Paul Zimmerman, known as Dr Z, is a legendary sports writer who wrote a string of well-regarded books. His time as a minor league football player helped inform his work as a journalist but as well as experience, he brought wit and insight to his writing. He’s funny and, like the best writers, he has an ear for an amusing or catchy turn of phrase. He’s also adept with a dry punchline – for example:
“The Jets’ killer dummy was called Big Bertha, sometimes just the killer… one huge blocking or tackling dummy, attached to a lever by a coiled set of springs. The tension – and the force of the dummy’s power – could be increased by adding more springs. One spring was for backs, two for linemen and then there was a third spring. They tried the third spring only once, on a 6’6″, 230-pound tackle named Steve Chomyszak, who was considered the strongest man in football at the time. It rendered him unconscious. They found out what they wanted to know. The third spring was removed.”
This book is an update of A Thinking Man’s Guide to Pro Football (1970) and repeats much of that work, though there is a lot of new material. It’s a strategy guide ultimately, albeit one that reads like you’re hanging out in the locker room cracking jokes with the guys.
Zimmerman works his way through the position groups, shedding light on how the game is played and talking to the players who play there. Then he moves on to consider off-field subjects, such as scouting, officiating and even the role of journalists. There’s a particularly good section where he details the evolution of defensive strategy simply by showing offensive formations and the corresponding defensive formations designed to stop them.
Some elements are now historical curiosity. The tactical advances that were emerging for him as he wrote are now 30 years in the past. He looks back fondly on an older brand of football, expressing a fondness for the AAFC. One of his interviewees laments: “You don’t hardly see no snaggle-toothed linemen anymore.” Still, Zimmerman shows why the past is still relevant – he traces many of the ‘new’ developments in the 1980s back to the 1930s and earlier. It’s a good education.
And of course, there’s plenty that’s still relevant. You’ll learn a lot about the evolution of football and the people who play it and do so in the company of a very entertaining writer.