Entering the offseason, the Chargers woes along the line were well documented. They jettisoned all of the 2003 crew and questions regarding who would play where were paramount. In the draft, many thought they overlooked glaring needs at the tackle spots and even took a center in the third round.
Mike Goff was certainly viewed as a solid addition via free agency but the rest of the line had yet to form. When Toniu Fonoti missed the team's minicamp and rumors of a holdout by Jason Ball grew, the questions multiplied.
Then came the addition of Roman Oben but the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle were barely visible in many minds. There were still questions on whether Fonoti would return to the team in shape, Ball would return at all and who on earth would be playing right tackle.
Fonoti missed the first day of camp but returned fit – and determined. That meant the left side of line had some consistency.
Courtney Van_Buren ended up on injured reserve and the clues on who would play where were jumbled again. Whatever depth they had seemed to be fading fast.
Third round draft pick Nick Hardwick was getting well acquainted with the center slot as Ball held out. And seventh round draft pick Shane Olivea slid in at right tackle and put his vice grip on the position. With Goff providing leadership to his left, the Chargers deemed the line satisfactory.
But the unit was entirely new. They had never played in a regular season game together. Not one of them had played with anyone else on the line even once. No continuity.
They were earmarked for failure.
Hardwick pointed to LaDainian Tomlinson and said he would make the job easier.
"I think he is going to get the job done regardless," Hardwick said prior to the season. "He is going to get the job done regardless of his line."
Tomlinson has been fighting through a groin injury that has slowed his ability to make cuts and it has made the job of the line that much harder.
It meant the blocks would have to be held a second longer and the pass protection assignments even more crucial.
"The offensive line has been remarkable," head coach Marty Schottenheimer admitted. "I could not imagine, even with Hudson Houck coaching them, that they would perform over nine games at the level at which they have performed.
"It is a real tribute to them, to Hudson. Roman Oben has been terrific for us and Mike Goff. They are the glue that holds that thing together."
The line is tied for fourth best in the league in sacks allowed with 12 through nine games.
"We know what we can do as a team and it's just a matter of proving it on Sunday's," Oben said.
It was this line that Eli Manning was afraid to play behind. Ironically, the Giants are worst in the league having allowed 40 sacks on the year in the same nine game span.
The fortified wall has enabled the wide receivers that extra second to get open and Drew Brees has found an abundance of time in the pocket. The passing game is flourishing.
"We had so many new faces," Brees marveled. "We had a whole new offensive line. The job they are doing and our ability to get the ball out quickly. I have absolute confidence that I am going to have all day!"
And Hardwick was the only member of the starting unit to miss a game, two in fact, but when he reclaimed the starting job the Bolts released his replacement. The former holdout, Ball, was gone and the team unity restored.
"Continuity on the offensive line is probably one of the most important things as the season goes," said Brees. "Last two years we have had ten or more guys start two games in a season. It is tough on them because there is a new guy next to you week to week. We had some guys that were playing three different positions on the line. You never get a chance to hone in ‘that's my job'. At times you are going to have to do that. That is football but it does make it very hard. The fact that this year we have been able to have those five guys in there, hopefully they stay healthy, knock on wood."
Even the run blocking has been relatively sound. They are 11th in the league in yards per rush, lead the league in the big gain category with 12 runs of twenty or more yards and are tied for third in the league in paving the way for touchdown runs at 13.
"Our offensive line is doing a tremendous job. This is their first year playing together," a healing Tomlinson said.
Remember Brees on the run constantly in 2003? The pressure was always there and now that he has protection, he has been able to exploit the secondary. It is the same argument that was pointed to regarding the failure of the San Diego secondary in 2003. They were in coverage far too long. The shoe is on the other foot now.
Even a guy who has been here for but a few short weeks recognizes the success of the line and its correlation to their ability to make plays.
"Give our offensive line a lot of credit," wide receiver Keenan McCardell said. "When you can establish the line of scrimmage in a game, most of the time you win."
And the line is far from being done. They have visions of greater things as they head into the stretch drive.
"We are looking forward to building on this," Olivea said. We are getting better and better every week."
Denis Savage can be reached at email@example.com
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