Lack of Offensive Line Development in NFL Falls on League, Coaches

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystJune 21, 2016

Seattle Seahawks OL coach Tom Cable
Seattle Seahawks OL coach Tom CableStephen Brashear/Getty Images

A disconnect exists between the NFL and college football. 

This divide revolves around the collegiate game's perceived inability to properly develop talent for the next level. The conversation often leans heavily on quarterbacks coming out of spread systems, but offensive line play has become a target, too. 

Laying blame for the NFL's ills along the offensive front based on the current trends in college football is merely an excuse. An excuse for coaches who aren't getting the job done and a system that's no longer geared to properly develop these blockers. 

This emerging chasm developed over time as collegiate coaches from nontraditional powerhouses shifted toward spread offenses to offset a lack of talent, particularly in the trenches. 

First and foremost, the term "spread offense" is actually a generic designation encompassing many different systems. The spread offense used by the Oregon Ducks isn't the same as the one seen at Clemson, Ohio State or Texas A&M. Each of those schools and their offensive schemes become easy targets when something isn't going right at the next level.

In an interview conducted last year as part of the Brock and Salk Show in Seattle (via CoachingSearch.com's Chris Vannini), Seattle Seahawks assistant head coach/offensive line coach Tom Cable torched collegiate offensive linemen with sweeping generalizations:  

I’m not wanting to offend anybody, but college football, offensively, has just gotten really, really bad, fundamentally. You see these big bodies and think, 'He’s 6-5, 300, and his arm is (this long),' and you watch him, and he’s not a finisher, he doesn’t strain, he can’t stay balanced, he can’t play with leverage. You see all these negatives and think, I can get a (defensive) guy who runs a little faster, jumps a little higher, that’s got an aggressive streak in him. At least I can see that on defense. I’m going to have to re-train an offensive lineman that’s coming out of college right now anyway.

Unfortunately, I think we’re doing a huge disservice to offensive football players, other than the receivers, that come out of these spread systems.

What Cable's complaints ultimately break down to is different expectations placed on the position compared to other coaches. 

In college football, the coaching staff's primary responsibility isn't to prepare their players for the next level. It's about winning football games and doing so in the most effective manner. 

College teams will continue to run the zone read or run-pass options (RPOs) and make their playbooks far less complicated than anything seen in the NFL. 

These shouldn't be considered slights during the evaluation process. Actually, the NFL would be wise to catch up to the current trends. 

But everyone processes information through their lens. What Cable personally experiences on a day-in, day-out basis is working with one of the league's least talented offensive lines. 

Here's the irony of Cable's situation: The Seahawks chose to address their offensive front by drafting three linemen in this year's NFL draft. All three of them came from spread offenses. 

Since taking over as the team's line coach, the Seahawks drafted 10 offensive linemen. Only two previously played in pro-style offenses. Neither James Carpenter nor John Moffitt worked out, and both are no longer with the team. 

Seattle's situation could be solved by taking an introspective look into the organization's development process. 

Longtime NFL OL coach Howard Mudd
Longtime NFL OL coach Howard MuddAl Pereira/Getty Images

Howard Mudd spent 38 years with the San Diego Chargers, San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks, Cleveland Browns, Kansas City Chiefs, Indianapolis Colts and Philadelphia Eagles as an offensive line coach. He's best known for his time in Indianapolis developing the lines that blocked for Peyton Manning. He absolutely obliterated coaches who might feel similar to Cable in a conversation with ESPN.com's Tony Grossi

People in the NFL, they say these guys don’t know how to play, it takes us two years to coach them. We’ve been doing that for 40 years, coaching an offensive lineman who didn’t know how to play when they got here. Go coach them. My brow is furrowed because it pisses me off to say it’s their fault. It ain’t their fault. It’s your fault. Go coach them.

Recent success also doesn't back up Cable's previous claims. 

Kyle Long, Larry Warford, Zack Martin, Gabe Jackson, Joel Bitonio and Mitch Morse all became instant-impact rookies upon their arrivals. None of them previously played in a traditional pro-style offense. 

This year's draft class doesn't paint an entirely different picture, either: 

  • The Baltimore Ravens drafted Notre Dame's Ronnie Stanley sixth overall. 
  • The Miami Dolphins spent the 13th overall pick on Ole Miss' Laremy Tunsil. 
  • Three picks later, the Detroit Lions chose Ohio State's Taylor Decker. 
  • Seattle rounded out the first round when it chose Texas A&M's Germain Ifedi. 

Altogether, teams chose seven offensive linemen in the first round. Four of them were still deemed talented enough to warrant such picks despite any concerns of their collegiate system. In total, 41 offensive linemen heard their names called on draft weekend, and 59 percent of those selected didn't play in a traditional offense. 

The talent is what the coaches and the players themselves make of it. If said talent isn't realized, it falls on one of those two parties and not who coached them in college. 

Too many on the outside still view offensive line play as five big men smashing against defenders where size, brute force and a contest of wills stands in the way of successfully moving an opponent. This is simply an archaic train of thought. 

Offensive line play is highly nuanced with five separate parts trying to work as a singular autonomous unit. The minute details that go into the potential success or failures up front extend well beyond two big men smashing heads. 

When sitting down to watch successful offensive linemen, proper footwork, angles, hand play, leverage, balance and patience all factor into the equation. It's a constant learning process, because repeatable technique becomes necessary for any lineman to experience long-term success. 

This is where the real disconnect lies. Young linemen aren't worse today because of what they did or didn't do before becoming professionals. They're automatically placed at a disadvantage due to the current collective bargaining agreement. 

Mudd described the differences today compared to when he first came into the league: 

In the old days, we didn’t have the collective bargaining agreement that we have now, and that is you can’t coach the player from the last game until about June 1 [actually closer to April 1]. They can’t go on the field and do anything. You can’t even talk to them. So these offensive linemen are wandering around, and it’s not an instinctive position. This is truly a skilled position. Skill is something that you learn to do. It isn’t something instinctive like the other guys that catch passes and stuff like that.

So the offensive lineman, he’s not perfecting his skills in the offseason. So he shows up June 1 and he’s been working out in the weight room, but he’s not perfecting those body movements that you need to do to pass protect.

In the old days, when we didn’t have that, I spent time with, say, [former Browns defensive line coach] Tom Pratt, or in Indianapolis with [former Colts line coach] John Teerlinck. We’d go on the practice field with gym trunks on and we’d pass rush 80 or 90 times during the practice while they were down there throwing passes, and that’s where they learned to pass protect in the offseason. And that’s not happening. So they show up and they’re expected to make these athletic moves and it doesn’t happen. I think it’s really significant.

This shouldn't be viewed as an old and crusty line coach bellowing, "Well, in my time..." because he's describing actual issues within the current league setup.

Players aren't receiving as much instruction time. They're not getting as many padded practices. They're not asked to be as physical in training camp as they once were. All of these can be barriers to a player's overall development. 

Unfortunately, the players cut themselves off at the knees while trying to protect their interests. The current collective bargaining agreement doesn't expire until 2020. However, these issues will eventually need to be addressed during the next round of negotiations. 

Otherwise, offensive line coaches around the league will always be fighting an uphill battle to get their players prepared. It's a physical league, and players need repetitions.

The NFL as a whole has seen a drop in overall level of play due to a lack of preparedness. Games are sloppier. Called penalties reached a recent high last year compared to the previous nine campaigns, according to Pro-Football-Reference.com (via Beyond the Box Score's Scott Lindholm). And the ones being hurt the most are young players who need time to adjust. 

Mudd also believes a lack of quality coaches plagues the league, and there are only a handful of good offensive line gurus found among the 32 franchises. 

"The rest are pretenders," Mudd said. "Look at how many times the quarterback gets hit. Then we all cry because we don’t have quarterbacks. Then, [expletive], find somebody to protect them." 

The league doesn't have a talent problem; it has a development problem, and the NFL and its coaches have no one to blame but themselves. 

Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter@brentsobleski.

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