Have you ever wondered why a guy seemingly so suited to the right side of the line can’t cut it there? Or why a player with all the athletic skills for left tackle makes a better player on the right side?
With the growth of the draft into the media event it is today, and of the NFL in general into a 24/7 world of information, there is a tendency for everybody to speak like scouts from time to time.
We all feel we can evaluate talent, analyze players and project them into various different teams, schemes and positions. However, without the practical experience of implementing the theory are we in danger of over simplifying things or underestimating the challenges involved in some of those transitions?
For instance, many of us often treat positions on the left and right of the offensive line as interchangeable. The assumption goes that if a guy can play left guard then he can play right guard, and if he can play left tackle he can play right — but is that necessarily the case? When it comes to the draft players can come out deemed ‘right tackle only’ by the talent evaluators, but it’s because they are considered to lack the footwork and quickness to match-up against the league’s best pass-rushers on the quarterback’s blindside, not because of any fundamental dominance in technique to one side. Nobody is worried about the actual mechanics of swapping sides, simply about the chance of that player destroying their quarterback if they can’t cut it as a pass-protector.
We all know that traditionally the team’s best pass protector has been on the left side of the line, and that a defense’s best pass rusher has been deployed to face them. That is all down to being on the quarterback’s blindside, where, if a player can beat his man, he may get a free run at the quarterback who doesn’t see him coming. If that happens quarterbacks get hit, and hit hard, and the chances of forcing a fumble in the process skyrockets. Consequently left tackles tend to be more athletic, quicker on their feet and pass-protecting specialists compared to right tackles that are often larger, stronger and more suited to the run game.
The Dallas Situation
The Dallas Cowboys already had Doug Free entrenched at left tackle when they drafted Tyron Smith with the ninth overall selection of the 2011 draft. So they kept Free where he was and played Smith on the right side until they were sure he could get the job done at the NFL level. Smith was exceptional as a rookie — arguably the best right tackle in the NFL — and, but for a couple of ugly days against Jason Babin and the Eagles, played consistently well all year. In 641 snaps pass blocking he gave up just 30 total pressures, and allowed Tony Romo to hit the deck only 10 times in total — although half of those takedowns came in two games against Philadelphia. He looked like a top-level pass protector, whereas Free’s specialty had always been the run game. On the left side, Free struggled more last year after a pretty good 2010, surrendering 10 sacks, five more hits and 34 hurries, as well as being flagged 10 times.
It seemed like a natural choice for the Cowboys to flip the two so that Smith manned the left and Free the right. Looking at them physically it also made sense. Smith is 6’5 and 308lbs, the prototypical size for left tackles today with height, length and not too much bulk. Free is an inch taller at 6’6, but is 335lbs and a much stronger player at the point of attack. He is a prototype right tackle.
The problem is that this season both players are struggling in their new roles on the opposite side of the line — Smith in particular looked much more comfortable on the right last year. He has already allowed 24 total pressures, almost as many as last season’s total, and been flagged eight times, more than all of last year.
It’s Just Not that Easy
So what did the Cowboys miss? Maybe they underestimated the difficulty involved in reversing the mechanics of linemen who were changing sides of the line. It isn’t just as simple as asking a receiver to move across the formation. The entire shift in footwork is something that takes getting used to for a lineman. Everything is mirrored physically, and applying that mentally is not as easy as most people assume.
If it was that easy, most baseball players would be switch hitters. While switching sides on the line may not be as drastic as flipping your batting stance, it’s still pretty tough. The muscle memory that’s developed over thousands of practice repetitions along with the comfort in the sequence of motion is completely thrown off if you’re thrown to the other side, it takes a little time getting used to.
That makes sense when you think about it. How many soccer players are almost entirely one-footed? Guys who are great on their right, but hopeless if shown onto their left foot. Imagine asking a surfer or snowboarder to change their lead leg and be as good.
A Left Tackle All the Way
Cincinnati’s Andrew Whitworth was a guy who people designated as a right tackle or guard coming out of college. However, he has honed his craft and studies the game like few others, and is now firmly entrenched as one of the best left tackles in football. There is no better guy to ask about the fundamentals and technical details of playing on the line.
“I really believe a lot of guys are more efficient at one side or the other. Sure, most tackles are good players and can play both sides, but usually there is a vast difference in how technical or athletic they are one side to the other, if they keep switching. I really could never see myself as a right tackle, I’m a left-hand dominant guy all the way.”
One of the best in the game on the left side isn’t convinced about how good he could be on the right side, and yet coaches, scouts, media and fans just assume a guy should be able to move across the line and apply his basic physical tools as if it was no big deal. Most coaches, however, recognize that it is a bigger problem than that, and rarely ask players to make the switch in-game, or even in-season.
A Technical Glitch
Vikings OG Geoff Schwartz told me it was much easier moving from guard to tackle, or vice versa, than switching from side to side.
“If you look at most lines, the backup LT is the LG, or he’s on the bench. Both teams I’ve played on, our backup LT was the LG.”
It seems it’s a tough enough transition, without significant lead time, that teams would rather put a far less athletically able player on an island at left tackle than expect the guy on the right to swap sides in-game.
“It’s very difficult for guys to be able to effectively play on both sides of the line without long hours practicing it,” Schwartz went on.
“That is why you don’t often see linemen switching sides of the ball for injury or performance. Playing offensive line is a very technical position. Being a great athlete and a physical player can only take you so far if you don’t use proper technique. You must drill over and over again to get the footwork and hand placement down. On top of that, mentally switching things over in your head can be tough at first. You’re used to reacting to movement on one side of the line of scrimmage, now it’s happening on the opposite side”.
Don’t Forget the Fundamentals
The bottom line is that we tend to take mechanics for granted when it comes to football. We might notice when a player uses sloppy technique, but few people consider the fundamentals when players move position or even change sides of the line. The Dallas Cowboys looked at their offensive tackles and thought that they were naturally suited for the opposite sides, but the pair have both struggled with the fundamental change in footwork and mechanics. The only question that remains now for the Cowboys and their fans is whether they will work through the transition, or whether both players are simply more comfortable with the technique on the opposite side of the line.
If it’s just a case of practice time, both players should enjoy far better seasons in 2013. If it’s a more fundamental problem, the Cowboys will have an interesting situation to deal with.