The End Zone: Is It A Quarterback’s Fault If He Keeps Getting Sacked?

The big story of Monday Night Football was, of course, the tale of butt fumble redemption: Mark Sanchez’s first start in almost two years, this time as the Philadelphia Eagles quarterback, as they dominated the Carolina Panthers 45-21. The second most talked about story? Just how bad Panthers quarterback Cam Newton looked in this game – as he has most of the season – after being sacked a record nine times. But while win-loss records are hard to argue against, if we’re really looking at Newton’s viability as a starting QB, there’s a bigger factor consider here: the unbearable lightness of the Panthers’ offensive line.

For someone like me who loves offensive shootouts with quarterbacks letting passes fly faster than insults in a Meryl Streep-Julia Roberts movie, it’s easy to forget how important an offensive line is. Defenses get lauded (the fact that “defense wins championships” is basically a truism, despite having no statistical proof, is the bane of my data-loving existence), quarterbacks are gods, and receivers get the joy of a good touchdown dance. But offensive lines? All guts, incredibly little glory.

As Sandra Bullock (and author Michael Lewis) taught us all in “The Blind Side,” the left tackle, the offensive lineman specifically tasked with defending a right-handed quarterback from the portion of the opposing team’s defensive line residing in his blind spot, is one of the highest-paid and most underrated positions in all of football. While current Tennessee Titans’ left tackle Michael Oher’s story (with the help of Sandra Bullock in a blonde wig) did help highlight the thankless importance of great offensive players, it’s still easy to forget how important they are. Until your quarterback gets sacked almost 10 times in one game. Then maybe we start thinking a little more about what offensive lines can, and more importantly, should be doing.

Newton is a great quarterback (albeit a banged up one, having sat out Week 1 with a fractured rib and off-season ankle injury), but the Panthers’ bigger weakness has been one that doesn’t grab front page headlines: the hole left by the retirement of 10-year Panthers’ left tackle vet, Jordan Gross, at the end of the 2013-2014 season.  The Panthers have been left short-handed since. Three of their left-side guards who returned this season sat out the entire 2013-2014 season after suffering season-ending injuries early on. They returned similarly banged up, and have had injury-laden seasons this year too.

As Panthers coach Ron Rivera told reporters earlier this week, just days before the Monday Night Football massacre, “First of all, we got to increase the age of our offensive line by having guys back on the field. You get an opportunity to build that cohesiveness again. We’ve used different offensive lines almost the entire season. It would be nice to settle in and have a group play together for a while.’’

Rivera’s premonition rang more than true after the Eagles pulled out an early lead over the Panthers on Monday. Newton’s three interceptions didn’t help, but if you’re hobbling your way through nine sacks, you’d probably throw a bunch of misfires under pressure too. Eagles linebacker Connor Barwin had monster stops throughout the game, especially given the relative ease with which he tore through Panthers’ weakened offensive line. When questioned about why he didn’t pull Newton, especially given his frailty in the game and the Panthers’ plan to keep him as their franchise quarterback, Rivera offered a different take – one that put the blame back on Newton. “I thought Cam needed to get a rhythm going. I’m not looking for short-term fixes. I’m looking for the long term, for the long haul. And if he’s going to be our quarterback, he’s got to work himself through these things. And that’s what I’m looking for.”

So where does that leave the battle of blame for an offense that just can’t pull it together? While I’m not suggesting a million tiny violins come out and play for poor Newton (Rivera’s not entirely wrong, after all – plenty of teams do well even with weak offenses), in the chicken versus egg debate of steady offensive lines against quarterbacks who remain steady under pressure, I fall on the side of the same sort of logic that helped the “defense wins championships” trope rise in rank: there’s no way to make your big point-grabbing offensive plays if you don’t have guards at the gate to stop your opponents on every snap.

The End Zone, The Frisky’s weekly football column by Beejoli Shah, is sponsored by Smirnoff Ice. Smirnoff Ice is not a sponsor of the NFL.