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Book Review: The Art of Smart Football, by Chris B. Brown

The Next Big Thing in Football … that could very well have been the title of this work by Chris Brown. Mr. Brown is a (now former) contributor to Grantland and editor of the website, smartfootball.com. The Art of Smart Football follows his 2012 book, The Essential Smart Football. Even if there is a degree of overlap with the two books, The Art of Smart is certainly more up to date, and if this work reminds us of anything, it is that nothing in football stays the same for long.

Cover of The Art of Smart football

Football is undoubtedly the most strategically complex sport devised by humans. When baseball traditionalists argue against the use of the designated hitter because it detracts from the game’s strategic complexity, they are referring to MLB’s multiplication tables compared to the quantum physics of the NFL. The beautiful simplicity of baseball is a waltz with three beats to the measure — three strikes, three outs, nine innings. Football, on the other hand, has evolved over the decades from the Hokey Pokey, to the Fox Trot, to the Harlem Shake, to the Twist, the Watusi, to breakdancing and well beyond.

In the not too distant future, we’ll have to explain to our children and grandchildren how football used to have these little gatherings between plays, called huddles. And then we’ll try to explain, once again, why the American League has a DH and the National League does not.

The function of Mr. Brown’s book is to describe what he calls the “strategic evolutions” that have occurred in the game of football — not every one of them and not every detail, but he packs a great deal into 164 pages. There are plenty of diagrams and photographs to illustrate some of the finer points of the game’s X’s and O’s, but unless you’ve already been tutored for a few hundred hours in the very serious business of film study (as opposed to the product one gets from the comparative closeups of network TV) you may find yourself realizing: 1) You are no expert; and 2) You are not about to spend half your waking hours in a darkened room trying to become one. 

If there is a thesis behind Chris Brown’s analysis, it might best be summed up in this quote from the chapter on Chip Kelly: “It’s hard to get a first down in the NFL. The defenders are fast, the tactics are sophisticated, and the state-of-the-art technology and scouting reports mean there are no secrets. What’s innovative one week is passé the next. As a result, modern NFL game planning is an arms race of minutiae.” 

You may also come to appreciate how difficult it must be for reporters to maneuver around the complexities of their relationship with coaches and players because, in all likelihood, any substantive detail worth asking about (if they know enough to ask) will not get answered with anything but a grunt of coach-speak. 

Nevertheless, Mr. Brown does offer fans a solid historical survey of many of the significant adaptations to the game’s strategy through the trials, failures, discoveries, even desperation of several of football’s most iconic figures. 

Pete Carroll

Pete Carroll is one of the many examples who succeeded through failing. He was fired from head coaching positions with the New York Jets and the New England Patriots, but all the while his firm belief in a defensive system he learned in the 1970s while working for Arkansas under head coach Lou Holtz and defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, the “4-3 Under,” never wavered. Over the years, Carroll has developed variations on the 4-3 Under (which Chris Brown details) to the point where it’s become more of a philosophy than a system, with the overarching principle behind it being aggressiveness. But he states plainly that success with any system depends on the willingness and ability to adapt within your system; to have the flexibility to adjust your scheme to fit personnel and other unique circumstances.   

As complex as the game can be, throughout the book Mr. Brown remarks how coaches at every level are finding solutions to their challenges by simplifying. In the chapter on the West Coast offense, we learn how Green Bay Packers head coach Mike McCarthy simplified the system which dominated the NFL in the 1990s and early 2000s, removing much of its rigidity and complexity. The evolution of his own thinking accelerated while he was an offensive assistant working with Joe Montana after Joe Cool had been traded by the 49ers to the Kansas City Chiefs.

Mike McCarthy

Eventually, with Green Bay, McCarthy’s (and Aaron Rodgers’) version of the West Coast offense reduced the number of plays in the playbook but gave the quarterback more authority to read the defense and adjust accordingly. In fact, the Packers were among the first teams in the NFL to use “packaged plays” containing multiple possibilities, including the choice to call a run or pass at the line of scrimmage. This style of offense is a far cry from the inflexibility of Paul Brown’s system, over which his players mutinied. 

Among those celebrated in the book for defensive inventiveness are Bill Arnsparger and Dick LeBeau for their development of zone blitzing, pattern-match coverages and the 3-4 defense. Zone blitzes combine blitzing the quarterback with zone coverage behind it. Pattern-match coverage refers to starting off in zone coverage and then switching to man coverage after the receivers show where they’re headed. These variations on defense that have developed over the years actually mirror the goals of the West Coast offense: To make the results more certain, less risky, and less vulnerable to big plays by the opposition.

On the offensive side of the ball, Mr. Brown points out that there are essentially three different offensive systems in the NFL: West Coast, Coryell, and Erhardt-Perkins. West Coast, still the most used system in the NFL, dates back to Paul Brown and is a memory system. Each player memorizes his role for each play called.

The Coryell system (Air-Coryell was its playful nickname) is named after Don Coryell, the late, former head coach of the San Diego Chargers. The system involves a “route tree” that provides a three-digit scheme designating which receivers run which routes. His system was more flexible than the staid play-calling that preceded it, but Brown explains that the Coryell system has begun “crumbling under [its] own weight” because of many years of added complexity.

The third system was named after Ron Erhardt and Ray Perkins, who worked under New England Patriots head coach Chuck Fairbanks. This system dates back to the 1970s, but while its efficient and economical terminology and basic framework remain intact, the Belichick-Brady team has taken it to another level, one that (as Brown terms it) has “set the standard for modern offense.” Of course, who else? Overall, however, there seems little question that the hurry-up, the no-huddle, packaged plays, and a variety of other innovations have resulted in a great many hybrid offenses in the NFL.

Again, just when you think Mr. Brown is veering off into a rat’s maze of indecipherable complexity and terminology, he says something like this: “Good offense has always been about deceptive simplicity. The clearest path to success is to make things as simple as possible for your players while also keeping the defenses off balance…a team that tries to do too many things will master none of them. Packaged plays solve the quandary by combining simple plays anyone can execute in such a way that — if the quarterback makes the right decision — the offense always has the advantage, because no defender can be in two places at once.”

The most important part of the above quote, however, is if the quarterback makes the right decision…a big if, and it makes one wonder, how teams expect a 22-year-old rookie to step into such a job and take off as if the change from college quarterback to NFL quarterback is a lateral move. The advantage of experience seems all the more critical for navigating the NFL house of mirrors.

Pat Narduzzi and Mark Dantonio of MSU

One of Mr. Brown’s chapters is dedicated to the defensive innovations of Mark Dantonio and Pat Narduzzi at Michigan State. This was a particularly interesting read in light of the Spartans’ recent victory over Ohio State. Narduzzi was the defensive coordinator under Dantonio until he became the head coach at the University of Pittsburgh this year. How did they improve the Michigan State defense? They run the oldest and most straightforward front in football, the 4-3, but in MSU’s case it “self-adjusts to various formations and routes.” They keep their schemes simple, they don’t run numerous complex defenses. They know that “… great D isn’t a function of a magical scheme; it’s about mastering fundamentals and playing with discipline and effort. The scheme is there merely to channel the players’ energy and help them play fast and without hesitation.”

Throughout the book there is expressed the idea that there are are no silver bullet schemes or strategies, no one-size-fits-all solutions. Rather there is a hint that modern, successful adaptations in NFL strategy involve a degree of jazz-like improvisation within a simple framework to which the organization is committed.

The fact that the concluding chapter of this book is devoted to the singular talent and achievements of Bill Belichick’s defensive schemes does not make it too-predictable an ending. Mr. Brown’s interesting description of  Belichick is that he lacks classification, referring to his “ingenious defensive tactics and precision without sentimentality.”

Steve Belichick

Steve Belichick

Even if you didn’t know that his education as an analyst of football strategy began as a nine-year-old under the tutelage of his father (the highly regarded college advance scout for Navy, Steve Belichick), you probably wouldn’t be surprised to hear it. Bill Belichick, as Brown describes him, is so well-versed, so creative, so utterly in command of the details of the game, that he seems entirely comfortable shifting between tactics from week to week; he calls the notion that he prefers a 3-4 defense a “media fabrication.” Week to week, he usually wins the arms race of football minutiae, and thus the games.

Undoubtedly, Chris Brown’s books are on every syllabus for graduate-level work toward a degree in coaching and The Art of Smart Football belongs on that list as well. It’s well written and he’s a fine storyteller. Not far into the book, however, I was turning it inside out looking for a glossary of terms. Sadly there is none. I can just imagine Mr. Brown’s namesake, the original coach of the Cleveland Browns, glaring at me: There are no shortcuts, mister. Memorize them.

Naturally, at the end of each chapter, I found myself wondering how it applied to the case of the Cleveland Browns. If failure and desperation indeed make fertile ground for innovation, well gentlemen, shoulder to the plows.