You look for the quickness, the 40-yard time and the bench press, but the unchartable is what goes on between the ears and in the heart. How does a man handle the terror factor, playing on the road in a domed stadium where the crowd, juiced up by the scoreboard Hashing its electronic message—NOISE!—is obliterating his quarterback's calls, and two feet away from him is one of those human whirlwinds waiting to fly around the corner like an Indy Car? "Derrick Thomas on artificial turf with the crowd noise...you're talking about a lethal weapon," says Green Bay left tackle Ken Ruettgers.
Then there's the unfairness of it all. Pass rushers get measured by all kinds of statistics: sacks, pressures, hurries, strip sacks and, of course, the trifecta—sack, forced fumble, recovered fumble. The only number a blocker can take pride in is a zero—to all of the above.
A sack brings the crowd to its feet. A standoff, which is really a victory for the offensive lineman, is a ho-hummer. Rushers develop all sorts of catchy trademarks: Eagle Tim Harris's loaded six-guns, former New York Jet Mark Gastineau's sack dance. The only time an offensive lineman dances is when someone steps on his foot. "What gets me," says Raider coach Art Shell, perhaps the finest left tackle of all time (page 118), "is that a guy gets a sack and he's jumping up and down. What about the 38 or 39 times out of 40 pass plays that he gets blocked? If a tackle did all that jumping up and down, he'd never make it through the first quarter."
Shell came up in an era in which left-right distinctions were not as finely drawn as they are today. If a coach had a hole to fill at tackle, he plunked somebody in, never mind the side. In the 40 years or so that the four-man defensive line has been in existence, pitting the tackle against the defensive end, seven offensive tackles—including Jim Parker of the Baltimore Colts, who also played guard (page 66)—have made the Hall of Fame. Four of those tackles played the right side, including two, Forrest Gregg of the Packers and Ron Mix of the San Diego Chargers, whose quick feet would stamp them as textbook left tackles today. Until the late '60s right tackle was where a team put its best lineman, simply because the left defensive end was usually the other team's strongest player against the run as well as the pass.
All of this began to change with the emergence of the American Football League. The NFL ran the ball, the AFL passed. Protecting the quarterback was a more urgent priority in the AFL, especially on his left side, away from the tight end. And while many NFL teams were still teaching the old pass-blocking technique—fists in tight, elbows out wide—young AFL line coaches such as the Jets' Chuck Knox taught their linemen to use their hands to steer opponents away from the action. And to grab a little jersey if they could get away with it.
With the merger of the two leagues, a new type of left tackle came into existence, and the prototype was the Jets' Winston Hill, 6'4", 270 pounds, a smooth, graceful athlete who had once been a Texas state tennis champion. Hill was clever with his hands. "So strong and yet so graceful," Jet fullback Matt Snell said of him. "You ever see him sweat? I never did. It's like watching a great artist at work."
Seventeen years ago the Raiders' Al Davis decided that he would make ex-Cowboy defensive end Pat Toomay his "designated rightside sacker." That drew a few smirks. Even in the age of specialization, this was too much. As usual Davis was ahead of his time. Four years later the Giants drafted Lawrence Taylor, a linebacker whose primary function would be to get the quarterback from the right side. In passing situations he would rush from a down-lineman's position.
Taylor created havoc. He turned games around with his patented strip sack, slapping the ball free. The stampede was on. Everyone had to have a player like Taylor, homing in on the passer from the right side. The slow-footed, drive-blocking left tackle was driven to extinction. Give us a left tackle with nifty feet, the coaches said, and we'll work on the rest.
A deficiency in footwork spelled disaster, and there is no better example than that of Tony Mandarich, the behemoth from Michigan State who in 1989 was labeled the greatest offensive-line prospect ever to come out of college. The Packers made Mandarich the second pick of that year's draft. "After one day of practice you could see that he'd never be a left tackle," says the Patriots' director of college scouting, Charley Armey. "He couldn't make that first quick move to the outside. After a week you could see that he'd never be an NFL tackle, period. Michigan State had been a straight-ahead power team, and that's what kind of player Mandarich was. He couldn't go side to side, but you couldn't see that until he was asked to do it. If he had played at Brigham Young [a pro-style passing team], you would have known."
At the other end of the spectrum is Anthony Muñoz, the king of modern offensive tackles. At USC from 1976 to '79 he played the weak side on a line that flopped strong and weak. Movement was his game, but he was also an overpowering drive-blocker. Munoz had knee surgery during his senior season, but the Bengals took a chance on him and were rewarded with an 11-time Pro Bowl left tackle. "He had tremendous god-given skills that he then developed," says Sam Wyche, Muñoz's coach in Cincinnati and now the head man for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. "He'd be out there in bad weather al lunchtime, running so he could get himself loose for practice. Other guys were catching a little nap, but there was nothing but pride in the way Anthony prepared himself—and played."