First of all, allow me to say that I think that first down yellow line on televised football games may be the greatest invention of our time. No I mean it. When I attend a game, I find myself looking for it. There was the invention of electricity, the telephone, antibiotics, the computer and the yellow first down line.
Watching a football marked just short of that yellow line can be very anguishing for fans. Last year it seemed too often Dallas came up short of that magic line when they needed it most.
If you thought last year the Cowboys offense just couldn’t seem to pick up a yard when they needed one, well you were probably on to something. The Cowboys have had a lackluster performance in short yardage situations for actually the past few years. In an article by Jonathon Bales, he offers numbers that prove the Cowboys aren’t converting those 3rd and short or 4th and short situations.
The Cowboys converted just 57% of short yardage (one or two yards needed) opportunities in 2011 to finished ranked a wimpy 23rd in the NFL. That’s pretty much getting stuffed and jammed regularly at the line when you need to pick up a critical yard to sustain a drive.
Last year the Cowboys certainly had some success running the ball on first down or in passing situations. Their running back Murray was having an outstanding rookie season before suffering an injury. But for Dallas to compete for a playoff spot next year, they will need to improve their short yardage performance. In other words, man up and grind out a yard to keep the clock running and put your opponents away.
What has been done in the offseason so far to improve their short yardage performance?
New FB Lawrence Vickers: The Cowboys signed full back Vickers in the offseason. While with the Texans, Houston was the 2nd best team in the NFL in rushing yards. Fiammetta was quite effective in lead blocking for Murray last season, but the Cowboys did not resign Fiammetta this year and he was signed by the Patriots. I didn’t think it was a smart move to let Fiammetta go after watching Murray explode on the scene last year with Fiammetta lead blocking for him. However he appears to have some health issues so maybe it is best to move on.
In Vickers, the Cowboys would appear to have a FB that can help the Cowboys pick up a yard through running and lead blocking. Vickers has commented that he was “shocked” that the Texans let him go and let’s hope we share his sentiments after watching him play with a star on his helmet. Overall I think Vickers will help the Cowboys perform better in short yardage.
What still needs to happen to get that yard when you got to have it?
Interior offensive line: Added a couple guards and new O line coach but not there yet.
I think this is where Dallas just hasn’t gotten it done during short yardage situations. The Cowboys have added a couple guards in the offseason in Livings and Bernadeau however it’s not likely that these two will be the answer. Bernadeau is out with hip surgery and Livings brings nice size and strength but less than outstanding performance from the Bengals.
Undrafted guard O Leary is a possible answer at guard but the health of his knee is questionable.
Then there is the very important center position which is ground zero on short yardage attempts. Let’s face it, a QB sneak is an ugly play when the center fails to move anyone off the ball. Center was a weak spot for Dallas last year and so far it really hasn’t been upgraded. Perhaps the Cowboys scoop up a center or guard that gets cut before the season begins.
New O line coach Bill Callahan comes over from the Jets to try to improve things up front. Perhaps he can help the interior of the line perform better. No matter how much of a passing league the NFL has become, it seems at some point in the game, the victor will be determined by what happens in the trenches.
Power running back: Cowboys RB Felix Jones is just simply not a power back. He can make great runs in space and on finesse plays like screens and draws but he is not going to lower the shoulders and plow ahead very often. Murray offers more power run ability than Jones but his game is actually similar to Jones. Some may argue he can get that yard but too often it didn’t happen last year.
The Cowboys could sure use a RB that can put his shoulders down and get that yard. Last year their 3rd sting RB was Philip Tanner a guys that showed promise but was injured with a pulled hamstring. Tanner may be that guy to get a yard but so far he hasn’t been placed in that role for Dallas. Undrafted RB Lance Dunbar is also competing for a spot on the roster. Could one of these two step up and show they can get a yard?
By adding Vickers, I think Dallas will move the pile a little better in 2012, however they didn’t draft a center and at this point appear ready to serve up last year’s center. “Keep doing the same things then expect the same results”.
Their guards could possibly come though for them but I wouldn’t bet on it. It’s clearly a weak spot on the team. New line coach Bill Callahan, may be able to get more out of the offensive linemen this year but of course that remains to be seen.
“A game of inches” is the cliché that reminds us that you can lose a football game if you come up an inch shy of the goal line or getting a first down. And just one loss can keep you from making the playoffs.