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The ESPN Pro Football Encyclopedia

Posted by Doug on August 21, 2006

In case you missed it, there is a brand new football encyclopedia out now. It's edited by Pete Palmer, Ken Pullis, Sean Lahman, Matthew Silverman, and Gary Gillette.

Full disclosure: I consider myself a friend of one of the five men named above and for that reason I probably would not give this book a bad review even if it were the worst football encyclopedia ever produced. I wouldn't lie; I just wouldn't review it. Fortunately, it took me about 20 seconds of flipping through it to realize that I had no moral dilemma.

The ESPN Pro Football Encyclopedia (PFE, from here out) is almost 1500 pages consisting almost completely of numbers and names organized in columns. If that's not appealing to you, then obviously the book isn't what you're looking for. If it is appealing to you, then you probably already own a copy of Total Football. For you, the question isn't "do I need 1500 pages of data?" It's "why do I need another 1500 pages of data?"

Total Football (TF) is great; I've probably plucked it from my shelf as often as all the rest of my books combined during the past several years. In a lot of ways the PFE is better. In other ways it's not as good. And in still other ways, it's just different.

First of all, the PFE is up to date. Since I mostly used it for historical stuff, I never felt particularly inconvenienced by TF's outdatedness. But now that I have the PFE in my hands, I have to admit that an updated volume is nice. This book has complete information on the 2006 draft, it tells you that Troy Aikman was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2006, and so on.

Also, the PFE is more compact. I put them both on my bathroom scale; TF is 7.4 pounds, the PFE is 5.0. And it's cheaper; its list price is $24.95. TF was over $50 as I recall.

Here are some of the advantages (as I see them) of the player register in the PFE compared to that of TF:


  • The PFE's register includes games started.

  • It has more detailed positional information. For instance, Jerome Barkum is listed simply as "TE-WR" in TF. The PFE tells us what years he started at WR and what years he started at TE. It tells you that Darryl Talley played ROLB when he was young and LOLB later in his career. Total Football only says LB.

  • There is a dagger next to each season in which the player's team made the playoffs. So you can quickly scan down Vinny Testaverde's entry, for example, and see how many playoff teams he played for. Also, there are marks to denote the seasons in which the player made the Pro Bowl, and whether he was on an All-Pro team.

The PFE has made an interesting organizational decision regarding player data. I won't be able to tell you whether it's a good decision or not until I've used the book for a year or so, but I'm inclined to think it's a good one at first glance. What they have done is to list biographical information, rushing, receiving, and passing stats in main player register. Then they have separate registers for return stats, kicking stats, punting stats, interceptions, and sacks. TF, on the other hand, put all the numbers for a given player in one place.

The question is, which pair of things are you more likely to want to look up at the same time?


  • Rick Upchurch's punt return stats, and Rick Upchurch's weight;
  • Rick Upchurch's punt return stats, and Johnny Bailey's punt return stats.

If the former, TF's layout is better. If the latter, the PFE's is. If you want to behold the versatile splendor of Deion Sanders, TF is what you need. If you want to compare Sanders to other defensive backs, the PFE is better. Ultimately I think that TF's layout is better for reference, while the PFE's will be better for browsing. With the way the PFE is layed out, if you want to look up, say, Kevin Greene's sack totals, then your eyes can't help but catch Kevin Carter and Simon Fletcher and Ken Harvey and Rickey Jackson as you scan the page. I think this will make the PFE quite a bit "stickier" than TF. You're likely to find more than you intended to.


On the other hand, they did lose some data. They only have the return, sack, and interception data for players who met certain minimum standards. How many sacks did Kiki DeAyala record in his career? The PFE doesn't tell you. That will undoubtedly annoy me a handful of times each year, but if you're going to cut 2.4 pounds and $25, something's got to give.

Following the player register is a head coach register that is very similar to (but slightly more detailed than) TF's.

After all that comes the section that is worth the price of the book all by itself. These positional chart pages are probably my favorite pages at all of baseball-reference.com, and the PFE has one of these for every NFL franchise going all the way back to 1920. Here are the Redskins' offensive line starters for the past few years:


2000 C.Samuels K.Sims M.Fischer Leeuwenberg J.Jansen
2001 C.Samuels D.Szott C.Raymer B.Coleman J.Jansen
2002 C.Samuels D.Loverne L.Moore W.Brown J.Jansen
2003 C.Samuels D.Dockery L.Moore R.Thomas J.Jansen
2004 C.Samuels D.Dockery C.Raymer R.Thomas R.Brown
2005 C.Samuels D.Dockery C.Rabach R.Thomas J.Jansen

Now imagine that you've got that kind of list, but with 23 columns (don't forget the coach) spanning the right and the left facing pages, and it goes all the way back to the first year of the Redskins' existence. It also lists the team's record and divisional finish each year for easy reference. That section is a tiny fraction of the book, but as I said, I'd pay $25 for just that.

After that, there is a section containing an entry for each game in pro football history. For every game, the score by quarters is listed. For recent games, the team rushing and passing totals are listed, and all 100-yard rushing and receiving games and 300-yard passing games are noted. A sample entry looks like this:


Oak 7 7 0 6 20
NE 10 7 6 7 30

Oak D19 R22/92 P(39-18-0) 246
NE D22 R31/73 P(38-24-0) 306

Oak-Moss 130C; NE-Brady 306P

The D stands for first downs, in case you were wondering.

The next section contains boxscores of all postseason games (some of the boxes are abbreviated, showing for example only the top two rushers on each team instead of everyone). After that is a year-by-year register of standings and team stats, with a very brief text review of each year.

Then there is a section on All-Pro teams and one on Pro Bowls. It is very handy that the PFE includes both a yearly list and an alphabetical list. In the alphabetical list, you can see that Ed Budde was a 6-time All-Pro performer (1966--1971) and a 1-time consensus All-Pro. Then you can flip to 1966 and see that the other guards so honored were Billy Shaw, Wayne Hawkins, and so on.

Finally, there is draft information, organized by year and then by team. It's a bit hard to reconstruct the exact draft order with this format, but it would be hard to reconstruct the teams' drafts if it were organized the other way. A nice added touch is that the number of games played by each draftee (both for the drafting team and overall) is listed, and those who played more than 50 games with the drafting team are bolded for easy scanning.

There are a few other things that I've left out: some record chronologies, some career and seasonal leaderboards, and so on.

As good as it is, the PFE can't completely replace TF, because sometimes you've just got to know how many sacks Kiki DeAyala had (I'll save you the trouble. One.) And TF has a few other advantages. The font in the PFE is noticeably smaller in the player register. My eyes have not yet deteriorated to the point where this is a problem for me, but I could see how some people who --- how should I put this? --- have witnessed a little more pro football history than I have, might have to strain a bit to read it. TF has some lists that the PFE doesn't, like complete rosters for each team. Finally, TF has a lot of text. I personally have owned TF for 7 years and have never read any of the text. But I'm sure some people find it among the most valuable components of TF. The PFE has essentially zero text.

The pro football reference section of my bookshelf currently contains: Total Football, Neft and Cohen's Football Encyclopedia, STATS Inc green books for each year they were printed (94--01), and Sporting News Pro Football Registers for all the years that there was no STATS green book back to 1991. Over the past few years, every 100 trips to the bookshelf have on average resulted in my picking up:


Total Football 50
Some STATS or SN annual 35
Neft and Cohen 15

My guess is that over the next year, it will look more like this:


ESPN Pro Football Encyclo. 75
Total Football 10
STATS or SN 10
Neft and Cohen 5

Of course, over time the PFE will become outdated and some of that 75 for the PFE will shift to the Sporting News annual. But I am cautiously optimistic that the people in charge of this thing will find it worth their while to print a new edition every couple of years.

Bottom line: If you have visited this site more than a handful of times in the last year, I can't imagine that you would not get your money's worth --- and much more --- out of the ESPN Pro Football Encyclopedia.

This entry was posted on Monday, August 21st, 2006 at 4:29 am and is filed under General, History. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.