Monday, September 20, 2010

To Those Who Love The Game

 My great day came and went, I do not know how.  Because it did not pass through dawn when it came, nor through dusk when it went. 

As I write this, men and women in labs across the country are studying the effects of multiple sub-concussive forces to the human brain. They're studying the brains of former boxers and football players.

Eventually, they will prove what we already suspect: getting hit in the head repeatedly causes chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a progressive neurological disorder. C.T.E. is ugly: it begins with behavioral and personality changes, followed by disinhibition and irritability, and then dementia.

Football has never been more popular than it is today, but the party's over.

Boxing will be the first to go. Medical professionals are already calling for a ban, and boxing is unlikely to put up much resistance. Fights will take place outside the US and appear on pay-per-view as usual. Revenue stream intact, boxing will soldier on.

Once boxing is banned, football's days are numbered. This is how it will go: if football can be shown to be similarly bad to boxing, and if boxing is banned, football should be banned too.

The NFL is already in full damage-control mode: concussions are enemy number one in the league. This public relations gambit is working beautifully now, but it won't last.

The problem is that chronic traumatic encephalopathy isn't just caused by concussions. C.T.E. is mostly caused by repeated sub-concussive forces. It's the jabs, not the hooks that get you.

The damage is caused every snap as linemen slam their heads together. Lineman and defensive lineman slamming heads together is an integral part of football. The game cannot exist without it. The game of football as we know it today will be banned in our lifetime.

We should cherish every down we have left. 

And so, for those who love the game, I want to help you love it more.

My favorite ten books pertaining to football
I like Mozart, and I enjoy listening to his music. But because my understanding of music is limited, I'm missing most of his brilliance. Most football fans are missing the game's brilliance, too.

Even if you disagree with my analysis of the looming C.T.E. crisis, the more you know about football, the more you'll love it. 

In my experience, even serious fans have only a casual understanding of the game. These fans know the names of most players in the league, but none could explain the defensive philosophy behind the Tampa-2. However, once you have an intuitive understanding of the game, you'll begin to love every snap just a bit more. 

Like most men in the great state of Texas, I used to play football. I imagine most of you reading this now have also run a play or two "back in the day." So here's the first thing you need to know about Pro Football: although it may appear similar to what you did in high-school, and although the equipment looks the same, the game you played in high-school is unrelated to the game the pros play in the NFL. I know that's hard to believe. How different could it really be?

Let me give you an example: if we went back in time and handed an NFL quarterback from the 70s a modern NFL playbook, they wouldn't even be able to read it. "It's Greek to me!" the suspiciously well-read quarterback would cry. The game is constantly changing, and the methodology of one era is not interchangeable with any other. If you read books below, you'll begin to see just how deep the rabbit hole goes.

1. Take Your Eye Off The Ball by Pat Kirwan

If you're only going to read one of the books mentioned here, this is the one. Take Your Eye Off The Ball provides a comprehensive and in-depth overview of NFL football. From personnel groupings and blocking schemes to testing for "Football IQ" and the draft, Kirwan expertly guides you through the game. At just over two hundred pages, the book is easy to digest in just one sitting. This is the easiest way to enjoy the game more.
2. The Hidden Game of Football by Bob Carroll, Pete Palmer, and John Thorn

After tackling Take Your Eye Off The Ball, your next stop on the road of football knowledge should be The Hidden Game of Football. With the basics and terminology mastered, The Hidden Game of Football will provide you with an analytical and statistical framework with which to understand the game. This book gives you a way to answer the question, "What should the team do?"
3. The New Thinking Man's Guide To Pro Football by Paul Zimmerman

Zimmerman delves into the intricacies of pro football that others leave untouched. This book is filled with quick anecdotes that show the nuances of the game. There's even a full Wonderlic Test for you to take! If you liked, Take Your Eye Off The Ball, you'll love this more detailed, more colorful look at football.
4. The Best Sports Writing Of The Century edited by David Halberstam

This isn't a football book per se, but it does have football in it. It simply contains the greatest sports stories written by the greatest sports writers in the last century. It's a highlight reel of highlight reels. Reading this book will help you understand professional athletes in a way they are rarely discussed: as people, not players. Next time you're bored, don't read ESPN, read this.
5. The Football Book by Sports Illustrated

In my opinion, this is the greatest coffee table book in the world. The photography in this book is like soup from The Soup Nazi: it's so good it'll make you sit down. You should buy it yesterday.  From iconic photography, to classic stories this book captures the very essence of football. You have no excuse for not owning it.
6. Football Outsiders Almanacs by Football Outsiders

Take 1 part The Hidden Game of Football mix with 1 part The New Thinking Man's Guide to Pro Football and shake with a dash of Moneyball and you'll get Football Outsiders. FO produces a yearly book that details every aspect of the upcoming season. Their proprietary statistics are understandable and meaningful. Their fantasy football player rankings are a large part of my Unified Brooks Theory of Fantasy Football. Buy their book, read their website, follow them on twitter. Their system hates the Cowboys and loves the Eagles, but they seem to otherwise be decent guys.
7. Stumbling On Wins by David J. Berri and Martin B. Schmidt

This book is the sequel to the very popular Wages of Wins. Think of the Wins series as the Freakonomics series for sports. They address sports as only economists can. They shine lights into areas of sports that others aren't even considering. I recommended Stumbling On Wins over Wages of Wins because I only wanted to list ten books, but they're both great. Warning: Stumbling On Wins may momentarily cause you to ask yourself if Issiah Thomas was actually a good coach. Don't worry, those feelings fade quickly.
8. Moral Calculations by Laszlo Mero

Moral Calculations is not in the football section of your bookstore, but maybe it should be. The book asks the question, "Is there such a thing as rational behavior, and if so, how do we use it to our advantage?". Mero looks at the intersections of game theory, human psychology and logic. If you've come this far on the list, you'll immediately see this book's usefulness in the world of football. Football isn't a twenty two man war of wills, nor is football strictly a numbers game. There are human players playing a game to win. This book teaches you how to think using everything you've learned in the previous ones.
9. Games of Strategy by Avinash Dixit, Susan Skeath, and David H. Reiley Jr.

You loved Moral Calculations and fell for Game Theory. This book provides you with the mathematical elements you'll need to solve the football problems you'll encounter. It's a textbook, and you'll have to do the problems to understand the material, but it's worth it.
10. Lay The Favorite: a Memoir of Gambling by Beth Raymer

You've made it through the first nine books on this list and you're a football demi-god. Time to bankrupt Vegas with your new understanding of the game, right? Wrong. Lay The Favorite is a very entertaining and very cautionary tale about the world of professional sports gambling. Unless you're the one making book, it isn't something you want to do for a living.

Eight of these book are available on Amazon right now. The Hidden Game of Football and The New Thinking Man's Guide to Pro Football will take a little digging, but they're worth it.

Now back to your regularly scheduled cute animals, fantasy football updates, and myriad penis-wines. 


  1. Dude I'm sorry I think I have your copy of Boys Will Be Boys, that book has to make your list.

  2. Great list -- I have nos. 2 & 3 and have been meaning to buy nos. 1, 5 & 6.

    I write a blog about Dallas Cowboy books on Facebook. I'd love to have you join it and share your thoughts on football books with us (it's a fan page with over 1200 fans):