In addition to telling the story of the life of Michael Oher, The Blind Side studies the history of professional football since the 1970s—an era during which many coaches and managers began to rethink the way the game was played. The book shows how Michael Oher’s spectacular success as a left tackle reflects some major changes in football strategy in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, which resulted in a much stronger emphasis on passing and, therefore, protecting the quarterback. Beginning in the late seventies and early eighties, some football insiders, particularly Bill Walsh, the talented head coach of the San Francisco 49ers, began to challenge the conventional wisdom that football is a game only of strength and endurance. Walsh introduced elaborate plays that required the athletes to think tactically and pass the ball more efficiently than they were used to doing. Because he emphasized passes more than runs, furthermore, Walsh recognized the importance of good quarterback protection in the midst of an offensive play: without linemen to protect the quarterback, the other team would tackle the quarterback before he could throw the ball.
As The Blind Side shows, Bill Walsh’s protective, pass-heavy style of football caught on in the NFL for a number of reasons. First, and most obviously, Walsh’s style caught on because it worked: under Walsh’s leadership, the 49ers had several spectacular seasons, and their quarterback, Joe Montana, is still recognized as one of the best in NFL history. Montana was a great quarterback not simply because of his talent, but because Walsh recruited big left tackles who could protect Montana’s blind side—i.e., the area Montana couldn’t see because his body was turned in the opposite direction (for right-handed throwers, this is the area to the quarterback’s left)—and give him an extra split-second in which to pass. At the same time, the protective style, bolstered by big left tackles, caught on in the NFL because of skyrocketing player salaries. With quarterbacks in the 1990s and 2000s commanding massive, forty million-dollar salaries, the NFL needed to protect its athletes from injuries, or risk shelling out tens of millions for an athlete who could no longer play football. Thus, NFL teams began spending much more on their linemen in general and their left tackles in particular: the best way to keep the quarterback playing was to protect his blind side with a good left tackle. In all, then, Walsh’s protective strategy caught on, not only because it was the best way to win games, but because it was the smartest long-term economic decision for big NFL teams.
The changes in football strategy that occurred in the 80s and 90s had some major consequences for the way that people viewed the different players. In particular, Walsh’s style brought new importance to the position of left tackle, but—oddly—not much visibility. Among NFL insiders, the left tackle became one of the most respected positions. The new importance attached to the left tackle challenged the old belief that linemen were all equally valuable, and worked together as one team—now, left tackles were seen as soloists, defending against the other team single-handedly. At the same time, however, left tackles remained relatively obscure from the perspective of the average NFL fan: runningbacks and quarterbacks continued to get most of the attention, while left tackles remained the unsung heroes of many games. In many ways, Michael Oher embodies the contradictions inherent to the role of the contemporary left tackle: he’s big and imposing, meaning that the other players always notice him in a game, but he’s also quiet and unassuming, meaning that he’s often less popular than his teammates. Furthermore, he has extraordinarily strong protective instincts, as measured by his career aptitude tests, suggesting that he’s a natural for a protective role on the football field. In all, Lewis argues that Michael Oher didn’t become a highly sought-after football player simply because he was a great player—he attracted attention because he came along at the perfect time, when football coaches and managers realized how important big left tackles like Michael could be.
Left Tackle, Protection, and Shifting Strategy ThemeTracker
Left Tackle, Protection, and Shifting Strategy Quotes in The Blind Side
Four other players, including, oddly, the Redskins’ John Riggins, pile on. They’re good for dramatic effect but practically irrelevant. The damage is done by Taylor alone. One hundred and ninety-six pounds of quarterback come to rest beneath a thousand or so pounds of other things. Then Lawrence Taylor pops to his feet and begins to scream and wave and clutch his helmet with both hands, as if in agony.
In the early 1980s, the notion that a single lineman should be paid much more than any other—and more than star running backs, wide receivers, and, in several cases, quarterbacks—would have been considered heretical had it not been so absurd. The offensive line never abandoned, at least in public, its old, vaguely socialistic ideology. All for one, one for all, as to do our jobs well we must work together, and thus no one of us is especially important.
Eventually people must have noticed. As Walsh performed miracle after miracle with his quarterbacks, a more general trend emerged in NFL strategy: away from the run and toward the pass. In 1978, NFL teams passed 42 percent of the time and ran the ball 58 percent of the time. Each year, right through until the mid-1980s, they passed more and ran less until the ratios were almost exactly reversed: in 1995, NFL teams passed 59 percent of the time and ran 41 percent of the time. It's not hard to see why; the passing game was improving, and the running game was stagnant.
From his place on the sideline Sean watched in amazement. Hugh had called a running play around the right end, away from Michael’s side. Michael’s job was simply to take the kid who had been jabbering at him and wall him off. Just keep him away from the ball carrier. Instead, he’d fired off the line of scrimmage and gotten fit. Once he had his hands inside the Munford player’s shoulder pads, he lifted him off the ground. It was a perfectly legal block, with unusual consequences. He drove the Munford player straight down the field for 15 yards, then took a hard left, toward the Munford sidelines.
Leigh Anne listened to the doctors discuss how bizarrely lucky Sean Junior had been in his collision with the airbag. Then she went back home and relayed the conversation to Michael, who held out his arm. An ugly burn mark ran right down the fearsome length of it. “I stopped it,” he said.
No one ever mentions Steve Wallace’s name. The cameras never once find him. His work is evidently too boring to watch for long without being distracted by whatever’s happening to the football. Worse, the better he does his job, the more boring to watch he becomes. His job is to eliminate what people pay to see—the sight of Chris Doleman crushing Joe Montana.
In 1995, Steve Wallace of the San Francisco 49ers became the first offensive lineman to sign a contract worth $10 million. The quarterback might still get all the glory. But the guy who watched his back would be moving into a bigger house.
It was probably true that the NFL couldn’t lengthen the arms or stretch the torsos of fully-grown men. On the other hand, they could wave millions of dollars in the air and let the American population know that the incentives had changed. Boys who thought they might make careers as power forwards, or shot putters, might now think twice before quitting the high school football team. Huge sums of money were there for the taking, so long as you met certain physical specifications.