The recent news of Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck’s early retirement shook the NFL. For anyone paying attention, Indy’s offensive line was not up to scratch in protecting their superstar quarterback. They focused on rebuilding their offense after the Peyton Manning era, and were slow to fill the less glamorous roles leaving him vulnerable. Luck suffered injuries to his shoulder and his legs very early in his career, missing 26 games over 4 seasons. When he did play, he was susceptible to repeated injury.
Blaming one position for Luck’s sustained injuries is reductive, but it highlights an issue at the heart of the NFL: There aren’t enough talented left tackles to protect quarterbacks, and those who are talented enough want to get paid.
Washington Redskins left tackle Trent Williams is one of them.
Left tackles throughout history
The left tackle position gained prominence in the 1980s, when Bill Walsh designed a system that changed the shape of football forever. This system, now known as the West Coast Offense, was designed to make the most of quarterback Joe Montana’s arm. At the time, the league was focused on the run: dedicated fullbacks were still a necessity. Walsh choosing to play the game predominantly through the air meant defenses had to play man or zone coverage. This opened up the game to long runs or passes.
This change left the quarterback in need of a new type of protection. For right handed quarterbacks, who make up the large majority, they’d plant their feet and turn their head to the right to target their receiver (popularised by the Michael Lewis novel, this became known as the quarterback blindside). This left them wide open for a lineman to take their shot on their left side.
The NFL is a copycat league. Once this system showed success for the 49ers, every coach studied Bill Walsh and moved their game to the air. Left tackles became the hottest position in the league. Lawrence Taylor became the highest paid defensive player at the time signing a $1.6 million contract with the Giants after a 45 day hold out.
Since Taylor, left tackles know their worth.
Trent Williams was drafted to the Washington Redskins in 2010 out of Oklahoma. Widely acknowledged to be one of the best at his position, Williams is a first team All Pro in 2016 and 2017. He is also a 7 time Pro Bowler – a Hall of Fame worthy achievement.
This year Williams didn’t show up to mandatory mini camp, training camp, or preseason.
He has remained silent on the matter, leaving a vacuum of analysis in the Washington beat. Coach Jay Gruden hasn’t heard from him. Running back Adrian Peterson is none the wiser. Defensive back, D’Angelo Hall, does not expect him to be back until at least week one, if at all.
Former Redskin and Denver Broncos safety, Su’a Craven, posted a series of tweets referencing his time with the team. Cravens is seeking more than $600,000 from the Redskins in a non-injury grievance, after he was put him on the reserve while recovering from a concussion in 2017. Cravens’ tweet cited the reason Williams was absent was much like his own situation of mishandled injuries and withheld information.
Whether or not that is the reason, Williams has had his fair share of injuries.
He has played the majority of his 120 starts without being fully healthy. In 2012, he suffered a bone bruise in week 2 of the preseason against the Bills, playing through to the regular season. He then suffered another bone bruise in week 3 of the regular season against the Bengals, playing the rest of the season injured. Despite playing injured throughout the season, Williams had his best performance in 2012 and was selected for the 2013 Pro Bowl.
The story repeated in 2017, with Williams playing 10 games of the season through a knee injury before being placed on injured reserve. In 2018, he spent 3 weeks on the sideline while recovering from thumb surgery, then was rushed off the field in a late November game against the Cowboys.
In the 2019 offseason, Trent Williams had a tumour removed from his scalp. It turned out to be benign, but for someone with a history of injuries it could have been the catalyst he needed to put his health first. With Cravens’ situation coming to light, the Redskins’ handling of injuries could have been a concern to Williams.
It may also be down to money. Like Laurence Taylor in 1990, he has realised his worth. As a 31 year old perennial Pro Bowler, being the 7th highest paid tackle in league just isn’t cutting it anymore. He signed a $66 million deal in 2015, which at the time was the richest contract for an NFL offensive lineman. Seeing Tennessee Titans’ Taylor Lewan $80 million dwarf his deal in 2018, especially with Williams’ extra years of experience, may have prompted thoughts of contract negotiations.
What this means for the Redskins
The left tackle is a vital part of any strong team. The Redskins have finished third in the NFC East for the past 3 years. Coach Gruden has only had one postseason game in his 5 year career in Washington. As such, his seat might be starting to feel hot.
The Redskins have signed talent this year. Rookie QB Dwayne Haskins has taken the preseason by storm. Veteran QB Case Keenum is named starter this season, but it’s hard to tell if this is down to Haskins’ lack of reps, or if they’re wary of the vulnerability without Williams on the field.
In the 2017 season, where Williams spent seven games on the injured reserve, QB Kirk Cousins was sacked twice as many times as Williams’ healthy 2015 season. The Redskins are better with him on the team as he gives the quarterback protection to make plays.
They have two strong backups to take his place. Second-year Pro tackle Geron Christian returned from injury. The Redskins also signed veteran Donald Penn in the offseason. Both have talent, and are acceptable replacements for Williams.
Yet, the Redskins would still be much happier with Williams on the team.
Value of left tackles in 2019
Move the Sticks podcast host Daniel Jeremiah recently tweeted that there are fewer strong left tackles than quarterbacks in the NFL. He’s probably right. Household names include Taylor Lewan, Russell Okung, Nate Solder, but apart from the starters, there’s no depth at the position.
The are a few strong blindside tackles coming through in college who will be prime for drafting in the next few years. Andrew Thomas in Georgia has played like a five star lineman, in a conference typically unkind to younger players. He’s likely to take his playing to another level as a junior. In Oregon, the 6 ‘6”, 345 pounds tackle Penei Sewell won the starting job as a freshman. Sewell’s the one underclassmen starter on the Ducks offensive line, but his trajectory figures to make him the best of them all.
Despite the lack of depth currently, the left tackle position is as important now as it was under Bill Walsh. Teams are still relying heavily on the West Coast offense. The fundamentals of these systems is to generate big plays: the type of plays that look good on a primetime highlight reel.
These superstar left tackles know it, giving the greater negotiating power to make big money. With receiver Odell Beckham Jr’s contract nearly hitting $100 million over the five years, players who protect the head of the team will expect to be nudging closer to this.
As we head towards regular season, Trent Williams’ hold out is nearing double the length of Laurence Taylor.
If the Redskins want to protect their quarterback, they need to listen to their talented left tackle. If that’s more money or greater transparency about injuries, Trent Williams’ needs have to be taken on board.
Clara is an avid NFL fan, with a passion for the off the field stories that inform the plays on the field. She used to host a former comedy podcast ‘Ice Up Sun’ combining her love of the game with astrology, and currently contributes to NFL Girl UK. A long suffering Tennessee Titans fan since 2010, she’s hoping this will finally be their year.
Twitter: @yellilaralc Instagram: @yellilaralc
Photo Credit: USA TODAY Sports