I had to laugh when football fans were asking me on Monday whether it’s all over for Tom Brady.
A week ago the 42-year old was being lauded as the GOAT (that’s the new way of saying the Greatest of All-Time).
And why not? Brady has led the Patriots to five Super Bowls. Okay, he missed last year against the Eagles, but no one questioned his brilliance in past seasons, and once again this year.
But last Sunday, the Tennessee Titans soundly whipped the Patriots, and Brady looked mortal. In fact, he looked his age. He didn’t look good, for sure, as the Pats, and Bill Belichick were beaten by one of the head coaches’ former players, Mike Vrabel, in his first season as a head coach.
The reason Tom Brady looked ordinary is the same reason other quarterbacks look bad, poor protection. Ask Eli Manning, ask Derek Carr, and we could go on and on.
Pass protection is not only about the offensive line blocking up front. Running backs who are impressive carrying the ball often sit on the bench because they fail at one of the unspoken, but critical aspects of their job, pass protection.
But this is about the line, the OL, the offensive line.
This group is the least talked-about unit of a football team. Obviously, the quarterback is the most important. He handles the ball on virtually every offensive play. We all talk about the receivers who make those superb catches, as well as the running backs who pound away and demoralize defenses. Let’s not forget the tight ends when we talk receivers.
Gronk, and Jimmy Graham, Zack Ertz, and all the others who find the open spaces in the middle of the field and get huge yards after the catch because they’re big and hard to bring down.
But this is about the line, the OL, the offensive line. If this group can stay healthy for an entire season, they usually are playing in post-season.
If they’re banged up and missing games, or a backup guard is forced to play center, or the left tackle is on the sidelines, that spells trouble and that team is lucky if they not experiencing a losing season.
I work Sundays on our telecasts with an offensive lineman. He’s Mark Schlereth, and he played left guard during his career. Knowing football fans who go back to the late 80’s and into the late 90’s. He played for 12 seasons, six campaigns each with the Washington Redskins and Denver Broncos. He has a nickname, “Stink”. Most people call him by that name, and I have as well, on a couple of occasions on our broadcast, but it’s difficult for me, and I mostly avoid it. I know how he got that nickname, but I’m not sayin’.
Mark Schlereth #69
Anyway, Stink, er Mark, was named to the Pro Bowl twice. But his biggest claim to fame is the fact he owns three Super Bowl rings. His first was with the Redskins in Super Bowl XXVI and his last two were back-to-back with the Broncos in Super Bowl XXXII, and XXXIII. He played in a major role in the protection of Broncos quarterback John Elway in those back-to-back championships.
Schlereth is the fifth offfensve lineman I have worked with in my career. The first was Dan Dierdorf, the Hall of Famer who played with the Cardinals and was the long-time expert analyst on ABC Monday Night Football after his one year alongside yours truly at CBS.
The others were Randy Cross, the Super Bowl winning center of the 49ers, Brian Baldinger, who played for Tom Landry and the Dallas Cowboys, and David Diehl, who was the starting left tackle on the two most recent New York Giants Super Bowl triumphs.
On a football team, the only unit that MUST play together as a team on every play is the offensive line.
Sure, a receiver runs routes, and defensive linemen have their stunts, linebackers and defensive backs blitz etc., but the offensive line has to perform in unison every snap.
Mark has said to me that even if the five up front mess up their assignments, if they all do it together, the play will work.
The only time you hear the name of a linemen announced, it’s because he was holding on the play and cost his team ten yards.
Or if he jumps offside, or encroaches at the line of scrimmage, his name is announced by the referee as he marks off the five yards. Not a good thing.
Offensive linemen like it best when their team runs the ball. That means, the line is aggressive, charging forward, taking out the defense, opening up spaces for the back to run through.
They may double-team a defensive lineman, or pull out of the line to go outside to block, but they’re leading the way, and they love it.
Pass blocking is another matter. It means the line must retrench, hold their ground and ward off pass rushers long enough for the quarterback to get the ball out to a receiver.
When teams find themselves well behind, and the only way to try to get back into the game is to throw, linemen are usually helpless against the oncoming rush by five, six or more defenders aiming to hurry, hit or sack the poor quarterback.
Last Sunday, Tom Brady was one of those poor quarterbacks, who never look good, having no time to get off a play.
So remember, the quarterback you like, may look calm, poised and assured in moving his team down the field. That’s because he has the time to execute.
The best in the game can look average without adequate protection, and the average QB can look like an all-pro if he has a line that keeps everybody away.
The last note on offensive linemen has to do with their temperament.
All of the ones I’ve worked with are similar off the air in how they act.
They know how critical their role is in the success or failure of their team. They realize people never talk about how important they are. It’s a strange combination.
As a result, the offensive linemen I have worked with, and got to meet, are extroverts. They are out there, energetic, forthcoming. They are all alike with those traits.
I’ve seen quarterbacks, running backs and receivers who may not be introverts, but they can be “cool”.
It’s been a fascinating study.
Another fascinating study are the Oakland Raiders. As of this writing, they have the worst record in the NFL. Only one victory.
There has been so much reporting on the state of the Raiders, it’s been overwhelming.
As many of you know, the Raiders will move into a state-of-the-art stadium in Las Vegas in 2020.
They have tried, in vain, to establish a new stadium in Oakland to replace what is the worst facility in the league. It is the same stadium shared by the baseball Oakland A’s and like all the old stadiums, many of them leveled, was fine for a time.
So, the Raiders are a lame-duck team in Oakland, where, to the credit of their long-time fans, have terrific support. They don’t sell-out, but their fan base is enthusiastic and loud.
They still have no idea where they will play next season, since their lease at the Oakland-Alameda Coliseum will expire after this year, and there is no suitable arena in Vegas.
Mark Davis, the team’s managing-general partner, and the son of the late Al Davis, the founder of the franchise, signed Jon Gruden to a 10-year, 10-million dollar contract to coach the team. Gruden was the Raiders head coach for four seasons from 1998-2001. He had success there, but departed in 2002, when he was actually traded to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for two number one, two second-round draft picks and nearly a million dollars.
Guess what happened next? Gruden, in his first year in Tampa, guided the Bucs to a Super Bowl championship, beating, are you sitting down, the Oakland Raiders.
At the time, Gruden was the youngest head coach ever to capture the Vince Lombardi Trophy, at 39-and-a-half years of age.
Now, Jon Gruden is back with the Raiders where he says he had his best experiences as a head coach.
Gruden, returned to coaching after a stint as ESPN’s expert analyst on Monday Night Football.
The Raiders have looked terrible so far this season. So much, in fact, that so-called “experts” claim the team has quit on their head coach, and are so disgruntled, they are merely going through the motions. The Raiders have traded their best defensive player, linebacker Khalil Mack, their top wide receiver Amari Cooper, and released their number one pass rusher, Bruce Irvin.
The atmosphere is hardly jovial, and there’s no question times are tough for the Silver and Black.
But one of the great aspects of actually covering teams in our preparation for our Sunday NFL telecasts, is that we actually delve inside a team, and really get to know what’s going on.
We are not vulnerable to the spin by public relations people, or swayed by what coaches and players tell us. We have ways of getting to know what a team and an organization is all about.
What we discovered in prepping and covering the Raiders-LA Chargers game November 11th was that the Raiders have a plan, a smart plan, in my opinion. One we may see other clubs emulate in future years.
Gruden, realizing the Raiders would not have made the playoffs had they kept the players they have unloaded, has paved the way for their ultimate splash in Las Vegas.
The Raiders have five number-one draft choices in the next two years. Next year, Gruden owns 11 draft picks. Usually the most a team has is seven. There is an abundance of cap space to sign free agents, and the coach has indicated there are many out there who are ready to sign-on. So, it is apparent the franchise is making smart business decisions.
Of course, the decisions of those draft picks, and free agents have to be the right moves, but I have to figure Gruden knows what he wants.
The current team either has promising rookies who are on the verge of blossoming, or aging veterans who are not part of the team’s future.
The most important position is quarterback where Derek Carr, who led the Raiders to a 12-4 season and earned a Pro Bowl berth in 2016, is struggling.
But Carr and his head coach are in lock-step and the Las Vegas Raiders offense will be built around Derek Carr.
The team loses. But they’re not mailing it in. Players who quit or don’t try are visible on tape for the rest of the league to see. Their futures depend on it.
So, laugh at Gruden and the Raiders now. But they may have the last laugh.
Oh, and there’s one thing about this one-win outfit.
They have two rookies playing the key tackle positions. They’ve been vulnerable against a good pass rush. Derek Carr looks average. The offensive line is not protecting well.
They need to get better.
I think this is where I came in.
Happy Thanksgiving to all our readers!