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The Genius of Desperation by Doug Farrar

A new book on the history of innovation and schematic advances in the NFL

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Arizona Cardinals v Los Angeles Rams
Is Sean McVay the next great innovator?
Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

The new book from Doug Farrar, The Genius of Desperation, takes a chronological view of the evolution of football strategy. While it documents the schemes and the men behind those innovations, the book also does a nice job of underlining why some of these changes came about. This book really helped connect some dots for me to help focus what I think is going on in the game today. Often, we can look at history to learn about our present, and Farrar’s book serves us well in that capacity.

The first example Farrar covers that really stuck out to me was Clark Shaughnessy with the Chicago Bears. Shaughnessy’s influence on the Bears’ T-Formation led to a 73-0 drubbing of Washington in the 1940 championship game and set up a stretch of dominance for those Bears (4 championships in 6 years). Those innovations really took the league by storm and were the major impetus behind that sustained success. But, the league eventually catches up and reaches a state of equilibrium until the next innovation comes along.

Conversely, Farrar digs into Vince Lombardi, who he says isn’t credited enough as an offensive innovator because the Packers ran a fairly simple scheme. Here’s where I disagree with the author. Lombardi’s greatness was not in innovation but in perfection of his scheme. No one had dug into the details of each player’s responsibilities, techniques, and iterative variations to attack different defenses quite like Lombardi. That’s not necessarily innovative with regards to scheme but rather maximizing the efficiency of the scheme. Think of it as the difference between an entrepreneur and a Six Sigma Black Belt. Lombardi squeezed every drop out of that Packers Sweep en route to 5 titles over 7 years. The Lombardi Packers were the epitome of the end of that evolutionary cycle, so to speak – when someone or something dominates to such a degree that there has to be a major innovation to overcome it.

In the evolution of football strategy, I would argue that schematic innovations have moved in predictable cycles. An innovative strategy provides the innovator with a strategic advantage, many times resulting in immediate success. This is essentially the same thing as a “first-mover advantage” in the market place. This is followed by the death of old, dated concepts (and usually fired coaches), copying and incorporating elements of the new scheme throughout the league, and finally settling into some sort of equilibrium. The successful teams during that equilibrium are usually defined by who can do their best Lombardi impression and maximize that scheme with the best personnel. With the advances in technology, scouting, free agency, analytics, etc. we see these schematic changes adapted by the league more quickly than before, thus reducing the windows of the first-mover advantage.

Book cover for Doug Farrar’s the Genius of Desperation

Farrar has laid out the tick-tock of the innovative disruptors and the schemes that got them there throughout the league’s history. Sometimes it was just a mad genius with some chalk, but many times these innovations were born out of desperation – how can I beat this Goliath with a rock and a slingshot? I know I can’t win if we play their game. How can I use my players that aren’t as good as the team we’re playing and outsmart them with how we run our offense or defense? Put another way – the best swordsman in the world doesn’t worry about the 2nd best swordsman; he worries about the most unconventional one.

The history of football is full of these innovations, and many of them resulted in multiple championships and dynasty runs. Think about the 49ers in the 80’s with the implementation of the West Coast Offense. That offense led to 5 championships and a new definition of what good QB statistics look like. Seriously – take a look at players before Montana and since and tell me there isn’t a huge difference in accuracy expectations for the modern NFL QB. Those concepts fundamentally changed the way the game is played forever. But, the West Coast Offense was born out of a sense of desperation, not with Montana, but in Cincinnati with a weak-armed QB where Bill Walsh served as Offensive Coordinator.

Some innovations send shockwaves, others send ripples. Think about the wildcat – very effective for the desperate Dolphins to beat the Patriots, but now merely a gadget play. Or, think about the Bears 46 defense, something so dominant it gave birth to some of the most devastating defenses in NFL history but is nowhere to be seen in today’s NFL. This book is full of these examples and provides for a fun history lesson.

Farrar digs into both sides of the ball with vigor and uses a fair number of diagrams to illustrate the innovations. If I had to pick some nits, I would have liked to see a primer at the front of the book for the novice fan to make this more accessible to a wider audience and more diagrams along the way for all of us to enjoy. If you’re an avid football fan and have at least a cursory understanding and interest of the X’s and O’s, you’ll absolutely love this book. If you’re more on the front end of the learning curve, this book probably doesn’t meet your needs. Honestly, I’d love to see the author turn this into a video series, showing film to illustrate the innovations and how they worked. I’d be all-in for an 8-part NFL Films documentary too – and the Sam Spence soundtrack to go with it.

This brings us to the present and future of the game that Farrar closes the book with, including the takeover of the RPO. I believe the league had been sitting in an era of equilibrium for a while, where it essentially required an MVP-level pocket passing QB to be consistently competitive or a defensive juggernaut to bring them down. For the most part, this evolutionary cycle has been defined by the premiere pocket passers fitting in tight window throws to receivers. Something earned over years of tape study, timing with receivers, and wisdom gained the hard way. Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers. If you didn’t have one of “those guys”, you almost certainly had to have something special on defense to compete.

The problem with that from a team building standpoint was that it was increasingly difficult to find one of those premiere pocket passers. The college game was shifting and teams were sinking high draft picks into QBs that couldn’t adapt to that game quickly enough for anxious franchises. Add in the new Collective Bargaining Agreement and the containment of rookie contracts and all the sudden, relying on young QBs with a modest contract surrounded by a great team context was en vogue. But what can those young QBs run right out of college? You got it – RPO’s, spread concepts, putting pressure on defenses with the ability to run read option plays. The hope, it would seem, is that when the price tag comes due on the second contract, that QB can carry a heavier burden and transition to the traditional pocket passing scheme.

The NFL today feels like it is experiencing one of those innovation moments – a disruption in the equilibrium. The best teams of 2018 appear to be in one of two molds - the young QB running creative concepts with wide open throws or the last vestiges of the old guard premiere pocket passer able to fit in tight windows with consistency. In one corner, Sean McVay, Jared Goff, Andy Reid, and Patrick Mahomes. In the other corner, Sean Payton, Drew Brees, Bill Belichick, and Tom Brady. Will the best swordsmen in the world win again or will it be the unconventional ones?

The Genius of Desperation is the type of book that needs to be in your library if you care about the history of the game and the schemes that make it so interesting. Simply put – this book makes you a better fan of the game.

Doug Farrar can be found on Twitter @NFL_DougFarrar. I can be found on the same format @gridironborn.