent. The Cowboys come in at 3.61 yards per carry -- 21rst in the league. Their power success rating (3rd or 4th and short to go) is 50%; the league average is 64% success.
The team has the most problems running up the middle and to the inside of the right tackle. Their adjusted line yards up the middle (2.60 yards) ranks 29th of 32 teams and to the right tackle (3.13 yards) is 26th.
Per ProFootballFocus.com, Free has allowed one sack, two quarterback hits and eight quarterback hurries in three games, to go along with his six penalties (four false starts and two holdings). His PFF pass blocking efficiency rating is 92.7 (a formula that weights the three pressure sacks), which ranks him 44th.
His penalty grade is, by far, the largest portion of his -6.6 cumulative grade for the season. PFF subjectively grades each player on every play of the season to achieve their ratings. That ranks him as the 63rd out of 73 NFL tackles. For the record, Free was fourth among all tackles in 2010, the season before he received his lucrative contract.
Bernadeau was brought in to play right guard and possibly compete for the center position. Off-season surgeries limited him to just the guard position. Performance might limit him to the bench soon, as rumors have it that he's been put on notice to improve or watch Derrick Dockery join the Not-So-Fab Five.
Bernadeau has a -7.5 cumulative grade, but it has very little to do with penalties. He's simply getting beat on rushes and not making headway on run plays. He has given up a sack in each of the three games so far this season.
Cook was brought in at the conclusion of the preseason, via trade with the Miami Dolphins. He is filling in for incumbent Phil Costa who has struggled with back problems since preseason. Costa started opening day after missing the exhibitions and lasted all of three snaps.
Cook's biggest issue appears to be that his snapping routine isn't what the players are used to. I guess he should launch some over Tony's head to make everyone feel more at home.
He allowed his first sack of the season against Tampa Bay, but for the most part has been a surprise positive for Dallas.
His PFF cumulative grade is in the positive: +2.6 on the season.
The free agent addition that is actually working out. Word on the grapevine regarding Livings was that the Cowboys did good in the acquisition as long as they didn't ask him to pull block. By the eye test, Livings has been the Cowboys best blocker in 2012, until he faltered against Tampa.
He has given up two sacks on the season already and played a part in some blindside pressure on Romo and earning a -2.8 game grade, ruining the positive grade he had received and starting him exactly at ground zero, +0.0 after three games.
His pass blocking efficiency rating is 96.3, good for 34th in the league after allowing 5 pressures total.
The Golden Child hasn't been shining very brightly under the lights of the left tackle position. Moved over from the right after his stellar rookie season, Smith has struggled mightily. He is currently the Cowboys lowest graded player, offensive or defensive at -8.6 for the young season.
His pass blocking is struggling, his run blocking is struggling and he's struggling with pre-snap penalties. The only thing missing is a flag or two for unnecessary roughness after the whistle.
There was never any question that the transition to left tackle would be difficult for the 21-year-old, but nobody could expect this drop-off. Smith was considered one of the best right tackles in the game during his rookie year, but folks should remember that he didn't play on the left at USC.
His pass blocking efficiency rating is 93.6, good for 39th among NFL tackles.
Now, to his credit, Smith has yet to give up a sack on the season and he seemed to play his best game of the season against Tampa Bay. However, as I warned before the game, Adrian Clayborn is one of the worst DE's in the league right now and was nowhere near the threat that Chris Clemons and Jason Pierre-Paul are. The jury remains out.
Surprisingly, the maligned Costa might be the linchpin that starts to correct the issues for Dallas. While he remains out with a back injury, Callahan is hopeful he'll be able to return to practice sometime over the bye week.
The Cowboys brass has made no apologies for having Costa at the center of their offensive line plans moving forward. He received plenty of grief for some bad games in 2011, but quietly seemed to improve as the season wore on. Dallas was counting on that continued improvement this year, but they haven't had any chance to prove their support was founded in reality.
If Costa were to return successfully, Dallas would then have a real alternative to Bernadeau's struggles at guard. Cook could easily push out to right guard, as he has played both positions in his career. He'd be a much better option than Derrick Dockery, who looked clueless in the preseason.
You hope the club wasn't being cheap when it chose Dockery over Montrae Holland in a preseason workout competition. Holland graded out as the team's second-best lineman in 2011 and reportedly looked great in his workout with the team. However, for now, he remains on the market, as no one else has picked him up.
The club is not going to make any moves with Smith and probably doesn't have an alternative for Free. The team only has Jermey Parnell on the roster as a back-up tackle and, although they signed him to a three-year deal this summer, no one expects him to play without an injury.
The line simply has to get better. If they don't, the Cowboys season, despite appearing to be blessed with one of the league's best defenses, will be down the drain quicker than the blink of an eye.
Of course, if you're talking about Romo trying to blink himself back to this universe after taking another big hit, you might have more time than normal.