In Atlanta, there is a huge redbrick house owned by a man named Steve Wallace. Wallace was an NFL lineman for the 49ers in the 1980s, when he was coached by the great Bill Walsh.
In this chapter, we’ll learn about Steve Wallace, an NFL lineman whose career was a milestone in the history of football strategy.
Wallace’s career kicked off after the 49ers’ main left tackle, Bubba Paris, gained too much weight. Bubba was a promising player, but he was too slow to match a talented defensive player like Lawrence Taylor. In 1987, toward the end of one of the 49ers’ best seasons ever, Walsh learned that his teams’ hidden weakness was the quarterback’s blind side. Chris Doleman, the pass rusher for the Minnesota Vikings, ran past Paris again and again, tackling Joe Montana before he could throw the ball. After the game, Walsh replaced Bubba with Steve Wallace.
In the late 1980s, Bill Walsh continued to emphasize the importance of protecting the quarterback from players like Chris Doleman. In order to stand the best chance of protecting Joe Montana, Walsh began using Steve Wallace.
A year after their 1987 loss to the Minnesota Vikings, the 49ers found themselves back in the playoffs, facing the Vikings again. This year, the Vikings had the number one offense in the NFL, and the 49ers weren’t as unbeatable as they’d seemed the year before. Steve Wallace was nervous, especially since he’d allowed Chris Doleman to sack Joe Montana once already during the regular season. He was widely regarded as a sub-par lineman, and to make matters worse, he wasn’t making much money, since he had to support his parents. To compensate, Wallace fought opposing players, which made him more unpopular.
The passage builds up the suspense about how Steve Wallace will fare against his more highly regarded opponent, Chris Doleman. Steve comes across as an underdog here: he’s immensely insecure about his abilities, which is why he gets into fights.
Going into the 1988 game, Walsh keeps replaying the footage of Doleman’s sack of Joe Montana, which Wallace finds embarrassing. However, Walsh replays the footage because he knows that the Vikings game will hinge on Wallace’s performance. Now, more than ever, being a left tackle is a solo event: it involves protecting the quarterback from the other team.
To encourage Steve Wallace, Walsh replays the video of Wallace’s earlier failure against Doleman, pressuring Wallace to succeed the second time around. That Walsh does this suggests that he still recognizes the importance of protecting the quarterback.
The game begins with Steve Wallace feeling insecure. The Vikings take an early lead, and Wallace plays little to no role on his team, largely because Bill Walsh runs the ball too much. Later in the game, however, Doleman sprints for Joe Montana; Wallace knows that he has to give Doleman a good, hard push to protect Montana. Wallace pushes Doleman so hard that Doleman stumbles back upfield. In the meantime, Montana throws a touchdown pass. Wallace doesn’t get any real attention for his contribution to the touchdown, but if he hadn’t protected Montana, the touchdown would never have happened.
Steve Wallace succeeds in protecting Joe Montana from the opposing team’s sacks, allowing Montana to throw a touchdown. Wallace is, in some ways, the unsung hero of the 49ers’ victory—although he doesn’t catch or throw the ball, the 49ers’ touchdowns would be impossible without his protection. In this sense, Wallace is exemplary of the left tackle position in general: he’s important, but curiously underrated by fans.
To the untrained eye, it looks like Steve Wallace just pushes Chris Doleman away, but in fact, his push reflects hours of practice, and some very precise maneuvering. For the rest of the first half, Wallace protects Joe Montana from Doleman, who doesn’t get a single sack—allowing Montana to throw three touchdown passes. In the fourth quarter, Wallace runs downfield while his teammate Roger Craig makes a touchdown. The commentators praise Wallace’s contribution to the touchdown, boosting his profile. Later in the season, the 49ers win the Super Bowl, thanks largely to Steve Wallace’s talent.
One reason that left tackles are often underrated is that they make their jobs look easy—or, at the very least, unskillful and purely physical. In reality, the left tackle position requires a lot of intelligence and strategic thinking. Indeed, Lewis implies that the 49ers are able to score touchdowns and win the Super Bowl largely because of Wallace’s strong, intelligent protection of the quarterback.
In the eighties and nineties, several linemen, including Steve Wallace, became unexpectedly rich. Where before, even the most talented linemen couldn’t command a salary of even half a million dollars, linemen began earning well over a million. Many NFL insiders were baffled that linemen were now making so much money. However, NFL insiders argued that they needed good linemen to protect quarterbacks—who, now more than ever, were in danger of being injured, leaving the NFL, and costing their teams millions. In 1995, Wallace became the first lineman to sign a contract for ten million dollars.
Although many sports fans remain ignorant of the left tackle’s importance, football insiders fully recognize how important protecting the quarterback has become. Consequently, football franchises begin spending tens of millions of dollars on high-quality left tackles.
Steve Wallace’s contract prompted a massive reevaluation of the left tackle position. For most of the nineties, the NFL classified certain valuable athletes as franchise players, preventing them from becoming free agents (and leaving the team suddenly) and guaranteeing them a high salary relative to other players in their positions. Coaches realized that they could still protect their assets by hiring expensive franchise left tackles—these left tackles were so valuable that they’d be worth the money.
For NFL teams, the utility of the “franchise player” category is to prevent talented players from becoming free agents and joining other teams by offering these players a very high salary. Many elite left tackles like Steve Wallace became franchise players, because football insiders recognized that they were crucial to the success of the team.
The new emphasis on left tackles meant that talent scouts had to reevaluate what the ideal left tackle looked like. Left tackles, it was agreed, had to have “girth in the butt” to be great players. Even talented players like Steve Wallace were now considered inadequate for the position—they were too skinny below the waist. The scouts’ reevaluation of the left tackle position attracted new kinds of players. Large boys who would otherwise have quit their high school football teams stayed on in the hope that they’d make good left tackles. One such athlete, John Ogden, who weighed 350 pounds, competed in football and track during his time at UCLA. To his surprise, his football coach began using him as a left tackle. After college, he was drafted by the Baltimore Ravens, the fourth pick overall, and got a signing bonus of 6.8 million. Ogden had been a shy child, but now he was one of the most sought-after figures in sports.
Throughout the nineties, the proportions of the average left tackle’s body changed. One interesting consequence of the reevaluation of the left tackle was that young football players who would otherwise have stopped playing football continued to compete, perhaps recognizing that athletes with their body type could succeed in the NFL. Ogden’s unusual combination of shyness and skill exemplifies the contradictions of the left tackle position: a good left tackle is strong and imposing, but he’s also the quiet, unsung hero of the game.
Before the 2000 season, the Ravens re-signed John Ogden for 44 million dollars, paid over the next six years. Ogden became an unusual figure in the NFL: extremely well-paid and sought-after, but not remotely as famous as the most popular quarterbacks or running backs. Nevertheless, he continued to be one of the NFL’s best athletes. In a 2000 game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Ogden, a huge left tackle, nearly outran the Tampa Bay cornerback. He tried to stop the cornerback by pushing one of the cornerback’s teammates into him—and he barely missed. The crowd cheered when the cornerback got a touchdown, and gave the cornerback “all their attention. But they shouldn’t have.”
Left tackles are among the most important players in the NFL, but they’re often some of the most obscure. Football fans naturally respond to the people who throw, catch, or run with the ball, because these players’ contributions are the easiest to see and understand. However, fans often neglect the important contributions of linemen, who play a huge role in enabling touchdowns and other impressive plays. Even the fact that Ogden almost outran the cornerback proves Ogden’s enormous (but often unheralded) talent.