Friday, February 1, 2008
standing test of time
By John Clayton ESPN.com
PHOENIX -- Top offensive lines aren't born overnight. The Patriots are a classic example.
Tom Brady's protection has been solid for seven years, good enough to get him to five AFC Championship Games and four Super Bowls. Three Patriots offensive linemen were selected to the Pro Bowl this season. Center Dan Koppen and guard Logan Mankins were first-timers. Left tackle Matt Light is going for the second straight year.
The Giants may be on the on-deck circle of recognition. Numbers don't lie. The Giants' offensive line blocked for a running back who rushed for more than 5,000 yards in his final three seasons (Tiki Barber). Quarterback Eli Manning has been sacked between 25 and 28 times per season, not bad for a quarterback who drops back to throw more than 550 times each year.
Nevertheless, like most lines, the Giants' offensive line operates in obscurity. Few would recognize New York's offensive linemen on the streets of NFL cities outside of Manhattan. They might even go unrecognized in Manhattan.
"None of us are going to the Pro Bowl,'' center Shaun O'Hara said. "I think offensive line play is one of those positions really hard to judge. There are more negative stats for offensive lines than there are positives. I really think you judge the unit as a whole as opposed to the individuals.''
Though there is no rule of thumb, the best barometer of a line is its longevity as a unit. If a line is together for around 50 games -- a little over three seasons -- the sum of the parts can sometimes exceed the individual skills of the linemen. The Giants' line has come together over time and, like the Patriots', could stake claim to its share of postseason honors in the future.
For the most part, the Giants' line has been together for four years, roughly the time Manning has been at quarterback. The group has grown together. It's struggled together.
"I think the most important thing, if you can get it, is consistency,'' Giants offensive line coach Pat Flaherty said. "Guys come in and out of the line, but what you are looking for is consistency of offensive line play. When guys haven't been able to start, the sixth or seventh guy has been able to step in. We had some things start to jell after the second year, then all of a sudden one guy wasn't back.''
David Diehl's successful transition from guard to left tackle has helped the Giants' O-line flourish.
The 2007 season was going to be the supreme challenge. The Giants cut left tackle Luke Petitgout in February. His backup, Bob Whitfield, retired. A right-handed quarterback without a proven left tackle can be a recipe for disaster.
The Giants took a gamble on left guard David Diehl, who turned out to be the real deal. He has started every game at left tackle this season and has improved each week. Naturally, the experiment had some pitfalls. According to Stats Inc., Diehl was second in the league for sacks allowed with 13½.
Overall, though, Diehl proved he could not only play the position well but also gain the respect of his competitors.
"He presents a lot of problems," Patriots defensive end Richard Seymour said.
Diehl overcame a lot of problems to learn the left tackle position. Left tackles are often on an island as blockers. They have to use their feet to position their bodies between the defender and the quarterback. For a former left guard whose main job was to maul the defender, Diehl faced a tough transition.
"I wouldn't say it was seamless,'' Diehl said. "It was a lot of hard work. I had to rededicate myself to do that. A lot of people said I couldn't do it. A lot of people told me, 'He's not a left tackle, what are the Giants doing?' I'm the first person to tell you, 'Go ahead, tell me I can't do something, and I'll do everything in my power to prove you wrong.'''
Diehl showed some potential filling in for an injured Petitgout in the final two games last season. In college, he played every position except center. As a backup with the Giants, he learned both positions. But to take over at left tackle for the entire season, Diehl had to work overtime.
Before going to training camp, he got together with Michael Jordan's old trainer, Tim Grover, who put Diehl through rigorous basketball and football drills. His body ached. At first, he wondered if he made the right move. It turns out that he did.
"I worked on my footwork and athleticism,'' Diehl said. "For other people, it was a summer of fun. For me, it was a summer of hard work. When I went to training camp, I was in the best shape of my life. There was no doubt that I'd go out there and prove people wrong.''
The Giants' line is an interesting mix of technicians and athletes. Right tackle Kareem McKenzie is more of a mauler at 6-foot-6 and 327 pounds. O'Hara is the ideal center to run the line. He's a tough, smart blocker who not only does his job but also sets up the rest of the line for the right assignments. Left guard Rich Seubert is a journeyman interior blocker who works well with Diehl on the left side.
But the star is right guard Chris Snee, a second-round choice from the 2004 draft.
"I think Snee is probably the biggest steal in [the 2004] draft,'' O'Hara said. "To get him in the second round was robbery. He should have been a first-rounder. I think he's the strong point in our offensive line. He basically is the heart and soul of our line. We all feed off him.''
Snee does it all. He's a good technician. He can maul the defender in front of him. He works well with all the combination blocks. And he's been on the doorstep of going to the Pro Bowl -- being an alternate the past three seasons.
"You'll be hard-pressed to find a weakness in his game,'' O'Hara said. "For his size and strength, he's certainly quick. He helps out in pass protection. He's a leader."
He's also the son-in-law of head coach Tom Coughlin, who has found a way to treat Snee like a player on the field, but be close to him as a relative off the field.
Overall, this is a good offensive line.
"I don't think we get into the whole rating thing, but we know that we have a good offensive line,'' Snee said. "We work hard. We take tremendous pride in what we do.''
"I think obviously they are pretty consistent,'' Seymour said. "The group has been together, and you can see how well they play together on film. They have little signals they give each other to get in the right spots. They are where they are supposed to be. Consistency comes over time. The more you are with someone, the more you know them.''
Being on the Super Bowl platform this year and poised to stay together for 2008, the Giants' line should start getting some honors next season.
John Clayton, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame writers' wing, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.