IRVING, Texas – Perhaps they didn't live up to their enormous offseason hype, but it's hard to find too much fault with the Cowboys' offensive line in 2015.
The Cowboys coped with shaky quarterback play all season long, but it didn't stop them from producing one of the NFL's 10 best rushing attacks. Dallas ran for 118 yards per game, good enough for ninth in the league, and Cowboys running backs averaged 4.6 yards per carry – fifth-best.
Pass protection wasn't as strong – as was also the case in 2014. The Cowboys allowed 30 sacks last season, which was ninth among offensive lines. This time around, they allowed 33 sacks, pinning them right near the middle of the pack at 13th-best in the league.
"Our offensive line, I believe, has played very well – both run blocking and also as protectors," said Cowboys coach Jason Garrett last week.
If there's an area that saw a dramatic drop off, it's got to be the cleanliness of the line's play. Including two playoff appearances, the offensive line was flagged just 29 times in 18 games.
This fall, the same unit drew 44 penalties in just 16 games.
"We've got to clean up the pre-snap penalties and really just the penalties in general," Garrett said. "Those are the kind of things that put you behind the chains and make it difficult to drive the football. They have played well, but that's an area where we have to get better."
It was an ugly season from a variety of standpoints. The Cowboys did indeed draw a lot of pre-snap penalties. Their regular starters were flagged for 18 false starts – led by Doug Free with eight. The number escalates to 21 when you include false starts by Mackenzy Bernadeau and Charles Brown.
Throw in a couple of illegal formation flags, and that's 21 pre-snap penalties on the year.
"You just have to coach it better in practice, and they have to understand the importance of it," Garrett said.
The Cowboys' lack of stability at quarterback could help explain the problem. Dallas used four quarterbacks on the season, often using multiple signal-callers in the same game. It's the type of problem that could cause pre-play issues – though Garrett wasn't interested in excuses.
"If it's a different quarterback, if you're dealing with crowd noise – some of those things," he said. "Really getting honed in on the silent count -- that's been a case a few different times this year where we're not on the same page with our silent count. But again, there are no excuses."
There's plenty to work on across the line. Although Travis Frederick drew just two flags on the season, Zack Martin's number ballooned from four in 2014 to 11 in 2015. Tyron Smith was right behind him with 10 flags on the year.
It'll certainly be something the Cowboys hope to address in 2016.
"They have played well, but that's an area where we have to get better," Garrett said.