Spagnola: Injuries Mashing Up Interior OL Redesign

OXNARD, Calif. – The Cowboys had two priorities in the offseason:

Upgrade the quality at cornerback.

Redesign the interior of the offensive line.

Talk about all the other stuff you want, third wide receiver, safety, fullback, backup tight end, inside linebacker, pass rushers. Sure, those were considerations, and certainly in need of upgrading as best they could.

But they all took a backseat to cornerback and the interior of the offensive line.

And they have the New York Giants to thank for providing this bit of football GPS as they navigated through the 2012 offseason. The Giants, as you might remember, spanked the ambitious Cowboys twice, first coming back from a 34-22 fourth-quarter deficit to beat them at Cowboys Stadium, 37-34, blocking a last-second field-goal attempt to close out the game, and then clocking them but good in the season finale,  a winner-take-the-East contest, 31-14.

We know the rest of the story. The Giants continued on their six-game winning streak to win the Super Bowl. The Cowboys were reduced to mediocrity, finishing with an 8-8 record and out of the playoffs for the third time in five years. Plus, in that span the Giants won twice as many Super Bowls (two) as the Cowboys won playoff games (one).

The blueprint was handed to the Cowboys by the not-so-benevolent Giants, who inadvertently did Dallas a soul-searching favor. In those two games, Tony Romo was sacked nine times – exactly a fourth of his 16-game total of 36. Good gosh.

And in those two games, not only did Giants quarterback Eli Manning total five passing touchdowns, but the Giants piled up 11 completions of at least 20 yards, including those for 74 (TD), 64, 47 and 44 (TD) yards. Get out of here.

The Cowboys didn't need any outside consultant to figure out they had better strengthen the inside of that offensive line and had doubly better bring in at least one cornerback upgrade if there was to be a reversal in fortune any time soon. Just look at the hand that whacked them across the face.

So they spent the majority of their free-agent dollars on a corner, committing $50 million to Brandon Carr, then, when the opportunity presented itself, committed another $16 million and their first two draft choices of 2012 to swipe Morris Claiborne in the draft. This must turn out well.

If Carr and Claiborne are what their financial investment says they should be, combining them with a healthy Mike Jenkins and Orlando Scandrick, the Cowboys should have a better chance of defending the fort … or at least making the Giants work for their yards instead of giving them up in one fell swoop.

Goodness knows they need corners who can cover, and enough of them to survive injury.

As for the offensive line, they merely nibbled, signing free-agent guard Nate Livings, a fifth-year veteran who at least has started 47 NFL games, to a reasonable contract. They signed free-agent guard Mackenzy Bernadeau, another fifth-year veteran with 20 starts under his belt, to an even more reasonable contract.

Meaning, they didn't have to totally give up on David Arkin, last year's fourth-round draft choice, and could afford to take a somewhat expensive flier on rookie free agent Ronald Leary following the draft. The competition, they thought, would be good, possibly forcing one guy to move to center to challenge Phil Costa, along with possibly Kevin Kowalski and Bill Nagy.

Ah, those best laid plans of mice and Cowboys.

Here is the current mash list on the interior of the offensive line:

  • G/C Kevin Kowalski – offseason tendinitis left foot, no telling when he will return since he's missed everything so far.
  • G/C Bill Nagy – high ankle sprain suffered Monday, likely out for the rest of camp, and with that kind of injury, who knows how much longer.
  • G/C Mackenzy Bernadeau – offseason hip surgery/knee scope, possibly returns as early as next week.
  • G Nate Livings – lower hamstring strain Wednesday, out at least a couple of days, so maybe with good rehabilitative genes gets back by Monday.

Almost like some contagious disease striking the offensive meeting room. Can you spray for stuff like this?

That is why the Cowboys didn't waste any time bringing in former vets Montrae Holland, Derrick Dockery and Daniel Loper for workouts Friday, knowing that the only other guy on this 90-man roster with either a G or a C after their names we haven't mention yet is Harland Gunn.

It's a no wonder they didn't parachute these guys in here to the River Ridge Complex for expediency purposes with a bugler sounding the reinforcements call. Indeed this has become an emergency, so much so, Cowboys COO Stephen Jones told me he'd like to sign at least two of the three. And by day's end the Cowboys were in the process of signing Dockery and Loper, and still were negotiating with Holland's agent, trying to sign him, too.

Although there is a catch here: These guys can't practice until Monday, you know, the new CBA rules, guys needing three days of work before they are allowed to practice. Geesh, they needed to be practicing today.

And look, this net just might be thrown back out there again before the season opens, seeing if they can snag someone of a little more note at some point or possibly scanning another team's roster for excess at the guard/center position.

But for now, all eyes will be on Arkin and Leary, who had been sharing first-team snaps at right guard, but as of Wednesday afternoon were getting first-team snaps at both guard positions, Arkin on the right side and Leary on the left. Plus, Leary also took some snaps at center. That's a long cry from the expected Livings and Bernadeau, neither of the young pups with an NFL snap to their credit, one with only Division I-AA college experience and the other an undrafted rookie.

What was that old commercial, send for the Smith Brothers.

Of Leary, Cowboys offensive line coach Bill Callahan says, "He's a tough guy. He loves it, and got to love a guy who loves football that much."

He's right. A real tough guy, and if playing guard at the NFL level was solely based on physical skills, this guy would be a Day 1 starter. But Leary, and he knows it, has got to figure out the system, to get the plays down and understand the adjustments while at the line of scrimmage – very normal rookie stuff.

As for Arkin, he hadn't been all that impressive in T-shirts and shorts. But suddenly when the pads came on Wednesday, he appeared to be a much improved player, especially in the running game, causing Callahan to say of him, "His energy and tempo and effort was really good, but we had a short talk (the night before) about the technique he needs to improve on."

Now when it came to run blocking, the kiddie corps – and remember that left tackle Tyrone Smith, in only his second NFL season and first on the left side, is but 21 – did create some juicy running lanes. Problem was, pass protection, where we sort of started this discussion, right? Protecting Romo.

Discouraging?

Remember, this is what training camp is for, and at times we forget that. No team comes to camp a finished product, otherwise, heck, why waste all this time practicing? Also remember that the pads came on for only the second time on Friday, with a Blue-White Scrimmage planned for the 2:30 p.m. (PDT) practice here on Sunday.

The full story hasn't been written just yet. No one puts the story's end in the first chapter. So let's read on and see what happens.

Guarantee you those Giants will be keeping a close eye, too.

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