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Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Book Review: Michael Lewis's "The Blind Side"

Within the past couple of weeks, I read two excerpts from Michael Lewis's new book, one in the Sunday New York Times Magazine and one in Sports Illustrated. Both were excellent, and both compelled me to run out and buy "The Blind Side," which is Michael Lewis's new book regarding the evolution of the left tackle position in the National Football League. Lewis's last book, Moneyball, illustrated how a creative general manager, Oakland's Billy Beane, could field competitive teams by spending less and using statistics to find outstanding players measured in terms of metrics that not every team was willing to adopt.

The book hits the evolution of the position of left tackle from two distinct angles. One has Lewis address how the advent of the New York Giants' Lawrence Taylor in the early 1980's, and his team's deployment of the blitzing linebacker on a righthanded quarterback's blind side, had teams scrambling to figure out how to better protect their most prized player, the starting quarterback. (The advent of Chris Doleman, the quick and strong defensive end for the Vikings, contributed to the evolution too).

Before the advent of players like Taylor and Doleman, all offensive linemen were lumped together and paid similar sums. After the arrival of those players, teams had to find big and quick offensive linemen who could thwart those able players (such as Jonathan Ogden, Orlando Pace and William Roaf, among others). The left tackle, then, moved from being just another lummox-like offensive lineman to, in many cases, the second highest paid player on the team. Protecting the quarterback's blind side, to this day, is a key driver for all NFL coaches. Each year contenders turn into pretenders after they lose their starting quarterback to injury and the backup simply cannot run the offensive to playoff standards. That's why protecting the starter is so important, and that's why left tackle is such a prestigious position.

The book's second angle is much more compelling. It shows to what lengths colleges will go to lure the next best left tackle prospect to their school, and, more importantly, how a kid emerged from nowhere in Memphis (how this kid made it out of a horrible situation is a tribute to the kid himself and the people who took him into their lives and homes) to become the hottest left tackle prospect in the country a few years back. It's the tale of Michael Oher, now the starting left tackle at Ole Miss, and of the Tuohy family, which adopted him. (Lewis has a Tuohy connection -- he and Sean Tuohy, Michael Oher's adoptive father, grew up together in New Orleans). Oher, a very large and nimble teenager (nimble from spending the ages 10-15 doing not much more than playing basketball most of the day and showing two guard skills despite being about 6'5", 350), showed up at a private Memphis Christian high school as a tenth grader (age-wise; school-wise, he was at the elementary school level). Tuohy's daughter attended that school, and Leigh Anne Tuohy, Sean's wife, became a second mother to Michael Oher. Through Michael's persistence and the Tuohys' dedication, he made it through high school and became a legimitate Division I recruit.

The book makes interesting observations about college football coaches, high school coaches, and college football programs (I doubt that Lewis will be invited to Ole Miss anytime soon, as the book makes head coach Ed Orgeron sound like a semi-articulate cheerleader who is trying to mode a bunch of kids who probably don't belong taking a college curriculum into a national championship football team). And the book cogently points out how much many coaches (prominent among them Tennesssee's Phil Fulmer and then-LSU coach Nick Saban) wanted this amazingly athletic big kid to anchor their offensive lines for years to come -- all because he has an amazing athletic gift that will enable him to battle hard-charging right defensive ends for years to come.

Each story -- the analysis of the evolution of the left tackle position in the NFL and the Michael Oher story -- makes for good reading separately. Together, you get a great sense of not only the importance of the left tackle position, but how far and wide the "College Football Industrial Complex", as it were, will go in America to source the next great left tackle.

Read the whole thing -- it's another winner from a great writer.

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