FRISCO, Texas -- Every game, they lead the Dallas Cowboys onto the field with Tyron Smith always first, provided the left tackle is healthy. Right beside him is La’el Collins, provided he’s healthy and available to play. Then it is Zack Martin, Connor Williams and Tyler Biadasz.
It is happened every week, so it can’t be a coincidence.
For years, the Cowboys have been led by their offensive line. For a few years, they were called the best offensive line in football. Then one of the best. With perennial Pro Bowlers in Smith and Martin, who is considered the best guard in football by many, it is easy to see what’s to like.
Yet as the Cowboys look to regroup after a disappointing finish to 2021 with a wild-card loss to the San Francisco 49ers, it is time to reinvest in the position not because they should but because they must.
In the moments after the loss to the Niners, Collins and Martin were asked about the offensive-line play.
Is the line meeting their standard?
“I wouldn’t say so,” Collins said. “I think we have a lot of work to do. Definitely didn’t reach the potential that room, the ability we have.”
Does the line need to improve?
“It’s no secret we need to get better,” Martin said. “We got smacked in the mouth early, and credit to our guys for coming back and fighting through and making it a game. We need to get better.”
There are serious questions the Cowboys need to ask and answer:
Is Joe Philbin the right coach?
The Cowboys were the most penalized offensive line in the NFL, and some of that falls on coaching. The line had 54 penalties total, 49 accepted. The Las Vegas Raiders were second with 47 and 40. The Los Angeles Rams and Seattle Seahawks had the fewest accepted penalties for an offensive line (16).
The 49 penalties negated 373 yards gained.
Against San Francisco, the line was flagged five times with four accepted penalties as Williams and Collins were called for a hold and a false start each.
In the regular season, Williams was the most-penalized lineman in the league (15 total, 12 accepted) and when the coaches opted to bench him, replacement Connor McGovern did not play better.
“We have common philosophies and approaches: do not hold on a run play. We all understand that,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “There’s no excuse to hold on a run play. It’s simple math. I mean, minus-2 versus minus-10, do the math. But, we’ve had too many holding on run plays, so that’s something as a coach we’ll continue to take a hard look at, by individual, by technique, by concept, situation and so forth. ”
Is it time to move on from Smith?
He has not played a full season since 2015. He missed five games in 2021 with a recurring ankle injury and one because of COVID-19. He is just 31 but is about to enter his 10th season. He had a poor performance against San Francisco in the playoffs.
"I get to see Tyron every day, but also I have an understanding of not only how it happens and what goes into it,” McCarthy said. “I think players go through strings of injuries, particularly at his position. He's a cornerstone position. He plays in a high-stress position. I just have confidence in him and our process. So yeah, I don't see any reason why we can't see him bounce back and have a full season.”
Smith is set to count $17.5 million against the cap and make $13.5 million, but the Cowboys could save nearly $5.5 million by releasing him. That, however, sets up another question: Who is the replacement?
At the very least, the Cowboys have to start the transition process by finding Smith’s successor in the draft, potentially with a first-round pick. The Cowboys currently have the No. 24 pick.
Is it time to move on from Collins or move him back to guard?
Collins missed all of 2020 with hip surgery and then was suspended five games for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy. Because of the penalty, the guaranteed money remaining on his contract ($6.48 million) has voided, so the Cowboys can get out of his contract without much salary-cap penalty. They believe offensive tackle Terence Steele, an undrafted free agent in 2020, has the look of a decade-long player after starting 27 of 33 regular-season games his first two seasons.
It has been a disappointing run because Collins had his best season in 2019, signed a contract extension and looked like he would be a stalwart for years to come.
Maybe the answer is moving him back to left guard, where he opened his career. McCarthy hinted at the possibility as Collins was coming back from suspension but it never happened. Williams is set to become a free agent in March but his penalties make an exit more likely than a return at this point.
With Collins at guard, the Cowboys could go with Steele at right tackle and 2021 draft pick Josh Ball, who did not play his rookie year because of an ankle injury, as a candidate for the backup tackle job.
Is Biadasz the answer at center?
The Cowboys were spoiled by the Pro Bowl play of Andre Gurode and Travis Frederick for a good portion of the last 20 years. Biadasz started every game in his second season but had nine penalties. He does not have the strength of Gurode and Frederick and it appeared as if the Cowboys were holding a competition for the job in training camp by giving Williams a long look but he had troubles with the shotgun snaps. Once the season started, they began to give McGovern backup-center reps.
One pro scout said Biadasz should be viewed as a starting-type player, adding he is better with more stout players around him. With Martin, he doesn’t have a worry. The inconsistencies of Williams and McGovern hurt him.
Looking for a center in the draft makes some sense too, but the Cowboys will have needs across the roster that might be greater.
When McCarthy was named coach in January 2020, he thought he was inheriting a line that had four blue-chip players in Smith, Frederick, Martin and Collins. Frederick retired before the 2020 season. Smith and Collins have been hurt. Only Martin has maintained that level of play.
As good as the statistics say the Cowboys’ offense was in 2021, they could not run it effectively enough (they ranked 20th in yards before contact per rush) and they could not protect Dak Prescott effectively enough (ranked 23rd in average time QBs had to throw), especially against the Niners when it mattered most.
The line needs a reboot.