Return to Relevance: The Offensive Line

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Updated: June 27, 2013
NFL: New York Jets at Buffalo Bills

Definition of RELEVANCE:

1.  relation to the matter at hand

2.  practical and especially social applicability : pertinence <giving relevance to college courses>

Let me use this in a sentence you may be familiar with: The Buffalo Bills lack relevance in the current landscape of the National Football League.

How long has it been since the Bills have been relevant? One could argue the last relevant moment in Bills football came on November 6, 2011, when the home team’s “white-out” flamed out and ignited a seven game losing streak that silenced any buzz surrounding an upstart team with visions of January dancing through their heads. Perhaps relevance last reared its head at the Ralph on January 2, 2005, when we all learned just who James Harrison was as the Steelers’ assured a roller-coaster season would end as-scheduled in Week 17.

Associating the word “relevance” with these points in time, however, would be the equivalent of hiring Dick Jauron all over again. It would lean on a loser’s mentality that has plagued this franchise from re-tread coach to tired scheme to draft bust to, well, irrelevance.

Let’s be real; we all know when relevance left town. It boarded the flight to Tennessee for a Wild Card contest on January 8, 2000, when Frank Wychek threw a picture-perfect forward lateral to Kevin Dyson, and 75 yards later, tens of thousands of drinking problems were born in Western New York. It’s almost funny when you consider that, if properly-registered as a forward pass, Wychek would have surpassed Steve McNair’s touchdown total on the day and only thrown for one fewer yard. Ahh, reminiscing is fun, isn’t it?

Have you stopped shaking? Great. Let’s just agree for the sake of this discussion that relevance in the NFL is defined as reaching the postseason. So after a 13–year hiatus, how do we get back to the morning of January 8, 2000 when the world was in front of us and “relevance,” that elusive mistress, was ours? Using the 1999 Buffalo Bills roster as a benchmark, let’s go unit-by-unit to see where the 2013 incarnation stacks up and how they can climb the mountain that is modern day football. First up: offensive line.

Predominant 1999 starting offensive line:

Left Tackle: John Fina (16 Games Started)

Left Guard: Ruben Brown (14 GS, Pro Bowler, Associated Press 2nd Team All-NFL)

Center: Jerry Ostroski (15 GS)

Right Guard: Dusty Ziegler (15 GS)

Right Tackle: Robert Hicks (14 GS)

Primary reserve 1999 offensive line (played in at least 10 games):

Ethan Albright (G,T,C-16 games played)

Jamie Nails (G-16 GP)

Marcus Spriggs (T-11 GP)

What jumps out about this unit:

More so than potentially any other unit on the field, consistency is key for the offensive line. Seeing the starting lineup remain largely intact game-by-game is terrific, but the fact that two other lineman played the full slate with such a sharp drop-off to Spriggs at 11 appearances and no one else in double digits shows not only remarkable skill, but immense luck in terms of the unit’s health. As we’ve seen with the rotating cast of characters that have graced the front line in recent years at the expense of stalwarts like Eric Wood, health and continuity can be as important and difficult to amass as skill.

Part of that health can be attributed to youth with Fina, seven seasons into his career, as the elder statesman and the starters as a whole having averaged only four years as pros. This is important because, with the exception of Ostroski, the unit was drafted by the Bills and even Ostroski never played a game outside of Buffalo. This means that all five were identified and developed in-house, a sign of the front office aptitude devoid in recent years.

And oh yeah – Ruben Brown. Good lord, Ruben Brown.

Performance and Ranks

Points per game: 20 (16th)

Offensive yards per game: 5,333 (11)

Passing ypg: 205.8 (19th)

Rushing ypg: 127.5 (8th)

Leading passer: Doug Flutie (15 games, 3,171 yards, 19 TD, 26 sack)

Leading rushers: Jonathan Linton (16 GP, 695yds/205 att, 5 TD, 3.4 YPC)

Antowain Smith (14 GP, 614 yds/165 att, 6 TD, 3.7 YPC)

Leading receiver: Eric Moulds (14 GP/14 GS, 994 yds, 65 rec, 7 TD)

I know, I know; advanced metrics would be really helpful here, but those numbers weren’t as widely tracked in the Stone Age 90’s. Even still, I think we have a pretty good grasp on the offensive line’s impact on the offense as a whole.

A slightly-below average passing attack meets a top ten rushing attack and you’re left with a perfectly-middling offense. Flutie’s athletic ability surely let the line off the hook on numerous occasions, but his desire to extend plays would inevitably lead to takedowns that should have been harmless incompletions.

The rushing numbers are made less impressive when you consider that the Bills ran the ball the second most times in the league. With Thurman Thomas limping (and sitting) his way to the finish line of a storied career, the team asked Jonanthan Linton to carry the rock nearly 2.5 more times than the other two years of his career combined. He was complimented by Antowain Smith, who was coming off a staggering sophomore campaign that would not be replicated until he ran due east to Foxboro three years later.

For all of the individual greatness on the 1999 offensive line, this was a team that made its living on the defensive side of the ball. The offensive line accomplished the most basic yet critical task in football: they put their team in a position to win.

 

Predominant 2012 starting offensive line:

Left Tackle: Cordy Glenn (13 GS)

Left Guard: Andy Levitre (16 GS)

Center: Eric Wood (14 GS)

Right Guard: Kraig Urbik (13 GS)

Right Tackle: Chris Hairston (12 GS)

Primary reserve 2012 offensive line (played in at least 10 games):

Sam Young (T-12 GP, 4 GS)

What jumps out about this unit:

For starters, when only one player from the main unit starts the full slate, having only one reserve with double-digit appearances does not bode well. Injuries pressed Hairston into service, with Erik Pears, Young, Chad Rinehart, David Snow and Colin Brown all making cameos with the top squad.

This is an even younger group than the ’99 incarnation, but that’s not a compliment. The 2012 offensive line, while anchored by top tier talents in Wood and Levitre, was an inexperienced group that really never stood a chance, even before the injury bug turned the locker room into a scene from The Walking Dead.

Performance and ranks:

Points per game: 21.5 (21st)

Offensive yards per game: 5,486 (19th)

Passing ypg: 204.3 (25th)

Rushing ypg: 138.6 (6th)

Leading passer: Ryan Fitzpatrick (16 GP, 3,400 yards, 24 TD, 30 sack)

Leading rusher: CJ Spiller (16 GP, 1,244 yds/207 att, 6 TD, 6.0 YPC)

Leading receiver: Stevie Johnson (16 GP, 1046 yds, 79 rec, 6 TD)

Remember all those doom and gloom comments I made about the line a few ticks up the page? Shows what I know! Football Outsiders ranked the Bills unit as the 8th best in run blocking and 10th in pass blocking (that sound you just heard was Buddy Nix throwing darts at his Fitzy-themed dart board). Second-level and open field rushing figures are probably inflated by CJ’s brilliance, but its tough to argue that the Bills o-line didn’t hold up their end of the bargain in 2012, especially when saddled with such a lack of talent behind them (and on the sideline).

The state of the union:

As with every unit on the team, turnover will be key. Gone is Andy Levitre, who signed a contract worth roughly the Gross National Product of Switzlerand for the privilege of ducking underthrown Fitzy screen passes in Tennessee once Jake Locker inevitably gets hurt. He will be sorely missed both in his performance and consistency. The race to replace Levitre appears to mainly involve Colin Brown and former Steelers offensive lineman Doug Legursky. The key to projecting roles across the squad is that the coaching staff and front office have virtually no allegiance to the players in the locker room. With a new head coach, offensive coordinator, and a general manager who did not play the direct role (at least publicly) in picking this year’s draft class, players will have to earn their jobs on their own merits. This is true at almost every position, with left guard being the most glaring exception.

Whaley held a front office role with the Steelers in 2009 when they brought in Legursky. Between his familiarity with Whaley, who DID play a direct role in bringing him to Buffalo, and his higher level of experience relative to several players in competition for the spot, I feel comfortable in saying that he has the inside track to starting Week 1. By that same token, don’t rule out Syracuse rookie Zack Chibane from making a run at significant playing time, as he is among the small group of players with an established relationship with Marrone and Hackett, as well as hands-on knowledge of their offensive concepts.

When we compare the 2013 offensive line to the 1999 squad, the biggest question mark is the left side of the unit. Cordy Glenn will be asked to take a significant step forward in his second year as a pro, and obviously whoever steps in at guard will have big shoes to fill in Levitre’s absence. What we can see from the 1999 unit is that a strong left side can do wonders to calm and contain an inexperienced line. I’m inclined to think the 2013 pairing cannot live up to the Fina/Brown benchmark, but can continue the success they enjoyed when healthy last year.

That being said, for all of his offensive chops, Doug Marrone is an offensive lineman by trade and by style. By now, we’ve all seen the pictures of him lining up under center and getting his hands dirty with the players. He guided the Syracuse offense through injuries to his star left tackle Justin Pugh (a first round pick by the New Jersey Giants), and he will certainly get the most out of the talent at his disposal.

The 2013 offensive line may not match their 1999 counterparts in individual talent, but they have the perfect coach to build continuity, a two-headed running attack that puts the Linton-Smith combination to shame, and a surprisingly-successful track record to build off. The bottom line is that the 1999 offensive line purely put their team in a position to win, relying on the prowess of other units to carry them over the hump to victory. Can we say that about the 2013 offensive line? I believe that we can.