Why impact of Zack Martin's return to Cowboys can't be overstated

What does Zack Martin's restructured contract mean for the Cowboys? (0:42)

Mina Kimes explains why Zack Martin's restructured contract shows the Cowboys are "all-in" this season. (0:42)

OXNARD, Calif. -- When the news reached the Dallas Cowboys’ offensive coaches in a staff meeting late Monday morning that All-Pro right guard Zack Martin’s holdout was over, coach Mike McCarthy said the room erupted.

“Yeah, I think it showed what he means to us and what he means to our football team -- and I know, especially, the offense,” McCarthy said.

When Martin, the six-time first-team All-Pro right guard, arrived at the River Ridge Residence Inn early Monday evening, teammates flocked to him.

“Oh, my gosh, I hugged him forever,” right tackle Terence Steele said. “Everyone was smiling ear to ear. He’s just the heartbeat of the team.”

When he was able to catch his breath, Martin said he had a headache.

“Because I was smiling and laughing so much all day,” Martin said. “I don't think I stopped talking from the moment I got here until I went to bed. It was great to see these guys. Three weeks doesn't seem that long, but when you're sitting in Dallas in 110-degree heat every day seeing your guys out there having fun out in training camp, it seems a little bit longer than it is.”

Guards are not supposed to be this revered, but Martin’s importance to the Cowboys cannot be overstated. He has been named to the Pro Bowl in eight of his nine seasons. The only time he wasn’t picked came in 2020 when he missed six games.

He is as technically sound as any offensive lineman in the league and plays with an edge. But the statistics bear out the difference he makes to the Cowboys, according to ESPN Analytics.

Over the past four seasons when Martin wasn't on the field, the Cowboys' per-play average dropped more than a yard, the quarterbacks’ QBR dropped more than 20 points and the sack rate increased. When Martin played, the Cowboys’ pass block win rate was 58%. When he didn't, it was 42%, which would rank last in the NFL.

Maybe that’s why after a 21-day holdout, the Cowboys finally agreed to bump up Martin’s pay over the next two seasons. He will total a little more than $36 million for 2023 and 2024, up from the $27.5 million he was due to make.

“You just look at the way he trains, the way he prepares, his training is top notch,” McCarthy said. “He’s super consistent. How much he pays it forward, he helps the young guys, has excellent relationships throughout the building. And other than that, when he puts his hand in the ground, he’s really good. He just does everything right.”

When presented with the aforementioned stats, Martin demurred, saying the sample size without him is not that large. He has played 137 of 145 possible games since the Cowboys drafted him with the No. 16 overall pick in 2014.

“Where some of my value comes from is not me as an individual player, but I’ve always been able to help guys around me and have that cohesion,” Martin said. “That’s what I’m looking forward to with Terence and [center Tyler Biadasz], the guys I play directly next to and get our mojo back together.”

Dak Prescott might benefit the most from having Martin back. Including the playoffs, 95% of Prescott’s pass attempts since 2016 have come with Martin on the field.

“The guy’s an All-Pro, the guy’s a Hall of Famer, just look at what he’s done, look at his resume, a 99 on Madden. I think that’s another one that speaks for itself,” Prescott said. “So, yeah, you don’t worry about that side, and more important than knowing that he’s going to block his guy and that’s done, [it’s] what he offers the center, what he offers the right tackle. It’s something I don’t think we can really put into words or even understand.”

The Cowboys will face some excellent interior defensive linemen with Dexter Lawrence II of the New York Giants and Quinnen Williams of the New York Jets in the first two weeks. Having Martin gives the Cowboys the chance to match up their pass protection more, which makes the timing of his return 27 days before the season opener even more important.

“We need to get that first group repping,” McCarthy said.

Martin went through individual drills in the first two practices since his return, and he's expected to do more when the Cowboys begin practicing next week at Ford Center at The Star in Frisco, Texas. McCarthy will almost assuredly keep his starters out of any preseason action, so Martin will have to get ready with practice work.

“It just comes down to reps, just getting all the reps we can,” Steele said. “It’s time to make up for lost time, but we’ll get it back. We already had a natural connection, so it shouldn’t be hard to get it back.”

As tempted as he might be to get some 11-on-11 action in practice, Martin said he will be smart about getting acclimated. He was limited in the offseason program because of a calf injury but was working out daily with private offensive line coach Duke Manyweather. He even watched the Cowboys’ Oxnard practice video while back in Texas to make sure he would be ready for any changes whenever he did report.

While younger players like Josh Ball were able to get more work in Martin’s absence, his presence in the room was missed.

“It starts in the spring [when] you’re going through the examples and you install a run, you install a protection, and a very high percentage of time he’s part of that teaching reel,” McCarthy said. “And then, obviously, his reputation, his presence in the locker room, leadership council, all those things. It’s very beneficial to his teammates, but especially our young guys, I mean he’s an incredible example.”

If -- when? -- he is named to a ninth Pro Bowl this season, only four players in team history will have played in more (Mel Renfro, Larry Allen, Jason Witten, Bob Lilly). If he is named a first-team All-Pro for a seventh time, he would join Hall of Famers Lilly and Randy White for the most in team history, per ESPN Stats & Information.

Legacy, however, is not important to Martin at the moment.

“This [holdout] was obviously weighing heavy on me, and I had to do what I had to do to get it done,” he said “Now, it’s all about the season and getting ready for the season and helping this team win a championship. That’s where my mind goes right away.”