RENTON - Art Valero's nightmare must go like this: He's in a high-stakes game of Five Card Draw, but every time he thinks he's building a good hand, the dealer yanks a card away from him and makes him take another.
Sometimes from the discard pile.
But Valero, the Seattle Seahawks’ offensive line coach, finally seems to have arrived at a winner. Just when the stakes are going up. This unit will face a huge challenge Sunday when the Hawks meet the Bears in Chicago in a second-round playoff game.
He has had to manage 10 different combinations of starters in the front five this season. Three of the key players were lost for the season with injuries. Tyler Polumbus, a last-minute pickup, has started at three positions. Guard Mike Gibson was released by the Hawks at one point, yet ended up starting eight games.
But in the past two must-win games, the Hawks have rushed for an average of 145 yards and given up only one sack.
“As we’ve come through the last couple games, things we’ve been working on in the running game and in protection have come together,” Valero said. “It’s things we’ve been working on all the time, but for whatever reason ... the light comes on. Sometimes it takes time ... and continuity is the key.”
Yes, they all agree. An offensive line functions better when the five guys have been introduced.
“You look around the league, the best lines have been playing together four or five years,” center Chris Spencer said. “But you get a couple guys banged up and then it’s a totally different situation.”
The benefits of stability are more than merely physical. From continuity comes confidence.
“When you know the guy next to you, and when you know he’s going to do his job, that everybody will know what they’re doing when you make a call ... that makes a big difference,” Spencer said.
This group was disrupted almost from the start. First-round draft pick Russell Okung held out and then has been sporadically sidelined with ankle injuries. Guard Max Unger lasted only a week before suffering a season-ending foot injury. Guards Ben Hamilton and Chester Pitts both landed on the injured reserve list as the season progressed.
And the biggest jolt of all may have been the unexpected retirement of line coach Alex Gibbs just before the start of the season.
But, in keeping with the theme of the season for this line group, Valero jumped in and took over.
“I tip my hat to him,” Spencer said of Valero. “When Alex left, he had to step in right away and he’s done a really good job. Artie has been our rock, keeping us going.”
But it has not been pretty. At one point late in the season, the Hawks were ranked last in the NFL in rushing.
“It sucked that it took all year to get it going,” said tackle Sean Locklear. “We’d been beating ourselves, with somebody having a problem on a play and then saying, ‘Oh, my bad.’ Well we had to decide to stop saying ‘My bad’ and just get the job done.”
The success running has allowed the Seahawks to be more dimensional and less predictable. In turn, it opens up opportunities for the passing game.
“It’s taken us seemingly forever to see some continuity and some growth with the running game,” Coach Pete Carroll said. “We’ve been spotty at best, but the last two weeks when we needed it most, it’s been there, so we’ll try to take that with us to Chicago.”
Locklear and Spencer were part of the team that went to the Super Bowl after the 2005 season, and among those suffering through a bleak nine-win stretch over the 2008-2009 seasons.
“I was fortunate enough to step onto a good team,” Locklear said. “And to go into that funk for the last two years was hard. Being back into (the playoffs) now almost feels better than before because everybody always thought we were going to win the division and go to the playoffs before. Now, nobody expected it, but we’re back.”
And a key element was the belated-but-critical emergence of the offensive line.
Dave Boling: 253-597-8440 firstname.lastname@example.org