Here we are, in the heart of football season, as the last of the gold and ochre leaves turn and fall and are covered with the first wisps of snow. In high schools across the country, champions are being crowned, and at the collegiate and national level, the final, crucial games of the year loom large. Football is not the national pastime, but it is the national obsession. Here we have a book for the obsessed.
Sports Illustrated's Tim Layden, in twenty-two article-style chapters, outlines the evolution of football from the birth of the single-wing under Pop Warner to the edge of innovation, the A-11, through interviews and overviews with the men who revolutionized the game. From Vince Lombardi to Don Coryell, from Buddy Ryan to Dick LeBeau, and with dozens of stops between and beyond, Layden dives into twenty-two of the revolutionary offensive and defensive systems which revolutionized the way football is played for one team and forced change in all the others.
The book is not for the novice, the absolute casual fan, through Layden's writing is incredibly approachable and inviting. One should come to it knowing the difference between the 4-3 and the 3-4, should have at least a passing knowledge of the passing game. It is also not a manual, not a step-by-step breakdown of how to run the Veer or the Triple Option.
What this book is, and what makes it so great, is a sort of genealogy, a history of the offenses and defenses you watch your teams execute every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Layden visits the coaches, watches the game film, has the diagrams drawn by the men who first drew them. He goes to the source, the originators of these systems, even finding, most times, that the sources are obscure, are a panoply of innovation through desperation and an incredible amount of co-option and cooperation, more than one would even imagine for a game that can be so cutthroat, so violent and unforgiving in action. Layden opens his book with a quotation, by famed Oklahoma coach Barry Switzer, that introduces the ethos that is so peculiar and so prominent throughout his many interviews:
"Aww, hell, that's the great thing about football coaches. They'll kick your ass on Saturday afternoon and then they'll tell you how they did it."
Coaching is a fraternity, as Layden discovers, and most coaches are quick to acknowledge that their innovations are mostly polished mirrors of what some other grizzled coach had come up with when he knew his boys were outmatched. Whether it is the vogue of the Wildcat and its Single Wing roots or the dozens of flavors of Air Coryell, coaches are quick to use anything they can to gain an edge, and quicker still to pass that knowledge along to the next guy who needs a leg up on a stiffer opponent.
If you are intrigued by the Xs and Os of the game, are fascinated by the magic in motion and the cerebral aspect of the game, you cannot go wrong with this book. It is insightful, inspired, and at times downright hilarious, for the legends Layden looks to are still only men, with turf under their toes and hints of smiles in their eyes. Their passion bleeds through to the lessons they impart and the young men they feel blessed to tutor. Pick it up and give it a read. You'll never look at the game the same way again.