September 22, 2014

SHATZMAN | Appreciating The O-Line

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In the National Football League, like in all professional sports leagues, the most popular players sell the most jerseys. In New England, that man is Tom Brady. In Green Bay, it’s Aaron Rodgers, and so on. While it isn’t always the quarterback, the idea makes sense: the fans support the big names, the faces of the franchise. But does the number of jersey sales necessarily equate to that player’s importance to an NFL team? In some cases, it may, but there is one group of position players that sells the least jerseys and receives the least media attention. That position is the offensive line.

The o-line is the anchor of the offense. Comprised of five players (two tackles, two guards, one center), it is the lines’ job to protect the quarterback in pass protection, and create gaping holes for their running backs to burst through. More often than not, solid offensive line play leads to a high-scoring, winning offense.

There are exceptions to this, however, on both ends of the spectrum. An amazing quarterback who gets rid of the ball in just a couple of seconds — take Peyton Manning, for example — may be able to move his offense effectively with a sub-par line protecting him. Likewise, a backup, or simply inexperienced quarterback, like the Raiders’ Derek Carr, may struggle being protected by a top o-line that has only allowed two sacks through three games. So yes, there are certainly outliers, but what a good offensive line does is turn a decent, even above-average quarterback — not the Brady’s, Brees’, etc. — into a stat-making, touchdown producing arm.

Rams third-string quarterback Austin Davis started on Sunday against the Cowboys. He wasn’t sacked once in the game. With time to sit back in the pocket and make good decisions, Davis threw for 327 yards and three touchdowns. Not taking anything away from Davis — he’s a good player — but keep in mind, he entered the season as the third-string signal caller for the Rams.

The same goes for the running back, a position that, like the quarterback, depends heavily on the offensive line in order to make big plays. And like quarterbacks, there are exceptions with running backs as well. Let’s look at Jamaal Charles and LeSean McCoy as examples. Both are speedsters who, with their shifty moves, can make anyone miss in the open field. With just a bit of space, Charles and McCoy can turn what would be a four-yard run for most backs into a 70-yard touchdown. Both are classic examples of exceptions to the offensive line/running back relationship.

Aside from the handful of exceptions, the majority of backs in the league are capable of making big plays when holes are opened by the line, making the offensive line as important, or possibly more important than the running back himself.

Only one of the fifteen top rushers in the league right now was a first-round draft pick. Rashad Jennings, who was a backup for the first four years of his career, is third in the league in yards, and rushed for 176 on Sunday. While Jennings is now the Giants starter, and deservedly so, the point is that any NFL running back can put up big numbers behind a great offensive line. If the player holds onto the football, sees the field, and follows his blockers, running backs are really just a means of carrying the ball, while the offensive line opens holes for the back and prevents defenders from tackling him. Some backs are better than others, but with a great o-line, any running back — not just first rounders — has the ability to shine.

The pass-protection rankings on reveal the importance of offensive line play as well. Among the top pass blocking teams are the Chargers, Bills and Texans. None of these three teams have incredible offenses, and only the Chargers have a proven quarterback under center in Phil Rivers. But all three teams are above .500 nevertheless. The Chargers knocked off the defending champion Seahawks last week. Likewise, the Bengals have yet to allow a sack through three games, and they are undefeated. With time to sit back in the pocket and find an open receiver, NFL quarterbacks can make the right throws, even if it isn’t Peyton Manning or Aaron Rodgers doing so.

The importance of the offensive line cannot be overstated. It is arguably the most important group of players on that side of the ball. Unless a team has a Hall of Fame-bound quarterback under center, it’s nearly impossible for an offense to achieve consistent success with below average blocking. I’m not urging you to go buy an offensive lineman’s jersey, I’m simply giving credit where credit is due.