When the Seahawks signed undrafted free agent Alvin Bailey out of Arkansas it seemed pretty unlikely that he would be part of a big change in offensive strategy in the NFL. Very few people thought, “Alvin Bailey, now there’s a guy who could revolutionize an offense”. It remains to be seen whether he is a quality lineman, let alone a revolutionary. However, Bailey was part of something very interesting on Sunday. During the game Bailey substituted in and out based on down and distance, swapping between left tackle and right guard depending on the situation.
The first part of this that is unusual is the idea of substitution within the offense line. The idea of continuity as an aspiration for offensive lines creates an environment where a group of five is expected to play the whole game, and ideally the whole season, together. Sometimes substitutions happen as a way to get young players some playing time, as initially appeared to be the case with Bailey, or when games get out of hand, but they are fairly rare. It would be easy to write off Bailey’s snaps last week as merely an attempt to get his feet wet given that he is a promising youngster but there is more at work here.
On Sunday, during obvious passing situations Alvin Bailey was slotted at left tackle and the struggling Paul McQuistan lined up beside him at left guard with James Carpenter leaving the game. The rationale for this is perfectly logical. McQuistan’s limited athleticism causes him to suffer against good edge rushers and as such when it was clear that the Seahawks were going to pass it made more sense for them to have the more nimble Bailey protecting Russell Wilson’s blindside.
This idea made a great deal of sense and ended up being very effective. It makes one question why offensive linemen aren’t really deployed in a more situation sensitive manner. The Seahawks have two stud lineman in Russell Okung and Max Unger, but other than those two I don’t see why you wouldn’t mix and match. For example, James Carpenter is a big mauler type who has the ability to push defensive tackles out of the way (which isn’t to say he manages to do this consistently) but when it comes to third and long he can be exposed as a pass blocker. Why not try Alvin Bailey in those situations? If a lineman who is excellent at pass blocking is struggling to get a push why not take him out for 3rd and short or goal line situations. Ideally all of your starting offensive lineman would excel in both areas, but that might not be realistic.
As far as I can see there are two things stopping this from being a more common phenomenon. The first is the expectations around offensive line play. Continuity is universally valued and to try more active substitution is be dismissive of that concept. Additionally, you might ruffle some feathers and bruise some egos by implying to certain lineman that they are worse than their backups in certain areas. However, like all other players offensive lineman have their strengths and weaknesses. Your starting five aren’t necessarily the five that are the best on the team at every single thing. Although there is more of a fatigue element on defensive lines, substitutions go smoothly on that side of the ball. Players don’t by definition have problems accepting that they have a particular role as a run stopper or pass rusher.
The second issue is telegraphing your play calls. If you pass every time you bring in Alvin Bailey then opponents are going to catch on to that in a hurry. That being said, that isn’t that different than bringing in a different wide receiver or tight end. When a third wide receiver comes from the bench the defense may be expecting the pass but you can rush it anyway to keep them off-balance even if a tight end would be a better choice of personnel in terms of run blocking. If you have a pass blocking specialist at right tackle it doesn’t mean you can’t run the ball. Also, there are quite a few situations where a run or pass is clearly warranted (3rd and 10+ or 3rd and 1) so there is no point holding back your best personnel for that situation even if it makes it clear what you are going to do. There isn’t really a fundamental difference between substituting in an especially beefy guard on 3rd and 1 and bringing in a blocking tight end. Often in football your opponent knows what you are going to do, it’s just a matter of execution.
It ranks somewhere between incredibly unlikely and impossible that Alvin Bailey is going to change the way the Seahawks, or any other team, play the game of football. That doesn’t mean that teams shouldn’t put a little more thought in offensive line substitutions. Continuity may be useful, but maximizing talent and putting players the best possible situation to succeed is how you win football games.