Gridiron Genius (Crown Archetype, 2018)
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“A lot of people write books about football,” says Bill Belichick in his introduction to this book. “But few of them have the credentials of Michael Lombardi.” Lombardi, who is no relation to Vince, joined the San Francisco 49ers in 1984 as a scout, and has worked in personnel roles at the Browns, Eagles, Raiders and Patriots.
During his career he worked for Hall of Fame head coach Bill Walsh, Hall of Fame owner Al Davis and future-Hall of Famer Bill Belichick. So he certainly does bring strong credentials to this book, which dissects the process of building a winning NFL team. The result is, for the most part, an enjoyable and informative read, particularly for the close-up look at the two Bills at work.
The chapter on game planning, for example, which follows Belichick as he prepares his Patriots team for a 2014 playoff match-up against the Baltimore Ravens, is excellent. Lombardi includes extracts from his report on the Patriots’ past playoff games, which is interesting enough, but it’s how Belichick uses it to shape his planning that is really notable. Not all of Belichick’s ideas for the game are successful, but it’s the process that is informative. The whole chapter deserves to be included in future anthologies of football writing.
Elsewhere, Lombardi is particularly good on teambuilding. Whereas he was simply an observer in areas like game-planning and playcalling, he has firsthand teambuilding experience as a former scout and personnel director. He is insightful and honest about the challenges of evaluating character and talent, and his inside-the-room story of the 49ers 1986 draft is fascinating.
The tone of the book is uneven, however. Lombardi’s 12-page section on what to ask a prospective head coach at interview is so specific that it reads like something out of Walsh’s Finding the Winning Edge. Lombardi raises questions like whether players are allowed to watch movies in their hotel rooms and who is responsible for jersey numbers.
Meanwhile, the chapter towards the end on Lombardi’s pet peeves, including that the TV coverage doesn’t tell you which offensive personnel are in the game, could have come from any one of a dozen football websites.
Better editing might have sharpened the focus of the first 200 pages and asked Lombardi to dive deeper into the “master class in building teams” that the cover promises. That could have made the book truly extraordinary and, crucially, provided more material that only someone of Lombardi’s experience could write. Instead, the book ends with about fifty pages of filler. None of it is bad, it’s just a mix of anecdotes and the kind of opinions that any football talking head might have come up. It’s a waste of those credentials that Belichick praises.
Overall, Lombardi has put together a good read that could have been better. It’s a playoff calibre book, but not a Super Bowl winner.
Photo: Alan Kotok
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