Commentary

Cowboys O-line sees age as a benefit

Organization sees experience as an asset, but veteran unit's health is a fragile issue

Updated: August 18, 2010, 8:17 PM ET
By Tim MacMahon | ESPNDallas.com

OXNARD, Calif. -- Pro Bowl guard Leonard Davis' scraggly beard features long wisps of gray hair.

It's sort of symbolic of the Dallas Cowboys' offensive line. It's a rough, tough group that's getting up there in age.

Left tackle Doug Free, 26, is the only starter who isn't older than 30. The average age of the Cowboys' offensive line is 30.2. Only the New York Giants have an older offensive line.

[+] EnlargeLeonard Davis
Matthew Emmons/US PresswireLeonard Davis insists that an older offensive line will be a benefit -- not a detriment -- to the Cowboys.

The offensive line had a miserable performance in last season's playoff loss to the Minnesota Vikings. Tony Romo was sacked three times in two series in last week's preseason game against the Oakland Raiders. Right tackle Marc Colombo will be sidelined at least 10 days after undergoing surgery to clean out loose particles in his right knee.

Those circumstances forced me to muster up the courage to ask a 6-foot-6, 355-pound man this question: Is the Dallas offensive line too old?

"I don't really see that as a concern," said Davis, who turns 32 a week before the season opener.

Davis, the elder statesman of the group, said he believes the Cowboys will benefit from the offensive line's experience.

That's the Valley Ranch line of thinking. The Cowboys' front office and coaching staff considers the four returning starters seasoned veterans, not geezers limping toward retirement.

"I love the age of the line," 67-year-old offensive line coach Hudson Houck said. "I remember when I was with the L.A. Rams. We had old guys and we set rushing records, won divisions. We were pretty good in those days with older guys."

Hall of Fame right tackle Jackie Slater, the rock of those Rams' lines, is proof that offensive linemen can get the job done well into their 30s. But the Rams never had more than three starters older than 30 on the offensive line during Houck's tenure there. But hey, that was so long ago that it's tough to remember.

It seems like a long time since the Cowboys won a Super Bowl, but Jerry Jones certainly remembers that his 1995 team had a dominant offensive line that featured a few graybeards. Left tackle Mark Tuinei was 35. Left guard Nate Newton was 34. Center Ray Donaldson was 37. They all made the Pro Bowl, along with 24-year-old right guard Larry Allen.

The age of the offensive line might concern the Cowboys as the draft nears in April. Not right now.

"I'm looking at this year," Jones said. "Our focus is right now and this year. It's a big plus for our team to have the talent level and the veteran offensive line."

Added Houck: "In the offensive line in particular, experience is so important. The older guys have seen everything, all the different line games, all the different defensive formations. They know how to prepare.

"Age is a factor to a certain point. When you get slowed down, that becomes an issue. Our guys are not at that point yet."

OK, so experience is an asset. Unless that savvy veteran can't suit up Sunday.

The Cowboys were fortunate that Doug Free proved to be a legitimate starting tackle when Colombo went down with a broken fibula and torn ankle ligaments last season. They weren't as lucky the previous season, when Kyle Kosier's broken foot caused him to miss all but three games, an underrated factor in Dallas' disappointing season.

Sources told ESPNDallas.com that Kosier is expected to miss four to six weeks after suffering a sprained right knee Wednesday morning.

It's a concern that is acknowledged even by the owner/ex-Arkansas offensive guard.

"When you look at this team, you got a veteran O-line. That is an asset," Jones said. "The thing that is not an asset is the older the players are, the more the injury factor is an issue."

Jones said he feels better about the offensive line's depth now than he did at the beginning of training camp. But it's hard to see how he feels that way.

Swing tackle Alex Barron, a former St. Louis Rams first-round pick with five seasons of starting experience, seems like a pretty good insurance policy. But he's been sidelined since spraining an ankle in the Aug. 8 preseason opener.

Montrae Holland, the seventh linemen the Cowboys plan to be active on game days, missed the first two preseason games with a strained hamstring.

Holland can't play center, so the Cowboys will count on Kosier to move over if Gurode gets hurt. Kosier had precious few practice reps at center and has zero game experience there.

The coaches rave about Robert Brewster, who will start on the right side Saturday night in San Diego, pumping up the 2009 third-round pick's balance, strength and long arms. But this is a guy who pulled off the trifecta of giving up a sack, committing a holding penalty and getting flagged for a false start against the Raiders last week.

It does appear that Free will flourish as the replacement for longtime left tackle Flozell Adams, who had definitely reached the point of slowing down in his mid-30s. Free's mobility allows offensive coordinator Jason Garrett to open up his playbook to call screens and sweeps to the left side that require the tackle to get out in space, plays they couldn't run with Adams. Free has held his own consistently with DeMarcus Ware during training camp, a strong sign that Free will be fine.

It's the old, oops, make that experienced guys on the offensive line that could be the cause of concern.

Tim MacMahon covers the Cowboys for ESPN Dallas. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.

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