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The steady decline of the Colts offensive line

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Look, let's not sugarcoat this: Bill Polian is not all that great at drafting high-quality, All-Pro level offensive linemen.

Yes, I know he can draft good utility linemen, and clearly that is not something one should just dismiss. "Glue guys" are often just as important as star players; sometimes more so. Without Charlie Johnson in 2006, the Colts probably do not win Super Bowl 41. Johnson was a nice, utility tackle-guard who had to come in for Ryan Diem during the Super Bowl. Charlie played much of the game, and the story goes that he played so well that Peyton Manning didn't even notice the change until two or three series in.

Also, consider players like Kyle DeVan, a free agent last year from Arena II football. Like CJ, he is a nice utility player. Throw in stalwarts like Jeff Saturday (undrafted free agent, 1999), and one-time guard Ryan Lilja (undrafted, 2003) and one can see that Polian is certainly not terrible at acquiring linemen.

The issue is his recent draft record in acquiring linemen that should be at an All-Pro level based on their pedigree and expectation level. And no, this isn't a "Polian sucks" post. Polian is a draft genius. We all know this. This is about showing the one flaw in Polian's armor: Drafting quality offensive linemen.

Yes, players like Jake Scott (5th round, 2004) and Ryan Diem (4th round, 2001) have been solid players for the Colts overall. But, Bill Polian has not been able to replace Scott since he left in 2008, and he has failed to truly replace Tarik Glenn, the All-Pro left tackle who protected Peyton Manning's blindside for years. Glenn was drafted prior to Polian's arrival in Indy in 1998. He was a vocal leader for the team, and many players, including defensive end Dwight Freeney, consider him to be one of the league's best offensive linemen when he played.

Since 2007, when Tarik Glenn retired, and later in 2008 when Jake Scott jumped ship to join the Tennessee Titans, Bill Polian has used two high round draft picks (a 1st and 2nd in 2008*) and four lower round picks (6th and 7th in 2008, 7th in 2009, and a 4th rounder this year) on offensive linemen. The jury is still out on 2009 7th rounder Jaimie Thomas and 2010 4th rounder Jacques McClendon, but in general the offensive line draft selections have not worked out.

Not one of those draft picks is a projected starter heading into training camp in 2010.

I realize that players like Jamey Richard have done a fairly decent job subbing for injured stars like Jeff Saturday, but the fact is high picks like Tony Ugoh (2007) and Mike Pollak (2008) were not selected where they are just to be "quality reserves." They were picked to be long-term starters. Both have failed to achieve that status. In fact, both were given the starting jobs and then lost those jobs to players of a lesser draft pedigree. With Ugoh, the failure is so spectacular that the coaches are transitioning him to guard. 

Entering 2010 training camp, I personally feel that Mike Pollak is at greater risk of getting cut in late-August than Tony Ugoh. Like Andy Alleman, Pollak is at a cross-roads in his professional playing career.

It's worth noting that since Glenn retired and Jake Scott moved to Tennessee, we have slowly witnessed a steady decline of the Colts offensive line. Yes, pass blocking has remained solid. Part of that is Peyton Manning being so damn good at getting rid of the football. The other part is having running backs, like Joseph Addai, who are outstanding at blitz pick-up and "chipping."

However, while the pass protection has held up, the rushing numbers have consistently declined since 2007.

The Colts ran for 1,706 yards and a 3.8 yards per carry average in 2007. In 2008, it was 1,274 yards and 3.4 a carry. In 2009, 1,294 yards at 3.5 a carry. Contrast these numbers with the team from 2004-2006, the years Tarik Glenn and Jake Scott were part of this team. In 2004, they ran for 1,852 yards at 4.3 a carry. 2005, 1,703 yards at 3.8 a carry. 2006, 1,762 yards at 4.0 a carry.

This means that from 2004-2006 (with Scott and Glenn), the Colts averaged 1,772 yards a year at 4.0 yards a carry. From 2007-2009 (without Scott and Glenn), the Colts averaged 1,424 yards a season at 3.5 yards a carry.

As we have often said around here, running the ball is secondary to throwing the ball. If running the ball directly translated into winning, the Colts would have beaten the Saints in Super Bowl 44. The reality is it doesn't. Two of the worst rushing teams in the NFL last year (Colts and Chargers) were the two top seeds in the AFC Playoffs.

However, even though running the ball is secondary to the passing game, as Peyton Manning gets older, it will become more and more important for a balanced ground game to work in tandem with the passing game.

We simply cannot rely solely on Peyton chucking the ball all over the place. Since it seems reasonable to assume that Joseph Addai, Donald Brown, and Mike Hart do not suck, the only reason I can think of for the fall off in the running game is Bill Polian's inability to replace Glenn and Scott. Also, age and injuries to other linemen have to get factored into, but part of remedying that is find talent to negate and, possibly, replace players who are old or oft-injured. People here have screamed for two years that Ryan Diem is "done." Jeff Saturday is entering the twilight of his career. Lilja is gone.

Right now, on this roster, who is going to adequately replace these players?

Finding good "glue guys" helps the overall stability of the team, and along the offensive line Bill Polian has done a terrific job finding those guys. But in terms of finding high quality, All-Pro level talent to replace players like Tarik Glenn, Polian has been less than perfect. As a result of him not being able to find high caliber replacements, the numbers for the line have suffered and the team has had to rely more on Manning and the running backs to make something happen.

Going forward, Bill Polian absolutely must find better talent along the offensive line. If you use Pro Football Focus as a rough guide, Charlie Johnson leaves much to be desired as a left tackle, and guards like Mike Pollak seem even worse. Toughness, desire, and being technically sound are all important traits for an offensive lineman. However, without better talent, opponents will continue to control the line of scrimmage against the Colts o-line, forcing Peyton Manning to shoulder more of the offensive load.

Going forward, that is not a sustainable plan for winning.

Here's to hoping guys like CJ, Jacques McLendon, and maybe Adam Terry can infuse this line with a bit more talent. The team is going to need it if they want to pull off the seemingly impossible: Win a Super Bowl one year after losing one.

* A 2008 first round pick was traded by the Colts so they could draft Tony Ugoh in the 2007 NFL Draft.

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