Best Books I Read in 2016: Air Raid, Homo Sapiens, Song of Ice and Fire, Dragons and Tacos

The Perfect Pass: American Genius and the Reinvention of Football, by S.C. Gwynne. This is the most fun football book I’ve read in some time, which is a credit to Gwynne but also to his subject matter, namely Hal Mumme, Mike Leach and the motley bunch of players, coaches and a few administrators who supported or in some cases simply tolerated the birth of the Air Raid.

gwynneGwynne is an accomplished writer but not necessarily a football expert, but he nonetheless handles the technical aspects of the Air Raid with aplomb, which is in a sense not surprising given that one of the hallmarks of the Air Raid is its simplicity. But the heart of the book — and its true value — is Gwynne’s reconstruction of Mumme’s and later Leach’s journey as they designed and developed what eventually became the Air Raid offense the 1980s and early 1990s at places like Copperas Cove high school, Valdosta State and, most colorfully, Iowa Wesleyan.

As someone who has written extensively about Mumme, Leach and the Air Raid offense, I approached the book with trepidation — OK, fine, my usual policy on books like this is not to bother with reading them — but enough coaches told me I should read, and I’m glad I did. Gwynne’s book filled in for me the offense’s pre-Valdosta and pre-Kentucky history, but what I found most remarkable about the book was its chronicling of the fact that in the early 1980s Hal Mumme was a Division I offensive coordinator (UTEP from 1982 to 1985) who desperately wanted to run a pass-first offense but had no real idea how to do it and didn’t even know where to go to learn. He tried to watch San Francisco 49ers games and he eventually started trying to copy BYU’s schemes under LaVell Edwards, but these were poor emulations off of film without any of the related coaching points (indeed, some of Mumme’s earliest experiments involved Mumme trying to write down the plays he saw BYU QB Jim McMahon run while watching the Holiday Bowl on TV), and there were so few people to visit or spend time with that much of the early Air Raid was just trial and error. (Early in his tenure as head coach at Copperas Cove high school, Mumme tried running a version of the run and shoot but it largely died on arrival.)

Things took off when Mumme made more of a connection with the BYU staff and began meeting with Edwards and BYU assistants Norm Chow and Roger French, and then once Mumme teamed up with Leach at Iowa Wesleyan the two made a variety of pilgrimages to meet with pass-oriented coaches like then-Green Bay coach Lindy Infante and then-Miami coach Dennis Erickson. But again, consider how different this was than the situation in 2016: Nowadays one can watch unlimited NFL all-22 film (for a small fee) and can download countless playbooks and game films, there are coaching message boards and social media accounts dedicated to football and football strategy (plus, uh, some blogs and websites), one can easily buy or borrow a huge variety of books and DVDs, there’s Youtube videos of clinic talks and GIFs of basically every meaningful play, and communication among fans and coaches in general is much easier, and if all else fails there are coaching and consulting services you can pay for where they tell you how to install whatever offense or defense you want to run. But in 1989 the sole option was, more or less, get in the car and drive six hours to learn from someone who is doing what you would like to do, which is why it took Mumme roughly a decade of experimenting at high schools and small colleges to bring the Air Raid offense from conception to completion. On the other hand, however, those established coaches were willing to meet with off-the-radar guys like Leach and Mumme for hours and even days because the two of them had in fact gotten in the car and driven to their offices, rather than sending them some emails or just tweeting at them.

In any event, The Perfect Pass had a few minor flaws: it was probably a bit too charitable to Mumme regarding how his Kentucky tenure ended amid NCAA scandal, though that entire situation was a mess and I’m aware of no evidence that Mumme directly authorized the cash payments made by his staff, and the book’s arguments are weakest when trying to declare definitively that the game is only going in the direction of more and more passing (a weakness of hyperbole shared by the book’s title). But those are relatively minor quibbles, as this is one of the most fun football books I’ve read in years, and I’m glad the story of these guys and this offense finally got the definitive treatment they deserve. And, if nothing else, the following passage alone was worth the price of admission, as anyone who knows me (particularly my wife) simply nods when I show it to them:

[Mumme] spent much of his free time diagramming pass plays. He would often do this on scraps of paper or whatever he could find to write on, scrawling down ideas about how to freeze this or that defensive back, how to flood a zone defense, how to throw a curl/flat combination, how to protect against a blitz. He did this everywhere he went, day and night, so much so that he trailed these little artifacts of ambition and desire behind him at his home and office. They were tiny pieces of the master plan he didn’t have yet. June actually picked them up and put them in boxes. She soon discovered that he didn’t need to keep them. The writing itself was the mnemonic device.

sapiens

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari. While The Perfect Pass was the best football book I read this year, Sapiens was far and away the best overall book I read. I looked it up after I heard Nobel laureate Dan Kahneman (another Smart Football favorite) mention it on a podcast, and I read a sample chapter with little expectation. But while I was immediately hooked, the book kept evolving as I read it, as what began with a fascinating recantation of the lives and activities of the earliest proto-humans — Neaderthals, homo erectus and early homo sapiens — soon turned to an examination of why it was that homo sapiens, after hundreds of thousands of years of surviving but pretty much existing in the middle of the food chain, suddenly rocketed to the top of it (and in the process driving many ancient beasts to extinction, like giant sloths and mammoths), conquered multiple climates, and eventually began domesticating the world around them, from farm animals and livestock to crops. And Harari includes a fascinating albeit depressing argument about the true nature of our relationship to our most necessary crop, wheat:

Think for a moment about the Agricultural Revolution from the viewpoint of wheat. Ten thousand years ago wheat was just a wild grass, one of many, confined to a small range in the Middle East. Suddenly, within just a few short millennia, it was growing all over the world. According to the basic evolutionary criteria of survival and reproduction, wheat has become one of the most successful plants in the history of the earth. In areas such as the Great Plains of North America, where not a single wheat stalk grew 10,000 years ago, you can today walk for hundreds upon hundreds of miles without encountering any other plant. Worldwide, wheat covers about 870,000 square miles of the globe’s surface, almost ten times the size of Britain. How did this grass turn from insignificant to ubiquitous? Wheat did it by manipulating Homo sapiens to its advantage. This ape had been living a fairly comfortable life hunting and gathering until about 10,000 years ago, but then began to invest more and more effort in cultivating wheat. Within a couple of millennia, humans in many parts of the world were doing little from dawn to dusk other than taking care of wheat plants. It wasn’t easy. Wheat demanded a lot of them. Wheat didn’t like rocks and pebbles, so Sapiens broke their backs clearing fields. Wheat didn’t like sharing its space, water and nutrients with other plants, so men and women laboured long days weeding under the scorching sun. Wheat got sick, so Sapiens had to keep a watch out for worms and blight. Wheat was attacked by rabbits and locust swarms, so the farmers built fences and stood guard over the fields. Wheat was thirsty, so humans dug irrigation canals or lugged heavy buckets from the well to water it. Sapiens even collected animal faeces to nourish the ground in which wheat grew.

The body of Homo sapiens had not evolved for such tasks. It was adapted to climbing apple trees and running after gazelles, not to clearing rocks and carrying water buckets. Human spines, knees, necks and arches paid the price. Studies of ancient skeletons indicate that the transition to agriculture brought about a plethora of ailments, such as slipped discs, arthritis and hernias. Moreover, the new agricultural tasks demanded so much time that people were forced to settle permanently next to their wheat fields. This completely changed their way of life. We did not domesticate wheat. It domesticated us.

One of the most important and sustained ideas running through the book is that what ultimately distinguished homo sapiens from all other creatures — other mammals, other apes, and even other “humans” like neanderthals — was not our opposable thumbs or some other physical criteria, but instead it was our ability to generate, believe in and act upon what he calls “myths” or “fictions” (essentially ideas and cultural institutions), particularly on a large scale, collective basis. Legal and social systems, religions and social customs and practices are the stuff that societies, cultures, companies civilizations and, yes, sports are made of, and they allowed us to transform from creatures that lived in small, loosely organized groups (the hallmark of most apes) to our modern status. Sapiens is a fascinating, ambitious and difficult-to-summarize that was also just plain readable. Here’s a Financial Times interview with Harari. Highly recommended.

Winning Defensive Football, by Richard Bell. I had never heard of this book until recently, which is surprising because it’s excellent. (It lands the award for “Best Technical Football Book” that I read this year.) Bell was the defensive coordinator at Air Force for 11 seasons up to 2006, and before that served as defensive coordinator for Georgia, Navy, Texas Tech and West Virginia, and was the head coach at South Carolina for one season. The book is not a narrative book so much as it is a defensive playbook, laying out in copious detail (the book description touts “over 1,000 diagrams”) 400 pages that describe Bell’s 3-4 defense, from run fits to technique to coverages. It’s also all quite modern: the blitz package was excellent and detailed, and the sections on coverages go over not only Bell’s main coverages (Cover 1, Cover 3, Cover 2 and his match-read Quarters concepts, Cover 4 and Cover 6), but also how they each adapt to various offensive formations and route combinations and pre-snap calls and checks for the defense).

My only criticism is that there’s been so much change in football in the last ten years I was at times left wondering how Bell might have adapted some of his defensive calls to, say, a hurry up-tempo spread that used the zone read and packaged plays/run-pass options, in the same way that he has sections on defending the more traditional triple option. But that’s also what the book was about: giving a coach the tools to think through those problems rather than answers in a box. The bottom line is this is a must buy for any defensive coach at really any level, as well as for any offensive coach who wants to better understand a modern, multiple defense.

– A Song of Ice and Fire Series (A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, A Storm of Swords, A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons), by George R. R. Martin. I had unintentionally managed both to not read any of these books or to watch any of the Game of Thrones TV series, until on a late night Uber ride home from the office I started watching the the first season of the HBO series. It was good — excellent in ways, obviously — but I can’t say I was consumed by it. I watched two more episodes and then moved onto other things, and then for some unknown reason I bought the first book, A Game of Thrones, on Kindle, and then read the entire book in about a week. I then downloaded A Clash of Kings and read that in about two weeks, and then read the third book, A Storm of Swords, on similar timing, and ultimately ended up reading the entire series in about a two and a half month period. I then of course spent the following two weeks reading every fan and Reddit theory I could find. (I have still only made it to episode 2 of Season 2 of the series.)

Was it good? Martin has his tics (at least 10 different seated characters manage to “rise ponderously”), and there were definitely times when the plot got in the way of story development (I never thought I’d hear a single character say “I am looking for a high-born maid of three-and-ten” so often), but, well, I did read 1.7 million words of his books — which apparently translates to reading War and Peace or Infinite Jest three times over — in a little over two months, and it was certainly a breezy 1.7 million words. That’s as good of a recommendation as I can give (and saying much more would probably be some kind of spoiler), though I will give my ranking of the books:

  1. A Storm of Swords (by far)
  2. A Dance with Dragons
  3. A Game of Thrones (a close third; ADWD I thought had better high points, though AGOT gets automatic points for being first)
  4. A Clash of Kings
  5. A Feast for Crows (I liked AFFC more than it seems most did, and there was both a lot of good stuff to read and it clearly laid the groundwork for much of what is still to come, but a few of the plotlines dragged and it felt like it ended in the middle of the story (because it in fact did))

Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, by Carol Dweck. The concept behind this book is simple: a shocking amount of a person’s success, achievement and growth relates to what “mindset” they bring to the activity, field or endeavor, and people with “fixed mindsets” (i.e., the belief that the relevant traits like intelligence or some other talent, are fixed and unchangeable) systematically do worse than people with “growth mindsets” (i.e., the belief that even the most important traits are malleable and can be developed through hard work and dedication) consistently achieve more. It’s a simple idea — and, frankly, one that arguably is behind most coaching clichés about the importance of “improving by 1% every day” and so on — but Dweck has done remarkable work of developing it and showing its efficacy over the years. And it’s an extremely powerful idea, particular her discussion of how it’s possible to have growth mindsets in some areas and fixed mindsets in other areas as well as the idea that much of what we consider “praise” (particularly telling young children they are “smart”) has the unintended effect of reinforcing a fixed mindset with respect to intelligence that can cause all sorts of problems down the road. But I keep coming back to the idea that concepts in Dweck’s book are in many respects an academic gloss on what you can find in John Wooden’s writings or just in the learned experience of team sports, particularly football at its best. And I mean that as a compliment.

The Dream of Reason, by Anthony Gottlieb. A history of Western Philosophy, over however many books or however many volumes, is an endeavor frought with peril, and as such in my mind graded on a curve. Bertrand Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy is deservedly famous but it’s also a strange, idiosyncratic and at times needlessly (and unhelpfully) challenging book. Gottlieb’s book is, by contrast, very lucid, easy to read and even funny in parts, and it deals meaningfully with the philosophical ideas of each period and thinker. Whether he spends too much or too little time on this or that idea is the kind of quibble I’ll leave to the professional academics.

Bonus: Best Kids Book I read this year: Dragons Love Tacos, by Adam Rubin and illustrated by Daniel Salmieri. Now that I have children I both read far less and much more than I ever did. I read far fewer normal books, but like most parents most of my evenings end with reading a small handful of children’s books, usually something we’ve read countless times before and sometimes I have barely hit the last page before the request arrives to flip flip back to the first one and start over. So I’m always looking for entertaining kids books (recommendations welcome), and while I’m a big fan of the classics (we are big Dr. Seuss household) I have to admit that I find this book irresistible in tone and style all while teaching eternal life lessons like, if you fail to read the fine print dragons might incinerate your house.

  • Paul Meisel

    Loved Gwynne’s book. And I’ve been dipping in and out of Bell’s book for two years.

  • Pinche Borracho

    #ASOIAF Preston Jacobs is worth a Patreon. Thousand Worlds Book Club, Deeper Corner & Of Minds & Wolves all insightful.

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  • Al Sexton

    “Stretch the Cornfield” was another great read. I think you recommended that at one time. I love reading about the origins of schemes and concepts.

  • Phil

    fwiw, Scott Alexander at slatestarcodex.com did a bunch of posts that were interestingly skeptical of Mindset

    http://slatestarcodex.com/2015/04/08/no-clarity-around-growth-mindset-yet/

    http://slatestarcodex.com/2015/04/10/i-will-never-have-the-ability-to-clearly-explain-my-beliefs-about-growth-mindset/

    http://slatestarcodex.com/2015/04/22/growth-mindset-3-a-pox-on-growth-your-houses/

    http://slatestarcodex.com/2015/05/07/growth-mindset-4-growth-of-office/
    —————
    kids books-
    I was going to recommend The Day the Crayons Quit, The Day the Crayons Came Home, and The Book With No Picture, but when I pull them up on Amazon, they all appeared in the ‘customer also frequently bought box’ with Dragons Love Taco’s (which our kids enjoyed too), so maybe that’s not an especially novel or helpful suggestion
    ———-
    I loved Sapiens as well, I’ve been told that the ‘10,000 Year Explosion’ is similar, though I haven’t actually read it

  • smartfootball

    We have the Crayon books too — I almost recommended those also — and we’re big fans, especially of the Day the Crayons Quit. Was also good when we were first learning colors.

  • Sam Donnelley

    Dragons Love Tacos is the second favorite kids book I have discovered over the past 5 years (and 3 kids). #1 is When I Grow Up by Weird Al Yankovic, believe it or not.

  • Thomas

    My favorite picture books of the last few years:

    Jonathan Bean’s “Building Our House.”
    Phillip Stead’s books with his wife Erin, especially Amos McGee.
    Jonathan Klassen’s “I Want my Hat Back.”
    Aaron Becker’s “Journey” and its sequels.

    And some older recommendations:

    William Steig’s oeuvre is brilliantly good, especially “Shrek” (way better than the movie) and “Brave Irene.”
    David McPhail’s “The Glerp.”
    Arnold Lobel’s “Fables,” which I remember reading as a child myself. The morals are surprisingly sophisticated.

  • IrishBarrister

    Given your fondness for Michael Lewis and “Thinking Fast and Slow,” I’d recommend reading “The Undoing Project,” about Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky’s friendship and the ideas they produced together. Kahneman’s own book is, as you might suspect, a better summary of their research. But “The Undoing Project” reveals, as perhaps only Michael Lewis can, the people and personalities behind their ideas.

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