When you try to play a football season during a pandemic, you can expect a lot of unusual results. A quarterback can set a rookie record for touchdown passes in only 15 games. A wild-card team that lost to both Nick Foles and Jared Goff can go on to win the Super Bowl. And offensive line continuity—often considered a necessity for point-scoring around the league—can fall all to hell.
Offensive line continuity scores were originally developed by Jason McKinley in the early days of FO (when FO Almanac was still Pro Football Prospectus) and we have subsequently gone back and calculated it for every team since 1999. The continuity scores are based on three variables: number of starters used; number of week-to-week changes in starting lineups; and the longest starting streak of any one five-man unit. A team can earn a maximum of 16 points in any one category (one point per game), meaning a team that started the same five linemen in all 16 games would get a perfect score of 48; 39 teams have done this, most recently the Indianapolis Colts in 2019. Hypothetically, if a team started five brand new linemen every week of the year, they would get a “perfect” score of -57, though of course nobody has ever come close to that. The worst continuity score on record belongs to the 2015 New England Patriots at 15 … a mark that was tied in 2020.
With COVID-19 protocols wreaking havoc on NFL rosters throughout the year, it’s no surprise that offensive line continuity throughout the NFL nose-dived. The average NFL team in 2020 used 8.6 starters and made 7.5 line changes throughout the year, never going more than 4.6 weeks between line changes, adding up to a continuity score of 25.5; all of those numbers are the worst in our books. (The previous records—8.4 starters, 6.2 changes, 5.4 weeks without a change, 27.9 continuity score—were all set in 2017.)
The decline was extensive. Only nine teams fared better in continuity score than they had in 2019, while 21 declined … one to a historic degree. Two teams were tied for first place at just 36, making 2020 the first season in our books with no teams at 40 or more. In fact, only four teams had a score of 30 or better; every other season we have analyzed had at least twice as many teams at 30-plus. Meanwhile, 15 teams had a score below 25; no other year had more than seven such teams.
Typically at this point in the story we would start talking about the teams that finished atop the standings, but the bigger news item is the team that finished at the bottom.
The 2020 Philadelphia Eagles Offensive Line: A Tragedy
The Eagles troubles actually began in June, when right guard Brandon Brooks tore his Achilles, ending his 2020 campaign before it even started. As Scott Spratt noted in Football Outsiders Almanac 2020, Brooks’ absence “will also disrupt the unit’s continuity, which can often be as important to a team’s blocking as the talent of its individual blockers.” Spratt’s words proved to be prophetic. Things only got worse when Andre Dillard, the projected starter at left tackle, tore his biceps in August, ending his season as well.
Though the injuries to Brooks and Dillard did not have a direct effect on Philadelphia’s continuity score (which is based on week-to-week changes, not total injuries), it did set the tone for the chaos that was to ensue. Jason Peters, the Eagles’ long-time starter at left tackle, was originally re-signed to play in Brooks’ place at right guard, but promptly shifted back to left tackle after Dillard was hurt, and things proceeded to spiral out of control from there. If you’ll indulge us for a while, it’s worth going over what happened to the Eagles offensive line one week at a time (for the tl;dr version, you can skip to the table at the end of this section):
Week 1: The Eagles open against Washington with only two preferred starters on the line: left guard Isaac Seumalo and center Jason Kelce. With Peters manning the fort at left tackle, Nate Herbig—who didn’t start a game as an undrafted rookie out of Stanford in 2019—fills in for Brooks at right guard. Meanwhile, as Lane Johnson is sidelined with an ankle injury, fourth-round rookie (and noted ape fighter) Jack Driscoll starts at right tackle. The Eagles give up eight sacks in a 27-17 loss to Washington.
Week 2: Johnson returns to the starting lineup against the Rams; the Peters-Seumalo-Kelce-Herbig-Johnson quintet is the closest thing the Eagles will field to a full line all season. It does not last long—Seumalo leaves the game with a knee injury in the first half and does not return until Week 11. The Eagles lose 37-19.
Week 3: Herbig moves over to left guard to fill in for Seumalo with 2018 sixth-rounder Matt Pryor starting at right guard, the first start of his NFL career. The line manages to survive four quarters without another significant injury and the Eagles salvage a 23-23 tie against Cincinnati.
Week 4: Peters suffers a toe injury in practice, knocking him out for several weeks. Jordan Mailata—a gargantuan Australian who was drafted in the seventh round in 2018 but had failed to see the field in his first two seasons—starts at left tackle. The Eagles get their first win of the year, defeating the San Francisco 49ers (who are dealing with their own injury nightmares) 25-20.
Week 5: For the first time all season, the Eagles start the same five linemen in the same positions in back-to-back weeks. Johnson is promptly carted off the field during the game. The Eagles lose to the Pittsburgh Steelers 38-29.
Week 6: Driscoll returns at right tackle in place of Johnson. Pryor goes on the reserve/COVID-19 list. (This is the only in-season disruption to the line caused by COVID protocols, though both Mailata and Johnson had spent time on the COVID list over the summer.) His spot is taken by Jamon Brown, a 27-year-old playing for his fourth team in three seasons; he plays so badly that he is released before Philadelphia’s next game. The Eagles lose to Baltimore 30-28 as a potential game-tying two-point try comes up short.
Week 7: Brown is released and Herbig goes back to right guard. The new left guard is Iosua Opeta, an undrafted rookie out of Weber State who had played a total of five offensive snaps coming into the week. Johnson returns at right tackle but lasts only 60 snaps before spraining his MCL. Nevertheless, the Eagles score two touchdowns in the last five minutes to beat the Giants 22-21; at 2-4-1, the Eagles sit alone in first place in the NFC East.
Week 8: Peters and Pryor take back their respective spots at left tackle and right guard. This allows Herbig to shift back to left guard and Mailata to move over to right tackle. Each of Philadelphia’s five starting linemen manages to play every snap on offense, the first time that has happened all season. The Eagles defeat the Cowboys 23-9 and stay in first place at 3-4-1, going into the bye week with nothing but good news.
Week 10: Bad news! Herbig, limited in practice with a finger injury, plays just one snap against the Giants—and on special teams, at that. Opeta returns at left guard, while Johnson returns (for the third time) at right tackle. Philadelphia loses 27-17, kicking off a four-game losing streak.
Week 11: Things get weird. Herbig is apparently a healthy scratch, inactive against the Browns despite being cleared to play. The Eagles roll with Seumalo at left guard and Pryor at right. Johnson leaves the game with an ankle injury and does not play again in 2020. Cleveland beats Philadelphia 22-17.
Week 12: With Herbig benched and Johnson on IR, the Eagles blow up everything. Peters moves to right guard, the spot which he was originally re-signed to play, with Pryor moving over to right tackle and Mailata back at left tackle. Philadelphia falls to Seattle 23-17 on Monday night to drop to 3-7-1 and behind Washington and the Giants (both 4-7) in the standings; they never rise higher than third in the division from that point forward.
Week 13: Pryor is benched after his one-game stint at right tackle, replaced by Driscoll. Peters leaves the Packers game with a toe injury that would prove to be season-ending. Green Bay beats Philadelphia 30-16.
Week 14: Herbig returns to his spot at right guard, and the Mailata-Seumalo-Kelce-Herbig-Driscoll unit lasts every snap in a 24-21 upset over the Saints, which would prove to be the Eagles’ last win of the year. After the game, however, it is learned that Driscoll has torn his MCL; his season is over.
Week 15: Pryor moves back into the starting right tackle slot. The Eagles fall to the Cardinals 33-26.
Week 16: The Mailata-Seumalo-Kelce-Herbig-Pryor lineup returns, making this just the second time the Eagles are able to start the same five linemen in back-to-back weeks. It is also the last time—Mailata leaves the game with a concussion and misses the season finale as well. Dallas beats Philadelphia 37-17.
Week 17: Pryor moves from right tackle to left, his third different starting position. Brett Toth, who had gone undrafted out of Army in 2019, starts at right tackle, the first start of his NFL career. Washington beats Philadelphia 20-14 to mercy-kill the Eagles season.
Plainly, a barrage of injuries was the main cause behind the Eagles’ lack of cohesion on the offensive line. The Eagles led the league with 57.1 adjusted games lost to offensive linemen, the highest for any team since Minnesota had 57.2 in 2016. Even that Vikings line, though, was more cohesive than last year’s Eagles—their continuity score was 23. It looks like Philadelphia head coach Doug Pederson and offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland were panicking as they tried to mitigate the damage; the shuffling of Pryor, Herbig, and Driscoll often seemed random and haphazard.
Regardless, the results were a mess. The Eagles used 11 different starters on the offensive line, which is a lot, but hardly unprecedented. (Kansas City led the league with 12, largely because they rested all five starters in Week 17. The record is 13 by the 2007 Rams and the 2018 Cardinals.) Philadelphia’s 13 line changes, however, is second-most on record behind those 2015 Patriots, and they join those Patriots and the 2017 Lions as the only teams in our database to never make it three straight games with the same five starting linemen. And the Eagles’ total of 14 different starting lineups is likely unprecedented—the 2015 Patriots only had 13, and the 2017 Lions had but 11. Philadelphia finished with three different starters at both left tackle and left guard, four at right guard, and a stunning five at right tackle. For the sixth straight year, Jason Kelce started every game at center, and the Eagles still tied the record for offensive line discontinuity.
If all that is too much information to digest, the following table gives a neat, mind-blowing summary:
Other Notable Bad Teams
With a continuity score of 19, the Chargers would have finished last or tied for last in 17 of the last 22 seasons. Los Angeles was stable at left tackle, left guard, and center, where Sam Tevi, Forrest Lamp, and Dan Feeney missed only one start between them. At right guard, however, they moved from Tyree St. Louis to Trai Turner, back to St. Louis, then to Ryan Groy and finally back to Turner. At right tackle, they went from Bryan Bulaga to Trey Pipkins, then back to Bulaga, then Pipkins, then Bulaga again, then Storm Norton, then Bulaga again, and finally Pipkins again.
For the Panthers—third from the bottom ahead of the Eagles and Chargers—the problems were mostly limited to left tackle. Left guard Chris Reed, center Matt Paradis, right guard John Miller, and right tackle Taylor Moton missed only four starts between them. Left tackle, though, was a turnstile, with seven starts from Russell Okung (spread out over three separate stretches), four from Trenton Scott, three from Greg Little, and one each from Dennis Daley and Michael Schofield.
The Indianapolis Colts completed a wild three-year run last season. They had a score of 24 in 2018 that climbed to a perfect 48 in 2019, the largest year-to-year increase on the books. Last year, that number fell to 23, tied for the largest year-to-year decrease on the books. After using just five starters in all of 2019, they had four starters at left tackle alone in 2020 (Anthony Castonzo, Le’Raven Clark, Chaz Green, and Jared Veldheer). As it turns out, that’s the norm for the Colts—aside from 2019, they haven’t had a continuity score in the 30s or 40s since 2007. What’s really unusual is that Indianapolis actually won four more games in 2020 than they did in 2019. They are the only one of the 11 teams that saw their continuity score dip by 20 or more from one season to the next (a list that includes their division rivals in Jacksonville) to win more games that second year. The other 10, on average, declined by about 3.5 wins apiece.
As noted, two teams tied for first with offensive line continuity scores of 36 in 2020. One of those teams was the Los Angeles Rams, making this the third time in four seasons since they hired head coach Sean McVay that they have finished first or tied for first in that category. (The exception was in 2019, when they finished 12th; it’s likely not a coincidence that was the one season McVay has missed the playoffs.) The Rams had a perfect score of 48 in 2018, and they would have done it in 2017 too if they had not rested starters in Week 17. Remember when we said the Eagles used 11 starters on the line in 2020? Well, the Rams have only used 11 real starters in the last four seasons. (Technically, they have used 14, but that includes three one-game wonders in that Week 17 game in 2017.) L.A. leads the league with an average offensive line continuity score of 39.0 since 2017, well ahead of the second-best team (Tampa Bay, 33.8). It’s difficult to write off this kind of consistent excellence entirely as good fortune. This is a credit to McVay, his assistants, and general manager Les Snead for acquiring durable linemen and protecting them from injury in both practices and games, and for having a solid plan on the rare occasions when things do go wrong. In 2020, the Rams got 16 starts apiece from center Austin Blythe, right guard Austin Corbett, and right tackle Rob Havenstein. Left tackle Andrew Whitworth and left guard David Edwards missed nine starts between them, with Joseph Noteboom filling in for both.
The team that tied the Rams for first place was the New York Giants. Left tackle Andrew Thomas, center Nick Gates, right guard Kevin Zeitler, and right tackle Cameron Fleming missed only one start between them all season. The only significant change was at left guard, where Will Hernandez started the first seven games of the year before going on the COVID-19 list. Rookie Shane Lemieux started every game after that, though Hernandez made regular relief appearances throughout the second half of the season.
With two teams tied for first, it’s sort of fitting that two other teams tied for third at 32. One of those teams won the Super Bowl—The Tampa Bay Buccaneers got at least 13 starts from each of their regulars (from left to right, Donovan Smith, Ali Marpet, Ryan Jensen, Alex Cappa, and Tristan Wirfs.) The other was the Tennessee Titans, who overcame some havoc at left tackle (where Taylor Lewan, Ty Sambrailo, and David Quessenberry each started at least five games) because their other starters (left guard Rodger Saffold, center Ben Jones, right guard Nate Davis, and right tackle Dennis Kelly) missed only one start all year.
The most improved team in offensive line continuity score was the Miami Dolphins, who were last in the league with a score of 20 in 2019 before rising to a tie for seventh place at 28 in 2020. After using 10 starters the year before, the 2020 Dolphins used only six. That’s largely due to the utility infielder-type season of Jesse Davis, whose 15 starts included four games at left tackle, five at right guard, and five at right tackle. Meanwhile, primary starters Austin Jackson, Ereck Flowers, Ted Karras, Solomon Kindley, and Robert Hunt each started at least 11 games. None of those men were 30 years old in 2020; Jackson, Kindley, and Hunt were rookies.