With Week 17 upon them, the Cowboys are left to nurse their wounds and prepare for the game that will determine their narrative for 2011. After 15 games, some of them of the most excruciating variety, the Dallas Cowboys find themselves at a fork in the road that could take memories of this season in either direction when we look back at it.
It could include a divisional crown - albeit in a rather flimsy division this year - that will also be rewarded with a home playoff game against an opponent that will be beatable and from there who knows? Or, it will be a season in which the Cowboys lose the division by losing 4 of the final 5 games of the season and flunking the test by every metric available in their first full season under head coach Jason Garrett.
And while some will fixate on Tony Romo's role in determining this outcome (and his cumulative record in the month of December) or the obvious ability for the secondary to show they can at least slow down Eli Manning, in this spot, let's consider another alternative determining factor in this game and the season as a whole.
The offensive and defensive lines will once again decide whether the Cowboys have made adequate progress from where they have been to where they want to go.
And while that is not tantalizing enough to stimulate the networks to even discuss it - surely, there is another Romo or Jerry Jones debate we can run into the ground, right? - the fact remains that the Cowboys once won championships because they were the superior team at the line of scrimmage. And here, for years, this organization has not properly built an offensive or defensive line that requires an inordinate amount of concern for their opponents from week to week.
With one game to play, we are left to review the job of the team to assemble these units and we find that once again the organization seems to undervalue the "big uglies".
Why else would they leave camp with the idea that Phil Costa, an undrafted center entering his 2nd year, and Bill Nagy, a 7th round rookie, were capable of starting in the NFL? Nobody would debate the wisdom of turning over the offensive line as last year's crew was far below a passable grade for a line that had so much salary invested, but to replace them with unregarded and untested kids who never "won" a job rather than simply being handed it is certainly befuddling. The responses are always that Marc Colombo and Leonard Davis needed to be replaced. And that is absolutely true. But, only if you have a proper understudy who is ready. And while Colombo has been switched out for a rookie in Tyron Smith who looks the part of a regular for the next decade, he is the only young lineman who has demonstrated the ability to play at even an "average" level of performance.
The rest of the kids; Costa, Nagy, Kevin Kowalski, and David Arkin are not ready to provide anything above replacement level performance. Costa is the regular from the group, and profootballfocus.com has him rated as the 31st best regular center in the NFL. Overall, his performance level has been unacceptable all year, and much of that can be attributed to the Cowboys putting way too much on his young plate before he was ready. Nagy's unfortunate leg injury in New England resulted in the Cowboys signing Montrae Holland - a player they had cut a month earlier - from off the street and he immediately improved the overall play of the offensive line. Kowalski seems to be a reasonable reserve option, but as another un-drafted free agent rookie, needs time in the weight room to grow to evaluate whether he can make a living at this level. And that leaves Arkin, who the Cowboys invested a 4th Round pick in this past April (which makes him easily the most regarded of the 4). The rookie guard has yet to even be active for a game in his 1st year in the league. Given the needs at guard this year, that reality seems to speak rather loudly about his current state of performance.
So, when the OL is being tossed around by New England, Philadelphia, New York, or even Arizona, one must recognize that the Cowboys did much of this to themselves. Did they need a shakeup from the 2010 crew? Yes. Did they need to try to replace 3 of the 5 starters at the same time with nothing available but a batch of rookies who were almost completely unregarded besides Smith? And now, with the season hanging in the balance, they must face the formidable Giants front with Holland now out. This brings on Derrick Dockery, who the Cowboys opted for over Brian Waters back in September, to save the day at Left Guard.
Basically, they took a unit that was substandard in 2010 and did not add a single veteran until the regular season had started at which they signed two older players who were on the street. They cut 4 veterans and replaced them with undrafted free agents. And we wonder why the unit is in shambles in late December?
The defensive line took a group that last year looked to Jay Ratliff to make most of their plays and as a unit also needed an injection of change. They lost Stephen Bowen to Washington and beyond that brought back almost the exact same group. They did change out one spare part in Igor Olshansky for a low investment in the veteran Kenyon Coleman. It is a group of bodies that occasionally make a play, but more than anything they lean hard on Ratliff week after week for any real impact.
And when Eli Manning goes back to pass 50 times in a game, the Cowboys often look to DeMarcus Ware to provide any and all of their sacks. They certainly have the right to ask more of Anthony Spencer, but from the investment in their defensive line, they are receiving roughly what they invested in it. Very little.
That is the point to this all. As the networks will discuss Romo and Garrett, and as the Cowboys offer another long-term contract to a defensive back or wide receiver, the franchise seems to pay too little attention to what most football lifers will tell you is the most important department on a team - the lines.
And now, in the most important game of the year, they will enter a division battle against a beatable team, but one that will be more likely to run the ball and protect their QB. Also, the Giants will be more likely to get sacks and plug holes on defense, too.
Win or lose, for the advancement of the franchise, perhaps we should spend less time on the lazy narratives and focus more on the guys that matter up front. For this team to truly return to the top of the league, they will need to get their lines fixed. And that will take both time and money.
We return you now to the previously scheduled discussion about the QB's record in December.