DEMARCO MURRAY doesn't enjoy talking to reporters, except when the subject is the Cowboys' offensive linemen. "You know what's funny?" says Murray, a fourth-year back who is on pace to challenge Eric Dickerson's 30-year-old rushing record of 2,105 yards. "They probably love running the ball more than I do."
In a zone run-blocking scheme like Dallas's, each step, twist, reach and pull has to be timed correctly. Then it's up to Murray to make the correct read and hit the hole, often before it is fully open. "It's poetry, man," Murray says. This line has drawn comparisons with the Cowboys' of the early 1990s, which were among the best ever. And the construction of today's unit—which has been vital to Dallas's surprising 7--3 start—began four years ago, with a single play.
After completing a 14-yard pass at Cowboys Stadium, Tony Romo ended up on his back, writhing in pain. Giants linebacker Michael Boley had come unblocked on a blitz; Romo suffered a broken left clavicle and missed the last 10 games of 2010, and Dallas ended up 6--10. "Tony started to take some licks," says Stephen Jones, the Cowboys' chief operating officer. "You could see he [had] less confidence, like Troy [Aikman] did later in his career before we started retooling [the line]. We just said, Hey, we've got to start the process."
Left tackle Doug Free was in his first full year as a starter but was a better fit at right tackle. Of the other starters that night, three would be gone before the start of the 2011 season; the fourth was cut before the end of it. "We figured we'd replace two the first season and two the next," says coach Jason Garrett. "Didn't work out that way."
The poor finish in 2010 enabled Dallas to reap the ninth pick in a draft stocked with tackles. Offensive line coach Hudson Houck devoured tape on all the top prospects. Anthony Castonzo (6'7", 311 pounds) was a four-year starter at Boston College. Colorado's Nate Solder, a former tight end, had rare athleticism for a 6'8" 319-pounder. But Houck was adamant that USC's 6'5", 307-pound Tyron Smith was the choice. After seeing the film, Garrett couldn't argue: "I walked out and said, It's not even close."
Through Trojans athletic director Pat Haden, Houck learned that Smith had played with a leg injury for the last two weeks of the season, even though the team was on probation and he was assured of being a high pick. The Dallas staff also came to love Smith's phenomenal work ethic, honed since he was a four-year-old helping his mother and stepfather with their cleaning business. The last time the Cowboys drafted an offensive lineman in the first round was Howard Richards in 1981; three decades later they had their new anchor in Smith, who is already regarded as one of the two best left tackles in the NFL. "Of all the guys I've ever coached, and I've been doing this for 37 years," says offensive coordinator Bill Callahan, who replaced Houck after the 2011 season, "this is the hardest-working lineman I've ever been around."
IN THE RUN-UP to the 2012 draft Callahan went to Memphis to work out 6'3", 315-pound tackle Ronald Leary. The Cowboys had a third-round grade on him before a degenerative condition was found in Leary's left knee. He went undrafted, but Dallas thought enough of him as a power-left-guard prospect to outbid several teams, guaranteeing much of his first-year salary. Leary spent the majority of the year on the practice squad before becoming a full-time starter in '13. "Going undrafted will be something that I'll never forget," he says. "It keeps me from getting complacent or comfortable."
The next year Callahan traveled to Wisconsin to put a slow-footed but whip-smart (double major in computer engineering and computer science) center/guard named Travis Frederick through a private workout. He reminded Callahan of Nick Mangold, the All-Pro center he had coached with the Jets. Frederick would shoot his arms and grab the lineman in front of him—quickly, and with an iron grip, essential traits for a center. "He had that sudden strength that when he caught you, you were like, Whoa," Callahan says. "You know it when you see it."
Dallas chose him 31st. The 6'4", 312-pound Frederick sets the protections, except on the rare occasions when Romo overrides him. "He could call it all if we let him," Callahan says. "He'll grasp anything the first time you tell him. His recall is incredible."
The Cowboys now had filled in 80% of their line entering the 2014 draft. The plan was to take a defensive player in round 1—maybe a replacement for departed free-agent linebacker DeMarcus Ware—and an O-lineman after that. But the more mock drafts they did, the less likely it seemed that any defensive players they wanted would be available at No. 16. Indeed, on draft day the last one on their short list, Ohio State linebacker Ryan Shazier, went 15th, to the Steelers.
A discussion ensued about possibly taking Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel—a "proven winner," owner Jerry Jones had called him. "He just wanted to make sure that we weren't passing on something," says Stephen, Jones's son. "With Tony coming off [back surgery], are we sure he's going to be all right? Best guess was, he should be fine. It was just one more debate."
Instead, the Cowboys snagged their third first-round O-lineman in four years. Zack Martin had played so well at left tackle at Notre Dame that Callahan didn't need a private workout. "He just popped all over the film," Callahan said. "This was a no-brainer." A Rookie of the Year candidate, Martin has exceeded the Cowboys' projections, moving seamlessly to right guard. "He didn't look like a rookie for one second of any day," Garrett says.
AT RIGHT TACKLE is the 6'6", 325-pound Free, who at 30 is the undisputed leader and father figure of the group. "Doug is the general," Murray says. "He keeps those guys motivated and close." Dallas has depth with Mackenzy Bernadeau, who signed as a free agent in 2012 and can ably back up all three interior spots. Jermey Parnell, a four-year veteran who's 6'6" and 315 pounds, has played in every game and started the last three with Free out for a month with a broken right foot. Every Thursday night they go out to dinner as a group. There's no talking about football, just enjoying one another's company.
The tight-knit unit has freed Murray to run on instinct, without hesitation. The running attack—second in the NFL, at 153.2 yards per game—has afforded Romo, through play-action, more time to go through his progressions. It's also helped the defense hold its own despite numerous injuries. Dallas ranks third in time of possession after being 26th in 2013. Says Stephen Jones, "When our defense is out there 27 minutes versus 31 minutes, they can play harder, faster and relentless."
And now, four years later, a single play illustrates the ascent of the Cowboys. In Week 6 they were trailing the Seahawks 23--20 with 3:23 left in the fourth quarter at CenturyLink Field. On second-and-four at the Seattle 15-yard line, Murray had his hands on his knees behind fullback Tyler Clutts in their old-school I formation. The Seahawks' defense, in all its face-mask-rattling glory, had 10 players within a few steps of the line of scrimmage. It hardly seemed like a great rushing opportunity for Dallas. Yet it was exactly what Murray & Co. wanted.
As Romo prepared to take the hike, he took one more look as Frederick identified the Mike linebacker to set the blocking. Martin relayed the call to Parnell, filling in for Free. After the hike, Leary tied up the defensive tackle until Smith got there, then quickly disengaged and moved upfield.
Murray took the handoff and moved to his right, following Clutts, but saw that Frederick had pushed the other defensive tackle five yards to the right, and that Martin and Parnell had double-teamed the left end. Murray made a quick cut up the middle, through the wide hole opened between Smith and Frederick.
Two linebackers and a safety should have been waiting for him, but Martin moved to the second level to take out one linebacker while Leary took out the one coming from the backside as well as the safety, the fourth player he blocked on that play. Murray ran untouched to the three-yard line, then tumbled into the end zone.
"One of the greatest plays I've ever seen," Murray says. "Like I said, man, poetry."
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
THE HOLE PICTURE The line has helped Murray threaten the rushing record, kept the Cowboys' D off the field and paved the way for the decisive run in Seattle.