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For more from Chase and Jason, check out their work at Football Perspective and The Big Lead.

Great OL playing together

Posted by Chase Stuart on June 24, 2009

Recently, I've been focused on great players who, while they were still great, have played the same position for the same team at the same time. I looked at linebacker groups and DL units a few weeks ago; I then combined those two levels of the defense to rank some of the best front sevens of all time.

Using pretty much the same methodology, I'm going to rank the offensive lines. What teams have had stellar tackles, guards and centers playing together at the same time? To rank the offensive linemen, we're going to use Doug's Approximate Value system. I recorded the best three seasons for all linemen since 1950 to assign a "peak AV rating" for each player. For each player-season, I took the lineman's peak AV rating and then adjusted his score for age. What adjustment?

Last August, Doug looked at which great running backs were helped most by their offensive lines. He used the following aging curve for the big uglies:

Age  PctOfPeak
============
21 => 0.48
22 => 0.48
23 => 0.57
24 => 0.81
25 => 0.93
26 => 0.97
27 => 1.00
28 => 1.00
29 => 0.97
30 => 0.91
31 => 0.90
32 => 0.88
33 => 0.78
34 => 0.76
35 => 0.77
36 => 0.63
37 => 0.62
38 => 0.62
39 => 0.62
40 => 0.62

That's slightly different than the one I derived for defensive linemen; that could be because of the different ways you could interpret the data, or it could be because offensive and defensive linemen actually have different curves. That might be interesting to look at in a future post, but for now the above aging curve looks good to me. From there, it's really simple -- we multiply each lineman's peak AV grade by his age weight to obtain his value for each season. Then we add that number for each of the members of the starting five for every team since 1950.

An incomplete list of reasons to dislike this post:

As was the case in the DL and LB posts, active players that are still young are going to be undervalued. Jake Scott has a peak AV of 8.3 right now, but that could easily improve if he makes a couple of Pro Bowls. Therefore, the '04 and '05 Colts -- while they made the list below -- are potentially undervalued. Obviously for any team with no active players, this point is irrelevant.

Not all offensive line positions are created equally. While some people may argue that DEs are more important than DTs, surely others would go the other way. Many view MLBs as the face of a defense, but the OLBs are often the playmakers of a defense, especially in a 3-4 scheme. So combining the grades of all the players seemed innocuous in the prior posts. But you'd be hard pressed to find anyone argue that guards are equivalent to tackles. A line with two great tackles and two average guards should be better than the reverse.

I didn't make any adjustment, though, because of two reasons. One, I would have no idea what weight to use for the tackles; two, it's explicitly built into the AV formula that tackles get more credit than the interior linemen. So to some extent, this has been considered when we have our AV grades. But to assume that the ratio is going to always work well across all teams and all eras would be to assume too much.

More importantly, AV ratings for all OL are obviously going to be heavy on the "approximate." There's just not a lot to go on there, even less than for defensive linemen and linebackers. I think AV ratings are better than any other individual OL metric commonly available, but that is probably a bigger indictment of the latter rather than a selling point of the former.

Finally -- and this isn't just a throwaway line -- continuity and cohesiveness are commonly considered to be key parts of a good offensive line. One day we might test that theory; for now, let's just recognize that putting five great lineman together on a team may be less effective than five good linemen who have played together for half a decade. Obviously, AV ignores this issue.

One note on reading the data below: I made the number next to each player be his age-adjusted AV, and not his peak AV (as I did in the former posts). While I think this might make it easier to understand the rankings, I'd be lying if I didn't say the reason I made the switch was I accidentally took the age-adjusted number and didn't notice until I was finished formatting.

In this post on all-time running backs, I mentioned how Marion Motley brought power football to Cleveland, later sustained by Jim Brown and Leroy Kelly. Well the same sort of thing was going on the for the Browns at the same time, at left tackle. Lou Groza was the starting left tackle for the entire decade of the ’50s, making nine Pro Bowls and being named first team All-Pro four times. After Groza switched to placekicker exclusively, Dick Schafrath started for Cleveland at LT for every season in the ’60s, making six Pro Bowls and being named first team All-Pro four times. Doug Dieken would take over for Schafrath, and while he only made one Pro Bowl, he was the starting left tackle for thirteen straight seasons. From 1948 to 1984, Cleveland would have three men man the that position.

The '73 Raiders ranking first are a win for AV -- the '71-'73 Raiders are the only post-1950 team to have four HOF offensive linemen; only Buehler did not end up in Canton. A reserve on the '71 team, Ron Mix, gave that squad five Hall of Fame offensive linemen. The Chicago Bears in 1940 are the only pre-1950 team to have four starting HOF linemen on offense. The Browns from '53 to '59 had three HOF OL every year except 1957, and are well represented on the below list. As usual, duplicate teams (like the '71 and '72 Raiders when the '73 team is on the list) have been deleted.


tm-yr      avg    LT                        LG                         C                            RG                         RT
rai-1973   12.4   Art Shell (27): 16        Gene Upshaw (28): 15.3     Jim Otto (35): 10.3          George Buehler (26): 8.1   Bob Brown (32): 12.3
gnb-1961   12.2   Bob Skoronski (27): 7.7   Fuzzy Thurston (28): 11.7  Jim Ringo (30): 13.7         Jerry Kramer (25): 13      Forrest Gregg (28): 14.7
mia-1973   12.0   Wayne Moore (28): 10      Bob Kuechenberg (26): 10.7 Jim Langer (25): 13.6        Larry Little (28): 15      Norm Evans (31): 10.5
cle-1959   11.9   Lou Groza (35): 11.8      Jim Ray Smith (27): 15     Art Hunter (26): 9.7         Gene Hickerson (24): 10.8  Mike McCormack (29): 12.3
dal-1972   11.8   Ralph Neely (29): 14.2    John Niland (28): 13       Dave Manders (31): 8.1       Blaine Nye (26): 8.4       Rayfield Wright (27): 15.3
cle-1962   11.7   Dick Schafrath (25): 14.6 Jim Ray Smith (30): 13.7   John Morrow (29): 10         John Wooten (26): 9.1      Mike McCormack (32): 11.1
cle-1960   11.6   Dick Schafrath (23): 8.9  Jim Ray Smith (28): 15     John Morrow (27): 10.3       Gene Hickerson (25): 12.4  Mike McCormack (30): 11.5
dal-1973   11.6   Ralph Neely (30): 13.3    John Niland (29): 12.6     John Fitzgerald (25): 8.1    Blaine Nye (27): 8.7       Rayfield Wright (28): 15.3
rai-1970   11.5   Art Shell (24): 13        Gene Upshaw (25): 14.3     Jim Otto (32): 11.7          Jim Harvey (27): 6.3       Harry Schuh (28): 12
sfo-1990   11.3   Bubba Paris (30): 8.8     Guy McIntyre (29): 11.3    Jesse Sapolu (29): 9.7       Harris Barton (26): 14.9   Steve Wallace (26): 12
sfo-1991   11.3   Steve Wallace (27): 12.3  Guy McIntyre (30): 10.6    Jesse Sapolu (30): 9.1       Roy Foster (31): 9         Harris Barton (27): 15.3
mia-1972   11.2   Doug Crusan (26): 8.4     Bob Kuechenberg (25): 10.2 Jim Langer (24): 11.9        Larry Little (27): 15      Norm Evans (30): 10.6
cle-1958   11.1   Lou Groza (34): 11.7      Jim Ray Smith (26): 14.6   Art Hunter (25): 9.3         Chuck Noll (26): 7.1       Mike McCormack (28): 12.7
min-1972   11.1   Grady Alderman (34): 8.9  Ed White (25): 9           Mick Tingelhoff (32): 12     Milt Sunde (30): 7.3       Ron Yary (26): 18.1
mia-1977   11.0   Wayne Moore (32): 8.8     Bob Kuechenberg (30): 10   Jim Langer (29): 14.2        Larry Little (32): 13.2    Mike Current (32): 8.8
cle-1964   11.0   Dick Schafrath (27): 15.7 John Wooten (28): 9.3      John Morrow (31): 9.3        Gene Hickerson (29): 12.9  Monte Clark (27): 7.7
mia-1979   10.9   Bob Kuechenberg (32): 9.7 Ed Newman (28): 12.7       Jim Langer (31): 13.2        Larry Little (34): 11.4    Mike Current (34): 7.6
rai-1974   10.9   Art Shell (28): 16        Gene Upshaw (29): 14.9     Jim Otto (36): 8.4           George Buehler (27): 8.3   John Vella (24): 6.8
mia-1974   10.9   Tom Funchess (30): 4.2    Bob Kuechenberg (27): 11   Jim Langer (26): 14.2        Larry Little (29): 14.6    Norm Evans (32): 10.3
gnb-1959   10.9   Norm Masters (26): 5.8    Fuzzy Thurston (26): 11.3  Jim Ringo (28): 15           Jerry Kramer (23): 8       Forrest Gregg (26): 14.2
rai-1977   10.8   Art Shell (31): 14.4      Gene Upshaw (32): 13.5     Dave Dalby (27): 9           George Buehler (30): 7.6   Henry Lawrence (26): 9.7
rai-1975   10.8   Art Shell (29): 15.5      Gene Upshaw (30): 14       Dave Dalby (25): 8.4         George Buehler (28): 8.3   John Vella (25): 7.8
cle-1956   10.8   Lou Groza (32): 13.5      Abe Gibron (31): 11.1      Frank Gatski (34): 11.4      Harold Bradley (27): 5.7   Mike McCormack (26): 12.3
cle-1952   10.8   Lou Groza (28): 15.3      Abe Gibron (27): 12.3      Frank Gatski (30): 13.7      Lin Houston (31): 4.5      John Sandusky (27): 8
was-1989   10.6   Jim Lachey (26): 14.6     Russ Grimm (30): 11.2      Jeff Bostic (31): 7.2        Mark May (30): 7           Joe Jacoby (30): 13
sfo-1988   10.5   Steve Wallace (24): 10    Jesse Sapolu (27): 10      Randy Cross (34): 8.6        Guy McIntyre (27): 11.7    Harris Barton (24): 12.4
clt-1959   10.5   Jim Parker (25): 14.3     Art Spinney (32): 10.9     Buzz Nutter (28): 8.3        Alex Sandusky (27): 9.7    George Preas (26): 9.4
mia-1971   10.5   Doug Crusan (25): 8.1     Bob Kuechenberg (24): 8.9  Bob DeMarco (33): 9.6        Larry Little (26): 14.6    Norm Evans (29): 11.3
kan-2002   10.4   Willie Roaf (32): 13.2    Brian Waters (25): 10.9    Casey Wiegmann (29): 8.4     Will Shields (31): 11.7    John Tait (27): 8
cle-1953   10.4   Lou Groza (29): 14.9      Abe Gibron (28): 12.3      Frank Gatski (31): 13.5      Chuck Noll (21): 3.5       John Sandusky (28): 8
cle-1963   10.4   Dick Schafrath (26): 15.2 John Wooten (27): 9.3      John Morrow (30): 9.4        Gene Hickerson (28): 13.3  John Brown (24): 4.9
min-1975   10.4   Charles Goodrum (25): 6.5 Andy Maurer (27): 7        Mick Tingelhoff (35): 10.5   Ed White (28): 9.7         Ron Yary (29): 18.1
nwe-1978   10.3   Leon Gray (27): 14.7      John Hannah (27): 14.3     Bill Lenkaitis (32): 7.3     Sam Adams (30): 7          Shelby Jordan (26): 8.4
min-1970   10.3   Grady Alderman (32): 10.3 Jim Vellone (26): 5.8      Mick Tingelhoff (30): 12.4   Milt Sunde (28): 8         Ron Yary (24): 15.1
sfo-1951   10.3   Ray Collins (24): 9.5     Nick Feher (25): 4.7       Bill Johnson (25): 9.9       Bruno Banducci (31): 10.2  Leo Nomellini (27): 17.3
clt-2001   10.3   Tarik Glenn (25): 13      Steve McKinney (26): 7.1   Jeff Saturday (26): 14.9     Larry Moore (26): 7.1      Adam Meadows (27): 9.3
dal-1993   10.2   Mark Tuinei (33): 8.1     Nate Newton (32): 10.6     Mark Stepnoski (26): 10.7    Kevin Gogan (29): 9.7      Erik Williams (25): 12.1
sfo-1989   10.2   Bubba Paris (29): 9.4     Guy McIntyre (28): 11.7    Jesse Sapolu (28): 10        Bruce Collie (27): 5.7     Harris Barton (25): 14.3
sfo-1993   10.2   Steve Wallace (29): 12    Guy McIntyre (32): 10.3    Jesse Sapolu (32): 8.8       Ralph Tamm (27): 5         Harris Barton (29): 14.9
clt-2002   10.2   Tarik Glenn (26): 13.6    Rick DeMulling (25): 6.8   Jeff Saturday (27): 15.3     Ryan Diem (23): 5.9        Adam Meadows (28): 9.3
sdg-1973   10.2   Terry Owens (29): 7.4     Doug Wilkerson (26): 12    Carl Mauck (26): 6.8         Walt Sweeney (32): 10.9    Russ Washington (27): 13.7
dal-1970   10.2   Tony Liscio (30): 8.2     John Niland (26): 12.6     Dave Manders (29): 8.7       Blaine Nye (24): 7         Rayfield Wright (25): 14.3
was-1986   10.1   Joe Jacoby (27): 14.3     Russ Grimm (27): 12.3      Jeff Bostic (28): 8          R.C. Thielemann (31): 8.4  Mark May (27): 7.7
ram-1969   10.1   Charley Cowan (31): 10.8  Tom Mack (26): 11.6        Ken Iman (30): 7             Joe Scibelli (30): 7.3     Bob Brown (28): 14
clt-2004   10.1   Tarik Glenn (28): 14      Rick DeMulling (27): 7.3   Jeff Saturday (29): 14.9     Jake Scott (23): 4.8       Ryan Diem (25): 9.6
ram-2000   10.1   Orlando Pace (25): 17.1   Tom Nutten (29): 7.8       Andy McCollum (30): 7.6      Adam Timmerman (29): 9.4   Ryan Tucker (25): 8.7
mia-1982   10.1   Jon Giesler (26): 8.7     Bob Kuechenberg (35): 8.5  Dwight Stephenson (25): 14.9 Ed Newman (31): 11.4       Eric Laakso (26): 7.1
mia-1976   10.1   Wayne Moore (31): 9       Bob Kuechenberg (29): 10.7 Jim Langer (28): 14.7        Larry Little (31): 13.5    Darryl Carlton (23): 2.7
hou-1988   10.1   Bruce E. Davis (32): 8.2  Mike Munchak (28): 12.3    Jay Pennison (27): 7         Bruce Matthews (27): 14.7  Dean Steinkuhler (27): 8.3
clt-2005   10.0   Tarik Glenn (29): 13.6    Ryan Lilja (24): 5.4       Jeff Saturday (30): 14       Jake Scott (24): 6.8       Ryan Diem (26): 10
nwe-1977   10.0   Leon Gray (26): 14.2      John Hannah (26): 13.9     Bill Lenkaitis (31): 7.5     Sam Adams (29): 7.4        Tom Neville (34): 6.8

  • I'll run down a far from complete group of non-listed but relatively famous offensive lines. The Electric Company -- the Buffalo Bills offensive line led by Joe DeLamielleure and notorious for providing the Juice to its running back, peaked at a 9.1 average rating.
  • The '79 Rams, who almost upset the Steelers in the Super Bowl, had an average rating of 8.9 that season. Jackie Slater was just 25 and along with Doug France at LT, anchored a very good line.
  • The Cardinals assembled some strong lines in St. Louis. In the late '60s, Bob DeMarco, Ken Gray and Ernie McMillan made the right side of the line a dominant force. The group had an average rating in the high 9s from '65 to '67. A decade later, Tom Banks, Conrad Dobler and Dan Dierdorf replicated the success on the right side, and each player made the Pro Bowl from '75 to '77. The '77 Cards had a 9.4 rating.
  • The Super Bowl Champion Broncos had very strong lines, averaging a rating in the low 9s for most of the later '90s. Tom Nalen was in his prime for a unit that had no weakness; the lowest (age-adjusted) rating on the '98 Broncos was a 7.3 for Harry Swayne.
  • Neither the Mike Webster nor the Dermontti Dawson Steelers are on the above list; Dawson's best team was in '95, when the group had a 9.1 rating thanks mostly to Dawson; of the '70s Steelers, the '77 unit ranks at the top, with a 9.0 rating carried by a 25-year-old Webster.
  • It's easy to think of the '95 Cowboys as the weakest of Dallas' three Super Bowl teams in the '90s, but don't blame the lack of starpower. In addition to Switzer's squad being the only one with Deion Sanders, it was the only one with Larry Allen, too. The '99 Cowboys are the highest ranked team Allen was on, and at 9.6 they just missed the cut. Allen, Erik Williams, Mark Stepnoski and Flozell Adams all had big ratings; if Everett McIver (RG) was any better than 5.2, they would appear on this list.
  • Mark Schlereth was on those Broncos teams mentioned above, but he was also on the famous '91 Skins. That team had an average rating of 9.8, the third best iteration of the 'Hogs. Lachey and Jacoby were in their relative primes, but May was gone and Grimm was a reserve.
  • Anthony Munoz had a peak AV of 18.3, and he teamed with Max Montoya (peak of 10.3) for the entire '80s. The Bengals were best in '82, where RT Mike Wilson (9.7) was also at his best.
  • A final thought -- are there three names more synonymous with the NFL than Lombardi, Montana and Madden? All three are more than tangentially related to the men on the above lists.
    • Lombardi took over the Packers in 1959. He inherited and a 25-year-old Skoronski, a 28-year-old Ringo, a 23-year-old Kramer and a 26-year-old Gregg. 1959 was also the year Thurston (age 26) became a Packer, although I'm not sure whether it was Vince who brought him to Green Bay. Regardless, while he certainly inherited a team with a terrible record, he inherited arguably the best combination of offensive line talent and youth in NFL history. Of course, one can easily argue that it was Lombardi who made those players great -- and I wouldn't want to argue against that point. But it must have been nice to have a bunch of terrific 25 year old offensive linemen in the pre-free agency era to help you create a dynasty for the next decade.
    • Montana's teams had won two Super Bowls in the early '80s (with OL ratings of 9.1 and 9.2), but it was his work in the late '80s that made Montana into the superstar for which he is now remembered. In addition to having a pretty good WR, I didn't realize how impressive his linemen looked. There wasn't a single weakspot on those offensive lines, and I wonder if they have received enough credit for San Francisco's offensive success. Of course, AV could be inflating their OL rankings, if they made Pro Bowls and All Pro teams because they looked good playing next to Montana and Rice.
    • Madden holds the record for the best winning percentage of any coach in history, minimum 100 games coached. He only coached for 10 seasons, but like Lombardi, he had some nice luck in the trenches. When he was promoted to head coach, Shell was just 23 years of age, Upshaw was 24, and he still had six more years of Otto's career. Not too shabby a situation to inherit for ten seasons.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, June 24th, 2009 at 7:35 am and is filed under Approximate Value, Best/Worst Ever. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.