From left to right the starters were Doug Free, Kyle Kosier, Andre Gurode, Leonard Davis, and Marc Colombo.
At the time Free was 26 going on 27, and Kosier, Gurode, Davis, and Colombo were all 32 going on 33.
This was the Cowboys offensive line as they headed into the the 2011 offseason, following the end of a disastrous 2010 season, which saw Wade Phillips fired mid-year and Jason Garrett installed as the interim head coach, and eventually named the permanent coach. It’s also the same season that Tony Romo fractured his clavicle for the first time, knocking him out for the final 10 games of the year.
Shortly after 2010 ended Garrett and the Cowboys purged their aging offensive line, releasing Gurode, Davis, and Colombo. Kosier would play one more season in Dallas before retiring. Less than two months after purging a group that had underachieved ever since a phenomenal 2007 season, the Cowboys would spend a first-round pick on an offensive lineman for the first time in the Jerry Jones era, and not just any first-round pick, the ninth overall pick.
Adding a 20-year-old rookie to a weak five man unit just isn’t going to make a significant immediate impact in the first year though, even if that rookie is a future Hall of Fame type talent. After all, Tyron Smith was joined on the line by names like Phil Costa, Montrae Holland, and Derrick Dockery in 2011. In the season finale, a winner-take-all matchup for the division with the Giants in New York, Romo was sacked six times and the offense was never able to get off the ground. Earlier that same year Romo suffered a punctured lung and fractured rib, primarily due to the pass protection.
Clearly more had to be done so going into 2012 they revamped the interior of the line with names like Ryan Cook, Nate Livings, and Mackenzy Bernadeau. Surely you can guess how that turned out.
The Cowboys had one of the worst running games in the league that year, averaging 3.6 YPC and finishing second-to-last in the league in total rushing yards. Despite that, Romo managed to lead the team to another winner-take-all season finale, losing this time to the Redskins. He attempted 648 passes that season, the most of his career by nearly 100.
In 2013 and 2014 the team would once again invest first-round picks in the line, making it three picks in four years after not spending a first on the unit in over 20 years. Slowly but surely the investment started to pay dividends. In 2013, the running game averaged 4.5 YPC, which tied for seventh best in the league, although inexplicably they only ran the ball 336 times, good for the second lowest total that season.
Even with the investment in the offensive line Garrett and the coaching staff still hadn’t figured out how to properly balance the run and pass game yet, but despite that Romo had one of the best seasons of his career with 31 touchdowns and 10 interceptions, again leading the team to a winner-take-all season finale for the division. This time he wasn’t able to play due to a herniated disc suffered the week before the finale, but the result remained the same as the Cowboys lost and were out of the playoffs again.
Most will only remember those three years for the three failed opportunities to clinch the division in the season finale, but I look at it a little differently. During that time the Cowboys had one of the worst running games in the league, along with a mostly putrid offensive line outside of Smith and Free on occasion. Now combine that with one of the worst defenses in the league that continually gave up leads late in games, and then add in a head coach who was one of the most inexperienced in the league and who was prone to inexplicable game management mistakes, as well a propensity to pass the ball over 60% of the time.
A terrible running game, mediocre at best pass protecting offensive line, Swiss cheese defense and an inexperienced head coach prone to gaffes in critical situations is no way to win in the NFL.
Yet despite all of that Tony Romo was able to keep those teams competitive and in the thick of the playoff hunt, often times single-handedly with nothing but his right arm, Dez Bryant, Jason Witten and not much else. He was able to keep them competitive despite Garrett’s game management mistakes, despite the several years that it took to rebuild the offensive line and the running game, and despite the fact that Garrett’s first two defensive coordinator hires, Rob Ryan and Monte Kiffin, ended up being unmitigated disasters.
In essence it was Romo’s ability to drag poor rosters, and often times poor coaching, to a respectable level of competitiveness that more than likely saved Garrett’s job, and in many ways saved the organizational structure that exists today.
The sins of the front office and coaching staff during those years were paid for by Romo, and those mistakes, the ones that Romo suffered through both physically and competitively, are what helped build the roster you see today.
The poor offensive line play that left the team with no running game and poor protection for Romo in 2011 and 2012 was a direct result of the decisions to rely on players like Costa, Cook, Bernadeau, Livings, and Holland. The organization learned from those mistakes, which resulted in the selections of Travis Frederick and Zack Martin. The Martin pick in particular was made with Romo’s struggles in mind. Instead of drafting competition in the form of Johnny Manziel they decided that it was more prudent to provide support and protection for their franchise quarterback.
The over-reliance on Romo and the passing game, along with the game management mistakes from Garrett directly led to the shift in philosophy in 2014 that saw the team rely on the running game and a ball-control offense that only asked the quarterback to attempt about 28-30 passes a game. That philosophy has guided the organization ever since, on both sides of the ball.
The drafting of Ezekiel Elliott, a player who looks like one of the brightest young stars of his generation (if he can keep his off-field issues under control), was a direct result of this philosophy. Normally teams would not draft a running back that high but the Cowboys had no issue doing so, not just because they thought it could help extend Romo’s career and further solidify the talent surrounding him, but also because they believed the boost to the running game could also help the defense.
This philosophy, these personnel moves, the learning by the organization, all of it was developed and honed in real time, on the job as Garrett, Stephen Jones, and everybody else saw their previous mistakes come to life on the field in front of them.
It was Romo’s singular ability to drag those teams to respectability that effectively allowed Garrett and the front office this luxury. It bought Garrett time to correct his earlier mistakes and build a roster to fit his vision without losing his job. Romo’s presence allowed the front office to keep a steady hand and a cool head, calming any urges to blow up the roster and start from scratch.
While they thought they were building a “Romo-friendly” offense that would help Tony win a title in his twilight years they were unwittingly building a monster that has now become the engine of one of the youngest, most promising teams in the league.
Unfortunately for Tony he will never see the fruits of his labor. It is Dak Prescott who will now enjoy this machine that was built and fine-tuned specifically for Romo after years of toiling and suffering. It is Prescott who will lead this offense and this team into the future, a future that couldn’t be brighter.
As the years roll on Romo will slowly fade from the memory of many Cowboys fans but maybe down the line when you see a breath-taking touchdown run from Elliott or the offensive line buying Prescott enough time to scan the field for 5-6 seconds before finding an open target for a big play, just think for a second about Tony Romo.
Think about those beatings that he took in the cold in New York in 2011 with no running game or pass protection. Think about the defense blowing a 12-point lead with just over five minutes to go at home against those very same Giants earlier that year. Think of the punctured lung that he played through in 2012, leading an overtime comeback win in the process. Think of the Lions driving 80 yards in less than a minute for a comeback win in 2013. Think about when Romo put up over 500 yards, five touchdowns and 48 points against the Super Bowl-bound Broncos in 2013 but still lost.
Most importantly think about what this team and organization might look like had they never had a quarterback who could have compensated for such a severe lack of talent, and in many cases a lack of competent coaching, and made them competitive.
And remember that if not for him and what he did for this organization, this roster that looks so formidable and like it is ready to compete for the ultimate prize in the years to come may have never come to pass.