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Xs and O's / LONNIE WHITE

Where's the Beef? Pound for Pound, It's in the Line

September 07, 2003|LONNIE WHITE

To fully understand how large and wide NFL offensive lines have become, you'll need to watch a few games on HDTV this season.

Philadelphia's starting five on the O-line averages 6 feet 6 and 328 pounds. Quarterback Donovan McNabb compares his protection to trees, especially with 6-7, 349-pound Tra Thomas at left tackle.

And the Minnesota Vikings' offensive line is mammoth, center Matt Birk being the puniest starter at a scrawny 308 pounds.

Get the big picture?

It wasn't so long ago that a team made a statement by starting more than one 300-pound lineman. But ever since the success of the Washington Redskins' 1983 Super Bowl line, nicknamed "the Hogs," most teams have concluded that size does matter.

And don't expect things to change in the copycat NFL.

General managers certainly noticed how Tampa Bay's line punished the Raiders in last season's Super Bowl.

Behind 302-pound tackle Kenyatta Walker, the Buccaneers rushed for 150 yards in 42 carries and held the ball nearly 15 minutes longer than the Raiders in a 48-21 romp. Tampa Bay started four 300-pounders.

Minnesota Coach Mike Tice played 14 years as a tight end in the NFL, and he's a believer in today's full-size players. That's why the Vikings will open the season with a line that weighs 1,650 pounds and averages 330.

But Tice also likes them tall. At 6-4, Birk is the shortest in a line that averages 6-6.

If you'd never seen these guys play, you might assume that they were fat, slow and cumbersome. That would be wrong. These guys are big, tall and can move.

One of the most impressive sights at the San Diego Chargers' camp at the Home Depot Center was the quickness of rookie tackle Courtney Van Buren, drafted in the third round from Arkansas Pine Bluff.

Coach Marty Schottenheimer and line coach Hudson Houck couldn't hold back their smiles whenever Van Buren pulled downfield and crunched a linebacker or safety trying to make a play.

Van Buren is a perfect example of the NFL's new breed. He's a 6-5 former basketball player with excellent balance. Don't be surprised to see Houck, who molded great offensive lines at Dallas in the 1990s and with the Los Angeles Rams of the 1980s, develop Van Buren into the league's next great tackle.

Ever since the NFL began allowing blocking linemen to extend their arms and use their hands more extensively in the 1980s, teams have gone after huge players with long arms and strength.

In 1992, five offensive linemen were picked in the first round: Bob Whitfield, Ray Roberts, Leon Searcy, John Fina and Eugene Chung. Their average size was 6-4, 295.

In this year's draft, four linemen were selected in the first round with Wade Gross, a 6-4, 300-pound tackle, being the smallest of the group.

Even the linemen for Denver are starting to get bigger, which is saying something, because the Broncos have a reputation for being one of the league's most defiant teams in terms of starting 300-pounders.

Denver's first-round pick in April was George Foster, a 6-7, 338-pound tackle from Georgia, and the Broncos will start the season today with Ephraim Salaam at left tackle. He's listed at 6-7, 310 pounds.

Of course, if you're a big man, it helps to be able to use your hands more freely when blocking. That's why so many players who were tackles in college become guards in the pros. Their size compensates for any loss of speed on movement plays because they can still get an arm or hand on a lighter defender and knock him off course enough to open a hole.

The NFL has certainly come a long way since the Hogs, who gained their reputation for being immense because they started 300-pound Joe Jacoby at left tackle and 291-pound Mark May at left guard.

Imagine, Minnesota quarterback Daunte Culpepper, who goes 6-4, 264, weighs more than two of the Hogs did.

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