Solid Primer on the Evolution of Modern Football Strategies

Blood, Sweat and Chalk, The Ultimate Football Playbook: How The Great Coaches Built Today’s Game by Tim Layden
Time Home Entertainment, 2010
ISBN 13: 978-1-60320-061-5

This is a book for professional football fans who love the history and evolution of the game, and the X’s and O’s that keep coaches up until the wee hours of the morning.

Author Tim Layden, Senior Writer at Sports Illustrated, has laid out a reasonably well organized set of chapters that goes into the innovations in football strategy that have made the game what it is today.

He starts out back in days of Pop Warner and the Single Wing formation. Back in the rough and tumble days when football was about big men smashing into each other and running the ball, Pop Warner came up with a formation that maximized deception and utilized the full talents of three running backs (with the quarterback essentially handling ball and either handing off or running). He then walks through all the variations of this basic attack in both college and professional football that defined the game for decades.

As we get into the modern era there is an excellent chapter on the late Don “Air” Coryell and his passing attack that really is the progenitor of many of the pass happy offenses in today’s NFL. Of course Coryell’s strategy was attacking deep with his platoon of great receivers and Hall of Fame Quarterback Dan Fouts. Coryell’s offense was the origin of some utterly failed and passé schemes like the run and shoot offense. But it’s also the foundation for very successful offenses such as Sam Wyche’s no huddle offense that took the Cincinnati Bengals to the Super Bowl, the K-Gun Offense with Jim Kelly and the Buffalo Bills riding their pass oriented offense to four consecutive trips to the big dance, and The Greatest Show on Turf highlighting the offense of Mike Martz and quarterback Kurt Warner, culminating in a Super Bowl win.

Bill Walsh’s “West Coast Offense” featuring the short passing game and receivers that can run after the catch is, of course, the other great offensive scheme that dominates the NFL’s passing schemes today. Layden has a very nice chapter on how Walsh’s scheme evolved and its importance in today’s NFL.

Thankfully, Layden doesn’t forget the defense. From the zone blitz, the cover two (made famous by Tony Dungy and Monte Kiffin in Tampa Bay), and Buddy Ryan’s 46 defense that focuses on attacking the quarterback, to the late Jim Johnson’s Double A Gap blitz, he lays it all out with clear prose. He tells how and why the schemes came about, and gives us a glimpse into the personalities of the coaches who created them.

There are several excellent aspects to this book. First the author describes the X’s and O’s and why various formations or schemes evolved the way they did in a prose that is easily understandable to the avid football fan. He also places each scheme within the context of the history and rules of the game that made the formations or schemes more than passing fads but foundations that can be seen in today’s game. And finally, he allows the personalities of some of the great football minds to come forth in the book, so it’s not just dry chalk talk.

The only drawback to the book is it does not fully explain how changes in the rules are really what have made offensive football today more about the pass than the run by limiting what defenses are allowed to do to stop it. While rule changes are mentioned, and certainly rule changes often spur innovation in the game, these changes are not given enough “credit” for how the game has evolved.

Despite these drawbacks this is a great football book for football fans. It is not a book for the very casual fan, but it clearly is not intended to be. It’s impossible to go into all the chapters in one review, suffice it to say there is much more here for the football fan to absorb.

Sports Illustrated Blood, Sweat & Chalk: The Ultimate Football Playbook: How the Great Coaches Built Today’s Game

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