Sometimes, as fans, we get exactly what we want.
I mean, it usually doesn't happen. Usually fans go red in the face screaming for a certain player to start / sit or get the ball more / less without anything happening. Every year we have fan favorites sitting on the bench while starters who are largely detested as players continue to line up every Sunday.
But every now and then, the exact thing fans have been calling for actually occurs and the entire fan base celebrates.
All too often when that happens, it turns out that what we wanted wasn't as good as we thought it was going to be. Remember "ABC" (Anyone But Cassel)? We were CONVINCED as fans that any quarterback could jump in and be an improvement. Then a few Tyler Palko starts later we were all "Ohhhhhh, OK, it does in fact get worse."
Well, Sunday, the fan base got exactly what it wanted, with Mike McGlynn replaced at left guard. His replacement was Jeff Linkenbach, a player fans have been very lukewarm on (to put it mildly), but that didn't matter to us. All that mattered is there was someone else in the spot.
Let me just take a moment here to acknowledge something; Mike McGlynn is probably a perfectly nice guy. He is also one of the 500 best offensive linemen on the planet. I'm just some guy who watches film and has talked to people who know football. Any time I criticize a player it feels a bit disingenuous, to be honest. So Mike, or anyone who knows Mike, the next paragraph isn't personal.
Mike McGlynn was playing left guard as badly as I've ever seen it played. I mean, it was BRUTAL, especially as of late. Andy Reid's quotes on McGlynn make it look as though he was battling injury, so that could well have been part of it. But there's a reason "McSpin" had become his common nickname in the comments section. His pass protection in particular had been ... well, you were all watching the games.
I have a theory on offensive line play. Call it the "zombie fence theory." Let's say you're in the middle of a zombie apocalypse. You don't need a five-foot-thick and 20-foot-high concrete wall to keep you safe. Against ordinary groups of zombies (say, anything under 40 or so) you can make due with a chain-link fence. It'll hold them off long enough for you to prepare your defenses and smash some skulls before things get out of hand. The one thing you can't have is a hole in the fence where they can just walk through.
(Are you as excited as I am about a zombie analogy? I didn't think so)
The o-line is a lot like that. Against normal defenses (and even good defenses) you don't need an all-world group on the line. In fact, I'd submit that you don't need a single "star" on the offensive line to have an elite offense. And yes, I'm even including left tackle there.
Here's the key to an offensive line that'll allow your offense to flourish: no weak spots. No significant holes. Nowhere a zombie pack (in this case, an NFL defense) can focus all its energy and overwhelm you regardless of what else is going on along the fence (the rest of the line. See? SEE? It holds up! The analogy holds up! I should really quit while I'm still ahead).
In the NFL, coaches spend hours poring over the tape. If you've got a spot on your offensive line that is a big, glaring weak spot, they're going to attack it over and over and over until you prove you've fixed it. Attempts to compensate for that weak spot lead to problems elsewhere (we've all seen Eric Fisher and Rodney Hudson try desperately to cover missed blocks this season), and the whole thing creates a ripple effect.
A glaring weakness on the line makes everything harder. More players have to stay in and help block in pass pro, leaving fewer receivers on the field against more defenders (since they don't need to blitz to get to your QB). The seconds a QB has to make reads dwindles, limiting the play calling. Which makes your offense more predictable, which allows defenses to tee off on short routes, which makes it harder to get rid of the ball ... and on it goes in a cycle of "blech."
All of this is a long way of saying the Chiefs have been really, really, really hurt by the left guard play this season. There are problems elsewhere on offense (plenty of them, in fact), but left guard has been the worst position on the field by far. It's rare that terrible play by one o-lineman can have a truly devastating effect, but in this case it was on multiple plays a game. Which brings us to Sunday and Chiefs fans finally getting their wish.
Jeff Linkenbach was a "surprise" starter Sunday (the announcer's words) and Chiefs fans rejoiced. People were ready to move on and see how anyone else would do, even a player who had struggled mightily in the preseason (which Linkenbach definitely did).
So ... what were the results? As I thoroughly explained with a kinda inappropriate story about my childhood involving an electric fence, I'm not someone who can just watch the broadcast and say, "Eh, I think X happened." I have to go back and re-watch. And since you've got a serious enough football addiction to be here on Arrowhead Pride reading my legendarily-overly-wordy stuff, you'll be taking the trip through Linkenbach's snaps with me.
I'm not going to do a snap-by-snap like I've done in the past, because work (and wife, and kids). Instead, let's look for what we've been talking about today; holes in the fence. How many plays did Linkenbach miss his block or get beaten to the extent that it directly impacted the play? How does it stack up against plays he did his job? Because again, what we're looking for here isn't a concrete wall. We just want to see that hole in the fence mended.
(Here's the usual caveat; without knowing the play calls and assignments, film study of o-line is guesswork. I can THINK I know what I'm seeing, but that doesn't mean that's what actually happened. We do the best we can, but anyone who claims to know for sure what every play was supposed to be is, quite frankly, full of it.)
For purposes of this column, I'm only taking "stats" on pass protection plays. I'll give an overall impression of Link's run blocking, but I'm most curious about the pass pro, as that's where the "fence" analogy most applies (you can always run away from the weak link in the fence, or at the other side of the line. See? This analogy will never stop holding up).
I worked my way through Link's pass protection snaps, excluding screens. I ended up charting 38 plays.
Of those 38 plays, Link was matched up one-on-one with a pass rusher 22 times. He was part of a double team 13 times, and three times he was left blocking air.
The main thing I was looking for were plays where Link was an obvious weakness that caused the play to break down. If you include his holding penalty, there were four such plays for Link out of 38.
In the first, a blitzer went right through his area as he moved to help Fisher. Now, without knowing the call it's impossible to say for SURE it was Link's fault, but it certainly appears that way on the tape. It resulted in VERY quick pressure on Smith.
The second such "hole in the fence" play was the aforementioned holding penalty. There's not much there. Link got beat and held his guy. Pretty standard o-line hold that would go uncalled some of the time, but blatant enough to be a called a poor play.
Of the final two plays, only one ACTUALLY hurt the offense, when Link was beat by a bull rush and allowed quick pressure. The other poor play Link was again beaten by a bull rush after a couple seconds, but managed to pull the defender down without a holding call. Because I'm trying to be a harsh grader, I'm calling that a "hole in the fence" play even though no zombies technically got through.
Overall Link looked decent in pass protection. Not like a star, or really close, but decent. He's got more athleticism than McGlynn and was able to recover a couple of times when he got beat off the line. That was one major difference I noted between the two. When McGlynn was beat initially, it was over.
One stat I kept track of was number of snaps Link individually (and as part of a double team) held of a defender for over three seconds. Three seconds is the magic number for me. If an o-lineman has kept a defender from pressuring the QB for three full seconds, he's done his job. Note I'm not saying "kept the defender from sacking the QB." I mean keeping the QB from having to worry about the defender and providing room for a throw to be made.
Link had 14 such plays on Sunday, seven of them coming when he was blocking a defender on his own. Now I know what you're thinking. "MN, if Link only passed your magic number 14 times how are you able to say he looked decent?"
The answer is pretty simple; on the remaining plays the ball was released before the three second mark. On eight plays I charted the ball came out almost immediately. On the remaining plays (16, if you're counting) the ball was out or Smith was scrambling somewhere between one and three seconds.
The biggest difference I observed against the Raiders (as opposed to several weeks ago) was the number of plays Smith had time to sit back and survey the field. Smith threw the ball down the field more than we'd seen in most games this season, and there's a reason for that.
Here's Smith about to deliver a 40-yard pass to Albert Wilson (who really should get to keep starting opposite Dwayne Bowe)
Link has his guy locked down and is part of a very large pocket for Alex Smith to step up and deliver the ball. That kind of protection is generally a must if a team wants to deliver the ball down the field on the type of route Albert Wilson ran that particular play (a longer-developing post route). Smith and the WRs haven't had the luxury of that kind of time lately.
Here's another screenshot of Smith about to deliver a pass, this one an intermediate throw to Travis Kelce.
Smith had held the ball for over three seconds here. While pressure is about to come from elsewhere, Link has once against stonewalled an individual defender far from Smith.
Here's an example of a play where things could have gone wrong, but didn't (though it ended in an incomplete pass).
Here, Smith ended up throwing the pass deep to Dwayne Bowe down the left side, and it fell incomplete. While Link has given up some ground, he'd re-anchored and held off the defender for over three seconds. Smith was still able to step into the throw (though he didn't really step into it as much as I would've liked, which could be why the ball sailed a little too far out of bounds).
Once again, a deeper route that needed time to develop was able to ripen (that can't possibly be a term people actually use. But I like the sound of it, and will therefore use it. Your traditions and terminology don't scare me, football!) because of a solid (if unspectacular) job by Linkenbach.
I could post multiple other screenshots showing the same thing, but I think you get the picture. While Link wasn't a superstar out there, he was solid enough in his pass pro to prevent the defense from swarming Smith. And that bit of improvement directly contributed to more shots down the field.
Link wasn't impressive as a run blocker, which is unfortunate. He lacks McGlynn's "pop" and doesn't seem capable of really moving defenders. He just doesn't seem to play with as much aggression (at least noticeable aggression) in that area. However, he did make a few good pulling blocks and showed some ability to move in space. Basically, in that area he's exactly what you'd expect compared to McGlynn; not as strong, but moves better when asked to run instead of maul. He got moved around way too much for me to be comfortable with him as part of a strong rushing attack ... IF that attack didn't feature the best running back in the league. Fortunately, the Chiefs does.
I fully expect Link to continue to start this next Sunday. He isn't a star, and he may not even be an average player at this point. However, he showed the ability to avoid being the weak ... link. And for this offense, for one game, that was enough to really help.
And yes, I'd saved that awful "weak link" joke just for the end. I blame you for reading this far.
Here's hoping Link is able to provide adequate play at LG moving forward. It could genuinely be a major factor in whether the Chiefs make the playoffs and how much noise they make once they get there.