In 1985, in one of the most famous football moments of all time, Joe Theismann, the Washington Redskins quarterback, faced off against the New York Giants. Theismann passed the ball to his running back, John Riggins, and then waiting for Riggins to pass the ball back, confusing the Giants’ offense. In the four seconds it took for the Giants’ player Harry Carson to run toward Riggins, Carson realized that Theismann, not Riggins, had the ball—as a result, he ran for Theismann. Theismann quickly stepped out of Carson’s way, at which point he could no longer see Carson at all.
Joe Theismann’s 1985 game has become a notorious example of the importance of good quarterback protection. As such, it’s often treated as a milestone in the history of football—after which, football coaches increasingly recognized the importance of protecting the quarterback from sacks. The passage also introduces the concept of the “blind side”—the area of the field the quarterback can’t see when he turns to throw the football.
That year, the Giants had one of the most feared players in the NFL, a tackle named Lawrence Taylor. In 1981, his rookie year, Taylor proved himself to be adept at “sacks”—i.e., tackling the quarterback behind the line of scrimmage before he passes the ball. Taylor was so talented at sacking that because of him the NFL began keeping sack records for the first time in its history. All by himself, Taylor changed the game of football—before long, he’d become so admired and feared that he could feel the opposing team glancing at him nervously between plays.
Lawrence Taylor played the critical role in the 1985 Theismann injury. More generally, Taylor’s aggressive sacking encouraged football coaches to focus more on protecting their quarterbacks, thereby giving them an extra fraction of a second in which to throw the ball.
Why was Taylor unique in the NFL? To begin with, he was exceptionally fast and big. Second, Taylor—unlike many professional athletes—was genuinely concerned with winning, rather than simply keeping his high paycheck. Taylor was also headstrong and reckless—midway through his career, he came a cocaine addict—but this made him a great player.
From early on, the book emphasizes the importance of a competitive, aggressive personality in the game of football. Taylor is, in many ways, the ideal football player—big, fast, and willing to win at all costs.
Lewis returns to where we were at the beginning of the chapter: the 1985 Redskins-Giants game. By this point, teams had learned to line up in special ways just to deal with Lawrence Taylor. Nevertheless, Taylor sprinted past the blockers and tackled Theismann. For most quarterbacks, Theismann included, their left side is the blind side, since turning to throw the football blocks their view. That night, Taylor tackled Theismann from his blind side, ending Theismann’s football career. Taylor broke Theismann’s leg, essentially pinning it to the ground.
Taylor’s sack of Joe Theismann ended Theismann’s impressive NFL career and, furthermore, proved to an entire generation of coaches and team managers that it paid to have strong defense for a quarterback’s blind side. Had there been a strong left tackle to push back against Lawrence Taylor, Theismann might have continued playing for many more years.
The obvious question, following Theismann’s legendary injury, is: who was supposed to stop Lawrence Taylor from getting to Theismann? When interviewed later, Theismann said that Joe Jacoby, the Redskins left tackle, was defending him that night. Joe Jacoby, a big, 300-pound player, was one of the best linemen of his era. However, at the time, linemen weren’t a highly valued part of the game—everybody knew they were important, but nobody could agree why. In any event—and contrary to what Theismann thought—Jacoby wasn’t even playing in the game; he’d been subbed out earlier.
Lewis emphasizes that Joe Theismann was injured because there wasn’t a big, quick left tackle to protect him from Lawrence Taylor—Joe Jacoby, the closest thing the Redskins had to such a player, was out of the game. Also the fact that Theismann didn’t even realize that Jacoby was out of the game illustrates a) the low importance that people attached to left tackles in the eighties and b) an overall lack of strategy and organization in the Redskins.
With Jacoby out of the game, the lineman who was supposed to protect Theismann from Taylor was named Russ Grimm. Grimm was smaller than Jacoby, so the coaches assigned another player, the tight end Don Warren, to help Grimm. If Taylor moved on the inside toward Theismann, he was Grimm’s responsibility; if he moved on the outside, it was up to Warren to stop him. But during the play, Taylor went outside and raced past Warren and Grimm. When Taylor tackled Theismann, there was a sound like a gunshot; the sound of Theismann’s right leg breaking.
In the era before left tackles were big and unstoppable, coaches had to compensate for their players’ size by assigning multiple players to defend against sackers like Lawrence Taylor. However, on the night of the Giants-Redskins game, Taylor avoided both of the linemen who’d been assigned to guard him, suggesting the futility of the coaches’ approach.
A study later determined that 77 percent of broken bone injuries in NFL games, including Theismann’s, occur during passing plays. Taylor had broken players’ legs before. However, on the night he hurt Theismann, he seemed frightened by what he’d just done—indeed, when he leapt back, he clutched his own leg. Lewis says it was the “only known instance of Lawrence Taylor imagining himself into the skin of a quarterback he had knocked from a game.”
Even Lawrence Taylor is disturbed by what he’s done to Theismann. That a hardened, experienced NFL player would be so repulsed by his own actions suggests the severity of Theismann’s injury and, perhaps, a fundamental problem with the strategy of the game—or even the game itself, though Lewis never questions the ethics of people injuring each other for the entertainment of others.