The Hippo


Nov 16, 2019








Reading defense
Football books will have you calling plays

By Lisa Parsons

It’s still football season, but for New England fans the time for screaming at the TV set is over. Now it’s time for cold, dispassionate analysis and relaxed reflection. Herewith, two recent books that might help you get more enjoyment from the end of this season and the preparation for next.

Take Your Eye Off the Ball: How to Watch Football by Knowing Where to Look, by Pat Kirwan, 2010, Triumph Books, 222 pages. Like to watch football? Wish you had more of a clue? NFL analyst and former Jets coach Pat Kirwan says right here: it’s practically impossible to learn or fully grasp football by watching games on TV unless you can freeze-frame it and have someone explain it to you step by tiny step. Football is incredibly intricate, between the brute shoving and the mindless grunting.

So herein Pat Kirwin sort of freeze-frames the action and tells you what’s happening. It’s an insider’s view written for the curious outsider — not for dummies. You may not grasp everything in this book but you’ll soak up some stuff just by hanging around with it, and it won’t talk down to you.

Even if you don’t follow every scenario / any of the scenarios, you’ll gain an awareness of how chess-like the game is.

“You can see it at home too — just watch the helmet of the lead blocker when he engages the defender. [See, I can’t find the lead blocker. How do you know who’s the lead blocker?] If his helmet is outside the defender, the gap is open and the back will continue to the outside of his blocker in this off-tackle run. [Off-tackle?]” Me, I still have trouble keeping straight who’s offense and who’s defense — not when I’m watching, but when I’m reading, because half the job of the offensive team is to defend the ball, I think, so “blocking,” that could be offense or defense, logically speaking, right?…. I don’t know. The larger lesson I take from this is that (a) I’m not as dumb as I thought (one of my favorite reassurances to get from books) and (b) it’s not just me (ditto). The television commentators and the fans in my living room don’t have magical powers of football fathoming, nor do I lack the ability to comprehend. They just know what to look for — to watch the lead blocker’s helmet, and things like that. Someone told them once. Now Pat Kirwin is telling me.

The book includes a glossary of terms ranging from as common as “blind side” to as jargony as “backed-off man coverage” and “climbing the ladder.” It also offers some insight into big-name players — what Tom Brady’s strengths are, etc. It contains more than I can absorb in one read, and if I were to really devote myself to learning football I’d need more elementary material too, but this would be a useful resource.

Now, when you’re focused on the Xs and Os, the routes and the blocks and the resemblance of football to chess, you might tend to forget that the players are not just hugely muscled chess pieces plowing from spot to spot imperturbably. They are not pieces, they are guys. For a closer look at this side of pro football, there is NFL Unplugged: The Brutal, Brilliant World of Professional Football, by Anthony L. Gargano (Wiley, 2010), which you can open up just about anywhere and start reading some insidery stuff. This is “chess with blood,” Gargano says. Players talk about what happened in various games, how a knee was twisted or a finger broken, how the quarterback psyched himself up, how a victory was secured or not. They freely converse about how they bend and break the rules, how they hurt each other in the pile, what particular players or positions think of each other. Gargano reports from pregame meetings and hotel check-ins and gets players to comment on training regimens, penalty payments, locker room rituals and all the rest. They pray together, eat (like horses) together, get lectured together about the dangers of celebrity and money. They are not all Tom Brady; most of them are guys you can’t identify, whose names you don’t know, who last a year or two and fade away — interchangeable chess pieces — but they are putting their bodies on the line to play this “blood sport.” You gotta wonder about that, and if you do then here’s your book.

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