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23 Oct 2010
by Doug Farrar
If you're interested in football history and strategy, it's been a great year for reading. Tim Layden wrote Blood, Sweat, and Chalk, and Pat Kirwan wrote Take Your Eye Off the Ball. Both of those books come with inherent flaws, but it's been a treat to have more material on schematic history (Layden's book) and a look at how the modern NFL works on and off the field (Kirwan's). But for hardcore football fans, Layden's book may be too full of back story and thin on detail, while Kirwan's does present the occasional questionable hypothesis.
For the folks who already know what a zone blitz is and would rather spend their time looking into how key concepts have developed through time, the new book, The Games That Changed the Game, by Ron Jaworski, Greg Cosell, and David Plaut, is as close as you'll get to the inner sanctum without an invitation to watch tape with Jaws and Cosell at NFL Films.
The book is divided into seven game chapters, and it endeavors to explain the evolution of football strategy by detailing how specific schemes made the difference in those games. While this gives the book a valuable series of markers, I found that the actual games faded away pretty quickly as the overall concepts took over. Here are the games, and the concepts they introduce:
Plaut is a longtime writer and producer for NFL Films, and we know Jaws and Cosell as the main men behind ESPN's NFL Matchup show. I was fortunate enough to talk with two people instrumental in this book's evolution -- Cosell and NFL Films President Steve Sabol, who penned the book's introduction. Sabol told me that Jaws watches more tape now then he did when he was an NFL quarterback from 1974 through 1989. Cosell is the show's longtime producer and quite possibly the game's foremost non-coaching schematic authority.
The authors bring that authority to the book, but the best part of Games is that it isn't one type of book or the other -- not a thin-on-strategy character study, nor a dry "Coach of the Year" tome that only the geekiest of the geeks could enjoy. If your predominant interest in football centers around which games go best with guacamole, you'll still get a lot out of this. The conversational tone keeps the reader's interest high and the narrative-style tape study is particularly outstanding. And if you find TV tape study and game charting to be interesting exercises, you'll still come out ahead because the detail comes from people who do have that rare level of insight.
"The way this book came about was ... I sit and watch tape every single week, and you see the game change not in annual increments, but on a week-to-week basis," Cosell told me. "And it just makes you think, 'OK, where did this start, and how do people then take stuff that's been used and make it their own? It starts the process."
While Jaws is certainly the quarterback of this book -- the face and voice of the project -- I think it's instructive to see Cosell as his left tackle; the guy without whom the other guy couldn't go. Cosell told me that he personally interviewed dozens of people for this book. While the NFL Films coaching tape library was an incredible resource, the availability of broadcast reels brought a currency to the analysis that would not have been there otherwise.
"I watched the game telecast of the Bears-Cowboys game in 1985 that we did, and it was John Madden and Pat Summerall in the booth," Cosell said. "I made notes of several things Madden said that clearly either came from his study of the Bears, or quite possibly conversations he'd had with Mike Ditka and Buddy Ryan, and that just enhanced everything. What happens is that you'll hear something, and you'll go, 'Oh, OK,' and you look at something a different way because you have a better knowledge base."
Without giving too much of the store away, the chapters begin with intros to the concepts from Jaws, and the Gillman intro is particularly revealing. No surprise there -- it's hard to imagine a quarterback who doesn't love what Gillman did for the game, and Jawsorski was actually coached by Gillman for two years with the Philadelphia Eagles.
This is where the value of having the voice of a player whose current job forces him to explain what he sees at a consistently high level really hits home, and it's probably why I found the Gillman chapter to be the most interesting. (Of course, it doesn't hurt that I'm an AFL history junkie, and this was the first time I'd seen anyone break down old AFL tape!)
Jaworski details what Gillman brought to the game -- the geometry of routes, the idea of using the entire field, the advanced system of reading safeties to determine optimal receiver placement, using the pass to set up the run, tight ends running vertical routes, the vertical spacing system in general. Basically, this is a guided tour through the mind of the man who invented the modern offense given by a player who benefitted from that knowledge.
But the real treat comes when Jaws and Cosell go under the hood and start looking at the games. This is where the clichés and myths die under the heat of the projector, and that is what I found more valuable about the book (and their career analysis) than anything else. These guys are not interested in the forwarding of their own clichés, or the clichés of others. As much as is possible, they come to these projects with fresh heads and a willingness to accept the implausible.
For the 1963 AFL Championship, Gillman had an interesting and diverse game plan -- no surprise there. But as Cosell told me, the surprise was how Gillman played against type.
"Even though his contributions to the game overall have more to do with his passing principles, this game was fascinating because there was so much running," he said. "But the running game really worked solely off passing game principles, because they played a team that played heavy blitz -- [the Patriots] brought blitz on 55-60 percent of the snaps. And the runs weren't really power runs in this game; they were traps and draws and tosses. They were runs to take advantage of a team that blitzed and worked off passing game principles, as opposed to lining up and saying, 'Here we are. Stop us with the run game.'
"The thing to remember is that during the season, those teams played twice. And the Patriots had done a really good job against the Chargers in those two games with their blitzes. Gillman was trying to figure out a way to attack that high-pressure concept, because not many other teams in the NFL did that. That was the game plan, and it did work to perfection.
"Obviously, we had to do this one, because you don't often see 610 yards of total offense [from one team] in any professional game, even in the old AFL."
The book is invaluable because the same level of detail is in every chapter. There is no better strategic timeline for the NFL on the market today. That said, I can't drop an "A+" on this one, simply because I think there could have been a better seventh chapter.
The one thing about the book that left me wanting was a discussion on the advancements in offensive line strategy. While Belichick's game plan against the Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI was definitely worth mentioning, I don't know how much it led to widespread copycatting. I would have loved to see the authors take on, for example, Super Bowl XXXII to show how Denver's Alex Gibbs-led zone-blocking line kept an amazing Packers defense at bay. And when I asked Cosell about the game's current most influential concept -- the one thing that might be added as Chapter 8 down the road -- he brought up another trend more in that wheelhouse.
"I think you're going to see offensive linemen getting smaller and faster," he said, "because there are too many defensive schemes that involve second- and third-level players. They're so quick, and so fast, and 330-pound guys just can't [block them]. It's funny, when we went through all of Jay Cutler's sacks this week, we found that on eight of his 23 sacks, someone came in clean. And on all eight, there was either a linebacker or a defensive back. In fact, six of the eight were defensive backs! This is what teams do now, and it's been evolving over the last number of years. The Leonard Davis-type offensive linemen can't play in this league now. That's why Davis gets benched; because he can't pass-protect, and I'm just using him as an example. They can't react to linebackers and safeties and cornerbacks."
Cosell agreed when I pegged Gibbs as a primary schematic father of that particular concept. (We could probably throw Vince Lombardi and Howard Mudd in for good measure.) "You're going to see more of the running game based on synchronized execution, because the linemen would be smaller -- there's less power, and less trying to physically manhandle people," he said. "You're going to have to beat them more with synchronized execution and dancing bears, as opposed to just mauling people."
With a keen analytical eye on the past and present, and an intriguing focus on pro football's future, The Games That Changed the Game is everything you'd expect from these particular authors. Any strategy nerd should have all three books mentioned in this article, but if you're just going to spring for one, this contains by far the best, most accurate, and most comprehensive take. This is definitely where you should start -- and probably where you could finish.
Coming next week: A podcast with Greg Cosell further exploring the seven games in "The Games that Changed the Game," plus a chance to win a copy of the book.
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