The old-timers all believe it starts and ends on the offensive line; even some of the younger generation do too. Redskins fans in particular hold this old adage close to their hearts, for it was the Hogs(yes the very group this site is named after) that ignited the Super Bowl runs during the Gibbs Era (the first one of course). Hell with a quarterback - we could put ANYONE behind that line, and they would succeed. No reason for a big name running back - anyone could run for 1000 yards behind that line. Receivers?..................we didn't need true playmakers (although we had a few). We just needed reliable guys who could catch; and heck,, any quarterback could find a wide receiver with 7-8 seconds to operate in the pocket.
Well, times have changes. Not so much with the importance of a good offensive line, but rather the inability of teams to maintain consistent offensive line play year in, and year out. The salary cap and free agency have made it difficult for teams to cultivate, and maintain their talent. Sure, the recent implementation of the rookie wage scale helped level the playing field a bit, but teams still struggle to keep any talent they have grown for more than a few years.
Take for example a team who is fortunate enough to have most of the major holes on their team filled - QB........check, RB........check, WR........check, LT........check, DE/OLB........check, CB........check. Now, that team may have the luxury of going out and stocking up on some quality linemen with some high picks in the NFL draft, but obviously, you don't see teams use their four tops picks in any given year all on offensive linemen. So maybe one year they draft the top center late in the first round, and a right tackle in the third. The following year they draft a guard in the second.
Now, you have a young core to delevop. But herein lies the problem. That stud left tackle you drafted three years ago is coming off his rookie contract, and wants to get paid! Now, the one average linemen who was picked up in free agency four years ago is getting a bit longer in the tooth, and is set to become a free agent. On top of that, you have a drafted player entering the third year of his rookie contract, who is going to be looking for that next big contract. You may also have a higher draft pick who is struggling a bit with the consistencies of being a professional.
My imaginary team has used its higher draft picks on offensive linemen, but some other areas needed to be filled via free agency. The free agents in other areas are now needing to be replaced, and draft picks are most logical. Meanwhile, the linemen who were drafted in the previous three years are just starting to gel, but tough decisions are going to have to be made as to who is extended(teams can't afford to spend 30 million of their cap on five players) and who is left to test free agency. When one player leaves via free agency, that player usually needs to be replaced, and since the team has spent so much of its resources drafting and developing offensive linemen over the past four seasons, the most logical place to find the replacement is going to be free agency. In free agency, you get a player who is slightly older, and a lot more money. Also, it is noted, that the new player will take a bit of time to gel with his new team(see Chris Chester 2011).
The team is now back where it started, and all that it can show is two solid years of continuity with a group they drafted.
As much as fans want to see the old lines of the 80's Hogs, or the 90's Cowboys, the reality is this will never happen again. Parity (this is a bad word in my house) has ruined this forever. Teams can now no longer go out and draft linemen with high picks every year. One, there are other needs on teams that need to be addressed, and two, the four year plan for linemen doesn't make in conducive, for as soon as they become good, they will demand higher salaries, and unless that team is run by a magician(or unless you cheat like the Cowboys and Redskins), you can't make it work financially.
The best balance is to get your cornerstone left tackle, and build around him. Two more drafted starters are ideal, but not always realistic. It would be nice to have four studs, but that is nearly impossible. The best offensive lines in the league today consist of maybe two studs, two above average starters, and at least one replacement level starter. Most have an even mix of home-grown talent, and quality free agent acquisitions. Many are a mix of veterans(some into their 30's)and young players under 26. These lines didnt just magically come together all at once. They take time to develop and gel.
Every year a new piece is usually inserted, as a veteran or player in his rookie contract moves on. Protecting this balance is key to building a successful franchise. The good ones are successful in both free agency and the draft. Where the poor ones fail, is usually in draft misses with higher picks, or free agent busts that were signed to poor contracts.
In conclusion, the days of the Hogs are long gone, and much to the chagrin of long-time Redskins fans. Spending ones entire draft on linemen will not work. Neither will replacing four starters in one calendar year. The offensive line, because of the NFL's desire for parity, will never be the same. The best that fans can hope for is a consistent mix of balance.
The Redskins will enter the 2014 offseason with some serious questions on the offensive front. We have one linemen who is worthy of building a team around, and that player is Trent Williams. We have three replacement level starters, two of which are on hefty contracts, and one very average starter. For the Redskins to go out and totally revamp the offensive line all over one season would be fiscally impossible. The team is going to have to find ways to get younger, better and BIGGER without breaking the bank, or devoting all of the teams draft picks to one specific area.
Paging David Copperfield....................paging David Copperfield - we need your help in DC!