“It does seem like there are more bad offensive lines,” former NFL offensive lineman Ross Tucker said. “There used to be some good ones, a bunch average and a few bad. Now you still have some good ones. But it seems like there are more bad than average.”
The reasons are being debated, from the proliferation of spread offenses in college football allegedly impeding blockers’ development to the NFL’s practice-field hitting restrictions supposedly hindering work on proper fundamentals. Whatever the case, teams such as the New York Giants, Seattle Seahawks and Houston Texans must find ways to get things fixed and get them fixed relatively quickly, or their seasons could come undone.
“You watch some of those offensive linemen from the Giants the other night, and that was embarrassing,” said former San Francisco 49ers guard and center Randy Cross. “The fundamentals are the same from pee-wee to the pros, and there are some highly paid professionals that don’t seem to know that. You work on fundamentals at other positions. You work on the quarterback’s footwork. It’s incumbent on teams to demand that out of their players.”
It is possible for a bad offensive line to improve as a season progresses, Cross said. It is, in his view, about coaching and about attention to tiny details.
“Some teams are willing to put up with it,” Cross said. “We’ve seen some pretty blatant examples. Some aren’t. Look at Oakland. Look at Dallas. When was the last time you saw a sloppy [Patriots offensive line coach] Dante Scarnecchia offensive line? I think the devil is in the details, the little crappy, redundant stuff that you have to keep doing. Your stance. Your hands, where they should be. It’s repetition and practice. You’ve got to do it and do it.
“Would they benefit being able to work more in the offseason? Sure. But then you get into the league and the Players Association and what they’ve done. Some teams still do it well. And they do it with draft picks, with free agents, with recycled guys who weren’t doing it right with other teams. Coaches are teachers and they’re quasi-parents. It’s all about how you’re raised.”
Tucker said part of the problem is that teams pass so often in today’s NFL and offensive linemen get exposed because of the sheer number of times they must pass-protect. Defensive blitz schemes are more sophisticated than ever and most defenses have more skilled pass rushers on the field at once than was the case years ago, Tucker said. One solution, Tucker said, is for offenses to commit to establishing the running game.
“There are some teams that are realizing the volume of your running attempts is important,” said Tucker, a guard who played for the Washington Redskins, Cowboys, Buffalo Bills and Patriots. “I wonder if that’s the next evolution of this.”
The Texans switched from a relatively immobile quarterback, Tom Savage, to a more mobile one, rookie Deshaun Watson, halfway through a Week 1 defeat to the Jacksonville Jaguars in which they surrendered 10 sacks. Things were better in Week 2, as Watson was sacked three times in his first NFL start but used his improvisational skills to provide a dazzling 49-yard touchdown run late in the first half for the lone touchdown in a 13-9 triumph last Thursday night.
The Texans’ issues perhaps could be addressed, at least in part, if they are able to get holdout left tackle Duane Brown to join the team. In the meantime, they must rely on Watson to evade pass rushers. The Seahawks likewise have a mobile quarterback, in Russell Wilson, who can cover for some of the pass-protection gaffes made by his blockers. The Giants have no such luxury, with the statuesque Eli Manning at quarterback.
Manning had little chance Monday night as his offensive line, and left tackle Ereck Flowers in particular, was overrun by the Detroit Lions. The Giants have gone eight consecutive games dating to last season without reaching 20 points. They’ve totaled only 13 points in two games this season, both losses.
Coach Ben McAdoo was critical of Manning following the game Monday night. McAdoo has left open the possibility that he will surrender play-calling duties. But he has said the Giants are sticking with Flowers at left tackle. It might serve the Giants well, some within the league say, to use a running back or a tight end to help Flowers with double-teaming blocks more often.
Going forward, it might serve them even better to make better personnel decisions with their offensive line, Cross said.
“I don’t believe the ‘They’re not learning the right way coming up’ stuff,” Cross said. “I watch enough tape to know there’s plenty of places in college where they’re learning the right way. You don’t hear people in Oakland and Dallas complaining. It’s the Giants and the Seahawks and some of these other teams. And in those cases, it’s a management decision or a personnel decision.
“Seattle made a decision. They had a bunch of guys on both offense and defense coming up for contracts a few years back, and they decided to spend their money on defense. The Giants have just made some bad decisions. People want to blame these damn spread offenses. That’s a crock.”
Offensive lines can improve over time, Tucker said, as players become more familiar with one another.
“It’s the position, more than any other, where continuity and practice time really matter,” Tucker said. “If I’m the right guard and I have a double team with the right tackle and I don’t know him well, I’m going to say ‘Deuce’ to that guy to make sure he knows what we’re doing. But once you play with a guy long enough, you don’t have to say anything. Defensive linemen aren’t the smartest guys in the world, but they can figure that out when they hear that and know what’s coming. When you get really good is when you’ve played with a guy long enough that you can make dummy calls and mess with those guys.”
Tucker declines to call poor offensive line play a leaguewide epidemic, given that there remains a good number of teams with excellent offensive lines.
“I distinctly remember in the playoffs last year with the final four teams, everybody pointed to the quarterbacks,” Tucker said of the Patriots, Steelers, Falcons and Packers. “But those were four of the six or seven best offensive lines in the league. Plus you had Dallas and Oakland, who got knocked out earlier in the playoffs. I think there are a bunch of teams that have issues. But there are still some good offensive lines.”