There is no better example of how well the Dallas Cowboys offensive line has played this season than Wednesday’s announcement from the NFL naming left tackle Tyron Smith as the NFC offensive player of the week.
Smith was honored for his play in the Cowboys’ 30-23 victory Sunday against the Seattle Seahawks.
He is the first offensive lineman to win the award in the more than a decade. Former Kansas City Chiefs guard Brian Waters guard was the previous lineman to win the award in 2004.
“It’s just a great honor to receive,” Smith said. “It’s more of an award for our whole offensive line, not just me.”
The news was bittersweet, considering that Smith missed practice because of a left ankle injury and was scheduled to undergo a MRI exam to access the damage. The Cowboys say they think he will play Sunday, but they are doing their due diligence with the MRI.
While the offensive player of the week award was a testament to how well the entire line played against the Seahawks — the Cowboys had 401 yards of total offense, including 162 on the ground — there is no denying that Smith is the bell cow of the group.
The four-year veteran, who was picked ninth overall in 2011, has developed into the league’s best left tackle.
He graded out the highest of all the team’s linemen against the Seahawks and has consistently been the leader of the pack.
“There’s no question in my mind that Tyron is playing at a very, very high level, as is everybody on that offensive line,” coach Jason Garrett said. “Tyron, in a lot of ways, is one of the leaders up there. He doesn’t say a whole lot. He just does it with his actions each and every day in practice with his preparations and certainly on Sundays.”
The offensive line has paved the way for the team’s 5-1 start.
Running back DeMarco Murray is the biggest benefactor. He leads the league in rushing with 159 carries for 785 yards and is on pace for at least 2,000 yards this season.
The reliance on the line and running game has made life easier for quarterback Tony Romo. He has gone from the focal point to second chair as the Cowboys are on pace to have more runs than passes for the first time since 2005, the year before Romo took over as starting quarterback.
It all starts with Smith.
Center Travis Frederick and guard Zack Martin, picked in the first round in 2013 and 2014, are also key pieces to one of the league’s best offensive lines.
But don’t overlook the work that Ron Leary has done at left guard or Doug Free at tackle.
“Those guys are playing awfully well, and we have that situation in-house with recognizing guys with game balls and or attaboys,” Garrett said. “That unit collectively has played really well.
“They are old-school offensive linemen. They don’t say a whole lot. They go out and do their job.”
In addition to Smith’s iffy status, the Cowboys will be without Free for three to four weeks because of a fractured foot. The Cowboys don’t expect to miss a beat with backup Jermey Parnell stepping in against the Giants on Sunday.
“We’ve been doing pretty good, and we’re just trying to keep it going,” Smith said.
Garrett’s description of Smith and company as old-school offensive linemen is appropriate considering the Cowboys’ winning formula in 2014 is a throwback to their Super Bowl teams of the 1990s. They were led by a massive offensive line that helped the Cowboys control the ball and the clock.
The 2014 offense has helped Romo by taking pressure off him while allowing the defense, which has played the fewest snaps of any unit in the NFL, to stay fresh.
“Big, strong offensive line,” Garrett said. “We just made a real commitment to it with the personnel over the last three, four years. That’s how you run the football in this league.”
The Cowboys are forcing the run no matter how the defense is lining up. Again, that’s the old-school formula that worked in the 1990s when NFL rushing king Emmitt Smith played the role of Murray.
That was most evident against the Seahawks, who entered the game yielding an NFL-best 62 yards rushing. The Cowboys simply ran over them.
More important, the Cowboys are wearing teams down in the fourth quarter. Murray rushed nine times for 52 yards and a touchdown against the Seahawks in the fourth quarter.
Again, Garrett says this is all by design.
“I think you see the fruits of that as the game goes on,” Garrett said.
They saw the fruits of it Wednesday when Smith won an award usually donned on skill position players.
The dominant offensive line play is the Cowboys’ best skill in 2014.