Five Burning Questions (and More): Chris Brown of Smart Football

Diehards know his blog Smart Football as an invaluable resource on football strategy. Now you can find all of Chris Brown’s greatest hits and more in his new book The Essential Smart Football. (It’s currently the best-selling football book on

In advance of the book’s release next week, Chris talked with CBR about what readers can expect from it, the challenges in explaining the nuances of football strategy and the next generation of innovations in the game.

You take a more cerebral, analytical look at football relative to most of the football bloggers out there. You rarely discuss teams that you root for or engage in any of the staples of the blogoshpere – trash-talking, rankings, etc. What got you started writing about football, and what’s the motivation behind your approach to analysis and writing?

Chris Brown: I started out by writing the types of things I wanted to read. The “game behind the game” is an important part of, well, the game, and I think understanding at least aspects of it can really improve your ability to enjoy football, which is what it’s all about. The game is ultimately about the effort and talents of the players, but if you don’t have any idea about the scheme, you can’t see how brilliant some offensive guard is, or how the cornerback the camera is zooming in on didn’t do anything wrong at all but it was the safety, or exactly how the defense tricked a quarterback into throwing a pick and so on.

To me, there’s obviously the mano-a-mano real-time strategy of the offensive and defensive playcallers, but it’s really about having more context to appreciate what the players are doing. Football is great for many, many reasons, and the fact that you don’t have to turn your brain off for it is a big plus in my book.

You’re billing your new book as a look at some of football’s “most important strategies and ideas.” How do you separate what qualifies as important and what doesn’t?

Brown: To some extent it’s going to be in the eye of the beholder. But the nice part about football is, at the end of the day, it’s about two things: winning games and developing men. The important ideas are going to be angled in those directions, with schemes obviously being more important to wins and gameplans than the development of character part. So the schemes I have focused on tend to be either: (1) ones that, while new, quickly ripple across the game, changing how teams line up, play or use their personnel; or (2) ones that stand the test of time and, despite all of the other change, stay the same. Obviously the last decade or so of football has been marked by the rise of the spread in its various forms – pass-first, run-first, balanced, and so on – and much of the other changes are either wrinkles off of that big shift or reactions to it. You see this latter part particularly in the move towards additional defensive backs like TCU’s 4-2-5 defense, or simply in the increased use of “hybrid” defensive players, which is becoming increasingly common in the NFL.

The hard part in judging importance is that importance is not always so obvious. While there are few geniuses in football, there are “ingenious” ideas, and those ingenious ideas tend to multiply and reproduce throughout football very rapidly. And, yet, those who came up with the ideas may not have the talent or the circumstance or even the fan support to see the benefit. In football, innovators are not always rewarded.

In a lead in to a chapter I quote Goethe: “Daring ideas are like chessmen moved forward; they may be beaten, but they may start a winning game.”

“If you can read this, you’re a Neanderthal.”

If Christopher Hitchens was a football coach, who would he be? (It’s Ruffin McNeill, isn’t it?)

Brown: That’s a brutally difficult question. (Compounded by the fact that Hitch hated sports.)

I’m not sure what the right answer there is, but I’m pretty sure that Les Miles is bizarro Christopher Hitchens. If I were to ask what football coach could write (the football equivalent of) Letters to a Young Contrarian, there are few answers. Mike Leach is the all-too-obvious one, but that answer seems unsatisfying. 1990s-era Steve Spurrier seems to qualify for his brashness and success, but in the end, I’m not sure if there’s anyone else like Hitchens in any arena.

What was your favorite chapter to write?

Steve SpurrierBrown: Hard to say. I find that the topics I know the most about – say the Air Raid offense of a Mike Leach or Dana Holgorsen, or some particular zone blitz scheme – can sometimes overwhelm me with everything I want to say, while the ones I don’t know much about before I start calling around and researching the topic can end up being the most fun. I also really like stories; football may be a lowly topic, but the game’s intellectual history and the development of the ideas that have given us the game we have today is as fascinating to me as anything else.

Putting that together, my favorite chapter may have been the chapter on Bill Belichick’s hybrid one-gap/two-gap defense, which coincidentally Nick Saban also uses a great deal of, since it really was the culmination of a wide variety of ideas that coalesced into one current day scheme, and it also let me talk about defensive line play in what was hopefully a new way. Second favorite was probably the chapter on Steve Spurrier and his old Florida offense, because I loved his system back then – based around the dropback pass, the lead-draw play and the play-action off of the lead-draw – and how he integrated read routes into a pro-style type scheme. It’s why, back at Florida with all the talent he had, he literally couldn’t turn his offense off. Steve’s had a lot of success at South Carolina, but that even his amazing offense has diminished some is a lesson that football is a very fluid game (which in turn gives me a lot of material).

Which scheme do you consider the hardest to decipher and explain?

Brown: I think describing the intricacies of line play is extremely difficult to reduce into print words or even images and video. In the trenches, the difference between a pancake block and a sack, or successful power block or a tackle for loss, is extremely small. Sometimes, it comes down to where the offensive linemen stepped, with just a few inches of difference.

Also, it’s easy to talk about coverages, or a certain defensive front, or about a specific blitz, but it’s difficult to talk about how they all tie together and have to account for all the various formations and adjustments they might see from the offense. This might be my own deficiency (having more experience with quarterbacks in both passing systems and triple option systems), but it’s a challenge to convey all of that in the kind of well-told, entertaining way I strive for.

Who’s the one coach or figure who has had the greatest impact on the modern-day version of the game?

Brown: Excluding the historical greats like Sid Gilman or Bill Walsh, and strictly in the very narrow “playbook” sense, I think you have to point to a triumvirate of offensive guys: Mike Leach and the wide-open, spread-to-pass speed in space stuff (remember, even Oklahoma’s offense, as well as West Virginia, Texas A&M, Oklahoma State, Baylor, Louisiana Tech, and so on, is still coached on offense by his disciples); Chip Kelly both for the spread-to-run stuff but also for the no-huddle as a year-round philosophy, particularly in practice; and and a sort of joint/tie with Paul Johnson of Georgia Tech and Chris Ault of Nevada, who individually wouldn’t get it, but the pistol spread stuff plus the resurgence of the triple-option (including in combined form) are going to lead to some of the best rushing attacks football has ever seen. All of those guys are extremely influential at the lower levels, and it’s trickling ever upwards.

Saban350In the long run, however, I think from a holistic point of view the most influential guy will be Nick Saban. This isn’t exactly a novel perspective, but the “total program,” mind-body-and-soul approach he brings to his team is unparalleled. And like his mentor Bill Belichick (and maybe better than Belichick), he coaches his coaches to where his former coaches and players will make up a rather large portion of the next generation of coaching leaders. And schematically – with the help of great talent – no one’s defense is better adapted to the incredible strains modern offenses put on today’s defenses. The ability to release four guys vertically for deep or quick passes while using the quarterback as a run-threat (even as a secondary or tertiary one), combined with a barrage of screens and perimeter plays, all at a breakneck pace is as difficult to defend as anything in football history. And this isn’t theory, it’s arithmetic: There just aren’t enough guys. But Saban’s methods are as good as are out there, and it’s because of just how detail oriented he is. He can teach his defenders to pattern read, thus eliminating all that free space Air Raid and other teams like that love, and because he understands blocking schemes and can teach his players to two-gap or one-gap, he can handle spread-run schemes better than anyone else in football. (And don’t even think about going two-back power stuff against him at Alabama. Without a threat of four verticals, he’ll go to Cover 1 “Robber” and use the arithmetic of six decades of football against two-back sets to hit your run game like a ton of bricks. You better hope you can hit some deep fly routes on his corners because that’s about all he’s giving you.)

Are there any strategies or philosophies that you didn’t get to cover but wish you had?

Brown: Oh sure. But that’s the fun part about the game — it keeps moving. I also tried to hew closely to the title of the book, namely the “Essential” part. The two big trends I see heading into the fall are the increased use of “combination” or packaged plays, where you combine a run and a pass or even a run, a downfield pass and a screen all into the same play. Dana Holgorsen started doing some wild stuff with this at Oklahoma State and West Virginia, and Todd Monken did a great job taking it even a step further last year at OSU, and now everyone from the Green Bay Packers to Notre Dame are working on these concepts.

On the defensive side of the ball, particularly in the NFL with its roster limitations, I think we’re going to see more and more “hybrid” defenses, where it’s a 4-3 or a 3-4 but, actually, the defensive end is a DE/linebacker hybrid and maybe an outside linebacker is part linebacker part safety, just so the defense can account for all sorts of different looks from offenses and play the run and the pass. I think those trends will be in full force in the fall, but it may have been premature to put them in the book. That’s why there’ll need to be a sequel.

Last time we got together for beers, it was on me. If this book does as well as I expect, you’re buying next time.

Brown: Anytime, my friend.

(Click here for all the details on how to order The Essential Smart Football.)