As a youngster playing pee wee football I played on the line. I assumed I must not be very good at football because I played on the line. The fact that a team needs more good lineman than it does quarterbacks is a mathematical truth that my young mind could easily grasp, but to me the game was all about flash.
The first Georgia Bulldog that I remember being enthralled by was Hines Ward. I remember watching him play tailback, receiver and quarterback. Still in my single-digits when Ward starred at UGA, I knew little about football, but enough to know that playing three different positions and playing them well wasn’t totally normal.
That started a pattern, and for most of my Bulldog fandom I have focused on the touchdown scorers. I worshipped Champ Bailey the receiver much more than Champ Bailey the greatest cover corner to ever don the red and black.
As a kid I’d watch games with my Dad and he’d exclaim things like “we’re getting licked up front” or, “they’re holding us!” I never understood how he knew. I was focused on the guys catching, running and throwing the ball.
This pattern continued into college. My freshman year at Georgia was 2007. I remember sitting in Sanford Stadium and watching the receivers to see if they would break free from their man. I would watch Knowshon’s every move, and while I knew the offensive line did a good job when he sprang a good run, I rarely gave it much deeper thought.
I started to see the light at the 2010 version of The World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party. I was maybe ten rows above the field. A heartbreaker of a game that ended up being an overtime win for the Gators was looking like a routine Georgia loss in the second quarter. Bored, I started paying attention to the bench and my eyes eventually found Ben Jones.
Jones, the Bulldogs starting center, was absolutely dog cussing his teammates on the offensive line. I thought Jones was rather brave since it appeared that all of his fellow lineman were taller than him. He was walking around the loose little circle of them and standing on his tippy toes to get closer to their eye level while shoving his finger in their chests. He was screaming so emphatically that he was spewing all of them with spit as he undressed them.
I didn’t play football at a very high level, but I knew enough in that moment to know that anyone who yells at their teammates like that better be able to hold up their end of things when they get on the field. I watched Jones throughout the rest of the game, and he didn’t let a single Gator through the center of Georgia’s line. I loved Ben Jones from that moment forward.
I was only 21 at the time of the 2010 Cocktail Party, and as young men are, I continued to be drawn to fast and shiny things like receivers and tailbacks. Nonetheless, the foundation had been laid.
Nearly ten years have passed since then, and I am getting old. Yes, I still have all of my hair. No, it is not grey. I am still a long way from AARP membership, but I know I have reached some level of masculine maturity because football is all about the offensive line for me now. Sure, touchdown scorers are cool. But have you ever seen a 330-pound guard wearing #66 gracefully move to the next level on an outside run and pancake a linebacker?
That’s where the beauty lies, and that’s how touchdowns get scored.
In most things in life, you don’t want to know how the sausage is made. In football, the sausage makers are the big fellas on the offensive line. Show me an All-American running back and I’ll show you a guy whose stats are the product of a great offensive line.
Every offseason we watch as prognosticators give their takes on who will be the best teams in the coming season. Every year we listen as quarterbacks, running backs, receivers and defenses get discussed. The last thing anyone seems to mention is the offensive line. When they do, they tend to just mention how many starters are returning.
Oversight of the offensive line is the fatal flaw in most predictions. A team’s offensive line is both its ceiling and its floor, but we lose sight of that while looking at the flash. I should mention that the writer who picked Oregon State as Sports Illustrated’s preseason #1 in 2000 didn’t write a word about the offensive line. You can google how that turned out. Everyone was so enamored with Georgia’s returning skill players and linebackers before the 2008 season that the Dawgs were ranked #1. You know how that turned out.
The folks who make those predictions are a microcosm for us as a college football society. Too few of us are really paying attention to the guys that allow the players wearing single-digits to succeed. When I talk football with buddies, everyone wants to talk about the returning starter at quarterback. Nobody worries about who’s going to protect him until his jersey is dirty and his team is down two touchdowns in October.
Show me a suspect offensive line, and I will show you a team that’s going to struggle against college football’s elite. Show me a bad offensive line, and I’ll show you a coach whose about to get fired. It’s no coincidence that the first thing Kirby Smart did when he took over at Georgia was find as much beef as he could up front. The difference between 10-3 and 13-1 in the SEC lies in the trenches. (I’m looking at you, Dan Mullen)
In addition to overlooking their importance to overall team success, most people never realize that the guys up front, along with their counterparts on the defensive line, are actually the most freakish athletes on the field. There’s a lot of guys out there who run a 4.5 at 165 pounds, but there aren’t many who are 6’5” and 320 pounds that can run the forty in 4.85 seconds.
Look at that beautiful unicorn of a man move. Now think about the fact that he has feet as nimble as a ballerina.
If you’re already hip to how much awesomeness happens when you watch a football game with an eye on the line, then please forgive me for the youthful ignorance that kept me out of the club until a few years ago. I did not know what I did not know.
If you’re like me, and have overlooked the offensive line for most of your life, then take a drive or two and watch the big guys up front work their magic during the next football game you watch. You’ll probably have a better idea of why the winning team is the winning team. You are also more probable to enjoy a good scotch and share apt football wisdom like, “special teams is a third of the game.”
Here’s hoping the Dawgs are nasty up front in 2020.