“What have been the major strategic concepts of the last 50 years that have helped the NFL evolve into the game we see today?” asks Ron Jaworski in the introduction to this book. In setting out to answer that question he came up with a list of seven coaches who have influenced the modern game and then picked a crucial game that symbolised the success of each one.
Jaworski was an NFL quarterback for more than 15 years. He spent the bulk of his career with the Philadelphia Eagles and took them to their first Super Bowl. These days he is an analyst with a reputation for breaking down film.
For each of his seven games, he gives the background of the coaches and players involved and then examines the film of the game to explain how the tactical innovation in question played out. The tactical to-and-fro of an NFL game is what makes the sport so absorbing for me and Jaworski captures it perfectly here. Each NFL game has a narrative that isn’t always apparent, even to seasoned observers, and this book does an excellent job of making those clear for each of the seven games.
Jaworski explains, for example, that coaches don’t always pick plays because they expect to score with them, or even gain a lot of yards. He writes:
“An offense will run plays that you know aren’t going to pick up much yardage, but you have to run them to set up another play for down the road. You run certain plays to see how the defense reacts. You show certain fomations to help a quarterback understand how defenders will line up against that formation.”
It’s here that Jaworski’s experience as a quarterback becomes relevant. He has been on the field and played the game at the highest level. When he tells you what it’s like to try to read a defense or to attempt to avoid a pass rush, you can trust that he knows what he’s talking about.
Using a specific game to explain a tactical innovation is slightly forced because in almost every case the tactics under consideration did not suddenly appear, fully-formed, in one game. They were developed over a series of games – or even over years. In that sense, this book has been surpassed by Doug Farrar’s The Genius of Desperation, which does a better job of showing the big picture of strategic change.
However, the advantage of Jaworski’s approach is that makes very clear how the tactics work in practice. His play-by-play is frequently riveting. At times, he manages to create the excitement of watching the game itself. The only downside was that I wanted to watch the tape while I read his analysis. (There’s a great opportunity for some kind of enhanced ebook here, where you can watch the plays and read the analysis simultaneously, but rights issues would make this a problem.)
There are also lots of brilliant anecdotes amid the description. Jaworski explains how Sid Gillman consulted a maths professor to work out geometrically where each receiver should be on the field so that the ball would be in the air for the same amount of time, whichever one the quarterback passed to.
There are some wonderful quotes too. Here’s Jim Otto, the Oakland Raiders center:
“At the end of one run, Joe Greene cussed me out, then kicked me square in the testicles – and I’ve never forgotten that. I didn’t think that was very nice.”
Some of the tactical developments that Jaworski covers here were so significant that they changed the type of players that teams looked for. In some cases, they even resulted in rule changes by the league, because a new idea tipped the balance of the game too far towards the offense or defense.
Where the book is let down is in the quality of writing and editing. Jaworski’s co-writers – Cosell and Plaut – are both film guys, so none of the trio is a professional writer. That shows in the proliferation of exclamation marks, for example, which is a typical sign of an inexperienced writer. Still, a good editor should have fixed that and dealt with the frequent repetition that means you’ll sometimes read a sentence that repeats, almost a word-for-word, one from a few pages earlier.
Though it would be nice to have better prose, that isn’t the selling point of a book like this. It’s all about the expertise and Jaworski has buckets of it. This is a book that will deepen your understanding of the game. Pro Football Journal lists it at 87 in its Top 100 Pro Football Books of All Time. I love strategy books, so I’d put it much higher. It’s in my top 20, at least. An essential for every fan.
Photo: Elvis Kennedy