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Line dance

this is a discussion within the Saints Community Forum; One starting guard retired after 13 NFL seasons and the other defected to the Miami Dolphins as an unrestricted free agent. The left tackle, a two-time Pro Bowl performer, was released for salary cap reasons. And the first-round prize from ...

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Old 06-18-2004, 03:30 AM   #1
The Dark Overlord
Join Date: Oct 2002
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Line dance

One starting guard retired after 13 NFL seasons and the other defected to the Miami Dolphins as an unrestricted free agent. The left tackle, a two-time Pro Bowl performer, was released for salary cap reasons. And the first-round prize from 2003, who started every game at right tackle as a rookie, including a stellar outing in Super Bowl XXXVIII, is moving to the left side.

Makes you wonder if center Jeff Mitchell, the only Carolina Panthers starting blocker in 2003 who will line up at the same position in 2004 for the NFC champions, feels like a stranger when he swivels his head from side to side. Makes you wonder, too, if Panthers line coach Mike Maser has contemplated cyanide as he works to rebuild the unit.

"The whole idea of continuity," said Maser, understating the obvious, "is a pretty difficult thing to think about at this stage of the game."

In a division that features some of the league's premier line mentors -- Maser, Bill Muir (Tampa Bay), Alex Gibbs (Atlanta) and Jack Henry (New Orleans) -- his counterparts in the NFC South might sympathize. Commiseration will have to wait, however, since all the other NFC South offensive line coaches are currently preoccupied by their own major refurbishing projects.

Remember the old cigarette commercial, from the era when tobacco advertisements were still permitted on television, and which suggested "It's what's up-front that counts?" Well, in the NFC South, the common-thread pursuit just six weeks before training camps open is trying to discern who is up-front, and where they will align.

Around the division, calliope music should have accompanied most mini-camp practices this spring, given the carousel atmosphere that has surrounded the offensive line units of the four NFC South franchises. When the melody concludes in the high-stakes game of offensive line musical chairs, every line coach wants his five best blockers sitting in five starting chairs, but the process of identifying those individuals is hardly complete.

But consider where things stand at this juncture: Of the 20 projected first-unit blockers for the four NFC South teams, 13 are either new starters or holdover players lining up this season in new positions.

One would think that, coming off its stirring conference championship season, Carolina would be a model of stability. Instead, the Panthers are one of two division entries that will have four new starters each. The only NFC South franchise that figures to have fewer than three offensive line changes is Atlanta, and the Falcons' lack of alteration is offset by the addition of Gibbs and his implementation of a dramatically different blocking scheme.

During the era of free agency, NFL teams have averaged slightly more than two offensive line changes per season, according to figures compiled by ESPN.com. But even by those standards, what is transpiring in the NFC South is an incredible collective reformation. It is, for sure, an overhaul that could help determine the balance of power in the division.

"People used to talk about stability, continuity, cohesiveness, all those things when they talked about offensive line play," said Bob Whitfield of Atlanta, likely to be a backup this year after serving as a fixture at left tackle for a dozen seasons. "But free agency pretty much put an end to all that. I mean, if you can keep a line together for a couple of years anymore, that's a lot. What's happening this year, though, is just crazy, man."

Indeed, while the upstart Panthers are the consensus favorites to repeat as the division champions, their continued improvement on offense, catalyzed by the emergence of quarterback Jake Delhomme as a legitimate playmaker in the second half of the 2003 season, could well hinge on how quickly the revamped line comes together. Fact is, the NFC South is a far more competitive division than most pundits predicted that it would be following realignment, and offensive line play could be a key determinant in which of the four teams claims the crown in 2004.

Here is a pre-camp look at how the four units stack up:

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