The flashy players get the glory. Running backs, wide receivers, and especially quarterbacks are the stars of the NFL. Defensive players also get their chance for the spotlight with crushing tackles, interceptions, sacks and forced fumbles. Even special teams aces can be the star of the moment (or the goat for who knows how long), similar to these guys in a college game you may have heard about last week.
But the real foundation of an NFL offense, the thing that can elevate mediocre "skill" players and hold back those with great talent, is made up of the big guys in the trenches. Without them, running backs have no holes to go through, and wide receivers cannot catch the ball because the quarterback is lying on his back trying to figure out where that truck came from and if he is still in Pop Warner games.
Arguably the greatest years for the Dallas Cowboys franchise were the early nineties, when they won three Super Bowls in a span of four years. It was the rise of the Triplets, Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, and Michael Irvin. But they likely would never have become as famous or successful if they had not had one of the best offensive lines in the history of the league blocking for them.
NFL Films has told the story of the six men who made up that line for the first two of those Super Bowls in A Football Life: The Great Wall of Dallas, airing on the NFL Network on Tuesday, 12/3/13, at 9 pm ET. Tackles Mark Tuinei and Erik Williams, guards Kevin Gogan and Nate Newton, and center Mark Stepnoski were the original line, with John Gesek stepping in when Stepnoski was injured. They dominated opposing defenses, and with a big boost from the commentary of John Madden, who really liked the way Newton played, they became stars in their own right.
The story is told through the words of some of the linemen themselves, and by the people who were around them at the time. Jerry Jones (of course), Jimmy Johnson, Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, Brad Sham, and Jason Garrett, among others, speak about their days in Dallas. Pam Oliver relates her special connection to one of them. And, of course, no story about this line would be complete without Gary Busey.
Trust me. You have to see this. I just don't want to spoil the story, because I think you will find out things you didn't know, or may have forgotten.
I had a chance to talk to NFL Films producer Dave Douglas about the project. He told me that the original idea was to do a piece about Nate Newton, who was the most famous of the six, but when they started looking deeper, they realized that the story of all six was too rich, too engrossing and too intertwined to pass up. And because a line has to work together to function, it just made sense to speak of it as a group. The result is a piece of Cowboys' history, complete with triumph and tragedy.
And beyond the engrossing story of six flawed men who together made something on the football field that was very nearly perfect, it explains some things that many here have often wondered about. For years, there has been a great deal of frustration about the lack of resources (primarily draft picks) being devoted to shoring up the offensive line. The impression developed that the Cowboys' front office seemed to think it could put together a championship caliber line out of late-round draft picks and undrafted free agents. Frustrated fans wondered how in the world Jerry Jones and company could get such a stupid idea.
Well, they thought they could do it because that's exactly what they did to build this line. These were castoffs, rejects, guys on their last chance with the league, and players overlooked by other teams. A couple of third-rounders, a seventh-rounder, two free-agents, a player traded away because he was unwanted - that was the material this bulldozer of a line was built from. Players from small schools, and a guy that Tex Schramm told Jones and Johnson to "not waste your time on because he has eaten himself out of a job".
But the front office, particularly Johnson, saw something in them. They became the best in the business, opening gaping holes for Smith and guarding Aikman from all comers. It didn't happen overnight, however. In learning how to play together, and in getting all the pieces in place, the quarterback got beaten up, including one memorable game with eleven sacks just before it all clicked. But when it did finally coalesce, this was as good a line, given the style and nature of the game at the time, as has ever existed.
Outstanding players. Very imperfect human beings. Some were not just aggressive, they were violent by nature. One was described by someone who knew him before the NFL as simply a bully. Another was involved in the only incident I know of where players were ejected for fighting - in the Pro Bowl. Three had illegal drugs play very big roles in what happened to them after their careers ended.
It is not a Hollywood happy ending. Tragedy off the field does play a big part in this story. But it is not all despair, either, as several of the players have successful careers and happy lives now. It is messy and uneven and not always clearcut, because it is about real men, playing a hard game, with the deadly poisons of money and fame thrown in. Another thing that comes out if you pay attention is that coaching and culture do matter. It is very clear that when Jimmy Johnson left the team, he took more with him than just indestructible hair. He took a sense of discipline and direction that was not replaced for some time. And it was not just the won-loss record that suffered.
Free agency and the loss of Johnson took its toll, and although the Cowboys acquired a better individual player in Larry Allen than most of the original six, it never quite had the kind of line this was during those first two Super Bowl years under Jones and Johnson. It was a different style of football back then, and these men played that style superbly. This is an excellent telling of their story. It is also a look at a part of football that is often overlooked. Don't miss it.