Something’s been eating at me for several years now, and that thing has been Offensive lines. Maybe it’s because I watched my own team have a dominant one during the late 2000’s and then slowly but surely become a constant problem until it has now spent years as a catastrophe with no hope in sight. But it feels like offensive lines are just…getting worse. Worse and worse. The number of teams who could have a rightful claim to the worst line in the league is higher than the number of teams you could consider to have a genuinely good line. This is a problem I’ve seen discussed on the fringes of football forums and news outlets, but it remains a problem that I think is very stark and under-discussed.

Of course, the problem is profoundly complicated and seems to be driven by many slowly compounding factors. When I casually asked twitter why offensive lines are all bad now, pretty much every reply I got was a different answer, and all of them felt like valid answers. So let’s look at some of them.

An offensive line is a unit of many guys, not just one guy
Pretty easy explanation. We can look directly at the Giants for a good example of how one great player (Andrew Thomas) can’t make a line good. If Thomas stonewalls his man, the other 4 dudes still have to do their jobs, and that’s no guarantee. Finding enough actual good players to make a line functional is surprisingly difficult to do. But this isn’t really a modern problem but a problem that has always existed, and other modern factors are making it worse.

Reduced practice times
In the name of player safety in the wake of the concussion problems the league has drastically rolled back offseason activities and allowed padded practice. This has arguably done the most damage to linemen. Lineman arguably needed the most protection since their position has the most impacts, but they also needed the most practice, because they have to work as a unit. OLs need to know what everyone else on the line is doing to properly run the plays, and the less time they get to reach harmony, the worse they perform, especially out of the gate versus defenders who have a much simpler job of “get the man with the ball and eat him”.

Lack of depth
Kind of going with the first point, having 5 healthy guys at one time is hard. Having enough proper depth to cover the injuries along those lines is practically impossible. The Giants had a bad line to begin with and now most of those starters are out with injury.

Young QBs making lines look worse
Sacks are not always a line stat but often a QB stat. You think Sam Howell being on track to take more sacks than David Carr is entirely on the line? It’s frequently on him. You think the Giants line just magically started playing a bit better when Tyrod started instead of Jones? Jones holds onto the ball like Gollum holds the ring, Tyrod gets the ball out faster. Turning into a scramble machine has become part of most new QB skillsets and those guys naturally hold onto the ball longer, leaving themselves open longer. For the first time in a while, we have a massive youth movement at the QB position, and the quick-draw pocket passers of the Brady mold are quickly becoming an endangered species because now everyone playing grew up idolizing Mike Vick. Vick took a lot of sacks too, you kinda forget it because the fun youtube highlight videos never show the rest of his average play, which could be quite terrible.

It isn’t a sexy position
You can still make good money as an elite o-lineman, and even make decent money as a serviceable one as more and more teams desperately need those. But being a lineman is a thankless job. Only the smartest football dweebs understand your job and rarely will casual fans know your name. Think about every team in the league. How many celebrity offensive lineman can you name? Jason Kelce? Trent Williams? There’s a better chance you can name a team’s #3 WR before you can remember an o-lineman. It’s a thankless job, which means that anyone who is built for it but desires attention probably is going to focus on playing more visible and possibly lucrative positions like defensive end.

College isn’t a good training ground
College offenses are spread happy and fast, and they don’t need the in-the-ground grit much anymore. Also, due to college program recruiting discrepancies, often a “good” line is mostly just a bunch of guys who are just flat-out bigger and better than the opponent and can just steamroll dudes with size. Most players on Alabama’s line are going to look like all-pros when they play South Florida or Middle Tennessee. What are you learning about the position when you beat the snot out of some dimpy school who is there for the paycheck?

Offensive Line is hard, and is getting less and less fun
This is the reason that keeps coming back to me. Offensive lineman is a hard position to play, possibly the hardest position outside QB, so having such a thankless position also be stupid difficult is certainly going to turn potential players to other positions. But for the past 3 years my mind keeps wandering back to an article on Defector written by former college offensive line player Drew Magary. In it, he whines about pass blocking, especially compared to run blocking, and I think he unintentionally reveals what may be a major root of the problem which is this lumbering tree of bad offensive line play. Pass blocking is harder, and the league has become a pass-first league. Run blocking is fun, and pro-active. You get down in the dirt and you get to surge forward, imposing your will on the poor sap in front of you as you grapple. It’s simpler, even with fancy pulls and shifts, because the goal is PUSH. Push is simple. Push makes sense. Push is fun. Pass blocking is not proactive. It’s reactive. You don’t surge forward, you backpedal and brace and do a stupid grapple dance with the defender trying to slow him down long enough for the QB to do his thing. You don’t get to hit anybody, you don’t really get to impose your will, you are by definition just trying to be an effective roadblock for as long as possible. You are almost playing defense instead of offense. That doesn’t seem nearly as fun to me as shoving guys backwards with full force to create holes for your man to rush through. But pass blocking is the primary skill you need now as a lineman, even as a guard or center, because passing is all this league does.

Think about most of the dominant offensive lines we’ve had in the past decades. Philly, right now. Dallas back in the mid-late 2010s. The 49ers of the earlier 2010’s. Hell, the Giants in the late 2000’s. Pretty much all of the ones you can probably think of got that reputation…due to the run game. Philly loves to run the ball, to sneak the ball, to exploit Hurts and his legs. Dallas? They were blocking for Zeke and running Zeke down everyone’s throats as Dak was young and inexperienced or Romo was held together by duct tape. The 49ers were using Frank Gore like a slow and steady battering ram over and over. The 2008 Giants were famous for the 3-headed running attack of Earth Wind and Fire. Teams with good offensive lines seem to run the ball more, and more effectively. None of these lines got praise because they kept their QBs in a comfy pocket all the time (although they mostly could do that), it was running the ball.

Maybe we really just need a resurgence of the running game in the future sometime to bring back offensive lines. But offensive lines are just crumbling to pieces and I wonder how many major QB injuries we are away from some more major rule changes. If we lose Mahomes for a season to a sack, hell will be wrought upon us. Remember what happened when we lost Brady for a year.