The reason Michael Oher was so interesting to college football coaches was that he fit the idea of a left tackle perfectly: big and quick. But why had left tackles suddenly become so important to the game?
In this chapter, Lewis looks at some of the recent history of professional football in order to understand the recent resurgence of interest in the left tackle position.
To answer this question, Lewis goes back to December 28, 1975, in the final minutes of a game between the Cincinnati Bengals and the Oakland Raiders. The Bengals quarterback Kenny Anderson has the ball; he’s about to pass to his teammate when the Raiders pass rusher, Ted Hendricks, tackles him, effectively winning the game for the Raiders. Next, Lewis skips ahead to January 3, 1982. This time, the San Francisco 49ers are facing off against the New York Giants. The Giants rookie, Lawrence Taylor, poses a big threat to the 49ers’ chances, but the 49ers coach, Bill Walsh, who was also an assistant coach for the Bengals, has an idea for how to beat Taylor.
The Bengals-Raiders 1975 game echoes the Theismann injury discussed in Chapter One. Although Anderson’s career doesn’t end, the opponent pass rusher tackles him before he can throw the ball, just like Theismann. In 1982, it remains to be seen if professional football coaches like Bill Walsh have found a reliable way of protecting their quarterbacks from rushers like Ted Hendricks and Lawrence Taylor.
Bill Walsh was an intelligent, creative football coach. He played college football and later became an assistant coach for the Bengals. However, his players weren’t particularly good. Walsh adjusted his strategy to his players’ limitations, showing them how to move horizontally and pass strategically, cutting down on the risk of interception. Largely as a result of Walsh’s ingenuity, the Bengals quarterback, Virgil Carter, led the league in completion percentage, and the Bengals won their division.
Bill Walsh is one of the most famous coaches in NFL history: he used his inventiveness and ingenuity to turn multiple NFL teams from mediocre to great. Walsh’s success as a coach proves that football teams succeed not just because they’re composed of big, strong guys, but also because those players know how to work together and play strategically.
After being passed over for head coach for the Bengals, Bill Walsh left to coach for the 49ers. With the 49ers, Walsh transformed the quarterback, Steve Deberg, from a mediocre thrower into one of the best in NFL history. In 1980, however, Walsh replaced Deberg with Joe Montana, who proceeded to lead the NFL in completion percentage, and become, by many estimates, the single best quarterback in NFL history.
Bill Walsh made a name for himself on the Bengals, and then proceeded to make an even bigger name for himself with the 49ers. Joe Montana succeeded while playing with the 49ers not just because of his innate talent, but because Walsh found ways to optimize Montana’s abilities.
By the late eighties, Walsh was known for being a brilliant coach, who applied tactical strategies and mathematical efficiency to the game. His success changed football: after Walsh, coaches began focusing more on passes than runs. Between the sixties and the eighties, the average pass in an NFL game yielded an increasing distance, suggesting that quarterbacks were getting better at passing. By the 2000s, quarterbacks completed sixty percent of their throws, versus less than fifty percent in the sixties. The rise of the quarterback and the “pass game,” Lewis says, was critical to the success of Michael Oher.
Walsh proved so influential that other coaches tried to replicate his success by focusing on throwing the ball rather than running it. The emphasis on pass games is crucial to the success of Michael Oher because without a high demand for quarterback passes, there wouldn’t be a high demand for big left tackles to defend the quarterback.
Back on January 3, 1982, Bill Walsh prepares for the Giants game. At this time, Walsh has already used some creative passing strategies with his quarterbacks. If Walsh represents the “brains” approach to coaching football, his opponent coach, Bill Parcells of the Giants, represents the “brawn” approach. Parcells uses his secret weapon, Lawrence Taylor, to decimate the other team. At times Taylor doesn’t follow Parcells’s directions, but he performs well on the field anyway.
We’re back where we started: 1982. The Giants-49ers game is, in many ways, a test of two different approaches to football: the aggressive, brawny approach, and the agile, strategic approach. Parcells had a strong record as a coach, in part because he thought that the key to winning football was a big, fast player like Lawrence Taylor.
When facing Taylor, Walsh has a problem: get Joe Montana to throw a pass a split-second quicker than usual, before he’s tackled. His left tackle, Dan Audick, is 250 pounds and poorly equipped to deal with Lawrence Taylor. Walsh had a better lineman, Ron Singleton, but he dismissed Singleton for demanding more money. Walsh decides to use a left guard named John Ayers for the Giants game.
Walsh tries to defend his quarterback from Taylor with the help of the left guard, John Ayers. Ayers was an effective left guard, but in the future, Walsh made a point of drafting left tackles who were much bigger, and better at their jobs, than Walsh.
During the January 3 game, John Ayers has one job: protect Joe Montana from Lawrence Taylor. Ayers weighs 270 pounds, and every season he trains by pulling a tractor tire across the field. Ayers successfully stops Taylor from getting to Montana; largely as a result of this, the 49ers win. Although Bill Parcells later finds a way to beat Ayers’s strategy by blitzing the line, on January 3, brawn loses decisively to brains. After the game Walsh decides, first, that he needs to get his own version of Lawrence Taylor. Second, he decides that he’ll use his first draft pick next year to get a good left tackle to protect his quarterback.
Ayers successfully protects Joe Montana from Lawrence Taylor, and Walsh’s strategic approach to the game of football emerges victorious. Partly as a result, for the next twenty years football coaches imitate Walsh’s strategies, stressing the importance of passes and quarterback protection. By using his first draft pick to recruit a big left tackle, Walsh further broadcast his belief in the importance of protecting the quarterback.
For the rest of the 1980s, John Ayers plays left tackle for the 49ers. At times, he’s unable to deal with players like Lawrence Taylor because he’s not fast enough; he also has to deal with injuries, and his own aging. By 1987, Walsh pressures Ayers to retire, and in 1995, Ayers dies of cancer. At the funeral, Joe Montana serves as a pallbearer, and a tribute from Bill Walsh is read aloud.
John Ayers performed adequately against Lawrence Taylor, but ultimately he wasn’t a strong and fast enough lineman. In the future, football coaches would recruit left tackles who were much bigger and stronger than Ayers.