The 2011 Dallas Cowboys' season ended with a six sack defeat to the New York Giants in a game that the club needed to win in order the make the playoffs. Where many wanted to lay the blame at the feet of the offensive line, there was really more to that but regardless something had to be done and personnel moves were made. It begin when long time offensive line coach Hudson Houck called it a career on moved onto the golf courses of southern California. The front office determined that guards Kyle Kosier and Montrae Holland were no longer playing at a level that fit into the team's plan for 2012. But maybe the biggest switch took place when Tyron Smith was moved from right tackle to the left side and veteran Doug Free moved back to the position on the right side that he manned several years ago with good success. In the big picture, Jerry Jones and Jason Garrett had to make some tough decisions but the focus will be, were they the right decision?
The drafting of 20 year-old Tyron Smith at the time was a slam dunk decision when you look at his body of work as compared to the other tackles in the class, Nate Solder, Gabe Carimi, Anthony Castonzo, none of these tackles had the ability of Smith nor in my view the unlimited ceiling that he should be able play with in the future. Smith does things athletically that other tackles cannot do whether it's to kick in space to control a rusher on the outside, pull to block support on the crack toss, or successfully adjust to a smaller, quicker rusher like a Jason Babin from the Eagles. When Smith comes off the ball he can get movement in space. He has that ability to play on his feet whether it's the backside cut off or the front side reach. You do not see him on the ground. Smith's ability to engage and sustain is what makes him a difficult man to play because he is hard to get away from. The transition for Smith will be easier for him to make because of these skills but it is not one that will come without some bumps in the road. There has some already been some reps against DeMarcus Ware, where he wasn't as quick or technically sound as he needed to be but what has been consistent is when you do see him make a mistake, the next rep, he is usually right back on his game.
No one was more surprised in what happened to Doug Free's game than myself. There were no signs of trouble after he played well on the left side the year before. Free was able to match up with some of the better rush ends in the division and enjoy success. I made the assumption that Free would play the left side in 2011 and it would be smooth sailing but it wasn't. Free struggled with his technique and the lack of an off season hurt his ability to get himself as ready as he needed to speaking with his former line coach Hudson Houck. Free really struggled with rushers that tried to bull rush him, then with rushers that exploded around the corner on him with quickness. Free's feet struggled which led to his struggles with his punch and his ability to control the defenders charge. There were too many times overall body position was poor and he looked off balance. Where Free is at his best is when he can use his athletic ability to get into his man and try to control him with movement. Free is not the type of blocker that is going to hammer you at the point of attack but he is going to position block and secure the edge much like he did yesterday with a good quick move on the outside to hook Victor Butler and allow DeMarco Murray to get the ball around the edge.
The front office made the decision to replace Kosier and Holland at the guard spot which was the right call but how they went about it raised some questions. Many thought they would go after a large ticket item like a Carl Nicks from the Saints but what many had failed to realize was that Nicks had played for the Cowboys' new offensive line coach Bill Callahan at Nebraska so there was a common history there. Nicks ended up signing with the Buccaneers. The next player on the free agent list was Ben Grubbs who left Baltimore to sign with New Orleans to replace Nicks. The Cowboys didn't get in the mix on Grubbs either. What the Cowboys did was sign one starter from the Bengals in Nate Livings and Mackenzy Bernadeau who made one start last season for the Panthers. There are those around the league that have been critical of the play of Livings but in the games I studied him playing against the Ravens, Texans (regular season), Cardinals and 49ers, he wasn't a perfect player but there were some plays against some of the better defensive players in the league where he had some production. When it came down to one on one blocking, he was able to handle guys like Justin Smith, Calais Campbell and Haloti Ngata. Where he struggled was with some of the athletic movements such as pulling and securing second level blocks. In what I was able to observe in pads yesterday, he was able to work some nice double team blocks with Tyron Smith until he hyper-extended his knee and went out. Again, this isn't the perfect guard, he is not Nicks or Grubbs but he does show toughness and the ability to handle some quality defensive linemen. Mackenzy Bernadeau was a player I was able to study in some pre season games and the one start he made against the Falcons. Moves well for a big man and can adjust on the move. Some second level blocks and didn't play poorly in a game against the Giants and their front in the pre season. Where it has been a struggle for him is that he has been unable to get any work on the field with the exception of with the trainers. Hip surgery and a knee scope this off season has put him in a catch up mode. There is a thought that he could be back after the Oakland pre season game but they are making sure he is 100% ready before he returns.
Phil Costa is the returning starter at center and Bill Nagy was his main competition until he hurt his ankle in practice the other day and looks to be out several weeks. Kevin Kowalski was my pick to be the guy that could play as the swing center and guard after doing it well last season but he too is dealing with an injury to his ankle that is like a bruise on the bone which is not getting any better so his status remains in limbo. I really did like the way that he played last season when he had to fill in, in some difficult spots. David Arkin is the current starter at right guard and is in a battle with rookie Ronald Leary who will most likely now see his role from backup to starter to replace Livings on the left side. Leary is a powerful player that will just need some work in the mental side of the position but once he does that, he has a chance. Arkin is also getting some work as the third center behind Harland Gunn who hasn't done a bad job for a rookie. Gunn was a guard at Miami is a physical player that really works to finish his blocks. Pat McQuistan is more than serviceable at right tackle and can play guard in a pinch. Jermey Parnell is the swing tackle and at times still doesn't look powerful enough to handle the edge but can do some things well on his feet.
When the coaching staff and the front office meet about this group, I am going to use a word that Jason Garrett doesn't like to use and that is concern. There has to be some concern about the injuries and what they are going to do to deal with them. Bill Callahan is an outstanding offensive line coach but to ask him to get two tackles ready who swapped sides in the off season and work without his starting guards for a number of weeks because of injury and not have any real competition at center for a guy that at times had his struggles, it is a tall task. Even if the group was completely together these training camp practices you are still looking at a great deal of work. Again, the word I would use is concern because there are some outstanding pieces in place when it comes to the skill positions and it would be a shame to waste that talent trying to piece together an offensive line that can allow it to function properly.