Saturday, August 14, 2010

Book Review: Take Your Eye Off the Ball

In some ways, I first decided to get semi-serious about watching football a decade ago, shortly after I'd graduated from college. In some ways, this was a rather odd decision. I'd watched the game growing up when the constraints of life and the fall weekend schedule made it possible, and considered myself a fan of the game, but had never played it beyond the backyard level. So, one of the things I thought I should do was learn more about the game. Being me, I read a couple books about football, of which by far the most valuable was the already somewhat dated Dr. Z's New Thinking Man's Guide to Pro Football. The primary problem with watching football, though, is you tend to end up with what I think of as ball myopia, following the player in possession of the pigskin and ignoring the panoply of action going on around him. The kind of book I was looking for then, and still haven't found, is the book that told me how to watch football more intelligently.

The latest entry in the quest for that book is Take Your Eye Off the Ball: How to Watch Football by Knowing Where to Look by Pat Kirwan and David Seigerman. That sounds like a very promising title, and Kirwan's book follows the same basic organizational patterns of the best books on football, New Thinking Man's Guide, Madden's One Knee Equals Two Feet, and Billick's More Than a Game (which review I plan to get to this month), of going by the team position by position and also chapters on the other big stuff. Plus, Kirwan has worked at the NFL level and now writes for after an earlier stint writing for Sports Illustrated, so he would seem to have the requisite experience to write a book like the one I've been looking for.

The problem, though, is the title has almost nothing to do with the content of Kirwan's book. There are a couple things in there that are useful in terms of watching the game, but Kirwan's book is more about the action on the field and what happens a lot out there. That's valuable information, and you can use it to aid your ability to watch a game, but it's not particularly rare.

In some ways, I recognize that seems kind of hypocritical coming from me. The complaint I have about a bunch of those books listed on the sidebar is they're not really about football at all, but rather about people who play football. Let me emphatically note that's not my complaint about Kirwan's book, since it clearly is about the on-field action (leavened, obviously, by Kirwan's personal anecdotes). I can't say too many bad things about a book that tries to bring more sophisticated football content to a broader audience, and I won't rip too badly into a book that has diagrams of a fire zone blitz from both a 3-4 and a 4-3 defensive front.

Still, beyond mostly ignoring its stated title (which would've filled a valuable niche in the marketplace), Take Your Eye's second major fault in my eyes is that it really didn't teach me anything new. Pretty much everything in there I'd picked up by osmosis from simply watching and reading about football. It has most of the stuff you'd expect in there, like a wide receiver route tree, a discussion of the basic differences between 4-3 and 3-4 defensive front (but see infra), and discussions of man versus zone coverage in pass defense (again, but see infra). One thing I was expecting and hoping for but wasn't included is a list of defensive lineman positions listed by technique, since football people. It shows up a little bit in the 4-3/3-4 section, but is one thing that could've used a systematic breakdown designed for the non-technical reader and wasn't included.

The third major fault of Take Your Eye is the list of what I referred to on Twitter as howlers. These include:
1. Kirwan's attributes the origin of zone blocking in the NFL to Alex Gibbs in the mid-1990's. See this piece at FO by Doug Farrar for why that's nonsense.
2. One of the things the book has is little half-page sidebars where Kirwan's mug shows up and answers a question related to the main text of the chapter. One of those is how a team can run the ball effectively without a feature back. In that, Kirwan says the team has to commit to running the football, and mentions the 2009 Bengals as a team that committed to running the football. Now, I question whether or not the '09 Bengals really fall in this category-Cedric Benson was the 4th overall pick in the draft, and was a fairly effective feature back for them. The Bengals also did commit to running the football schematically, by playing lots of 6-OL and heavy sets. Kirwan, though, has two questions for determining whether or not a team is committed to running the football:
i. Are you willing to run the ball on second down after running on first and gaining zero yards?
ii. Will you run the ball when you're down seven points?
Nothing about 6-OL, heavy sets, just some strategic questions so vague as to be indeterminate and blathering about commitment.
3. In his discussion of the 3-4 and the 4-3, Kirwan presents a stark dichotomy between a one-gap 4-3 and a Parcells/Belichick-style two-gap 3-4. He does not, however, mention the one-gap 3-4 of the type run by, for example, Wade Phillips.
4. In discussing the secondary and pass coverage, Kirwan wrote: "Some coaches prefer a man-to-man scheme because it's so easy to see which players are making mistakes. There's no gray area in man coverage the way there is in a zone scheme. You know who got beat." Frankly, that kind of statement strikes me as absolutely incredible in the most literal sense: I cannot find it credible that coaches at the college or NFL level would play man instead of zone because without it they can't tell which of their own players made a mistake.
5. Less of a literal howler than a seemingly systematic error by Kirwan is his presentation of events linked to his past and his friends in an overly optimistic light. One example that stuck out to me was his description of Dewayne Robertson. Kirwan writes that Robertson, the 4th overall pick in 2003, was lost when Mangini came in and immediately converted the Jets to a 3-4 scheme, where he was undersized at defensive end. Problem #1: Mangini's first year as head coach was 2006. In 2006, the Jets, at least officially, still played a 4-3 (PDF link to random gamebook from 2006 (Wk 11 vCHI, to be precise)). PFR's list of '06 Jets starters agrees, showing them lining up in a 4-3. Second, the Jets actually got a little better on runs up the middle from 2006 with Robertson as one of the starting DT's to 2007 with Robertson at NT, moving from a horrid 4.57 ALY to a still horrid 4.50. Robertson then moves on to the 2008 Broncos, who went from 4.09 ALY on runs up the middle to 4.41. Given that Robertson's conventional stats his whole time with the Jets are fairly similar, I have different suggestion for Mr. Kirwan: maybe, just maybe Dewayne Robertson was a bad football player who was ill-suited for both the 3-4 and the 4-3, and if you want to give an example of a guy best suited for one scheme, pick somebody else.
6. Ok, I just can't let this go: Kirwan was with the Jets in 1996 when they took Keyshawn Johnson first overall in the draft. Kirwan wrote that they were concerned about Keyshawn's 4.6 40-yard dash time, which is a slow clocking for a #1 wideout. But they did some research and found that Jerry Rice ran a 4.6 40, too, so they weren't really concerned. As a fan of good decision-making processes, I hope their analysis really wasn't that facile.
7. Last one, just can't resist this one: he writes the Vikings were looking for a playmaking wideout who could play in the slot, return kicks, stuff like that in the 2009 draft. Brad Childress was trying to decide between Jeremy Maclin and Percy Harvin, so they did their due diligence on Harvin, talked to Urban Meyer and his grandmother, and felt comfortable enough with him they chose him with the 22nd pick in the draft. Detail Kirwan leaves out: Maclin was off the board at the point, having gone 19th to the Eagles. The story as it is could've been told without the need to choose between Maclin and Harvin, but instead Kirwan puts Maclin in there, I guess to create conflict, or maybe that's just the way Childress told him the story, but it bugged the heck out of me.

There's no bibliography or index, not that you needed me to tell you that. I don't think a bibliography would've been appropriate, since consulting other books would probably have saved them from some of the howlers, but an index for when he refers to players would've been convenient. The book as a whole probably isn't as bad as I've made it sound in this review, but the howlers were enough of a distraction to me I can't recommend it. And, thus, the search for a book on how to watch football more intelligently continues.


Anonymous said...

An ok review, but you come across as far too self-assured, and arrogant, particularly in this statement:

"4. In discussing the secondary and pass coverage, Kirwan wrote: "Some coaches prefer a man-to-man scheme because it's so easy to see which players are making mistakes. There's no gray area in man coverage the way there is in a zone scheme. You know who got beat." Frankly, that kind of statement strikes me as absolutely incredible in the most literal sense: I cannot find it credible that coaches at the college or NFL level would play man instead of zone because without it they can't tell which of their own players made a mistake."

Either you're being deliberately difficult, or you are just obtuse. Preference does not demand procedure. That is, just because coaches prefer man coverage schemes to zone blocking schemes because of the simplifying nature of responsibility, does not necessarily mean that they proceed to play man coverage because of it.

Furthermore, it's quite easy to understand why certain coaches prefer the simplicity of man coverage. If a defense is repeatedly beaten in man coverage,the answer to what went wrong is obvious,as you mentioned. But what is also obvious is the means to fix the problem: draft or sign, or in the case of collegiate football, recruit, better athletes.

A simple scheme leads to a simple game for many coaches, boiling down to "he with the best players wins." And, as someone who has observed many coaches, you may be surprised at how prevalent that attitude is amongst the coaching ranks. Notably, Mickey Andrews at Florida State popularized man-coverage dominance in the 1990s because their athletes were always better than your athletes. If someone screwed up, it wasn't because of a bad defensive play-call or bad coaching- they were just beaten on that play.

All in all, it worked extremely well for Florida State as long as they could continue to recruit and develop those athletes, but that did not happen.

Anyway, I digress. I enjoyed reading your review as an overview of various books out there.

Tom said...

Thanks for the comment. I often do try to wait a day or two after finishing a book, just so I'm not posting in the immediate aftermath of finishing a book, but didn't bother waiting this time. I'd probably have been a little more generous to Kirwan if I had. Oh well.

I can definitely see the case for man over zone in blocking schemes, and at the high school level. By the time you get to major college, I would have expected a little more resiliency in terms of schemes and a coach's ability to go from one to the other, but I guess I've watched enough college football I shouldn't be surprised it's not true. Kirwan's focus for the book is the NFL, though, and I'd be shocked if coaches really did prefer man over zone for that simple a reason. It's possible I'm overrating NFL coaches (and I'll bow to your greater experience in saying I did overrate college coaches), but I wasn't inclined to give Kirwan much benefit of the doubt.

Jon said...

Cool. Glad to see another commenter. We're building a community.

I look forward to seeing your take on the Billick book, Tom.

steven swain said...

I don't know about "officially" and gamebooks, but as a Jets watcher I can tell you the Jets ran a 3-4 scheme in 2006. The switch to a 4-3 under Edwards in 2005 to a 3-4 under Mangini in 2006 was a big deal in Jets land. That was the #1 topic on Jets boards. Mangini forced the move in year 1 even though the personnel was more suited to a 4-3 scheme.

Andy said...

Hi...Andy from the blog here. I was going to write a review of Kirwan's book for our sister blog at, but you've already written a review that exactly expresses my own feelings on the book.

Unsarcastically, I feel that this book would be ideal for a fan of the game who is blind and only listens on the radio or to the audio portion of the TV broadcast. All the nuts-and-bolt about offensive linemen sliding over or pull, about linebackers blitzing off the end or dropping back into coverage--this stuff is all quite obvious to any intelligent fan with sight who watches enough games and is looking at more than just what the announcers are calling attention to. A person without sight who can attend to only what the announcers are describing or other things they can hear would really benefit from the basic X's and O's in this book, giving them a sense of what all the players are the field are doing, beyond what is being discussed.

Excellent review!

AJ Dembroski said...

I haven't read this book, though a coworker has and spoke well of it. I find those who know football intimately tend to oversimplify the game when speaking to those who aren't so familiar because they're accustom to people not understanding. Kerwin might suffer from the same problem.

That said, there are some issues with your review, and I'll point out two (though one is no fault of yours).

1. Wade Phillips does not run a 3-4. Nor do the Ravens, for that matter. They run "under" with a stand-up defensive end. 3-4 is nothing more than a personnel package, despite what ESPN attempts to teach us. The 49ers, Steelers, and Packers run some schemes that resemble a true 3-4, but only situationally. Whether T.Suggs has his hand in the grass or we refer to him as a linebacker or an end does not change the scheme... the 4-3 Under and 3-4 "Predator" are identical in function, and differ really only in the manor in which the "BUCK" (RE or WILL) is used.

Had Kirwin prattled away on the 2-gap 3-4, he'd have been speaking nonsense. The real difference between what we think of as a 4-3 and a 3-4 is, indeed, whether it's 1-gap or 2-gap. A 1-gap 3-4 is, therefor, contradictory.

Second, I'm a designer for EA Sports, and Brad Childress visited my office about 2 months ago (we bring in coaches for lectures and Q&A sessions regularly). He addressed the Maclin/Harvin debate. The Vikings actually did not include Maclin on their draft board at all, having committed 100% to Harvin or going another direction with the pick.

Anonymous said...

Good review. I just got the book (Playbook edition) a couple of days ago and am about half way done. I had much higher expectations of what it would teach me than what is given.

I'm thinking of buying an old copy of the original Thinking Man's guide.

Basically, like you, have been a casual follower and wanted something to beef up my understanding. I did buy Belichicks Scouting book- its very good and easy to follow, but obviously limited to that subject. Would really like a book that lays out offensive/defensive strategies and how players can be used in each. Take Your Eye touches on these subjects, but could go a lot deeper.

Thanks for the blog post!