ON THE WEEKEND of the Super Bowl, at the Hotel Valley Ho in Scottsdale, Ariz., Cowboys owner Jerry Jones mingled with the enemy. It had been less than three weeks since his team lost to the Giants in a divisional playoff that Jones was certain Dallas would win. Agony engulfed the Metroplex, but Jones had recovered to the extent that he attended an NFL Network party. He worked the room until about 8 p.m., when he ran into the guy with the gap-toothed grin who helped inflict all that pain in the first place.
Michael Strahan, the Giants' veteran defensive end, cornered Jones like a standstill quarterback. New York was shortly to play New England for the NFL title, but Strahan was not going to rub it in. In fact, he was doing the opposite. "Your team is the most physical we played all year," Strahan said. It was an unexpected endorsement, considering how Strahan and the rest of the Giants' front seven had bulldozed the Cowboys' offensive line. But his words stuck with Jones as he headed into the off-season and started to put his team back together again.
Before Jones made his fortune in oil and gas, he was an offensive lineman at Arkansas, co-captain of the 1964 national champion. Once he became an NFL owner and began adding superstars to his payroll, Jones recognized the need to protect them. When the Cowboys won the Super Bowl in the 1992, '93 and '95 seasons, they sent multiple offensive linemen to the Pro Bowl every year. And when the team fell apart afterward, Jones attributed the collapse partly to leaks up front. He patched them with one 300-pounder after another.
Last season the work was complete. Dallas blocked as if it were 1992 again, and the offense averaged 28.4 points per game, tops in the conference. Guard Leonard Davis, tackle Flozell Adams and center Andre Gurode went to the Pro Bowl. The line even pancaked the Giants, overwhelming them in their two regular-season meetings and three quarters of the playoff game. But in that final quarter, the one everybody remembers, the Cowboys line disintegrated in a way that was as sudden as it was stunning.
Over the last 12 minutes and 36 seconds, Dallas quarterback Tony Romo was hit 10 times, including five knockdowns and two sacks. When he was not lying on his back, he was throwing off his back foot. Once, he looked up and saw four Giants in his face. Another time he saw three. The Cowboys were flagged for illegal formation, intentional grounding and a false start. Romo, preternaturally cool, screamed at his linemen on the field. Tony Sparano, then the offensive line coach, lit into them on the sideline. (Three days after the game, Sparano left to become the coach of the Dolphins.)
Because the New York game was the last of the season, with no position meetings to follow, each Dallas lineman would watch the tape of the playoff loss on his own time. Some waited a few days. Some waited a month. Davis needed almost two months to digest his disappointment. "That's not even a lot," Davis says. "That kind of game can sometimes carry over into the next year."
The loss to the Giants and the memory of all those hits on Romo form the backdrop for the 2008 season. If the Cowboys are going to realize their goal—winning a playoff game for the first time in 12 years, then adding a couple more for good measure—the offensive line will have to prove that what happened at Texas Stadium on Jan. 13 was a fluke, never to be repeated. "It's painful," says left guard Kyle Kosier. "But it's also great motivation for us."
EVEN NOW, seven months after the game, Dallas linemen have a hard time explaining exactly what went wrong. In the first quarter they marched 96 yards in nine plays for a touchdown. In the second they plowed 90 yards in 20 plays for another touchdown. "You could have hung those drives in the Louvre," says Cowboys radio analyst and former quarterback Babe Laufenberg. By halftime Marion Barber had 101 yards rushing and Romo had barely been touched.
The Dallas linemen are so massive— Adams (6'7", 340), Kosier (6'5", 294), Gurode (6'4", 316), Davis (6'6", 354) and right tackle Marc Colombo (6'8", 315)—that they usually wear down defenses simply by leaning on them. But the Giants were rotating their defensive ends, with Justin Tuck spelling Strahan and Osi Umenyiora, while the Cowboys line was sucking wind. Dallas did not look like a team coming off a first-round bye. In the second half Barber rushed for 28 yards and the Cowboys scored three points.
"I sat there for about a week after the game, going over it in my mind, watching the highlights on TV," Gurode says. "You ask yourself how you could have prepared better, how you could have made a difference, how you could have changed the outcome."