For much of the 2010 season - and in particular toward the end of it, when injuries forced the Buffalo Bills to use many of their reserves up front - we talked about Chan Gailey's desire to get more physical along the offensive line.
The team has obviously made that attempt. Bigger players have been brought in; Buffalo's five holdover linemen from the Dick Jauron teams are an average of 6'4" and 311 pounds, while the eight new imports are slightly bigger on average (6'5", 316) and includes three of the four biggest linemen on the team (Kraig Urbik, Colin Brown and rookie Chris Hairston).
Yes, the Bills are getting bigger, but that's not necessarily the right direction for the team - even though by Bills fans standards, in general, bigger is viewed as better. Physicality can (and, I believe in Buffalo's case, must) be achieved without getting significantly bigger on average - and with the Bills running a very specific type of offense with Gailey and Ryan Fitzpatrick, for now, general athleticism needs to be the bigger focal point for the team.
This argument needs to start, in my estimation, by bringing up two points that I believe are unassailable fact.
Fitzpatrick is a gunslinger. That, for better or worse, is his playing style. He's a balls-to-the-wall distributor of the football who's at his best making quick reads and getting rid of the football. He is not at his best when he's asked to sit in the pocket, extend plays, or throw in the move (though he can do all three occasionally). That is why Gailey put Fitzpatrick in spread formations a lot last season - defenses are easier to diagnose pre-snap, and it's easier to get the ball into the hands of your playmakers.
Buffalo's skill talent, as a whole, can be greater than the sum of its parts. Any good NFL offense has depth at the skill positions, and doesn't try to force-feed the ball to one or two playmakers. Take a look at Green Bay's players, however - they have impeccable depth at wide receiver and tight end, and enough running backs to get them by. They have great players, but they are effective because they have a lot of very good players. This is something that the Bills can emulate with another piece or two (particularly a tight end, but that's a different conversation altogether).
Right now, that is Buffalo's offensive identity. They're not a run-first team because they're not built to be one. Perhaps that's more of the long-term vision, but coaches want to win now. Ergo, for now, Buffalo's offensive line can't morph too heavily from what it was last season.
No, I don't mean that Buffalo's offensive line shouldn't change, because that would be absurd. The line needs to get healthier, for one. It needs to get better at doing its job, as well. These, too, are unassailable facts. What I'm driving at, however, is that the line can't change its identity for the sake of becoming more physical. It needs to become more physical within the framework of the rather athletic group that it already is.
We've touched on this a bit with Demetrius Bell and Eric Wood over the past few weeks. Both of these players are highly athletic for men in their position, but due to injury, neither has the strength training required to play that desired physical brand of football for 16 games. But both of these players were assets to the team last year because they fit the form of offense Gailey chose to employ so well. Wood is a fantastic pulling guard, and he knows how to finish plays. Bell is way more than athletic enough to protect the edge against speed rushers.
That's why the team could get away with Cordaro Howard and Mansfield Wrotto at right tackle, and why Cornell Green looked so bad out there - the two younger guys are very good athletes (even if they were playing out of position), while Green was an aging veteran no longer blessed with the same athletic traits. It's also why Geoff Hangartner was good at center despite not being the most physical of players - he's a mobile, wall-off lineman that can make plays at the second level. Same for Andy Levitre.
At its best last season, Buffalo's offensive line was really quite good. Pass protection is about much more than the play of the line - quarterback play, incorporating skill players into blocking schemes, knowing what's going on pre-snap, and many other factors come into play - but all four long-term starters (as well as the rotation at right tackle) had their moments of glory. It was a line that was better protecting the passer than opening up running lanes, and was quite good as the season progressed at executing plays that required blocks at the second level. When guys like Urbik were forced into the lineup (and no, the problem was not exclusive to him), there was a noticeable loss of athleticism that hampered the team's offensive execution.
Yes, the line needs to improve technically. It absolutely needs to get more physical; the team won't make significant strides offensively until they run the ball more effectively. I firmly believe that, in the short term, that physicality needs to come within the framework of what the line was a year ago. Better? Without question. More physical? Absolutely. Bigger? Only if it's feasible.