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23 Oct 2010

FO Book Review: The Games That Changed the Game

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:

  • Chargers-Patriots, 1963 (Sid Gillman's vertical offense)
  • Steelers-Chargers, 1974 (Bud Carson's Cover-2)
  • Raiders-Chargers, 1980 (Don Coryell's "roving Y")
  • 49ers-Giants, 1981 (Bill Walsh's West Coast Offense)
  • Bears-Cowboys, 1985 (Buddy Ryan's 46 Defense)
  • Steelers-Bills, 1993 (Dick LeBeau's zone blitz)
  • Patriots-Rams, 2002 (Bill Belichick's "bull's-eye" game plan)

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.

Posted by: Doug Farrar on 23 Oct 2010

41 comments, Last at 02 Feb 2012, 7:51pm by Raiderjoe


by Raiderjoe :: Sat, 10/23/2010 - 9:13pm

Bought book. Is great. One of games selexted chargers vs Raiders sept 1980. Chargers did good stragey then but Raiders teach better lessson when put charger out of misery. in championsjip game

by buzzorhowl (not verified) :: Sat, 10/23/2010 - 9:29pm

Fascinating. I've been thinking a lot about the whole offensive linemen thing for the past 8 or so years, because I actually missed about a decade of football (during my college and early 20s years) while I was busy attending and playing punk rock shows every weekend. Anyway, when I started watching a lot again, the year Schottenheimer coached the Redskins, I noticed how much bigger linemen on both sides of the ball had gotten since 1992 or so. I've long been curious as to whether that size increase would be a permanent thing--and kind of assumed it would. Interesting to hear an opposite theory advanced. I'm definitely going to be paying attention to the direction trends go in the next decade.

by Raiderjoe :: Sat, 10/23/2010 - 9:54pm

Do think off lineman shoulf get less girthier for teasons mention above. Wider splits. More spread attacks. Beyter to have more ayhletic linrman.

by Doug Farrar :: Sat, 10/23/2010 - 10:08pm

Not to mention the fact that so many more college linemen are blocking out of two-point stances now. The Seahawks are really working this with Russell Okung, and St. Louis' Jason Smith seems a far better blocker with his hands off the ground.

by Alexander :: Sat, 10/23/2010 - 11:28pm

Am I the only person who has no idea what a "bullseye gameplan" is, and even after googling it I still do not.

by greybeard :: Sat, 10/23/2010 - 11:44pm

Welcome to the club.
I don't remember anything about that game that changed how the game was played. I guess they had to have something from 2000s so that it would not look like football strategy has stagnated since 90s.
I can only guess but "bull's eye gameplan" must be Belichick's strategy to stop Faulk.

by Raiderjoe :: Sun, 10/24/2010 - 12:30am

bull's-eye gameplan was ot hit masrhall faulk all over for whole game. Linebakckers, lineman, cornerbacks they all hit him. Rams offens not sparkly with Faulk being beaten up all game amnd not in right place because of all toruble caused by Pates defense. Was like real ram being knocked off hill by moutnain loin or sasquatch an d then ram try to get bakck up hill but other animal keep getting in way. that waas bestt reason why Ramms lose sueper bowl 36 to n.e..

by Spielman :: Sun, 10/24/2010 - 12:52am

Also Rod Jones.

by Jerry :: Sun, 10/24/2010 - 2:36am

Wasn't that what the Steelers did to Wendell Tyler in a previous Rams Super Bowl?

by Alexander :: Sun, 10/24/2010 - 2:55am

That is not a revolutionary game plan, that is just common sense.

The more important innovation of that decade is the spread offense and shotgun formations.

But Jaws hates the spread for inexplicable reasons.

by Raiderjoe :: Sun, 10/24/2010 - 9:45am

(made sure numebrs correct, dont care about double checking spelling)

well shotgun formation not invented in 2000s. It started in 1960 game sunday after Thanlsgiving, 49ers at Cotls. Red Hickey, sf h.c, didnt think tema could beat Balt with rgeular offense so he go with shotgun attack. 49ers win gam 30-22

SF win 3 of 4 games after Thanksgiinvg and Hickey shining star in coahcing ranks

after seaosn SF trade Tittle to NY becuause was too slow for shotgun and gettuing old. SF draft B. Kilmer (Greta tailback at Ucla ), to help rum shotgun. 49ers rotate 3 tailbakcs- John brodie, kilmer & B. Waters. did this to keep healthy and fresh. Used J.d. smith and c.r. roberts as wingbacks. also had a split end and flanker (r.c owens).

49ers start 4-1 in 1961. Scalped skins 35-3, get stuffed into meat package in Green bay 30-10, beat loins 49-0, crap on Ramms 35-0, and thenn get pats Vikings 38-24.

shotgun relally smoking in LA and Minn gmames. 40 rushes for 259 yardsrs vs Rmams, 20 for 26 pasisng for 262 yards.
vs Viks- 51 rushes for 258 yards, 13 for 16 pass for 231 yards
Kilmer run for 103 vs Loisn, 131 vs LA, 115 vs Viks and scored 4 tocuhdowns vs Viks.

Kilmer was for running, Brodie for pasisng, and Waters both.
Week 1 Brodie throw for 237 yards and 4 tDs. R. Hickey roatated them every play in the shutout wins.
Team led legaue pasisng, rushing, points after 4-1 start.

October 22, 1961 Beras shut down shotgun, plug up and throw into river.

C. Shaugnessy was defensive coorindator for Chi. Bears (not called coordinator then, was probably jsut called deefensive coach) and true genius. Shagunessy put Bill George right over center. The center coudlnt block George good becuause had to focus on snappign ball to tailback. After center snap ball he look up and George alreayd blow by him. Shaugnessy put extra def. backs in game when Brodie come in and put best run defensders with KLilmer in and play more in box.

49ers lose game 31-0 and shotgun go bye bye. COme back from dead 1970s when T. Landry and R. Staubach operate from shotgun sometimes

by Jerry :: Sun, 10/24/2010 - 9:30pm

Good stuff. Thanks, Joe.

by the cat in the box is dead (not verified) :: Sun, 10/24/2010 - 3:28am

'Was like real ram being knocked off hill by moutnain loin or sasquatch an d then ram try to get bakck up hill but other animal keep getting in way.'

You, sir, are a genius.

by Sergio :: Sun, 10/24/2010 - 1:43am

Bought the book. It's a fantastic read.

His selection of games is quite arguable, however. I liked it, but I would say there are many other games that you could say were turning points in the evolution of the game. Hell, just two weeks after the Chapter 5 game (Bears game), the Dolphins gave the Bears, and the league, a lesson in beating the 46.

Still, a great writeup. I like Jaws' style, and his research (at least to an outsider like me) looks impeccable and is a great resource.

I'd recomment it, completely.

-- Go Phins!

by Alexander :: Sun, 10/24/2010 - 1:48am

Have an elite level quarterback who plays the game of his life?

by Sergio :: Sun, 10/24/2010 - 1:54am

Spread them out. Hit often and true.

The Bears were starting to believe their own hype by week 11. The Miami game showed them - and, again, the entire league - that a good passing team could kill them, as the Redskins and 49ers did, often.

Having Marino was instrumental, but he wasn't by far the only great QB of his era. The greatest IMH(and biased)O, but that's another story.

-- Go Phins!

by tuluse :: Sun, 10/24/2010 - 1:58am

Don't forget multiple passes getting batted into the air by defenders only to fall into the hands of receivers.

by Sergio :: Sun, 10/24/2010 - 1:50am

Also, and I apologize for the double post, "Blood, sweat and chalk" mentions Mudd as the probably father of zone-blocking.

Interesting that you mention the Patriots game. I think it was more of a "look, Belichick can really adapt to anything" thing... but it was truly an amazing game. I would've maybe put the Giants upset over the Pats 7 years later as a better chapter 7... but that's just the homer in me ;)

Great books, both. Thanks for talking about this!

-- Go Phins!

by RichC (not verified) :: Tue, 10/26/2010 - 9:28am

It was a great example of Belichick's philosophy of not trying to beat an opponent by going after their weaknesses, but by going after (and taking away) their strengths.

He was very good at forcing teams to do things they don't do very often.

by Jerry :: Sun, 10/24/2010 - 2:40am


...this was the first time I'd seen anyone break down old AFL tape!

I'm sure all AFL games would have been recorded on film.

More serious comment:

"You're going to see more of the running game based on synchronized execution..."

When old Steeler linemen who played in Noll's trapping game are asked about whether it would work today, they talk about how hard it would be to implement with all the roster turnover we see now.

by dbostedo :: Sun, 10/24/2010 - 12:40pm

The Steelers popped into my head when the synchronized running was mentioned as well. I seem to recall tons of trap schemes and the need for the center and guards to be able to pull like crazy on a lot of runs. At least, that's what the announcers talked about in the 80's, but I was pretty small too. Might be worth seeing if that was anything like what Cosell was speaking about.

by the cat in the box is dead (not verified) :: Sun, 10/24/2010 - 3:42am

Interesting that they didn't pick on the Wildcat game the Dolphins played two years ago against the Pats- if you're looking at something that had an instant effect and spread across the league pretty quick, that'd be a good candidate. Maybe a bit too recent to be judged properly.

Or if it's a short-lived fad, I guess. Still, that classic image of the Dolphins running wild on an almost revered defensive genius' team and said genius desperately trying to work out what to do about it is a potent one.

by Sergio :: Sun, 10/24/2010 - 11:33am

They do touch on it, briefly, on the final chapter (the Afterword). In "Blood", Belichick even mentions he had seen it when scouting highschool and college tapes, but he wouldn't prepare his defense for it because there's only so much practice time and to prepare for something that he might or might not see - ever - didn't make sense. This showed in subsequent New England - Miami games; Belichick had his defense pretty well prepared for it after 2008.

For all the hate I have for him and the entire New England Patriots organization, I have to admire that man. Perhaps it's because he's more publicized than anyone else, but to think he's watching high school tape looking for an advantage... That's pure football love right there. Something I can very much relate to.

I don't know if the Wildcat is any more of a legacy than what we're watching in the college game with the spread passing game, particularly when using a running QB. That's far more established, with a better track record - the problem is that the NFL would have to shift its focus from the golden boy QB to a replaceable cog that can run and pass well enough (not NFL quality - just well enough). Of course, when dealing with NFL defenses, you can't really outrun them, so it's hard to factor in the fact that your guys are going to get pummeled game in and game out...

-- Go Phins!

by Mike Elseroad (not verified) :: Tue, 10/26/2010 - 1:13am

I thought that that game would be studied as well.

by bigtencrazy (not verified) :: Sun, 10/24/2010 - 4:36pm

Amazing Packer defense? Say what? The 1996 defense was tremendous but the 1997 defense was just ok. And when Gabe Wilkins seized the chance to sit down on the pretense of injury Darius Holland became a punching bag for the Broncos.

I know it's cool to claim that Denver 'outschemed' GB and some such but the game really came down to some injuries, Gilbert Brown being too fat to handle the heat, Seth Joyner being over the hill, Antonio Freeman dropping several key passes and Mike Holmgren inexplicably giving up on the run in the second half. Denver played great.

Getting back to Wilkins who had a suprise year for GB opposite Reggie White is that Wilkins sat on the sideline as LeRoy Butler begged him to try and get back in the game and then soon after the SB signed a big contract with SF and then turned into a pumpkin. Butler still cannot say Wilkins name when asked about that game. He just refers to him by number.

by Mike Elseroad (not verified) :: Tue, 10/26/2010 - 1:11am

I bought the book today. Can't wait to read it.

by Dean :: Tue, 10/26/2010 - 3:37pm

I know we've had many conversations over the years about what some of the important/influential/noteworthy books about football over the years, but I'm thinking maybe FO should put together a "further reading" page with a list of tomes that they suggest. Start with The Hidden Game Of Football, and some of the Michael Lewis titles and go from there.

by tuluse :: Tue, 10/26/2010 - 3:48pm

I too would love this.

Maybe a wiki or something so the commentators could put their own suggestions in too.

by Nathan :: Thu, 10/28/2010 - 3:41am

So I got the book after I read this review and I gotta say, maybe I'm just dense or something, but the descriptions of the plays does me nearly no good without accompanying diagrams or video. I just can't wade through the text and picture who's going where. A shame.

by surfer61 (not verified) :: Tue, 05/03/2011 - 5:49am
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by Raiderjoe :: Thu, 02/02/2012 - 7:51pm

Pleass sfop wifh these penis ads. We get natural wood her.e Do not need pills to get erections
. So please stop but thanks for caring