O-line turnover puts pressure on coaches

With so much player turnover, offensive line coaches will have their work cut out for them this season.

Updated: July 3, 2006, 12:24 PM ET
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

Criticized by some in the league for the fat contract that he used to pry coveted offensive line coach Hudson Houck away from the San Diego Chargers a year ago, Dolphins coach Nick Saban sat in a golf cart after a recent minicamp practice and, with a full year's perspective on which to rely, concluded that he and the Dolphins' organization got the better end of the deal.

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"It's the position on your staff where a good, detailed [assistant coach] can make the biggest difference," Saban said. "By definition, any offensive line coach is working with the poorest athletes on your football team. But by creating camaraderie, working on technique, motivating, he can make guys better collectively than they probably are as individuals. That's why the good (offensive line coaches) are at such a premium."

Essentially, that summed up the job Houck did in 2005, taking a relatively motley and undistinguished group of blockers and cobbling them into a unit good enough to succeed. That the Dolphins achieved a No. 14 statistical ranking in total offense was, in large part, due to his efforts.

His reward: Now Houck, who has carved out an impressive coaching career by remaking offensive lines wherever he has worked, gets to do it all over again.

As usual, in a league where offensive lines are annually in flux, he is hardly alone.

The Dolphins have a new left tackle, L.J. Shelton, signed as an unrestricted free agent after resurrecting his flagging career with the Cleveland Browns in 2005. Guard Rex Hadnot has moved to center and longtime starting center Seth McKinney has switched to right guard. Another free agent addition, Bennie Anderson, a five-year starter at Baltimore and Buffalo, might challenge McKinney for the No. 1 right guard spot.

It's all part of the maddening game of musical chairs that seems to play out annually on offensive lines throughout the league. Once the bedrock of stability, a unit for which the five starters might play together as a group for seven or eight seasons, the offensive line arguably has come to symbolize the worst aspects of free agency and its corrosive effect on the continuity of the game.

"It's the position on your staff where a good, detailed [assistant coach] can make the biggest difference. By definition, any offensive line coach is working with the poorest athletes on your football team. But by creating camaraderie, working on technique, motivating, he can make guys better collectively than they probably are as individuals. That's why the good (offensive line coaches) are at such a premium."
Nick Saban, Dolphins coach on the importance of offensive line coach Hudson Houck

Projecting the starting offensive line units of all 32 teams for the 2006 season shows, at least unofficially, that there will be 49 new starters or linemen who will start at new positions this year. That's an average of 1.53 new starters per franchise. And if you think that's a lot, consider this: In the first 10 years of the free agency system, which began in 1993, the leaguewide average was 2.2 new offensive line starters per team. Yet even with less overall turnover, there are still eight teams, one-quarter of the league's franchises, that likely will have three or more new starters in 2006.

Add to that the fact that 13 teams will have new offensive line bosses -- including two former recent head coaches, Mike Sherman in Houston and Mike Tice in Jacksonville, who both hold the title of assistant head coach but are charged with line responsibilities -- and the makeover picture gets even more complicated. All this illustrates why the offensive line coach for any team in the league is one of the most important assistants on a staff.

"It's critical," Saban said. "Especially with all the turnover that free agency brings you. It's not like the days when you could take a team picture and the same five [offensive line starters] would all be standing together for about five or six years in a row. Uh-uh. You'd better have a great offensive line coach if you're going to win in this league. You have to get results from your line coach. It's a high-pressure job. It really is a coaching-intensive deal."

This season, because the turnover of offensive coaches on staffs around the league mirrors the kind of migration that has taken place on the field, the pressure to meld a viable blocking unit is as intense as in any recent year. Here's a look at five new offensive line coaches facing challenging training camps:

• Jeff Jagodzinski (Green Bay): His title is actually offensive coordinator but, make no mistake, the more pressing duty for Jagodzinski and assistant James Campen is to fix a unit that descended into disrepair in 2005 after having been one of the NFL's most consistent lines for a five-year stretch. The good news for Jagodzinski, who this spring installed a new zone-blocking scheme that incorporates plenty of backside cut-blocking techniques, is that he's got a pair of standout tackles in Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher. The not-so-good news is that it appears the entire interior of the line will be revamped, and the Packers could have a pair of rookies starting at the guard slots. Last spring, starting guards Mike Wahle and Marco Rivera exited as unrestricted free agents. This year, center Mike Flanagan followed them out the door, then backup guard Kevin Barry, who might have challenged for a starting job, suffered a season-ending quadriceps injury. So the new center is Mike Wells, who played more at guard his first two seasons. For much of the spring, this year's second-round draft pick, Daryn Colledge, worked at left guard with the first unit. And toward the end of the organized team activities sessions, third-rounder Jason Spitz, a college center, was the starter at right guard.

• Doug Marrone (New Orleans): Like Jagodzinski of the Packers, Marrone is also the offensive coordinator for first-year head coach Sean Payton. But his background is as an offensive line coach and reshaping the Saints' blocking unit will be his primary focus. New Orleans is another team that faces a pretty dramatic remaking. Standout center LeCharles Bentley, a two-time Pro Bowl performer, departed in free agency. The Saints released starting left guard Kendyl Jacox and traded starting left tackle Wayne Gandy. So what's the new alignment? Second-year veteran Jammal Brown, who started 13 games at right tackle as the team's first-round pick in 2005, flips to the left side. He'll be joined there by guard Montrae Holland, a part-time starter in the past. Former Cleveland first-round choice Jeff Faine, who wasn't physical enough for the Browns' coaches and who was acquired in a trade on draft weekend, is the center. The projected right tackle is Jon Stinchcomb, who has appeared in just 10 games in three seasons, none as a starter, and is coming off a patella tendon injury that he suffered in training camp last summer and which sidelined him the entire 2005 season. The lone holdover is right guard Jermane Mayberry.

• Mike Sherman (Houston): The former Green Bay sideline boss is getting back to his coaching roots and, along with assistant John Benton, could field a unit with new starters at all five positions. Then again, given that the Texans surrendered an average of 57.3 sacks in the first four seasons of their existence, with two years in which the line permitted 65 sacks or more, maybe that isn't such a bad thing. Sherman lobbied to bring in former Packers starting center Flanagan to aid in the wholesale overhaul, and that will help, but the key will be who wins the left tackle job. The candidates are three-year veteran Seth Wand, who flopped in the starting role two years ago, and a pair of rookies, Charles Spencer and Eric Winston. Last year's starting left tackle, Chester Pitts, will move back inside to his natural position of left guard. Former center Steve McKinney switches to right guard and Zach Wiegert and last year's starter, Todd Wade, will vie for the right tackle spot.

• Jackie Slater (Oakland): What's the old saying? Those who can do, and those who can't teach? Well, for 20 seasons with the Rams, Slater did, and his long and distinguished tenure earned him a spot in the Hall of Fame. Now, can he and assistant line coach Irv Eatman, also a pretty solid player during his tour of duty in the league, teach well enough to hammer together a dramatically reshuffled line into a workable unit? Time will tell. As is the case in Houston, the Raiders could have changes at all five starting positions in '06. Robert Gallery, the second overall choice in the 2004 draft, moves from right to left tackle and the guy he replaces there, Barry Sims, slides inside to left guard. Last year's left guard, Langston Walker, is the new starter at right tackle, a position he has played in the past. Another high-round choice from the '04 draft, second-rounder Jake Grove, takes over full-time at center after bouncing back and forth between the hub spot and guard his first two seasons. Journeyman Brad Badger replaces Ron Stone, who was released this spring, at right guard.

• Tony Wise (New York Jets): Having to get one rookie ready to start immediately is a formidable task. But a broken ankle suffered by projected starting center Trey Teague two weeks ago means Wise probably will have to get two first-year players prepared to be in the lineup on opening day. Fortunately for Wise, the two players, left tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson and center Nick Mangold, the Jets' two selections in the first round this year, were the premier prospects at their respective positions. At least that provides the veteran Wise with a solid platform from which to start.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here Insider.

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