The knee-jerk reaction is to blame Tom Cable for Seattle's protection woes on the offensive line and I get that -- he's the architect of the run game and does influence personnel decisions therein. However, I don't think we can fairly criticize Cable here without including Seattle's personnel department -- John Schneider and his scouts -- and Pete Carroll, who is ultimately the final say for all moves. Ultimately, the Seahawks' failures thus far on the offensive line fall on the shoulders of the entire organization as a whole -- whether it's poor scouting, poor evaluation, poor allocation of resources -- you name it. But, there's also an interesting angle to this to keep in mind.
There is a thought that has become more commonly held that offensive lines and offensive linemen across the NFL have become significantly worse over the last few years. Seattle's is a gold standard for this, but keep this in mind: there are a lot of teams around the NFL dealing with similar issues up front.
It's something that Cable mentioned over the summer.
"I'm not wanting to offend anybody," he said, "But college football, offensively, has gotten to be really, really bad fundamentally. Unfortunately, I think we're doing a huge disservice to offensive football players, other than a receiver, that come out of these spread systems. The runners aren't as good. They aren't taught how to run. The blockers aren't as good. The quarterbacks aren't as good. They don't know how to read coverage and throw progressions. They have no idea."
Because of this, Cable and the Seahawks have felt they could take these conversion projects and former defensive linemen and plug them into their system.
"I can go get a guy who runs a little faster, jumps a little higher and has an aggressive streak in him on defense and start with him," Cable said. "I'm going to have to retrain an offensive lineman out of college anyway."
The early returns have been poor. Pete Carroll has mentioned multiple times after each game that this is what they expected going into the season. It's not a surprise. But, it's concerning.
This is something that former NFL defensive lineman Stephen White and I talked about in our weekly conversation for SB Nation's main page. Here's what we said:
Stephen: Now, the quality of linemen coming out of college definitely has changed primarily because, as you alluded to, they aren't being asked to do a lot of the things they used to have to do in many of these new-fangled spread offenses.
Even those who are pretty good at run blocking don't get much experience pass blocking for drop-back passes, and drop-back passes are still a prominent part of most NFL offenses. That means even when you get an athletically gifted young offensive lineman in the draft, they still have to be taught a ton of stuff they should have learned in college but didn't.
That's why you see a team like the Bucs starting their two new second-round picks on the offensive line struggling early with pressures and penalties this season. Neither left tackle Donovan Smith nor right guard Ali Marpet were finished products coming out of school this year, so the offense will struggle a bit until they get up to speed.
For now, I'm going to chalk a lot of this up to it still being very early in the season. I still think many of these offensive lines will get it together. As they get more comfortable playing together game after game we should be a better product overall across the league. It's just going to take some time.
Danny: I always find the relationship between college football, which is generally spread-out and speed-oriented, and the NFL, which is still traditional at its core, fascinating. College football fans (and coaches, sometimes) are always quick to point out that the college game isn't a farm system for the NFL; it's its own entity. Well, I'm not sure the NFL feels that way, but it's interesting nonetheless.
With the college game mostly shotgun-oriented (in general, again, obviously some teams run pro-style stuff), teams are having to teach their quarterbacks the footwork involved in five- and seven-step drops, having to teach them simple stuff like turning their back on the defense to do a play-action fake, and teaching them to read defenses instead of looking over to the sideline to get the plays.
Likewise, offensive linemen have to learn to sustain blocks for more than a second or two, how to play in three-point stances, how to play with tighter splits, and a million other nuances that the pro game requires that the college game does not. On the other hand, maybe we'll see more athletic offensive linemen in the NFL take over for the big 335-pound maulers?
Either way, it's always been a tough transition from college to the pros, but as the game continues to evolve at both levels, that relationship will remain an interesting one.
It wasn't just Stephen and me having this conversation. It was a big point of contention last week.
As Kevin Seifert wrote over at ESPN, former NFL GM Bill Polian called the offensive lineman shortage "an epidemic:"
"It's a sad state of affairs," Polian said. "And if it keeps up, we're going to be talking about backup quarterbacks playing a lot. Because when you've got problems with the offensive line, you get the quarterback on his back."
Matt Williamson, who scouts the NFL for ESPN, agreed:
"I've been harping on that for two years. I don't think the average fan realizes what an O-line shortage there is now. There are very few teams with lines that have had continuity, and there's certainly less Hall of Fame-level guys playing right now. You don't look around and see many of the Jonathan Ogden, Orlando Pace and Walter Jones types anymore."
That article quoted some stats to support this.
Between 2009 and 2012, NFL quarterbacks were pressured -- defined by ESPN Stats & Information as sacked, hit or put under duress -- on 22.3 percent of their dropbacks.
That figure has risen to 25.6 since the start of 2013, an increase that works out to about 1.25 additional pressures per game, based on 600 dropbacks a year.
Along with allowing added pressure, offensive lines so far this season are providing less running room and taking more penalties than they did in the same stretch of time last season.
Average rushing yards before contact has dropped eight percent, from 2.35 yards per rush during the first three weeks of 2014 to 2.19 yards now. Accepted penalties for either holding or false starts, meanwhile, have risen 20 percent from a total of 219 during the first three weeks of last season to 275.
Former Seahawk and future Hall of Famer Steve Hutchinson concurred.
"There's definitely something to it," he said. "No one in the game can stick their head in the sand and say it's not happening."
"You watch football at most levels now," Hutchinson said, "and in the running game, nobody knows how to attack and snap their hips. Everything is stand up, turn sideways and run. That's the zone scheme. It's push and pester, just kind of get in somebody's way, and let the running back find the crease. There's no more moving the line of scrimmage, no more establishing the line, no more wearing defenses out by the fourth quarter."
In pass protection, Hutchinson surmises, spread linemen "are just told to get in front of a guy and don't get beat clean." Some level of pressure is expected, he said, leaving it to quarterbacks to release the ball or extend the play before a sack occurs.
"If you're getting guys that, since the day they started playing in pee wee, never got in a three-point stance and never really did any drive blocking, if all they have done is just run sideways and pushed people, then you're not going to get it turned around at the pro level."
Greg Bedard covered the same subject over at Sports Illustrated. He asked Rams' offensive line coach Paul Boudreau, Colts offensive line coach Joe Gilbert, and Tom Cable's mentor Alex Gibbs, now with the Broncos, to comment on this "epidemic."
"I don't think it's what we've been used to. I think the hardest thing I see is the way we have to practice now because of the rules that are put on our coaching staffs. I know when Alex came into the league and I came into the league, it was all about your pad level, staying down. How do you keep your pad level down? You practice in pads. And the rules and the way the collective bargaining has been with what the owners agreed to, it's put a lot of stress on line coaches, offense and defense. I think you have, by the third or fourth preseason game, you look at your tape and you're still playing too high.
If you don't practice in pads and you're always in "underwear" and you can't go against the defensive line but once or twice a week in pads, you're going to be behind. In the 1980s and '90s, you came out of training camp, you were ready to play on day one. Now, by the third or fourth game, you can tell that your guys are still not there. That's what I see, and it's by the rules of the game."
I think that is very true. Part of it was the way we coached then. We coached so hard and so tough it was nasty and the players, when they had a chance to get it corrected, they wanted it. The other thing that makes it a little different is we've got the best proving ground in college football, but of late, the college game has become a game of the quarterback running and a throwing game that is not a training ground. You literally have to start over in those phases.
The offenses they're running right now, it's not helping the young player speed up and step up. You're not as good at dropback blocking as they were five years ago. And the quarterback running game has put them in a whole different system in my opinion because their quarterback is one of their top runners. That puts a lot of stress on us because that's not what is going to happen (in the NFL). We can't afford for our guy to get hit, and we know that and understand that. It's a thing we live with constantly.
One other thing I think has happened too, and then I'll shut up, is we used to prepare more guys. But the need for extra receiving kind of people has changed some complexities for us. All of us now have to coach a tight end that literally can't be a blocker. In most cases, he's just not capable of doing it and he makes so many big plays, he's really like a third receiver. And then we've gone to a three-receiver system so we're really out there with four receivers, which puts a tremendous amount of stress on us and the runner, who is not prepared.
Talk about ill-prepared, the back that comes to pro ball and has to be a protector, it's a disaster for him. Those are some of the sidebar things that have made our job tougher. When I first came into the league, I had only seven guys that could play. For some stupid reason I convinced the head coach we could do it with seven guys instead of eight. We slowly got to the point where nobody has more than seven.
The conversation goes on here -- and it's a must read. It concerns factors like the college game and the recent changes to the CBA, which limits practice time and "full pads" practices.
Anyway -- I'm not deflecting criticism from Carroll, Schneider, and Cable when it comes to the bleak state of the Seahawks' offensive line, but I did find it interesting that it's generally accepted to be a major issue, NFL-wide. And, it starts in college football and ends with CBA-limits on practice and full-pads time.
I will say, though -- some of the things that these offensive line coaches talk about do explain to me somewhat why the Seahawks have taken the approach they've taken, with regard to converts and "athletes" at the position. I think the results have been worse than what they'd hoped for, but I can see why they may have taken this route.