Charles explodes through a truck-sized hole in the OL against the
Broncos in Week 17. (Photo via the Star.)
It was late at night on April 26th, nearly nine months ago, and I sat at my television, confused. Another NFL Draft had come and gone, supposedly under a brand new GM with a resume decorated from locating prime talent for championship-caliber football teams. And I know for a fact that I wasn’t alone in my confusion.
Draftniks throughout the Midwest were scratching their heads. This draft was, perhaps, loaded with the most impressive offensive line talent that Draft Day had ever seen. It was loaded with elite, blue chip players, potential Pro Bowlers, all. It was deep with talent, with players well into the 5th and 6th round that still could become immediate starters for the right team. It had tackles galore, players nimble enough to handle the left edge, and players nasty enough to control the right edge. It had interior lineman galore, especially guards deep into the draft, including a couple who earned crazy buzz in the weeks leading up to the Draft. And even though the Draft is typically shallow on centers, this one had two go in the first round.
To recount the offensive line woes that the Chiefs endured in 2008 (or, really, any year after Willie Roaf retired) borders on retardedly redundant. We fans were there for the various atrocities that year, including the Titans game where our first-string and second-string quarterback both went out with season-ending injuries. Hell, the only quarterback that survived that year was a guy who was faster than most running backs.
So needless to say, you don’t get this very often. When a historically solid draft group declares in a year that your team is desperately hurting for that exact position, the decision isn’t difficult. It doesn’t take a soothsayer to figure out what the Chiefs needed to do — or what they were likely to do, with GM Scott Pioli (a lover of the trenches if there ever was one) at the helm. When the Draft came around, the Chiefs needed everything from passrushers to kick returners.
But many of us were convinced that the focus was going to be on the Draft’s strength and our most desperate need. And we couldn’t have been more wrong. Pioli spent one pick (out of eight! on a project! in the fifth round! a no-name that was on nobody else’s radar!).
Why did Pioli bypass such an opportunity? Because he knows an offensive line is more than the five guys in the trenches.
It’s no secret that the most talented offensive teams also miraculously seem to have the NFL’s best offensive lines. They allow the fewest sacks, they produce the most prolific run games, they have the least injuries and the most continuity. Occasionally this is because the offensive line is so dominant that the offense can flourish (see: the Chiefs from 2001-05), but it’s more commonly the other way around: that the skill-position talent on an offense demands so much respect from a defense that it eases the pressure on the offensive line, which now handles less pressure.
Take, for instance, the Chiefs from early 2008. With Brodie Croyle executing Herm Edwards’ ultra-conservative gameplan which obsessed over short-yardage and Larry Johnson running up Niswanger’s butt, not to mention the largely predictable (“run-run-pass”) playcalling, and only one or two receiving threats even with caring about (neither one of them a field-stretcher), defenses did not have to play the Chiefs deep. They didn’t have to stretch their defense. They could easily bracket Bowe and still load up in the box against the run. And they could bring ample horsepower on every single passrush without worrying about giving up big plays. They could afford to be consistently aggressive — and your offensive line in this situation can only handle so much. The pressure on the front five is so intense that they have to play near-flawless and at times with superhuman resolve to even keep the offense functional.
2008’s primary problem wasn’t the offensive line, it was a complete lack of respect from defenses. On this, Pioli was dead-right.
This is not to say that our lineman weren’t bad, or that they aren’t important. I don’t need to tell you guys that offensive lineman carry with them important responsibilities. This is the franchise of Szott and Grunhard, of Waters and Roaf, Shields and Alt. Few teams in this league appreciate offensive lines as much as we do.
But Bowe and Bradley, especially in the wake of Tony G’s departure, weren’t cutting it without help. Croyle simply doesn’t have the aggressiveness. Thigpen is a gagdet that defenses figure out after a while. And Herm Edwards was a pathetic offensive mind. While our talent on the offensive line could be upgraded, it was more important that all of this needed to change. Pioli’s priority for the offense was not the offensive line, but to load up an offensive scheme and skill-position talent that would demand respect from defenses.
What Pioli got wrong, however, was the idea that his moves in the offseason created that respect, or even made important strides towards it. Virtually no help was brought in at wide receiver or runningback (two late picks for each position, both projects). No upgrade at fullback. Tight end was a cavalcade of rejects (including our own budding Cottam) and a 7th round rookie and nobody was receiving or blocking. The only upgrade was Cassel, whose worth we will discuss all offseason but had no deep arm to threaten defenses, which doesn’t matter anyway because he had no deep threat to throw to.
In an offseason where Pioli made limited upgrades to the offensive line, he also made negligble upgrades at the skill positions. And we paid dearly for that mistake for half the season, stalling the progress of our franchise quarterback and sporting the second-worst offense in the NFL.
Pioli’s upgrades throughout the season were damn impressive, considering these moves are typically made on the fly — bringing in Chambers and releasing Larry Johnson, starting Jamaal Charles and replacing Mike Cox. Castille, Wade, Pope. Game-changers no, but upgrades of various magnitudes and our offense slowly started making more sense as a result. And our offensive line, after multiple shifts and constant tinkering by Haley and Pioli, started to respond in kind. Cassel got his best protection in the last quarter of the season, Charles enjoyed his largest running lanes, and our offense actually had the protection necessary to set up plays that take longer to develop.
But that does not excuse a massive miscalculation by Pioli over the offseason. And as we begin the oncoming offseason, let’s hope he avoids the same error.