The thing that I love most about American Football is that it's two games in one. Most obviously there is the physical battle between two teams of highly specialised, skilled athletes. Behind that, however, is the tactical battle between two teams of coaches who constantly adjust their deployment of players in an attempt run a play that the opposition can't stop. Layden's book sheds light on that tactical battle. [amtap book:isbn=1603200614]
He looks at 22 different plays, schemes and formations - 18 offensive and four defensive - and traces their development while also explaining what made, or makes, them so successful. Drawing on interviews with numerous coaching legends, Layden also tells the story of some of the game's great tactical innovators.What's interesting about Layden's findings is that innovation is most often the result of a coach with a limited pool of players trying to find a way to defeat a more talented side. Superior tactics are a good way to even the odds.
The other significant driver of innovation is the need to make use of a particularly talented individual. In the case of the Miami Dolphins, for example, who recently adopted the radical Wildcat formation, it was the need to get two talented individuals - Ricky Williams and Ronnie Brown - on the field at the same time.
Layden covers the Wildcat scheme in this book and shows that its development was much more of an evolutionary process than it initially appeared when the Dolphins broke it out against the New England Patriots two years ago. Indeed, one of the themes that runs through the book is that tactical changes in football are fluid and constant. Nobody ever really invents anything, Layden explains, because ideas are constantly being shared, copied and tweaked.
That thesis is slightly contradicted by Layden's focus on particular individuals. The need to create a narrative means that Layden frequently attributes 'eureka moments' to specific coaches - something that is at odds with his overall assertion that nobody ever really invents anything.
Another problem, for me at least, was the constant parade of names, both of coaches and college teams. I know NFL football well enough to follow the teams and coaches mentioned. My knowledge of college football, however, is limited and I often had trouble remembering who was who when Layden was discussing college football. That's a problem with my background knowledge rather than with the book, though.
It probably goes without saying that you have to be an American Football fan to get anything out of this book. In fact, to get the most from it, you'll need a basic understanding of the game's tactics and a little knowledge of its history. Those prerequisites in mind, this is a fascinating read, clearly written, that will enhance most fans' enjoyment of the sport.