With a quarterback, people point to interceptions, yardage, touchdowns, completion percentages and offensive efficiency numbers. Running backs get touchdowns and yards, perhaps even some receiving yardage numbers if they're fancy. Receivers have their own set.
Hell, even on the defensive side sacks, tackles, interceptions, TFL and total defensive stats are how most folks try to explain whether or not Player D is doing their job.
Meanwhile, offensive linemen have no such metric by which to grade them.
Sure, you can count pancakes, a stat that speaks to some explosive power and ability to ride a guy into the ground. Some people look to sacks allowed and rushing yardage as a way to prove their case.
However, in all cases you're not actually getting a true look at when a player is doing things right or wrong. Knockdowns are great, but is he knocking down the right guy? Sacks allowed does not always speak to the blocking scheme or the specific attack for the game. Same goes for the rushing yardage, and both discount the quarterback or running back's role in those numbers.
For coaches and scouts, grading individual offensive lineman performance is huge. They have their own specific grading sheets that look for poor technique, missed assignments, effort and the like. When they watch film, they break down all of these aspects, give players a number for each, total them up and then arrive at the grade for game, practice or scrimmage.
But a casual fan is not going to do that. A casual fan doesn't know what the actual focus of the play is, or where the linemen are supposed to go. And that's okay, because a casual fan does not get paid to do any of the stop-play, frame-advance film-watching that scouts and coaches do.
So, if you're a fan who wants to know more about how well your offensive linemen are playing, what do you do?
Start with the basics. Know that a chop block, which is illegal, is not the same as the very legal cut block. Understand that zone blocking is not the same as drive blocking. A quick look around the internet will do plenty for you when it comes to acquiring base knowledge. The folks over at Shakin' The Southland have done a particularly great job of explaining offensive lineman techniques.
From there, as you watch your team, single out offensive linemen on plays and watch them. So much of football is spent watching the ball, following it around and missing all of the little things that make plays work. By singling out a player or side of the line on a given play, you can diagnose what's going on and what's going to happen next.
If your team is zone-blocking, watch to see how the players move, and move bodies.
Here you can see Oregon running zone to the right. The backside guard gets blown up at the point, getting no push at the line of scrimmage as the linebacker creates penetration. The center then suffers the same fate, as the defensive tackle turns his shoulders. Playside guard gets a good initial push, but then the linebacker sheds the blocker as he falls and is standing in the gap, with Fairley.
Thanks to the backside defensive end staying at home, not over-pursuing, there is no cutback for the running back and the play goes for nothing.
While everyone else is worried about the "Wildcat" look with Trey Burton in the shotgun, the real beauty of this play is the offensive line. They run a Power-O to the right where the right side of the line blocks down, the left guard pulls around and the fullback leads through the hole.
Simply put, it is beautiful, Burton doesn't have to do anything. That's a damn-near-perfectly blocked play. This is how you draw up the play in practice, and then when you get something that clean in a game, you know your team is doing the right thing. If you watch the left guard and see the space between his inside hip and the right tackle's outside hip, notice there isn't a Volunteer in sight. You'll know this play can go long before Burton hits the hole.
Plays like this are curious because obviously, no one wants to give up a sack. However, as you can see on the snap, the left tackle is looking inside for threats. He doesn't even see the linebacker as a threat to come off the left edge.
The center and the quarterback have to catch some blame here. As you watch the line play, it is a right-side protection. They identified the right as the threat side; it is also the play side, and that freed up the weak rushers. With the defensive end looping, the running back stepping up to take him and the left tackle sliding to the right to protect inside-out, there is no one for the linebacker. That's a sack.
While we're not in the huddle, based upon the steps, the looks and ultimately, the results, it's clear that a lack of communication created that sack.
This is the last quick look. It is another zone, this time by LSU. It is a well-blocked zone, as you see players reaching to second level, the center moving the nose out of the way and the running back with a hole to cut through as play flows to the right.
I will say, note the questionable-at-best, illegal-more-likely chop block that goes uncalled, as the fullback goes low on an engaged defender. That's illegal. That is not a cut, folks. That's a chop. Could have, and should have been a flag.
Offensive line is not an easy job. There are so many small things that have to go right for plays to work, and those all start with the five linemen up front. If you have a team that runs a lot of zone plays, which so many of the spread teams do, pay more attention to the line steps, getting to second level and pushing to create seams. If your team does more man-on-man and drive blocking, then watch how they handle their one-on-one battles with the opposition.
Watching the big boys up front is one of my favorite parts of the game. You win and lose in the trenches, and those guys can help make or break a program.
Take time out from watching the ball to look at the O-line, and they'll tell you so much more about why a play worked, or why it failed.