The 2013 Atlanta Falcon's season was perhaps the most disappointing season in team history, a flaming bag of poop dropped on our doorstep by spiteful elves. One of the key failures was the abysmal play of the offensive line.
Fans are despondent. Mock drafters are hard at work with plans for Alex Mack, Jake Matthews and Cyril Richardson.
What is the proper course of action? How are championship offensive lines built and what would it take to build one here in Atlanta? Will changing coaches be enough? Was coaching the problem or have the Falcon's leadership neglected to properly invest in the offensive line? Was this simply an abberation caused by injuries?
In order to attempt to answer these questions I decided to look at how championship offensive line players have been acquired. All players enter the league either through the draft or through college free agency. To measure how championship offensive lines have been built I created a simple metric, Offensive Line Pedigree.
I looked a the offensive lines of each Super Bowl participant (winner and loser) over the last 20 years. These are presumably the best teams in the league as they made the Super Bowl. For the primary starter at each position I awarded points using the following methodology:
1 point for first round picks
2 points for second round picks
3 points for third round picks
4 points for fourth round picks
5 points for fifth round picks
6 points for sixth round picks
7 points for seventh round picks
8 points for college free agents or in the case of some of the early teams for players pick in rounds later than round 7
I then added the five together to produce a rather simple Offensive Line Pedigree score. The lower the score the more accomplished the Pedigree. A line with five first round picks would score a 5, the lowest score possible. A line of five college free agents would score a 40, the highest possible score.
I should make clear this is not a measure of talent. Plenty of first rounders fail and plenty of later round and free agent diamonds are uncovered. This is a measure of investment. Draft picks are a finite resource, the equivalent of cash, that can be spent to acquire players. First round picks are more valuable than seventh round picks. This index measures the amount of resources spent on offensive line players. It also does not take into account veteran free agency.
The question I am really trying to answer is were the Falcon's line failures a result in neglect on the part of the decision makers on the team? If not what is the root cause of the failure?
Over the last 20 years the Super Bowl participants have an average Offensive Line Pedigree score of 21.4. The median and mean scores are both 20.
The most pedigreed line in the study belongs to the 2005 Steelers, with a score of 8. They featured three first round picks, a second round pick and a third round pick. They were the only team with a score in single digits.
Seven teams had a Pedigree score of 15 or lower, the equivalent of a line featuring five third round picks.
The 2009 Colts rolled with the least pedigreed line with a score of 34. This line featured sixth and fourth round picks at tackle with undrafted free agents at all the interior positions.
The 1998 Falcons, with first rounder Bob Whitfield, 5th rounder Gene Williams, 6th rounder Calvin Collins, 7th rounder Eprhaim Salaam and free agent Robbie Tobeck scored 33. They are the second least pedigreed line in the study.
Only five teams, including the 2009 Colts and 1998 Falcons, scored 30 or higher.
The positional breakdown is about what one would expect. On average left tackles are drafted the highest, with an average score of 2.9. 18 of the 40 left tackles were first round picks and an additional 7 were second round picks.
Right tackles scored second highest, with an average score of 3.5. 10 of the 40 right tackles were first round picks and 3 were second round picks. 16 came from the middle rounds (9 in the 3rd and 7 in the 4th). This appears to be the sweet spot for championship quality right-tackles, however more than 25% were drafted in the 5th round or lower.
Left guards scored third highest, with an average Pedigree score of 4.3. Suprisingly 13 of the 40 were first round picks, though only 2 were 2nd round picks and only 4 were 3rd round picks. 7 were undrafted free agents. Left guards are found all over the draft. Several left guards were originally drafted as left tackles and were moved to left guard after failing at the more rigorous position.
Right guards and centers brought up the rear, scoring 5.3 and 5.5 respectively. For both positions undrafted free agents are a more common means of acquistion than any individual round of the draft. Only two of the right guards were first round picks and one of those, Jermane Mayberry of the 2004 Eagles was drafted as a left tackle and then shifted to right guard. Likewise only two of the centers were first round draft picks and only five of them were 2nd round picks.
21 of the 40 super bowl centers, a majority, were either college free agents or drafted in round 6 or 7. Likewise 19 of the the 40 right guards were 7th round picks or college free agents.
Oddly the 6th round is the least popular round overall, providing 0 right guards, 1 left tackle, 1 right tackle, 3 centers and 5 left guards. The 10 total lineman produced by the sixth round is less than the number of undrafted free agents at either center (14) or right guard (15)
Spending a 1st or 2nd round pick on a center is not a requirment to build a championship level line.
The average line looks a bit like this:
LT- 1st Round pick
LG- 3rd Round pick
C- Undrafted free agent
RG- 7th Round pick
RT- 3rd Round pick
How do the Falcons' lines stack up on this scale?
First here is the 2008-2010 line that won 33 games together:
Baker - 1st
Dahl- college free agent
Clabo- college free agent
The 2012 Falcons line, with Konz replacing Dahl scores a 20, right in the middle of the distribution.
The pre-season projected lineup for the 2013 Falcons scores like this
Baker - 1st
Johnson- 3rd (or Holmes also 3rd)
The Pedigree score for 2013 Falcons line is 13. This is a better score than 39 of the 40 teams in the study. Only the 2005 Steelers score lower.
A few thoughts:
First, the Falcons have clearly not skimped when it comes to investing in offensive lineman. Had they started Johnson at right guard and Holmes at right tackle (a logical distribution of resources) they could have trotted out a lineup featuring a first rounder, two second rounders and two third rounders, with 4th round pick Joe Hawley and 5th round pick Garrett Reynolds in reserve.
Second the pick of Peter Konz was a severe misallocation of resources. His development aside only 7 of the 40 (17.5%) centers to start in the last 20 Super Bowls have been first or second round picks. Player's with the physical tools to play center are readily available in later rounds and even as college free agents. This mistake is made even more galling given that the team had taken Joe Hawley with a fourth round pick just TWO YEARS earlier.
The Falcons draft is needs based. Without a first round pick in 2012 they evidently thought center was our top need and spent our top pick on it, in anticipation of the retirement of McClure. They later spent a 5th round pick on a replacement for John Abraham (Massaquoi). Why not spend the 2nd round pick on a defensive end (a rarer commodity) and then get the center in the 5th round?
Here are the Falcon's centers prior to Konz going back to 1969, some of whom have been pretty good:
Jeff Van Note 11th round
Wayne Radloff free agent from USFL
Jamie Dukes free agent
Roman Fortin 8th round pick
Robbie Tobeck free agent
Todd McClure 7th round pick
Konz is the highest draft pick the Falcons have ever spent on a center.
The Falcons are either scouting lineman poorly or they are doing a terrible job developing them. By firing Pat Hill leadership has bet on the latter supposition. If they are correct the Falcons could end up with a very talented line because they have invested more heavily than the typical championship team.
Does Experience Matter
One thought I had while looking at this is that perhaps the problems with the offensive line in 2013 had less to do with talent and more to do with experience. The release of Tyson Clabo left the Falcons with three inexperienced lineman. Center Peter Konz had 6 career starts coming into 2013. Right guard Garrett Reynolds had 13 career starts and Mike Johnson had a single start. I wondered how this compared to Super Bowl teams. After all the Falcons had clearly stated Super Bowl aspirations. This was not a rebuilding team. Do Super Bowl teams usually have young lines, experienced lines or a mix? Was it wise to enter a season with Super Bowl expectations with such an inexperienced line?
I busted out my spreadsheets and ran the Super Bowl teams through them.
The average Super Bowl team has a line with 25.6 years of experience, or 5.1 per player. Note that a rookie counts as 0 in this calculus.
The 2013 Falcons opened training camp 17 years of experience on the line, though that slightly overstates the experience as Garrett Reynolds gets credit for four years despite only 13 total starts prior to 2013 and Mike Johnson with three years despite only one career start. The Falcons line was definitely inexperienced and had the team made the Super Bowl it would have been among the most inexperienced lines to ever make it. This was further exasperated by the injury to Sam Baker, the second most experienced lineman on the team.
Of equal importance is the decision to combine a line with limited experience with a center with no professional experience at the position.
Of all the positions on the offensive line the center position requires the most experience as the center makes all the line protection calls. It is the most mentally demanding position on the line. A breakdown at center can cause failures all along the line, failures that are not directly attributable to athletic talent. The average Super Bowl center had 5.8 years of experience, most of any of the line positions. Last years Super Bowl teams featured Jonathon Goodwin, with 10 years experience, and Matt Birk with 14 years experience.
Two Super Bowl teams in the last 20 years have started rookies at center, the 2010 Steelers and the 2003 Patriots. A few other teams (2008 Cardinals, 2004 Patriots, 1999 Titans and 1996 Patriots) have started players with a single year of experience though most had extenuating circumstances. The 2008 Cardinals were not planning on competing for a Super Bowl that season and sort of fell into it. The 1999 Titans started rookie Kevin Long along side 17 year veteran Bruce Matthews who likely made the line calls.
The Falcons seem to be a rarity, a team that went all in for a Super Bowl and bet the house on a rookie or first year center. Had the rest of the line been intact and experienced this might have worked out but combining this with inexperienced starters at right guard and right tackle was a recipe for disaster.
In retrospect the Falcons probably made a mistake by making so many changes along the line at one time. They should have replaced only one of Clabo and McClure. Given the essential importance to the center on the line they probably should have brought McClure back for one final season, kept Konz at right guard, at least to start the season, and let Johnson, Holmes and Reynolds compete for the right tackle position. The injuries incurred by Baker and Johnson still would have caused issues but the issues would have been softened by the experience McClure provided.
The Falcons have invested significant resources into the offensive line over the last six years, more than most championship teams. The failure of the offensive line in 2013 is an indictment of either the coaching or scouting department. The failure was made worse by the choice to change multiple positions on the line and to go with an inexperienced player at center.