A Thinking Man’s Guide to Pro Football, Paul Zimmerman, 1970 and 1984

Known to Sports Illustrated’s readers as “Dr. Z,” Zimmerman was the first NFL writer to routinely incorporate game-film analysis into his articles. A former offensive lineman at Stanford and Columbia, Zimmerman went on to play minor league football in the early 1960s. After his writing career was cut short by a series of strokes in 2008, the Pro Football Writer’s Association instituted the Paul “Dr. Z” Zimmerman Award to recognize lifetime achievement for assistant coaches in the NFL.

Before Bill James popularized sabermetrics in baseball and Football Outsiders and Pro Football Focus introduced analytics to the football cognoscenti, Zimmerman meticulously charted each position on the gridiron, going so far as to track elapsed hang-time, distance, return yardage and coffin-corner efficiency for punters! His two guides for the thinking football fan — released 15 years apart — go far beyond detailed descriptions for each position on the field. Zimmerman’s experience, connections and comprehensive grasp of football strategy allowed him to put star players, iconic coaches, pro football trends and even game plans into historical perspective.

To be clear, Zimmer’s style isn’t just for the pigskin wonks. His myriad anecdotes include the time former Chargers offensive mastermind Sid Gillman tried to convince assistant coach Bum Phillips that watching a particularly meaningful slice of game film was better than making love. “Either I don’t know how to watch film,” Phillips quipped, “or you don’t know how to make love.”


“They come into pro football all instinct and nerve, without the surgical scars on the knees or the knowledge of what it’s like to get hit by a 240-pound linebacker. They burn brightly, and by the time they’re 30 or so they might still be around, but they’re different players. They know how to pass block, and they can run their pass routes without making any mistakes; they can block in front of a ball carrier, and they run just well enough to be considered runners. They dive — and survive.

Running back is a position governed by instinct, and many of the great ballcarriers were never better than they were as freshman pros. It’s the most instinctive position in football, the only one in which a rookie can step in with a total lack of knowledge of everything except running the ball, and be a success.

The good runners all have the quick start and the knack of avoiding objects, and a rookie can use exactly the same skills he had in college. And if he’s got the physical qualifications, he will be a good, often sensational first-year pro. He hasn’t learned fear — or self-defense. The repeated hammering hasn’t yet taken the zip from his legs. Everything else can be taught, the faking and blocking and pass routes, provided he has the desire to learn and the courage to executive some of the more tedious jobs.

The pure runners draw the big salaries, and their weaknesses in blocking or faking, or their fogginess on pass patterns, will drive the coaches crazy but it won’t cost them a spot in the lineup. The gifted set of legs can hide a multitude of shortcomings. The pedestrian runner who is a solid pass receiver and a good blocker in front of the quarterback might last for years. But his position on the squad is always shaky. So is his salary.”