Kansas City, Mo. Take a football stadium crammed with 90,000 people. Now pick out the only five guys with their backs to the ball during a play.
It’s not enough that the offensive linemen have always been the most anonymous and generally least appreciated players on any football team. The tackles, guards and center must also begin each play in the dark, so to speak. It’s no wonder every coach since Pop Warner has stressed the importance of continuity in the offensive line.
It’s no wonder the line continues to be a problem for the winless Kansas City Chiefs. They could have yet another starter at right tackle this week with the undefeated New York Giants coming to town.
Ryan O’Callaghan only joined the team on Sept. 6. And that wasn’t long after the man he would replace, Ikechuku Ndukwe. Neither was with Kansas City in training camp, which makes it difficult to maintain the familiarity with one another that is needed for five guys who can’t see the play when it begins to unfold.
“We play with our backs to the ball,” said Kansas City center Rudy Niswanger. “We don’t see what’s going on behind us. You don’t always see and know what’s happening. You have to feel it.”
For Niswanger and the rest of Kansas City’s line, getting a good feel for each other has been tough. It’s one reason for the Chiefs’ failure to convert on third down last week in a 34-14 loss at Philadelphia. And it’s not going to be helped by a continuing shuffle of players in and out.
At the same time Ndukwe was brought in, so was guard Andy Alleman. Veteran tackles Damion McIntosh and Herb Taylor were waived before O’Callaghan arrived.
But first-year head coach Todd Haley was adamant when asked if it wouldn’t be better at this point to just go ahead and pick five starters and stick with them.
“Some people could say that and I think that’s an easy way out,” he said. “I think we’re in the process of shaping this team and I think it’s critical that we understand and all the players understand, everybody understands, that this is the beginning stages of the process.
“One thing that’s going to be clear to the players is there are going to be changes here as we try to improve each week. They can’t let it affect them in any way, shape or form other than to push them to be better.”
In the debacle at Philadelphia, the Chiefs’ line gave up three sacks and contributed heavily to the team’s 10 penalties. Overall in three games, Chiefs quarterbacks have been sacked eight times, one of the biggest totals in the league. That’s a scary stat considering the fast and physical defense the Giants will present on Sunday.
The problems have not been confined to the unsettled right side. Left tackle Branden Albert, after a terrific rookie year, has been inconsistent. He drew a holding call last week and has been beaten for two sacks.
Albert drew praise during the offseason for working hard and losing weight. Has he regressed?
“I don’t know if I’d go that far,” Haley said. “I would say that (Sunday) was not his best and I think he would tell you that. That’s a player who has worked hard and is trying to do all the right things. I think he’s as disappointed as we are, and that’s a good thing.”
The Chiefs will probably not get their offensive line woes fully solved until they find a set of starters and stick with them a while.
“You have to have a feel for each other,” said Niswanger. “It applies to the guys playing next to you when you’re passing off blocks — whether it’s blitzes, runs, double-teams, or you’re looking at linebackers. You just have to feel where that guy’s at. You have to know how he plays over time to know where he’s at and how he approaches certain blocks. It boils down to knowing where everybody is at, and that boils down to trust.
“Sometimes you just have to blindly trust that they’re doing their job so you can get your job done.”