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Examining Offensive Line Coaches - Alex Gibbs

  Posted 7/21 by Jeff Tefertiller, Exclusive to Footballguys.com

This is the first article in a series looking at the effect that great offensive line coaches have on an offense. The first two articles in the series will examine the consequences of a team hiring Alex Gibbs or Hudson Houck to improve a team's running game. The signing of these two coaches by their new teams went relatively unnoticed this offseason, but have huge fantasy consequences. We will first look at the career of Alex Gibbs and his vaunted Zone Blocking System. He was hired by the Houston Texans to improve a lackluster running game. Gibbs played running back at Davidson College. He started his coaching career at Duke coaching defensive backs. Then, Gibbs went to Kentucky and West Virginia to also coach the defensive backfield. With stops at Ohio State, Auburn and Georgia, Alex Gibbs made the leap to the NFL in 1984 coaching the offensive line. He had switched sides of the ball in his last three jobs and became a guru of sorts at the offensive line position. The Denver Broncos needed help on the line and the former running back made an impact. This was just the start of the relationship between the coach and the team, and its coaches. Gibbs left after three years to join the Oakland Raiders. He bounced around the NFL, staying two years or less in four jobs after leaving the Broncos. In 1995, the Denver Broncos called and offered Gibbs the job as Assistant Head Coach. The team had a weak running game and needed the help once again. Before Gibbs joined the Broncos, the team struggled to run the ball effectively.

A Look At The Before and After In Denver

It was a very good hire for the Broncos. In order to get a glimpse of the situation Gibbs entered, let's look at the statistics from the Bronco running game for the two seasons prior to his arrival:

Season
Pts/Gm
YPC
YPG
Rank
Denver 1993
23
3.6
106
18th
Denver 1994
22
3.4
92
23rd
Average
23
3.5
99
21st

It is easy to see why new Bronco coach Mike Shanahan called on the former Denver offensive line coach. The team struggled to score, had a pathetic yards per carry average, and ranked at the bottom of the league in rushing. It is difficult for us to remember how bad the Bronco running game was at that time. They averaged less than 100 rushing yards a game. But, it did not take long for the experienced line coach to install his system and improve the team's ability to run the ball. The Broncos immediately improved into a top rushing team. Under the direction of the Gibbs, the Denver Broncos averaged a full yard per carry more in his first season on the job. That is an incredible improvement. If we look at the numbers his teams were able to produce in Denver, it is startling. One thing to note is that talented ball carriers, including Terrell Davis and Clinton Portis, anchored the Bronco running game for most of Gibbs' time in Denver. But, many underestimate the effect Gibbs had on the turnaround. Below are the same categories, but notice the impact of Gibbs' offensive system:

Season
Pts/Gm
YPC
YPG
Rank
Denver 1995
24
4.5
125
5th
Denver 1996
24
4.5
148
1st
Denver 1997
30
4.6
149
4th
Denver 1998
31
4.7
154
2nd
Denver 1999
20
4.0
117
12th
Denver 2000
30
4.5
144
3rd
Denver 2001
21
3.9
117
10th
Denver 2002
25
5.0
142
5th
Denver 2003
24
4.8
164
2nd
Average
25
4.5
140
5th

What an improvement! If we compare just the averages, it is impressive. The team goes from averaging 3.5 yards per carry to 4.5. They rush for 41 more yards a game. And the big improvement is illustrated in that Denver went from being ranked as the 21st best running game to the top five. What is even more impressive is that the Denver Broncos were in the top five teams rushing the ball in all but two seasons. That is an incredible transformation. Because of this great improvement, Alex Gibbs was now widely known for his Zone Blocking System. In 2004, Gibbs left Denver to go to the Atlanta Falcons.

A Look At The Before And After In Atlanta

In Atlanta, Alex Gibbs did another amazing job. He took over a team that ran the ball decently and instantly transformed the Falcons into the top rushing team. Below are the numbers for Atlanta in the two years prior to Gibbs' arrival:

Season
Pts/Gm
YPC
YPG
Rank
Atlanta 2002
25
4.5
148
4th
Atlanta 2003
25
4.5
122
14th
Average
22
4.5
135
9th

This is not a bad situation to join. But, the potential for more was present. Alex Gibbs was able to incorporate the skill set of Michael Vick and Warrick Dunn into his system. And, he made it work like a charm. The team was able to be a very effective running squad. Alex Gibbs was hired as the offensive coordinator, but ended up in a reduced role as consultant. The title is less important than the fact that the Falcons were using the Zone Blocking System that made Alex Gibbs famous. Here are the statistics for the Falcons during Gibbs' tenure:

Season
Pts/Gm
YPC
YPG
Rank
Atlanta 2004
21
5.1
167
1st
Atlanta 2005
22
4.8
160
1st
Atlanta 2006
18
5.5
184
1st
Average
20
5.1
170
1st

He took a team averaging a good 4.5 yards per carry average and embellished it into an average well above 5 yards per tote. The average rushing yards per contest bumped up 35 yards per game and the team was the top rushing team in the NFL all three seasons. Do you see a pattern for success? Well, the Houston Texans sure did. Former Denver Bronco coach, Gary Kubiak talked the experienced offensive line guru into coming out of retirement and directing the Texan line. This is one of the moves that goes under the radar by many but could pay huge dividends for the Texan running game. We have seen how Alex Gibbs has taken two offenses and transformed them into powerhouse running teams.

How Will Alex Gibbs Impact The Houston Texans In 2008?

Kubiak has been in charge of Houston for two seasons. He has improved the talent level and the team competes well. The team has gone from two wins to eight wins in just two short years. The Texans have a good quarterback tandem of Matt Schaub and Sage Rosenfels. The pass catchers are led by Andre Johnson and Owen Daniels. Houston does not have a reliable primary running back that will carry the ball 300 times. The team is expected to utilize a committee approach. Veteran Ahman Green is the most likely week one starter. Newcomer Chris Brown will be utilized to take advantage of his big play ability. Brown was the size and speed to make long gains. The knock on both of these backs is durability. Green has battled knee injuries of late and Brown seems to be nicked a ton. In addition to the two veterans, the Texans have rookie speedster Steve Slaton, Chris Taylor and Darius Walker. Slaton should have the opportunity to emerge as the team's third down back. In addition, he should have the chance to come in on passing downs. With the varied skills of these backs, the Texans should have depth at the position. Kubiak has adopted Alex Gibbs' philosophy that the system makes the back. It is difficult to argue with his track record. The Texans have been an average running team the last two seasons under Kubiak.

Here are the numbers for the Houston Texans the past two seasons:

Season
Pts/Gm
YPC
YPG
Rank
Houston 2006
17
3.9
105
21st
Houston 2007
24
3.8
99
22nd
Average
21
3.9
102
22nd

While these numbers are not poor, they are not good by any stretch of the imagination. Gibbs has only had one team with less than a 4.0 YPC since becoming an assistant head coach. Also, he has only had two teams average less than 125 rushing yards per game. In fact, the majority of the Gibbs' teams averaged over 140 yards per contest. This is a very reasonable expectation considering how Alex Gibbs improved his last two teams 41 and 35 yards per game respectively.

The Houston Texans are a team that will be a much improved running team. The team only averaged 3.8 yards per carry in 2007. If history is any indication, this average should increase to over 4.25. Improvement of this magnitude would give the Texans a credible rushing attack. Many look to the passing game to carry the offense, but given Gibbs' history, the running backs will have good years. If either Ahman Green or Chris Brown can stay healthy all season, they can have a surprisingly good campaign. Fantasy owners should also keep an eye on the rookie to see how he performs in training camp and preseason. He could emerge into a large role if injuries strike the team. There is also a chance that the team adds a veteran like Cedric Benson or re-signs Ron Dayne if they become uneasy about the chances of Green and Brown making it through an entire season.

Summary

Alex Gibbs has proven he can make a difference in the running game of his employer. It is very hard to argue that it is all a coincidence that both Denver and Atlanta were able to succeed with very different personnel. Yes, both teams drafted impact players to help the situation out, but it takes superior coaching to take this talent to the elite level that Gibbs brought both teams.

The coaching history of Alex Gibbs for this article was gathered from Wikipedia:

1969-1970
Duke (DB)
1971-1972
Kentucky (DB)
1973-1974
West Virginia University (DB)
1975-1978
Ohio State (OC/OL)
1979-1981
Auburn (OC)
1982-1983
Georgia (OL)
1984-1987
Denver Broncos (OL)
1988-1989
Los Angeles Raiders (OL)
1990-1991
San Diego Chargers (OL)
1992
Indianapolis Colts (OL)
1993-1994
Kansas City Chiefs (OL)
1995-2003
Denver Broncos (Asst. HC/OL)
2004
Atlanta Falcons (Asst. HC/OL)
2005-2006
Atlanta Falcons (Consultant)
2008-present
Houston Texans (Asst. HC/OL)