FRISCO, Texas — It had been said so often that it just became accepted as fact: The Dallas Cowboys have the best offensive line in football.
When you look at names such as Tyron Smith (6), Travis Frederick (4) and Zack Martin (5) and their combined 15 Pro Bowl appearances, a case certainly could have been made for the Cowboys. But by statistical measures and eyeball tests, they weren’t the best line in the NFL the past few years.
Some of last season’s issues can be pinned on the season-long absence of Frederick to an autoimmune disease, and some of the fault can be traced to a subtle switch in philosophies brought in by O-line coach Paul Alexander, who was replaced by Marc Colombo after seven games.
The Dallas Cowboys will look to go 3-0 for the first time since 2008 when they play the hapless Miami Dolphins on Sunday.
Miami picked up discarded Cowboys defensive end Taco Charlton but is in full tank mode, losing their first two games by a combined score of 102-10 to the Baltimore Ravens (59-10) and the New England Patriots (43-0).
The only question is whether the Cowboys are going to take a page out of Barry Switzer’s Oklahoma playbook and ‘hang a half a hundred’ on them.
The Cowboys are 22.5-point favorites against a Dolphins team that is playing on the road for the first time and starting a new quarterback Josh Rosen.
The Cowboys, however, are not taking the bait. They are not eating the cheese. They refuse to believe that anything less than their best will do against the Dolphins.
“No team is coming over on Sunday and just lay down and let you get away with the win,” running back Ezekiel Elliott said. “So we’re going to come out fighting.”
Said wide receiver Amari Cooper: “I feel like a lot of us have been on teams that have gotten beat like that. I don’t think that really defines you, especially not in the first two weeks. I know when I was on a team that probably got beat like that, I didn’t feel like we sucked. I just felt like we had a bad game. And that’s how I feel about the Dolphins: I don’t feel like they suck.”
The Cowboys have a done a good job on staying true to what coach Jason Garrett constantly preaches about focusing on themselves and playing to their standard, regardless of the opponent.
“I think it goes back to what we try and preach every day,” Garrett said. “The focus is on us and preparing and playing with an edge, preparing and playing with the highest standards and that’s what we try to preach to our guys each and every day in everything we do. That’s not going to change. It’s about us, it’s more about us than it is about the opponent every week regardless of who they are. We’re just trying to get better each and every day and play our best on Sundays.”
Here are five Cowboys things to watch in against the Dolphins:
AVOID ANOTHER SLOW START
The Cowboys offense has scored 35 and 31 points in their first two games against the Giants and Redskins, respectively. They offense reeled off five consecutive scoring drives in both contests to finish up like a well-oiled machine. But both games featured flow starts as the Cowboys have a total of 7 points in the first quarter combined from both games. So that tops of the list of things they hope to improve against the Dolphins.
“Yeah, just want to play better on the outset of the game,” coach Jason Garrett said. “So much of those early drives come down to converting a third down. If you make a throw and make a catch in those situations, those drives get going. Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to do that, but I think our guys have responded well as the game has gone on.
CAN DAK PRESCOTT CONTINUE TO STAY SIZZLING HOT
Quarterback Dak Prescott has had the best start for any quarterback Cowboys history with seven touchdown passes and one interception. He has the highest completion percentage of any signal caller in NFL history through the first two games.
He should put up more ridiculous numbers against the Dolphins, which has the league’s worst defense.
Prescott needs to complete his first four passes break Brandon Weeden’s team-record streak of 21 straight completions. Prescott finished the Redskins game with 18 straight. He needs one touchdown pass to reach 75 for his career, becoming the fastest Cowboys quarterback to do it (51 games.) He could become the third quarterback in NFL history with four straight games of 120 quarterback rating and at least three touchdown passes.
Jerry Jones said he’s never played better.
“Greatness is consistency,” Dallas receiver Amari Cooper said. “For him to be that consistent is pretty remarkable.”
ZEKE ELLIOTT TURNING IT UP A NOTCH IN GAME THREE
Running back Ezekiel Elliott knocked the rust off against the Redskins last week with his first 100-yard game of the season, the 20th of his career. Look for him to turn it up a notch against the Dolphins and the league’s worst run defense.
This is usually when Elliott takes off anyway. He is an historically slow starter. That he has already had career-best 164 yards rushing through two games means that the two-time rushing champ could be on the brink of a special season.
“I mean, it’s been productive the first two weeks, but there is still stuff I can improve on,” Elliott said. “I’ve just got to keep getting better week in and week out and become a better football player. Just getting in the flow of things. Just getting the flow of football and just being used to be being out there. I mean, that’s just the biggest thing.”
IS IT AMARI COOPER’S TIME TO SHINE
With Mike Gallup out with a torn meniscus, maybe it’s time for Amari Cooper show up as the team’s No. 1 receiver. He has been good but he has to lead the team in receiving through the first two games. He has 10 catches for 150 yards and two touchdowns.
All totaled he has 63 catches for 875 yards and 8 touchdowns in 11 games since coming over to the Cowboys in a bye-week trade with the Raiders last season. The numbers speak to a natural chemistry with quarterback Dak Prescott.
“It’s like when you put certain foods together, when you put ketchup on a burger. It just tastes good together,” Cooper said. “I would just say we mesh well together.”
WILL ROBERT QUINN IMPROVE THE PASS RUSH, WILL HE PROTEST
Defensive end Robert Quinn will be active for the first time all season after missing the first two games under NFL suspension and he will back playing against the team that traded him to the Cowboys.
He is a welcomed sight to a defense that has struggled getting to the quarterback through the first two games. Quinn and defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence should form a formidable tandem. The big question is whether Quinn will raise his first in protest of social justice during the national anthem as he did with the Dolphins and the Rams before coming to the Cowboys, given the team’s respect-the-anthem edict under Jerry Jones?
So there could be fireworks before and during the game.
DONOVAN WILSON’S TIME TO SHINE
With Xavier Woods likely out with a sprained ankle, rookie Donovan Wilson will be active for the first time. He missed the first two games with a sprained ankle. Veteran Darian Thompson will get the start opposite Jeff Heath but Wilson will play. He had a great preseason with three interceptions. Will the ball find him against the Dolphins?
Coach Jason Garrett said the Texas A&M product is aptly described as a ball hawk, which is needed in a defense that lacks turnovers.
“Absolutely,” Garrett said. “He’s someone who plays the defense the right way and then goes and gets the ball. And you saw him make a lot of plays on the ball, punching them out or picking up fumbles in practice. And then he made interception plays in the games. It’s hard to teach someone being a ball guy. He’s a ball guy. That’s a really important trait for anybody on your defense. It’s the No. 1 trait in football. It’s something we certainly want to get better at defensively, and he’s demonstrated an ability to do that.”
Two games into the season, the Cowboys’ line has looked much more like the best line in football.
Not that they care much about the title.
“I don’t think that part of it matters,” right tackle La’el Collins said. “What matters more is we play the way we should be playing, to the standard we have in our offensive line room. All of that talk will kind of take care of itself.”
Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott ties his success to his blockers up front. He has completed 82.3% of his passes in two games, the best start for a quarterback in league history. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, the Cowboys have the fourth-best pass-block win rate (68.3).
Ezekiel Elliott’s 164 rushing yards in the first two games are the most he has had in the first two contests in his pro career. The Cowboys are averaging 151 yards per game on the ground, which is sixth best in the league. They have the best third-down offense so far, converting 61.9% of the time.
“I think we’re just getting back to what we do around here, you know?” Martin said. “We’re highly repped during the week. We get a lot of looks. We get great looks from our scout team and they’re very specific for the team we’re playing, and it helped out and pays off on Sunday.”
After a full offseason of work, Colombo has installed what he wants out of his line.
“It’s not perfect, but we’ve just got to keep building on it, all right, and just get a little bit better every week,” Colombo said. “It’s a special unit, but we’re like this because we work hard and our attention to detail is the best I’ve ever seen.”
Above it all, however, might be the return of Frederick.
“He’s the best center in football, so having that back is a huge deal,” Colombo said. “And my communication with him is really good, and I think that translates over with his communication with the rest of the offense. It’s special.”
Since 2014, the Cowboys have had one of the best rushing offenses. DeMarco Murray (2014) and Ezekiel Elliott (2016, 2018) led the league in rushing in three of the past five seasons.
Pass protection was a weak spot in 2018. Prescott was sacked 56 times in 2018 after being sacked just 57 times in his first two seasons. The 56 sacks in 2018 were the third-most allowed in team history.
“We take a lot of pride in our pass protection and last year was not good,” Martin said. “We addressed it in the offseason and we worked on. We still have a long way to go but after two games, we’ve done some good things.”
The Cowboys quarterback took blame for some of the protection issues last season, either holding the ball too long or moving into trouble.
According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Prescott has had on average 2.56 seconds to throw with 53.2% of his attempts coming with more than 2.5 seconds to throw.
Prescott has been sacked just once through two games. On last week’s sack by Washington’s Ryan Kerrigan, guard Connor Williams was beat off the snap by Daron Payne, forcing Prescott to move to his left. Collins had pushed Kerrigan unknowingly into Prescott’s path.
“And that was 100 percent my fault,” Prescott said after the game. “I just said that to the offensive line, a couple of guys in there, that was my fault once again. They continue to do a great job and they will continue to do that all year long. It’s everyone playing together. It’s guys getting open so the offensive line doesn’t have to block all day long. It’s me making good decisions, anticipating things, getting it out of my hand … I know the coverage. I’ve got to trust it and throw it. It wasn’t a great play by me trying to make something happen. Obviously, I didn’t. It should be zero sacks.”
That’s a high standard, but one the Cowboys want to keep if they want to be considered the best line in football.
“These guys are never satisfied. I’m never satisfied,” Colombo said. “We expect a lot from this group, OK. We have a standard that we’ve created around here and it’s all about living up to our standard. I tell these guys all the time, as we go the team goes.”