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The Offensive Line: Finally Unshuffled?

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The Offensive Line: Finally Unshuffled?

This season, Mike McCarthy made a decision that has, for the most part, gone under the radar. However, it might just represent a break from one of his biggest (and perhaps illest-advised) decisions early in his Packer coaching career.

Reshuffling the offensive line--placing his most accomplished linemen on the left side of the line (protecting Aaron Rodgers' blind side)--was, in McCarthy's own words, an "old-fashioned" and "old-school" way to go about it. Most importantly, he placed guys in a spot and declared them set for the season, with only one position up for grabs.

This is a far cry from the chaos that reigned along the offensive line in the early days of Ted Thompson and Mike McCarthy. With the Packers up against the cap, Thompson made the unpopular (but necessary) decision to allow stalwart guards Marco Rivera and Mike Wahle to leave. With center Mike Flanagan already hobbled by injuries, the 2005 version of the offensive line was a far cry from the steady lineup the Packers enjoyed under Mike Sherman (and Ahman Green enjoyed running behind).

Brett Favre and the Packers offense had one of their worst seasons ever in 2005, with the middle of the line manned (using the term loosely) by late-round projects and street free agents. Larry Beightol, the offensive line coach, was roundly criticized and let go at the end of the season, an unceremonious end for a man who had coached up perhaps the best offensive line the Packers had since  the Lombardi Years.

Before he left, however, he made his infamous assessment of the talent he had to work with: "You can't make chicken salad out of chicken shit."

So, in 2006, McCarthy and Thompson made their critical decision: instead of utilizing stud, prototypical lineman as the Packers had just a few scant years prior, they went the direction of undersized, versatile, and interchangeable jack-of-all trade linemen. It certainly would be easier (and cheaper) to bring in "tweeners" over the guys with a pedigree.

Indeed, Thompson's draft that year brought in three interior linemen, and each draft report had said the words, "good prospect for a zone blocking scheme".

Indeed, Daryn Colledge, Tony Moll, and Jason Spitz all did the Offensive Line Shuffle along those three positions, and none of them truly panned out as a solid offensive lineman. Most of all, they lacked a sense of nastiness and confidence that had been the calling card of the old Sherman lines.

The Zone Blocking Scheme itself, especially at the time, was already a bit passe', an experiment that the Denver Broncos worked quite well with non-prototype linemen aided by the element of surprise. And over McCarthy's reign, the ZBS has had limited success, with running backs having short-term bursts of production. The "everyone block the same direction and lay a chop block on the end" might have helped a good one-cut running back like James Starks gain some yards, but the ongoing streak of non-100 yard rushers should be a nail in the ZBS's coffin.

Notice you don't hear too much about the ZBS anymore.  And with more plays featuring pulling guards, its clear that it is no longer the only scheme the Packers use.  But along with the struggles in the running game, more important has been the lack of protection offered to Aaron Rodgers. With 211 sacks since taking the helm of the team back in 2008, concerns over Rodgers' repeated concussions have jumped front and center with his new contract.

But just two years ago, the Packers continued to play around with their linemen, taking their first-round draft pick (and prototype NFL tackle) Derrick Sherrod and working him exclusively in training camp and preseason at guard. It was a failed experiment that  at best even the most sympathetic onlookers had to raise an eyebrow at. While losing reps at tackle may not have contributed to the devastating injury Sherrod suffered later in the season, it still had to be a sobering lesson for a head coach still trying to fill the void left by the loss of the stud lineman they had penciled in to be the tackle for the next ten years.

Last year, the amount of time Aaron Rodgers seemed to have to throw grew shorter and shorter as the year went on. Luckily, Rodgers doesn't panic in the backfield, choosing to either scramble or take the sack over throwing a risky pass. But the decision to continue to play the most accomplished lineman on the right side of the line, while leaving the blind side to an untested Marshall Newhouse didn't make much sense.

Bryan Bulaga had been a second-team All American at left tackle at Iowa, yet was moved to right tackle when he came to the Packers. Now, he's moving back to what was his natural position. Naturally, the switch is going to take some time, but it certainly seems far more "old-school" to put your best tackle on the left side of a right-handed quarterback.

The guards are going to take some more time. TJ Lang, who is moving from the left side to the right, actually played left tackle in his final two seasons of college. Josh Sitton, moving from the right side to left, actually played along the right side in college. Both have quietly had their struggles so far in training camp, adjusting to their new sides of play.

Mike McCarthy brought the linemen in this spring and told them, "This is where you are going to play this season. Get used to it." While certainly a surprise for the veterans, it wasn't completely unexpected, as Sitton had just texted Bulaga prior to that meeting hypothesizing that there was going to be a shake-up.  In some ways, you have to trust McCarthy's judgment that this is the best place for these guys. Combine that decision with the drafting of Eddie Lacy and Johnathan Franklin to take more pressure of the passing game, and its clear that McCarthy is done playing games with Rodgers in the backfield.

Yes, as Ted Thompson likes to say, competition is good. Versatility is good. And at nearly every other position group on either side of the ball, it works. It really does. We think nothing of seeing AJ Hawk or BJ Raji moving to the outside, or of Tramon Williams lining up on the opposite side of the field.

But in the heyday of the Sherman lines, Mike Flanagan would march up to the line and tell the defense exactly what play they were going to run. He'd hike the ball and he, Wahle, Rivera, Mark Taucher, and Chad Clifton would blast open a hole for Ahman Green, exactly where he said they were going to run it.

There was no flip-flopping or shuffling among these men. They were masters of their position, in on every down. And they dominated. If someone was hurt, it was "next man up".

If that is what McCarthy meant by going "old-fashioned", I'm all for it. And its about time.

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Fan friendly comments only: off Comments (20) This filter will hide comments which have ratio of 5 to 1 down-vote to up-vote.

NashvillePacker's picture

Except moving Barclay all around is confusing and possibly hurting his development.

jc's picture

I think it means that don't see him as a starting at tackle.

Pete's picture

Dude... You a seriously need to trim your posts down. It's damn near blabber status.

tundravision's picture

You are absolutely right. I am going to make that my number one priority. Since I spend hours crafting content for free, for you to read for free, your length satisfaction is a high concern for me.

packeraaron's picture

LOL

tundravision's picture

Barclay is one thing: you want your backups to be able to "next man up" along the line. The starters need to be one-position masters of their domain.

jc's picture

This means that the Packers really like Barclay just not at tackle. He was really good against the run but often required help in the passing game. I would love to see him take over the center spot. I am not sold on Dietrich-Smith. Also the lineman need to be versatle but the big time shuffling was a result of not having enough talent not because that was the preferred method.

Stroh's picture

"So, in 2006, McCarthy and Thompson made their critical decision: instead of utilizing stud, prototypical lineman as the Packers had just a few scant years prior, they went the direction of undersized, versatile, and interchangeable jack-of-all trade linemen. It certainly would be easier (and cheaper) to bring in “tweeners” over the guys with a pedigree."

Just so much wrong w/ this paragraph. As stated earlier the Packers changed blocking schemes in '06 w/ the arrival of McCarthy, who brought Jagodzinski w/ him to teach the ZBS. SO the OL drafted were to fit that blocking scheme, not as a jack of all trades kinda guy that was a tweener. Colledge while unspectacular and slightly under-achieving has been a starter in the NFL for going on 8 years. Packers got a consistent starter for 5 years out of him. Spitz was an OG in college that was expected to be a better NFL Center than OG, and he was transitioning to Center when he hurt his neck which effectively, if not immediately ended his career. And Moll was a TE until his Sr college year, and only play one year of OT. Additionally, when a rookie comes into that situation a certain amount of learning process is going on as the team figures out what position he fits best at.

The real problem w/ the ZBS is that the Jagodzinski left after one year to become the HC at Boston Co. Had he stayed the ZBS might have been a boon for the Packers. Its still used successfully when the OL coach actually knows the intricacies of teaching it. The Packer had just invested 2 premium picks (2nd for Colledge and 3rd for Spitz) on the ZBS. They had to make a difficult decision, switch to another scheme or stick w/ the premium picks and hope another coach could teach it. Hindsight is easy to say they should have scraped the ZBS and force fit Colledge and Spitz into a scheme they probably wouldn't have succeeded in. Either way it was a no win situation and the Packer made their choice.

Lastly the Packers do still use quite a bit of the ZBS. They have inside and outside zone runs which are staples of the ZBS. In essense they are now like most NFL teams in that they are a combo blocking scheme. Using principles of the ZBS, power run scheme and pulling/trapping, etc. Very few teams today use only one particular blocking scheme. Houston is a true ZBS, and a couple are true Power gap scheme. Most are now a combination and not a subscriber on one particular.

On a final note, the reason the OL was so great under Sherman was that the OL played together for the better part of 6 years w/ each player pretty much settled into his particular position. Clifton LT, Wahle LG (after moving around a couple times) Flanagan at Center, Rivera at RG, and Tauscher at RT. The cohesion and teamwork they built together was the real reason for their success. Only Rivera was anything close to being Nasty. But each guy played next to the same players for years on end, the teamwork on that OL was tremendous.

packeraaron's picture

That's a lot of typing to essentially say the same thing that you're complaining about.

Stroh's picture

No, its stating the facts and the real reasons why the ZBS didn't work in GB. Nothing more or less. He said the decision was to go w/ cheaper, jack of all trades OL, which is simply NOT true!

Hell if you had to call the blocking scheme anything, it would still be ZBS since that is what the use the majority of.

packeraaron's picture

It is absolutely ZBS. And "undersized, versatile, and interchangeable jack-of-all trade linemen" are what are called for with that scheme. You're hung up on the use of "jack of all trade" which is probably a poor turn of phrase. But the rest is spot on.

Stroh's picture

The overriding factor for zone blocking OL is athletic. Size is more a byproduct, since smaller usually means better mobility for OL. I don't think zbs OL are necessarily interchangeable, jack of all trades, etc... If you want to assume that you can but I don't. Look at Wash they used a very high 1st on Trent Williams and he's 6'5 325 but he's athletic and mobile. Houston used a 1st on Duane Brown who is 320, but athletic enough to excel in the zbs. Both are exclusively LT. ZBS is about athleticism and mobility not size, jack of all trades and interchangeable.

Stroh's picture

Also, not one of Clifton, Wahle Flanagan, Rivera and Tauscher was a 1st round pick. They were a 2nd, 2nd, 3rd, 6th, 7th.

tundravision's picture

Stroh, other than the part about the "jack-of-all-trades", isn't rest of your entire post actually in complete agreement with what I wrote?

* The three guys the drafted in 2006 didn't work out.

* The ZBS plan was doomed, with needing to find bodies to fill the scheme instead of the other way around...and then when it was ineffective, they were stuck with ZBS bodies.

* The Packers still use the ZBS. Believe I said that, just not exclusively.

* The Sherman line was so good because they played one spot and one spot only.

Okay, so since we're apparently in total agreement on everything else, go locate the draft reports for every OL they drafted between 2006 and 2008. Until they invested in Sitton, everyone they drafted was a "ZBS body", drafted in the later rounds. It was cheaper than spending first round picks on stud linemen (as they eventually succumbed to with Bulaga, Sherrod)and focused their first rounders mostly on the defensive side of the ball.

Stroh's picture

Exept that's not what was said in the post. It seemed to be focused on jack of all trades, undersized, versatile and interchangeable. I didn't mention any of those except to say that they tried Colledge, Spitz and Moll and different positions to find where they fit best. Really Colledge was a LG from almost day 1 and Spitz was a RG from day 1, until the were in the process of switching him to Center full time in his 3rd/4th season.

jeremy's picture

I think this article as an overview of the Packers OL under Thompson and McCarthy is just fine. Spitz, Moll and Colledge are all of the interchangeable ilk IMO. Thompson still likes that type.

I'm also relived that they seam to have finally found some continuity.

lebowski's picture

I'm just praying they figure it out before having to block Suh and Fairley.

JakeK's picture

"...no flip-flopping or shuffling..."

I agree.... However, Game 1 from 2012 to Game 1 2013 will have all 5 offensive line positions manned by different starters.... That's the maximum amount of flip-flopping and shuffling possible.

Some are suggesting it's no big deal. ... Has anyone ever even tried this before? I'd hate to see GB drop a few games early waiting for a completely revamped OL to jell.

tundravision's picture

And that's really the crux of the article. If they have put these guys where they see them in their position of strength...and KEEP them there instead of sliding them around and reinventing the whell...then this is a good thing.

If this is just temporary, and the first injury reshuffles everyone around again...well, then we've learned nothing.

Jose's picture

And prepare to be reshuffled ...

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