Passing Fancy

Book discussed:
The Perfect Pass: American Genius and the Reinvention of Football by S.C. Gwynne. Scribner, 2016. 308 pages.

 

Few sports innovations possess the magnitude of the forward pass in football. It saved lives.

Spokane Daily, November 30, 1905

Between 1901 and 1905, sixty-one players died (by some accounts, even more) either on the field or because of injuries sustained on the field—usually the result of being crushed on the bottom of a pig pile. But just because a player survived being crushed to death, doesn’t mean he escaped unscathed: intra-pile eye gougings and bone breakings were commonplace.

Rather than take the drastic measure of banning football (as did some colleges and universities), the football rules commission met in 1906, under the mandate of devoted football fan and President of the United States, Teddy Roosevelt, with the hope of making changes that would save both football and human lives. The most dramatic rule change was the institution of the forward pass, or at least some rudimentary version of it (passes could only travel 20 yards, incomplete passes were penalized), designed to alleviate some of the pressure on both the piles and hopefully on the game itself.

Its history as a safety measure helps explain why the forward pass has long been viewed skeptically by both coaches and purists alike. For them, the forward pass was unmanly for the exact reason it was safer: it allowed players to bypass the pile altogether. While passing might open up more space within the field of play, it also betrayed the masculine essence of football, which had now given way to a “feminized” brand of football that eschewed toughness for finesse. This conflict—between the violence of the game and the measures taken to try and protect players from that violence—has become as much a part of football as touchdowns and fumbles. The forward pass itself becomes a compelling—and distressing—part of this conflict as it becomes plagued by the very violence it was designed to circumvent, or at the very least reduce.

The Perfect Pass, S.C. Gwynne’s book about Hal Mumme and his “Air Raid” offense, helps us understand the historical context and development of the forward pass so that we can more fully grasp both how and why Mumme’s brand of offense qualifies as innovative. Even as the unmanly stigma of the passing game has diminished somewhat over time, few coaches had ever designed their offenses around the pass, and none to the extent that Hal Mumme did. Mumme developed and implemented a pass-first offense, which he dubbed the “Air Raid,” and deployed it most famously at the University of Kentucky in the mid-1990s. Rather than throw the ball occasionally and vertically (as was usual in most offenses from the high school ranks through the NFL), Mumme designed an offense that utilized as many as five wide receivers to spread the field horizontally as well as vertically in order to throw the ball as often as possible. Air Raid quarterbacks routinely attempted 50 passes per game and threw for over 300 yards (and sometimes over 400 or even 500 yards) per game.

Gwynne’s book falls into the tradition most associated with Michael Lewis (Moneyball, The Big Short): tales about obscure iconoclasts whose influence extends well beyond their rather narrow fields of expertise. And Gwynne goes into great detail to show how, contrary to conventional wisdom, Mumme’s system ditched the offensive playbook altogether (literally) and relied instead on improvisation and reaction. Routes weren’t called ahead of time but in response to the defense being played, and Gwynne does well to show us how Mumme designed his plays with seemingly infinite variations, since the Air Raid offense relies on quarterbacks and receivers recognizing and adjusting their routes in real time to the defensive coverage (whether man-to-man or zone, for instance).

Gwynne’s book engagingly tells the story of Mumme’s roots in small-town Texas football as well as the meticulous research and experimentation required to design and build an offense based almost solely on the forward pass, even when coaching at tiny schools such as Iowa Wesleyan College. Although some may still believe that the forward pass has “feminized” football, Gwynne reassures us of Mumme’s football bona fides, such as his love for the “bone-crushing brutality of the game.” He continues, “For those who thought Iowa Wesleyan practices were just afternoon tea parties for a bunch of pansies, watching the sessions themselves would have changed their minds.” The regrettable gender politics leave the reader confused about how to think about Mumme as an innovator: is he actually challenging the status quo of football’s conservative, conventional wisdom or is he like other football coaches, just with a different way of running an offense?

In the end, Gwynne’s book treats Mumme as an innovator whose innovation never quite amounted to the on-field success that he imagined it would have. In his lone major conference coaching gig, Mumme produced #1 overall draft pick, Tim Couch and another NFL backup, Jared “the Hefty Lefty” Lorenzen, who played quarterback while weighing in at or near 300 pounds. But his even in Mumme’s best season at Kentucky, the Wildcats still only compiled a record of 7-5, and his overall coaching record is a pedestrian 139-136-1. He now toils in relative obscurity as the head coach of Belhaven University in Jackson, MS, and Gwynne details how Mumme’s head coaching career has not gone according to plan, a result both of his own stubbornness and of circumstances beyond his control.1

With such modest team success and a lack of high-profile coaching employment, touting him as any kind of innovator might seem like a curious move. But Gwynne successfully depicts Mumme as an imaginative tactician, and as someone whose influence (like the more renowned passing game innovators such as Bill Walsh and Don Coryell) extends beyond the narrow confines of wins and losses and toward the wider implementation and institutionalization of the Air Raid’s foundational principles. Gwynne shows how many teams at all levels of football, from high schools to Tom Brady and the New England Patriots, have incorporated aspects of the Air Raid into their passing games.

Yet, Gwynne’s assessment of Mumme’s legacy stops short of discussing the implications of the forward pass, which, in direct contrast to its inception, is now a threat to player safety. Unable to cover all the receivers scattered across the field (be they wideouts, running backs, or tight ends), defenses have often adopted a strategy of hitting receivers as hard and as often as possible over the course of the game with the short-term goal of jarring the ball loose and the long-term hope of disincentivizing their desire to catch the ball. Such tactics have led directly to the new twin scourges of football: the concussion and the prolonged effects of repeated helmet to helmet contact, chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

Judge magazine, 1906

A look at who suffers concussions by position in the NFL demonstrates how the passing game now threatens player safety in the modern game. Concussion statistics compiled by PBS Frontline from the 2015 NFL season reveal that cornerbacks (41) and wide-receivers (24), along with linebackers (24), tight ends (17), and, rather ironically, safeties (17)—in other words, the players who catch footballs and those who try to stop them from doing so—suffer the most concussions. Moreover, the rules and rhetoric surrounding penalties for helmet to helmet contact, unnecessary roughness, and, in college football, “targeting,” would seem designed to protect pass catchers, but as the numbers bear out, the people who suffer the most from helmet to helmet contact are not the players getting hit (though they’re certainly in danger, too!) but rather the players doing the hitting. And like the forward pass, these changes have been unenthusiastically greeted by both players and fans, as symbols of a “watered down” down game that once again compromises football’s masculine culture of toughness and brutality. 

Considering Gwynne’s portrayal of Mumme’s “genius” in the context of football’s evolution, then, uncovers a rather tragic irony: the very part of the game designed to lessen the casualties of the sport (the forward pass) is now the primary source of permanently debilitating and life-threatening injuries. And the aforementioned rules and regulations help distract viewers and players alike from what seems increasingly apparent: football kills its players—not on the bottom of piles anymore but in a more gradual and no less excruciating manner.

If football seems doomed, whether from rule changes or threats to player safety, the masculine rhetoric surrounding the game seems as much to blame as the game itself. If deaths and concussions are seen as merely collateral damage for a larger battle of testosterone-driven wills, we would be wise to question those wills. If trying to preserve players’ brain health is viewed as compromising the essence of the game, then the problem is as much with our values as it is with the game itself—and if the game enables those values then we need to find a way out of such a vicious circle.

And yet, if last hundred years has taught us anything, it’s that football endures. It endures the changes to its rules and it endures the complaints about those rules. If only the same could be said about those who play the game.

1 Gwynne recounts how Mumme was forced to resign from the University of Kentucky for repeated, relatively minor recruiting violations (he did coach, after all, in the SEC) that he had no knowledge of and for which he was eventually exonerated. But the damage to his career had been done.
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