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Two Bills, an Al and Mike Lombardi – ‘Gridiron Genius’

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There’s no denying that Bill Walsh and Bill Belichick are among the greatest coaches in the history of football. One can argue about their relative placements in the pantheon, but it’s difficult to dispute either’s placement among the greatest of the greats. Meanwhile, Raiders owner Al Davis spent decades as the free-wheeling outlaw of the NFL’s leadership class, bringing his own unique ideas and passions to the game.

And Michael Lombardi worked under all of them.

Those relationships form the basis for Lombardi’s new book “Gridiron Genius: A Master Class in Winning Championships and Building Dynasties in the NFL” (Crown Archetype, $27). It’s a chance for Lombardi to impart the myriad lessons he has gleaned over his decades of working with some of the finest football minds in history.

Dynasties are tough to come by in any sport – football is no exception. For a team to reach that sort of exalted, dynastic status, a lot of things have to go right. There have to be a few lucky bounces and some paid-off gambles. And more than anything, there has to be a strong leader at the top, one who is capable of not just maximizing performance on the field, but also creating a sustainable winning culture off it.

Lombardi offers a unique perspective on some of the men who have managed to cultivate that level of legendary success. He worked under Bill Walsh from 1984-1987, right smack in the middle of Walsh’s run of dominance at the helm of the San Francisco 49ers. After that, he worked for the Cleveland Browns for the next decade or so, where he first worked with then-Browns coach Bill Belichick. The next decade was spent working in personnel for the Raiders and Al Davis. After a couple of years as general manager of the Browns, he reunited with Belichick in New England from 2014-2016.

So yeah – he’s been around the block.

What he does in “Gridiron Genius” is expose the reader to the depth of thought that each of these men brought to the table. He talks about what it’s like to be around someone like Walsh, someone whose every waking moment was devoted to improving upon the vaunted West Coast offense that he developed and that led to his success. We’re offered a look at his relationship with Belichick and how the man never really changed from his relatively unsuccessful tenure with the Browns to his likely-never-to-be-matched success with the Patriots. And we get a chance to see the dynamic weirdness (and equal brilliance) of Al Davis in action as well.

There’s a lot that goes into becoming as successful as these men were. It’s not just about Xs and Os. It’s not just about film study and drills. It’s about leadership. It’s about finding ways to get scores of people with very different ideas and very different motivations to land on the same page and move toward a common goal.

According to Lombardi, the common thread is an unwavering eye for detail and a not-quite perfectionism that demands constant efforts toward improvement. It involves a willingness to script everything: not just the plays of the day, but daily practices and weekly meetings and annual player acquisitions and multi-year organizational directives. EVERYTHING. Walsh, Belichick and Davis all had these qualities to some extent. Yes, they were very different men and ultimately saw somewhat different results, but the fundamental principles were all the same.

There’s plenty of inside football stuff in “Gridiron Genius” as well; there are moments when the curtain is pulled back and we get an interesting perspective on some of the inner workings of the NFL, whether it’s game-specific or more general in an organizational sense. Either way, it’s a view that few have had – especially with these particular bosses – and any football fan will find it fascinating.

Lombardi also likes to offer up an occasional list, a breakdown of seven criteria for X or 11 reasons behind Y. These lists allow him to get a bit more granular, whether he’s talking about offensive and defensive ideas, a coach’s philosophies or even his own requirements for a franchise quarterback. These detailed explorations serve as a nice counterpoint to a lot of the more anecdotal material.

“Gridiron Genius” is a fun book, one that football fans are going to dig. Does it feel a little too fawning in some spots? A little too shallow in others? Sure. But mostly, it’s one man’s passion for the game and for the people who taught him the most about it laid bare on the page. Michael Lombardi loves football and deeply respects those who helped cultivate that love. It’s not a perfect book, but it’s a good one – and an undeniably honest one.


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