Sunday, September 26, 2010

Book Review: Blood, Sweat and Chalk

Tim Layden's Blood, Sweat and Chalk: The Ultimate Football Playbook: How the Great Coaches Built Today's Game is a bit of an unusual attempt. Pretty much every single book on football I've reviewed has been very limited in scope-either about a single person, a single season, or a relatively brief period of time. In Blood, Layden sets out to give a 22-part overview of tactical changes in football over time. Given my love for large-scale topics and books, this should've been right up my alley. Yet, I walk away from it feeling a little disappointed.

There are a couple reasons for this mild disappointment. First, my perennial complaint about the books is that they're not really about football, but rather about the people who play football. Layden, who writes for Sports Illustrated, spoke in a podcast about how one of the things he was trying to do with Blood as talk more about what's really going on on the field. Music to my ears, but alas, I didn't think the book really delivered. The twenty-two chapters, each profiling a separate tactical development, gives us details of that development but also spend time, more time than I would've liked, telling the personal story of the man or men associated with the development. There are clearly cases where this is useful, as a sort of intellectual biography, such as it is, but by the time you've read 4 or 5 coaching histories, you realize that football coaches tend to move around a lot.

The second complaint is that Layden does an inconsistent job of explaining exactly why, tactically, the innovation was so successful and why it disappeared or had to evolve. One of the later chapters is on the no-huddle, focusing on its use first in Cincinnati by Sam Wyche and then subsequently in Buffalo for four seasons. Why were the Bills so successful running the no-huddle? How much of it was a product of an excellent quarterback in Jim Kelly, a great back in Thurman Thomas, a center in Kent Hull who could make the line calls on his own, and an excellent receiver in Andre Reed? Were the Bills really that much more successful than they would have been running the no-huddle than they would have been with a different offense with that talent? Maybe not every QB could call his own plays like Kelly did, but Esiason didn't call his in Cincinnati. Why did the Bills stop running the no-huddle after 1993, as Layden says? Why didn't more teams immediately adapt it, and why don't more run it now? If I wanted to really pick nits, why did Layden mention the Bills as a team that threatened to fake injuries before the AFC Championship Game without mentioning the Seahawks were the team that started that particular counter against Cincinnati? For some of Layden's developments, I can fill in some of those gaps myself, but I can't really say much intelligent about the Wing T and there are plenty of people who know less about football than I do who may pick up Blood.

Mind you, those are reasons why Blood, Sweat and Chalk disappointed me. This could have been a great book, but it's merely a very good one. Strongly recommended for what it is.

EDIT (9/26 2200 CT): Meant to include a direct link to this very good review on Amazon by C.Baker.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Total Titans

New post up, play-by-play breakdown of VY's day against the Steelers.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Total Titans

New Total Titans post, customary Friday night post on the final injury report and the potential impact of the reported injuries.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Book Review: Bigger Than the Game

Michael Weinreb's Bigger Than the Game: Bo, Boz, the Punky QB, and How the '80s Created the Modern Athlete is a capsule look at the iconic athletes of the mid-1980's: Bo Jackson, Brian Bosworth, Jim McMahon, Len Bias (focusing on his untimely death), and those Miami Hurricanes teams that faced first a Bosworth-less Oklahoma Sooners team and then a more traditional Penn State team in consecutive bowl games. The stories are all relatively familiar, to a greater or lesser degree, but Weinreb does a good job of relating them and even when I knew a story well, my attention never wavered. Unusually for a sports book, it's well-written and has an index, bibliography, and sufficient endnotes to look up a quote if you bother; I noticed only one error, when the co-author of McMahon's autobiography is identified on consecutive pages as Don Pierson and Bob Verdi (it was Verdi).

The problem, though, is I never thought Weinreb's book lived up to its subtitle. The modalities of fame may have changed, but to the extent that any of the athletes in the book were uniquely famous, Weinreb doesn't really show it. Rather, the book works best as a nostalgia trip. Like Weinreb, I was born in the 1970's (though he was born toward the beginning of the decade and me toward the end) and came of age in the 80's, and had memories of varying degrees of clarity about the figures in the book. In that context, I greatly enjoyed it, and if you're interested in a mid-1980's nostalgia trip, then I will commend Bigger Than the Game to you. If you have no interest in the time period, though, even in a well-done look, then you should feel no regret if you give Weinreb's work a pass.

UPDATE (9/15/10 2031 CT): Link I should have had in the original post: Jonathan Yardley's review in the Washington Post. I didn't find the Reagan stuff as heavy-handed as Yardley did, and that kind of thing normally does bother me. Yardley's point is that the 80's were when the big money sports culture really took off is quite apt, and there's room for a book about that at the professional level (the Sperber books mentioned by Yardley are on my "to read, eventually" list).

UPDATE #2 (9/16/10 2248 CT): A couple more links: Weinreb's website and blog, plus an interview with Gelf Magazine.

Football Outsiders

The first regular season edition of Scramble for the Ball is now available at Football Outsiders for your reading pleasure.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Total Titans

New Total Titans post, Titans-Raiders injury report and impact.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Total Titans

New Total Titans post on season expectations, entitled The Titans Will Go 8-8*, and Other Eve of Season Thoughts. *-Unless they don't.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Book Review: Football Outsiders Almanac 2010

So, Football Outsiders Almanac 2010. I'm mostly including this for completeness' sake. It's along the same lines as FOA09, Pro Football Prospectus 2005 and PFP08, the previous reviews of the annual put out by the gang at Football Outsiders I've review. Said gang now includes yours truly as a member, viz as author of the chapters on the Tennessee Titans and Jacksonville Jaguars.

Since I'm one of the authors, I'm not even going to try to pretend to be the least bit objective or really to give a review. The PFP08 review is probably the most informative one I did, so read that one if you want more detail on the book. The most important thing included in FOA10 not in PFP08 is more detailed college football content, including projections making use of Bill Connelly's S&P system, the closest thing college has to real DVOA. So, really, you're getting the same book, plus more good content. Hw could you possibly complain about that?

FOA10 is also available as a PDF download through the FO online story, for those of you who like trees and burning electricity.

UPDATE (9/7/10 2357 CT): Just in case it isn't clear, I got my copy of FOA10 for free in PDF form. I did however pay for my print version, albeit with an authorial discount through our publisher CreateSpace.

Book Review: Birth of the New NFL

Birth of the New NFL: How the 1966 NFL/AFL Merger Transformed Pro Football by Larry Felser tells the story of the 1966 NFL/AFL merger, as you might guess from the subtitle. Felser's primary problem in telling the story is he's working on pretty well-trod ground. Michael MacCambridge's excellent America's Game tells the story of the merger pretty well, and does a very good job of placing the merger in the context of the pre-merger war and the post-merger transition into the combined whole.

Felser's book covers a narrower time-frame and consequently has to either tell the broader story with less gloss or drill down on some of the more topical aspects. He goes with the latter path, only the way he drills down is by writing about the late-season contests that determine the representatives in the Super Bowl. The problem is, these stories aren't very interesting to the broader scope of his story. There's a potentially relatively interesting story, about how things could have been different if, say, the Raiders had won the 1968 AFL title and played the Colts in Super Bowl III, but that's an inherently trickier story than Felser's more straight-forwardly historical narrative.

Beyond that I didn't quite get the value-add of Felser's book after previously reading MacCambridge, Birth second primary drawback is it's not as well-done as MacCambridge's book. I'd expect a book by a veteran journalist (long-time Buffalo News scribe and head of the Pro Football Writer's Association) to be better proof-read and error-checked.

This review probably makes Birth sound worse than it is. It's not that it's a bad book, just that it fails to supersede or improve upon in any real manner an earlier book on the same topic. Read America's Game if you haven't, or re-read it, and feel free to skip Birth of the New NFL.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Total Titans

New post up at Total Titans, cutdown day open thread, now updated with all Titans cuts and the tentative 53-man roster.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Football Outsiders

Scramble for the Ball, NFC Over/Unders Pt. 2 and Fantasy Draft Review, including review of the FO Staff League fantasy draft, is up at FO for your reading pleasure. Because of Staff Predictions running in the time slot, no Scramble next week, so we wrote two columns in one to compensate.

We have now decided, though, that 7700 word columns = PAIN. By point of "I can't really believe this" comparison, the most recent Audibles, for the friggin' Super Bowl, was 6100 words. We're really, really not trying to beat our 9300 word first column. The prop bet column I think came closest, at 9046 words. This is what happens when you get attorneys to write stuff, publishing stuff isn't more expensive on a per-word basis, and you don't give them word limits.

Total Titans

New Total Titans post, some thoughts on blitzing with a focus on some cover-0 stuff the Titans ran in the preseason. Warning: really basic stuff, with no graphics.