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How Cowboys remade once-wobbly offensive line into ‘best ever’

The best offensive line ever.

Such words are being spoken about the potential of the Dallas Cowboys’ offensive line after Thursday’s addition of rookie undrafted free agent La’el Collins.

The former LSU star was a first-round talent who did not get picked in the 2015 NFL Draft because he was sought for questioning following the death of his former girlfriend.

After being cleared by Baton Rouge police, Collins chose to join the Cowboys, adding to what was already an embarrassment of riches up front. The Cowboys have three first-round picks and three Pro Bowlers in left tackle Tyron Smith, center Travis Frederick and guard Zack Martin. Smith and Martin were selected first-team All-Pros in 2014, with Frederick on the second team.

It was Jerry Jones who first spoke about creating the best offensive line ever during a recruitment pitch to Collins at the owner’s home Wednesday.

Collins certainly picked up on it and is ready to embrace the challenge.

“I can tell you what, our greatest moments are ahead of us,” Collins said after signing with the Cowboys on Thursday. “This is going to be the best offensive line in NFL history.”

Even normally pragmatic and conservative coach Jason Garrett, the man who lives by one practice at a time and preaches the process, refused to be a wet blank, which speaks volumes about the legitimacy of such lofty expectations.

“We believe in setting high goals and being aspirational at the outset,” Garrett said. “Now it’s ‘get back to work.’ You tone that down. We are going to focus on Monday and doing the things we need to do along the way. But you want guys who are motivated. You want guys who set high goals for themselves and their football team. You want achievers. I don’t think that’s bad at all.”

What was bad was the state of the Cowboys’ offensive line when Garrett took over in 2011, the beginning of three straight 8-8 seasons when quarterback Tony Romo was running for his life and there was no ground game to speak of.

But it was also the start of the deliberate and pain-staking process to get here — where the offensive line is the foundation of the team’s success and the strength of the organization — from there.

Garrett cut three veterans before his first season: tackle Marc Colombo, Pro Bowl center Andre Gurode and guard Leonard Davis. It forced the Cowboys to open the season with an undersized and overmatched line that included center Phil Costa and seventh-round rookie Bill Nagy at guard.

It was also the year they took Smith as their first-round pick, serving at the tipping point of the transition, even though you couldn’t see it amid the piles of rubble at the line of scrimmage during the season.

“We had to make some real hard decisions right at the outset,” Garrett said. “We had some veteran offensive linemen. We ended up releasing three of them in one year. We played with some really young players. We didn’t have the draft choices or the money under the salary cap to go get guys to replace them. We had some hard-playing guys who came in and did everything we asked them to do. We knew we had to allocate resources to this. It also took time as we were taking our lumps against teams that were physically stronger than we were up front.”

But the process had begun with Smith in 2011. The Cowboys took Frederick in the first round in 2013 amid criticism from draft pundits that he was not worth a first-round pick, and followed up with the Martin as their first pick in 2014.

Garrett said none of it happened by accident. It was a very deliberate commitment to improve the offensive line.

But he acknowledges the Cowboys were also the beneficiaries of some good fortune, especially as it relates to Martin and Collins.

The Cowboys had targeted other players in the 2014 draft but they were gone when it was their turn to pick, allowing Martin to fall in their laps.

And if Collins isn’t involved in a most unfortunate situation that had nothing to with him he would have been drafted and not available for the Cowboys.

“I do feel like good things have come to us in getting some of these players,” Garrett said. “You can say you are targeting a player, but if someone picks them before you, you have to make a different decision. So the fact that Zack Martin was on the board where he was and Travis was on the board where he was, in addition to Tyron, that has really helped. And to have the opportunity to get involved with this La’el Collins situation and to bring him on board; it’s something that we have been fortunate to be part of and it will help our team.”

Garrett is admittedly ecstatic about the line and its future.

While it’s seems to be uncharacteristic for him to even be acknowledging comments about being the best line ever, he is emboldened by the line itself and its place as the foundation to everything they hope to do.

By nature, these are guys who set the tone for the entire organization.

“When you feature a unit, that is a good thing for your team,” Garrett said. “That unit also controls the line of scrimmage. They come off the ball and they set the tone and the pace for what you want your team to be all about. We want to be a physical football team. Nobody sets that tone more than the offensive line does. They can be the heartbeat of the team. They are focused on football.

“There is just a mentality that offensive linemen have. Each of the guys we brought in has that mentality. They have bad facial hair. They don’t think about what they eat all the time. But they love to meet. They love to lift. They love to go play football, and they work very hard at it, and in so many ways that sets the tone for our football team.”

Last year, the line paved the way for a 12-4 season, an NFC East title and only the second playoff win since 1997.

Next we’ll see what the Cowboys can do in 2015 with potentially the best collection of talent up front in NFL history.

Clarence E. Hill Jr.

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Twitter: @clarencehilljr

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