Visiting NFL training camps over the past week has reinforced my belief that chemistry and continuity are the most undervalued and underappreciated qualities when a franchise assembles an offensive line. The irony, of course, is the former is very difficult to ascertain and the latter is harder to maintain, primarily because of injury and contract issues.
Every organization wishes, or at least
This one is pretty obvious and really the foundation for everything else. It's not simply finding the most talented players and plugging them into spots. Rather, it's bringing in linemen who have football intelligence and are mentally and physically tough. There is a graveyard full of players who could bench press 600 pounds or run like a deer, but who never really made it because they weren't smart or tough. And if those qualities make you think about teams like the Giants, Patriots and Titans, you're on the right track.
The offensive lines of those teams are proof that it's not necessary to use first-round picks or spend big free-agent dollars to get players with the important qualities. Look at guys like Giants guard
The best way for a line to get better and more familiar with each other is if you put them out there together. This takes a certain amount of patience, to be sure, especially if there are young players involved. But ultimately, if you have the right guys, players who are conscientious and hard working, the time they put into improving and honing their craft will eventually win out. In fact, even the right rookies should show marked improvement by the end of their first training camp.
The problem then, in the modern era of the salary cap, is finding a way to keep them together. It's not easy to do with rival teams looking to upgrade their unit by poaching linemen, but it must be done. In fact, teams should be willing to pay a small premium to maintain continuity among their offensive linemen, even if it means revisiting a contract a year or two early. If the player likes the other guys and the team is having success, more often than not, he will be willing to accept a deal that he deems fair.
It's not always easy for a general manager or offensive line coach to play personality match-maker. However, the odds are good that the players will mesh if the franchise has brought in like-minded players who are tough and smart. If a player has just those two qualities he will have the respect of those in the offensive line meeting room, and respect is a great start toward forming trust and believing in the man next to you.
"I think it really helps that we like each other," said Titans left tackle
It is important to note that if chemistry is going to be developed for an offensive line, it generally starts to show itself in training camp. That means if you are a fan of a team with legitimate title aspirations and multiple new starters up front, like the Bears, Bills, Eagles, Ravens and Vikings, pay particular attention to the big boys over the next couple of weeks.
The more familiar an offensive line is with each other, the more each individual knows how the other one will react to certain situations. A lot of big plays in the NFL come when everyone is on the same page and knows what blitz or stunt is coming and how to handle it. The best offensive lines can make adjustments without even saying a word.
"One of the keys for us is we can go to the line of scrimmage and no matter what look we see nobody on our line has to say a thing," said Giants center
Once a line gets to the point where the same five guys have played together for a couple of years, like the Giants, the offensive coordinator and line coach has more freedom to let them add plays or change blocking schemes. That freedom can be huge for the play-caller, especially when playing a division opponent for the second time.
Along with the accountability and trust comes the understanding that the other linemen will protect and help each other throughout the game. For example, it is critical for the right guard to know that if he is getting bull-rushed, the center will come over and blast that defensive tackle in the ribs if his initial responsibility does not blitz. And the center does that because he knows from experience that if roles were reversed the right guard would do the same for him.
The good news is that more and more teams around the NFL are doing whatever it takes to keep their units together. The Jets return all five starters along the offensive line for the second year in a row and the Steelers re-signed several players from last year's much maligned unit, and will likely start the same five. Even the Bills, who will have five new starters at every position along the offensive line, are trying to go in this direction. They have put together a unit of young, tough, linemen who they hope can gel quickly enough to allow them to be competitive in 2009 and a force in 2010 and beyond.