In today's fantasy-obsessed football world, it's easy to overlook the contributions of one position group: offensive line. Well, NFL Network analyst and former Pro Bowl center Shaun O'Hara is here to fix that. After carefully tracking the best offensive lines in the NFL all season, O'Hara is revisiting the O-line performance of the group that won the Built Ford Tough Offensive Line of the Year Award: the Dallas Cowboys' mauling front.
It was no surprise that this year's Built Ford Tough Offensive Line of the Year Award went to the Dallas Cowboys. The unit generated plenty of hype coming into the season -- rightfully so, given that it features three players who are arguably the best at their respective positions: Travis Frederick at center, Zack Martin at right guard and Tyron Smith at left tackle. With second-year left guard La'el Collins and right tackle Doug Free, the Cowboys' O-line certainly looked like the best in the league on paper. The value of depth was demonstrated when Collins went down in September -- Ronald Leary didn't just fill in, he played at a very high level.
No other unit was more physical or controlled the line of scrimmage more consistently, week in and week out. This physical style certainly was reflected during a season in which Dallas boasted the NFL's fifth-best offense and second-best running attack -- and the fact that the Cowboys did so with rookies at quarterback and running back put them ahead of most groups. Earning the NFL's rushing title -- Ezekiel Elliottled the league with 1,631 yards -- is one of the highest honors you can achieve as a group, and it's something all linemen are very proud to be associated with. (On a personal note, one of the most memorable seasons I had, and one I get asked about frequently, is the 2008 season, when the New York Giants had two 1,000-yard rushers in the same season -- Derrick Ward and Brandon Jacobs -- something that had only been done three times before in NFL history. It's something we cherish to this day.)
Here are some additional statistics that stood out about the line's performance while helping the team set multiple records, including the franchise marks for single-season winning streak (11) and games with 400-plus yards (nine):
Dallas led the league in first- and second-down runs that resulted in a first down, recording eight more than second-ranked Buffalo. Only the Bills had more runs of at least 10 yards than Dallas this season, as Zeke's highlight reel seemed to grow with every touch. And when the Cowboys were inside the opponent's 5-yard line, they scored on 10 of 18 run plays (tied for seventh in the league).
One of the things that impressed me most this year is how they Cowboyed-up when facing the best. Dallas squared off against two teams that had the No. 1 rushing defense at the time (the Packersin Week 6 and Ravensin Week 11) and still rushed for 100 yards in each of those games. There is a saying that "iron sharpens iron," and each time, this group stepped up to the anvil. The gratification you feel at the end of a game after putting a C-note up on a No. 1-ranked run defense is validation for all the work you put into the offseason, from training camp to the meeting room and the cold tub. Getting on that bus after a game like that? It's the best damn beer you've ever had!
Turn on the film, and it's clear: The Cowboys are the league's best combo-blocking unit in the run game, showing patience on the down man as they displace him into the lap of the linebacker. (Four hands on the DL, four eyes on the LB!)
This group is extremely talented, so it's time we give its members some individual love:
Travis Frederick (C) is one of the best centers in the game right now. He can do it all: handle the tough reach block, skinny up to the Mike linebacker on a toss and back block on a defensive tackle. What sets him apart from many centers is his balance. Very rarely do you see him on the ground; he never gets top-heavy in pass protection, and he does a great job working his hands inside (which is paramount at center, where you're engaged in CQC -- close-quarters combat).
Zack Martin (RG) brings the attitude in this unit, constantly finishing guys, and he's very physical in the run game. He has a unique ability to lower his hips just before contact ("low man wins"), and he also has a great anchor while pass blocking (that is, the ability to drop your hips when getting pushed off a cliff). He's isolated often in pass rush and, being on the right side, very often goes against the opponent's best defensive tackle.
Tyron Smith (LT) is one of those frustrating linemen to watch on film, because he makes everything look so EASY! Most offensive linemen just can't mimic his athleticism and still keep the balance he has. His ability to kick-slide in pass protection yet keep his hips square to the line of scrimmage is something not a lot of lineman have, because they A) don't have the flexibility in their hips and B) don't have the footwork/agility to beat the DL to a spot. Poetry in motion. When you combine all that with great hand placement on all his punches and the savviness to be able to snatch a bull rusher, it's "easy like Sunday morning."
Ronald Leary (LG) had a very good season, and he proved this year that he is a starting guard in the NFL. He is a people mover and has really improved with his pass sets. Dallas was able to keep him on the roster as the sixth man, but I wouldn't be surprised to see him starting for another team next year.
Doug Free (RT) had a statistically tough season, giving up eight sacks. I think Doug is a very solid right tackle, the type of player who can overcome some of the things that got him in trouble in pass protection, like getting your weight over your outside foot or lunging with your head when you punch. He will receive plenty of criticism this offseason, but he's a tough dude and I'm sure he's already grinding to get better for next year.
Cowboys offensive line coach Frank Pollack has done a great job since taking over the group in 2015. He continues to hone the players' techniques and crafts, and I can't wait to see what new levels this group reaches in 2017.