Ron Jaworski’s The Games That Changed The Game
ESPN broadcaster Ron Jaworski played 17 seasons in the NFL, including a long run from 1977 to 1986 as quarterback for the Eagles. His new book, The Games That Changed the Game, covers seven NFL contests, describing, in rigorous detail, how such innovations as the “cover 2” and the “zone blitz” impacted the sport. Along the way “Jaws,” as he’s known, sprinkles the narrative with some personal details, including a bombshell about how he sometimes wonders how his life might be different if he had played, not in Philadelphia, but San Diego. Philly Mag contributing writer Steve Volk got him on the phone this week to talk cheesesteaks, football strategy, and more.
Steve Volk: I’ll have a few more Philadelphia-related questions later, but let’s get the important one out of the way: Pat’s or Geno’s.
Jaws: Oh c’mon. It’s a tie.
SV: Are you running for office?
Jaws: Hey, we gotta be politically correct about this. There’s no way you’ll get me to choose.
SV: I’m impressed. Good call. So what was the genesis of the book? Was this an idea you’d been kicking around for a whole.
Jaws: One of my coauthors, Greg Cosell, and I had first brought this up a few years ago. We’ve been sitting here at NFL Films watching game tape for 20 years, watching football and looking at the coaching tape. We’re sitting here looking for a life and don’t have one! But we’ve had fun, and what we’ve learned is that literally every week we encounter some new scheme, some change in the game or some innovative design, that we thought ‘Wouldn’t it be great to collect that and figure out what were the game’s greatest innovations?’ That’s how it started.
SV: And how did it evolve from there?
Jaws: Well, that was the hard part, and it went on for about two years, was figuring out which games we were going to use to build our chapters around. We are ready to move onto book two, to tell you the truth, because we could easily have done 20 different games. And that was the hard part in narrowing it down to seven games.[SIGNUP]
SV: Just as a fan, looking over how the book was constructed, in chronological order with each new scheme getting a chapter, it seems no coincidence that there is an offensive innovation, and then one on the defensive side of the ball. Then there are a couple of wrinkles on offense, and then there is another major defensive innovation. Did you see your book as revealing the NFL as a kind of ongoing arms race? One side gets a new weapon and the other has to find some way of counteracting that, and that is the force that drives the game?
Jaws: Wow. I hadn’t thought of it in that language but that is totally true. It is an arms race. I mean, I was aware that’s how these things develop and evolve. I was talking to a coach from the Dolphins about what the Patriots did last week, coming out with five receivers and no one in the backfield and getting out into their patterns quickly, and we were talking about how can a defense respond to that. And I think the book does capture that sense of one innovation leading to another.
SV: The book is sort of geeky, there is so much detail about how the game is played. I love it for that, but are you finding that readers are responding to this level of detail positively?
Jaws: Yeah, and we wondered about that, too. But people are saying it’s very educational, and I have to say for me, one of the most gratifying parts of the book is the way we introduce readers to the personalities behind these innovations—Buddy Ryan, Bill Walsh, Dick LeBeau—and the list goes on and on. Those details, like about Chargers coach Sid Gillman—when he was a kid his parents owned a movie theater, and when the news reels came in he literally clipped all the football stuff out of those and started his own collection of NFL film, as a boy. That’s amazing and I didn’t know that, so in some ways those personal stories are the best part of the book. But I think, to your question, fans in general have become more sophisticated about the game. They really have. And I think the foremost reason is just love of the game. They can’t get enough of it, and they want detail. I used to do a program for women, teaching wives and girlfriends about football, and at first I just did really soft stuff. There are 11 people on a side, for each play, and the field is 100 yards long…and then I would open up the floor to questions, and these women would want to talk about the virtues of bringing a safety up to the line of scrimmage and how a quarterback should respond when the defense shows eight men in the box. So everyone is caught up in it, no question.
SV: I also thought it was interesting that you devoted so much space to some forecasting of what developments might be right over the horizon.
Jaws: Very much so. That was challenging. But people, you know, they talk about the spread offense making its way into the game from college. But my opinion is that will never happen. The spread will do one thing in the NFL—get the quarterback killed. Years ago, there was some attempt to incorporate the wishbone into the NFL, where the quarterback runs down the lines of the scrimmage and keeps it himself or pitches it. So the first time they tried it the quarterback ran left and got hit upside the head. And the second time he ran right and got hit up the other side of his head. No more wishbone.
SV: So, a few Philly questions. I was very surprised to read that you still wonder sometimes how things would be different if you had chosen to play in San Diego instead of Philadelphia.
Jaws: Oh yeah. Of course I do. Not a lot of people have known about it, but it’s hard not to wonder what I might have accomplished, statistically, in that Don Coryell offense. Would I have wound up in the Hall of Fame, like the guy who did play in that offense—Dan Fouts?
SV: Are you getting any blowback about that here in Philadelphia?
Jaws: The book is just making its way out into the word, so…not yet. But if it comes, that’s fine. I had that opportunity to play there, and in that offense who knows what kind of statistics I might have generated.
SV: You know, you pulled off a neat trick. You played quarterback in Philadelphia and remain fondly remembered.
Jaws: (Laughing) I still don’t know how.
SV: But really, I wanna press you on this: How did you do it?
Jaws: I really don’t know, but also, it wasn’t always easy. I got booed at times. But like coach Dick Vermeil used to say, the only response is to turn those “boos” to “oohs.” I mean, that’s what it comes down to. Fans are happier when the team is winning.
SV: Yeah, but there is only one more game Donovan McNabb could have won.
Jaws:: Exactly, and for a quarterback that is what it’s about: You got any jewelry? You win any Super Bowl rings? I think it was hard for Philadelphia fans to watch him, year after year, make the playoffs, but not get the trophy. And I like Donovan. I think he did a fantastic job in Philadelphia, which I think is really only maybe a tad more tough to play in than other NFL cities. But there is something off about Donvan’s game that doesn’t show up in the film. In big games, he had a hard time delivering a consistent performance. I still think, in the Super Bowl, the Eagles should have left that first quarter with a sizeable lead. Andy Reid’s gameplan was fantastic. He had Brian Westbrook isolated on Teddy Bruschi, and Donovan couldn’t take advantage of it. He played better later, but that’s just how big games went for him. He didn’t put in a 60-minute performance. In response to your initial question, I think my reputation in town benefited from a couple of things: I made my home in Philadelphia, and my career as a broadcaster has kept me in the public eye in another way, so I think those off-the-field things helped my standing and maybe I am remembered a little more fondly than I might otherwise have been.
SV: So what happens now with Mike Vick?
Jaws: I’m being very careful when it comes to assessing Michael Vick because we have a very small sample size at this stage, of 10 quarters. And I just think there is a clunker of a game coming soon. It won’t all be three touchdowns and no interceptions, every game, and so we’ll see how he responds then. He has improved in some respects, but he still has trouble reading defenses.
SV: What’s the atmosphere like, when you’re watching all those big screens in ESPN’s offices on a Sunday afternoon, with every game on?
Jaws: It’s a lot of fun. You’re talking about having everyone, the former coaches and players, the guys from Scouts Inc., sitting there with all the games playing out and everyone has an opinion and no one is shy about expressing it. You’ll get a lot of the stuff you don’t get on TV, like “Man, that was a dumbass pass!”
SV: I’ll be looking for an “arms race” reference in your next broadcast.
Jaws: You’ll hear it.