Chain Reaction

First things first. It would be highly remiss not to commend the Cowboys organization for their participation and productivity in free agency. They've made prudent moves, and all totaled, the talent level has improved.

Yes, veteran leadership and experience has exited through the Valley Ranch doors, and those pieces will be missed. You don't lose guys like Dat Nguyen, Dan Campbell, Larry Allen, La'Roi Glover and Keyshawn Johnson without it impacting your team. The Cowboys will feel these departures as the season plays itself out.

While age is always a factor, it's felt it may be one of the most overrated factors in talent evaluation. It all depends on the player. It's amusing to hear people say the Cowboys didn't gain much at wide receiver because both lead guys are in their 30's. Honestly now, if someone cannot see the talent level upgrade, putting all other character factors aside, between Terrell Owens and Keyshawn Johnson, optometrist appointments are needed.

Conversely, a Larry Allen departure and Kyle Kosier arrival certainly makes the team younger, but it doesn't necessarily make them better. How do you lose a guaranteed first ballot hall-of-fame and regular Pro Bowl participant and insert a versatile, multi-dimensional career back up and expect to improve at the position?

It's give and take, and the Cowboys are doing their best to acquire a younger core of player talent in hopes of remaining competitive for years to come. Everyone, including Jerry Jones, knows the drought has been long and painful. When trying to remain competitive, now and tomorrow, organizational decisions can resemble and feel like root canals. No pain, no gain.

The other element that cannot be overlooked is the propensity and willingness to take a risk. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Cowboys' faithful, especially those who have stayed true from the humble beginnings, have mixed emotions when it comes to Jerry Jones. While understandable, as Jones isn't without faults and mistakes, but he's a fan's owner. His business background is insurance and wildcatting. Both professions are founded on risk. You don't get to be a billionaire without taking a few risks. By their very nature, you either win or lose. Rarely is there a draw. So, putting the Tom Landry firing and Jimmy Johnson divorce aside, do you prefer a sit on your hands or make something happen owner? Thought so.

Jerry is getting back to being Jerry. He needs to be applauded for stepping back and letting Bill Parcells, and other members of the organization, run the football operation. Yes, it's possible to mature even in the later years of life. The Jones family certainly made their biggest impact, in direct relation to championships, when they were taking speculative, yet calculated, risks. High profile coaches, players with both reputations and price tags, and they paid their stars their just due(s).

The shift back to the boom, and good old, days is slowly morphing back to today. With this backdrop, the following areas will truly define where this organization goes in the years ahead:

The Offensive Line
Tony Romo
The Parcells' Replacement
Jeff Ireland's Tenure

Each is ranked in the order of need and addressed chronologically. Thus, priority #1, as it relates to right here, right now, is the offensive line. Items 2-4 will be addressed in future columns.

As much good that has come from free agency, has enough been done to address the offensive line? A quick glance, coupled with the health concerns surrounding Flozell Adams and Marco Rivera, points to "no." Truthfully, things may not have fallen as the Cowboys had hoped. Jeff Backus never came available. LeCharles Bentley, Kevin Mawae and Steve Hutchinson, even though coveted, possessed extreme sticker shock. By the time the Larry Allen decision rolled, the likes of Justin Hartwig and Toniu Fonoti were gobbled up. In surveying the current free agent availability list, there really isn't anyone out there which provides a significant upgrade over the current personnel. The other factor, which didn't come into play, and may have been on the Cowboys' wish list, was the salary cap. Had it remained at the 2005 level, the Cowboys may have virtually owned the free agency proceedings. The cap increase allowed many other teams to enter the fray. Look no further than Cleveland. Would LeCharles Bentley have been possible without the cap increase? GM Phil Savage is on record lamenting the same.

It all points back to risk. The Cowboys may have gambled and lost with regards to the offensive line and free agency. Was it a careless gamble? Only time will tell, but one fact remains. It all starts up front. Everything is predicated on the offensive line. They dictate both the running and passing games. Holes have to be created and quarterback protection is most vital. Drew Bledsoe, through the years, has proven most vulnerable to pressure and attacks up the middle. The film doesn't lie. His lateral movement abilities are severely limited and highly prohibitive. No knock on Drew, it's just the way he's constructed. It's a physical attribute that cannot be changed.

Armed with this knowledge, you had to think measures would be taken to protect the deficiency. This is the very essence of insurance. Spreading your risk among many to lessen your potential loss. If the running game stalls, the team is forced to throw. If the quarterback is under constant duress, sacks, pressures and interceptions are likely to increase. Lack of balls going to or on target for the most dangerous weapon on the field will only lead to disgruntlement. Are we all seeing the dovetailing of events and the possible chain reactions that might result?

The rule of thumb is to build, or fortify, a ball club from the inside out. Without solid, effective line play, on both sides of the ball, the success ratios and percentages drop dramatically. Many hope the Draft is a possible solution.

It certainly can be, but not for the present state of affairs. Regardless of blue chip talent, no rookie is going to immediately step in and be highly proficient. It just doesn't happen, especially on the offensive line or at quarterback. The learning curves are steep, and the complexities of the next level are daunting. If the Cowboys are banking on this year's Draft to remove the uncertainty up front, we've all greatly underestimated Jerry's penchant for and tolerance of risk. If Drew Bledsoe, the risk proposition is certainly more attractive from the owner's box than from behind center.

Again, none of this is being presented to downplay the Cowboys efforts in free agency and their preparations for the Draft. Each is to be applauded, but it sure leaves room for questions and unrest. Being only as strong as your weakest link is not some prophetic statement. It's basic, common sense, and when your weakest link is the focal point of everything you do as a football team, one can only hope the steel was of grade "A" nature. That, or the weld joining the weak link was crafted by a professional. Either way, barring catastrophic injuries, the 2006 season hangs in the balances of the offensive line.

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