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Offending line play

Throughout the league, the offensive line play is at an all-time low

Updated: Friday October 1, 2004 12:01AM
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Browns offensive lineman Kelvin Garmon attempts to help block the Cowboys' Leonardo Carson.
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

I have never seen worse offensive line play in the NFL than I'm seeing this year. I have never seen so many bad offensive lines.

They're getting swarmed, overrun, inundated. Blitzing is coming back into fashion, not only by typical blitz-happy defensive coaches, such as the Eagles' Jim Johnson, but by anyone who smells weakness along the opponents' offensive front. And there are plenty of them.

Miami's offensive line, perhaps the worst in the business, got roughed up by Tennessee in the opener, and things only got worse the following week against Cincinnati. The Bengals, whose defense got hammered by both the Jets and Ravens, looked like positive monsters against those Dolphin linemen. And so did the Steelers last weekend.

Carolina's line couldn't handle the Green Bay blitz, and the Packers aren't known as a wildly blitzing team. Washington's defensive coach, Gregg Williams, always was considered a sound fundamentalist, but not a guy who pulled out all the stops on his rush. During the three-year period in which he was Buffalo's head coach the Bills' cumulative sack total was below the league average. But this year when he faced the Bucs in the opener, he took a look at that Tampa Bay offensive line, which had been restructured and revamped for the umpteenth time, and sent people in from all angles.

"Oh, a Gregg Williams defense will blitz you," Cris Collinsworth said on TV. Sure, if it's facing a bunch of guys who can't block it. Brad Johnson was sacked four times, and the only reason he didn't go down more often was because he was veteran enough to know how to dump the ball off to somebody -- anybody -- before feeling the horns of the beast. Twenty of his 24 completions went for 10 yards or less, and the team's 169 total yards was an NFL low for weekend No. 1.

"The worst period ever for offensive line play? I completely agree," said NFL Network analyst Glenn Parker, a guard and tackle in the league for 12 years. "It's just pitiful. There are so few decent offensive linemen now.

"I'm 38 years old, and it's flattering to get called by some personnel director, asking me if I want to come back. Once or twice, maybe, and it's kind of funny, but I'm hearing it all the time, from almost all of them. It's serious."

NFL's Worst Five O-lines
No. Team
1. Miami Dolphins
2. Cleveland Browns
3. Buffalo Bills
4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
5. Carolina Panthers

I mentioned that the Dolphins surprised me because it seemed that their weakest offensive lineman was their left tackle, Wade Smith, who was constantly whiffing against the Bengals. Then they replaced him with Damion McIntosh, who got overrun by the Steelers.

"Yeah, they replace a guy I'd grade around one out of 10 with a three," Parker said. "But you see it everywhere. It seems that the Cardinals have been rebuilding their line ever since the days of Dierdorf and Dobler and Bob Young, but they still can't block anybody. St. Louis has given up 10 sacks in the last two games. Ten sacks! When I was with the Bills, it was unheard of to give up more than three in a game."

Last year, I thought the Bengals really had something going on the left side of their line, with tackle Levi Jones and guard Eric Steinbach, but the Dolphins ate 'em up.

"Sometimes," Parker said, "it's like a pitcher. First time around, he can get people out, but then everybody's seen his stuff. He's got to mature, and it's the same thing with offensive linemen. If you don't mature in this league, you're in trouble."

So what's the reason for the decline in offensive line play?

"First of all, I don't think you develop real skills running the West Coast Offense. " Parker said. "The ball is out quickly and you're not getting guys who can really play, just people who can stick their man for one or two counts.

"Then there's the traditional reason -- free agency causing people to move around so much and destroying the continuity. You used to come to the line and you had one of two calls to make, and guys were able to make adjustments off that themselves. Now every call has a name. After a while the defensive linemen catch on. I mean you call a 'swoop,' and they can figure it out. OK, this is the way I'm gonna be blocked."

"I think that continuity thing is a coaches' copout," says Mike Giddings, director of Pro Scout, Inc., a private personnel service for 11 NFL teams, himself a former guard at Cal.

"The Patriots won the Super Bowl with a fifth-round rookie at center and first-year, street free agents at left guard and right tackle. No, what I think is happening is that the two most important things in offensive-line play, awareness and technique, are both lacking.

"Linemen are just too big and fat. A lot of them aren't in shape until October. There's so much money tied up in players now, with all those millions in guaranteed contracts, that the coaches are afraid of working them too hard. They're afraid of getting people hurt.

"So they're coming out of camp not ready to play. And then they face defensive guys who are just too damn fast. There's all this money pressure on coaches. If they get one of these high priced guys hurt, then that's a $15 million hit on the club's budget. Some people seem to care more about saving money than winning games."

I mentioned to Giddings that Joe Gibbs' idea of playing three tight ends at times, and using maximum protection -- max protecting -- seems to me to make the most sense, in an effort to cover up the deficiencies of his blockers on the line. And yet, even with the three tights max-protecting, the Giants' rush swallowed up the 'Skins, at least in the first half.

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"If you're having trouble protecting your quarterback, you have to max-protect," Giddings says. "The value of the tight end, both as a short-yardage receiver or as an extra blocker, can't be over-emphasized. Here's a statistic for you. There never has been a four-wideout team that's won the Super Bowl, and by that I mean a team that regularly used four wides on third down. Every Super Bowl winner used a tight end on third down most of the time.

"Look at it this way. Who's a better football player, your starting tight end, or your fourth wideout, who probably isn't very good anyway? When I first started my scouting business, Jim Finks, who was general manager of the Bears, then the Saints, used to go nuts at the idea of four wideouts.

"'I don't have enough quarterbacks,' he'd say. The guys up front just couldn't block it, and they still can't. It's a good way to get your quarterback killed. But teams still use it."

Training camp practice fields are grass. To work a team on artificial turf, twice a day, would kill the players' legs, and this is especially true for the offensive linemen. But then those big linemen come out of camp, where they've had a minimum of live contact work, and if they have to face an opponent on artificial turf, and it's a tremendous adjustment to the speed involved.

You just can't simulate that in practice unless you go live, and live drills lead to injuries. Plus, it seems that pure technique isn't coached as much nowadays. There are only so many hours.

"I know a former player who interned with a team's coaching staff and went to their camp this year," Giddings says. "He came back amazed.

"He told me, 'They've got all this fancy equipment, the blocking sleds and tackling dummies, sitting around unused. And they don't run the players the way they used to run us. Camp just isn't what it used to be."

Some teams feel they can cure their problems along the offensive line by bringing in terrific line coaches. It doesn't work.

"You can't coach bad players," Giddings says.

But they fall in love with them. Most of the OL coaches will agree that no other position coach on the team gets as close to his players as they do. Maybe it's because it's a unit that has to work closely together, or perhaps the reason is that these guys usually aren't great athletes, so there's an over-achieving factor they all share. But the players and their coach are tight, sometimes too tight. Sometimes the coaches like their guys so much as people that they become blinded to the fact that they're not very good players.

"Having line coaches evaluate personnel is not a good idea," Giddings says. "If you absolutely have to use them as scouts, then let them grade the defensive ends and tackles they play against, not their own guys.

"I remember one team that called me in to evaluate its personnel. The offensive line coach insisted on being in the meeting. I mentioned his left guard as someone they simply had to replace.

"'There aren't six better left guards in the league,' he said. 'There are 27 better,' I told him. He got mad, so I asked him to name six left guards for me. He named three. That's why I like to keep the assistants out of personnel."

Work 'em harder, give them live drills, keep your fingers crossed about injuries. Practice, practice, practice. If you can't block, you can't play offense.

"My coach in college, Lynn "Pappy" Waldorf, used to have a saying I never forgot," Giddings says.

"You know the difference between a good blocker and a bad blocker? Ten thousand blocks."

Sports Illustrated senior writer Paul Zimmerman covers the NFL for the magazine and SI.com. His Power Rankings, "Inside Football" column and Mailbag appear weekly on SI.com.