Book Review: Polian Shares Championship Secrets
NFL Conference Championship - Structured as an oral history, Bill Polian and Vic Carucci's Super Bowl Blueprints (available on Amazon) tells the stories of some of the most influential figures in NFL annals and their journeys to the Super Bowl. The book features interviews with representatives of some of the most successful franchises the NFL has seen and dives deep into the philosophic approaches utilized to lead those teams. While it was not possible for the authors to include every long-term Super Bowl contender as part of this project, the book still does an excellent job of uncovering the core beliefs and guiding principles these franchises used in their pursuit of football's ultimate prize.
While each chapter in the book takes you through the genesis and maturation of a different franchise or coaching tree, there are some consistent themes involved that may not be explicitly laid out in the same way as a given coach or executive's philosophy. For every team covered in the book, there was a run of smart player acquisitions and successful development that often corresponded with some type of edge.
A common pearl of wisdom in the modern NFL is that everything comes down to the quarterback, and we see that pretty clearly in this oral history. Running through the list of quarterbacks mentioned in the book, we see Daryle Lamonica, Terry Bradshaw, Joe Montana, Steve Young, Brett Favre, Doug Williams, Phil Simms, Troy Aikman, Jim Kelly, and Peyton Manning. Seems like a pretty good bunch. For each of these signal-callers, there was normally a strong collection of talent around them as well, even if the supporting cast went overlooked in some cases. Regardless of whether a team's famous strength was on offense or defense, these were normally very well-rounded groups without major weaknesses on the personnel side.
In addition to these impressively constructed rosters, there was normally some sort of novel approach or edge that the coaches/executives running the teams employed to sustain their success. The edge was often schematic, like that of Bill Walsh's West Coast offense or the Bills' no-huddle approach from the early 1990s, but there were also instances where some strategic team-building approach or underappreciated source of talent may be in play. For example, the Al Davis Raiders always emphasized team speed, deep passing, and physicality at defensive back, and the Steelers of the late 1960s and early 1970s put additional focus on players from HBCUs (historically Black colleges and universities), which to that point had been overlooked by some talent evaluators within the league.
Regardless of where that advantage existed, it often dissipated over time as disciples of the coaches and executives spread around the league to run other teams. At that point, what had formerly been an advantage simply became part of accepted conventional wisdom. We still see some of that influence in the league today. The mantra of "we're going to do what we do" dates back to Chuck Noll with the Steelers, was carried on to the Colts via Tony Dungy, and still exists in the league now. In recent years, part of what made the Seahawks' Legion of Boom defense so impressive was its simplicity; that sounds a lot like the idea of "doing the ordinary in an extraordinary way," which Polian attributes to Noll in the book.
Super Bowl Blueprints is valuable for the way it paints the picture of how certain storied franchises in the NFL have experienced their success, but it also includes anecdotes throughout the book that provide insight into the personalities and quirks of the individuals involved. We learn about the time when Doug Williams underwent a root canal the day before the Super Bowl and still performed his pregame ritual of eating a bag of Hershey's Kisses. We hear the story of how Jimmy Johnson mandated that his Cowboys players would not be served food on the team flight after a lackadaisical loss to Washington after Dallas had already clinched a playoff spot. And the Mara family had enough internal conflict in the late 1970s that John and his father Wellington Mara had to get commissioner Pete Rozelle to suggest hiring George Young as general manager so that their cousin Tim would not reject Young out of hand. Why would he have rejected Young? Well, because that would have been his father's idea.
In all likelihood, avid fans of the sport may not discover anything in here related to winning on the field that is particularly surprising or novel, but this is primarily because we see these same ideas and approaches put into practice all across the league today. The accounts of players' life experiences that go beyond football help enrich the narratives surrounding each team, resulting in more than just a manual of how to lead an organization. All told, the variety of stories involved combined with the insights into the team-building processes and gameday philosophies of some of the NFL's most successful franchises makes this book worth the read.