Home » Best of » Introducing the “Three Studs on the O-line” rule.

Introducing the “Three Studs on the O-line” rule.


No running back ever ran behind better blocking.

Emmitt Smith’s 164 rushing TDs are the most in NFL history.  His 175 TDs are second only to Jerry Rice’s 208.  (Smith’s eleven receiving TDs in 15 years says something unkind about his versatility but we don’t intend to go there.)

He also brought the NFL’s most classless touchdown celebration to all 175:

After every touchdown, Smith trotted behind the Cowboys bench and carefully tucked the touchdown football into a secured locker.

Dale Hansen.
The last honest Cowboys announcer.

From Jeff Pearlman’s Boys Will Be Boys (p. 227):

“Emmitt would score a touchdown from the two-yard-line, keep the football, and sell it at his souvenir shop back home in Pensacola,” says Dale Hansen, the Cowboys radio announcer.  “I thought it was both odd and selfish.”

Me too Dale.  Me too.  Glad I wasn’t the only one.

I always thought he should give the ball to Larry Allen.  Mark Tuinei.  Nate Newton.  Jay Novacek.  Mark Stepnoski.  Erik Williams.  Moose Johnston.  Ray Donaldson.  Flozell Adams.  Andre Gurode.  Hell, add Michael Irvin to the list, he was a great blocking WR.

Screen Shot 2013-02-15 at 8.05.47 PM

A link to pro-football ass-hattery, yours for $800+.

All of these blockers in front of Smith went to multiple pro-bowls, many all-pros, and Larry Allen is now in the Hall of Fame.

They’re why Emmitt Smith gets to append his signature with ‘HOF.’

It was painfully obvious just through the eye-ball test that Emmitt Smith was the beneficiary of one of the greatest offensive fronts ever assembled.  But his 175 incidents of douche-baggery prompted me to dig in and prove this thesis:  Emmitt Smith is the least special running back in the HOF and owes all to his offensive line.

[Here’s the link to HOF by position and by my gut take, in the RB group, I think it’s Smith and Thurman Thomas in the, ‘Really?’ category.]

After looking at the Cowboys’ impressive o-line, I started looking for other great lines with a view toward seeing whether other running backs benefitted as magnificently.  I didn’t find that.  But I did notice that great offensive lines were, generally, attached to a dynastic team.

That led me to a greater thesis which I first shared with Frowns in an email a couple years back:

“If you find a team with 3 probowl OLs, they’re pretty much in the SB; probably a dynasty.  The 90s boys were incredibly stacked.  ALL FIVE on the line plus TE and FB.  (This is why i never dug Emmitt Smith’s act.)”

To put a finer point on it, the postulate being proposed is this:

If you assemble an offensive line with three or more pro-bowlers, you’re likely going to a Super Bowl and probably more than one.

Or, more safely:

A great offensive line is an excellent indicator that you have a playoff team.


Of the sixteen greatest Super Bowl era teams, fifteen had great offensive lines.
In the data below, we find sixteen great teams.  All of them were in at least one Super Bowl.  All of them had a win-loss percentage over .700.  Most won multiple Super Bowls.  Only one of these teams did not have three all-pro linemen.

Of the twenty-three teams with great offensive lines, seventeen went to Super Bowl.
We found five six teams (so far) with great offensive lines who did not get to a Super Bowl.  However all made the playoffs; all were very good.  The worst of the bunch were the Vermeil Chiefs (tops in total offense two years in a row) and the Mangold Jets (won four playoff games).


If the worst that can happen is becoming the 2008-2010 Jets with their 4-2 playoff record… and if the price of great/dynastic team-building is a great offensive line… doesn’t it become a no-brainer to invest in your offensive line?

For our purposes:  great offensive line means three or more pro-bowlers.  We track any outstanding Tight Ends and Fullbacks, but the 3-stud rule applies to the linemen only.

Here comes the data.


The great teams, the dynasties, and their offensive fronts.

Robert Brown and Forrest Gregg HOF.

1.  Lombardi Packers.  Two Super Bowl wins in 66-67.  Won the 1965 NFL Championship (over the Browns).
Forrest Gregg HOF, all-pro x7; Jerry Kramer, all-pro x5, Bob Skoronski, all-pro; Fuzzy Thurston, all-pro; Bill Curry, pro-bowl x2; Carroll Dale, pro-bowl x3; Jim Taylor HOF; Gale Gillingham all-pro x2.


2.  Early 70s Dolphins.  Three consecutive Super Bowls, 71-73; SB wins in 72-73.  36-5-1 in that span.
Larry Little HOF, all-pro x5; Norm Evans, pro-bowl x2; Bob DeMarco, all-pro x2; Bob Kuechenberg, all-pro, pro-bowl x6; Larry Csonka HOF; Jim Langer HOF, all-pro x4.


3.  Bradshaw Steelers.  Super Bowl wins in 74-75, and 78-79.
Mike Webster HOF, all-pro x5;  Franco Harris HOF.
This team is the outlier.  The 70s Steelers are the only team that breaks the model.  (Kolb and Mullins never made a pro-bowl.. weird.)  (Thinking more about this, I suspect Steeler-fatigue set in among the Pro Bowl voters.  I mean.  The 78 Steelers had TEN Pro Bowlers:  Bradshaw, Harris, Swann, Webster, Greenwood, Greene, Ham, Lambert, Blount, Shell.  They gotta draw the line somewhere.  Sorry Jon Kolb and Gerry Mullins and Ray Pinney.)


Rayfield Wright HOF and Burton Lawless.

4.  Staubach Cowboys.  SB wins in 71, 77; SB losses in 75, 78.
Rayfield Wright HOF, all-pro x3; Blaine Nye pro-bowl x2; John Niland all-pro x2, pro-bowl x6; Ralph Neely, all-pro x3; Herbert Scott, all-pro x2; Billy Joe DuPree, pro-bowl x3; Pat Donovan, pro-bowl x4.


5.  Tarkenton Vikings.  Lost three SBs, 73, 74, 76.  From 73-76, Vikings were 45-10-1 (.820).  It’s too bad this line and the non-Gary-Cuozzo QB wasn’t in place during the prime years of the Purple People Eaters (my pick as best front four ever).
Ron Yary HOF all-pro x6; Mick Tingelhoff, all-pro x6; Ed White, pro-bowl x4; Grady Alderman, all-pro, pro-bowl x6.



Rich Saul, MSU.

6.  70s Rams.  Lost 79 SB.  From 73-80, Rams were 84-31 (.730).
Jackie Slater HOF; Dennis Harrah, all-pro, pro-bowl x6; Rich Saul, pro-bowl x6; Kent Hill, pro-bowl x5; Doug France, pro-bowl x2; Tom Mack HOF; Doug Smith, pro-bowl x6.


7.  Madden Raiders.  SB win in 76.  47-9 (.839) from 74-77.
Jim Otto HOF, all-pro x10; Art Shell HOF all-pro x2;  Gene Upshaw HOF, all-pro x5; Dave Casper HOF, all-pro x4.

Upshaw and Shell.


8.  Montana Niners.  SB wins in 81, 84, 88, 89.
Keith Fahnhorst, all-pro; Randy Cross, pro-bowl x3; Fred Quillan, pro-bowl x2; Charlie Young, all-pro, pro-bowl x3; Russ Francis, pro-bowl x3; Jesse Sapolu, pro-bowl x2; Harris Barton, all-pro x2; Guy McIntyre, pro-bowl x5; Brent Jones, pro-bowl x4.


9.  Theisman Redskins.  SB wins in 82, 87.  SB loss in 83.  66-22 (.750).
Russ Grimm HOF, all-pro x3; Joe Jacoby, all-pro x2, pro-bowl x4; Mark May, pro-bowl; Jeff Bostic, pro-bowl; R.C. Thielemann, all-pro, pro-bowl x3.


10.  Simms Giants.  SB wins in 86, 90.  55-24 (.696).
Bart Oates, pro-bowl x5; Brad Benson, pro-bowl; Jumbo Elliot, pro-bowl; William Roberts, pro-bowl; Mark Bavaro, all-pro x2;


11.  90s Bills.  Four straight SBs, 90-93.  All losses.  49-15 (.766).
Kent Hull, all-pro x2, pro-bowl x3; Howard Ballard, pro-bowl x2; Jim Ritcher, pro-bowl x2; Will Wilford, pro-bowl x3.

Larry Allen.


12.  90s Cowboys.  SB wins in 92, 93, 95.
Larry Allen HOF, all-pro x6, pro-bowl x11; Erik Williams, all-pro x2, pro-bowl x4; Mark Stepnoski, pro-bowl x5; Nate Newton, all-pro x2, pro-bowl x6; Mark Tuinei, pro-bowl x2; Jay Novacek, all-pro, pro-bowl x5; Daryl Johnston, pro-bowl x2; Ray Donaldson, pro-bowl x6.


13.  Young Niners.  SB win in 94.  From 92-97, 73-23 (.760).
Steve Wallace, pro-bowl; Jesse Sapolu, pro-bowl x2; Harris Barton, all-pro x2; Guy McIntyre, pro-bowl x5; Brent Jones, pro-bowl x4; Roy Foster, pro-bowl x2; Ray Brown, pro-bowl; Kevin Gogan, pro-bowl x3.


Mankins and Light.
Pats’ left guard and tackle from 2006-2011.

14.  Late 90s Broncos.  Two SB wins 97, 98.  From 96-98, 39-9 (.813).
Gary Zimmerman HOF, all-pro x3; Shannon Sharpe HOF, all-pro x4; Tom Nalen, all-pro x2, pro-bowl x5; Mark Schlereth, pro-bowl x2; Tony Jones, pro-bowl.


15.  Brady Pats.  Five SBs; three wins, 01, 03, 04; two losses 07, 11.  From 01-12, 146-46 (.760).
Matt Light, all-pro, pro-bowl x3; Damien Woody, pro-bowl; Dan Koppen, pro-bowl; Logan Mankins, all-pro, pro-bowl x5; Brian Waters (old), all-pro x2, pro-bowl x6.


16.  Manning Giants.  SB wins in 07, 11.
We’ll allow that this is the sketchiest ‘great’ o-line among the 16.  But we’ve already covered that these Giants’ SB wins were due to great defensive front fours which held Brady’s Pats 17 points under their season averages.
Chris Snee, all-pro, pro-bowl x4; Shaun O’Hara, pro-bowl x3; David Diehl, pro-bowl; Jeremy Shockey, all-pro, pro-bowl x4.


Not a Super Bowl team but worth a mention.

The Real Browns.  1950-1965. 125-54-6 (.703).  Nine championship games, won four.
Frank Gatski HOF; Lou Groza HOF; Chuck Noll HOF (ok, ok, settle down, this is for fun); Mike McCormack HOF; Gene Hickerson HOF; Jim Ray Smith, all-pro x3, pro-bowl x5; Dick Schafrath, all-pro x4, pro-bowl x6; Abe Gibron, pro-bowl x4; John Morrow, pro-bowl x2; John Wooten, pro-bowl x2.


Five HOF offensive linemen for the Real Browns. And that doesn’t count Schafrath.


What about the converse?  Were there great offensive lines who didn’t make the Super Bowl?

Yes.  Several.  And while they fail to reach the ‘great’ mark, all have a decent record of success.

1.  Gabriel Rams.  We touched on this team in our Front Four piece.  We can’t explain this Rams team; probably the best team never to make a Super Bowl.  32-7-3 from 67-69 (.798).
Tom Mack HOF, all-pro, pro-bowl x11; Bob Brown HOF, all-pro x5; Charlie Cowan, pro-bowl x3.



Coryell Cardinals offensive line. Dierdorf HOF, Dobler, Banks, Young.  Allowed six sacks of Jim Hart in 14 games.
Winner of three Kanick awards: Best line not to make SB; Most forgotten line; Most bad-ass 70s-looking line.

2.  Coryell Cardinals.  The Coryell Cardinals were 31-11 from 74-76 (.738).

Dan Dierdorf HOF, all-pro x3; Conrad Dobler, pro-bowl x3; Tom Banks, all-pro, pro-bowl x4; Bob Young, all-pro, pro-bowl x2; Jackie Smith, pro-bowl x5.

Another forgotten great line.


3.  Red-right 88 Browns.  We know what happened in the end.  But we forget how this line enabled ‘noodle-arm’ Brian Sipe to win the MVP in 1980.
Joe DeLamielleure HOF; Cody Risien, pro-bowl x2; Tom DeLeone, pro-bowl x2; Doug Dieken, pro-bowl.  Plus Ozzie Newsome HOF; Mike Pruitt, pro-bowl x2.


4.  Late 90s Vikings.  The 98 team was 15-1, lost NFC Championship to Falcons in OT.  From 98 to 2000 they were 36-12 (.750).
Randall McDaniel HOF, all-pro x7; Korey Stringer, pro-bowl; Jeff Christy, pro-bowl x3; Todd Steussie, pro-bowl x2.


Shields, Welbourn, Waters, Roaf HOF, Wiegmann.
If only Roaf and Shields got together ten years earlier.

5.  Vermeil Chiefs.  From 03-05 the Chiefs were 30-18 (.625).  But their Trent Green offense was 2nd in yardage in 03, first in 04-05.
Willie Roaf (old) HOF, Brian Waters, all-pro x2, pro-bowl x6; Will Shields all-pro x2, pro-bowl x12; Tony Gonzalez, all-pro x6, pro-bowl x13.


6.  2009 Saints.  Won SB.  Even though this team has the SB win, I can’t quite bump them into the ‘great’ category above.
Jahri Evans, all-pro x4, pro-bowl x4.  Jon Stinchcomb, Jonathon Goodwin made pro-bowl that year.  Carl Nicks, all-pro, pro-bowl x2; Jermon Bushrod, pro-bowl; Jeremy Shockey, all-pro, pro-bowl x4.



7.  Mangold Jets.  29-19 (.604).  No SBs, 4-2 in playoffs.
Damien Woody, pro-bowl; Brandon Moore, pro-bowl; Nick Mangold, all-pro x2, pro-bowl x4; Alan Faneca, all-pro x6, pro-bowl x9; D’Brickashaw Ferguson, pro-bowl x3.


8.  Current Ravens.  Won 2012 SB, lost AFC Championship in OT.  From 2010-12, 34-14 (.708).  Like the Saints team above, can’t quite bump this team into ‘great.’  But shows again what assembling a great line can do.
Marshall Yanda, pro-bowl x2; Matt Birk, pro-bowl x6; Ben Grubbs, pro-bowl; Bryant McKinnie (old), pro-bowl; Andre Gurode (old), pro-bowl x5.  Plus Vonta Leach, all-pro x3.


Come on Kanick, those are old teams.  The Ravens’ line stretches your ‘great’ premise… McKinnie didn’t even start most of the year.
This crap doesn’t work in today’s league.  
(paraphrasing badly Kolonich’s question below.)

I am glad — nay, thrilled! — that you asked that.  Please see exhibit 8a that illustrates that investing in your line always … ALWAYS … is a good bet, even today:

8a.  Current Niners.  24-7-1 in 2012-13.  Lost NFC Championship in 2011.  Lost Super in 2012.
Mike Iupati, all-pro, pro-bowl; Joe Staley, pro-bowl x2; Vernon Davis, pro-bowl.

“Hey Kanick — this team doesn’t have three pro-bowlers.  They don’t fit your model.”

No they don’t fit the model.  But the current Niners are the prototype for in ‘invest in your o-line’ concept I’m forwarding this post.  They have three first round picks on the o-line (Anthony Davis, Iupati, Staley).  It’s actually four if you count first round TE Vernon Davis.  They actually took TWO lineman in the 2010 draft.  We don’t even see the second rounders David Baas (taken in 2005, now starting for the Giants) and Chilo Rachal (taken in 2008, now starting for Bears).

Put another way, from 2005-10 the Niners had twelve first and second round picks.  They used five on the o-line.  (Six if you count V. Davis.)

Because owning the line of scrimmage is still the most reliable way to win football games.


Back to the data…

Near Misses.

There were a couple HOFers who had one good partner on the line with him.  But their teams never got the third stud and their teams never became great.

Grogan Pats.
John Hannah HOF played with Leon Gray and has Russ Francis as Tight End for the good Pats teams in the 70s.

80s Oilers.
Mike Munchak HOF and Bruce Matthews HOF played together on the 80s Oilers.  Another good, not great team.

Best ever.

2000 Steelers.
For one year (2000), 35 y.o. Dermotti Dawson HOF played with Alan Faneca and rookie Marvel Smith (one pro-bowl).  This meets the ‘three pro-bowler’ criterion… but it subverts the spirit of the law and so I’ve left them off the list.

80s Bengals.
Anthony Munoz HOF (the best lineman I’ve seen) played with Max Montoya (pro-bowl x4) throughout the 80s.  But they never got their third stud on the line.  Closest they got was Rodney Holman (pro-bowl x3) at TE.  And note that that team got to two SBs.



Will Mitchell Schwartz grow into pro-bowl caliber?  Will Lauvao?  Greco?  Pinkston?  If the answer is maybe, then it makes a lot of sense from here to use this remarkable free agency year to bring in a top notch guard like Levitre.


PS:  It works in college too.

I won’t go back to research all the NFL o-linemen to come out of Tuscaloosa when a picture can tell the story.

Look at these beasts getting out front of a screen pass to … I think that’s Ingram.


Many thanks to The Orange and Brown Report’s forum for providing additional teams.


  1. What a great collection of O-lines (and even better IMAGES)!

    Now, here’s a question for you – considering how the league is now so pass-heavy and quick throw governed, do you think the Golden Age of O-lines has come and gone? I think of this when I read a scouting report on Joe Thomas and the writer inevitably laments that Thomas’ run blocking isn’t as superb as his pass protection. It seems this is the trend, which kind of negates the kind of physical, roadblock kind of run blocking that the groups you highlighted were known for.

    I don’t know – maybe I’m just lamenting a time when games were decided by offensive lines. Or I’m still bitter that teams like the Steelers and Packers have won recent Super Bowls with terrible O-lines. I guess the closest hope is the 49ers – unless the Browns can find a top guard and throw out one of the league’s best lines.

    Great job – I really enjoyed this post.

    • jimkanicki says:

      why thank you.

      >>>considering how the league is now so pass-heavy and quick throw governed, do you think the Golden Age of O-lines has come and gone?>>>

      i think owning the LOS is always job one in football. whether you’re pass protecting or run-blocking: if your line is stronger/better than their line, you usually win.

      w.r.t. to being a follower of (slave to?) the current trends in NFL wisdom, i think it’s a mistake. i believe you and i have discussed this topic as pertains to the Short Pass Offense?

      in that vein, i think there’s unplowed ground in the running game these days.

      i noticed something last year, tell me if you saw it too: every time we ran a conventional old-school lateral-to-the-RB sweep, it was good for seven yards. i think there’s an opportunity to eschew the 320 lb guards in favor of steinbach-class guards who can get out and lead a sweep. obviously the threat of this should open up the middle as well.

      one infallible rule in the history of football is that the innovators succeed: brown, gillman (as implemented by davis/madden), shula, walsh, buddy ryan, martz, belichick. hell, even sam wyche’s no-huddle wreaked havoc for awhile.

      here’s hoping chud brings more to the table in this area than i suspect.

  2. tmoore94 says:

    Levitre would be a very nice get for the Browns, as Pro Football Focus ranked him at +17.3 on the season. I worry though if they have to give him a big-time contract how that will play out when Alex Mack’s rookie contract comes up. It’s important to make sure you keep your own players happy.

    If they don’t want to pony up for Levitre (or if Buffalo resigns him and takes him off the market) wouldn’t be disappointed if the Browns took a look at Kent’s Brian Winters in the third round (although the Browns may need to use that pick on defense depending on what they do in free agency).

    Another name to keep an eye on is Geoff Schwartz, Mitchell’s brother. PFF ranks him as the third-best FA among guards and centers and while his grade was just +5.8 in limited time this season, but he was +19.3 as a full-time starter with Carolina in 2010.

    PFF article: https://www.profootballfocus.com/blog/2013/02/16/ranking-the-2013-free-agents-offensive-guards-and-centers/

    • jimkanicki says:

      agree with all of this.

      good catch on geoff schwartz. the vikings also have loadholt (who ive found disappointed) as a UFA so they’ve got a decision to make there.

      another interesting option is with the saints. theyre in cap hell (17MM over) and looking at cap hits for guards jahri evans 29 and ben grubbs 28 of 17MM in 2013. could probably pry one free for a 3rd round pick.

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