Best-All Time Professional Football Offensive Line

The electric passing games and even the spectacular runs you witness in NFL football games are great fun to watch, but before they can get started, the tablecloth is laid down and the silverware put in place by the huge guys bunched in the middle of your TV screen - the offensive lineman.

A quarterback can't pass and eat turf at the same time, and running backs almost always need an opening, so before the highlight-reel stuff can start, the five guys up front need to stop whatever the defense is throwing in their way. There have been a lot of great offensive lines - the power sweep experts of the 1960's Packers; the Electric Company of the 1970's Buffalo Bills, behind which O.J. ran; the mammoth Dallas Cowboys line of the 1990's that graded the road which Emmit Smith ran to an NFL record for rushing yards. But for my money, the top O-line ever played for the 1971-1973 Oakland Raiders.

Let's look at the players on that line: Left Tackle: Art Shell-Hall-of-Famer; Left Guard: Gene Upshaw- Hall-of-Famer; Center: Jim Otto-Hall-of-Famer; Right Tackle: Bob Brown- Hall-of-Famer. Four out of five positions on the line were manned by Hall-of-Famers. There may be a higher percentage of Hall-of-Famers on an offensive line, but I'm not aware of it.

Shell had good size and strength as well as agility and intelligence. Coach John Madden recalled that Shell would frequently drop by his office after practices and games and quiz the coach on the strategies that were used, always thinking, always preparing himself. Great pro players come up big in big games, and in Super Bowl XI, playing against the Minnesota Vikings All-Pro defensive end Jim Marshall, Shell had a near-perfect game. Left tackles are usually thought of as pass-blockers, but Art Shell was powerful enough in run-blocking that the Raiders frequently ran to his side, typically the weak side, where he teamed with Gene Upshaw to plow open running lanes.

Gene Upshaw was captain of the Raiders offense for eight seasons, not easy to do, considering the independent personalities that made up the Raiders of the 1970s. Upshaw was huge for a guard at 6-5 and 255 lbs, but fast and athletic enough to pull and lead wide running plays from his left guard spot. He was also durable, playing in 207 straight games. Tougher than nails, center Jim Otto was his equal in durability, playing for 15 years. At center, it was Otto's responsibility to make all the line calls, and at the end of one season, one Raider's coach said that during the entire season, Otto had made the wrong call only four times.

"About as subtle as a sixteen-pound sledgehammer" is how right tackle Bob Brown described himself. Run or pass, his philosophy was the same: explode into defenders and beat on them on every snap. Brown wanted to pummel defensive players and wear them down. As one coach said, "to do what Brown does requires great quickness, great strength, and great self-confidence. Few men have such a combination of assets. Bob Brown does."The individual attributes are great to read about, but the proof is in the offensive production. In both 1971 and 1972, the Raiders offense were ranked third in the league in points scored. In 1973, they dropped to tenth in the league in points, despite being third in the league in total yards.

In rushing, in 1971, the Raiders were ranked fourth in the league in yards per attempt; in 1972, they were third in total yards, and fourth in yards per attempt; in 1973, fourth in yards, and third in yards per attempt. This demonstrates consistent excellence, particulary when you consider that the running backs they were blocking for - Marv Hubbard, Clarence Smith, and Clarence Davis- were capable, but hardly world-beating playmakers. But the line was not just productive running the ball. In both 1971 and 1972, the line gave up but 24 sacks in a 14-game season.

Durability, smarts, athleticism and maybe most of all, toughness - this line had it all. The Oakland Raiders 1971 - 1973 offensive line is my choice for best offensive line in professional football history.

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