Offseason team needs: Cowboys offense

Cowboys chart - offense

OFFENSE:

QB: By now, we pretty much know what Tony Romo’s ceiling is. He could certainly play better if Jerry Jones actually put a half-decent offensive line in front of him, but in terms of skill-set, nobody is going to argue at this point in his career that his arrow is pointing up.

Right?

OK. With that caveat out of the way, I understand that Cowboys fans are frustrated my Romo’s penchant for blowing games in spectacular fashion, and I also understand that opposing fans love to revel in Romo’s worst moments. However, without Romo this past season, the Cowboys wouldn’t have even been competitive.

Let’s consider a few things:

The Cowboys finished 31st in rushing yards this season.

Here were their rushing totals, by game:

Cowboys rushing yards

The league average for rushing yards per game in 2012 was 115.9. The Cowboys failed to reach that mark 13 times. They failed to break 100 rushing yards 11 times. They failed to even reach 50 yards 7 times.

Opposing teams knew the Cowboys were going to throw.

At times the Cowboys abandoned the run completely. That helped contribute to the meager rushing numbers in the chart above, but it should also be noted that when the Cowboys ran the ball, they averaged just 3.6 yards per carry, which tied them for second worst in the NFL. And so, I don’t want this to sound like I’m blaming Jason Garrett for not running the ball enough, because frankly, they couldn’t run it. Still, the Cowboys had a pass-run ratio of 65-35:

Team Rushing attempts Passing attempts Total plays Pass %
Lions 391 740 1131 65.4
Cowboys 355 658 1013 65
Saints 370 671 1041 64.5
Cardinals 352 608 960 63.3
Jaguars 358 586 944 62.7
Raiders 376 629 1005 62.6
Falcons 378 615 993 61.9
Eagles 413 618 1031 59.9
Titans 378 540 918 58.8
Colts 440 628 1068 58.8
Browns 396 566 962 58.8
Steelers 412 574 986 58.2
Buccaneers 416 566 982 57.6
Rams 410 557 967 57.6
Giants 409 539 948 56.9
Packers 433 558 991 56.3
Chargers 411 528 939 56.2
Ravens 444 560 1004 55.8
Bengals 430 540 970 55.7
Patriots 523 641 1164 55.1
Broncos 481 588 1069 55
Bills 442 511 953 53.6
Dolphins 440 504 944 53.4
Texans 508 554 1062 52.2
Panthers 462 490 952 51.5
Bears 470 485 955 50.8
Jets 494 493 987 49.9
Vikings 486 483 969 49.5
Chiefs 500 475 975 48.7
49ers 492 436 928 47
Redskins 519 442 961 46
Seahawks 536 405 941 43

Playing QB is already hard enough in the NFL, but when you become as one-dimensional as the Cowboys were last season, the ante is upped.

The Cowboys were 2nd in the NFL in penalties last season.

They had 138 penalties, or 8.6 per game. Doug Free led the league with 15, while Tyron Smith had 11, which tied him for 10th in the league. When you’re passing as much as the Cowboys were last season, this is what can happen. 2nd and 8 becomes either 2nd and 13, or worse, 2nd and 18. That’s added pressure on the QB.

The right side of the offensive line was very bad.

I’m looking at you, Doug Free and Mackenzy Bernadeau.

In summary…

If you can’t run it, you have to pass. When you pass too much, opposing defenses pin their ears back and attack the QB. When opposing defenses can pin their ears back and attack the QB, you commit penalties and the weak links along your OL are exposed. This typically leads to bad QB play.

However, in Romo’s case, he was great for the better part of 2012, with the exception of a few rare clunkers (Bears, Skins, etc).

But this is how Romo’s 2012 season will be remembered, which is fair.

Just know that Tony Romo carried the Cowboys on his back the entire season, without a lot of help from some of the circumstances around him.

Could the Cowboys draft a QB project? Sure, I can see that. I just wouldn’t expect the Cowboys to use a high a pick on a QB this season, unless one that the Cowboys really like falls in their laps, which is unlikely considering QBs are so wildly over-drafted these days.

RB: Most of my blame for the Cowboys inept run game goes to the OL, who simply didn’t open up enough holes this season, and were generally beaten at the point of attack week in and week out. DeMarco Murray is, in my opinion, a perfectly fine feature back. He has speed, he runs hard, breaks tackles, and is a weapon in the passing game. The Cowboys are fine there. They will, however, need to bring in a competent #2. That doesn’t mean that I would be opposed to bringing back Felix Jones, but I would only do so with Felix as my #3. If Felix can find “#2 RB money” (whatever that is) on the open market, then best of luck, my China doll friend.

WR: Dez Bryant has become a fantastic player (see his numbers below in the TE section), and while Miles Austin can be a tease, he is still at the very least a great #2. Meanwhile, Dwayne Harris is emerging as a a really nice #3. It couldn’t hurt to bring in some athletes late in the draft, but I don’t see much of a need here.

TE: In doing research for this breakdown, I found something very interesting about Jason Witten in comparison to the other weapons in the Cowboys’ passing game.

On the one hand, he caught 110 passes this season for 1039 yards. He did so on 150 targets. The Cowboys had 5 players this season with at least 30 targets. Among that group, Witten had the highest completion percentage, with a whopping 73.3%.

Witten 1

However, among that same group, Witten had the lowest YPA:

Witten 2

Why? Well, that answer is pretty obvious. He only managed 9.4 yards per catch, which was almost 2 yards less than his career average. He has also only managed 8 TDs over the last 2 years. In today’s NFL, so many teams are finding success making opposing offenses dink and dunk their way down the field. They either capitalize on mistakes by forcing turnovers, or they’re tightening up in the red zone. And so, a player like Witten, who is no longer stretching the field the way he used to or producing in the red zone, is not going to put much fear into many teams.

Witten is going to be 31 in May. I’d begin my search for his replacement before it’s too late.

OL: I don’t know if there’s a Cowboys writer on the planet that has written more about the Cowboys’ need to fix their OL over the last 3 years than me. I’m kind of burnt out on the subject, but here we go again. The Cowboys continue to experience the nuclear fallout from ignoring their aging, declining OL dating back to 2008. A timeline:

2008-2009

With an aging OL in place, the Cowboys had a total of 18 draft picks in 2008 and 2009.  With those 18 picks, they selected one offensive lineman, Robert Brewster.  Brewster is no longer with the team.

2010

In 2010, the Cowboys drafted one offensive lineman, Sam Young, in the 6th round.  Young, like Brewster, is no longer with the team.  They headed into the 2010 season with the oldest offensive line in the NFL.  Leonard Davis celebrated his 32nd birthday just before the start of the season, with Marc Colombo and Kyle Kosier celebrating their 32nd birthdays shortly thereafter.  Andre Gurode was 31.  The one player that was still relatively young was the 26 year old Doug Free, who was taking over at LT for the departed Flozell Adams, who was 35.

The Cowboys were the overwhelming favorites to win the NFC East that season, but in what should have been a fairly predictable outcome, the offensive line went into a sharp decline and the the offense sputtered.  It didn’t help that the defense was surprisingly bad.  They finished that season 6-10.

2011

The following offseason, Jerry Jones made the obvious decision to cut bait with Colombo, Davis and Gurode, three players that were playing poorly and making far too much money.  The Cowboys were, in a way, forced into “going young” along their OL.  For the first time in 20+ years as the Cowboys’ GM, Jones spent a first round pick on an offensive lineman, scoring the extremely talented Tyron Smith out of USC.  They would take a couple more offensive linemen in the 4th and 7th rounds, grabbing David Arkin and Bill Nagy, respectively.  They also locked up Free to a long term deal, paying him $32 million over 4 years. It appeared that after years of ignoring the OL, it was finally becoming a priority, albeit way too late.

To begin the season, the Cowboys started two rookies: Nagy at LG, and Tyron Smith at RT. They also plugged in 2nd year player Phil Costa at center.  Kosier was moved from LG over to the right side to be sort of an “offensive tackle whisperer” for Smith.  In one offseason, they went from the oldest offensive line in the league to one of the youngest.

With so many new and unproven players inserted into the lineup, the Cowboys’ offensive line once again sputtered all season, this time even more predictably than in 2010.  Smith had a great rookie year, but the two other new pieces, Costa and Nagy, both had brutal seasons.  Costa’s poor play lasted 16 games, while Nagy’s bad season was cut short in Week 6, when he was lost for the season with a broken ankle.  Kosier’s decline and health issues continued.  Free, meanwhile, was a major disappointment, having a surprisingly bad season.  The Cowboys were learning that turning over a full offensive line in a short amount of time isn’t exactly easy.  They hit with one player, missed with two, and were heading into the 2012 once again needing to scramble to find answers.

2012

The Cowboys’ plan of attack for the OL in 2012, as usual, puzzled me.  First, they signed OG Mackenzy Bernadeau, a player that had a couple bad seasons in 2009 and 2010 in Carolina, who then lost his job in 2011. The Cowboys then went out and signed 30 year old Nate Livings, a player that Bengals fans by and large were more than happy to see leave. With Livings and Bernadeau in place, the team felt comfortable cutting Kosier.  On the outside, the Cowboys flip-flopped Smith and Free, with Smith moving from RT to LT, and vice versa. No offensive linemen were drafted.

Heading into 2012, the Cowboys had an almost complete lack of continuity along the Cowboys OL:

Cowboys OL continuity

Costa was lost for the season early on, Livings played surprisingly well, Mackenzy Bernadeau did not, and Doug Free’s contract now looks like a horrible mistake, as he was bad for the second straight year.

The team still has next to no depth along the OL, and one of the worst RG-RT combos in all of football.

I say it every year, and I’ll say it again: PUT SOME REAL RESOURCES INTO FIXING YOUR OFFENSIVE LINE, JERRY JONES.

Probably won’t happen.

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13 Comments

  1. ct17 says:

    WItten has become Romo’s security blanket. He runs 5 yards then cuts for the sideline. Given his skill set, they need to stop using Witten as the emergency dump-off and let him challenge his coverage.

  2. Sorry to be an idiot, but could you clarify coloring scheme for me

    1. Ha, think traffic light. My sister said the same thing to me, and I meant to clarify, but forgot.

  3. Fred says:

    Bryan Broaddus on dallascowboys.com believes that Bernadeau was the better player of the guards, when he graded the OL. Also another factor to consider is that the LG-C-RG pretty much missed the entire training camp and then Cook was brought in days before the season opener to play all but three snaps at C that first game.

    Here’s how it could look next year: Smith at LT, Bernadeau and Livings compete for LG, Costa along with Cook and Kowalski should vie for starting C, a high round pick starting at RG, and a FA pickup or Jeremy Parnell at RT.

  4. Tim says:

    Jimmy, I get the criticism of Jerry (and Stephen Jones and whoever else is in charge of player personnel) not investing in the OL over their entire tenure with the Cowboys. However, the last two years I don’t really think the criticism flies.

    As you outline, Jerry has invested multiple draft picks, including a first rounder in the OL. He has also given out 3 significant veteran contracts (Free, Livings, Bernandeau), so you had 4 fairly highly paid players across the 5 OL starters for 2012.

    Now, whether or not those investments have been WISE if an entirely different discussion– Free’s contract looks bad, as you mention, and Bernandeau played a horrible season in 2012 (not sure what the above commenter is talking about, but check the two OGs Pro Football Focus grades…Bernandeau’s numbers are extremely ugly). So Jerry still is getting much quality on the OL, but he has displayed a two year willingness to invest at that position, which is a significant change from his past behavior.

    1. But he hasn’t drafted OL. In the last 5 years, he has drafted 5 of them… in 40 picks. That means that he drafts OL with 12.5% of his picks. There are 5 OL starters, as we know, out of 22 on offense/defense. That’s 22.7% of your starters. The ratio doesn’t add up, especially when it has been a major position of need the last 5 years.

      1. Tim says:

        Again, I said the last 2 years, not the last 5. Certainly his OL investment track record is not good on your timeline. But he did sink 3 picks into it in 2011. My point is that there is potential evidence of a shift, possibly brought on by the team’s recent failures. And also that investment cannot just be measured in draft picks, or by the success of the investment– free agent signings are investments too, and failed picks/signings are still investments.

        1. Last year he didn’t draft any offensive linemen, and in 2011, the lockout may have heavily influenced those decisions. That offseason the draft came first and at the time they had no idea how free agency would play out, or even when it would occur. So they sort of had to take Tyron Smith at 9 because they had literally nothing at RT.

    2. As for the FA acquisitions, it’s classic JJ. He hates using “real” assets on his OL, and by that I mean high picks. He’d much rather slap a band aid on it, even if he has to overpay for mediocre talent. That approach has worked in the past with guys like Leonard Davis (for a very short period), and Marc Colombo was a nice FA pickup for a few years. But more often than not, that strategy fails.

      1. mjoedgaard says:

        I really wonder why he got that approach when you think back to the SB winning teams of the 90′s they dominated in the trenches. Im pretty sure I could have challenged for the rushing record behind that OL

  5. blarghlblarghl says:

    Honestly, I think Mackenzy played a lot better than Livings overall. Sure, he had a handful of atrocious plays, but that happens. Other than that he was solid. Not great, but not a complete liability. I think Free’s poor play made Mack look worse, and Smith covered up for a lot of Livings’ faults.

    Plus I just can’t get past that one play where Livings just handed his guy off to Smith and stood there watching the play like he had nothing better to do.

    1. Ha, I remember that play well. He kinda looked like a guy, standing around casually, waiting for a bus.

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