As a general rule, offensive line play is an anonymous occupation.
Don’t think so? Well, outside of Bruce Matthews, name a Titans’ offensive lineman.
It is said that, playing on the offensive line is somewhat like driving or officiating — you don’t really notice it until something bad happens.
But that isn’t always the case — at least in terms of postseason honors, as Kevin Mawae and Michael Roos were both selected to the Pro Bowl and the NFL All-Pro team. And for a unit that was breaking in two new starters at guard in free agent Jake Scott on the right and former backup Eugene Amano on the left, 2008 was a banner season.
Not only did the line help the Titans rush for 2,199 yards, it only allowed 12 sacks all season, including only nine from the starting unit. (Vince Young and Chris Simms were sacked three times in the regular-season finale at Indianapolis, when the Titans rested numerous starters).
With all five starters back, the Titans offensive linemen and their line coach Mike Munchak appear confident they can do better all the way around the second time around as a unit.
“We can improve a lot. We had good sack numbers, but we can do better,” Scott said. “I think we gave up 12 sacks, and I can think of at least two or three right off hand that were just assignment busts. There were those mistakes, and quite a few run plays where we had four, five or six-yard running plays that if we had held the block a little bit longer, it would have been a 60- or 70-yard gain. There’s always room for improvement.”
The way to improve a line that played so well is continuity. Having all five starters back — Roos at left tackle, Amano at left guard, Mawae at center, Scott at right guard and David Stewart at right tackle — is a key ingredient, along with staying healthy.
“We’re assuming we can build on what we left,” coach and Hall of Famer Munchak said. “During the year, we got a lot of confidence in what we were doing and got to know each other. Last year, we had Jake [Scott] filling in and having Eugene get his first year in as a starter.”
Prior to this group, the Titans had basically the same five starters during the 2006 and 2007 seasons, before Benji Olson retired and Jacob Bell departed as a free agent to St. Louis.
Time will tell
So, how key is the continuity? The New York Giants offensive line is generally regarded as one of, if not the best, offensive line in the league. That group has been together largely for four years, and it shows in their play.
“The main reason people think the Giants are so good is that they’ve been together for so long,” said Adam Caplan of Scout.com. “They’ve all been together for about four years now, and the more continuity you have, the better off your line is going to be with timing and everything else.”
Munchak, who spent years anchoring the Houston Oilers offensive line, is eager to see what another year with his Titans group can do.
“I guess time will tell if we can finally keep two years under our belts,” the coach said. “We’ve had a couple of seasons where we did well, and then the next year, we got hurt and lost guys and we never got that second season of having the same five guys play.
“We’re excited about it. They’ve all had a great off-season so far. They’re getting along well, and they’ve all been in town.”
The obvious question mark is 16-year veteran Kevin Mawae, who has missed the whole off-season after undergoing elbow surgery. That has allowed Leroy Harris to fill in at center with the first group, further fortifying depth.
Beyond that, though, there are questions as to who is next in line to back him up, with fourth-round pick Troy Kropog and 2007 draft pick Mike Otto currently the leading candidates.
Questions aside, the man the Titans’ o-line is sworn to uphold wouldn’t trade them for any group in the league — or any group he has ever played behind for that matter. And for good reason: Kerry Collins was sacked only eight times in 16 games last year, or once every two games. That is music to a 36-year-old quarterback’s ears.
“You look at this offensive line, and they’re as good as there is in the league right now. They’re the best offensive line I’ve ever played behind, no question,” Collins said. “They’ve got the most talent, and the most smarts, and they’re as well coached as any offensive line I’ve been around. I’m lucky to have them, and I know they expect to have another great year.”
Accepting a challenge
The Titans see the reasons for improvement as obvious.
Mawae was still playing at a high level as the veteran leader before his injury last year. Scott should continue to get more comfortable with the rest of the unit, and the Titans believe players like Roos, Stewart and Amano still have not fully tapped their potential.
When the conversation turns to the o-line and where it will improve, much of the talk has centered around Amano making a big jump in his second year as a starter.
“A guy like Eugene, that was his first year starting, and he’s going to be a lot better because of that,” Collins said. “Obviously the rest of the guys have a lot of experience and they’re going to continue to get better.”
Amano admits he is much more comfortable this time around and it seems to reflect in the personality of whole group.
“I’m just gaining confidence every day and working on my craft and trying to get better every time I get on the practice field. It’s just a matter of knowing what each other is going to do on each play,” Amano said. “I think a lot of guys know what we bring to the table. … We’re just a blue collar group, working hard and getting the job done.”
Getting the job done again and improving upon it will be this year’s challenge, says Munchak, with the ultimate goal a trip to Super Bowl XLIV in Miami.
“We know what the challenge is going to be. We’re not going to sneak up on anybody, which is fine,” Munchak said.
So much for the notion of toiling in anonymity.