The old adage always suggested that an offensive lineman is doing a great job if you don't hear much about him. If you took that a step further, then you really wouldn't want to hear a backup offensive lineman's name, especially if he is backing up a perennial Pro Bowler in Tyron Smith.
But none of that held true for the Cowboys on Sunday night at AT&T Stadium when Terence Steele caught a red-zone touchdown in the second quarter against Washington. As a matter of fact, the reaction by the locker room after the game suggests that there's nothing taboo about speaking Steele's name around The Star.
The play seemed to be a culmination of what Steele has offered the Cowboys all year; a well-deserved moment of recognition for a player who has stepped into numerous roles and improved on the job since September. It goes without saying that the team missed Smith, but Steele has routinely done as much as could be expected to mitigate just how much the absence of whoever he is replacing is felt.
"He earned it, every bit of it," right tackle La'el Collins said of Steele having his moment in the spotlight. "He's been working his ass off since he got here. He's gotten better. He's proven."
Collins was playing alongside Steele on Sunday night, but Steele filled in at right tackle for Collins for five games when the starter faced a suspension earlier in the season. It seems like a lifetime ago now, but the announcement of Collins' suspension was considered the first big obstacle of the Cowboys' season, and it was one that many wondered whether the team would fully recover from.
But Steele stepped in and by all accounts did a tremendous job as a young starter protecting Dak Prescott in the pocket. Since Collins returned, Smith has been in and out of the lineup with neck and foot issues, and Steele had earned the opportunity to fill in on the other side of the line. Initially, the transition proved difficult---not to mention it is essentially impossible to replace Smith---but much like he has in his young career, the 24-year-old improved on the job.
"He's just a worker, and he wants to do whatever he can to help this team," said All-Pro guard Zack Martin." He really put in a lot of work and a lot of time in this offseason to get himself ready to go and be available and be ready when his number is called. He's been called a lot in a lot of different places this season, and he's done a great job."
It doesn't seem that he will stop being pulled back and forth anytime soon. The Cowboys are hopeful that Smith might be ready to return into the starting lineup this weekend against the Cardinals and are confident that he will be healthy by the beginning of the postseason. It's a proposition that will make the Cowboys even scarier, but it will leave Steele without a clear role.
If the Cowboys have learned anything over the past two years it's that health at the offensive tackle position is far from guaranteed, but the team obviously hopes that Smith and Collins will both be ready to play every snap of every postseason game Dallas plays. But if Sunday night was in fact the last game of the season in which Steele is a starter, he made quite the impact in his role.
Steele lined up as an eligible receiver on his second quarter touchdown, but he still faked out the defense by initially doing what he always does: blocking. The hardest part, to hear him tell it, wasn't the catch, but the acting required to sell the play.
"First off, when they called the play, I tried to play it off as normal," Steele recounted. "I didn't want to get too excited. I just wanted to keep everything as normal. When the play happened, that's every lineman's dream, to catch a touchdown. I blocked and I tried to get my head around as fast as possible, and it was there. I caught it. Perfect ball from Dak."
Ezekiel Elliott even recovered the ball from the stands so that Steele could have it as a keepsake. In terms of history, Steele is the only Cowboys offensive linemen to start a game and score a touchdown – ever.
Mike McCarthy's opinion of Steele has only grown in positivity as the year has gone on. Understanding that it would be fairly obvious if Steele were playing poorly, the head coach has repeatedly praised the mentality and patient approach of the young player. Steele has embodied the often-overused cliches of "staying ready" and "being the next man up."
It's hard to think of a more difficult task than being asked to step in multiple times for both Tyron Smith and La'el Collins. It would seem a thankless responsibility for a young player who couldn't possibly match their level of play consistently. But the Cowboys clearly do appreciate Steele's efforts, from his teammates to the coaching staff. Sunday's night's play served as a little token of that appreciation.
"That's just the cherry on top." Steele said. "You can't ask for a better situation, a better group of guys, better coaches, better fan base. Couldn't ask for anything better."