Kavner: Top Priority Should Remain Fixing Offensive Line

IRVING, Texas – Let's not forget when the 2013 NFL Draft rolls around in April what this team's issue's been since Week 2.

Let's also not let the final half of the season and the problems resulting from a depleted defense obscure what really needs to be done immediately in making progress for next year.

True, the pass rush wasn't what it needed to be. True, the defense didn't create enough turnovers all year. But the main problems all season have been protection and a shortage of running lanes, and the other various issues throughout the year shouldn't overshadow what needs to be done on the offensive line.

When healthy, DeMarco Murray's one of the league's better runners. The rushing numbers inevitably went down when he was out, but aside from the opener against the Giants and the rushing frenzy in Baltimore, it's not as if the numbers were eye-popping when he was in the backfield.

That can't all be on him. The Cowboys finished with only 355 rushing attempts, tying the franchise record for fewest rushing attempts in a season. Arizona was the only team with fewer runs, and, subsequently, the only team with fewer rushing yards this season.

The lack of rushing attempts can be attributed to the team trailing so often. They can also be attributed to a lack of confidence that existed in the running game all season. Space for running backs was nearly non-existent, particularly in short yardage situations. It wasn't uncommon to see a second- or third-and-short turn into a punt without a running play ever attempted. The Cowboys' 57.89 goal-to-go conversion percentage, its lowest since 2003, further demonstrates how they couldn't run proficiently when they needed to most.

Tony Romo stopped the sack totals from getting out of hand. He weaved around oncoming defenders as well as any quarterback could have. But this offense isn't strong enough to win week in and week out with an abandoned or struggling running game. The line needs to be fixed, and if the running game can get going, maybe the Cowboys won't be trailing every week, placing the impetus on Romo to figure out what to do next.

There's always the question of drafting for need against drafting the best player available. How about just drafting the best offensive lineman available? It's difficult to single out one offensive lineman as the problem. They've all had their issues. But outside of perhaps Tyron Smith, no position is irreplaceable on the line.

Doug Free, who underperformed and eventually rotated in with Jermey Parnell after making the switch to right tackle, is 28 years old. Ryan Cook is 29. Nate Livings is 30. The next youngest starter other than Smith is 26-year-old Mackenzy Bernadeau, who can compete at guard or center next year. He entered the preseason coming off injury and the Cowboys used him almost exclusively at guard, since he had more experience at that position.

But the line needs an upgrade, and it needs one before anything else is addressed.

The attention on the offensive line can be diminished when the defense is getting torched for 200 yards by Alfred Morris and the linebackers are failing to get any pressure against the Saints and Redskins. The Cowboys could use some help at defensive line, no question, but perhaps the injured starters on defense who will take the field in 2013 should be able to help stop the running game.

The immediate concern is at offensive line, and the Cowboys will be in trouble next year if they use their top picks on compelling names at skill positions rather than fixing the glaring need.

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