What’s Old Is New Again: How the Offensive Line Keeps Powering the Cowboys

Published in DMagazine.com

In the 1990s, the Dallas Cowboys’ offensive line took on an almost mythical character. Every time he called one of their games, John Madden would point out just how dominant they were. He marveled at how someone the size of Nate Newton could move so gracefully. That unit was so dominant that supposedly Larry Allen would at times make the sound of a train horn when he got in his stance. It was his way of telling the defensive line that Emmitt Smith—the NFL’s all-time leading rusher, who led the league in rushing in four out of five years during their decade of dominance—was about to run behind him, and there was nothing any of them could do to stop it.

Having a good offensive line is like a boxer that punches to the body. It won’t be an immediate knockout, and it’s far from flashy, but it slowly wears on opponents. It saps their energy. You can sometimes see a defense get demoralized after two or three quarters. If you look at any successful year the Cowboys have ever had, you’ll find that their offensive line has led the way.

And so it’s no surprise that the Cowboys have one of the best offensive lines in the league so far in 2021. Pro Football Focus has them down as allowing the second-fewest pressures on passing snaps and ranked them as the league’s best performing line through Week 6. Little surprise that Dallas’ offensive skill players rank among the game’s best. This group’s excellence is nothing new. The Cowboys have invested heavily in building it over the last 10 years, using three first-round draft picks on offensive linemen and committing major dollars to La’el Collins. Until a couple of years ago, that investment was paying off before injuries derailed the line’s continuity.

Which brings us to Zach Martin. There’s a good argument to be made that Martin—who was drafted over Jerry Jones’ insistence that the team select Johnny Manziel instead, believing the quarterback who has long been out of the league would ensure the Cowboys’ relevance for the next decade—is the best player on the team. He doesn’t score touchdowns, and his impact isn’t as obvious as Micah Parsons’, Randy Gregory’s, or Trevon Diggs’, but Martin might be the most dominant player at his position, making six All-Pro teams and the league’s all-decade team from the 2010s, despite being just 30 years old.

What is surprising is that Tyron Smith—who missed all but the first two games of the 2020 season—isn’t just back but is playing as well as he has in years. It wasn’t illogical to assume Smith’s best years were behind him. He’s 31 years old and an old 31 at that, having entered the league at 20 and not played a full season since 2015 due to various injuries. But this season, maybe because he finally was able to rest enough to let his body fully heal after playing in just two games in 2020, he’s playing like he’s 25 again. Equally as surprising has been the play of Terence Steele, who, like just about everyone on the team, from players to coaches, struggled last season. He has more than filled in admirably for Collins, who is eligible to play against the Minnesota Vikings on Halloween, after serving a five-game suspension.

Connor Williams has played well. He’s an above-average guard who has improved his pass-blocking efficiency every year he’s been in the league. Tyler Biadasz, who, compared to the other members of the unit, is the weak spot of the offensive line, has seemingly settled into the position

Not every member of this offensive line is as dominant as Smith and Martin, but they don’t need to be. More than any other unit on the football team, the offensive line needs to work together. Their success is based on working as one. And after seasons of shuffling players between positions, the Cowboys have found a lineup that works. That, in and of itself, is also surprising. Ever since Travis Frederick, Martin and Smith’s fellow first-rounder and long-time running mate, missed the 2018 season after getting diagnosed with Guillain-Barré syndrome (and eventually retiring at age 29, ahead of the 2020 season), this group has been in flux. Last year, with none of the three best offensive linemen played together for a single snap, Pro Football Focus ranked them as the 27th best unit in the NFL.  

But now, at last, the line’s veteran players are healthy. The younger players have improved from last season. Now that Collins is back, the offensive line will presumably only get better. And because the offensive line has returned to being one of the best in the league, everything else has fallen into place.

Dak Prescott, the franchise quarterback who has the league’s third-highest passer rating, has enough time to survey the field. Zeke Elliott, whose rejuvenation, unsurprisingly, has come right as the offensive line has improved, combines with Tony Pollard to have the league’s third-highest rush yards per carry.  

And so, in a season when we’ve seen lots of new things—creative offensive play-calling, a running back split rotation that combines power with speed, game-changing players all over the defense—much of the success has relied on the oldest proven method of winning: protecting the quarterback and opening holes for the running backs.

Tyron Smith, once the league’s youngest player, has now been on this team longer than anyone else. Zach Martin has been here the third-longest. They’re back to setting the tone like they have for so many years. The Cowboys are winning—a few times with the offensive line even shifting in the last play of the game with their Landry victory formation—and they’re doing it because of the oldest part of the team.

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