One of the best things about sports—in this case being football—is how they evolve. Some principles and concepts remain integral, but seeing new and improved philosophies shape the current product of the game is always refreshing.
An ever-changing industry requires new ways of absorbing and analyzing it all, which is another fantastic aspect about it all. You can learn something new everyday about football and stumble upon content that changes your perspective and how you see the game.
This happened to me this week when I saw this tweet from Pro Football Focus’ Eric Eager pop up on Twitter.
if you're in the attacking position, depth matters less. It's why the Packers can get by with D Adams and some unproven talent at WR.— Eric Eager (@PFF_Eric) December 28, 2020
If you're in a position of accepting attacks from an opponent, it's about making sure your weak spots don't suck:https://t.co/B8vX3hfVr8
As you can tell by what the tweet says, Eager discovered through regression analysis that depth along an offensive line matters just as much as its starters, high-level or not. That may not sound like ground-breaking information, but it does support the classic saying of “you’re only as strong as your weakest link.”
This is something the Cincinnati Bengals have learned the hard way. Actually, I’m not sure if they have, because this problem has persisted for years now.
At least one of the guard positions has been an issue in Cincinnati for the past four seasons. Kevin Zeitler’s departure in 2017 was the spark that lit the fuel, and Clint Boling’s retirement two years later added about 10 gallons of kerosene to the fire.
Despite their most cost-effective solutions in an attempt to fill these spots, they’ve never gained any real progress, and it seemed to reach an all-time low in the middle of this season. Michael Jordan was regressing from an already low baseline, and Alex Redmond remained who he always was as the replacement for the injured Xavier Su’a-Filo. Redmond only ended up there because Fred Johnson and Billy Price proved to be even worse options.
Then comes late October, and Quinton Spain’s sudden emergence on the free agent market resembled Gandalf coming back as Gandalf the White in The Two Towers. Resembled being the key word there.
For a time, Spain was one of the better unheralded interior linemen in the NFL. He was talented enough to get drafted out of West Virginia, but the Tennessee Titans lucked into signing the man now known as Mr. Undrafted as a college free agent in 2015. Injuries forced him into Tennessee’s starting lineup late in his rookie year and he finished the season well enough to earn the left guard job for 2016. That season, Spain was graded as the fifth-best guard by PFF, and while he never sniffed that high of a grade again, he remained a stable starter for the next two years.
Spain became a free agent and signed a modest one-year deal with the Buffalo Bills in the 2019 offseason. He then signed a three-year, $15 million deal with the Bills a year later, but allowing him to leave ended up being the right move for the Titans. Spain struggled in his first year with the Bills, earning a 55.8 offense grade after never earning an offense grade lower than 66 when he was the full-time starter in Tennessee. Spain’s shortcomings last year acted as a prelude to this year when he was eventually benched and released not even a year into his contract.
With all that said, the Bengals couldn’t not sign him when he was made available. They were the perfect amount of desperate; so desperate that they played him at three different positions in his first three games.
After the Bengals’ Week 10 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, I highlighted Spain’s impressive performance at right tackle. It was just his second game in stripes, his first at right tackle since his college days, and he managed to handle T.J. Watt—the favorite to win Defensive Player of the Year—moderately well. The game before that, he came off the bench and was inserted at left guard. He then went to right guard a week later before going back to left guard a week later and being moved to right guard in the middle of that game.
I could’ve made that timeline a bit more comprehensible, but this paints a more accurate picture of his situation.
Spain was put through a whirlwind after he joined the Bengals, but since Week 13, he’s been exclusively at right guard. This past Sunday was his fourth-straight start at the position, so it’s safe to assume he’s gotten at least somewhat comfortable in his weekly preparations.
That’s at least the assumption, because in all honesty, his last four weeks have been rough. He’s looked exactly like a player who was cut in the middle of a season should look like, and his outing against the Houston Texans was no exception.
Laying out all of that previous context is important; it all factors into the equation to some degree. But this is inauspicious to watch every week. What’s funny is how the narrative of Spain started to divert from reality more and more as the season progressed.
The best content is something that the writer and reader is interested in, and sometimes the reader’s interests create an intrigue for the content creator. Spain is being regarded by some as an answer for the Bengals’ 2021 offensive line, and it makes little-to-no sense to me. This tape matches what Spain has been putting on film for this entire year. Is he better than Redmond and Jordan in some areas? Absolutely. Should the standard still be higher? Absolutely. But that isn’t to say Spain doesn’t still have value to this team.
The best course of action for Spain is to bring him back on a one-year deal and have him compete for the left guard spot with Su’a-Filo. Both players have played their best at that position, and it’s the best chance of unlocking whatever Spain has left in the tank. Neither player can be viewed as an unquestioned starter heading into an all-important 2021 season for the offensive line.
Whether it be conventional wisdom or statistical analysis, the conclusion is the same: weak-links on an offensive line are bad news. It’s time for Cincinnati to learn that for good.