By: Chris Dagonas
As part of a new series, Chris will be zeroing in on a specific position on the football field to describe the role and traits that players in this position fill. Plays from the previous weekend’s NFL games will be dissected to add a visual element to the examination. In short, the goal is to describe what player X is supposed to do, then show examples of players doing x, or not doing x, and what happened as a result.
The offensive guard is, except for the kicker and punter, the most underappreciated position in football. Setting aside the converted soccer players for a minute, when one talks about building a football team, the guard is usually the last position mentioned. Sure, you want a top-tier left tackle to protect your quarterback’s blind side, and a right tackle is your running back’s best friend. A centre (or center, for our American readers) is the brains of the brawn; his job is reading defenses, looking for blitzes, not to mention his need to be sure-handed when snapping the ball to the quarterback. But a guard? Isn’t there a tackling dummy somewhere that can do their job?
First off, for the sake of clarity, the offensive line is made up of five players; the centre, who stands in the centre of the five linemen; the left and right tackles, who stand at either end of the line; and the guards, who stand between the centre and the tackles, either on the left or right side. The knock against these players is that they are overweight and under-athletic, unworthy to share the field with the ‘real athletes’; the quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers. But they do a lot of hard, physically demanding work. It is vital work, but most of their efforts go unmentioned, even in the NFL media.
All right, I’ll admit it; On passing plays, the guard’s job is relatively simple. They stand, palms facing the defense, knees slightly bent, and act as a wall, attempting to prevent the defensive linemen from reaching the quarterback. Usually, if they can give their quarterback five seconds, the play has developed down the field and the guard is no longer needed. Here is Arizona’s offensive line (seriously) giving new quarterback Carson Palmer plenty of time to find receiver Michael Floyd, who makes a superb one-handed catch. Note the blitz pickup from the running back, who reacted to a blitzing linebacker and saved Palmer’s backside. Pass blocking does often resemble a pile-up of bodies, but there are some subtle, and not-so-subtle, differences between doing it right, as the Cardinals did above, and doing it wrong. One of the worst examples of guard pass-blocking from Week 1 came courtesy of the New England Patriots’ right guard Dan Connolly (63 in white). He is shuffling his feet, loses track of his teammates, and ends up bumping into his right tackle, allowing the Bills’ Kyle Williams to reach quarterback Tom Brady for a 10-yard sack. Connolly is a much better run-blocker.
On running plays, the guard’s life gets significantly more complicated. Take this counter play, for example. The left guard, all 300 some-odd pounds of him, is expected to sprint across the formation to meet a charging linebacker on the right-hand side of the offense, before the quarterback hands off to the running back, an action that takes as little as 2 seconds. If he’s a little late, the running back is clobbered for a big loss. If he’s too early, that’s unhelpful too, as the defender can react and alter his path to the ball carrier. For a real-life comparison, watch this play from Sunday afternoon. Tampa Bay Buccaneers left guard Carl Nicks (78 in red) reaches his spot juuuuust in time to deflect a blitzing linebacker, and springs running back Doug Martin for a 17-yard gain.
Another difficult play for offensive guards is the toss play, in which a guard (watch the right guard in the example) is expected to sprint in front of his running back and open space for him at the line of scrimmage. The exchange from quarterback to running back takes about 2 seconds, so the guard must be quick to the line to meet any oncoming defenders. Once they reach a defender, the guard is then expected to push him to the middle of the field, allowing space for the running back to take the ball ‘to the outside’, toward the sideline. I know this isn’t a toss play, but the blocking system works much the same way. Watch as left guard Mike Iupati (77 in red) and the rest of his linemates immediately shift right at the snap of the ball to open space for Kendall Hunter toward the right sideline for a 23-yard gain.
Of course, running plays can go wrong too, with bad-to-disastrous results for the offense. On this play, the Saints are facing a fourth-and-one, and hand-off to power back Mark Ingram. Right guard Terron Armstead (72 in white) whiffs on his block, which starts a domino effect that ends in Ingram being mobbed by the Falcons’ defense, and losing a yard rather than gaining one, and resulting in a turnover. In worst case-scenarios, this can result in botched hand-offs, fumbles, and serious injuries to running backs.
The false start penalty is the offensive guard’s worst nightmare. Offensive players are expected to be perfectly still until the ball is snapped, and any movement, especially by offensive linemen, is quickly whistled and penalized. The penalty is a loss of five yards for the offense. Despite the demanding expectations for speed and timing placed on guards, they commit a far lower percentage of false starts than offensive tackles, based on information from nflpenalties.com.
So while the skilled players get all the press and statistics, the offensive guards continue to dig in the trenches, shoving and being shoved by equally large, athletic men, confident in the knowledge that one more inch, one more half-second, might be the difference between a touchdown and an interrupted play. They don’t ask for much in return either, other than your respect, a fair contract, a steak dinner, or, in the case of Tom Brady and the New England Patriots, a new Audi Q7.