2009: The Year of the Terrible O-Lines
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The Buffalo Bills made a brash decision to tear up their OL in the offseason, and into the preseason, trading Jason Peters to the Philadelphia Eagles, and cutting loose lineman with large contracts and little production such as Langston Walker and Derrick Dockery. The Bills repaired their interior OL through free agency and the NFL draft, but any impartial observer could see that the Bills were going to struggle to block anyone all year.
Those observers were not wrong: the Bills have struggled. But it’s Buffalo that will have the last laugh because whereas they tore up and rebuilt the OL, therefore limiting anything they could accomplish on offense, there are about ten other NFL teams enduring the same OL struggles who haven’t undergone active rebuilding.
The Buffalo Bills sit at an uncompetitive 3-5, which is a better situation than Oakland, Washington, Cleveland, Tampa Bay, Kansas City, Seattle, and San Francisco have run into with their OLs, not to mention that Detroit and St. Louis have offered relative improvement on their lines with little positive offensive results. Then you have the teams that are winning in spite of their OLs, thanks to great defensive play, such as the Eagles, Cardinals, and the Packers.
Almost half the league is struggling with unacceptable OL play, which means that it’s not just the Bills that haven’t put the right five guys on the field. The only difference is that Buffalo was getting rid of their dead weight in the process, giving them a net win once they weren’t appreciably worse than about half the league up front.
Clearly though, it would be inaccurate to state that teams cannot win in spite of a poor offensive line. The Packers have manufactured offense in spurts while getting yardage in big chunks. Ditto the Cardinals, to a lesser degree. The Eagles have hit on big plays down the field to break opponents.
None of these teams can actually sustain offense though. That’s a big reason that these teams will be non-factors in the playoffs, should they actually make it. Great defensive teams don’t blow coverages, and if you can’t run the ball or protect the passer, those defenses will eat your offense for lunch.
But what does this do for the future? There already has been a run on offensive lineman in the draft in recent years, and we’re at the point where that’s bound to get worse in recent seasons. The difference, in my opinion, is that teams are finding defensive lineman that are so quick and so disruptive that the gap between a well-coached, over-talented offensive line and a hastily put together mismatch of parts has grown to all time highs.
This means that successful defensive lineman are being found later and later in the draft, and the need for offensive linemen is forcing them to be taken earlier and earlier. No longer can teams rely on late round draft picks to come in, plug holes, and develop all at the same time. The players anchoring the OL must be highly specialized talent, talent that is capable of working with veterans and rookies.
On top of that, what worked five years ago might not work anymore. We’ve reached a point where having a great running game has never been more detached from having a great, power blocking OL. There’s still big, powerful OLs who can open up huge holes for running backs, but at least 80% of the league is not doing so with consistency. Teams like Minnesota, Jacksonville, and Tennessee are not running the ball well because of strong OL play, they are running it well because they have quick scatterbacks who know how to set up their blocks. If Adrian Peterson, Maurice Jones-Drew, or Chris Johnson were to miss time, those teams would lose whatever investment they had made in their running games.
We’re now at half the league that has significant problems on their OL, whether or not the players around them are obscuring the issues (Green Bay, Minnesota), or not (Washington, Detroit). Half the teams aren’t going to be able to get franchise lineman in the first two rounds, so we’re looking at a situation where the next few seasons are really going to break down into the haves and have-nots on offense.
Teams that may not be in position to acquire OL help need to seriously consider adding a RB who can make defenses pay for rampant overpursuit errors. Teams that may need to look at RBs in the draft because their current guys aren’t cutting it include: the Redskins, the Texans, the Chargers, the Falcons, and the Browns.
Could the NFL be headed for a dead-ball era of sorts? Probably not, because it’s unlikely that the offenses that have been successful for the whole decade will find themselves in trouble anytime soon. The revelation is that offensive turnover is unlikely to occur very often in the NFL from here on out. It’s the Buffalo Bills who could be ahead of the curve because they put some of the long term pieces in place, while some NFL franchises are just finding out that they have none.