My normal practice on here is to title my book review posts with just the title of the book. The only exceptions I’ve made prior to this entry have been for the identically-titled Paul Brown biographies by Cantor and O’Toole, to which I added the author’s name for distinguishment purposes. Since on here I review football books, though, a book review titled simply Football would be unhelpful in the extreme unless it really was a book just about football in the broader sense. Mark Bernstein’s Football: The Ivy League Origins of an American Obsession is not that book.
Rather, what Bernstein’s book is is a history of Ivy League football from its origins through the end of the twentieth century. It’s pretty well done. Bernstein has a fine eye for the highlighting the people who would later rise to greater fame. I suppose some might view this as name-dropping, but Happy Chandler on the 1921 Centre College upset of Harvard made for a richer, more entertaining book in my eyes. That I’m pretty sure this is the only football book I’ve read that uses the word satori is a plus in my eyes, though it may not be in yours. The quality of Bernstein’s research (I was particularly fond of the note on Princeton’s computer usage in 1950-51) is sadly let down at times by the editing; one Amazon reviewer pointed out the most gratuitous of these, the claim that Theodore Roosevelt defeated Woodrow Wilson in the 1912 election, but that was not the only one. Editing like that would be annoying enough from a free blog; to see it in a book published by University of Pennsylvania Press is disappointing.
The question the existence of a book like this raises is to what extent a history of Ivy League football is necessary, important, or even interesting. The history of the early days of college football cannot be told without heavy involvement by the big three of Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, but their heyday was more than 100 years ago. To what extent did they control college football, how did they lose that control, and how did they deal with that loss of control? As I’ve noted before, many of the issues we’re talking about now in terms of college football, things like eligibility, scheduling, and commercialism, are the same issues the schools that now make up the Ivy League were dealing with even before the legalization of the forward pass. Heck, the Ivy League itself was a post-World War 2 creation, and the relations among the current members were far from always smooth in the days of yore. The thing I didn’t get a great grasp of from Bernstein’s book is how control of football gradually shifted away from the Ivy League; was it a just a function of them being surpassed in scale and scope by the rest of the country, or did they tend to the traditional and overly insular? I feel like it’s mostly the former, but cannot say with confidence.
More or less the last gasp of Ivy League relevance to major college football came from Penn in the late 1940′s. President Harold Stassen (if I ever knew he was Penn’s president, I’d certainly forgotten it) led a significant investment in the football team, including in the stadium, recruiting, and upgrading the quality of the schedule. As chronicled in Dunnavant’s Fifty-Year Seduction, Penn was one of two schools the NCAA’s severe limitations on television broadcasts were primarily aimed at, with Notre Dame being the other. That foiled, the slide continued, and I had a hard time caring about the last, shortest part of the book that chronicled the second half of the twentieth century.
Recommended for what it is, though not at the $49.95 list price (I read a library copy).
[Head football coach Charlie] Caldwell admitted after the 1951 season that for two years the Princeton athletic department had been using a computer (which a delighted press called an “electronic brain”) to help determine opponents’ tendencies and prepare game plans. He had cooked up the idea with the help of a Princeton mathematics professor and an ends coach who was also assistant to the chairman of the Physics Department. In a process that grew more elaborate over time, the group spent as many as eight hours each week studying film, dissecting each player on each play, jotting down information that would then be put onto punch cards by secretaries in the registrar’s office and run through the university’s giant mainframe. Their product was a thirteen-foot long printout that was used to devise the next week’s game plan.
Mark F. Bernstein, Football: The Ivy League Origins of an American Obsession, p. 209-10 (Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 2001).
After last year’s ending installment, I decided to do this quarterly. This first installment covers January through March 2013. This isn’t everything I read in that time span-much of my fiction reading is not memorable or intended to be, some books I don’t want to talk about here for one reason or another, and others, well, I’m going to keep this post under 1,000 words.
Gordon Wood’s Empire of Liberty is the fourth volume I’ve read in the Oxford History of the United States series. It’s definitely in the top three. Then again, the two it’s up against, James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom and Daniel Walker Howe’s What Hath God Wrought were both masterpieces I rated among the best books I read in that respective year. Everything I’ve read by Wood has been excellent, and his The American Revolution: A History is probably the best history book under 200 pages I’ve ever read. In that context, I would say Empire was probably 90% as great as I expected it to be, which is still really, really, really good. Some of the Amazon reviews note a pro-Jefferson bias; I thought Wood let the Sage of Monticello do a perfectly good job of hanging himself.
There may have been a time and a place in my life where I would have enjoyed Murakami Haruki’s Norwegian Wood, but I have yet to identify what and when that would be. Its apparent popularity reminds me of that of Catcher in the Rye, another book for which I have nothing but disdain. It was my first Murakami; I’ll probably be reading another, but will look in a very different direction to do it.
I dove into the American Civil War a couple times, first with McPherson’s War on the Waters and then concluding U.S. Grant’s Memoirs. McPherson’s volume is a modest one in length, with the inevitable tradeoff in depth for the benefit of brevity. It was the right book for my needs, but I intentionally dip into the Civil War only occasionally, avoiding the headlong dive. Grant’s Memoirs is a classic book, literary in what I think of as a classic American style of directness. It is perhaps most useful as a second or third or fifth book on the subject, as some knowledge of the scope and progress of the Civil War is essential. A dying Grant was almost shockingly forthright in his willingness to make judgments on pretty much anybody and everybody. That is a quality all too rare in political memoirs, which tend to the impersonal and turgid. I read it primarily at lunch over a series of several months, which I think was beneficial for my reading experience.
Before reading it, I thought I might do a review on here of Dean Oliver’s Basketball on Paper, but did not end up doing so for several reasons. Reading it was a useful exercise for me, as it is every time I read a book where somebody smart tries to figure insightful things both obvious and non-obvious. On the whole, though, it says something about me and my interests that I enjoyed John Brewer’s Sinews of Power: War, Money and the English State, 1688-1783 much more. The effect of the South Sea Bubble on the characterization of English public debt (briefly, holders of high-interest short-term obligations traded their debt for stock in the South Sea Company, leaving a much greater percentage of lower-interest long-term obligations on the balance sheet, then got wiped out when the bubble collapsed) is the most mind-blowing thing I’ve read this year.
The title of Paul Kennedy’s Engineers of Victory might lead you to expect a technical book on important technological advancements in World War Two. That might be a very good book, but the book Kennedy wrote is not that book. The book he wrote might properly be subtitled “Applied Grand Strategy Tactics.” For what it is, it’s not bad, but if you’ve read enough on World War Two, you won’t find any deep insights.
In the classification of lumpers vs. splitters, I would characterize John Darwin as a splitter. After Tamerlane, which I read a few years ago, was interesting enough, but I found it conceptually unsatisfying. Unfinished Empire: The Global Expansion of Britain does not suffer from quite the same problem, plus the last chapter is the broad-scale summary he did not give in the rest of the book. I liked it for what it was, and it’s very smart, but as one who tends more to the lumper side, it was not the perfect book for me. Still, a necessary read, as was Lauro Martines’s Furies: War in Europe, 1450-1700, another very smart book on just how much misery the act of warfare could bring. Suffice to say I am very grateful to be alive at a time when I will almost certainly never have to eat leather.
As a novel, Red Plenty by Francis Spufford is not my favorite. The protagonist is not an individual character but economic planning in the Soviet Union. For the right sort, of which I am one, it’s tremendously entertaining stuff. Others will likely find it a much tougher go. The most interesting question, from a literary perspective, is whether the non-fiction book Spufford apparently first planned would have worked better. I am not sure, but then again I do not really care either.
My football reads this quarter included Sid Gillman by Josh Katzowitz, The Pro Football Historical Abstract by Sean Lahman, and Football Physics by Timothy Gay. I have reviews of the first two up, and will have a review of Physics up in the next day or so. My only notable acquisition in the period was The Thirty Years War: Europe’s Tragedy by Peter Wilson.
Sean Lahman’s The Pro Football Historical Abstract: A Hardcore Fan’s Guide to All-Time Player Rankings should have been right up my alley, the kind of book I should have devoured when it first arrived. It was his attempt to do a version of Bill James’s New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, which combined an interesting and valuable method of putting players in historical context with entertaining and informative mini-biographies of players (or so approximately everyone who’s read it claims; I’ve not read it, and my appetite for reading about baseball is now nil). That I started the book, paged through it, and put it down for four and a half years is perhaps the best and simplest review I could do.
Beyond that, though, Lahman’s Abstract has three basic problems:
1. The rankings produce screwy results;
2. The ranking methodology that produces the screwy results is not sufficiently justified;
3. Irrespective of the rankings and the quality of his methodology, Lahman for some to many players fails to properly execute his methodology, invalidating to some extent all of his rankings for those positions.
The Abstract begins with a brief decade-by-decade summary of the NFL. They are, by the description, intended to provide context for the player capsules that follow. In reading them, though, they come out more like less interesting, less good versions of the similar decade summaries in the Pro Football Hall of Fame 50th Anniversary book. Had these been heavier on schemes and the distribution and accumulation of player statistics, this could have been a very useful exercise. How many carries did a team’s lead back normally have in each decade? How many plays were run in a game, and how many of them were runs v. passes? What were turnover rates like? How competitive overall was the league? Were there a couple good teams, or was the league relatively balanced? Heck, just how extensive and how reliable are the statistics we have for this era? More teams playing in domed stadiums and on artificial turf, information that unlike the questions I asked is actually included, does not strike me as nearly as useful.
The heart of the book, though, is the player rankings. The easiest thing to do with rankings is to nitpick them. Why is player X ahead of player Y and behind player Z? I believe it’s a Bill James quote that a new statistical method should 90% confirm and 10% go against what you were already pretty sure you knew. The fact that Steve McNair came out the 15th-best quarterback of all time, ahead of, inter alia, Sammy Baugh, Sid Luckman, Bart Starr, Jim Kelly, Terry Bradshaw, Troy Aikman, Warren Moon, and a bunch of other players does not per se make Lahman’s rating system wrong. Ditto the fact that his methodology for ranking seasons includes Larry Johnson’s 2006 season and does not include either O.J. Simpson’s 1973 or 1975 campaign (which ranked 7th and 1st, respectively, in, for instance, Chase Stuart’s ranking of the most dominant RB seasons in history). That I find these rankings dubious does not mean that they are wrong. It means, rather, than they must be justified. Lahman doesn’t do so.
His base rating is Adjusted Yards. It has some elements that make sense, punishing fumbles lost (a more available indicator than total fumbles), interceptions, and sacks, and giving a bonus for touchdowns. Rushing yards are treated at face value. That Johnson had over 400 carries in 2006 doesn’t matter in Lahman’s ranking of him (to be fair, it doesn’t in Chase’s ranking system, but I don’t love that either). One of the hard questions is how to separate the value of the quarterback and the wide receiver. Lahman’s solution is that giving them both credit for their nominal yardage overweights the passing game, so he splits them up, giving half the yards to the receiver and half the yards to the quarterback. Why a 50-50 split is the right solution to the problem is left as an exercise for the reader. No, really. Here’s your justification:
Now we come to the part that may seem counterintuitive. How do we divvy up credit between quarterbacks and receivers on a passing play? Consider the quandary that existing football statistics create for us. Joe Montana throws a 12-yard pass to Jerry Rice. Montana is credited with 12 passing yards. Rice is credited with 12 receiving yards. Isn’t that double-booking? Seems like Enron-style accounting to me. The net gain is 12 yards, not 24. The quarterback and the receiver should each receive credit for half of the total yards on each passing play.
I do not think I could have made that up if I tried.
Once Lahman has his Adjusted Yards number, he then applies it to each season and gives each player a Q score based on how many Adjusted Yards they had relative to the league leader. The league leader receives 10.0 Q, while other players get a Q based on their Adjusted Yards relative to the league leader. This leads to, at times, counterintuitive results. Take, for instance, Raymond Berry. What was his best season? Looking at his P-F-R page, I would say perhaps 1959, when he led the league in receptions, yards, and touchdown passes, though you could make a case for 1960, when he had more receptions and a better yards per catch number. By Lahman’s scores, it’s actually 1957, when he had a Q of 10.0. 1959 comes out as Berry’s fifth-best season, also behind 1958, 1960, and 1961, when he had 873 receiving yards and no touchdowns. I’m prepared to entertain unconventional claims, but that a receiver had a better season the year he had 80 fewer receiving yards, 10 fewer receiving touchdowns, and 113 fewer of Lahman’s Adjusted Yards than he did the year he led the league in yards, receptions, and receiving touchdowns is awful hard to understand.
I could live with even a screwy, insufficiently justified ranking system if the individual player capsules were interesting in their own right, or at least told me more about why players were ranked where they are. They aren’t. They’re okay, and I have no particular objections to them, but they are not themselves that entertaining. Having 75 running back capsules and 25 on each of the offensive line and defensive line I can sort of live with, in that it just represents an acceptance of everything that’s terrible about football writing, but that doesn’t mean like it.
If you like more screwy, insufficiently justified ranking systems, he also has one for coaches. Ranking coaches is hard. How much do you value regular season relative to postseason success? Should influence on the rest of the league matter? Are men who coach longer inherently better? Does it matter that more teams make the playoffs than used to, or that the overall quality of the league is higher than it was in the early days of the AFL? Lahman’s system is additive and playoff-heavy.
The fourth part of the book, comprising over 240 pages, is more or less the statistical appendix, where you can see things like Berry having fewer receptions, touchdowns, and Adjusted Yards and a better Q score. Curious about some of his math, I decided to check Steve McNair’s box score. Subjectively, I think McNair only had three very good seasons, 2001-03, with the best of those being the 2003 year he was co-MVP with Peyton Manning. By Q, though, that’s his sixth-best season. His best was instead 2001, when he led the league in Adjusted Yards. He finished second in passing DVOA to Kurt Warner, so I decided to take a look at their numbers that year, to see why McNair had a Q of 10.0 and Warner a Q of 9.1. The answer, unsurprisingly, is in part McNair’s rushing productivity-he had 350 more rushing yards and 10 more rushing touchdowns, which accounts for 450 Adjusted Yards.
The other, more troubling answer is that McNair did not have more Adjusted Yards than Warner in 2001. Lahman tells us he did, but he’s wrong. The problem is fumbles. Lahman for his table and his calculation uses total fumbles, while his formula calls for the use of fumbles lost. Warner had 10 fumbles in 2001, losing 4 of them. McNair had 5, losing 3. Using the correct fumbles lost information, Warner should have a Q score of 10.0 while McNair’s should have been 9.7. I haven’t checked all the tables to see exactly how widespread the problem is, but it appears to exist for at least all modern “skill position” players, and I’m pretty sure it goes back to at least the 1960′s. This isn’t obvious unless you actually calculate the numbers, and I didn’t realize the problem until I started writing this review. I should stress that I believe Lahman’s error is an honest screwup, and the kind of thing that keeps anybody who works with data up nights. Knowing the error, though, I have to regard all of his scores for QB, RB, WR, and TE as somewhere between dubious but probably somewhat close and wrong. Rankings for the other positions are not affected by this error, but it’s more trouble to cross-check them. Can I trust those other rankings, knowing he screwed up the ones that are easy to check?
Before I discovered the flaw noted at the end of my review, I was prepared to issue a tepid non-recommendation. Now, though, I simply cannot countenance any purchases of Abstract.
I recently provided a list of the biggest needs for each AFC South team in this year’s first installment of the regular Four Downs column that runs on ESPN Insider and then on Football Outsiders. The need I identified for the Texans was linebacker, both inside and outside. ESPN AFC South blogger Paul Kuharsky then gave his take, indicating he didn’t think the second inside linebacker to Brian Cushing didn’t demand either premium dollars or a premium draft spot. In a post today, he reiterated that he believed the need at ILB was overrated, and that the biggest need at the position was really a full recovery from Cushing.
I agree completely with Paul that a full recovery from Cushing is a big need for the Texans, but continue to disagree with him about how much of a need a second inside linebacker is. The reason for Kuharsky’s objection is that the second inside linebacker typically comes off the field in sub packages. He’s right about that, but this is also why I disagree with him. The Texans’ primary sub package on defense under Wade Phillips has been dime personnel, regularly from a 4-1-6 look. In 2011, they played dime about four times as often as they played nickel. In 2012, dime was about three and a half times as common as nickel.
This means when the Texans do go to sub package, they’re moving from their base 3-4 front, with seven defensive ends and linebackers, to a front where they only have five defensive ends and linebackers. That’s a pretty major change in the number of big people on the field at any given point in time. The result of that is the Texans are likelier than other teams to stay in base personnel against offensive sets that feature extra tight ends and receivers. For instance, here’s how often each of the AFC South teams was in base personnel (4 defensive backs) against offensive 12 personnel (1 back, 2 tight ends) the past two seasons:
|% of Base Personnel against 12|
The Texans in 2011 had two inside linebackers they could be relatively confident in, in Cushing and DeMeco Ryans. The result is that against 12 personnel they played in their base 3-4 look almost exclusively. In 2012, with Cushing for only a couple games and with inside linebackers that could be exploited particularly in coverage, they played sub package personnel about three times as often. Granted, they were still in base personnel most of the time, but so even was a sub package-heavy team like the Titans (whose most common personnel grouping for the season was 4-2-5, not 4-3-4).
The most common personnel grouping these days in the NFL is 11 personnel, where the offense has three receivers on the field to go with one back and one tight end. Here’s how the Texans have responded to facing that the past two seasons, and the reason I see a need for two good inside linebackers.
|% of Base Personnel against 11|
As this table shows, the Texans in 2011 were much more likely than any other AFC South team the past two seasons to stay in their base personnel grouping when the offense had three wide receivers on the field. In 2012, without reliable cover inside linebackers, they spent a lot more time in sub package personnel. Of course, they should have, as they were much less effective when they stayed in base personnel against 11, giving up 7.6 yards per play on a 43% success rate for the offense compared to 4.8 yards per play and 31% success rate in 2011. (They were less effective against 11 personnel in dime, too, but the difference wasn’t nearly as big.)
For a team like the Titans that played sub package personnel on defense a lot of the time and has shown they seem to like doing so, I would agree that the last linebacker position is not that big a priority. For the Texans, though, that player is much more important. He might play only 60-65% of snaps, but he can mean a lot to Wade Phillips’ tactical flexibility and their effectiveness against some of the NFL’s more common personnel packages. I would put it behind the need for an outside linebacker, be that Connor Barwin or somebody else, but I believe it’s one of the Texans’ biggest needs this offseason.
Disclaimer: Personnel grouping information courtesy of Football Outsiders Game Charting Project.
UPDATE (2013/02/22 1905 CT): Paul Kuharsky hit on the subject in a follow-up post, including comments on the subject from GM Rick Smith and head coach Gary Kubiak.
Are good football coaches inherently prone to being somewhere between out-and-out jerks and very hard to get along with? I’ve contemplated this question before, for instance in my review of the Bill Walsh bio The Genius. One of my favorite little stories is Jimmy Johnson divorcing his wife when he left the University of Miami job to become head coach of the Cowboys, because he understood that he couldn’t be a decent husband and the kind of coach he wanted to be.
Sid Gillman was a fine football coach. He is a member of the college and pro football halls of fame particularly for his work as head coach at Miami University and the University of Cincinnati, with respect to the former, and as head coach of the Los Angeles Rams and the Los Angeles/San Diego Chargers, with respect to the latter. That includes a strong record of innovations related to the passing game, particularly with the Chargers. As documented in Josh Katzowitz’s Sid Gillman: Father of the Passing Game, he also did a marvelous job of burning his bridges. The record:
- When he left Miami to take the Cincinnati job, he also took a particularly large number of assistants and other athletic department officials;
- When he left Cincinnati to take the Rams job, he did so only after assuring boosters of his intent to stay after news of the Rams’ potential interest in him broke;
- In Los Angeles, he benched and alienated quarterback Norm Van Brocklin, who’d led the Rams to the 1955 NFL title game in Gillman’s first season;
- With the Rams, he eventually ran afoul of the Dan Reeves-led ownership group with his at times imperious “my way or the highway” attitude; and
- Everywhere he went, he treated as though it was his birthright that his football team got everything it needed and wanted, including particularly lavish spending and minimal attention to petty details like the NCAA’s amateurism and educational requirements.
Especially when reading about his departure from Cincinnati to the Rams, the name Bobby Petrino came to mind. Granted, Gillman was a devoted husband (or at least his wife was utterly devoted to him), so he never had anything as humiliating as the Jessica Dorrell incident, but he fits the familiar Petrino archetype of the offensively-gifted coach with an at-times selective sense of loyalty.
More than anything else, Gillman’s groundbreaking work was really the systematization of the passing game. For many reasons, the intellectual development of the mechanics of the passing game, such as it was, was neglected. What Gillman did was to understand the geographic principles of the football field and to intelligently apply them to actual football. He’s best known for the vertically-inclined nature of his offense. His most prominent protege in that regard was probably Al Davis, who took that philosophy with him to Oakland and ordered it implemented for decades, though there have been others (Dick Vermeil, another one of them, wrote the foreword).
His application of that to his own teams was initially successful, but then his approach didn’t seem to work quite as well. His Rams made the title game his first year, then finished under .500 three of the next four seasons. His Chargers teams made five of the first six AFL title games, winning only once, but as the overall quality of the new league improved, success became more elusive. He would coach again in San Diego after initially stepping down in 1969 due to health concerns, and then in Houston for a year and change, winning coach of the year for finishing 7-7 only to find himself the loser in a power struggle the next season. He was 63 by that point and would not have another head coaching job, though he popped up in various places, including with the Philadelphia Eagles under Vermeil (where he uttered the quote I noted) and with the L.A. Express of the USFL. His most interesting tenure would be as athletic director of U.S. International University in San Diego. His head coach there was Tom Walsh, future mayor of Swan Valley, Idaho and B-and-B owner turned Raiders offensive coordinator, and one of Walsh’s assistants was John Fox (yes, that John Fox).
As for the book, Gillman’s family (he passed away in 2003) seemed to cooperate extensively with Katzowitz. It’s a better book because of that cooperation. While his irascibility still comes across, the end result is probably somewhat more sympathetic to Gillman than it could have been. One thing that’s hard to know is just how much Gillman’s Jewishness counted against him. It doesn’t seem to have much, if at all, in the NFL, but he seemed to think it hurt him in getting better collegiate coaching jobs. Was he really a serious candidate for the job at his alma mater Ohio State that went to Paul Brown? Gillman thought he was, but it’s hard to know for sure. His hometown of Minneapolis in the 1920′s and 30′s was not particularly friendly to Jews, and it’s possible his religion prevented him from getting Big 10 jobs. Gillman was devoted to football more than his family. His wife was devoted to their family and him, in something like that order. Gillman’s children seem to like him a lot despite his general neglect, serving as defenders of his reputation; he certainly took his son being gay a lot better than Tommy Lasorda did. The book is not technical, so if you’re a coach looking for what Gillman did in that regard, you won’t find that here. Organization is generally highly chronological; to the extent it steps away from that at times, those are generally infelicities.
Recommended for what it is.