The injury malaise lingers, and it’s making the Cowboys faithful grumpy. Where is the backup center? Where is the shiny new 3rd receiver?
Patience, grasshoppers. They will show up soon enough. The key is re-integrating those injured and doing due diligence for the first and second league cut-downs. However much you want the team to indulge your desires to knee-jerk, remember one thing: the last time this team made a major deal impulsively, Roy Williams came in and a lot of high draft picks and money left town. Is this really the mind-set you want Dallas to adopt?
Here are some remedies I think may be coming, starting with the offensive line
We’ve yet to see the projected inside three — LG Nate Livings, C Phil Costa and RG Mackenzy Bernardeau — play a down together. Early in camp, Bernardeau was out, rehabbing his surgically-repaired hip. Livings hyperextended his left knee late in week one, making 2nd year man David Arkin the left guard starter and rookie Ronald Leary the right guard starter. Bill Nagy’s week-one injury and Kevin Kowalski’s absence later pushed Arkin into the backup center role.
Arkin has taken some lumps in the press for errant shotgun snaps and a day where he could not mesh with backup Kyle Orton. For a guy who has played two weeks at center, he nonetheless deserved the praise Tony Romo gave him Monday night. Arkin missed on a second-series screen pass block that got Romo sacked, but he did his job the remainder of the evening. Arkin played nearly three quarters. You can see he needs more power, but he’s a scrappy guy.
The biggest interior line problem, as I see it, was the lack of talent at guards. Derrick Dockery was overmatched against Oakland. He created no push on run downs and had his problems in protection. When Bernardeau left the game after the third series, Leary took over at right guard and had a trying evening. He struggles with speedy, agile rushers and a lot of pressure came in through his lane.
Look at the camp reports from the last three practice days and you’ll see one constant with the offensive line — pressure allowed up the middle. This results from a combination of factors. The backup guards are poor, and with Arkin and Harland Gunn playing center, some protection calls are likely being missed, with so many inside linebackers and safeties running free through the A and B gaps.
The short term solution is getting Costa and Livings back. The last time Romo had good protection against Rob Ryan’s guys was a week ago, the day Bernardeau made his debut. The interior that afternoon was Arkin at left guard, Costa at center and Bernardeau at right guard. The pocket held against the blitzes and stunts that day and Romo completed several balls deep down the field to Dez Bryant and his cohorts.
The next day (or was it later that practice, the practices all blur together now?) Costa hurt his back and the line regressed. Costa takes his share of abuse, but he looked a better player under Bill Callahan than he did last year. I’m not saying he’s Dwight Stephenson in his prime; Costa will never be that, but he was more effective at engaging defenders off the ball and did a much better job anchoring against power. The line will improve when he returns.
When Costa and Livings do return, and their workouts suggest that will be early next week, the top of Romo’s pass pockets should solidify. That will let Dallas move Arkin back to swing guard, where he’s likely to play the year, if he isn’t worn down in the next week by all the extra duty. Arkin started camp at right guard, in a fight with Leary, then became in short time the LG starter and then the C starter. He’s the fastest Cowboys guard. He’s pulls the best. He can get out on screens and on toss plays. He’s much better as a protector than Leary right now, and that should give him a game-day edge.
The shortest path to solidity is health, and a new backup center. Those won’t be available until the final cuts, if they’re available at all. The demand for quality young O-linemen far exceeds supply at all times, not just now. If the Cowboys find one, they’ll put in a claim. If they can find a vet who offers an improvement over Dockery and Leary, they’ll take him.
Failing that, you’ll probably see Montrae Holland signed in week two. A contract disagreement apparently moved the team to sign Dockery and Dan Loper instead of Holland after the three worked out. Holland performed best, according to observers, but is still waiting for a job. The Cowboys probably don’t want to be on the hook for any one of these players deals for the full season and will try to pull a Laurent Robinson and add a Holland or a Holland-like player in the long week after the Giants game.
Next: Is the 3rd receiver on the roster?