A Brief History of Guard Valuation

Guards, as important as they have always been to the game of football, were barely a blip on the radar a generation ago. But when the Packer Way met positonal value head-on, those unheralded men in the middle became multi-millionaires overnight. Seahawks.NET's Doug Farrar reviews how this change in thinking happened, and what it means to those teams who are still playing catch-up.

If you were to assemble a “count-them-on-one-hand” list of the best personnel men in NFL history, Ron Wolf’s name would most likely be somewhere on it. Beginning his NFL career in 1963 as a scout for the Oakland Raiders. Wolf became Al Davis’ right-hand man over most of the next 25 years. From 1966 to 1975, he helped put together the Raiders’ first great teams. He was the first roster-builder in the history of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and through he was fired in 1978, his acquisitions made the Bucs one of the most remarkable turnaround stories in league history – only four seasons after their 0-14 beginning, Tampa Bay lost to the Rams in the NFC Championship game. Returning to the Raiders in 1979, Wolf overhauled an old, declining team, creating a dynamic new unit that won two Super Bowls in the early 1980s.

Certainly, it is his work with the Green Bay Packers for which he will be remembered. Hired in 1991 to fix a team that hadn’t made the playoffs in a non-strike season since 1972, he made three moves that turned it all around – hiring former 49ers offensive coordinator Mike Holmgren to be his coach, signing free agent defensive end Reggie White, and trading a first-round pick to Atlanta for the services of Brett Favre. A host of smaller smart moves had the Packers in contention very soon; and at the top of the league during the second half of the decade. Wolf influenced a host of personnel men throughout the NFL, and his legacy is undeniable. The “Packer Way”, as he called it in his 1999 motivational tome, was an undeniable blueprint for success.

The Packer Way

One tenet of Wolf’s Packer Way was that guards had fixed value. The position was fairly fungible, and Green Bay had seven different season-beginning starting left guards from 1993 through 2000. Only one, Aaron Taylor, started at that position for more than one consecutive season. Taylor was selected by Green Bay in the first round of the 1994 draft, missed his rookie season with a knee injury, and manned the left side from 1995 through 1997. In those three seasons, the Packers went to each NFC Championship game, made it to two Super Bowls, and won one.

It was the apex of the Wolf/Holmgren era, and the two Super Bowl years were the only two during Wolf’s tenure in which the team had the same left and right guards in Taylor and Adam Timmerman. Coincidence? Consider that continuity is tremendously important to an offensive line. Perhaps no other personnel group other than quarterback relies so strongly on a sense of sameness, and success in the trenches defines the greatest offenses.

Wolf “retired” before the 2001 season (he would later take an ill-advised consultant’s position with the Butch Davis-era Browns), and new GM and head coach Mike Sherman took a different view of the guard position. Sherman’s 2001-2004 tenure was marked by several questionable decisions, but he did have Mike Wahle and Marco Rivera, two Green Bay draft picks of the 1990s, set at left and right guard for that entire era.

Two of the team’s three highest single-season yardage totals came during this time; the franchise record of 6,357 in 2004, and 5,798 yards in 2003. In 2003, Ahman Green obliterated Jim Taylor’s 41-year-old team record for rushing yardage in a single season with 1,883. 2004 marked the highest net passing yardage total in franchise history with 4,449. Though the Packers couldn’t get past the Divisional round under Sherman, the offense was clearly working, and the line had a great deal to do with it. Other teams were paying attention.

In January of 2005, Packers CEO Bob Harlan split Sherman’s duties by hiring Ted Thompson as the team’s new General Manager. Thompson worked with Wolf in the Green Bay front office from 1992 through 1999, and he followed Holmgren to Seattle as the Seahawks Vice President of Football Operations. During his time in Seattle, Thompson oversaw the team’s draft board. Among the many talented players he drafted was a guard from Michigan by the name of Steve Hutchinson.

Thompson learned at Wolf’s feet, and he brought the “guards are fungible” theory back home to roost right away. He inherited a situation in which Wahle was going to be pricey and Rivera was a free agent. He let both of them walk – Wahle to the Panthers, and Rivera to the Cowboys. Thompson actually cut Wahle to gain salary cap space. The Packers were struggling to come in under the 2005 cap, because Sherman’s administration had given out several lucrative contracts with large signing bonuses that were set to explode. Going into negotiations with limited resources, Thompson let it be known that he wasn’t going to overpay for either guard, though he’d make more of an effort to re-sign Rivera. But Rivera signed a five-year, $20 million deal with Dallas in March 3rd, 2005. The deal included a $9 million signing bonus. At that point, Wahle was discussing his own deal with the Carolina Panthers, a $25 million blockbuster that he would sign on the same day.

One of the best lines in the NFL was laid bare overnight.

Thompson tried to run damage control, but it was too late. A patchwork assemblange of young guards rotated in and out of the two positions, and Green Bay fell to 30th in Adjusted Line Yards after ranking 12th in 2004 and second in 2003. The Pack did finish second in the NFL in Adjusted Sack Rate in 2005, but Brett Favre threw a career-high 29 interceptions. After missing only five games in his first seven seasons, Green was out for the 2005 season after only five games, when he suffered a ruptured right thigh tendon in late October. Green barely cracked the 1,000-yard mark in 2006, and he’s now a member of the Houston Texans.

The 2006 season did mark a bit of an improvement up front, as rookies Daryn College and Jason Spitz helped the line back up to a rank of 16th in ALY and third in Adjusted Sack Rate (with Favre throwing 11 fewer interceptions). This happened, in part, because of the efforts of new offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski. Jagodzinski had joined the Packers after two years with Alex Gibbs in Atlanta. Gibbs is recognized as perhaps the greatest offensive line coach in NFL history - his integration of zone blocking (and mastery of borderline-legal low-blocking tactics) is as legendary as it is infamous. However, Jagodzinski left the Pack after one year to become the head coach at Boston College.

Despite the line travails in Green Bay, another Ron Wolf acolyte was about to make another personnel decision affecting another great line. Another guard was about to be devalued … and this time, the entire league would feel it.

Reinfeldt’s Folly

Nobody who saw the beginning of the year 2005 for the Seattle Seahawks would have believed how that season would end. Owner Paul Allen fired Team President Bob Whitsitt in mid-January, and hired Tim Ruskell to replace him in late February. In the interim, there was the small matter of the 16 unsigned free agents – a full third of the team – that Whitsitt had left behind. While finding Whitsitt’s replacement, Allen turned to Mike Reinfeldt, who had served as Seattle’s Senior Vice President mad chief contract negotiator from 1999 through 2004. After being forced out in one of what seemed to be an infinite number of Whitsitt-related power struggles, Reinfeldt spent a season on the bench, picked up the bat when called, and hit a number of key homers.

He came to terms on contracts with franchise quarterback Matt Hasselbeck and All-World left tackle Walter Jones. This allowed the team to put the franchise tag on running back Shaun Alexander, who had come within one yard of the 2004 rushing title. The Seahawks were then able to spend extra time negotiating with Alexander and his agent, and the two sides agreed to a deal soon after. The Seahawks lost a few crucial free agents in the aftermath of Whitsitt’s malaise – the loss of cornerback Ken Lucas to the Panthers particularly hurt the secondary – but everyone agreed that Reinfeldt had done an amazing job under trying conditions. Reinfeldt was essentially the Seahawks’ entire front office before Ruskell’s hire. Ted Thompson had left for Green Bay, and Scot McCloughan accepted a similar position with San Francisco.

The three offensive mainstays led the Seahawks to Super Bowl XL with career-defining performances. Hasselbeck became the NFC’s best quarterback, Alexander won the NFL’s Most Valuable Player award, and Jones was the league’s best offensive lineman in the league’s best offensive line. He teamed with guard Steve Hutchinson to form a left side that was as impenetrable as any in recent memory. They were the modern-day Gene Upshaw and Art Shell.

Reinfeldt also had learned the Packer Way under Ron Wolf. He served as the team’s Chief Financial Officer from 1991 through 1993, and added the title of VP of Administration from 1994-98. Reinfeldt was actually instrumental in bringing Wolf to Green Bay in the first place – they had worked together with the Raiders in the mid-1980s - and he became a most able executive under the Master. Mike Holmgren was happy to steal him away to Seattle in 1999.

After the 2005 season, it was Steve Hutchinson’s time – or so he thought – for the Seahawks to acknowledge his worth. Through the 2004 and 2005 seasons, “Manimal” had become the game’s greatest guard. Strong enough to turn any defensive tackle into Jell-O pudding, agile enough to pull and run a sweep to perfection, and disciplined enough not to draw a single penalty in either 2005 or 2006, he was as important to the Seahawks as any guard could be to any team.

Reinfeldt, as was his wont, didn’t see it that way. When it came time to lock up his All-Pro guard for the 2006 season, Reinfeldt led the charge to use the transition tag instead of the franchise designation. Under NFL rules, the transition tag meant that Hutchinson could be stolen away by any other team with no compensation, and the Seahawks would be left with seven days to match any offer. The franchise designation would have forced any team agreeing to terms with Hutchinson to give the Seahawks two first-round draft picks. By using the transition tag, Seattle would have to pay Hutchinson the average salary of the top ten offensive linemen instead of the top five.

So, Seattle saved less than $600,000 ($6.391 million as opposed to $6.983 million) and became vulnerable to all sorts of shenanigans. The Minnesota Vikings came through with a “poison pill” offer sheet for Hutchinson, a seven-year, $49 million deal with the caveat that Hutchinson would have to be a team’s highest-paid player at the time the offer sheet was signed, or the entire $49 million would be guaranteed should any team match it. That specific language took the Seahawks out of the picture, as Jones’ seven-year, $52.5 million contract assured a higher rate of pay in 2006. Though Jones offered to renegotiate his own contract to meet the terms and allow his linemate to stay, it was all over. Mike Holmgren was furious, the Seahawks contested the offer sheet, a Special Master ruled in Minnesota’s favor, the transition tag was dead as a tool of negotiation, and Seattle’s line was in big trouble.

After finishing sixth in Adjusted Line Yards in the 2005 season, the Seahawks’ front five plummeted to 30th in 2006, including a late-season stop at Dead Last. The Mid/Guard ALY ranking went from sixth to 31st. Alexander missed six games in 2006 with a foot injury, and rushed for less than half of his 2005 total of 1,880 yards. Jones suffered from a season’s worth of injuries and committed nine blown blocks (missed blocks that led directly to sacks). Hasselbeck missed four games and his DPAR ranking went from fifth to 28th.

The effect of interior offensive line losses wasn’t just evident anymore – it was downright graphic.

The New Millionaires

Goaded by a two-year increase in the salary cap of $23.5 million (from $85.5 million in 2005 to $109 million in 2007), NFL teams were about to make Rivera’s and Wahle’s contracts chump change, and Hutchinson’s commonplace. Bengals guard Eric Steinbach (to Cleveland), Redskins guard Derrick Dockery (to Buffalo), San Diego guard Kris Dielman (back to San Diego), and Arizona tackle Leonard Davis (to Dallas, where he may move inside to guard) - each received contracts in early 2007 with at least $17 million guaranteed, and all but Dielman’s in the general vicinity of $49 million overall (Dielman was a relative “bargain” at $39 million over six years, while the other contracts were for seven).

In a case of spectacular irony, Dielman left up to $10 million on the table after spending time in Seattle as the guest of the post-Reinfeldt Seahawks. Reinfeldt had accepted the position of General Manager with the Tennessee Titans, and the Seahawks, led by Ruskell, pulled out all the stops to re-define their line. However, Dielman felt a loyalty to his team, and flew from the Pacific Northwest back to San Diego in a coach seat after beginning his trip on Paul Allen’s private jet.

One season after losing their line continuity over less than a million bucks, the Seahawks couldn’t find a willing target for their acceptance of the new rules. They must now do what Green Bay did: address their guard issues in the draft, lean on coaching (perhaps moving to a more Gibbs-esque system over time?), and hope for the best.

Positional valuation is an inexact science, and it changes as the game changes. Regardless of how it is addressed, the penalties for being behind the curve when it comes to the changes in personnel value are usually severe and long-lasting. That holds as true now as it did in 1963, when Ron Wolf first got in the game.

Doug Farrar is the Editor-in-Chief of Seahawks.NET, a staff writer for Football Outsiders, and a regular contributor to FoxSports.com. If you have questions about some of the stats discussed in this article, Football Outsiders is the place to find out more. Feel free to e-mail Doug here.

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