Of the tens of thousands of words dedicated to the offensive line this offseason, not too many of them have centered around the impact of offensive line coach Larry Zierlein. I realize that above all else, you need the horses, or in the case of the offensive line, the hogs, to be competitive, but surely the maestro of a professional football team's offensive line has the ability to help is players improve individually and collectively.
This coming season, we will do our best to provide some video or snap shots of the play of the offensive line, to see perhaps where we're succeeding and where we're failing, but for now, I wanted to just take a look at Zierlein's career as a coach. Where did he come from? How successful were the offenses that operated behind his offensive lines. It is fairly widely accepted that offensive success starts up front in the trenches, so perhaps even the most simple statistics will give us an idea of the kind of lines that he assembled and coached.
The first thing that jumps out to me when looking at his coaching timeline is that his first gig in the National Football League was not until 2001, when the Cleveland Browns put him in charge of their offensive line. That might not sound like a big deal until you remember that he's in his 60s, meaning he didn't even get his first crack in the league until his late 50s, despite having been a coach for the better part of three decades. He would remain in Cleveland from 2001 to 2004. Here's how his offenses fared in those years.
In case you were wondering, the years 2001-2003 were the same years that Bruce Arians was calling the shots in Cleveland. Arians was dismissed one year before Zierlein was, but clearly 2004 was not a memorable one for the Big Z.
He would then take 2005 off, before being the Assistant Offensive Line Coach in Buffalo in 2006, when the Bills finished 7-9, with the 23rd ranked scoring offense. His line surrendered 47 sacks (t-7th most), and the passing game and rushing game were ranked 28th and 27th respectively, in terms of yards per game.
The reality is, Larry Zierlein has never coached an offensive line that paved the way for a successful NFL offense. As I mentioned to start, that has a lot to do with the players at his disposal. There's only so much you can do with a rotten bag of lemons in Cleveland. That said, his credentials at the professional level leave plenty to be desired.
How about in the college ranks? Zierlein did have a nice run in the now defunct Southwestern Conference, when he coached the O-Line at the University of Houston from 1978-1986. His teams won two conference titles in his first two years on campus, finishing 1978 ranked #10 and 1979 #5, and one more in 1984.
Following that solid run, Zierlein spent one year coaching the Washington Commandos in their inaugural 4-team demonstration year. Then, two unfruitful seasons in New Orleans coaching the Tulane Green Wave, followed by a two-year stint in the World League of American Football. It should be noted that the two years that he was coaching the NY/NJ Knights of the WFAL, were the first two of the league's existence. I don't want to sound overly critical here, as I commend Zierlein for wanting to be a part of something new and fresh, but let's face it, those leagues were not exactly competing for first-rate talent at the coaching level.
Somehow, Tulane decided to give him another shot, in 1995-1996, but both he and head coach Buddy Teevens were dismissed following the '96 season. For those who think coaching doesn't matter, remember that Tommy Bowden took over the Tulane job in 1997, and immediately turned the program around, winning 7 games with many of Teeven's and Zierlein's players, followed by an undefeated 12-0 season in 1998.
The last stop on Zierlein's career path before making into the NFL was with the Cincinnati Bearcats. As seems to have been the case in several of his stints, things got off to a nice start, then turned south. In 1997, the squad posted an 8-4 record, followed by 2-9 and 3-8 campaigns the finish out the millenium. In his final year in Cincy, things were better, as the Bearcat rushing attack helped pave the way for a 7-5 record and bowl berth.
In conclusion, allow me to quickly say that so long as Larry Zierlein is a coach on the Pittsburgh Steelers, I support him and have high hopes for him. All offseason, I have thought that it's entirely possible that our offensive line performs at a much higher level in 2008 than it did in Zierlein's first year, even though on paper we shouldn't be much better. For the sake of his career in Pittsburgh, it better be, because if you had to ask me which assistant coach is most likely to be dismissed in the Mike Tomlin era, it would have to be him.
Anyway, if nothing else, I'm a bit underwhelmed by his resume. Zierlein joined the coaching ranks of the NFL at 61 years old, having never played a down in the league. Outside of his credible stint at Houston, he seemed to have bounced around quite a bit. And then, once in the pros, he struggled similarly. Granted, Cleveland has been a veritable graveyard for coaches up until just recently, but nevertheless, many have done more with less.
With all the weapons stockpiled on our roster, let's hope that Zierlein and his men can put together a solid season in 2008 and in years to come. There's enough talent to make everybody look much smarter than they really are, provided we put the right guys in the right places along the line.