While I like to think I know a fair amount about our beloved San Francisco 49ers, I also know that I have a lot to learn about the game of football in a more general sense. I know pieces of information, but connecting it all together is a never-ending process. Accordingly, I like to find any and all resources for learning more about the game of football.
Recently, I purchased The Essential Smart Football by Chris Brown (yes purchased, not free promotional giveaway). Chris runs SmartFootball.com, which is a site that provides a broad assortment on information related to football strategy, Xs and Os, history and many other things. He recently put together a book that while short (only 139 pages), packs serious punch in terms of the quality of the information. It is not the end-all, be-all of football knowledge (far from it), but it does provide insight and background into various intriguing concepts.
While some of these concepts do not apply specifically to the 49ers, the general background you can gain from their development is valuable for understanding the development of football. Brown breaks down things like Urban Meyer's spread offense, Bill Belichick's hybrid defense from last season, Mike Leach's "Air Raid" offense, and explanation and historical development of one-gap and two-gap technique on defense.
One of the more intriguing parts for me as a 49ers fan was the breakdown of one of the first plays of the West Coast offense, called "22 Z In." The play was broken down in a chapter about Al Borges, offensive coordinator at Michigan. Borges joined head coach Brady Hoke who replaced Rich Rodriguez after he struggled through three seasons in Ann Arbor.
While Rich Rodriguez was a heavy proponent of the spread offense, Borges brought various West Coast offense principles to his playbook. The "West Coast offense" is not a single offense, but rather has been developed quite a bit since Bill Walsh developed his offensive masterpiece in San Francisco. Borges has worked to implement a lot of the timing aspects of the West Coast offense. In discussing this, Brown wrote about the 22 Z In, to provide examples of the timing issues that can come into play.
22 Z In is a "curl/flat" play, which can be run from a variety of formations. In the book (on page 112), Brown draws it up as a pro set with two wide receivers, a tight end, a halfback and a fullback. Here is a shot of the play drawing from the book. In almost every chapter he provides playbook drawings, with either his own drawings, or actual play-drawings from head coaches or offensive coordinators.
Brown proceeds to spend 2+ pages discussing the various things the quarterback looks for in making the appropriate throw. I won't go into all of them, but the detail of what the quarterback has to look for is mind-blowing. The quarterback takes a five step drop (three big steps, two shorter steps), and then has to make various progressions based on how the defense is defending the play. I won't provide the detail Chris had in his book, but here is a quick rundown of what is happening on the play.
During the first three steps, the quarterback is looking at the X receiver,which is the backside split-end (X). If the safety (S at the top of the page) moves out of position, the QB finishes his five step drop and goes to the X. If the safety does not move out of position, the QB either goes through a series of progressions, or if he stayed too long looking for the safety to move, he dumps off to the check-down receiver, H (halfback).
If during the first three steps, the QB decides the safety is not moving out of position, he then proceeds a series of reads. He starts with the tight end (Y), who is looking for an open spot between the middle and strong linebackers at a depth of eight to ten yards. The quarterback is meant to make the throw as his fifth step back hits. If the tight end is going to be covered, the second read is the curl route by the Z receiver. If the strong safety ($) drops back to help cover that curl, the fullback (F) in the flat is the next read.
As Chris points out, this is also assuming there is no blitz. According to Chris, if the middle or strong linebackers blitz, the read can remain the same since the tight end has a better chance of getting open between them. However, if the strong safety ($) blitzes, the fullback becomes the hot route.
As Chris reminds us, this is all happening in the course of about three seconds. Just looking at this series of reads gives me a headache. The quarterback has more to work through than anybody else, but the other players still have to perfect their own contributions to the timing involved.
This is only one small part of a book that provides all sorts of insight. And while it involves topics that may not directly impact the 49ers, so much of football strategy and Xs and Os are interconnected to a certain extent over history. It has been a matter of move and counter-move over the years.
The final chapter about Bill Belichick's hybrid defenses goes into interesting detail about how this interconnection works. After years of shotgun-based offenses, the T formation became prominent starting in the '40s. Struggles against this new T-formation led to the development of the 5-2 "Monster" defense, using two-gap technique. This led in part to the development of the wishbone, which led to development of one-gap technique.
If you're looking for an awesome football book, this is it. I bought it at Amazon for $3.99 to use on the Kindle App on my iPad. If you want the physical book, Amazon has marked down the price to where you can get it for 6.57 plus tax and shipping. Chris also provides some other purchasing options on his website.
If you're looking for some summer reading to get you ready for football season, grab this one.