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Dallas Cowboys' rise keyed by offensive line, Rolando McClain

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ARLINGTON, Texas -- DeMarco Murray is the NFL's leading rusher, has eclipsed Jim Brown's record of consecutive 100-yard rushing games to start a season and would be a leading MVP candidate were the vote taken today.

But the way the Dallas Cowboys back tells it, every one of his 913 rushing yards -- only three teams in the league have more -- represents a group effort.

"They lay it out there for me; I lay it out there for them," Murray said of his offensive teammates, the line in particular. "I think we're all playing together."

You could say the same for the entire Dallas roster. Through seven weeks, the Cowboys have become the first in the league to reach six wins, are making a joke of preseason predictions and seem every bit a complete team. Let's take a look at three of the reasons why:

The offensive line

Throughout his years in the NFL, Cowboys coach Jason Garrett has developed a theory about great offensive lines: "They kind of move in packs." No one would argue with that, particularly in his own locker room.

The Cowboys' offensive line dines together weekly, exchanges frequent group texts when away from the facility and is the closest unit left tackle Tyron Smith says he's ever been part of.

"Pretty much anything you think about doing with your brothers growing up, we do together," left guard Ronald Leary said. "We're a group that leans on each other. We never want to let the man next to us down. That's a big thing."

Center Travis Frederick: "We do spend a lot of time together. I think that really helps us on the field, being able to communicate and (to) be able to know each other inside and out, so that we don't always have to make all the calls, or don't have to help each other out in certain situations. We have great trust in each other."

The Cowboys lead the league in rushing (159.7 yards per game), with Murray and his linemen appearing to work in near-perfect concert. The running game is benefiting from considerable investment in the offensive line -- Smith (2011 NFL Draft), Frederick (2013) and right guard Zack Martin (2014) were all first-round picks -- but the last piece to that puzzle was added partly due to happenstance.

According to someone familiar with the Cowboys' 2014 draft strategy -- and aside from Jerry Jones' apparent infatuation with Johnny Manziel -- the plan was to help their defense in the first round. But after linebacker Anthony Barr (ninth to Minnesota), defensive tackle Aaron Donald (13th, St. Louis) and linebacker Ryan Shazier (15th, Pittsburgh) flew off the board, the Cowboys selected Martin at No. 16.

"We felt he was a really, really good player," Garrett said. "We had an immense amount of consensus about him in our building; everybody loved him."

The Cowboys have outrushed their opponents by a total of 324 yards, an average of 46.3 per game. They've won time of possession in six of seven games. And the byproduct of having a strong offensive line is that the defensive line was challenged through the spring and summer.

"Ain't nothing better out there; that's what's shaped our D-line," defensive end Jeremy Mincey said. "We work them hard, they work us hard, we all get better."

Rolando McClain

On July 1, the Cowboys made a trade with the Ravens, sending a 2015 sixth-round pick to Baltimore for middle linebacker Rolando McClain and a seventh-rounder.

The transaction barely registered. The result has been far more impactful.

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The Cowboys rank 14th in the NFL in total defense, allowing 343.9 yards per game. They play fast, swarm to the ball and play hard, knowing their offense will likely keep them off the field for minutes upon minutes at a time.

It's been an incredible turnaround. Last year, the Cowboys ranked dead last in total defense -- by 17.7 yards per game, allowing 415.3. Losing DeMarcus Ware (released), Jason Hatcher (signed with the Redskins in free agency) and Sean Lee (torn ACL in May) was supposed to make matters even worse.

Instead, in his first season as Cowboys defensive coordinator, Rod Marinelli is doing a terrific job. Look for a difference-maker in the locker room, and teammates point to McClain, who was out of football last season after retiring twice and being arrested three times since the Oakland Raiders drafted him eighth overall in 2010.

"He's a guy that you love playing with," cornerback Orlando Scandrick said. "He brings a physical presence, just brings that spirit that we feed off of on defense."

Said Mincey: "He's a big man in the middle. Rolando leads with his pads; he just makes plays."

McClain ranks third among Cowboys with 31 tackles and leads the team with three tackles for loss and two interceptions.

"I'm just happy to be with the Dallas Cowboys, and I'm happy with our success so far," McClain said. "I'm having fun with my teammates and having a good time."

McClain doesn't like to talk about himself.

"Ain't much to talk about," he said.

He could make a run at the Comeback Player of the Year award, and he's among the league's biggest bargains, playing under a one-year contract for $700,000.

"I mean, that's the beauty of it," Mincey said. "He was a No. 1 draft pick, but he came here as an 'average Joe.' I was released from Jacksonville; nobody really knew me. Everybody has something to prove. We're definitely living up to our expectations."

The fourth quarter

When the Cowboys talked in the offseason about their season goals, according to Scandrick, this topped the list: "We have to win the fourth quarter."

In three of their six wins, the Cowboys trailed or were tied in the fourth quarter; in a fourth, against the Giants, Dallas led by seven going into the fourth quarter and expanded the lead to win by 10.

In seven total games, the Cowboys have been outscored in the fourth quarter twice -- and one of those instances came in a blowout win, 38-17 over New Orleans.

"I think having confidence to do the things necessary to win in the fourth quarter is a really big step for a football team," Garrett said.

Tony Romo owns the most game-winning drives in the NFL since 2012 with 12. But it seems these Cowboys no longer have to rely on that magic.

"Run the football when you're ahead, do the things that are necessary; it starts with that," Garrett said. "(An) immense amount of confidence (comes from believing) that we're going to do what's necessary to win at the end of the ballgame."

Follow Kimberly Jones on Twitter @KimJonesSports

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