Tim Layden is a senior writer for Sports Illustrated, and this week will take fans inside the iconic plays of football with his new book, Blood, Sweat and Chalk. Whether you're a die hard fan or casual follower of your local high school team or your alma mater, there is something interesting here for you. Layden talked to the greats of the game at all levels and shows how the key plays, the West Coast Offense, Lombardi's Power Sweep, USC's legendary Student Body Right, all tie together from high school through the pros.
It's a great read for anyone who is starting to get back into football after a post Super Bowl break. I caught up with Layden for a Q and A.
PRC: What was the impetus for doing the book?
Tim Layden: In the fall of 2006, I wrote a story for Sports Illustrated on the history and workings of the "Cover Two" defense. People watching games every Saturday and Sunday -- particularly Sunday -- hear the term all the time, but my editor at SI, Mark Mravic, suggested that maybe fans didn't really understand what the Cover Two defense actually was. So I did the story, a little reluctantly, because it sounded like what writers call an "editor's story,"' long on concept, but short on substance. I was wrong. It was fascinating to research the scheme back to its roots with the Steel Curtain Pittsburgh Steelers of the mid-70s (and in some ways, much further back than that), and delve into the personal stories of some of the players and coaches who thrived in the system. The story got a terrific response from readers. Not long after that I got an email from a literary agent named Jud Laghi, suggesting that the story could be expanded into a book, in which each chapter traced the lineage of a particular system. It seemed like an interesting idea, so we went forward with it.
PRC: You touch on so many aspects of football in the book, what is the common thread that you saw throughout?
Tim Layden: Really, I found a couple of common themes, both pertaining to the genesis of ideas. And these themes would probably apply in the business world or any place where people are competing for the same prizes. The first is desperation. Many of the coaches who devised offenses or defenses over the years did so because they were in fear of losing their jobs or they lacked the personnel to play in the accepted manner. For instance, Buddy Ryan came to the Chicago Bears as defensive coordinator for the 1978 season and the Bears went 7-9 because they didn't have many good players. So to make up for this lack of dominant personnel, Ryan was constantly devising oddball defensive schemes to throw off more talented offenses. Most of them didn't last a week. But one day in 1979 he came up with the '46' defense and it was fairly effective, so he kept it in the playbook. And when the Bears go better players, the '46' became devastatingly good. The second common thread is answering opponents, where a coach is getting beat by a particular system and he just needs to devise an answer. One example of that would be the zone blitz. In the early 1980s, Dick LeBeau, who was a former NFL defensive back with the Detroit Lions, was working as a defensive backs' coach with the Bengals. And he was frustrated that he could blitz against the quick-pass systems like the West Coast offense. So with a little help from an old coach named Bill Arnsparger, who coached under Don Shula with the great Dolphins' teams of the early 70s, he came up with the zone blitz.
PRC: There are so many characters we get to look at from the history of the sport; who was your favorite story?
Tim Layden: Wow. I was pretty fascinated by pretty much everybody that I talked to, so I hate to single out one. I'll say this, it's pretty hard to top Mouse Davis talking about how he came up with the Run and Shoot offense. Mouse is still coaching at age 78 and I met him at a greasy spoon place near the Portland State campus after a morning practice. Jerry Glanville was the head coach. Anyway, Mouse explained to me that he got the Run and Shoot - which really is the father to every spread offense you see today -- by reading a book written by Glenn ''Tiger'' Ellison, who was a high school coach in Ohio, and probably one of the most innovative coaches at any level in the history of the sport. And I have to admit, I had never heard of the guy. You could write a book just about Tiger Ellison.
PRC: It's surprising to see the Cincinnati Bengals so deeply involved in the book. Their onfield success doesn't parallel the innovation they had. Why do you think all those big minds never translated into a dynasty?
Tim Layden: It's pretty amazing how many truly important football schemes started in Cincinnati: The West Coast offense (which, obviously is a misnomer), the Zone Blitz, the no-huddle and even to a certain extent, the zone blocking schemes we see today. Bill Walsh put in an early version of the West Coast in 1970 because Greg Cook got hurt and his quarterback was Virgil Carter and Carter was good at rollouts and bootlegs but had a weak arm. And they won some games and might have become very good, except that Paul Brown didn't name Bill Walsh as his replacement in 1976 and instead Walsh went to Stanford and then the 49ers. The Zone Blitz was immediately effective when LeBeau installed it with the Bengals in '83, but again, I think the top-to-bottom personnel on the team wasn't great. The no-huddle? The Bengals were using that in the mid- and late- 1980s and played in a Super Bowl with it, losing to the 49ers. So I think the franchise was very solid with the innovations, but one of the things I learned in doing the book was that sometimes a great idea doesn't produce ideas immediately. Rex Ryan was blitzing like crazy as an assistant under his father with the Cardinals, but they all still got fired. Then when he got to the Ravens, things started to work.
PRC: The Wildcat is now the offensive innovation of choice; do you see any other new trends just coming on to the stage?
Tim Layden: The interesting thing about the Wildcat it's new, but it's old. And that's true with a lot of football innovations. The Wildcat, in terms of snapping the ball straight to a running back, who then runs with it, is just single wing football, which was invented by Pop Warner early in he 1900s. Power blocking, outmanning the defense at the point of attack. Very basic stuff, but new to modern football, especially professional football, because it makes the defense account for the quarterback as a runner. The name, Wildcat, incidentally, came from a high school coach named Hugh Wyatt, who came up with name in 1997, when he was coaching a team called the Wildcats. The next new trend? I think professional teams are going to continue to try to find a quarterback who is a threat to run and pass. It's too significant a weapon to ignore. They're all looking for it. Maybe it's Tim Tebow. Maybe it's Tyrelle Pryor. Maybe it's some 6-4, 220-pound kid who's still in high school. But the immobile quarterback is history. Just a matter of time.
PRC: What was the thing that surprised you most about the subjects in the book?
Tim Layden: Easy. Their openness. With very few exceptions, everyone I interviewed, whether it was an 80-year-old former college coach like Emory Bellard, who put in the wishbone for Darrell Royal at Texas in 1968, or a young kid running the single wing in Florida high school games, everybody seemed excited to talk about their work. I really think that's because writers -- and I'm as guilty as anyone -- have been asking athletes about their lives and backgrounds for so long, that we've forgotten how to ask them about their jobs. You can't overdo it, and I did plenty of biographical questioning, too, but these guys enjoy talking about what they do.
PRC: Don Coryell's passing certainly impacted many; where would you rank his innovations in relation to others in the book?
Tim Layden: You could make the argument that nobody has influenced modern football more than Coryell. Certainly it's not a slam dunk, but he's absolutely one of the most significant names on the list. Most broadly, the passing system that he designed -- and certainly he was influenced by the great Sid Gillman -- with San Diego State in the mid-1960s, and then took to the St. Louis Cardinals and the Chargers through the 70s and into the early 80s, is one of the most enduring offenses in the game. There are still many teams in the NFL that use what they call the "Coryell Offense," which Don taught to Joe Gibbs and Ernie Zampese and they taught to Norv Turner and he taught to Cam Cameron and Jason Garrett and Brian Schottenheimer. But beyond that, Coryell had a big hand in installing the I formation at USC in the 60s, when he was working for John McKay, and that offensive became the foundation for Student Body Left and Student Body Right. So that's two pretty big skins on the wall for Coryell.
PRC: Was there a play or a system you thought would be in the book but did not make it?
Tim Layden: Dozens. There's a lot of stuff in the book, but it's by no means comprehensive. Football isn't brain surgery, as they say, but there are a lot of systems out there.