Cowboys' offensive line is NFL's best bargain, key to offensive success

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FRISCO, Texas -- For the first time since current head coach Jason Garrett was named offensive coordinator in 2007, the Dallas Cowboys have gained more than 400 yards of total offense in five consecutive games.

In 2014, the Cowboys gained more than 400 yards in four consecutive games with quarterback Tony Romo, running back DeMarco Murray and receiver Dez Bryant leading the offense.

The coach and the playcaller, Scott Linehan, remain the same. The quarterback and running back have changed, and Bryant has missed four games this season with a hairline fracture in his knee.

The one constant? Football’s best offensive line.

It’s not even debatable these days. Ask any NFL scout or general manager if they’d be surprised if left tackle Tyron Smith, center Travis Frederick or right guard Zack Martin are named to the All-Pro team.

Right tackle Doug Free is solid and left guard Ronald Leary, a free agent at the end of the season, is playing the best football of his career.

Garrett's greatest accomplishment thus far as a head coach is persuading owner Jerry Jones to spend three first-round picks on offensive linemen in four years. Jones had never used a first-round pick on a lineman since buying the team in 1989.

These linemen are the reason rookie QB Dak Prescott has passed for 253.3 yards per game with nine touchdowns and two interceptions. They’re the reason rookie RB Ezekiel Elliott has rushed for a league-leading 799 yards, 114.1 per game, and is on pace to break Hall of Fame running back Eric Dickerson’s rookie rushing record of 1,805 yards set in 1983.

This O-line is also the NFL’s best bargain.

Jones is paying his offensive line $21.4 million this season, which ranks 21st in the NFL. Oakland is paying its O-line a league-high $37.9 million.

Philadelphia ($33.1 million), Minnesota ($32.4 million) and Houston ($31.3 million) are the only other teams spending more than $30 million on the offensive line.

The Cowboys' number will increase considerably over the next couple of seasons, when Frederick’s contact extension kicks in (2017) and Martin gets an extension that will probably start in 2018.

Then again, when Free and Leary come off the books, they’ll likely be replaced by tackle Chaz Green and guard La'el Collins, each of whom is due to earn less than a million per year for another couple of seasons until they’re eligible for free agency.

For now, though, the Cowboys are paying Smith $6.8 million and Free $4.5 million. Leary ($2.5 million), Martin ($2.4 million) and Frederick ($2.1 million) total $7 million.

While we get caught up in the Cowboys’ star power on offense, the dudes up front make it all work.

Their versatility -- they’re equally good run-blocking or pass-blocking -- is why the Cowboys are the only team in the league running more often than they throw. Dallas runs the ball 50.3 percent of the time, which keeps the ball in the hands of Elliott, their best offensive player, and limits the number of mistakes Prescott can make.

Elliott’s combination of speed and power allows the Cowboys to make big plays with their running game. He leads the NFL with 22 runs of 10 yards or more and seven runs of 20 yards or more.

Prescott is getting more comfortable in the pocket, and he’s making more big plays in the passing game.

He had a season-high five completions of more than 20 yards in the Cowboys’ 29-23 victory over Philadelphia in Week 8. Only one of those required a significant run after the catch. The balance makes the offense difficult to stop.

“We take pride in being able to run and pass,” Smith said with a grin, “but we really like focusing on our technique and running the ball and making it hard to stop us.”

Understand, the Cowboys never had more than two consecutive 400-yard games from the offense from 2007-13. And in 2010 and 2013, they never had consecutive 400-yard performances.

“Our players try to get better every day and not get caught up in what people are saying,” Linehan said, “whether they had some questions about where we were going to be sitting at this point in the season or they’re giving credit for where we are. Neither one is significant to us.”

What’s significant is the Cowboys have the NFL’s best offensive line, and that allows them to take what they want, not just what the defense gives them.