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Under Pressure: Travis Frederick And Offensive Balance In Big D

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After having the circumstances of his drafting dominate the talk of his rookie campaign, Cowboys OG/C Travis Frederick is entering training camp with elevated expectations. Photo by Rick Yeatts/Getty Images.
After having the circumstances of his drafting dominate the talk of his rookie campaign, Cowboys OG/C Travis Frederick is entering training camp with elevated expectations. Photo by Rick Yeatts/Getty Images.

From premature, squandered draft pick to potential franchise anchor, the perception of Dallas Cowboys OL Travis Frederick has run the gamut over the last three months. Without playing a down, the Wisconsin product and No. 31 overall pick has already been typecast in multiple roles and committed to taking reps at different positions, leaving lofty expectations as the only real constant from his limited time in Dallas.

Like most things offensive line, Frederick’s shape-shifting has been quiet and subtle. But there’s no doubt the Cowboys need and are demanding big production from their rookie lineman.

There are several angles to this one, but none bigger than Frederick’s potential contributions to the running game. Per this scouting report, he brings upper-body girth and lower-body quickness to the line’s interior, where both guard spots are plagued with injury concerns and hangovers from 2012 performances. And while some Cowboys writers believe offensive balance is a padded stat derived from rushes made in garbage time and therefore an overrated measure of success, that’s a tough argument to pitch to the league’s 31st-ranked rushing attack.

But in reality, for the 2013 Cowboys, offensive balance isn’t about radically boosting the rushing numbers. It’s about converting key running situations: third-and-shorts, red-zone plays and fourth-quarter drives. For this team, balance means establishing rhythm early in games and not having to constantly play from behind. And, above all, it means winning possession battles and keeping the defense off the field.

The Cowboys don’t need to cease being a pass-heavy offense. But they do need to create an illusion of a two-dimensional attack that can at least be partially substantiated.

The O-line needs time and reps to gel into a unit that defenses won’t see as a weakness and blitz the hell out of it. Tony Romo needs time to do what he does best: make reads from the pocket and deliver with accuracy, or scramble and throw on the run with accuracy. He won’t get that time if opposing linebackers constantly crowd the box, neutralizing the elements of unpredictability and the play-action threat that make rushing attacks potent.

An effective ground game keeps linebackers and safeties honest. It reduces their pass-rushing options, and helps confine them to their assigned running lanes. Given the overall level of talent of this offense, the absence of a ground game to at least create the appearance of balance is a fatal omission. And that’s where Frederick’s value really comes into play.

Frederick will be crucial to the running game at either guard or center. But at the latter, his responsibilities are obviously heavier and involve a sharper learning curve for a rookie. Assuming Dallas taps him as the starting center ahead of Phil Costa, how much scheme interpretation is resting on this guy’s shoulders? How reasonable is it to expect him to know the assignments of all his fellow blockers on every play as a rookie? And what’s his benchmark for acceptable production?

These are tough questions. From a PR standpoint, Frederick’s high level of involvement is good; it validates the questionable trade behind his selection. From a football standpoint, it’s risky; Frederick’s growing pains could be disastrous depending on when they choose to assert themselves.

Without blinking, fans and media alike have yanked Frederick from the skeptical spotlight of his drafting and ascribed him a very high level of responsibility on a team that is desperately thirsty for a playoff berth. While Frederick may turn out to be the kind of player who thrives under pressure, the Cowboys have set their first-round pick up for immediate feast or famine, with very little wiggle-room in between.