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.

1 comment:

Jon said...

I just finished this accidental trilogy. I read Layden's book a while back so it isn't as fresh in my mind. Kirwan's book seemed incomplete. I don't recall much on passing, pass blocking, or defending the run. Jaws's book struck me as the best of the lot. He gave some insight that only a former player could.