On the way to a Super Bowl XXXVIII championship last season, the New England Patriots used eight different offensive line starters and, counting their playoff contests, deployed six different starting combinations up front.
Not until the sixth game of the regular season was line coach Dante Scarnecchia able to repeat a lineup. By that point, the Patriots had used three different starters at both guard spots, two centers and two right tackles. The only constant was left tackle Matt Light. And then, when things were going swimmingly and New England had gone 13 straight games without a lineup change, guard Damien Woody was injured in a division-round contest and Scarnecchia had to juggle the unit again for the AFC Championship.
This season for the Pats? By comparison, a year of stability, a season of continuity. Just three different blocking combinations and seven starters. Light and center Dan Koppen started all 16 outings each and at no position was New England forced to use more than two starters. The Pats enter postseason play against Indianapolis on Sunday having used the same five starters over the past 10 games.
They also begin the playoffs, relatively at least, as one of the more stable offensive lines from among the eight units still at work.
It has been, once again around the league, a season of unnerving upheaval at a position once noted for its lack of change. And the trend, in which offensive line assistants have been transformed into the football equivalent of circus jugglers, certainly has held true even with the eight divisional-round qualifiers.
Time was, and not too long ago, when playoff teams were the models for offensive line intransigence. In one five-year stretch of the mid-1990s, the NFL's final four postseason teams averaged just a tad more than two starting offensive line combinations during the regular season. But that was then and this is now, and the reality of the present is that the eight teams still playing have averaged an amazing 4.25 different starting combinations, and 7.4 different starters on their blocking units.
Only one team, the Pittsburgh Steelers, has started the same five players every week. The Steelers lost starting left guard Kendall Simmons to a season-ending knee injury in training camp, plugged fourth-year reserve Keydrick Vincent into the lineup, and have not made a change since then. Every week, Steelers offensive line coach Russ Grimm has been able to pencil in the same lineup -- left tackle Marvel Smith, left guard Alan Faneca, center Jeff Hartings, Vincent at right guard and Oliver Ross at right tackle -- and not have to worry about change.
In fact, until Grimm and coach Bill Cowher began removing front-line players from the regular-season finale at Buffalo, the Pittsburgh starting quintet had missed a total of just two snaps. Two snaps! And those came when Ross lost a shoe and was forced to go to the sideline to quickly be re-cleated.
"There's no doubt that (the offensive line stability) has been one of the big keys to our success," acknowledged Steelers tailback Jerome Bettis. "It's a position where there is a lot of unspoken communication, where the guy next to you had to know exactly that you are doing in a certain situation, and how he is supposed to react. You only get that, at the highest level at least, when you can put the same group out there week after week. And, fortunately, we've been able to do that and it's made a difference."
The seven other remaining playoff franchises, alas, can't say the same thing. Next to the Steelers, the fewest starting offensive line combinations have been in Atlanta, the New York Jets, and New England, with three different lineups each. But Indianapolis has used five different lineups, Minnesota and Philadelphia have had six each, and St. Louis was forced to deploy seven different starting quintets.
St. Louis lost starting right tackle Kyle Turley for the season to a recurring back injury in training camp and was forced to release starting center Dave Wohlabaugh, also because of an injury. The Rams coaxed two veteran players out of retirement and the season has been one of creative jerry-rigging by line coach John Matsko, a campaign in which the team has used four different starters at left guard.
"Sometimes you catch yourself just moving your head from side to side, just to see who's out there lining up with you," allowed center Andy McCollum, the starting left guard in 2003. "From one week to the next, you just don't know who is going to be able to play, or where guys are going to line up. It isn't exactly the perfect situation, that's for sure."
St. Louis hasn't gone more than four weeks in a row, in fact, with the same five starters. The longest streak that the Philadelphia Eagles have fielded the same five starters is six weeks. Ditto the Minnesota Vikings, who will go into Sunday's divisional-round matchup versus the Eagles with their fourth different starting right tackle.
The revolving door at right tackle commenced, ironically, in the Vikings' regular-season game against the Eagles on Sept. 20. Minnesota lost starter Mike Rosenthal in that game. Since then, the Vikings have used Adam Haayer (one start), Nat Dorsey (seven starts) and now Goldberg (seven starts, including last week's wild card victory at Green Bay) at the right tackle spot. Even iron man center Matt Birk has missed five starts.
Philadelphia has just two players, center Hank Fraley and right tackle Jon Runyan, who started every game. The Eagles have used four different players -- first-round draft pick Shawn Andrews (a season-ending knee injury in the opener), usual left guard Jermane Mayberry, Steve Sciullo and Alonzo Ephraim -- as starters at right guard. Indianapolis tackles Tarik Glenn and Ryan Diem started all 16 games each, but Colts offensive line coach Howard Mudd has rolled out four different starting guards.
"The offensive line used to be a unit where there weren't many changes because there weren't many injuries," said Colts center Jeff Saturday. "But injuries have increased a lot just during my (six seasons) in the league. It's really rare now to be able to put the same five guys out there for 16 weeks. Heck, around the league, there probably aren't all that many linemen who individually start every game."
True enough. The eight remaining playoff teams total 23 linemen, fewer than three per franchise, who have started every game this year. Take away the Steelers, and their five iron men, and the average drops to just 2.6 per team. The Colts, Patriots and Eagles each had only two linemen start in every contest.
Fortunately, for the teams still playing, their staffs feature some of the premier offensive line coaches in the league. Scarnecchia is often underrated but his track record speaks for itself. A former Washington Redskins guard, Grimm is a Hall of Fame finalist this year who has been able to translate his on-field experiences into teaching tools, and who was interviewed for the Cleveland Browns head coaching job. Howard Mudd of the Colts has long been one of the NFL's best line tutors. Atlanta's Alex Gibbs, while often vilified for the cut-blocking scheme he popularized in Denver, is one of the all-time greats. The Jets' Doug Marrone is a rising star.
For most of them, though, a 2004 season in which they have been forced to change their starting lineups almost as often as they change sweat socks, has been a real exercise in creativity and resourcefulness.
"It's a challenge to pull it all together," said Eagles center Hank Fraley. "Certainly it's not the way you'd want it to be. But you've got to find, especially at this time of year, a way to make it work."
Around the league
• Unless some people we trust mightily are fibbing big-time to us, New England Patriots defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel is the choice to become the new head coach in Cleveland, with the official coronation to come just days after he concludes his season. Which might not be, of course, until after the Super Bowl. Two league owners and one general manager, all of whom claimed to have inside knowledge, insisted this week that Crennel is the guy. And we believe they are correct. Things have gotten awful quiet in Cleveland over the past few days, and some of that silence should be golden for Crennel, since Browns officials haven't tried publicly or privately to debunk the various reports (including the initial one from ESPN's Chris Mortensen) that the long-time and much-deserving Patriots aide will take over as their sideline boss. There is even a suspicion that Crennel has been informed, through back-channel methods, that he is the guy. There have been, because of league anti-tampering rules, no contract negotiations with Crennel or with agent Joe Linta, who spent this week at some of the practices for the various college all-star games, recruiting rookie clients. But hammering out a deal for Crennel, whenever the Patriots season ends, should not be that difficult.
• It appears that the San Francisco 49ers, who don't figure to lure Pete Carroll away from Southern California although he remains their dream candidate, are waiting for someone to come in and wow them in an interview. Don't be surprised if that someone is Titans defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, who is scheduled to interview on Friday with 49ers owner John York and other officials. The team has adopted a very analytical approach internally, not only to its search for a head coach, but also toward how it will handle player acquisitions. Essentially, the 49ers have applied the so-called "Moneyball" tactics espoused in baseball over the last several years to their operation, and such a strategy will play right into one of Schwartz's many strengths. Schwartz not only has an analytical mind, but he is a guy who for years has relied heavily on computer designs and models in devising game plans. Sure, every team uses computer-generated breakdowns now to help discern tendencies, but Schwartz has taken things a step beyond. One example: Recently, he had someone conduct a study, using several years worth of data, on whether it is more statistically favorable to accept or decline a holding penalty called against the offense in a second-and-10 situation. Part of Schwartz's presentation to San Francisco officials will be on a memory stick, something none of the other candidates have done, and a move that sent the team scrambling to prepare the pertinent equipment. Of course, neither Schwartz nor any other candidate in San Francisco is apt to land the job just because they happen to be a computer geek, right? But the Titans defensive coordinator is a bright, energetic guy, has quietly fashioned a terrific resume, and has a coaching lineage that, in addition to his work with Jeff Fisher, includes a stint on Bill Belichick's staff in Cleveland.
• If he doesn't land the top job in San Francisco, it would not be surprising if Schwartz ended up on the Miami staff with Nick Saban, as the Dolphins defensive coordinator. It's a long shot, but Schwartz has not yet signed the contract extension proposed to him by the Titans, and Saban is still looking for a coordinator. The two men are familiar with each other through their shared Belichick ties. While much of the football world, and certainly the majority of the media, already had Saban hiring Houston Texans defensive line assistant Todd Grantham as his coordinator, the search has always quietly included other candidates as well. Sources told ESPN.com earlier this week that Grantham will not make the move to Miami and that Saban has other people in mind. Schwartz could be one. Another could be Dave Campo, who is also on the short list in Jacksonville, and who did a solid job for the Cleveland Browns as their coordinator the last two years. Saban has also inquired about Browns offensive line coach Larry Zierlein, and been granted permission to talk to him.
• Much has been made, and justifiably so, of the comments made by New York Jets defensive end John Abraham and his reluctance to return for the playoffs while he is still recovering from a sprained ligament in his right knee. Abraham acknowledged last week that he perhaps risks further damage to his knee and that such a circumstance could cost him financially in the free agent market this spring. Abraham is basically guilty of noting publicly what other players certainly have thought privately, but lacked the temerity to actually articulate. But there is some shared blame in the Abraham situation, and some of the culpability must fall on Jets management, which has handled his injury in a pretty ham-handed fashion. While the team never really issued a timetable for when its standout defensive end might return from an injury sustained in a Dec. 5 game at Houston, there were a lot of unsubtle hints that Abraham would be back before the end of the regular season. Never did Jets officials suggest, as they pretty much knew to be the case, that there was a possibility Abraham wouldn't play again in 2004. Up until two days before the wild-card game at San Diego, the Jets listed Abraham as "probable" on the official injury report, even though he was still limping around and nothing remotely resembling full strength. Even this week, Abraham was listed as "doubtful," even as the Jets leaked word he would not play at Pittsburgh in a divisional-round game. Coach Herm Edwards insisted this week he would never put a player on the field at the risk of complicating his rehabilitation. That admission came a few weeks too late, it seems, and the glaring lack of candor from the Jets only exacerbated the criticism Abraham has faced. Maybe Abraham, with an eye toward a $15 million signing bonus, is being selfish here. Some purists would suggest that, short of amputation, he should try to get onto the field this weekend. No matter what, though, the Jets, who like most franchises have taken to being overly cryptic regarding injuries, are not without blame.
• Word is that Jets officials, soured now on Abraham, might indeed allow him to escape as an unrestricted free agent in two months. Earlier, the team had indicated it intended to retain him for at least one more season by designating him a "franchise" player, a marker that carries a qualifying offer of at least $6.503 million. But in the wake of the public relations disaster with Abraham, and some hard feelings inside the locker room and the executive offices about his attitude, there have been reports New York might instead use the "franchise" label to keep tailback LaMont Jordan, a guy who continues to make big plays when he is on the field. Jordan was the subject of the sideline tiff last week between Herm Edwards and running backs coach Bishop Harris. It seems Edwards, who all but ignored Jordan the first three years of his career, despite annual promises of enhanced playing time, suddenly has fallen in love with the reserve back and wants him to get more snaps. It's difficult to conceive, though, that the Jets would budget at least $5.16 million, the cost of the "franchise" tag for a tailback, on a backup. Starter Curtis Martin, even at age 31, is coming off a career year. Sure, the tailback position is one where a player could lose a critical step very quickly. But spending $5 million on a backup, even if the gambit is made with an eye toward retaining his rights to trade him, is a big swallow. And it's one that, rumors aside, the Jets probably won't make.
• While on the subject of tailbacks, it is notable that there could be considerable movement at the position in trades this offseason. Last year, the red-hot position for wheeling and dealing was wide receiver, with a dozen veterans, including several high-profile players, changing teams via swaps. There will be some quality backs in the unrestricted free agent market in March -- possibly Shaun Alexander (Seattle), Edgerrin James (Indianapolis), Rudi Johnson (Cincinnati), Derrick Blaylock (Kansas City), Anthony Thomas (Chicago) and Correll Buckhalter (Philadelphia) -- and teams will be chasing them. But there is also a group of runners who will be dangled in trade talks. The Buffalo Bills, as first reported by ESPN.com on Thursday morning, have granted permission to the agent for former starter Travis Henry, a two-time 1,000-yard rusher, to discuss possible trade scenarios with other clubs. Minnesota has to do something to break its tailback logjam and, given his salary and injury history, Michael Bennett figures to be trade bait. His contract will make it difficult for San Francisco to deal Kevan Barlow, but team officials certainly are down on the tailback. Cleveland will likely entertain offers if anyone is interested in former first-rounder William Green and Atlanta could be tempted to deal another one-time first round pick, T.J. Duckett, if someone offered to overpay for him. Some team is certain to call the Packers about the availability of Najeh Davenport as well.
• The Tampa Bay Bucs have initiated contract discussions with quarterback Brian Griese, who certainly resurrected his career while playing under coach Jon Gruden this season. There has been one proposal from the Bucs, and a counter-proposal from agent Ralph Cindrich, but nothing is imminent yet. Still, a deal might not take too long to strike. There doesn't figure to be an overwhelming market for Griese if the Bucs opt not to pay him the $6 million roster bonus he is due in March (which the team has no intention of anteing up) and release him. At the same time, Griese clearly has value to the Bucs, since he is the bridge between now and the future, when Chris Simms becomes the starter. Cindrich wants to move the negotiations forward, he told ESPN.com on Thursday, but allowed there is not yet a sense of urgency.
• Ever seen a franchise refute a published report as adamantly as the Detroit Lions denied the suggestion this week they were considering releasing quarterback Joey Harrington in the next couple months? The Lions essentially debunked every comma of the story. And that's because they have no plans to dump Harrington, despite a salary cap number that will approximate $10.5 million in 2005. We're not about to suggest the sources in the story were fabricated. No way. Heck, we've been burned by sources before, and likely will be again. What they were, though, was wrong. Harrington is already on record as saying he is open to restructuring his contract to lower the cap number. He is due a roster bonus of $3 million on July 1, and "escalators" have raised his base salary from $675,000 to nearly $5 million for 2005. Certainly the third overall choice in the 2002 draft hasn't yet played at a level that justifies that kind of money. But the Lions aren't about to just squander everything they have invested in Harrington, especially since there really is no alternative on the roster right now. Lions officials are definitely disappointed that their quarterback hasn't lived up to his hype. As we've noted here many times, Harrington will not be a great, "franchise"-type quarterback, but is a player with whom Detroit can win, if he can achieve consistency, play within himself and take advantage of the improving corps of playmakers around him. The Lions almost certainly will sign a veteran free agent -- the name most often mentioned is Kurt Warner -- this spring to buttress their shallow quarterback depth chart. And coach Steve Mariucci will allow a much more open competition at the position. But bet the house Harrington will be part of the competition.
• His given first name is Adam, but he adamantly insists on being called "Pac-Man," and not because he has an affinity for the classic arcade game. "Nah, my mom gave me that (nickname) when I was just a baby, because I always went so hard for the bottle when it was feeding time," said West Virginia star cornerback and special teams standout Adam Jones in an interview earlier this week. "So it's not because I gobble up interceptions, man, although I can do that, too." Jones is one of the more intriguing underclass players to bypass his final year of college eligibility and enter the 2005 draft. As has become the case of late, the cornerback position is thin, and Jones could end up being a top 10 pick. Especially if he runs as well for NFL scouts as he claims he will. Jones has been clocked, a WVU coach confirmed, in the mid-4.2s. Our usual skepticism aside, Jones insisted he can, and will, do even better in his pre-draft auditions. "The goal," he said, "is 4.19 or something in that range. Believe me, I can do it, honest." There isn't much that Jones didn't do during his three seasons with the Mountaineers. In 36 games, he had 201 tackles, nine tackles for losses, eight interceptions, two sacks, two forced fumbles and a pair of recoveries. This season, he became the first cornerback in school history to lead the defense in total tackles, with 74. He returned 59 kickoffs for an average of 25.0 yards and 27 punts for a 14.9-yard average. At 5-feet-11 ¼ and 185 pounds, he has good size and a live body. Said the college scouting director for one NFC team: "He's got the whole package physically." He has a strong desire to succeed, a terrific work ethic, and a sense of family. In fact, he was originally committed to attend Georgia Tech, but changed his mind and signed with West Virginia, because he couldn't stand to watch the grandmother who raised him suffer with an illness that eventually took her life. "It's time for me to take care of business, and part of my business is taking care of my family," said Jones, who styled his game after that of Oakland cornerback Charles Woodson while in college. "If I just to the things I know I'm capable of doing, everything is going to be fine." The "Pac-Man," most scouts agree, is a first-round talent. How high he rises in the round probably will depend on his workouts, but he definitely could be a top 10 selection.
• One veteran cornerback who figures to be available in free agency is Washington standout Fred Smoot, whose overall game improved dramatically in '04 and who clearly played at a Pro Bowl level. Only a few months ago, it was assumed that the Redskins would use the "franchise" tag to retain Smoot, if they couldn't agree on a long-term deal with the four-year veteran. But that isn't likely to happen now. For whatever reason, some members of the Washington coaching staff have soured on Smoot, who is said to have earlier rejected a contract proposal that included an eight-figure signing bonus. Word is that those coaches have advised owner Dan Snyder not to keep Smoot. His exit would be a big blow to the Redskins but probably a boon to someone's secondary. At age 25, Smoot definitely is a player on the rise, a guy who has been a starter, demonstrated he can play at a high level, and still has his best football in front of him.
Punts: Purdue quarterback Kyle Orton, whose stock really plummeted during a pretty disastrous 2004 season, began the process of rehabilitating himself in the eyes of NFL scouts during this week's East-West Shrine Game practices. The Shrine Game gets only middle-level talent these days, but Orton threw the ball extremely well and definitely jumped out of the crowd of quarterbacks there. ... Matt Cavanaugh, dismissed by the Baltimore Ravens as offensive coordinator two weeks ago, is poised to accept the same job on Dave Wannstedt's staff at the University of Pittsburgh. Ironically, it will mean that Pitt has the top three head coach candidates it identified when Walt Harris departed for Stanford. Cavanaugh and defensive coordinator Paul Rhoades, who has been retained by Wannstedt, were the other two finalists for the job. ... It appears that Leslie Frazier, who was fired by the Cincinnati Bengals as defensive coordinator, will be the new secondary coach for the Chicago Bears. ... Tampa Bay wide receiver and future Hall of Fame member Tim Brown is close to accepting a job on the Notre Dame staff. ... Eagles coach Andy Reid is 8-0 in games that follow bye weeks in the regular and postseason. ... The Bengals have begun contract extension discussions with starting center Rich Braham, a pending unrestricted free agent, but very quietly the key to their offensive line. ... Once again, as demonstrated on Friday when the Green Bay Packers stripped coach Mike Sherman of the general manager part of his job, the dual task has proven to be too much for one man to handle. Good move by Packers president Bob Harlan to import Ted Thompson, who has worked in Green Bay before, but has most recently served as the Seattle Seahawks director of player personnel. Obviously, in Denver, owner Pat Bowlen has no such intentions for Mike Shanahan, despite the team's second straight playoff collapse. Shanahan tried to convince people this week that he is not the final word on all football decisions. For the most part, though, no one bought into his rationalizations. ... It appears the Chicago Bears will not attempt to sign a big-time left offensive tackle in free agency. Instead, the team probably will switch right tackle John Tait, pried away from Kansas City as a "transition" free agent last spring with a six-year, $34 million contract, to the left side, where he will be of more benefit to quarterback Rex Grossman.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here.