They come into the league like gifts from heaven, in dribs and drabs. A righthanded quarterback's head and body are turned to the right; his blind side, or back side, is to the left. That's where trouble lives, and trouble bears many names: Derrick Thomas, Richard Dent, Pat Swilling, Tony Bennett, Clyde Simmons, Renaldo Turnbull, Leslie O'Neal and the Smiths, Bruce and Anthony. Every one of them is a rightside sacker. And who do we ask to stand between the quarterback and this horde? Why, the left tackle, of course.
What does my left tackle mean to me? Only life or death.
Pittsburgh Steeler quarterback
Scouting for left tackles today? Bring along this list of prerequisites: must be strong enough—you don't want your guy carried into the quarterback's lap—and quick enough to dance with the speed rushers; must have good lateral movement, quick feet, and long arms for that final push-off if the pass rusher has gotten around the corner. In short, you want a gigantic Baryshnikov.
"You need unusual size but also unusual speed, which is not a usual combination," says New England Patriot left tackle Bruce Armstrong. "It's an oxymoron to say you want a quick guy who's 290, but that's what he'd better be."
This season Bernard Williams of the Philadelphia Eagles is considered a can't-miss rookie. Wayne Gandy of the Los Angeles Rams is close. Todd Steussie of the Minnesota Vikings and Marcus Spears of the Chicago Bears are maybes. "That's one and a half, maybe two," says Cincinnati Bengal line coach Jim McNally, "out of the whole United States of America." Williams, Gandy and Steussie were taken in the first round; Spears went in round 2. That should tell you something about the importance of the left tackle in today's NFL.
To establish an offense, of course, you must fill in a right tackle, too, especially if you're facing a formidable leftside rusher such as Reggie White of the Green Bay Packers, Kevin Greene of the Steelers or Neil Smith of the Kansas City Chiefs. And some teams will Hop their best pass rushers to either side if they smell a weakness. But the general feeling is that the offensive right tackle is the power man, the fellow who is capable of collapsing a side, while his counterpart on the left is more nimble-footed. So you aim your sights high and go for a left tackle, and if he Hunks, you move him to the right side, and if he flunks there, he becomes a guard—scouting outside-in, this is called—and if he flunks there, he becomes a high school coach.
The system has been known to break down. The New York Giant left tackle Jumbo Elliott played the power side at Michigan. He was projected as an NFL guard, "mainly because I was sick at the combine workouts and run a bad time," he says. "But I was always one of the top guys in the quickness and agility drills. My rookie year on the Giants  I'd taken a few snaps at tackle, but I was mainly a guard. Then we played the Saints in New Orleans. William Roberts, our left tackle, got a thigh bruise in the first half, and they put someone else in. That was the game where Pat Swilling had three sacks and forced two fumbles. In the second half Bill Parcells looked around to see what he had on the bench. He said, "Elliott, you're in there." I was so full of adrenaline that I did a decent job, and I finished the season as the left tackle."
And Elliott was selected to the 1994 Pro Bowl. So what would have happened if Roberts hadn't bruised his leg?
"I guess I'd be a guard," Elliott says.
How tough is left tackle? Go around to the other linemen and ask for volunteers, and you 'II get your answer. You need a guy like those people who jump into oil wells to put out fires.
Dallas Cowboy personnel director