According to an early fan poll, roughly 70% of fans saw the offensive line as the Cowboys’ weakest unit. Halfway through the preseason it’s safe to say that concern level rocketed even higher. For such a large majority to see the same thing tells us something bold. Is the overwhelming agreement a product of our satisfaction with the other units, or is it a statement as to how dire we really see this offensive line situation? Considering the other daily worries we’re also hearing about: solving the WR problem, getting our secondary healthy, and correctly depth charting the defensive line, it’s probably safe to say the poll results were a statement to the latter rather than the former. The offensive line is absolutely frightening.
Let’s look at what we have…
We will start with Phil Costa. Costa, the short-armed T-Rex of the offensive line has received the brunt of the offensive line criticism the past year. It’s well-deserved given his performance last year and his lack of adequate competition this year. Costa is basically getting this position handed to him because of others’ incompetence. Granted, we’ve had an outbreak of injuries to anyone who dare challenge his center status but everyone expected Costa to be replaced or at least pushed to improve in year two. At this point, it appears neither is happening.
Bill Nagy and Kevin Kowalski were center challengers but were injured early. Nagy’s no longer a Cowboy and Kevin may not be far behind him. Our free agent challenger, Mackenzy Bernadeau, was seemingly injured signing his contract and has missed most off-season and training camp practices. He is technically penciled in as a first team guard so his challenger status to center isn’t very serious yet. That leaves us David Arkin. Arkin is clearly underachieving at the position thus far. It was brutal to watch him in Oakland and only slightly upgraded to painful status when watching him in San Diego (Penalties didn’t help).But remember, we need to keep this in perspective and cut him a little slack because he is very, very inexperienced. He simply doesn’t know how to play yet and isn’t strong enough to make up for his many mistakes. He makes technical, physical, and mental mistakes that result in poor performance and penalties. Center is too hard to successfully learn in a single training camp and Arkin clearly is not the answer.
The only logical choice at this point brings us right back to Phil Costa. A big concern with Phil (besides the arrant and ill-timed shotgun snaps famous from last year) remains a strength issue. Costa was out-muscled often and was a liability in both the pass and run game. For whatever reason, some planned, some unplanned, Cowboys brass didn’t feel it necessary to upgrade. Instead they appear to be relying on Callahan to work some magic and just get Costa to mentally improve. Word is Costa is one of the strongest on the team, if he figures out how to use his strength AND grow mentally, he may have a chance.
Expected C Starter: Phil Costa
The Guard situation isn’t much rosier. Last year the left side started with Bill Nagy and ended with a cocktail of underachieving veteran mediocrity. Nagy didn’t play well anyway, being out-muscled and abused much like Costa was right next to him. This year Nagy was expected to compete for the center job but he reinjured himself losing valuable practice time and now lost his roster spot. Nate Livings was brought in as a free agent guard. Livings didn’t leave Cincinnati in high regard, he wasn’t awful but he wasn’t very good either. For whatever reason though, he is thought of highly enough from Bill Callahan to hand him the starting left guard spot. Keep in mind, Livings was someone the Cowboys sought out, not someone they settled for. Because of this, we can assume Callahan sees something in him and feels he’s the solution at Left Guard.
Expected LG Starter: Nate Livings
On the right side last year we had the unimpressive but steady Kyle Kosier. Kosier was released this year in an effort to continue to youth-in-ize (not just coincidently pronounced “euthanized”) our offensive line. Mackenzy Bernadeau signed on around the same time Livings did. No official statement was made regarding exact expectations at the time but based on the quick and calculated signing and the amount of money involved, he was brought to compete for Center and/or Guard, and was expected to claim ownership of one of those. He’s written in to start at RG but he’s now starting to work into the center rotation so we could finally see some competition there. Plan A is Mack playing Guard but he needs to be prepared for Plan B which is Center. Mack will start, it’s just a matter of where and at what position. He hasnt looked good so far so competetion is expected.
According to the recently released depth chart, the other guard options are obviously split up between RG and LG. Don’t pay too much attention to which side they are on. All of them are essentially playing for the same spot regardless of which side they’re listed. The main competition to the projected starters at Center and Guard is coming from Arkin, Dockery, and Ronald Leary. Everyone has a reasonable chance to win the battle so this should be fun (and painful) to watch. The Guard and Center battles will have a great impact on one another so this position will remain fluid until the end.
Expected RG Starter: Mackenzy Bernadeau
Moving onto the ends we see Doug Free and Tyron Smith. Relatively speaking the line is strong on the edges but that’s just compared to the major issues in the middle. The reality is our RT, Doug Free, is coming off his worst season and has started this one poorly. Our 21 year old LT, Tyron Smith, is completely new to the position and will have to learn everything on the fly. These two factors add some legitimate concerns to our Tackle situation. The part that makes us warm and fuzzy is remembering how good Free was last time he manned the right side. We’ve also seen enough of Tyron to know he was made for the left side. We know he’ll be good. It’s really just a matter of how good he can be and how long it will take to get there. Jeremy Parnell is the main backup for tackle but we know little to nothing about him at this point to say too much. If Tyron would be injured at some point, Free would move to the left side and Parnell would likely man the right. This wouldn’t be ideal but we have far more to worry about surrounding the A gaps than worry about these hypothetical injury substitutions on the ends.
Expected Starters: Tyron Smith & Doug Free
None of this should put anyone’s mind at ease. We have reasons to be legitimately afraid at the Center and at least one, if not both, Guard spots. Unfortunately, you can’t always bring in a heralded veteran solution to every position. Because of the salary cap, you must create competition from within and have players naturally progress to improve performance over the previous year. That appeared the angle we planned to take but with all of the injuries so far, the starting spots may go to simply the last man standing. It’s not out of the question that another free agent or someone else’s camp casualty comes in at some point. If that happens it should be a last resort to the team and seen as a bad sign to fans. We have no choice but to hope this improves from within – That’s pretty concerning.