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The offensive line is as important as ever in today's game -- so why is it so hard to build a good one?

By Judy Battista | Published Dec. 7, 2016

The 2010 season had just ended with a 6-10 record and Tony Romo's arm in a sling, the quarterback nursing a shattered clavicle. The Dallas Cowboys knew what they had to do.

The team historically had good offensive lines, populated by Pro Bowlers like Flozell Adams and Andre Gurode and Hall of Famer Larry Allen. But those players were aging out of the NFL -- if they weren't already gone -- and the Cowboys were paying a price with Romo's health. Determined to both keep the franchise quarterback upright and run the ball more efficiently to make life easier on him, the team's brain trust decided to invest in the offensive line.

With the ninth overall draft pick in 2011, the Cowboys made tackle Tyron Smith the first offensive lineman selected. Two years later, they grabbed center Travis Frederick in the first round, at No. 31 overall. A year after that, with Jerry Jones repeatedly pressing his draft room about the prospect of taking quarterback Johnny Manziel, the Cowboys held firm and selected guard Zack Martin at No. 16. There was a gasp in the green room at Radio City Music Hall that night, because the decision meant that Manziel, who seemed then to be the perfect fit for a team comfortable with glitz and headlines, would continue his plummet down the board.

It said something equally meaningful about the Cowboys.

America's Team had gone to the trenches.

Five years after Smith became the first cornerstone, the Cowboys are 11-1 and have the game's most highly touted offensive line.

The plan put in place in the spring of 2011 has worked almost to the letter, with one unanticipated wrinkle. That line is protecting rookie quarterback Dak Prescott, who took over when Romo suffered his latest injury in the preseason. Prescott has played with such poise -- undoubtedly benefitting from the amount of time he has to make decisions in the pocket -- that a healthy Romo is now the backup. And the line is opening gaping holes for the league's leading rusher, rookie Ezekiel Elliott.

"That line came together quick," said Stephen Jones, the Cowboys' chief operating officer and director of player personnel. "It's certainly the centerpiece of this team. It's been a journey. I know we're glad we took the leap of faith and went down that road of doing the thing that is not necessarily the sexy thing to do."

It's not an easy thing to do, either. The league is littered with threadbare offensive lines -- shredded by injury or incompetence -- even on contending teams. The Panthers and Broncos, last year's Super Bowl teams, have two of the worst offensive lines in the league. The Vikings, who used five different starting-line combinations in their first nine games, are 6-6. Research created a system for ranking the league's offensive lines in four telling categories: rushing yards before contact per attempt, rushing yards per carry, quarterback hits allowed and sacks per pass play. By adding together their league-wide rankings in each category, it is easy to determine which are the best and worst. After the Week 13 games, with one month to go in the regular season, the rankings are no surprise.

The five best offensive lines are in Tennessee, Dallas, Pittsburgh, Green Bay and Oakland -- all teams in the thick of playoff races, with all but Green Bay leading or tied for the best record in their divisions. And the five lowest-ranked lines are in Indianapolis, Tampa Bay, Denver, Los Angeles and Minnesota. Indianapolis and Tampa Bay are tied for the best records in their divisions. The rest trail.

The takeaway: There are precious few offensive lines so good they can push a team to the playoffs, and there are many more that are so middling, their organizations must work around them to avoid being shoved backward in the standings.

That is ironic, because with scoring approaching its all-time high, the premium on having a solid offensive line should be similarly soaring. Back in 2009, Eric DeCosta, now the Ravens' assistant general manager, said that when the Giants used a ferocious pass rush to upset the undefeated Patriots in Super Bowl XLII, it served as a wake-up call for the league -- a reminder that teams, even ones as explosive as that Patriots group was, have no chance to win if they can't protect the quarterback. (The Ravens took tackle Ronnie Stanley with the sixth overall pick this year.) But players, coaches and general managers point to a confluence of factors that they believe has made unearthing -- and then developing -- NFL offensive linemen more difficult than it has ever been, with the erratic results on Sundays to prove it.

"Do I believe it's any worse? Yeah," said LeCharles Bentley, a former guard and center for the New Orleans Saints who now trains college and NFL linemen at his Arizona-based O-Line Performance center. "Yes, frankly, the level of play in certain pockets has decreased, but the caveat to that is the demands of the schemes of what you're asking players to do is a bit more complex than it ever has been, as well. What we're asking players to do from a physical and, even more so, a mental standpoint ... It's a challenge."

After conversations with 20 players, coaches and general managers starting in training camp and stretching through the season, several common hurdles -- from when teams first start scouting college players to when those players become high-priced veterans and are sent packing -- emerged as the ones that might most be impeding offensive lines. Not even the game's most precious resource provides a sure safety net for teams trying for an upgrade. In a period spanning six drafts, the Rams used two No. 2 overall draft picks (in 2009 and 2014) on offensive tackles and still have one of the worst offensive lines in the league. Jason Smith ('09) lasted just three years with the Rams and is now out of the league entirely. Greg Robinson ('14) has been called for 22 enforced penalties in the last two years, the most of any offensive player during that span. He was a healthy scratch in Week 12, then returned in Week 13 -- and, yes, incurred a holding penalty that backed the Rams up from the doorstep of the red zone on one of their longest drives of the day.

When Hudson Houck, the Cowboys' former offensive line coach, was scouting the available tackles for the 2011 NFL Draft -- Nate Solder and Anthony Castonzo were available that year, in addition to Smith -- he leaned heavily on his contacts at the University of Southern California, where both he and Smith had played, for inside information. Houck believes the physical attributes of a lineman are not as important as the mental (although he raved about the advantages of Smith's 36-inch arm reach).

Is the player smart enough? Can he learn? What kind of attitude does he have? Is he a team player, and how much passion does he have for football?

The offensive line is a team within the team, making those qualities especially important.

One NFL team's offensive line coach, who asked that his name not be used because he did not want to be thought to be criticizing football, believes there is a fundamental shortfall of offensive linemen because bigger, athletic young men are drifting toward basketball instead. The coach thinks this is due to the fact that basketball is easier and cheaper to play than football.

"It's hard to find an Orlando Pace, a Joe Thomas, an Alex Mack, go right down the list," the coach said. "It's becoming less and less that high-end, spectacular guy."

Those who are playing, though, are ever more likely to be in a spread offense in college, which makes evaluating them for the NFL more difficult and places an emphasis on the ability to learn. When the spread's hold on colleges was first being felt, O-line coaches like Cincinnati's Paul Alexander would watch only goal-line plays of college linemen, because it was the only time they run-blocked. College tackles rarely have a hand in the ground, and they are not used to a quarterback taking anything more than a very short, quick drop.

"Colleges have to do what they have to do to win games," Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said. "It is more of a projection. You have to look at them in a different vein. If kids are coming from a spread offense, they have to learn to play from a three-point stance. If they have the raw athleticism, they'll get it, but it will take a little longer."

Said Willie Colon, a former offensive lineman for the Steelers and Jets: "I've watched guys come in with the footwork of a high schooler. I went to Hofstra. I played spread and stood up, and when I got to Pittsburgh, it was such a transition, putting my hand in the dirt, keeping my head up. I had Russ Grimm, one of the original 'Hogs.' (The Hall of Fame lineman was the Steelers' offensive-line coach in 2006, Colon's rookie year.) He cracked me up and stitched me together again."

The lack of bountiful college tape also has placed a premium on the individual workouts that teams put players through before the draft. Mike Munchak, the Hall of Fame lineman who currently coaches the position for the Steelers, said it can sometimes be refreshing to get college players who don't already have bad habits, but he admits it makes him nervous to have so little evidence at hand when trying to decide among several prospects. Bentley works to ready some of those players, for workouts and then for their first training camps. In some cases, Bentley is teaching the rudiments of the position.

"You're starting from ground zero," Bentley said. "You're teaching how to get into a proper stance. Then you get into the nuances of how to move your body. There is so much ground to cover, it's almost impossible to get a player up to speed by the time they get to training camp. It hasn't become innate yet. Players have a high tendency to go native once they get backed into a high-energy environment. You have to go, 'No, no, Johnny -- you can't do that.' By the time you're done talking about the technical aspect, players are thrown a playbook."

The learning curve is steep even for the top prospects. David DeCastro was an All-American guard from Stanford when the Steelers took him in the first round in 2012. He is a Pro Bowler now, but he said it took him at least a year, maybe two, before he understood how to use a defensive lineman's techniques to his own advantage.

"It's a whole different game," DeCastro said. "Whether it's your hands, in college, you get away with mauling people. In the NFL, you can't do that. There is a lot more technique to it."

And there is a lot less practice time to teach it. When the current collective bargaining agreement was completed five years ago, it included significant reductions in both in-season and out-of-season practices, in an attempt to reduce injuries and improve player safety. Gone are old-fashioned two-a-days during training camp and most contact during regular-season game preparation. Ask a general manager about O-line play and he points to ill-prepared college players. Ask a coach, though, and he says that practice-time restrictions impact the offensive line more than any other position -- not just the starters, but the backups.

"It's hard to teach or develop the offensive line without contact," Munchak said. "They, unlike any other player, will have contact on every snap. That's one reason why we choose to have physical camp, because there is no way to mimic it. When it is legal, we try to maximize those opportunities. Back in the past, when I played or when I started coaching, you had guys I could work with in April, May, June, then you have two-a-days. Those guys got a lot of reps. Their development was way ahead of where it is today."

Munchak said it is particularly problematic for young players further down the depth chart, who get precious few practice repetitions, making the drop-off all the more glaring if more than one or two starters gets hurt. According to Munchak, in a typical training-camp practice, the starters get 25 to 30 repetitions in live 11-on-11 settings. The second team gets 18 to 20. The youngest players get 10 to 12. He does not want veterans to have to practice more, but he wonders if having a second practice for younger players in camp would be helpful, to get them more work so that the drop-off is not as steep.

"You get two or three injuries, you can't find guys," Munchak said. "Offensive line, they're the ones that get punished more than anybody by the rule changes."

Ali Marpet, the Bucs' second-year guard who came from Division III Hobart, said his head spun from the volume of information thrown at him when he arrived. He needed work on run-blocking, on keeping his balance. Still, he does not think more full-contact practice is necessary.

"You need to learn to practice without the thud," he said. "If you're banging heads every practice every day, it's going to slow you down by the end of the season."

Alexander, in Cincinnati, does not yearn for the old days, either. He recalls them -- the two-a-days, in full pads, every day until training camp ended. He also recalls that when he worked for the Jets, they played a game against the Eagles when Buddy Ryan was the coach and Philly had a full padded practice the morning of the game. He doesn't know if more players got hurt then than now, but he also believes enough teaching can be done in the classroom to make up for it.

"We have so many OTA practices and offseason programs that if you can't get it taught in all those practices, something's wrong," Alexander said. "I think you have gone through it in the classroom, you've walked through it, things are done right more often. There is more value in doing something right."

Still, Stephen Jones, who sits on the Competition Committee, concedes limited practice time presents a challenge. And he said changing the practice restrictions is something the committee will debate.

"Obviously, it is very sensitive with the players," Jones said. "There are probably some things you can do to make it better. Players have to be trusting coaches aren't going to abuse it. There is probably a middle ground that could be good. There's no question teams and coaches wish they had more time with the players, it's just a matter that coaches aren't going to take it too far. Ninety percent of people do it right. Then you have some outliers that abuse it and then you have a problem on your hands. That's what we have to figure out: How do we prevent abuse of overworking players but at the same time getting work in to develop these young players?"

That is a possible solution to one of the concerns with the offensive line. But there is another issue -- the lack of continuity on lines -- that seems more intractable in today's game. For no other unit in football is cohesion as important, with each player on a line having to know what the others are doing for the blocking to be successful. It is a key reason why coaches argue that they need more practice time with the offensive line and it is a reason why it is difficult for newly-arrived linemen to play the next week.

The Cowboys already have moved to keep the nucleus of their line intact, signing Smith and Frederick to long-term extensions. Jones hopes to get Martin done soon, too, and the fact that Prescott and Elliott are locked into cheap rookie contracts should help clear money for Martin.

"There are just not as many veteran offensive linemen in the NFL anymore," said Geoff Schwartz, a tackle who played seven seasons and was released just before the 2016 season began by the Detroit Lions, who drafted three linemen this year. "You're either getting paid a lot of money or you're on a rookie contract; there's not a lot in between. Obviously, when there were more veterans, the lines were better."

Said Houck: "You look at some lines, they were together five, six, seven years. That's not the case anymore. That may be the biggest factor."

Maybe so, but free agency, like the popularity of the college spread and practice limitations, is unlikely to change enough to suit NFL wish lists. There is at least one offensive line coach who shrugs off all the angst. Dante Scarnecchia coached the Patriots' offensive line from 1999 until his retirement after the 2013 campaign. Scarnecchia, though, continued to work with the team, holding private workouts with two offensive linemen the team eventually drafted: Bryan Stork and Cameron Fleming. He returned this season as the coach, after the Patriots' offensive line, weakened by repeated injuries and the lack of development of young players, struggled to protect Tom Brady.

In training camp, Scarnecchia stressed the importance of trying to keep the starting offensive line intact -- and for the most part, he has been successful. Each player in the starting group of Nate Solder, Joe Thuney, David Andrews, Shaq Mason and Marcus Cannon has played at least 88 percent of the offensive snaps this season, a marked change from last season, when the Patriots used 13 different starting lineups.

But Scarnecchia has little time for the other issues that may plague linemen. He points to the 41 offensive linemen who were drafted last spring as evidence that NFL teams remain very interested in what colleges are producing. Scarnecchia is a detail-oriented, technique-driven coach, so he feels strongly that if players are teachable, he has a chance to succeed with them.

"I'll just give you this: Years ago, everybody was running the wishbone and everybody was wringing their hands, 'Aw, these guys don't know how to pass-block.' " Scarnecchia said. "Now, you see plenty of instances by all these spread teams of them running the ball. You can see whether a guy will be physical. If you don't see that, then you don't draft the guy. I think we would all like more practice time, but, you know, this is a different world we're in right now. If you spend too much time thinking about that, you'll wish you were doing something else."

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.

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