It is a story line the Giants wish would fade into the background, an issue dating to last season that has been a central focus of the team’s offensive struggles and one that again factored into the Giants’ miserable showing in a 19-3 loss to the Cowboys in the opener last Sunday night.
Unfortunately for Ben McAdoo, Eli Manning and the Giants’ touchdown-challenged offense, the problem is not going away. And if this season turns into one colossal disappointment, the team’s problems along the offensive line surely will be a central cause for blame.
“It’s the same group of guys that came back from last year, and I guess other people assumed the line would magically get better. I didn’t assume that,” said former NFL offensive lineman Geoff Schwartz, who played for the Giants in 2014-15. “Nothing showed me that the issues they had at tackle were going to improve very much, and it didn’t improve on Sunday [against the Cowboys].”
Schwartz, now an NFL analyst for SiriusXMNFL and SB Nation who also hosts the @BlockEmUp podcast, said the struggles might very well continue deep into the season.
“I’d love to say it’s going to get better, but look at the schedule,” he said. “They play the AFC West and the NFC West, the Eagles twice. The Cowboys don’t have any game-wreckers [on defense], but they looked like game-wreckers the other night.”
The Giants are far from alone in their struggles along the line. In fact, poor offensive line play has become a mini-crisis of sorts in a league whose practice rules are set up in such a way as to impede the development of the guys in the trenches. Choreographing the movements of five players on each and every offensive snap is one of the most challenging tasks for any team, and several factors in recent years have led to problems in getting the most out of today’s NFL blockers.
Start with the practice rules. As part of the league’s 2011 collective bargaining agreement, there are far fewer offseason practices and far greater limits on contact drills, both in and out of season. Padded practices have been greatly reduced during the season and in training camp (there are no more two-a-day practices, for instance), and one-on-one drills are not permitted throughout the offseason training period. Those limitations have greatly impacted coaches’ ability to get the most out of offensive linemen, and there has been a direct carryover into the regular season for many teams.
“They threw out the baby with the bathwater, relative to player development,” Bill Polian, the Hall of Fame former general manager of the Bills, Panthers and Colts, said of the new CBA rules. “It’s self-defeating. I know it’s bargained collectively, and I know why the owners did it, but it’s not helping player development. The owners got the monetary concessions they were looking for and these practice concessions, particularly in the offseason, were a small price to pay for that.”
But Polian is convinced the quality of line play — and thus the quality of offensive football — has been compromised because linemen simply don’t get enough repetitions to hone their skills.
“When you look around the league, you can count on the fingers of one hand the teams that have two good tackles, and you can count on both your hands the teams that don’t have any,” said Polian, an NFL analyst for ESPN.
“Offensive linemen can be developed. The good [assistant] coaches like Dante Scarnecchia [of the Patriots], [former longtime line coach] Howard Mudd, Bill Callahan [of the Redskins] do it.
“Offensive line is a technique position,” he said. “If you can’t rep that enough, you’re not going to be as good. It’s just that simple. I know 99.9 percent of the people will say, ‘Who cares?’ They just want to see performance on the field. But if you want to go beyond that and see why offenses struggle, there are reasons this is happening.”
Former NFL guard Brian Baldinger suggests there’s only one way for linemen to get better: by practicing more.
“Reps, it’s everything,” he said. “The more reps you get, the more prepared you’re going to be. Look, I understand the push for player safety, I get it. But the only way to become a better right guard is to play right guard. You can’t do it by hitting bags in shorts. You can do all the walk-throughs you want and hit the sleds all you want, but until you block people, you’re not going to get better.”
Baldinger is troubled by what he saw in the Giants’ opener, especially with the play of tackles Ereck Flowers and Bobby Hart.
“I’d be concerned,” he said. “You could tell Eli was skittish the other night. He can look like that sometimes if he doesn’t feel like the [linemen] are doing their jobs. They couldn’t get the ball down the field. They’re not playing well as a group up front, and there are technique issues. Ereck is such a good athlete, he can figure out ways to stay in front of his man, but that’s not the type of technique you win with long-term. You’re going to get hurt with that.”
Baldinger suggested Manning’s lack of mobility also is a potential red flag.
“If you look at it in the context of the division, the other three quarterbacks are mobile, to one degree or another,” said Baldinger, an NFL Network analyst. “[Carson] Wentz [in Philadelphia] and Dak [Prescott in Dallas] are tremendously mobile. Kirk Cousins [in Washington] is mobile enough. That forgives a lot of sins when you can make up for a missed block. Eli obviously can’t do that, so it exacerbates the problem.”
Another factor in offensive line play: Most linemen coming into the league aren’t used to the more conventional pro-style game after playing in the spread offense in college, and often in high school.
“There are guys that play their entire college career and never get into a three-point stance,” Baldinger said. “So you come to the NFL, and it’s tough. For the most part with spread offenses, guys are in two-point stances [bent at the knees and not putting a hand on the ground] and they’ve never had to fire out. So you don’t have any idea about short-yardage situations, goal line, how to block those.”
Schwartz agrees spread offenses don’t prepare would-be NFL linemen before they come into the league, although he said that’s not the responsibility of college coaches.
“It’s not their job,” he said. “They don’t get paid by how many players they get drafted. They get paid by how much they win. Guys come to the NFL and they’re not as ready and they don’t have as much practice time, and the [NFL] coaches haven’t adjusted.”
The NFL’s increased reliance on younger players also has created a knowledge vacuum, according to the 31-year-old Schwartz, who played until he was 29 and left the game because of ankle and foot injuries.
“There aren’t a lot of veterans, and that hurts when you see things happen that shouldn’t happen,” he said. “It’s a lack of preparation. Veterans can help teach young guys how to watch film, how to learn the tricks of the trade.”
It also doesn’t help that the league has seen a proliferation of quality pass rushers in recent years. Schwartz’s younger brother Mitchell, the Chiefs’ right tackle, has to face many of them, including the Broncos’ Von Miller, the Texans’ J.J. Watt, the Raiders’ Khalil Mack and the Chargers’ Melvin Ingram.
“I was on the phone with Mitch before training camp, and I was kidding him about all the great pass rushers he’s got to face,” Geoff said. “He plays 16 games, and in like 15, there are elite pass rushers he has to face. Last week against the Patriots was one of his easier games. I was kidding him about it, and he’s like, ‘Don’t remind me.’ ”
Schwartz probably could make that same call to any number of tackles in the NFL these days, and chances are he’d get similar responses. In a league in which blocking is at a premium and the rules of engagement don’t always help player development, protecting the quarterback is starting to become a lost art.