This is how nutty it gets in the NFL: In 1996, Bill Parcells was working for Robert Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots, as head coach. Mr. Parcells didn't get along with Mr. Kraft, who in turn referred to Mr. Parcells as Darth Vader. The New York Jets essentially traded for Mr. Parcells and his assistant Bill Belichick, sending the Patriots a bundle of draft choices. But to no one's surprise, the short-fused Mr. Parcells could not get along with the owners of the Jets. Just before quitting, he named Mr. Belichick his replacement, doing so in a way calculated to belittle him, who promptly resigned as Jets head coach, doing so in a way calculated to belittle Mr. Parcells.
By Gary Myers
Crown, 263 pages, $26
This made Mr. Kraft want Mr. Belichick! Three Super Bowl victories later, Mr. Belichick and Mr. Kraft were happy together. Here's the kicker: It turns out that the famously grumpy, standoffish Mr. Belichick had felt psychologically abused by Mr. Parcells. He wanted to break free and find a place where he could grow emotionally. To give the soap opera a subplot, Mr. Belichick then hired Mr. Parcells's son-in-law to work for the Patriots.
This is just one of the many engaging story lines in Gary Myers's "Coaching Confidential," the perfect stocking-stuffer for the NFL addict on your holiday shopping list. Mr. Myers, a columnist for the New York Daily News, has covered pro football for three decades, including back in the days when head coaches and sports reporters drank together in hotel bars and said the kinds of things no one would dream of saying near a microphone today.
a pigskin bookshelf
Blood, Sweat and Chalk
By Tim Layden (2010)
A well-done illustrated history of the evolution of football tactics, told through famous coaches and the plays they introduced.
Friday Night Lights
By Buzz Bissinger (1990)
Among the best books ever written about sports, this non-fiction story of Texas high-school football also spawned a decent movie and a terrific television series.
The Mentor Leader
By Tony Dungy (2010)
Many football coaches have signed their names to self-help books built on statements of the obvious. Mr. Dungy contends that the best way to achieve your own goals is to help others achieve theirs. A spiritual, and a practical, message.
Love's Winning Plays
By Inman Majors (2012)
A delightful light novel about the insanity of S.E.C. football, by the nephew of College Football Hall of Fame member Johnny Majors.
NFL Record and Fact Book
A league annual, packed with rosters, schedules, stats and history, as well as a digest of the rulebook. Any football addict should have one next to the remote.
By Chris Nowinski (2006)
A former college football player takes a hard look at the brain damage caused by football, in a book that anticipated current concerns about concussions by several years.
Spread Formation Football
By Dutch Meyer (1952)
Today's pass-wacky spread offenses that scatter receivers along the line of scrimmage are called "revolutionary" by sportswriters. Meyer was running a double-wing spread in the late 1940s at Texas Christian University, and describes the concepts in this 1952 book.
Mr. Myers's experience and his location in New York City, where the NFL is based, make him an outstanding repository of quotes and anecdotes about the league. Here's a dilly. When, in 1979, the New York Giants used their first draft choice on Phil Simms, a total unknown from unknown Morehead State in Kentucky, the New York City draft audience booed loudly. But the NFL Films camera crews had a glitch and failed to record the booing. So NFL Films asked Commissioner Pete Rozelle to return to the podium and repeat the announcement, in order to trigger more booing. When Mr. Simms was named Super Bowl MVP for the Giants in 1987, video of a New York City crowd booing his selection eight years earlier became priceless.
Mr. Myers offers chapters on Messrs. Parcells and Belichick, as well as Tony Dungy, Mike Shanahan, Mike Holmgren and other accomplished coaches. There is considerable richness of detail. For instance, Mr. Myers reports that before a critical third down during a 1995 Packers-Steelers game played in frigid weather, Mr. Holmgren, then the Green Bay coach, could not get the attention of his star quarterback, Brett Favre. Why? Mr. Favre was busy laughing at his coach's walrus-style mustache, which had frozen. Another nice story has Mike Shanahan, while an assistant coach of the 49ers, asking Steve Young to "accidentally" throw a hard pass directly at Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis during warm-ups, to keep Davis from standing next to the opposition and trying to eavesdrop.
The shortcoming of "Coaching Confidential" is that, though it provides copious information about coaches' personality quirks and NFL organizational structures, the book is short on insight. Why do some men succeed as NFL coaches and others not? Do NFL coaches know things that high-school football coaches don't know, or are they just paid a lot more? Why did so many smart, hardworking NFL coaches either refuse to see, or entirely miss, what now seems the obvious evidence of a concussion crisis? Addressing these or other analytical questions might have given "Coaching Confidential" heft.
Mr. Myers details, for instance, the awful story of Philadelphia coach Andy Reid's son Garrett, who had many run-ins with drugs and the law and died in August 2012 of a heroin overdose at age 29, at the Eagles' training camp. Mr. Reid, Mr. Myers reports, once took a leave of absence to try to reach out to Garrett—but it was only a few weeks in midwinter, when there is not much going in the NFL. Even during the off-season, Mr. Reid reported to work as early as 4:30 a.m. and often slept in his office, absent from his family for extended stretches, accessible to his players but not to his own sons. After Garrett's funeral, he went back to work the next day.
Parents cannot control their adult children, and perhaps Mr. Reid did all that could have been done. George McGovern was unable to save his daughter Teresa from alcoholism; sometimes even the most conscientious parents simply fail. But the section on Mr. Reid's workaholic life fails to answer why NFL coaches ignore their families and sleep in their offices.
True, many highly paid executives spend way too much time at the office. But does it really make a difference if the head coach stays overnight on the couch? No matter how long you stare at game film, a screen pass is still a screen pass—how the players perform will always matter more than the most carefully designed strategies. Game plans often go out the window by the second quarter, and coaches make very basic mistakes under game-day pressure—it's not clear that coach workaholism influences outcomes, while very clear that the quality of athletes does. Most coaches have input into the team's draft choices, but even there excessive hours on the job may or may not accomplish much, since so many carefully considered draft picks become busts, while undrafted unknowns such as Wes Welker emerge as stars. There is a kind of vanity in head coaches' devotion to the job—"I am so incredibly important, I cannot leave the football office."
Football coaches like to believe they are super-essential, and sportscasters like to believe that too, because it makes the coaches godlike figures and thus better characters for the stories they spin about the games. But even for the best coach, the results of a football game are 90% the product of the players' athletic ability, 5% luck and 5% coaching. Mr. Myers might have delved into the mythology of NFL coaching and asked whether the profession has exaggerated importance. Other than that, "Coaching Confidential" is a fun read.—Mr. Easterbrook's latest novel,
"The Leading Indicators," was just published. He also writes the
Tuesday Morning Quarterback column for ESPN.