The Dallas Cowboys made a lot of their football currency in 2016 by running and throwing from behind the NFL's best line.
It wasn't a question. Dallas owned the premier group, and the fact it was built via the draft made it even sweeter for those supporting The Star.
Fast-forward to 2018, and well, we can't quite say the same.
Concern shifted from football to a man's health when center Travis Frederick announced he'd been diagnosed with Guillian-Barre Syndrome, an autoimmune disorder that attacks the nervous system. Instead of worrying about when Frederick will return, the Cowboys are focused on how they can help him recover and be healthy, with football serving as a secondary focus.
The season will still arrive, though, and with it comes Frederick's replacement: career backup Joe Looney.
Looney is best known for dressing up as a much more plump version of Ezekiel Elliott in 2017, poking fun at those who suggested Elliott was a tad overweight. His play has been less memorable due to a lack of on-field time and notable performance.
That will change come Week 1, because Looney is Dallas' starter at center for an undetermined amount of time. It could be eight weeks, or it could be the entire season. It's going to be substantial either way.
We got our first look at a line with Looney at center in Week 2 of the preseason against the Cincinnati Bengals, and it was less than promising.
I graded each of Looney's snaps in the first half of the contest on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 serving as the worst (a missed assignment with a direct negative impact) and 5 as the best (a stellar, impressive play, such as a pancake block). When broken down between run and pass plays, Looney at best graded out at slightly above 3 (the standard for average, or adequate play) in the passing game with 3.083 out of 5 per play. In the run game, he was below average, finishing with an average per play grade of 2.6875 out of 5.
That's far from the standard set by Frederick.
Looney's most frequent grade, an average, an adequate 3, can work for Dallas' offensive line, thanks to the above-average play of those surrounding him. But Dallas is also starting rookie Connor Williams at left guard, between Looney and two-time All-Pro left tackle Tyron Smith. Williams is learning as he plays but has shown struggles typical of a rookie. When paired with Looney, this becomes a somewhat frequent problem.
Looney's main offenses are simple: He's often too high after engaging, rarely gets good push on an opponent and too often ends up clogging a running lane instead of creating one. This was frequently the case against the Bengals, as were moments in which Looney was caught leaning and was easily shed by a defender.
Take this example, a running play executed within Dallas' own 10.
In the image above, Looney engages Cincinnati nose tackle Andrew Billings on a zone run to the right, but stumbles forward as Billings splits the double team and blows up the run. The result was a negative play.
Looney also frequently got pushed back into Dak Prescott's wheelhouse, compromising the immediate front of the pocket and forcing him to get rid of the ball under pressure. Prescott often compensated with his athleticism, but when projected over the course of a season, it simply doesn't bode well for the Cowboys' passing game. It doesn't take much to explain why.
Looney struggled with Billings, who has had an excellent preseason and caused similar problems for Buffalo a week later. But the center also made veteran defensive tackle Chris Baker look like a worthwhile addition after a forgettable year with Tampa Bay. On one play, he flat out lost Baker after initially engaging him, and Baker closed laterally before making the tackle and limiting Dallas to a very short gain.
Cincinnati cut Baker on Friday.
Now, this could be an indication of the ascension of a new top-10 defensive line. Cincinnati has caused problems for opponents throughout the preseason, harassing Bills rookie quarterback Josh Allen relentlessly in Week 3. But the struggles Looney experienced against Baker, a player Cincinnati deemed expendable just days later, is a cause for concern.
In Looney's defense, he played a good amount of the Cincinnati game without starting right guard Zack Martin, who hyperextended his knee and suffered a bone bruise. Martin has since returned to practice.
Looney also was more effective the next week against Arizona (Dallas' eight turnovers aside), occasionally getting good push on his matchup. But he still was caught being too vertical after engaging his man, limiting his ability to move him with any actual significance.
There are positives. Looney shows adequate mobility in the ground game and is able to get out in the open field and target second-level defenders. He's not as consistent when it comes to engaging and sustaining blocks on said defenders; sometimes they're average blocks, and other times, they're partial at best. At other times, they do the job as needed, though they won't make a highlight reel (newsflash: most don't).
He's still slightly below average in the pass game due to the aforementioned issues. He doesn't chase stunts (in the few times in which he encounters them), but he also loses a few yards in a good amount of pass sets.
Dallas can scheme around this with a shorter, quicker passing game. It did as much in Week 3 against Arizona, with backup Cooper Rush getting starting reps. With a receiving corps comprised of Allen Hurns and a collection of average wideouts (rookie Michael Gallup has the potential to emerge as a contributor), this might end up being the Cowboys' passing attack anyway. But it does limit Dallas' potential to move down the field quickly, placing additional pressure on its defense to contain opposing offenses.
It also takes away the Cowboys' biggest strength, which is their ability to run the ball via a variety of schemes. Looney doesn't make much of an impact in the zone attack but will undoubtedly benefit from double teams with Martin and Williams, provided the latter improves as the season progresses.
The hope is that as he sees more playing time, Looney becomes more comfortable and slowly improves, even if incrementally. The Cowboys still have two rock-solid tackles in Smith and La'el Collins, and a two-time All-Pro in Martin. The weakness is Looney and for now, Williams. Six weeks from now, this could become a non-issue. Right now, though, it remains one, which could undercut Dallas' potential in 2018.
As with most subjects at this point of the season, we're left to wait and see. For the first time in a few years, though, Dallas' offensive line isn't the guaranteed strength it once was.