NFL study: how important is an offensive line to success?

NFL, Kansas City Chiefs - Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports
NFL, Kansas City Chiefs - Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports /

With the NFL season just around the corner, here is a brief study of just how important an offensive line is to a team’s success.

The NFL is a team sport, and while some positions are inherently more valuable, a great team needs a complete roster. I wanted to take a minute to look at the importance of the offensive line though. It is no secret that a good line will pay dividends for a team.

I did some research into the matter this past weekend and came away with the following results. This study looks at PFF’s final offensive line grades since 2012. Those stats are compared to some data like the final record, playoff appearances, and Super Bowl results. This gives a complete look at just how important a good offensive line is to a team.

An NFL offensive line has some important results

Looking over the study, one of the impacts of having a line is a team’s final record. When comparing the top 16 lines to the bottom 16 lines, the difference is only about a game. Looking at the top and bottom-5 lines though, there is almost a three-game spread. That is huge for a team, as a good line can and will win you more games.

What is more telling is the playoff success. Based on this data, if a team wants to make it to the playoffs, they need to have a top-12 offensive line. To make it to the Super Bowl, you need to be a top-11 line. To win the Super Bowl follows suit, as the average offensive line rank for every winner is around a top-12 line.

Digging deeper, a bottom-five offensive line has only made it to the playoffs seven times and has never made it to the Super Bowl nor won it. A bottom-12 line has fared better, making the playoffs 21 times, while making it to the Super Bowl three times. Anytime that a bottom-12 line has made it, they have won the big game.

This study isn’t perfect

I’ll be the first to admit that this study has outliers. While the study as a whole points toward more success with a better offensive line, some teams overcame those odds. In particular, the Seahawks were one of the more successful teams during this study, but they consistently had a below-average offensive line.

As well, this study doesn’t consider any other position other than the offensive line. There have been teams with great players elsewhere that have had bad lines but good records. Likewise, some great offensive lines have lacked good players elsewhere on offense and have struggled. A good offensive line doesn’t guarantee success while a bad offensive line doesn’t guarantee a bad team.

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Altogether, this study shows how important an offensive line is to NFL success. While there are exceptions, a good line can typically lead to better NFL success. This is relevant both to a team’s record and its playoff success. If you want to build a successful NFL team, building around the line is a safe bet.