Think baseball is slow? Then imagine football without a passing offense, which, as historian/journalist Gwynne (Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson, 2014, etc.) ably shows, is no mere thought experiment.
In the early days of American football, quarterbacks did not have to pass the ball. The rules allowed them to, but, as the author writes, “overwhelmingly, they chose not to.” Of course, this meant it was mostly a running game. There were exceptions—Carlisle Indian School coach Pop Warner’s passing game being the textbook case—but it wasn’t until recent years that the passing game came into its own, courtesy of Gwynne’s coach heroes. Hal Mumme and his assistant Mike Leach led the small, not terribly distinguished school of Iowa Wesleyan to legendary status by developing a fast passing game that admitted only a few variations: “Hal’s ultra-minimal playbook,” writes the author, “allowed the quarterback and receivers to repeat it hundreds of times in practice.” The explanation that follows is a touch geeky, with mathematical variants based on man-to-man coverage in the classic Y-cross formation, and so forth, but that makes this book just the thing for the true football aficionado in the house. What makes the narrative more generally invaluable is its portrait of how football politics can bring down even the winningest coach. Although every team on the planet now emulates the playbook developed by the two coaches—a playbook that of course has a genealogy stretching back into football history—their own careers went into a downward spiral (beg pardon) when their numbers didn’t post well. Still, it is undeniable that the Air Raid, the fast passing game, and the frequency of the forward pass are now imprinted on football, especially, as Gwynne notes, on the college level though also in the NFL. That makes his subtitle all the more fitting, for undeniably, the two coaches changed the game—and brought glory to their institutions.
A superb treat for all gridiron fans.