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Friday, April 22, 2005

Where Games Are Won In Football

For what it's worth. . .

These guys have figured it out. Their record speaks for itself. They have turned player personnel into a delightful art form.

Many draft the behemoths, the workout wonders, the guys who get all the publicity. These guys draft the guys who can flat out play.

But when you look at their team, you have to ask yourself a question. Why is it that they have been able to post great records without marquis names at the skill positions? Every year in the draft, you read about this burner and that burner, the powerful running back, the wide receiver with great hands, blazing speed and a toughness that enables him to go over the middle with no fear. Every year we hear about the potential franchise quarterback who should go in the top 10 picks.

You seldom hear that buzz about offensive linemen; sometimes you hear it about defensive linemen, but even then, not nearly as much buzz follows those guys as it does skill position players on offense.

And every year, this team doesn't take one of those guys. In the past four, they've gone for help at either tight end or on the defensive line. Look at their roster, and then tell me what you see. You don't see very many "big names." What you do see is guys who have won championships.

Because there's something that Bill Belichick knows (and Scott Pioli knows) that the great coaches always have known, both in the NFL and in college. The key point: that football games are won in the trenches, plain and simple. If you're able to move the other side off the ball when you're on offense or defense, you will win football games. Put another way, control the line of scrimmage, and good things will happen.

You don't have to go further than last season's Super Bowl for an outstanding illustration of that point. I recall the Patriots' offensive line forming a perfect arc in front of QB Tom Brady play after play. The Eagles' defensive line, a pretty good group, had great difficulty getting near the QB. Brady, to his great credit, made all of the plays, but deep down I believe that with the time Brady had that Sunday, several NFL QBs could have made those plays. On defense, the Patriots succeeded in flushing out the Eagles' running game and in getting into the grill of Eagles' QB Donovan McNabb, so much so that they had knocked him woozy by game's end. By penetrating their opponents' perimeter, as it were, the Patriots threw the Eagles' off balance. To Philadelphia's credit, they played a pretty good game, just not good enough to win. While Donovan McNabb gets the lion's share of the blame for the Eagles' performance, I believe that the Patriots' defensive line that day would have rattled even Tom Brady into a subpar performance. The line play was just that good.

Now there are those who say that you don't take offensive linemen with high draft picks, that you're better off getting some late-rounder from Idaho with a lot of fire in his belly like Mark Schlereth years ago. That's all well and good, so long as you find the right players. In the final analysis, though, your team must find those players, whether in the early rounds, on the second day, or on the free agent market.

The skill position players get most of the hype before the draft. Of course, you need good skill position players to win football games, and football in many ways is the most "team" oriented of team sports -- everyone needs to contribute significantly. That said, if you get the great guys to battle it out in the trenches, their work makes everyone else's a lot easier.

Lots of teams have WRs and RBs who starred in college. The key to making the playoffs and the Super Bowl is to get the linemen who will star in the pros.

It's not as easy as you think. But somehow Scott Pioli and Bill Belichick have done it year after year.


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