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Evaluating Line Play in the NFL
by Scott Spreitzer - 10/13/2008
We're starting to hear more and more in media circles about how critical the offensive line is in the NFL.
In the past this has been an underrated element of play. Coaches and players always knew how important it was. The media focused more on the star skill position players, particularly the quarterback. If the line was doing its job, you wouldn't hear about it because everyone would be raving about the quarterbacks and running backs. If the line wasn't doing its job, then you'd hear about how a team needed to make a trade or draft a big college lineman.
What's the proper way to evaluate an offensive line in the NFL?
Everyone knows when it's not working. Everyone can figure out when something must be going right because the team is playing so well. Is there a systematic way for handicappers to evaluate all 32 pro football offensive lines?
Unfortunately there isn't a quick and easy way in the league's database. They have "passer ratings" for quarterbacks. You can look at total rushing yardage or yards-per-carry for running backs. There isn't anything like that for offensive lines.
Sacks Allowed? Sure, that's important. But it can be warped by how often the team tries to pass. And, if a quarterback isn't quick at making decisions, it will make the line look bad when it's actually the quarterback who's at fault.
I've found it very helpful to create a system for evaluating offensive lines using the following team stats. You look at the full spectrum of performance, then make a composite ranking based on where everyone stands.
*SACKS ALLOWED: that's the stat that you first think of for evaluating offensive lines. It's obviously got to be in the mix. I don't use raw total sacks though. I adjust for the number of pass attempts each team makes.
*YARDS-PER RUSH: running backs get the acclaim and cash for putting up big numbers. It's impossible to put up big numbers in the NFL unless you have a line that can create some daylight for you to run through. The best offensive lines are great at protecting their quarterback AND creating holes for their running backs. It's tough to be good at both. You owe it to yourself to know who is.
*THIRD DOWN CONVERSIONS: This particular stat is helpful in so many regards that I wish it got more attention from the media. On the other hand, it's so helpful when it comes to picking winners that I'm glad it isn't! Moving the chains is arguably the single most important skill for an offense these days. If it's third and short, the line needs to do what it can to put a running back past that yellow marker on your TV screen. If it's third and medium or third and long, the quarterback needs time to find a receiver. If there was one stat that best highlighted the strengths or weaknesses of an offensive line, it would have to be this one. Sacks is the first one you think of. Third Down conversions should be the first one you look at.
*ADJUSTING FOR QUARTERBACK EXPERIENCE: I mentioned earlier that the line sometimes gets blamed for bad plays when it's actually the quarterback's fault. If you're really trying to get a sense of how good an offensive line is, it's important to adjust based on the experience of the quarterback. Some lines don't deserve the abuse they get. On the other hand, will New England seem like it has a great line with Matt Cassel at quarterback rather than Tom Brady? Would Indianapolis have seemed as solid in recent years had Jim Sorgi been the quarterback instead of Peyton Manning. Honestly, some lines get too much credit when things are going well. If you're looking across a full spectrum of performance, it's much easier to see strengths and weaknesses.
I do think you'll uncover some very important insights by working through the numbers. Teams you hadn't thought of as value sides will suddenly present themselves for consideration. Teams you had thought were strong up front might become exposed this year if their starting QB has to miss time. Probably the single most important factor for evaluating what will happen with a backup quarterback is the caliber of the offensive line.
Look at sacks allowed per attempt, yards-per-rush, and third down conversions and see what you learn. Maybe you can come up with some additional stats that shed even more light on the issue. Don't let the media pollute your thinking. A lot of analysts are ex-quarterbacks. They'll tell you nothing is ever the fault of the quarterback!
Don't attack the betting line unless you know about the offensive line. And, that my friends, is the bottom line!