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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.

By Ross Atkin / February 3, 2011

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

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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.

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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”:

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