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.

1 comment:

Code and Football said...

There is a lot I like about this book, but.. after having been "pushed" into becoming enough of a 46 wonk to buy Rex Ryan's book, it bothers me just how bad the 46 diagram in this book is. Messed up 46 drawings are everywhere. Why here? It's not as if Tim Layden wouldn't have access to people who know it well.

And what's with this "It's a 4-3 but it's not" line I keep seeing?