The Perfect Pass by S. C. Gwynne


Sunday night I was sitting on the couch with my daughter enjoying a blowout win for the Pittsburgh Steelers.  Thanks to their high-powered offense, and some ineptitude on the part of the Kansas City Chiefs, they soon built a three touchdown lead and never looked back.

What does this have to do with a book you review, you might be asking.  Well, it has to do with the change in the game of football and the Steelers are a good example of these changes.  Steelers football for years was identified with a punishing running game and a stingy defense.  These days it is more about its star QB Ben Roethlisberger, his favorite target Antonio Brown, and the other weapons he has around him.  Even running back Le’veon Bell, the other star in the backfield, plays an important role in the passing game.

And S.C. Gwynne argues we have Hal Mumme to thank for that.  Gwynne is the author of The Perfect Pass: American Genius and the Reinvention of Football, an interesting story about influential football coach and thinker/strategist Hal Mumme.

the-perfect-pass-9781501116193_hrIn the tradition of Michael Lewis’s Moneyball, award-winning historian S.C. Gwynne tells the incredible story of how two unknown coaches revolutionized American football at every level, from high school to the NFL.

Hal Mumme is one of a handful of authentic offensive geniuses in the history of American football. The Perfect Pass is the story of how he irreverently destroyed and re-created the game.

Mumme spent fourteen mostly losing seasons coaching football before inventing a potent passing offense that would soon shock players, delight fans, and terrify opposing coaches. The revolution he fomented began at a tiny, overlooked college called Iowa Wesleyan, where Mumme was head coach and Mike Leach, a lawyer who had never played college football, was hired as his offensive line coach.


In The Perfect Pass, S.C. Gwynne explores Mumme’s leading role in changing football from a run-dominated sport to a pass-dominated one, the game that tens of millions of Americans now watch every fall weekend. Whether you’re a casual or ravenous football fan, this is a truly compelling story of American ingenuity and how a set of revolutionary ideas made their way from the margins into the hot center of the game we celebrate today.

There are basically two threads in the book: one focused on Mumme’s coaching career through high school and obscure colleges before a brief stint at Kentucky in the powerhouse SEC; and another focused on the development of his famous Air Raid offense.

Both are fascinating. The brutal reality of trying to climb the ranks of college football coaching is illustrated by Mumme’s career. The incredible pressure to produce wins by recruiting and coaching young men far from the bright lights and full scholarships of big time college football.

Interestingly, at least twice Hal was forced out after growing the football program at a small school a little too much. Some schools wanted the recruitment benefits that can come from having a winning football team but got nervous when Hal looked to take it to the next level. And tragically, once he made it to big time football, and big time money, at Kentucky he was soon forced out by an aggressive athletic director and a recruiter who broke the rules. Hal was back to jumping from small school to rebuilding program. And he continues in that world today.

The other aspect is the story of how Hal helped lead a revolution in football from a smash mouth run oriented game to one where passing was an integral if not dominant focus. The book covers the history of this change, the key players, and the Xs and Os involved. It portrays how Mumme’s offense developed into the Air Raid offense that broke records across divisions and leagues in both pro and college football.

You will need to be a serious fan of football to really enjoy this aspect. But if you are a fan of the game you will find this fascinating.  And after reading it you can’t help but think about the way football has changed.  Sunday night the Steelers often ran a pass focused offense with receivers spread out and a QB who delivers the ball to receivers who adjust their routes based on the defense’s setup.  Quick reads, forcing the defense to cover the whole field, no huddle and hurry-up offense, all of these are elements that Mumme perfected.

If I had a complaint, it would be that the book can have an over-the-top aspect. The author is making the case that Mumme is an unknown genius and that his impact on the game is vastly underrated. But at times it just felt he was pushing a little too hard and the hyperbole felt odd. The conservative and change resistant nature of football is constantly castigated and presented as the foil for Mumme.

To be fair, Mumme is probably tragically unappreciated by the average football fan and the history of how pass first offense, and its offshoots, came to dominate football is not well know. Gwynne just seems like more of an advocate than a historian at times.

Fans of football and its history will enjoy reading about how Mumme overcame the odds and had a huge impact on the game they love.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season - oh, and watching golf too).

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