Blood, Sweat and Chalk (Sports Illustrated, 2010)
Out of print – available secondhand
“Football is a chess match, with moves and counter moves,” writes Ron Jaworski in The Games That Changed the Game (2010). It’s a common idea but it’s not quite true. In chess, each player has access to the same information – and nothing is hidden. Every piece is visible and every move is knowable. With sufficient capacity, it’s possible to compute every possible move; indeed, that’s how supercomputers can beat even the best human chess players.
Football is more complex, believe it or not. There is a lot of flexibility in the rules. Each coach has incomplete information. Your opponent does not have to deploy the same ‘pieces’ for each turn. Imagine a chess game where the pieces were removed and redeployed between moves, only now your opponent has four bishops and on the next move, six knights. That’s more like the way football works.
Even when you see what players your opponent has put on the field, they can take on unfamiliar roles. A tight end can line up as a halfback, potentially creating defensive confusion. In chess, a bishop cannot suddenly move like a rook.
I mention all this because Tim Layden’s book is concerned with that tactical trickery, the moments that a particular coach hit on the idea of arranging his players in a certain way so as to gain an advantage. He looks at 22 different plays, schemes and formations – 18 offensive and four defensive – and explains what made, or makes, them so successful.
Drawing on interviews with numerous coaching legends, Layden also tells the story of some of the game’s great tactical innovators and how their innovations took shape. From the single wing to the Air Raid, from the Cover 2 to the zone blitz, there’s plenty here that’s broken down in detail.
What’s interesting about Layden’s findings is that innovation is most often the result of a coach with a limited pool of players trying to find a way to defeat a more talented side. Superior tactics are a good way to even the odds. This is something described in the title of Doug Farrar’s 2018 book as The Genius of Desperation.
The other significant driver of innovation is the need to make use of a particularly talented individual. In the case of the 2008 Miami Dolphins, for example, the wildcat formation that brought an unexpected win over the Patriots, was the result of trying to use the talents of halfbacks Ricky Williams and Ronnie Brown at the same time.
Layden covers the wildcat scheme in this book, though since publication its use has declined, as defences became more adept at stopping it. Indeed, one of the themes that runs through the book is that tactical changes in football are fluid and constant. Nobody ever really invents anything, Layden explains, because ideas are constantly being shared, copied and tweaked.
That thesis slightly undermines the ‘eureka moments’ that Layden often discusses. These are more about putting a new spin on an old idea rather than coming up with something entirely new.
This book forms a good trilogy with The Games That Changed the Game and The Genius of Desperation. The latter is a chronological look at how tactics changed over the years, Jaworski’s book focuses on specific games and Layden looks at particular plays. There’s a fair amount of overlap between the three but all are worth reading.
Photo: Matt Barber