by Jim Feist
Years ago former NFL head coach John Madden was asked if he had one player to draft to build his team around, who would it be? Everyone expected him to take the top quarterback of the day, such as Terry Bradshaw or Roger Staubach. Instead he replied, “John Hannah,” the Patriots Hall of Fame offensive guard. Madden explained, “What good is having a star quarterback if you can’t protect him and he’s running for his life?” Madden could have been talking about the 2015 NFL season. Where have all the offensive lines gone? It’s been a season of injuries around the league, littered with downed QBs and star players. The common thread, it seems, is how offensive line injuries have rippled out to influence other areas of the team.
The San Diego Chargers have been hit hard with O-line injuries, as have the defending champion Patriots. It hasn't hurt New England as much in the win column perhaps because they place a premium on stockpiling depth. Perhaps that was part of the plan when they refused to overpay for Darrelle Revis?
In the NFC the most glaring offensive line problems is with the defending conference champion Seattle. Russell Wilson has been running for his life, leading the league in sacks, behind an offensive line littered with players in college who were defensive ends and tight ends. Was that part of the plan when they sent the best offensive lineman, center Max Unger, to New Orleans for Jimmy Graham?
The Dallas Cowboys had huge problems on the offensive line three years ago but continued to use high draft picks on the line. That O-line and ground attack was a big reason they stormed to a division title a year ago. When they had all those injuries in 2013 Coach Jason Garrett admitted they had to bail on trying to find offensive balance and instead threw it over 60% of the time. A poorly functioning ground attack combined with O-line problems can contribute to a skewed run-pass ratio, making this easier for opposing defensive coordinators.
That same season the Giants were huge flops for the same reason. QB Eli Manning has been a turnover machine the last few years because the offensive line couldn’t open any holes for an anemic ground game. However, they've finally fixed that concern after putting high draft picks into the offensive line the last two years.
Many organizations get enamored with drafting skill position players out of college at a cost of neglecting the offensive line. They celebrate on draft day about adding a high profile college running back or wide receiver, but often pay the price once the real games start. Remember when Matt Millen was GM of the Lions? He did that every year, it seemed, and his Lions' teams were terrible on the offensive line -- and didn't win many games. Millen is long gone but the current Detroit Lions are also struggling again with the ground game and O-line, among other things.
Even though the Steelers have had a rotating group of quarterbacks this season because of injuries, you have to give them credit for focusing on improving the offensive line the last three years. For a long time QB Ben Roethlisberger was getting flushed from the pocket and took too many hits (31 sacks in the first 8 games of 2013). Last year they wanted to run the football more and have Big Ben get rid of the pigskin faster to avoid hits and sacks and it worked.
What good is a star QB if he’s getting sacked 5 times per game? What good is a star running back if the offensive linemen are blocking while wearing roller skates? And what good is a star wideout if the QB doesn’t have time to wait for him to get open?
Switching gears for a moment, take a look at some home/road breakdowns in the NFL. The Baltimore Ravens terrible start can be partly traced to the NFL schedule-makers, who dealt John Harbaugh's a cruel hand, playing 5 of their first 7 games on the road. And the cruelty doesn't stop there: four of those games were out West, at Denver, Oakland, Arizona and San Francisco!
Seattle has been dominant at home the last few years and not as much on the road, which isn't surprising given that they are located in the Northwest with often long road trips. This season they've continued that trend, as has San Diego, losing its first three road contests.
In the East, the Washington Redskins have been competitive at home but awful on the road where their defense has been shellacked, allowing 32, 25 and 34 points in their first three road contests (2-1 over the total). The Saints are comfortable at home with their speed-oriented passing attack geared for their indoor track, but are often very poor on the road, which is happening again in 2015.