As per usual, you can reach me at Sturm1310@aol.com, @sportssturm on Twitter, and you can text me if you have my cell phone number. Here we go:
What letter grade would you assign the members of the Cowboys offensive line? --Jason
This is a good thing to look at as we turn the calendar to November. How would we rate the particular members of the offensive line? As a unit, things have not gone very well, so let's try to separate the feelings of the whole and break it down to individuals. Letter grades are not ideal for this, so I will rate each of them on from 1-10, with 1 being a player you simply must released and 10 being a player that is an automatic for the All-Pro team (think Joe Thomas).
The Cowboys have played 479 plays this season on offense according to my friends at ProFootballFocus.com. Only 5 lineman have played even 25% of the possible snaps, so let's not rate Montrae Holland (114 snaps) or Derrick Dockery (70) until we have a larger sample size. Kevin Kowalski (31) and Jeremy Parnell (3) hopefully will not need to see the field enough to qualify.
But, from the 5 who have played enough, let's do some grading.
Doug Free, LT Grade-5 (479 snaps): Here is a guy who we hoped with his new contract would be a solid 8 as a Left Tackle and was ready to anchor the offensive line entering the season. He was coming off a season where he was a rock and was among the very elite in the run game. In 7 games this season, I think he has played very well in the Jets, Lions, and Rams games. In the Eagles game he was ok, and against the 49ers, Redskins, and Patriots he looked like he was having all sorts of trouble. He is not someone I worry about long term, but I do wonder if they will flip Smith and Free in 2012 or 2013. He has not been good enough and now hovers around the level of an average left tackle in the league rather than a Top 10 left tackle which is where we thought he could be. His run blocking must be better and his edge is quite vulnerable. On the other hand, look at who he faces every week and you will find the best in the business attacking him.
Bill Nagy, LG Grade-2 (283 Snaps): Bill Nagy was not ready to start in the NFL, but the Cowboys threw him out there to start the season. He was overpowered at Left Guard and certainly was one of the reasons that the Cowboys thought they were ready to go to a "zone" running scheme. It was really a very poor experiment that should be blamed on the people who conceived it rather than the poor rookie who tried to carry out their plan. Nagy was not able to hold blocks, pushed into the backfield, and eventually had his season end with a gruesome injury to his leg in the 4th Quarter in New England. He has value moving forward if he can stay in the weight room and mature as he appears to have the proper mentality, but please do not ask players to start who are just not ready. His injury brought back Montrae Holland and immediately the team could run the ball again with the pulling guards and the angle blocking that has worked in the past.
Phil Costa, C Grade-2.5 (460 snaps): If there is a funeral for the season in 2011, I would think the main speaker would have to note the move at the center of the offensive line for the Cowboys from Andre Gurode to Phil Costa. Financially, I am sure it made some sense, but football wise, the drop-off in performance is staggering. Gurode is certainly struggling in Baltimore as he tries to play guard, but his play at center last year was in the top third of the league (even though he had some frustrating characteristics). This year, the center play for the Cowboys has been at the top of the list for why this offense is so constipated. He held up pretty well in the Jets game, but since then, it seems that nearly every week the opponent is testing him hard. The game in New England is about as poorly as I have ever seen a center play with the Patriots proving he had very few answers. Again, we should likely question the decision makers rather than the player as he is undrafted and very young. He may have value as he develops, but the Cowboys need him to be way better if this season is going to head in the proper direction. The shotgun snaps are frustrating, but the caving in of the line is what causes Romo to have a low-eye level as he looks for receivers while fearing for his life.
Kyle Kosier, RG Grade 6 (479 snaps): Unlike Doug Free, Kyle Kosier is a player you did not anticipate to have a All-Pro season. He is a fighter and a scrapper and the man you use to call out protections for the offensive line. He pulls in space better than anyone the Cowboys have had at guard in years and is more than a little valuable to the entire operation. He loses some battles as he takes on bigger and quicker players in the interior from time to time, but for the majority of the time, I find myself appreciating what Kosier is all about and what he means to this team. Overall, Kosier is exactly who you hoped he would be. A reasonable guard who can help the kids along. With a rookie on one side and a first-time starter on the other, you cannot undersell his veteran presence in those battles as well. New England was not a great day, but for the most part, in a 60-play game, Kosier will roll out 57 or 58 solid snaps.
Tyron Smith, RT Grade 6.5 (476 snaps): For a rookie to come out of the gates and to play at the level he has played is very impressive. Clearly, he is coming off his toughest day at the office in Philadelphia, but we know that Jason Babin has been teaching clinics on pass rush spin moves for a couple years now, and Tyron had to learn a lesson. But if we look at his game to game performances and consider his composure, his awareness, his development, and most importantly his age (he will turn 21 in December), we know that Smith is on his way to a great career. He has shown that he will concede a sack from time to time, but I consider much of that learning technique at the NFL level rather than not having the ability to do the job. In the running game he is very strong and his fight is admirable. I think he has been the Cowboys best line player and am not overly concerned that he had a rough night in Philly. Those are going to happen. The next question is whether he will hit a rookie wall or not as we head into the 2nd half of the year.
So, I rank them in 2011: Smith, Kosier, Free, Costa, Nagy. But, in my estimation, much of this could have been avoided if the front office would have slowed their roll on clearing Gurode out for another season and maybe had Costa play LG between Gurode and Free. But, Jerry never listens to me.
Email #2 where anonymous responds to my thoughts on Romo's protection time:
Bob I have great respect for your insight, however I think you may be incorrect in stating that nobody can pick a team apart if they have to throw the ball in under 2 seconds. "This means throwing the ball in under 2 seconds. And that means that your deep threats never have time to get deep on their routes. " Please see your own article on the Patrios Masterpiece. Brady is in shotgun and releases the ball in 1.7 seconds. I think the correct thing to think, is that Tony Romo can't execute an offense in that short a time frame. - anonymous
I like this email because over the course of time, there are a few things that might require elaboration so that I am not misunderstood. This might be on of them. First, I did not say "nobody" can flourish in a quick-release offense. I think Rodgers, Brady, and Manning do quite well. Here is what I said on Tuesday:
Don't just look at the sack totals. Look at the play calling that attempts to prevent sacks by getting the ball out of Romo's hand. That issue is obvious every week in 2011, as Garrett and Romo are both still smarting from the broken collarbone of 2010 and the rib issue of 2011. Both do not want Romo to be out with an injury, so the offensive options are limited to plays that can keep Romo upright. This means throwing the ball in under 2 seconds. And that means that your deep threats never have time to get deep on their routes.
See, the question of protection and the question of why Dez and Miles are not getting the ball enough are tied together. And that leads me to my biggest concern for the Jason Garrett offense. When I watch the Cowboys play, I think they have 2 types of routes. One is based on protection time and when the Cowboys get it, they can cause a magnificent fireworks show all over the field with deep passes, "dig" routes (or deep-ins) and deep outs (which Tony Romo throws with great strength to the sideline about 15-20 yards down field). The other type of routes we see are for those days - that happen more and more often - when Garrett and Romo are convinced there is no time to throw.
Notice how i said that: "Garrett and Romo are convinced there is no time" is different from "there is no time". I want to stress that because there are games where the Cowboys never test their offensive line in pass protection (Minnesota '10, New England '11) because they think they already know what would happen based on looking at film all week. They may not give up sacks in a given week and the average fan will say that this validates OL performance. "How could they be that bad? They never gave up a sack!"
Well, that is when you come back to the design of the offense. This is where I sit down and watch New England, New Orleans, and Green Bay and try to see if there is a distinct difference between the routes they run and the routes the Cowboys run. I found one that I think I need to confirm with more research, but I want to talk about it here anyway.
It is my belief that Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers can pick you apart inside 2 seconds because their offense calls for way more shallow cross routes by the wide receivers. The Cowboys seem to leave the middle of the field for Jason Witten and the Tight End routes and limit their WR routes of the shallow variety to mostly outside the numbers or right at the numbers on the edges. I see slants, stops, outs, and a number of variations of screens. But, when I see Wes Welker's routes, I see him inside the tackles 5-10 yards beyond the line of scrimmage where a zone would put a linebacker on him. Why don't I see more of that from Austin or Bryant? Is it that Garrett wants Witten not to be crowded with other targets down the middle?
If you want to replicate what teams who have successful offenses are doing, it would seem that you would want to make more routes available by speed players from sideline to sideline with speed guys dragging across the middle. I swear, I never see Dez doing anything but straight ahead off the line at the snap. I think a tweak like this is worth considering to make your weapons more accessible when protection is bad and coverage is shading Bryant and Austin deep. Going back to Brady's Masterpiece, none of his throws were very far downfield. He gets it to players with speed and they do much of the hard work. Good Romo do it? I don't know that the Cowboys have tried that enough.
Random final score symmetry...
Loss to Jets: 27-24
Win vs Niners: 27-24
Win vs Rams: 34-7
Loss to Eagles: 34-7
John, a man after my own heart. Where would we be without statistical oddities in our heads?