Quarterback Tom Brady tried his best, unsuccessfully, to talk former New England Patriots left tackle Matt Light out of retiring.
The question is how much Light's presence truly mattered.
As the NFL moves further into the era of wide-open passing attacks featuring quarterbacks who either get rid of the ball quickly (like Brady) or create time with their scrambling ability (like the Green Bay Packers' Aaron Rodgers), an interesting trend is developing:
The left tackle's importance is decreasing.
A position once known for graceful athletes and a spot Bill Parcells once considered part of his "holy trinity" of building a team (to go with quarterback and left cornerback) has become like lighter fluid at a barbeque. You could use it, but you can get by without it.
• Of the top four scoring teams in the NFL last season (Packers, New Orleans Saints, Patriots and Detroit Lions), only the Lions featured a former first-round pick at left tackle (Jeff Backus). And Backus is hardly a great player. In 11 seasons, he has never made a Pro Bowl. Light has retired, Chad Clifton (Packers) was released in April and Jermon Bushrod (Saints) is a former fourth-round pick most often described as "solid" by NFL personnel men.
• Only once in the past 11 seasons has the starting left tackle for the Super Bowl champion been a first-round pick. That was Tarik Glenn for the Indianapolis Colts in the 2006 campaign. In fact, former fifth-round pick David Diehl, a converted guard who lacks the prototypical lateral quickness viewed as necessary for the position, has helped the New York Giants win two of the past five Super Bowls.
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• Of the 11 offensive tackles taken with top-10 draft picks from 2004 to 2011, only one has helped his team get to the Super Bowl. That was Levi Brown of the Arizona Cardinals, and Brown started at right tackle in the championship against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the '08 season. Conversely, highly regarded left tackles such as Jake Long and Joe Thomas of the Miami Dolphins and Cleveland Browns, respectively, have mostly been relegated to watching the postseason from afar.
In short, there is ample reason to question the value of a position that once seemed essential. Over a four-year span from the 1997 to 2000 seasons, the Super Bowl was won by teams featuring some of the greatest left tackles ever. Hall of Famer Gary Zimmerman (a supplemental first-round pick in 1984) helped the Denver Broncos to back-to-back titles ('97 and '98 seasons). He was followed by Orlando Pace (the No. 1 overall pick in 1997) when the St. Louis Rams won Super Bowl XXXIV and finally by Jonathan Ogden (No. 4 overall in 1996) with the Baltimore Ravens a year later.
Even later contenders that never won a Super Bowl, such as the Seattle Seahawks and Jacksonville Jaguars, put a premium on great left tackle play with the likes of Walter Jones and Tony Boselli.
"The great tackles you're talking about were both great pass protectors and great run blockers, guys who were in-line maulers," Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. "A guy like Pace or Ogden, if they got out on top of you, they were going to wipe you out. But they could also control anybody coming in on the blind side."
Giants defensive end Justin Tuck took it a step further, essentially arguing that style of play has made the left tackle less of a factor.
"The game has changed – and I know the quarterbacks are not going to like this – but it's making the game easy on the quarterbacks," Tuck said. "The ball comes out a lot faster. The rules on the [secondary] as far as what we can do to wide receivers, all these things allow quarterbacks to be way more potent than they used to be. It's handcuffing defensive players and I don't know if it has any correlation to offensive tackles, but I would like to see a graph of how long quarterbacks sit in the pocket now.
"You can have a great rush by the defensive lineman, but you can't get there because the ball is gone. I watch old films. You see how long Joe Montana held the ball, [John] Elway, those guys. They sat in the pocket a little more and had more time. When I first came in the league, we said that three seconds is the time you have to get there. I would like to see how many times the quarterback held the ball three seconds against us."
Ultimately, more teams are utilizing precision passing attacks that require quarterbacks to get rid of the ball much faster than ever before. With clubs using variations of four-receiver and/or two-tight end sets, quarterbacks don't necessarily need their linemen to hold their blocks as long. Increasingly, teams are devoting more resources at guard to keep the quarterback from getting rushed quickly up the middle.
"The pass rush is more about straight lines now," New York Jets coach Rex Ryan said. "In the past, you would loop an end inside, take a longer route, to confuse the blocking scheme, but you don't have time for that now. It's get there and get there fast."
Ryan's approach is a great example. Many of his best pass-rush schemes are "overloads," where he may only bring three or four rushers, but they all come from the same side of the offensive formation.
The Patriots are a great example of how protection is now focused on the middle of the line rather than the classic "blindside" protection led by the left tackle. New England's best offensive lineman is Pro Bowl guard Logan Mankins, who teamed with veteran Brian Waters on the inside. New England suffered most on offense last season when it was forced to replace injured center Dan Koppen. Tuck indicated there's an obvious reason for that.
"The time we kept Brady in the pocket and didn't allow him to step up, that's when we had the most success against him," Tuck said. "Now, that's any quarterback, but it's especially [true of] Brady. All he needs is one step. Not even one step, just be able to plant that front foot and deliver and he's a different quarterback.
"You can rush him off the edges all you want and he'll slide and step forward away from that. You have to have forward pressure in his face."
Likewise, New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees has benefitted in recent years from the play of guards Jhari Evans and Carl Nicks. The interesting question for Brees, whenever he signs a new contract, is what impact the loss of Nicks to free agency will have. The Saints signed veteran Ben Grubbs to replace him.
The bottom line: The premium that used to be paid for a left tackle is no longer the case. When the Minnesota Vikings took left tackle Matt Kalil with the No. 4 overall pick this year, many executives understood the logic but questioned the importance.
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"Kalil is a good player, but he's not one of those guys you're talking about, like Boselli or Pace or Ogden," an NFC executive said. "You look around and there are some good ones still, like Jake Long and Joe Thomas. But what does it matter if you have one of them?"
The executive pointed out that in the nine combined seasons that Long and Thomas have played, they have yet to win a playoff game and have played in only one.
"It's a luxury position," the executive concluded.
Or as Buffalo Bills coach Chan Gailey said: "We [all the teams in the NFL] throw about 62 percent of the time right now. It's not just the left tackle you have to worry about now. You have good pass rushers everywhere and the defense isn't just going to leave those guys over on the left side. They're going to put them wherever they think they can get to you fastest. So you better get rid of it fast."
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