There are a variety of approaches NFL teams take to try and build a winning roster. While most try to do more than one thing, there is usually one aspect of the team that is the main avenue they take to try and succeed. Many focus primarily on finding the right passer and giving him a group of talented receivers. A few are now seen to be concentrating on a power running game to take advantage of defenses that are structured to counter the passing game. Others seek to build a fearsome defense that can carry a less than superb offense, and those sometimes are weighted towards the pass rush or the secondary as the main strength.
For the Dallas Cowboys, there is another path that seems to be the chosen way to try and get back to playoff success. That is to base their game on their offensive line.
This is a continuation of a process that started in 2011 when Dallas drafted Tyron Smith with their first pick, breaking a long trend of not using taking offensive linemen that high. It was further developed, although more through how the draft fell in 2013 and 2014 than by design, with the additions of Travis Frederick and Zack Martin. And in 2015, the Cowboys had another first-round talent literally fall into their grasp through the strange events surrounding La’el Collins. With veteran Doug Free rounding out the group, the Cowboys have already constructed an offensive line that is widely seen as the best in the NFL. It has been called the scariest position group in the league. PFF has three of the linemen, Smith, Frederick, and Martin, in the top five of all O linemen. This dominance was one of the driving factors in the selection of Ezekiel Elliott with the fourth-overall pick. It was a way to get maximum benefit from the most effective part of the team. And since the Dallas line had the highest PFF grades in both pass protection and run blocking, the line is a key component in trying to get the most out of the remainder of the career of Tony Romo.
What is really impressive about the fact that the Cowboys have done this is that developing quality professional offensive line players is seen as one of the more difficult things to do now. Early last season, SBN writer Danny Kelly put it this way:
We're now two weeks into the season, and one of the main themes that can be seen throughout the league — no joke, on almost every team — is a real struggle with offensive line play. In my back yard it's readily apparent. Seattle was dominated up front by the Rams in Week 1 and gave up six sacks. While they improved in pass protection versus an inferior line in Week 2 at Green Bay, they still couldn't get their run game going, largely because of poor blocking up front.
One of the more popular reasons that is given for the difficulty in building a good line is the difference between the modern college game and the way it is played in the pros. With the prevalence of spread offenses and read-option plays, many believe that players come into the league without many of the skills that are needed. But one very respected former offensive coach, Howard Mudd, thinks a couple of other factors are the real culprits.
Mudd believes there is a crisis in NFL offensive line play today for two reasons. One is the offseason practice restrictions written into the league collective bargaining agreement. The other is poor offensive line coaching.
The Cowboys bucked the latter trend with first Bill Callahan and now Frank Pollack as their offensive line coaches. They have shown that they still have the ability to teach the players what they need to know. There was a bit of trepidation when Callahan left Dallas to join the Washington staff when Scott Linehan was given the offensive coordinator reins, but Pollack has not allowed any noticeable degradation of the line play.
Of course, it does not hurt to have superior raw material to work with, and with four first-round caliber players plus one very wily veteran, the talent is obvious. More importantly, the Cowboys’ line also seems to be blessed with great football intelligence. This aspect does seem to be by design, with the scouting staff putting a great deal of weight on the skills, character, and attitude of the prospects, as well as athleticism. Frederick is perhaps the prime example of this. He is not the athletic standout that so many Dallas draft picks are, but he is one of the truly great technicians in the game today. While Free is usually considered the weak link along the line (and he is not very weak at all when compared to other right tackles in the league), Collins is actually the player with the most room to improve, and his progress in his second year will have a lot to do with how well the Cowboys do in maintaining their position as the best line in football. Dallas currently has an ace in the hole in Ron Leary as well. His experience as a starter means that the team will be very hesitant to give him his wish to be traded. He is simply too valuable as insurance against both injury and a sophomore slump from Collins.
It took several years for the Cowboys to build this wall. While the team has been stuck at a winning rate of only .500 over the past five years, 2015, with its horrible cluster of injuries to key players, was a serious setback that is hoped to have been an aberration. While the NFL is all about winning now, the Cowboys have taken a longer view with their line. They have constructed it over years, and now, with all the starters but Free 25 or younger, they stand to benefit for years to come.
Why has the rest of the league generally had far less success than the Cowboys with O lines? Part of it is the coaching and limitations Mudd mentioned, and the nature of the college game probably plays at least some part, but the biggest issue is that it is just not flashy or exciting the way other positions are. Results from a great offensive line are indirect. Most linemen are not stars, although the Dallas line seems to be something of an exception. And a great guard or center is not a quick fix. A team trying to climb out of the NFL cellar can sell a top quarterback, free agent sack artist, or flashy wideout as a high-impact move to fix things. First-round offensive linemen are not exciting to either the average fan or most media types. The way almost everyone criticized and even laughed at the selection of Frederick, and how some even questioned passing on Johnny Manziel for Martin, is indicative of the way linemen are valued by many outside the teams. Of course, no one is laughing at Frederick or Martin now - especially if they are defensive linemen facing them on game day.
It is plain that the plan in Dallas this season is to re-establish the dominant running game. With the passing game of Romo and his corps of receivers providing balance, that carried the team far in 2014. If it all works out, the team can not only survive but thrive with a less-than-dominant defense. But all that is based on the offensive line. Fortunately for the Cowboys, that foundation looks to be the very best in the NFL - with most of the rest of the league playing catch-up.