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Original Issue

To Serve And Protect

While teammates enjoy the limelight, Dallas's offensive line faces the toughest job in town: keeping hands off the star-powered quarterback

ON THE WEEKEND of the Super Bowl, at the Hotel Valley Ho in Scottsdale, Ariz., Cowboys owner Jerry Jones mingled with the enemy. It had been less than three weeks since his team lost to the Giants in a divisional playoff that Jones was certain Dallas would win. Agony engulfed the Metroplex, but Jones had recovered to the extent that he attended an NFL Network party. He worked the room until about 8 p.m., when he ran into the guy with the gap-toothed grin who helped inflict all that pain in the first place.

Michael Strahan, the Giants' veteran defensive end, cornered Jones like a standstill quarterback. New York was shortly to play New England for the NFL title, but Strahan was not going to rub it in. In fact, he was doing the opposite. "Your team is the most physical we played all year," Strahan said. It was an unexpected endorsement, considering how Strahan and the rest of the Giants' front seven had bulldozed the Cowboys' offensive line. But his words stuck with Jones as he headed into the off-season and started to put his team back together again.

Before Jones made his fortune in oil and gas, he was an offensive lineman at Arkansas, co-captain of the 1964 national champion. Once he became an NFL owner and began adding superstars to his payroll, Jones recognized the need to protect them. When the Cowboys won the Super Bowl in the 1992, '93 and '95 seasons, they sent multiple offensive linemen to the Pro Bowl every year. And when the team fell apart afterward, Jones attributed the collapse partly to leaks up front. He patched them with one 300-pounder after another.

Last season the work was complete. Dallas blocked as if it were 1992 again, and the offense averaged 28.4 points per game, tops in the conference. Guard Leonard Davis, tackle Flozell Adams and center Andre Gurode went to the Pro Bowl. The line even pancaked the Giants, overwhelming them in their two regular-season meetings and three quarters of the playoff game. But in that final quarter, the one everybody remembers, the Cowboys line disintegrated in a way that was as sudden as it was stunning.

Over the last 12 minutes and 36 seconds, Dallas quarterback Tony Romo was hit 10 times, including five knockdowns and two sacks. When he was not lying on his back, he was throwing off his back foot. Once, he looked up and saw four Giants in his face. Another time he saw three. The Cowboys were flagged for illegal formation, intentional grounding and a false start. Romo, preternaturally cool, screamed at his linemen on the field. Tony Sparano, then the offensive line coach, lit into them on the sideline. (Three days after the game, Sparano left to become the coach of the Dolphins.)

Because the New York game was the last of the season, with no position meetings to follow, each Dallas lineman would watch the tape of the playoff loss on his own time. Some waited a few days. Some waited a month. Davis needed almost two months to digest his disappointment. "That's not even a lot," Davis says. "That kind of game can sometimes carry over into the next year."

The loss to the Giants and the memory of all those hits on Romo form the backdrop for the 2008 season. If the Cowboys are going to realize their goal—winning a playoff game for the first time in 12 years, then adding a couple more for good measure—the offensive line will have to prove that what happened at Texas Stadium on Jan. 13 was a fluke, never to be repeated. "It's painful," says left guard Kyle Kosier. "But it's also great motivation for us."

EVEN NOW, seven months after the game, Dallas linemen have a hard time explaining exactly what went wrong. In the first quarter they marched 96 yards in nine plays for a touchdown. In the second they plowed 90 yards in 20 plays for another touchdown. "You could have hung those drives in the Louvre," says Cowboys radio analyst and former quarterback Babe Laufenberg. By halftime Marion Barber had 101 yards rushing and Romo had barely been touched.

The Dallas linemen are so massive— Adams (6'7", 340), Kosier (6'5", 294), Gurode (6'4", 316), Davis (6'6", 354) and right tackle Marc Colombo (6'8", 315)—that they usually wear down defenses simply by leaning on them. But the Giants were rotating their defensive ends, with Justin Tuck spelling Strahan and Osi Umenyiora, while the Cowboys line was sucking wind. Dallas did not look like a team coming off a first-round bye. In the second half Barber rushed for 28 yards and the Cowboys scored three points.

"I sat there for about a week after the game, going over it in my mind, watching the highlights on TV," Gurode says. "You ask yourself how you could have prepared better, how you could have made a difference, how you could have changed the outcome."

He came up with only one answer. Gurode has played 45 regular-season games at Texas Stadium, but this was his first postseason game there, and he was taken aback by the change in acoustics produced by the playoff crowd. From the beginning, as Gurode called out blocking assignments to his linemates, he was straining to pick up Romo's cadence. Anytime the center can't hear the quarterback clearly, the offense can't start as one. Gurode motioned for the crowd, buzzing over their team's first home playoff game in nine years, to quiet down. But the noise only grew.

"It was the strangest thing," Gurode says. "There was this really loud echo in the stadium that day. There were times in the game I couldn't hear at all. When that happens, the snap is a split-second late. It's not a penalty, but everything is a little bit off."

Of course, the Giants made a lot of good teams appear out of whack last season. Trailing by four points in the fourth quarter, the Cowboys acted like they were down 21. Romo tried to force passes downfield, holding the ball a second longer than usual and giving the Giants more time to come get him. They obliged, blitzing up the middle with linebackers Antonio Pierce and Kawika Mitchell, a preview of the mayhem the Patriots would face three weeks later.

"Romo hadn't seen that kind of pressure all year," says Dallas linebacker Bradie James. "It was a different kind of intensity."

In the postmortem, blame for the defeat was predictably placed on Romo, for going to Mexico with Jessica Simpson during the Cowboys' bye week; on coach Wade Phillips, for letting Romo go to Mexico with Jessica Simpson; and on wide receiver Terrell Owens, for defending Romo's decision to go to Mexico with Jessica Simpson. But criticism was also leveled at the offensive line, a group that is not used to getting much attention—not with Romo, T.O., Tank Johnson, Jerry Jones and now Adam Jones around.

WHEN JERRRY JONES returned from the Super Bowl, and the awkward encounter with Strahan, he had decisions to make about his line. He could let Adams walk as a free agent and slide Davis from right guard to left tackle. But on Feb. 28, the day before the start of free agency, Jones signed Adams to a six-year, $43 million extension, keeping the unit intact. "I think our offensive line is the strength of our team," Jones says.

That's quite a statement, considering who he has at quarterback, at receiver, on the defensive line and in the secondary. But Hudson Houck, the Cowboys' new offensive line coach, believes this group can stack up against the one in the early '90s. And Houck should know. He was the Dallas line coach from 1993 through 2001, when Nate Newton, Erik Williams and Larry Allen were scattering bodies en route to Super Bowls.

While some NFL teams have trended in recent years toward leaner, quicker lines, the Cowboys have long opted for beef. There is a reason, beyond the intimidation factor. Because Dallas traditionally employs drop-back quarterbacks, and opposing teams try to push the Cowboys guards backward to collapse the pocket, it helps to have a 350-pound guard who is about as hard to move as a cement truck.

The strategy is tested against the Giants. Dallas and New York are a genuine matchup of size versus speed, with Romo in the middle hoping size wins out. After Houck was hired in January, he watched tape of the playoff loss but did not share his observations with the players. "I won't mention it to them because I don't have to," Houck says. "They know. They don't talk about it. But they are thinking about it all the time."

THE COWBOYS line is extraordinarily talented and close-knit. Of the five starters, four were first- or second-round draft picks. But nothing came easily. Adams, who is partially deaf in his right ear, has a tendency to false start. Gurode switched from center to guard and back to center. Davis, drafted at No. 2 by the Cardinals in 2001, did not realize his potential until he arrived in Dallas last season and switched from tackle back to guard.

During the season, the linemen study their game plan together in the hotel on Saturday nights. In the off-season, they attend each other's birthday parties and charity events. But the Giants loss remains a sensitive subject. "Their game is getting in our face," says Kosier, who sprained his right foot in the preseason. "But if we get in their face first, they'll back down."

The first face-off is on Nov. 2 at the Meadowlands, and Dallas will have one obvious advantage. Strahan is now retired, working as an analyst for Fox. The Cowboys should have most of the headliners—Romo and T.O., Tank and the corner formerly known as Pacman, Jessica and Jerry. But if recent history is any guide, the road to redemption will be paved by the lesser-known 'Boys on the line.



RUSH JOB Dallas's bulky line handled New York's speed in two games but left Romo vulnerable when it counted most.