Although an American Football team can only have 11 players on the field at one time, with unlimited substitutions permitted, the entire shape of the team necessarily changes when on the attack at professional and even college level. This fact distinguishes American Football from many other sports, but the essential aim of the offensive line is the same as any sport – to break through the defense and score (in this case, with a touchdown or a field goal).
Basics of the offensive line
The offensive line comes into play when the team gains possession of the ball. In order to initiate attacks, the attacking players position themselves on the line of scrimmage, delivers the ball to the quarterback, who then dictates the play. The physical nature of the game means that, to the uneducated eye, chaos ensues once the ball is live. To a certain extent, this is true, but there are at least nominal positions on the offensive line, with players delegated particular duties to improve the chances of a successful attack:
- Centre (C) – Unsurprisingly right in the centre of the offensive line, the Centre acts as a blocker much like everyone facing the defensive line. However, he is also the ‘snapper’, delivering the ball to the quarterback after the play has been called.
- Offensive Guard (OG) – Flanking the Centre, the Offensive Guards are tasked with protecting the quarterback by blocking the defensive linesmen and countering any attempted blitz plays. Both the OGs and the Centre rarely carry the ball, except in the unplanned instance of a fumble.
- Offensive Tackle (OT) – In turn, the Offensive Tackles are situated on either side of the OGs. Their role is also to guard against blitz plays and generally protect the quarterback. The OT positioned on the blindside of the quarterback needs to be particularly vigilant of running plays, and is typically the more athletic of the two.
- Tight End/Split End (TE/SE) – Varying in number, the Tight End can be found alongside the OTs and provide the dual role of tackler and receiver, depending on how the play transpires. The distinction between a Tight End and a Split End revolves around this, with the latter moving away from a tackle and providing an outlet.
- Wide Receiver (WR) – Located on the wings near the touchlines, the Wide Receivers are the major outlets for the quarterbacks. They require pace, athleticism and the ability to find space, running pass routes to evade markers and give the quarterback an option. He is also of inherent worth by occupying at least two of the defensive line, thus reducing the potential pressure on the quarterback (in theory!). There is a subtle distinction in WRs, with the ‘speed receiver’ going deep while the ‘possession receiver’ is more able to run with the ball.
- Fullback (FB) – Situated behind the quarterback, the Fullback is a jack of all trades, being capable of running with the ball, blocking and receiving. The position has fallen somewhat out of favour in recent years though.
- Running Back (RB) – Generally the quickest members on the offensive line alongside the Wide Receivers, the Running Back (formerly the Halfback) gives the quarterback another option in distribution. Naturally athletic, they receive the ball short and look for holes in the defense, evading tackles whenever possible. Because of the risks, however, power is also a major attribute for a Running Back.
- Quarterback (QB) – Although the modern game has seen the coach and offensive coordinator become even more integral in planning the play, the quarterback remains the kingpin in the offensive line. Requiring immense accuracy and arm power, as well as tactical nous and versatility, the successful outcome of an attack depends on the skills of the quarterback.
While these positions give you a sense of a rudimentary offensive line with the key constituent parts, there are a whole host of other positions which may come into play. Moreover, the number of linemen and the like will necessarily depend on the particular moment in the game, as well as the defense the offensive line is facing.
Famous offensive line players
- Joe Montana – Quarterback (San Francisco 49ers, 1979-94, Kansas City Chiefs, 1993-94)
- Dan Marino – Quarterback (Miami Dolphins, 1983-99)
- Jerry Rice – Wide Receiver (San Francisco 49ers, 1985-2000, Oakland Raiders, 2001-04, Seattle Seahawks, 2004, Denver Broncos, 2005)
- Michael Irvin – Wide Receiver (Dallas Cowboys, 1988-99)
- Emmitt Smith – Running Back (Dallas Cowboys, 1990-2002, Arizona Cardinals, 2003-04)
- Walter Payton – Running Back (Chicago Bears, 1975-87)
- Lorenzo Neal – Fullback (New Orleans Saints, 1993-96, New York Jets, 1997, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 1998, Tennessee Titans, 1999-2000, Cincinnati Bengals, 2001-02, San Diego Chargers, 2003-)
- Antonio Gates – Tight End (San Diego Chargers, 2003-)