Adam Harstad’s Offense to Defend the Planet


Photo by Jim Bowen.

Photo by Jim Bowen.

Harstad adopts an underdog mentality in this game to defend the planet and it “permeates every choice” he makes. 

Team Overview

Despite all assurances that this competition is a “fair fight”, I am approaching the Game to Decide the Fate of Humanity as if we are heavy underdogs. This is not a motivational ploy— somehow I suspect everyone will be plenty motivated— but a philosophical choice.

If I believe the matchup is even or I have an advantage and it turns out I am wrong, the results are disastrous. If I believe I’m an underdog and it turns out I’m wrong, the results are fortuitous. It’s a lot easier for a team built on “David Tactics” to shift gears when things go well than it is for a team built on “Goliath Tactics” to shift when things are going poorly.

This may seem like a minor decision, one that speaks entirely to my mindset while making little practical difference. It is not. The decision to consider myself an underdog permeates every choice I make, from assembling a coaching staff to selecting a roster. But the first choice it impacts is the choice of rules.

Rules: 2004 Season

Underdogs naturally seek high variance outcomes. Passing is naturally higher-variance than rushing. Therefore, I will construct a team built around passing and defending the pass, and I will select the rules that most favor that strategy.

The last four seasons have been the four of the five most prolific passing seasons in league history, both in terms of volume and efficiency. It would make sense, then, to assume that I would want to use the rules and enforcement from that stretch.

The problem is that this modern boom in passing has little to do with rules and enforcement. Instead, it is the result of long-term strategic shifts, such as the explosion of the shotgun, the league-wide rediscovery of the no-huddle, and the integration of the spread. This is demonstrated by the inexorable rise in league-wide yards per attempt. From 2005 to 2014, the average yards per attempt figure was 6.8, 6.9, 6.9, 6.9, 7.0, 7.0, 7.2, 7.1, 7.1, and 7.2.

Instead, I want the aliens to replicate the rules and enforcement present during the 2004 NFL season.

Remember, in 2005 the average YPA value was 6.8. In 2003, that average was 6.6. In 2004, though, the league average spiked all the way up to 7.1, a level on par with recent seasons without the benefit of all that no-huddle shotgun spread.

The 2004 passing totals were not the result of slow improvement. They were the result of officials being explicitly instructed to call defensive contact tighter than they ever had. It was a one-year aberration. I want to take advantage of it for one more game.

The other nice thing about 2004? Despite being an offense’s dream, it also plays directly into the strengths of my defense. Because of the strict ban on downfield contact, 2004 featured the highest yard-per-completion average since 1998. Because of the emphasis on downfield passing, it also featured the highest sack rate of the last 13 seasons.

Perhaps most importantly, despite the spike in passing efficiency, 2004’s emphasis had no impact on league-wide interception rates. From 2002 to 2007, the league average was 3.1%, 3.3%, 3.2%, 3.1%, 3.2%, and 3.1%. The four most recent seasons, on the other hand, gave us four of the five lowest int% averages in NFL history, including last year’s record 2.5%.

(Also, in 2004 the goal-line still “stretched around the world”. I always thought that was a bizarre rule that was ripe for exploiting by a creative coach with an Olympic-caliber leaper. And it just so happens that my roster has Olympian on it with a bit of experience in the long jump.)

By choosing 2004, I am selecting a rules environment that is pass heavy with an emphasis on the deep ball, but which did not hinder, (and, indeed, helped facilitate), a defense’s ability to get sacks and interceptions.

As a pass-obsessed underdog, it’s exactly what I’m looking for.

Head Coach: Vince Lombardi

If I could get anyone in history to coach my team for one game, it would be Bill Walsh. For this exercise, though, Walsh is unavailable, (spoilers: he’s going to be busy elsewhere). So instead, I will “resign myself” to Vince Lombardi, who manages to be my second choice while still being second-to-none.

Lombardi could sling Xs and Os with the best of them, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. He was a brilliant strategic mind and a master innovator. But I’ve got strategy and innovation pretty thoroughly covered already, so I’m more interested in Lombardi’s more-heralded skills as a motivator and a delegator.

I’m willing to bet that most here are familiar enough with Lombardi that a full history would be superfluous, but I think it’s worth mentioning that in 1958, the Packers finished 1-10-1 despite featuring five future Hall of Famers. In 1959, they hired Lombardi and immediately improved to 7-5. He knew how to get the best out of his players.

But honestly, as incredible as was the strength of his coaching, it pales in comparison to the strength of his character. At a time when several NFL franchises had yet to integrate, Lombardi said he “viewed his players as neither black nor white, but Packer green”. He refused to allow any members of his team to frequent any establishment that did not treat both the black and the white players equally. He threatened to have any player who exhibited prejudice against his teammates cut immediately.

Even more surprisingly, given his time, Lombardi was an outspoken advocate for gay rights. Lombardi promised gay players on his teams that they would be judged solely on their contributions on the field. More than that, he made a point of inviting gay players to training camp and even rooting for them to show enough to make the roster.

If this is to be our last hurrah as a species, then at least let it come under the stewardship of the best humanity has to offer. Let’s show the aliens just who and what we are capable of. Let’s see if they can feel shame.

Offensive Philosophy: Multiplicity

Multiplicity

In 1990, as part of a celebration of Earth Day, New York City closed 42nd street, one of its busiest roads. The idea was that by making traffic worse for a day, it would help educated motorists on the importance of car pooling or the viability of public transport.

The problem? Traffic wasn’t any worse. In fact, quite the opposite: by closing its busiest road, New York City had unintentionally made traffic better. And not because fewer people were driving, either.

New York’s Earth Day experiment was simply the latest example of something called Braess’ Paradox. Counterintuitively enough, under certain circumstances, adding a road to a traffic network can increase congestion, while closing a road can reduce it.

Braess’ Paradox is probably more recognizable to sports fans by another name: “Ewing Theory”. Sportswriter Bill Simmons once observed that the New York Knicks often played better when Patrick Ewing was out of the lineup than they did when he was in the lineup. Despite theories that this was because of motivation or chemistry, the most likely explanation is that the Knicks distributed the ball more efficiently without a superstar dominating their possessions.

The basic gist of Braess’ Paradox is as follows: imagine you have two options. The first option is better than the second, but it tends to decline in quality the more you use it. The traditional approach is to always select the better option, which means taking the first option until it declines enough to be equal to the second, and then alternating.

This is what is known as a “Nash Equilibrium”. And it makes sense. If faced with two options, why on earth would you select the worse one?

The problem, of course, is that’s exactly what you should do. By relying too much on the superior option, you eat away at what makes it superior, until the end result isn’t “one good option and one bad option”, but “two equally bad options”. Instead, you should sometimes deliberately select the inferior option just to avoid overusing the better one.

Let’s put this in football terms. Imagine you have a running back who averages 5 yards per carry and a second running back who averages 3 yards per carry. You can give the first back as many carries as you want, but he’s eventually going to tire, wear down, and maybe accumulate some minor injuries. Instead, it’s better to give the inferior back some extra carries early on— knowing full well that he will do less with them— just to keep your primary back fresh and healthy.

Outside of the running back by committee, which goes in and out of vogue through league history, coaches don’t use this approach very often in the NFL. Part of the reason is because the drop in quality between their best starter and their best backup is typically huge, so the proper equilibrium involves almost nothing but the starter.

On my team, though, the drop in quality between the top starter and the top backup is much, much smaller. As a result, the terms “starters” and “backups” are relatively meaningless. Every skill position player on my offense will be rotating in and out far more heavily than anyone has ever seen in the NFL before. Receivers might play one series, or they might just play a single snap. Even quarterbacks will rotate in and out as the situation warrants.

This heavy rotation isn’t just to keep my players far better rested than their competition. It also provides me with a second, equally-important advantage. The aliens say they admire our creativity and cognitive flexibility? Great. Let ‘em choke on it.

On one snap, perhaps Dan Marino, Jerry Rice, Terrell Owens, and Marshall Faulk are running a prototypical mid-’90s West Coast Offense. On the next, maybe Randy Moss and Paul Warfield are running deep clear-outs while John Elway fakes the bootleg and hands off to Jim Brown running right up the heart of a scattered and spread defense. Two snaps later, maybe Kellen Winslow is motioning into a full-house backfield with Gale Sayers and Rob Gronkowski while Walter Payton takes the wildcat snap and heaves downfield to a streaking Randall Cunningham.

Good luck trying to keep up with personnel substitutions, to say nothing at all about adjusting to a scheme that’s morphing from drive to drive and from snap to snap. I’d feel sorry for the aliens if they weren’t imperialistic bastards. But they are, so fuck them.

One byproduct of this approach is that my focus is far less on the breadth of a player’s skills than it is on the depth of his skills. I don’t need a wide receiver who is a very good possession receiver and a very good deep threat. Instead, I can easily replace him with two receivers, one of whom is an elite possession receiver and the other of whom is an elite deep threat.

The scope of this project was to name a starting 22. Obviously, given the nature of my decision, “starting 22” isn’t really a term that holds meaning to me. As a result, I’ll be providing my entire 53-man roster. For the sake of voting, I will designate the nominal starters with an asterisk.

Offensive Coordinator: Bill Walsh

Walsh

I know of two coaches who crafted an elite NFL offense, saw their personnel change, and then radically overhauled their philosophy as a result, dominating the league again with a completely different scheme. The first is Bill Walsh, who tossed out an elite deep-passing offense in Cincinnati when injuries left him with a quarterback incapable of throwing deep. The second is Bill Belichick, who put together a top-5 offense using a ground-and-pound approach with Corey Dillon in 2004, then abandoned it in favor of a college spread en route to NFL records in 2007.

Belichick even overhauled his offense again in 2011, when the departure of Randy Moss and the addition of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez naturally led him to funnel his passing game through his tight ends. And yes, for all of the accolades Belichick gets on defense, he was very close to being my choice as offensive coordinator.

In the end, though, I cannot pass on Bill Walsh. Walsh was considered too professorial by many to succeed in the NFL, and took years to get a head coaching job because Paul Brown would gladly tell anyone who asked that he was soft. The term “west coast offense” was originally coined as an insult, meant to designate the short passing game as “fancy” or “finesse” or otherwise different from “real football”.

I’m okay with fancy. I’m okay with finesse. I’m okay with turning my offense over to an intellectual and letting him design gimmicks. In fact, that’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to lock Bill Walsh in a room for 90 days and let him draw up gimmicks.

In our defense of mankind, I firmly believe that our single greatest asset is not Jim Brown’s power, or John Elway’s competitive drive, or Jerry Rice’s attention to detail, or Lawrence Taylor’s controlled violence. In our battle to save mankind, our greatest weapon is Bill Walsh’s mind.

Bill Belichick designed a record-setting offense in part by recognizing that Wes Welker was not a bad football player, but a player who did certain things well, even if those things fell outside what was typically expected from the position. Bill Walsh revolutionized offense in the NFL by seeing quarterback Virgil Carter not as a flawed quarterback incapable of throwing deep, but as a gifted and brilliant quarterback capable of dominating the short-to-mid range.

In that same vein, when stocking Walsh’s offensive cupboard, I’m focusing less on whether players are the greatest to ever play their position and more on whether they are capable of bringing something new and unique to the offense that isn’t provided elsewhere. Instead of getting six of the best all-around receivers, for instance, I want players who might not be as good overall, but who are the best in history at certain specific tasks.

And then, as I said, I’ll charge Bill Walsh with blending all the ingredients together in ways never before seen by man or alien, orchestrating an offense that plays not in snaps but in waves.

If they want to learn about our creativity, then let them pull up a chair. Class is in session. The professor is about to scribble a treatise on humanity’s right to self-determination in Xs and Os on a dusty chalkboard.

[Editor’s Note: Adam has adopted a unique strategy that doesn’t have a single starter for every play. The names marked with asterisks are his choice as the starter representing his team for the reader vote.] 

Quarterback *John Elway

  • Dan Marino
  • Randall Cunningham

John Elway didn’t have the statistics of his Hall of Fame peers, but in his third act he demonstrated that, when given a creative scheme and some offensive help, he was capable of shattering all of the expectations we’d meticulously built up over his first twelve seasons.

The reason Elway earns the coveted starting job is that he perfectly embodies what I’m looking for in a player. He was a great teammate and a beloved leader. His physical tools are among the greatest the game has ever seen; in addition to his reputation as the greatest prospect in history, he was drafted by the Kansas City Royals out of high school and given a $150,000 contract by the New York Yankees out of college. His arm strength is still legendary in scouting circles, and we have a few deep threats who might be interested in putting it to the test.

Elway

Far from just a physical phenom, Elway was the son of coach and scout Jack Elway and spent his entire life around football. His understanding of the game was great enough to successfully transition to a front office role.

It’s more than his skills or his mind, though; while all quarterbacks are naturally going to be several standard deviations above the mean in competitive drive, Elway’s desire to win stood out even among his peers. Teammates tell stories of beating him in table tennis and being forced to play rematches for hours until he finally prevailed. During his playing career, Elway took his golf handicap from a 7 to a 1.

After 1997, Elway was given the perfect opportunity to give his career a storybook ending, but he declined and came back for one more season. When he did retire, he built a car dealership empire, started several successful restaurants, founded a championship-winning Arena League team, and eventually returned to the NFL to build a Super Bowl team from the ground up. It is unacceptable for John Elway to be anything but the best at anything he ever does. That fire, that drive, will be a huge asset with the world on the line.

Another underrated advantage Elway offers; we saw what he could do in a favorable situation, but that was the old, slow, broken-down John Elway. We never saw what he could do if he’d been given that chance at his physical and mental peak. This means that the aliens haven’t seen it, either. Which means they have no idea what they’re in for.

Dan Marino is the ultimate “break glass in case of emergency” passer for our team. Yes, he was prolific in a way the league had not yet imagined, and he brings an element of incredible precision to our passing attack, but his greatest asset for our purposes is his famously quick release.

Marino’s knees were so balky that he underwent a reported five offseason surgeries during his career. He was so immobile that he rushed for negative yardage in 12 of his 17 years, (mostly a long list of seasons like his 14 carries for -7 yards and 2 touchdowns in 1989). He was also probably the most difficult quarterback to sack that the league has ever seen.

Should disaster strike and our offensive line prove too porous to hold off the alien pass rush, Dan Marino provides us with the security in knowing we’ll still be able to move the ball through the air with ease. Just don’t call him a backup, because he is a key part of our offensive game plan.

Randall Cunningham is not remembered as an all-time great, but under different circumstances he might well have been. Cunningham was drafted by an Eagles squad run by the famously offense-averse Buddy Ryan. In 1986, Cunningham was sacked 72 times, the second-highest total in history behind David Carr’s 76 sacks as a rookie. The most amazing part, though, is that Cunningham was not the Eagles primary starter that year.

Cunningham’s 72 sacks came against just 209 pass attempts, compared to the 444 that Carr had in 2002. Cunningham was sacked on 25.6% of his dropbacks compared to Carr’s 14.6%. Far from going into the tank, however, Cunningham showed a remarkable resiliency, carrying an otherwise ignored offense of castoffs on his back through electric running and competent passing.

He was probably the toughest player of his era to scheme against. And when he finally landed in a functional system late in his career, despite his best rushing days dwindling off in the rear-view mirror, Cunningham posted a tremendous 8.7 yards per attempt, 106 passer rating, and led the highest-scoring offense the league had ever seen. Solely as a passer. Do you think Bill Walsh could think of some fun things to do with an offensive weapon like that? Because I sure do.

Running Back *Marshall Faulk

  • Walter Payton
  • Jim Brown
  • Gale Sayers

If our goal is to create the most varied, versatile offense the sport has ever seen, then it makes sense to start our RB corps with Marshall Faulk, the most dangerous chess piece ever to play. In 1985, under Bill Walsh, Roger Craig became the first player in history to top 1,000 rushing yards and 1,000 receiving yards in the same season. In 1999, Faulk became the second. With no disrespect intended, Roger Craig is no Marshall Faulk.

Faulk copy

There have been seven seasons in history where a player averaged 80 yards per game rushing and 50 yards per game receiving, and Faulk was responsible for four of them, including one on the Indianapolis Colts. Skilled enough to play wide receiver, Faulk makes selecting defensive personnel all but impossible. And even if the aliens guess correctly, all it takes is a simple pre-snap motion to make them wrong once again.

As will be a common theme on my team, Marshall Faulk is also one of the smartest players to ever play his position. With as many wrinkles as Walsh will be dreaming up, a player’s involvement will be limited only by his ability to learn the offense. By that measure, Faulk’s involvement will not be very limited at all.

If Marshall Faulk is the most versatile running back in league history, Walter Payton might be a close second. A more powerful runner than Faulk and wildly underrated as a receiver, Payton is also capable of lead blocking and even running the wildcat, (Payton’s 8 career passing touchdowns are more than any other RB in modern NFL history).

I can imagine what kind of defensive chaos it might cause when the offense breaks the huddle with Randall Cunningham, Marshall Faulk, Walter Payton, Rob Gronkowski, Kellen Winslow and Randy Moss. Is that 11 personnel? 12 personnel? 21 personnel? 22 personnel? Single wing? Full house? All of the above? None of the above?

While my team is built first and foremost around the pass, I wanted to have a “pure runner” on my squad in case the run game was working better than anticipated. In my mind, the top two “pure runners” in history were Jim Brown and Barry Sanders, for wildly different reasons. Sanders was the most creative and unpredictable runner the league has seen, jazz music given physical form. Brown, on the other hand, is living Death Metal, all aggression, volume, and unrelenting tempo.

For me, as painful as it was to leave off Sanders, the deciding factor was depth of talent. The chances are good that I will find myself in a short-yardage situation at some point during the game. I would feel like such a fool if I found myself facing 4th-and-1 with the fate of humanity at stake and I had declined to bring along perhaps the greatest power back in league history.

Gale Sayers is another classic “depth of talent not breadth of talent” pick. He’s fast, creative, and dynamic. He’s poetry in motion, the closest thing to Barry Sanders this side of Barry Sanders. In my offense, he’s reduced to gadget player and primary kickoff returner. That’s an incredible luxury. I suspect Bill Walsh might come up with a play or two to take advantage of Sayers’ unique skills.

Wide Receivers *Jerry Rice and *Randy Moss

  • Michael Irvin
  • Paul Warfield
  • Terrell Owens
  • Jordy Nelson

JerryRice

Jerry Rice is the greatest wide receiver of all time. You probably don’t need me to tell you that. There’s no need to overthink things.

Randy Moss is an exceptional deep threat and an athletic marvel. His most underrated talent, however, might be his biggest asset on this team; Moss is one of the most intelligent receivers the NFL has seen. In this offense, a player’s role will be limited by how much of the offense he can learn in 90 days. A smart receiver like Moss will be a huge boon.

Michael Irvin at his best is one of the biggest bullies the league has seen. A standout possession receiver without skimping on explosiveness, Irvin is perhaps best known as the master of the offensive push-off. Giving him the benefit of 2004 referees hardly seems fair. Irvin played his entire career in a low-volume passing attack, but was a star when the stakes were at their highest.

Paul Warfield is the perfect embodiment of my “depth of talent rather than breadth of talent” approach. He did not innovate the position like Don Hutson or Raymond Berry. He never had the sustained peak of Lance Alworth or Sterling Sharpe. He is known for providing his offense with one thing: An elite deep threat capable of moving the ball in big chunks, but more importantly, capable of keeping the defense honest.

At that one thing, Warfield is the best in history. Despite shall-we-say “uninspiring” receiving statistics, Warfield joins Jerry Rice, Don Hutson, Lance Alworth, Raymond Berry, and Steve Largent as the only first-ballot Hall of Fame receivers in history. Warfield once was named first-team All-Pro in a season where he ranked 50th in receptions and 28th in receiving yards, largely because his team only passed 250 times all year.

While Warfield’s offenses were the most run-heavy in history, few receivers accounted for a larger percentage of their team’s total passing yards, or averaged more yards per team pass attempt. Warfield was perfectly content getting just a couple deep targets a game and still impacting the outcome by keeping defenses on their heels and opening things up for the running game. That’s an asset on this all-star team, where Warfield can still make his impact felt when targets are hard to come by.

Among all receivers who have played 14 games, Terrell Owens ranks 1st in fantasy points per game at age 27. He ranks 2nd in fppg at 28, 1st at 29, 3rd and 31, 3rd at 33, 1st at 34, 3rd at 35, 5th at 36, and 1st at age 37. Owens was injured at age 32, but was on pace to rank 1st at that age, too. To whatever extent fantasy points can serve as a proxy for production, Terrell Owens was one of the five most productive receivers in history in 10 out of his 11 seasons from age 27 to 37. (He still ranked an impressive 18th at age 29, to boot.)

Now, the point of this isn’t to say that Owens was productive; we already know that. We know he was a red zone monster and one of the most intimidating receivers after the catch that the league has known. The point here is that those eleven seasons came on five different teams, alongside eleven different starting quarterbacks. More than any great receiver in history, Owens has demonstrated an ability to excel any time, in any place, at any age, in any scheme, with any teammates. That reliability is comforting with so much at stake.

For my final receiver, I wanted to give Walsh a modern slot receiver just to give him another chess piece to work with. I agonized for a long time about whether to include Steve Smith or Jordy Nelson. I believe Smith is a better receiver, an all-time great who, like Irvin and Warfield, excelled on an offense that rarely threw.

On the other hand, Steve Smith’s skills showed more overlap with players already on my roster. Marshall Faulk and Kellen Winslow, Sr. can also handle slot duties. Paul Warfield and Randy Moss already give me a pair of all-time deep threats. Owens brings toughness, grit, and a desire to hit anyone who thinks of tackling him.

So, as much as it pained me, I opted for Jordy Nelson, who fills in as Green Bay’s slot receiver when Randall Cobb is on the shelf. Nelson’s size gives me options in the slot that don’t overlap as much with what Marshall Faulk provides. In addition, Jordy Nelson is one of the best boundary receivers I’ve ever seen. If you give him a sideline, Jordy Nelson is 90% of Brandon Lloyd 100% of the time, (as opposed to Lloyd himself, who is 100% of Brandon Lloyd just 50% of the time).

Tight Ends: *Rob Gronkowski & *Kellen Winslow, Sr.

  • Vernon Davis

Gronkowski by JDN

Rob Gronkowski might be the most valuable offensive player who doesn’t line up under center. Part of that is just because Rob Gronkowski is really, really good. He’s bigger, faster, and stronger than anyone who has the misfortune of being assigned to him in coverage. He’s a mauler in the run game and a massive target with incredible hands. I would suggest he’s the most dangerous red zone weapon in history.

But a larger part of Gronkowski’s value lies in the scheme versatility he creates. With Rob Gronkowski breaking the huddle, 12 personnel is both a pass-heavy and a run-heavy formation, since Gronkowski is simultaneously as dangerous as any receiver and as good of a blocker as any other tight end.

Pairing him with a back like Marshall Faulk or Walter Payton, (or even both at once), will only amplify that versatility. Good play design increases the chances that the defense will choose wrong. Great play design makes it so that any choice the defense makes is automatically wrong. Rob Gronkowski facilitates great play design.

Kellen Winslow, Sr. was not as versatile as Rob Gronkowski. His own coach once said “If we’re asking Kellen to block a defensive end and not catch passes, I’m not a very good coach.” Winslow was the first of the breed of receiving specialists at tight end, a man Jon Gruden called the first “joker”; Bill Belichick calls all receiving tight ends in today’s NFL “direct descendants of Kellen Winslow”.

While his career was shortened by injury, Winslow set meaningful records for the position that would stand for thirty years. At his peak, Winslow was transcendent. In the 1981 season alone, Winslow had a 5-touchdown receiving game as well as perhaps the single best postseason effort in history, a 13/166/1 performance through cramps and dehydration in the stifling heat in Miami that culminated in Winslow blocking a potential game-winning field goal with seconds remaining. Capable of lining up at tight end, in the slot, or out wide, Winslow is one of the toughest coverage responsibilities for defenders of any stripe.

My third tight end was a bit of a conundrum. Mike Ditka was the ur-Gronk, the first great receiving TE and also a devastating blocker, but at 230 pounds I don’t think he’d be big enough to dominate in today’s NFL. I was tempted by Antonio Gates as another red zone weapon, and of course Tony Gonzalez is always a phenomenal choice. In the end, I opted for the perhaps-controversial Vernon Davis.

Davis’ receiving numbers might not seem as impressive, but judging him by his numbers alone doesn’t tell the whole story; he spent his early career with offensive lines so porous that he was frequently needed as a blocker. In the end, Davis gives us the blocking of Ditka, the red-zone presence of Gates, and the all-around receiving skills of Gonzalez, all wrapped up in the body of the greatest physical athlete to ever play the position.

Offensive Line

Footwork is essential for quality offensive line play. Photo of Steve Hutchinson by Rick Burtzel

Photo of Steve Hutchinson by Rick Burtzel

Left Tackle

  • *Walter Jones
  • Anthony Munoz

Left Guard

  • *Steve Hutchinson
  • Alan Faneca

Center

  • *Matt Birk
  • Dermontti Dawson

Right Guard

  • *Larry Allen
  • Bruce Matthews

Right Tackle *Jonathan Ogden

Unlike my skill players, my offensive linemen will not be rotating through from snap to snap. Continuity is far too important to performance to take a risk like that. As a result, I’m looking for a starting five that is athletic enough to handle a full game and smart enough to keep pace with an offense designed specifically to be incomprehensible to outside observers.

The other requirement for my offensive line is that they must be big enough to play in today’s NFL. Dwight Stephenson and Mike Webster are two of the greatest centers the league has ever seen. Neither will see my team, because both played at just 255 pounds.

Size isn’t everything, but it’s abundantly clear that there are certain minimum thresholds required to compete at the highest level, and those thresholds rose dramatically throughout the 1990s before stabilizing in the early 2000s.

Since 2000, there hasn’t been a single center whose playing weight was below 280 pounds. Mark Stepnowski, anchor for those heralded mid-90s Dallas lines, was the last regular starter below that weight; he retired in 2001. Pete Kendall played below that weight in the ‘90s before adding more later in his career. Ryan Wendell was below that weight when he entered the league as an undrafted free agent from Fresno State, but he bulked up before earning the starting job.

That’s it. That’s the list of centers in the last 15 years who weighed less than 280 pounds. There have been plenty of successful players who played between 280 and 290 pounds, (including Kevin Mawae, Tom Nalen, and Casey Wiegmann, three of the most successful centers of the early 2000s), but there is little reason to believe that a center any lighter than that could succeed in today’s NFL.

Likewise, it appears that there are now functional cutoffs at guard and tackle of 300 pounds. John Hannah is arguably the greatest offensive lineman of all time, but at 265 pounds, would he be big enough to deal with modern athletes? Maybe, but I wouldn’t gamble the fate of humanity on it.

My starting left tackle is Walter Jones. As I mentioned, my offense is built first and foremost around the pass, and Jones is the premier pass-blocking tackle of the modern NFL.  Backing him up is Anthony Munoz, the one exception to my “minimum size” policy; Munoz played at 278 pounds, but I suspect that I could get him up to 285 or 290 by game time. There is one precedent for a tackle that light excelling in the modern NFL; Denver’s Matt Lepsis, a former college tight end, was a phenomenal left tackle despite being undersized because he was first and foremost a technician. No tackle in history was a technician like Munoz was.

At left guard, Steve Hutchinson will start and Alan Faneca will back him up. In my opinion, Faneca was the slightly better player, but Hutchinson was not far behind, and given his phenomenal chemistry with Walter Jones in Seattle, it felt right to reunite the duo.

At center I will start Matt Birk, with Dermontti Dawson as a reserve. Dawson was the last truly great center in the NFL, and the only one of the all-time greats big enough to play in today’s game. So why is Birk starting? Again, chemistry is part of the answer; I already know that Hutchinson and Birk complement each other well based on their time together in Minnesota.

The more important issue is the mental requirements for the position. Because the skill positions rotate through so heavily, they each only have to learn a small percentage of my offense. My linemen do not rotate through, but each is only responsible for knowing his own responsibilities. The center, on the other hand, is the only man on the team who is tasked with learning this entire unwieldy beast of a scheme, (outside of Walsh himself, of course.) If I’m going to be entrusting responsibility for making line calls to one man, I’d feel more comfortable entrusting them to the Harvard-educated Birk.

At right guard, our team will bring two of the biggest, strongest, meanest, nastiest linemen the league has seen in starter Larry Allen and backup Bruce Matthews. Both are versatile players with pro bowl experience at multiple positions, which will be very handy should injury strike during practice or the game.

To this point, every player on my team has been playing his natural position. The problem I face now is that arguably the best right tackles in history are actually left tackles; teams put their premier lineman on the opposite side of the line. So I’ll take a risk and play Jonathan Ogden on the right.

I’d rather bet that I can use the 90 days to teach him to mirror his technique properly than that I could use the 90 days to teach someone else Ogden’s size, strength, and ferocity. Given roster constraints, I am not carrying a 10th offensive lineman; in the event of an injury to Ogden, Larry Allen will slide over to RT and Bruce Matthews will step in at RG to avoid disrupting the rest of the line.

Adam Harstad writes for the Footballguys.com. He’s a stay-at-home-dad, a Denver Broncos fan, a `90s music freak, and a fan of Freakonomics and Thinking Fast and Slow.

Categories: RSP Writers ProjectTags: , , , , , , , , , ,

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