MythBusters: Are spread offenses the cause of offensive line decline?
In our “MythBusters” series, SI.com’s Doug Farrar uses tape, statistics and conversations with some of the NFL’s most knowledgeable voices to debunk storylines that have inexplicably gained traction. In this installment, Farrar debunks the notion that spread offenses are to blame for the league's recent trend of struggling offensive lines.
MYTH: Spread offenses are the root cause of poor blocking among young NFL linemen.
REALITY: In truth, there are several factors at play. Blame the CBA as much as anything else.
Over the last few years, there have been an alarming number of highly-drafted, seemingly can't-miss offensive linemen prospects who have instead done just that—missed terribly—in the first stages of their careers. The Rams took Baylor tackle Jason Smith with the second pick of the 2009 draft; the former tight end struggled with injuries and ineffectiveness and had been out of the league since a failed shot with the Jets three years ago. A string of highly successful blockers came out of the 2010 draft in the first round (Trent Williams, Russell Okung, Anthony Davis, Bryan Bulaga), but 2011 was the year in which things started to fall apart.
The Cowboys hit the jackpot with USC's Tyron Smith with the ninth pick, but the Patriots' selection of Nate Solder at No. 17 has provided inconsistent results at best, although Solder did reportedly agree to a two-year extension just before the season. Boston College's Anthony Castonzo, the No. 22 pick by the Colts, has delivered workmanlike production. Gabe Carimi, selected 29th by the Bears, has played with three teams in four NFL seasons. Mississippi State's Derek Sherrod, taken 32nd that year by the Packers, has started a grand total of one game in his NFL career.
The class of 2012 wasn't any better. USC's Matt Kalil, taken fourth by the Vikings, was an absolute turnstile in 2014, allowing 12 sacks, seven hits and 36 hurries. His performance has declined in each of his three NFL seasons. Iowa's Riley Reiff, taken 23rd by the Lions, has been a serviceable left tackle but would be better on the right side. The best first-round linemen that year were the guards. Stanford's David DeCastro dealt with injuries before he was finally able to start living up to his potential with the Steelers, while Wisconsin's David Zeitler has been a consistent force on Cincinnati's offensive line.
What looked like a bumper crop of tackles in 2013 didn't pan out that way. Top pick Eric Fisher was moved to the right side of the Chiefs' line this summer. Texas A&M's Luke Joeckel was taken second by the Jaguars; he played in just five games of his rookie season and allowed eight sacks, seven hits and 29 hurries in 2014. The Eagles took Oklahoma's Lane Johnson with the fourth pick; he gave up 11 sacks in his rookie campaign and improved quite a bit in year two despite a four-game suspension to start the 2014 season. Still, to picture him as the replacement for left tackle Jason Peters down the road is a stretch, and when you take a guy fourth overall, you'd like that option. San Diego's D.J. Fluker, taken with the 11th pick out of Alabama, is without question the most powerful lineman in his class, but he's given up seven sacks in each of his two NFL seasons. The Giants took Justin Pugh with the 19th pick, and they've moved him all over the place to try and justify that selection.
In 2014, Auburn's Greg Robinson, taken second overall by the Rams, alternated between left guard and left tackle, struggling in both spots. Coach Jeff Fisher has insisted that Robinson is his left tackle going forward, but that could be as much about limited options as anything else. Texas A&M's Jake Matthews was taken sixth by the Falcons and spent most of his rookie year getting poleaxed by enemy pass rushers. Tennessee's Taylor Lewan may be the best member of this class, but he still gave up four sacks in 10 games before he was lost for the season with an ankle injury.
Why have so many highly-regarded linemen struggled at the NFL level? Experience is one factor, but you didn't see the likes of Orlando Pace, Jonathan Ogden and Walter Jones struggling against professional competition at this point in their careers. It's unfair to compare the current class to those Hall of Fame-level players, but out of that many classes, you think you'd have more than one tackle who has appeared dominant year after year. Smith is the only first-round tackle taken in this decade who can really make that claim.
As a result of this talent deficit, we're seeing entire offensive lines playing well under NFL standards seemingly less often than ever. There are a few bulletproof lines, like Dallas's, Cleveland's and Baltimore's, but more often than not these days, teams must learn to win despite, not because of, their front fives. It's more pronounced in the preseason, when players who have never worked together before have to figure things out in a hurry, but there's more to it than that.
What's behind this scarcity of quality line play? The blame most commonly falls on the rise of the spread offense at top college programs. As the products of spread offenses became a more routine concern for NFL talent evaluators over the last decade, one of the things you heard more and more was that spread blockers didn't have what it took to succeed in the NFL. That may have been true in the early 2000s, but NFL teams (at least, most of them) have adapted out of necessity. Tackles who hadn't learned to kick-slide found that their NFL coaches had found work-arounds: More NFL tackles spend more time in a two-point stance, three- and five-step drops have become the norm and receiver combos with first-read open looks are far more common.
Still, some coaches believe the spread offense issue isn't so easily solved.
“I'm not wanting to offend anybody, but college football, offensively, has gotten to be really, really bad fundamentally,” Seahawks offensive line coach Tom Cable said told ESPN Radio in May. “Unfortunately, I think we're doing a huge disservice to offensive football players, other than a receiver, that come out of these spread systems. The runners aren't as good. They aren't taught how to run. The blockers aren't as good. The quarterbacks aren't as good. They don't know how to read coverage and throw progressions. They have no idea.”
Cable sounds a bit like an old-school grump with that, but he's not at all averse to thinking outside the box—he just does it in a different way, with players he believes better fit the prototype. Cable is more inclined to take a college defensive lineman and switch him to the other side in the pros, as he has done with starting right guard J.R. Sweezy, a seventh-round pick in 2012 who played defensive end and defensive tackle at North Carolina State. The Seahawks went that direction once again in the 2015 draft by taking Buffalo defensive end Kristian Sokoli, who Cable is now grooming to be a super-athletic center.
“I can go get a guy who runs a little faster, jumps a little higher and has an aggressive streak in him on defense and start with him,” Cable said after Sokoli was selected. “I'm going to have to retrain an offensive lineman out of college, anyway.”
Given the recent performances of Cable's lines—units that are frequently bailed out by Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch—we may not want to go all the way there. Cable also had former Alabama first-round pick James Carpenter on his line for years with mixed results, and Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban was decidedly anti-spread until he figured out that a few spread/no-huddle concepts would actually help him win games. Cable's solutions are still a work in progress.
In a recent conference call, ESPN analyst and former NFL head coach Jon Gruden expressed similar concerns.
“You're getting a lot of young offensive linemen out of college these days that have never been in a three‑point stance, have never been in a huddle," Gruden said. “They don't have a real good background in how to get the stance and get out of a stance and pass protect, let alone pick up stunts, blitzes, handle audibles. It's a whole new world. I think late in the season, no one's wearing pads on the practice field. They don't pad up on the practice field in training camp nearly like they used to. There are a lot of linemen changing teams more so than I've ever seen before ... I think that's why you see a lot of teams running dive options with built‑in bubble screens.”
But the problem isn't as black and white as a sport-wide scheme shift. Three other trends deserve their share of the blame for the recent run on talented young offensive linemen.
The quarterback problem
Gruden also placed part of the blame on young NFL quarterbacks, a salient point that needs to be discussed more often.
“I know a lot of quarterbacks have been under siege,” he said. “A lot of quarterbacks have been hit hard. A lot of the poor offensive line play has to do with poor quarterback play. You've got to be able to direct these protections. You've got to make the right calls. You have to make sure everybody's on the same page. You also have to throw the ball away and not hold it very long in pro football. So I think the quarterback at times is truly responsible for the negative outcome on some of these plays I've seen.”
This is an issue. Blocking for rookie quarterback Blake Bortles last season, Joeckel was debited with eight sacks, while Bortles, according to Pro Football Focus, was charged with seven sacks on his own—in other words, the quarterback had specific responsibility for the sack. He had sufficient blocking, his receivers were adequately open, and he just didn't see it in time before the pressure came down on him. Just as there's a new wave of spread offense blockers learning to adapt to the specific ways of the NFL, there's a new wave of quarterbacks who are dealing with reads, protections, audibles and defenses they've never seen before.
Jaguars coaches have said that Bortles, who led the league with 55 sacks last season, must improve his processing speed, and that shows up on tape. That's not to pick on Bortles—it's a constant challenge to rise up to the level of Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers or Peyton Manning, where your field vision is so quick and comprehensive that you're actually making your lines look better than they are.
“They have to be able to protect themselves,” Gruden said of young quarterbacks in general. “By that, I don't mean scrambling, necessarily. I mean, do you see the double corner blitz? Do you see the all‑out blitz? They're not coming to play two‑hand touch. They're coming to knock you down hard. And [quarterbacks] have to be, I think, well‑versed in how to handle blitzes. What audibles can they get to? Can they find the hot receiver inside adjustments? It's up to the coaches to gauge how far along they are because every veteran defensive coordinator that I've ever known is going to test every young quarterback until he proves he's got some answers to problems.”
The competition problem
Regardless of their collegiate schemes, blockers and quarterbacks have a common issue when they transition to the NFL: They're dealing with defensive linemen and linebackers who understand technique and line stunts at an entirely new level. Your basic end-tackle stunt in the NFL would be an exotic conceit on most college lines, and the majority of college pass-rushers are not taught to use their hands aggressively or completely to get separation from blockers. It's a major point of focus when NFL line coaches get their hands on young players. I asked Greg Cosell of NFL Films and ESPN's NFL Matchup in April why these young pass rushers are not able to use their hands until they get to the NFL.
“It really shouldn't surprise you—the answer is, because they're not taught,” he said. “And unless you're just one of those special guys who just has an intuitive feel for how to do it ... most college players are not taught this kind of thing, simply because there's a minimal amount of time in which to do teaching. Most things in college are based on scheme and design, as opposed to teaching individual players. It's something that coaches believe can be taught—I don't want to say simply, because a lot of things can be taught, and then, it comes down to the player applying it.”
When NFL coaches get their hands on college pass rushers, they immediately fill in the blanks from a technique perspective, leaving young blockers at a relative disadvantage until they learn the required counters. And that's where the NFL's recently-changed rules regarding contact in practices really get in the way.
The CBA problem
The collective bargaining agreement that was put into place in 2011 severely restricted the number of fully padded and contact-intensive practices allowed for every team. That was a reactionary gesture agreed to by the NFL and NFLPA to reduce practice injuries, but what wasn't taken into account was how much players (especially young players) need that time with contact to understand what they're supposed to be doing—basically, to take what's discussed in meeting rooms and make it muscle memory. Coaches will tell you that what used to be assimilated by the time the regular season started simply can't be anymore. Now, teams must wait until about the first full month of the regular season to be done before they know if their methods are on point.
“I was able to drill my young players for hours and days without risking injury and having contact,” one AFC offensive line coach told Jack Bechta of the National Football Post last year. “Now, I can barely get my hands on them. I’ll still develop them but it will take longer.”
Especially if you don't have dominant players all across the line, and you're mixing and matching as you go, as Seattle head coach Pete Carroll was after the preseason opener in Denver, when his quarterbacks were under siege behind a patchwork line of Cable's creation.
“To expect those guys to function at a high level is a lot right now because there’s nobody that’s been there, and there’s nobody that can really communicate to them,” Carroll said of his line last month. “So they’re all kind of looking at one another trying to figure out their calls and all that. That’s going to make them hesitant, and it’s going to look a little bit behind I think until we can get them comfortable. So that’s why this week is so important for them, and this game is so important for them, so they can settle down and play like they’re capable.”
Settling down in the NFL takes time, reps and an understanding of a far more complex game. With all those developmental obstacles in play, we may be in a world where many of the top-drafted linemen in the league don't really pay dividends until their second contracts kick in.