Tim Layden, who has been at Sports Illustrated since 1994, has a new football book out: Blood, Sweat and Chalk. It’s very inside football, and will make for a great read Labor Day weekend when you’re on the beach dreaming about the impending NFL season. Interview after the jump:
Q: We’re always surprised by how the “you never played the game” argument comes up about sportswriters. You actually played football, though, right?
A: I played small-town football at Whitehall High School in far upstate New York. This was in the 70s. We had about 100 kids in a graduating class, hardly any of them went to college and football was important to the town (although not as important as it had been in the 30’s and 40’s, as I learned much later). I was quarterback on an undefeated team. We ran power I with sprint-out passes. Simple stuff. I was very average, but the team was full of big, strong boys who just overwhelmed opponents and I went along for the ride. I learned no technical football, except how to hand the ball off and throw passes to wide open receivers. I played a year of football on the freshman team at Williams College,
a Division III school in Massachusetts. There was a much better quarterback than me on the roster, but I had a good time and made a bunch of friends. I went on to play varsity basketball at Williams; I was also pretty average at that, but ditto on the friends and good times. Williams is now a D3 powerhouse in many sports and I couldn’t sniff a roster spot.
As far as when I learned about football, I’m thinking it’s just been a gradual accumulation. Anybody who reads SI or si.com knows that I write about a bunch of different things and it’s been that way as long as I’ve been in the business. I like it that way. I’d much rather be assigned a piece where I have to go in cold and learn what’s going than be the basketball expert who gets a call every morning about where Lebron James might sign.
But football has been a constant at every stop. And along the way I found it more enjoyable to cover the sport if I could follow it properly. It’s only a sport, but within that context, football is relatively complex. Figuring it out is like solving a puzzle, only you get to ask for clues from coaches and players, and if you’re genuinely interested and take the time, they’ll generally educate you. I’ve also always liked studying the history of sports, and when you mix football schematics with football history, you get this book. I’ve written plenty of investigative and feature stories and they’re cool, too. But this project fit pretty well into my comfort zone.
Q: In other interviews, you’ve said you the zone blitz was perhaps the most difficult scheme to research. Were there any schemes you attempted to look into that didn’t make the book?
Just to clarify, the zone blitz wasn’t difficult to research in an overall sense. What happened was that I needed to
talk to Dick LeBeau, the Steelers’ defensive coordinator and former All-Pro DB who just went into the Hall of Fame. LeBeau was the godfather of the zone blitz and he wouldn’t take my calls (because, it turns out, he’s not only humble, but he also wants to write his own book someday). We finally connected when I wrote him a letter —
totally old school — and mailed it to him. He called me almost immediately and he was great. There are a bunch of offenses and defenses that didn’t make the book, but not because I established some sort of cut line. When I got going, I just made a list and worked from that list. Wherever the research took me, that’s where I went. I never really got going on the T formation, but that probably would have made a great chapter. Just last week somebody asked me why I didn’t do a chapter on Bill Belichick and his revolutionary use of the nickel back. That would have made a good chapter, too. Football has been around in this form for 110 years and it’s a pretty broad and complicated game. You could do three books like this one. I’m just hoping I picked enough interesting schemes, with interesting back stories and characters, that people don’t dwell on what’s not in the book.
And the experience with LeBeau was pretty unusual in the reporting of the book. Pretty much everybody I talked to was wide open and cooperative and since a lot of them were active NFL and college players and coaches, that’s a little rare. Totally guessing here, but I think some of these guys — coaches and players both — really enjoy talking about what they do for a living, instead of participating in (or fighting off) the type of personality-driven journalism that we — and they — are accustomed to. I’m not saying that media can take a left turn and do a steady diet of X’s and O’s stories, but it’s an element that sometimes gets forgotten and really, it might be the best grounds for conversation with a lot of these guys. And there’s a lot of personality stuff in the book, too. There’s as much about Rex Ryan tearing through college on a drunken rampage as there is about his defensive schemes (well, maybe not quite as much, but they’re both in there). I just think modern athletes have become really guarded about giving up much biogrpahical information, but they might not be too bad with technical explanation. It’s also possible fans like it, too. Like I said, not a steady diet, but on occasion, it’s not a bad way to go.
Q: Buddy Ryan found moderate success with the 46 defense, and then it really took off when he got excellent players. Do you think in today’s game if a coach employs the right offense or defense, it really doesn’t matter who the players are, as long as they execute it? Or do you need specific caliber of players to pull off certain schemes?
That’s really a central question: Do the players make the scheme or does the scheme make the players? The bailout answer is that it seems to be both. When Bill Walsh created the West Coast Offense with the Bengals in the early 70s, it was a passable offense with Virgil Carter and Kenny Anderson playing quarterback. But it was great a decade later with Montana. The thing is, I’m not sure Montana would have been as great in another offense. He was perfectly suited to the rollouts and bootlegs in the Walsh offense. He would not have been as good taking a seven-step drop all day and just sitting back there like Peyton Manning. But there are definitely certain athletic types that suit certain systems. If you’re going to play Tampa Two on defense, you need a freak at middle linebacker… somebody like Jack Lambert or Brian Urlacher. If you’re going to run option football on offense (which a lot of high school and small college teams still do), you need a quarterback who can make decisions on the fly. I know a guy like Belichick drafts for his system and looks for players who can do certain things. Probably a lot of coaches do that.
Q: I gather most readers will be surprised at the amount of football innovation in Cincinnati of all places. Was this something that caught you off guard as well? Do you think a lot of it sprung from getting dominated by Pittsburgh for so many years?
It totally caught me off guard. West Coast Offense: Cincinnati. Zone blitz: Cincinnati. No huddle: Cincinnati. Even zone blocking came to Cincinnati pretty early in the game. I never thought about the Pittsburgh angle. Walsh and the West Coast Offense came about before the Steelers became good. Just thinking about it right now, I just think it was almost coincidence and nothing more. Some smart people happened to pass through Cincinnati. Walsh,
LeBeau, Sam Wyche, Jim McNally (the offensive line coach who did a lot with zone blocking). It’s pretty ironic that while several of these systems were born in Cincinnati, they didn’t win titles until they were transplanted somewhere else.
Q: In your research, did you pick up any schemes that seem to be dying and/or have been solved, or any schemes that seem to be on the rise and could become wildly popular in the next few years?
Certainly the wishbone has died at most levels above small college and high school. I’m not sure why. Lou Holtz, who I know some people think is a little crazy, thinks it’s because of the emphasis on recruiting and fans wants to see teams sign high-profile players who fit the passing game. The Wing-T is strictly a high school and small college offense now, when it was huge in major colleges in the 70s. The next big thing … I think every NFL front
office is looking for a quarterback who can run and throw effectively. A bunch of guys told me this: Teams want to threaten the defense with a two-dimensional guy. Vick wasn’t that guy, because he wasn’t accurate. Maybe Steve Young was that guy, but he got concussed out of the league. I’m not sure Tebow is that guy; maybe too slow and not that accurate, either. Maybe Tyrelle Pryor. Or some high school kid. But all these personnel guys and coaches
know that athletes are getting better and you can’t just stand back there and wait for receivers to get open. You’ve got to be able to run.
Q: Not related to the book, but in the span of two weeks, we just saw two of the most dominant Olympians of this generation, Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt, both lose. Was this just a random occurrence, or are both of those guys already losing a grip on the respective sports?
Taking Bolt first, because I cover a lot of track. I think, number one, he’s been hurt this year and clearly not 100
percent. That’s the beauty of track and field (assuming you believe it’s all clean, and I have serious doubts on that one): You can just look at the times. Bolt’s world record is 9.59 for 100 meters and Tyson Gay, who is a sweet guy, beat him in 9.84. Even Gay said afterward that it’s not real until he beats a healthy Bolt. But even with all that, those world records take something out of a sprinter’s body. Some guys have told me sprinters are never the same
after they go really low. And there’s Bolt’s night life, which is prodigious, especially in a year with no Olympics and no World Championships. A few days after Bolt lost to Gay, Bolt shut it down for the season, and then Gay ran 9.78 seconds in London.
If you made me bet, I say Bolt wins the worlds next year and the Olympics in London but never breaks his own world records in the 100 or 200. Those records are way down there at this point. But people forget, in 2007 Tyson Gay absolutely starched Usain Bolt at the World Championships. Then nine months later Bolt is the greatest sprinter in history, running times that track nuts thought were 10 or 20 years away. Aside from making me more than a little bit suspicious about Bolt (I don’t care how tall he is). So I wouldn’t rule out that Bolt is a two-year wonder and Gay beats him at the words or the Olympics. That’s not the way I would bet, but it wouldn’t totally shock me.
Phelps: I’m not as close on that one. But Phelps’s history is that he will be ready when the serious money is on the line and gears his training accordingly. But he is going to tail off at some point. I just don’t think it’s going to be until after 2012. My guess is right now he’s just not balls-out on the training or the committment. He’ll pace himself. He’s done this twice, now, getting ready for ’04 and ’08. I think he and his coach have it pretty well figured out.