The New Offensive Line: Twilight of the Sluggos
The ’90s Cowboys won behind an offensive line that was massive and physically dominant. It sent six different players to the Pro Bowl that decade. It earned its own episode on the NFL Network’s “A Football Life.” The Cowboys have tried to replicate it in different ways, first through free agency, and lately through the draft.
And yet, that line is now a historical footnote.
That’s because the Cowboys, while investing three high picks in the unit, are no longer working off the sluggo player profiles they used then. After trying and failing with lead-footed maulers like Shane Hannah, George Hegamin, Solomon Page and Rob Petitti, the Cowboys have slowly built an talented, young line that more closely resembles those used by Bill Callahan in New York.
Bulk is out. Speed is in.
Callahan’s Jets’ linemen deserve closer inspection in this regard. That unit had four 1st rounders blocking for LaDainian Tomlinson and Shonn Greene — Jets’ draftees D’Brickashaw Ferguson and Nick Mangold and free agent 1st rounder Alan Faneca (a Steelers top selection) and right tackle Damien Woody, a former 1st for the Patriots. Undrafted free agent guard Brandon Moore completed the unit.
They ran a hybrid rushing attack very similar to Dallas’. The unit ran zone plays and man blocking plays. It had three perennial Pro Bowlers on the left side, in Ferguson, Faneca and Mangold. Most importantly, it prioritized quickness and mobility over brute strength. In the dominant seasons of ’08 through ’10, when the Jets twice advanced to the AFC title game, only one of the Jets’ linemen topped 320 lbs. That was the right tackle Woody. The left guard Faneca, a lethal pulling guard throughout his long career, was 312 lbs. The other three played around 300.
Look at the Cowboys current weights from their roster. (I’ve been told many times through the years that the weights on the team site are accurate.) Only one Cowboys lineman, coincidentally the right tackle, tops 320. Doug Free was a bulked up former tight end when Dallas drafted him in 2007 and he’s slowly added weight every year of his career. He now tips the scales at 325.
Free remains in character with the old school Cowboys linemen, most of whom played between 325 and 335. His peers are significantly lighter. Let’s start on the left side, where Tyron Smith has topped out at 318. He was a 290 lb. right tackle in his final season at USC and bulked up to 311 in the off-season before he was drafted. The Cowboys have added some beef to his frame, but have been careful not to limit his speed by bulking him up too much.
Left guard Ronald Leary weighs 318 lbs. now, lighter than the 331 lbs. he carried as a rookie. Less weight will decrease the stress on his arthritic knee, and increase the odds for a longer career. That will also help Leary’s mobility.
Center Travis Frederick now weighs 311, after floating between 330 and 340 while at the University of Wisconsin. Losing weight did not compromise Frederick’s power his rookie season and no doubt helped him reach the second level to challenge linebackers.
New addition Zach Martin, tips the scales at 305. He’ll be the moving guard in the group. And what can the fans expect from this group?
— More zone running plays on inside calls and probably a lot more tosses and pitches to the perimeter. Both tackles are capable pulling to lead backs on tosses and screens. Here’s Smith, from his rookie year, pulling and leveling a cornerback:
Here’s Doug Free running the same play:
From Martin, we can expect lots of action on counters and on quick screens like this one, run here by the ‘weeble’ Montrae Holland (64):
There will be more of a quick strike quality to the line, but that in no means suggests this group can’t mash. Callahan’s runts ranked 1st in rushing offense in 2009 and were 4th in 2010. Hitting faster can be just as effective as hitting you bigger. We’re about to see that in practice.
Senior analyst Rafael Vela started CowboysNation.com in 2010. Follow him on Twitter @cowboysnation1.