This book, by Carroll, Palmer, and Thorn, can be regarded as Deep Stats 1.0, a serious attempt to get past raw numbers and generate a Theory of Everything. Well, football Everything.

For a statistically minded crew,  it’s an absolute must read, because they completely destroy the NFL’s passer rating formula. They had thought a lot about the formula, and their critique is penetrating and incisive. It can also be treated as a critique of any goof who stands up and claims that today’s passers are superior because their ratings are better than the players of  yesteryear, because, yes, Carroll et al have taken that whole argument and flayed it open on the written page as well.

That it is an older theory can be seen by  the units the authors choose to use. They reduce everything to yards. Yards? Any self respecting creator of a theory of Football Everything knows that the unit du jour is wins. This has been true ever since Bill James’s Win Shares, at least, and as stats like WARP (i.e. wins above replacement player) have become common. This need to express everything in terms of wins, or better yet, playoff wins, is part of what is fueling the current micro-revolution in football stats (see, for example, this recent Fifth Down Blog article by Brian Burke). We don’t need no steenkin’ points, no yards. How does taking the head off the secondary receiver and separating him from the ball translate into wins, padre? What things does my team need to do to win games, win playoff games, and win championships? That’s what any self respecting data geek wants to know.

Any other issues? I note that they have a rather unique description, in their “how the game evolved” pages, of Earle Neale’s Eagle defense and Steve Owens’s umbrella defense, differing from the descriptions given by Dr Z in Thinking Man’s or Jean Bramel in the Fifth Down blog. And no, I don’t think the Eagle was a 6-2 or that Steve Owen’s “Umbrella” was a 7-diamond. I think Dr Z and Jean are correct and this otherwise fine book wrong.

That said, they go over all aspects of the game, analyze them in terms of yards.. yes, they even convert scoring to .. yards, and then present their version of football Everything to the reader. It’s actually a fine first attempt, and were it not for the trends of the day, to think and eat and breathe in terms of wins, we might still be rating offenses by how many yards they “score”, and defenses by how many “yards” they prevent.

When I  was a teen, this set of books appeared, and that’s all I put on my Christmas List. My mom asked, “Are you sure this is all you want?” I looked at her and said, “If I put 100 things on a list, I won’t get this.” I ended up with the set, and I’ve kept it ever since.

It’s an after his death compilation of  notes and comments about play, 2 volumes of notes, in two leather bound books. It starts, more or less, with the Lombardi sweep and expands from there. There are pithy comments about Packers players, great photos, and really nice descriptions of when various plays were run. It isn’t just a play or two presented here, but a system of plays, with plays and then counter plays to different defensive adjustments to the first play.

A counter to certain reactions to the sweep.

In the second volume, which starts with defensive play and ends with the passing game, a theory of passing is presented, with adjustable routes. It wasn’t the fast-faster throw to the spot passing introduced by Don Coryell.

The target audience is probably the hard core fan. I’m sure coaches would find plenty in this set as well, as he goes deep into position responsibilities, especially along the line. Checking Amazon, there  are inexpensive used copies of this book out there.

Rating? Absolutely a classic. It reads simply, which is a testament to the man regarded as the best teacher of football the professional game has known.

Rich Tandler is a blogger and media personality who has authored two books on the Redskins and one on the Virginia Tech Hokies. This is his second Redskins book, and one I was hoping would be an oral history of Redskins players. Instead, this book turned out to be something quite different.

It’s more a chronology of games, with concise summaries of the game at the end of a box score. Occasionally interesting bits filter into the text between games, and often the bits are of serious historical interest to those who have followed the evolution of the game. For example, this is an excerpt from an insert from the 1961 season, titled McPeak: Poor Drafts at Root of Skin’s Woes:

Players are supposed to make an impact as they enter the third and fourth years in the league. A look at the 1958 draft that just one player — end Bill Anderson — made the team. A year later, the draft class yielded not one player among the top five picks who made the team.

Just to note, how many first or second round picks in the modern era would be given four  years to develop?

To give you an example of the look, this is a photograph of the page that’s currently of most interest to me.

And on it, he again notes a detail that catches the eye, in regards to the 1972 divisional playoff game.

Manny Sistrunk, a 285 pound backup defensive tackle, was the key to the strategy. On obvious rushing downs, which was most plays for the Packers, Sistrunk lined up at nose guard in a five man defensive line…. there was another twist that added to the uncertainty….When Allen was going to make a defensive substitution, he would wait until Green Bay’s messenger had headed towards the huddle, then would send his defensive personnel into the game.

It’s this kind of loving care that makes this an excellent reference book for  the Skins, and I’d say, since the Redskins are so intertwined in the history of the NFL, that it is a useful book regardless what team you might root for.

In a recent review of Pat Kirwan’s new book, “Take Your Eye Off the Ball”, Tom  Gower listed three books, his Holy Trinity of really good and important football reads, of which Dr Z’s book, “A Thinking Man’s Guide to Pro Football” was one, Brian Billick’s “More than a Game” was another, and John Madden’s “One Knee Equals Two Feet” was the third. Given that both Billick and Madden’s books are both available used and cheap, I’ve ordered both of them.

Madden’s book dates to the end of  the 1985 season, and so has plenty to say about the Chicago Bears and their dominant season, but more so, he has a lot to say about players from roughly the mid 1960s to about the mid 1980s.  In that he creates a refreshing contrast between Billick and Kirwan, whose focus is on a lot more modern players and really more on the modern game.  It can be interesting comparing the notions of the three men. For example, Madden has this to say about the ideal 3-4 nose tackle.

…Curly Culp was the best I ever saw. Hey, I know all about Joe Klecko of the Jets and Jim Burt of the Giants –  they’re terrific, But believe me, Curly Culp was the best to play the position.

Built like a sumo wrestler, Curly was 6 foot 1 and 270, as strong as any player I’ve ever known, and as physically suited to a position as any player I’ve ever seen. For a defensive lineman, the worst possible stance is straight up. If he’s straight up, he has no power, no leverage. If he’s straight  up, it’s easy for an offensive lineman to push him back. The idea, especially for a nose tackle, is to be bent over. He has maximum power that way, maximum leverage and that was Curly’s natural stance. He even walked leaning forward, as if he was about to stare at the center, eyeball to eyeball.

According to Pro Football Reference, Joe Klecko was 6-3 263, and Jim Burt was 6-2 260. Shortish for defensive linemen, and I’ve heard plenty of times that nose tackles should be short. By contrast, Kirwan describes nose tackles as needing some height.

…a team needs big,  tall, strong defensive linemen with long arms. The ideal example is the 2001-08 Patriots, who built their defensive line with first-round draft picks who all stood 6′ 2″ or taller….

It starts with finding a nose tackle  who will command a double team; a 3-4 defense works best when it forces one of the guards to help  the center on every play. The prototype nose tackle would be between 6′ 2″ and 6′ 4″ and somewhere in the neighborhood of 350 pounds.

On of Kirwan’s examples of an ideal nose tackle was Jamal Williams, at 6′ 3″ and 348 pounds.

On tight ends, Madden has  this to say about Kellen Winslow

To call Winslow a tight end was really a misnomer as the positioned is defined. Strategically, the tight end, by lining up close to either the right tackle or the left tackle, creates the strong side of the offensive formation. But because of his skill as a pass receiver, Winslow lined up everywhere and anywhere. Maybe the position should be renamed . Inside receiver, say.

while Billick had this to say about the tight end position.

The evolution of the game also has dictated that some team’ personnel departments have now divided tight end into  two distinct positions, one being the sleek, deep-seam receiving threat (like Tony Gonzalez, Kellen Winslow Jr., and Antonio Gates) and the other being the big, hulking grinder (essentially a sixth offensive lineman) who often serves as the extra blocker at  the point of attack of running plays. Other teams make the same distinction between deep-threat wideouts and better-blocking possession receivers, who often play in the slot on three-wideout sets.

It’s at fullback the game has changed perhaps the most. Madden’s offense was driven by a hard running fullback, such as Mark Van Eeghen. The fullback, as Billick points out, is virtually extinct in the modern game.

Madden’s book goes through position after position, with a lot of acute observations about small details critical to success at the position. It’s something that Gower notes, as in Madden’s mention of how Dan Hampton felt good fingers were more important to a defensive tackle than good knees. Madden also saw things like how Jack Youngblood had a knack for getting under the pads of offensive linemen, and driving them almost vertical. Or this observation about Randy White:

He’s not only quick but he has great upper-body strength. If he gets his hands on the defensive guard trying to block him, he can turn that guard around. Most defensive tackles can’t do that, but Randy just picks up guys and tosses them around like sacks of potatoes.

One of the issues that plagues Madden these days is that he was so good at making simple sounding observations, that people would take his apparent simplicity for stupidity.

In part I favor this book because it captures elements of the game that have been lost. Guys like Brian Billick simply don’t remember it. Time begins for people like Billick or Kirwan with Walsh or Parcells. Lombardi is a phantom, the Cowboys of the 1970s an example of  how not to do things. Madden, being an old fashioned coach, still treasures some of the old fashioned ways, and so players, perhaps forgotten now, aren’t forgotten by Madden.

From the context of a former head coach, “More than a Game” talks about the NFL as a business: what the NFL was, what the NFL is, and where is NFL is headed.  It talks about the draft, about talent evaluation, about the salary cap and its implications, about why there aren’t old fashioned fullbacks anymore. It is an especially useful book in the context of the current negotiations, as it was written with the potential lockout in mind.

I’ll pull out some quotes, in the hopes of giving you a feel for the material.

With real free agency and the salary cap, as stipulated in the 1993 collective-bargaining agreement, both the rules of how to build a team and the job of the builders changed dramatically. Suddenly, the balance of power between owners and players shifted. It wasn’t enough to draft the right players. Teams now had to figure out how to retain those players.

The stockpiling of proven talent – think of the Steelers’ trio of All-Pro linebackers in the seventies, or the 49ers’ pair of future Hall  of Fame quarterbacks in the late eighties and early nineties-proved impossible in the new era.

In other words, the talent rich teams from the 70s through the 90s are things of the past. Billick and his coauthor, Michael MacCambridge, go on to emphasize the title of this particular chapter, “Don’t Fall in Love With Your Own Players”.

Later in the chapter on draft philosophies. titled “There are no certainties”, you get

The Cowboys, with the development of their computerized scouting system of the sixties, relied on “measurables”  (height, weight, speed, arm strength, shuttle speed and so forth). The 49ers rose up against Dallas at the end of  the seventies by being more interested in the intangible elements that couldn’t be fed into a computer….The Patriots  understood before most teams that in the transient modern age, it was more important than ever that the parts fit, and that players drafted or signed through free agency be a particularly good fit for the style of offense or defense a team favored.

And in this chapter, Billick builds his case by example after example. There is extensive discussions of the drama around the Raven’s first round draft pick  in 2003, about all the issues behind choosing Kyle Boller, and the final selection of Terrell Suggs. The chapter ends with a particularly provocative bit of text.

We got Suggs that draft because we and other teams have learned what to value and what to disregard. In general, teams know what sort of running backs excel in pro football. They’ve gotten very good at developing a profile of the sort of talent it takes to be a successful offensive tackle (the top two selected in the 2008 draft, Boise State’s Ryan Clady to Denver and Virginia’s Branden Albert to Kansas City, started every game of their rookie seasons). As a group, we are smarter and more sophisticated about nearly every position on the field – with notable exception of the most important position, quarterback.

So in short, a NFL must read, for the personal side of the NFL. Topics also include what coaches go through, how the league has changed in character as the new breed of owners has emerged, and other components of the business of the NFL. It’s more of a “GM” view of the process than a line coach view, but without a peer in this day and age.

I’m perhaps 80% of  the way through this book.

I hadn’t really been too driven to read it, until Jaworski, Cosell, and Plaut mentioned that their chapter on Bill Walsh more or less paralleled a chapter in Blindside. Whoa! An Xs and Os book is going to follow an explanatory chapter in a biography?

Blindside” is a book about Michael Oher, a homeless child in Memphis whose cause is taken up by an affluent white family who end up more or less adopting him. That of course would just be a pretty tale in some church somewhere but for Michael’s totally off the charts physical abilities. He was a physically perfect left tackle, a position that is, short of quarterback, the hardest to fill in modern football, and one of the highest paid positions on the field. Good left tackles can be, as in Jake Long’s case, number 1 draft choices in  the NFL. So this man-child, discovered by the Tuohy family, was, if taken care of properly, likely to become a wealthy man in his own right.

And Michael Lewis, being one of the best writers of our generation, does a terrific job with the story. It has since become a movie, one that my daughter was shown in high school recently.

Michael Lewis’s reputation in the sports and business world was cemented with this book.

Perhaps the best sports book of the decade.

Moneyball” has always been a quicksilver miracle of a book, one so nuanced that much like the OODA loop that this man proposed,

John Boyd is America's 20th century Sun Tzu

it became something of a paradigm for business success. Moneyball’s main point was that certain traits that lead to winning baseball were undervalued, and that Billy Beane, a general manager of the Oakland Athletics, a team with a limited payroll, had become deft at mining sabermetrics experts for ways  to find winning baseball talent that other teams didn’t know was talent. Moneyball, in other words, was a treatise in optimizing how to succeed. In it he did considerable homage to guys like Bill James, a brilliant man whose sharp tongue perhaps cost him at times. And for people like me, who grew up reading Bill James, wide eyed and implementing his formulas on our home computers, something finally of a vindication of trying to think and understand what we do.

The irony, of course, was in the backlash it generated, one that largely came from more traditional  baseball teams. General managers such as Pat Gillick, who by their words could not  have ever read Michael Lewis’s book, ranted long and hard about how this book was written by Billy Beane and was all about on base percentage. Mostly they were expressing their rage at being made to look foolish.

In the paperback edition, in the afterward, the one section of Michael Lewis’s book you absolutely must read, Michael Lewis does the kind of demolition job on his critics that resembles a bomb strike by a section of B-52s. Interesting  then, that one day while driving down the interstate in roughly 2008 or so, I hear Colin Cowherd thundering loudly about Moneyball in an argument that entirely resembled that of Pat Gillick’s. He was aping an argument that had already been crushed by Michael Lewis some 4 years before. Did he ever bother to read the book before talking about it?

Ever since, whenever Colin has mentioned Moneyball, it has been in quiet hushed respectful tones. What he did got back to him, somehow.

Moneyball, much like the idiosyncratic Powerpoint presentations of John Boyd, acquired a power and a life far beyond its original scope. And Michael Lewis, having written something that transcended sports, is now used as a reference source by the likes of Ron Jaworski and Greg Cosell.

This is an interesting book, a beginner’s introduction to serious fan football. It’s not the easiest read and I’m not terribly fond of the first chapter, which seems to think that all serious fans are aspiring coaches. Not true. This for us is entertainment. Get past that and start looking at the overall organization of the book and the amount of information within, the discussions of positions on the football field,  the difference between a zone and man corner, the discussions of the fire zone blitz, the nice little discussion of football jargon in the back – that alone would be enough for a beginner to keep this book – and I think it sits pretty well on a football book shelf.

What it is not, as the review on Residual Prolixity points out, is a “best of” book for a reader who has read plenty of football books. Tom Gower has specific issues to complain about, and they tend to be technical in nature.  Another useful critique of this book lies in Doug Farrar’s article on FO about zone blocking. In opposition to Kirwan, who dates zone blocking to Alex Gibbs, Doug suggests that the idea of zone blocking has been around a long time, and is clearly evident in what Vince Lombardi called do-dad blocking. I own the book Doug is referring to, and the coverage of do-dad (area) blocking is extensive.

That area blocking was in common use in the early 1960s is also clear from the interview with Bob Fry in Chapter 10 of Peter Golenbock’s book on the Cowboys.

When I went with the Cowboys, we were blocking in a way that we had thrown out with the Rams two years before, because it wasn’t that good. We were still area blocking….it took a couple years before we had the back pick up the linebacker no matter what.

Take home? Kirwan isn’t the best historian. But to be fair, there is a truism in football that Amos Alonzo Stagg invented it all anyway. To the modern player, Alex Gibbs is the Bible of zone blocking. Most of the books that people like Tom Gower refer to as better are not in print, and are so old that it takes some effort to see their relevance in the modern game.

When I purchased my first copy of “Thinking Man’s Guide to Pro Football”, my father also had a football book by Dana Bible on our home bookshelf. Dana was a fine football coach, but plenty of diagrams of 6-2s and talk of “crashing ends” tended to put me off. There was probably plenty to learn from that book, but just like an old “how to” book that builds radios from vacuum tubes and 45 volt batteries, sometimes their usefulness in the modern context isn’t obvious.

This book has a few signature virtues that people seem to forget. It’s modern, it’s in print, it’s on the shelves now. And unless other people write more serious and in-depth histories of ideas in football, this kind of book will carry the day.

This book is a classic, and it’s a shame that it hasn’t been reprinted. Dr Z, Paul Zimmerman, was the original video wonk, the guy who charted football games, who got his head into the trenches and tried to give the fans the deeper view of the game. A college football player and minor leaguer, it was when he was a sports writer for the New York Post that he wrote the first version of this book. Revised in the 1980s, just before the heydey of the Chicago Bears, you get plenty of quotes from people like Don Shula, but also quite a bit of text from Bill Walsh.

Anyway, his chapter on running backs is an etch-onto-your-body all time must read. His two page diagram on the progression of defenses through history a total delight (one page of that is shown below).

Now, one thing I’ll warn you is that Dr Z has a tendency to really love his older football. His hope that somehow the single  wing would reemerge in football was second to none. There is some serious irony in the fact his stroke happened before he could really talk about things like the modern Wildcat. He wasn’t all that fond of modern spread football and all this passing that was happening in the 1980s.

Back to the running back chapter. These two paragraphs set the framework for a great great read.

They come into pro football all instinct and nerve, without the surgical scars on the knees or the knowledge of what it’s like to get hit by a 230-pound linebacker. They burn brightly, and by the time they’re 30 or so they might still be around, but they’re different players. They know how to pass-block, and they can run their pass routes without making any mistakes; they can block in front of a ballcarrier, and they run just well enough to be considered runners. They dive – and survive.

Running back is a position governed by instinct, and many of the great ballcarriers were never better than they were as freshman pros. It’s the most instinctive position in football, the only one in which a rookie can step in with a total lack of knowledge of everything except running the football, and be a success.

This guy was a great sports writer. I’m not the only one who thinks so. Peter King wrote this homage on the SI site, which, once again, I’d consider a must read.

Before I get too sentimental – his stroke was a crying shame – let’s just say the paperback can be purchased through third parties on Amazon and it’s a beg borrow or steal kind of book for the hard core fan.

Jaworski is a video nut, and his love of breaking down video is the initial impetus for this deep study of seven football games. If the book were only that, however,  it wouldn’t be the rich stew of information that is finally served to the reader. He relies heavily on interviews, excerpts of which are added throughout the book. In fact the interviews, in my opinion, make this book more than the actual breakdowns, which often are of games that aren’t great theater. His pre and post game analysis is also exhaustive, and those really are the “can’t miss” parts of this book.

Sid Gillman was in many ways Ron’s mentor. So he leads off with Gillman, and then analyzes Gillman’s blowout victory over the Boston Patriots in 1963. It was an exclamation point in the career of Gillman, a sign of his football genius. But it’s not the most interesting game to see broken down, because it’s such a rout. I found this section to be the slowest part of the book.

It recovers nicely in the second section of the book, perhaps the best. It speaks of Bud Carson and his effects on modern defense, analyzing the 1974 victory of Pittsburgh over Oakland in the AFC Championship that year. The game was close, and the interviews were excellent throughout  this section.

The occasional diagram is scattered throughout the book.

The remaining sections touch on Don Coryell and his offensive contributions, Bill Walsh and his offense, and then three defensive wizards: Buddy Ryan, Dick LeBeau and then Bill Belichick. The Buddy Ryan section has interview material good enough I’m going to break it out in a separate blog post. Finally, at the end, Ron and his coauthors talk about what they see as upcoming  trends. They talk about the increasing sophistication of offenses and defenses, the “quickness” with which trends manifest in the modern game, the increasing size and speed of the modern athlete, the degree to which the availability of video changes everything.

Throughout, Ron ties his history into the book, weaving any personal knowledge of the men discussed into the text. That said, this is the book of an older wiser man, rather than an impetuous youth. And so though Ron loves his past, bleeds Eagle green, in some respects it’s more a Kermit green, kinder, nicer, gentler, more gracious.

For a book with such a simple initial focus, the scope of topics discussed is pretty far ranging.  I suspect this book would work better with a companion video, and given  that two coauthors work for NFL films, I wouldn’t be surprised to see something like that eventually appear.

Rating? Not the best general audience book. For an X’s and O’s minded fan, however, this book is a terrific 7 course meal.

Richly detailed and particularly good at teasing the man out of the myths, Rick Maraniss’s epic biography of Vince Lombardi is a book I consider a “must read” for the serious NFL fan.

Copyrighted in 1999, the list of praise for this book fills two pages just inside the cover, and the book was a New York Times best seller. Still relevant today, I believe, it’s as significant a book as Robert W. Creamer’s biography of Babe Ruth, “Babe”.


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