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First it was running backs, but now offensive linemen don’t matter?

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NFL: Seattle Seahawks at Denver Broncos Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been nearly two years since the football analytics community began to argue pretty loudly that the running back position had lost much of its value, and the phrases “running backs don’t matter” and “rushing doesn’t matter” were coined. Well, watch out, because now the analytics community is coming for the offensive linemen under the guise that they don’t matter.

Sort of.

Last fall it was ESPN that did a feature on how Russell Wilson is the secret problem plaguing the offensive line of the Seattle Seahawks in introducing their Pass Block Win Rating (PBWR) metric. Now, following up on that, Eric Eager of ProFootballFocus.com has authored a fascinating piece that not only reviewed some of the existing literature on the causes of pressure rate, but also used PFF’s proprietary data to look further into this question than any other public work has.

The piece is well worth the time it takes to read it, but to summarize it, basically what Eager finds is that when it comes to pass protection, the line is less important than the quarterback in determining what the pressure rate will be. Now, I’m not one to boast and try to argue that this is something I’ve been pounding the table on for a long time, I’ll just move on. After I post a screengrab that is nearly a year old.

(Author’s note: Before anyone asks, yes, the Oakland Raiders line finished with a better ranking than the Seahawks line in FO’s pass blocking ranking for 2018, while Derek Carr was pressured on 29.9% of dropbacks compared to the 39.7% of dropbacks on which Russell Wilson was pressured during the 2018 regular season).

Now, I’m obviously not the first person to have taken this stance, as it’s a position that has been stated by multiple others in the past. David Giller authored a guest post on the subject for Advanced Football Analytics back in 2013. Advanced Football Analytics was the website founded by Brian Burke prior to his joining ESPN as a Senior Analytics Specialist. However, an understanding of this concept is seen not just in the media, as the New England Patriots have taken this to an extreme in applying it to their left tackle position. While left tackle is often considered the most important position on the offensive line, the Patriots don’t seem to care.

Interestingly, it’s the Patriots who are one of the greatest case studies on this subject in recent history. In 2007 with Tom Brady at quarterback, the Pats finished the year with the fifth lowest sack rate allowed in the entire NFL. In 2008, however, Brady was injured midway through the first quarter of the opening game of the season and ended up missing the remainder of the year. With Matt Cassel at the helm the rest of the way, the Pats finished 26th in the league in sack rate. When Brady returned in 2009, it was back to the top of the rankings, as the Pats finished second behind only the Indianapolis Colts in sack rate on the season.

That wild swing from fifth to 26th and back to second came in spite of the Pats having the same five offensive linemen, Matt Light, Logan Mankins, Dan Koppen, Steven Neal and Nick Kaczur, start 70 of 80, 71 of 80 and 68 of 80 possible games in 2007, 2008 and 2009, respectively. In short, the change in 2008 that led to the collapse in the performance of the Pats offensive line was the knee injury Brady suffered.

Of course, PFF’s evaluation only looked at offensive linemen and their performance as it impacted the pressure allowed in the passing game. Thus, while offensive linemen may not be as important to pass protection as many fans believe, the simple reason the analytics community has declared that running backs don’t matter is because of the utmost importance of the offensive line in the running game.

Thus, as the analytics community digs deeper and deeper into the underlying factors that determine the outcomes of NFL games, we’re able to gain a slightly better understanding of the factors that impact the outcomes of games. So while many have understood the importance of the quarterback in their own pass protection for some time, as the 2019 season progresses fans will get to see how well Russ is adjusting to learning to play within the system and constraints that offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer has set for him.