It’s always easy to look at the new thing as the next big thing. Often what is known isn’t as exciting to people as what could be. Such is the case with Dallas Cowboys Center Joe Looney. After starting 18 games for the Cowboys in 2018, helping them get to the divisional round of the playoffs, Looney has become an afterthought for a lot of folks in the battle to start at the center position.
Because Looney has been the backup to Travis Frederick, a player who was destined for the Hall of Fame before retiring early, fans and analysts just assume that Looney is a major step back at the position. Sure, he’s not as good as one of the best two or three centers in the NFL, but Looney’s a starting-caliber center in the NFL. Easily one of the 32 best centers.
There’s an assumption that Connor McGovern or Tyler Biadasz will assume the starting center spot in the wake of Frederick’s retirement, and that’s certainly possible, but don’t count out “Dancing Joe” just yet.
Joe Looney has several things going for him.
First, he has the experience to step right in and help the Dallas Cowboys win football games. There’s a full season’s worth of evidence to that point. Is he an All-Pro player like Frederick was, no, but he was good for the Cowboys back in 2018 helping Ezekiel Elliott win his second rushing title in three seasons.
Additionally, Looney has a rapport with Dak Prescott and the others on the offensive line. He’s got 18 games with Tyron Smith, Connor Williams, Zack Martin, and La’el Collins. That’s a load of trust built through playing together during a season that started somewhat poorly but got better during the second half of the season.
Even entering his age 30 season, Looney should be fresh as Travis Frederick came back and started all 16 games last season. Looney isn’t dealing with any injuries or nagging issues. Once the Cowboys can get on the practice field, he’ll be ready to roll.
Connor McGovern sat out all of last season with a pectoral injury he suffered during the Senior Bowl. He should be ready to go with the Dallas Cowboys get back on the practice field. However, the year-long layoff will mean he may need some time to reacclimate to contact and the pace of the NFL game. McGovern may even see some time at guard, which could inhibit his ability to pick up the center position quickly enough to win a positional battle in a potentially abbreviated training camp.
The Cowboys second fourth-round pick from he 2020 NFL Draft will also have a similar adjustment period to go through. Tyler Biadasz dealt with a shoulder injury throughout the 2019 season and had to have surgery early in 2020 to clean out his A.C. joint. It looks like he’s going to be healthy and ready for practice, but like McGovern, will need time to acclimate to the NFL game.
Whenever people talk about Looney, they talk about the total sack differences. Yes, there’s a marked difference between Looney and Frederick. Before allowing one sack in 2019, Frederick had gone three seasons without a sack per Pro Football Focus.
While the sack numbers for the Dallas Cowboys were incredibly troubling in 2018, that season looks to be a bit of an aberration to the norm for the Cowboys with Dak Prescott at quarterback.
In 2018, Dak Prescott took 56 sacks. Over his three other seasons, Prescott averaged just 26.67 sacks a season. Sure, it’s easy to look at the 2018 season and see Looney as the only real difference, but I think there’s some context that needs to be included in that discussion as well.
The first thing I’d like you to recall is that Dak Prescott wasn’t the same quarterback for a while after the eight sack beating he took in the middle of 2017 at the hands of the Atlanta Falcons. For a while after, there was a thought that Prescott wasn’t ever going to be the quarterback we saw in 2016 and the first part of 2017 ever again.
In 2018, the Dallas Cowboys hired a new offensive line coach, Paul Alexander. Alexander came over from the Cinncinati Bengals with a strong reputation as an offensive line coach. Unfortunately, he spent the offseason attempting to teach the offensive line techniques that they hadn’t previously worked with under Bill Callahan and Frank Pollack, and it showed.
La’el Collins, who was arguably the best offensive lineman on the team in 2019, looked like a completely different player under Alexander in 2018. In 2018, Collins allowed 47 pressures and eight sacks while in 2019, he only allowed 26 pressures and two sacks.
It was evident that the Alexander method for offensive line play wasn’t a good fit for the Dallas Cowboys. So they made a move to replace Alexander with Assistant Offensive Line Coach Marc Colombo.
In 2018, Looney only allowed one sack and 25 pressures on the season per Pro Football Focus. He allowed fewer sacks than the Pouncey Brothers, Ryan Khalil, Justin Britt, Alex Mack, and Justin Unger. Looney had a really good year for the Cowboys, all the while breaking in a rookie left guard next to him.
Pro Football Focus attempts to attribute sacks to the player that they feel was responsible for the sack. In 2018, they deemed 15 of the 53 sacks Prescott took to be his fault, which led the NFL.
In 2019, Dak Prescott looked like a completely different quarterback than he did in 2018 and not just because the offensive line play improved with the presence of Travis Frederick. Prescott was more comfortable sliding around in the pocket to avoid pressure. He was much more decisive working through his progessions and getting rid of the football as well as escaping the pocket.
Joe Looney may not be the best center in the NFL, but he’s a lot better than what many give him credit for. People likely watch Looney through the lens of Travis Frederick, which, if you tried to compare 30 of the starting centers in the NFL to Travis Frederick, you’d likely come away disappointed in that player’s performance. That’s how good Travis Frederick was at his job. Anyone else is going to pale in comparison.
If one of McGovern or Biadasz can come in and win the job from Looney, that’s great, and it means they’ve got the best player playing, but it’s far from a foregone conclusion that Looney concedes the job. Because of his experience and ability, one of these other players will have to prove to be a better player. With a condensed offseason and possibly training camp, it looks less likely McGovern or Biadasz could come in and take the job.
Joe Looney is a good player that sits at the top of the center competition for the Dallas Cowboys. It will be one of the more intriguing position battles to follow this Summer as the Cowboys prepare for the 2020 season.