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The Blind Side
MICHAEL LEWIS
September 25, 2006
The left tackle evolved, through natural selection and intelligent design, into a prized specimen who lived to ensure the survival of his quarterback against a predator he couldn't see
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September 25, 2006

The Blind Side

The left tackle evolved, through natural selection and intelligent design, into a prized specimen who lived to ensure the survival of his quarterback against a predator he couldn't see

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After the 49ers won their first Super Bowl, in 1981, Walsh used his first draft choice to select Paris. Bubba was meant to be the solution to Walsh's biggest problem, the need to protect Montana's blind side. "At 300 pounds or less," said Walsh, "Bubba would have been a Hall of Fame left tackle. He was quick, active, bright, and he had a mean streak." Bubba also had a history of putting on weight, but, as Walsh said, "we felt we could deal with that. And we did. Briefly."

In Bubba's first four seasons his weight jumped around, but the trend line pointed upward. Offered many choices between carrots and sticks, Bubba reached every time for another jelly doughnut. The 49ers won the Super Bowl again after the 1984 season. But the next three seasons they went into the playoffs with high hopes and were bounced in the first round. In '85 and '86 they were beaten badly by the Giants, and in both games Taylor wreaked havoc. He was too quick for Bubba. The 49ers offense, usually so reliable, scored only three points in each of those games. Montana was knocked out of the '86 game with a concussion. The hits didn't always come from the blind side, the turf Paris was meant to secure, but the blind side was the sore spot.

It was at the end of the 1987 season that Walsh's frustrations with his promising left tackle peaked. Bubba just kept getting fatter, and slower, and less able to keep up with the ever-faster pass rush. During the regular season his weight hadn't mattered very much. He had waddled onto the field at well over 300 pounds, and the 49ers had still cruised through the season. They'd finished with a record of 13-2. Amazingly they had the No. 1 scoring offense and the No. 1 overall defense in the NFL. Going into the playoffs, they were viewed as such an unstoppable force that the bookies had them as 14-point favorites to win the Super Bowl, no matter who they played. They appeared to be a team without a weakness; but then the regular season is not as effective as the playoffs at exposing a team's weaknesses. The stakes are lower, the opponents generally less able, their knowledge of opposing teams less complete. It's when a team hits the playoffs that its weaknesses are revealed, and in the '87 playoffs Walsh discovered that his seemingly perfect team had an Achilles' heel.

The first game was against the Minnesota Vikings, and it was supposed to be a cakewalk. But the Vikings had a sensational 6'5", 270-pound young pass rusher named Chris Doleman, and he came off the blind side like a bat out of hell. He was fast, he was strong, he was crafty, he was mean. He wore Taylor's number, 56, and when he was asked who in football he most admired, he said, "The one guy who has the desire to be the best, and the tenacity, is Lawrence Taylor."

Doleman had been drafted as an outside linebacker, but in the Vikings' 4-3 defense, the outside linebacker wasn't chiefly a pass rusher. Finally it occurred to the Vikings' coaches to try him as a right defensive end-that is, to make him a pass rusher. To give him the role in the 4-3 that Taylor played in the 3-4. Doleman was an instant success. Thus Walsh received another lesson about the cost of not having a left tackle capable of protecting his quarterback's blind side. He had built the niftiest little passing machine in the history of the NFL, and this one guy on the other team had his finger on the switch that shut it down.

Doleman hit Montana early and often, but even when he didn't hit Montana he came so close that Montana couldn't step into his throws. Steve Wallace, Paris's backup, watched from the sideline. "He never let Joe get his feet set," Wallace said later. What Doleman did to Montana's feet was minor compared with what he did to his mind. "Every time Joe went back, he was peeping out of the corner of his eye first, then looking at his receivers," said Wallace. The pass rush rendered Montana so inept that in the second half Walsh benched him and inserted Steve Young. Young was lefthanded, which enabled him to see Doleman coming. Young was also fast enough to flee-which he did, often. Against a team they were meant to beat by three touchdowns, the 49ers lost 36-24. Afterward Vikings coach Jerry Burns told reporters that "the way to stop [the 49ers] is to pressure the quarterback. Our whole approach was to pressure Montana."

A football game is too complicated to be reduced to a single encounter. Lots of other things happened that afternoon in Candlestick Park. But the inability of the 49ers' left tackle to handle the Vikings' right end, in Walsh's view, created fantastically disproportionate distortions in the game.

Afterward Walsh was so shattered that he walked out of Candlestick Park without pausing to speak to his players. He coached football just one more season and decided to hang his fortunes on something more dependable than the Bubba Paris Diet. But Bubba had no obvious replacement. Wallace hadn't been trained as a left tackle. He'd been drafted by the 49ers in the fourth round in 1986 and was known chiefly for having blocked for running back Bo Jackson at Auburn. Wallace had to teach himself how to pass-block, but he was a student of the game, willing to pay a steep price to play it, and the recipient of Walsh's highest compliment: nasty. As in: " Steve Wallace was a nasty football player."

A year after their loss to the Vikings, the 49ers found themselves in exactly the same place: in the playoffs, facing Minnesota. The 49ers weren't as good as they had been the year before, and the Vikings were better. They, not the 49ers, now had the NFL's No. 1 defense. It was led by Doleman, who was, if anything, even better than before at sacking quarterbacks.

The night before the game Wallace didn't sleep. The inability to fall asleep on the night before a game had become a pattern for him. Apparently it came with the left tackle position. Will Wolford, who protected Jim Kelly's blind side for the Buffalo Bills, had exactly the same experience. He started out his career as a guard (and slept), then moved to left tackle (and didn't). Late in his career he moved back to guard, and, presto, he could sleep again. The left tackle position, as it had been reconceived for the modern pass-oriented offense, presented a new psychological challenge for the offensive lineman. A mistake at guard cost a running back a few yards; a mistake at left tackle usually cost your team a sack, occasionally the ball and sometimes the quarterback.

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