Sacrificing Talent for Chemistry on the Offensive Line
Image courtesy of Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY SportsDespite spotty play at left guard, it seems that any potential replacement for Charlie Johnson is more a pipe dream than a reality for fans of a change. And that really is too bad.
While head coach Mike Zimmer has indicated that much of the reason that Johnson will keep his job is because fifth-round pick David Yankey’s potential growth as an NFL-quality guard was stunted by the quarter system at Stanford—one that kept him out of offseason training activities in May and June—there is a significant amount of push from the Zimmer camp to keep the line as-is because of the value of continuity.
This is a mistake.
There are two functions of offensive line play: pass protection and run blocking. In that context, there are multiple “top five” offensive lines, but broken into those two functions generally produce the following offensive lines by Pro Football Focus and Football Outsiders in 2013: Philadelphia, Cincinnati, Denver, Washington, Dallas and Green Bay.
In 2012, the same publications found the top lines to be San Francisco, New England, New York (Jets), New York (Giants), Denver, Cleveland, Buffalo and Detroit.
There’s very little transfer of quality from one year to the next in these measures, and it seems like Denver’s offensive line is the only one to appear in both lists. Some of this can be attributed to injury (New England’s line was injured in 2013 and Philadelphia’s was in 2012), but it seems like continuity of quality in general is difficult to achieve.
If looking at the top offensive lines in general solely by PFF grade in 2012 (San Francisco, New England, New York (Jets), Denver and Cleveland) one can measure their “continuity” along the line by their change in grade.
Two of those offensive lines (San Francisco and Cleveland) didn’t change their lineup on the offensive line, but didn’t repeat as a top offensive line, per PFF. New England replaced one player and did not repeat. The Jets replaced two players and didn’t repeat. Denver replaced two players and moved one from guard to center and found themselves in the top five again.
The two teams that didn’t change at all moved from first to ninth and from fifth to twelfth. The team with one change moved from second to fourteenth. The Jets dropped from third to 27th. Only the Broncos stayed where they were, going from fourth to third.
Much of that has to do with Peyton Manning, but their aggressive commitment to improvement along the line was certainly one of the reasons. The same results hold from 2011 to 2012 (New England was the only team to stay in the top five and did so by losing two players and moving a third) or from 2010 to 2011—where Houston and New England retained their top-five status and retained six of their ten offensive linemen in their original positions.
Minnesota has reasons to be proud of keeping the same five starters for three consecutive years, but it’s a mistake to confuse that for having a top-tier offensive line for three consecutive years. An aggressive commitment to improvement would discard the value of that “chemistry” in order to put the most talent in the position as possible.
This is the same chemistry that saw Matt Kalil give up two more sacks, eight more hits and fourteen more hurries in his second year on one side of Johnson and John Sullivan give up three more sacks and three more quarterback hurries on the other side. Charlie Johnson himself has ranked 34th and 39th in combined allowed sacks, hits and hurries per pass protecting snap (of around 55 qualifying guards) in the past two years and performing as an even worse run blocker.
That doesn’t mean forcing Yankey into a spot he’s not ready to play. If there are in fact technique issues that he has to overcome, then he should be held back in favor of the superior option (though, of note, this did not stop the Vikings from starting a younger and less technically refined Brandon Fusco over Geoff Schwartz).
But if continuity is an overriding reason to start a quantity known to be bad without much chance at improvement (at age 30, Johnson’s ceiling is pretty much maxed out) over an unknown but likely positive quantity—the fourth ranked interior linemen by most scouting services—then the Vikings should reconsider their approach.