The 2010 Dallas Cowboys had a disappointing season for numerous reasons. On defense, a unit that had been a strength when the team won the division in 2009 completely collapsed. It did so despite not having wholesale injuries and changes. The only major injury was Marcus Spears, who was replaced by Stephen Bowen (now with Washington) for 9 games. The only new starter was safety Alan Ball in place of Ken Hamlin. Ball struggled in that role, and other players like CB Mike Jenkins and Anthony Spencer regressed. The secondary was a liability and the pass defense was among the worst in the league after being among the best a year earlier.
The major acquisition this offseason was the coordinator, Rob Ryan. The team lost out on Nnamdi Asomugha to division rival Philadelphia, so the hope is that the secondary, and the rest of the defense, bounces back with Ryan in charge. The only big changes were adding Abram Elam at safety (and moving Alan Ball to backup cornerback) and adding DE Kenyon Coleman and releasing Igor Olshansky.
On offense, the team entered the year with an aging offensive line with 4 starters turning 32 in 2010, and it completely fell apart. If you want to know who the culprits were, just look at who was released this offseason. The team re-signed LT Doug Free, the one revelation on the line and the only starter last year under 30. Kyle Kosier is back at guard. The team dumped guys who’s names and reputations far outstripped their play when they released Leonard Davis, Marc Colombo, and Andre Gurode.
Dallas, though, didn’t chase after any veteran solutions in free agency to replace those starters. The team drafted Tyron Smith in the first round to play right tackle, and will also go with a 7th round rookie who didn’t start last year at Wisconsin, Bill Nagy, and a second year undrafted free agent at Center in Phil Costa. Costa has a knee injury right now and is questionable for the opener, which means rookie Kevin Kowalski may make three rookie starters on the line against the Jets.
With the combination of these moves, in one offseason Dallas has gone from one of the oldest starting offensive lines to one of the youngest. How rare is it for a team to have 3 starters with as little experience as Smith, Nagy, and Costa?
I went back to the 1990 season and, using the pro-football-reference season finder, isolated offensive linemen who started at least 10 games in a season at age 24 or under, and with 1 or fewer years of experience in the league. It turns out there are only 7 other teams that have had 3 such starters in one season. Three of them were among the worst teams in the league (2010 Carolina, 1998 Indianapolis, and 1992 New England) and another, 1990 San Diego, had a losing record, while three more made the playoffs with turnarounds at offensive line.
The 1990 Dolphins started rookies Richmond Webb and Keith Sims, and second year player Jeff Uhlenhake at center, and surged from an 8-8 season the year before, to 12-4 and a return to the postseason. The 2004 Chargers were a big surprise, going from 4 wins to 12 wins as they went with 5 new offensive line starters, including rookies Nick Hardwick and Shane Olivea, along with guard Toniu Fonoti. The 2007 Buccaneers had 4 youngsters on the line, as rookies Donald Penn and Arron Sears joined second year starters Davin Joseph and Jeremy Trueblood, as the team went from 4 wins to 9 wins and an NFC South title.
Some of those bad teams had to go to youngsters because of injuries, including Carolina last year. Dallas has decided that the risk of inexperience is worth the upgrade in younger, lighter legs. They will lean on Tony Romo and his healed collarbone to cover any mistakes in pass protection, as he has always had a quick release, and was only sacked 3.2% of the time last season despite numerous problems in protection early last season. The Cowboys will then hope that the upgrades in athleticism on the offensive line, coupled with more Felix Jones now that Marion Barber is also gone, will lead to a more dynamic running game to relieve pressure on Romo.
If 2011 is going to be a success, then it will be because the young offensive line solidified. The offensive weapons are there with Miles Austin, Dez Bryant, Jason Witten and Felix Jones, arguably among the best units in the league at the skill positions. The line just needs to be good enough to let them do their thing. I don’t think they get all the way back to 2009, but I see Dallas joining a mix of teams in wildcard contention at around 9-7.
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[photo via Getty]