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Cowboys offer Giants a road map back to contention

1/5/2015

The Dallas Cowboys, the first NFC East team to win a playoff game since the New York Giants won Super Bowl XLVI, are no fluke.

Their 12-4 regular-season record included an 8-0 road record, and while they shouldn't be favored in next week's divisional playoff game in Green Bay, they're not likely to be an easy out. After three straight 8-8 seasons in which they lost a division title game on the final day, the Cowboys this year broke through to join the ranks of the NFL's top teams. No team in the league won more games.

Along with the ridiculous sight of New Jersey's governor/climber trying to butt in on a celebratory hug between Stephen and Jerry Jones at the end of Sunday's playoff victory over Detroit, the Cowboys' resurgence likely eats at Giants fans who hate that team and the fact it's on to the second round while the Giants sit out the playoffs for the third year in a row. But while you may not like hearing it, the Cowboys offer the Giants and the rest of the NFL a pretty good team-building road map.

This is a Cowboys team that has demonstrated patience and resilience. The three years that preceded this one were fraught with cries for the firing of coach Jason Garrett, arguments about the merits of releasing young wide receiver Dez Bryant when he found trouble off the field, and the requisite jokes about Tony Romo choking in the clutch and Jerry Jones' impatience and meddling. But through it all, the Cowboys stuck with a plan that didn't appear to anyone else to be working. Jones believed in Garrett, tried any number of different assistant-coach arrangements before Scott Linehan came in this year and unlocked things, and stood by Bryant when others might have chosen not to do so. He is being rewarded now with a playoff run after three straight years of disappointment.

Next season will tell whether it was wise for the Giants to keep Tom Coughlin and to keep his staff intact, but regardless of whether they're better off staying put, one thing about the Cowboys' model that should stand out to them is the way they've built their roster over the past half-decade -- specifically up front on offense.

The Cowboys went 29 years without picking an offensive lineman in the first round before taking Tyron Smith at No. 9 overall in 2011. This was not a coincidence. It was a deep-rooted organization belief that the value of using a first-round pick on an offensive lineman wasn't justified. But it showed, and as the Cowboys amassed impressive offensive skill-position talent year after year, offensive line issues continually sunk their seasons. Smith was a great value pick at a position of tremendous need in 2011, and they pulled the trigger.

The following year, they goofed and traded their first-round and second-round picks to move up and take cornerback Morris Claiborne. But in the two years that followed, they went big again, moving down to take center Travis Frederick at No. 31 in 2013 (and picking up Terrance Williams with the extra third-rounder they got out of that deal) and taking Zack Martin at No. 16 last year.

The result is a monster offensive line that gives them the confidence to run the ball with authority even when they fall behind in big games and to protect Romo for six or seven seconds if that's what he needs to throw the game-winning touchdown pass. The Cowboys' offense is still loaded with big-time playmakers, but now it's built to control games and to allow its playcaller to stick with the plan for the full 60 minutes. These are major advantages, and Dallas' 5-1 record against the Giants the last three years has offered plenty of game-by-game evidence of the growing difference between the teams.

The Giants are starting to get the message. They went 13 years without taking a first-round lineman before taking Justin Pugh at No. 19 in 2013. But their current projected 2015 starters still include only Pugh, second-rounders Will Beatty and Weston Richburg and free-agent signees Geoff Schwartz and J.D. Walton. They continue to seek patchwork solutions at a place on the roster where it's clear they need more elite talent. Beatty is fine, but I don't think "fine" is what you're looking for in a left tackle these days. He's clearly the No. 4 left tackle in his own division behind three Pro Bowlers, and there's little doubt they could upgrade there.

Obviously, Odell Beckham Jr. was the right call for the Giants at No. 12 last year. Martin could have slotted in nicely and been a big help, but Beckham gives them a big-play wide receiver threat the Cowboys already had in Bryant. After Beckham's rookie season performance, there's no second-guessing that particular pick.

Going forward, however, the Giants would do well to at least check out the model the Cowboys have put together over the past four years, realize the manner in which it's working, and think about investing some major resources in that offensive line for a change.