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Bills' 2008 line play justifies radical changes

Coming off of a third consecutive 7-9 season, the Buffalo Bills knew they had to make drastic changes to improve their team.  One might argue that their most drastic, out-of-character move was the free agent signing of WR Terrell Owens - and that's a reasonable argument to make.  The most radical transition, however, has come along the offensive line.

On paper, the Bills fielded one of the most talented offensive lines in the league last year.  You couldn't watch any Bills telecast without hearing about how Buffalo's line was the biggest on average across the league, and Jason Peters was a Pro Bowl performer.  To the lay person, Buffalo's decision to enter 2009 with essentially five new starters at all five line positions could be viewed as disastrous.

KC Joyner, widely known as 'The Football Scientist', helped set the record straight this morning.

Joyner: Bills prove it's the blocking, not the running
Joyner is currently researching the cliche that good running backs can make yards without good blocking, using Walter Payton as the chief example of the so-called 'rule'.  He shed some insight into his research disproving that notion this morning using Buffalo's hideous 2008 run-blocking as an example.

For all of the talent the Bills had on the offensive line last season, the team's overall run blocking was, as Joyner pointedly puts it, 'abysmal'.

First, their overall offensive line run blocking totals were abysmal. Three of the Bills’ regular starters had a Point of Attack (POA) run block win percentage of under 80%. As I’ve detailed in previous posts, the 80% mark is the low-end acceptable total in this area, and Buffalo had only two linemen who were able to vault this bar. If that wasn’t enough, one of those linemen (Derrick Dockery) barely topped that total with an 81.4% POA win showing.

Unfortunately, Joyner does not mention which other lineman crossed the 80% barrier; the cynicist would scream "Peters!"; Brad Butler might be a candidate as well.  Y'all are well aware that Dockery, Peters, and two centers that started at one point - Melvin Fowler and Duke Preston - were jettisoned this off-season.

Joyner goes on to flesh out the rushing statistics of Marshawn Lynch and Fred Jackson with good and bad run blocking to disprove the notion that good backs - and yeah, he includes our two runners in that category - can gain yardage without good blocking.  It's an interesting stat - with five good blocks, Jackson averaged 6.0 yards per carry, while Lynch averaged 5.2.  If at least one blocker whiffed, their respective averages dropped to 1.7 and 2.1.

The changes
Last year's starting line, from left tackle to right tackle, looked like this:

Jason Peters - Derrick Dockery - Duke Preston - Brad Butler - Langston Walker

No single player will remain at their positions.  Peters, Dockery and Preston are long gone.  Butler and Walker will be the new tackles.  The team's drastically altered offensive line will likely look like this next season:

Langston Walker - Andy Levitre - Geoff Hangartner - Eric Wood - Brad Butler

A lot of attention is being made to the changes, most notably from the 'attitude adjustment' and 'guarded optimism' angles. (Chris Brown, a man I respect, is always good for a play on words.)  But is the line really better?  Clearly, if you're listening to Joyner, they can't be much worse than they were last season - so that's something to hang your hat on for the time being.

All we know at this point in time is this - Buffalo needed to make changes to their offensive line.  Some of the moves were good moves; some others were probably not at the top of the Bills' 'To Do' list.  Either way, the change has been made - credit the Bills for having the guts to drastically alter their look.  But change doesn't always provide immediate improvement, which is precisely why folks are still clamoring for further improvements to our revamped front.  Like the signing of T.O., this is another gamble for the Bills.  Which camp are you in - the 'we can't get any worse' camp, or the 'we're not better until we're better' camp?