Former Bucs offensive tackle Jerry Wunsch is a regular and exclusive print contributor to PewterReport.com. Wunsch will share expert insight and opinions regarding the Bucs and the NFL based on his observations and previous playing experiences.
The former Wisconsin standout spent his first five seasons (1997-2001) as a pro with the Buccaneers before finishing his nine-year NFL career with the Seattle Seahawks (2002-05). The former second-round pick started 51 of the 113 games he played in during his NFL tenure.
Although he finished his career in Seattle, Wunsch still lives in the Tampa Bay area and is an active member of the community. He owns three different businesses, including a credit card processing company called Enablest, and heads up WunschFamilyFoundation.org.
There's really no time frame in terms of when a team or its fans should expect an offensive lineman to reach his full potential. It really comes down to a thing called old age, and it happens at a young age in the NFL from a wear and tear standpoint. It comes down to the physical part of it and how banged up you've been. I'd say it's year three or four where you should be mentally settled in, but you have to continue to improve mentally to make up for the physical part that eventually starts to go on you.
It's difficult for an offensive lineman to excel when a team changes offensive coordinators, and the Bucs have basically had three different offensive coordinators (Jon Gruden, Jeff Jagodzinski and Greg Olson) since January of 2009. That's a lot. With that type of change you can lose that rhythm of understanding. It's no different than a subject in school you're really good at. You finally grasp it and understand it, so when you're tested you're very comfortable and don't panic. Then we've all had the subjects we're not so great in, and when the exam comes you kind of freak out a little bit.
In the NFL when you're changing coordinators and going from one offensive system to the other, it takes time to digest it. As you change the people around you along the offensive line it can make your comfort level go back and forth. You have to have the confidence that you know what you're doing, but you also have to be confident that the guys playing next to you know what they're doing.
There are a lot of great athletes in the NFL. Some are better than others. A guy like Walter Jones, the coaches can tell him he's one-on-one with a defensive end, and they can just tell him, "You're one-on-one with this guy the whole game. Your only job is to block him." That's all you need him to do, but it's a very tall order to find a player that is strong and athletic enough to be able to rely on him to do that, and do it well, on every play. There are very few tackles that are able to do that. The guys that are strong enough and athletic enough to be on an island for every play in a game are what you'd call "freaks." Once you consider the majority of the tackles in the NFL you start getting into slide protections and things like that to offset the knowledge of the defensive end in terms of where people are going or how this play is going to develop. Are they going to get chipped? Is there slide protection towards me or away from me? You try to mess with the defensive end's head a little bit to help win the battle in the trenches, and how much you use those mental tactics depends on the tackle's overall athletic ability.
The importance of health for a football player, especially an offensive lineman, can't be overstated. Bad things can happen in the trenches - sometimes you're getting blocked or cut by two guys. I can't tell you how many times I played with a torn tendon in my leg, an elbow that wouldn't bend either way or even a torn labrum in my hip. That's not even counting the back injuries that were endured. Players play through those injuries because you have to.
Offensive linemen try to keep continuity. They play for one another, and the more they can play together the better they'll be as a unit. If you're able to play in 100 or so straight games, it's a little bit of luck, but it's a lot of grit and rubbing dirt on it and getting out there and playing. It also means a lot of work in the rehab room and doing whatever it takes to get out there on the field and play on game day. There were times when I couldn't even get out of bed in the morning the day of a game. I went to the stadium bright and early, maybe 5-6 hours before kickoff, just to try to get to the point where I could play on Sunday. There's a lot that goes into it.
On the surface one would think facing an opponent twice a season as a rival in your division would help offensive linemen from a mental standpoint, but when you're talking about a [former Lions defensive end] Robert Robert Porcher or a [former Packers defensive end] Reggie White it's not necessarily something you look forward to, especially when you consider the fact that you're facing those two guys a total of four times per year in a 16-game season. When we were in the NFC Central division there were so many unbelievable defensive ends in terms of talent. It does help you to understand an opponent a little bit, which is why you study them and their tendencies. That's what really helps with age in the NFL, realizing the safety rotations and the blitzes that are coming before they happen.
There are times in a game when a team will throw a blitz package at you that you didn't see in practice that week, and you have to figure out how you're going to solve it. If you don't solve it on the first series then you need to get to the sideline and figure out how you're going to solve it. We had that scenario when we were playing against the Baltimore Ravens. They brought a whole new blitz against us when I was playing with Seattle. [Former Bucs quarterback] Trent Dilfer and [Seahawks quarterback] Matt Hasselbeck came to me on the sideline and said, "Jerry, how the heck to we pick this up?" We went over and drew it up on the board and figured out a whole new way to pick up the blitz. Once we figured it out we completely shut it down.
You have to have veteran players to understand what's going on out on the football field in order to solve those types of challenges. Coaching is like parenting. You're trying to teach your kids to do the right thing and be good students and better basketball players, but at the end of the day your kids have to go out there and play their own games and live their own lives. It's no different in football. You can sit there and coach and teach all day long, but eventually the player has to have an instinct or knack and understand what it is you're teaching them. That's why guys have such a tough time transitioning from college to the NFL. The NFL is so dynamic and there are so many different things going on, so some players never take their game to the next level. There were a lot of guys that were better athletes than I was, but they didn't perform well in the NFL because they didn't understand the game of football or maybe didn't put the time in that was necessary to make it in the NFL. That's how you wind up with busts in the NFL Draft.
The Bucs offensive line is doing a good job. They've been put under a lot of stress from trying to learn different systems, but that's part of the job. One of the main things they need to focus on is finishing and being nasty, which comes with giving that little extra effort on every play. However, a lot of that has to do with the uncertainty of the plays, assignments or concepts. In order to be nasty and fly off the ball you have to know what you're doing and where you're going. With everything that has gone on in Tampa Bay in terms of the changes, the Bucs offensive line has lost that nastiness. When guys know what they're doing they finish, and you will see guys five yards down field putting somebody on their back. Right now the Bucs offensive linemen are more concerned with, "Did we get the double team, did we get movement, and did we do it right?" That's not conducive for a great running game or blitz pickup.
After the Bucs changed offensive coordinators last year, what I saw was defenders on all-out blitzes running free through the "A" gap, which is one of the first rules you learn not to allow to happen because that's directly in the passing lane of the quarterback who is trying to hit the wide receiver on a slant, so he can't get rid of the ball. You have to get that picked up. After those types of plays you could see offensive linemen looking at each other and saying, "You were supposed to pick that up." Where you really could see some of the problems or hesitancy due to the changing in offensive systems and blocking schemes was from the tight ends and running backs not knowing or understanding the blitz pickups or pass protections. You saw that a lot with Kellen Winslow and Jerramy Stevens being quite unsure of what they had in blitz pickups.
The Bucs have good offensive linemen, so once they get an understanding of what they're doing and a comfort level in the offense and blocking scheme, I think you'll see some nastiness come out of that group and really make a difference for their team this season. Tampa Bay has a talented quarterback and some good running backs that didn't get a lot of carries last year. The Bucs offensive line is a good, young group, and they have a good core group. They have all the talent they need to do what they need to be able to do and be very successful. There's no doubt about that. Guys like Donald Penn, David Joseph and Jeremy Trueblood have a few years of starting experience under their belts at this point, and as long as nothing has changed in terms of coordinators or systems, the third, fourth and fifth seasons are typically the ones where you see good offensive linemen get it and start coming into their own.
By Jerry Wunsch as told to PewterReport.com editor-in-chief Jim Flynn.