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COWBOYS

Jan. 12, 2015
Jan. 12, 2015

Table of Contents
Jan. 12, 2015

INBOX
NFL DIVISIONAL PLAYOFFS
  • YES, ROB GRONKOWSKI IS STILL FIESTA, BUT AFTER TWO SEASONS MOSTLY LOST TO INJURIES, HE'S A MORE MATURE—AND EXTREMELY DEDICATED—FRAT-HOUSE HERO. HOP ON, NEW ENGLAND: ROB IS DRIVING THE PATRIOTS' BUS

  • JOHN ELWAY SEES LIFE AS A PENDULUM, A CONSTANT BALANCING OF ECSTASY AND ADVERSITY. WITH FOUR SUPER BOWL BLOWOUTS AND TWO TITLES ON HIS RÉSUMÉ, THE BRONCOS' FORMER QB AND CURRENT ARCHITECT IS SURE HE HAS ANOTHER LOMBARDI TROPHY COMING TO HIM—SO HE BUILT A TEAM DESIGNED TO GRAB ONE RIGHT NOW

GEORGE RAVELING
  • George Raveling, the pioneering African-American college basketball coach, crossed paths with Martin Luther King Jr. on a landmark day in 1963. He came away with one of the defining documents of the civil rights movement

COWBOYS

PACKERS VS. COWBOYS / SUNDAY 1:05 P.M. EST

This is an article from the Jan. 12, 2015 issue Original Layout

WHEN TONY ROMO stayed calm amidst a clean pocket in the final minutes against the Lions on Sunday and threw an eight-yard back-of-the-end zone strike to Terrance Williams, he did three things: He put the Cowboys ahead for good, he further discredited the ridiculous narrative about his supposed crunch-time ineptitude, and he helped (again) to build the case that his offensive line is the best in football.

The Williams touchdown was far from the only play this season on which Romo was afforded unbelievable pass protection. That's why, with 13 wins including the wild-card round, the Cowboys have more than doubled the victory total that many pundits (including this one) projected for them back in August.

The key to Dallas's overachievement has been the mobility of the O-line, which is anchored by two jewels who each turned 24 within the last seven weeks and another who does so in March: left tackle Tyron Smith, center Travis Frederick and right guard Zack Martin. All three deserved first-team All-Pro honors (Smith and Martin got it, Frederick was edged out by the Steelers' Maurkice Pouncey), and they've individually made the blockers around them better. Left guard Ronald Leary has been tremendous, right tackles Jermey Parnell and Doug Free have been more consistent, and tight end Jason Witten is enjoying the best run-blocking season of his career.

The line's mobility has been showcased in zone and man blocking. The former approach requires the type of collective lateral movement and dexterity that many coaches believe can only be achieved if the scheme is used full-time. But the Cowboys also control games with man blocking, which relies on pulling linemen and double-teaming at the point of attack.

The chief beneficiary of all this: DeMarco Murray, who is a laudable ballcarrier but by no means the NFL's most dynamic runner. In his fourth NFL season he has shown patience, sound vision and the powerful athleticism to fall forward on contact. This steady style makes Murray an ideal back to run behind an elite front.

One could argue that Romo is the type of quarterback who needs an elite front. The 34-year-old has become more of a complementary component of Dallas's offense; he benefits from a stronger play-action game and, more important, from often operating ahead in the down and distance game—though against Detroit, with Dallas's line uncharacteristically struggling against the league's top run defense, Romo had to make several plays on third-and-long.

As we were reminded on Sunday, Romo will always have a sandlot nature to his game. At times, there's a franticness in his movement when he first eyes a blitz, the opposite of the pocket footwork that the Bradys and the Mannings of the league display. Typically an O-line doesn't enjoy blocking for this sort of quarterback, because it's tough to protect a guy who might not be where you expect. But Dallas's line has so often been able to maintain its pass blocks late in the play, allowing Romo to scratch his sandlot itch. And Romo, to his credit, has not scratched that itch as often, thanks to a newfound trust in the men protecting him.

What a difference a great offensive line can make on an overachieving team.

69.5%

Frequency with which Dallas ran on first down in the regular season, the highest in the NFL.

PHOTOGREG NELSON FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (ROMO)PHOTOAL TIELEMANS/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED