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Blanket Coverage: Three coaches discuss the state of O-lines in the NFL

What's the current state of offensive line play in the NFL? Three men who coach it discuss, plus more heading into Week 4 of the NFL season. 

While the Week 4 slate of NFL games leaves a lot to be desired, there are plenty of interesting storylines across the league. From Michael Vick running the Steelers’ offense after just five weeks of work, to two stud running backs (Marshawn Lynch and LeSean McCoy) that may need to be replaced, to the Falcons getting ready to pile up the wins against a weak schedule, to the hype over Bill Belichick’s offensive line rotation to Carson Palmer going against a Rams pass rush that ended his season last year, there’s plenty to discuss and analyze.

We’ll get into those topics, plus 10 thoughts heading into Week 4, but first we’ll start this installment of Blanket Coverage with the first of a two-part roundtable with three generations of coaches about something that should be concerning the rest of the league: the state of the NFL’s offensive line play. With Ben Roethlisberger, Tony Romo, Drew Brees and (now) Andrew Luck on the mend, it sure seems like a good time to talk about the line.

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Over at least the past couple of seasons, offensive line play in the NFL has been criticized by many as being subpar. This year hasn’t exactly been a banner season, as star quarterbacks such as Ben Roethlisberger, Tony Romo, Drew Brees and Andrew Luck are already dealing with injuries, with some out for stretches of the season. In addition, the 3.96 yards per carry average through three weeks would be the lowest for an entire season since 1999 (3.90).

To get a sense for where line play stands for those that coach it, I made my annual pilgrimage to the C.O.O.L. Clinic (C.O.O.L. stands for coaches of offensive linemen) where hundreds of coaches from peewee football all the way to the NFL gather each May in Cincinnati.

I sat down with three generations of line coaches to get their views: Alex Gibbs, the semi-retired legendary godfather of the zone blocking scheme; Paul Boudreau, the Rams’ offensive line coach who is in his 29th NFL season; and Joe Gilbert, who is in his third season directing the Colts and spent several years on the college level.

This is the first installment of a two-part roundtable.

What is your opinion of the state of offensive line play in the NFL right now?

Paul Boudreau: I don’t think it’s what we’ve been used to. I think the hardest thing I see is the way we have to practice now because of the rules that are put on our coaching staffs. I know when Alex came into the league and I came into the league, it was all about your pad level, staying down. How do you keep your pad level down? You practice in pads. And the rules and the way the collective bargaining has been with what the owners agreed to, it's put a lot of stress on line coaches, offense and defense. I think you have, by the third or fourth preseason game, you look at your tape and you're still playing too high. If you don't practice in pads and you're always in “underwear” and you can't go against the defensive line but once or twice a week in pads, you're going to be behind. In the 1980s and '90s, you came out of training camp, you were ready to play on day one. Now, by the third or fourth game, you can tell that your guys are still not there. That's what I see, and it's by the rules of the game.

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Alex Gibbs: I think that is very true. Part of it was the way we coached then. We coached so hard and so tough it was nasty and the players, when they had a chance to get it corrected, they wanted it. The other thing that makes it a little different is we've got the best proving ground in college football, but of late, the college game has become a game of the quarterback running and a throwing game that is not a training ground. You literally have to start over in those phases.

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​The offenses they're running right now, it's not helping the young player speed up and step up. You're not as good at dropback blocking as they were five years ago. And the quarterback running game has put them in a whole different system in my opinion because their quarterback is one of their top runners. That puts a lot of stress on us because that's not what is going to happen (in the NFL). We can't afford for our guy to get hit, and we know that and understand that. It's a thing we live with constantly. One other thing I think has happened too, and then I'll shut up, is we used to prepare more guys. But the need for extra receiving kind of people has changed some complexities for us. All of us now have to coach a tight end that literally can't be a blocker. In most cases, he's just not capable of doing it and he makes so many big plays, he's really like a third receiver. And then we've gone to a three-receiver system so we're really out there with four receivers, which puts a tremendous amount of stress on us and the runner, who is not prepared.

Talk about ill-prepared, the back that comes to pro ball and has to be a protector, it's a disaster for him. Those are some of the sidebar things that have made our job tougher. When I first came into the league, I had only seven guys that could play. For some stupid reason I convinced the head coach we could do it with seven guys instead of eight. We slowly got to the point where nobody has more than seven.

Boudreau: It's all your fault.

Gibbs: I only had two seasons in 30 when all five of my guys played every play. When you get one of those seasons, those are spectacular.

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Joe Gilbert: This is a little different for me because this is my fourth year being in it. I've come from college whereas these guys have been in the NFL for quite a while. The things that they bring up are very, very valid from the standpoint of, we just spent four weeks with the players (in off-season practices). We can't even put a player across from a player. At least in college, you have 15 spring practices, two of them were in helmets, you have 13 where you can at least put the shoulder pads and at least teach pad level, coming off the ball, striking. You have to hold the bag as a coach and I'm not going to get rolled up. You're creating drills to try to teach footwork and such. So it's tough to teach what Paul was saying this time of the year. I do think coming from college, the whole thing now is about the offense going fast. There's minimal communication at the line of scrimmage with the offensive line. So their development from a mental standpoint is limited. When the coach wants to go as fast as possible, the coaching between reps is minimal. We coach off of tape.

By the time we get these guys coming out of college, and we don't get them until April, their development is behind. It's not the college coaches’ fault, it's the nature of the beast. I think the trend of O-line play is becoming harder. Like Paul said, you look at your tape now and instead of the gains coming between practice and preseason games, now all of a sudden it's your third and fourth game when you finally hit your stride. Then if you start losing guys (we had 11 different lineups last year) and Alex talked about cross training—I have 16 guys in my huddle right now and I flat-out told the line there's only one guy that's not going to get cross trained, and that's our left tackle. Everybody else better be able to play every position.

Boudreau: When we got into the league, the biggest jump for a player as an offensive lineman was from his rookie season to his second season. Now, you don't see the kid until April. From January until April, you can't talk to him, you can't touch him. He's behind the curve. When we go out scouting, it's an advantage for a guy, like at the Iowas and Stanfords, the Notre Dames, Alabamas, Wisconsin, they play an NFL style. It's nothing against the read option. I've coached wishbone guys, I've coached veer guys. It's my job to get them up to speed, but if I can't because of the CBA, at the end of the day, that owner still wants to win a Super Bowl. How do you get those guys ready? It's hard. They put you in a bind.

Is the spread a curse word among NFL offensive line coaches?

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​​Gilbert: I don't think it's a curse word. You still go and look at the best players that are out there and they come from multiple offenses. I don't know how many pro days Paul and I did together and probably a majority of them were no-huddle, spread, speed-up offense and that is what they're going to. Maybe that's what the recruiting leans to. The high schools do it now too. The transition now is taking longer for not just O-line but multiple positions on offense. I've even heard the receiver’s coaches saying the kid doesn't know how to run a true curl route. It's all kind of basketball in space.

Boudreau: It's not our place to say a college team shouldn't run this or that. If they think that's the best chance for them to get into the playoffs, it's not my job to tell them they're not getting their guys ready for the NFL. It's my job to get that guy caught up to the NFL.

Where have all the great left tackles gone?

Gibbs: I think there are more than there have ever been.

Boudreau: I agree, too.

Gibbs: We have bigger and faster guys than we ever have and more of them. They're not ready to go, but they have all the tools.

I could name one guy, Joe Thomas of the Browns, who is on his way to the Hall of Fame. I have a hard time naming another. Maybe Jason Peters of the Eagles if he stays on the field. For years, you had multiple guys like that in the league at the same time.

Gibbs: There are more than you think.

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Gilbert: I think part of it is there are some damn good left tackles that could become players out there, but I think the media, no slight, they have these niches of guys who are going to plug and then the other guys don't get the attention. That's my opinion. I think [Colts LT] Anthony Castonzo, and I'm being biased here because I coach him, he works his ass off and right now he's in his fourth year, and I think he's a hell of a left tackle and one of the upper tier in the league. But the kid doesn't get any publicity. I think there are a lot more out there that are darn good left tackles and pretty good players that just don't get the pub. I think there are some young players who get the pub who shouldn't get what they're getting.

Boudreau: Some guys make the Pro Bowl because of the media. Most of them just need time. I've got this guy, Greg Robinson, the second pick overall (in 2014). They had four plays (at Auburn) and one protection: slide left, slide right. He didn't have a snap count. Now, I coached Willie Roaf when Willie was a rookie. Willie's in the Hall of Fame. And I can tell you from a coach who coached Willie and now coaches Greg Robinson, Greg Robinson as a rookie has more talent and is a better player than Willie. Willie had a great coach at Louisiana Tech and Willie was ahead of the curve because of the techniques he was taught, just like how we talk about preferring the Wisconsin, Iowa, Stanford and Notre Dame guys. They have one up on the guys from the spread.