Who Watches the Linemen? Part 3 of our conversation with Bryan Douglass

Editor’s Note: This is the continuation of a conversation with Bryan Douglass (@bpdouglass), Senior NFL Writer at Fanball, around the Rams’ offensive line. It started with a simple question: Are the Rams making a mistake in tendering Alex Barron? You can read Part 1 and Part 2 here.

photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images from Zimbio.com

The last part of this conversation is more of an extended essay, as we look back on Bryan’s preseason prediction that the Rams’ offensive line would become one of the most improved in the league: the smart signing of Jason Brown and high drafting of Jason Smith made this a pretty good bet, and expecting an uptick from Barron in his “contract year” wasn’t unreasonable.

Instead, we saw pretty much the same level of play as in ’08. In fact, Football Outsiders ranks them almost exactly the same in 2009 as in 2008: 24th in pass protection in ’09 (23rd in ’08), and 28th in adjusted line yards (same as in ’08).

Obviously, injuries played a factor, felling Jason Smith for an extended period of time, as well as Brown, Bell, and Incognito for shorter stints. And losing Incognito all together wasn’t a part of the plan. The good news was that the Rams showed rare depth at several positions; the bad news was that neither starters nor backups could turn the line into a strength.

I’m hoping that the Rams can benefit from a delayed payoff this season, where Smith is able to return and start, where Barron is placed on a very short leash (or replaced by Adam Goldberg or a player like Gaither), and where Brown is able to provide the chemistry and intelligence to make it all work.

Am I smoking dope, though? The full exchange is after the break:

RamsHerd: Are you inclined to be markedly more pessimistic toward the Rams’ line this season considering their lack of statistical improvement last year?

Bryan: This is true… in the fantasy biz you have to put picks on the table. You don’t get to move along without predictions, and in my world as an offensive line guy for Fanball I am focused on groups and felt the Rams would be one of the more improved units in the game.

I really liked the decision to draft Smith (still do), I absolutely adored the move to sign Brown (there are multiple teams, including the Denver Broncos that I cover here in the Mile High [ed: at The Broncos Stable], that would have been wise to go after Brown or Jake Grove last year… now you can’t find centers of worth to hire), and I like your coach and where he comes from. Say what you will about Coughlin but he comes from the school of Parcells and that group values offensive line. Figured Spags was proving that in St. Lou… and I still believe this crew has room to work as one of better lines in the business.  

Injuries can be devastating but the reactions to those injuries are what proves so influential.

The Cheeseheads up north learned that last year… they lost Chad Clifton early, and rather than admit error and bringing Mark Tauscher back, they tried to adjust to the depth they actually owned. They made a change at center, moved the starting center to guard, moved the starting guard to tackle, and the entire experiment was a total nightmare. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers was absolutely brutalized all season long and the Packers were too late in admitting fault in the decision, missing the playoffs (and they have already re-signed Tauscher to come back in 2010… live and learn).  

I felt the Rams addressed concerns of a similar nature in the proper fashion during last year’s offseason. They hit free agency and got a proven leader via free agency, they hit the Draft and added a guy that should be their face of pass protection for years to come, they moved on from Orlando Pace… it just seemed like the crew was headed in the right direction, and it feels like that again this year.  

Moving on from Incognito (I could write an entire column on this topic, but Cliff Notes: folks are suddenly buying in because its Bill Parcells and Miami, and while it may work, its more about saving money and NOT gambling on Justin Smiley’s health)…  

… the choice made in a humble 2nd-round tender for Barron (I found it refreshing and, to be honest, surprising… like I said before, I watched McDaniels/Xanders do the same with Marshall here in Denver knowing a worst-case scenario simply puts those players in your pocket for a year at a reasonable cost… but Denver has a long-standing owner who possessed insight on what free agency would actually be like, so I think you have to give a bit of credit to Spags and the crew for taking a similar path without that kind of leadership) …  

… and signing Hank Fraley to shore up depth (and I think he’ll beat Greco out on the right side) and add leadership to a young crew) …   I like those moves and believe they all indicate progress. 

Injuries can hamper the effort but the reactions to those injuries ruin them. The Rams had some injuries last year but none were so devastating to lead to think drastic measures (until Bell was lost in December, and by then it was too late). Based on talent alone I believe the Rams have a quality line in the making, and even if they keep Barron they could find a stabilized effort might stabilize him.

Would it be better to have Smith on the left? I think so, but it benefits the kid to have one more year on the right and to adjust to the NFL game. You hope Bell stays healthy and gets back on the exact track he was on before injury (I was impressed, felt he was finally starting to look like the kid the Rams expected him to be when they handed him $13 million guaranteed in 2008). You hope Brown stays healthy. And you hope Barron settles in as the rest of the line settles in.

Editor’s Note: Bryan writes great NFL content like this for Broncos Stable, as well as penning excellent Owners Edge columns for the Fanball parent site.