Friend of the blog Chris Brown, who writes the essential reading Smart Football blog, has written a book that will be required reading for "interested fans" of football at all levels. The book is available for purchase here and we encourage all of you to buy a hard copy or a Kindle version (available soon). Here's a pretty in-depth question and answer with Brown about the book and some of his more broad thoughts on football today. Enjoy.
1. Your new book, The Essential Smart Football, is available to order now. Before we get into the specifics of the book, can you give us a basic overview of what's in the book?
CB: It's a collection of individual pieces organized by theme -- Characters, History, Theory, and Concepts -- that really covers the gamut of modern football strategy through the lens of the coaches and players who devise and drive those strategies. Roughly two-thirds of the material consists of pieces I'd previously put out but have edited and in some cases expanded, with another third of the material that has not previously been published anywhere. The schemes I talk about -- from zone running schemes, to approaches to gameplanning, zone blitzing, passing, and so on -- apply to both college and the NFL, though the stories and narratives I use to demonstrate those concepts are split roughly even in subject between college and the NFL, from Bill Belichick to Nick Saban, Frank Beamer to Troy Polamalu, from Tom Brady to Mike Leach.
2. Most of us know you and your work from your fantastic Smart Football site. What made you want to go beyond the blog and produce a book?
CB: Really a confluence of factors. One was that I'm frequently asked what would be a good introductory book for an interested fan who doesn't want to just read playbooks, and another is that I've been writing about football in one form or another for over six-years, maybe seven. Over that time we've seen a lot of change in the game's trends and strategies, while at the same time certain principles and themes have stayed consistent. I wanted to put together a relatively concise work that would cover as much of this territory as possible, while capturing the stories and context for what has driven that change and strengthened those timeless principles.
3. Who's the intended audience for a book like this? Is this for serious football nerds like you and me, or do you think even casual football fans would enjoy it?
CB: It's intended for what I usually call "interested fans." I have a lot of coaches who read my stuff -- I won't name names, but I've gotten a bunch of requests, including from several SEC and Big 12 coaches of various rank, for signed copies -- but this book was not written just for coaches. Instead the target audience are people who like and understand the basics of football, like what a first down is or the difference between a linebacker and an offensive guard (my mother still does not know the difference, she just knows who Tom Brady is), but who would like to learn more about the game and why plays are successful or not.
What I find too is that people really enjoy the analysis because it gives them a better understanding of players. If you understand the difference between Cover 3 and Quarters coverage, and the defense gives up a big touchdown, you will be able to identify who made the mistake and who didn't. Often the announcers get that wrong too, with a zoomed-in close-up of some poor defensive back who did nothing wrong. The same goes for offense, particularly the offensive line. Plus, once you understand those little games within the game, it opens up a whole new world where you can see -- in real time -- new tactics and changes in strategy, personnel and technique differences, and how players and coaches are exploiting weaknesses or getting exploited.
4. Obviously there was a time when you weren't the expert on football strategy. How has really diving in to that side of football changed the way you watch football? Can you ever just relax and watch as a fan, or do you always find yourself watching the game behind the game?
CB: My first year of playing organized football I was in, I think, fourth grade, and one day early on, before our first game, we'd worked on proper tackling techniques the entire first part of practice. A bit later in that same practice, on a sweep play, I came around the corner, saw my target and absolutely leveled some kid with a perfect form tackle -- with my hips sunk, chest out, arms wrapped, I exploded through him and drove him into the turf. The only problem? I was playing offense, and I'd just tackled a linebacker who was trying to locate the ball carrier. My coach said, very good naturedly, "Brown, that was the best tackle we've seen you do yet. Unfortunately you're on offense." Obviously I needed a tune-up on the rules of football, but I basically fell in love with football that year, both playing and watching. The next year I started playing quarterback and I've pretty much been a strategy junkie ever since. I was buying coaching books while I was still in high school, so it's honestly hard to remember a time that I wasn't thinking about the game behind the game.
But, with exceptions, I tend to watch the NFL more as a fan simply marveling at the incredible athletic talents of the players, whereas with college football I do watch it much more intently. Yet that's also the beauty of DVR and game-film: When LSU played Alabama in the championship, I watched it with everyone else and definitely noticed certain scheme and technique things in real time that maybe others didn't, but the real analysis comes later on during more considered viewing.
As I said above, however, I firmly believe it's better to watch the game with at least a little extra knowledge. If it cuts into your enjoyment of football, then certainly turn your brain off, but I'd rather watch with at least some notion of why and how things I saw on the field were happening. To me it just enhances my appreciation of the players' efforts and talents.
5. In your years of studying football, (besides Bill Walsh), who are some of your favorite football minds. Both offensive and defensive guys.
CB: I have a lot of respect for the guys in the NFL -- and no one lives football more than those guys; since they don't have to recruit, it's all football 24/7 for them, and they have the best resources and technology around -- but I have to agree with the great (late) Homer Smith (who probably possessed the best pure theoretical football mind ever) who, when asked who the top minds in the NFL were, said simply, "I just don't know. I think the best minds are in college."
That said, on the offensive side of the ball, I don't think there's any one guy who is head and shoulders above the others, though I think there are a bunch of really, really bright coaches who do a ton of fascinating things. I think Chip Kelly and Dana Holgorsen are absolutely on the cutting edge. The way Chip can play around with his zone read concepts and adjust which defenders he's reading -- at that breakneck pace -- is really amazing. And the way Holgorsen recently has found ever wild ways to package together plays we didn't think could be combined -- runs and passes in the same play, downfield passes and short screens, "triple" plays that combine a run, a downfield pass, and a screen pass all in the same play are really fascinating (and Todd Monken at Oklahoma State last year went even farther with some of those ideas). But there are a bunch of guys that, game-in and game-out, scheme, organize and gameplan as well as anyone in the country -- Chris Ault at Nevada, Art Briles at Baylor, David Shaw and the rest of the guys at Stanford, Paul Chryst who was formerly at Wisconsin and is now the head coach at Pittsburgh, and so on. There are others I'm leaving out, but I really do think we have a wealth of great offensive minds right now. Much of that just tells us where we are in the cycle of football.
On defense though, Saban simply stands above the rest (though Gary Patterson at TCU deserves a hefty shout-out). Obviously Saban has had amazing talent at Alabama the last few years, but the guy is a repository of football knowledge and knows how to defend everyone. Watch this video for how in the 2009 BCS Championship game versus Texas, because he was concerned with Texas's receiver screen game and outside passing game, figured out how to play a two-deep defense and stop Texas's entire running game with just five defenders in the box by having his middle linebacker "two-gap" depending what the center did. Jokes about former Texas offensive coordinator Greg Davis aside, it's extremely impressive, and arguably this tactic forced Texas in that game to try other run plays, such as the speed option which resulted in an injury to Colt McCoy. And obviously what his team did to LSU in the BCS game was impressive; equally impressive to me is the way Saban's defenses always manhandled the explosive Arkansas offenses orchestrated by Bobby Petrino. Petrino never met a defense he couldn't carve up, but Saban was always his cryptonite.
As a footnote, obviously Saban is much indebted to his mentor, Bill Belichick, but I put Saban slightly ahead right now simply because Nick has had to deal with the wild assortment of tactics presented by the college game, from the Tebow/Meyer era Florida teams to Petrino's offenses to the Gus Malzahn/Cam Newton led Auburn teams to just the weekly grind of power-based offenses in the SEC. He's adapted his "pro-style" defense to handle spread offenses better than anyone else in football at any level. Part of that is talent, but also part of that is he understands the interplay of fronts, coverages, and numbers so his gameplans -- like the one against Texas -- are as sound as can be. It's not to say they are magic gameplans or that Saban will never lose, but coaching is about putting your kids in position to succeed, and he does that.
6. Not so much related to the book, but, for fans of the game thinking of the next generation, who are the young minds that will shape the next generation of football the way the guys you mentioned above did theirs?
CB: Some obvious and not so obvious names. Watch out for the new offensive coordinator at Wisconsin, Matt Canada, who just left Northern Illinois. Also I'm always watching to see who the next guy in the line of the Mike Leach Airraid innovators will be. Leach obviously did amazing things at Texas Tech and I expect him to succeed (in time) at Wazzou, and Holgorsen kind of has that crown now, but there's a new generation of guys who played for either Leach or Holgorsen at TTech or Houston and are now coming up through the coaching ranks; someone will emerge out of that as the guy who takes that offense through its next evolution. Kliff Kingsbury, who was Leach's first quarterback at Texas Tech, coached under Holgorsen at Houston, and is currently the offensive coordinator at Texas A&M, may be that guy (though he needs to find a quarterback to survive the SEC first).
I'm also watching to see what the next step in the spread-to-run offense will be. We're already past the phase where teams could just tack on the zone read and become a good spread teams -- see, for example, 2005 era Texas (Vince Young), Penn State, Ohio State (with Troy Smith), and so on -- and the few true blue spread-to-run guys left like Chip Kelly, Gus Malzahn, and Chad Morris (who is another good one) have had to continually innovate to stay ahead, often by being less spread.
All that said, given how the game has gone in the last ten years, I think the places to look for the next evolution in the next 10 years are probably not college but instead high school and the NFL. There's a lot of wild stuff going on in the high schools now, from pistol-based flexbone teams to teams that combine the Airraid with the triple option or shotgun Wing-T teams, and I think the NFL is finally catching on to some of the newest evolutions and has some of the players to do it. I don't think we'll see true spread offenses in the NFL, but we're starting to see spread-esque offenses -- with better passing than college spread-to-runs -- and defenses are becoming more like college defenses: instead of pure 4-3 or 3-4, they are going to hybrid structures that are maybe 4-3-but-really-one-DE-is-a-linebacker or 3-4 but one linebacker is really a safety, and so on. It will be interesting.
The basic arithmetic of the game at every level of football right now is this: Almost every good team is one-back based, which means they can throw the four verticals and other passing routes, against which defenses would like to play two-deep safeties. But increasingly the quarterback is a running threat of some kind, so defenses would really prefer to play with one deep safety or else they are outnumbered in the running game. Eventually -- just like the reactions to the original T-formation, the wishbone, the pro-set, the power-I, and so on -- defenses will figure out how to get numbers where they need to go while defending the passing game against teams (like those Airraid guys) that will find the open grass anywhere and make you pay. And when they do, they will hit offenses like a ton of bricks. But we're not there right now. And after that, something else will come along. Then it will be time to write another book.