Lombardi: Offensive Line

Cohesion and chemistry are of vital importance to the guys up front

There has been a lot of hand-wringing over the state of the Packers' offensive line. Guards Marco Rivera and Mike Wahle rode off to greener pastures this off-season and that has caused a great deal of anxiety among Packer fans and pundits. Brett Favre and Ahman Green get all the press and Javon Walker is a weapon to be reckoned with, but it is the big guys up front who make all the difference.

One of the reasons the offensive line has been so good the past few years is the fact that it has played together for so long. Mike Flanagan and Chad Clifton have missed time to injury, but by and large, the line has not had to break in any new faces. Those guys may not have played, but they were around and helped their replacements fit in. Cohesion and chemistry are of vital importance to the guys up front. They are a team within a team.

That is what worries me most about this year's unit. There will be two new faces upfront. Grey Ruegamer, who started in place of the injured Flanagan last year, may make it into the starting unit, but Matt O'Dwyer and Adrian Klemm are new this year. They are new to the team, new to the system, new to the coaches and new to the area. It is difficult to mesh a unit in only a few practices. It takes time to get these guys to jell and get a feel for the tendencies each guy has on a certain play. Good offensive lines have an unspoken understanding. They recognize what the other guy is going to do before he does it. The have a code and communicate in a different language almost.

I have all the faith in the coaching staff and Flanagan, Clifton, and Mark Tauscher are among the best in the league. Assuming Flanagan is back to form, the line should be able to hold its own until one or more of these new guys gets comfortable and gets the job done. Ruegamer showed he could fill in adequately last year and O'Dwyer is an 11-year vet.

There is still enough time left in camp that one of the young guys might step up and surprise us. I have heard good things about rookie William Whitticker. He is a big kid who started 31 games for Michigan State.

The odds of last year's offensive performance being equaled are pretty long. The quarterbacks were sacked only 14 times. Favre only 12 times. Green averaged 4.5 yards per carry and they gave Favre enough time to throw 30 touchdowns. Craig Nall added four more. That is pretty good.

And if you think about it, last year they only had four of the big five guys. Flanagan only played in the first three games. So in reality, the team will only be down one guy over last year. I know I am grasping for straws with this last one, but in the NFL, injuries happen and there is no guarantee that any player will make it through a game much less the season. If Rivera and Wahle had gone down with injuries this year, the Packers would not have had an opportunity to go get some able replacements. They would have only a few days to break in a backup or free agent if one of the starters went down during the season.

Now they have are over four weeks until the first real game. Plenty of time to jell and mesh and get to know each other. I do not believe the line will be as good as last year or the year before when the Pack rushed for a team record, 2558 yards, but they will be good enough to compete. But Packer fans expect more than a competitive team.

I think that anyone who doubts this team will be surprised. No one expects much from them, but the signs are there that they might be pretty good. Ahman Green, Javon Walker and possible Bubba Franks will be playing for big contracts. Favre is in the best shape in years and is focused on football after a few years of justifiable distractions. The offense will be good enough and I have this gut feeling that Favre will have a monster year. The defense will be better than last year. They might not be anymore talented, but Jim Bates will have them better prepared and on game day, they will perform better. They will make the necessary adjustments. It might take some time for the players to adjust to the new scheme, but ultimately the defense will be better. It will not take much to see an improvement.

The most important position on a football team is often thought to be the quarterback, but I believe it is the offensive line. You can win with a good line and an average quarterback, but a good quarterback will struggle with an average line. It is vital that the big uglies, as Keith Jackson used to call them, lead the way for this year's team. They may not be as good as last year, but they had better be good enough.

John Lombardi

Editor's note: John Lombardi is the grandson of legendary coach Vince Lombardi. John resides with his family in Green Bay . His football experience includes stints with two teams in the World League (now NFL Europe); in the scouting departments of the Cleveland Browns and Tennessee Titans; and graduate assistant coach and director of football operations at Vanderbilt. He will be contributing columns for PackerReport.com.

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