It could be a long year for Tony Romo
By Vince Verhei ESPN
Every Tuesday, Football Outsiders will analyze the biggest upset from the previous weekend and see how those factors will impact both teams moving forward.
Pop quiz: Name the last offensive lineman drafted in the first round by the Dallas Cowboys. If you know the answer, you know your offensive linemen — which means you probably know why the Cowboys are 0-2 and alone at the bottom of the NFC East.
Only a handful of current Cowboys were even born when Dallas took Missouri’s Howard Richards Jr. with the 26th pick of the draft in 1981. In the ensuing quarter-century-plus, the team has managed to find great blockers in the second and third rounds, including Larry Allen and Erik Williams of the mid-’90s Super Bowl champions. Lately, they’ve stopped looking for blockers early in the draft. Since 2005, the Cowboys have selected two offensive linemen in the third round of the draft, and none in rounds one and two.
While the Cowboys have put together quality offensive lines in recent years, they’ve done it with old players, most of whom were signed from other rosters. The 2009 starting five of Flozell Adams, Kyle Kosier, Andre Gurode, Leonard Davis and Marc Colombo were effective, but they were all 30 years or older. When Adams retired before the 2010 season, the Cowboys had no better option at left tackle than former fourth-rounder Doug Free, best known for being Jared Allen’s personal whipping boy in January’s playoff loss to the Vikings.
Through two games, opposing running backs have carried the ball 36 times against the Bears. They’re averaging 1.7 yards per carry, with a long run of eight yards, and on 13 occasions — more than a third of all carries — they’ve failed to gain positive yards.
The other four starters returned, but were each a year older. Old players tend to miss games — like Kosier and Colombo did in Week 1 against Washington, forcing Dallas to start castoffs Montrae Holland and Alex Barron. Old players also tend to decline, as we saw when Kosier and Colombo returned to the lineup against the Bears. Chicago defenders were in the Dallas backfield all day. While they never sacked Tony Romo, they did hit him five times.
Things were even worse on the ground. Dallas running backs carried the ball 19 times on Sunday, and nearly a third of those carries failed to gain positive yards, and a seventh negative run was wiped out by a penalty. Even with Barron on the sidelines in Week 2, Kosier, Colombo and Davis combined for a hold and three false starts. Penalties were in abundance.
The Cowboys have young Pro Bowlers at quarterback, running back, tight end and wide receiver, and depth at all four positions, too. But they have only scored two offensive touchdowns this season, tied for worst in the league, because their offensive line is not up to snuff. They have no other options because they have failed to draft young talent along the line. To paraphrase Rick Pitino, Nate Newton is not walking through that door, so the Cowboys will have to struggle along through 2010, with an eye on Wisconsin’s Gabe Carimi for 2011.
The Bears, meanwhile, find themselves a surprising 2-0, though wins over Detroit and Dallas have both been nail-biters. If Calvin Johnson completed his amazing catch in Week 1, or if Devin Hester failed to make his in Week 2, things could be a lot different.
The best sign for the Bears going forward is their run defense, which has been phenomenal. While we’ve already touched on what the Bears did to the Cowboys, we haven’t talked about what they did to Jahvid Best. Before shredding the Eagles for 232 yards from scrimmage last Sunday, Best was completely shut down by the Bears in Week 1 — 36 total yards on 19 combined rushes and receptions. Through two games, opposing running backs have carried the ball 36 times against the Bears. They’re averaging 1.7 yards per carry, with a long run of eight yards, and on 13 occasions — more than a third of all carries — they’ve failed to gain positive yards.
On the other side of the ball, new offensive coordinator Mike Martz has a history of getting the best out of his passers, and it looks like he has taught Jay Cutler the fine art of ball security. After leading the league with 26 interceptions last season, Cutler has thrown just one in 2010. In 2009, 18 percent of the Bears passes (including eight thrown by Caleb Hanie and Brad Maynard) were deflected or intercepted. This year, that number is down to 8 percent. With teams like Dallas and Minnesota two games back and falling, the Bears can realistically hope for a playoff berth come January.
Vince Verhei is an author for Football Outsiders who frequently contributes to ESPN Insider.