FROM THE SNAP OF
THE BALL to the snap of the first bone is closer to four seconds than to five.
One Mississippi: The quarterback of the Washington Redskins, Joe Theismann,
turns and hands the ball to running back John Riggins. He watches Riggins run
two steps forward, turn and flip the ball back to him. It's what most people
know as a flea-flicker, but the Redskins call it a "throw back
special." Two Mississippi: Theismann searches for a receiver but instead
sees Harry Carson coming straight at him. It's a running down-the start of the
second quarter, first-and-10 at midfield, with the score tied 7-7-and the New
York Giants' linebacker has been so completely suckered by the fake that he's
deep in the Redskins' backfield. Carson thinks he's come to tackle Riggins, but
Riggins is long gone, so Carson just keeps running, toward Theismann. Three
Mississippi: Carson now sees that Theismann has the ball. Theismann noticed
Carson coming straight at him, so he has time to avoid him. He steps up and to
the side, and Carson flies right on by. The play is now 3.5 seconds old. Until
this moment it has been defined by what the quarterback could see. Now it-and
he-are at the mercy of what he can't see.
You don't think
of fear as a factor in professional football. You assume that the sort of
people who make it to the NFL are immune to the emotion. Perhaps they don't
mind being hit or maybe they just don't get scared; but the idea of pro
football players sweating and shaking and staring at the ceiling at night,
worrying about the next day's violence, seems preposterous. Bill Parcells, the
coach of the Giants on this night in November 1985, didn't think it
preposterous, however. Parcells, whose passion is football defense, believed
that fear played a big role in the game. So did his players. They'd witnessed
up close the response of opposing players to Lawrence Taylor.
The game of
football was evolving, and here was one cause of its evolution: a new kind of
athlete doing a new kind of thing. All by himself, Taylor altered the
environment and forced opposing coaches and players to adapt. After Taylor
joined the Giants for the 1981 season, they went from the second-worst defense
in the NFL to the third-best. The year before his debut they gave up 425
points; his first year they gave up 257. They had been one of the weakest teams
in the NFL and became, overnight, a contender. Of course Taylor wasn't the only
change in the Giants between '80 and '81. There was one other important
newcomer: Parcells, hired first to coach the defense and later the entire team.
Parcells became a connoisseur of the central nervous systems of opposing
quarterbacks and of the symptoms induced in them by his sack-happy linebacker,
including, but not restricted to, "intimidation, lack of confidence, quick
throws, nervous feet, concentration lapses, wanting to know where Lawrence is
all the time."
Where Taylor is
at the start of the play, of course, isn't the problem. It's where he ends up.
"When I dropped back," says Theismann, "the first thing I did was
to glance over my shoulder to see if he was coming. If he was dropping back in
coverage, a sense of calm came over me. If he was coming, I had a sense of
Taylor is coming. From the snap of the ball Theismann has lost sight of him. He
doesn't see Taylor carving a wide circle behind his back; he doesn't see Taylor
outrun his blocker upfield and then turn back down; and he doesn't see the
blocker diving, frantically, at Taylor's ankles. He doesn't see Taylor leap,
both arms over his head, and fill the sky behind him. Theismann prides himself
on his ability to stand in the pocket and disregard his fear. He thinks this
quality is a prerequisite for a successful NFL quarterback. "When a
quarterback looks at the rush," he says, "his career is over."
Theismann has played in 163 straight games, a record for Redskins quarterbacks.
He's led his team to two Super Bowls and won one. He's 36 years old. He's
certain he still has a few good years left in him. He's wrong. He has less than
half a second.
like personal history, is cleaner and more orderly in retrospect than it is in
real time. It tends not to have crisp beginnings and endings. It progresses an
accident at a time. The evolution of the left tackle involved as many false
starts and dead ends and random mutations and unnatural selections as the other
little evolutions deep inside football. But this single strand of the history
of the game is clearer than most: Over time the statistics of NFL quarterbacks,
on average, came to resemble the statistics of the quarterbacks who played for
Bill Walsh in what came to be known as the West Coast offense.
field is usually an efficient economy: There is seldom a free lunch on it. Of
course there are the weaknesses and strengths of individual players, and a
smart coach will know how to exploit them. Systematic opportunity is rare. Yet
Walsh had stumbled upon a systematic opportunity, and in time other coaches
borrowed heavily from him. His short, precisely timed passing game might not
offer an entirely free lunch, but the discount to the retail price was steep.
The passing game was transformed from a risky business with returns not all
that much greater than those of the running game into a clearly superior way to
move the football down the field. As a result, the players most important to
the passing game became a great deal more valuable.
In that context
Taylor posed a problem. The system Walsh brought to the 49ers of the early '80s
enabled Joe Montana to get rid of the ball faster than anyone else in football,
and usually that was fast enough. Now it wasn't. Walsh's system was all about
rhythm, and rhythm was precisely what you didn't have when you heard Taylor's
footsteps behind you. Walsh came to a pair of conclusions. The first was that
he needed to find himself a player like Taylor to terrorize opposing
quarterbacks. The second was that he needed to use his first pick of the next
draft to find a left tackle, because, as Parcells observed, the only way to
handle this monster coming off the edge without disrupting the rhythm of the
new passing attack was to have a single player with the physical ability to
deal with him. The old left tackle was coming to the end of his natural
monstrosity rises from a hollow beside a quiet road in the Buckhead section of
Atlanta. To call it a home would be to give the wrong impression. It's less a
shelter than a statement: the long, sweeping driveway, the lawn that could
double as a putting green, the giant white columns, the smooth stone porch
inscribed with greetings in Latin. Through the leaded glass windows can be
glimpsed sleek marble floors leading to a grand staircase lit by chandeliers
with enough wattage to illuminate an opera house. It's the sort of place where
the door should be answered by an English butler, but Steve Wallace answers his
own door. He wears shorts, a T-shirt and sandals, and he has the pleasantly
surprised air of a man who has just awakened from a dream that he was rich only
to discover that he's actually rich. The only thing that the home and its owner
have in common is that they are both huge.
Hard as it is to
believe now, there was a time when Steve Wallace worried about making a living.
He wasn't born with money; all he knew how to do was block, and in 1986, when
he started his NFL career, blockers didn't get paid much. His first contract
was worth $90,000 a year, which was pretty good, but he wasn't sure how long he
would last. He sat on the bench and waited without knowing exactly what he was
waiting for. It turned out he was waiting for Bubba Paris to eat himself out of