Inside the Helmet (Simon & Schuster, 1993)
Peter King’s name will be familiar to the modern football fan from his 29 years at Sports Illustrated and its offshoot website, Monday Morning Quarterback. In 2018, he moved to NBC Sports, where he continues to write a weekly column. Inside the Helmet was written in 1993, with King established as one of the big names of NFL commentary.
Billed as “A player’s-eye view of the NFL”, the book is reminiscent of Paul Zimmerman’s A Thinking Man’s Guide to Pro Football, first published in 1970 and updated in 1984. That book sought to explain football through chapters devoted to each position group, as well as to coaches, scouts, and even the media.
King’s book isn’t as good, though few books are, but that has more to do with what isn’t in the book. At just over 200 pages, King has space for chapters on quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, pass rushers, special teams and coaches. The offensive line, one of Zimmerman’s favourite subjects, doesn’t get a chapter, nor does the defensive line, or any of the other off-field figures beyond the head coach. It manages only a partial update of Zimmerman’s concept and therefore feels strangely incomplete.
Still, what is here is very good and an enjoyable snapshot of a particular era. At one point, King uses a “35-inch colour TV” as an indication of luxury. Boomer Esiason is the main subject of the quarterback chapter, just out of an eight-year stint with the Cincinnati Bengals and just about to begin a three-season run with the New York Jets. The chapter on pass rushers centres on Bruce Smith, while Barry Sanders is the star of the running backs chapter.
The highlights are when King and his subjects break down the on-field action. Esiason, for example, talks King through several plays between the Bengals and Washington. One play in particular is detailed over three pages in which we learn how the defense made a series of unexpected shifts, before a missed block and a bad route doomed the play. It’s a fascinating insight into what goes through a quarterback’s head in the seconds before and during a play.
Later, King explains the cat-and-mouse game between receivers and cornerbacks through the eyes of Haywood Jeffires and Ernest Givens of the Houston Oilers, and Rod Woodson of the Pittsburgh Steelers. The three meet in a 1992 game that ends in a 29-24 Steelers’ victory. On one play Woodson knows exactly what the Oilers are doing. He has to release Givens and let a safety pick him up. The safety, a rookie, gets there late and Givens catches a TD. Woodson tells King:
“IT’S NOT A SECRET, WHAT HOUSTON’S GOING TO DO. THE PROBLEM IS, FOR A ROOKIE, IT’S HITTING YOU ALL AT ONCE, AND TO MEMORISE EVERY TENDENCY IS PRETTY HARD.”
What Woodson doesn’t say is that Houston know that if they can scheme things in such a way that they can get Givens, in his seventh season, against a rookie then they have a match-up the receiver will relish. It doesn’t matter that Woodson knows exactly what will happen, because he can’t prevent the outcome. It’s this elaborate point and counter-point that Inside the Helmet illustrates well.
If you’re a fan of early 90s football, or just like hearing players talk through how they think on the field, then this is worth tracking down.