Whether experienced down in the bone-cracking, trash-talking muck of the gridiron or the relative safety of a nearest sports bar or sofa, professional football is a game of ideas. The roads to the Super Bowl and Hall of Fame are paved with radical innovation, where brain matters as much as brawn. In their new book, "Newton's Football: The Science Behind America's Game," journalist Allen St. John and scientist Ainissa Ramirez explore the big ideas and formative stories behind America's Game—and what the rest of us (muck-less ones) can take from them when reimagining our own lives.
1. Look at Things the Way No One Else Does
Vince Lombardi is best known as the archetype of the uncompromising football coach, one of the most quoted and inspirational figures of the 20th Century. But he was something else too: With his short sleeve dress shirts, skinny black ties and paradigm-crushing ideas, he was a prototypical science geek, long before anyone heard the names Jobs or Zuckerberg. He changed the game by rethinking the game.
Before Lombardi become a pro coach, he was a high school science teacher in Englewood, New Jersey. And when he took the reigns of the Green Bay Packers—the lousiest, losingest team in the NFL—at age 46 in 1959, he used that background to challenge assumptions that defined the game. While most teams of the day had players take on numerous positions, Lombardi studied the stats and realized that he could achieve much more by having each team member stick to one specialized role, and learn to execute it at a higher level.
And in an era of wild, anything-can-happen pass plays, Lombardi worked the numbers and determined that the cornerstone of his game would be the Sweep, an airtight running play— one that’s safe, simple, and infinitely tweakable. He famously realized that a pass could result in three outcomes (completion, incompletion, interception), two of them bad; but the Sweep would net at least 3 yards a shot, even in the other team knew it was coming. It was, in many ways, a practical application of Game Theory, the branch of mathematics espoused by genius John Nash of A Beautiful Mind fame. By focusing mainly on minimizing the negative aspects of worst-case scenarios rather than on maximizing potential payoffs, he drove his team to five championships. And transformed the game forever.
2. Understand your Real Goal
Coming out of college, the knock on wide receiver Jerry Rice was that he had great hands, but was slow. And yet, the San Francisco 49er played a key role in leading his team to three Super Bowl victories. In practices, Rice adopted the strange habit of running the ball all the way to the end zone on every catch, even if there were no defenders around. Why? Unlike other, faster receivers, he had a profoundly different view of the game.
Others thought their primary goal was to catch the ball. Rice realized that hisreal job was to get the ball into the end zone. “It became like a reaction,” says Rice. “I wanted to catch the ball and score.” Every time.
Rice understood that his role merely began when he caught the ball. He redefined his gig. And this unprecedented desire and ability to gain yards afterthe catch made him the greatest receiver of all time.
3. Embrace Chaos
During a practice one day while coaching the 49ers, Sam Wyche watched sprinter-turned-wide receiver Renaldo Nehemiah breathing hard between plays
“Jeepers, Skeets, I thought you were some kind of world class athlete,” Wyche joked to his receiver. “You’re breathing like a racehorse.” Nehemiah panted out his answer: “I just ran 60 yards as hard as I could run it. If you give me about four more seconds, I’ll be breathing through my nose again.”
Wyche remembered this moment, and when he took over the Cincinnati Bengals, he built a radical new offense around it. He realized that he could get a huge advantage if his team could run their offense against defenders who were sucking wind like Nehemiah was. So he adapted the “hurry-up” no-huddle offense – a technique the team had occasionally used when trailing in the final moments of the game—from the opening kickoff. The scheme, which prevented defenses from making substitutions, was so effective that Cincinnati made it all the way to the Super Bowl. To scientist Stephan Wolfram, who won a MacArthur genius award at age 21, Wyche’s scheme—changing not the plays or the players, but just the framework of the plays—applied chaos theory to football. And it showed that disruption, turmoil and general mayhem can be used strategically.
4. Take Advantage of Accidents
As a young coach in Cincinnati, Bill Walsh was granted his greatest wish: a rookie quarterback of unlimited potential. Tall, strong, and handsome, with a rocket arm, Greg Cook had one of the greatest rookie years in the history of the NFL in 1969, setting records that still stand today. But in his third game, the young Bengals star suffered a shoulder injury on a routine sack. If that play had happened now, Cook would have had an MRI, undergone surgery, missed the rest of the year, and returned stronger the following year. Instead, he continued to play and that rotator cuff injury ruined his arm and his career.
Which left Walsh in a quandary. He had built his offense around Cook's strong arm, and QB’s with Cook’s talent come across once a decade. Cook’s replacement was a weak-armed part-time math professor named Virgil Carter, and Walsh re-designed a brand new offense around Carter’s very different skill set. This complex offense, based on short routes that ran from sideline to sideline, was modestly successful in Cincinnati.
But when Walsh landed a head-coaching job in San Francisco nine years later, he installed another weak armed quarterback into that offensive scheme. That passer was Joe Montana, and the attack that would come to be known as The West Coast Offense.
Scientists call the phenomenon of a small incident having large and lasting impact The Butterfly Effect, named after notion that something as small as the flap of a butterfly’s wing in China can cause a tornado in Kansas. Or a quarterback sack in a meaningless October game can be the catalyst for the revolutionary offense that would change the face of football.
5. Find a Way to Use Adversity to Your Advantage
Working a factory job in the summer of 1941, star University of New Mexico kicker Ben Agajanian had the toes on his kicking foot amputated after a tragic freight elevator accident. The doctors and his coaches thought his career was over.
But instead, Agajanian tweaked his kicking shoe, and discovered that, miraculously, he actually kicked better after the accident. Why? Because his now-deformed foot put more surface area on the ball, so he kicked with more power and accuracy.
Tastefully dubbed the “Toeless Wonder” (um, it was the ‘40s, remember?), Agajanian became the NFL’s first single-position specialist, and later a legendary kicking coach. When a father of a young kicker asked Agajanian how his son might improve, Agajanian deadpanned, “Cut off his toes.”
The next generation of kickers managed to gain Agajanian’s edge without resorting to these drastic measures. The NFL’s soccer-style kickers would make solid contact with the ball by kicking with the sides of their feet.