Commentary

Are O-lines catching too much heat?

As teams rely more on the pass, linemen face an increasingly difficult challenge

Originally Published: October 4, 2011
By Ross Tucker | ESPN.com

It's not their fault. Or at least not entirely. That is the only logical explanation that can be drawn about the quality of offensive line play at the quarter pole of the NFL season.

Before you assume that this is a column written by a former offensive lineman attempting to absolve his trench brethren of their inadequacies, consider the facts. If close to 75 percent of the fans in the NFL think their teams' offensive line stinks, maybe the problem isn't actually the offensive line but rather what they are being asked to do?

At a minimum, fans and media alike need to look at the number of teams unhappy with offensive line play and realize that maybe this is the new normal. If that is the standard of performance for more than half of the teams in the league, then that is, by definition, the average.

The fans in Chicago, Philadelphia, Dallas and Pittsburgh loathe their teams' offensive lines. Heck, even the media covering the Falcons, Lions and Jets have been quick to point out the subpar performances of those units so far this season. Those are all teams considered to be pretty good. Don't even get me started with some of the league's lightweights.

Although I acknowledge that this is not exactly the golden era of offensive line play, I think there are some factors that explain why it seems as if there is such a shortage of good offensive linemen. What they are being asked to do is increasingly difficult. The hardest task for most offensive linemen is blocking one-on-one in an obvious passing situation. I know it was for me.

The league has become increasingly pass-happy, and that means more pass-blocking than ever before. That is a problem. It's especially true when you consider that not only are defensive blitz schemes increasingly complex, teams are putting a tremendous focus on having four accomplished pass-rushers out there in every passing situation and often rotating players to keep them fresh. That much passing against good pass-rushers is a problem. Yes, college teams throw the ball all the time, but most college defenses have one or maybe two legitimate pass-rushers. In the NFL, a player isn't on the field in those situations if he can't rush.

I know from experience how tough it can be to pass protect that many times. I lost the starting offensive guard spot with the Washington Redskins in 2002 mainly because, under head coach Steve Spurrier, we threw the ball a ton. Too much, in fact -- especially for me. I was unable to hold up effectively and got exposed on two separate occasions, which eventually led not only to my losing the starting job but getting released. I went on to start and play fairly well for the Dallas Cowboys and Buffalo Bills, mainly because those teams were more balanced than were the Spurrier-led Skins.

I think that is what is going on in the NFL now. Teams are throwing it so much that they are asking their lines to pass protect all game long, and that is not easy. Isn't funny how much better the Bears' line looked on Sunday when Chicago smashed the Panthers and Matt Forte rushed for more than 200 yards?

Think about the Packers, Patriots, Chargers and Saints, which all have lines that are considered stellar. Yes, those teams throw the ball a bunch, but each has an accomplished quarterback who gets the ball out of his hands quickly. Nobody complained all that much about the Colts' offensive line until Peyton Manning got hurt and now all of a sudden it's a major problem. Coincidence? Of course not.

You can keep bashing your team's offensive line if you want, but that's just lazy. You're better than that. Ask the offensive coordinator to change it up and either run the ball a little more or go to a quicker passing game. Otherwise, the offensive line probably will look bad. Most of them do these days.

From the inbox

Q. Do NFL players take stimulants, energy drinks or other approved artificial energy boosts before games? Seems like players play with an extraordinarily high level of energy every week. What do guys do to get fired up and game-ready? Does use of those types of things change as the season wears on?

Trevor from Minneapolis

A. Yeah, there are some players that take those sort of things, while others just drink old-fashioned coffee. In fact, some of the stuff that guys took when I was a rookie in 2001 were later outlawed. I would still guess, however, that more than 50 percent of the guys don't take anything. The excitement of playing in front of so many people and the fear of getting embarrassed or physically dominated -- or both -- is usually enough to get your adrenaline going for 16 Sundays. I know it did for me.

Q. Can you explain where a player's check comes from and how the NFLPA dues are paid? Do teams pay players directly, or through the NFLPA?

Adam from Wilmington, N.C.

A. Checks come directly from the team and are either weekly or bi-weekly depending on the team. Most but not all offer direct deposit. The NFLPA dues are automatically deducted from each paycheck on a pro-rated basis.

Q. With regards to the no-huddle trend, could college football actually be ahead of the curve in innovative offenses? It seems like we see these new trends (Wildcat, no-huddle spread) in college years before we see them in the pros.

Jon from Wyomissing, Pa.

A. Absolutely. For years the NFL would start the trends both offensively and defensively and then it would eventually trickle down to the college level. It is now the opposite. Seems like the colleges are more creative and innovative, and the NFL teams seem to take more and more from some of the college systems every year.

Ross Tucker, who played on the offensive line for five teams in a seven-year NFL career, writes regularly for ESPN.com.

Ross Tucker, who played on the offensive line for five teams during his seven-year NFL career, writes regularly for ESPN.com. Tucker, who also hosts ESPN.com's Football Today podcast, graduated from Princeton.