Monday, August 17, 2009

The Offensive Line: Quantity Over Quality?

Back in Ted Thompson's first years as general manager of the Packers, I expressed concerns about his penchant for trading back in the draft. Indeed, he did it quite often in those first three drafts, to the sheer jubilation of some and concerning to others.

For those who celebrated the trade-backs, Mike Sherman was often used as the measuring stick as a measure of the intelligence of the moves. After all, Mike Sherman traded up, and since he traded up and those picks didn't always work out, trading up was bad. So, it stood to reason that trading back must then be "good". Since Thompson was rebuilding the team, it was important to have quantity over quality. Mike McCarthy announced that roster spots would have competition, and that said competition would raise the level of play.

As you can guess, I wasn't one of those who celebrated the trade-backs (and was bemusedly intrigued when those same folks decried Sherman's trade-ups backtracked to defend Thompson's draft-rocking move to get Clay Matthews in April). I was nervous that that quantity over quality wouldn't necessarily make talent rise to the top, but simply allow average talent to play to its potential, and we would end up with a roster full of average players that would create an average team, even if coached well and playing solidly together.

Yes, you can guess I was one of those people who craved a solid free agent signing, or swinging a deal to bring a solid talent to an area where it was truly needed (in those days, the offensive line or the running back corps). Today, I understand the benefits of avoiding the expensive world of free agency, but my concern about quantity over quality may be starting to manifest itself.

In 2007, the Packers went 13-3 and went deep into the playoffs. Ted Thompson won the GM of the Year award that year, and things looked great for the Packers. But looking at the Pro Bowl roster that year, the Packers that were represented were all holdovers from the previous regime: Brett Favre, Donald Driver, Chad Clifton, Aaron Kampman, and Al Harris. That's not intended to be any sort of indictment against Thompson: he was wise to keep solid veterans from the Sherman team while trying to rebuild. However, as those players continue to age and move on, the team that remains is the one Thompson claims responsibility for.

There are a couple of positions that I think are now being affected by the "quantity over quality" strategy, most significantly, the offensive line.

Ted Thompson took a lot of heat for letting stalwart veteran guards Mike Wahle and Marco Rivera leave the team. I understood the move at the time, given the precarious state of the salary cap. However, the problem is not Thompson letting two expensive veterans leave, it is with his strategy in replacing them.

With his flurry of trade-backs, Thompson attempted to restock the offensive line with young players that he hoped would fill in the new Zone Blocking Scheme nicely. No, there were no big names in those picks, no free agents, no trades for veteran players, but a lot of kids who got playing time right away. In those first four drafts, Thompson invested one second round pick (Colledge), one third round pick (Spitz), two fourth round picks (Coston, Sitton), and three fifth round picks (Coston, Moll, Giacomini). Given the Packers still had bookend tackles Mark Tauscher and Chad Clifton, along with solid Sherman holdover Scott Wells, the guards spots were the only ones that needed to be filled.

And yet, none of thsse players stepped forth in those years to truly take a firm hold of those positions and hang on. Daryn Colledge is considered our most solid lineman, yet is far from earning Pro Bowl honors. Now, as the Packers attempt to push Wells out of the lineup and replace him with Spitz, they have to deal with the concerns that I had years ago: no one is stepping up and playing above an average level despite "competition".

In fact, Aaron Nagler comments today that not only were "pencilled-in" starters Spitz and Sitton far from impressive, the guy they've been trying to push out (Wells) actually played the most solid game. Meanwhile, with Tauscher's Packer career likely over due to injury, Brian Carriveau notes that Tony Moll continues to get playing time at tackle ahead of Giacomini and rookie Jamon Meredith.

In other words, we have a mess. We have too many guys that the Packers have invested time and energy into, and none of them appear ready to step forward and command their spot. We have a lot of good talent, but (with the aging of Chad Clifton), no great talent along the line.

In other words, the guys we end up cutting this year may not necessarily be playing that much worse than the guys that are starting.

But you can't say Thompson hasn't addressed the line: in fact, if you include this year's two draft picks and Wil Whittaker from 2005, Thompson has drafted an average of two offensive linemen per year...but only two first-day picks. That's quantity.

But not necessarily quality.


Anonymous said...

If I remember correctly, the comments from the front office were:

Quantity brings competition and competition brings quality...

I think its still too early to say for certain on some of the young O- lineman that GB has brought in. Others like Coston, Whittaker, Klemm we know they couldn't cut it

But they do take time to develop their individual talents and then it takes time to gel into a cohesive unit.

2009 will be telling in terms of a cohesive blocking Unit, for they have had time to develop their skills and strength. And comments from the coaches suggest that they will now be given a greater chance to become a solid unit.

Time to put it all together and I am betting that they will do just that and show marked improvement across the board.

C.D. Angeli said...

That's the one thing I continually hold out hope for is that this group will become a better group together than they are individually.

That said, throwing mid-round draft picks at your offensive line and hoping it develops isn't what I am going to call a winning strategy. I think as we face off against better defenses, we'll have a better gauge of where this line is.

I just miss the days when we had five solid guys who commanded their positions, instead of all this continual pussyfooting around, year after year.