Years ago former NFL head coach John Madden was asked if he had one player to draft to build his team around, who would it be?
Everyone expected him to take the top quarterback of the day, such as Terry Bradshaw or Roger Staubach. Instead he replied, “John Hannah,” the Patriots Hall of Fame offensive guard.
Madden explained, “What good is having a star quarterback if you can’t protect him and he’s running for his life?”
Madden could have been talking about the 2013 NFL season.
Where have all the offensive lines gone? It’s been a season of injuries around the league, littered with downed QBs and star players. The common thread, it seems, is how offensive line injuries have rippled out to influence other areas of the team.
The Dallas Cowboys are the front runners in the bumbling NFC East, unable to run away with it largely because of O-line injuries. Starting right guard Brian Waters will miss the remainder of the season because of a triceps injury, a key blow to a rebuilding offensive line that has had so many problems the last two-plus years.
Coach Jason Garrett told everyone in preseason the Cowboys would be striving for offensive balance this season. But for the second consecutive season, the Cowboys are throwing the ball roughly 66 percent of the time. A poorly functioning ground attack combined with O-line problems has contributed to a skewed run-pass ratio.
In the same NFC East the Giants have been huge flops. QB Eli Manning has more picks than TDs because the offensive line can’t open any holes for an anemic ground game. They struggled as a unit in September and then last month NY Giants offensive lineman Chris Snee, a four-time Pro Bowl guard, needed season-ending hip surgery.
This is an organization that hasn’t used a first-round pick on an offensive lineman in over a decade and may be paying the price for overlooking such an important (and often overlooked) area.
The Steelers train-wreck can be directly traced to injuries, particularly to an offensive line that has been atrocious. Ben Roethlisberger was sacked 31 times in the first eight games as he had to pass constantly with no ground game to help him out.
The guys in the trenches don’t always get the accolades, but they should. What good is a star QB if he’s getting sacked four times per game? What good is a star running back if the offensive linemen are blocking while wearing roller skates? And what good is a star wideout if the QB doesn’t have time to wait for him to get open?
Take a look at some home/road breakdowns in the NFL. The Saints are comfortable at home with their speed-oriented passing attack geared for their indoor track, starting 4-0, but they were a .500 road team at the halfway mark.
The most recent was getting pushed around by the Jekyll-and-Hyde Jets in the Meadowlands. New Orleans would love to have the same kind of home field edge they used in the 2009 playoffs on the way to the Super Bowl. This year’s Super Bowl will be outdoors on the same field the Jets smacked them around – and it will be a lot colder in February.
The Cowboys have been great at home and terrible on the road, while another pair of NFC East hopefuls – the Packers and Lions – played their worst football away. Examining the NFC West, the 49ers and Seahawks have actually been very strong on the road. Does the NFC championship game go through San Francisco or Seattle?
In the AFC, the Bengals have been the team with loads of talent, but a strange home/road breakdown. They are great at home beating everybody, but very different on the road losing at the Bears, Browns and Dolphins. Even road victories at Detroit and Buffalo were dogfights decided by 3 points, one in overtime.
The Colts and Chiefs are the two AFC teams that have been most impressive on the road. Both are committed to balanced offenses that like to run, but only Kansas City has powerhouse defensive numbers. In the second half of the season the Chiefs play division rivals San Diego and Denver twice, plus the Colts, as well as playing three of their final four games away.
Jim Feist, author and leader in sports information for over 40 years, hosts TV’s Proline as well as running National Sports Services since 1975. Follow him on twitter: @JimFeistSports . Reach him at [email protected]