Thursday, April 26, 2007

Best defense = good offense

The NFL draft is this weekend, and with it comes all that talk about freakish physical specimens with tremendous upside (and that's just Mel Kiper's hair!). I was reminded that I never got around to reviewing The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game, by Michael Lewis. It's probably one of the best sports books I've ever read.

Like his previous book Moneyball, Lewis does something rare: he gets me to care simultaneously about the game and the business behind the game. Here he profiles Michael Oher, a jaw-dropping wall of a young black man with surprising speed for someone his size. But he has slipped through the scholastic system as well as other societal cracks, and catches up with the help of several white people in the Memphis community, not all of whom act selflessly.

Lewis also tells the story of the left tackle, a long-undervalued position in the offensive line. (Because most quarterbacks are right-handed, the left tackle usually protects the QB's blind side so he won't be sacked by the defense.) He opens the book with an ending -- specifically, the painful end of QB Joe Theismann's career under the weight of defensive specialist Lawrence Taylor. Theismann's starting left tackle was on the sidelines that night.

Guarding against a revolutionary player like Taylor was one of the reasons the left tackle became a marquee position; the other was the immediate success of Bill Walsh's West Coast offense. Lewis explains how the NFL began to target the rare athlete that combined size, strength, agility, and speed for the left tackle position, and paid those players handsomely. (Generally, the left tackle is the second-highest paid player on a team, after the QB.)

This history lesson parallels the increased regard for Oher, as his uniqueness becomes readily apparent to scouts and coaches in the well-oiled machine of college football in the South. His recruitment by SEC teams feels peppered with some lapses in integrity, if not outright corruption. He eventually chooses a team -- this one -- though I find it curious that his listing on ESPN's roster (#74) is still without a link to his stats.

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