Big bodies. Big hearts. Little minds.
That’s the common perception of offensive linemen, particularly in film and television. Blockers typically are portrayed as little more than lovable oafs who can hardly navigate their sport — or their life — without help from their more educated teammates, say a quarterback. A recent case in point was Billy Bob in Varsity Blues.
Even in the film version of his real life story, The Blind Side, the character of Michael Oher was dumbed down to the point that he didn’t know the first thing about the sport.
The reality is, while a sizable body is necessary to play the position, a small mind is prohibitive.
“The offensive linemen are probably some of the smarter guys on the field,” Tennessee Titans center Eugene Amano said. “You have to kind of digest what the defense is going to do, you have to anticipate a lot, and you have to make decisions on the fly sometimes. It’s not like playing defense, where you’re just reacting and running.”
Mike Munchak’s ascension to head coach of the Titans provides the opportunity for a reassessment of offensive linemen and their mental acumen. Munchak was a Hall of Fame guard during a 12-year playing career. He went to the NFL with a business degree in hand.
Despite the fact that all his experience as an assistant coach — mostly as offensive line coach — came under Jeff Fisher, Munchak has shown from the first moments on the job that he has his own ideas about how to do things. He changed assistant coaches. He altered the basic philosophies on offense and defense. He adjusted practice routines, locker room etiquette, road-trip requirements. He even ordered changes to the décor within the team’s training facility.
Then again, seeing the big picture, as a head coach must, is nothing new for someone with Munchak’s experience.
“[Offensive linemen] not only have to know what they are doing as a person, they have to understand what the whole unit is doing,” Vanderbilt offensive line coach Herb Hand said. “They have to understand how it fits into what the entire offense is doing on each particular play. So it’s not just a matter of them understanding their own individual assignment but understanding how they fit into the whole deal.
“Now, everybody on the field has to do that, but at the offensive line it is absolutely critical.”
Perhaps that helps explain why some of the game’s most notable thinkers and innovators were rooted in offensive line play.
Vince Lombardi, arguably the greatest coach in NFL history, was a member of the famed Seven Blocks of Granite, Fordham’s offensive line during the late 1920s and early 1930s. Bill Belichick, the pre-eminent coach of this generation, was a center and a tight end during his playing days at Wesleyan College. Even Phillip Fulmer, the most successful University of Tennessee coach this side of Robert Neyland (Fulmer had a .743 winning percentage and one national championship), built his career on a foundation of offensive line play.
The game preparation of an offensive lineman borrows from both a quarterback — he has to understand what a defense wants to do against the offense — as well as a wide receiver, needing to recognize and exploit tendencies of players against whom they will be matched.
“We have to make sure we watch the whole defensive front — safeties, linebackers, the defensive lineman you’re going against,” Titans left tackle Michael Roos said. “Every week, depending on if they sub guys or not, you have to watch the technique of a bunch of different guys and their moves and what they like to do. Sometimes you have to change your technique week to week to make sure you’re doing the right things, depending on who you’re playing against.”
That kind of adaptability ought to be an asset to a coach when it comes to formulating gameplans on a week-to-week basis throughout a season.
Then there’s the need to function as a unit, which a successful offensive line must do. A coach needs to communicate his plan in a way that everyone understands it and can react in like fashion to whatever they encounter during a game.
Munchak is one of three current NFL head coaches with backgrounds on the O-line. The other two are Philadelphia’s Andy Reid, currently the league’s longest-tenured head coach, and Miami’s Tony Sparano. This season, Reid made the unusual move of promoting his offensive line coach, Juan Castillo, to defensive coordinator.
Reid has led the Eagles to the NFC championship game five times and the Super Bowl once. Sparano took the Dolphins from a 1-15 team in 2007 to an 11-5 record the next season, his first in that role.
That sort of success actually leads to something for which an offensive lineman might not be prepared: public attention.
“We know the kind of guys it takes to be an offensive lineman, but at the same time guys are offensive linemen because it is a thankless profession,” Roos said. “You do it because you’re kind of in the shadows. You only get known or talked about when something bad happens. So you work your butt off to make sure nothing bad happens.”
Then again, few — if any — take the time to consider how much thought went in to getting things right.