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.

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.