The Arizona Cardinals have the worst offensive line in all of football. It's just that simple. There is not a single measurable category where their line do not rank at or near the bottom of the NFL table. Though they have had some success in certain limited phases of the game, looking at times improved during hurry-up drills and creating enough room for LaRod Stevens-Howling to have a career game against the Minnesota Vikings last Sunday, for example, it's hard to heap any praise on this unit.
Of course, it would be wrong to suggest that this line is in any way the one the Cardinals envisioned coming into the season, with both starting tackles, Levi Brown and Jeremy Bridges placed on injured reserve for the season early in training camp. But it would be just as wrong to suggest that their issues are not of their own making either.
The Cardinals seem to have a culture of complacency within the organization, when it comes to shoring up their offensive line.
It starts with offensive line coach and assistant head coach Russ Grimm. Grimm had a storied NFL career as a player, and a solid enough start to his coaching career too, quickly establishing his reputation as a future head coach. He kick started the career of perennial Pro Bowler Chris Samuels in Washington, and helped lead the Pittsburgh Steelers to a Super Bowl against the Seattle Seahawks in 2005, almost solely on the strength of their running game.
However, since following his friend, Cardinals head coach Ken Whisenhunt, to Arizona, Grimm has failed to repeat any of the magic he was part of, as either a player or coach, earlier in his career. While other position coaches have come and gone during that time, Grimm never seems to have been adequately held to account for his obvious failings.
In the past, the Cardinals offensive success, lead by players like Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin and quarterback Kurt Warner allowed the team to largely whitewash many of the frailties in their offensive line, and likely prevented Grimm from taking too much flack, in spite of the fact that many of Warner's highlight reel passes were completed in the face of unimaginable pressure. After all, it's hard to criticize a team who were minutes away from a Super Bowl victory.
However, in recent years, as the Cardinals passing game has faltered somewhat, and their running game has failed to establish itself, the glaring deficiencies in the Cardinals offensive line have become unavoidable, yet Grimm retains his position as OL coach, in addition to his assistant head coaching duties.
In recent weeks, the Philadelphia Eagles let go their Defensive Coordinator Juan Castillo. Castillo is an experienced offensive line coach looking for another chance to shine after what could only be described as a disastrous stint in Philadelphia. The Cardinals offensive line is in real need of inspiration and rejuvenation.
It would be impossible to imagine the Cardinals removing Grimm entirely,but handing him extended roles as Whisenhunt's assistant, and perhaps giving him prerogative once more over the running game, as he had in 2009—a sideways move, rather than demotion—and handing Castillo responsibility over the offensive line may do wonders for the Cardinals. After all, often a change of coaching is all that is needed to reinvent a struggling facet of your game, just take Alex Smith before, and after Jim Harbaugh as a case in point.
And yet, the likelihood of this happening appears slim to nil. The Cardinals organization just don't seem all that bothered about real improvement on their offensive line, and Grimm, it would appear, will continue to get a pass in Arizona, in spite of his struggles, until one day he finally gets the head coaching gig he appears to be waiting for.
It would be irresponsible to heap all of the blame on Grimm and the coaches, however. The players, and the front office staff who choose them must also take their fare share of the blame.
Since selecting Levi Brown in 2007, the Cardinals have spent just six draft picks on offensive linemen in the following years. In 2008, the Cardinals added tackle Brandon Keith in the seventh round, in 2009 guards Herman Johnson was added in the fifth round and Trevor Canfield in the seventh, in 2010 and 2011, no offensive linemen were added, and in 2012 tackles Bobbie Massie and Nate Potter were added in the fourth and seventh rounds respectively, and guard Senio Kelemete in the fifth.
In spite of the fact that in recent years offensive tackles have become one of the most sought after positions in the NFL, in the past five years the Cardinals have added just three, spending, on average, the 186th overall pick on the position.
Things are not much better when it comes to free agency, where the Cardinals have developed a reputation as the place over-the-hill linemen are put to pasture.
Starting Center Lyle Sendlein and guard's Daryn Colledge and Adam Snyder have a combined age of 88 years, or on average more than 29 years old each, with very limited developmental backup at either position. Both Snyder and Colledge were considered past their best by their previous teams, and allowed to leave as free agents—neither team made any concerted effort to resign the players.
Snyder in particular, was considered a poor signing by most. Snyder was interviewed at around the same time as guard Jake Scott. Both had multiple options, but the Cardinals were considered favorites to land whichever they selected.
In 2011, Jake Scott was ranked seventh amongst all guards by Pro Football Focus, and has largely been at, or around, that level throughout his NFL career. Snyder, on the other hand, was generally considered one of the worst guard in the league, ranking out 76th of active 78 guards, according to the same statistics.
The Cardinals went with Snyder, offering the former 49er a five-year, $17.5 million contract with $12 million in guarantees.
Scott fielded several low-ball offers, generally considered around the league mandated minimum contract for a veteran of $810,000, and chose to sit out the season.
Later in the season, the Cardinals had the chance to sign former first round left tackle Chris Williams, after he was released by the Chicago Bears. Williams visited the Cardinals, and the team was reportedly impressed with what they saw. Williams was acknowledged to be an immediate improvement over any on the roster, with some even considering him an improvement over Brown, if and when he ever returns from injury.
However the team,who are believed to have around $20 million in cap space following changes to the contracts of many of its stars throughout the course of the season, reportedly refused to budge on their speculative valuation for Williams, and forced Williams to look elsewhere, in spite of the fact that the Cardinals were almost certain to offer him a guaranteed starting spot. In the end, Williams signed with the Cardinals divisional rivals, the St. Louis Rams, a double blow for the team.
The Cardinals front office staff, lead by general manager Rod Graves have regularly preached value—taking, and starting the best player available, and not reaching to fill a position—and this has generally worked in the Cardinals favor. Players like LaRod Stevens-Howling (7th round), John Skelton (5th) and William Powell (UDFA) at times appear to validate this approach. But at the same time, allowing players like Williams and Scott to walk away, while handing starting jobs to players like D'Anthony Batiste, who had never previously started at tackle, and Snyder, who has done nothing to shake his reputation as a sub-par guard, proves that this approach is not without its flaws.
The Cardinals have a winning team, and the talent on both sides of the ball, and the sideline, to win regularly, with just one glaring omission, the offensive line, and the teams continued reluctance to make the decisions necessary to improve things could haunt this team for years to come.
Their offense, defense, special teams and coaching have the ability to win right here and now, but without dependable play from their line, this will never happen. Football is a team game, and to see one part of that team costing the rest of their teammates wins that they deserve is hard for any fan to watch. To see so much potential wasted because of poor offensive line performance is a real shame.
The Cardinals organization need to make improving their offensive line priority one before the upcoming trade deadline, or risk watching their season slip away. However, if past experience is anything to go by, don't hold your breath.