You’ve probably heard the word continuity in relation to offensive line play. There should be no doubt that continuity can contribute to a team’s success when you just only look at Atlanta Falcons history. I went back and looked at Falcons history dating back to 2000 to see different starting lineups of offensive lines. What emerged was a strong link between continuity and team success.
Up front, continuity just means that teams are starting the same five guys up front every game. Ideally, over an entire season or multiple seasons. The five members of the offensive line function as a unit, and as the old adage goes, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Thus it’s important for continuity to occur upfront so that the five blockers get comfortable with one another. When teams constantly shuffle in different five-man groups of linemen, it destroys continuity. Injuries are usually the cause and there can be a substantial drop-off in ability from starter to reserve in many cases. Another reason why teams will change starters up front is simply from poor play. And there seems to be numerous instances throughout Falcons history, including last year, where the Falcons had to bench and replacement guys that weren’t getting it done.
Let’s look at the numbers:
Historical Falcons OL Lineups (since 2000)* Starts refer to the number of games in which the most popular starting five appeared
|Year||Wins||# of OL Lineups||Most Popular Starting Five||Starts*|
In seasons where the Falcons had a losing record, they averaged 5.5 different starting lineups on the offensive line in each season. In years where the Falcons had a winning record, they averaged roughly half that number or about 2.7 different starting lineups up front.
As you can see, in 2000, 2007 and 2013 when the Falcons only won four games, they had six different starting lineups on their offensive line in each season.
2010 is the only year since 2000 where the Falcons featured the same starting lineup along the offensive line for all 16 games. And they won 13 games, the second-most in franchise history. In the two seasons (2008 and 2012) where they featured just two lineup changes, they won 11 and 13 games, respectively.
While the large number of lineup changes doesn’t exactly kill a season, as the Falcons managed to still remain respectable in 2001 and 2006 with five or more lineup changes, there does seem to be a stronger link between one particular unit starting more than half the games in each year. In years where the same starting five were featured for at least nine games (i.e. more than half the season), the Falcons never finished below .500. In those eight seasons where the same starting five has been featured for more than half the season, the team averaged 10.6 wins across those years. In years where the Falcons didn’t feature the same starting five for the majority of games, they averaged less than half as many wins: 5.2.
These stats aren’t to indicate that simply starting the same five guys for 16 games will lead a team to success. If the players aren’t any good, starting them more games isn’t going to necessarily make your team better. Continuity is not exactly a causation of overall team success, but it certainly is a correlation. Instead, continuity can be thought of as a symptom or sign of a good team.
The Falcons are hopeful that they will have that sort of stability in 2014. Additions in right guard Jon Asamoah and tackle Jake Matthews should solidify the right side of the line that has featured seven different starting pairs over the past three seasons.
The left side on the other hand, has been a bit more stable with just three starting pairs over the past three years. But that number should really only be one if not for the injuries of Sam Baker. It’s not exactly a coincidence that Baker’s best season (2012) was also his only year in which he started all 16 games.
Justin Blalock has been a rock at left guard and has not missed a single snap in six consecutive seasons. The Falcons hope that trend continues for at least one more year. The team is also hopeful that center Joe Hawley can bring the stability that Todd McClure once brought to the position. McClure missed only five starts over a 200-game span from 2000-12. McClure’s durability is an amazing accomplishment in a physical sport like football.
If any player does miss time to injury, the team is also hopeful that potential reserves like Lamar Holmes, Peter Konz, Mike Johnson, Gabe Carimi and Ryan Schraeder will better at stepping in and providing some stability should the need arise. If the team can trust the reserves more, it should keep the number of different lineups down since they won’t feel compelled to shuffle different units in the hope of bringing positive results, as they did in 2013.
The success of the Falcons offensive line will be a huge factor in their 2014 success.