Sunday, February 20, 2011

Book Review: The Games That Changed the Game

There was a troika of football strategy books that came out that fall. Having read and reviewed both Tim Layden's Blood, Sweat and Chalk and Pat Kirwan's Take Your Eye Off the Ball, I finally turned my attention to the one I'd actually anticipated the most, The Games That Changed the Game: The Evolution of the NFL in Seven Sundays by Ron Jaworski, Greg Cosell, and David Plaut. Jaworski and Cosell are known for their work on ESPN's NFL Matchup show, and it's a good pairing for talking about more of the technical football stuff in a way that's accessible to those of us who never played the game at a high level (or, like yours truly, at all).

If you're interested in a more conventional sort of review of the book, I commend to you FO colleague Doug Farrar's view of the book and also the podcast Doug did with Greg Cosell. As is normally the case, my "review" will be more my ramblings and thoughts on the book and where it fits into the grand scheme of things.

Setting Kirwan's book aside, because I didn't like it very much, Games is clearly much more technical than Layden's Chalk. Whereas Chalk was much more the history of football evolution by storytime, Games goes more into the detail of what happened, and what sort of impact it had. Jaws et al focus on a single game in describing their innovation, and their innovation and the games are mostly well-chosen. The game that sort of sticks out is Super Bowl XXXVI, and Belichick's focus on hitting Marshall Faulk; gameplans designed to take away a single player's unique ability didn't exactly begin in 2002, and that sort of monomaniacal focus on a single player hasn't propagated itself the same way the West Coast Offense or the Zone Blitz has.

The focus on games is also an interesting one, and works both well and not so well. If you treat innovations more generally, as Layden does, you have to navigate between the Scylla and Charybdis of talking about the changes in more general terms and cherry-picking individual plays. Talking about individual games lets you drill down in more detail about what teams did and how they incorporated the changes into the whole rest of what was already going on. The Bears played maybe a third of the 1985 rout of the Cowboys in a 46 front-that's a lot, yes, but it's not like they did the same thing the entire game, and they had success both in the 46 and in their more conventional formations.

One downside of writing about individual games is you don't see how the specific changes themselves changed over time. Take, for instance, the chapter on the zone blitz. The instant game was against the Bills, and though the Steelers lost, center Kent Hull, who made all the line calls, talked about how the Bills' standard line calls were totally incapable of handling Dick LeBeau's innovation. Obviously teams did adjust and learn better how to deal with a zone blitz, but the focus on a single game doesn't, in my view, do a particularly good job of handling the changes that are more transitory like the 46 with the ones that are more persistent, like the zone blitz which exists in pretty much the same form 18 years later. Obviously, this is part of the tradeoff in deciding how you're going to structure a book.

One note of caution: as mentioned above, this is a more technical sort of book than Layden's. Football books mostly tend to go to one of two extremes: the hard-core coaching manuals, which normally feature a lot of jargon and aren't designed to be accessible to the casual fan, and most books written for a popular audience, which I like to describe as not being about football at all but instead about people who happen to do football for a living. I'd say Games is aimed at the more serious casual fan, the kind of person who watches NFL MatchUp. There are a couple diagrams per chapter, but they talk about a number of plays in each game just in written form, without diagrams. I generally didn't have an issue following them, but I had to concentrate more on those passages to get a better understanding of what's going on. I also have some experience writing about that myself, which I think makes it easier, and am more of a hardcore fan who voluntarily reads stuff like that. If you're not a serious football fan, Chalk is the better, more accessible book.

There are a few places I could go with some of the strategic stuff, but I think those are best explored in other posts at another time. This review also probably comes off as a little too critical. I really enjoyed reading Games, and it had a lot of good content. That said, it's not for everybody, and isn't at the same level of insight as more general and comprehensive books like New Thinking Man's Guide or One Knee Equals Two Feet, or the closest thing to a modern equivalent, More Than a Game (which I still need to re-read and write a review for).  Strongly recommended to those who think they'd enjoy it.

UPDATE (5/25/11 2244 CT): For an alternative take, see Chris Brown of Smart Football.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Book Review: The Ultimate Super Bowl Book

Sitting on my shelf for the past year and change has been The Ultimate Super Bowl Book by Bob McGinn, and with the Steelers and Packers squaring off tomorrow, I thought I'd finally get round to reading it. Having done so, it's time to write a review.

Ultimate Super Bowl Book is really forty-three chapters, one on each of Super Bowls I through XLIII, plus random lists of superlatives scattered throughout, generally in a relevant place. That something is a collection of connected associated material rather than an actual book is a common complaint of mine in my reviews, but here it's perfectly appropriate. Ultimate Super Bowl Book is really a reference work rather than a book, and it's perfectly fine for it as what it is. In putting together the chapters, McGinn did an impressive amount of research, interviewing no fewer than four people associated with every single Super Bowl and reading enough about them to tell a coherent story about each one. Each chapter also includes a full box score, plus the starting lineup and lists of reserves for every game, which is very useful information that is not collected in any single book I have. My one complaint about the information is that each game has list of scoring plays, but as in the case in P-F-R's box scores, the time of each scoring play is not listed.

One interesting thing that comes out occasionally is the recriminations players or coaches have about how things came out. You hear the obvious stories, about Rams players angry at Mike Martz for not running the ball enough against the Patriots, but they're a common story. Take, for instance, the five Super Bowls preceding that game:
XXXI (GB-NE): Bill Parcells leaving the Patriots screwing up preparations;
XXXII (GB-DEN): Holmgren's failure to adjust protections, letting the Broncos score in part because of a down mixup, and calling a rarely-used play on the crucial fourth-down call at the end;
XXXIII (ATL-DEN): Eugene Robinson's arrest and subsequent decision to play him;
XXXIV (STL-TEN): Titans offensive coordinator Les Steckel throwing Kevin Dyson under the bus for running his route at the wrong depth; and
XXXV (BAL-NYG): Giants defensive players blaming coordinator John Fox for unnecessarily complicated defensive calls against an unthreatening offense.
Obviously, pretty much any game story could include these kinds of recriminations, but the seem more prevalent in this book than they normally are. Mind you, this isn't a criticism of McGinn's work, more a comment about what my impression was.

One other note is I read it in fits and starts over about a week. It's a much more enjoyable read browsing a chapter or two at a time than trying to read through in chunks. I can't see myself ever reading it straight through again, but it will be on my end table tomorrow during the game and I can easily see myself picking it up whenever I need or want to read more about any non-recent Super Bowl. Recommended for what it is.