Importance of the left tackle is based on an old NFL, and it's time to adapt
This story appears in the September 21, 2015 issue of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. To subscribe, click here.
In the first half of the 2015 NFL season opener, Patriots left tackle Nate Solder was flagged twice for penalties and defeated several times by Steelers bull rushers. Funny timing, then, that New England had signed the 27-year-old to a two-year extension worth $20.1 million only one day earlier. Factored in with his $5.6 million salary this season, Solder is now, on average, the team's highest-paid player. On Thursday, thanks in part to injuries, the Patriots lined up a pair of rookies (fourth-round guard Tre' Jackson; undrafted center David Andrews) and an undrafted third-year guard (Josh Kline) to Solder's right, forming a three-man interior that collectively costs an average of $1.7 million annually. Or 17% of Solder's haul.
New England's O-line was never an issue in a 28–21 victory over Pittsburgh—Solder's struggles early on were offset by Tom Brady's pocket poise and quick throws—but one had to wonder: Why are the notoriously economical Pats paying a premium for a good-but-far-from-great left tackle?
The answer lies in the fact that it has become chic to say that the left tackle is the second-most-important position in football, behind only quarterback. This makes you sound smart. Open-minded. You're lauding the once-underappreciated 300-pounders who do the dirty work. But you're also just plain wrong.
Left tackles gained awareness and popularity 10 years ago, thanks largely to Michael Lewis's 2006 book, The Blind Side, which profiled a rising high school superstar, Michael Oher, and argued that his position, left tackle, was second in importance because it was crucial in protecting the most important position. Lewis's point was keen and well-explained, and football fans rightfully bought in. So did NFL general managers, who in the subsequent decade made left tackle the game's second-highest-paid position.
But consider: Lewis's theory was based on an old NFL. He told his story through the prism of the 1980s, when the likes of Lawrence Taylor menaced quarterbacks who often lined up directly under center and took seven-step drop-backs. Thirty-odd years later, that QB spends 75% of his time in the shotgun, where he almost immediately has a much wider scope of vision; if he's righthanded, he sees the full right side of the field and almost all of the left. There is no "blind side" anymore. Yesterday's seven-step drops are now more like five-step drops, but most QBs don't even hold the ball that long. Quick strikes have become the norm; the best passers often throw in 2.5 seconds or less. Many times, even if a wide-aligned defensive end goes completely untouched by the left tackle, he still can't reach the QB in time.
More than ever, defenses generate pass-rushing pressure through disguised fronts, stunts, twists or blitzes—and most of those focus on isolating and exploiting an O-line's weakest link. A solid left tackle is still valuable, but as a pass protector he's not much more valuable than any of his fellow O-linemen.
Perception holds that the left tackle's value is greatest when he spars one-on-one against an edge rusher in obvious passing situations (allowing the offense to scheme ways to help its right tackle, who is almost always athletically inferior to the defender he's blocking). But is that enough to make left tackle the second-highest-paid position in the game?
Pass-blocking is a totally reactive maneuver: You can't create anything, you can only prevent something bad from happening. And that makes the difference between a great pass block and an average one nominal. Both render the same result, a clean quarterback. A great catch or run, on the other hand, can create a significantly different outcome than an average catch or throw. You don't get these without sturdy pass protection, of course, but that makes pass protection, in essence, an insurance policy. And your insurance policy shouldn't cost nearly half as much as the thing it protects.
Of course, pass-blocking is only part of the equation. In the ground game, offensive linemen are aggressors. And as the Cowboys proved last season, the difference between average run blockers and great ones can be extraordinary. But the left tackle is rarely the crux of a run-blocking design. You can benefit on sweeps, pitches and misdirections if you're lucky enough to have an athletic left tackle who can play in space or on the perimeter. But most gap-oriented run-blocking designs rely on pull-blocking guards, and outside-zone running is a collective front-five effort, often hinging on a center's quickness off the snap. Nowhere in this equation is the left tackle crucial enough to justify the assets that are currently being dedicated to his position.
Tellingly, recent Super Bowl winners haven't invested heavily in left tackles. While roughly 65% of today's NFL teams employ a former first-rounder at the position, only four of the past 14 champions did so. (Tarik Glenn for the 2006 Colts; Bryant McKinnie for the '12 Ravens, and by then he was a veteran journeyman after being drafted by the Vikings; Russell Okung for the '13 Seahawks; and Nate Solder, who had a very up-and-down season for the '14 Patriots.) Other data suggest that standout left tackles don't translate to wins. Since '07, 15 out of 32 left tackles who were voted first- or second-team All-Pro have played for clubs with losing records. (To be fair, the Browns' Joe Thomas skews these numbers a bit.)
These are surface-level samplings, of course, but if we're talking about the second-highest-paid position in the game, then even the surface level should look terrific. Super Bowls aren't being won with average quarterbacks—or even with average cornerbacks or pass rushers. Plus, All-Pros from those positions are reaching the postseason at a much higher rate.
It was once wise to invest heavily in left tackles. But in today's NFL—where balls are thrown quickly, quarterbacks are vigorously monitored for safety by officials and so many formations involve the shotgun—the smart money should go elsewhere.