For a long time, American football was written about as a gladiatorial battle between giants who prevailed through strength and determination. That’s not to say that strategy was ignored. There are play diagrams in the NFL’s 1969 book The First 50 Years, for example, and Tom Bennett’s The Pro Style (1976) contains A Diagram History of Football – one of the best concise guides to the evolution of football strategy that I’ve read. There was little depth, however.
Further reading: Doug Farrar interview
Between those two books, Paul Zimmerman wrote the seminal A Thinking Man’s Guide to Pro Football (1970) and followed it with a second edition, The New Thinking Man’s Guide, in 1984. Both volumes acknowledged the complexity of a football player’s job and shed light on how coaches think. Meanwhile, through the 1980s, the NFL released several editions of its own strategy guide, The Illustrated NFL Playbook.
Coaches had been writing detailed strategy guides for each other this whole time, of course. But the boom in strategy guides aimed at fans followed the growth of the advanced statistics movement in the early 2000s, which itself built on publications such as The Hidden Game of Football (1988), as well as work being done in baseball analytics. Suddenly it was clear that there was a market for deeper analysis of football.
A flurry of strategy titles emerged – the best ones all in 2010, coincidentally, such as The Games That Changed the Game, Blood Sweat and Chalk, and Take Your Eye Off the Ball. Doug Farrar’s The Genius of Desperation earns its place alongside those titles.
Farrar, National NFL writer for USA Today and formerly of Bleacher Report and Sports Illustrated, takes a chronological view of the development of football strategy. The Games That Changed the Game and Blood, Sweat and Chalk both viewed change in isolated moments, such as the introduction of zone blocking or Sid Gillman’s vertical passing game. Farrar shows that these developments were not isolated at all but part of a chain of developments.
One coach’s innovation would be a response to a challenge posed by a particular opponent. To follow the book’s title, they would be forced to come up with a stroke of genius in their desperation to counter a tough rival. Their strategic approach would be dictated, to an extent, by the players available to them and the players they were facing. That’s emphasised in this quote from 49ers coach Red Hickey on his use of the shotgun formation against the Baltimore Colts:
“We were looking for an equalizer. We had Baltimore coming up and couldn’t match them man-for-man. They had Johnny Unitas, Gino Marchetti… people like that. And we were hurting. Y.A. Tittle was out with an injury. So, I called a team meeting and told the players what we were going to do. They were quiet, thinking the old man had flipped his wig.”
An offensive coach innovates, a defensive guy counters, a new offensive wrinkle appears in response, and so on. New ideas that are successful are imitated, while the unsuccessful ones quietly disappear. Farrar does a great job of laying out these changes and how one flows from the other, almost naturally.
Ideas that don’t catch on often come back later. One of the most interesting parts of the book deals with the early emergence of the shotgun as an offensive formation. Red Hickey first attempted it in 1950 but Clark Shaughnessy of the Bears, described by Farrar as “the NFL’s forgotten innovator”, shut it down. It was another decade before Hickey brought it back again, this time sewing the seeds of a staple of the modern NFL.
It would be very easy for this to read like a coaching book – all obsessed with proper stances and hip positions. I’d be happy to read such a book, as it happens, but that’s not what this is. It’s much more accessible than that.
That said, Farrar doesn’t delve into the personal side of the characters he writes about either. I’ve no idea what Sid Gillman looked like, based on how he is described here, or whether he had a good sense of humour; the emphasis is on how he thought about football and Farrar chooses his anecdotes to demonstrate that, from Gillman consulting a maths professor about passing routes to using his job as a cinema usher get his hands on film of football plays.
The result is a book as enjoyable as it is informative. It’s a book that I can’t wait to read it a second time.
Photo: Mike Morbeck