It was an epic whiff. Granted, the play called for "slide" rather than man-on-man pass protection, but I set that Washington State defensive end free for a quarterback kill shot straight from "The Waterboy." Wary of an outside speed rush, I set too wide from my right tackle spot and watched helplessly as the rabid Cougar set his sights on QB Randy Fasani's ribcage. Only I wasn't helpless. All-everything guard Eric Heitmann was there to pick up my trash and save my butt - not to mention Fasani's. It wasn't the first time one of my fellow offensive linemen bailed me out, and it certainly wouldn't be the last. And after four years surrounded by All-Pac-10 and future NFL hogs at Stanford, I'd like to think I occasionally saved their bacon, too.
"Chemistry" is one of the most maddeningly overused words in sports, but it truly is essential in melding five fleshy elements into one cohesive blocking unit. A receiver doesn't have to like his quarterback to accept a touchdown pass, just as a holder won't bobble a snap to foil his contemptible kicker. But absorbing a destructive defender to rescue your adjacent blocker, or joining forces to blow a nose tackle off the line, requires mutual trust and respect, as well as an exhaustive understanding of your linemate's tendencies, born from mind-numbing repetition. "There are so many different types of combination blocks that you perform as an offensive line, and you have to have trust and chemistry with those around you in order to have success," says Heitmann, entering his seventh season with the San Francisco 49ers. "Ultimately, you have to be able to trust that the guy next to you is going to do his job, because it affects everybody on the line."
Heitmann wasn't able to stop that hell-bent end just because he was one of the best linemen in Stanford history. He also knew center Zack Quaccia could handle the nose tackle - the play's more immediate threat - by himself, and that I had made similar mistakes before. It is helpful for offensive linemen to know one another's strengths, but absolutely critical to comprehend one another's weaknesses. In an ideal running play, linemen fuse their hands and hips to create a violent sea, washing the defensive front away so the ball carrier can roam unscathed. Pass protections are conceived to give the quarterback a spacious pocket from which to casually read the coverage. This hardly ever happens. Assignments are blown, blocks are defeated, and sometimes linemen simply trip over their own feet or get in one another's way. As important as it is for linemen to begin with the same script, it's even more critical that they be able to improvise amid the chaos of a game. "With how complex defenses are, there are often times when you don't have time to make the call," says Kirk Chambers of the Buffalo Bills, the Cardinal's starting left tackle from 2000-03. "Defenses are so into trying to trick you and confuse you, you have to make your reads basically when the ball is snapped, and you have to trust that the guy next to you is on the same page and you'll block the play appropriately." And according to Chambers, who is entering his fourth season in the NFL, some things don't change between college and the pros. "You learn to trust the guy next to you so you can try to cheat certain protections," he says. "Like if it's a slide protection, I can really go out and be more aggressive on the defensive end, knowing that if I overset him, I have help inside."
A four-year starter, Mike McLaughlin was a first-team All-Pac-10 center and a senior anchor for our 1999 Pac-10 championship squad. But a knee injury forced him out of the Rose Bowl lineup after one snap, and we never recovered. There were several reasons why we lost that contest - including a shaky fourth quarter by yours truly - but perhaps none was more glaring than our reshuffled offensive front. McLaughlin's injury forced Quaccia from left guard to center, altering 40 percent of our line. Though Quaccia was an excellent center, and Joe Fairchild, who replaced Quaccia at guard, was a proven veteran with starting experience, the shakeup affected our cohesion and, ultimately, our entire offense. We finished the night with -5 yards rushing, allowing the Badger defense to key on our typically potent passing attack. The result? Wisconsin 17, Stanford 9. Yes, the Badgers had talented defenders and a great game plan, and it's very possible that they could have silenced our running game and disrupted our pass protection had we been at full strength. But our line had featured the same five starters - including first-team All-Pac-10 left tackle Jeff Cronshagen - for nearly the entire season for a good reason: You don't mess with a productive recipe, even if the new ingredients are proficient on their own.
John McDonell and Mike Denbrock may as well have been chemistry professors. The pair took over as Stanford's offensive line coaches in 2001, and despite working with us, as well as each other, for the first time, they orchestrated a line that helped the Cardinal lead the Pac-10 in rushing with more than 200 yards per game. A stable of talented backs, including Brian Allen, Kerry Carter, Casey Moore and Kenny Tolon, certainly contributed to our ground dominance, as did a potent passing attack that kept defenses honest. Having six better-than-average linemen - and tight ends and wide receivers that were eager to block - helped, too. But McDonell, who moved to The Farm from Washington State, and Denbrock, who settled in Palo Alto from the Arena Football League, brought a brilliantly basic and refreshing approach: simplify terminology, emphasize aggressive play, and stand back and watch the product gel.
The tinkering took place during the 2001 offseason. Begrudgingly at first, I moved from right tackle to right guard, sending Heitmann to left guard while Kwame Harris cracked the starting lineup in my former spot. Chambers remained at left tackle, and Quaccia tied the line together at center as our only fifth-year senior. Paul Weinacht became a do-everything luxury, giving us previously unknown depth while playing long stretches at both guard spots and starting twice without the line missing a beat. Our schemes were virtually identical to the previous three years under offensive coordinator Bill Diedrick, but Denbrock and McDonell freed us to attack defenders. They never dismissed proper technique, but their streamlined approach reduced "paralysis by analysis." Find a way. Get it done. Results are all that matter. The outcome of their bottom-line philosophy was a group of linemen so impressed by one other's performance that no one was willing to be the weak link. None of us were perfect, but the sum nearly was. Instead of agonizing over the robotic angles of their pass sets, our tackles were allowed to be the NFL-caliber athletes they were, punishing defenders with powerful strikes rather than passive palms. The interior of our line didn't bark assignments to each other as we had in previous years; we had enough shared experience to avoid dropping verbal hints for the defense. Sure, Harris and I occasionally bickered, but even that was indicative of our bond. We appreciated each other's skills too much to accept anything less than synchronized supremacy. It was the first time our linemen spent as much time in film sessions marveling at one another's exploits as critiquing our own performances. Our '99 and 2000 lines pass-blocked well and got along just fine, but nothing unifies an offensive front like running the ball at will.
It's a chicken-and-egg relationship: Winning teams typically are happy, and satisfied players usually will do anything to contribute to their squad's success. I can recall plenty of selfless displays from losing seasons - wide receivers Ryan Wells and Teyo Johnson decleating defensive linemen in 2002 come to mind - but 2-9 teams rarely are remembered for their good chemistry. Locker rooms are fractured when players can't accept responsibility for their role in a team's woes. Some teams never pull it together because the pieces simply don't fit. If there were a surefire formula for creating chemistry within an offensive line, let alone an entire team, it would be relentlessly repeated. Coaches and team leaders will employ any speech or gimmick imaginable if they believe it will yield unity. Buddy Teevens prefaced 2002 team meetings with getting-to-know-you games, and required each position group to write and perform a song during preseason camp. Tyrone Willingham read "The Little Engine That Could" to our 2000 squad before a midweek practice - not so much to inspire us for our upcoming game against No. 5 Texas, but to whimsically lift our spirits after our third straight loss to San Jose State. We beat the Longhorns a few days later, but none of us attributed the victory to "Storytime With Ty".
Every Stanford line I was a part of gathered for dinner on Thursday nights during the season. We talked about video games, impersonated coaches, and relived gaffes and pranks from that week's practices and meetings. We hardly ever discussed Xs and Os, and there was no difference between starters and reserves. We were just a group of overgrown kids devouring pizza and Buffalo wings while consequently improving our team. It's impossible not to respect the man next to you once you learn he's played the entire season with a bum shoulder, and it's hard to let petty differences spoil your line's relationship after you've shared a feast of grease drenched in ranch dressing. Still, it takes more than five well-fed chums to protect a quarterback. "Camaraderie off the field definitely can help," Heitmann says, "but I think, ultimately, you have to be able to play together on the field, and you develop that trust through practice and repetition and game experience." I guess fried food doesn't solve everything.
About the Author: Greg Schindler, LSJU '03 has been living in Kalispell, Montana, working as a sports reporter for the Daily Inter Lake. He was a four-year starter and four-year letter-winner for the Cardinal from 1999-2002, starting 42 of 46 games. After redshirting as a true freshman in 1998, he was the team's starting right tackle in 1999-2000 and the team's starting right guard in 2001-02. Prior to Stanford, Schindler starred at Live Oak High School in Morgan Hill, CA and was named a First-team All-American by Prepstar in 1997. Following his Stanford career, Schindler was signed by the San Francisco 49ers as a free agent after graduating in 2002 with an English Major and a Political Science minor. His sister, Veronica Schindler, is a Development writer at the Stanford Athletic Department.
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