Nothing has been more constant in the NFL, particularly during the era of free agency, than lack of constancy. And over the past 12 seasons, a stretch defined by wholesale player movement and the salary cap, nowhere have the effects been more adversely profound than on the offensive line.
Consider this: Based on the best projections available, only two franchises (Cincinnati and San Diego) figure to have the same starting line in 2005, with all five players in the same positions, as they had for the majority of 2004. The projections also indicate there will be 63 new offensive line starters in '05 – either newcomers to teams or holdovers playing at new positions, an average just shy of two per franchise.
For an area of the game where success historically has been based on continuity, those are sobering numbers. They are, however, consistent with the trend of recent seasons. In the last six years, no more than three offensive lines have returned intact from one season to the next. And the average number of new line starters per team has held at between 1.85 and 2.2 in that period.
The result has been a dropoff in offensive line play. Another result: Standout offensive line coaches, assistants who can adapt to change and who have demonstrated a knack for being able to cobble together solid starting quintets even in a revolving-door situation, have lately become hot commodities.
There was a time when offensive line coaches were about as anonymous as their charges. That time, though, has passed. So when line coaches such as Hudson Houck become available, as he did this spring when his contract with the Chargers expired, they now have plenty of options.
"Let's just say," Miami Dolphins first-year coach Nick Saban said, "that I was going to do just about anything I had to do to get (Houck) here. It's a (coaching) position where I always felt it was critical to have a really top guy. And the way the league is now, with the faces on your line changing so much, it's more important than ever."
Saban won the recruiting war for Houck, 62, a 22-year league veteran whose past stops have included the Rams, Seahawks, Cowboys and Chargers. Coming off an '04 season in which the Miami line seemed in disarray every week, Saban had to have Houck, and he paid him one of the highest salaries in the league for a line coach (about $750,000-$800,000 annually) to get him.
That's the upside for the NFL's top offensive line mentors. As their profile finally has increased, so have their salaries. The line spot has, in the past five seasons, gone from one that was traditionally among the lowest-paid on a staff to one of the more lucrative ones. There is now an elite subset of offensive line coaches earning the level of salaries once reserved only for coordinators. But, again, those salaries reflect the importance of the task.
"You're basically saying to (your offensive line coach) every summer in camp, 'OK, let's see you put Humpty Dumpty back together again.' Because of all the turnover, the churning almost every year on your line, that's what it's become," Saints coach Jim Haslett said. "So you better have a guy who isn't going to bitch about having two new starters, who can keep things as simple as possible, and meld people together. Look at what some teams are willing to pay now for great (offensive line) coaches. The best ones, hell, yeah, they are worth every cent of it, given what you're asking them to do."
This season, with 63 projected offensive line changes in starting lineups, is typical of what has transpired because of free agency and the salary cap. The rate of offensive line attrition has increased exponentially. Linemen have been able to parlay free agency into big contracts. And since teams are so intent now on retaining their left tackles – the key spot on virtually every line, one that now receives "skill position" status and much larger salaries – they often fill in at other line spots with lesser players, some of whom change year to year.
Before free agency, and barring injuries, line units were more like fraternities. Quintets stayed together for a long time and teams stressed continuity. That kind of longevity now has gone the way of the flying wedge and the single wing formation now.
Case in point: The Green Bay offensive line, quietly one of the NFL's top units for the past five seasons, had remained intact over that stretch, except for injuries. This spring, though, the Packers lost starting guards Mike Wahle and Marco Rivera to free agency because they couldn't afford to keep them. The team rewarded left tackle Chad Clifton with a fat new contract two years ago and wants to be able to keep right tackle Mark Tauscher, too.
In the NFL now, the rule of thumb is that you pay the tackles and pray that you can develop guards, and so the Green Bay unit was rent asunder. So offensive line coach Larry Beightol, one of the league's best, will have to quickly identify the two best guards from among a group of four or five candidates, and assimilate the new starters into the lineup.
It's a job where, if he succeeds, few fans will even notice. If he fails, and Brett Favre is running for his life early in the season, Beightol will probably come under fire.
Of course, Beightol isn't the only offensive line coach facing such a task this summer.
Houck, who somehow transformed the San Diego line from dubious to dutiful in 2004, and did so while starting a pair of rookies, might face an even more daunting proposition with the Dolphins, who could have as many as three new starters. Houck has coached 11 linemen to a total of 43 Pro Bowl appearances, and put together lines that have blocked for six NFL rushing champions. But fashioning the Dolphins' assemblage into a workable unit is a formidable task.
If Pro Bowl center Jeremy Newberry can't play because of knee surgery, George Warhop and the 49ers may have just one holdover starter in the same spot as a season ago. Carolina line coach Mike Maser will undertake a second straight major reshuffling of his charges. Highly regarded Steelers line coach Russ Grimm will have an entirely new right side. Buffalo's Jim "Mouse" McNally, renowned for his ability to turn chicken feathers into chicken salad during a long and distinguished career, has to replace the left side of the Bills' line sufficiently enough to give first-year starting quarterback J.P. Losman a shot to succeed.
Around the league, there are similar stories. The latest lineup projections show that 10 teams in 2005 will have at least three new offensive line starters each. Only 10 teams are projected to have fewer than two changes from their 2004 lineups.
There are even clubs where just one move is so critical – like with the New York Jets, where second-year veteran Adrian Jones is the new man at right tackle, despite having started zero games as a rookie in '04 – that it will be closely scrutinized. And where a fairly anonymous assistant like offensive line coach Doug Marrone, the man charged with preparing Jones for a starting role, is suddenly under the microscope, too.
Like the men they coach, offensive line assistants were once anonymous grunts, but their new importance has increased their profile. Some of the best line coaches – such as Mike Solari (Kansas City), Dante Scarnecchia (New England) and Juan Castillo (Philadelphia) – remain somewhat unknown, but that is in part by choice. The wonderful Scarnecchia, for instance, approaches the limelight like Dracula embraces sunlight.
But the importance of the job, one head coach recently opined, has also raised the level of the craft. That the overall quality of offensive line play has diminished is more a function of the turnover at the position than it is the caliber of coaching.
"Even when I was in the college game, on the outside looking in, I thought there were some great (offensive line) coaches in the league," Saban said. "And I think if you are going to succeed, you'd better have one of them."
Around the league
• Minnesota running backs coach Dean Dalton said this week that, in some 100-meter races this summer, Vikings tailback and one-time Olympics sprint candidate Michael Bennett was clocked in 9.91 seconds. If that's true, the four-year veteran running back might finally be past the injuries that have plagued him the past two seasons and derailed his promising career for a while. Since earning a Pro Bowl berth in 2002, when he rushed for 1,296 yards on 255 carries, Bennett has logged only 160 attempts for 723 yards, while playing in just 19 games with 14 starts. At age 26, Bennett appears to be entering a key season and he needs to deliver, not only for the Vikings, but for himself. He is in the final season of his original rookie contract, signed as a first-round choice in 2001, and he has a base salary of $1.446 million. He could certainly feather his nest for the future with a big bounce-back season, one that might prompt new Vikings owner Zygmunt Wilf to keep him around, or which might earn Bennett considerable interest in the free agent market next spring. A big season for Bennett wouldn't hurt lame-duck coach Mike Tice, either, since he is working on a one-year deal, and with Wilf showing no inclination to sign him to an extension yet. Tice has vowed that Minnesota will get back to the power running game it flashed in 2003 but abandoned too easily at times last season. Bennett isn't exactly a pounder, but he is deceptively strong with his low-slung profile, and his speed makes him a long-ball threat. One shortcoming for the Vikings since Bennett's Pro Bowl season is they haven't had a back register at least 200 carries in a season. In 2003, Moe Williams led Minnesota, with just 174 attempts. Last season, Onterrio Smith's 124 rushes were the team high. Only one team in the league in 2004 (Oakland) had a leading rusher with fewer attempts. History has demonstrated that teams with a tailback-by-committee approach don't often go deep into the playoffs, which might be what the Vikings need to do for Tice to return in 2005. Even with Smith out for the full year, suspended for a repeat violation of the league's substance-abuse policy, the Vikings still have a deep stable of tailbacks. But they've really got only one proven thoroughbred, Bennett, and his return to health would be a boon for a Vikings team that harbors lofty aspirations for '05.
• To this point, Washington Redskins officials have been openly supportive of second-year free safety Sean Taylor, who faces two felony counts of aggravated assault with a firearm and a misdemeanor count of battery, and who will be arraigned on June 24. But here's something notable: Team personnel officials this week began checking out free safeties, making calls and doing research on players still in the free agent pool, those who might be cut before camp, and those who could be available in trades. Maybe it's just coincidence, perhaps a case of the Redskins simply interested in bolstering the position, or just conducting due diligence. Then again, Washington could be preparing for the possibility of not having Taylor available. It would be difficult for the Redskins to release Taylor, given the salary cap ramifications of such a move, but his contract does include default language that might allow the club to recoup some of his bonus money in the event he is convicted. By the way, the top safeties still available in free agency include Lance Schulters, Tony Dixon, Cory Bird, Reggie Tongue, Eric Brown and Anthony Floyd.
• Former Vikings offensive coordinator Scott Linehan, who now holds the same job in Miami, announced this week the Dolphins will go to training camp with the starting quarterback job still undecided. Maybe. But if last weekend's mini-camp was any indication, Gus Frerotte has a clear-cut advantage over the scattershot A.J. Feeley. The much-traveled Frerotte, who played in Linehan's offense for two seasons while with the Vikings, is obviously more comfortable. And while he wasn't particularly sharp in the mini-camp sessions we watched, Frerotte doesn't have to be, at least not to hold off Feeley. Fact is, No. 3 quarterback Sage Rosenfels looked better than Feeley, who really had some horrible stretches. You've got to hand it to the Philadelphia Eagles for being able to wrangle a second-round pick out of the Dolphins for Feeley in the spring of 2004. Of all the dubious personnel decisions made by former Miami general manager Rick Spielman – and there were plenty of them – surrendering a second-rounder for Feeley might have been the worst of all. Which probably helps explain why the prefix former precedes Spielman's name.
• One of the NFL's classiest players, quarterback Trent Dilfer has quickly gained the esteem of his new teammates in Cleveland, and it isn't hard to see why. Dilfer clearly is among the Browns' hardest-working players, sets a practice tone that commands respect and is the kind of high-character person you want your players to rally around. But if you think Browns players are fired up over Dilfer, their excitement can't compare to the passion re-stoked in the 11-year veteran quarterback. During a visit earlier this week, Dilfer said he had reached a certain comfort zone as the backup to Matt Hasselbeck in Seattle. He lost his starting job in 2002 when he tore his Achilles tendon. In 2003, Dilfer lost his 5-year-old son, Trevin, following a 40-day battle with heart disease. And there came a point, Dilfer said, when he lost the edge needed to compete for the starting spot. "I was working with good people, Matt is one of my closest friends, and the Achilles injury and loss of my son was just an incredible emotional drain," Dilfer said. "So, yeah, I was kind of content with my role. I didn't fight it." There came a time in 2004, though, when Dilfer suddenly longed for a role much broader than holding a clipboard. "It got to the point where Sundays just ripped my heart out," Dilfer said. "I was a disaster emotionally. I'd go over to Matt's house after the game to review things, and I'd just be so down, I'd end up apologizing to him for my mood." That's when Dilfer approached coach Mike Holmgren and asked, if any teams showed interest in him as a potential starter in the offseason, would Seattle consider trading him. Out of his funk, Dilfer wanted to be back in the starting lineup somewhere again, he said. And Holmgren, who told Dilfer he would consider a deal if a starting job opened up, kept his promise.
• The new football regime in Cleveland is off to an impressive start, but general manager Phil Savage and coach Romeo Crennel are smart enough to understand they've still got a lot of work ahead before the Browns are a respectable team. One area, though, where the Browns appear notably deep is at tailback. In part, that's because William Green, who at one point this offseason seemed to have a foot out the door as part of Savage's addition-by-subtraction approach, seems hell-bent on not becoming the franchise's latest first-round flop. The wonderfully gifted Lee Suggs, who could emerge as one of the NFL's most unique backs if he can stay healthy in his third season, will go to camp as the starter. Reuben Droughns, acquired in a trade with Denver after a breakout season in '04, is the No. 2 tailback. But Green, whose off-field problems are well-documented and who was granted permission to seek a trade earlier in the offseason, is making some noise as well. The Browns' first-round selection in 2002, and arguably the toughest inside runner on the roster, Green has been notably diligent in the formal offseason program. For now, at least, he has earned the right to go to camp and challenge for playing time. It's hard for a No. 3 tailback to get any kind of playing time in the NFL, and so Green might still be traded or released, but not until Savage and Crennel get an extended look at him during camp. Veteran players who have been around during Green's tenure with the Browns are adamant that he is a changed man.
• He won't stage a group workout until early July, but former Southern California defensive tackle Manuel Wright, by far the highest profile prospect in the supplemental draft on July 14, is getting increased interest. Wright visited with Eagles officials this week. The Dolphins, Packers and Bengals have indicated interest as well. One scout who asked that his club not be mentioned even suggested the tackle might have enough momentum now to catapult into the second round. That still seems like a reach – most personnel people have tabbed Wright as a third- or fourth-round prospect – but it only takes one team to panic and make a move on him earlier than anticipated. Given the number of teams interested, and the usual need for viable defensive tackle prospects, Wright's stock is clearly on the rise.
• Some franchises who aren't likely to invest a choice on Wright (any club that takes him must forfeit the corresponding selection in the regular 2006 draft) have begun to sort of rummage through the remnants of the free agent pool at the position. There are actually a few veteran tackles worthy of some research. Among them: Ellis Johnson, Travis Hall, Ed Jasper, Norman Hand and Kelvin Pritchett. All of them have warts, but again, tackle is such a difficult position to fill, that some of these guys could end up in training camps, trying to win, say, the No. 4 spot on a roster.
• Even as his league peers and the finance committee continue to closely eye-ball Tampa Bay owner Malcolm Glazer's purchase of controlling interest in Manchester United, there are hints other owners may someday move into the European soccer market. Clark Hunt, the son of Kansas City owner Lamar Hunt, and now with a higher profile in the operation of the Chiefs, suggested recently that his family is keeping close tabs on the Glazer situation. "We're seeing a globalization of sports, so it will be logical if you see some of our other owners buying into Europe," the younger Hunt told a British radio network. "As we move forward, it's something we will look at. There's definitely a chance. We will follow the story with interest – since we follow the sport in Europe – and we will keep our eyes on how things go over there." The Hunt family already owns three Major League Soccer franchises in the United States and many credit Lamar Hunt for keeping soccer afloat (to whatever degree) in this country.
• Punts: Rookie tailback J.J. Arrington, the nation's leading rusher in 2004 and the Arizona Cardinals' second-round pick, has been very impressive in workouts. When it comes to candor, you've got to hand it to Cards coach Dennis Green, who identified Arrington at the scouting combine as a back he loved. Green, who doesn't deal much in the kind of posturing that usually precedes the draft, wasn't blowing smoke. … There remains a chance, if none of the younger candidates at the position step up, Dallas coach Bill Parcells will move longtime left guard Larry Allen to right tackle, which was a major problem spot in 2004. … While it's somewhat surprising that Tampa Bay hasn't yet released veteran tackle Todd Steussie, the ax still figures to fall. Steussie was absent from the last two weeks of formal workouts and some say he was told by club officials not to attend. … The good news for the Jets is quarterback Chad Pennington, recovering from February surgery to repair a torn right rotator cuff, is throwing about 80 passes every other day. The bad news: Jets officials, who lied about the severity of the injury when it occurred, continue to camouflage news on their most important player. … Patriots coaches have been impressed by the ability of free agent linebacker Chad Brown to quickly pick up their mentally challenging defensive scheme. Brown's career had deteriorated the past three seasons in Seattle because of injuries. … Just a hunch, but bet on the Raiders and Jaguars to be among the first teams to get contract agreements with their first-round draft choices. … The Colts have already decided to move cornerback Joseph Jefferson to free safety for the first two games of the season to replace Mike Doss, who this week was suspended by the NFL for a gun-related incident last month.
• The last word: "The Jim Jones-type Kool-Aid that he is offering players, the essential ingredient in that Kool-Aid is that he can get them a new deal. Jim Jones Kool-Aid often leads to mass deaths and destruction. People that are drinking the Kool-Aid can expect the normal consequences to follow. (But) right now, the players are buying the stuff by the gallon." – former agent David Ware, who over the last year lost a half-dozen clients to Drew Rosenhaus, one of the NFL's highest-profile agents.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here.