ARLINGTON, Texas — For almost a decade, the Dallas Cowboys were the exception to the rule that you don't want people talking about your offensive line after a game. Their O-line racked up Pro Bowls over that period, and the team built an identity around keeping their quarterback upright and running the ball with deliberate force and success.
While many of the key parts to that heralded offensive line are still on the roster, Sunday's disappointing Wild Card Weekend loss was a reminder that, whether because of health, age, or lack of continuity, this season's unit simply did not meet that standard.
In the Cowboys' 23-17 loss to the 49ers, the San Francisco defense recorded five sacks and 14 quarterback hits on Dak Prescott. Meanwhile, 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo was not sacked once. The Cowboys only managed 45 combined rushing yards in the game from running backs Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard.
After the game, right tackle La'el Collins said that he couldn't pinpoint why exactly the offense got off to such a slow start and called their performance, "very disappointing."
"We expected a lot more of ourselves, and we just couldn't get it done today," Collins said.
The offensive line has faced adversity all season starting with Collins' six-game suspension after Week 1. Terence Steele was forced to fill in for Collins during that stretch, and while he performed admirably during that span, Steele was immediately asked to fill in at left tackle for Tyron Smith, who was sidelined with a neck injury upon Collins' return. Steele was less effective at left tackle.
Smith would later deal with ankle issues that took him out of the lineup later in the season, which prevented the future Hall of Famer from having any extended stretches of good health all season. Meanwhile, at left guard, the Cowboys switched back and forth between Connor Williams, who committed too many penalties, and Connor McGovern, who struggled to pass protect.
Still, the offensive line was healthier going into the playoffs than they had been for numerous stretches of the regular season.
After the game, right guard Zack Martin, who was named First Team All Pro just a few days earlier, said the offensive line simply wasn't good enough.
"It's no secret," Martin said. "We need to get better. We got smacked in the mouth early today and credit to our guys for coming back and fighting through and making it a game. We need to get better."
Collins said after the game that he didn't believe the offensive line had met the standard set by Cowboys' teams he had been a part of in years past.
"I think we have a lot of work to do," Collins said. "We definitely didn't reach the potential of the ability that we have."
The drama of Prescott's contract negotiations lingered over the franchise for multiple years. And while he held himself accountable for the loss after the game, it's certainly unfortunate that in the first season after the team finally committed to their quarterback long-term, they were unable to protect him upon reaching the playoffs.
After being eliminated from the playoffs, Collins reiterated that the offseason would be spent figuring out how the offensive line could be good enough for the team to reach further success.
"We've got to get back to work," Collins said. "Just like every offseason. Go out there and try to be your best. Work hard. Figure out the things we need to do and do them better."