Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Book Review: How Football Explains America

Those of you familiar with the title How Football Explains America may recognize that it was written by ESPN studio host Sal Paolantonio. Those of you familiar with the other reviews I've done may recognize this is not the first book I've reviewed by Mr. Paolantonio, with the first being an extremely negative review of The Paolantonio Report. Why, then, would I read another book? I wondered the same thing myself, marking in my book-tracking spreadsheet "Can this possibly be good?" Well, it was a library rental and a scan looked relatively promising, so I thought I'd give it a try.

So, how is it? Well, it's not nearly as bad as The Paolantonio Report. In Explains, Paolantonio tries to do a complement to Michael MacCambridge's superb America's Game, using the lens of football as a window upon a number of different topics in American history-Manifest Destiny, West Point, Father Knows Best, Show Business, John Coltrane and Jackie Robinson, and several other topics. The chapters are well-structured, beginning with a vignette from the 2007 season and then proceeding into a broader explanation of the argument for how football explains X. One quibble, which I've already alluded to: it's not so much that football explains Father Knows Best so much as football and Father Knows Best both arise from common heritage and similar philosophic and theoretical underpinnings. Football doesn't explain Father Knows Best, and Father Knows Best doesn't explain football, but both arise from the occasionally chaotic framework that is the United States.

A second quibble: setting the first quibble aside, Paolantonio's arguments of football's explanatory power simply aren't convincing. When there isn't any evidence that supports his cause, he makes it up, attributing certain ideas to Walter Camp and Amos Alonzo Stagg in their work in defining what football is, without any apparent evidence. Sometimes, he ignores evidence that detracts from his argument, as he does in saying Monday Night Football helped make the NFL more popular than baseball, when pro football was already more popular than baseball, and had been for 5 years. Sometimes, he doesn't think of arguments that would help his claims-I think he could have done a great deal with the AAFC and, particularly, the formation and merger with the AFL to draw some decent parallels. But, no, he plows ahead with his arguments that don't really work.

Explains probably isn't as bad as I've made it sound-it's not a bad book, not particularly difficult to get through, but it's not a very good one so I don't feel particularly bad being not very positive about it. Hey, I got the nickname Eeyore. So, why did I think the scan looked promising? Actual endnotes, showing the sourcing of quotes, plus a bibliography. And legit sources-Walter Camp's American Football, Michael Oriard's King Football and Reading Football (later this offseason, hopefully), even David Nelson's The Anatomy of a Game. Not just legit football books, legit non-football books, too, including William Manchester's American Caesar and Daniel Walker Howe's superb What Hath God Wrought. Useful list, I added a couple older books to my list of Football Books off Sal's bibliography. Not that I'll read them any time soon, but they're there. Next up, most likely Big Play by Allen Barra.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Book Review: Paul Brown (O'Toole)

Last fall, I negatively reviewed the recent bio of Paul Brown by George Cantor, and noted with hope the presence of another new bio of Paul Brown also titled simply the name of the subject. Well, I have now read Paul Brown: The Rise and Fall and Rise Again of Football's Most Innovative Coach by Andrew O'Toole, and can thankfully report that it is a much better biography than Cantor's. It's significantly more detailed, contains a bibliography and even footnotes (unobtrusive and easily ignorable, but proof of actual research). If you want to read one of the new biographies of Brown, I really can't think of a single decent reason to prefer Cantor over O'Toole.

So, how's the book? I have in some cases a high level for wholeheartedly recommending a book, and O'Toole's effort doesn't reach that standard. It's good, mind you, but nothing particularly exceptional. In another distressingly common reading experience, O'Toole fails to deliver on the promise of his subtitle-the fall is clearly Brown's experience of being fired in Cleveland by Modell, and the rise is probably putting the Bengals together and coming back as their coach, but the story isn't that convincing. Brown put together an exceptional team when he formed the Browns in the mid-1940's, but that was under exceptional circumstances-with an owner with a deep pocketbook, in an enviable position to find and evaluate good players, and with the good fortune to start out against opponents not generally of high quality (the AAFC had serious problems with weak teams). Future success (post-Otto Graham final retirement in 1955) was much more limited, suggesting that Brown had substantially shot his wad in terms of innovations. As is also common, even in football books, O'Toole is weak in terms of describing Brown's actual on-field innovation, to the extent it existed (probably, but I'm not sure exactly what).

Quibbles aside, if you're interested in learning more about Paul Brown's life and career, I can recommend to you Andrew O'Toole's Paul Brown.

Book Review: Cane Mutiny

In Cane Mutiny: How the Miami Hurricanes Overturned the Football Establishment, Miami alum and ESPN writer Bruce Feldman covers the 25 or so years of the University of Miami football dynasty, from Howard Schnellenberger's building of the program to the 1983 national championship to the initial promising years of Larry Coker's regime. Feldman competently and readably tells the story, unsurprisingly concentrating on the biggest and highest moments, and covering in less detail the scandals and down times of the mid to late 1990's. The book betrays little evidence of any necessity of inside access-the same story could have been told from already existing sources, including contemporaneous media interviews, and Feldman doesn't collect the material he has in a particularly interesting way or produce any particular insights. To the extent he did interview people, there's no evidence he got them to tell us something we didn't already know. Cane Mutiny is not a bad effort, just not a particularly interesting one to anybody who was a college football fan in the relevant timeframe (my era of cognizance probably dates back to the late 80's) and is not a particular fan of the Miami Hurricanes. Your time would be better spent instead with Feldman's Meat Market.

Book Review: Meat Market

Bruce Feldman's Meat Market: Inside the Smash Mouth World of College Football Recruiting is a fascinating look at one year's worth of the Ole Miss coaching staff under Ed Orgeron going through the entire process of college football recruiting. Feldman enjoyed what seems like complete and total access to any aspect of recruiting he cared to think about, and the book goes from the initial evaluation process that starts the day after the previous Signing Day all the way through Signing Day when some, though not all, of the targeted players submit their National Letters of Intent. For a glimpse into this normally closed world, Meat Market is a must-read for all college football fans.

I can't help but compare Meat Market to The Draft by Pete Williams, though, dealing with the similar transition from college to the NFL. Both books are highly readable journalistic narratives that lack great insights, but the story Williams tells is a more complete one, incorporating agents, scouts, players, and NFL decision-makers, while Feldman's perspective is necessarily skewed by the great access given him by the Ole Miss coaching staff. There's still plenty of room out there for a definitive book on college football recruiting, but until we get the right confluence of factors to produce that book, Meat Market is an excellent stand-in for that honor.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Book Review: Ten Men You Meet in the Huddle

Two types of books I feel comfortable recommending here. The first is books where, by reading them, you can learn something about the game of football you didn't know before you read the book, while the second is books that say something interesting about the people that play the game. It is into this latter category that Bill Curry's Ten Men You Meet in the Huddle: Lessons from a Football Life falls. Curry had particularly interesting NFL career as a center, snapping the ball both in Green Bay to Bart Starr under Vince Lombardi and in Baltimore to Johnny Unitas under Don Shula. Ten Men is not a generalized autobiography that covers his whole life and career, but instead is a series of chapters with vignettes and life lessons that he learned from each of the titular ten men, who include his coaches at various levels and also teammates he knew and appreciated. By his own admission, Curry has not always been a great man, but he seems to have always been a fundamentally decent one, and there are some nice anecdotes in here that confirm that. Recommended for what it is, and I'm also inspired to go out and snag a copy of One More July, by George Plimpton about conversations with Curry.

Book Review: Sunday Morning Quarterback

There was this one episode of Cheers, in the early years, where Coach mentioned that his nickname was "Red." Diane asked if that was because his hair had been red once upon a time. Coach replied that that wasn't the case-he had instead earned the nickname "Read" by reading a book, a practice with which his baseball teammates were acquainted only vaguely and not from personal experience. If you think this little story presages a negative review of a book, you'd be write. By reading Sunday Morning Quarterback by Phil Simms and Vic Carucci bears the promising subtitle of "Going Deep on the Strategies, Myths, and Mayhem of Football," then completely fails to deliver on that subtitle. It is, thankfully, less aggressively inane and stupid than Simms' normal game commentary, which he freely admits is dumbed down because anything marginally more complex than the number of rushers and zone or man defense is considered too difficult for viewers by the people whose job it is to produce games. That does not mean, however, that glimpses of intelligent commentary are anything other than few and far between in Sunday Morning Quarterback. I'm hard-pressed to think of anyone to whom I can recommend this book. One possible audience is people completely unacquainted with football and who perhaps have read the fairly decent Football for Dummies and want another book to learn more but who don't want to trouble their mind with significantly more complexity.

Book Review: Boys Will Be Boys

I believe I've mentioned before my bad habit of borrowing books from the library, then waiting until after I've returned them to the library to write a review. So it is again, at least with these first three five book reviews I have to do. The first of those books is Boys Will Be Boys: The Glory Days and Party Nights of the Dallas Cowboys Dynasty by Jeff Pearlman. Pearlman, a former SI scribe most famous for his John Rocker hit piece expose had previously tread with The Bad Guys Won about the ultimate representation of evil in the history of American sport, the 1986 New York Mets (/bitter Astro fan). As with those 86 Mets, there's are interesting stories associated with the Cowboy teams of the early to mid-90's that are the subject of Pearlman's books.

The problem is, though, that Pearlman's book doesn't really trod any new ground if you know what happened. Landry was an iconic coach, but was having trouble with adapting to recent NFL developments, and Bum Bright very likely would've fired him even if there hadn't been a sale. Jerry Jones hears about the opportunity to buy the Cowboys, and does, and hires his old Arkansas roommate Jimmy Johnson. Master manipulator and skilled talent evaluator Johnson builds an iconic team and keeps a combustible mix of personalities directed toward the same goal, more or less, enough to win some big games. Jones and Johnson, both successful guys with big egos, clash repeatedly, and eventually go their own way. Jones hires Switzer-Pearlman is charitable here, portraying Switzer as a valuable hire and good break for a tightly-wound team from the harsher Johnson (also known as the Great Cycle of Coaching Stories), when a more honest account is probably Jones hiring Switzer to show NFL experience and coaching dedication and skill is overrated. Some of Pearlman's anecdotes betray his story, like how Switzer viewed the week of Super Bowl XXX as one of the best excuses ever for an enormous party, and he and his entourage ran up a liquor tab of $100,000 that week. The dynasty eventually ended, thanks to the lack of influx of new talent to replace departed old talent, but Pearlman's narrative doesn't cover those years in any detail.

I also must note that Pearlman is not a very good writer. This is the part where I really wish I had a copy of the book, so I could give some excerpts of some awfully clunky and purple prose. The salacious details are also stated rather than described or shown, so unless the fact that Michael Irvin would sleep with a lot of women (not just 1 or 2 or even 3) and was creative in terms of what they would do is in and of itself absolutely fascinating to you, the salacious details aren't really that salacious-a guide to partying like a Dallas Cowboy, this is not.

So, who should read this book? If the above review doesn't make it clear, I'm significantly less of a fan of the book than most of the Amazon commentariat, which seems to lean toward both Cowboys fans and people who aren't serious football observers (which is fine, but not me). If you're a Cowboy fan interested in a dose of nostalgia about some interesting teams, by all means feel free to read Pearlman's teams. It may be a useful reminder of some of the details, though you may not learn much from reading it. For fans of other teams? Jimmy Johnson is a fascinating guy, and I'd love to read a good bio of him. Perhaps I'll check out this book he "co-wrote" at some point. Not really seeing much of a reason to read this book, though-if you want to learn more about the Cowboys, ESPN did an OTL, I think, piece a couple years ago on the decline and fall of the Cowboys that covered the most important part of Pearlman's story, and in a more palatable way.

UPDATE (2/21/09 2334 CT): Uh, I forgot just how many books behind I was. Ouch.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Some Link Dumps

Two separate posts that I was planning on writing that won't get written. I still have the links for them, so I'll post those.

The first was making fun of the Detroit Lions, using the game program I acquired on my visit to Ford Field at Thanksgiving. If the Bengals took one extreme approach, valuing talent to the exclusion of character, the Lions took the opposite, valuing character or at least coachability over talent. Mike Lombardi pointed out the problem the day before that Turkey Day, and accurately predicted "It will get ugly." Lombardi revisited this a couple weeks later:
I think, when you want to know how not to build a team in any phase, look at the 2008 Detroit Lions. There is much to learn from studying this team, and sometimes the lessons of what not to do are as powerful as the ones that teach what you should do. The Lions as an organization bought into the whole Rod Marinelli concept of “I need my guys to win,” not “I need good players to win.” The talent of the players was not a concern. The prevailing factor in making personnel decisions was attitude and knowledge of the system. ... That’s why you trade a dominating defensive lineman like Shawn Rogers so you can play Chuck Darby.

Of course, it really sucks to be a fan of a team that incredibly putrid. Just ask Neil of Armchair Linebacker.

The other post, which I'm going to incorporate in another post I'll be doing on Total Titans in the next couple days, was on the Titans' defensive linemen, particularly their lack of investment therein (no 1st round picks since Haynesworth, no marquee free agents). Paul Kuharsky had an article where he noted Tony Brown and Dave Ball were basically on their last chances at being NFL players. These guys were totally picked up off the NFL trash heap when the Titans got them. The second link was to be to a Tennessean article along the same lines, but apparently bandwidth is too expensive for the Tennessean, so I'll have to save all their decent articles in the future. The other link is to a SN Today article on Ball, about how he watched the 2007 NFL season from the couch. There's a fourth article, which hopefully I'll find, about how Floyd Reese basically didn't believe in spending any resources on acquiring defensive tackles, though the first round picks of Holmes and Kearse and trade for Carter showed he was willing to pay for defensive ends (see also Polian, Bill).

General link dump and book reviews coming.

2008 All-Pro Teams

One of the things I tried to do was collect some half-decent All-Pro teams and see which Titans made it. Here's what I found:

Peter King of Sports Illustrated: Roos, Haynesworth, Finnegan, Jim Washburn as position coach
Matt Bowen of NFP: Roos, Haynesworth, Stewart (2nd team), Mawae (2nd team), Finnegan (2nd team)
Yakuza Rich (Offense and Defense): Roos, Mawae, Haynesworth, Finnegan
Rick Gosselin of Dallas Morning News: Roos, Stewart, Haynesworth, Finnegan
53 Deep: Roos, Mawae, Haynesworth

I know I missed some decent All-Pro teams, but those were all decent ones. If I missed one in the bookmarks, I'll update this post. Naturally, I'm sure the 2009 Titans Media Guide will have a pretty complete list (see p. 456-62 of the 2008 Guide).

UPDATE (2/8/09 2155 CT): Added 53 Deep.

Draft Linkagery

Taking almost 4 weeks off from blogging = bad idea. I'll resume with a bunch of draft links.

Like Shrine Game reports. SN Today had reports from Tuesday's practices, Wednesday, players who helped themselves, and players who hurt themselves. National Football Post had its own preview, weigh-in report, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and game report.

NFP put out its first mock draft January 15. The Titans were taking Percy Harvin. NFP did an updated mock on January 24, with the Titans now taking Ohio State LB James Laurinaitis. Let me just say I'll be really, REALLY surprised if that happens. They added a second round mock Feb. 3, with the Titans taking Penn State WR Derrick Williams. That's a significantly more plausible suggestion.

NFP also put out a list of the best underclassmen.

No underclassmen, though, at the Senior Bowl. TSN had prospects with something to prove, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday North, Wednesday South, Thursday mini-overview cap, spread offenses making evaluations difficult (see also PFP08), Thursday recap, Friday stock report, and post-game stock report. NFP had its own preview, weigh in and commentary, Monday, Monday media night, Tuesday, Wednesday, prospect comps, Thursday, and wrapup. Oh, and SI's Tony Pauline checked in with reports of his own: Day 1 and Day 2, but I can't find the rest of them on SI's crappy website. One guy you might consider reading regularly, at least through the draft is Lance Zierlein of the Houston Chronicle, whose dad happens to be the Stillers' O-line coach. He clearly knows people in the business, and had his own set of Senior Bowl prospect comments.

NFP did a list of position rankings Jan. 29 (post-Senior Bowl). See also juniors on the rise, from Jan. 30. See also the more recent rankings by specialty position, like Cover-2 corner and zone-blocking offensive linemen.

What happens to the guys not good enough to play in the Shrine Game or Super Bowl? Well, some of them played in the Texas Vs. The Nation Game, and NFP was there. Former Buckeye Nader Abdallah will probably be a good mid-round depth defensive lineman.

NFP also did a list of the post-season game all-stars.

One of the more interesting questions when you get to the actual draft is where the breakdowns are in terms of tiers. NFP put out one answer on January 31, though I tend to agree with the notion that Crabtree in the top tier is mistaken. Like Mike Williams (the ex-USC wideout) a few years ago, I can see there being a really wide opinion on him, much moreso than you'd think.

NFP on quarterbacks: ranking the seniors and giving comps, posted a checklist of what to look for in evaluating a QB, and also ranked the QBs by attribute.

Enough links for one post? I hope so, because I may have never done more, at least in terms of actual distinct articles.