The Minnesota Vikings carried a 5-0 record into their Week 7 contest against the then 3-2 Philadelphia Eagles. They were convincingly thumped by Philadelphia, 21-10.
That evening, the Seattle Seahawks carried their 4-1 record into Arizona to play the 3-3 Cardinals. Seventy-five excruciating minutes later the two teams staggered off the field with a 6-6 tie.
Both the Vikings and the Seahawks have done some very good things through the first half of the season, but last Sunday they shared a common flaw – one that casts a significant shadow over their futures. Both have offensive lines that are liabilities.
Offensive tackle wasn’t a position of great strength even as the season began. It became a pronounced liability when starting left tackle (and one-time Pro Bowl selection) Matt Kalil went on season-ending injured reserve with a torn labrum in his hip after the season’s second game.
The right tackle spot was manned by Andre Smith – a former first-round pick by the Bengals who made 73 starts in Cincinnati before signing with Minnesota. He lasted six plays into the fourth game of the season before a triceps injury sent him to IR as well.
Well, against Philadelphia they tried varying combinations of T.J. Clemmings (a fourth round pick from the 2015 draft who was last year’s starting right tackle – the position they wanted to upgrade), Jeremiah Sirles (an undrafted free agent who made just his third start in three years last week), and Jake Long (signed before last week’s game, the 31-year-old Long was a former Pro-Bowl caliber tackle in Miami before injuries compromised his career).
As you might guess, this didn’t work very well for the Vikings (although it did make for some highlight reel footage for Eagle defensive ends Connor Barwin and Brandon Graham). As the game progressed, the Eagles also found that they could blitz pretty much at will as Minnesota’s offense could do little to counter it.
Quarterback Sam Bradford ended up taking a beating. With little running game and less protection, it’s difficult to imagine anything more Bradford could have done to win the game. That being said, with the Vikings still 5-1 and leading their division it’s time we begin a discussion about Sam Bradford and his ability to lead a team deep into the playoffs.
This is my Sam Bradford moment:
It is Week Two of 2015. Bradford’s Eagles are hosting the Dallas Cowboys. The Eagles are having significant difficulty with the Dallas defense (they go 2 for 11 on third down and are shutout until the first minute of the fourth quarter). I don’t remember the precise moment or play, but during one of the failed third down plays, the camera caught Bradford’s reaction (maybe to a dropped pass?).
I don’t remember the play, but Sam’s reaction has stuck with me. His shoulders slumped, he bowed his head, and crept quietly to his sideline.
Is this a big deal? It kind of is. This moment iconifies my lingering feeling about Bradford. I think Sam is a quality NFL passer. He reads defenses well, makes good decisions, and throws with plus accuracy. But if I were to describe him as a leader the adjective that keeps coming to mind is “meek.” There is a pervasive meekness in Bradford’s game. In a Biblical sense, this is probably a very good thing as the meek will inherit the earth (and Sam certainly inherited a lot of it last Sunday). But it’s not a great demeanor for the leader of your football team to have.
By this, I don’t mean that Sam should be yelling at receivers who drop passes or linemen who get penalties. And I certainly don’t mean to say that he should worship himself the way that Cam Newton does. But the quarterback of an NFL team can’t retire quietly to the bench and sit and wait for the next time his team gets the ball. Watch any of the Minnesota games this year that Bradford has started. When the Vikings don’t have the ball and the camera finds Bradford on the sidelines, he’s never standing and talking to anyone. He is always sitting, quiet and alone, on the bench – sometimes with his head down.
You never see this with the top quarterbacks. Russell Wilson, Tom Brady, Philip Rivers, Matt Ryan, Matthew Stafford, Newton, etc – they are always with somebody – the offensive coordinator, his O-line, some defensive player. They are always discussing something – or putting their arm around the shoulder of a receiver who dropped the ball. Quarterbacking a team extends beyond what happens once the ball is in your hands. There is a leadership imperative that everyone can’t necessarily embrace. It certainly helps to have a certain amount of charisma going for you.
This doesn’t mean that Bradford can never win a Super Bowl. But I don’t think of him as that quarterback who can raise the level of the team he plays for. The Bradys of the world can lift a good team to a great team. Sam Bradford will need to have a great team around him.
And that will have to include an offensive line that can keep him upright and healthy.
As for Seattle, this was the number four offense in the league last year – both for yards and for points. They were held under 20 points only five times all of last year, and scored 30 or more seven times. In six games this year, they have been held under 13 points three times already (something that only happened once all of last year) and have managed 30 points just once (they scored 37 against the mostly hapless 49ers).
Marshawn Lynch, of course, is gone and Thomas Rawls – so impressive in his seven starts last year as Lynch’s replacement – is injured. Also injured is quarterback Russell Wilson, who’s legs accounted for 553 rushing yards last year. Russell is playing, but staying in the pocket while he nurses knee and ankle injuries. So the running game isn’t a particular strength at the moment.
Like the Vikings, though, the problem runs deeper than lack of name players to carry the ball. The Seahawks, too, are less than proficient along the offensive line.
From last year’s offense to the 2016 edition that currently ranks twenty-second in yards and twenty-eighth in points, only one offensive lineman remains in the same place – right tackle Garry Gilliam. Justin Britt – who started at left tackle last year is also still in the mix, but he has now been moved to center. The other three who started for this team last year are gone.
Russell Okung, last year’s starting left tackle (a former Pro Bowler) took the money and went to Denver. Patrick Lewis, last year’s starting center, is now in Buffalo (where he is nursing a knee injury). And J.R. Sweezy, last year’s right guard, is now in Tampa Bay (and suffering from a back injury that has kept him off the field so far).
In their place, Seattle has stitched together the offensive line with Bradley Sowell (an undrafted free-agent with his third team in his five-year career) at left tackle, Mark Glowinski (a fourth-round pick of the Hawks in 2015 who made one start last year), and this year’s first-round pick, Germain Ifedi at right guard.
They have been pushed around a little bit so far this season, helping in no little degree to hamper the offense. Some of these players don’t have high pedigrees, but that means less than some people imagine. Every year the Pro Bowl teams are populated with several players who began their careers as undrafted free agents, cut by more than one team. This may yet develop into an effective unit.
But they aren’t there yet.