IRVING, Texas – Offensive line coach Bill Callahan admitted he's used more centers this year than at any point in his career. He's been coaching in some form or fashion since 1980 and has coached offensive linemen in the NFL since 1995.
While the offensive line's been rightfully criticized throughout the year, nobody's pointed at the center position as the obvious main point of concern. The Cowboys even have a viable contingency plan in case Ryan Cook and Phil Costa are both out this week, using either Kevin Kowalski or guard Mackenzy Bernadeau at center.
"They are balanced reps," Callahan said of the backups. "They do get equal work. They do get the exposure they need. They get the experience and the preparation."
As Mickey Spagnola pointed out on our radio show, the calls for trades before and during the season were rampant and included, but weren't limited to, Felix Jones, Marcus Spears, Mike Jenkins and Dan Connor.
Now take a look at the state of the injured Cowboys. Jones looked more reliable in the backfield last week than the rest of the bunch and seems to be the best option behind DeMarco Murray if he can repeat that performance. Jones has had his rough stretches this year, and I'll admit I thought the Cowboys might be better off going a different direction at one point. But few people can argue after his performance last week that the Cowboys would be better off without him while Murray's out.
Spears will be a starter on the defensive line after a season-ending injury to Kenyon Coleman. Yes, there will be a rotation, as there always is at the position. But that rotation now includes rookies in Tyrone Crawford and Ben Bass and a young, budding player in Josh Brent. The need for a veteran starter who understands the system becomes increasingly beneficial. What Bass can bring remains an uncertainty, but the Cowboys have prepared enough backups this weekend to keep Spears fresh when he needs a break to rest his knee.
Oddly enough, Jenkins' usefulness became more evident when he was out of uniform. Rookie Morris Claiborne struggled more against Riley Cooper last weekend than he had all season. An added veteran presence would have afforded the option of holding Claiborne out a couple plays to clear his mind. Jenkins isn't the typical bench player, either, and is capable of starting for teams.
It's also odd to think about Bruce Carter possibly not being a starter on this defense. That was a definite possibility early this year. Going back to training camp, Carter competed with Connor for the inside linebacker spot next to Sean Lee and came out victorious. Connor's worth appeared limited, serving only a backup role in the Cowboys defense. That backup role would become full-time after Lee got injured.
The Cowboys further established their depth by bringing in free agent Ernie Sims when Connor got hurt and starting Sims immediately. He didn't miss a beat, and he's made a difficult decision regarding playing time between him and Connor for these defensive coaches.
And finally, back to the offensive line. Cook, who was supposed to be a backup when the Cowboys traded for him a week prior to the opener, started off and on with Costa all year, depending on which player was healthy. Cook might be ready to go this weekend, and if that's the case, the Cowboys will roll on as they had throughout the start of the year. If he's not ready, the Cowboys have options by using Kowalski or utilizing Bernadeau's versatility and switching him from guard to center.
What either player can offer at center is unclear, but the fact that the Cowboys have two options at the position after their top two centers go down is unique. Guard Derrick Dockery, who's started 113 games in his career, allows the Cowboys to move Bernadeau to center, if they so choose.
Rarely have the Cowboys been able to withstand such injuries. They've done so by not rushing to ship out every player whose immediate value may not have been clear.