Book Review: The Essential Smart Football

I read a modest number of books about football–this is my eighth this year, with more to come, after 11 last year and what I belief was 17 the year before–as part of a variegated diet of book consumption. On the whole, compared to the other things I read, the football books tend to leave me dissatisfied or at least nonplussed. As I noted in my review of America’s Quarterback, many books about football feel, well, small, and I’ve written as such in my reviews here. This attitude, plus my occasional scathing review, have given me a not-unearned reputation as a tough reviewer.

And that brings me to my latest review, for Chris Brown’s The Essential Smart Football. This review is a bit of a departure from my past ones in several ways. First, this is the first book on here where I read a review copy, rather than one I purchased or acquired from the library (or, in the case of the Football Outsiders annuals beginning with Pro Football Prospectus 2007, received as a reward for my labors). Second, Chris, whose website Smart Football I’ve been reading since its long-ago blogspot days, is the first person I know, albeit in a very 2012 internet-era way, whose book I’ve reviewed (again, the Football Outsiders annuals are a sort of special case here, though I didn’t know anything about anybody when I read PFP05). I’m not sure quite what I would have done if his book infuriated me as much as, say, Death to the BCS, perhaps written a brief review saying who I think would benefit from reading the book, noting my exclusion from that audience, and moved on.

I’m pleased to report, then, that Essential Smart Football pretty much lives up to its title. It’s a compendium of 18 of Chris’s essays. A number of them, such as the review of Swing Your Sword I noted would have been much better than any review I would have written, were previously available online in a pretty similar form. Others, such as the piece on current University of Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges, were very likely written for one of the variety of annual team magazines published by the now-defunct Maple Street Press, none of which I ever purchased. Even the pieces I remembered well, like his classic on the constraint theory of offense or the write-up on the outside zone running play, were well worth a revisit.

My enjoyment of Essential Smart Football came notwithstanding that it’s a collection of essays, rather than what I think of as the Platonic form of a book. Books assembled as collections of essays normally get my hackles up. My thinking normally goes, a book is an opportunity to make an extended argument, of the kind that can’t be made in a shorter form. Books made up of collections of existing short pieces, of which I believe the only one I’ve reviewed on here has been Big Play, normally bug the heck out of me. Writing on tha interwebz, as Chris does, the sort of space limitations inherent to an op-ed writer aren’t present in his work, so his individual pieces don’t end up unsatisfyingly short in the same manner.

That said, while the essays are thematically organized (Characters, History, Theory, and Concepts), Essential Smart Football still felt to me like a collection of essays rather than a capital-B Book. Then again, like Geoffrey Parker’s Success Is Never Final: War, Empire, and Faith in Early Modern Europe (still possibly my favorite book title of all time; favorite piece comparing the invasions of England in 1588 and 1688) and Gordon Wood’s Revolutionary Characters (favorite piece on eventual Anti-Federalist Madison’s support for the Constitution), I’m pretty sure I’d enjoy everything the author wrote on his subject, in any format that wasn’t severely truncated, so I still strongly recommend it. It’s probably most valuable to somebody who’s never read Chris’s work before, and like the Parker and Wood books, of the most value to the aware non-expert, a category in which I unhesitatingly place myself.

The Essential Smart Football was self-published. Production values were roughly similar to the professionally-published Grey Eminence, a book of similar size and length I read recently but you probably did not. There are a few play diagrams, all of which I found perfectly readable.

For more on the book, see this page on Chris’s site. I particularly enjoyed his Q&A with the always-interesting Bruce Feldman, though of course there’s something to be said for Spencer Hall’s review as well (there normally is when it comes to Spencer’s work).

Recommended to all football fans, and especially at the current Amazon discounted price of $6.57, let alone the Kindle price of $3.99 or the Kindle owner rental price of free, well worth a purchase.


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