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.

This is overall, a terrific book. It really does fill a void in the bookshelf of  the football fan, especially those weaned on “A Thinking Man’s Guide to Pro Football“. It has a number of good sections on various plays, players, and coaches, but it’s really a book driven by ideas. I really liked the sections on Don Coryell, the section on the spread option, the section on Jim Johnson’s blitzing defenses, and the very late section called “A-11 and beyond.”

The worst of the sections was the one on the 46. The diagram of the 46 was bad, and the discussion was inconsistent. I have Rex Ryan’s book, and so I can compare what Tim Layden says with a known authority on the 46. On page 189 of the hardback edition, Tim says

The 46 was a 4-3 defense, the base alignment Ryan liked best. But it was much more than a 4-3.

Uhm, no. The 4-3 is a 7 man front. And in the very first paragraph of Rex’s book, it says

Unlike the 4-3 slide and other “pass conscious”  7-man front schemes, the 46 is a fundamental defensive structure of the 8-man front family

Put succinctly, the 46 is a 6-2. Even the diagram  Tim has of the 46 is messed up. This is Tim’s diagram.

This is the closest equivalent from Ryan’s book.

Maybe they match. Maybe they don’t. Maybe the typical football fan reader wouldn’t know or care. But the defensive line shift in Ryan’s book is in the opposite direction of Tim’s and the linebackers are shifted to the strong side in Ryan’s book, not the weak side. Small things, like that, pop up in this discussion.

Overall, it doesn’t surprise me. The 46 is  the least understood defense in pro football.

Despite  these issues, I still think Tim’s book is to be very highly recommended, and a must buy for the serious fan.