TCS Daily

Sacking the Market

By Michael Rosen - February 2, 2007 12:00 AM

Editor's note: This article is part 2 in a series (part 1 is here).

The Blind Side, Michael Lewis's excellent book on college and pro football, opens with a bang.

Actually, it's more of a snap: the sound of Joe Theisman's tibia and fibula breaking in half under the weight of one of the greatest pass-rushers in NFL history - Lawrence Taylor (see the gruesome video here).

Through this exceptionally violent lens, Lewis examines a little-known but seminal development in the game: the enormous fear sown by linebackers stalking the quarterback's "blind side" (essentially, his back) and the tremendous investment teams have made in their left tackles - the offensive linemen who protect that blind side (for right-handed quarterbacks, the vast majority in the NFL).

As we stock up on avocados and beer for Super Bowl XLI - which pits one future hall-of-fame quarterback (Peyton Manning) against the most mediocre play-caller to reach the big game since Trent Dilfer's Super Bowl appearance in 2001 (Rex Grossman) - we would do well to consider the importance of those large, nimble men who protect the QB.

These men have already made a bit of a splash in the run-up to the big game. In the epic Colts-Patriots slugfest that decided the AFC Championship, no fewer than three offensive linemen scored touchdowns.

But the O-line is better known for its unheralded, yeoman-like work in the trenches than for its occasionally glamorous opportunities to score. These guys don't even have statistics that measure their success; the only relevant stats are negative - penalties incurred and sacks yielded. It is this portrayal of the fundamentals of the game - the raw, brutish, but somehow brainy fight for the line of scrimmage - that most fundamentally characterizes The Blind Side.

I'll admit that the book sparked in me a particular nostalgia in its discussion of the career of San Francisco's Steve Wallace, an undersized but kinesthetically gifted lineman. Wallace replaced Bubba Paris - the relatively ineffective, laughably out-of-shape, but completely lovable 300-pounder that my brother and I adored in the 80's, who now has a second career as a motivational speaker - at left tackle en route to three 49er Super Bowl victories.

Wallace's classic battles against the Minnesota Vikings' Chris Doleman, so colorfully depicted in The Blind Side, are a microcosm of the entire book: a battle of wits powered by the leveraged application of brute force.

With the emergence of seemingly unstoppable linebackers like Doleman and Taylor, the NFL's teams began to realize that their most precious commodities - their quarterbacks - were placed at perilous risk with every play they called, unable even to witness the violence unleashed against their vulnerable bodies. The fear multiplier these pass-rushers imposed became enough to disrupt entire offenses.

And so, Lewis explains, teams like Bill Walsh's 49ers adapted by seeking out enormous but agile, athletic, and quick young men whose sole mission in life was to stop or impede the frightening linebacker from pancaking the quarterback. Gradually, these linemen came to trail only the men they protected in earning potential: by 2005, the left tackle had become the second highest-paid position on the gridiron ($7.25 million on average per season for the top five starting left tackles; $11.9 million for quarterbacks).

Why, one might ask, did this phenomenon wait until the late 1980's/early 1990's to unfold? How had it gone unnoticed until that point?

Permitting Lewis a bit of literary-dramatic license, and all exaggeration aside, one major development proved critical: the advent of relatively unfettered free agency in the NFL. As Lewis puts it:

"...the curious thing about this market revaluation is that nothing had changed in the game to make the left tackle position more valuable. Lawrence Taylor had been around since 1981. Bill Walsh's passing game had long since swept across the league. Passing attempts per game reached a new peak and remained there. There had been no meaningful change in strategy, or rules, or the threat posed by the defense to quarterbacks' health in ten years. There was no new data to enable NFL front offices to value left tackles—or any offensive lineman—more precisely. The only thing that happened is that the market was allowed to function. And the market assigned a radically higher value to the left tackle than had the old pre-market football culture." (emphasis added)

It doesn't take a rabid supply-sider to recognize that free agency uncorked the bottle, rendering high schoolers like Michael Oher (the subject of Lewis's tale) an astoundingly hot commodity. While we as a society have chosen to restrain the market for college football players, a decision I defended in the previous installment of this series, the league has unbridled its forces in the pro ranks.

The Blind Side unfortunately neglects one mini-trend: the brief move toward smaller offensive linemen in the late 1990's to counter a similar downsizing of blind-side linebackers, which in turn was a response to the proliferation of behemoths like the Ravens' Jonathan Ogden. This shrinkage manifested itself in players like Gary Zimmerman, Brian Habib, and Harry Swayne, the relatively diminutive nucleus of the O-line of the 1997-98 Denver Broncos - two-time Super Bowl champs.

Either way, as you're stuffing your face full of guacamole on Sunday, keep a careful eye on Tarik Glenn, Number 78 on the Colts, and John Tait, Number 76 on the Bears. For all we know, these two veteran 300-plus-pound left tackles may influence the big game even more than Manning and Grossman - the men they're paid so handsomely to protect.

Michael M. Rosen, TCS Daily's intellectual property columnist, is an attorney in San Diego.

[Department of Corrections: in my previous article, I stated that "in the NBA, teams can also opt for the riskier path of grabbing 18-year-olds straight out of high school." Reader BoscoH correctly observes that this year the NBA implemented a "one-year rule" whereby athletes must be at least one year removed from high school and 19 years of age before becoming eligible for the draft. (See section III(L), here)]



Application to CEO pay
A comparison I would like to see would would be the salaries of the starting QB and weakside tackle vs. the annual compensation of CEOs of top (or bottom) 64 companies in Fortune 500. Does anyone seriously think that QB and left tackle pay is out of hand? However it stacks up, I'd bet it makes a reasonable argument that CEOs aren't grossly overcompensated, given the financial stakes of their positions relative to QB and LT ROI in the NFL.

Another interesting tidbit from the article... The guacamole link... The avocado lawyers got the web designers to use "Big Game" in the page copy, but "Super Bowl" made it to the page title and URL. NFL Trademark licensing gone a little loonie IMHO.

Market principles at work
Very interesting take on sports. So what you have in the NFL is a million dollar guy whose life is being protected by another million dollar guy, and so can be put at risk in a brutal contest.

Usually he prevails, if the guy who's got his back is good. He can be saved from danger 999 plays out of a thousand.

On the thousandth play, his tibia snaps and they have to put him down.

Market forces have created something similar on the big time race track. Thorobreds are bred for speed at the cost of every other quality. So their bone structures are so light, their muscular development so awesome and their temperaments so high strung and competitive that when they're competing flat out, they more than just occasionally break a leg bone. And have to be put down.

Or like Barbaro, saved by heroic efforts, but only for a while.

Greyhounds I don't even want to talk about. These sports bear a resemblance to Elizabethan bull and bear baiting, or in my own locality, dog fighting and cock fighting. The lesson we can take is whenever big money enters the equation, imposing a market aspect to what would otherwise just be sport, humanity goes out the window and it becomes a deadly earnest contest to the finish.

Naturally, capitalism itself is nothing like that.

How about the ratio of pay between top actors,and the cameramen that film them?

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