When the Cowboys said goodbye to Montrae Holland and signed Nate Livings this offseason, did they truly upgrade at left guard? A quick scan of our rankings last season suggests they didn’t as Livings was ranked 56th while Holland finished 16th. That really doesn’t tell the whole story, though.
Pro Football Focus’ grades come as a result of watching and analyzing every play from the NFL season. However, without some thought and context, pointing solely to rankings can be dangerous, and we’re always encouraging people to dig deeper than simply one statistic.
Holland graded well last season, so Dallas’ decision to cut him loose and look for a replacement is an interesting one. That being said, he isn’t the youngest player around and I wouldn’t be too comfortable banging a drum for him based on around 600 snaps. That in mind, let’s instead focus on the player that now replaces him in the lineup: Nate Livings.
Livings hasn’t received a positive grade from PFF for a complete season in any of the past four years we’ve been grading. It is true that he has had strong–even dominant–games in each of them, though. It isn’t so much that Livings is an outright poor player, but rather that he is extremely inconsistent. Thus, Livings has always ended up more bad than good over the long term. What clouds things even more is that he is not just capable of the odd good day against a bad opponent. Livings has actually performed extremely well against the best the NFL has to offer. He held his own this season against Justin Smith–arguably the best defensive player in football–and turned in strong showings against Baltimore twice, Buffalo and Arizona’s Calais Campbell. In those five games combined, he allowed just four total pressures in pass protection, and earned a run blocking grade of +3.7, though he was also charged with a pair of penalties.
Honestly, had you been wanting to pick some games from his season to see how he fared against strong opposition, those are the games you would pick and you would likely come away thinking that Livings was a good player. He proved he was capable of neutralizing some of the best defenders in the NFL while protecting his quarterback ably and run blocking efficiently. These games give you an indication of why the Cowboys like Livings. Coaches always look at upside and talent, content in their own ability to coach out the negatives and iron the wrinkles out of a player’s game. This, perhaps more than anything, is what gets teams into trouble with personnel decisions. They bring in players they know are flawed, believing they can fix them and that they’ll end up with a better player than the tape has shown for years. Sometimes it’s possible, most of the time it’s not.
One Step Forward…
Maybe the Cowboys think that way with Livings, or maybe they just watched tape from the wrong games, the big games. Had they watched the biggest game of them all, the playoff game, they would have seen Livings get taken to task by the same player he controlled completely the first time they met: Houston’s Antonio Smith. Those games may have been the logical place to start, but the trouble is not in those games. The trouble is in the games where the wheels fall off, like in his Week 5 performance against the Jaguars. Livings earned a -9.0 grade for that game, which is about as poor as a guard can grade for us. He allowed a sack and a knockdown of the QB while also getting stung for a holding penalty. Yet, it was his performance in the run game that earned the bulk of the negative grade as he was beaten badly by just about everybody on the Jacksonville defense.
The interesting thing about this game is it highlights well both the problems and the strengths in Livings’ game. He is 6’5″ and 332 lbs, so when he gets in good position early, he can cope with just about anybody. That’s why he was able to live with Justin Smith, and it’s why he graded positively, even in this game, on multiple occasions. With 4:42 to go in the first quarter, he helped the Bengals pick up a first down on 3rd-and-2 because he was able to get into good position quickly. With DE, Leger Douzable shaded outside Livings, exactly where the Bengals want to run the football, Livings is able to get quickly across his face, then seal him to the inside and ride him right past the point of attack. This gave Cedric Benson the crease he needed to convert. This is textbook play that requires strength, agility and technique, and Livings executed it perfectly.
And Two Steps Back…
Now, what about the plays where he is was beaten? The problem Livings has is that, at his size, when he is out of position, he finds it extremely tough to recover. The very next play the Jaguars run a stunt on Livings’ side. As he realizes that Terrance Knighton is looping away from him, he is run right over by DRE Jeremy Mincey. Mincey ploughs through Livings on his way to the sack before the big guard can re-adjust and throw on the anchors. In the second quarter as part of a double team, Livings fails to get into good position, and allows DT C.J. Mosley to beat him to the outside and hit the running back at the line of scrimmage, killing the play. Most interior defensive linemen don’t make more than one move on a play, so Livings’ inconsistency is almost entirely down to whether he gets set early, or whether he finds himself behind the eight ball on a play.
Totality of the Circumstances
Livings evidently finds it easier to get into position early in pass protection than he does run blocking. He has actually graded positively (though never exactly well) in pass protection three of the past four seasons. Last year, the average guard in the NFL allowed 21.8 total pressures (sacks, knockdowns and hurries). Livings allowed 21, a bit better than the average but only barely. 2010 was an unusually poor year for him in this regard as he finished below every other left guard except Kory Lichtensteiger in our rankings.
The negatives combine to balance out his ability and good performances and drag his average downward. Last season, he had poor games against Denver, Seattle, Cleveland and the playoff game against Houston. This was in addition to the nightmare outing against the Jaguars. Looking through our grading profiles, Livings was graded positively more often than all but four other guards in the NFL. On the other hand, he was graded negatively more often than all but six.
He has the ability to dominate on any given play, and even across entire games if things fall right for him. Yet, he has never been able to put together a string of impressive performances without poor games in between. Simply put, sooner or later the bad games come out. Dallas might think they can coach out the negatives from his game, get him into a good position early on a more consistent basis, and erase the negatives that poor positioning leads to, and if they can, they may well produce a truly impressive player.
The only problem with that theory is that the Bengals’ offensive line coach, Paul Alexander, is widely considered to be one of the best line coaches in the NFL. Alexander has a fine track record with offensive linemen, especially in terms of tuning technique and improving fundamentals. It has to be noted that even he hasn’t been able to do any better with Livings than what we have seen.
The Cowboys might be banking on Bill Callahan doing a better job, though that will certainly be a challenge. The Cowboys have committed a long term contract to a player that has never shown the ability to eliminate the negatives, and has always graded worse than the league-average at the position. Nate Livings is one of the most inconsistent players out there, but when all the games get accounted for, he has remained consistent in only one area–a negative overall grade.