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Trouble In The Trenches: Dallas O-Line Concerns Troubling

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OTs Tyron Smith and Doug Free round out an offensive line still looking for answers as the season opener approaches. Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images.
OTs Tyron Smith and Doug Free round out an offensive line still looking for answers as the season opener approaches. Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images.

A proven pocket passer, a Top 5 wide receiver, a quartet of shifty, speedy running backs and a Hall-of-Fame tight end have the Dallas Cowboys’ offense looking like a group that can move the chains, generate big plays and produce points with ease and consistency.

A makeshift offensive line suggests otherwise.

Offensive line play has never left the list of concerns; it has merely wavered in and out of the top spot. But the latest moves — tapping 6-8 RT Doug Free to play right guard, moving RG Mackenzy Bernadeau to the left side, and welcoming long-shot OT Darrion Weems to the 53-man roster — prove that it’s a tremendous work in progress, and one that could crash the offensive party if not figured out quickly.

Signing veteran OG Brian Waters is a big plus — it had to happen. The six-time Pro Bowler represents the biggest source of quality depth across the board, and activating him should allow Free to get back to his natural position. Jermey Parnell remains the backup, and Weems is likely among the first casualties of Week 2 shakeups.

The bigger problem is the timing. The New York Giants are coming to town, and even with DE Jason Pierre-Paul questionable, the G-Men have a host of seasoned pass rushers ready to expose and exploit the Cowboys’ O-line instability. Two weeks later come the St. Louis Rams, who matched last year’s league-best total for sacks with 52. Who did they tie? The Denver Broncos: the Cowboys’ Week 5 opponent.

Pass protection is, therefore, an obvious focal point. But what about run blocking? Have we not seen a clear commitment to shoring up the ground game under Bill Callahan’s play-calling? Isn’t that primarily why Dallas kept five tight ends?

Travis Frederick looks stout; his core strength and football smarts are beyond impressive, but he’s still a rookie. Ronald Leary should be ready to go for Week 1, but he has a nagging knee injury. The bar for Bernadeau’s performance isn’t crazy high after last year, but even if he’s usurped, Waters still needs time to learn the playbook and get his conditioning back to top form.

It all adds up to one giant liability: one that has been re-thrust under the spotlight by the ruthless, unforgiving hand of time. No more dalliance, and no more hiding behind past comparisons and preseason silver linings. It’s time to just take this ragtag group of linemen, throw them out there in a somewhat random configuration, sit back and wait to look either prescient or stupid.

While the Cowboys defense provided more playmaking and momentum-generation in the preseason, ultimately, the offense must anchor this team. It must do so through improved red-zone play and, more importantly, running the ball well enough to win possession battles.

The tests for the front five are coming early, and they’re arriving in the midst of the stretch of otherwise winnable games. A good start is beyond crucial for this year’s team; fail to capitalize against the first five opponents and all the NFC East mediocrity on the planet won’t get Dallas into the playoffs.

Under the O-line’s current patchwork structure and tenuous rotation, that might be a problem.