Offensive Line: Toward Fair Evaluation

| February 23, 2012

When it comes to football, sometimes 2+2 doesn’t equal 4. It’s always easy to look for the simple answer or the obvious connection, but football is too fluid, too dynamic and complicated. Things don’t always add up the way we want them to. What I’m talking about, of course, is how we evaluate offensive line play.

It’s easy for anybody to judge how a quarterback or a receiver has played. The stats tell some of the story, and, over time, they usually don’t do a terrible job of giving a broad impression of an individual’s play in a season. Even glancing at a season’s worth of box scores would rarely send you too far in the wrong direction (which is handy, since that seems to be how a lot of the Pro Bowl voting is done). For other positions, though, there are no stats that can be directly attributed to that player. A lineman doesn’t carry the football, he doesn’t make catches or get sacks, and all you have to go from are secondary stats. Those simply won’t get the job done.  

 

Not So Simple

On any given run play there are countless things that go into determining whether that run is a success or an abject failure. Only one player will be carrying the ball (usually), but nine or even 10 guys are supposed to be blocking for the run, against all eleven defenders who each have a responsibility to defend against it. That is a lot of moving parts to get right, and any one of them getting it wrong can cause the entire house of cards to come toppling down.

This is the reason that impressive yardage does not always equal impressive performance from the offensive line in run blocking. It might mean that, but it could equally be several other things. A run could be stopped for a 2-yard loss, but all of the O-linemen may have done a good job on their assignment only for a cornerback like Antoine Winfield or Charles Woodson to see it coming, knife inside a slot receiver and shut the play down in the backfield. Similarly, three of the five linemen could be beaten badly, but the running back breaks a tackle or two, makes a nice cut and runs 80 yards down the sideline away from the defense for a touchdown.

Running yardage simply doesn’t correlate to offensive line performance in the way people would like it to, and things get even more messy when you look at the Denver Broncos this season. Four people voted Chris Kuper to their All-Pro teams, likely citing the improvement of the Denver running attack in the second half of the season and the fact that he is a recognizable name from that line. But, as we’ve suggested, that improvement had little to do with the blocking from the Denver O-line.

 

The Denver Situation

When teams make radical changes to scheme during the season, it’s almost always because they’ve been forced to do so in order to protect personnel that they have to play from being exposed in their regular schemes. Coaches are inherently conservative creatures and they hate having to abandon their carefully devised schemes and systems in favor of trying the unknown. That’s why the NFL is such a copycat league; teams don’t like using something until they know it works, and have seen it with their own eyes. Denver dumped their conventional offense because they were left with Tim Tebow as a starting quarterback, but also because their offensive line wasn’t getting it done blocking for the running game they so badly needed.

The result was the return of option football to the NFL. Some teams had used the read-option a little in recent years with the increasing number of athletic quarterbacks to come into the league (think Vince Young and the Titans), but no team had considered adopting it as their base offense until this season. The reason the option is of particular relevance is that it is designed to succeed fundamentally without a blocker at the point of attack. Instead of relying on an offensive lineman blocking a defender at the point to create a running lane, the option presents a specific defender with two choices heading in different directions. Whichever one he attacks, he loses, and the run can make positive yardage simply from having ‘optioned’ that defender properly.

This option offense stunned the rest of the league. It’s not as if coaches and players are unfamiliar with the schemes and plays, they were lifted straight from the high school and college playbooks that all of these guys have spent time in, but they were just completely unprepared for it at this level. The option requires discipline and gap integrity to defend, which is why the team to struggle with it the most was the Oakland Raiders–the most ill-disciplined team in football.

 

Defensive Response

The Raiders allowed 298 rushing yards in that game, and a pair of 100+ yard rushers from the Broncos, but Denver didn’t actually block well up front. J.D. Walton and some people’s All-Pro, Kuper, in particular struggled badly in the run game, but it didn’t matter because the Raiders just couldn’t maintain their discipline on defense and the option tore them to shreds as defenders simply ran away from their areas of responsibility.

It’s also no coincidence that the team who ultimately ended the Denver run was the New England Patriots, one of the most disciplined defenses in the league. Both times the teams met, New England was consistently on top of the option looks the Broncos gave them. Once the Patriots honored their responsibilities on defense, the Broncos were forced again to rely on their blocking, and nothing had changed in that regard, it still couldn’t get the job done. In the playoff game, Denver could manage only 144 rushing yards, and Willis McGahee needed to break six tackles to get to his 76-yard total on 17 carries.

 

Factoring in McGahee

McGahee is another reason the running figures started to look good without the O-line showing an upturn in performance. He had a truly impressive season, ending up with a Pro-Bowl spot and a place on PFF’s ALL-AFC West team by season’s end. It’s easy to think of McGahee as something of a journeyman runner at this point and merely part of a running back committee, but he was once such a good prospect that despite shredding his knee in horrific fashion during the 2003 Fiesta Bowl (his last game as a college player), he would be taken 23rd overall in that year’s draft. Players can fall further than that in the draft simply over concerns with an injury or by running a slow 40 time, but McGahee was picked that 23rd despite fully tearing his ACL, PCL and MCL ligaments on network television less than four months earlier. Only five runners recorded a higher yards after contact average than McGahee this season, and he forced 33 missed tackles on the year.

 

The Denver Broncos were able to dramatically improve their run game this season, but that improvement didn’t happen because their linemen suddenly started to block better. They schemed their way to an upturn in production, and relied on some impressive work from their runners, but the line maintained a poor level of play despite the improving bottom line.

Ultimately, the only way to determine how offensive linemen were playing is by watching the tape, lots of tape, because you’re only guessing from statistics.

 

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