Michael Lewis and "The Blind Side" -- are left tackles really that valuable?
A couple of weeks ago, Sports Illustrated ran an excerpt (print subscription required) from “The Blind Side,” Michael Lewis’s new book on football due for release this coming Monday.
The article is fantastic. I normally don’t have much patience for narrative articles that profile players, but Lewis talks about players only in the context of what they do and what it means in terms of the game. I didn’t know much about football, and knowledgeable fans might see nothing new here (as experienced sabermetricians already knew most of the revelations in “Moneyball”). But the casual fan will learn a lot from Lewis’s eight page piece, as I did.
Here’s my summary of what Lewis tells us:
When a right-handed quarterback looks to pass, his body is turned slightly to the right, which means he can’t see any defender coming at him from the left – the “blind side” of the title. On the offensive line, it’s the position of left tackle that has to protect the quarterback from a blind sack. This is a crucial task, because a surprise tackle is exceptionally likely to injure the quarterback – after all, he can’t see it coming to brace himself. So the left tackle is an exceptionally important role in a team’s offense.
Up until the NFL got free agency, the members of the offensive line, left tackle included, were largely anonymous. Their salaries were modest. In 1987, with quarterbacks earning some $2 million per year, Bengals left tackle Anthony Munoz, whom “people were saying … might just be the greatest offensive lineman in history,” asked for $500,000. He was told “that there was no lineman alive who was worth that much.”
Then, after the 1992 season, free agency came to the NFL. Immediately, several linemen are signed for $1.5 million to $2 million, players “no one had ever heard of.” NFL insiders are “baffled” and think the linemen aren’t worth the money. Then, “the only free agent A-list left tackle,” Will Wolford, signs a deal with the Colts that guarantees him that for the duration of the three-year contract, he’ll be the highest paid player on the team.
Why? Bill Polian, who later became Colts GM, says it was “for the simple reason that he shut down Lawrence Taylor in the Super Bowl.” Taylor was the feared Giants linebacker who ended Joe Theismann’s career with a leg-breaking blind-side sack in 1985.
By 2005, the left tackle was the second-highest paid position in the NFL, after quarterback.
That’s what the article (and presumably the book) is all about: the transformation in the NFL that turned left tackles into rich men.
Which brings up a few interesting questions:
Back when left tackles were underpaid, was it because GMs took advantage of the cultural norm that said they weren’t worth much?
It’s quite possible that teams couldn’t escape paying top quarterbacks a lot of money, because they were recognized by fans and journalists as being worthy of it. But, if few people are recognizing the excellence and importance of the left tackle, there’s no pressure anywhere to pay them what they’re worth to the team. It wouldn't have to be a conscious decision on the part of the GM, just a cultural practice. (Where I used to work, the best programmers were paid less than the worst project leaders, even though the best programmers were much more important to the project.)
On the other hand, was it because GMs didn’t realize the value of those players? In Moneyball, Lewis showed us how baseball decision-makers undervalued walks – perhaps their football counterparts undervalued blind-side protection?
Lewis’s narrative seems to suggest the first explanation is more likely; he writes that when Will Wolford became the first left-tackle free agent, at least five teams were willing to pay Will Wolford at least $7.65 million over three years. Which means at least five teams knew his intrinsic value.
Are there any decent estimates of the actual value of the left tackle? Lewis writes that “nothing had changed in the game to make the left tackle position more valuable … There was no new data to enable teams to value left tackles more precisely.” But don’t teams routinely use game tapes to evaluate every lineman’s performance on every play? You’d think that the teams have an excellent idea of every lineman’s value. Does anyone else? It doesn’t seem like it would be that hard to figure out – assuming you had game tapes covering that position for every play.
Could a left tackle actually be worth that much? “The Hidden Game of Football” (p. 104) estimates that the difference between a good quarterback and an average one is four completions per game. An eyeballing of 2005 NFL sack statistics shows that the difference between a good individual sack total and an average one is only about four sacks per season. That’s a difference of 1500 percent in favor of the quarterback.
Of course, a good left tackle does more than prevent sacks – he prevents the QB from having to hurry a throw, or throw the ball away. And, of course, preventing injury to the quarterback is a huge factor too. But there must be some way of quantifying all this sabermetrically to see if left tackles might not be quite as important as their salaries suggest.
Here’s one possible way: find all quarterbacks who switched teams while their old offensive line (and especially their left tackle) stayed put. Which QB rating was more consistent with his old one: the same QB with the new team, or the new QB with the old team? If they’re about equally consistent, that would be evidence that the QB and defensive line are about equally important.
But the left tackle isn’t the entire offensive line. If the offensive line is only equally important to the QB, the left tackle must be less important. You’d need to find that the offensive line is, for instance, twice as important as the QB, if you want to argue that the left tackle alone is equal to the QB.
For that reason, I’m skeptical about that left tackle is that important. But I’m keeping an open mind. My logic may be wrong (please correct me in the comments), or there may be other factors that Lewis will cover in his book. I’m off to order it right now.