Saturday John Morgan authored a great piece about the type of systems and offenses that the Seattle Seahawks and Brian Schottenheimer could attempt to emulate in working to develop a dominant rushing offense capable of potentially carrying the team forward to the Super Bowl. When it comes to writing skills, I’ll never be qualified to hold John’s athletic supporter, however, when it comes to tables, charts and random factoids, I’m the guy you want.
Specifically in his piece about the dominant ground based Air Coryell offenses that could serve as a model for the Seahawks going forward, Morgan proposed using the Washington Redskins of the 1980s and the Dallas Cowboys of the mid-1990s as a model. Now, it is certainly true that both of those teams ran ground based variants of the Air Coryell system, but both of the teams he cited existed in a different era in NFL history. Specifically, the 1980s Redskins were dominant before free agency as we know it came into existence, and the Cowboys dynasty fell apart within just a couple of seasons of the salary cap being put into place.
Back when both of those teams used a dominant ground game to control the line of scrimmage and win a whole lot of Super Bowls over a little more than a decade the economics of the NFL were far different, particularly for Washington during the 1980s. Because free agency did not exist, every single player on the roster was effectively an exclusive rights free agent in today’s terms. Their options were to play for the contract the team offered, or sit at home. Their only leverage in negotiations was the holdout, and as a group their only leverage came in the form of work stoppages, such as those witnessed in both 1982 and 1987.
In any case, I’m not going to belabor my point with a history lesson. Let’s jump right in to looking at the type of continuity those Washington and Dallas teams were able to have up front. We’ll start with the Washington offensive line through the 1980s, by looking at the starters at each position and the number of games played by that player in that particular season. (Author’s note: the 1982 season had only 9 games, while the 1987 season had only 12 games due to the aforementioned work stoppages.)
And then we move on to the Dallas lines of the 1990s.
You’ll obviously notice that line after 1993 and before 1994, and that is to denote when the salary cap went into effect. Obviously, the impact of the cap was not instantaneous, but the change in continuity is rather visible beginning in 1997.
Now, for comparison purposes, here we have what the Seahawks offensive line has looked like since 2011.
And obviously we see some continuity in the 2013-2014 time frame, before a couple of seasons of massive upheaval and turnover, before returning to a small semblance of continuity in 2018. For readers who remember the question and answer piece with Thomas Emerick from early January, Emerick has done a significant amount of research into the effects of offensive line continuity on success in the run game, and while there are obviously multiple other variables that play an important role, his work has shown that continuity is a key factor.
So, fans can hope and dream all they want about building an offense similar to that of Washington back in the 1980s or the Cowboys of the mid 1990s, but at the end of the day, things have changed. The game has changed. The league has changed. Team structure has changed.
And as much as the front office may want to emulate something, to attempt to do so within the confines of a system that has seen drastic alterations over the last two decades seems a task destined for failure.