FRISCO, Texas – For the better part of the past month, ever since the Cowboys were eliminated from the playoffs, the predominant focus has been:
The coaching staff.
Free agent needs.
The franchise tag.
The salary cap.
The NFL Draft, pertaining to biggest needs.
So as the NFL Scouting Combine continues in Indianapolis, free agency still 12 days away and the draft just less than two months away, how about this:
A perceived strength these Cowboys have heading toward the 2023 season.
Offensive tackle, one of the most sought-after positions in the NFL, especially on the left side, aside from quarterback, defensive end and cornerback. Because if teams can't protect the quarterback, as we are seeing weekly in the XFL again, then all the quality skill positions will be muted.
Now before we get started, let's qualify this expected strength. This will depend on restricted free agent Terence Steele successfully returning from his December ACL repair. Even just two full months removed from that reconstructive surgery, Cowboys COO Stephen Jones from the combine insisted Steele is ahead of schedule. To the point that when asked if the fourth-year player will be ready for training camp, he never hesitated to say, "Absolutely."
That's a good.
And then there is the case of future Hall of Fame tackle Tyron Smith returning for a 13th season at age 32, having played just six games last year (two playoffs) following what was initially thought to be season-ending torn hamstring tendon surgery. And this after playing only 11 games in 2021.
Plus, Smith is in the final year of his contract, on the books for a $13.6 million base salary likely in need of adjustment. But according to Jones when asked if the eight-time Pro Bowl tackle, the latest in 2021, will be back for 2023 he said, "Yes," and then added that when it comes to his base salary in relation to always shrinking cap space for the Cowboys, "Right now, we're comfortable where we're at."
Then, to those two, please add last year's first-round draft choice Tyler Smith, whose rookie season was a huge hit, having played left tackle at a high level and even within games moving over to left guard, a position he had never played until being inserted there during training camp.
Said head coach Mike McCarthy, "Great first-year performance."
Seriously? Why, when have the Cowboys ever had three starting quality tackles? Three now for two positions, though Tyler Smith capable of kicking inside to left guard if Steele indeed returns in time for the season opener and Tyron jumps back in at left tackle, yet still capable of being the third swing tackle.
That even provoked a smile from Jones when asked about the crowded position, "It's a good problem to have. … Can't have enough of those guys."
Brother, no kidding. The Cowboys can attest to that, having gone through sour apples at swing tackle seemingly on a yearly basis since Chaz Green's 2017 flameout in Atlanta – that is until the rookie Tyler stepped in for Tyron last year and then second-year undrafted tackle Steele stepped in for La'el Collins in 2021, playing well enough for the Cowboys to part ways with the veteran in 2022.
In fact, Steele turned into one of the Cowboys' best run blockers these past two seasons. Coincidence or not, with Steele starting the first 13 games of the 2022 season, Dallas averaged at least four yards a carry in 10 of those. In the final four regular season games, the Cowboys never averaged more than 3.8, and just 2.7 and 2.4 in the final two games. And that downturn continued into the playoffs, averaging 3.7 rushing yards per carry against Tampa Bay and then 3.5 in the loss to San Francisco, and even that thanks to Dak Prescott's four carries for 22 yards.
This with Tyron having to play right tackle for the first time since 2012 after missing the first 13 games of the schedule with the injury sustained less than two weeks before the start of the season. Adding to those final game running woes with Steele out, Pro Bowl center Tyler Biadasz played just 77 percent of the snaps in Game 16 against Tennessee, leaving early with an injury and forcing starting left guard Connor McGovern to move to center, Tyler Smith to guard and 40-year-old backup Jason Peters to left tackle – the starters for Game 17, too.
Yet, funny thing, these line moves rarely if ever are pointed out for the Cowboys' late-season running woes. Seems most everyone wants to blame offensive coordinator Kellen Moore, claiming he was far too infatuated with throwing the ball.
But guess what? The Cowboys ran the ball 531 times in 2022. Not only the most times since McCarthy arrived as head coach in 2020, but the franchise's most single season running attempts since the 550 in 1994. Oh, and only the fifth time the Cowboys have run the ball in a season at least 500 times during that 28-season span, the previous 500 effort in 2014 with 508.
And if you're saying, well, the Cowboys played 17 games in 2022, adding to this bloated total, take away the 27 runs in the loss to Washington in Game 17, and it's still 504. In fact, in 13 of 17 regular-season games, the Cowboys ran the ball at least 29 times.
So, sorta makes me scratch my head when hearing about these philosophical offensive differences between Moore and McCarthy, one of the reasons for the Cowboys "mutually" parting ways with Moore, who by the way wasn't unemployed more than a day before the Chargers scooped him up to become their offensive coordinator after he was one of the finalists for the Carolina head coaching job.
To me, it sure wasn't as if the Cowboys didn't try to run. They just didn't run the ball EFFECTIVELY enough. And doesn't it make sense that if your running game isn't effective, why continue banging your head against the wall running when you're not getting anywhere?
But the good news moving forward, the Cowboys, assuming Steele is ready go and Tyron Smith at least has one more year left in him, have three quality offensive tackles, a Pro Bowl center, and oh, Pro Bowl guard Zack Martin as well. That means a left guard to go.
And then, if Tyron Smith is effective enough to move back to left tackle, then Tyler Smith can take over that left guard spot and serve as the backup swing tackle.
So with all the other stuff swirling on a team going 12-5 in back-to-back seasons, winning a division title in 2021 and a playoff game this past season, this is a good.
At least something to smile about, right?