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OFFENSIVE LINE PLAY PART TWO

ACQUIRE AND DEVELOP



The pendulum is swinging back. The emphasis on DOMINATING the line of scrimmage is again becoming a priority in the NFL, and many of us couldn’t be happier! The single best way for your team to improve is to shine a light on the opportunity, and the understand the toolset required to carry the initiative out.


A lot of football teams have invested first round picks and free agent contracts into building an offensive line that can be relied on to deliver winning football and become the backbone of their team. Others believe in the draft and develop model, and try to find value in different rounds of the draft. Some programs have been successful, others organizations have not been able to get it right. What is the difference? Why do some teams continue to struggle with ‘sure-fire’ athletes when others seem to dominate with late round picks?


Successful line play is so much more than the physical capabilities of the five men on the field. The first thing we must be transparent with is that the system you run and the backfield personnel you have directly impacts how we perceive line play. Context matters, situations matter, and these are unique to your team, your system, and your opponents. Trying to determine the performance of your offensive line through media metrics is convenient, but also terribly inaccurate.


Offensive lineman embrace the Stoic philosophy of ‘control what you can control’ perhaps better than anyone in the building. Regardless of scheme, opponent, or situation; the responsibilities and intrinsic expectations never change. How then, do we identify the traits in individuals that will combine to make an offensive line that will be the cornerstone of our offense?



Coaching Matters


It is imperative that your team find someone that can convey complex ideas in simple terms and structures that can be taught and repeated. The offensive line coach is an absolute critical hire, not only because of the number of their athletes on the field, but because of the demands of the position. I cannot stress this point enough; if you do not have a coach in place that considers themselves a teacher of the details of the position, you have the wrong person leading the room. The line that is the best at the basics is also the best at game execution.


There are great scheme coaches, especially now with generations growing up on Madden. But if they do not understand the principles of human movement, if they are only interested in uploading the scheme and learning about the opponent – then you have a choice to make. Either find a coach that has the ability to develop elite level talent, or hope like hell you have veteran leaders who are compelled to do it for them.


Offensive systems have changed over the years, and the great coaches are masters of making the simple look extremely complicated to the opponent. When putting together an offensive line room, I cringe when I hear “we are a zone team” or “we are a gap team.” There are a handful of core movements involved with playing offensive line: the fundamental techniques of the position. They are best practice ways to move, and as long as we are teaching our athletes how to move in best practice, we can reap the benefits of being able to scheme for different opponent weaknesses.


This is imperative: the best in the league can adjust every week to exploit the weaknesses of their opponent. That could be switching from a man to a zone call sheet. That could be changing the backside blocking based on the height or first step of the defensive tackle. That could be the timing on double teams to accommodate a different style of linebacker play. The bottom line, is that you must have a rock-solid technical foundation to build off of. Otherwise you are learning on-the-job, and in the NFL or any high level sport; learning on-the-job puts you at risk of failing.


There is perhaps no other collective group that relies on preparation as much as the offensive line, because the consequences of failure are so dramatic. Confidence in preparation leads to confidence in performance. In order to play with extreme levels of confidence; an offensive line room must take great pride in their preparation. That is why leadership in that room is so critical to team success, both at the helm and through veteran players. The process of preparation will make or break this group.



Players


Teams will have their ideal players based on variables of personal preference, tradition, offensive system, divisional opponents, and climate, just to name a few. When searching for the right players to build a team, ideally you have at minimum one of the following:


- High level communicator

- Enforcer

- Pure talent


Looking at the best in the league for the last 30 years this is what you generally find: an incredibly smart communicator at the center position (if they have outstanding physical traits that is a bonus), a guard or a pair of guards who take great pride in physically dominating other humans, and a tackle (or tackles) that can manage an entire game if need be on his own. I’m sure we can find exceptions to the rule, and I don’t want to discount how important a great blocking tight end is to team success, because it is absolutely a multiplier for an offense.


Of those three components, only one of them is easily spotted through casual observation. Pure talent pops off the screen. Walter Jones, Chad Clifton, Jon Ogden; you can watch a workout tape or a series of college tape and know there is just an ease to how the gifted go about their business. These are the outliers; these that have confidence built into their DNA because they are simply better formed humans than the rest of us. They work hard, they are professionals; but their process will likely look different than the rest of the group. This is not a negative or a positive; it is a reality. What is imperative for the coach is that they ensure the rest of the room understands not everyone can be the chosen one.


For the other twelve men in the room, how quickly they create ownership in their process will determine their success. Those that, as stated in an earlier post, ‘work hard, kick ass, and enjoy doing both,’ seem to rise to the top of the league every season. Those that are the first people off the practice field, or the first out of the film room… that generally falls the other way. We can set expectations, we can monitor; but if the desire is not there, it might be time to move on.


Given an excellent developmental coach; we should be spending 80% of our talent identification on the cognitive and emotional makeup of an offensive line, and about 20% on the tangibles. I know this sounds unorthodox given how much attention we give the combine and pro days, but hear me out. If you know what you are looking for from a movement standpoint – the initial footwork, the mobility, the explosiveness – all things we can identify through a conversation with the strength coach and a five play film session; then we can quickly reduce our pool of potential targets into a much more manageable group.


Ownership


What you really want to find out is whether or not they need football. I don’t care if they like the attention, they like what it can give them. I want to know if they are willing to put it above everything else. Are they into the trade-offs that come with being great? Are they relying on talent, or using their work ethic and drive as a force multiplier? These are the questions that matter over the long term. Athletes are everywhere; at this particular position you need professionals.



Anyone who has had a cup of coffee in the NFL has seen a handful of guys that it comes easy to; they have it figured out. We want those guys, because more often than not, their trip on the overnight success train took ten years of hard work. Everyone will at some point find their struggle. You want to have the athletes that own their process enough to be able to identify, assess, and correct the areas of opportunity that are adversely impacting their job.


The immediate pushback from a coach or general manager is that time is of the essence, and they have been stripped of many developmental hours by the collective bargaining agreement (that was done largely by a former offensive lineman by the way, but a story for another day!). My answer is – so what?


Blocking and tackling, the tenants of football, are not something that you learn walking down the street. If you understand how to teach a progression stack, and if you take the time to individualize your technical progression for each member of your unit; your athletes can catch up and overtake those with more experience in a relatively short amount of time. You just have to know what to look for. The best in the business do, and can do so efficiently.


This is, again, why there are such large discrepancies in the quality of line play in the NFL.


Scouting


You have your positional requirements, your stack of scouting reports, your hours of tape. You have set your sights on multiple players that are pure talent in the draft or free agency. You have cut the herd, and are now ready to find your communicator, your enforcer; the guys that revel in the dirty work. What are the above-the-shoulder things we are looking for?


After assessing movement patterns and technical areas of opportunity in our pool of lineman, I go right for nonnegotiable character traits. These are traits that we can identify and improve within ourselves. Intrinsic motivation, resilience, and presence, among others. Maybe the greatest trait an offensive lineman must have; the willingness to take short term pain for long term gain. Understanding that adversity and greatness draw from the same fountain, and we cannot become who we are meant to be without stretching ourselves just outside our current capabilities.


These are the characteristics I help athletes identify and foster within themselves. These are the traits that can help us overcome anxiety, disappointment, and replace resentment with resolve. There is something else; we want players that are also willing to step into a punch. When we are shocked and our autonomic nervous system decides whether it's time to fight or flee; these glue players fight. They don’t have to be tough guys or walk around with fake bravado; that amounts to nothing on 3rd and 8 backed up in your own end zone. In this game you will face a better athlete, an intimidating situation. We want guys who stay for the fight.


This is a lost piece of the puzzle. In the end, an offensive lineman is alone, on the field, against a better athlete, with millions of people hoping he loses the next snap. The consequences of a poor play can be an injury or a game-changing turnover. And often we are alone. You have to find athletes who are willing to step into that moment, and then you have to give them the tools to find success.


HOW: THE IN-HOUSE ADVANTAGE


How do find out these things? Tape for certain, but tape with the prospect. Better yet, tape with the athlete and a current or former legend of your program. Interviews are practiced; every agent worth their salt conducts mock interviews for their clients. You want to know about the potential starting right guard for your team? Take him to the film room, and then take him out with a couple of the current players.


What are the dials that your players are going to turn the most to become a successful unit? Their mindset, their technical mastery, and their ownership decisions. We can assess the tape to see if their demeanor is something we want. We can get a great insight to their mindset with the interaction we have watching tape and talking shop. To get a good feel about how the chemistry will be, how potential recruits conduct business outside of the facility, we can put them in social situations and just observe.


All of your interior players must be chattering monkeys at the line of scrimmage; there is an incredible amount of pre-snap information and tells that can and must be communicated between the line. If you have quiet players, your number one job is to get them talking on every single play to their line mates. When these players are interacting, if the new guy is quiet in a room full of his peers; chances are he is always quiet.


Being standoffish is reserved for the most talented guy in the room. This isn’t right or wrong, it just is. We want a great mix of smart, aggressive, jovial, and a little crazy in our huddle. If anyone but the pure talent guy is reserved in his vocalism, it is an issue you will deal with down the road.


The last place you have to look when building out your offensive line is the strength and conditioning coach at the athlete's last stop. This person has likely had their hands on the athlete more than anyone else in the program. Becoming a great weight room guy does not necessarily translate to the field of play, but that is because we think of great weight room guys being the strongest guys in the room. A lot of strength is gifted to us by our parents. We are interested in what our specific athletes have accomplished in the way of correcting imbalances, increasing mobility, building lean body armor, and adding to their explosive power.


These things matter on the field, but they also expose the professionalism of an offensive lineman. See their numbers year to year. Have they continually improved? How have they done against their peer group? Are they a group leader; how do they finish on conditioning tests? With things that are important in your life, how you do one thing is likely how you do everything. Utilizing the S&C resource could have saved teams from dozens of bad draft picks over the years.


ONE LAST THING


There is nothing better than a curious athlete. Someone who is willing to ask questions, be humble, and learn from others. If you can find them, athletes who are curious about all of the ancillary components of playing well are great additions to any team. Do they have an interest in coaching? Scheme design? Do they want to train or work with young athletes?

One thing I have noticed in general, and this is anecdotal not scientific; athletes who have a ton of outside interests; music, fashion, film, etc. They can fall out of love with the sport faster than those who just love the game, and are maybe intoxicated with cars, or fancy watches. Not suggesting these are deal breakers, but if it was a coin flip before…might be a good way to think about things.


So when you are looking at the tape, know that it is one piece of the puzzle with this group. Processing speed, communication, coachability; these things are what translate into successful game day operators. You would be amazed at how much of the physical and technical we can improve IF the cognitive and emotional are right.


Good luck!

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