Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

17 Jun 2005

Tip Sheet: Turnover on the Offensive Line

This is why I love Len Pasquarelli: No ready-made NFL stories exist in mid-June, so he comes up with one of his own. He's examined every team's depth chart and reports that only two teams, the Chargers and Bengals, are going into this season with the same five offensive line starters that they had for the majority of last season.

"The result," Pasquarelli writes, "has been a dropoff in offensive line play. Another result: Standout offensive line coaches, assistants who can adapt to change and who have demonstrated a knack for being able to cobble together solid starting quintets even in a revolving-door situation, have lately become hot commodities."

I agree with him on the latter but not on the former. I think offensive lines are as good now as they've been in all the time I've watched football.

I also disagree strongly with Pasquarelli when he writes, "History has demonstrated that teams with a tailback-by-committee approach don't often go deep into the playoffs."

But even when I disagree with Pasquarelli, I find his solid reporting to be an oasis in the desert landscape that is NFL reporting in June.

Posted by: Michael David Smith on 17 Jun 2005

21 comments, Last at 20 Jun 2005, 11:00pm by Trogdor


by Aaron (not verified) :: Fri, 06/17/2005 - 6:47pm

2004 Falcons
2004 Steelers
2003 Patriots
2003 Panthers
2002 Bucs
2002 Raiders
2001 Patriots

Yep, they don't go far in the playoffs, do they?

by mactbone (not verified) :: Fri, 06/17/2005 - 6:56pm

I'm not sure if there's something up with the single page view or what because I've seen the same Punts in at least the last three articles.

I would say that Moe Williams is a very solid back for the Vikes, definitely more consistent that Bennet. Moore's shown some good runs too. To be honest I don't know why anyone would question the talent in Minnesota. I'm curious why they haven't tried to parlay that into trades. Maybe the market is down that much or the backs they have are too likely to miss games for various reasons.

by joel in providence (not verified) :: Fri, 06/17/2005 - 8:15pm

i like this little nugget....

"The good news for the Jets is quarterback Chad Pennington, recovering from February surgery to repair a torn right rotator cuff, is throwing about 80 passes every other day. The bad news: Jets officials, who lied about the severity of the injury when it occurred, continue to camouflage news on their most important player."

by Richie (not verified) :: Fri, 06/17/2005 - 8:39pm

Great. Another article that makes me really want to have a way to evaluate offensive linemen. Count me amongst those that feel that:

a) offensive lines are hugely important to the success of an offense
b) continuity in that line is good

Maybe I'm completely wrong. Do NFL execs disagree with me because they have evidence to back it up, or do they disagree because it's cheaper to just replace guys instead of paying them?

by mike abbott (not verified) :: Fri, 06/17/2005 - 8:41pm

I really appreciated the junk free, single page link.
We could make this site even better if there was a mechanism so that any one of us could add links like that to some kind of 'current news' section perhaps with one news of the day comment pool.
There used to be a site that had links to local storys on all teams ( I think it's part of some big sites subscription extras now.) We could create a community maintained variation of that.
Now I start with F.O. then I visit a ridiculous number of football sites but certainly not every one that might have something that interests me. I find it adds to the fun if I know what their local media is saying about the Patriots next opponent.
In this fantasy I start with F.O. stay here a long time hitting optimised views of most storys that might interest me and only skim my bookmarks for stuff I could add to the community.

About one little part of Mr. Pasquarelli's excellent article:I saw Drew Rosenhaus on PTI a while ago, that guy could sell anybody anything including 'Jim Jones Kool-Aid '.

I'm hoping his basic strategy, holdouts by players under contract, crashes and burns.
I won't argue the 'justice' of any given case. I just, greedily, want the best football possible and I would hate to see strategys that make teams more divided and unfocused work.

by Richie (not verified) :: Fri, 06/17/2005 - 8:55pm

The dream was that the Falcons came out in an old-fashioned single-wing. It was probably keyed by something Vince Lombardi once told me. I had asked him what would happen if a team all of a sudden sprung a single-wing. He said, "It would embarrass the hell out of us."

There are a handful of oddball rules in football that are never used. I wonder why creative coaches never try this stuff. Every once in awhile a team like Pittsburgh will put a speedy guy in a QB and run an option play - boring.

My granpa used to talk about refereeing high school games in the 60's and 70's. When the time arose, he would ask players if they wanted to take advantage of their free kick option. They had no idea. In fact, I barely know what a free kick is, and why it's in the rulebook, but never used.

by Dave S (not verified) :: Fri, 06/17/2005 - 8:55pm

Reply to #4:
I think that Defense-first teams often
get away with developing former practice squad players or second day draft picks into o-linemen and therefore don't value their gaurds or center much. I doubt that a lot of good tackles hit the free agency.
The free agency is flooded with gaurds, so unless you have a pro-bowler at gaurd, they seem more interchangeable than other positions.
Some teams that spend first day picks on their o-line or get pro-bowl quality free agents probably have an offense-first approach, such as Colts, Kansas, ect.
I've heard from o-lineman that all they need is courage and heart and strength to play gaurd and center, whereas tackle requires much more talent
and size.
I'm under the impression that either o-lineman are getting better or defensive ends are getting worse, I see
a lot more blitzing and complicated
defenses and not many Jason Taylor types out there, getting to the QB consistently.

by Richie (not verified) :: Fri, 06/17/2005 - 8:56pm

Sorry. that should have been in the Dr. Z thread.

by Richie (not verified) :: Fri, 06/17/2005 - 9:24pm

I'm not sure what constitutes "tailback-by-committee" exactly. I think I'm starting to drink the Kool-Aid that spreading the carries around may have some benefits.

In 2000, the Ravens and Giants each had 2 backs with 100+ carries (the Giants had 2 with 200+ carries). That year, the Raiders lost in the Championship game and Kaufman was 2nd on the team with 94 carries.

I wonder if Len's perception here might tell us a little more than we thought we knew. Start looking at the list of teams that DID use a tailback-by-committee and made it deep into the playoffs.

I seem to recall those 2000 Giants being an underdoggish team all year long. Were they perceived to not be that good because they had no workhorse running back? Maybe a team "feels" or "looks" better when it has Ricky Williams in the backfield (Hmmm.that team underachieved), but actually performs better when you can shake things up.

Let's take a look at 1999. The Rams were a surprise team, but Faulk was the guy. Holcombe had 78 carries, but I'm guessing a lot of that was in garbage time. Tampa Bay had Alstott (242) and Dunn (195) and went to the NFC championship game. Tennessee was all Eddie George that year. The AFC runners-up was Jacksonville. Taylor (159) and Stewart (249).

In 1998, Denver and the Jets were both 1-man running teams. In the NFC, Atlanta was all Jamal Anderson, but Minnesota was Hoard (115) and Robert Smith (249).

In 1997, Pittsburgh (Bettis), Denver (Davis) and Green Bay (Levens) were 1-man teams, but San Francisco gave Hearst 234 carries and Kirby 125.

So, Pasquerelli seems to be wrong with his statement, but what does it all mean, Basil?

by Dave S (not verified) :: Fri, 06/17/2005 - 9:55pm

If I had Faulk and Priest Holmes on one team I would use them both. The Ravens had
Priest and could have had a legendary one-two lineup, with Jamal and Priest.
Aren't the Broncos loading up to do a run-by-committee this year?

by Adam H. (not verified) :: Fri, 06/17/2005 - 9:56pm

That bit about Dilfer has me seriously thinking about rooting for the Winslow-free Browns this year.

by the K (not verified) :: Sat, 06/18/2005 - 1:58am

I agree with you Michael. When I hosted my own website and links a few years ago I linked to Len Pasquarelli and called him (something I think I read someone else right somewhere, please don't sue me) "the hardest working man in sports journalism.

by Erasmus (not verified) :: Sat, 06/18/2005 - 2:50pm

I wonder if Pasquarelli meant teams that use a RB-by-committee IN the playoffs do not go far.

by Led (not verified) :: Sat, 06/18/2005 - 3:53pm

"Yep, they don’t go far in the playoffs, do they?"

While you are right and Pasquarelli was technically incorrect, let's take a closer look at the examples you listed.

Three of the teams you listed (2001 Pats, 2003 Pats and 2002 Bucs) used the RB by committee approach but were flat out bad at running the ball (27th, 23rd and 24th in rush DVOA, respectively). Fortunately for them, they were good enough in other areas (primarily on defense) to make up for a weak running game. But it's hard to say that the RB by committee was effective.

The 2003 Panthers were not a RB by committee team. Davis had 318 carries vs. 113 for Foster, and 43 of Foster's carries came in games when Davis was injured and DNP. Davis was a traditional feature back getting over 80% of the carries when healthy with Foster as an effective backup.

The 2002 Raiders didn't run very much, and in that respect, alone, are an outlier. But when they did hand-off, they would have been considerably more efficient if many of the 108 carries given to Wheatley (36th in DVOA) had gone to Garner (4th in DVOA on 182 carries). Garner may not be built to be a traditional feature back, but on a team that handed it off to RB's as infrequently as the Raiders he could've and should've shouldered more of the burden. I think the RB by committee approach made them less effective.

The 2004 Falcons are the best example of an effective RB by committee team, especially when you consider Vick as a member of the committee, although I would've given the ball to Duckett more.

The 2004 Steelers are a weird situation -- not so much a committee, but two #1 backs. Bettis was clearly intended to be the backup and Staley the traditional #1 guy, but Staley got hurt. Turns out Bettis had more left in the tank than anticipated and was more effective. The lesson learned here seems to be that it's a nice thing to have a hall of famer as your backup RB. Hardly the situation with the Vikes.

Basically, these examples show (1) you don't need to be good at running the ball to win in the playoffs if you have a dominant defense and (2) you better have a competent backup RB because odds are your #1 guy is going to get hurt. For that reason it's not wise to break the bank on your starting RB. But that said, if you want to run it well, you still need good RB's that can withstand NFL punishment. If you're the Vikings, lacking a dominant defense (they're hoping to improve from putrid to passable), having lost the most dominant deep threat in the game and professing to be committed to the power running game, would you be confident with the current running back situation? I think that was Pasquarelli's point, although admittedly that's not what he said and what he said was inaccurate.

by malenerik, cph, dk (not verified) :: Mon, 06/20/2005 - 5:18am

I agree that Len's usually working hard at digging up interesting stuff. Lots of good quotes here about the o-line coaches.

But: don't you find it telling - a bit depressing even - that a long, well-researched article like this, even on FO, gets 14 comments in roughly the same time Prisco's lame list got 230? If this is just remotely proportional to reader interest, doesn't that explain why there are so relatively few people doing, you know, ACTUAL reporting, and so many spouting opinions?

by Trogdor (not verified) :: Mon, 06/20/2005 - 12:42pm

I don't know that that's the case at all. I usually don't comment on the better-written stuff, because there's generally less to argue about or make fun of. Sometimes I won't even bother reading the articles, and just scroll through and make fun of the comments. But anything from Len P I usually read, and there isn't a whole lot else for me to say when I'm done.

by sippican (not verified) :: Mon, 06/20/2005 - 3:09pm

That was pretty well written and interesting, but it has a glaring hole in its logic.

Saying that a line that doesn't have the same starters from year to year is starting from scratch is inaccurate. Casual fans only know the names of the starters, but Pasquarelli should know better. Bad teams have to draft rookies and overpay free agent strangers to play right away in a new and unfamiliar system. Good teams get talented people, integrate them into their system, and when they get their chance, neither the other personnel on the field or the system is foreign to them.

Look at the Patriots. Damien Woody was a very good player. No one had ever heard of Dan Koppen. Woody left, and the sky was falling! Now Koppen is the star center, and Woody is just some overpaid guy on the Lions. Joe Andruzzi goes to the Browns this year, and everyone wails the sky is falling again, because they don't know the replacement's name. Well, Dante Scarnecchia has been preparing that guy for over a year, and he'll fit right in. And Andruzzi will be just another guy in Cleveland, trying to learn what they're doing as they go, like a rookie.

And so it goes.

by boulder (not verified) :: Mon, 06/20/2005 - 3:28pm

The comments regarding starter continuity and line coaches intersect, no? In one paragraph he says the Chargers have the same line, then 3 paragraphs later, the Chargers line coach leaves for the Fins. How good is that continuity now w/ a new coach? Is it more important to keep the coach or keep the starters?

by Sean D. (not verified) :: Mon, 06/20/2005 - 3:50pm

re 18: Another interesting point is that he says that the modern line coach needs to be able to mold together guys that have not been together, and the Chargers line coach did that and now they have continuity. If the line coach is good at putting together a moribound cast of characters, is he as useful if the line stays the same. In other words, would Houck have been able to improve the line or would he have trouble getting them to play above their level last year? Unfortunately we'll never know.

by Johonny (not verified) :: Mon, 06/20/2005 - 8:10pm

"History has demonstrated that teams with a tailback-by-committee approach don't often go deep into the playoffs, which might be what the Vikings need to do for Tice to return in 2005."

The key word is often. History also shows teams with a featured back often don't go deep in the playoffs. Basically is a throw away line that doesn't mean anything.

by Trogdor (not verified) :: Mon, 06/20/2005 - 11:00pm

I think consistency from year to year on the line is significantly less important than consistency within the season. I wouldn't mind too much if the Browns had 5 new linemen every year, if I knew the same 5 would start every game. At this point, I'd be thrilled to see them have the same 5 start consecutive games, which has only happened maybe three or four times since 99. Five new guys who have all summer to learn together are going to be better off than bringing back all 5 from a previous year, but having one or two get hurt every week, never knowing who's going to start each game or having to shuttle people into new positions.