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Readers chime in on good, bad and ugly offensive line play

Posted: Friday October 1, 2004 11:48AM; Updated: Tuesday October 12, 2004 5:56PM
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Dr. Z rated the Panthers' offensive lineman as one of the five worst in the NFL.
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Offensive line questions abound. Quick, the answer folder.

"You are a fat liar," says ... wait a minute, that comes later. I'll lead off with my E-mailer of the Week, Marc Garber of Margate, N.J., down by the southern shore, who wants my choice of the best line combo since 1960, and then, get this, proceeds to list eight stellar groups. With all the names and positions correct and everything. Are you a historian, Mark?

That Cardinal group of Dierdorf, Young, Finnie, Banks and Dobler is a mighty tempting choice. Tied the record for fewest sacks (eight) allowed in 1975, until Miami broke it by one, 13 years later. Here's the snapper to that. One of the people sacked was Jim Bakken, the kicker, who went down attempting a fake field goal. If he would have just heaved the ball somewhere, anywhere, that Cardinal unit would still hold a piece of the record. A fine unit but not my No. 1.

The uneaten Dolphins of 1972 had my favorite middle three of all time, Kuechenberg, Langer and Little, but the tackles, Moore and Evans, although functional, were not really great. It was a terrific run-blocking line, though. That's the thing with almost every unit you listed, and they certainly were impressive ... each one had one or two players who fit in well but were not really stars. Except one. The Packers of the early 1960s.

Four out of the five, Forrest Gregg, Jerry Kramer, Fuzzy Thurston and Jim Ringo, had been consensus All-Pros, some of them for many years. The fifth, LT Bob Skoronski, was the team captain and a fine player. So that's my unit. A slight correction, Marc. When you list Ringo/Curry at center, you're forgetting Ken Bowman, who figured in there before Bill Curry did and took over the job when Ringo was shipped to Philly.

Finally, Marc doesn't see any aspect of execution that's better now than it was 20-40 years ago. Forty years ago there were 22 teams, 14 in the NFL, eight in the AFL. Now there are 32. Naturally the talent is going to be a bit diluted. Better talent, comparatively speaking, means better execution.

Ed of New Orleans thinks defenses should blitz heavily in the first two weeks, catching the opposing lines in a sluggish mode, coming out of camp. Might work here and there, but if it became a regular thing, offensive coaches would devote a lot of the camp work preparing for exactly that tactic. I liked your wrap-up: "Doesn't really matter in the long run. But, as they say, in the long run we are all dead ... " (I know a long run would finish me off right now).

Jim of McGregor, Iowa, would like me to rate the Lions' offensive line, and wonders which of the two tackles, Stockar McDougle or Jeff Backus, I would sign when their contracts come up at the end of this season. Or maybe I'd sign both. Lions' O-line is a work in progress. Not there yet, but improving. Backus has seemed a little soft at times, but I think he's coming along. McDougle is a big musher, kind of a sloppy player. I'm not wild about him, but then again, I haven't liked a Lions' RT since Zefross Moss eight years ago. Thanks for the nice things you wrote, Jim.

From Aaron of Park City, Mont. -- "All right, Dr. Z, you gave up your five worst O-lines. So who are the five best?" I'll only list teams I've seen, and I've seen 22 so far, with three more waiting on the taper. My favorite is Green Bay. The other four, in no particular order -- Kansas City, Indy, Seattle, N.Y. Jets.

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Brad, of Verona, N.J., and I thank you for your comments, asks something I used to ask myself. If teams rotate defensive linemen to address certain situations, why not rotate offensive linemen? Actually Joe Gibbs did it one year, at a guard spot. He had one guy for base downs and another for long-yardage situations. But it didn't last longer than a year, maybe two at the most. But at the time, I started asking around. Wouldn't it be natural to alternate tackles? Use your big guy on the base, but then in passing situations, bring in a quick, smaller guy to handle those 260-pound speed rushers whipping around the corner. I remember specifically asking Bill Walsh about that.

"It would be a tipoff that you were going to pass," he said. I argued that on third and, say, 10 or 12 yards, so what? Everyone knows you're going to pass anyway. He seemed annoyed, pestered, but I kept on and finally he said, "An offensive lineman needs to get in a rhythm and stay there. He can't keep coming on and off the field." I was going to say something about why should he need it any more than a defensive lineman did, but I could tell he was getting pretty tired of the conversation. I still think it would be a good idea

Josh of Gig Harbor, Wash., wonders whether or not the smaller lines might really be more effective than the big ones. When Denver won two Super Bowls with no 300-pounders on their roster, I wrote that the trend would be reversed and lines would be smaller. They got bigger. Once again Z swings and misses. Every line coach I talk to who coaches a smaller unit says that a player gains nothing by having 50 extra pounds hanging over his belt. But most of the league seems to disagree. This summer I asked Jet guard Pete Kendall the same question, since he was a smaller guy himself. He said they need it as a shock absorber. The answer shocked me, but I absorbed it.

Vincent of Sandusky, Ohio, wants to impose a weight limit of 300 pounds. Well, the Hall of Fame already has done it. Name a Hall of Famer who weighs 300. "Art Shell," pipes up a small chorus wearing silver and black. Nope, they officially list him at, wink, wink, 285 (I think they forgot to weigh the other leg). There's no one listed, repeat, listed at 300. This doesn't answer your question, does it? Can't do it. Fat discrimination clause in the U.S. Constitution. Then you'd have to bar all basketball players over, say, 7-2, and jockeys under, uh, three-foot-eight. Not fair. Un-American. I really got a kick out of your means of enforcing the rule, having them weigh in during the week. New paragraph needed because a story is coming.

One year at Columbia I was co-coach of the lightweight team. The weight limit was 155 pounds. We were on the honor system. We handled the weigh-ins ourselves. I told John Wagner, the other coach, I'd relieve him of this chore. Our roster became stocked with what used to be an old boxing term, "Philadelphia lightweights," guys who somehow fudged the weight limit. One fellow, Carson Scheideman, actually my drinking buddy, got up as high as 190. I had to do it. It was that or get slaughtered. How do I plead when the judge hears my case? Temporary insanity, your honor.

Whoops, not finished with you yet, Vince. "Say hello to the Flaming One and Little Jake," he adds. Did the former, the latter is tougher, since she's out catching a frog right now -- that's Jake, not Linda. Jake, who was a feral creature living in the woods around Mendocino, Calif., when we first met and adopted her, has trapped every manner of Jersey wildlife you can name. Frogs, snakes, moles, voles, squirrels, chipmunks, birds, even a groundhog once. She doesn't kill them, she just brings them in the house to show daddy. I've managed to free about 80 percent of what she's shlepped in. The snakes are the most interesting, also the ones for whom I have the most compassion. Nice little grass snakes, usually. Green ones. But two days ago Linda's daughter, Heather, who's visiting, hollered, "Look, she's got a red one!" I didn't see it. It had escaped by the time I got there, but I'm wondering what it could have been. Water moccasin? Flaming copperhead? Quien sabe? Don't forget I'm an NYC boy.

Still on the offensive line (and what kind of liquor is it producing?) -- Josh of St. Louis gets quite animated at the idea of know-nothing owners and marketeers shooting for the glitz and glitter, bringing in fancy dans instead of honest, hard-working linemen. That's not as goofy as it sounds. When Redskins owner Dan Snyder drafted Patrick Ramsey, a QB, in the first round, there had been considerable advice to take a lineman instead. "I want a sexy pick," was Snyder's rejoinder. Josh feels that the teams that avoid the marketable pretty boys and go blue collar, such as Denver, have the most success. "Plus," he adds, and I love this, "Denver's OL plays dirty, which always helps."

Boy, we have some good e-mails this week, huh? I wish I could give three or four awards. Last OL comment, and it's something that I should have immediately recognized, if I weren't too busy trying to be clever -- Sam of Grand Blanc, Mich. (that's me, the grand blank) rightly points out that the death of Korey Stringer has put an ungodly fear into everybody, the fear of overworking the big men, in hot weather. So true, and I've heard it many times from football people.

Scott of Centerport, N.Y., says that along with all the publicity tight ends have gotten comes an overload of injuries at the position, i.e., Winslow, Watson, Dudley, Campbell, Kleinsasser, Wiggins. It could be just the luck of the draw, which is the easy answer. But it could also be the fact that since the position has really come into vogue this year, tight ends are on the field more, especially on third down, when the TE has been replacing the fourth wideout. More exposure means more chance of injury. That's the only thing I can think of. I mean I don't think defensive coaches have put out contracts on tight ends.

Rip follows praise from Eric of Providence. He says I didn't take a strong enough stand on Joey Porter's cheap shot on Todd Heap. Merely saying that I wouldn't have done it is a cop out, he says. No, I didn't spell it out in so many words. I thought that when I said I was "nauseated," by a teammate who suggested such a tactic, my readers would understand how I felt about this kind of football. So I guess I have to put it more bluntly. What Porter did stinks. It displays all the instincts of the cheap-shot bully, even though the officials didn't take much notice. Satisfied, Eric?

Here are two questions about what they call the West Coast Offense, and you are about to hear a rant of mine that's been repeated in mailbags, and similar columns since Franklin Roosevelt was governor of NY. Fasten your seat belts, here it comes -- again. Dave of Albuquerque hates the, uh, short-pass offense. "An abomination," he calls it. Nice to see two old school coaches, Parcells and Gibbs, stretch it out a bit last Monday night. Eric of Grand Rapids, Mich., asks, "Where do you come up with Norv Turner being an exponent of the West Coast Offense? Are we now raising the dink and dunk to different powers?"

OK, you've pressed the button that sets off the alarm. It's your fault for creating this Finkelstein Monster. In 1993 Bernie Kosar was a back-up quarterback on the Cowboys, whose offensive coordinator was Turner. I was down there covering the team and I asked Bernie about Norv's offense. "Oh, you know," he said. "It's that West Coast offense, the thing Norv got from Ernie Zampese and Sid Gillman." Stretch the field, lengthen the seam routes, everything timed, the 18-yard comeback. A beautiful attack that took big bites. Gillman made it famous with the Chargers, Don Coryell modified it at San Diego State and then brought it to the NFL, where it found a willing disciple in Gibbs, who'd been on Coryell's staff in college, working with Zampese, who instilled it in Turner, and then Mike Martz.

This is the True West Coast Offense, and if you'll recall, that's the phrase I used the other day, with the emphasis on True. OK, now comes the dark part of the story. I quoted Bernie on the West Coast Offense back in 1993. A wire service picked it up, except that it transported it to the offense Bill Walsh had used with the 49ers. What the hell, San Francisco, San Diego, it's all West Coast, right? So from this misapplication of the term, created by the fumbling of a choo choo train brain, was born the West Coast Offense as a dinky, short-passing, horizontal game that would have made Gillman sick.

You've done it now. You've set me off. Linda, where's that coffee, dammit!

A double thanks to PJ of Kalispell, Montana, for, 1) writing nice things about my work, and 2) clearing up my reference to Seahawk DT Rocky Bernard getting cut. It wasn't Rocky, he says, it was a safetyman named Walter Bernard. Oh, brother. And I left messages for my friends in personnel that they ought to rush and pick him up. Oh, my. Thank God none of the calls were returned. And for good reason. "Well, I guess old Z has finally slipped off the edge." PJ follows it up with a question: "With a number of contracts expiring at the end of the year, e.g., Hasselbeck, Alexander, Jones, do you think that Seattle has a narrow shadow of opportunity or are they set up for the long haul?"

My gut feeling is that they're in good shape, cap-wise, but you don't deal in gut feelings with such a serious e-mailer as PJ, so I placed a call to Gary Wright, the Seahawks' Vice President of Administration. "Sorry, he's busy administering," was the message ... no, just kidding. Here's what Gary told me: "When Mike Holmgren first came here, we were right up against the cap, but he and Mike Reinfeldt did a good job clearing us some space. We're OK with the cap now, and I'd guess that we'll sign all three guys."

Paraphrasing Kasyap of Dallas: Why do the networks, ESPN in particular, concentrate so hard on the hot-dog aspects of the game? Well, I hate it, too, but they feel that this is what turns the fans on and keeps them away from the dial. I can't stand ESPN's approach, but don't forget, this is the network that gave us Rush Limbaugh. And I thank you for your kind words, Kasyap.

Jimmy of Houston answers my Andre Johnson question (rankings this week) by telling me, yes, he's a terrific player who's rounding off his game in a very good way, and I ought to tune in once in a while and see for myself. I will, I will, I promise. It's just that other games rise up and demand attention at the same time. I'll work on it. Honest.

Mark of Colorado Springs, Colo., gives my upset pick of Bucs to beat Broncos the big Colorado heehaw and offers to bet me straight up on the contest. Hey Mark, I might have been born in Pennsylvania, but I'm not a hick. The number's 3 1/2. Give me the Bucs and 3 1/2 and we've got a bet. Otherwise, go check out the yuppie skiers in Aspen. They might be interested in your kind of action.

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.

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