Eatman: Defense Getting Blame, But This O-Line Not Meeting Standards

NEW ORLEANS – Try to look past the final play of the game, if possible. Obviously that's the one that will be replayed over and over this week.

It's the play fans, critics and I guess even state politicians will point to as why the Cowboys were on the losing end of this crazy game.

Personally, I think the defense held its own, considering all of the circumstances. Didn't play a perfect game by any means, but got off the field enough throughout the first four quarters of regulation to give the Cowboys a chance, and did it without their defensive leaders.

It's the offense that isn't getting the job done. And don't look now, but that one unit we all figured would be the cornerstone of this team isn't playing up to the standard. They always say football "starts in the trenches." Well, nothing is getting started because this offensive line has struggled. 

Since the start of training camp, if not a little before, head coach Jason Garrett has done his very best to put last year in the books. He didn't want the players talking about last year's success or using the term "building" from anything 2014-related.

Well if that's the case, let's make sure that applies to all areas.

Because right now, the Cowboys' don't have a dominant offensive line. In fact, it's not really a good offensive line through the first quarter of this season.

Yes, without a doubt, last year's O-line was game-changing. It led DeMarco Murray to a record-breaking-season. It gave the entire offense a jolt every week and the end result was three players on the line getting All-Pro honors and all finishing the season at the Pro Bowl.

But right now, this isn't the same offensive line. There hasn't been the same carryover and it was more than evident here Sunday night in the Superdome.

There wasn't one position that lost this game for the Cowboys. So let's clarify this right now when it comes to finger pointing. The O-line didn't lose the game, but they certainly didn't do a lot to win it.

This offense is without two of the best offensive players in the NFL. No Tony Romo and no Dez Bryant. Both players are difference makers that are sorely missed here in the first part of this season.

But raise your hand if even a small part of you thought this offense would be just fine because of the O-line. I know I was somewhat convinced there wouldn't be a big dropoff and I was factoring in guys like Zack Martin, Tyron Smith and Travis Frederick as the reasons why. But right now, this line hasn't been the dominant group we were expecting.

And maybe, just maybe, they weren't as good as we thought they were last year. Again, I'm not trying to call out one specific unit, but this is the one unit we thought could carry the load.

As it turned out, maybe guys like Romo and Dez, and perhaps Murray to some extent, was helping the O-line as much as the O-line helps them. Last year, it was a collective group of talent that just seemed to mesh together perfectly.

Through four games, we're not just not seeing it. I think there might have been some thought from the Cowboys, whether it was coaching or front-office or both, that this line could and would simply push defenses around. That the Cowboys could more or less put any back in the backfield and we'd see similar success.

But it's not happening. Against the Saints, the Cowboys' O-line didn't win the battle up front, especially in the second half. For the second week in a row, we've seen the offense start fast with explosive runs. Last week, Randle had two big runs and this week, it was Lance Dunbar, who ripped off a 45-yarder.

But when push came to shove – like it does every play in this league, the offensive line couldn't punch it in on that first drive. They also struggled with a first-and-goal from the 10 in the third quarter and settled for a field goal.

And honestly, the first touchdown of the game came after a pass interference penalty in the end zone that put the ball on the 1. Yes, Randle got it with a high-flying leap – a play that could go down as the most scrutinized touchdown in Cowboys history – but it wasn't because the offensive line was knocking defenders out of the way. Backs only leap like that because there's not a hole to run through.

Quick side note – the explanation I received on what happened with the Randle touchdown and sideline fiasco was that the coaching staff told him this week not jump over the pile like he did last week. So when he attempted the flyover again, even though he scored, it set off some of the coaches, including running backs coach Gary Brown.

In the second half, the offensive line just didn't win its battles up there. After 90 rushing yards in the first two quarters, the Cowboys ended the game with just 115. It equated to 25 second-half rushing yards on 12 carries.

Now football is a domino-effect league. One thing always leads to another and I'm sure there will be some who say the offensive line is doing the best it can against a stacked line. Defenses are walking up more players to the box, not having to fear the deep ball as much. With that, it means the offensive line is forced to hold its blocks a half-second longer and sometimes that is the difference in a big gain and a sack.

Honestly, I still believe this is a good offensive line, capable of being dominant again. But in this show-me league, that unit is not what we saw last year and it's not what we expected.

Nick Eatman is the author of the recently published *If These Walls Could Talk: Dallas Cowboys, a collection of stories from the Cowboys' locker room, sideline and press box, with a foreword written by Darren Woodson.*

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