The sad state of offensive line play
By Dan Pompei
As I went through my tour of training camps, it struck me how one theme was constant wherever I went: offensive line play is a concern. Every team had some sort of issue up front on offense. I don’t believe there is a coaching staff in the league that is completely comfortable with its offensive line.
There is no question line play has deteriorated in recent years. Neither individual linemen nor offensive line units are what they used to be. So I started to ask people what they thought the reasons were. Here are some of the theories I heard.
Where have you gone Tony Boselli?
*As athletes, offensive linemen have not kept pace with pass rushers.
“Offensive line play probably is not as good as it used to be because, more than ever, all the best athletes play defense,” Giants general manager Jerry Reese told me. “You see it at the combine. The height, weight, speed difference between the lines is pretty dramatic.”
The Giants have a pass rusher in Jason Pierre-Paul who can do 23 consecutive backflips. I can name some guards who look like they would struggle to do a single forward somersault. The Bears have an interior pass rusher in Henry Melton who was athletic enough to play running back at Texas, and an outside pass rusher in Julius Peppers who was athletic enough to play forward on the North Carolina basketball team.
Meanwhile, the offensive linemen are the least talented players on the field, and among the lowest paid on average. The best offensive linemen in the league today (Joe Thomas, Jake Long) don’t compare athletically with the best offensive linemen in the league a dozen years ago (Boselli, Jonathan Ogden, Orlando Pace, Willie Roaf). The Pro Bowl alternate tackles last year in the NFC were Tyson Clabo and Donald Penn.
The dominating left tackle does not exist anymore. “Where are those guys?” Reese said. “You don’t see them. People talk about how you have to have a great offensive tackle. If you have one, great. But who has one? David Diehl is a terrific one, and I’ll take him any day but he’s not at the Tony Boselli level.”
And it doesn’t look like it will be getting better anytime soon. Among the offensive linemen who played in the 2011 Pro Bowl but won’t be playing this year are Kris Dielman, Brian Waters, Matt Light, Jason Peters and Chad Clifton.
Said Redskins coach Mike Shanahan, “Everybody says we don’t have a good right tackle. I say show me who does?”
*There is nowhere near the continuity on offensive lines that there used to be.
Free agency—and the fact that teams have devalued linemen, especially guards--makes almost every team do an annual offensive line shuffle.
This year, only two teams—the Falcons and Lions--are expected to open the season with the same five starters in the same five spots that they played with last year. And in Detroit many believe it’s just a matter of time before first round pick Riley Reiff replaces incumbent Gosder Cherilus at right tackle.
What’s more, nine teams have new offensive line coaches. They are the Bears, Bucs, Chiefs, Colts, Cowboys, Dolphins, Falcons, Jets and Rams.
Diehl knows about a lack of continuity on a line. When the Giants moved him to right tackle this year, it was the fifth time in his career he moved. He has played every position on the line except center.
“People forget playing together for a long period of time is what makes you the best as possible,” Diehl said. “Now with someone getting hurt, or free agency, you don’t see a group together very long. When we had our best years here, it was when the five of us played together during that one long stretch. That’s what you have to have to have an effective offensive line. You have to have a lot of game experience together because there is so much continuity, fitting next to each other, being on the same page, being able to communicate when you can’t hear because of the noise.”
*The new collective bargaining agreement that limits offseason and training camp practice time may hurt the play of offensive lines more than any other group.
“It’s harder for offensive linemen to play well together with fewer reps,” Bears general manager Phil Emery said. “They need live pass situations. It hurts their pad level, their feel for leverage, their development and their ability to work together.”
*Many of the offensive linemen who are coming into the league have not played in pro style offenses and have a lot to learn.
Offensive line play has been a victim of the spread revolution. “They come to the NFL without knowing how to run block,” one NFC head coach said. “The way they are running offenses in college, some position has to suffer, and it is the offensive line.”
In fact, one of the reasons so many teams are turning to the spread is to hide line limitations of offensive linemen. Get rid of the ball quickly, and you don’t have to worry about blockers who can’t handle superior pass rushers.
*NFL coaches haven’t all caught up with the fact that they can’t neutralize pass rushes the way they used to. Some of them still expect their left tackles to take on great pass rushes as if this were 1998, and they don’t give them enough help.
There are more opportunities for sacks, holdings and false starts than ever before. NFL teams threw 17,410 times last year—more than ever.
“You can’t run a certain offense if you don’t have the players,” Shanahan said. “Some coaches want to run their offense no matter what. Sometimes you have to figure out how to win 17-14.”