Strategy is central to American football, perhaps more so than any other team sport. Each play gives the offense a chance to reset and attack in any number of ways, while the defense has to try to predict what’s coming and decide how aggressively to be in defending.
It’s a fascinating back-and-forth but one that can be hard to follow, especially while watching live.
Fortunately, it’s never been easier for fans to increase their understanding of the sport thanks to a plethora of social media accounts, websites and, of course, books. Here are five great reads on football strategy.
1The Pro Style (1976) by Tom Bennett
Published by the NFL, The Pro Style is a picture-led guide that covers the history of the professional game, offers biographies of some great coaches and provides a great illustrated breakdown of how the game is played. The Diagram History of Football, in the appendix, almost justifies the inclusion of this book by itself. Nothing else will teach you as much about the evolution of formations – and its implications for strategy – in as little time. Now sadly out of print, copies are pretty easy to find secondhand.
2Take Your Eye Off the Ball 2.0 (2015) by Pat Kirwan
Pat Kirwan is a former NFL scout, coach and personnel man who moved into the media in the 2000s. He’s well qualified to explain the game and in this book he targets fans who know the rules of the game and the roles of the players but wants to go deeper. If you can tell an under front from an over at a glance or can comfortably explain why the Wildcat is basically a version of the Single Wing, then this isn’t for you. On the other hand, if the previous sentence makes no sense to you, then this book should be ideal.
3The Genius of Desperation (2018) by Doug Farrar
Doug Farrar, National NFL Writer for USA Today, goes deep into the evolution of football strategy from the 1920s to the modern day. He shows how strategic innovations usually evolve from what’s come before and are frequently driven by desperation – a coach who needs to find a new approach to stop a division rival, for example. It’s hard to see this flow of ideas at the time but Farrar’s historical perspective makes the trends clear. This is a book I’ll be recommending for years.
4The Games That Changed the Game (2010) by Ron Jaworski
Drill down a layer from Doug Farrar’s perspective and you can isolate individual games that exemplify a key moment in the development of pro football strategy. That’s what Ron Jaworski does here, analysing seven games and explaining how they represent a dramatic shift in strategy from what went before. Jaworski brings the games to life really well and reading this will have you heading to YouTube to try to find some of the game films in question.
5Blood, Sweat and Chalk (2010) by Tim Layden
Finally, if you drill down a layer from Jaworski, you end up with this – an analysis of the plays and formations that changed the game of football. There’s a lot of overlap with the previous two titles – but all five books on this list overlap to an extent. Strategy wins wars and tactics win battles; this is a look at how the tactics of the sport can shape the strategy. It’s out of print at the moment but available secondhand.