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Inside the NFL: Now more than ever, one injury can be one too many on the O-line

Vic Carucci

We focus, as usual, on the high-profile positions: Quarterback, wide receiver, running back.

When players at those spots suffer serious, season-ending or several-week injuries, we notice and react a whole lot more than when it happens with offensive linemen.

But it has happened with them in droves this season in the NFL, and some teams have suffered greatly because losing even one starting O-lineman is enough to negatively impact a group facing increased challenges to perform at a high (or even average) level.

"I think a lot of times fans and everybody take offensive line play for granted," former NFL general manager and current SiriusXM NFL Radio co-host Mark Dominik said by phone.

This year, however, people are beginning to notice.

Among the more prominent offensive linemen who have been injured are tackles Joe Thomas (Cleveland Browns), Jason Peters (Philadelphia Eagles), Taylor Decker (Detroit Lions), Zach Strief (New Orleans Saints), and Joe Staley (San Francisco 49ers); guards Marshal Yanda (Baltimore Ravens) and Mike Iupati (Arizona Cardinals), and center Ryan Kalil (Carolina Panthers).

The Seattle Seahawks and Washington Redskins have lost multiple starting offensive linemen to injury. The Dallas Cowboys -- who have all sorts of problems on offense -- weren't helped by having to be without standout left tackle Tyron Smith in Week 11 against the Eagles before he returned to the lineup for Thursday's loss against the Los Angeles Chargers. Say what you will about Cordy Glenn, who will miss his fifth game Sunday when the Buffalo Bills due to chronic ankle/foot problems, but when healthy he's the best left tackle the Buffalo Bills have.

The impact of an offensive lineman or two or even three being out for a game or longer carries larger consequences than ever because of the massive investment teams make in the player they're paid to keep in one piece. You lose an offensive lineman and you tend to say, "Next man up" without much flinching.

Lose a quarterback, and it's a far different response.

“The league needs to continue to develop our offensive linemen, needs to find ways to do so, and it’s definitely a topic of discussion for most general managers in this league," Atlanta Falcons General Manager Thomas Dimitroff told me at an NFL meeting earlier this year.

Here are some of the reasons for the heightened concern:

*A general lack of quality offensive-line depth.

"And the other thing that makes it hard is when you flip a guy from left guard to right guard, his whole world's backwards," Dominik said. "Even though you'd like to talk about the depth you have on an offensive line, sometimes your depth is, 'Hey, I've got a really good left guard, but I don't have a right tackle or a right guard.' Because when I pick that good left guard as my sixth offensive lineman and put him over to the other side, his (pass) sets are completely different. His footwork's completely different, his hand usage is completely different.

"It's opposite. It's a hard thing to do."

*Less offseason practice time to develop continuity and chemistry.

This is a huge topic that has gained a great deal of attention from coaches and league executives. The rules of the collective bargaining agreement put strict limitations on the amount of time players can spend practicing and meeting in the offseason, and the extent of what they can do on the field.

No players are involved in more contact in any given game than offensive linemen. Yet, contact is at the very top of the list of what players aren’t permitted to do during the offseason and is restricted in training camp.

“I can’t tell you how much conversation goes on about the offensive line play, particularly early in the season when you see the struggles that offensive lines have with the defensive linemen,” Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy said at an NFL meeting earlier this year. “And it’s a direct reflection of the offseason program. (It’s) not conducive to developing young players, especially the offensive line.

"It really sets those guys at a disadvantage, and it’s half your offense. It’s five of the 11, so obviously it’s a big factor. Guys, they need more time. They need more time training with the coaches just from the fundamental.”

They primarily refers to rookies and other young players. As Bills guard Richie Incognito pointed out, the reduction in the amount of work a line can do together during the offseason is hurting development at the position league-wide while also providing an advantage for him and other long-time veterans.

"I really think it's affecting the product for offensive linemen, especially young guys," he said. "It's a lot harder to kind of come in and earn a spot when you don't get those reps."

*Increased pass-rushing talent that requires right tackles to be every bit as proficient as left tackles in pass protection, and interior blockers to also excel in that area.

"It used to be you've got to have a left tackle, because you've got to protect the blind side," Dominik said. "Well, now you've got to have a right tackle, because that guy's a pretty good athlete, too, that's coming off that edge (on the other side). And then you've got inside rushers that are a lot more powerful and explosive or maybe thicker or heavier guys. It just becomes a lot more difficult, just like every position. As you continue to see these athletes get bigger, stronger, faster, it's harder on the offensive line.

"You're seeing guards and centers moving up the draft boards. And we see right tackles starting to move up the draft boards. Where it used to be, 'You can't take a right tackle in the first round,' it's, 'You'd better take a right tackle in the first round.' You're also seeing the interior linemen, who usually were the last guys to get paid in all of free agency, have exploded."

*More high school and college teams using spread offenses that don't allow for linemen to develop their skills as thoroughly as 15 or 20 years or so ago.

"If you think about it, these guys in high school play in all these seven-on-seven tournaments, and that's no offensive line play," Dominik said. "We're spreading everything out and that's all they're learning is the spread systems in the high schools, and the offensive line just isn't getting trained the way it was before. Back in the '90s, those kids were running smash-mouth football in high school and you were just pounding the ball. And you would do it college, coming out of Nebraska or Oklahoma or whatever it was."

Therefore, there is a good deal of retraining that has to happen once the players are in the NFL. There is greater emphasis on foot work and hand placement.

There also is a greater effort to construct lines with a blend of experience with youth, so that the younger players are able to learn as much as possible from their older teammates.

"I think the O-line, more now than ever, it’s imperative to have a nice mix of youth and veteran talent," Dimitroff said. "And I think it’s a complicated build and it takes creativity – financial creativity and projection, personality creativity -- because we’re protecting a guy that we’re potentially spending more than $23 million on."

Quick reads

*Several current and former NFL players have invested in a Seattle-based company manufacturing high-tech football helmets designed to help in the reduction of concussions. The investments in Vicis -- which has nearly $50 million in funding, according to GeekWire -- is being done to make the helmets available to high school athletes.

For now, they're being worn by NFL and NCAA players. According to GeekWire, Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson, Seahawks wide receiver Doug Baldwin and Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith are among the pros who wear the helmet (called ZERO1) and have also invested in the company, along with Hall of Famer Jerry Rice.

“My experience wearing the ZERO1 this season has been exceptional,” Wilson said in a statement. “The custom fit and wide field of vision have allowed me to perform at my best. I invested in Vicis because I believe in our mission and I want to help all the kids playing sports have access to the best available technology.”

*USA Today recently ran an interesting piece about NFL players and social media. The thrust was about the players who choose to respond to negative tweets.

Not surprisingly, an industry expert quoted in the story said the best policy for players is to avoid the urge to push back against trolls.

“Step one is ignore it,” said Brendan Meyer, vice president of digital marketing for Wasserman, a sports marketing and management company that assists athletes in formulating their social-media strategy. “We are certainly proponents of the block button and mute button. We advise that it’s not something you want to get into – a back-and-forth with them – because that just encourages other trolls to come out and provoke. There’s really nothing to gain.”

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