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For All The Skill Players, Cowboys' Offensive Success Relies On The 'Engine'

There is a strange relationship in this game of football with offensive linemen. You know, those big sloppies. The grunts. The guys normally never invited to pose for any of those fund-raising player calendars.

They are a huge necessity, and in great need. As Dallas Cowboys Pro Football Hall of Famer Rayfield Wright, a six-time NFL Pro Bowler, likes to say, "You've got to put the engine in there before the car is going to move."

Truer words never spoken.

But in this strange dichotomy, when it comes right down to it, those most precious engines are hard to find. And the great ones, even that much harder. Rare commodities.

Hey, just look around the NFL these days. Besides quarterback, where do teams have the most problems? Easy. The offensive line. High demand. Small supply of quality material.

That is why the fact that the Cowboys have put together some of the best offensive lines in the game during their 58-year history is quite remarkable.

Go back to those Super Bowl teams of the 1970s, back when Wright was anchoring those fivesomes at tackle. The backbones of those mercurial offenses were these offensive linemen, the likes of Wright, Ralph Neely, John Niland, Dave Manders, Pat Donovan, Blaine Nye and Herb Scott. All of them were Pro Bowlers between 1966, when the Cowboys went to their first NFL Championship Game, and 1980, that period of appearing in five Super Bowls and winning two.

Just look at the 1990s. Remember, NFL Films named those guys "The Great Wall": Larry Allen, Nate Newton, Mark Stepnoski, Erik Williams, Mark Tuinei and Ray Donaldson, all Pro Bowlers themselves.

And now, over the previous couple of years, the Cowboys have been known to have one of the best offensive lines in the National Football League, which includes Pro Bowlers Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick and Zack Martin, not to mention the contributions of Ron Leary, Doug Free and La'el Collins.

And this season the Cowboys have been forced to retool that offensive line. The group leader and veteran right tackle, Free, retired. Last year's starting left guard, Leary, departed in free agency for Denver's riches the Cowboys just couldn't afford to match. NFL teams always are in the business of developing offensive linemen.

"Well, it's a challenge," Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett said of having to change over two-fifths of his starting five on the offensive line. "One of the most important parts of line play is guys doing their job individually, then guys playing well collectively. That's important at every position, that's important across positions, but I'm not so sure it's any more important anywhere than it is on the offensive line."

Having said that, it's just so hard to find these guys of quality. After all, very few grow up just yearning to be a left guard, right?

And here may be a very informative story.

Back 20 some years ago, the late Joe Brodsky, who spent 14 years coaching high school football in South Florida, explained the dearth of quality offensive linemen to me this way, paraphrasing his very words:

So back in high school, on the first day of practice, you look for the best athlete and he's your quarterback. The next best guy, that's your running back. After that, hey, you guys who run fast and can catch the ball, you're wide receivers. You guys that can't catch, you're cornerbacks. Next best athletes go to linebacker and after that you guys go play defensive line.

And I'll remember this part forever: "The rest of you guys, you go play offensive line."

"It might be a little different than that, but wisdom always came from the great Joe Brodsky, so I understand what he was saying," Garrett said. "But I agree with your initial premise, it's hard to find great offensive linemen.

"And the style of football so many of these high schools and colleges are playing these days, it's hard to find the guys who can do some of the things we're going to ask them to do. Come off the ball and be strong, powerful and physical in the running game and then pass protect from the pocket and then move in space the way we want them to do."

Ask Newton, a six-time Pro Bowler, if he grew up just wanting to be a guard. Absolutely not. Said he was an All-Sweet 16 defensive lineman in high school, meaning one of the top 16 players in the state of Florida. Played defensive tackle, nose guard and defensive end. All-Metro Conference. And when he got to Florida A&M, Nate became an all-conference defensive lineman until he couldn't control his weight and the coach banished him to the offensive line.

Ask Wright. The "Big Cat" will tell you he was going to be a star basketball player in the NBA, and found out when he arrived at Fort Valley State that what he thought was a basketball scholarship was actually an athletic scholarship and that he had to play two sports. So football became his second, and lo and behold the Cowboys drafted him in the seventh round of the 1967 draft, before the Cincinnati Royals drafted him into the NBA. The Cowboys told him he was a tight end. Then a defensive end. Finally, a couple of years later, Tom Landry tells him he's an offensive tackle, a position he had never played.

Ask Cowboys' five-time Pro Bowl offensive tackle Flozell Adams the same. Well, the guy named the 26th best player in Michigan State history in a Lansing, Mich., newspaper Top 50 series, said he didn't start playing football until his junior year in high school. Defensive line, of course, and he actually played defensive line during his red-shirt year with the Spartans and was on the goal-line defense the next year until, he says, he was converted to offensive tackle since he was as big as a "Hotel," his college nickname.

Or think back to other Cowboys noted offensive linemen. Tuinei from those Super Bowl champs of the 1990s came to the Cowboys as a defensive lineman, and actually played both sides of the line of scrimmage during an injury riddled game at Denver in 1986 as he was making the transition to left tackle. Also Cowboys future starting guards in the 1980s Glen Titensor and Kurt Petersen were defensive linemen coming out of college.

And today's guys?

"I was a tight end," Tyron Smith said of the beginning of his football career, "and Coach booted me over to the offensive line."

Why's that?

"Said I couldn't run the routes right."

What about you Zack Martin?

"Well, some D-Line then over to the offensive line," he says. "But then I come from a family of offensive linemen."

And you, La'el Collins?

"All offensive line," he said laughing, "and a little D-Line."

Then there is Travis Frederick.

"I wanted to play defense," he said. "Played defensive line, defensive tackle."

But it became all offense all the time.

See what we mean? The offensive line volunteers are few.

Now, the Cowboys didn't get to the point of having a standout offensive line over the past three seasons by accident. They made it a priority to rebuild that struggling unit after the 11-5 season of 2009, especially after getting pushed around in that 6-10 campaign of 2010. And it wasn't an instant rebuild. It took time.

Initially, Smith with a first-round pick in the 2011 NFL Draft. Then the center Frederick in the first round of 2013. Next Martin, a first-rounder in 2014. All joining the 2007 fourth-rounder Free, who didn't become a fulltime starter until 2010.

After that came the arrival of Leary as a rookie free agent in 2012, worries of a degenerative knee problem allowing him to drop out of the draft. More fortune struck the Cowboys in 2015 with Collins, who fell from a projected first-round pick to a free agent after being a person the police wanted to question about the death of his former girlfriend right before the draft.

"But it's important to value that position," Garrett said. "And I've said this for a long, long time, you're never going to see your skill on offense if you don't have good offensive linemen. You can have the greatest quarterback, the greatest running back, playmaking receivers and tight ends. But if you can't block those guys up front, you're never going to really see how impactful your skill guys can be.

"So it starts with the guys up front. It started with the guys up front back in 1892 when Pudge Heffelfinger signed the first pro contract (big smile). I believe that more than anything else, and we're fortunate to have the guys we have. They really set the tempo for our football team. They are great natural leaders. They set the pace for us every day."

They have been awfully good.

But in this salary-cap era of the NFL, it's hard to have a steak on every offensive line plate. Meaning, you can't afford to have a first-round pick at all five positions or pay first-round salaries at all five spots.

So having to fill two positions this year, the Cowboys did a little juggling. Ideally, they would have kept Collins at left guard to replace Leary, who replaced him in 2016 when Collins suffered the foot injury. Then simply have last year's backup swing tackle Chaz Green, who had a couple of starts before back and foot injuries sidelined him after four games, slide into the starting right tackle spot.

But Green needed back surgery in early January and wasn't ready to resume playing during the OTAs and minicamps. So the Cowboys decided to move Collins to right tackle, his position at LSU, and allowed Green to compete for the starting job at guard with veteran Jonathan Cooper.

But here was the hang-up there: Collins was used to playing left tackle at LSU, never right tackle. And as it turned out, Green had only played one half in college at guard. He was a tackle.

Meaning somewhat of a rebuilding project.

"So it's a challenge, but you recognize what the challenge is and the importance of it and you address it, and I think those guys have done a nice job adjusting and transitioning so far," Garrett said.

It's one thing to replace guys on the actual playing field. But it's another thing to replace the ringleader, that being the veteran Free who decided in the offseason that he had grown tired of all the injuries he had been going through.

"You know, Doug was amazing," Garrett said. "He wasn't a real vocal guy, but he was such a natural leader with that group. If you think about some of those guys, Tyron Smith came in the league as a 20-year-old. You know, Tyron and Travis and Zack all high picks, young guys starting immediately. And having an example like Doug Free was really important for those guys. His work ethic off the field, the way he prepared and certainly how he played. I think Doug's influence has really impacted all of those guys."

That leadership role has now fallen to a collective effort of the three Pro Bowlers.

"Me, Travis and Tyron have been here the longest," said Martin, "and we keep everyone accountable."

And the good thing is Dallas should have the base of this line intact for years to come. Smith is signed through 2023. Frederick has re-signed through 2023, too. The Cowboys are in the process of trying to extend Martin, although they have his rights through 2018. And they did extend Collins this summer through 2020. Green, well, he's in a contract year and will determine his future by how he plays this season.

So that the Cowboys can sink their teeth into four-fifths of this offensive line is quite amazing, considering, No. 1, how difficult it is to find quality offensive linemen in the first place, and No. 2, the difficulty during this salary cap era of keeping the band together.

"The best teams I've been on had really good offensive and defensive linemen, and it started there," Garrett said. "They set the pace in how you practice and how you play, and again the guys around them function a heck of a lot better if you are good on the offensive and defensive line.

"It starts there. I think we've done a really nice job of recognizing that priority and building our football team the right way."

Yep, dropped that engine right into place, just as you say Big Cat, allowing this offense to purrrrr along nicely.

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