OXNARD, Calif. – Nothing's easy, not for no one in this NF of L.
The Dallas Cowboys are poster children for difficulty, especially when it comes to what now should be referred to as the OWW-Line.
Just when things were looking promising, the Cowboys in the midst of stitching together a very capable five-man unit, just when they were starting to develop continuity on a unit pieced together last year with duct tape, they get kicked right in the solar plexus by this:
Ronald Leary, well on his way to winning the starting left guard job, had arthroscopic surgery Friday morning to remove a small particle broken off from the bottom of his kneecap.
Projection: Out two to four weeks, the standard recovery time period from such a scope.
You probably could hear the collective uhhhh all the way back to The Ranch when the news came down.
You know, darn it, how many more of these offensive linemen can get hurt before the Cowboys actually return to The Ranch, which will occur immediately following Saturday afternoon's preseason game No. 3 against the Arizona Cardinals at University of Phoenix Stadium? I mean, if you are scoring at home, here still is the list of offensive linemen who will not be playing Saturday:
OG Leary, OG Nate Livings, OG Kevin Kowalski, OG Ray Dominguez and C/G Ryan Cook. The list certainly would have been much longer had tackles Jermey Parnell and Demetress Bell not returned to practice the middle of this week, along with Darrion Weems, who, of all things, had the barbell handed to him carrying 325 pounds for a bench press slip out of his grip and plop right down on his chest. Talk about ouch!
Can't catch a break.
While the Cowboys aren't outwardly crying "why us?" they also aren't panicking in the face of yet another injured offensive lineman. There were no outward signs of sending an APB blast for guards as they were leaving for Phoenix on Friday afternoon.
Yep, that means they aren't trying to talk veteran guard Brandon Moore to reconsider the contract he had agreed to with the Cowboys last week. Evidently that train has left the station. And I'm also told they are convinced this dalliance with veteran guard Brian Waters is about done; that his reticence to play football after sitting out 18 months has them moving on and away.
Sometimes the deals you don't make are the best ones, especially when chasing two guys whose hearts just don't seem to be into playing football anymore.
So here is the deal for Saturday: David Arkin will start at left guard in place of Leary, with everyone else as they are – Tyron Smith at left tackle, Travis Frederick at center, Mackenzy Bernadeau at right guard and Doug Free at right tackle. For Arkin, a fourth-round pick in 2011, this might just be his last call to prove he belongs on this Cowboys 53-man roster.
From the start, it's been about his strength. Not enough. Then last year he was forced to play center when it appears now guard is his best position. Well he's had two full offseasons to get stronger and now he's playing guard exclusively. Let's see what he's got playing against NFL first teamers at least for these next two preseason games if not the remaining three.
He couldn't ask for anything more.
But here is the real reason the Cowboys aren't desperately trying to sign a guy who doesn't have his heart in playing or just any other veteran at this point:
They are convinced Leary is the real deal, the starter at left guard. As I've been telling you since back in the offseason, this guy plays with power. He's mobile. And he has a little nasty nature to his game. To me, with Livings out of the way, no longer absorbing first-team snaps, Leary has won the starting left guard spot. Plus, who even knows when Livings, expected to be out two-to-four weeks following his scope to remove loose meniscus, will return. And don't be afraid to factor in he missed the entire offseason, that he had a clean-up procedure after the season on his knee and then needed three days at the start of camp to pass his physical.
The goal is for Leary to return in time to prepare for the Sept. 8 opener against the Giants, a reasonable one since Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett said after the Friday morning walk-through practice here at River Ridge that all went well with the scope and that the prognosis is Leary returning closer to the two-week time period rather than the four.
Now then, with Leary at guard and Frederick, the first-round pick, at center, the Cowboys already have improved their offensive line from last year. Frederick gets better with each practice, each preseason game. He's the anchor the Cowboys have been looking for in the middle ever since Pro Bowl center Andre Gurode grew out of shape.
He's sturdy, smart and mobile enough. Best of all, the quarterback not only trusts him, but Tony Romo has been endorsing him.
The line improves even more if what we've seen so far from Free at right tackle is no training camp mirage. Looks like a different player from the one who struggled mightily the first half of last season. Seems more mobile. His pass-blocking sets seem stronger and more confident. No more of this bent over reaching stuff that got him in a whole lot of trouble last year.
And if you watched tape of the final month of the 2012 season, Free looks like that guy who played immeasurably better than the guy the first 10 or 11 games of the season. Even though Parnell has finally returned to practice, that he missed all this time combined with the offseason workouts, it's probably too late for him to mount that challenge for a starting job. He just needs to worry about locking down the backup, swing-tackle position.
That brings us to right guard, Bernadeau. Since jumping into practice last week he's looked good, and good in the half he played a week ago Friday against the Raiders. And truth told, after missing all of last year's offseason and a whole lot of training camp, understandably getting off to a slow start, he improved as the season went along.
Seems to be doing that again. I say the Cowboys can win with Bernadeau from what we've seen so far, and we'll see a little more Saturday afternoon since Garrett said first teamers should play as many as 15 to 20 plays. And look, while those performance-rating sites did downgrade Bernadeau's play last year, just not really sure if they were paying attention to the second half of the season.
With these five intact the Cowboys offensive line is much more powerful than it was, say, back in 2011 when it was getting run over by defenses, and even much better than the early part of 2012 when defenses again were overpowering the Cowboys. It's one thing to get stymied at the line of scrimmage. But it's another to get pushed backward, and that's what was happening in front of DeMarco Murray and Romo far too many times last year.
Maybe no more. Just give Murray a crease, he'll get you 10. Give Romo the prescribed three seconds, he'll get you 10 more. Not projecting five Pro Bowlers here, but suggesting five solid guys good enough to win with.
So hang in there, we'll see. Be hesitant to buy into the panic until you have current evidence, not preconceived perception. If you need to worry, then worry about the backup swing tackle and just who might fill in as the backup guards since so many currently are out with injuries. These might be the bigger issues.
As the head coach said on Thursday, when admitting injuries are a part of the game, "Frustration is not a really good emotion to have."
Especially since this football stuff always is so dang difficult.