Michael Oher’s forehead furrowed, and his sharp eyebrows, hanging heavily over his eyes, pointed to the bridge of his nose. His eyelids quickly closed and opened and his eyeballs rolled across the roof of his eyes. He mumbled words of anger under his breath. He’d just committed another false start against the rival Pittsburgh Steelers when the Ravens were trying to move the ball downfield. A former first-round selection, he was supposed to be reliable in big games like these. Not to mention, he knew the snap count.
The penalties summed up his five-year career up to this point: up-and-down, inconsistent in every facet of the game; emotionally, tactically, positionally. He’s struggled with penalties throughout his career, being the most penalized offensive lineman since he broke into the league. He’s also given up plenty of sacks and hits and hurries against his quarterback.
In the first 13 weeks of the 2013 season, he gave up seven sacks, five hits, and 24 hurries, according to Pro Football Focus. In the games that followed, he gave up another sack, two hits and 18 hurries, bringing his total to eight sacks, seven hits and 42 hurries. The latter two put him in the top 10…for worst offensive tackles. It wasn’t any different in the seasons before, with his numbers coming in at an alarmingly consistent rate. Simply said: he wasn’t living up to the No. 23 overall pick that he was selected at in 2009.
The struggles are surprising, honestly. Oher was one of the best players in the draft and would have been selected earlier if not for his inexperience and learning disability. He came from Memphis’ crime infested streets, where, nightly, he plopped his plump body on friends couches before being taken in by current Ole Miss, then Briarcrest High head coach Hugh Freeze.
At Briarcrest, he burned both ends of the stick, playing football and going to school, though he eventually got into Ole Miss. Although callow, Oher started his freshman year at right guard prior to moving out to left tackle his sophomore year. He dominated defenders with heavily wrapped and overpowering hands and uncommon athleticism for his size (6’5″, 309 pounds). He moved more elegantly than the typical blocker; the grass didn’t become quick sand when he glided over it with his cleats like it did with lumbering, top heavy tackles that were common in the league. And when he slapped defenders around at the line of scrimmage, it was like he was seated playing rock-paper-scissors. His hands were that quick.
Oher’s talent rocketed him up NFL teams’ draft boards when the time to declare for the draft came. He became a “prototypical left tackle” prospect, as CBS Sports wrote, then a movie star (The Blind Side), and then a Baltimore Raven, the team that selected him in the second half of the first round. They expected a significant upgrade to the line.
“We’re in a very physical division, we’re a physical team, and offensive-line wise, we feel he’s a huge upgrade for us,” director of player personnel Eric DeCosta told Penn Live that year. “He’s a special kid with a great story. A great player. We think he helps us big-time.”
But five years later Oher’s an oft-penalized, maddeningly inconsistent and disappointing right tackle.
It’s troubling that he’s struggled as much as he has. It’s not like he lost talent since he left Briarcrest or Ole Miss. All of the physical talent is still there; the physicality, strong hands, elegance, athleticism, quickness, flexibility, anchor — all there. He shows this on seemingly every third play.
When facing the Lions earlier this season, defensive end Willie Young tried to bull-rush him and he wasn’t having it. He bent his knees and kept his back end low like a twenty-something in a nightclub, anchoring down and protecting his quarterback.
The problem is he’s not doing that enough. He hasn’t gotten much better since leaving Ole Miss. He’s improved, but hasn’t improved enough. His technique is sometimes bad, and he has a habit of making schoolboy mistakes that a veteran like he shouldn’t make. He lunges, keeps a narrow base, drops his head, bends his arms — all sins he’s condemned for.
In the same action against the Lions, he gave up four hurries, two of which were ass-chewing worthy. On one, he was pushed into his own backfield by defensive end Israel Idonije.
Oher was in a two-point stance, obviously set up to pass block, when Idonije lined up outside his right shoulder at the wide five technique. Oher’s left arm rested on his wide left thigh while his right arm hung across his creased right leg. When the play began, he showed his quickness by sliding out of his stance with a quick stomp of the right foot. By the time Idonije fully raised his body, Oher was set up to block with his chest over his feet and his knees bent. This meant that he had a strong foundation at his feet.
But as he slid outside to mimic Idonije’s movement, his structure deteriorated. His hands were too wide to punch the rusher, and upon contact his feet came together to form a narrow base. A narrow base is the death of an offensive tackle. It is the one thing, regardless of how quick or athletic they are, that will kill every ounce of physical talent they have, as well as the play.
Sensing that Oher was off set, Idonije chopped his feet and drove his extended right arm into the Oher’s chest. Idonije’s first punch was vicious, turning Oher’s back to the play. His second was even more deadly, throwing Oher aside like he’s the victim of Uncle Phil. Then a third punch came, then a fourth. The final one raised Oher off the ground, folded him like he was bowing to the football Gods, and threw him to the ground.
It doesn’t get much more embarrassing than that, but it can still be bad. Just watch Oher against the aforementioned Steelers, when he racked up three false start penalties, a sack, a hit and two hurries against.
The sack came while facing Jason Worilds, who lined up at outside linebacker from essentially the same distance that Idonije was. Similarly, Oher lined up in essentially the same stance he was against Idonije. The result, however, would be different. This was not only a hurry, but a sack.
The ball was snapped and Oher jabbed his right foot into the ground to open a wide base. His arms hung by his side, a less than ideal but surprisingly acceptable lack of technique. Worilds, meanwhile, came striding downhill outside the left hash, swinging his arms by his side like a track star.
The wide rush was tricky for Oher. He either had to keep sliding out and become prone to an inside move, or aggressively come after Worilds, becoming prone to making a massive mistake if he didn’t come out quick enough. He chose the latter — and overextended himself, bending at his waist far too much (lunging) and failing to punch Worilds’ right shoulder. That let Worilds to rush around him, bend the corner, and strip-sack Flacco.
Another example of Oher’s troubles came in Week 12 against the Jets, when he faced the long and strong Quinton Coples.
Coples was lined up at end in a four-man front when he came off the line, dangled his left leg outside and shot back to his right, into the B-gap between Oher and the right guard.
Meanwhile, Oher kick-slid quickly to the outside and raised his hands up. Although he was coached to get them up quickly if the gap between him and the defender was rapidly closing, he was also instructed to keep his hands closer than .They were outside of his frame and outside Coples’ too, consequently making it difficult to punch him.
When the two made contact, Oher’s hands slid up to the top of Coples’ jersey, giving him a slim shot of stopping the bull-rush. Unsurprisingly he was jolted back, as Coples walked through the contact, pushing Oher aside. After sliding and spinning, Coples eventually got to Flacco, toppling over him as both fell to the ground.
This was not what the Ravens expected when they drafted Oher in 2009. Reality is, he hasn’t lived up to his first-round status and now he’s in jeopardy of having zero expectations in 2014. His rookie contract officially expires in March and there’s a good chance the Ravens won’t bring him back. They may have other players at the position that can make an impact, perhaps last year’s fifth-round pick Ricky Wagner or 2012 second-round pick Kelechi Osemele, or choose to replace him through the draft.
Whoever it is, it shouldn’t be hard to replace the former Ole Miss star. He’s been heavily penalized since his rookie season and hasn’t developed much since then either. For all his physical talent, he’s struggled mentally, with his mental mistakes tied to appalling technique and the penalties that have become a constant. Both can be ironed out, however.
He’s only 27 years young and can play the position well into his thirties provided he stays healthy. It’s also a position that’s begging for talent right now, which he has plenty of. He’ll likely earn a hefty second contract in a different city, where he’ll have the chance to improve and eventually live up to his draft status.
For now, though, he’s not the star on the blind side that many expected him to be — he’s just a blindingly inconsistent right tackle.