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Don't Cross This Line

Sept. 05, 1994
Sept. 05, 1994

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Sept. 5, 1994

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Don't Cross This Line

Once overlooked, the left tackle is now a highly valued specialist. Some of the best at the position, in vintage uniforms to honor the NFL's 75th anniversary, show why they are finally getting respect

They come into the league like gifts from heaven, in dribs and drabs. A righthanded quarterback's head and body are turned to the right; his blind side, or back side, is to the left. That's where trouble lives, and trouble bears many names: Derrick Thomas, Richard Dent, Pat Swilling, Tony Bennett, Clyde Simmons, Renaldo Turnbull, Leslie O'Neal and the Smiths, Bruce and Anthony. Every one of them is a rightside sacker. And who do we ask to stand between the quarterback and this horde? Why, the left tackle, of course.

This is an article from the Sept. 5, 1994 issue Original Layout

What does my left tackle mean to me? Only life or death.
—Mike Tomczak
Pittsburgh Steeler quarterback

Scouting for left tackles today? Bring along this list of prerequisites: must be strong enough—you don't want your guy carried into the quarterback's lap—and quick enough to dance with the speed rushers; must have good lateral movement, quick feet, and long arms for that final push-off if the pass rusher has gotten around the corner. In short, you want a gigantic Baryshnikov.

"You need unusual size but also unusual speed, which is not a usual combination," says New England Patriot left tackle Bruce Armstrong. "It's an oxymoron to say you want a quick guy who's 290, but that's what he'd better be."

This season Bernard Williams of the Philadelphia Eagles is considered a can't-miss rookie. Wayne Gandy of the Los Angeles Rams is close. Todd Steussie of the Minnesota Vikings and Marcus Spears of the Chicago Bears are maybes. "That's one and a half, maybe two," says Cincinnati Bengal line coach Jim McNally, "out of the whole United States of America." Williams, Gandy and Steussie were taken in the first round; Spears went in round 2. That should tell you something about the importance of the left tackle in today's NFL.

To establish an offense, of course, you must fill in a right tackle, too, especially if you're facing a formidable leftside rusher such as Reggie White of the Green Bay Packers, Kevin Greene of the Steelers or Neil Smith of the Kansas City Chiefs. And some teams will Hop their best pass rushers to either side if they smell a weakness. But the general feeling is that the offensive right tackle is the power man, the fellow who is capable of collapsing a side, while his counterpart on the left is more nimble-footed. So you aim your sights high and go for a left tackle, and if he Hunks, you move him to the right side, and if he flunks there, he becomes a guard—scouting outside-in, this is called—and if he flunks there, he becomes a high school coach.

The system has been known to break down. The New York Giant left tackle Jumbo Elliott played the power side at Michigan. He was projected as an NFL guard, "mainly because I was sick at the combine workouts and run a bad time," he says. "But I was always one of the top guys in the quickness and agility drills. My rookie year on the Giants [1988] I'd taken a few snaps at tackle, but I was mainly a guard. Then we played the Saints in New Orleans. William Roberts, our left tackle, got a thigh bruise in the first half, and they put someone else in. That was the game where Pat Swilling had three sacks and forced two fumbles. In the second half Bill Parcells looked around to see what he had on the bench. He said, "Elliott, you're in there." I was so full of adrenaline that I did a decent job, and I finished the season as the left tackle."

And Elliott was selected to the 1994 Pro Bowl. So what would have happened if Roberts hadn't bruised his leg?

"I guess I'd be a guard," Elliott says.

How tough is left tackle? Go around to the other linemen and ask for volunteers, and you 'II get your answer. You need a guy like those people who jump into oil wells to put out fires.
—Larry Lacewell
Dallas Cowboy personnel director

You look for the quickness, the 40-yard time and the bench press, but the unchartable is what goes on between the ears and in the heart. How does a man handle the terror factor, playing on the road in a domed stadium where the crowd, juiced up by the scoreboard Hashing its electronic message—NOISE!—is obliterating his quarterback's calls, and two feet away from him is one of those human whirlwinds waiting to fly around the corner like an Indy Car? "Derrick Thomas on artificial turf with the crowd noise...you're talking about a lethal weapon," says Green Bay left tackle Ken Ruettgers.

Then there's the unfairness of it all. Pass rushers get measured by all kinds of statistics: sacks, pressures, hurries, strip sacks and, of course, the trifecta—sack, forced fumble, recovered fumble. The only number a blocker can take pride in is a zero—to all of the above.

A sack brings the crowd to its feet. A standoff, which is really a victory for the offensive lineman, is a ho-hummer. Rushers develop all sorts of catchy trademarks: Eagle Tim Harris's loaded six-guns, former New York Jet Mark Gastineau's sack dance. The only time an offensive lineman dances is when someone steps on his foot. "What gets me," says Raider coach Art Shell, perhaps the finest left tackle of all time (page 118), "is that a guy gets a sack and he's jumping up and down. What about the 38 or 39 times out of 40 pass plays that he gets blocked? If a tackle did all that jumping up and down, he'd never make it through the first quarter."

Shell came up in an era in which left-right distinctions were not as finely drawn as they are today. If a coach had a hole to fill at tackle, he plunked somebody in, never mind the side. In the 40 years or so that the four-man defensive line has been in existence, pitting the tackle against the defensive end, seven offensive tackles—including Jim Parker of the Baltimore Colts, who also played guard (page 66)—have made the Hall of Fame. Four of those tackles played the right side, including two, Forrest Gregg of the Packers and Ron Mix of the San Diego Chargers, whose quick feet would stamp them as textbook left tackles today. Until the late '60s right tackle was where a team put its best lineman, simply because the left defensive end was usually the other team's strongest player against the run as well as the pass.

All of this began to change with the emergence of the American Football League. The NFL ran the ball, the AFL passed. Protecting the quarterback was a more urgent priority in the AFL, especially on his left side, away from the tight end. And while many NFL teams were still teaching the old pass-blocking technique—fists in tight, elbows out wide—young AFL line coaches such as the Jets' Chuck Knox taught their linemen to use their hands to steer opponents away from the action. And to grab a little jersey if they could get away with it.

With the merger of the two leagues, a new type of left tackle came into existence, and the prototype was the Jets' Winston Hill, 6'4", 270 pounds, a smooth, graceful athlete who had once been a Texas state tennis champion. Hill was clever with his hands. "So strong and yet so graceful," Jet fullback Matt Snell said of him. "You ever see him sweat? I never did. It's like watching a great artist at work."

Seventeen years ago the Raiders' Al Davis decided that he would make ex-Cowboy defensive end Pat Toomay his "designated rightside sacker." That drew a few smirks. Even in the age of specialization, this was too much. As usual Davis was ahead of his time. Four years later the Giants drafted Lawrence Taylor, a linebacker whose primary function would be to get the quarterback from the right side. In passing situations he would rush from a down-lineman's position.

Taylor created havoc. He turned games around with his patented strip sack, slapping the ball free. The stampede was on. Everyone had to have a player like Taylor, homing in on the passer from the right side. The slow-footed, drive-blocking left tackle was driven to extinction. Give us a left tackle with nifty feet, the coaches said, and we'll work on the rest.

A deficiency in footwork spelled disaster, and there is no better example than that of Tony Mandarich, the behemoth from Michigan State who in 1989 was labeled the greatest offensive-line prospect ever to come out of college. The Packers made Mandarich the second pick of that year's draft. "After one day of practice you could see that he'd never be a left tackle," says the Patriots' director of college scouting, Charley Armey. "He couldn't make that first quick move to the outside. After a week you could see that he'd never be an NFL tackle, period. Michigan State had been a straight-ahead power team, and that's what kind of player Mandarich was. He couldn't go side to side, but you couldn't see that until he was asked to do it. If he had played at Brigham Young [a pro-style passing team], you would have known."

At the other end of the spectrum is Anthony Mu‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬±oz, the king of modern offensive tackles. At USC from 1976 to '79 he played the weak side on a line that flopped strong and weak. Movement was his game, but he was also an overpowering drive-blocker. Munoz had knee surgery during his senior season, but the Bengals took a chance on him and were rewarded with an 11-time Pro Bowl left tackle. "He had tremendous god-given skills that he then developed," says Sam Wyche, Mu‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬±oz's coach in Cincinnati and now the head man for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. "He'd be out there in bad weather al lunchtime, running so he could get himself loose for practice. Other guys were catching a little nap, but there was nothing but pride in the way Anthony prepared himself—and played."

The great ones find a way to get themselves ready for what seems like an impossible task: Paul Gruber of Tampa Bay, Jim Lachey of the Washington Redskins, Luis Sharpe of the Arizona Cardinals, Richmond Webb of the Miami Dolphins. Will Wolford of the Indianapolis Colts, Gary Zimmerman of the Denver Broncos. And then there's Mike Kenn of the Atlanta Falcons, who has spent 17 years in the NFL. How many times have the Falcons talked about replacing him? But he's still there, perhaps not quite as dominant in his run blocking but still quick enough to keep people off his quarterback. "There aren't really that many younger left tackles out there right now," Kenn says. "Maybe that's why I've lasted so long. We're hard to replace."

Last year I played all 16 games, and after every one of them I sat down in front of my locker and said, 'Thank the Lord, this week's over with.' For 16 weeks it's a battle, a struggle every day, every play, every down. You have to approach every play like it's your last, because if you mess up, it could be your quarterback's last.
—Tony Jones
Cleveland Brown left tackle

When you've played the position long enough, you measure your career by the men you've bested—and by those who have turned your Sundays into nightmares. "I remember bad days more than good days," Shell says. "Remember the right end Houston had, Elvin Bethea? Quick as a hiccup. One time he beat me and Gene Upshaw on the same play. I didn't touch him. Neither did Gene, who was backing me up from his guard spot.

"One time in Oakland I had a bad day against the Steelers' Dwight White. He even intercepted a screen pass when I tried to cut him and couldn't. That year they were giving out free flying lessons in a Cessna for the defensive player of the week, and that week he won."

"When I first came into the league, Reggie White was on a roll," says Harris Barton of the San Francisco 49ers, a right tackle who protects lefty Steve Young's blind side. "I'd lost sleep worrying about him. So we got into the game, and after a while Reggie said, 'You're blocking me pretty good today. Have you accepted Jesus as your savior?'

"I said, 'Reggie, I'm Jewish.' From then on he didn't say a word to me."

Tony Jones says that the most sacks he ever gave up in a game were two, in the first game he ever played against the Giants. The year was 1991, and the culprit was Taylor. And what was that afternoon like?

"Terrifying," Jones says. "I wanted the day to be over with. I was embarrassed. LT wasn't talking much, but at one point he did say, 'You're gonna need some help before this day's over.' I told him, 'I think you're right.' What else could I say?"

"I was playing Renaldo Turnbull this past year," Pittsburgh's John Jackson says, "and he had this sack streak going. He kept talking and talking. He told me, 'Jackson, it's going to be a long day.'

"I told him', 'Every day's a long day for me.' Then I started laughing."

PHOTO ILLUSTRATIONMICHAEL O'NEILLGary Zimmerman: DENVER BRONCOS; 1965 Uniform.PHOTO ILLUSTRATIONMICHAEL O'NEILLJohn Jackson: PITTSBURGH STEELERS; 1937 Uniform.PHOTO ILLUSTRATIONMICHAEL O'NEILLRichmond Webb: MIAMI DOLPHINS; 1972 Uniform.PHOTO ILLUSTRATIONMICHAEL O'NEILLHarris Barton and Steve Wallace: SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS; 1955 Uniform.PHOTO ILLUSTRATIONMICHAEL O'NEILLJim Lachey: WASHINGTON REDSKINS; 1937 Uniform.PHOTO ILLUSTRATIONMICHAEL O'NEILLLomas Brown: DETROIT LIONS; 1935 Jersey.