If the Dallas Cowboys’ offensive linemen want to know about their new coach, Paul Alexander, they would be wise to study Willie Anderson.
They will see a lot of Anderson whenever they get around Alexander. Anderson has not played since 2008, but he is still a fixture on the tape Alexander shows his linemen each year.
In 1996, Anderson was the first-round pick of the Cincinnati Bengals, the 10th overall selection. He was named a Pro Bowler four times. He was an All-Pro pick three times. He started every game he played from 1997-2006. If not for Anthony Munoz, a Hall of Famer, he would be the best offensive tackle in Bengals history.
“Great coaches learn that teachers teach,” Anderson said. “A teacher should never say, ‘I teach math.’ You should say, ‘I teach John math. I teach the student.’ That’s an important of teaching. Don’t say, ‘This is my scheme and we do this.’”
In 23 years as the Bengals’ line coach, Alexander adapted. Anderson said he changed based on the personnel he had. He is not just a power-blocking line coach. He is not just a zone-blocking coach. He teaches it all, according to Anderson.
The Cowboys have had success with a zone-blocking scheme since Bill Callahan came in as line coach and continued with Frank Pollack, whom Alexander will replace, the last three seasons. The Cowboys have not had a running game ranked outside the top 10 over the last four seasons. But in truth, the Cowboys ran all sorts of run plays.
“It’s a mix,” Anderson said. “Every O-line coach in football, that’s the biggest misconception. If you’re a line coach, you’re teaching everything. We run power. We run zone. It’s all the same stuff. It’s about how that individual guy can get it taught to those five guys on the line.”
Through the years, the Bengals running game had success. From 2000-02, Corey Dillon had at least 1,300 yards rushing each season and 24 rushing touchdowns. From 2003-06, Rudi Johnson had at least 1,300 yards rushing each season and 36 rushing touchdowns. From 2009-11, Cedric Benson had three straight 1,000-yard seasons and 19 rushing touchdowns. In 2012, BenJarvus Green-Ellis had a 1,000-yard season. In 2014, Jeremy Hill had 1,124 yards rushing and in 2015 he had 11 rushing touchdowns.
“Corey Dillon was the best at what we called 16 and 17 Chase,” Anderson said. “He would chase my inside leg however I took the guy and he felt the inside guard, but you have to have the players to do that. Corey was a great zone runner because he was great at cutting back, great vision. He can press the line and at the last second allow for the blocker to set up the block. Why did Terrell Davis run for 2,000 yards running nothing but zone? Denver was the smallest line. They’d run zone and cut the back side. That’s all they did. So Corey loved Chase but at the end [of his time with the Bengals] he wanted to run straight ahead. That’s because our line changed. We didn’t have the guys that could get movement, so he felt like he could get more yards just running straight ahead. With Rudi, he ran the power game. He ran the counter game. He ran zone.”
Alexander had top talents like Anderson, Levi Jones and Andrew Whitworth. He also helped Kevin Zeitler earn the biggest contract for a guard in free agency last year when Zeitler joined the Browns.
With the Cowboys, Alexander inherits three Pro Bowlers in Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick and Zack Martin. He has a young right tackle in La’el Collins. The left guard and backup tackle spots are in flux, but he has a group that is the envy of just about every team in the league. He will also have Ezekiel Elliott, who led the NFL in rushing in 2016 and finished 17 yards short of 1,000 in 2017 despite missing six games because of a suspension.
“It’s all about players you have and what you’re good at and what you’re back is great at,” Anderson said. “Zeke can do a plethora of things. … Paul’s going to assess Zeke, assess the offensive line and they’re going to put scheme together that’s best for them.”
Anderson, who runs a linemen academy for professional, college and high school players as clients, hopes to come down in the spring and work with Alexander, like he had done in Cincinnati, to help. He knows of the Cowboys’ linemen but doesn’t know them personally. But he knows how good they can be, which he sees as good as the group of the 1990s that won Super Bowls right before he entered the league.
“You take Zeke and Dak Prescott, their rookie year and that line was hailed up there with the Cowboys’ from the 1990s,” Anderson said. “Those guys were dominant. That group brought a lot of attention. As an O-line, we want attention. We want people to see how important that group is to show everybody why they were successful as a team. That’s what these guys have. Now you move Collins out to right tackle, I think he’s still learning but he’ll be better in his second year at the position. You have a dominant center and guard that can get overlooked because of how dominant Tyron is. But that’s a real good group of guys. I know Paul is ecstatic to get his hands on to them.”