Thursday, December 26, 2013

Review: Newton's Football (2013)

By Allen St. John and Ainissa G. Ramirez, Ph.D.

Mention science to most people, and they go screaming into the night in terror as they think back to their days in high school. Me too.

So it's rare to see a book that can cross that divide and be attractive to those who gave up on science long, long ago. "Newton's Football" is that book. It's a new, fresh treatment that goes down all sorts of avenues in a frequently fascinating and fast read.

Authors Allen St. John and Ainissa G. Ramirez, Ph. D. (you can guess who was in the charge of the football, adn who was in charge of the science) have teamed up for this effort. It's written in the style of "Freakonomics," which a variety of short chapters that examine a variety of issues.

Some of the most interesting chapters in the book deal with the way the game evolved over the years. Seemingly insignificant events turned out to have ripple effects that send football down entirely new paths.

Don't believe it? Think about the simple facemask. You probably have to be drawing social security to remember players who didn't wear them. They were introduced in 1953, and did a dandy job of cutting down on some head injuries. The catch was that, ironically, they cut down on head injuries, which meant the players felt a bit more invulnerable when they made tackles. That meant players were more willing to make harder hits, particularly while leading with their heads. Big hits helped the sport become more popular, but also led to different injuries - like concussions.

There are stories about the development of the West Coast offense. St. John and Ramirez point out how Bill Walsh designed a passing game that essentially resembled digital (on vs. off) decisions. If Option One is covered, go to Option Two. If that's not going to work, go to Option Three. If that's clogged up and linemen are closing in, flip it to a running back in the flat. Passing progressions have become part of the game since then.

What's more, the game really opened up when the rules were changed to discourage bump-and-run play by cornerbacks. It was called the Mel Blount Rule, since he was the prototype for tough, physical defenders. Blount, the authors argue, was something like Thomas Edison, trying all sorts of techniques to find one that worked.

There are a couple of stories on chaos on the football field - deliberate chaos, that is. The no-huddle offense and zone blitz are two such parts of the game designed to create confusion for opponents. Even though they have been around for a while, they still work at some level against foes who at least have an idea that something (but what?) is coming.

By the way, there's a great story in the section on the no-huddle that I've never seen anywhere before. The NFL went to Bengals coach Sam Wyche before the AFC Championship Game in 1988 and asked him not to run the no-huddle because it might make a mockery of the game. Wyche pointed out that this would give an unfair competitive edge to the Bills, and quietly added that some powerful gamblers might not take a liking to the NFL sticking its nose into an outcome like this. After a quick phone call, the league representative told Wyche to do whatever he wanted. The Bengals won.

All sorts of scientific experts, including those who admit they know nothing about football, and a few football ones are consulted along the way. The authors do an excellent job of not getting too technical in the process. This really could have been quite dull, but it never bogs down.

It's usually a good sign when the most stinging criticism of a book is that it should/could have been longer. Maybe a sequel is coming some day; let's hope so. In the meantime, "Newton's Football" works very nicely for those who enjoy out-of-the-box thinking of any kind.

Five stars

Learn more about this book.

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