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The Blind Side

With this post, I was torn between using my NFL Draft userpic or this, the Adam Smith userpic that denotes my economics posts. You see, the post concerns both economics and the NFL Draft. In the end, I decided on Adam.

It's the first round of the NFL Draft tonight (well, early tomorrow morning). Those of us in the UK with an ESPN subscription get to watch it live. The rest of you (if you're interested) can follow on something called 'BBC Radio Five Live Sports Extra' although I must admit I have no idea how you actually do that.

Anyway, something that will become apparent during the draft is that in the NFL, offensive left tackles are far more highly prized than offensive right tackles. They get drafted higher and they get paid more. Why?

For those not familiar with American football positions, the two offensive tackles are the two players on the outside of the five players who make up the offensive line. Together with the left guard, right guard and centre, they open the way for the running back to carry the ball and protect the quarterback from defensive players trying to sack him (i.e. tackle him before he manages to pass the ball).

Left guards are paid much the same as right guards. So why are left tackles paid much more than right tackles? In fact, why is left tackle the second highest paid position of all (after quarterback)?

The clue is in the title of this post: The Blind Side. Movie fans may also recognise this as the title of a recent film for which Sandra Bullock won the Best Actress Oscar. The same title was used for the book* on which the film is based. It is a true story about a kid from the wrong side of the tracks who is adopted by a rich family and becomes a left tackle in the NFL. It's a good film, and it starts off with a lesson in economics (and how many Hollywood movies start like that?)

OK. Let me explain.

The most valuable player on an NFL team is usually the quarterback. He's the one who passes the ball. A great quarterback can make a bad team good. Few good teams have poor quarterbacks. Most quarterbacks are, as you'd expect, right-handed. This means that when they stand ready to pass, they will stand with their left foot and left arm forward and their right foot and right arm back, with the ball in their right hand. If a pass rusher (that is, a defensive player trying to sack the quarterback) comes from the right side of the offensive line, the quarterback will see him. However, if a pass rusher comes from the left side of the offensive line, he'll be coming from the quarterback's...blind side.

In the 1980s, NFL defenses started to take advantage of this by putting their best pass rushers against the left tackle. The film starts with Sandra Bullock explaining this using a clip of Lawrence Taylor (New York Giants linebacker) ending the career of Washington Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann with a blindside hit. And so NFL offenses responded by developing the position of left tackle into what it is now.

That demand in itself does not explain why left tackles are quite so valuable though. The other crucial factor is, as is so often the case in economics, supply. And human beings with the qualities to be a really good left tackle are extremely rare.

First of all, you need to be big and strong to cope with the bigger pass rushers and to knock them out of the way when your team runs the ball. 320 pounds and up ideally. But most people that size are big and chunky, and a left tackle needs really long arms to stop people going around him, so he also needs to be tall - 6'4" would be considered too short. However, most tall men are lanky rather than powerful. To drive defenders backwards, you're going to need big, powerful thighs rather than a long, slim legs. Now, just as important as height and strength is quickness. You need to be athletic enough to run downfield on some plays and you need to be quick off the mark. If you aren't, then the smaller, quicker pass rushers will have got past you before you know it. Oh, and emotionally you need to be the sort of person who is an instinctive protector. And since this is quite a technical position to learn, you probably need to have been well-coached.

How many people in the world fit that description? Well, truth be told, less than 32. And there are 32 teams in the league.

And that is why left tackles are paid so much. See? Supply and demand.

* The book is 'The Blind Side', by Michael Lewis. Lewis is a former bond trader whose writings cover subjects from American football and baseball to Silicon Valley and Wall Street. If you want an extremely readable account of just how the credit crisis happened, I heartily recommend 'The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine', a book deserving of a future economics post in its own right.



( 1 comment — Leave a comment )
Apr. 28th, 2011 09:57 pm (UTC)
Well, as a leftie I was going to suggest it was to do with a majority of righthanded players.
( 1 comment — Leave a comment )