The Dallas Cowboys have established a recipe for success in the NFL by building a wall. No, not that wall, but the Great Wall of Dallas. The Cowboys cycled part of the NFL away from a pass-heavy attack trend, and back to a balanced offense. Sure, a lot of this was preventing team owner and general manager, Jerry Jones, to get out of his own way and start from the inside out – the recipe that worked in 1990’s for America’s Team. They did so by letting their selections do the talking on the field and on tape over the course of the next few seasons. It was a plan that would take time to mature, but had substantial potential to pay off as piece by piece was added. Now, the dominant unit is considered the best in the NFL and on its way to being in the conversation of best offensive lines of all time, oddly reminiscent of the Dallas Cowboys’ 3-time Super Bowl Champion unit of the 1990’s, the original “Great Wall of Dallas.”
For the Cowboys, the cycle back to an offensive-line focused team started in 2011 with the first round draft selection of left tackle Tyron Smith, America’s Team made a concentrated effort in building their offense, and their team around the big fellas on the offensive line. Surprising first round pick, Center, Travis Frederick followed in 2013, while right guard Zack Martin was selected in 2014. All three are arguably the best at their position in the NFL. The picks were not sexy, but practical — and very unlike Jerry Jones, who, especially in 2014, was almost definitely going to select quarterback Johnny Manziel if he was available 16th overall. Or so we thought. Dallas passed on Manziel, selecting the talented guard from Notre Dame. Their decision has been rewarded in Martin’s first three seasons in the form of three Pro Bowl and two first team All-Pro selections. Meanwhile, in Smith’s first six seasons, he’s notched four Pro Bowls and two first team All-Pro choices, while Frederick has three Pro Bowls and one first team All-Pro selection in his four seasons.
Their unit’s continuity and discipline landed backup left guard Ron Leary a 4-year, $36 million contract with the Denver Broncos for his work in replacing injured starter La’el Collins during the 2016 season. To round out the remaining components of the line, Collins, the would-be first round pick, chose Dallas as an undrafted rookie serving as a part-time starter in 2015, while having a toe injury hinder his flashy start to the 2016 season.
The Cowboys’ right tackle, 32-year-old Doug Free, was previously the only offensive lineman above age 27. Free has since decided to retire this offseason. While Free was thought of as the weakest part of the dominant unit, his departure leaves a hole and a question mark at RT as the Cowboys enter 2017. Wishful thinking says his departure may be addition by subtraction.
Offensive line units are usually measured on the success and statistics of the offensive skill positions, especially the running game. Since the three major pillars of the line – Smith, Frederick and Martin – formed in 2014, the Cowboys’ running attack had 1,000 yard rushers in all three seasons, twice winning the NFL’s rushing title (2014, 2016). In Dallas’ disappointing 2015 season highlighted by an injured Tony Romo, the 4-12 Cowboys also managed to pave the way for Darren McFadden rushing for 1,089 yards and 4.6 yards per carry. This came after McFadden had three straight seasons of less than 3.5 yards per carry in Oakland. Despite the struggles (and talent) at quarterback in 2015, Pro Football Focus ranked the Cowboys’ offensive line as the best in the NFL. A 4-12 team with the league’s best offensive line.
A year before that, in addition to DeMarco Murray winning the rushing title (1,845 yards), he won NFL’s Offensive Player of the Year. Meanwhile, QB Tony Romo led the NFL in completion percentage and quarterback rating. Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked offensive line, along with a talented quarterback, resulted in a 12-4 record and one controversial call away from being in the NFC Championship (Dez caught it, by the way).
In 2016, the offensive line helped Ezekiel Elliott rush for 1,631 yards, and kept rookie QB Dak Prescott upright on his way to NFL Rookie of the Year, a 103.9 passer rating, and 81.6 total quarterback rating – third to Matt Ryan and Tom Brady. They allowed just 28 sacks and 69 QB hits all regular season. All of this resulted in the Dallas Cowboys winning a franchise-record 11 games in a row and gaining over 400 yards of offense a record nine different games. All of this was undoubtedly impossible without the protection of the “The (New) Great Wall.” PFF ranked Smith an 85.9, Frederick a 90.4, and Martin an 88.3, good for 16th at tackle, 2nd at center, and 3rd at guard overall, respectively. According to PFF, the Cowboys ranked #2 overall behind Tennessee as an offensive line unit; however, only one of those top two finished first in their conference and appeared in the playoffs. And there was only one unit in the conversation for NFL’s MVP this past season.
The offensive line, led by Smith, Frederick, and Martin, seems to win individual battles in run and pass protection, while leaving gaping wide holes for Zeke in combo-block run schemes, oftentimes reaching the second level of defenders. They want none of the recognition, but probably deserve most of it. And for once, Cowboys faithful and haters cannot blame Jerry Jones, for he approved the wise decision of building an NFL team from the inside out — a decision that has afforded him the luxury of making a selection like last year’s fourth overall pick, Ezekiel Elliott. A running back out of Ohio State, Zeke was not a position high on the Cowboys’ list of needs entering 2016. But the steadiness of the offensive line has established Dallas as a team capable of controlling the clock — and therefore, the tempo — of the game. This ability also allows for the Cowboys to mask deficiencies on defense – a 22nd-ranked front seven (PFF) and 26th-ranked pass defense – resulting in the selection of Zeke, instead of a pressing need such as defense. This confidence in the offense reared its head this off-season, as the Cowboys let four members of their secondary leave in free agency. They have repeatedly pieced together front seven units, relying on the relentless effort taught by defensive coordinator, Rod Marinelli. But on a larger scale, we step back to the realization that they are relying on the clock control of the offensive, led by none other than “The Great Wall of Dallas.”
Other franchises seem to be following the recipe (re)established by the Cowboys. The Oakland Raiders had their most successful season in recent history by acquiring the fourth-best offensive line unit in the NFL, and recognizing the need to protect their skill position players. The Tennessee Titans saw a great improvement after investing in the protection of franchise Quarterback, Marcus Mariota and developing their run game behind DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry – a balanced attack afforded to them because of their top ranked offensive line unit in 2016.
Just like there would be no Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, and Michael Irvin without the Cowboys offensive line of the 1990’s, the degree of success achieved by Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott in their rookie seasons were a direct result of their protection up front and their franchise’s investment and foresight in building from the inside out — with non-sexy, boring offensive lineman. The build of the Dallas Cowboys seems to be the correct recipe for success; it’s not a 5-star meal, but it’s hearty and it’ll fill you up. In three short years, the offensive line has remained the cream of the crop in the NFL despite more quarterbacks than seasons played, three different starting running backs, and a record change from 12-4 to 4-12 and back to 13-3. Perhaps best of all, the unit anchoring the entire franchise has enabled them the luxury of choice in filling out the rest of their roster.
Nobody builds a wall better than…Jerry.