The All-22 All-Stars: Michael Roos, the Rock in Tennessee
The All-22 All-Star Team is an attempt to provide some insight on the NFL’s 22 most underappreciated players. Some will be All-Pros who haven’t fully gotten their due; some will be names few casual fans have ever heard. All will, for one reason or another, have been overlooked.
In two and a half years, Aaron Best heard Michael Roos say about as many words. The 6-foot-7 offensive tackle rarely spoke unless spoken to, and even then, it was mostly “Yes, coach.” Roos’s redshirt sophomore season was his first playing offensive line for Best at Eastern Washington, and each offseason Best and his linemen take a camping trip somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. “We start doing marshmallows, s’mores, all that fat kid stuff we do, and he starts talking,” Best says. “We’re sitting around the campfire, and a couple of guys are kind of muttering, and I just said, ‘Hey, shut up, guys. Michael is talking. Let him go.’”
The Estonian-born Roos arrived at Eastern Washington having played only one year of high school football, but by the end of his time there, he’d developed into the best offensive lineman in Division I-AA football. His performance there and at that year’s Senior Bowl was enough to convince Floyd Reese and Jeff Fisher to take him with the Titans’ second-round pick in 2005, and he’s been among the most reliable left tackles in football since.
“You really don’t remember a lot of stuff about him from the game, and that’s a compliment,” Titans offensive line coach Bruce Matthews says. “You’re out there on the edge, and if you’re not showing up, it means the guy you’re playing against typically is very quiet. He has very quiet games.”
Mike Woodward first saw Roos about 16 years — and 100 pounds — ago. Woodward was the sophomore basketball coach at Mountain View High School in Vancouver, Washington, and that night, he was at one of the local middle schools scouting players for the following season. “I remember seeing this big, skinny, bald kid that liked to shoot 3-pointers,” Woodward says. Roos would eventually play basketball for Woodward his sophomore year at Mountain View, but looking at the 6-foot-4, 200-pound 16-year-old, Woodward had other ideas. “I figured I’d ask him to come out and play football,” says Woodward, who was a varsity assistant at the time. “But he said he didn’t know anything about football, that he’d never played in the backyard with his buddies — nothing.”
Roos didn’t grow up watching football because he didn’t grow up in the United States. He spent the first 10 years of his life in Estonia, where his mother worked several jobs to support Roos and his two siblings. When his parents divorced in 1992, Roos’s mother moved the family to the United States, where they lived with an aunt in Washington. Ignorance was his excuse in turning Woodward down, but really, his reservations about football went beyond that. “I was afraid I’d get hurt,” Roos says.
Mountain View’s varsity basketball coach had similar concerns, and typically, he didn’t want his players spending the fall getting worn down on the football field. By Roos’s junior year, that thinking began to shift. “He was still sitting outside shooting 3-pointers as opposed to being a post player at 6-foot-5, 220 pounds,” Woodward says. “The [varsity basketball] coach was just hammering on him about being tougher.” Before Roos’s senior year, Woodward was hired as the school’s head football coach, and that was finally enough to convince both Roos and the basketball coach that football might be worth a try. “The basketball coach, who’d become a good friend, had kind of given in, and he said, ‘OK, talk him into playing football so we can toughen him up and get him inside playing the post a little bit,’” Woodward says.
Playing his first football as a senior in high school, Roos mostly lined up at slot receiver, while also spending some scattered time at tight end and running back. He played well, with 18 catches on the season, but when the season ended, everyone involved assumed that was all. The football experience did help Roos’s basketball, and as a senior, his inside-outside game helped him score more than 20 points a game.
At one of those basketball games, a member of Eastern Washington’s coaching staff was in town to scout another football and basketball player from Mountain View. When he recognized Roos from the tape and saw how he moved on the floor, it was enough for the Division I-AA (at the time) school to take a chance. With his family’s financial situation, Roos knew this was a chance to go to college he might not have otherwise. “I wanted to have at least my college paid for,” Roos says. “I didn’t know much about football, so I didn’t know if I wanted to play, or if I wanted to keep playing, but I knew at the very least, if I could just work at it, I could get my school paid for.”
What Eastern Washington didn’t tell Roos is that its plan didn’t involve him playing wide receiver. The head coach at the time was Paul Wulff, a current 49ers assistant who’d played offensive line at Washington State. Wulff and his staff frequently took tall, athletic basketball players with frames that could support more weight and turned them into offensive linemen. Roos was next in line. In his first two years, he played some tight end and defensive line but the plan, Eastern Washington offensive line coach Best says, was in place all along. “I think they knew — and they told me this later on — that if they told me right away, I probably wouldn’t have gone,” Roos says.
Roos moved to the offensive line as a redshirt sophomore, having never played a single down there before, but for Best, that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. “In a coach’s world, sometimes that’s better,” Best says. “They’re more impressionable, they’re more coachable, they haven’t created bad habits. A lot of people want these guys that have gone 12, 13 years playing football. Sometimes, as an offensive linemen especially, you want guys who haven’t taken so many hits, haven’t been around all these offensive schemes.” If there was a player equipped to learn an entirely new position in a relatively new sport at age 20, it was Roos. “Before he even got into a game, you could tell he grasped everything,” Best says. “He was a sponge, but that sponge was never squeezed. He never released the information. I’d say Mike, ‘You’ve had that pencil for three years, and you’ve never had to sharpen it,’” Best says. “He’d just say, ‘Well, I got it.’ Who am I to say to take notes? He got it.”
He was a starter at left tackle in his first season, and by the end of his second, both Roos and the Eastern Washington coaching staff started to understand what they had. Roos was a Division I-AA All-American as a senior, having gained nearly 80 pounds since arriving on campus, and after the season, he was invited to the East-West Shrine Game and the Senior Bowl. It was at the latter that Roos quelled any doubt about whether the level of his Big Sky competition skewed the view of his potential as an NFL player. Roos more than held his own against the best players in the country, and that spring, NFL coaches and scouts were frequently making the trip to little Cheney, Washington. “Coach [Mike] Munchak at the time was the [Titans] line coach, and I remember sitting in with Michael talking scheme,” Best says. “Coach Munch wrote their protections, the dummy version, and then erased them. He had Mike draw up protections and then erase them. Then he went back and asked about their protections, the Titans’, and Mike just reeled them off.”
A few weeks before the NFL draft, Woodward got a phone call. It was Roos, asking his high school coach to attend his draft party in Spokane. Woodward didn’t know what to think. Roos had told him he was expected to go anywhere from the third to fourth round, but to Woodward, he was still a kid who’d come to football as a senior in high school, still unsure of the rules.
Woodward was sitting across the table from Roos when his phone rang near the end of the first round. It was Fisher, who told Roos the Titans would be taking him with their second-round pick, the 41st overall. “I couldn’t believe it,” Woodward says. “Here I thought I was driving six hours to Spokane for a draft party where this kid wouldn’t get drafted and may end up as a free agent, and sure enough, it came on the big screen: The Tennessee Titans select Michael Roos, tackle from Eastern Washington.”
Matthews played 19 seasons during a Hall of Fame career as an offensive lineman with the Oilers and Titans, but his first as an offensive line coach was 2011, and it was not an ideal time to start. The lockout had deprived the first-year coach of OTAs and a chunk of training camp, cutting his course in coaching by more than half. Thankfully, one of the players in his meeting room turned out to be “if not the smartest, one of the smartest players I’ve ever been around,” Matthews says. Roos was able to recall adjustments and changes the Titans had made from years earlier, and his working knowledge of the offense eased Matthews’s transition. “He’s just an excellent resource to have as a coach,” Matthews says.
Even with Roos’s propensity for learning and retaining the intricacies of an entire offense, he says it took until about his third season to fully grasp the NFL game. “Things started slowing down,” Roos says. “You get to the point where every front or blitz that a defense can throw your way, you’ve seen it.” Roos was a starter just a few games into his rookie season, but it was his fourth year, during which the Titans went 13-3 and allowed just 12 sacks, when he finally emerged. He earned his first trip to the Pro Bowl and was named first-team All-Pro as one of the best pass-blocking left tackles in the league.
He hasn’t been back to the Pro Bowl since, but last season may have been Roos’s best since that 2008 campaign. Each of these clips is from the same quarter of the same Week 12 game against the Texans — just a representative sample of his steady, quiet play throughout the entire year. According to Football Outsiders, only Cleveland’s Joe Thomas had fewer blown blocks among left tackles who started at least 12 games.
In the play above, we see an actual example of Roos’s knowledge of the offense. With the linebacker showing blitz, Roos informs his running back that he’ll be stepping inside by tapping his right hip. Not only does he pick up the blitz when it comes, but he also correctly passes off a defender to his guard while sliding over to another rusher.
Understanding the offense is one product of eight years in the same system, but experience manifests in these small moments. Above, Roos is working against then-rookie first-rounder Whitney Mercilus coming off the edge, and Mercilus’s hesitation move is relatively advanced. Rather than lunge for the defender, though, Roos patiently waits. Mercilus can stop and start all he wants. The path to the quarterback is the same.
Here’s Roos facing J.J. Watt, and we see a similar result. Early in the play, Roos isn’t fazed by Watt’s fake steps, and when the battle moves to use of hands, Roos manages to keep Watt’s off him as both move back toward the quarterback. That sort of hand battle is one Watt won all season.
Roos is much stronger as a pass blocker than in the run game, which is as much a product of his emotional makeup as his physical one. “I wanted him to be more of a prick,” Best says of Roos. It might be hard to imagine that this man is too nice, but all through college, Best urged Roos to play with more of an edge.
The Titans are willing to sacrifice a mean streak if it means having a player like Roos anchor the left side of their line. This season, Roos is playing a similar role with Tennessee’s revamped offensive line to the one he played with Matthews in 2011. “He’s not confrontational or a know-it-all,” Matthews says. “He’s very humble in offering his take on situations. And guys quickly realize he knows what he’s talking about and he’s an excellent resource for them to go as well.” Two of the Titans’ most significant offseason moves involved the offensive line, as they took Alabama guard Chance Warmack with the 10th overall pick shortly after signing guard Andy Levitre to a sizable free-agent contract. “It was horrendous,” Roos says of last season. “We had a lot of different lineups throughout the season, and things just fell apart with injuries. It’s good to see an almost overhaul, with the draft and free agency and bringing guys in to create a lot of competition.”
Roos remains the steady hand. Last season, his streak of 119 straight starts was snapped — because of an emergency appendectomy. Matthews knows something about maintaining a long NFL career — he went to the Pro Bowl 14 times — and he says when a player is as dependable as Roos, it’s difficult to value him in the moment. “We probably won’t appreciate him until he’s gone, unfortunately,” Matthews says. “He’s such a solid guy and so consistent, that when the void’s there, it’s going to be, ‘Oh yeah, we took him for granted.’ That’s the highest form of praise for an offensive lineman.”