The Perfect Pass (Scribner, 2016)
S.C. Gwynne
Amazon US
Amazon UK

With just over six minutes left in Super Bowl LII, the Philadelphia Eagles trailed the New England Patriots by a point, facing fourth-and-one from their 45. In the face of a determined Patriots pass rush, Nick Foles managed a desperate fling to Zach Ertz for two yards and a first down. Seven plays later Foles hit Ertz again for an 11-yard TD, giving the Eagles a lead they never relinquished.

The fourth down play relied on a concept known as Mesh, the core component of which is two shallow crossing routes, in this case run by a pair of tight ends – Ertz and Celek. The crossers can be used to put stress on a single defender, often the middle linebacker, but in this case the Eagles did something simpler – creating a ‘legal pick’ from the congestion at the mesh point, where the crossers meet.

It worked. Devin McCourty, covering Ertz, collided with Celek coming the other way and Ertz was suddenly in space. Foles found him to keep the drive alive. The Eagles ran the concept four times during the Super Bowl, gaining 81 yards on four completions.

The concept is not new. Mike Martz’s Rams used it in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and it was a key concept in the college ‘Air Raid’ offensive scheme. It’s the creation of that offense, and its effect on the development of modern football, that occupies SC Gwynne in The Perfect Pass.

The book focuses on Hal Mumme and how in 1986, after 10 years in coaching, he found himself in charge of a Texas high school team and decided it was time to implement his vision for an unorthodox passing attack that stretched the field horizontally and vertically, employed every eligible receiver and – crucially – did so in a way that was simple for the offense to run but complicated for the defense to read.

The offense was a success and helped Mumme land the head coaching job at Iowa Wesleyan College, where he Mike Leach, who became his offensive line coach and later offensive coordinator. Together the pair refined and expanded on the Air Raid, which proved to be an exceptional attack for scoring points, even without an elite QB.

There’s a danger with a book such as this of conjuring a lone genius whose bold new theory upends an outdated way of thinking. For narrative purposes it helps if the genius is first doubted by the establishment before ultimately proving everyone wrong. This angle is common in non-fiction but glosses over the fact that few innovations are truly new – most are an evolution or synthesis of previous work.

Gwynne avoids that, acknowledging: “It is a cliche of the football business that nothing is ever invented; everything is copied, stolen or, more politely, synthesised.” He shows how Mumme borrowed from many different offensive schemes to create the Air Raid. The West Coast Offense, the Run-And-Shoot and BYU’s passing attack under LaVell Edwards were all important sources. The idea of using a screen pass to wear down opposing linebackers came from a coaching clinic discussion of USC’s sweep, which worked even without gaining significant yardage because the defense had to chase the play every time. Eventually their tiredness would lead to a mistake.

It’s an absorbing story, particularly because Gwynne is so good at explaining Mumme’s vision and how he was able to see where other people’s ideas might fit. For example, explaining why Mesh was so hard to defend, Gwynne writes:

“For one thing, it was almost impossible to figure out what the play actually looked like on paper. There were two main reasons for this. The first was that Hal could run it five times in a row and it would never look like the same play. This was because it was constantly shifting, adapting to the defense. […] Second, Hal could change the formations from which the play was run, doing things like moving his slot receivers to the outside and then motioning them back to their original positions. Again, which was the real Mesh? How was a defensive coach to teach his players to recognise it?”

Alongside that, this is also a story of how tough life is for a football coach. Mumme didn’t earn the big money that some college coaches make and he spent much of his career leading lower-tier teams, which required him to scour the country for talent. There isn’t a “genius proves everyone wrong ending here” – or, if there is, the ending kind of belongs to Leach, who went on to become head coach of Texas Tech and, at the time of writing, is at Washington State. Even then, Leach has no National Championships to reflect on.

Instead, these two men played a massive role in the way that football is played today. The Perfect Pass is a riveting explanation of how they did it.

Photo: IIP Photo Archive

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