There is no shortage of candidates for the title of the NFL’s worst starter. Just like no one can agree who is the best player in the NFL, few can agree who is the worst. Many of the worst starters from last year will not be starters next season, so the worst of the worst don’t even qualify as starters going into 2013.
For the purposes of determining the worst starter, several factors should be considered. Some players are just really bad at one thing but do other things well. Positions are also not created equal—some players have it easier than others.
After careful consideration, the worst starter in the NFL is right tackle Tyler Polumbus. Right tackle isn’t anywhere near the hardest position to play on a football field, even if the team uses the zone-blocking scheme like the Washington Redskins. Polumbus is also equally poor against the run and the pass.
It would have been easy to choose a quarterback as the NFL’s worst starter, but it is the toughest position to play. New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez is an easy target, but his job is significantly more difficult than a right tackle.
Despite Polumbus’ struggles, the Redskins gave him a two-year contract, but he’ll have competition for the job this year from veteran offensive linemen Jeremy Trueblood and Tony Pashos.
Polumbus won the starting job last year only after competing for it during training camp, but he was cut twice and started just 19 games over the first five years of his career.
The idea behind the zone-blocking scheme is that a team can have an effective running game even with smaller, more agile offensive linemen who are less physically dominating. It would seem that the Redskins proved that once again in 2013 when running back Alfred Morris rushed for 1,613 yards.
One major misconception is that offensive linemen who play in a zone-blocking scheme don’t need to be good blockers—that couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, offensive linemen who play in a zone-blocking scheme need to be better blockers in some ways.
Just because Morris was a very successful running back doesn’t mean Polumbus was a good run blocker.
In a man-blocking scheme, the production of a single offensive line can be more directly tied to the production of the running back, but you have to look at the running back and the rest of the offensive line in a zone scheme.
It was apparent from the start of the season that Polumbus was going to struggle as a run blocker. In Week 1, New Orleans Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan had a career day against Polumbus with 11 tackles. The Saints defense was so bad it set a record for yards allowed in 2012.
A big part of the problem for Morris against the Saints was on rushes to the right side.. According to ProFootballFocus (subscription required), Morris rushed the ball eight times for 17 yards off guard, off tackle or off right end.
Morris’ most successful run to the right against the Saints was actually a great example of how terrible Polumbus is as a run blocker. The play is designed to go to the right from the very start, so Polumbus' importance to the success of the play is clear.
Polumbus is immediately jacked back by Cameron two yards. Morris has to adjust the angle of his run to try to get outside or he’s going to run into Polumbus’ back side.
This happens because Polumbus allows Cameron to get his hands into his body and he gets upright in his stance, losing all of his leverage.
Polumbus is completely upright, turned outside and his right hand isn’t even engaged with Cameron. At this point in the play, Polumbus has lost any chance he has to make a block on this play, and his only hope is that Morris can make something out of nothing.
You may notice that right guard Chris Chester, who was also jacked back at the start of the play, was able to re-anchor and engage the defender to give his running back a chance.
Cameron gives Polumbus a shove and goes after Morris; Polumbus actually staggers several steps backward and almost falls down on the play. Lucky for Polumbus, Morris is able to escape the grasp of Jordan and gain five yards to the outside.
It’s probably not a coincidence that the Redskins ran a lot of their zone-read plays primarily off the right side. On a zone-read play, Griffin is going to be reading the defensive end or outside linebacker Polumbus would normally be responsible for blocking.
It should come as no surprise that ProFootballFocus also graded Polumbus as the worst run-blocking right tackle in the NFL last year. Polumbus was given a positive run-blocking grade in only three regular-season games last season.
Not many offensive tackles who were as terrible of a pass-blocker as Polumbus have any chance of starting in 2013. Of the three offensive tackles that ProFootballFocus gave a worse grade, only Gabe Carimi has any chance to start, and that’s probably only because he was traded to a team that has his college offensive line coach.
According to ProFootballFocus (subscription required), the only player who played 50 percent of his team’s snaps and combined for more sacks, hits and hurries per snap last year than Polumbus was D’Anthony Batiste of the Arizona Cardinals, and he’s currently a free agent.
In Week 15 against the Cleveland Browns, Polumbus had one of his better days pass blocking, but he still managed to look terrible before leaving the game with an injury. With Kirk Cousins starting for the injured Robert Griffin III at quarterback, it was also vitally important that the pass blocking do well.
Polumbus is assigned to block pass-rusher Jabaal Sheard on a 3rd-and-6 play. Cousins is in the shotgun, which should afford him a little more time to throw the ball.
Polumbus is nimble enough to get in position to make the block, but he is also playing very high for a guy who is 6’8”. Polumbus is susceptible to all kinds of pass-rush moves with his pad level so high, but he should still be able to put a block on Sheard, who has surprisingly little natural bend or agility.
It gets really ugly for Polumbus at this point in the play as he bends at the waist and not the knees and tries to use his helmet to block Sheard instead of his hands. Polumbus’ eyes are down, he’s off balance and he’s in no position to make any kind of decent block attempt.
Sheard doesn’t do anything special to get around the weak block of Polumbus.
Sheard basically takes a direct line to the quarterback and gets the quick sack on Cousins. The worst part of it for the Redskins was that the Browns only rushed four and the primary read was going to be open for a first down if Cousins had the time to throw.
It’s nothing personal against Polumbus, but it’s somewhat surprising the Redskins didn’t do more to address the right tackle position than to sign Trueblood and Pashos as competition.
You would think the Redskins would owe it to Griffin to give him adequate protection next year since he’s coming off a serious knee injury.
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