Commentary

Colts, others deal with change of face along O-line

Who'll protect Peyton Manning's blind side? The Colts hope O-line guru Howard Mudd can get rookie Tony Ugoh ready in a hurry, writes Len Pasquarelli.

Originally Published: August 31, 2007
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

His name, literally, is Mudd. As in Howard Mudd.

And based on his 33 years as an NFL offensive line coach, including the past nine with the Indianapolis Colts, that bonus "d" at the end of his surname doesn't stand for dumped.

Because the quarterbacks who play behind Mudd's well-schooled pass-blocking units aren't knocked down very often.

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During Mudd's stint in Indianapolis, which runs concurrent to the brilliant tenure of Peyton Manning, his offensive line has surrendered a league-low 177 sacks, a paltry average of 19.7 per season. In five of those years, the Colts either led or tied for fewest sacks allowed in the NFL. Only once have they permitted more than 23 sacks in a season.

Mudd is back for another season in Indy. So, of course, is Manning, whose speedy release and field vision allow him to avoid sacks with his arm, not his feet. But for the first time, the two must plot protection packages minus three-time Pro Bowl left tackle Tarik Glenn. In July the solid blind side bodyguard, the 19th overall pick in 1997, surprisingly opted to retire.

That means the Colts will start a rookie, second-round pick Tony Ugoh of Arkansas, at the line's most crucial position. It also means the defending Super Bowl champs aren't immune to one of the most notable ramifications of the free agency era.

The destabilization of offensive line units.

Tony Ugoh
AP Photo/AJ MastRookie left tackle Tony Ugoh has a big responsibility -- protecting Peyton Manning's blind side.

"It's just a fact of life," said Cincinnati offensive line coach Paul Alexander, whose unit will have two new starters for the season opener, and perhaps more if starting tackles Levi Jones (knee) and Willie Anderson (foot) aren't fully rehabilitated from injuries. "You'd love to come to camp three or four years in a row and see all the same guys in all the same spots, like you used to be able to do on the offensive line. But it just isn't like that anymore."

In evaluating the projected starting offensive lines for every team this season, there will be as many as 60 changes (defined for these purposes as new starters or players who will line up at new positions) from last season. That's about 1.9 per franchise -- an increase from last season but actually modest compared to prior years.

Since the free-agent system was implemented in 1993, the average number of line changes has been as high as 2.4, and remains close to 2.1 overall. But the season average fell below 2.0 in 2005, and dropped to an all-time low of 1.53 last year.

Attrition accounts for some of the changes. But offensive linemen, for all the punishment they absorb, tend to have long careers. Free agency -- and the mobility it has created -- has made a huge impact.

Most of that mobility has been upward. But while linemen have gotten richer -- even guards, previously regarded as little more than replaceable parts, began commanding $7 million-per-year contracts this offseason -- the quality of line play has waned due to the adverse effect on stability.

Once a bedrock of steadiness, the offensive line has come to symbolize some of the worst aspects of free agency and its corrosive repercussions on the continuity of the game.

Said one longtime NFC line coach: "The overall performance in the league [is bad]. People point to an increase in sacks and say, 'Well, the pass-rushers are better, and there are just so many superior athletes coming at the quarterback now.' That's bull. Line play is really down. And so quarterbacks are going down more. Teams are being forced to put guys out there who have bad technique, who don't understand the nuances, and shouldn't be playing. But, hey, you've got to line up with five [blockers], right?"

The ongoing line dance to which some staffs are forced to quickstep to almost annually is no waltz, that's for sure. Nine teams -- more than one-quarter of the league's franchises -- project to having three of more personnel changes this year. Four expect to have four new starting blockers.

On the flip side, just six teams look to return their line units intact from 2006, including the Tennessee Titans.

"You have no idea," Titans head coach Jeff Fisher said, "how reassuring it is to have all five guys back again. It's really important."

Mudd certainly didn't expect to toss Ugoh right into the fray when the Colts chose him four months ago. The master plan was to provide Ugoh some playing time at guard and maybe some snaps at left tackle in lopsided games while grooming him for the possibility of supplanting Glenn (who would've been in the final year of his contract this season) in 2008.

Now, the learning curve for Ugoh has been accelerated and training has become an on-the-job experience. Through the first three preseason games, Ugoh has done an estimable job.

But he will face a real test in the Sept. 6 prime-time opener against New Orleans. One of the key subplots will be how much help, perhaps in the form of a tight end, the Colts provide Ugoh versus Saints standout right end Will Smith.

"I think he's done quite well," Mudd said this week of Ugoh. "Is he a finished product? No, not by a long ways. But some of the other people who have played for a lot longer time aren't finished [products], either. I'm OK with where he is."

How high are the Colts on Ugoh? They surrendered their first-round choice in next year's draft just to get the pick needed to grab him. Built like a basketball power forward at 6 feet, 5 inches and 301 pounds, Ugoh possesses a completely different body type than did the 340-pound Glenn. But he has quick feet and the long wing span coaches want at the position.

While the Colts wait on Ugoh to blossom, they can at least be reassured that Mudd remains in charge of the line.

"You just count on Howard coming up with [a protection scheme] to keep people away from you," Manning said.

Quality offensive line coaches are prized commodities, and teams try hard to keep them around. Of the seven new head coaches in the league, just one, Bobby Petrino of Atlanta, has an offensive line coach with no previous NFL experience. Three of the new coaches hired line mentors with past NFL experience, and the other three retained the o-line assistants from their club's previous staff. In fact, 25 teams have the same line coaches from a year ago.

Also notable is that 22 teams have more than one offensive line coach. One reason: Because of the high rate of personnel turnover, it is clearly a teaching-intensive post, one that some head coaches view as their most important hire.

"You'd better have a great offensive line coach if you're going to win in this league," said Cardinals first-year head coach Ken Whisenhunt, who brought one of the best, Russ Grimm, with him from the Steelers. "It's a high-pressure job and you need to have a high quality person in place."

The annual offensive line overhauls also mean more emphasis is placed on minicamps and organized team activities (OTAs) sessions in the spring. Lineman can't hit in those sessions, but they might be able to at least hit it off from a solidarity standpoint.

"It's the position on your staff where a good, detailed [assistant coach] can make the biggest difference for your team," said former Dolphins coach Nick Saban. "By definition, any offensive line coach is working with the poorest athletes on your football team. Maybe the smartest players, but certainly not the prettiest. But by creating camaraderie, working on technique, motivating, a coach can make guys better collectively than they are as individual players. That's why good [offensive line coaches] are such a premium."

Regarded as one of the NFL's premier line coaches, Hudson Houck cobbled together a representative unit during Saban's two years in the league. Having been retained by first-year Miami coach Cam Cameron, Houck will seek to repeat the process. But it will be tough. Counting new players and three holdovers playing new positions, the Dolphins could have new starters at all five offensive line positions in 2007.

The Bills, who invested heavily in veteran free-agent linemen this spring, could have four new starters. That puts the pressure on longtime line coach Jim McNally to build a cohesive unit as fast as possible.

"You used to be able to look at a bunch of team pictures and notice the offensive linemen were the same for four, five, six years in a row," McNally said. "Now everything is a snapshot, a Polaroid, that's all. It seems like [the line] is always a work in progress. But that's just how it is these days."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer at ESPN.com.