FRISCO, Texas – For at least the last half-decade, the foundation of the Cowboys roster has been the offensive line.
That foundation took yet another temporary hit on Thanksgiving when starting offensive tackles Zack Martin and Cameron Erving (replacing regular starting offensive tackles Tyron Smith and La'el Collins, both of whom are on Reserve/Injured) got hurt on the opening drive against Washington and did not return.
Martin, the six-time Pro Bowl guard, has a strained calf. Erving, signed in the offseason to be the backup swing tackle, has a sprained MCL. Head coach Mike McCarthy said both are expected to miss multiple weeks. How many remains to be seen. Only five weeks remain in the regular season with the Cowboys (3-8) losing ground in the NFC East.
It's just the latest in a series of setbacks for the offensive line since the start of training camp in mid-August. Only one line position has featured the same starter for all 11 games: Connor Williams at left guard.
The rest has been a carousel:
- Left tackle: Tyron Smith (2 games), Brandon Knight (4 games), Cameron Erving (5 games)
- Center: Joe Looney (7 games), Tyler Biadasz (4 games)
- Right guard: Zack Martin (8 games), Connor McGovern (3 games)
- Right tackle: Terence Steele (9 games), Zack Martin (2 games)
To recap, that's seven different starting combinations in 11 games, and most of those groupings haven't featured the franchise's cornerstone tackles. Smith has been on injured reserve since Week 5 due to neck surgery. Collins, the projected starting right tackle in camp, has been on IR all season with a hip injury that required surgery. Both are expected to be ready for the start of next season.
The line also continues to be without rookie center Tyler Biadasz, who showed promise in four starts before injuring his hamstring in pre-game warmups Nov. 8 before the Steelers game and landing on injured reserve.
Despite all that, it seemed like the Cowboys had found a winning combination just four days before Thanksgiving. Against Minnesota, the coaching staff started Martin at right tackle for the first time in his career and inserted Connor McGovern, last year's third-round pick, at right guard.
With quarterback Andy Dalton back in the lineup, the offense topped 30 points and won their first full game since quarterback Dak Prescott's season-ending ankle injury on Oct. 11.
Four days later, the injuries to Martin and Erving further depleted the line's depth.
"All the money that we've been putting in the offensive line, 90% of it was watching the game, not out on the field," Cowboys owner/general manager Jerry Jones said on 105.3 The Fan.
Brandon Knight and rookie Terence Steele battled against Washington at left and right tackle, respectively. But the injuries might have been too much to overcome against a defensive front featuring five former first-round picks.
Dalton played well (25-of-35, 215 yards, one touchdown, one interception) but was sacked three times and hit six times. The offense came away with only nine points (three field goals) on three red zone trips. And the running game, which had been averaging 152.3 yards the previous three games, posted only 60 yards on 18 carries.
With their Week 13 game against Baltimore rescheduled to next Monday night, the reshuffled line has a little extra time to prepare. Monday on 105.3 The Fan, McCarthy said most likely "the way we finished the game will be the way we start" against the Ravens, referring to the lineup of Knight, Williams, center Joe Looney, McGovern and Steele.
With so many injuries to key players, this is probably the Cowboys' biggest challenge up front since Smith's rookie season in 2011, when the Cowboys started three first- and second-year players after moving on from veterans Marc Colombo, Andre Gurode and Leonard Davis.
This year, they'll do their best to piece things together the rest of the way.
"It's tough. You never want to see one of your friends go down, let alone a good player like Cam and Zack," Looney said. "But this league is tough, man. And that's why it takes everybody on a team. That's why it's a team game. Everybody has to come in and contribute, and I'm really proud of the guys for coming in and stepping up, being in the situation we're in, coming in and really just putting our heart into the game."