For Super Bowl fans, an X's and O's page-turner

"Blood, Sweat and Chalk" delves into the thinking and history behind some of football's best offensive and defensive strategies.

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    Blood, Sweat and Chalk:
    Inside Football's Playbook
    By Tim Layden
    Time
    256 pp.
    View Caption

If Super Bowl Sunday is the ultimate day for watching football, then the day after is surely prime time for dissecting the strategies that did and didn’t work – and, of course, for second-guessing all the coaching decisions. Expect “Monday morning quarterbacks" to be out in force.

No sport has more emphasis on the Xs and Os, which is why Blood, Sweat and Chalk: The Ultimate Football Playbook serves as an enlightening read to those curious about the variety of strategies and formations used since time immemorial.

Tim Layden, a senior writer at Sports Illustrated, tackles the subject. Chapter by chapter, he sheds light on the origin, evolution, and thinking behind the spread, Wishbone, and West Coast offenses as well as nearly 20 other offensive and defensive strategies, including Green Bay’s Power Sweep, Southern Cal’s “student body right,” and the No-Huddle Offense.

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This is not a book for the casual fan. It's written for the millions who speak the lingua franca and find a well-researched chalk talk an appealing way to expand their base knowledge.

One point the author makes right from the get-go is that there’s really nothing new under the sun. As Joe Gibbs, the former coach of the Washington Redskins, once said in refusing credit for a successful scheme: “You’ll never hear me say I was the first to do anything, because there’s a pretty good chance somebody did it before me, but nobody knows about it.”

The first strategy Layden takes up, the single wing, may be the most fascinating. It is surely the oldest, dating back 100 years, when legendary coach Pop Warner used the single wing at the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania to take advantage of Jim Thorpe’s skills. It’s a formation in which the ball is snapped to an “up” back (fullback), who uses deception to hide the ball and often ends the shell-game trickery with runs through holes in the line created by precisely timed and executed blocks.

The Pittsburgh Steelers were the last NFL team to use the single wing more than a half century ago, but in recent years the Wildcat formation, which in some ways echoes the single wing, has been used effectively in limited situations by some pro teams. And via Internet message boards, a small but growing number of high school coaches are being won over to the single wing.

Here are 10 other things I learned from “Blood, Sweat and Chalk”:

1 - When Vince Lombardi became Green Bay’s coach in 1959, the Packers weren’t surprised when he introduced the power sweep on the first day of practice as “the key to the whole running game.” It had been a signature play he’d used as the offensive coach of the New York Giants, and he frequently showed the Packers film of the Giants running the play in which Frank Gifford was the ballcarrier.

2 - The Packers’ power sweep, with its emphasis on simplicity perfected, saw its effectiveness eroded by the increasing speed of modern defensive players, who were able to run down the ballcarrier from behind before he had time to make his cut upfield.

3 - The origins of one of the most exciting offenses in recent years, the high-octane “Greatest Show on Turf” of the St. Louis Rams, dates back to the 1960s and San Diego State, according to Mike Martz, who devised the attack as St. Louis’s offensive coordinator (he’s now with the Chicago Bears). While playing junior college football in California, Martz got his ideas from watching what the Aztecs of San Diego State did under the tutelage of coach Don Coryell, the man that Martz calls the “Godfather” of today’s “vertical” (down-the-field) passing game.

4 - Chan Gailey, the head coach of the Buffalo Bills, predicts that quarterbacks who are adept runners as well as passers (such as Michael Vick and Tim Tebow) will become more the norm in the NFL during the next 10 or 15 years. That’s because such versatile quarterbacks are increasingly what the college game is producing.

5 - One of the most dominant defenses in half a century, the Chicago Bears’ famed “46 Defense” of 1985, got its name, not from how the players lined up, but from the simple fact that safety Doug Plank, who wore No. 46, was stationed at the back of the formation.

6 - The 46 Defense was so successful that the players carried Buddy Ryan, the defensive coach, off the field after the Bears crushed New England, 46-10, in Super Bowl XX. Before that, Chicago had turned in back-to-back playoff shutouts of the New York Giants (21-0) and Los Angeles Rams (24-0). Ryan, by the way, is the father of Rex Ryan, head coach of the New York Jets .

7 - Although huddles have pretty much always been part of football, the coach first credited with using a huddle to call each offensive play is H.W. (Bill) Hargiss of Oregon State, who began using the system in 1918. He also coached at Emporia State and the University of Kansas in his home state.

8 - Sam Wyche, a former quarterback who coached the Cincinnati Bengals from 1984 to 1991, is considered the first NFL coach to dispense with huddles for an entire game, a move that was previously a hurry-up strategy used during the final two minutes of each half. The idea was to eliminate the opportunity for defenses to make situational substitutions.

9 - Jim Kelly, who led the Buffalo Bills to four consecutive Super Bowls from 1991 to 1994, is the last NFL quarterback to call his own plays, mostly at the line of scrimmage with the non-huddle offense. Peyton Manning, who frequently works out of the no-huddle offense today with the Indianapolis Colts, actually receives play calls from the sideline through a helmet receiver, a common feature for today’s quarterbacks. Manning often makes adjustments, even sometimes changing plays before the snap, but the team’s offensive coordinator, Tom Moore, makes the initial call.

10 - The “West Coast Offense” was the brainchild of the late Bill Walsh, who coached at Stanford and with the San Francisco 49ers, but the offensive scheme didn't spring from his days in California. Rather, it was a strategy he devised while an assistant with the Cincinnati Bengals in the 1970s. He hit on the idea after the team’s strong-armed quarterback, Greg Cook, was injured and Virgil Carter, who didn’t have the same arm strength, replaced him. The West Coast Offense, a name actually coined years later (and not by Walsh) was predicated on making quick, short throws, from sideline to sideline, within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. It was meant to be a high-success, possession-style attack that stretched the defense horizontally and relied on a series of passing targets to come open sequentially.

Ross Atkin is a Monitor staff editor.

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