Tony Romo was sacked three times in Week 14, but had he not been Houdini in the pocket, the damage could have been much, much worse. Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap absolutely abused the Cowboys’ offensive line—a unit that has gotten worse as the season has progressed. While Jason Garrett initially compensated for the line’s shortcomings by altering the nature of the passing game—resulting in few downfield throws and the lowest average pass length in the NFL—the coach realized the team can’t win without getting the ball deep to his play-makers. That’s the reason we’ve seen Dez Bryant’s deep ball rate (and overall efficiency) absolutely skyrocket.
In the short-term, running the normal offense in spite of the offensive line’s struggles can work because of Romo’s magic. In the long-term, however, you can’t have your quarterback getting hit every third dropback. So what can the Cowboys do to fix the offensive line woes? Here are two suggestions.
Bench Right Tackle Doug Free
Free has absolutely been one of the worst linemen in the NFL this year. He’s yielded pressure on 7.5 percent of his pass protection snaps. Sack numbers differ a bit based on who you ask, but I have Free as allowing seven sacks. And perhaps most telling of all, Free leads the league in penalties with 13—one per game.
It’s difficult to bench a player who you recently paid big bucks, but in economic terms Free’s contract is a sunk cost. That money is gone, and so it shouldn’t be used as justification to play him. Even NFL executives and coaches fall into the “we paid him so he’s playing” trap, but there’s no reason to start a sub-optimal player. We saw a little bit of Jermey Parnell on Sunday. He struggled, but he’s not worse than Free. It’s time to start him for good.
Utilize Jason Witten
There’s no doubt that Witten should be used as a receiver on most routes, but there are also times when it could benefit the Cowboys to keep him in to block. Witten has stayed in to block on only 10.6 percent of pass plays in 2012—a number that is way, way down from previous seasons. On top of that, most of those plays have been either quick screens or sight adjustments; only rarely do the Cowboys go deep with Witten as a blocker.
It’s gotten worse as the season has progressed, too; Witten has stayed in to block on only seven total passing plays in the past three games. Four of the passes were screens. Two of the other three went for touchdowns.
By utilizing max pass protection, the Cowboys can provide Romo with the time he needs to comfortably step up in the pocket and find his receivers downfield. Witten’s blocking rate doesn’t need to increase substantially, but keeping him in to block on a 1st and 10 play-action pass can really open things up downfield. At this point, defenses can start to key Witten with certainty; if he doesn’t immediately go into a route, the Cowboys are either throwing a screen or not passing at all.
Jonathan Bales is the founder of The DC Times. He writes for DallasCowboys.com and the New York Times. He's also the author of Fantasy Football for Smart People: How to Dominate Your Draft.