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 it’s 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.

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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.

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My Favorite Books of 2015

This is a list, in no particular order, of the books I read in 2015 which I consider my favorites. This does not mean these books came out in 2015; it only means I read them this calendar year. For a list of recommended football books/resources, see here.

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  • Creativity, Inc., by Ed Catmull. Half management how-to and half corporate history (with a healthy dose of Steve Jobs anecdotes), this remarkable little book about the origins and rise of Pixar films surprised me with not only how engaging the writing was but also how enjoyable it was to read. And the appendix on “Thoughts for managing a creative culture” is alone worth the purchase price. If you loathe anything that smells like a management book then I suppose you should avoid this one too, but I generally don’t like management books and this one is unlike any that I’ve previously read.
  • The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783-1789, by Joseph J. Ellis. One of the surprisingly poorly understood facts about our national history is that while the Revolutionary War ended in 1783, the United States Constitution did not come into force until 1789 (and was not ratified by all thirteen states until 1790), and prior to 1789 the United States operated under the Articles of Confederation, which merely established “a firm league” among the several states; the Articles were more like a treaty than a constitution. In the view of many — particularly John Jay, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and George Washington — the Articles created an unworkable and untenable framework for the young country, and the solution was one that consolidated federal power in the system we have now, featuring executive, legislative and judicial branches. Ellis’s book does an excellent job placing these historical figures and their debates in the context of the times, providing insights on the tactics and compromises that ultimately resulted in the Constitution we currently (subject to several amendments) have today.
  • Collected Essays, by James Baldwin. For myriad reasons Baldwin’s work is as relevant as ever, and this is an excellent introduction into his writing and a reminder of what a beautiful stylist Baldwin can be, as his prose often vibrates with life. But of course it’s also the substance; essays like “Faulkner and Desegregation” are just devastating.
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Most Popular Books Bought by Smart Football Readers in 2015

I’ve always been floored by the quality of the feedback and discussion from Smart Football readers, so it’s always fascinating to see which books are most popular among readers. The following is a breakdown of the books purchased over the last year by Smart Football readers. If you’d like to see a list of recommended coaching resources, see here.

The Most Popular Books Bought by Smart Football Readers in 2015

2015 Chart 1

The Most Popular Books Bought by Smart Football Readers in 2015 (excluding The Art of Smart Football and The Essential Smart Football)

2015 Chart 2

Below is a list of the books with links. Note that I simply included the top books and did not include a separate “other” category.

Audio Round-up — The Art of Smart Football

I’ve spent the last few days doing a few selected podcasts and radio hits (and there’s more to come). They were all fun; links are below.

It also looks like Amazon has dropped the price on the paperback copy of The Art of Smart Football to $8.99 and the Kindle edition to $6.99.

The Art of Smart Football is Now Available on Kindle

The Art of Smart Football, my new book, is now available for Kindle.

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The Art of Smart Football

You can read more about the book here, and you can also check it out in paperback. And if you get the book and enjoy it, I’d truly appreciate it if you wouldn’t mind spending a brief minute to write a review on Amazon. It would be much appreciated.

My New Book: The Art of Smart Football

My second book, The Art of Smart Football, is now available. Like my first book, The Art of Smart Football is a collection of chapters across a range of subjects, all dealing in with football strategy and tactics, as well as the people behind them. I truly hope you enjoy it.

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If you’ve read every word I’ve ever written (I should be so lucky!) you will recognize some subjects that aren’t all-new. But there’s new material and I’ve also edited and updated each chapter to now, and in most cases expanded the chapters as well.

I chose to publish the book myself, as I did with The Essential Smart Football, for a variety of reasons. I nevertheless have had a great deal of help along the way, in particular from my readers who have provided tremendous support and feedback at every step.

You can purchase the book using the links below. I’ve also included a special 20% discount code for my smartfootball.com readers. I hope that is a small token of my appreciation for your support over the years; this August will mark the ten year anniversary of Smart Football.

A final, small request: If you get the book and enjoy it, I’d truly appreciate it if you wouldn’t mind spending a brief minute to write a review on Amazon. It would be much appreciated.

For any marketing or other inquiries, please email me at chris [at] smartfootball.com

Most Popular Books Bought by Smart Football Readers in 2014

I’ve always been floored by the quality of the feedback and discussion from Smart Football readers (whether on this site, Grantland or on Twitter or Facebook), so it’s always fascinating to see which books are most popular among readers. The following is a breakdown of the books purchased over the last year by Smart Football readers. I get very minor referral revenues from Amazon purchases and, as a result, I am able to track which books are purchased by readers. The data is entirely anonymous but it is, to me at least, quite interesting. (Click to enlarge the charts.)

The Most Popular Books Bought by Smart Football Readers in 2014

2014 Chart 1

The Most Popular Books Bought by Smart Football Readers in 2014 (excluding The Essential Smart Football)

2014 Chart 2

Below is the full list of books. Note that I simply included the top books and did not include a separate “other” category. I thought the list was fairly eclectic this year, as non-football books had numbers comparable to the football ones. And, as usual, books that focused on football strategy dominated all other sports or football titles.

Amazon is running a 99 cent special on The Essential Smart Football for Kindle

Amazon has a short-term 99 cent special of my book, The Essential Smart Football for Kindle.

Click here to see the offer.

The Essential Smart Football

What I’ve been reading — Flash Boys, Home Game, How Children Succeed, The Lean Startup

Flash Boys, by Michael Lewis. flashFlash Boys is Lewis’s newest book — it was released on Monday, preceded by a feature story on 60 Minutes — and details how high-frequency traders are “rigging” the stock market. I, of course, bought it immediately, as Lewis’s work is all essentially self-recommending. I haven’t had the chance to make much progress yet, but so far, so good: it’s in Lewis’s typical clean, elegant prose, and covers subject matter (financial chicanery through the eyes of colorful outsiders) right in his wheelhouse. I’ll put up a more extensive review once I’ve finished the book.

Home Game, also by Michael Lewis, is something altogether different, and I read it last fall when I was home with our new baby. It’s hard to recommend the book as the subject matter — Lewis’s own unique approach to fatherhood, which mostly involves him detailing ways he feels inadequate or at least overmatched by the prospect — is quite narrow, and the book itself feels a bit like an attempt to cash in on his success as it is a collection of disparate thoughts and events, some recalled years later for his older children and others recorded in somewhat real time for his younger ones. Of course, there remain moments of insight, such as when Lewis details a father’s feelings of paralysis and uselessness while his wife suffers through labor and deliver, and the book was an easy read at a time when I am still amazed I had the brainpower to read much of anything. It’s a good book for expecting and recent dads, though Adam Gopnik’s From Paris to the Moon covers somewhat similar territory in similar though more complete and better organized fashion.

How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, by Paul Tough. This surprisingly riveting book is about a shift in thinking about the best way to educate and prepare children for their lives, specifically a shift away from a sole focus on raw IQ — evidenced by making three year-olds do countless math problems or other pure “cognitive development” activities — to methods that, for lack of a better term, try to help them develop supporting skills like character, diligence, curiosity, and, most of all grit and determination. I’m no education expert and reading a book of competing educational studies is not how I’d like to spend my time, but Tough supports his argument with fantastic stories of real people. I was alerted to this book by this fantastic review (which contains several excerpts) of Tough’s book which focuses on Elizabeth Spiegel, an inner-city chess teacher and one of Tough’s heroes. But this isn’t just a Hollywood style narrative; it’s far more complex, and far more rewarding.

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My Favorite Books of 2013

This is a list, in no particular order, of the books I read in 2013 which I consider my favorites. This does not mean these books came out in 2013; it only means I read them this calendar year.

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  • Out of Sight, by Elmore Leonard. I was sad to hear of Leonard’s passing, but I’d only read a couple of books of his prior to this year. Out of Sight was tightly focused and riveting throughout.
  • The Outsiders: Eight Unconventional CEOs and Their Radically Rational Blueprint for Success, by William Thorndike. While not exactly a beach read and it doesn’t have a lot of obvious application outside of its narrow focus, this may have been my favorite book that I read all year. Thorndike’s book takes eight colorful CEOs and uses their experience to turn a lot of corporate common wisdom on its head. If you are at all into business or any kind of corporate finance, I highly recommend this book.
  • The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.: A Novel, by Adelle Waldman. This critics’ favorite was more than a little precious in parts, but it was also extremely well written and a breezy, fun read about the habits of that all too familiar creature, the literary, career minded Brooklyn-ite male.
  • “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!”: Adventures of a Curious Character, by Richard Feynman. Surprisingly funny, this collection of stories and anecdotes from Feynman is extremely entertaining (and at least a little informative on the physics, too).
  • The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America, by Louis Menand. Menand’s lucid, highly readable book puts this group of pragmatic philosophers in historical context.

For more books, check out the most popular books bought by Smart Football readers, as well as my own.