FRISCO, Texas – It's officially midseason, and the Cowboys are still searching for a sense of continuity along their offensive line.
That's not a criticism, so much as a statement of fact about an unprecedented situation.
It's ironic that, in a season full of bad breaks, the Cowboys' offensive line has seen enough misfortune to last a lifetime. A unit that has been a constant for much of the last five years has looked more like an ensemble cast in 2020.
"We're definitely going through those times right now, and this is something I think we'll be better off for when we get through this and able to build off it," said Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy.
Consider this fact. In eight games this season, the Cowboys haven't had their preferred starting five on the field one time. Even if you take the injured La'el Collins out of the equation, this team's Week 1 offensive line only played two games together.
All told, this offensive line has used five different starting combinations in eight games, as guys like Tyron Smith, Brandon Knight and Zack Martin have moved in and out of the lineup.
That doesn't even include mid-game shuffles, as various have necessitated changes – such as Tyler Biadasz stepping in for Joe Looney, Connor McGovern taking over for an injured Zack Martin or Knight taking over for Steele.
"It's tough, obviously we talk all the time, offensive line, getting that continuity down," said Zack Martin last week. "Unfortunately, we haven't had that at times this season. Again, there's no secret to this thing, it's about going back out to work, getting the reps with the guys that are going to be in there and trying to build that on the go."
That catches things up to the present, where the current debate is about continuity versus starting the best possible players.
Connor Williams is the closest thing to a constant in this group, playing 99.8% of the snaps on the season. Behind him is Terence Steele, who has started all eight games in place of Collins as an undrafted free agent.
It hasn't come without growing pains. Steele had a hand in two of Philadelphia's four sacks of Ben DiNucci on Tuesday night – including the strip-sack that snuffed out a possession in the Eagles' red zone. He was also replaced by Knight in Week 4 against Cleveland after allowing two big plays to Myles Garrett.
This all leads to an interesting conversation about Martin. The six-time All-Pro was an All-American left tackle during his college career at Notre Dame, and he briefly kicked out to right tackle during the Week 3 loss to Seattle.
It has prompted plenty of questions about whether that's a smart long-term decision – which McCarthy pushed back on during his Monday evening press conference.
"I think it's fantasy football nonsense, unless you have 10 veteran offensive linemen on your football team that you can interchange like that," McCarthy said. "When you're dealing with young players, different combinations, you don't have an offseason, you don't have OTAs, you don't have a real training camp, to think you're just going to pop people in and out of positions, I definitely don't think that's the right way to go."
Technically, that's not to say it couldn't happen. McCarthy has talked many times, including Monday, about working with various different combinations in practice – including some that could see Martin move outside to tackle.
But it's obvious from talking to him, and from watching the Cowboys' games, that they'd prefer to maintain their continuity.
With any luck, things will start to stabilize. Smith and Collins won't be back this season, but Cam Erving has been back from injured reserve for two weeks. Looney didn't play Sunday night, but he is also back on the active roster. Knight is still recuperating, but it's a reasonable guess that he can return sooner rather than later, as well.
Perhaps the second half of this season will be kinder than the first, and the Cowboys can find the continuity that has been so sorely lacking.
"Let's face it, the offensive lines that play the best line up and play the same position next to each other over and over and over again," McCarthy said. "So I think that's the most important variable in having a successful offensive line."