Sunday, January 08, 2006

Book Review: America's Game

America's Game: The Epic Story of How Pro Football Captured a Nation by Michael MacCambridge
It was the 1950's when Jacques Barzun famously wrote that "Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball, the rules and realities of the game." Though average attendance had fallen from its peak in 1948, baseball had been the U.S.'s favorite sport since the formation of the National League in 1876. But there was a different league that was closer to baseball than most suspected: the National Football League. Then came the AFL in 1960, and by the mid-1960's, football had become Americans' favorite sport. The two leagues completed their merger in 1970, and continued the growth of professional football. There have been setbacks since, losing ground to baseball in the 1980's with the help of two strikes, and distant storm clouds on the horizon exist now, but football is firmly ensconced at the top of the American sporting world, with no challengers on the horizon.

Such a rise of professional football was not the result of some arbitrary force of nature, but instead was largely the result of conscious decisions made by those in charge of professional football. This book tells the story of how that happened. I had known, for example, of the Rams' move from Cleveland to LA in the 1940's, of the existence of the AAFC from '46-'49 and Paul Brown's dominant Cleveland Browns, that there were commissioners before Pete Rozelle, and the Rozelle had a major impact on the league during his three decades as commissioner. But this engaging book introduced me to Bert Bell, the commissioner before Rozelle, and Rams owner Dan Reeves, and others, and told me more about the Browns and how they changed football, how Pete Rozelle and others set the NFL upon the path to become what it is, and how the viciously competitive AFL and NFL managed to merge.

This isn't a perfect book, by any means. After the AFL-NFL merger, it seems to lose some of its energy. The strikes of the 80's are treated briefly as disputes over specific money issues, their impact on the game's fortunes not analyzed in any particular depth. It's also, like Paul Taligabue noted he was when he first became commissioner, removed from the game, perhaps curiously so. The fabled Colts-Giants game in 1958 is mentioned, as is Joe Namath and the Jets' victory in Super Bowl III, but relatively few contests merit a mention. This is the business book, not the playing book, but a darned good one for all that. An absolute must read for all football fans, and strongly recommended as an insight into the game for those not enamored of the pigskin.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

The NFL Playoffs

This weekend marks the opening round of the NFL playoffs. Alas, with only 12 of 32 teams making it, the season, and the hopes, dreams, and nightmares associated therewith are over for most of the league. Actually, it's over for more than 20 teams. Since the NFL instituted the third round of playoffs in 1978, only a handful of teams have made it to the Super Bowl after playing three games. All of those teams had something in common, and that factor is present in none of those games this weekend. Let's take a look at those teams that did make it to the Super Bowl after playing on Wild Card Weekend:

1985New England11-512-4

*Please note that I have excluded the strike-shortened 1982 season from the table above, as there were no first-round byes awarded. Note, though, that the teams that made the Super Bowl that year were the #1 and the #2 seed in their respective conferences (Washington and Miami, respectively), and thus would have had the first-round bye under the normal playoff system.

As you can see from the above table, EACH AND EVERY ONE of the teams that has made the Super Bowl after playing on Wild Card Weekend finished no more than one game behind the top-seeded team in the conference that year. Take a look at this year's standings, and you will see that none of the teams playing this weekend finished within one game of the conference's top team. You should still feel free to watch any or all of the games this weekend, if you so desire, but keep in mind that nearly thirty years of history tells us that win or lose today or tomorrow, the season will inevitably end short of Detroit. It is, of course, possible that history will be made this year, but I wouldn't bet on it. Super Bowl XL will feature Indianapolis or Denver facing Seattle or Chicago.