The Hidden Game of Football (Warner Books, 1988)
Bob Carroll, Pete Palmer & John Thorn
Out of print – available secondhand
Listed: Pro Football Journal Top 100 Football Books, #11
Statistical analysis of baseball took a leap forward during the 1960s and 1970s as researchers began digging deeper into the numbers to discover what they could learn about the game’s past and how analytics might be used to predict its future. This led to the founding of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) in 1971 and the creation of “Sabermetrics”. This new thinking eventually filtered-up to the teams themselves and came to wider attention with the success Moneyball-era Oakland Athletics in the 1990s.
It took a while for the analytics revolution to hit football. It’s a more complicated sport to track than baseball, for a start, and many stats took time to evolve. The passer rating wasn’t officially adopted by the NFL until 1973, for example, and the league did not give credit for sacks until 1982. In 1979, inspired in part by the growth of baseball analytics, Bob Carroll co-founded the Professional Football Researchers Association.
In 1988, along with two experienced baseball statisticians, Carroll wrote The Hidden Game of Football, which essentially created the field of football analytics. It’s likely that the book changed the way teams themselves think about the game; it certainly changed how the smarter sportswriters and analysts looked at it. Aaron Schatz says that The Hidden Game was “basically the inspiration” for Football Outsiders, the analytics website he founded in 2003.
Having established that it is a Very Important Book, I should also note that The Hidden Game is also very dated. Its analysis is based on the 1986 season, so younger readers will find many unfamiliar player names and redundant arguments. For example, there’s no longer any point in debating whether Walter Payton or Jerry Rice should be considered all-time greats.
The game has changed too. The chapter on building through the draft is fascinating because it points out that the draft is primarily about controlling costs for the teams and not very successful at balancing talent. However, the book predates free agency, which changes the picture significantly.
Also, it’s full of an extraordinary number of groan-inducing jokes. “One thing about cliches is that they’re often true,” the authors note in one section before adding: “Tell the truth, did you ever see Mick Jagger gathering moss.” Your tolerance for lame humour will determine how irritating you find the writing.
Even so, plenty of essential analytics concepts are introduced here and explained well. Win probability, for example, is introduced and The Hidden Game explains that it is valuable because it takes the game situation into account. As the writers point out: “A good drive with the game on the line is worth more than the same drive in the first quarter.”
The book also delves into the distinction between “winning when you run” – a common misconception still promoted today – and “running when you win”, which is a more accurate explanation for rushing stats. The authors explain:
“Speaking of cliches, how many times have you heard that ‘when so-and-so gains 100 yards rushing, his team wins 90 (or 93 or 96) percent of its games’? We love that one. It’s like saying that when the rooster crows, the sun comes up 90 percent of the time. C’mon guys! Cause and effect! The team didn’t win because the guy gained 100 yards; the guy gained 100 because his team won!”
Seminal though The Hidden Game of Football is, for the average reader there’s little point in going back and reading it. Back then, this was groundbreaking stuff. Nowadays, the introduction to the annual Football Outsiders Almanac will get you up to speed more quickly and with the latest data. Still, there wouldn’t be a Football Outsiders Almanac without this book, so it is worth reading if you’re a football stats obsessive or someone who is interested in how analysis of the game has developed over the last 30 years.
Photo: Christopher Brown