For Dallas, troubles begin up front
The collective age of the Dallas offensive line — and history — puts success in jeopardy
By Aaron Schatz ESPN
There’s no question the Dallas Cowboys are stacked with talented players. The team is absurdly loaded at the skill positions, with a fine quarterback in Tony Romo, three starting-quality running backs, a top tight end and the most talented receiver in the 2010 draft class to go with the breakout receiver of 2009.
On defense, the talent includes one of the game’s top two or three pass-rushers in DeMarcus Ware, very good corners, and a superb nose tackle. If everything goes right for the Cowboys, they are, without a doubt, a Super Bowl-quality team.
Unfortunately for Dallas, the Cowboys already had a year when everything went right — last year (well, everything except field goal kicking). And not only is it very difficult to imagine that everything will go right again for the Cowboys in 2010 but there’s something more — all those talented skill players are heavily dependent on a looming weakness: the aging offensive line.
The Dallas offensive line is not old because of one or two guys who are near the end but rather because of age across the entire line. Right guard Leonard Davis, center Andre Gurode, left guard Kyle Kosier and right tackle Marc Colombo were all born in 1978, and are 32 or will turn 32 this season. The injury risk for each of these 30-something linemen is high (particularly Davis, a 350-pounder), and there’s also a chance of a general line-wide performance decline. The Cowboys are only young at left tackle, but that’s the biggest question among the whole unit because Doug Free is trying to replace veteran Flozell Adams. Jared Allen destroyed Free last year when Adams left the playoff game against Minnesota with an injury. (Admittedly, Free did look better in the preseason than he did when forced into the lineup in 2009 — and as bad as Free was attempting to block Allen, tight end Jason Witten was even worse.)
And should this come off as pure negativity, it’s actually based on precedent.
The Cowboys will be the eighth team this decade with a starting offensive line that has a median age of at least 32. Six of the previous seven teams had offensive decline that season, and although three of the teams had winning records, none was better than 10-6.
The Cowboys will be the eighth team this decade with a starting offensive line that has a median age of at least 32. Six of the previous seven teams had offensive decline that season, and although three of the teams had winning records, none was better than 10-6. The 2005 Rams saw the final end of the “Greatest Show on Turf” era as Andy McCollum, Tom Nutten and Adam Timmerman all declined. The 2007 Bears went from mediocre to horrible on offense, with Ruben Brown and Fred Miller reaching the end of the line. Certainly there are plenty of other reasons the 2006 Seahawks saw their offense fall apart a year after making the Super Bowl, but the aging of Robbie Tobeck and Chris Gray definitely played its part.
The aging offensive line will collide with another trend that points toward a likely Dallas downturn: health. Last year, the Cowboys ranked third in the NFL in our adjusted games lost metric, representing not just games missed by starters but games in which starters are listed on the injury report and play hurt (and, usually, not quite at their best). Among the Cowboys starters, only Colombo and safety Ken Hamlin (no longer on the team) missed significant time in the regular season. Football Outsiders research has found that injury levels from year to year tend to regress to the mean.
In other words: The Cowboys are due.
Dallas could be as healthy in 2010 as it was in 2009, but it can’t expect that. We’re already seeing health issues on the offensive line, as Kosier tore his MCL in the preseason and Colombo had arthroscopic knee surgery.
Decline on the offensive line would have a bigger impact on the passing game than the running game, mostly because the run blocking has a long way to drop before it hits even “average.” Last year, the Cowboys ranked third in the NFL in FO’s adjusted line yards metric (although they did struggle in short-yardage situations, converting only 58 percent of runs with 1-2 yards to go). The pass blocking is a different issue. FO has a stat called adjusted sack rate, which measures sacks (and intentional groundings) per pass play adjusted for situation and opponent, and the Cowboys have dropped in this stat for two straight years. They were seventh in 2007, 13th in 2008 and 16th last year.
The Cowboys clearly know they have a problem, and they already started working on it when they released 35-year-old Adams this offseason. They just have to hope they didn’t wait too long to start getting younger blockers. Despite all the talent at the skill positions, the Dallas offense won’t play at a championship level with a porous line.