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The song remains the same: Cowboys offensive line still key to success

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Nothing else is as important as the guys up front for the Cowboys.

Dallas Cowboys v Arizona Cardinals
Dak knows who matters.
Photo by Chris Coduto/Getty Images

With less than three weeks to go until the Dallas Cowboys report to training camp in Oxnard, we are stuck in the time when most of what we write about here is self-generated. In other words, we don’t have a lot of hard news about the team, so we make projections and dissect the roster. So here’s another one for you to consider:

If the Cowboys starting offensive line stays healthy, they are in the playoffs. It’s just that simple.

OK, that’s it. Says it all. You can nap until July 24th, when the team touches down in California.

Oh? You expect me to justify my assertion?

I guess I spend too much time on Twitter. Anyway, here goes.

As RJ Ochoa explained in his Jenga pieces post, Tyron Smith was the most crucial player on offense last season. His absence led to the disastrous Atlanta Falcons game. Dak Prescott got beaten on like those Rhythm and Blue drums and was visibly affected for several games afterwards.

The impact of that one game is perhaps bigger than many realize. Dallas had just put together its longest winning streak of the season, beating San Francisco 40-10, Washington 33-19, and Kansas City 28-17. They had a winning record at 5-3, and seemed to have finally gotten things together. It all came off the rails in Atlanta, and having Smith unavailable is the one clear cause.

And Smith was just the biggest problem the line had last year. We are far too familiar with the painful experiment with Chaz Green at guard. As a matter of fact, Green was also the issue as Smith’s replacement in that Atlanta game, so he had two major failures.

Now, Smith is reportedly healthy, Connor Williams has been drafted to fix the left guard position, Travis Frederick and Zack Martin are only the best center-guard combo in the NFL, and La’el Collins was playing markedly better in the second half of 2017. They are very much in contention to be the best offensive line in football again. At the least, they should be among the top four or five.

And that was what made 2016 work so well. Prescott was protected, Ezekiel Elliott was finding plenty of holes to run through, and the resulting ability to control the ball and the clock kept the defense off the field. This year, Elliott has something to prove (mostly to one Roger Goodell), the receivers are supposedly more fitted to Prescott’s style of play, and the defense may be significantly improved, perhaps at all three levels. If the offensive line is back to form, all that will just be better. As a matter of fact, this line is probably a bit more talented than the one of two years ago. If the Cowboys get 16 healthy games, or even close, they should make the playoffs with double-digit wins. It may be as a wild card, since those blasted Eagles look to have no significant weaknesses, but that is just how it is. Getting back to the postseason is pretty much a requirement for Jason Garrett to continue as head coach, and a healthy offensive line will get him at least that far.

Even if things do not work out the way we hope, the loss of Smith or one of the other starters should not be the ready-made disaster it was a year ago. The pursuit and rapid signing of Cameron Fleming gives the Cowboys a far better situation at swing tackle. The fact they landed him to be the backup when he could probably have gone to multiple other teams and been a starter still seems a bit hard to understand, but gift horses and all that. Meanwhile, Green is fighting for his football career, with Kadeem Edwards looking to be his biggest challenger for the backup guard job. Joe Looney and Marcus Martin will likely be competing to be the backup center, with secondary responsibility as a backup guard. Given the need at other positions, it seems most probable that Dallas will only carry eight offensive linemen on the roster, with one inactive on most game days.

However the camp battles play out (I would predict Edwards and Looney to win theirs), the depth along the offensive line looks to be much improved - perhaps as good as we have seen. That means that even several games missed by a starter should not be the crippling blow it was last year, and not automatically fatal to the Cowboys’ playoff chances. Remember, even with the problems caused by Smith’s back problems in 2017, they were still in playoff contention until the loss to the Seahawks in the next-to-last game of the season. Now, with better backups, they should be a strong contender no matter what.

And if those five starters do stay healthy, this could be a tremendous year. They may even challenge those pesky Eagles for the NFC East crown. No other part of the team is as important for the Cowboys.