Let’s face it, the NFL is not exactly fair. Oh, this is not about the officiating (which is at times horrendous, but things really do tend to average out over time) or the arbitrary and dictatorial discipline policies (which are indeed appalling in many ways). It is about who gets the glory. In descending order (based upon extensive consideration by the author over the last 2.32 minutes), the NFL positions that are most likely to be noticed are quarterback, wide receiver, running back, edge rusher, tight end, defensive back, linebacker, defensive tackle, specialist, and, bringing up the rear, offensive lineman. And that is really a shame, because as ESPN writer Bill Barnwell has stated, the real MVP of the 2016 NFL season, at least so far, is the offensive line of the Dallas Cowboys.
The Dallas Cowboys' offensive line is as dominant as any unit or any individual player in football on a week-to-week basis. Despite losing La'el Collins to a foot injury, Dallas' five-man gang of Tyron Smith, Ronald Leary, Travis Frederick, Zack Martin and Doug Free has been the backbone of an offensive renaissance in Dallas. The Cowboys are averaging 28.7 points per game, the fourth-best rate in the league, while starting a rookie fourth-rounder at quarterback and missing their star wideout for a large portion of the season. The offensive line is making everybody on this offense look great. They, collectively, deserve serious consideration as league MVP.
I’m glad Barnwell said this, because I have been alluding to this myself (along with quite a few other writers and bloggers who also have great minds and such - like this article from Charean Williams). Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott have set the NFL world on its ear, but it is extremely doubtful that either would have had such great success in their nascent careers if not for the superb blocking of what has been referred to as the Second Great Wall of Dallas in front of them. Prescott frequently has all the time he wants to survey the field when passing, and Elliott - well, let Barnwell explain.
Do you know how many times Elliott was even touched by a Steelers player on his three touchdowns?
Elliott traveled 129 yards from scrimmage on those three plays and never even had to beat an unblocked defender one-on-one.
The two rushing touchdowns to close out the game were both incredible examples, but to really get an appreciation of the work of the Dallas line, look at the 83 yard screen pass from the first half.
While Smith and Free are providing a little help to get Prescott time to get the throw off, the entire middle of the line, Leary, Frederick, and Martin, form a convoy ahead of Elliott that just blows up the defenders trying to get in the way, freeing Zeke to do the rest himself (with help from Terrance Williams, who was an unsung contributor with this and other blocks in the game). One thing that stands out about the Dallas O line is that they are incredibly athletic and mobile for such big, strong men, and this is on full display here. Can you imagine being a 190 pound defensive back and seeing one of these 310+ pound maulers coming at you with a full head of steam and violence in their eyes? (Be careful, if your imagination is too vivid, you will need to go change your underwear.)
Remember, this is the same line that made a 1,000 yard rusher out of Darren McFadden last season, with a passing game that was as threatening as a baby rabbit cuddling with a fluffy little duckling. Now, instead of having a somewhat worn running back and quarterbacks that checked down from their check down receivers, they have a Ferrari carrying the ball and a quarterback who throws like the Green Arrow shoots at bad guys. In 2015, their efforts only led to 4-12 misery and the disdain of the NFL world. In 2016, those efforts have brought the team to a league-leading 8-1 start and a realization that they are now a real contender to make a deep playoff run, with reasonable talk that Dallas is now one of the favorites to go all the way to the Super Bowl.
And it all starts with the offensive line. They have been the key thing (along with an excellent job by the coaching staff) that has allowed Prescott and Elliott to achieve what they have. It is not a one-way street, either. The line clearly takes great satisfaction in seeing a key pass completion or a long run. It validates and rewards their hard work. Even if the rest of the NFL world doesn’t, as Barnwell laments.
I hesitate to say that a group of offensive linemen will never win the MVP award -- after all, a kicker won the trophy in 1981 -- but the odds are stacked against any offensive lineman getting the credit he deserves, if only because the NFL is terrible at honoring linemen. This isn't a media issue, either. When NFL players voted for this year's Top 100 Players list, they ended up including more running backs (10) than offensive linemen (seven) in a game in which teams routinely line up one back behind five linemen. The league pays lip service to the importance of the game in the trenches, but everything else has to go right for a lineman (or linemen) to even garner passing attention for a major award.
The Cowboys are having an incredible season, and it is driven by the superb job being done by their offensive line. Without that line, Prescott and Elliott would still likely be good, but it is almost impossible that they would be garnering MVP talk if they were behind a pedestrian set of blockers. And what is most notable about Dallas’ new Great Wall is the high level of play from tackle to tackle. In Pro Football Focus’ immediate grade report on the Steelers game, they had Frederick graded as the third-best player on the Cowboys’ offense (behind Dez Bryant and Jason Witten), with Leary and Free rounding out the top five. That is high praise for the linemen, no matter how much you think of PFF’s methodology. Need a little more evidence? At Inside The Pylon, Brandon Thorn recently wrote about his midseason O line standouts, and he had two Cowboys on his first team.
People may be surprised by this, but I think Frederick and Zack Martin are the two best players in the NFL at their respective positions. There is a strong argument for Tyron Smith being the best at his (although I lean elsewhere), but either way, this offensive line is on their way to becoming an all-time great unit. They won’t want to talk about that as a unit publicly, but what has transpired along the offensive line in Dallas is nothing short of spectacular. The front office deserves much more acclaim than they have received, not only because of this epic OL they’ve built, but how they have drafted overall.
The judgment is widespread. The Cowboys are considered to have the best offensive line in the league by a majority of analysts and writers. And everything that happens on offense is dependent on them. There are legitimate reasons to consider them the MVP of the Cowboys, and given what is going on with Prescott and Elliott, that makes them candidates to be league MVP.
It almost certainly won’t happen, of course, because highlights seldom feature guards and centers. But it should.