ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – Given the NFL's combustible combination of a restrictive salary cap, constantly churning coaching and front-office staffs to go with a shrinking supply of patience at ownership level, many personnel executives would say the position caught the most in the squeeze is the offensive line.
We're talking about the guys charged with the well-being of the $100 million, face-on-a-cereal-box franchise quarterbacks. And now, pinched by the salary cap or caught in the whirlwind of change from one regime to the next, offensive lines that once flourished after spending season upon season together are now often pieced-together units with second- and third-chance players sprinkled around a highly paid left tackle.
And time is not on their side -- certainly not for linemen on their second or third NFL stop. Over the past week alone, the Denver Broncos have given contract extensions to two -- guard Manny Ramirez and tackle Chris Clark -- who were other teams' castoffs. Yes, two of five starters in front of future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning on Monday night against the Oakland Raiders will be guys who were simply cut loose, sent on their way by teams that didn't make the playoffs before each landed on the Front Range.
“Maybe so, maybe there is less patience out there,’’ said Ramirez, who signed his two-year extension last week, with base salaries of $1.25 millon in 2014 and $1.5 million in 2015. “I know for me, for whatever reason, it just didn’t work out where I was drafted. That’s why Denver is such a blessing. I didn’t know for a while where I was going to end up, or if I was going to end up anywhere.’’
Ramirez played for Detroit Lions teams that finished 0-16 and 2-14 before being released, then spent most of the 2010 season out of football before landing with Broncos on what amounts to a “we’ll see’’ opportunity when he signed a futures contract in 2011. He’s now in his third season with a Super Bowl hopeful, having played on back-to-back division winners while starting at right guard last season and center in this one.
Monday, Denver gave a two-year extension to Clark, thrust into the starting lineup because of Ryan Clady's left-foot injury. Clark’s deal includes $1.4 million base salaries in both ’14 and ’15, plus some significant playing-time incentives he's likely to hit in the wake of Clady’s injury. And Clark is a player the Broncos simply claimed off waivers from Minnesota in 2010, after he had spent two years on the Vikings’ practice squad and been waived by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as a rookie. He has been with the Broncos ever since, having survived the roster purge between the end of the Josh McDaniels era and the start of John Elway’s tenure as the team’s top football executive.
“I really have tried to just take things one step at a time,’’ Clark said. “You know, prepare like you’re going to play and be the guy, that if you work, handle your business, things can work out. Sometimes you just need the right situation.’’
In the heyday of the Broncos' zone-run attack under Mike Shanahan, when Denver churned out 1,000-yard rusher after 1,000-yard rusher, offensive linemen essentially went through apprenticeships before seeing the light of the starting lineup. Players would often spend a season or two simply being gameday inactives before being worked into the lineup.
It was what former Broncos guard Ben Hamilton once called “big-guy grad school’’ -- after he had gone thought it. Now, however, a position whose success is based on communication and understanding how the person next to you reacts to various situations is one filled with turnover across the league. And the quality of play shows it much of the time, personnel execs say -- even as more teams move to up-tempo approaches that further burden offensive lines' communication networks.
“I think you really have to know how a guy plays, how he thinks -- and they have to know how you play, how you think -- before it all really works,’’ said Broncos guard Louis Vasquez. “Maybe it has to happen faster.’’
“I think it is probably a lot harder now to have that feel,’’ said Hall of Fame tackle Anthony Munoz. “I know in my case, I played next to Max Montoya for 10 years, I knew what he was going to do before he did it. You can’t just create that out of nowhere, that takes time. I don’t think you see that kind of time any more, so it’s probably harder for guys to do all of those unspoken things. Who knows if quarterbacks get hit more now because of it? But I think it is probably more difficult to build that now.’’