Sunday, March 15, 2009

Book Review: Big Play

So, the Wall Street Journal has recently started to emphasize sports more, devoting a regular page to it in the daily edition, in addition to the occasional column and regular weekend coverage. While I've been a Journal subscriber on and off (mostly on) since my freshman year in college, the recent expanded sports coverage has reminded me of something-the Journal really isn't that good at covering sports. This isn't that surprising-the nature of their sports coverage means it isn't as attractive a platform for a writer as a more sports-focused outlet or an outlet with better national coverage. The best you can hope for is somebody with a semi-focused niche and let him expound on his pet theories.

For a while, that person was (I don't think he's still there) Allen Barra, and Big Play: Barra on Football is a collection of Barra's columns through the years. Published in 2004, some of the work dates back to the mid-1980's, while some of it is more recent. Some of the pieces originally were in the Journal, while others appeared in Slate, Salon, Inside Sports, and other outfits. I must admit to a strong personal bias-the point to writing a 275 page book is to make arguments you can't make in an 800 word newspaper column or 2000 word magazine piece. A book that's merely a pastiche of those shorter pieces fails that test. Most importantly, in a column you can simply make pronouncements that I know this and get away with it. In a book, you can expound on why you believe this to be true-explanation, reasoning, address counter-arguments, stuff like that. Context-free recitations of YPA and INT% are acceptable (yet tiresome) in a column, but repeating it over the course of 20 different columns (38 in the book) is simply unacceptable. Stuff that's minorly annoying you see in a column once a month expands to heinous proportions in the book, notably Barra's habits of bringing up Alabama's greatness under Bear Bryant and Pudge Heffelfinger's 1950's book. The contradictory nature of columns is also stressed by collecting them in a book-it takes a fine mind to simultaneously hold the opinion that Bart Starr is better than Johnny Units because he had more postseason success in the 1960's, Y.A. Tittle is underrated because he didn't have enough postseason success in the 1960's, and John Elway is overrated because he some but not enough postseason success in the early part of his career (Barra compares his career minus the 2 SB-winning seasons to Dave Krieg's).

The oddest column, though, is the one praising Carmen Policy's cap management for the 49ers during the 1994 season, which he notes in the intro he included over the advice of some (more perspicacious) friends. Policy did do a pretty good job of setting up the 1994 49ers for success in a way that other teams weren't able to replicate (see Oilers, Houston, compare 1993 to 1994). A couple ways he did this-for existing players, he had some guaranteed money come in 1993, in the pre-cap era, to keep players happy. Second, he used a loophole-the cap only covered payments made through 1999, so he delayed payments. Third, he gave players signing bonuses instead of salaries, eating up future years of cap. (It would've been useful if he remembered this mortgaging against the future when he writes that Steve Young was overrated because of his lack of postseason success.) Fourth, he simply cheated. The 49ers were later punished for this, but Barra says that value of winning the Super Bowl outweighs the cost of the fine and loss of a draft pick, which to me is fairly stupid results-based thinking. Ah, but Policy still did a great job, Barra says, even in Cleveland. Yes, he drafted Tim Couch and Courtney Brown, both of whom were enormous busts, but these were smart picks even though they turned out to be enormous busts because everybody else liked them, too, and championship teams would like to have a franchise quarterback and defensive line stalwart, and the 49ers haven't come that close to a Super Bowl since '94, so Policy must have done something right. Reading this piece was one of four or five times I had to pick the book down and, as non-violently as I could, hurl it onto the bed, chair, or couch in frustration. Far be it from me to criticize Barra (after all, he made the print WSJ, while I was only in the online edition), but a far better explanation for the 49ers fall since then is that they haven't been very good at talent evaluation and thus haven't been able to replace the players Bill Walsh drafted and the expensive veterans Policy's mortgaging of the future (and Eddie DeBartolo's deep pockets, something Barra hints at but doesn't mention) made it possible to acquire.

Oh, what else should I mention? Well, probably not the column where he "argues" Tim Brown is better than Jerry Rice, or else I'd feel compelled to rant about that one, too. I guess I'll just simply note that reading Big Play, even while watching basketball, was not a very productive use of my time. It's up there with The Paolantonio Report is terms of being the listed on the sidebar as being least worthy of your time. If I'd bought my copy instead of getting it from the library, I'd consider burning it in my fireplace as its highest and best use, and you, you should not read it.


Jon said...

I read this when it first came out. Barra went to 'Bama, so take anything he says about Starr and Bryant with a grain of salt. I've seen the Starr versus Unitas piece in other collections of his. He is a smart writer who's open to new things, but he makes me scratch my head on occasion. I'm more of a baseball guy and it seems to me that he has a Yankee bias that colors his analysis of that sport.

Back in the 80s, Barra coauthored a couple of books with George Ignatin called Football By The Numbers. They were like Bill James's Baseball Abstracts or precursors to the Pro Football Prospectus. If you are intersted, I would be willing to ship them to you.

The one piece that I remember from Big Play was about the courting of Marcus Dupree. I checked out the book about it, but never got too far.

Before going, I'd like to thank you for the reviews. AFAICT, you're the only guy who reviews football books online. AFAICT, I'm the only one who responds. Lots of recent books on the Colts-Giants title game in '58. Have you read any of those?

Tom said...

As always, thanks for commenting. The Dupree piece is probably the best one, and I thought about mentioning it, but it's now 24 years old. I may read Willie Morris's The Courting of Marcus Dupree at some point, but probably not.

I've noticed book reviews don't tend to draw many comments, on any site. None of the posts I write here are good at drawing comments, actually. The book reviews do draw Google hits from people looking for more info, though.

On the 1958 game, I'm planning on doing a consolidated review of the new books, once I bother to read them-Bowden's Best Game, Cavanaugh's Giants Among Men, Gifford's The Glory Game, Rand's Year That Changed The Game, and Sahadi's One Sunday in December. June, maybe.

Jon said...

Cool. I like the reviews and the also the way you turned me on to Smart Football and Advanced Football.