The bedrock of the Dallas Cowboys' offense, if not their entire team, the last several years has been its stalwart offensive line. Dallas has invested a lot of draft capital and salary cap dollars to have one of the league's best units, but are we starting to see signs that the wall they've built is slowly crumbling?
It would be easy to overreact after what happened last Sunday in New Orleans, where Ezekiel Elliott was held to just 1.9 yards-per-carry despite 18 rushing attempts. But this isn't about one game; increasing missed games by the starters and decreasing run-game dominance have been trending since 2016.
The Cowboys' greatest adversaries in the coming years may be the realities of Father Time and NFL mileage, more than the Eagles or any other team.
It may sound strange to talk about age since Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, and Zack Martin are all still just 28 years old. But that's where mileage comes into play; all of these guys have been full-time starters since the moment they entered the NFL.
2019 marks Smith's ninth season in the pros. This is Year 7 for Frederick and Year 6 for Martin. They have all started in every game they've played since being first-round draft picks. And unfortunately, that wear-and-tear is starting to show.
Tyron has missed three games in each of the last three seasons. He is expected to be out this Sunday against the Packers, though for an acute ankle injury and not the more chronic neck,back, and shoulder issues.
Zack missed two games last year for the first time in his career. He has been struggling with back issues all year so far in 2019, having to leave one game already due to some brief complications.
Travis is different, having missed all of 2018 dealing with a neurological disease. He's made a fantastic return from what could have been a career-ending situation, but all observers agree that Frederick hasn't gotten back to his All-Pro form yet.
When you start talking about all of these things collectively, you can see why this isn't just some passing concern. The Cowboys have leaned on that offensive line for a while now, and the long-term extension they just gave to Elliott suggests that's their strategy going forward.
But in so doing, have we taken for granted that Smith, Frederick, and Martin are going to keep being the same Pro Bowl players?
Again, I'm trying not to overreact to the run game getting shut down by the Saints. After all, Zeke had two 100-yard games in the weeks leading up. Even Tony Pollard had one against Miami.
But the Dolphins and Redskins are pure trash this season. The first time Dallas played a team who actually had their stuff together, their run game was completely shut down.
Granted, sometimes you come up against a great defense. Those guys are also trying to win; you can't look great every week.
But the whole point of investing the first-round picks in these linemen, and then paying top dollar on the second contracts, was to build an offensive line that can't be outclassed. Coaches may be able to out-scheme, but Dallas should never be at a disadvantage when it comes to talent on talent.
Hopefully, the weeks to come will make us look back on the Saints game as a total aberration. Perhaps Kellen Moore just got outmaneuvered in only his fourth game as Offensive Coordinator and he didn't put guys in the best position to excel.
But again, this isn't just one game. We're seeing our All-Pro offensive linemen missing more games and looking less like themselves from time to time, getting beat in one-on-one blocking assignments more than we ever saw in the past.
Father Time is undefeated, and sometimes just the rigors of life in the NFL can make a guy old before his time. Tyron Smith may only be 28 but he was an exceptionally young rookie at 20 years old; his NFL age is older than the standard calendar.
Only time will tell if these concerns fade away or become more permanent issues. But the signs are there; this Cowboys offense line may not be as reliable anymore as we've been used to.