Tote the Line

The off-season, mainly player personnel acquisition, can go any direction desired, but if priority No. 1 isn't the offensive line, throw in the 2006 towel and raise the white flag.

It seems like centuries ago when this unit was the least of the concerns. The talent, stability and familiarity of yesteryear's units were directly responsible for championship success. Highlighting just the early 90's, it was a given to see Tuinei, Newton, Stepnoski (and Donaldson), Allen and Williams gracing the field of play with consistency and regularity. Sprinkle in a Gesek, Gogan and Kennard for good measure. Rock solid. Consistent. Cohesive. Champions.

The four teams participating in last weekend's championship games all had congruent and noteworthy front walls. Without it, you can basically kiss any chance of success good-bye. It all starts up front. If there's no surge forward or ample pocket protection, it's a guaranteed recipe for disaster.

Not to throw a wet blanket on sought-after optimism, but a pessimistic portrait is still in full view when considering the current state of affairs in regards to the 2006 offensive line. Vast improvement in 2006 is doubtful. Questionable at best. The only way to fortify this unit is through NFL experience. Submitted resumes must contain bone fide, successful trench work to even be considered for interviews. This completely rules out reclamation via the NFL Draft.

The Draft should be looked to for future, depth purposes only. Unlike defense, it takes offensive linemen a great deal of time and repetition to learn and develop in the NFL. Pro Bowl-like performances in year one just don't happen. The speed, complexity and veteran savvy strewn throughout the league will eat a recent college grad (regardless of All-American status) alive. In the first year of an offensive lineman's life, training camp, where they're learning the nuances, intricacies and subtleties of the pro game, comprises their actual season. It rarely plays itself out on Sunday afternoons.

Thus, the Cowboys will seek assistance and attempt to fortify through free agency. Again. It's hopeful the 2006 search will turn up effective results. The organization can only hope the 2006 version of Marco Rivera will reveal a substantially different player than the 2005 model. The return on investment was miserable. Before considering the potential grocery list of offensive linemen available for purchase, take a look at the Cowboys question marks.

The guy manning the most vital of all front wall positions is coming off an injury. Only time will tell as to the rehabbing ACL and mindset of The Hotel. The left guard is still serviceable in the running game, but the cross point has been reached where salary continues to ascend while production is in decline. The Pro Bowl honors are being bestowed on reputation only. Center is one, giant cluster fudge. Either pick a member of the lesser-than-dynamic duo or start over. If the organization chooses the latter, the ordained one needs to be in Valley Ranch no later than the conclusion of the Draft. This is the quarterback of the offensive line. The adjustment period and learning curve are huge. Particularly for the player himself, but equally as important is the impact he has on the two players to his left and right. Right guard is all about health and an immediate return to purchase price productivity. If early camp indicators denote a potential repeat performance, time to cut bait. Right tackle is the $64K question. Is Rob Petitti the answer? For now and the future?

Another year will bring experience and a jock full of "now, I knows." It'll be interesting to see if Petitti remains Parcells' personal project and if Parcells stands behind his self-professed proclamation to Big Rob in the form of "I will not allow you to fail." Will there be enough confidence in the Pittsburgh product to allow him to remain a year two starter? Suffice it to say, the kid's off-season will be utterly intense with Parcells personally monitoring every pound he sheds and move he makes.

There is no margin of error available when it comes to the group responsible for keeping Bledsoe upright and Jones moving the chains. Bledsoe's lack of mobility and inability to move laterally is prohibitive and unforgiving. Thus, he needs to be max protected at all times in order to have enough time to find targets. It takes almost flawless execution up front in order for Bledsoe to thrive. A veteran, cohesive unit is mandatory if the offense is going to pony up its share of responsibility. An offensive line lacking continuity and familiarity can render a non-mobile quarterback ineffective in more ways than one. A quarterback with agile and elusive feet can buy a little time and counter miscues and whiffs up front.

It's a given Bledsoe will be behind center for the next two years. One of his biggest assets is durability. He's not prone to injury, and while a good thing, the Cowboys are still rolling some extremely risky dice by not having a veteran signal caller riding shot gun. It only takes one hit, and the Cowboys are operating heavy machinery without insurance. Not an effective risk management strategy. Jerry's wildcatter mentality is conducive to well drilling, but highly counter-productive if his starting quarterback is the one being drilled.

A football team has many moving parts, and it takes a collective effort to achieve greatness. On paper, it appears the Cowboys will fall short in 2006 in part due the predicaments in the offensive line. Whether it's another run with the current group or an injection of veteran talent, the continuity factor looms large. New personnel equates to an adjustment period where familiarity and trust are heavily sought. The bond offensive linemen enjoy is unlike any other on the field. Yes, quarterbacks and receivers must have certain karma, but the O line is a completely different animal. While the level of severity is much different, the offensive line bond is very military-like. The trust soldiers place in each other is a lot like the "I have your back" mentality instilled in front walls of NFL teams. The parts mesh and are heavily dependent on the sum of all components working in unison. These dynamics don't happen overnight, and like the 90's group, it takes years of togetherness to perfect.

Keep your eyes on Seattle's left side during the Super Bowl. Walter Jones and Steve Hutchinson are as close to complete unity as you'll find in NFL circles. They've shared the trenches for 5 years. Each was a first-round selection. Ask Shaun Alexander and Matt Hasselbeck how much they appreciate the applied craft of each. You just cannot win without unity up front. Name a Super Bowl victor who did it with patchwork comprising the front five.

This particular unit is going to be under the most powerful of microscopes as it relates to the Cowboys. There are five pretty good reasons why Bill Parcells told Sean Payton no (twice) when the request for Tony Sparano was called into Valley Ranch. No coach is going to feel the pressure and heat of the Parcells' whip like Sparano. The competition in training camp must be intense and physical. Forget the skill positions, the Cowboys need to carry as many free agent O linemen as the roster limitations will allow. Sparano and Parcells have to find a group who can play together and achieve results. Without vast improvements up front, this team will not take the quantum leap it desires in 2006.

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