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Spagnola: Don't Lose Sight Of Center Attention


FROM HOME, Texas – Seems we have a lot to worry about these days.

Social distancing.

Masks or no masks.

To go out or not to go out.

How to promote civility for all.

But since we're sticking to sports here, specifically your Dallas Cowboys, thought it was time, with optimism rightfully brimming over this team's quality, to give you something to worry about. To bring something to the _center_ of your attention.

Uh, center.

There seems to be this nonchalant attitude following Travis Frederick's somewhat surprise retirement – at least to all of us, but not necessarily to the Cowboys – that all will be just fine and dandy in the middle of that stout offensive line.

If there is a position of concern, one that could most jeopardize the functionality of this team, to me, it's the center position.

Especially now that the Cowboys will not have that fifth preseason game to further prepare under this new coaching staff with the elimination of the Pro Football Hall of Fame Game, pushed back until next year. Worse, the talk circulating that the preseason could be trimmed to just two games instead of the normal four.

And in of all years, with the coronavirus wiping out the entire offseason, and now with this fifth preseason game gone, wiping out those extra six days of training camp for the Cowboys, pushing their start day back to July 28 with most everyone else, this was the last thing a team with a new staff needs.

Look, you can sit here and worry about backup swing tackle or the right defensive end position or tight end or cornerback or kicker. Whatever.

But face it, there is only one position on the team, other than the kickoff dude, that must start that unit's every play.

The center.

And please, do not minimize the loss of Frederick. He's been selected to the Pro Bowl in five of his seven seasons, only missing out his 2013 rookie year and the 2018 season aborted by the Guillain-Barre syndrome that struck that summer during camp for no good reason. And while he may say his play this past season was not up to his standard, no one can criticize his know-how, the mental aptitude he brings to the position, his experience, such a comfort to quarterback Dak Prescott.

His is a huge loss, more than you might think.

Now, know what you're thinking. I must have landed on my head during my biking accident, having suffered some sort of amnesia. That "Jumbo" Joe Looney filled in admirably for Frederick during that 2018 season. He did, "admirably." But Joe Looney ain't no Travis Frederick.

Plus, as for playing center. Well, Looney "played" only five snaps at center last year. The vast majority of the 99 offensive snaps he played in 2019 were at guard, 94 of them in the final two games after Xavier Su'a-Filo went down with that knee injury in Game 15. The season finale against Washington was Looney's only start, playing all 77 snaps at left guard.

That means the last time he played more than three snaps in an NFL regular-season game at center was Dec. 30, 2018, against the Giants in the last of his 16 starts that year. Think a full offseason or an extra preseason game or three wouldn't have been beneficial to him this year?

Of course, there will be competition for that starting center job. Pretty much a crowded field, potentially, with the likes of Connor McGovern, maybe Connor Williams, for sure fourth-round draft choice Tyler Biadasz, Adam Redmond and Marcus Henry.

Know how many games those guys played in the NFL last year?

Uh, 10 games, all by Williams, who then suffered a season-ending torn ACL injury requiring surgery, at left guard.

And counting Looney, know how many snaps those guys, too, took at center in the NFL last year?

Uh, five, all by Looney.

McGovern and Redmond spent the season on injured reserve. Henry still on the practice squad. Biadasz in college.

Beginning to understand the importance of a full offseason and more than potentially the two preseason games being bandied about if it comes to that?

Look, Williams has never played center, a tackle at Texas moved to guard by the Cowboys two years ago. McGovern started only one game at center for Penn State in 2018, being moved to guard after starting all 13 at center in 2017. Redmond last played any snaps at center on Dec. 16, 2018.

And Henry? Not since Boise State in 2015.

Oh, and though the Cowboys signed veteran Cam Erving as a swing tackle, potential backup guard, he did start 12 games at center in 2016 for Cleveland.

So, let's face it, the only guy on the roster to actually have played extensively at center this past season, though not in the NFL, is Biadasz, at coincidently the University of Wisconsin, Frederick's collegiate training ground, and a team captain at that.

Remember, the Cowboys traded back into the end of the fourth round this year to grab Biadasz, who declared early for the draft after a red-shirt freshman year. But he at least has started 27 games over the past two seasons at center, the winner of the Rimington Award going to the best center in the nation for the 2019 season. He also was voted a first-team All-American.

But even he comes with a bit of an asterisk. He had postseason shoulder surgery, though expected to be full go whenever the Cowboys players return to practice.

Once again, how much would an offseason with the Cowboys, complete with two minicamps and 10 OTA workouts have benefited this rookie's transition into the NFL?

How much would the offseason have benefited McGovern, trying to reacclimate himself to the center position he hadn't played fulltime since 2017?

Or Williams, potentially the starting left guard, who at least has been at The Star rehabbing from his knee surgery, volunteering, I'm told, to experiment putting his hand on the ball if needed at a brand new position for him.

See what I mean on calling attention to the center position?

So if we're scoring from home, Looney would be the leader in the clubhouse to start at center, and for sure, likely when the team returns to practice. And there is some thought players could start trickling in a week or two before camp to begin strength and conditioning work under the team's jurisdiction.

But from an experience standpoint of plainly playing center, will be interesting to see how quickly Biadasz can make the transition from college to the NFL and a new offense. Gaining the coaching staff's trust might be his biggest hurdle.

Also think about this: How spoiled the Cowboys have been at center since 2006. Andre Gurode played at a Pro Bowl level for five years, from 2006-10. Then Frederick five times during his seven-year career (2013-19), missing of course the 2018 season. That is 10 Pro Bowl performances over the past 14 seasons.

Most poignant, though, of the position's importance might have occurred during the 2011-12 seasons after Gurode underwent offseason knee surgery and was released after the two sides could not agree on a restructured contract. The woefully undersized Phil Costa started the entire 2011 season. Then in 2012 it was Ryan Cook for 11 games, Costa for three and Mackenzy Bernadeau for two.

That was enough for the Cowboys to push the envelope in the 2013 draft to select Frederick with the 31st pick in the first round when many roundly criticized the choice as being far too high.

As it turned out, maybe one of the shrewdest selections the Cowboys made over the past decade, then head coach Jason Garrett basically sick and tired of seeing his centers end up in Tony Romo's lap … on running plays.

So if you just need another thing to worry about these days, here you are, you're welcome.

Center your worries right here.