Dallas Is Making Time for Bledsoe

By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 15, 2005

IRVING, Tex. -- When the Dallas Cowboys overhauled their roster in the offseason with a series of expensive free agent signings and a highly regarded draft class, they never figured their success this season would end up hinging on the play of inexperienced offensive tackles Torrin Tucker and Rob Petitti. But that's how things have worked out, and when the Cowboys face the Washington Redskins on Sunday at FedEx Field with both teams' playoff aspirations at stake, the outcome largely could depend on the ability of the two tackles to keep pass rushers out of the face of quarterback Drew Bledsoe.

Bledsoe has been one of the league's success stories this season, reviving his career after being released by Buffalo when the Bills decided in the offseason to make young quarterback J.P. Losman their starter. His reunion with Cowboys Coach Bill Parcells, who formerly coached him in New England, has been mostly a success, and Bledsoe is the NFC's fourth-rated passer.

But he is a virtual statue in the pocket, and his immobility means that opposing defenses can force him into bad throws and interceptions when they pressure him. That puts a great burden on his blockers, and Bledsoe initially struggled when the protector of his blind side, veteran left tackle Flozell Adams, suffered a season-ending knee injury six games into the season. Tucker and Petitti were overwhelmed when the Cowboys lost to the New York Giants at Giants Stadium 11 days ago, but redeemed themselves with a better performance in last Sunday's narrow victory over the Kansas City Chiefs at Texas Stadium.

"We ran the ball a little better, and we protected Drew a little better," Cowboys guard Marco Rivera said after the Chiefs game, a 31-28 triumph in which Bledsoe threw for 332 yards and three touchdowns. "That's what we need to do, but it's just one game. We have to do that every game. I never lost confidence in this offensive line. I never doubted us. I knew we could get the job done, but we have to do it consistently. There's still a lot of room for improvement."

The Cowboys signed Rivera, a three-time Pro Bowl selection for the Green Bay Packers, to a five-year, $20 million contract that included a $9 million signing bonus in March. That was part of a flurry in which owner Jerry Jones handed out contracts totaling $66.5 million, including $29 million in bonuses, to Rivera, cornerback Anthony Henry and defensive tackle Jason Ferguson over a two-day span. The Cowboys got an offseason scare when Rivera hurt his back while on a treadmill and needed surgery for a herniated disk. But he has started every game this season, and he and nine-time Pro Bowler Larry Allen have given the club a seasoned set of guards.

The problems mostly have come at other positions. The Cowboys never filled their need for a right tackle in the offseason, and Parcells and Jones decided in training camp to release Jacob Rogers -- an all-American at USC who was a second-round draft pick in 2004 -- when Rogers had season-ending surgery for a knee injury the Cowboys thought he could play through. The Cowboys had drafted Petitti in the sixth round in April out of Pittsburgh because he was big and perhaps could be developed into a starting-caliber player, but suddenly the starting job at right tackle was his as a rookie.

That wasn't a major problem as long as the Cowboys had Adams, another Pro Bowler, at left tackle. But when he tore a knee ligament and the starting job there went to Tucker, a third-year pro who'd gone undrafted out of Southern Mississippi and nearly had exhausted Parcells's patience and played his way off the roster several times, the Cowboys had problems. They no longer could use a tight end or a running back regularly to help their rookie right tackle because their untested left tackle also needed help at times.

The problems were glaring against the Giants, when hard-charging defensive ends Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora totaled three sacks and Bledsoe was harassed into two interceptions and two lost fumbles. But Tucker and Petitti weren't alone in their struggles that day. Backup center Andre Gurode, playing because starter Al Johnson was having trouble attempting to play after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery, missed a block on defensive tackle Kendrick Clancy that resulted in a botched handoff and a fumble return for a touchdown by Giants middle linebacker Antonio Pierce.

Parcells refused to blame the Giants loss solely on the young tackles, and things were far better against the Chiefs. Bledsoe was sacked four times, but he wasn't under such constant duress.

"I feel like we contributed and did our part," Petitti said. "It's a start. Now we have to go out and do it again."

Bledsoe said: "The guys that have been blocking for me have been taking a lot of heat. They really stepped up and answered the bell. We kind of stopped helping all the time and we asked these young tackles to step up and get the job done. They really did a nice job. They gave me a lot of time to look around the field, and it made my job easier."

Bledsoe seemed less concerned about the criticism he'd been receiving before the Kansas City game.

"When you play this position, if you don't embrace that type of pressure and that type of expectation level, you're not going to last very long," he said. "When you play the position, it's always about answering the challenge. . . . If you can step up to it and answer it, you can play this position."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company