IRVING, Texas -- Back in February, Ezekiel Elliott said he wanted to play for the Dallas Cowboys. In a conference call with ESPN NFL Nation reporters two weeks before the draft, Elliott said the same thing.
The Cowboys made his wish come true at the end of April, but the wish was not because he grew up a Cowboys fan.
What running back wouldn’t want to play behind an offensive line like that?
However, there is a striking difference between Seattle's and Carolina's running games and the Cowboys'. Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson has 1,402 rushing yards the last two seasons. The Panthers’ Cam Newton has 1,175. Cowboys quarterbacks Tony Romo, Brandon Weeden, Matt Cassel and Kellen Moore have combined for 180 yards on the ground.
The Cowboys have made no secret that their team is built around the offensive line. You can debate the worthiness of selecting the best running back available in the draft when you have what many consider the best offensive line in football. The Cowboys ran for nearly 1,900 yards last season with Darren McFadden as their lead back and Romo playing just four games.
But the Cowboys believe a special running back and a special offensive line can lead to a special season.
This has been six seasons in the making, and it came together quite well in 2014 when DeMarco Murray ran for 1,845 yards to lead the league.
The Cowboys drafted Smith in the first round in 2011 and had him and Free switch tackle spots in 2012. In 2013, the Cowboys drafted Frederick, their center, in the first round. A year later they added Martin in the first round. Last year the Cowboys added a first-round talent in Collins as an undrafted free agent with a fully guaranteed contract.
And now they have added Elliott.
Grandiose predictions for Elliott are already being made: rookie of the year, rushing champion, rookie rushing record.
Without this offensive line, Elliott wouldn’t have those same considerations.
"For us, there's no pressure because everything that we do has to live up to our standard in our room,” said Frederick, who has been named to the Pro Bowl the last two seasons. “So everything that we do is geared to making sure that we're the best individually that we possibly can be and then collectively as a group the best that we can be.”
What is that standard? The linemen don’t really give a definition other than being the hardest-working group on the team, according to Smith, and doing things the right way.
“When you see it, you know,” Martin said. “The older guys coming in have done an awesome job of showing that each and every day. That's the best thing, the consistency of it."
Jason Garrett saw Emmitt Smith run behind some combination of Erik Williams, Mark Tuinei, Nate Newton, Mark Stepnoski and Larry Allen in the 1990s. The Cowboys won Super Bowls with the combination. They hope to win a Super Bowl with the combination of the line and Elliott.
"It's one of the best units that I have ever been around in football in terms of how close they are to each other and how hard they work,” Garrett said. “From the time they spend together in the weight room, to doing their drill work on the field, time they spend after practice together working on their fundamentals, time they spend together, it's a really close-knit group that pride themselves on being the hardest-working unit on the team, the hardest-working unit in the league.
“So they are very much grounded in trying to get better each and every day. They have a lot of great character guys, great personal character guys, great football character guys. So when you bring younger players in, they kind of understand what the culture is at that position group right away. So we're fortunate to have them. They can be the heartbeat of our football team.”