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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