Bill Walsh, Bill Parcells and the Rise of the Left Tackle

Or, Golf and the Gridiron

Ryan-clady_medium

via i.cdn.turner.com

In the game of professional football, being a quarterback, running back or a wide receiver is very much akin to baseball: You try to accumulate stats.  You could say that a 5-yard run is like a single. Pulling in a pass for a 1st down is kind of like a double. A 35-yard play is a triple for all involved and if it breaks an invisible plane, it's a home run. Increasing your stats is a positive. The quarterback even accumulates the ultimate stat - wins and losses. No other player has this ability and in many ways it emphasizes the way that we have chosen to portray and perceive this position.

If you're an offensive lineman, much like those who play golf, your purpose is to have the score of your statistics be as low as possible. No penalties. No sacks. No mistakes. The trained lineman, perhaps especially the left tackle, is one who excels by being invisible. Also much like a golfer, the game for a lineman is greatly about your hands and your feet.

The game of golf idolizes the grip. The position of the hands, the movement of the arms, the shift of the weight as one follows the course of the ‘play' - this case, of course, it is the shot, the swing - will inevitably precede the way one will play the game and whether or not one will win. One swing follows the next, leading the golfer across the landscape of the course with precision.

The positioning of the hands is equally central to the left tackle. The violent punch and the tight grip are the basic tools for controlling the power of the defensive lineman, the blitzing linebacker. The ability to maintain one's center in terms of the weight is essential. The feet also move, sifting the weight smoothing but constantly  Only, for the tackle the feet must move swiftly yet in constant but very small steps.

In both sports, there is an art to movement, an almost mystical collaboration of all the parts of the body, forging them into a singularity of power. One needs to be able to move with the grace of a ballerina and yet hit with the force of a martial artist. But the left tackle needs long arms, wide hips, height, weight and a powerful upper body to fight with, a powerful lower body with which to anchor. Golfers come in all shapes and sizes.

The left tackle at the hightest level chooses to see the onrushing power of the defender as a gift. He turns it aside, letting it flow past the course of the play, or he reaches out and pulls it to himself, always keeping the gift of it's energy for himself. He knows how to lock himself into it this time, thrust it away, breaking the rush on one play on the next. His feet never stop moving until the key moment is past, the ball released or the ball carrier away.

Strangely enough, it was Lawrence Taylor who greatly rewrote the history of the offensive line. Before him, it wasn't uncommon for the left tackle to be much smaller. Consider the injury factor - 1,532 broken bones were suffered by QBs from 1980 - 2001, 77.4% of them during games. That's a lot of injuries, and in every case one or more offensive linemen failed to maintain their control of the pass rusher. You have to protect your investment. But, I'm getting ahead of myself. In the book, The Blind Side, by Michael Lewis, it was a tumultuous meeting between two giants of the football world that formed a gateway to the modern understanding of the left tackle position, and it took a left guard to make it possible.

Accoding to the book, Bill Parcells had a personal belief that would change the course of football. He believed in defense, with all of his heart and soul. "I'm a little Neanderthal", he once declared. "I think that defense is the key to any sport. That's what I wanted to coach. Not football. Defense!" He was proud of it, and for a long time, Lawrence Taylor was his proudest possession. He would set him loose on Sundays and watch him attempt to hammer opposing quarterbacks into the gridiron turf with ruthless efficiency and almost religious fervor. LT was frighteningly good at what he did, and what he did was to rush the passer.

For Bill Walsh, the perspective of Parcells' failed to excite him. Walsh felt that the most important position in the game was the head coach. It was the strategy of the offense that was the reason that he loved to coach the game. "There's just so much to offense that a coach really does have control of," he once said. "Defense is just a matter of having the personnel." These two coaches and these two philosophies would collide head to head during the 1981 season. On January 3, 1982, they met in the playoffs; Parcells' NY Giants against the San Francisco 49ers of Bill Walsh, and the decimating explosion that was Lawrence Taylor against the offensive brilliance of Joe Montana.

***

Leaving the coaching staff at the University of California as a young man, young William Walsh took a short stint at Stanford before deciding to be an assistant for the Oakland Raiders in 1966. There, he entered the coaching tree of Sid Gillman and learned the intricacies of Al Davis' vertical passing offense. Moving on yet again, he joined the coaching staff of Paul Brown at the Cincinnati Bengals organization. There, he was entrusted with the responsibility of developing a coherent offensive strategy that had to make a mountain out of a molehill of talent. As an AFL expansion team, Cincinnati didn't get much in the way of player personnel. It was at this point that Walsh had an opportunity to put into effect a new and revolutionary paradigm.

He designed what was later referred to as the West Coast Offense to take advantage of his core belief about football - the belief that the players are simply pieces on a chess board and that the head coach is the master of a production; the players are just production assistants. The QB, to Bill Walsh, was just one of the pieces on the coaching chessboard and he didn't see him as necessarily the key to the game. Walsh knew that you can win a chess match just as effectively with a pawn as with a queen. What was important, he believed, was not what position that player played. It was what you, the coach, did with that player.

In Cincinnati Walsh had a QB named Virgil Carter. The problem was that Carter couldn't throw more than 10-15 yards, but he was highly accurate within that short boundary. To maximize production from Carter, Walsh decided to stretch the field horizontally. He came to the realization that the idea of throwing to a receiver who was not there yet - timing routes - could be nearly unstoppable if the pieces each played their role. Clearly, this has had a dramatic impact on much of the modern game; although only about a third of the teams currently play a West Coast Offense, using the concepts of stretching the field horizontally and/or even more commonly, extensively using timing routes, has become commonplace in the NFL. In fact, Bill Polian of the Indianapolis Colts said,

"In (a) sense, everyone in the NFL today is running Bill Walsh's offense. Because the rhythm passing game is all Walsh."

From Walsh's perspective, back in his days with Cincinnati, it was all about having a chance. His job was on the line: he had to find a way to win with the pieces that he had. He believed in offensive strategy. He just needed to make his players effective.

"We couldn't dominate anyone with the run," he said, "so Virgil became our central performer (please note that Walsh never uses the word ‘star'). And so that's how it all started. When I was forced to use Virgil."

Walsh knew that these short, timed passes could be effective against any defense that was used during this time. Later, part of the reason for the modern Cover-2 formation, which stretches the zone of the MLB and plays zone coverage by the CBs (hence the name Cover 2 - pass coverage in the 2nd level), was to defend against this offense. The system as Walsh developed it used receivers who ran routes exactly geared to how many steps back the QB took - one set of routes for a 3-step drop, a different set for the 5-step drop.

On any given play, they might use as many as five receiving targets but only three were viable in any given play - the others, if more receivers were used, were simply decoys. As the QB moved up to take the ball from the center, he already had a primary, secondary and outlet receiver designated. This reduced the number of decisions that he would have to make. That was important to Walsh: it was his place to make the job of beating the defense as simple as was possible.

Deeply concerned about both precision and consistency in the passing attack, Walsh believed that this system would increase passing effectiveness and decrease he worst two outcomes in the passing game - incompletions and interceptions. What was also unusual was that it required the players to spend huge amounts of time working on the system until the passes were second nature to receiver and quarterback; but the outcome, to Walsh at least, well worth it. He once said,

"Our argument was that the chance of a completion drops dramatically over 12 yards. So, we would throw a 10 yard pass. Our formula was that we should get at least half our passing yardage from the run after the catch." Predictably, not all were convinced. It was decried by some and referred to condescendingly as a "nickel and dime offense".

Walsh resigned when Brown retired; he wasn't offered the head coach position at Cincinnati and couldn't see himself in any other capacity. Discouraged, he became an assistant coach for the San Diego Chargers in 1976, but he didn't stay there for long.

He became the head coach of Stanford where he stayed for 2 seasons. While he  was there he won both the Sun Bowl and the Blue Bonnet Bowl. Walsh would train both Steve Dils and Guy Benjamin in the two years that he stayed, but he felt that things were unfinished.

In 1979, he was hired as the next coach of the woeful SF 49ers who had gone 2-14. the previous season However - they drafted Joe Montana in 1979 and Montana soon showed his level of skill. This was where Walsh put his theories of football to the test.

Walsh had  inherited starting QB Steve Deberg when he took over the 49ers, one of the most inaccurate QBs in the game. DeBerg's completion rate in 1979 had been 45.4% and he threw 22 interceptions. The following year (1980), though, under Walsh's tutelage Deberg's numbers rose to a completion rate of 60% and his INT rate dropped by half. However, in 1980 Walsh replaced DeBerg with that ‘noodle-armed' quarterback named Joe Montana, a fellow out of Notre Dame who had been drafter in the 3rd round and a legend soon was born.

Deberg earned a strange sort of notoriety in that he was the quarterback in San Francisco when Montana was drafted and had moved on to the Denver Broncos when they drafted John Elway. He then moved to Tampa Bay when both Steve Young and Vinnie Testaverde were drafted. Deberg was a solid but unspectacular quarterback after Bill Walsh trained him, but he never rose above journeyman level.

Perhaps oddly, Walsh never quite saw Montana as a star. "The performance of a quarterback has to be manipulated," he once said, "To a degree, coaching can make a quarterback, and it is certainly the most important factor in his success." It's obvious to even a casual observer that Josh McDaniels is a student, perhaps even an acolyte of the Walsh approach to the offensive team.

One thing that really stands out to me is the similarity between the criticisms thrown at Bill Walsh and those aimed at Josh McDaniels. Walsh believed that the system was the real star and that QBs were actually fungible. This may seem heresy to the fan of football, but Walsh backed it up with an incredible depth of knowledge, precision of application and unmatched brilliance in putting his money where his mouth was. For that, he was decried as being arrogant, too wrapped up in his own ego to see that he was wrong; a fool who simply got lucky a few times.

As an aside - Whether one likes this or not, there are obvious similarities with Josh McDaniels' circumstance. McDaniels, often spoken of as an offensive genius (and his background over the past four years gives some credence to the term), comes from a system in which players are generally considered interchangeable. The player, including Tom Brady himself, is expected to know that nothing is more important than the team, and that the system that the team plays is simply an extension of the team itself. While it's equally possible that Coach McDaniels could have handled Jay Cutler better, it's equally possible that it would not have mattered. In either case, it must have seemed strange to Josh that a player would consider himself irreplaceable. Bill Walsh might have had a staffer clear ‘the player's' locker and drop it at his home as he did with Ron Singleton (see below). Cutler obliged by doing it for the Broncos.

To see this even more clearly, when Walsh would later replace Montana with Steve Young, the outcry from wounded fans threatened to blow over the Golden Gate Bridge. But once Young took over the position ‘full time', as it were, Young would lead the league in passing 5 of the next 6 years and win a Super Bowl. Perhaps Kyle Orton or Chris Simms will do so, perhaps not. Consider, if you will, that Steve Young was already a veteran who had played for Tampa Bay and put up numbers that were at best mediocre. Perhaps, although to most it is anathema, just perhaps the system and the head coach are far more important than most people think.

Perhaps neither Kyle Orton nor Chris Simms will lead the league next season, but the principles are much the same. The new McDaniels system is unlikely to be a West Coast Offense variant, yet there will be principles and approaches that will be the same. It will stretch the field and take advantage of the strengths of the quarterback, minimizing his weaknesses. In both systems the value of a single player cannot and should not ever outweigh the importance of the team. In both, it will be the head coach and his system that will reign supreme.

But years later, in 1982, it was the need to protect his fungible quarterbacks, specifically against Bill Parcells and his semi-guided missile in Lawrence Taylor that drove Bill Walsh to redefine the position of the left tackle. In 1981 the 49ers had a left tackle by the name of Ron Singleton, who felt strongly that with his skills he should be considered a marquee player. Walsh, of course, didn't believe in marquee players. Singleton decided that he wanted his contract renegotiated, hired an agent and was said to be demanding a large sum of money. When Walsh refused, Singleton told the media that Walsh was mistreating him and disrespecting him because he was black. Offended, Walsh snapped.

According to the story, as told by Michael Lewis, Walsh really did have a staff member clean out Singleton's locker, put his belongings in a box and drove it over to Ron's house where the box was left by his front door. That ended Singleton's time with the 49ers, but it left Walsh with a singular hole at the left tackle position. Unfortunately for him, Walsh's remaining option was a 2nd string LT named Dan Aurick who only weighed about 250 pounds. If he was going to protect Joe Montana's blind side, he needed to come up with a solution fast, and that solution wouldn't be his own left tackle.

The solution came in the form of left guard John Ayers. Like Bear Pascoe, who followed him in 2009, Ayers was a rodeo cowboy; a steer-wrestler. He was 6'5", 270 lbs of tanned leather and whipcord sinews. He had great balance. He also knew something that has become a standard to every top NFL player since then - he knew how to watch film. He studied Lawrence Taylor better than any lineman who came before Taylor. He did so out of an understandable desire for self-respect and self-preservation. Taylor didn't just beat left tackles. He beat them up, and he lived to crush them into the turf. He lived to destroy them. It was his joy, his geis, and his reason for playing.

Said Giants defensive back Beasley Reece, "When Lawrence is pass-rushing, he telegraphs it. His hands are flopping and his arms are swinging." Ayers used that to pull into the path of that missile.

Walsh would use Ayers in a variation on the normal actions of a pulling guard. Ayers would make sure that Taylor was coming (and 90% of the time he was) and then move smoothing back and to his left. It used simple geometry to get into Taylor's path and cut him off.  

What Taylor hadn't planned for was that Ayers trained in a way that would have endeared him to Peyton Hillis. He would go out into the freshly plowed fields by his home and tie himself to a tractor tire, dragging it along behind him mile after mile until his legs burned, quavered and fell beneath him. Then he'd pause to get his wind , wipe the sweat from his face and do it again. When Ayers planted his feet, he could anchor as well as anyone in the business. When Taylor came around that corner, he hit Ayers and broke like a wave on a rock. Much later, LT would admit candidly, "I couldn't figure out what to do with him."

The game ended 38-24, and some of the Giants' points came in garbage time.  The 49ers would go on to win the Super Bowl. The left tackle position would go on to gain an inevitable type of prominence. It was slow, but protecting the investment at quarterback gradually grew to obvious importance.

It wouldn't be until the free agency period of 1993, though, that its finances finally caught up to its importance. In fact, just a few seasons early, Anthony Munoz, one of the best in the game, had been bluntly told that no offensive lineman was worth $500,000 per year.

It was the Denver Broncos who led the charge that would change all that.  In 1993, Pat Bowlen had them quickly signing guard Brian Habib and left tackle Don Maggs for three times that amount; a Broncos spokesman pointed out that John Elway had been sacked 52 times the previous year and that Maggs and Habib were being paid to put a stop to that.  A center, Kirk Lowdermilk of the Colts went for $2 million a few days later. The surge to pay offensive linemen was on and no one made more than the left tackles.

At the end of that period of free agency, Will Wolford of the Buffalo Bills was lured to the Indianapolis Colts with a record contract of $7.65 million. The Bills were scandalized, but they were more shocked when the terms of the contract were released and it was made public that the contract ensured that over its course no one on the offense would make more than Wolford, including the quarterback. Bill Polian had been with the Bills when they drafted Wolford and he'd gone to Indianapolis where he swung that contract. When asked about it, he replied,

"You want to know why this organization gave Will that kind of money? He got it for the simple reason that he shut down Lawrence Taylor in the Super Bowl last year, that's why." His logic was unassailable.

Here is a repeat of that quick fact from the American Journal of Sports Medicine: Between the years 1980 and 2001, NFL quarterbacks incurred 1,534 broken bones; 77.4% of them came during NFL games.

Here is another fact: If the opposing defensive players don't tackle you, it's unlikely that you will add to the total. This is the simple logic behind the next question: Can you guess the players who, as a group, make the most money other than quarterbacks? It's not the wide receivers, not the running backs, not the killer defensive ends. It's the guy who guards the quarterback - the left tackle. They were averaging $5.5 million per player back in 2007. It's gone up since then.

The Broncos have brilliant young Ryan Clady. Still in his rookie contract, Clady will make $17.5 million over 5 years if he meets all his incentives including making multiple Pro Bowls, which we can safely assume that he will achieve. If he plays the way the way did last season, it's a relative pittance. Before that contract runs out, barring injury, the Broncos will tender him an offer that will lock him up for as many years as they can. He's an incredible value and one very big reason why the Denver Broncos shouldn't be counted out of next year's standings prematurely.

After all - Kyle Orton managed a 96.0 passer rating in the red zone last year with an interception rate of just 1.69% despite a nasty sack percentage of 4.84%. Consider for a moment what he could do with Iron Clady guarding his blind side. You can't overpay that kind of performance, but you can safely expect the Broncos to extend his contract with little haggling. Clady is the kind of thing that you dream of with the 12th pick. About 11 other teams are wondering what the heck they were thinking.

So, if you're thinking about the game of football and your heart beats faster thinking about yards, touchdowns and catches, you're probably one of the millions of football fans who thinks about the 'baseball' players on the field. The camera angles that only emphasize the ball contribute greatly to that. But if you're one of the few who watches the tackles, offensive and defensive, you might also be one who sees football the way another might view 'Golf and the Kingdom'. It is a game within the game, and it is far more than a game.

And it's beautiful.

This column was taken in part from the reading of 'The Blind Side', by Michael Lewis, and from 'Golf in the Kingdom' by Michael Murphy

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