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.

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.

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.