Two AFC South teams at the top of the offensive line continuity score tables for 2019 are notable not just for the stability they achieved, but for the improvement they both showed from 2018 -- in one case, an unprecedented improvement. And yet, neither was able to make the playoffs.
Offensive line continuity scores were originally developed by Jason McKinley in the early days of FO (when FO Almanac was still Pro Football Prospectus) and we have since gone back and calculated it for every team since 1999. The continuity scores are based on three variables: number of starters used; number of week-to-week changes in starting lineups; and the longest starting streak of any one five-man unit. A team can earn a maximum of 16 points in any one category (one point per game), meaning a team that started the same five linemen in all 16 games would get a perfect score of 48. Hypothetically, if a team started five brand new linemen every week of the year, they would get a "perfect" score of -57, though of course nobody has ever come close to that. The worst continuity score on record belongs to the 2015 New England Patriots at 15.
The 2019 Indianapolis Colts became the 39th team in the past 21 seasons to post a perfect Continuity Score of 48 as the quintet of left tackle Anthony Castonzo, left guard Quenton Nelson, center Ryan Kelly, right guard Mark Glowinski, and right tackle Braden Smith started every game. The Colts' division-rival Jacksonville Jaguars were nearly perfect themselves. Will Richardson started the first two games at left tackle, then Cam Robinson started the final 14 after recovering from a knee injury. Jacksonville's four other starters -- left guard Andrew Norwell, center Brandon Linder, right guard A.J. Cann, and right tackle Jawaan Taylor -- were each in the lineup ever week of the season. Their continuity score of 44 was tied with the Green Bay Packers for second in the league. (The Packers, like the Jaguars, were perfect at four positions. At left guard, Lane Taylor started the first two games of the year before tearing his biceps, with rookie Elgton Jenkins filling in the rest of the year.)
What's most remarkable for Indianapolis and Jacksonville is how little continuity either team had on the offensive line in 2018. One year ago, the Jaguars started 12 different linemen and were third-worst with a continuity score of 22; the Colts weren't much better, with 11 different starters and a continuity score of 24.
Indianapolis and Jacksonville both doubled their continuity scores in 2019. The Colts' jump from 24 to 48 was the biggest we have ever measured; the Jaguars' leap from 22 to 44 was also in the top five.
|Biggest Year-to-Year Improvements in Continuity Score, 2000-2019|
Unfortunately, despite those improvements, neither team made the playoffs in 2019. The Colts actually won three fewer games with a perfect offensive line than they had the year before when their line was a total mess, the rare team that failed to win more games despite a huge boost in continuity. (Of course, they were also the rare team whose franchise quarterback retired just before the season.) The Jaguars did win one more game in 2019 than they had the year before, but they were still eliminated from the playoffs in early December.
This is especially bad news for what it tells us about 2020. The 12 teams in the above table averaged 9.9 wins the year of their big improvement, after winning 7.7 games the year before. However, of the ten teams whose improvement came before 2019, only one improved the following season, and in total they lost as many games as they won. Odds are that the Colts and Jaguars will both struggle more along the line this fall -- and they will lose more games as a result.
The biggest risers this year came from the AFC South, but the biggest faller played in the NFC West.
|Offensive Line Continuity Scores, 2019|
The Los Angeles Rams led the league in offensive line continuity in 2017 and 2018, with a perfect 48 in the latter season, and they made the playoffs both years. In 2019, they started four different players at left guard alone, and their continuity score fell to 30. Granted, that was still better than average, but it no doubt contributed to L.A.'s fall from Super Bowl participant to wild-card also-ran. In hopes of returning to postseason glory, the Rams have re-signed starting left tackle Andrew Whitworth and center Brian Allen. That means all five starters from last season are currently under contract, though right tackle Rob Havenstein has been suggested as a possible trade candidate.
Most good teams finish high in continuity -- five of the top eight teams made the playoffs -- but there are exceptions. The Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs were right in the middle of the pack at 28. Three different players started at left guard for Kansas City, and left tackle Eric Fisher missed eight games in the middle of the year. The team they beat for the Lombardi Trophy, the San Francisco 49ers, were even worse, tied for 24th with a score of 25. Left guard Laken Tomlinson was the only San Francisco lineman to start all 16 games. Backup lineman Daniel Brunskill proved to be a valuable utility infielder of sorts, starting four games at right tackle, two at right guard, and one at left tackle.
The worst offensive line in 2019, from a continuity standpoint, was the Miami Dolphins with a score of 20. Brian Flores' team used at least two starters at every position, including three at left tackle, four at right guard, and four at right tackle. This is largely why they were the NFL's worst offensive line in performance too, finishing last by a wide margin in adjusted line yards and next to last in adjusted sack rate.
The Dolphins had a lot of close competition for that bottom spot in the standings. The Jets, Bengals, and Texans were right behind them with scores of 21, while the Raiders were just one better at 22. (It's a little ironic the Dolphins and Texans both finished so low considering they swapped starting linemen before the season. For the record, Julie'n Davenport started one game at right tackle and seven at left for Miami; Laremy Tunsil started 14 games for Houston, all at left tackle.) This is the first year on record when five teams have had a continuity score of 22 or worse. The average continuity score in 2019 was 29.4. That's the fourth straight year under 30, after the average had been 30 or higher for 18 straight years dating back to 1999.
We'll close with a few bullet points on the lower-ranking teams:
- The Jets used 11 starters, the most in the league. This is why they acquired three potential new starters (George Fant, Connor McGovern, and Greg Van Roten) in free agency. They were only the 15th team to use so many offensive line starters in a single season. The Dolphins, Texans, Raiders, and Bengals were right behind them with 10.
- The Dolphins and Texans were the 23rd and 24th teams to make at least 10 line changes. The Bengals, Raiders, Vikings, and Lions were right behind them with nine each, followed by the Jets and 49ers with eight.
- Neither the Dolphins, the Bengals, nor the Jets made it four consecutive games without making a change in their starting lineup. They were very close to the record in that category; the 2003 49ers, 2015 Patriots, 2016 Saints, and 2017 Lions all made a change at least once every three games.