The Games That Changed The Game by Ron Jaworski

It’s sometimes difficult to find interesting reads that delve into the strategy of football, rather than just the superficial stories you get everywhere these days.

This book by Ron Jaworski, with a significant hat tip to NFL Films’ Greg Cosell, looks at some of the big changes in the Xs and Os of football, but does so through an interesting lens; by looking at individual games in which those changes were illustrated best.

I’m not wild on Ron Jaworski in the booth as an announcer, but give him some time and a film room and I think he can bring a huge amount to the discussion.  With the way he comes across these days it’s easy to forget that he was once a league MVP quarterback himself, and he played under some of the greatest coaches in league history.  He was also a tough SOB and has one of the longest consecutive start streaks amongst QBs, even if it has been paled into significance by Brett Favre’s ridiculous iron-man run.  In short, Jaworski is worth listening to, and in this case reading from.

He breaks down some big innovations in the game and some key schemes over the past decades, looking at games played by Sid Gillman’s Chargers, Dick LeBeau’s Steelers, the pre-requisite West Coast Offense from Bill Walsh’s 49ers all the way through to the Bill Belichick game plan in Super Bowl XXXVI against the Rams.  In essence this book is as much about the coaching geniuses that developed new ideas as it is about the ideas themselves.

The drive descriptions of the games can get a little monotonous, but the broader points he is making are interesting ones, and it is a great book to further your understanding of the game from a schematic point of view.  In essence the game is the same as it was 50 or more years ago, but each of these revolutionary concepts and men have transformed the way the game is played, each reacting to something they saw on the field and finding new ways to do the same thing.

If you’re at all interested in the how and the why, and not just the what, this book is well worth your time.  While it doesn’t delve deep into coaching fundamentals or anything from the ground up, it is an interesting look at the Xs and Os behind some of the great coaching innovations of the past decades, and gives an interesting history lesson into some of the game’s great coaches that don’t get as much attention anymore as they should.

The book isn’t perfect by any means, but I would thoroughly recommend it as a great read for anybody interested in that aspect of the game.  There will always be superficial stories to keep you amused, but there aren’t many books like this.

More Than a Game by Brian Billick

Since leaving coaching circles (well, being fired from the Ravens), Brian Billick has fast become one of my favorite announcers in the booth and on TV for NFL Network.

He brings a rare perspective and is clearly an intelligent and thought provoking guy beyond football and the chalkboard.

The same things come across in this book, as there is an interesting mix of football knowledge and real-world perspective from a guy who worked inside the game we all watch from the outside.

The most enjoyable aspects of the book in my eyes was the day to day details of life behind the scenes of the NFL.  How the organization reacts differently from top to bottom following a win or a loss, why motivational speeches are overblown and that kind of thing.  Those are the stories that are so easy to tell, but never are as people get too sucked into the topical news that floods the wires 24/7.

Billick also looks to the future in this book and presents some of his own ideas for what the league could and should look to do.  The ideas are worth reading about and bring a little something extra to the book.

While the book is full of interesting information and anecdotes to go along with it all, it was written at a strange time for a topic such as that stated in the book’s subheading: ‘The glorious present and uncertain future of the NFL’.  The book was written as the NFL and players hurtled head-long towards a lockout in the midst of the negotiations for the new collective bargaining agreement (CBA).  As we all know, after a summer of posturing, that was eventually resolved and football moved on without skipping a beat.

While Billick can’t have been expected to know that at the time, it does make reading the book now a little strange, as it has been dated by the passage of time and events.

If you can get past the idea of some time being spent on the friction between the two sides that we know was ultimately resolved, this book is an excellent read from an intelligent and likable character and will certainly be worth your time.

The Real All-Americans by Sally Jenkins

This book combines my two real passions – football and history – so was always likely to come out a winner in my eyes. The Journey begins in the American West, in Indian Territory, in the heart of the expansion westward, and the conflict between the new American nation and the Native Americans forever being forced into tighter and tighter pockets of land.

History is full of stories of the Indian Wars, the bitter conflict between the United States and the Native Americans, and many in the government and military at the time believed that the only way the conflict would ever be resolved was total military victory. Essentially to wipe Native Americans off the map entirely. One man had a different plan however, his plan to civilise the Indians and educate them, with a view to assimilation into the white man’s world.

His ideas brought about the creation of Carlisle Academy, a school for Indians. The children of great Indian Chiefs were collected and sent to Carlisle, where they could be educated, and sent home. Somewhere along the way, they began to play football – a game at this stage largely confined to the Ivy Leagues. Handicapped by a lack of size, the Carlisle Indians instead turned to invention, skill, intelligence and misdirection to overcome the odds. Carlisle not only battled superior size, but also the view that the white world had of the ‘lazy, stupid Indian’, an ignorant view that would be repeated when it came to black players years later.

Not only did Carlisle do itself proud on the football field, but they also produced one of the finest athletes the world has ever known, Jim Thorpe, a student at Carlisle from 1904 to 1913. The story features a series of famous football characters, from Thorpe, to Pop Warner, Dwight Eisenhower, and the imposing figures of the Ivy League powerhouses of Harvard and Yale. The book is not only a story of college football in the early part of the century, but also an amazing tale of the relationship between the white world and the Native Americans.

The inevitable and repeated betrayal of the US Government as it advanced westward led many Native American leaders to see that their way of life could never survive as it was. They felt that sending their children to be educated at a place like Carlisle would be a better option than annihilation at the hands of the military.

The Real All Americans brings you inside Carlisle Academy, into the world of the young Indians, striving for acceptance in a world of the white man, striving against xenophobic stereotypes of them as a people, and striving against a larger and arrogant opponent on the football field in the dominant Ivy League power houses. Carlisle is the tale of a generation of Native American children who lived through a remarkable time in American history, and who found time during the upheaval to take on the college football world and win.

By the beginning of the Carlisle football story, the team was just getting by with desire. The desire to compete and show well. By the end of their story, the Carlisle team had pioneered some of football’s biggest changes, been the inventors of some of the finest football seen in the land, and owned one of the world’s finest athletes.

This is an excellent book for those of you like me with an interest in both history and football, and it combines the two very well.

The GM by Tom Callahan

 For the 2006 season, retiring New York Giants GM, Ernie Accorsi, invited Tom Callahan into the front office of the organisation.

The result of that experience appears in his book: ‘The GM’. Inside is both an account of the rollercoaster 2006 New York Giants season, and an insight into the life of one of the league’s great characters, a dying breed of NFL brass that began life as football fans, football writers, and worked their way up through the system.

This book provides something that’s rarely glimpsed in the NFL, a look behind the scenes in one of the league’s top franchises. Callahan had unfettered access to the front office, locker room and players during the season, and as such is able to tell stories that regular sports writers don’t get the chance to. This book is a must for all Giants fans, as well as anybody interested in the inner workings of an NFL franchise, but the star of the book is Ernie Accorsi himself.

The pages are stuffed full of information about both the New York Giants, and the NFL as a whole, as told through the eyes of a man who has lived the NFL for the best part of his life. Ernie Accorsi finished his career as a GM, but was a scout at heart, and never lost the passion of unearthing new talent. He was also a rare breed of man manager who would tell everyone the truth, regardless of how harsh it might be, and it meant he was one of the most respected and loved characters in the league. Players respected him because he told them the harsh truth, which enabled them to work on the things they needed to, and everybody else just loved a straight shooter.

Perhaps Accorsi’s greatest legacy has only really come to light in recent seasons, because he was steadfast in his conviction that Eli Manning would become one of the league’s best. After last season, he looks dead on.

As Tom Callahan, the author, is quick to point out the book is Accorsi’s story, and is well worth the read for the dozens of anecdotes alone. This is a man whose life has been dedicated to football, and who has been around some of the game’s great characters. The book provides insight into Accorsi the man, but also shows what his life was like as the GM of the Giants, and what it means to him to be stepping back from football into retirement.

I liked the book enough to get in touch with Callahan, and you can read the interview here.

Total Access by Rich Eisen

When I first read this book back when it was new it began with a couple of missed typos, and a feeling that you’re just reading an extended sales pitch for NFL Network, but by the time you reach Sunday during the first chapter in Rich Eisen’s year-long NFL journey, you find yourself forgetting all that, and becoming totally engrossed in the view of the NFL’s media circus, from a man who is at the very centre of it all.

Rich Eisen really is as lucky as it gets – a reporter, and football fan, with behind the scenes, front row view of it all.

Eisen is something of an enigma in today’s world of NFL TV coverage – a reporter, surrounded by a Who’s Who of past NFL players and coaches, anchoring NFL Network’s premier TV shows – and in this book he takes the reader not only on a journey inside the NFL’s media circus for a year, but on the trip of experiencing what it’s like to be thrust into the same surroundings as past NFL legends, Rolling Stones, Beatles, and even ex-Presidents of the USA, all in the course of his day job.

Naturally, Eisen gets major bonus points for his use of the terms ‘Bejesus’ and ‘hootenanny’, and that kind of language helps to illustrate the real-world style in which the book is written. It comes across very much as one of the guys telling you a story about the NFL and its inner workings, and as such works very well for the average fan. Eisen is educating casual fans about a year in the NFL, from his perspective inside it all on set and behind the scenes on NFL Total Access.

The book has dozens interesting tales from each stop of Eisen’s year-long ride around the NFL Calendar, and as many as not come directly from NFL Network shows. Whether they’re things that have aired, or just anecdotes from Eisen’s life, they’re welcome stories especially to a sucker for anecdotes like me. In the end this book comes across just as Rich Eisen does on the NFL Network – of which you can make what you will – but I for one am a big fan of that style and personality. Any book that is as full of interesting NFL stories, pranks and anecdotes as this book is will always be a winner in my eyes.

At the time I read this book I had no access to NFL Network, and perhaps the biggest compliment I can pay it is that by the end of reading, I really lamented that fact. Maybe it is an extremely good sales pitch for the network, or maybe over the course of the pages, Rich Eisen draws you in to the world in which he lives, and sells it as the dream job it is.

The final thought you’re left with after reading the book is that Rich Eisen has possibly the best job in the world, and really does have Total Access.

Damn him!

Barry Sanders – Now You See Him by Barry Sanders

Since Barry Sanders retired after the 1999 season fans of the Detroit Lions and the NFL alike have been left wondering two things: What if?, and Why? In his book, Sanders gives his answer to one of these questions at least, with an account of his feelings towards the end of his career as a Detroit Lion, and the factors that combined to push him to eventually say ‘enough is enough’.

This book is probably worth the purchase for the DVD that comes along with it, featuring some Barry Sanders highlights going back to his High School days, as well as College and NFL footage. I’m firmly of the opinion that every fan should never be far from some footage of Barry Sanders running the football.  Whilst the DVD won’t win any awards for production or picture quality, it is footage of Barry Sanders running, and that alone will paper over a lot of flaws.

The book is not the longest, but being told by Barry Sanders himself, it is a uniquely personal account of one of the league’s greatest ever players, and gives an insight into what made him tick. Sanders has always been a unique player, and this helps to answer some of the questions left by his career. The book also contains small segments written by others, notably former players, which helps to add the kind of praise that Barry Sanders himself is too modest to give, but yet richly deserves.  When all-time great defenders are talking about how impossible Sanders was to defend, you start to take notice.

These extra accounts by other NFL people help to demonstrate to the reader exactly how special Barry Sanders was, not only as a runner, but also as a man, and a teammate, something which was questioned by the fans or the media jumping to conclusions following his surprise exit from Detroit. The book helps show that Sanders was a great man, a great teammate, and perhaps the greatest running back to ever step on a field, and that he had simply lost the fire.

The book comes in glossy paper, meaning it is jam packed with pictures, which is a bonus for Barry Sanders fans, and along with the free DVD that comes with it, means that the reader is treated to more than just a story, but the images and video that goes along with it.

Barry Sanders was never comfortable with the media exposure that came along with being one of the NFL’s marquee stars, and because of this, his withdrawal from the spotlight was never given the fair treatment that it deserved by the media that were left searching for answers.  Since he never gave an answer to walking away that people found palatable, they would simply make up their own reasons, and even today you will hear people down on him for ‘quitting on his team’.

In this book Barry Sanders gives his account of what happened, and why he decided to walk away from his NFL career, and from an all-time record that was within his sight, and would belong to him had he stayed playing for a year or two more. It isn’t the biggest volume of work you’ll ever pay for, but it comes with footage of one of the greatest athletes of all time, and is an account that comes straight from the heart and mind of the man himself. If you’re looking for a thick, in-depth book to keep you busy for a while, this probably isn’t for you, but if you want a real account of Sanders’ career from the man himself, complete with some pictures and DVD footage of him running, you won’t be disappointed.

It’s no lengthy novel, but it’s well worth the read.

Breaker Boys by David Fleming

 In this book, David Fleming has done what was believed to be impossible – outdone the internet.

The story of the Pottsville Maroons – in 1925, the greatest football team on the planet – has been one of heartbreak for the small mining town of Pottsville since their NFL Championship was taken from them by the very league that they helped give credibility to.

You might know David Fleming from some of his excellent writing online, and he turned his attention to this story much like I did when it came up during a game some years back.

The Maroons had long been forgotten outside of Pottsville until they were mentioned on a Monday Night Football broadcast by John Madden and Al Michaels, and since then, there has been a huge number of people scouring the internet for information.

Unfortunately there was only so much information online about one of the great injustices of NFL history, and David Fleming has spent several years drawing from every possible source, including family members of the of the Pottsville Maroons players, original archived news articles, Hall of Fame archives, and the memoirs of one of the Maroons’ great patrons: Joe Zlacko, the man who supplied the uniforms to the 1925 team.

For any fan of the saga, this book serves as the definitive tale, the real history of the 1925 team, the success it had on the field, and the injustice that has denied the team, its players, and the city of Pottsville their place in the annals of NFL History. For any football fan not familiar with the story of the Pottsville Maroons, the book will provide an insight into one of the most dominant sides ever to set foot on the gridiron.

Beginning before the 1925 season, fresh off the back of a dominant year in the Anthracite League, Fleming brings the reader through the building of the team itself, the collection of talent, the revolutionary ideas that the Maroons first employed that modern football fans take for granted, right the way up to the crowning of the Maroons as World Champions, and the controversy that forever robbed them of that honour. He manages what no other account of the controversy has previously – to provide a balanced and factually accurate tale of the dispute, yet still come to the conclusion that the city of Pottsville and the team of 1925 have been undeniably harshly treated by the NFL.

This is a conflict that has been raging between Pottsville and the NFL for more than 80 years, and much though David Fleming would like it to, this book is unlikely to resolve anything in favour of the Maroons as far as the NFL is concerned, but what the book is capable of doing is educating an entirely new generation of football fans about what was once termed ‘the perfect football machine’.

A team that beat the Notre Dame side that was believed to be invincible

A team Red Grange once called “the most ferocious and most respected players I ever faced in football”. Now the players are all gone, the coach, the owner, and the championship, but thanks to David Fleming, the memory, and the glory of the 1925 Pottsville Maroons can live on, in the minds of a fresh generation of football fans. Whether they choose to recognise it or not, the NFL owes a great deal to this team of pioneers, and Breaker Boys does a wonderful job of showing exactly how much.

America’s Game by Michael MacCambridge

This is probably my favorite football book, and the book that taught me the most about the history of the game.

It is an epic history of the NFL, but what sets it apart from most of the league history that you will already know is that it focuses on the men that usually fly under the radar when it comes to looking back into the NFL’s past. The book focuses less on the great players and teams in NFL history, and more on the men who helped to bring the NFL from a quaint pastime, to the multi-billion dollar industry that it is today – overtaking Baseball as America’s Game along the way.

The book provides an insight into the characters of the NFL who operated largely out of the media spotlight, yet who had the largest influence in the direction that the league took over the last century: the Commissioners, and the band of NFL Franchise Owners, who have spent much of that time operating against their own individual interests and for the good of the league as a whole. Current owners would do well to read the book and understand what made the league great in the first place. This book is a story of how these men fought off numerous challenges from rival leagues, and various other outside pressures, and through their socialist attitude towards their own league, created the NFL we all know and love today.

Michael MacCambridge turns the spotlight onto some forgotten legends of NFL history, men such as Bert Bell – the man who really began to shape the parity-driven league that exists now. Many of the principles of parity that the NFL takes for granted today were first devised and implemented by Bell, yet he receives little acclaim in football annals. The book also documents the rise of Pete Rozelle – from public relations intern, to head of the world’s largest sporting empire, and brings the reader through the myriad challenges that he had to face in his time as Commissioner.

Of course, like all great NFL books, this book is not short on the paramount ingredient: anecdotes. Michael MacCambridge has jammed this book full of anecdotes, which on their own would keep the reader page turning from cover to cover.

The scope of this history is truly remarkable, as it wanders from the league’s pioneer days in the roaring 1920s, with owners who accepted that losing money was part and parcel of owning an NFL franchise, all the way through to the Paul Tagliabu era of monstrous television contracts and multi-billionaire owners, all reaping a massive profit on the back of their franchise’s turnover.

For anybody interested in NFL history this book is a must, as not only does it provide the conventional history that can be found in a hundred books, but it also documents the rise of the NFL in the public’s mind, and shows you the men behind that meteoric rise. The detail in the book is unsurpassed, and it immediately takes its place as the definitive NFL history book. Not only is the scope and detail in the book unrivalled by anything else available in print, but the subject matter is presented to the reader exceptionally well by some magnificent writing, and this book would sit atop my recommendation list to any NFL fan.

Book Reviews

Another thing I have no alternative outlet for is to review some of the great football books I’ve read and give people something to go on from a guy who first and foremost, loves football too.

Every time I add a new book review I will add the short link and a bottom line to this post so you can click on them and go to the full review:

America’s Game by Michael MacCambridge – An awesome look at how football became America’s Game

Breaker Boys by David Fleming – The story of the 1925 Pottsville Maroons and the championship stolen from them by the NFL

Barry Sanders – Now You See Him by Barry Sanders – The story of Barry Sanders and why he walked away, told by the man himself, with bonus DVD.

Total Access by Rich Eisen – A year in the life of Rich Eisen behind the scenes of the NFL and NFL Network’s Total Access.

The GM by Tom Callahan – A year behind the scenes of the New York Giants in 2006, and with GM Ernie Accorsi.

The Real All Americans by Sally Jenkins – A look at the football played by the Carlisle Indian Academy and the school of young Native Americans itself.

More Than a Game by Brian Billick – The former head coach and current TV analyst and broadcaster takes you inside the NFL, and looks at the challenges it faces.  Dated, but interesting.

The Games That Changed The Game by Ron Jaworski – A look at games that showcased big schematic developments from big coaches. Drive charts are a little turgid, but interesting information beyond them.