Doug Farrar is the National NFL Writer for USA Today and has written for Sports Illustrated, Bleacher Report and Football Outsiders. His first book, The Genius of Desperation: The Schematic Innovations that Made the Modern NFL, examines the evolution of football strategy over almost a century. It is published on September 25, 2018.
A few books have looked at the evolution of NFL strategy. Some, such as The Games That Changed the Game and Blood, Sweat and Chalk, are mentioned in your book and bibliography. Aside from simply being more up to date, what did you want to add with The Genius of Desperation?
Those books are excellent. I’d add Paul Zimmerman’s Thinking Man’s Guide to Pro Football and Pat Kirwan’s Take Your Eye Off the Ball to that list. What I wanted to do with The Genius of Desperation was add a chronological element to written schematic history. I wanted to go back to the NFL’s beginnings and take it up to the present day and project the future a bit. In doing so, I was able to unearth the contributions of assistant coaches like Clark Shaughnessy and Ralph Jones, both of whom worked for George Halas. Jones, among other things, was the guy who came up with the current defensive numbering system, though it’s attributed to many other people. And Shaughnessy was a true genius—he had a ton of functional additions to the T Formation back when that was a primary offense, and he basically invented the three-receiver offense when he was the Los Angeles Rams’ head coach in the late 1940s when he moved Elroy Hirsch from tailback to flanker.
So, the difference here, and the thing I wanted to do all along, was to take this book on a few different arcs. There was the overall chronological arc, there was the arc by decade (that’s how the chapters are divided), and there was the constant arc of the coach or executive who was driven by desperation to come up with a new schematic wrinkle.
How long did it take you to write the book and what was the process like?
From ideation to completion, about three years between football seasons where things obviously get busier for me. The process was accelerated in July 2017 when I signed with Triumph Books. At that point, I had about 60 percent of the book done, and they wanted it all done by February of this year so that it could go through the edit process and all that. So, a few sleepless nights at the end.
Do you have a favourite anecdote from the book?
I think the stuff about Clark Shaughnessy meant the most to me as a writer and researcher because he was such an innovator and very few people even know who he is—forget about understanding his importance. This is a guy who was the head coach at the University of Chicago, met George Halas at a civic dinner in 1935, and Halas was impressed enough with Shaughnessy’s theories to hire him as a consultant.
All Shaughnessy did was expand the T Formation to the point where it was the primary offensive weapon in the Bears’ 73-0 thrashing of the Redskins in the 1940 championship game. That year, he also led the Stanford Cardinal to a 10-0 record and a win over Nebraska in the Rose Bowl. He then turned the Rams of the late 1940s into the most dominant offensive weapon of their era, and shut down the early iterations of the shotgun formation in the 1950s when he returned to the Bears and moved middle linebacker Bill George to the old middle guard position. Shaughnessy was one of the greatest tactical thinkers in NFL history, and it was cool to bring his story out.
The story of Shaughnessy shutting down the shotgun was especially interesting. If not for that, it might have become a staple of the league much earlier. In fact, a few of the tactical innovations you cover had been tried in some way before but hadn’t caught on. Are there certain conditions that have to be in place for a new approach to catch on? Or is it as simple as: if you succeed with it, then you’ll be imitated?
Success is a factor. The placement of personnel to imitate a concept is part of it. We’ve all seen teams try to switch from the 4-3 to the 3-4 or vice versa without the personnel to do it, and coaches generally get fired over such things. And the time has to be right. A lot of NFL teams looked at the AFL’s schematic innovations as a bunch of gimmicks even after AFL teams started to establish their dominance over the NFL. Most NFL teams were still stuck in the Vince Lombardi mindset of a relative handful of plays perfectly executed, which is great if you have Vince Lombardi and the players Vince Lombardi had in the 1960s. Similarly, many opposing coaches denigrated Bill Walsh’s offenses as finesse constructions in a tough-guy league. Nothing could be further from the truth—the 1981 49ers pulled away from the Dallas Cowboys with a bunch of running plays before “The Catch”—but opinions can get in the way of facts at the best of times.
In researching the book, did you find other tactics that have fallen by the wayside that might work in today’s NFL if somebody decided to try them?
When tactics go away and stay away, there are generally reasons for that. You could look at the Wildcat as an iteration of the old single-wing, but the Wildcat lasted less than a full season in 2008 before everybody figured out how to stop it. If there’s one thing I think should have happened sooner, it’s the multiplicity of current defensive schemes with hybrid lines and hybrid defenders. That started in the AFL to a degree, and Tom Landry experimented with nickel and dime base defenses from time to time, but it’s amazing how vanilla NFL defenses were for as long as they were.
You mention that Bill Belichick has almost evolved beyond specific tactics, instead adapting on a week-to-week basis, depending on the opponent. Why do you think more people don’t imitate that approach? Also (and this might partly answer the last question) do you have a sense of how his players are able to cope with such rapid changes? After all, we often hear about how there’s a limit to how much can be changed during the week because it all has to have been installed in pre-season – it would seem like BB couldn’t possibly install everything that he might want to use.
Many coaches come into the league with their schematic conceits, and they’re not terribly interested in moving things around. Belichick just looks at it differently. He tends to believe that the availability of talent ebbs and flows, and you’d best be ahead of the curve when it comes to matching scheme to personnel. So, he’s more willing than most to switch things up. In the book, I talk about how he figured out years ago to change his base defensive fronts depending on the pipeline of college talent—whether there were more one-gap or two-gap linemen coming up through the draft.
Other coaches have had that realization—Chuck Fairbanks and Bum Phillips switched to the first 3-4 base fronts in NFL history in the 1970s in part because the 3-4 was so popular in college—but Belichick seems to take that to heart at every position. It’s why you’ve seen the Patriots’ offense go from power running in the early Brady days to more of a spread system in the late 2000s (the 2017 Pats were the first team to take more than half their snaps out of the shotgun) to the two-tight end sets in the Gronkowski/ Hernandez days.
Belichick requires his players to be adaptable and quick on the draw—that’s the only way his concepts work.
Thinking of football books in general, what’s the first one you remember reading?
Growing up in Denver as I did, I remember reading a book called “Barely Audible” about the Broncos’ early (and mostly futile) days. It was an early object lesson in how to write well about a team that wasn’t necessarily thrilling—or successful!
What’s your favourite football book and why?
“When Pride Still Mattered” by David Maraniss is unquestionably the best football biography I’ve ever read. Just as I’d recommend the work or David McCollough and Walter Issacson and H.W. Brands for anyone who wants to write a biography, I’d put Maraniss on that same pedestal. He took the life of Vince Lombardi and took it far beyond football while retaining the intricacies of the game. If I could ever write that well, I’d be a happy guy!
When it comes to football books, is there one you would consider an overlooked or forgotten gem – and why?
“Finding the Winning Edge” by Bill Walsh is the obvious answer, but given the amount you have to spend if you want to buy a copy online, I’m not sure it’s overlooked. I’d go with “The Thinking Man’s Guide to Pro Football” by Paul Zimmerman. Dr. Z is the originator for a lot of us who have written about schemes and stats over the years, and the revised edition of this book, which came out in 1984, is still amazingly relevant today.
And thinking about books in general – what are the five books you’d want with you on a desert island (assume I’m throwing in Raft Building for Beginners.)
Oooooh… that’s a tough one. Thinking of the books that most influenced me as a writer:
1. The “North and South” trilogy by John Jakes
2. “Moneyball” by Michael Lewis
3. “Crosstown Traffic” by Charles Shaar Murray
4. “On Writing” by Stephen King
5. “Pillars of the Earth” by Ken Follett
Photo: Keith Allison