What came first: the Quarterback or the Offensive Line?

Often when you read about or watch an NFL game you’ll read or hear how important good Quarterback play is in regards to a teams success. You’re also likely to be told that having a rock solid offensive line is just as, if not more important to developing a winning team. However, which of the two is more important and can excelling in one area mask deficiencies in the other? I’ll attempt to analyse some case studies and come to some sort of logical conclusion.

A highly sought after attribute in a QB is a quick release. Brett Favre famously had a ‘gun-slinger’ type throwing style and was able to get the ball out before the pass rush could elude the offensive line and get to him. Favre often had a top tier line protecting him in Green Bay so his is a difficult case to look at, and statistics on NFL.com regarding sacks allowed only date back to 2009 so unfortunately I can’t look at the difference between Favre in Green Bay for the 2007 season and his successor Aaron Rodgers the next year.

In addition to physically being able to throw the ball quickly a QB must also make quick decisions, for example knowing how long he has to throw the ball and which recievers are likely to be open on any given play. Tom Brady and Peyton Manning are excellent at reading the defense before the ball is snapped whilst keeping mental mistakes to a minimum once the ball is in their hands. A quick mind and a quick release are two of the most important aspects of good quarterback play and are pivotal to avoiding taking sacks. Experience can definitely help with regards to the mental aspect of the position, however it’s clear that some players are simply better than others at getting the ball out of their hands quickly, and equally as important efficiently.

This brings us neatly on to Michael Vick, who recently renegotiated his contract with the Philadelphia Eagles in order to stay and try and regain his starting role under new head coach Chip Kelly. Kelly is a coach who hates sacks and preaches quick decision making to his QBs. This makes it perplexing that he chose to retain Vick, who has infamously failed to avoid sacks throughout his career and struggles to read defenses. You could be forgiven for thinking that an agile QB like Vick would be more adept at avoiding sacks than a statue-esque player like Brady or Manning. Whilst in theory this should be the case it often isn’t as a moving QB can often confuse the line protecting him who have their backs turned and can’t see which direction their QB is attempting to scramble in, unlike the pass rushers they are trying to stop. Additionally, when on the run a Quarterback is less likely to keep his eyes on the rush and may find himself running into trouble. So, lets compare a few ‘pocket’ passers against ‘rushing’ Quarterbacks like Vick.

Eli Manning (NYG), 20 sacks against
Peyton Manning (DEN) 21
Drew Brees (NO) 26

Cam Newton (CAR) 33
Ben Roethlisbergr (PIT) 37
Aaron Rodgers (GB) 51

Now, I’ve deliberately chosen these six as they show perfectly how a running QB can be more prone to being sacked than a pocket QB. This is genuinely a good representation of a trend within the position, but if you want to see for yourself head here. There are outliers, for example Phillip Rivers was sacked 49 times and he’s a pocket passer, but the trend is clear for all to see. If you don’t want to take sacks, and you shouldn’t, then the slower the better. Kind of like ‘The Hare and the Tortoise’, NFL style.

Now it’s established what a good QB can do for a team when it comes to avoiding sacks, lets take a look at the offensive lines side of the bargain. If you head over to Football Outsiders then you can see their adjusted offensive line rankings. The formula is complicated, but basically they account for down, distance and passes thrown when looking at sacks. Whilst these rankings differ slightly from the unadjusted sack totals they tell a similar story, so I’m going to look at the All-Pro players on the offensive line from this season in an effort to see who the ‘experts’ have cited for their excellent line play.

2012 NFL All-Pro Offensive Line

 Tackles

Duane Brown (HOU), Ryan Clady (DEN) 1st team
Joe Thomas (CLE), Joe Staley (SF) 2nd team

The Texans were 8th in the league in sacks allowed, so Browns’ play would appear to be a major factor towards that ranking. Matt Schaub was the QB in Houston this season and profiles as a pocket passer. However he had a down season according to many observers, including myself, so part of his success avoiding sacks should be attributed to stellar line play. Clady is the second All-Pro tackle on the list, but in his case I’d caution that Peyton Manning made him look better than he was. Sure, Clady is a good player but Manning is a QB with a history of avoiding sacks. Just listen to these numbers: 13 sacks allowed in 2009, 16 in 2010, 35 in 2011. Those are the Indianapolis Colts totals for those seasons, which led the league in ’09 and ’10 before falling off drastically in ’11. Why? Because Manning missed the entire season with injury. Thomas has played to a high level during his time in the league despite the QB changing regularly, so it’s fairly obvious that he is just a flat out good player. No offence to Brandon Weeden but I’m pretty sure that if anyone is making anyone look good in Cleveland it isn’t him. Joe Staley blocked for two Quarterbacks this season in Alex Smith and Colin Kaepernick so he’s also a lineman who can adapt to different styles of QB, much like Thomas.

Guards

Mike Lupati (SF), Jahri Evans (NO) 1st team
Marshal Yanda (BAL), Logan Mankins (NE) 2nd team

Lupati, like Staley was part of the 49ers line this year that helped the team reach the Superbowl. That they were both consistent all season perhaps hints at the fact that both the QBs they blocked for were in a good situation as they were always able to throw from a clean pocket and needn’t worry about being pressurised to much. Maybe it’s a warning to potential Alex Smith suitors, and maybe Kaepernick is in for regression next season. Or perhaps they’re both very good Quarterbacks in their own right. Time will tell on this one. Evans has been a good player for a number of years now, and combined with the excellent Drew Brees they form a potent combination. A word of warning: Brees is almost Mannings equal at getting the ball out, so Evans probably benefits more from Brees than the other way around. Yanda and Mankins both had the luxury of blocking for pocket passers with quick releases and strong arms. Mankins especially is fortunate as the Patriots run a number of plays from the shotgun where the QB is less vulnerable.

Centre

Max Unger (SEA), Maurkice Pouncey (PIT)

Unger was under centre for Seahawks rookie sensation Russell Wilson, with the operative word being ‘rookie’. Yes, Wilson was brilliant this season. And yes, he is a mobile Quarterback. Yet for a rookie to survive at that position he has to be protected well and it’s crucial to remember the role centre’s have in calling blocking assignments. Wilson wouldn’t have had the season he did without Unger anchoring the Seattle o-line. Pouncey has been good ever since he entered the league, although the Steelers once again failed to protect Big Ben as he fell 42 times behind the line of scrimmage this past season. Ben extends plays very well because of his size and is difficult to bring down, which is a positive although he holds the ball for too long often over the course of a game. I disagree with Pouncey here as I believe neither he or Roethlisbergr does a great job of preventing sacks.

In conclusion, two things have really struck me here. Firstly, a mobile Quarterback can run his offensive line into trouble, quite literally. Secondly, a fair amount of the lineman who’d made the All-Pro team this season were protecting rookie QBs, such as Wilson and Kaepernick. Maybe it’s a matter of experience. A veteran QB like Peyton Manning can make his line look good, whilst an accomplished line can help out a younger Quarterback. The exceptions to this rule? Mike Vick (33 years old), Phillip Rivers (31) and Mark Sanchez (26). Between them they saw two head coaches and one offensive coordinator fired last month. Go figure.

 

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Three Superbowl Storylines

Superbowl XLVII is just two days away and after a two week build up the teams are nearly ready to do battle. As the biggest game of the NFL calendar special attention is paid to the game and the players and coaches involved, and this year there are more front page headlines than usual. We have brothers coaching on opposite sidelines, an all time great playing his last ever game and a kicker who can’t seem to split the uprights amongst other things.

It’s also worth noting that today was the 21st Wing Bowl, held annually in Philadelphia, and was won by James “The Bear” McDonald from Connecticut. McDonald was booed by the 20,000 Philadelphian’s in attendance at the Wells Fargo centre, where pro basketball and hockey is played, because he wasn’t a local unlike runner-up and three time champ Jonathan “Super” Squib from New Jersey. For those of you who don’t know the Wing Bowl consists of participants eating as many wings as possible over two rounds, before the final which is a two minute speed eating round. Classy females known as “Wingettes” are one of the main attractions of the event to spectators and the event is hosted by Philly radio station WIP. For those of you less interested in the chicken wings and more interested in the Wingettes here’s a link to Philly.com’s gallery of Wingette photographs. I’m not sure why, but the one Wingette who was wearing an Eagles jersey choose Nate Allen’s. These girls clearly know more about wings than they do about good safety play. Anyway, enough about chicken wings. Here are the top three story lines from this years big game:

#52’s Last Stand
 
Ray Lewis, he of just six tackles for a loss over the past two seasons, starts what is his final game should he retire as promised at the end of this season. Lewis was a fine player for about a decade but his play has declined as his age has risen and he’s no longer the force he once was. Darnell Ellerbe is his equal in the middle of the Ravens line backing core, yet all the media focus has been on Lewis following his long and arduous farewell tour. Amani Toomer hit the nail on the head when he said Lewis was being self-indulgent by lining up in the offensive victory formation against the Colts three weeks ago and it’s clear for all to see that he’s enjoying the spotlight being firmly on him. In some ways I feel sorry for his teammates for having to put up with Lewis’s “me first” attitude, but then again they seem happy enough to enable and embrace it. Be prepared for the camera to focus on Lewis every time he’s near the ball on Sunday; just don’t be surprised when you see Frank Gore breeze past the ageing star.

Brotherly Love

You’ve all heard by now about the Harbaugh brothers, John and Jim, and their friendly rivalry as they oppose each other in the biggest game of all. John is the head honcho of the Ravens and has had an excellent record since he was hired to replace Brian Billick five seasons ago. Whilst he inherited a stout defense he built the offense from the ground up by drafting the likes of Ray Rice and Joe Flacco, and his background as a special teams co-ordinator with the Eagles has served him well as he has rallied the entire team behind him. Jim was a successful college coach before he made the transition to the pros with the 49ers and he’s brought some of that college attack to the NFL with him. Since he installed Colin Kaepernick as his starting QB midway through the season, a gutsy call itself, Harbaugh and his offensive co-ordinator Greg Roman have introduced the “pistol” formation out of which Kaepernick operates the read option. Kaepernick can keep the ball himself or hand the ball off to either Frank Gore or LaMichael James, who are able to get up a head of steam by lining up behind the QB despite him lining up in the shotgun. When all things are considered both head coaches have done a tremendous job and they thoroughly deserve to be on the sidelines this weekend. Unfortunately they get on famously so their won’t be any sibling squabbles after the game, but you can’t have it all.

Shaky Akers

How many times has the Superbowl come down to a last minute kick? Adam Vinatieri thrice was the difference between a New England loss and a New England defeat, and had the Patriots not let Ahmad Bradshaw waltz into the end zone in last seasons Superbowl then Lawrence Tynes would have had the deciding kick with under a minute to play. Even if it isn’t the last play of the game kickers feel the pressure more than usual in the SB, and should they crumble under it then it can severely influence the result. Points are, after all, the goal of the game. Akers missed more field goals than any other kicker during the regular season this year, and he hit the upright with his only attempt in the NFC Championship game in Atlanta. It was a bad miss made worse by the fact the game was indoors, although because the Superdome is hosting Sundays game he’ll have the same advantage in this game. Not only has Akers form been lacking this season but in recent years he has also performed poorly in play-off games. In the 2008 NFC Championship game he missed an extra point for Philadelphia against Arizona (also inside), and the Eagles cut him lose after he missed two sub-40 yard tries against the Packers in 2010. One final point on Akers: he did appear in the Superbowl eight years ago, however he did not attempt a field goal in that game so his first attempt on Sunday will still be his first ever kick in a Superbowl. Should it come down to the final minutes, as it might well do, 49ers fans will have every reason to doubt Akers if their destiny rests on the accuracy of his boot.

Tomorrow I’ll be back with a more statistical/tactical look at the Superbowl, breaking down both teams offenses and defenses ahead of Sunday’s kick off.