On committing to the offensive line, Part Three

Does having a good run-blocking offensive line correlate to winning football games?

There’s evidence which indicates it does.  Following is a portion of a chart from Part Two in this series, listing the top five run-blocking teams for each of the last ten years, as per Football Outsiders.

10-year Football Outsiders run-blocking rankings (Adjusted Line Yards)
Rank 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011
1. DEN MIN NYJ IND SD NE DEN MIA NE NO
2. MIN GB IND KC JAC CLE NYJ NO JAC NE
3. OAK KC KC DEN PHI NYG NE DAL NYJ PIT
4. WAS PHI PIT CIN NYG IND NYG BAL HOU HOU
5. KC IND NE WAS IND PHI WAS NE KC CAR

Next we insert the number of games won by those teams to get the following.

Number of games won by teams in above chart
Rank 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011
1. 9 9 10 14 14 16 8 7 14 13
2. 6 10 12 10 8 10 9 13 8 13
3. 11 13 7 13 10 10 11 11 11 12
4. 7 12 15 11 8 13 12 9 6 10
5. 8 12 14 10 12 8 8 10 10 6

Total wins, all 50 teams: 523
Average # of wins per season: 10.46
Average record: 10.46-5.54
Winning percentage: .654

Only six of those teams had a losing record.  Seven teams were 8-8.  37 teams had winning records.

To add a little perspective to the winning percentage of 65.4%, that’s nearly eight points higher than the career winning percentage any active NFL franchise (Chicago Bears, 57.8%.)

There’s also evidence which indicates that poor run-blocking correlates to losing.

These are the worst five run-blocking teams for each of the last ten years…

10-year Football Outsiders run-blocking rankings (Adjusted Line Yards)
Rank 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011
28. IND MIA CHI BAL TEN STL STL STL SEA NYG
29. CAR HOU ARI SF OAK SEA KC DET CHI KC
30. DET TEN CLE GB SEA CHI ARI KC DEN STL
31. DAL ARI SF MIN CLE KC DET TB TEN DET
32. HOU DET MIA ARI DET ATL CIN SF DET TEN

and here are the number of games each of them won.

Number of games won by teams in above chart
Rank 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011
28. 10 10 5 6 8 3 2 1 7 9
29. 7 5 6 4 2 10 2 2 11 7
30. 3 12 4 4 9 7 9 4 4 2
31. 5 4 2 9 4 4 0 3 6 10
32. 4 5 4 5 3 4 4 8 6 9

Total wins, all 50 teams: 274
Average # of wins per season: 5.48
Average record: 5.48-10.52
Winning percentage: .343

Now that we’ve established correlations between good run-blocking teams and winning, as well as poor run-blocking teams and losing, we have to ask, “How do the Titans make the transition from a poor run-blocking team to a good one?”

One approach that has worked, discussed in Part One of this series, is to commit the top of a draft to the o-line, something the Titans could have done last month, but didn’t.

Of course, that’s not the only method which has worked.  Again, here’s a portion of another chart from Part Two, with the top five run-blocking lines in the past five years.

2007-2011 Football Outsiders run-blocking rankings
Overall Team Avg Rank 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011
1. NE  2.4 1 3 5 1 2
2. NO  4.4 7 6 2 6 1
3. HOU  8.2 8 10 15 4 4
4. NYJ  8.6 23 2 8 3 7
5. DAL 10.4 14 14 3 12 9

Note how much higher the Patriots and Saints have been than the rest of the league, and how they’ve been consistent in their excellence.  Let’s examine how they’ve done it.

Three of the Patriots’ o-linemen have been the stars up front, with eight Pro Bowl selections between them.  The Patriots’ method has been to invest high draft picks in their line on a regular, consistent basis.  Every several years or so, they use a first or second round pick for their line.  You can’t argue with the results they’ve achieved.  Not only were they head and shoulders above everyone else for the past five years, run-blocking wise, they’ve also been the best for the past ten years.

These are their noteworthy draft picks:
2001, 2nd round – Matt Light (one first-team All-Pro selection, three Pro Bowls)
2003, 5th round – Dan Koppen (one Pro Bowl)
2005, 1st round – Logan Mankins (one first-team All-Pro selection, four Pro Bowls)
2005, 3rd round – Nick Kaczur
2009, 2nd round – Sebastian Vollmer
2011, 1st round – Nate Solder

Light, who just announced his retirement, Koppen, who recently visited Tennessee as a free agent before re-signing with the Pats, and Mankins, the best of their o-linemen, have been the stars and best known names.  Vollmer and Kaczur, second and third round picks, have been solid complementary blockers.  Last year, New England invested a first-round pick in Solder, grooming him to be Light’s replacement.

Then there are the Saints, who had an amazing six different Pro Bowl o-linemen in the past four seasons.  Those six players combined for four first-team All-Pro selections and ten Pro Bowls.  While the Saints have one first-round and one second-round draft pick in that bunch, their best players have been fourth and fifth-round picks.

Five of those six were drafted by the Saints and one was a free agent acquisition:
2003, 2nd round – Jon Stinchcomb (one Pro Bowl)
2005, 1st round – Jammal Brown (one first-team All-Pro selection, two Pro Bowls)
2006, 4th round – Jahri Evans (three first-team All-Pro selections, three Pro Bowls)
2007, 4th round – Jermon Bushrod (one Pro Bowl)
2008, 5th round – Carl Nicks (one first-team All-Pro selection, two Pro Bowls)
2006, free agency – Jonathan Goodwin (Jets’ 2002 fifth-round draft pick) (one Pro Bowl)

Either the Saints have excelled at identifying top talent in the middle (fourth and fifth) rounds of the draft, or they have excelled at coaching those players up, or some combination of the two.

Just look at all those All-Pros and Pro Bowlers on the New England and New Orleans rosters.  They’ve been the best run-blocking teams in the league.  Each of those franchises are doing some things right.  The Titans haven’t, at least not concerning the offensive line.

The Titans’ M.O. has been similar to the Saints, but they haven’t achieved the same results.  Unlike the Patriots, they’ve only selected one player high in the draft.  Like the Saints, they’ve drafted linemen in the fourth round or later and hoped they could be coached up.  However, with the exception of David Stewart (fourth round, 2005), Mike Munchak hasn’t been able to coach up a late round draft pick since Benji Olson (fifth round, 1998.)

In case you missed it, I recommend Tom’s article in February which focused on the Titans’ failure to develop linemen since Stewart.

There’s no doubt Munch has been successful teaching his men to be good in pass protection, but that also means he’s been successful in teaching them to be pretty one-dimensional.  I don’t have high hopes that his successor, Bruce Matthews, will do much better.  Great players rarely become great coaches.  Last year, Bruce turned the 31st best line into the 32nd best.

If it’s not Munch’s fault that the line isn’t better, then the front office has been giving Munch chicken**** and expecting him to make chicken salad out of it.  If that’s the case, there’s not much hope the line will improve.

If that’s not the case, then the Titans need to change their M.O. and begin drafting o-linemen in the first two or three rounds regularly and consistently.  Good players can make the line better when coaching can’t.

As a fan, I want to see better things from the Titans.  I want to see opponents respect play action.  I want to see the Titans run the ball on third and short more frequently instead of passing because they’re afraid of being stuffed.  I want to see the Titans do a better job of converting first downs.  I want to see the Titans start enjoying time of possession advantage.  These are things that can happen with an improved run-blocking line.  Not to mention winning more games.

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