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'Newton's Football' explains the real science of the gridiron

A good subtitle for "Newton's Football" might be "Pigskin Freakonomics." This extraordinary collaboration between Allen St. John, columnist for Forbes.com and author of "The Billion Dollar Game," and Ainissa G. Ramirez, a PhD in materials science and engineering and author of "Save Our Science," aims at nothing less than "finding the common ground between Issac Newton and Vince Lombardi, between Bill Walsh and Erwin Schrodinger."

You might have thought that football coaches and scientists are such radically different species that they couldn't pass the salt at the dinner table without missing the connection. It turns out that the game has evolved largely because football's greatest brains were, whether they knew it or not, in sync with concepts of the great physicists.

One hero of "Newton's Football" is Walter Camp, Yale halfback-turned-sportswriter of the 1870s whose rules helped change football from the old-fashioned "pig pile" struggles of its early days into something akin to what we now watch on Sunday afternoons. It was Camp who suggested reducing the size of the team from 15 to 11 players, tilting the game away from sheer strength to speed and skill. He also created the idea of a line of scrimmage and a system of "downs" to measure the ball's progress, moving football away from rugby-style scrums.

Camp's rules "provided a giant pause button. Soccer and rugby — as well as more modern sports like baseball and hockey — feature a continuous flow of action, with decision-making occurring on the fly. But Camp's version of football was played at a much more deliberate tempo." Put simply, Camp's brand of football depended less on improvisation and more on coordinated action. After Camp, players and coaches "would strategize and counter-strategize. They would think. They would plan."

Early strategy included the "Flying Wedge," devised by a Harvard coach and first used against Yale in 1892. Players would lock arms and form a V in front of the ball carrier with bigger guys in the middle, faster guys on the wing. Assuming that players in the wedge averaged 200 pounds, "a low estimate of the impulse of the collision — the change in momentum after impact — was 2.5 tons, roughly the equivalent of getting hit by a SUV traveling at 25 miles per hour." It was football's equivalent of the military formation used by Alexander the Great, the phalanx, and too brutal for a game designed for gentlemen. The wedge was outlawed, "but its grisly legacy would live on." Many more mass-blocking plays followed in its wake, causing so many severe injuries that some called for football to be banned.

It might have been outlawed if not for a 1905 meeting called by President Theodore Roosevelt that brought representatives from Ivy League schools together with Walter Camp and Secretary of State Elihu Root. Their most important innovation was the legalization of an odd play called "the forward pass." Thus began the convoluted line that has led to Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers.

"Mel Blount Channels Thomas Edison" is an illustration of how one player can make an impact on a sport. Blount, a Hall of Fame defensive back for the Pittsburgh Steelers' "Steel Curtain" defense of the 1970s, played his position in a new way. At 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds, Blount was bigger than most cornerbacks. Like Thomas Edison, he practiced the concept of "divergent thinking." Instead of shadowing receivers, he found new ways to slow them down — grabbing, bumping, feinting, and "if he got away with it again, he'd put that tactic in his tool box."

As more and more Blount-sized defensive backs appeared in the league, scoring went down. The NFL had to create "the Blount rule," which limited contact between receivers and defensive backs and liberated the passing game.

Perhaps the book's two most intriguing chapters illustrate how in football, as in physics, small changes can produce great consequences. "The Butterfly Effect of Greg Cook" tells the story of a legendary Cincinnati Bengals quarterback who played just 12 games of pro football before an injury to the best throwing arm in the league ended his career. Cook was such a strong passer that he "stretched" the field, forcing opposing defenses to cover more territory. After losing his star quarterback, Bill Walsh, then an assistant coach for the Bengals, took "the system that he designed for Cook and rotated it 90 degrees" for a less-talented but quick-witted passer named Virgil Carter — instead of receiver running down the field, Walsh's new offense sent them across the field. It was a strategy that revolutionized football.

And in "Sam Wyche at Play in the Fields of Chaos," a football coach inadvertently applies the ideas of English scientist Stephen Wolfram with his innovative "no huddle" offense: By shortening the time between plays "Wyche was changing the framework within which those plays were run, or, as Wolfram would say, the initial conditions of the play." The subtle change threw defenses into chaos.

"Newton's Football" takes a Big Think approach, expanding the enjoyment of football like 3-D glasses enhance a your perception of a movie.

Barra's latest book is "Mickey and Willie: The Parallel Lives of Baseball's Golden Age."


Newton's Football
The Science Behind America's Game

By Allen St. John and Ainissa G. Ramirez
Ballantine Books, 272 pp., $26


Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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