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Most of the NFL has an offensive line crisis (while the Cowboys laugh at them)

Dallas decided to make investing in good linemen a priority, and it is paying off hugely.

NFL: New York Giants at Dallas Cowboys
The foundation of the Cowboys’ offense.
Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

It has become one of those things “everybody knows”. But in this case, it is also very much true. The NFL has a real problem with offensive lines. Namely, for the majority of teams, they kinda stink. Except for those that absolutely and stomach-churningly stink.

Just this week, Sports Illustrated dove into how their O line woes were major contributing factors in the opening week losses by the New York Giants and Seattle Seahawks - a couple of teams that were supposed to be major contenders this season.

The epidemic of poor offensive line play is something we are hearing more and more about across the NFL. Some blame the practice rules imposed by the 2011 CBA, which limit both offseason practice time and the number of padded practices in which linemen can get in full-contact reps. Others point to the rise of spread offenses in college, where linemen often aren’t asked to finish blocks or even put their hand in the dirt in a three-point stance.

“That’s a question for the offseason,” Giants coach Ben McAdoo said on Monday, less than 24 hours after his team’s 19-3 season-opening loss to the Cowboys. “We need to find a way to win a ballgame this week and find a way to get better up front in a hurry.”

He’s right—but the key question, now that the season is underway, is how much better can the Giants’ and the Seahawks’ offensive lines really get? The Giants opted to go with the same starting five as last season, despite the unit’s struggles in 2016. They had been banking on left tackle Ereck Flowers, their first-round pick in 2015, taking a big step forward in Year 3. The Seahawks, meanwhile, put stock in another year of experience for their young draft picks, and they signed free agent Luke Joeckel, the former No. 2 overall pick, after the Jaguars let him walk.

The early returns were not pretty. You may have seen that disheartening freeze frame from the Seahawks’ 17-9 loss to the Packers circulating on social media: Russell Wilson on a third-and-10, a good 15 yards behind the line of scrimmage, trying to run away from three Packers defenders. The only thing left to do for the four offensive linemen who got beat was to chase the players chasing their quarterback. Wilson got rid of the ball, completing a throw to tight end Jimmy Graham, for a loss of one yard.

And it is not just sports publications that are examining the problem. Even the Washington Post is reporting the story.

Two years ago, an NFL executive surveyed the college landscape and offered an associate in the industry some friendly advice. “You better hit on an offensive lineman now,” the executive told his pal, because he could see the supply of capable blockers dwindling.

The words seem prophetic after the dismal product the NFL rendered in Week 1. The league has for years fretted over a scarcity of capable quarterbacks, and starting appearances from the likes of Tom Savage and Scott Tolzien on Sunday highlighted the notion there are more NFL teams than competent professional quarterbacks in existence.

But an equally alarming problem surfaced as offenses reached new levels of putridity. It was not only the men throwing the ball, but also the men charged with protecting them. The NFL is amid an offensive line crisis, and the talent drain at the position is damaging the quality on the field in even uglier fashion than poor quarterbacking.

It is bad right now, and because of the double whammy of the changed nature of college football and the CBA restrictions, it is only likely to get worse. Expect to see a lot of offensive plays getting blown up by penetrating defenders while teams see their most precious resource, the quarterback (for those that have a good or even decent one) put at constant risk.

But there is a flip side to the problem. For a handful of teams that have managed to work around the limitations, there is now a tremendous advantage. They can execute their offensive game plan far more efficiently than most of their opponents. The short list of teams that have solved this dilemma include the Tennessee Titans, the Oakland Raiders - and of course the Dallas Cowboys.

That potent line wearing the Star has been cited as a main reason why a pair of rookies, Ezekiel Elliott and Dak Prescott, were able to set the league on fire last season. And as was shown, the Cowboys’ opening win over the Giants was a case study in just what it means for this year.

As was mentioned in the SI article, there are different approaches that were used. The Cowboys and Titans focused on finding colleges that still use a pro-style blocking scheme to draft from, while the Raiders went into free agency to find better linemen. But there is no question that Dallas was the pioneer, well before the issue was apparent. And credit for that can be laid primarily at the feet of one man: head coach Jason Garrett.

If you remember, prior to Garrett becoming the head coach, the Cowboys had not used a first-round pick on the offensive line since Jerry Jones bought the team and made himself his own general manager. But Garrett had a strong belief that the best way to run an offense was just that, to focus first on being able to run the ball. And in the first draft after he became head coach, he convinced Jerry and his son Stephen to select Tyron Smith with the team’s first-round pick (number nine overall).

Smith was just the first in a string of top offensive line talent the Cowboys would acquire in the next few seasons, but the other additions required a bit of happenstance - or just plain good luck. First, in a weak 2013 draft, the Cowboys staff (or at least those who won the argument that day) saw no players they wanted to take when their turn came in the first round. They traded back and wound up getting Travis Frederick (and Terrance Williams as a bonus). Frederick’s pick was widely derided for being a reach, but after multiple Pro Bowls, no one is criticizing his selection now. Then the following year, the team was planning on taking linebacker Ryan Shazier, but the Pittsburgh Steelers took him in the spot before Dallas came up. Jerry Jones wanted to take quarterback Johnny Manziel, something that still sends shivers up our collective spines, but he was overruled and the Cowboys took Zack Martin, who has become a perennial All-Pro and, like Smith and Frederick, is often mentioned as the best in the league at his position. Then the bizarre story of La’el Collins allowed the team to swoop in and sign him as a UDFA. If he had not been caught up in a murder investigation (that turned out to have nothing to do with him), he would have been a first-round pick. This year, the team has added 2015 third-round pick Chaz Green to the mix at left guard, and while his injury history has everyone holding their breath, his debut as a starter went very well. Waiting in the wings as insurance is former first-rounder Jonathan Cooper, who played well in preseason. Some feel he should have been named the starting LG, but so far, the team’s decision has worked out.

While Frederick, Martin, and Collins had a good bit of luck involved in landing with the Cowboys, it is hard to question Garrett’s influence in how things did turn out. The line was built according to his plan, and it turned out to be the perfect one for the state the NFL finds itself in.

That is not to ascribe any great deal of prescience to Garrett about how the O line talent was trending, or the effect the CBA limitations would have. Serendipity plays a much greater role there. What Garrett was absolutely correct about was that the old formula of building a line that could open holes for the running game while still being able to protect the quarterback was more valid than most realized. At the time he set the course that led to the talented and highly-regarded line the Cowboys have now, most of the league was focused on quarterbacks and receivers to drive the predominantly pass-centered offenses that were believed to be the wave of the future. It would be a few more years before the dire consequences of not having enough good linemen who are able to keep pass rushers out of the backfield would become apparent.

For the Cowboys, that is not a problem. They have already faced one of the most feared defensive fronts in the league, and beaten them by sixteen points. Conversely, the Giants were almost completely impotent due to having no running game to speak of and the emerging Dallas pass rush making Eli Manning’s day miserable.

While the majority of NFL teams are desperately seeking answers to the offensive line crisis, the Cowboys took care of that already. And they are the ones who are laughing now.