In March of 2007, former Cincinnati Bengals guard Eric Steinbach became one of many guards in the post-Steve Hutchinson financial landscape to sign contracts spaced over six or seven years and worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $50 million if they were fully vested over time. In Steinbach's case, the contract was for seven years and $49.5 million, with $17 million guaranteed.
Early on, the contract proved to be a bargain – the Browns drafted left tackle Joe Thomas a month later with the third overall pick and solidified one of the left left-side lines in the NFL. Cleveland ranked 31st in Football Outsiders' Adjusted Line Yards metric in 2006 (only the Detroit Lions were worse!), but shot up to second (only the Patriots were better) in 2007 with the additions of Steinbach and Thomas.
The catalyst for change on the line was the hire of current head coach Eric Mangini – one of the first things Mangini did upon arrival in Cleveland was to insist that the 6-foot-6, 285-pound Steinbach bulk up. This seemed a mistake at the time; Steinbach has never been a power guard. He's always been far more like one of the better zone-style or quick pulling guards in the NFL, using his natural agility and speed in space to offset a relative lack of inline power. And he was probably the best downfield guard in the league when play calls had him getting out of the box in a hurry.
But Mangini comes from a different school of thought in which larger guards pull in shorter spaces and are able to hold the point against stronger tackles. Steinbach bulked up, and then went out and had what everyone seems to agree was his worst professional season. After looking at pieces of Steinbach's 2009 season, I think the two concepts are absolutely related.
Since any team in the AFC North is going to have to advance against outstanding 3-4 defenses, I watched tape of three different Browns games from the 2009 season: The Week 3 game against the Ravens, the Week 6 game against the Steelers, and the Week 7 game against the Packers' new 3-4 that was one of the league's best run defenses. And the first thing I noticed in each game was the degree to which Steinbach was now asked to block inline as a heavier guard. The second thing I noticed was that while Steinbach still had the ability to fend defenders off when dropping back in pass-blocking, his increased weight did little to advance his inline run blocking. This was perhaps most evident on a play early in the Steelers game, when he simple failed to get off his first block and head outside for additional reinforcement. I saw this a lot on running plays; it's as if by telling Steinbach to increase his weight, Mangini has taken away his left guard's primary asset without understanding that weight and power don't always match up.
Perhaps the most disconcerting example of this phenomenon happened on Cleveland's second and third offensive plays against the Packers. The Browns started off at their own 40 after the opening kickoff hit the right end zone pylon and was called out of bounds. After a three-yard run by Jamal Lewis, Derek Anderson went deep left to Mohamed Massaquoi on a play in which Massaquoi was called for offensive pass interference. On that play, Steinbach looked great as he walled off Green Bay end Cullen Jenkins. But on second-and-17, his run-blocking problems resurfaced.
The Browns lined up in an offset I against Green Bay's 5-2 front. While Thomas headed off the left edge to deal with Clay Matthews' charge, Steinbach stayed inside to take Jenkins, who engaged Steinbach and then just wasted him with a killer spin move that would have made Dwight Freeney proud. Jenkins then crossed the line of scrimmage as Lawrence Vickers (one of the league's best blocking fullbacks) headed upfield to take end Johnny Jolly out of the play. But the blown run block by Steinbach allowed Jenkins to wrap Lewis up for no gain. Second-and-17 was now third-and-17, and you can guess how that story ended.
What I found most disturbing about the 2009 version of Eric Steinbach as opposed to the 2007 version I wrote about here is that while the Browns are now rotating him between first and second teams in practice and talking about how his on-field value can't possibly measure up, this may be one of those square peg situations that Mangini seems to enjoy creating. To ask a guard with Steinbach's skill set to pound away inline on every play is the rough equivalent of towing a boat with a Ferrari. Misplaced speed does not equate to power, whether you put more weight on it or not.
In a way, Steinbach's situation is the inverse of Alan Faneca's. While Faneca was the weak link in pass-blocking for the Jets last year (a fact which led to his release), Steinbach still has more than enough on the ball from a pass-blocking perspective. His dropback is smooth, his hand movement and placement is fine, and he's able to win the straight-on battle in those cases. While I'm not sure how the numbers would work out, I think the best thing for the Browns to do would be to trade Steinbach to a team that will let him get back to his optimal playing weight and can exploit his agility. He's not a power-blocker now, and he wasn't in his prime. To expect anything else of him simply doesn't make sense.