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the perfect pass
11 february 2017
S. C. Gwynne's Perfect Pass is the rare work of sport history that has an arguable thesis about causality. Gwynne traces the pass-happy nature of present-day American football to the work of high-school and college coach Hal Mumme. Faced with an impossible situation at a school called Iowa Wesleyan – a laughably futile team on a campus utterly uninterested in football – Mumme instituted a "pass-first" offense that boosters came to call "Air Raid." With receivers improvising routes all over the field and quarterbacks flinging passes almost as soon as they took the snap – often without a huddle, and on any of their four downs – the Air Raid was apparently innovative and presumptively nuts. But Mumme took a hapless team to 24 wins in three seasons and national small-college prominence.
Gwynne evokes the football I first watched in the 1960s, which in its balance between running and passing had barely evolved for decades. I grew up as a fan watching a brand of football where everything seemed to be about fear and reluctance. Coaches were truly conservative: they ran the ball a few yards at a time, they hoarded timeouts, they worried incessantly about the clock running down, about time of possession, about the all-important "field position." You were always better off punting than doing anything else, because of the wonderful field position it gained you. A forward pass was a terrible risk, to be undertaken only on third and long, or late and far behind.
Pessimism, in short, ruled the day: it was like baseball from deadball days, full of sacrifice bunts. A coach here or there behaved optimistically; sometimes an entire pro career, like that of 1940s quarterback Sammy Baugh, was built on optimism. But those who passed a lot and displayed a carefree attitude toward the clock and the chains were mavericks; there was no general theory of football optimism.
Among other things, as Gwynne skillfully demonstrates, there wasn't a whole lot of opportunity to study what some maverick coach in some other state was doing. Video barely existed for much of the 20th century, and early game films were scarce commodities, limited to studying your own games or perhaps those of your nearest rivals. Till a couple of decades ago, a coach might not even know what was transpiring much beyond his own conference, or a few high-profile nationally-televised games. Newer information technologies, and the rise of cheap instant video, brought a whole culture together and made viral transmission of strategies possible.
Rule changes also helped, though Gwynne emphasizes this dynamic less. Pass blocking became easier; receivers were guaranteed freer movement. In the college game, the clock began to stop after every first down, boosting scoring. But such changes would have been cosmetic without an approach like Hal Mumme's that stressed uptempo play and constant movement.
In particular, Gwynne notes, Mumme's offenses took advantage of the whole width of the football field, more than half as wide as it is long. (Here too, a rule change that brought the hashmarks closer together was liberating.) Mumme was an innovator in calling pass plays that covered a lot of distance laterally but not very much forward. This seems counterintuitive in a game where the object is to move forward. But these passes exhausted defenses and exploited holes in coverage. It now seems natural for a quarterback to pivot to one side and throw a forward pass to a wide receiver somewhere around the line of scrimmage. It's hard to imagine now how weird that would have looked in 1967.
Gwynne stresses that nothing is ever really new in football; every tactic is a rediscovery of something that somebody else was doing in some obscure corner of a neglected conference fifty years ago. Mumme invented nothing (in fact borrowed liberally from the Brigham Young University playbook, hardly an obscure corner of the football world). But the success of his systems, in Iowa, at Valdosta State, and then at Kentucky, coincided with the rapid rise of "pass-first" football nationally.
The personal odyssey in the book is less interesting, with Mumme's nomadic career seeming more the stuff of minor American tragedy than of better-mousetrap success story. Mumme is still a head coach as of this writing, at a school in Mississippi called Belhaven University, which has no national profile, and at which he's had no success. Gwynne says that that's the way coaching goes – be nice to the people you meet on the way up. But it also seems clear that Mumme wore out his welcome at job after job, after some initial success nearly everywhere.
While reading The Perfect Pass, I did feel some nostalgia for the pro football of my childhood, that of Vince Lombardi's Packers, Dick Butkus and Gale Sayers' Bears, the Rams' Fearsome Foursome and the Vikings' Purple People Eaters. That brand of defense-oriented, ball-control, establish-the-running-game football would strike young fans of the 2010s as paleolithic, but it had its own aesthetic, one in which the passing game was a daring contrast to the line plunge, and all the more exciting for its rarity. And a truly great breakaway running back like Sayers is still, to me, the most exciting kind of football player.
Super Bowl LI, which I watched just before turning to Gwynne's book, helps clarify my nostalgia. It involved a great effort by the Patriots and their quarterback Tom Brady, whatever you think of their accumulated ethos. But that effort was made possible by rules and styles of play which have been tweaked to ensure that an American football game is virtually never out of hand. There is always time for a touchdown, sometimes two, sometimes a field goal, two touchdowns, and two two-point conversions.
In football of the 2010s, teams routinely call time out with the clock running down and their opponents driving for a go-ahead score. This really didn't use to happen very much with run-based offenses. The assumption was that there was never enough time, and that it was up to your defense to protect a lead. Anymore, it seems to be assumed that your defense will get riddled, so you want it to happen as quickly as possible and go about making the answering, and truly last-second, score.
It's splashy stuff, but the principle that all games should be decided in the last two minutes leads one to wonder why they play the first fifty-eight.
Gwynne, S.C. The Perfect Pass: American genius and the reinvention of football. New York: Scribner [Simon & Schuster], 2016.