The Dallas Cowboys have an abundance of skill players on offense, but much of their production will be determined by the performance of Phil Costa in the middle of the offensive line.
Costa was inconsistent last year in his first full season as the starting center.
He had problems getting off snaps in the shotgun, didn't pass block well and was bullied in the run game.
Making matters worse, the center is the quarterback of the offensive line, and as he goes, it goes. This was never more evident than in 2011.
Costa’s performance level needs to take a huge step up in 2012, and here are a few reasons why.
The left tackle may protect a QB's blind side and the guards may establish the tone on the run, but the center is the mastermind of the offensive line.
He relays the quarterback's signal calls, helps shift the line to deal with blitzes and is one of only two players who gets to touch the ball on every play.
In his first year as a starter, Costa struggled with these things, and it cost the team.
The line was consistently beat in pass protection and pushed off run blocks, and Costa's inexperience in making adjustments was a big reason why.
He looked out of sorts on the road and had a difficult time relaying Romo's play changes over the noise.
Another year of experience will do wonders in alleviating these issues, but it's no guarantee.
In order for the line to improve, Costa has to make a big step up. How he does so will be a big determinant as to how effective the rest of the line is in 2012.
Costa had a bit of an issue snapping the ball out of the shotgun last season.
Actually, that might be a bit of an understatement.
During Week 3 against the Washington Redskins, his issues delivering the ball made the national highlights.
He snapped off count four times, forcing Tony Romo to scramble to recover the ball on every play.
Shockingly, it didn't cost Dallas in the game. The Cowboys went on to win 18-16, and every one of the misplayed snaps was recovered.
However, if these problems continue to persist, Dallas might not always be so lucky.
Costa has had trouble with off-target snaps since his playing days at Maryland, but now he’s entering his third year in the league and they can’t linger.
Offensive lineman have the curse of only being noticed when they do something wrong, and the center has more opportunities to be signaled out than any of the five.
In 2012, he has to ensure that he isn't acknowledged by fans very often and, more importantly, doesn't become a national punch line again.
Andre Gurode was a mainstay at the center position in Dallas for almost a decade.
He was a five-time Pro Bowler and was a mark of consistency in the Cowboys' ever-changing quarterback carousel of the early 2000s.
However, before the 2011 season, the Cowboys released him to save money and allow younger players playing time. Dallas was high on Costa and thought he could step in right away and replace Gurode.
That didn't work out so well.
Costa struggled in all aspects of the game and just played poorly. According to Pro Football Focus, he had a negative rating in pass blocking (-5.7) and in run protection (-3.1).
These numbers wouldn’t be acceptable whether he was a 15-year veteran in the NFL or a freshman in college.
Costa had big shoes to fill last season replacing a perennial All-Pro like Gurode. However, he will have to make major strides in doing so this year.
If not, the Cowboys might be forced to look in another direction.
According to Jerry Jones, "the window is closing" on Dallas’ championship window.
If that is really the case, the Cowboys can't afford for the center position to be a major area of weakness.
They have the talent on offense to be a high-powered attack, and the defense could potentially cause havoc all season.
However, all of that can be spoiled if the offensive line doesn't do its part.
Heading into 2012, the o-line is a huge question mark, with Costa being the biggest question mark of them all.
If he plays well, the offensive line will run smoothly. They won't be dominant by any stretch, but they will be solid.
Though, if he performs poorly, the rest of the offensive will suffer.
It's a little weird to think that a lineman can have such a large impact on a season's overall direction, but Costa's work could determine how big Dallas' window really is.
It’s now his third year, and it’s time for him to play like a veteran. If not, Dallas’ window could close prematurely.