Wanna judge a football fan? See if he cares about the offensive line. At all. Ever. We'll fully own up to being dunce when it comes to all but the blandest statements about the offensive line. We're particularly good at the following:
--"Boy, that quarterback's jersey is really clean."
--"I'd hate to run into him in a dark alley!"
--"Fattie! Ha-ha, fattie!"
--Our favorite and a Boomer Esiason regular:"The sweat off his butt's really making the ball slippery. Some guys are just sweaters."
See? Even an obsessive/compulsive college gridiron fan is reduced to Todd Blackledgism in the face of attempting to figure out what's going on on the offensive line. Part of the problem comes with trying to parse out five different players all attacking five different points at once: they're all over the place, tangled up with d-linemen, often falling into thrashing balls of humanity on plays that coaches will later zero in on and call "successes." Plus they don't have the ball, which your nanobrain instantly focuses on in any football setting, since that's where the action is, monkey. This may be true, but actions happen in chains and schemes in football, which brings us to some old crusty genius like SI's Dr. Z glorying on about Alan Faneca for a whole page because of his sublime run blocking. The number of quality returning starters may be the strongest indicator yet of a team's potential for success in a season, though we'll hedge on proclaiming that as fact since we're still compiling the numbers for future piece on the subject. (Research? Yes, it's the doldrums of June going into July. You're damn right we've got time for research.)
Watching o-linemen is also inelegant violence, which diminishes its allure as a focal point for football watching. Linebackers and especially safeties practice a very compelling form of violence, more of the car crash, Taekwondo type, thunderous hitting done with a head start. Offensive lineman compare more accurately to elephant seal/UFC fighting, mostly ugly grappling done with an emphasis on not blatantly holding your man and drawing a flag. From time to time an offensive lineman might get a highlight hit--like when one pulls and, expecting a linebacker, instead sees the fright-stricken eyes of a cornerback looking to run to the nearest sideline and weep--but for the most part the bear-fighting in the trenches is difficult to articulate outside of the most obvious displays of eptitude or incompetence. (Like, say, Florida's O-line last year against LSU or Alabama.)
You may not know when you have a line. You'll definitely know when you don't.
Todd McShay of Scouts thinks he's got a list together of impact linemen for 2006, and bravo for him--if he knows what's going on down there, then bully for Todd. We'll fully admit that line-watching is an art acquired over years and years of football-watching. Hell, remembering the lineups for a whole conference worth of lines represents an acquired art. McShay's big on Levi Jones Brown of Penn State, along with most of the Texas and USC lines, which would seem like front-running if they weren't so enormo good and fresh off a national television performance where both fronts mauled incoming defenders all game long.
It's a crapshoot, really, since offensive line coaches have the most nuanced gig in all of college coaching. Skill position coaches have the stopwatch, the metrics, the one-on-one drills to determine who gets to dance in the endzone and get the glory hole treatment from the press. (Another sportswriting trope alert: denigrating skill position players when writing about big uglies. Returning to programming.) Line coaches not only have to figure out who their best grapplers and road-graders are, but also have to figure out the best possible scheme considering who plays next to the other and how they react to each other. It's chemistry, chess, and biomechanics tossed into a blender.
No wonder one of the most successful line coaches ever suffers from depression; the fine-tuning and juggling probably has the most dedicated coaches popping Wellbutrin like Tic-Tacs, and leaves the mediocre ones praying for divine intervention. Offensive line coaches are notoriously flaky, but there's reasons. They're the ones who work the skin off their bones to be successful...and if they're lucky, almost invisible in their triumph. That's a mindfuck worthy of prescription medication.