Don't Worry About Sam Baker?

As someone who is conditioned to think that left tackle is a critical position in football, I've been concerned about Sam Baker's decline in performance last year, followed by the Falcons' inability to bring in a name brand replacement. According to Andy Benoit in the New York Times, I shouldn't fret because as pro football is evolving, the left tackle position isn't as critical as it once was:

With so much of the passing game now predicated on quick strikes, multiple spread patterns and the shotgun, a star left tackle is not vital. Look at the last four Super Bowl-winning left tackles. You have the Giants’ Dave Diehl, a natural guard who plays outside because of personnel necessity; you have Chad Clifton of the Packers, a good-but-not-great aging veteran; then there’s Jermon Bushrod, an athletic enough player but, at the time of the Saints’ Super Bowl, arguably the poorest, shakiest pass-blocking technician in the league; before him was the mammoth but wildly inconsistent Max Starks of the Steelers.

What’s more, look at the teams that have had the top left tackles over the past five years: Cleveland Browns (Joe Thomas), Miami Dolphins (Jake Long), Denver Broncos (Ryan Clady), Tennessee Titans (Michael Roos) and Philadelphia Eagles/Buffalo Bills (Jason Peters). Any powerhouses on that list? The reality is that left tackles are nice, but they don’t correlate with winning and losing.

Benoit's thesis is that as NFL offenses move towards greater reliance on spread formations, the passing game is quicker and defenses are more focused on pressure up the middle so they can take the most direct route to the quarterback. Although Benoit doesn't mention this in the article, the prevalence of Jim Johnson's double A-gap blitz is surely an issue here. Indeed, that blitz might have been a reaction to NFL teams putting so much attention on having good blockers at the tackle positions and less on the pass protection ability of their guards and centers.

Later in the article, Benoit hypothesizes that running backs are going to get smaller and faster so they can be used in the passing game and in fact, that they are going to become more important in that respect than tight ends. If that's the case and the Falcons' offense follows that trend, then Michael Turner will see his role in the offense diminish while Jacquizz Rogers' role gets bigger. Dirk Koetter comes from a passing spread background, so I would expect him to ape the way that the league is going.

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