It’s been said that the offensive line coach is the most important position coach on a football team. It makes sense given that an offensive line coach is responsible for five starters on every single play, or 45% of the offense. And as Andrew Luck can attest to, a poor offensive line can not only destroy a team’s chances at success, but even individual careers.
But that wasn’t supposed to be the case for the Cowboys and new offensive line coach Joe Philbin, who coincidentally coached the trenches for two of Luck’s final three seasons in the league. When Philbin was hired, Dallas had three perennial All Pro’s in Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, and Zack Martin, and La’el Collins was coming off a career year.
This should have been a cakewalk for any offensive line coach, but flash forward to today. Frederick has retired, Smith left practice on Thursday with a tight hamstring, and Collins missed practice due to a car crash. Collins was said to be fine, although it’s unclear how Smith is doing. One thing is clear, though: this offensive line is in line for plenty of uncertainty.
Luckily, Philbin is no greenback. Entering his 36th year coaching, Philbin has coached offensive linemen for Harvard, Iowa, and most notably Mike McCarthy’s Packers. It was under Philbin’s guidance that the Packers churned out linemen like Mark Tauscher, Daryn Colledge, Josh Sitton, TJ Lang, Marshall Newhouse, Derek Sherrod, and Bryan Bulaga.
Philbin struggled to translate that success to being head coach of the Dolphins, and he was fired four games into the 2015 season with a 24-28 overall record. But given Miami’s overall lack of success this century, it can hardly be placed entirely on Philbin’s shoulders. His two years in Indianapolis came during a tumultuous relationship between the head coach and general manager, as well as having little to no talent in the trenches.
But Philbin’s time in Green Bay has proven he knows how to coach and develop offensive linemen. He may need to lean heavily on that experience for this season. Smith has missed three games every year for the past four years, and there’s a competition at left guard going on between Connor Williams and Connor McGovern. Then there’s the center position, which seems to be Joe Looney’s job at the moment. But not only is Looney, who turns 30 in two weeks, not a long-term solution, the Cowboys hope that said solution is on the roster in rookie Tyler Biadasz.
That’s a lot of question marks about the entire left side of the line, and with such a protracted offseason, not much time has been provided for Philbin to figure things out. Dallas has an experienced swing tackle in Cameron Erving, although he has yet to practice. Brandon Knight saw limited time in relief of both tackles last year, but it wasn’t enough to guarantee him the job as the swing tackle. He has also been injured.
It’s very possible that the Cowboys could end up featuring multiple different lineups on the line of scrimmage this year. Injuries are bound to happen, as in any season, and some players could get pulled for poor performances. The most important part is chemistry along the line, and the shortened training camp and lack of preseason games negatively impacts the chance to build chemistry.
Of course, this could end up being an Achilles heel for a Cowboys offense trying to continue the success they had last year, when they led the league in yards and were the second most efficient offense. Dak Prescott is expected to continue to grow as a passer and has an arsenal of insane weapons in the passing game alongside both Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard. But a collapse on the offensive line threatens to ruin everything.
If that does happen, at least the Cowboys can rest easy in knowing their offensive line is being coached by a seasoned professional. He may have more challenges than he thought he signed up for, but Philbin should be up to the task.