Blindsiding The Blind Side

One of the big trends in football over the last couple of decades has been an increasing focus on the importance of the left tackle, resulting in massive salaries and high draft picks expended on those who play it well. Famed Moneyball author Michael Lewis explored this phenomenon in his 2006 book, The Blind Side, which is set to be released as a movie later this year. The book took a historical look at the position and then followed the development of Michael Oher, the star Mississipi left tackle who became a first-round draft pick this year.

The historical section suggested that specialized left tackles became important in the late 1980s when San Francisco 49ers coaching legend Bill Walsh drafted Harris Barton in the first round to protect his quarterbacks’ blind side from dominant pass-rushers such as Lawrence Taylor. Other teams saw the value in this and followed suit, increasing the importance placed on the position and thus the money and draft picks allocated to it.

Since The Blind Side was published, it appears that focus on left tackles has only increased. The 2006 NFL draft saw only one offensive tackle (D’Brickashaw Ferguson, chosen fourth overall by the New York Jets) selected in the first round. By contrast, the 2007 draft featured first-round tackle choices Joe Thomas (third overall), Levi Brown (fifth) and Joe Staley (28th), and the 2008 draft saw the Miami Dolphins take tackle Jake Long first overall and make him the highest-paid offensive lineman in the NFL immediately thereafter.

After Long, an incredible seven other offensive tackles were drafted in the first round, making tackles over 25 percent of all first-round draft picks that year (there were 31 picks in total, as the New England Patriots forfeited theirs thanks to their involvement in the Spygate scandal). This year’s draft saw a continued focus on the left tackle, with Jason Smith chosen second overall, Andre Smith selected sixth, Eugene Monroe picked eighth and Oher drafted 23rd overall.

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Exactly how valuable the left tackle is is still up for debate, though. ESPN.com writer KC Joyner, who also writes for the New York Times’ Fifth Down blog and is the author of the forthcoming Scientific Football 2009, is one of the key voices against overrating left tackles. Joyner, also known as “The Football Scientist” for his analytical approach to the game, famously wrote the book Blindsided: Why The Left Tackle Is Overrated in 2008. He suggested that left tackles were important, but their relative value compared to the other offensive line positions had been somewhat exaggerated.

In the book, he wrote that “Today’s defenses don’t rely as much on getting the edge linebacker in a one-on-one matchup against a left tackle, but instead try to get a matchup anywhere they can on the line. That makes building a solid offensive line across the board much more important than just having one great left tackle.”

In an interview with The Good Point this past week, Joyner said having the league’s best left tackle won’t help much if the rest of your offensive line is weak.

“It all comes down to the idea that there are two ways to approach attacking offenses – you can either attack the scheme or attack personnel weaknesses,” he said. “The gist of attacking a scheme is to find a set/formation weakness and that normally involves trying to get more rushers than blockers at a given area. In that case, it doesn’t matter how good the LT is because you are going to occupy him with a rusher and get someone unblocked around him. If a team is more personnel than scheme oriented, they are going to try to find the weakest link on the line and go after that player. Again, if the LT is strong and there is a weaker link on the line, this type of team will go after the weaker player and thus avoid the LT.”

Joyner said the change in the historical importance of the position has perhaps also been exaggerated.

“I also don’t think teams have necessarily changed the way they approach things,” he said. “Bill Walsh loved to talk about how he made the left tackle position so important but it is also worth pointing out that his first Super Bowl win came with a guard playing LT and his second came with a fat, underachieving LT (Bubba Paris). If the LT position was so important, how was it that Walsh put up two championship wins with a subpar player at that position? The answer, in my estimation, is that it isn’t as important as he said it was but he wanted to make the case about Harris Barton’s value to help promote himself as a football genius. I’m not saying he wasn’t a genius but he had a lot of Carl Sagan in him – his brilliance was obvious but so was his penchant for self-promotion.”

However, Lewis also postulated that part of the demand for good left tackles was due to the unusual mix of size and speed required to play the position in today’s NFL, making it so there were far less potential candidates to fill the left tackle role than any other position on the offensive line and thus increasing the value of the capable left tackles out there. Joyner said this line of thought has some merit, especially in the passing game.

“I believe one justifiable reason for a team to pursue the size/speed attributes for the left tackle position is because that is the position where those traits can have the greatest value in pass blocking,” he said. “Guards and centers need size and a certain amount of speed, but they are not going to be tested at the corner the way that left tackles are. Another way to put it is that there is a limited amount of pass blocking upside potential for guards and centers because of the nature of their position. Right tackles are also in a similar boat because the tight end typically lines up on their side. Teams will always pay big dollars for upside physical potential and since the left tackle spot has more of that than the other line spots, it will tend to draw more financial interest.”

Brian Galliford, who writes the Buffalo Rumblings blog for SB Nation, also thinks that too much emphasis has been placed on the left tackle by Lewis and others.

“I’ve long felt that the importance of the left tackle position has been overblown,” he told The Good Point. “Not because it’s an unimportant position, mind you, but because talking about that specific position seems too much like over-complicating what is, in reality, a pretty simple game. You can’t even look at last year’s Super Bowl contestants, Pittsburgh and Arizona, without seeing a giant flaw in the logic.

“The Steelers and Cardinals had two of the worst pass-protecting lines in the league; combined, Ben Roethlisberger and Kurt Warner were sacked 72 times in 2008. Max Starks (Pittsburgh) and Mike Gandy (Arizona) are hardly considered to be the cream of the crop when it comes to “elite” NFL left tackles. The Steelers and Cardinals were able to overcome their pass blocking issues with consistent play up front. They didn’t even have consistently good play up front, but it was consistent – and good teams can overcome their deficiencies when they’re there.”

There has been a lot of attention paid to Buffalo’s left tackle situation over this offseason, as the Bills traded Pro Bowler Jason Peters to the Philadelphia Eagles for a first-, a fourth- and a conditional sixth-round pick after he had a contract dispute with the team. At the moment, the Bills plan to move right tackle Langston Walker to the left side and right guard Brad Butler to right tackle. Many analysts have criticized the Bills for the Peters trade, arguing that the team sacrificed its chances of winning by trading their star left tackle, but Galliford doesn’t see it that way.

“For Buffalo – particularly playing in a division that features three of the better 3-4 nose tackles in the league (Miami’s Jason Ferguson, New England’s Vince Wilfork and New York’s Kris Jenkins) – the whole was far more important than the sum of the parts,” he said. “They were willing to sacrifice Peters, even if they didn’t necessarily want to, if it meant they could field a better overall offensive line. They moved Langston Walker to left tackle, who at a bare minimum will play consistently. They drafted two guards (Eric Wood, Andy Levitre), signed a center, and moved their most underrated lineman, Brad Butler, out to his more natural tackle position.

“Trading Peters hurts from a talent standpoint – there’s no question he’s one of the NFL’s elite’ at his position – but it’s a necessary and worthy sacrifice if it means that the Bills have a better, more consistent offensive line. And if there are problems, the unit should be consistent to the point where the Bills can mask their deficiencies with smart game-planning.”

Galliford said there’s little correlation between having a star left tackle and winning games, so he’s confident the team will be fine without Peters.

“The bottom line is this: if left tackles were as important as many make them out to be, teams like the Bills (Peters), Browns (Joe Thomas), Broncos (Ryan Clady), Vikings (Bryant McKinnie), and Redskins (Chris Samuels) would have won a lot more games than they actually have,” he said. “All have had, or currently have, serious question marks at quarterback, however. It’s far more difficult to find a bad team with a good quarterback, and there’s a reason for that.”

Jason Brewer, who covers the Eagles for the SB Nation site Bleeding Green Nation, said he regards the left tackle more highly than Joyner and Galliford.

“I think it’s just about imperative to have a good LT on a winning team,” he said. “Any time an opposing team can pressure the passer, the likelihood of turnovers goes up. When a team can pressure the passer from his blind side, turnovers are even more likely. We all know that moment that makes you cringe, when your QB is looking downfield, you can plainly see that DE coming unblocked at his blind side, and he doesn’t know the guy is there. How many times that does end up in a strip sack or the QB getting hammered and fumbling? Often.”

Brewer said if he was an NFL general manager, acquiring a solid left tackle would be one of his top priorities.

“I’d probably rank LT as my number-three priority,” he said. “Franchise QB comes first, then an elite pass rusher, then the LT.”

Brewer said he thinks the Peters trade is a good move for Philadelphia.

“The amount of picks is really not all that great,” he said. “There was a late first, a fourth, and then I believe a sixth-rounder in 2010. For a two time pro bowl LT who’s only 27, that’s fairly cheap in my opinion. It’s far less than the Eagles would probably have had to give up in order to move up in the draft for one of the two elite’ LT prospects.”

Brewer said he expects Peters to have a big year in the Eagles’ offence.

“I’m optimistic about Peters. He has the athleticism to do the kind of things the Eagles ask of their offensive lineman. I think now that he’s properly motivated and got the money he was after, he should return that devastating form of 2007 that made the league sit up and take notice of him.”

Despite the high price paid for him, Joyner agrees that Peters will make an impact in Philadelphia, but not necessarily because of his pass-blocking skills.

“At first I thought the Eagles might have made a mistake in the Peters deal because he gave up 11.5 sacks last year,” he said. “After tabulating his run blocking totals (which included a terrific 90.1% Point of Attack block win percentage), I think the Eagles made a very good move, especially since I believe they are going to start leaning on the run game a bit more this year.”

The Bills and Eagles’ left tackle situations will be key ones to watch over the coming year, but another interesting tackle situation to follow is that of the Baltimore Ravens. The Ravens have historically placed substantial emphasis on the tackle positions, drafting LT Jonathan Ogden fourth overall in 1996 with the first pick the team made after relocating to Baltimore. Ogden retired in 2008 and was replaced by Jared Gaither, another highly-touted tackle. In this year’s draft, the Ravens used their first-round pick to select Mississippi left tackle Michael Oher, the primary subject of The Blind Side. Bruce Raffel, who covers the team for the SB Nation blog Baltimore Beatdown, said he appreciates the emphasis the Ravens place on their tackles.

“While the center position is sort of the ‘quarterback’ of the o-line, the left tackle is the most important piece, as they protect (usually, unless QB is left-handed) the QB’s blind side,” Raffel said. “Most great pass rushers come from the left side and therefore the best offensive lineman usually plays there. In addition to pass protection, the LT must open gaping holes for the running game as well, which of course, makes the passing game even more successful.”

Raffel said the team made an excellent decision to take Ogden so high in 1996 despite their other needs.

“Ogden was the premier LT coming out of UCLA in that draft year, and when trying to build a team for the future, taking the guy who will be protecting your QB’s blind side for the next 10-12 years or so is the best place to start, which is why the Detroit Lions should have done the same thing this year rather than take a QB with the first pick,” he said. “JO was a very bright young man when drafted and then became an even smarter player as he matured, both emotionally as well as physically. He watched tape on his opponents and knew their signature moves and was rarely beaten by the same guy more than once. He was also a huge physical specimen who took care of his body which permitted him to enjoy a long healthy career, at least until towards the end of all the abuse he lasted through against the best pass rushers in the league.”

The team selected Gaither further down in the 2007 draft, but Raffel said his skills are those of a much higher draft choice.

“When we grabbed former Maryland Terrapin LT Jared Gaither with the fifth pick in the Supplemental Draft, every Ravens fan knew we had a guy that would have gone in the top part of the first round if he stayed only one more year in college,” he said. “Having a year to learn from JO was the best thing that could have happened to Gaither, as he had an on-the-field coach in Ogden Gaither is fast on his way to becoming an All Pro at LT. He is a massive human being at 6’9″ and 334 pounds, but moves around pretty good for such a behemoth. He already had a great season last year and will only get better. Joe Flacco has a lot of confidence that his back is covered with Gaither entrenched at LT.”

Raffel said the Oher selection surprised him at first given the team’s prominent needs elsewhere, but he thinks it could pay off. Oher is expected to start at right tackle immediately and could fill in on the left side if Gaither is hurt.

“Most Ravens fans, including me, were looking for a wide receiver with the first round pick,” Raffel said. “When I heard that we made the trade to move up in the round, I was sure it was to grab either a WR or one of the USC LB’s, such as Rey Maualuga, who I thought would be a great transition to Ray Lewis at MLB. However, when they took Michael Oher and his life story came out, it was obvious that he fit the mold of a typical Raven player. Finally when RT Willie Anderson announced his retirement, opening the door for Oher to start at RT right away, it became apparent that this is why our GM Ozzie Newsome is well known as the ‘Wizard of Oz.'”

There are a plurality of differing opinions out there on just how important a good tackle can be, but few would argue against grabbing one whenever possible. Raffel said he thinks the Ravens will be set for the long run with Oher’s potential and Gaither already excelling.

“Learning at RT will be a challenge, but I was at the Ravens’ training camp this past week and while Oher is 6’4″ and 310 pounds, there is not an ounce of belly fat on the guy, which is rare for an OT,” he said. “If Jared Gaither stays healthy and continues his rapid growth as a fixture at LT, then Michael Oher will become one of the best RT’s in the game very quickly. If something happens with Gaither, then Oher would seamlessly slide over to his natural position. Although a LT in college, it will actually be easier to acclimate himself to the speed and challenges of the pro game by learning right off the bat from the RT position, which is far less pressure.”

It’s going to be tough to definitively settle the value of a left tackle any time soon, as it’s partly based on the supply of players out there and the demand for them. Moreover, different offensive schemes place differing levels of importance on an outstanding left tackle, and the defence’s plan of attack also plays into it. The constant evolution of offensive and defensive schemes adds a new dimension of complexity into the equation, making it more difficult to prove or disprove Lewis’ ideas about the importance of the left tackle.

Regardless of the truth behind Lewis’ overall theories, though, it appears quite possible that the star of his book could become a great NFL player. Thus, even if the overarching premise of The Blind Side isn’t as important as Lewis claims, it’s still a fascinating look at the development of one star young left tackle along his journey to the NFL.

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