Roll call for Sunday’s NFL conference championship games includes a Brady, a Manning and a “Hail Larry.” A Superman. A Batman. And, of course, Captain America.
All of them are NFL superheroes still in pursuit of Super Bowl 50. None of them will play guard, center or tackle when New England visits Denver in the AFC and Arizona travels to Carolina in the NFC.
Yes, it’s a star-driven league. A quarterback league. But as any Vikings fan will tell you, it’s not a quarterback-running-for-his-life league. So let’s pay some attention to the strengths and weaknesses of the big fellas up front.
Two days after falling two steps short of this round, the Vikings forecast the next step in their evolution when coach Mike Zimmer fired offensive line coach Jeff Davidson. As further significant changes come, fans should take comfort in the job Zimmer and General Manager Rick Spielman did two years ago when they set their minds on overhauling the defensive line.
A look at the conference finalists shows the bar isn’t collectively high for offensive line play. The quarterbacks, particularly four-time Super Bowl champion Tom Brady, have helped erase considerable blemishes in front of them with experience, precision, excellent game plans and astute play-calling designed to negate blood-sniffing pass rushers.
Of the four teams left, the Patriots have the lowest-ranked offensive line, according to Pro Football Focus (PFF). They ranked 25th overall and 31st in pass protection.
In Denver, Peyton Manning’s 18 years of experience were thwarted to some degree by a change in systems, the preseason loss of left tackle Ryan Clady and a makeshift line that saw eight Broncos play at least 100 snaps. Try and remember that the next time you’re wondering, “What’s wrong with Peyton?”
The five linemen who started for the Broncos last weekend averaged fewer than two years in their current stints. Two of them were street free agents in their 30s when they signed this season.
Drafting the right offensive linemen in the first round always helps. But a look at Sunday's title games shows it’s not necessary to get this far.
Out of 20 starters, only nine were drafted by their current team. Of those nine, none was taken in the first round by their current team. Two were second-rounders.
According to PFF and the eyeballs of people who watch football more than they tweet football, Carolina has the best offensive line of the four conference finalists. The Panthers rank second overall (fourth passing, sixth rushing). The Cardinals rank 17th (28th passing, fourth rushing), while Denver ranks 20th (23rd passing, 21st rushing).
Carolina is particularly strong at the interior positions with 2014 third-round pick Trai Turner at right guard, 2007 second-round pick Ryan Kalil at center and second-year undrafted player Andrew Norwell at left guard. Turner might be the best lineman still playing, which shows you the value that can be found beyond the 64th selection.
But sometimes a position can’t be filled by a draft pick. In Carolina’s case, right tackle Mike Remmers has started every game this year after being signed off the Rams’ practice squad. If the name sounds familiar, it’s because Remmers spent the last month and a half of the 2013 season with the Vikings, although he didn’t play.
Three of the 20 offensive line starters Sunday were signed as undrafted rookies by their current teams. One of them is Arizona nine-year center Lyle Sendlein. He was born in Edina, making him the secret third Minnesota-born Cardinal behind “Hail Larry” Fitzgerald Jr. and Michael Floyd.
Sendlein didn’t spend much time here though. His dad, former Vikings linebacker Robin Sendlein, was drafted in the second round in 1981 and played his last season here in 1984, the year Lyle was born.
No, Lyle isn’t Superman (Cam Newton). Or Batman (Josh Norman). Or Captain America (Luke Kuechly). But you can bet he and his unheralded peers will have their say as well Sunday.