When reminiscing about the great offensive lines the Dallas Cowboys have enjoyed in the past, many generally point to the lines assembled in the early 1990s. Those lines, consisting of Larry Allen, Nate Newton, Mark Tuinei, Mark Stepnoski and Erik Williams, were among the best in NFL history.
But the general decline of the Cowboys' O-line, and Jerry Jones' inability to replace that talent, is frequently seen as a corollary to the franchise's two-decade playoff drought. Jones tried to reload a few years later, but it didn't quite work out the same way. Through the first years of the new millennium (and especially in the Bill Parcells era, which lasted from 2003 through 2006, there was a concerted effort to align a line that would revisit those glory days, and though there were talented players like Flozell Adams and Marco Rivera, eventually, Dallas had to re-jigger again. That process started in 2011, when Dallas drafted left tackle Tyron Smith out of USC.
"I don’t know how much you guys know the arc of our team," Dallas head coach Jason Garrett told the Seattle media on Wednesday, in preparation for this Sunday's Cowboys-Seahawks game. "Five, six, seven years ago we had a really good offensive line, guys like Adams and Marc Colombo and Andre Gurode and all those guys, Leonard Davis, Kyle Kosier. They were really a good unit, but all those guys seem to have gotten older all at the time and they were making a lot of money. We needed to make a transition, we needed to get younger."
They certainly did. Smith was 20 when the Cowboys drafted him; he'd left USC one year after Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll did. In 2013, Dallas went back to the well and took Wisconsin center-guard Travis Frederick in the first round, a move that was universally panned at the time, because many saw Frederick as a second-round prospect (including, it must be said, Frederick himself). In 2014, they took Notre Dame tackle Zack Martin and made him their right guard. That line is rounded out by two relatively unheralded players -- undrafted left guard Ronald Leary, who came to the team in 2012, and right tackle Doug Free, who has moved from swing lineman to starting (and highly-paid) left tackle to journeyman since he was taken in the fourth round of the 2007 draft.
It's not a given that a bunch of first-round picks will make an offensive line tick, but it's working for the Cowboys in ways it hasn't in years, maybe even decades. This season, DeMarco Murray leads the NFL with 130 carries, 670 yards and five rushing touchdowns, while Tony Romo has been pressured on 25.7 percent of his dropbacks -- down from 35.1 in 2013 and 31.3 in 2012 and 31.1 in 2011.
In the past, Romo would have to use his knack for the spectacular play, usually escaping from pressure, to create and extend successful situations. Now, he can relax in the pocket far more often and actually act like a quarterback from down to down -- as opposed to that weird hybrid risk-taker with the usual attendant ups and downs.
"It’s been a major difference," Romo said this week. "You know, we went through a rough patch there for two or three years where it was difficult to read progressions. That’s just a difficult way to play week in and week out in the NFL. It’s allowed us to kind of go through progressions at a normal rate. We’ve been making it difficult on opposing defenses, just to be able to take one thing away and just think that was going to be what they can do to win and that really been a big benefit for us."
LT Tyron Smith
That all starts with Smith, who's Romo's blindside protector and a player who is almost universally acknowledged as one of the best left tackles in the game. Both Garrett and Carroll are familiar with Smith's greatness going back to his high school days.
"When he was 16, he came to [USC summer] camp and he looked like he was 30," Carroll said. "He was just a grown man; physically fit, he was just unbelievably developed as a young guy. At times, we weren’t sure what position he would wind up playing because he was such a marvelous athlete; played tackle and that’s where he wound up of course, but he’s just an amazing athlete. He’s got tremendous proportion to him; he’s lean like a defensive back but just in an oversized body. He’s having a great start to his career; he’s really rolling, and it’s great to see him doing it."
Smith has allowed one sack, one quarterback hit and five quarterback hurries through five games, and he's been outstanding from the start of the season. (Well, almost the start -- Dallas' 2014 campaign began with a Smith false start against the 49ers in Week 1.) Then, he went back into lockdown mode against San Francisco DE Tank Carradine, taking Carradine back to the edge of the pocket, and rebounding perfectly as Carradine tried to re-jigger his rush and move back inside.
LG Ronald Leary
Leary is two different players, which can be a bit frustrating when looking at him on tape, When he comes off on time and keeps his pad level low, Leary is a fine fire-out run blocker and a decent pass protector. He doesn't have great, quick feet, but he recovers well in short spaces. When he comes off the ball high, however... well, there are some NFL linemen who have the ability to overcome technical errors and still win physical battles. Leary isn't one of them.
Here's the downside in the first quarter of Dallas' Week 4 win over the Saints -- Leary gets backtracked by defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley and allows a pressure directly in Romo's face. Romo completed a 16-yard pass to Jason Witten on this play, but he had to do one of his typical Houdini acts to get that done. Smith also blundered on this play by letting up and allowing linebacker Junior Galette to get inside.
C Travis Frederick; RT Zack Martin
"They’re going to get so much better as they grow together with just the young group, but they’ve made an obvious commitment," Carroll said of this line. "Zack looks like he’s going well and Frederick is good, and we already know about Tyron and the rest of those guys; they’re playing. They’re running game is very consistent and they’re very strong upfront and they’re just going to improve like crazy. We’re fortunate we’re getting them this early -- because a year from now, or by the end of this season, these guys are really going to be something."
As Carroll mentions, the group is young and vulnerable. They're still learning how to move together in slide protection, and especially earlier in the season, it was literally hit-and-miss when it came to nailing their targets on the move. That kind of alignment through the distance of a play is something that comes with time, and while you could see it come together more consistently through the first five games, it's still an issue at times.
RT Doug Free
Outside of Smith, this is a line of maulers, not technicians (Smith can be both). The Cowboys like to jump out as if they're run-blocking on a lot of their pass-plays, and they line one or two tight ends in formation to help with pass-blocking. Most of the time, those tight ends are on Free's side, which tells you something about his pass-blocking in general. Free is the only member of this line to give up more than one sack this season (three, including two against the Titans in Week 2), and he leads the team in pressures allowed with 10. He's a good, not great overall tackle at this point in his career.
Where he really struggles is against speed ends, and he also fails to re-set after initial hits, as he did here against Tennessee's Jurrell Casey. Casey is a 300-pound former stay-at-home defensive tackle who new defensive coordinator Ray Horton likes to move around in the formation, and Free just lost him.
That's not a guy you want on an island in pass protection.
In the end, I think Carroll's point about this line's age and development curve is spot-on, and the reason the Cowboys' new front five could one day rival those great lines of the 1990s. Like those Super Bowl lines, it's young and homegrown, and it's being filled with the kinds of foundation players that can define a team over time.