It wouldn't be surprising if Michael Oher had that famous military marching chant stuck in his head: "Left…left…left, right, left…."
Two weeks ago against the Packers, the Ravens' rookie lineman started at right tackle, the position he has basically owned from the day he first put on a purple uniform last spring. But last week against the Lions, he made his third start of 2009 at left tackle when Jared Gaither, normally the starter, turned up sick.
Where will he play Sunday against the Bears? Who knows? Maybe left, maybe right, maybe…left, right, left…
Somewhat remarkably, Oher, 23, has gone from side to side without a hiccup, making it look easy to switch positions in the middle of his rookie season. But he shook his head firmly Wednesday when asked if it was as easy as it looked.
"No, it's difficult," he said. "Everything is backward. The footwork is different. Getting used to one position and then going back to another is hard."
But he added, "I can do it. I'm in the NFL. I should be able to do it."
How the Ravens should proceed is clear-cut for now. If Gaither is able to go, he plays left tackle, where he has started 25 of 29 games since Jonathan Ogden retired after the 2007 season, and Oher plays right tackle, the position the team gave him because Gaither was established on the other side. Obviously, with the Ravens in the wild card race, it's way too late to contemplate a permanent switch this season.
But what should happen in the long run isn't so clear-cut. Oher has been in the headlines this fall because of "The Blind Side," the movie about his life (I give it a big thumbs-up, by the way), and the back story of the movie, as well as the book it is based on, is that left tackles have become among the NFL's most prominent, highly-paid players because they protect right-handed quarterbacks from rushes they don't see.
The whole point of the movie about Oher is that, with his uncanny blend of size and quickness, he was practically born to play left tackle in the NFL.
The Ravens wouldn't put him there just because the movie tacitly suggests it, but it's the right place for Oher in the long run. Ogden himself, on his radio show earlier this week, said the Ravens should consider it.
No one is disrespecting Gaither, 23, who has risen quickly and, in my mind, exceeded expectations since the Ravens took him in a 2007 supplemental draft. But if the first 13 games of Oher's career are any indication, he is a star in the making, a prototypical "franchise" left tackle. Besides his quick feet and raw strength, he has a level head, soaks up coaching and plays with an innate fierceness. That he fell to the Ravens at No. 23 in the first round of the 2009 draft is, looking back, one of the boldest strokes of good fortune they have experienced in some time. Don Banks of Sports Illustrated wrote this week that Oher would be the first player selected if the teams could re-pick now.
Every team tries to make its offensive line as strong and punishing as possible, but it's an especially important item for the Ravens, who have a physical personality and tend to rely more on their running game as they get deeper into a season. They need to anchor their best tackle on the left side, where he can protect quarterback Joe Flacco's blind side.
Whether Gaither would happily agree to a switch remains to be seen. It's a sensitive subject. The Ravens can do what they want with their players, but they need Gaither on board emotionally. Oher, refreshingly (and genuinely) humble, said he is willing to cede the left side to his more experienced teammate, telling the Baltimore Sun, "With Gaither at left tackle, we can play a long time at the tackle spots."
But in the long run, the Ravens should do Oher a favor and cut out the "left, right, left" chant echoing in his head. Having two players capable of starting at left tackle is a pleasant problem – some teams don't even have one -- and it's reassuring to know one can move between sides so effortlessly. But like the movie suggests, a tackle as superior as Oher belongs on the left side."
John Eisenberg worked in the newspaper business for 28 years as a sports columnist, with much of that time coming at the Baltimore Sun. While working for the Sun, Eisenberg spent time covering the Ravens, among other teams and events, including the Super Bowl, Final Four, World Series and Olympics. Eisenberg is also the author of seven sports-themed books.