By Simon Jolly
Apparently, the Oakland Raiders have the heaviest offensive line in football. At an average of nearly 327 lbs a man (just north of 148kg, or 23 and a half stone in old money), the Raiders’ starting linemen carry more heft than any of the other 31 NFL teams. Add in Menelik Watson as an auxiliary tight end, as the Raiders frequently do, and it adds up to some serious blocking muscle.
The Raiders’ starting centre, Stefen Wisniewski, laughs when it’s pointed out that he’s the ‘small’ one of this group. “I certainly don’t look big next to those guys”, he told me in the locker room after the Raiders 38-14 loss to Miami on Sunday. “I used to think I was pretty big in college.”
Wisniewski is a sizeable man from a family of sizeable men: his uncle Steve also played for the Raiders for many years, as well as being an enthusiastic practitioner of what any rugby prop forward would refer to as ‘the dark arts’.
Stefen, at 6’3″ and 307lbs, is almost identical in size to his uncle, yet gives away some 15lbs to the next ‘smallest’ player on the Raiders’ line, tackle Khalif Barnes.
Centres, of course, tend to be the smallest players on the offensive line and in that sense Wisniewski isn’t abnormal.
Mark Stepnoski anchored the great Dallas Cowboys’ line of the early 90’s and at 265lbs was some 50lbs lighter than the behemoths that surrounded him. But when a man the size of Wisniewski is aware he’s being made to look small by those around him, you know you’re dealing with something out of the ordinary, even by pro football’s inflated standards.
However, the Raiders’ 0-3 record coming in to their ‘home’ matchup at London’s Wembley Stadium – the first of the NFL’s three-game International Series of 2014 – would suggest that size isn’t everything.
And so it proved as the Dolphins extended the Raiders’ losing streak in 2014 to four games, coming away with that 38-14 win. While the size of NFL players – and the steady increase year-on-year[*] – has been oft-remarked upon, simply being large in and of itself is neither outrageous nor particularly useful.
By the age of 22 American Jon Browner Minnoch, the heaviest human being ever recorded, was some 50lbs heavier than Oakland tackle Donald Penn, the largest man on the Raiders’ roster. And while Minnoch required specially modified industrial haulage merely to get out of bed as his weight soared towards 100 stone, being difficult to shift isn’t the only requirement of a good offensive lineman: one suspects Minnoch’s pass blocking left something to be desired and he died prematurely at 41.
In fact, while the size of an NFL lineman may be eye catching while they’re standing still, it quickly becomes evident that it is their speed that marks the best ones out as superhuman.
Or, more importantly, the speed with which all that bulk can be coaxed into action. It is one of the main reasons to take the opportunity at least once to see a game live: for while the game on television is eye-catching, in the flesh the speed with which the game is played is startling. And in particular, the speed of the play at the line, when the heaviest – and supposedly slowest – players do battle every down over the hardest of yards.
As rapidly as the offensive line can open a hole for a running back, the defensive line will close it.
It usually takes no more than two seconds for the ball to be snapped, the offensive line to open a hole for the running back, the running back to hit that hole and the defence to close it again, ruining all that hard and fast work by the O-line.
A quarterback who holds onto the ball in the pocket for more than four seconds will normally find himself in serious trouble: about the same amount of time that it takes someone sitting watching a game to draw breath.
It is for this reason that NFL coaches will take a chance on freakish physical specimens who may be, to put it kindly, “raw”, such as the Brits – the 49ers’ Lawrence Okoye or the unfortunate Lorn Mayers who was on the cusp of the Raiders before visa complications saw him return to Europe and a subsequent nightclub shooting incident in London ended his fledgling career.
Skills can always be taught to a willing and able student. Instincts can be honed through countless practice repetitions.
But without the basic gifts of good genetics, that preternatural combination of size, speed and power, a player is unlikely to possess the natural attributes that coaches look to build upon.
Of course, those players who have these outlandish physical gifts allied to the intelligence and unyielding work ethic are the most prized, which explains the attention lavished on Houston’s Jadeveon Clowney. Clowney’s combination of size of and speed is freakish even amongst the outliers of the NFL.
The point, of course, is that size alone will only get you so far.
It is harnessing that size that becomes the key. And unfortunately, on Sunday’s showing, it seems the Raiders are still someway off from turning league-leading size into league-leading performance.
[*] A.R. Anzell, J.A. Potteiger, W.J. Kraemer and S. Otieno, “Changes in Height, Body Weight, and Body Composition in American Football Players From 1942 to 2011”, Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. 27(2):277-284, February 2013.