When tight end Martellus Bennett left Dallas last year, the first thought that crossed the minds of pretty much everyone associated with the Dallas Cowboys was “good riddance.” Bennett—selected by Dallas in the second round of the 2008 NFL Draft—was supposed to grow to be a dynamic complement to Jason Witten. Bennett never had 300 receiving yards in any season in Dallas, however, and he didn’t make it into the end zone for three straight years. To fans, Bennett was a bust of epic proportions.
Prior to the 2012 season, I explained why Bennett’s true value was far greater than what most saw, even writing “With all the gags Bennett played on teammates and media during his time in Dallas, his biggest trick may have been convincing fans he wasn't an integral component of the team's success.” The truth is that Bennett was the best blocker in Dallas—even perhaps the premiere blocking tight end in the NFL.
Bennett was far more dominant in the running game and pass protection than just about anyone realized. Over his last three seasons in Dallas, Cowboys running backs averaged 5.6 yards-per-carry when Bennett was at the point-of-attack. Yes, I’m talking about the same team that averaged 3.6 YPC in 2012 and 4.5 YPC in the previous three seasons.
Further, Bennett often stayed in to block for Tony Romo on passing plays. In nearly 200 pass protection snaps during his time in Dallas, Bennett didn’t allow a single sack. Bennett excelled as a blocker because, even though his receiving skills never fully developed, Bennett caused matchup problems for defenses. He still had the potential to beat smaller defenders in the passing game, but they were no match for him when he stayed in to block as what was basically a small offensive tackle.
In 2012, the Cowboys struggled to run the ball outside of the tackles. They totaled only 3.7 YPC with a tight end at the point, which is simply unacceptable. Even more concerning is that when running behind either James Hanna or John Phillips, the ‘Boys really struggled to get anything going on the ground; while the backs totaled 4.3 YPC behind Witten, their efficiency dropped to 2.0 YPC with either Hanna or Phillips at the point.
There were a lot of reasons the Cowboys couldn’t rush the football effectively in 2012—different pieces on the inside and the DeMarco Murray injury among them—but perhaps no single factor weighed as heavily as the loss of Martellus Bennett.
Jonathan Bales is the founder of The DC Times. He writes for DallasCowboys.com and the New York Times. He's also the author of Fantasy Football for Smart People: How to Dominate Your Draft.