They are separated by inches. And worlds.
The difference between offensive linemen and defensive linemen?
“We don’t jump around like a bunch of morons when we make a big play,” Philadelphia tackle Jon Runyan said.
The difference between defensive linemen and offensive linemen?
“They try to be these big politicians and stuff -- drinking wine, going to fancy restaurants,” Miami defensive tackle Jeff Zgonina said. “We’re just normal guys, hard-working dudes.”
As the final month of the NFL regular season dawns, one truism remains: The 300-pounders who line up nose to nose every snap are never going to see eye to eye.
“I’ll make it real simple for you,” said Mark Schlereth, who played 12 seasons on the offensive lines in Washington and Denver and now is an ESPN analyst. “As an offensive lineman, I can go into the most meaningful game of the year, a playoff game, and I can whip your butt 64 plays in a row. Crush you. And on third and two, I can give up a sack. Then, I’m a goat and you’re going to the Pro Bowl.”
That one-play nightmare happened to St. Louis tackle Kyle Turley this season. He was having what he considered a “perfect” game, executing all his blocks, holding pass rushers at bay.
Then, disaster. Early in the third quarter he stumbled, and a defensive lineman beat him around the corner to the quarterback, who fumbled. A defender scooped up the ball and ran it back for a touchdown.
“I knew at the point I blew that block that if we didn’t win [that mistake] would be the knife in our tire,” Turley said. “That would be the play that just let the air out. It just killed me. When you do that, it makes you feel like the most horrible player in the world. It just peels your skin off. ... It drives me crazy thinking our next opponent has that play on film and they’re just watching it over and over and over.”
Playing on the offensive line sounds like the most difficult job this side of playing quarterback, right? Not so fast.
“No one’s fatter, sloppier or closer together than offensive linemen,” San Diego defensive end Marcellus Wiley said. “When all my athletic skills diminish, and I want to gain 50 pounds, then, yeah, I can see myself playing there.”
Offensive linemen might have stratospheric calorie counts -- even their lone statistic, the pancake block, is a reference to food -- but they’re often meticulous, type-A people who approach their job the way they would a geometry problem.
“If a guy moves three inches, that changes our whole game,” Dallas guard Larry Allen said. "[Defensive linemen], they’ve just got to come off the ball and tackle whoever has the ball.”
Schlereth won two Super Bowl rings as a member of Denver’s line. That group was especially close and private. The Bronco offensive linemen swore off talking to reporters and would fine one another if their words ever appeared in the newspaper or their voice ever turned up on radio or TV. The tradition lives on. The Bronco linemen refused to say their names and alma maters for a “Monday Night Football” broadcast this season.
It was common practice for all five starting linemen and their backups to be in the Denver locker room, with their uniforms on, four hours before kickoff. They would be clustered in a corner taping their fingers, discussing blocking schemes, dissecting the opponent. Invariably, at least one of them would get sick in a trashcan.
“Then,” Schlereth said, “out of the training room walks a defensive lineman in a jockstrap and a pair of socks a half-hour before the game. A half-hour!”
When they took the field, the Bronco offensive linemen thought and acted as one. Every time John Elway broke the huddle, tackle Gary Zimmerman, the grand old man of the line, would turn to Schlereth and ask, “What do we do here?” Zimmerman always knew the answer but he just wanted to double-check. When you’re in constant peril of looking like a fool, yours is a paranoid, uncertain existence.
“There are times when you do have a mental lapse,” Schlereth said. “You’re going, ‘Oh, my Lord, I don’t remember what to do!’ [But] as long as we’re all on the same page, we can be successful, even if we don’t block something exactly the way it’s drawn up. That’s where great communication comes in. If five guys are incorrect but on the same page, nine times out of 10 you’ll get it blocked correctly.”
The goal of an individual offensive lineman is not to be an individual. Anonymity means safety. If he’s noticed, it’s usually because he gave up a sack or was flagged for a penalty.
“One of my old coaches told me offensive linemen are like mushrooms,” Dallas guard Andre Gurode said. “We’re thrown in a dark room and nobody really knows anything about you until something bad happens. I guess when people don’t talk about you, that’s when you’re doing a good job.”
Not so on the other side of the ball. A defensive lineman’s career is largely defined by his statistics. Multiple sacks can translate into millions of dollars. A player who disappears for too long just might vanish from the lineup.
“It’s easier for a guy with sub-par athletic ability to be an offensive lineman,” Wiley said. “You can’t hide as a defensive lineman. Offensive linemen are like a gang. If they’ve got a weak link, they help him out. They slide to him, they max-protect [by keeping more players in the backfield to block].
“We can’t add a defensive lineman when we’re not getting a pass rush. We’ve got to do it ourselves.”
Dallas defensive tackle La’Roi Glover said he could never be an offensive lineman, and not because of the complexity of the job or the physical skills it demands. He just couldn’t stand idly by and let someone pound on him.
“I think defensive linemen are a little wilder,” he said. “You’ve got to be. They’re a little more vocal than offensive linemen are. When you talk about defensive linemen, you use words like ‘hungry’ and ‘you’ve got to want it.’ That kind of stuff. Offensively, it’s a little different. They’ve got to be a little more passive. They’re aggressive, but it’s more of a passive aggressive.”
So could many offensive linemen switch sides in the dance of the ele- phants?
“Oh, no,” Glover said. “They’d probably run out of gas. I don’t know what kind of shape they’re in to do it play after play. For four quarters? They’d probably be sucking wind.”
Schlereth doesn’t quibble with that.
“I stopped being an athlete in ninth grade,” he said. “I became an offensive lineman.”