Is Offensive Line the Toughest Job in Football?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because the big’uns need praise too.
By Matt Foley
Coaxing Kansas City linebackers into regretful second thoughts, Tom Brady scans the defense from shotgun position. “Alpha! Cougar! Linda! Set hut!” he barks. Meaningless words twisting mental pretzels. Seconds later, while Gillette Stadium booms celebratory roars for Rob Gronkowski’s 8-yard touchdown catch, Brady jogs quietly to the sideline in search of his five best buds. Sometimes, the big boys need love too. “We can’t do it without you,” Brady tells his offensive line. “Keep up the great work!”
Brady may be the best quarterback in NFL history and the correlation of team success to quarterback play is both common and logical. These days, though, the most important — and scrutinized — unit on every team is increasingly the offensive line. And for good reason: According to NBC Sports analyst and MMQB contributor Ross Tucker:
The best linemen average an 89 percent–93 percent success rate.
Contrast that with the threshold for below-average play: 84 percent. For nonsports addicts, this means that for every 100 plays, the difference between a millionaire Pro Bowl lineman and a player forced into early retirement can be as little as five missed blocks. NFL offenses average about 65 plays per game, so the real difference is a minuscule 3.25 plays. Comparatively, the best quarterbacks in league history complete passes at a 70 percent clip.
Offensive linemen serve as the QB’s front line of protection — five giant brutes blocking for the players who touch the ball. Successful line play is hard to quantify; there’s no perfect statistic or measurement of success. Instead, triumph is keeping the quarterback upright and helping the runners move forward. Still, in this modern era of analytics, scouts have to grade everyone, right? Right. For every play of every game, linemen receive a plus (+) or minus (-), illustrating whether or not each player completed his job.
Last season, while searching for consistent protection, New England coach Bill Belichick shuffled through offensive linemen like tracks in a jukebox, substituting players mid-drive and shifting depth charts like never before. With such a small margin for error, Belichick searched near and far to maximize his line play. In all, the Patriots used 37 unique combinations on the offensive line, the most since that data was captured 22 years ago.
Amid constant change and turmoil, Brady did his part, throwing the ball a league-leading average of 2.35 seconds after the snap. Comparatively, the league average release time for quarterbacks with over 300 passing attempts this season is 2.63. While he was still sacked 38 times, those few extra tenths of a second allowed Brady to promptly deliver the ball to his playmakers while mitigating the perils of a plug-and-play offensive line. The Patriots grinded out another dominant 12–4 regular season while making their fifth straight AFC Championship, an impressive feat provided the lack of O-line consistency. “Stable line play is the lifeblood of a football program,” says legendary University of Texas coach Mack Brown.
Of course, in professional sports, high performance standards are not uncommon. Every backup player is a talented professional just waiting for an opportunity to shine. If the starter can’t get a job done, the “next man up” — as gridiron jargon proclaims — shall fill the role. Five percent may seem like a small margin for error, but one moment or one play can shift the tide of an entire season. The harsh truth is that the business of football waits for no man. That’s especially true for the big fellas “driving the sled.”
And where would the large men in the trenches be if not for their tutors? While most professional coaches hop on the hamster wheel in search of quick promotions en route to a head job, there’s a prevailing sense that offensive line coaches — while wildly important — are one of a kind. NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah tells OZY that the three most important coaches on any staff are the defensive and offensive coordinators and the O-line coach. A lot of them are former linemen themselves, says Jeremiah. “They seem to enjoy being around their own species.” The blue-collar lineman attitude is not always best suited for managing an entire roster’s personalities, so many offensive line coaches serve as organizational anchors.
In this era of spread offenses and hybrid defenders, offensive linemen have a more challenging job than ever before. The position is adapting, increased athleticism now a prerequisite for protecting both mobile passers like Aaron Rodgers and quick-triggered masters like Brady. As positional competition ramps up, that 5 percent gap between praise and condemnation will likely shrink too.
Whether a fair grading scale or not, at least the front line is united.