Monday, June 15, 2009

On The Ground: KC Joyner on the importance of the left tackle

For the last couple of weeks, I've been working on a piece for The Good Point about the importance of the left tackle in the NFL, particularly concerning the different views espoused by Michael Lewis and KC Joyner. I finished it up this morning, and editor extraordinaire Austin Kent already has it posted, so you can check it out here. It features interviews with Joyner, a famed author who also writes for ESPN and The New York Times, Brian Galliford of Buffalo Rumblings, Jason Brewer of Bleeding Green Nation and Bruce Raffel of Baltimore Beatdown.

As with my previous piece for The Good Point, I got a lot of interesting information that I wasn't able to fit into the piece, so I've decided to again present extended interviews as part of my ongoing On The Ground interview series. I'll present my full interview with Joyner today, with Raffel's to come Wednesday and Brewer's on Friday. Almost of Galliford's quotes made it into the piece, so there isn't much point in posting a separate interview with him. Here's my conversation with Joyner about his 2008 book Blindsided: Why the Left Tackle is Overrated and Other Contrarian Football Thoughts and his thoughts in general on left tackles. Thanks to KC for taking the time to answer my questions. You can check out his website here and pre-order his new book, Scientific Football 2009, right here.

Andrew Bucholtz: In Blindsided, you wrote that “Today’s defenses don’t rely as much on getting the edge linebacker in a one-on-one matchup against a left tackle, but instead try to get a matchup anywhere they can on the line. That makes building a solid offensive line across the board much more important than just having one great left tackle.” Why do you think defenses have changed their approach to pass rushing? Have left tackles become better, are there less great blind side pass rushers, or is it just a more complicated approach to defensive game plans?

KC Joyner: It all comes down to the idea that there are two ways to approach attacking offenses - you can either attack the scheme or attack personnel weaknesses.

The gist of attacking a scheme is to find a set/formation weakness and that normally involves trying to get more rushers than blockers at a given area. In that case, it doesn't matter how good the LT is because you are going to occupy him with a rusher and get someone unblocked around him.

If a team is more personnel than scheme oriented, they are going to try to find the weakest link on the line and go after that player. Again, if the LT is strong and there is a weaker link on the line, this type of team will go after the weaker player and thus avoid the LT.

I also don't think teams have necessarily changed the way they approach things. Bill Walsh loved to talk about how he made the left tackle position so important but it is also worth pointing out that his first Super Bowl win came with a guard playing LT and his second came with a fat, underachieving LT (Bubba Paris). If the LT position was so important, how was it that Walsh put up two championship wins with a subpar player at that position? The answer, in my estimation, is that it isn't as important as he said it was but he wanted to make the case about Harris Barton's value to help promote himself as a football genius. I'm not saying he wasn't a genius but he had a lot of Carl Sagan in him - his brilliance was obvious but so was his penchant for self-promotion.

A.B.: One of the points Lewis seems to be making in The Blind Side is that good left tackles are highly valued because of the unusual mix of attributes required to excel at the position (tremendous size and great speed). What do you think of that idea? If he has a point there, would it be reasonable for left tackles to still be drafted higher and paid more than guards or centers due to their scarcity even if their role isn’t actually much more important? Also, is there a significant difference in the skills needed to play left tackle and right tackle?

K.J.: I believe one justifiable reason for a team to pursue the size/speed attributes for the left tackle position is because that is the position where those traits can have the greatest value in pass blocking. Guards and centers need size and a certain amount of speed, but they are not going to be tested at the corner the way that left tackles are. Another way to put it is that there is a limited amount of pass blocking upside potential for guards and centers because of the nature of their position. Right tackles are also in a similar boat because the tight end typically lines up on their side. Teams will always pay big dollars for upside physical potential and since the left tackle spot has more of that than the other line spots, it will tend to draw more financial interest.

A.B.: There were four tackles chosen in the first round of the draft this year: Jason Smith (2nd overall), Andre Smith (6th), Eugene Monroe (8th) and Michael Oher (23rd). By contrast, there were no guards picked in the first round and only two centers (Alex Mack and Eric Wood, 21st and 28th overall). Do you think this shows teams are placing too much importance on the left tackle, or is there something else involved?

K.J.: Again, I'd say it is a play for the upside potential but from the center position standpoint, it also had to do with free agency. The Dolphins, Rams, Ravens and Raiders all needed help at that position and addressed their needs via free agency. Had that not been the case, it is possible the center position may have seen more interest this year.

A.B.: Say you’re the GM of an expansion franchise and you have to build an NFL roster from scratch via an expansion draft, a regular draft and free agency. Where does acquiring a good left tackle fit into your priorities, and which route (expansion draft, regular draft or free agency) is the best way to get a good LT?

K.J.: You have to build a team around the type of coach you have. In a generic sense, however, I'd say you have to go QB first and then go for CBs and pass rushers. It is a passing league and if you don't have someone to throw the ball and/or defend the pass, you aren't going to get far in today's NFL.

A.B.: Your Blindsided comparison of Orlando Pace and L.J. Shelton’s similar numbers was quite interesting. Do you think this means that tackle play in the passing game shouldn’t be evaluated strictly on sacks allowed? If so, what is the best way to evaluate tackle pass protection?

K.J.: I think the best way to evaluate any pass protection is to a) measure all positive and negative plays the tackle makes and b) put it in context. A left tackle for a team like Buffalo that only threw around 150 vertical passes last year should allow fewer sacks than a left tackle for the Broncos who threw around 240 vertical passes.

A.B.: In a Fifth Down post in December, you wrote that you were surprised to see Jason Peters earn a Pro Bowl nod given his pass-blocking and run-blocking numbers. Who do you think got the better deal in his trade to the Eagles?

K.J.: At first I thought the Eagles might have made a mistake in the Peters deal because he gave up 11.5 sacks last year. After tabulating his run blocking totals (which included a terrific 90.1% Point of Attack block win percentage), I think the Eagles made a very good move, especially since I believe they are going to start leaning on the run game a bit more this year.

A.B.: Who would you pick as the best left tackle in the game at the moment?

K.J.: I'm still in the midst of the 2008 tape reviews but from where I'm at right now, I'd say Jake Long. He allowed only 2 sacks and had a POA win percentage of just under 90%.

A.B.: At the end of the Blindsided chapter on the left tackle, you wrote that you hoped your work would be just the first of many studies on the subject. Obviously, you’ve done a lot of studies since then for Scientific Football 2009 and other works, and others have also looked at the importance of the left tackle since then. Have your views on the position’s importance changed since you wrote Blindsided, or has further data backed your initial conclusions?

K.J.: As it stands at the moment, I'm of the same mindset. I'll be addressing this in SF 2009 with an article about the left tackle position and how the crop of highly touted young left tackles probably aren't as good as the hype says they are. They may get there eventually but for more than a couple of them the hype is entirely undeserved.

Thanks again to KC for taking the time to answer my questions. Some fascinating stuff from him there. I highly recommend his books and ESPN/New York Times writing to anyone looking for a deeper look at the NFL.

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