Offense sells tickets. Defense wins championships.
Those are two of the most ubiquitous philosophies in football, and they both hold a nugget of truth. Who really wants to pay good money to go sit in MetLife Stadium and watch Josh McCown throw passes to Eric Tomlinson or Will Tye? Where would Seattle, Denver, or New England’s recent championships be without their superlative defensive displays?
However, there is a hidden caveat to both of those. Offensive lines matter.
The unseen foundation
Scoring touchdowns takes headlines. Ezekiel Elliott running in the open field gets talking heads hot about how amazing he is, and Tom Brady scanning the field from the pocket and firing dart after dart makes highlight reels and wins Lombardi trophies. But none of that can happen without a good offensive line keeping the defensive monsters at bay.
I don’t blame fans, pundits, and even general managers for becoming enamored with ball carriers and electric athletes. They can truly break games open. Just look at the impact Antonio Brown had for a struggling Steelers team on Sunday, or the impact Odell Beckham not playing had on the Giants offense. However, they will never be as key to performance as the offensive line unit, and you can only tell that by watching the bad ones.
Offensive lines matter
There are several very good offensive lines in the NFL at the moment. Dallas, as ever, take the headlines given the draft pedigree of 60% of their line, but the Oakland Raiders and Tennessee Titans also boast impressive units that can manhandle the opposition. That Amari Cooper touchdown that was shown 100 times last night? The video may get titled “Cooper goes full beast mode”, but look at the trio of offensive linemen there pushing him over the line. That’s the kind of impact a strong and proud offensive line can have.
Oakland’s return to prominence gets attributed to the drafting of Khalil Mack, Cooper, and Derek Carr, but one of the main reasons Derek didn’t turn into his brother David is because when he got under center he had a line that could block for him.
Dallas’ rise is again attributed to their ball carriers, but since they put Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, and Zack Martin together they have taken off, as long as the quarterback behind them was half-way competent (read; not Brandon Weeden).
When an offense doesn’t have blocking, even the best ball carriers and quarterbacks start to look like Division III scrubs. Which is what we saw on Sunday…
Offensive line crisis
Week 1 saw a lot of great defensive performances. Four teams were held without an offensive touchdown, and more than half the offenses were held under 20 points for the day. Why? Well, the reasons vary from team to team, but one of the biggest themes was poor offensive line play.
Seattle, Houston, Green Bay, and the Giants were stymied by truly shocking performances across the offensive line. And it’s a problem that is going to hurt these teams all year.
Russell Wilson, one of the most elusive quarterbacks in the league, was sacked three times and hit seven more while the Packers defense made nine tackles for a loss. Jacksonville had a ridiculous ten sacks, 12 tackles for loss, and 13 QB hits thanks to an offensive line that you and I could beat.
But as the defenses become more athletic and the ball carriers more explosive, why are we seeing offensive lines struggle so much?
There are 32 starting quarterbacks in the NFL, and I think we can all agree that a good portion of them are not really good enough to hold onto their starting job. Now realize that there are 160 starting offensive linemen, and if the bottom third of quarterbacks can’t really do their jobs well enough, that equates to 53 starting offensive linemen who are not good enough, which is nearly two per team.
While the good quarterbacks are isolated from the bad ones and able to show off their talents, even the great offensive linemen have to coexist with poor ones, and thus their abilities get masked by the ineptitude of others.
Just look at Joe Thomas. He has been the benchmark of greatness at the left tackle position for the last decade, but because he has to trust four other guys to also make their blocks for it all to work it falls apart.
Is help coming?
While every year or two there are some highly touted quarterbacks waiting to come into the league and usurp a job, the highly touted offensive linemen are starting to fail at a greater rate than are used to.
It used to be that a guard was a safe bet, and the top offensive tackle was the safest bet of them all. Tyron Smith was the top offensive linemen taken in the ridiculously wonderful 2011 draft class, and we can all agree that he has more than worked out for the Cowboys.
Spin on a year and Matt Kalil was good for a year before turning into a complete train wreck. In 2013 the offensive line class was an absolute disaster. Eric Fisher has righted his career and is an ok tackle now and Lane Johnson is good, but Luke Joeckel is awful, Jonathan Cooper has bounced around the league and both Chance Warmack and DJ Fluker have busted. That’s six offensive linemen in the top 11 of a draft, with only one really working out.
In 2014, second overall pick Greg Robinson has been awful and while Taylor Lewan and Zack Martin have worked out, Ja’Wuan James and Xavier Su’a-Filo have not. The 2015 draft is also littered with busting players like Ereck Flowers and DJ Humphries.
Now, every draft class has its busts, but this has been a long run of “safe bets” turnout out to be far less than expected, but why?
The college game is not the pro game
All these players come from the collegiate system, which over the years has become far more wide open, quick moving, and almost a different game entirely. While you still get some teams that run the “pro style” offense with a variety of techniques and formations, most are wide open shotgun offenses with linemen in two-point stances most of the time and working with a two-second clock in mind in protections. In the NFL there’s no such leeway. Every team works under center, requiring new mechanics, angles and instincts that a blocker simply hasn’t had to work with before.
The transition from the college to the pros is stark for every player with the exception of maybe running backs, but for offensive linemen it can mean learning to play effectively an entirely different game.
You’ll never get colleges going back to a two-back, run-dominant offense because unless you are Alabama or Wisconsin you can’t consistently recruit 300-pound monsters for a mauling offensive line. And so to get any offense to work with a light offensive line you have to spread it out and get rid of the ball quickly.
It’s a style of offense that Seattle tried to play, but against an NFL defense it was hard work for anyone to take short catches and turn them into long gains, and when Russell Wilson did try to hold onto the ball Mike Daniels and the rest were on him.
There is no clear answer to the problems the likes of Houston, Seattle, and the Giants are facing. With the draft becoming more pot luck than science on the offensive line and the college system continuing to ill-prepare a lot of linemen for the NFL it is hard to see where they can really take the strides they need. For all the talented ball carriers those sides have, their offenses stalled over and over again because they couldn’t make the blocks they needed to, and it is going to scupper their season.
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