The Dallas Cowboys have had tremendous success over the past few years with building a dominant offensive line. In four years they invested first-round picks in Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick and Zack Martin, and hit it out of the park with all three. Now they have added another first-round-level talent in super steal La'el Collins. There are indications that other teams are trying to use the same approach as offensive linemen are becoming premium picks across the NFL. But just because teams are investing high draft picks in top college linemen does not mean they are having similar success. In recent years, Texas A&M has seen its linemen become highly coveted in the draft, with Luke Joekel going second overall in 2013, and Jake Matthews taken sixth overall in 2014. Yet both have struggled in the pros.
Our resident podcast maven Landon "OTTO" McCool began addressing this on Twitter earlier this week. He was inspired by an article about the issues caused by the current trends in the college game. Seattle OL coach Tom Cable thinks the fast-paced, read-option game is basically damaging players coming out of college as far as preparing them to compete in the NFL.
"I'm not wanting to offend anybody, but college football, offensively, has gotten to be really, really bad fundamentally," Cable told ESPN 710 radio in Seattle. "Unfortunately, I think we're doing a huge disservice to offensive football players, other than a receiver, that come out of these spread systems. The runners aren't as good. They aren't taught how to run. The blockers aren't as good. The quarterbacks aren't as good. They don't know how to read coverage and throw progressions. They have no idea."
Landon was kind enough to participate in a Q&A with me about these issues.
Tom: You stated that you think the biggest issue for players coming out of the college systems lies with the offensive line. Could you start by summarizing what the difference is between what those linemen are asked to do in these high-tempo college systems and what they will be asked to do in the pros?
Landon: I think the difference between the two is also the explanation of what the problem is. Namely that the spread offense, generally speaking, takes a lot of the onus off of the offensive line and moves it onto the QB and WR. In fact that was one of the main reasons it was designed. People talk about The Planet Theory all the time, the idea that there are only a certain amount of human beings in the world born into bodies than can grow to be (for example) 6"6' and 315 lbs. of muscle. With such a small group, there is/was a fierce competition to recruit these kids. One solution for the small schools was to create an offense that didn't require "Planet Theory" players in order to thrive. Almost by its own definition it is an offense that is trying to take the need of an elite OL out of the equation. You can imagine how growing up in a scheme like that, as an OL, might stunt your growth versus being in a pro scheme. The problem REALLY was exasperated by the success of the spread "spreading" (hahahahahahaha) to the upper echelon schools as well. Meaning even the top guys, the guys who would normally end up in the NFL, are getting this system taught to them instead of something closer to what they would see on Sundays.
Tom: Do you have a good feel for what the college offensive linemen in the spread don't get coached in that they have to have learn in the pros?
Landon: Obviously it varies from system to system. First things first, most spread offenses have their offensive linemen in two-point stances exclusively. So learning to fire off the ball from a three-point stance is probably going to be job 1. I think generally they learn less techniques because they're not asked to do as many. This is to both maintain simplicity, and for schematic reasons. In a lot of systems the pass and run plays are blocked exactly the same, especially in spread offenses that feature zone-read, where you want the play to look exactly the same until the option choice is made. So that is one thing.
Another is that people forget that in the spread offense, the offensive line is also "spread". Their splits are much wider, which in turn spreads the defensive line. That means all the angles are different. Stunts and games are all handled differently. Run blocking angles are different. It's kind of similar to when people talk about converting a college CB to a pro safety, in that it's dealing with the combination of new angles, plus greatly increased play speed.
Now the good news for Cowboys fans is that most spread teams, but not all, run a zone blocking system, so concepts may be familiar to them. But if you're a gap/power system, you might not be as lucky.
Tom: So I would imagine that it makes it a lot harder to scout the players who are working in a system that relies on two-point stances and such.
Landon: Yeah, especially if they didn't play in a three-point stance in high school either. That means they've never been taught how to fire out of their stance. And for coaches they're gonna need a LOT of time in the chutes...
Tom: Would you say the Cowboys are looking for players with a pro-style background to get around these issues?
Landon: I think it must be looked at as a plus, but I imagine they can't be looking exclusively there. Simply because they would be limiting themselves to a very small pool at that point. Clearly teams have made an adjustment to having to retrain these offensive linemen when they come into the league. Which kind of ties into the question that I think prompted Tom Cable's answer in that interview, which was about his (successful) attempts at converting college defensive linemen to offensive linemen. His reasoning being: A) He felt like he got better athletes, and B) He felt like he had to start from scratch with most college OL coming into the NFL anyway.
Tom: Does all that make this another area where analytics like SPARQ are a crucial tool when you don't have video of the player demonstrating NFL level skills?
Landon: I think what's more important with something like this is getting your offensive line coach to work the kid out. Gotta see where he is at in person. Only a coach in person could get the kind of visual cues I imagine you would need to project how much work this kid will need. I actually wouldn't be surprised if OL SPARQ scores have skyrocketed since the proliferation of the spread. Simply because they're probably more "athletic" since, like we discussed, there is a lot of zone blocking systems built into these offenses. That means guys who can move. Offensive line and defensive line are the ultimate positions to get too caught up in athleticism. I think there can be an important minimum threshold to meet, but it's certainly not the end all, be all.
Tom: You have made an excellent argument for how important Bill Callahan was, and how we need to hope Frank Pollack can keep up the level of coaching.
Landon: I think that is one of the more underrated aspects of coaching in the NFL. Having a vision for a player is the first step to setting them up for success. I think the job of the NFL offensive line coach has only gotten more difficult through the years.
If you concede the basic premise here (and the Cable article was not the first time I have seen this discussed as a growing issue for NFL teams), then the job the Cowboys have done over the past few years in building the new edition of the Great Wall is even more impressive. As Landon asserts, this is, like most things, a combination of factors. It required astute drafting, effective coaching, and almost certainly a bit of luck along the way. But it is hard to argue the fact that Dallas has almost certainly done better at assembling the current offensive line than any other team in the league. And as OCC has pointed out, the youth of all the members outside of Doug Free means that it should be very productive for easily five years, and probably beyond that.
Now I think we also have a good idea of why those other teams may not be catching up very easily. It's good to be on top.