What makes (or breaks) an offensive line?

(Pic: Zimbio)

BJ Kissel gets it mostly right in his argument that continuity is what makes an NFL line great:

What do draft experts and Harold Camping have in common? They keep telling us one thing and the something completely different happens. We’ve been told year after year that the Kansas City Chiefs were going to take an offensive tackle with their first round pick, and each year they don’t take an offensive tackle with their first round pick.

Because, Kissel argues:

The most important aspect of an offensive line leading a team deep into the playoffs is continuity. With Albert, Asamoah, Hudson, Lilja and Richardson all having a familiarity with each other, it could be the makings of a core group of players that could easily stick together for a number of years.

The piece is a good read, and it largely echoes what I’ve been saying since I’ve blogged here:

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.

I think Kissel and I have a fundamental difference in what makes an offensive line truly effective.  He believes the biggest factor is continuity.  I believe it’s the skill positions easing pressure on the line itself.  But we both agree it’s not necessarily the talent on the offensive line itself. 

Talent on the offensive line is crucial, you’ve got to have guys to do basic things like pull and block, read and digest multiple positions in the playbook, and of course pick up any and all tricks an opponents’ passrush throws at you.  You can’t march out Rudy Niswanger at center every game and expect results, no matter your talent elsewhere.  But as the Chiefs during the Vermeil and Schottenheimer eras will tell you, acquiring an elite offensive line often comes at the expense of acquiring the more important skill position players like quarterbacks and receivers, to say nothing of the defense. 

To highlight my major difference with Kissel, I’m going to refer back to the Chiefs’ dismal 4-12 season in 2009, its first under Todd Haley.  The offensive line featured good continuity all year, with only slight tweaks at right tackle.  And yet the team’s run game, fueled by an impotent Larry Johnson, waned and struggled all season, producing nothing of value. 

That is, until we dropped Larry Johnson, and started this second-year player named Jamaal Charles, and we picked up Chris Chambers on the waiver wire.  All of of a sudden, Cassel’s sacks went down, our run game’s YPA skyrocketed, and an offensive line that couldn’t open holes and couldn’t keep the QB clean was quickly gelling into its impressive 2010 form, almost overnight.  You could argue that continuity was the solution, and it was probably a major influence. 

 But the dramatic improvement in skill position talent was, to my mind, the difference maker.  The offensive line only had to open slivers for Charles rather than truck-sized holes for LJ.  Cassel had two legitimate weapons downfield and thus less time needed to make decisions.

This means the acquisition of Johnny Baldwin will only make the offensive line’s job easier.  Defenses will have to blitz less to cover Baldwin, Bowe, and Moeaki, and McCluster and Charles don’t need much in the way of holes.  Assuming Cassel continues improving, this could punish defenses who load up too much on the line of scrimmage, and the offensive line, with only Rodney Hudson upgrading the center position, is going to look a hundred times better.

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