Dennis McKnight looked around one afternoon last week at Charger practice and did a double-take. He was not alone, but it seemed that way.
“It was weird,” he said. “I felt like I was Ed White or Doug Wilkerson. Really weird.”
He felt as though he was Ed White or Doug Wilkerson . . . or maybe Russ Washington or Billy Shields or Don Macek. McKnight is a man of 29, but Macek’s shoulder surgery had left him as the only remnant of the great offensive lines that took the Chargers to the playoffs from 1979 through 1982.
Suddenly, McKnight was the point man in what is a transitory, and therefore painful, period for the Charger offensive line.
Nothing in football takes more time to build than an offensive line, and nothing is less appreciated when at its best. These guys are the most anonymous players on any football team, but no other group is more important.
Just ask any of the so-called “skilled” players how far their skills would carry them if not for the shoulders of those “unskilled” lummoxes in front.
I’ll give you an example.
Someone plays name association with the Pittsburgh Steeler dynasty of the 1970s, and the names that come to mind are Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, Lynn Swann, L.C. Greenwood, Mean Joe Greene, John Stallworth, Jack Lambert, Donnie Shell . . .
Which of these guys played the offensive line?
None, of course.
But the five offensive linemen on the Steelers’ all-time team were Larry Brown, Sam Davis, Mike Webster, Gerry Mullins and Jon Kolb. Guess when they played? That’s right, they played as a unit through the 1970s.
Similarly, the greatest offensive linemen, collectively at least, in Green Bay Packer history were all there during the Lombardi years in the 1960s.
Almost any NFL team that enjoys success for a period of years is one with stability and seniority in its offensive front.
Naturally, this gets us back to Messrs. White, Wilkerson, Washington, Shields and Macek, the fellows who kept Dan Fouts in one piece and opened holes for Chuck Muncie when Air Coryell was flying its highest.
In the five-year period from 1978 to 1983, the Chargers employed a total of 17 offensive linemen . . . The Big Five and an assortment of 12 backups. In the five years since 1983, the Chargers have used 32 offensive linemen . . . and probably auditioned dozens more.
“Since 1983,” McKnight said, “we’ve never had the same five guys in the same five places for back-to-back seasons.”
Seasons, Dennis? Or did you mean weeks?
The new face this week is Dan Rosado, who replaces injured Macek at center. Rosado started three games last year, all during the strike and all at left guard. The center is only the guy who has to make the blocking calls according to what he reads from the defense.
And there is not a whole lot of experience at the other positions. Left guard Broderick Thompson has started each game this year but none previously at that position. Left tackle Ken Dallafior, who replaced injured John Clay in Week 4, started only one game in three previous seasons. Right tackle David Richards, a starter all year, is a rookie.
The Rock is McKnight, who came to the Chargers in 1982. He rode the bench behind The Big Five and then became a starter a year later as first Washington and then the others began departing. He has started at center, left guard and right tackle and settled in this year at right guard.
“In the last few years,” he said, “a lot of linemen have come and gone.”
Until it came to an afternoon this week when he had the weird feeling of being alone . . . or at least standing alone as the senior citizen of the trenches.
“Thinking back,” he said, “I learned so much from the older guys. Guys like Doug Wilkerson and Ed White taught me how to mentally prepare for games, how to work on techniques in practice, how to break a guy down on film so you can read him like a book. Can I do the same things they did for me?”
It won’t be easy to get this line back to where it was. It’s not the nature of an offensive line that rebuilding can be done quickly.
“You have to play together for a while to develop the sixth sense you need of what the other guys are going to do,” McKnight said. “Sometimes, like maybe when I had Ed White on one side of me and Donnie Macek on the other, we wouldn’t even need to make a call. I’d see something and say, ‘Ed,’ and he’d know what I was thinking.”
The harsh reality is that this year’s Charger line, which is under considerable heat, is quite likely playing as well as it can possibly play under impossible circumstances.
Consider that the starters today against New Orleans will include only one drafted player, Richards the rookie, and four free agents.
“I feel confident with these guys,” said McKnight, a free agent who has made the grade. “Each one of these free agents will never take anything for granted. They’ll never be overconfident. They’ll all fight until the last breath. They want to be here.”
How long they will be here is hard to tell, but this is their chance.
Bits and pieces of this line will likely be a part of the Chargers’ line of the future. Stacy Searels and Joey Howard, now on injured reserve, could well be factors. And, of course, there are upcoming drafts.
“They’re still searching for the right players,” McKnight said. “What I think is that next year’s line will have the potential to be together for 10 years.”
If that is the case, that will be the biggest step in the rebuilding process for this rather tattered franchise. Get those guys, the guys up front, into place, and everything else will be easier.
It won’t make any difference who is playing quarterback, because anyone who knows football knows that dynasties are built from the front to the back . . . not vice versa.