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Looking for the cutting edge

No one expects to see Alex Gibbs at the Raiders-Broncos game Sunday at Invesco Field, but his influence will be felt every time a defensive player picks himself up off the ground, the victim of a block he never saw.

Gibbs was the architect of Denver offensive lines from 1995 through 2003 which annually were among the best in the NFL despite being comprised of smallish blockers who were often castoffs or low draft picks.

Once upon a time, Gibbs was an offensive line coach for the Raiders. Mike Shanahan had worked with Gibbs on the Denver staff with Dan Reeves, and when Al Davis hired Shanahan to coach the Los Angeles Raiders in 1988, Shanahan requested to have Gibbs on his staff.

Davis also insisted Shanahan take Art Shell. Shell believes in man-to-man blocking, power against power, may the strongest man win. Gibbs philosophy is to get the defensive line moving one way and create a lane for the running back to make one hard cut through the hole.

“The thing is to have the appearance you are going outside,” defensive tackle Warren Sapp said during training camp. “But teams that stretch the ball don’t want to go outside. They want to
cut it back – spread your holes and (put) you on an island with a great athlete
and then he can put a move on you.”

Shanahan lasted just 20 games as the Raiders coach, and when he was fired in favor of Shell, Gibbs went with him.

Gibbs and Bobb McKittrick, the former line coach for the 49ers, were the leading practitioners of cut blocking, where linemen will dive at the legs of defenders, a tactic almost exclusively used on running plays. As McKittrick used to say, “We believe a defender is less likely to make a tackle if he’s on the ground.”

It favors smaller linemen who can get out and move, with stretch plays, sweeps and traps being the most effective running plays. It’s a system in which Kevin Boothe, a promising 14-game starter as a man blocker, becomes expendable in favor of Chris Morris, a center-guard who started last season on the practice squad before being elevated to the 53-man roster, although he rarely played.

After his Raiders experience, Gibbs, no big fan of Davis, quickly joined forces with Marty Schottenheimer in Kansas City.

When Shanahan became head coach in Denver, he brought in Gibbs to coach the offensive line.

While Gibbs never made it back to the Raiders, many of his philosophies are taught on a daily basis, courtesy of coach Lane Kiffin and line coach Tom Cable.

When Kiffin was co-offensive coordinator at USC, Gibbs came to campus in 2002 and spent two days teaching his blocking system.

“You’d always watched it and studied it but you never had the real bits and pieces of it,” Kiffin said. “When he came and gave it to us, we just never looked back after that and have used it ever since.”

Kiffin said the Raiders, or even the Broncos for that matter, do not fully adhere to all Gibbs’ tenets, but have incorporated most of his theories.

When looking for a line coach, Kiffin zeroed in on Cable early in the process. Gibbs left Denver in 2003 and was brought in by Jim Mora to be the assistant head coach and line coach with the Atlanta Falcons.

Cable was hired in 2006 to be the Falcons line coach when Gibbs wanted to reduce his work load and become a consultant.

Like Cable, Denver line coach Rick Dennison also worked with Gibbs from 2001 through 2003.

The Raiders transition has been encouraging.

“Nobody wants to be told they’re not worth a darn,” Cable said during training camp. “They’re human. I think they embraced it the right way. Definitely.”

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Jerry McDonald - NFL Writer