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O-line forms at Cowboys' offseason

IRVING, Texas -- Jerry Jones has one task this offseason: Fix the Dallas Cowboys' offensive line.

Nothing else matters.

Not signing Tony Romo to a new deal. Not courting Sean Payton.

Nothing.

Making this raggedy offensive line a playoff-caliber unit must be Jerry's top priorty.

Got it?

And if Jerry balks for any reason whatsoever, then Stephen Jones should lock his pops in the wine cellar of Jerry's mansion until the job is completed.

Watching the Cleveland Browns' average defensive line dominate the Cowboys' offensive line simply removed any doubt about the club's top offseason priority.

The Browns sacked Romo seven times. They knocked him down nine times.

Ridiculous.

And it might not be any better Thursday against the Washington Redskins, who use a lot of movement to confuse linemen.

Free agency. The draft. Trades.

It doesn't matter which approach the Cowboys use to improve the offensive line. All that matter is it gets done.

Otherwise all the bells and whistles -- Romo, Jason Witten, Miles Austin, Dez Bryant and DeMarco Murray -- are worthless.

Jerry has invested way too much in those guys not to get his money's worth. A bad offensive line affects every aspect of the offense.

Coach Jason Garrett loves to throw the ball, but even he doesn't want to throw it 64.8 percent of the time in a league in which the average is 58.1 percent. Four times, Romo has thrown more than 40 passes; Dallas is 1-3 in those games.

While the Cowboys rank 12th in sacks allowed (24), they're tied for fourth in pressures allowed (32), tied for second in false starts (18) and tied for third in holding penalties (13).

The running game has been a joke, especially on first down. The Cowboys average just 3.37 yards, last in the league in first-down rushing.

So we shouldn't be surprised that Romo has been sacked 12 times on second down -- second-most in the league -- since they're often facing second-and-long. Teams play coverage on third down and get the ball back when the Cowboys punt.

See how it all works together?

So much attention has been focused on right tackle Doug Free because he had yet another bad game, yielding three or four sacks depending on how much blame you assign him.

It's bigger than him.

Seriously.

He's simply the symbol of everything that has gone wrong with the offensive line because he's the highest-paid lineman, and we all remember when he was a really good player just a couple of years ago.

"Well, a lot has changed since then: a different offensive line coach, different things," Free said. "It's not the same old game. Every year there are different things that come up. So every year, you have to move with the times and play a little different, so you just have to get good at what you are getting coached and go to work."

After the 2010 season, Pro Football Focus ranked him as the league's fourth-best tackle. Last season, he ranked 44th. These days, he's 62nd.

Now, it doesn't matter whether you agree with PFF's rankings. They're simply a gauge to demonstrate how much Free has fallen in such a short time.

He's not alone.

Right guard Mackenzie Bernadeau struggled early in the season but has done a solid job since line coach Bill Callahan intimated he was on the verge of losing his job.

Centers Ryan Cook and Phil Costa have been average much of the season. Left guard Nate Livings has been solid and left tackle Tyron Smith has been average much of the season.

The problem, of course, is none of them have played at a consistently high level.

It hasn't helped that injuries have robbed them of any chance to gain the continuity an offensive line needs to build cohesion, but every team in the NFL has injuries it must overcome.

Bernadeau, who missed much of training camp as he recovered from offseason hip surgery, is the third center the Cowboys have used this season. Livings missed a chunk of training camp with a hamstring injury and Costa tweaked his back in training camp and re-injured it three plays into the opener.

Smith sprained his ankle against Cleveland and missed 74 of the team's 90 plays. Jermey Parnell will make his first NFL start, if Smith can't go.

The offensive line will continue to be subpar unless Jerry invests in draft picks to fix it.

Smith was the first first-round pick Jerry ever used on an offensive lineman since he bought the team in 1989. Since 2001, Jerry has used only three second-round picks on linemen.

Until Smith, the Cowboys hadn't used a first- or second-round pick on a lineman since 2004.

Whether we blame it on the scouting department for recommending busters or former line coach Hudson Houck, who allegedly didn't like working with young lineman, the bottom line is the Cowboys have used too many quality picks on linemen such as James Marten or Robert Brewster, who never played a snap here.

That must change. Or this franchise will remain in an abyss of mediocrity.