The Perfect Truth

On its surface, The Perfect Pass is a book about football strategy. But dig deeper, and it provides valuable lessons about basketball, coaching, and defeating conventional wisdom.

This is a new feature I’m trying out, where I write about a book I recently read and its applications to basketball, as well as provide some extra, in-depth notes for subscribers. If you like it and want to see more articles like this, please let me know via email, Twitter, or on the discussion board.

Back before the game was fundamentally altered, before what was once controversial became an accepted truth, before, like leaves in autumn, records fell at an annual pace, someone believed. It was belief that made them pursue an unpopular strategy in the first place, with tactics that led most successful coaches to roll their eyes, and it was belief that kept them going, despite the skeptics who promised them that nobody could ever win by playing such a weak style.

Shooting threes by the barrelful is the norm today. But it wasn’t too long ago that a basketball team building its offense around the three-point shot was seen as blasphemy, an affront to the game itself. Charles Barkley’s frequent admonitions targeted at “jump shooting teams” are not the crazed rants of a lone wolf. They represent the opinion of generations of players and coaches: That shooters who took threes on a fast break were hot-dogging; that big men who launched from beyond the arc were sissies. The three was a gimmick—until it wasn’t.

That evolution of thought and play is not unique to basketball. In football, as S.C. Gwynne details in his wonderful book, The Perfect Pass, the exact same pattern played out regarding the passing game. When the forward pass was introduced, it was already clear: Passing was for wimps. Any team worth its salt ran and ran and ran some more. Even as late as the 1980s, it was accepted as gospel that you won in football by running the ball down the other team’s throat. The best college football programs ran the ball 70 to 80% of the time. Now, of course, that’s all changed: This past NFL season, every single team passed the ball more than they ran. But back then, passing was a novelty act, “a cheap trick that would soon fade away.” To design an offense around passing, to bet your career on it, seemed insane. It took courage to throw the ball more than you ran; it took real belief in a better way to do things; it took a contrarian streak that ran deep enough that you fed off the resistance instead of caving to it. It took someone like Hal Mumme.1

Hal Mumme was a football coach from Texas who, in the 1980s and early 1990s built one of the most pass-oriented offensive systems football had seen, one which eventually came to be known as the Air Raid offense. Mumme was tall and blond, inquisitive and open-minded, and a contrarian through and through. He wasn’t bothered that everyone thought he was crazy. He knew deep down that he was right.

Throwing the ball wasn’t the only way Mumme bucked the conventional wisdom. His practices were so different from normal football practices that if someone had visited him when he coached at Iowa Wesleyan College (IWC) in the late 1980s, they would have thought he had no clue what he was doing. There was no stretching. No wind sprints. Only light hitting. And, as Gwynne writes, “Hal’s practices at IWC were short. Very short.”

There was no large theory behind this. Like everything else it was a result of his deliberately uncomplicated system. He didn’t need any more time. That in itself was a seemingly counter-rational idea. Why wouldn’t more time be that much better? Wasn’t practicing till you dropped the way to build great football teams? Time didn’t actually matter to Hal. Focus and purpose did.

Amongst a certain set, contrarianism is now en vogue. In the investing world, a contrarian mindset is viewed as an asset in the pursuit of big returns. Think about the protagonists in Michael Lewis’ The Big Short, who saw the 2008 financial crash coming before everyone else (and made a lot of money from it) because they were willing to say and think what nobody else would. On a recent episode of Revisionist History, Malcolm Gladwell listed “be disagreeable” as one of his rules for life. He makes a strong case that being willing to go against the group in search of what is right is an admirable trait.

But contrarianism for the sake of contrarianism can get you in trouble. Kevin Kwok, a former investor at the venture capital firm, Greylock Partners, discussed this on a recent podcast. Contrarianism, Kwok said, is only valuable if it’s true. Instead of just being contrarian, we should ask ourselves: “I have this view that people disagree with. Is that a good view, or is it just a view that people disagree with because it’s a bad view?” The goal of contrarianism is to make the idea spread. That’s one way to know it’s right, if others will follow. “The important part of [contrarianism] is not about having this view that everyone disagrees with. The important part is bringing it to everyone else, and actually taking that view and causing it to become non-contrarian,” to the point that, down the line, people are incredulous that it was even questioned in the first place. The best contrarian views, Kwok notes, make people say: “Was that even that contrarian a view? We all believe it!”

That’s exactly what happened in the case of Mumme, his assistant coach Mike Leach, and their high-octane passing offense. Building an offense around passing is no longer controversial—in fact, watching today’s game, it’s hard to believe it was even a contrarian view in the first place. And that’s because football has changed rapidly, particularly over the past decade. One tipping point for the success of this style of play came in 2008, when 8-0 Texas Tech, coached by Leach, beat No. 1 ranked Texas. As Gwynne writes:

The victory over Texas marked the moment that Mike Leach and his radical Air Raid offense stepped into the full glare of the national spotlight. Since his arrival in Lubbock in 2000, he had always been seen as a marginal, pass-happy guy who played a sort of anti-football and scared the hell out of everybody—an eccentric uncle who was entertaining but in the end was never going to win anything big. There was always a suggestion, too, sometimes spoken aloud but often implied, that this wasn’t real football anyway.

Beating Texas changed all that. It was no longer possible to dismiss Leach as a refugee from a Jimmy Buffett concert, or his passing attack as a sort of cheap novelty item that would soon vanish in the heat mirages of the High Plains.

This is the promise of sports, and a large part of the reason we love it so much: a promise of true competition with a level playing field; a promise that if you are truly right, if you are truly better, you will win; a promise that if you win enough for long enough, people will be forced to acknowledge that you are right and change, or keep losing. Even at 8-0, Texas Tech was still dismissed in some circles. But when they beat the best team in the country, there was nothing to be said anymore. This was not just being different for the sake of being different. This was a contrarian view that was a good view. It worked.

That’s why sports, and particularly basketball, integrated so early and so quickly relative to much of society. There was an exceptional amount of racism and vitriol when black players joined professional baseball and basketball teams, but when Jackie Robinson helped lead the Dodgers to the National League pennant, when Bill Russell turned the Celtics into a dominant team, when Boston became the first NBA team with an all-black starting five and won the championship that same year, the results couldn’t be ignored. These feats didn’t erase racism, of course, but they did change its tone. Black players could no longer be excluded on the basis of their presumed inferiority, because there was no denying the simple fact that everything said about black players not being good at basketball was wrong. There were good black players and they helped teams win. That was the truth—the scoreboard told us so.

For Mumme and Leach, their cause was not nearly as weighty as that of racial integration, but it followed the same script: skepticism and mockery until the win totals got big enough that there was simply no denying it any longer. What they were doing worked.

Their innovation was not solely about the frequency of passing, though—it was also in how they went about it. They exploited a natural asymmetry in sports: The offense knows what it’s going to do before the defense does. By it’s very nature, offense is about action and defense is about reaction. Scripted offense, of the type that exists at all levels of basketball and which dominated football with its voluminous playbooks, gives up some of this advantage in exchange for the value of coordination. A completely unscripted game is like a pickup game—and anyone who has jumped in at their local playground knows how chaotic that can be. But there’s a balance. A team that is too scripted loses that natural offensive advantage—the defense can employ strategies that counter the way the offense has been designed, or it can even learn to anticipate the plays, and box an offense in.

Mumme’s system pushed against the football orthodoxy of a top-down, coach-controlled, scripted system. Instead, he taught players how to make reads. That meant giving the quarterback freedom to call frequent audibles, which let his offense adapt to the defense.

[Quarterback Dustin] Dewald was cleared to change the play at the line of scrimmage, and he often did so in a way that was virtually unprecedented in American football. He would see defenders shifting then scream out a new play. If the defense shifted or feinted again, he would scream out another play. A cheating safety or a blitzing linebacker was immediately called to account.

And it meant teaching receivers to run flexible routes:

Hardly anyone in American football that year was teaching receivers how to adjust their routes according to what the defenders did. Routes were routes, and receivers were supposed to run them exactly as diagrammed. Otherwise, how was the quarterback going to know where they were going? In Hal’s system, Washington and the other receivers had to read “zone,” or “man”, they had to spot the piece of open grass; they had to bend their routes to match the reality they were seeing in front of them…

Thirty years later, the Super Bowl-winning Eagles relied on a read, the run-pass option, as a large component of their offense. The run-pass option is so dangerous because the quarterback is adjusting to the defense: If defenders are in position to stop the run, he takes advantage of that and throws the ball. If they cover the pass, he hands it off. Players have the freedom to take what the defense gives them, to react and adapt, and thereby reclaim the offense’s natural advantage.

The Triangle Offense, famously employed by Phil Jackson en route to his 11 championships, is a read-based system. This philosophy of freedom and adaptation is also one Steve Kerr has implemented to a certain degree with the Warriors. Golden State has set plays, but players are given license within those plays to read and react, such as in their split game (which, not coincidentally, is a Triangle staple). They throw the ball into the post and then their perimeter players play a two-man screening game, reading and reacting to how the defense plays. When the players aren’t on the same page it can lead to ugly turnovers. But when they are, it turns into beautiful basketball, with teamwork and anticipation that seems borderline psychic.

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When the offense properly reads and reacts to the defense, they don’t allow the defense to dictate, and thereby gain the advantage that comes from that initial, structural asymmetry: The offense knows what it’s doing and the defense doesn’t. Mumme’s offense was all about these asymmetries: “The system [Mumme] planned to build would operate on a similar principle: that his players and the opposing players would see and experience different games on the field.” Reads, taught properly, made the game seem simple and clear to his players while appearing complex and confusing to the opposition.

The “taught properly” part is key. It’s easier for players to follow directions than to correctly diagnose the defense on the fly and make the right adjustment. And it’s easier for coaches to turn players into robots than to teach them how to think and react for themselves. Which is why it’s the default. Teaching reads is hard.

Mumme solved this problem by paring away everything he thought was unimportant so the players could concentrate on learning these reads.

Hal’s offense did not have a playbook. Of any kind. That was partly because he had so few plays, but also because he did not want to clutter his players’ minds with a lot of unnecessary ideas…There was nothing to take home, no sheets of play diagrams to memorize. He did not actually want his players thinking about it.

The simplicity, meanwhile, meant that he could design practice in such a way that it maximized a player’s repetitions at the most important skills and reads. “They were playing a game in which practice consisted of few plays and high reps while their opponents were playing a game with hundreds of plays and few reps.”

This was the ultimate asymmetry, and it’s one that contrarian strategies often have going for them. The team that employs the strategy (say, a full-game, full-court press, or a weird zone defense) practices it all of the time, while opponents only have a short time to prepare for it. “For Hal it was the essence of his offense, the very method by which his players were going to out-execute yours. He would beat you at it because his players had spent more time, more actual minutes practicing it than your defenders would ever spend figuring out how to stop it.”

Of course, as the contrarian is proven right, as the strategy spreads, that advantage erodes. Then it becomes a priority for opponents to figure out how to defend the short passing game, how to counter a run-pass option, how to react to a team shooting threes in transition. Until then, though, the contrarian can enjoy the advantage gained by being unconventional.

Which makes it even more of a mystery why some of these strategies take so long to catch on. These contrarian strategies produce the most wins early on, so other teams should have the incentive to adopt them earlier. But the opposite has always happened. As much as Mumme was ultimately vindicated, as much as he cleared Kwok’s bar of being proven right through the spread of his views, The Perfect Pass can also be read as a story of how resistant to change sports is, even in the face of clear evidence.

In 1986, Mumme took over as the head coach of perennial doormat Copperas Cove High School in Central Texas, and turned them into a competitive team, despite the skepticism of those in the Texas high school football community who believed his strategy was an affront to the game. In 1989, Mumme moved to Iowa Wesleyan College, a small NAIA school without much of a football budget. He turned them into a winning program and set national records. After a dispute with the administration, Mumme found himself a coaching free agent and ended up in Georgia, at Valdosta State. “When word got out that Valdosta State had hired a Texan from lowa who passed the ball all the time,” Gwynne writes, “the consensus of opinion in South Georgia was immediate and unambiguous: there is no way that sort of football will ever work here.” Mumme proceeded to build the team into a Division II power.

After that success, Mumme was hired by the University of Kentucky. And the skeptics returned. “Hal’s hiring was a spectacularly bad idea, they said…Throwing passes all the time might work in Division II, they theorized, but it would never, ever work in the SEC.” Mumme took a team that went 9-24 in the three years before his arrival and went 18-17 in his first three years before resigning amidst a recruiting scandal.

Mumme was right. He was part of a revolution that helped change the game and was, eventually, rewarded for it. But it was a revolution that took almost three decades to fully spread, even in the face of clear evidence. At each step he’d succeed, and at the next stop there was a common refrain: it may have worked there, but it won’t work here.

This is where sports falls short of its promise. Wins are not the facts we like to pretend they are—they require interpretation because the playing field is not truly level. And that need for interpretation cracks open the door to subjectivity, to anyone being able to take the facts and twist them to suit their own personal narrative. It’s been clear for a long time that jump-shooting teams can win, that basketball has changed and that old-school principles of what makes a good shot no longer hold. And yet, just 10 years ago, the “Seven Seconds or Less” Phoenix Suns had multiple 60-win seasons and conference final appearances but were still viewed as a team that couldn’t truly win since they relied on jump shots.

Sports should be one of the most adaptable parts of our society. There’s a clear record of wins and losses to serve as a true measuring stick, unlike in the rest of society where it’s much harder to judge success. The slow pace of change in sports, then, might be seen as disheartening.

And yet, while the story of The Perfect Pass is not one of pure optimism, it is also not one we should read as pessimistic. Hal Mumme was a successful contrarian: He was right, and because of that, his ideas spread. It didn’t happen as quickly as it should have, but those ideas did, ultimately, extend to the highest levels and furthest reaches of the game. Maybe, then, the lesson is that radical change in the sports landscape is not so different from radical change elsewhere. It happens, but it takes time, and if you don’t take the long view, you might miss it. Perhaps the lesson is that, to paraphrase Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the arc of the sports universe is long, but like a perfect pass, it bends toward truth.

I put together a few more thoughts for Cleaning the Glass Insider subscribers on parts of the book that are particularly interesting from a coaching standpoint but which didn’t fit into this article. You can find those here.

  1. Pronounced “mummy”.