Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Book Review: Bringing the Heat

In my circles, at least, I'd guess most people probably know Mark Bowden from his "security" books-most notably Black Hawk Down, but also Killing Pablo and Guests of the Ayatollah. It wasn't until he came out with The Best Game Ever, on the Giants-Colts championship (I'll get to it eventually), that I became aware he had previously covered the Philadelphia Eagles and written a book about the team's tumultuous 1992 season entitled Bringing the Heat: A Pro Football Team's Quest for Glory, Fame, Immortality, and a Bigger Piece of the Action.

Bringing the Heat came as a little bit of a shock to the system after reading Bowden's other books. The sober tone I was used to isn't quite here-instead, it's more what you might expect from the (exaggerated) subtitle-the Eagles of that era were an interesting team. Buddy Ryan was gone as head coach, but the defense still bore his imprint and personality and was under the tutelage of the legendary Bud Carson, architect of the Steelers Steel Curtain defenses of the 1970's. The head coach, and former offensive coordinator, was Richie Kotite, who was extraordinarily beloved by the defense, for a definition of extraordinarily beloved that included "tolerated, at best, but more held in contempt along with his quarterback in Randall Cunningham." The Eagles were also discombobulated that season by the death in a car crash in the offseason of All-Pro defensive tackle Jerome Brown, but once again their season fizzled out in the early rounds of the playoffs-in this case, the divisional round in Dallas. If you were a writer like Bowden, you couldn't have asked for a better script.

And, befitting my view of him as a fine reporter, Bowden uses the access he had to the team to build a compelling portrait of just what a nutty team this Eagles squad was. Seth Joyner, whose intensity had previously been balanced by Brown's jocularity and ability to bring people together, comes across like just as much of an arrogant asshole as I thought he was as a player. Kotite sounds like a guy sitting on top of a powder keg, trying not to get blown up. We don't get great inner portraits of Kotite or Bud Carson or QB Randall Cunningham, which is a little disappointing, but we do get a good view of pretty much everything else that happens. Bringing the Heat even includes detailed play descriptions(!), undoubtedly derived from having a coach (assistant coaches Peter Guinta and Zeke Bratkowski are credited) break down the film and show exactly what happened and why, for key moments of various games. That's something you don't really see in any of the other books listed on the sidebar.

I don't know quite how Bowden's book compares to the best single-season books of a team, like Halberstam's legendary Breaks of the Game, but it sure beats the heck out of Next Man Up. The only question really, is how important is a book about a team over a decade and a half ago, before the NFL starter free agency. For me, the Eagles of that era were an intensely interesting team I didn't know much about, so Bringing the Heat was hugely interesting. For others who don't care as much about that team or who are looking for insights into the current game, I can't recommend Bringing the Heat quite as strongly aside from its general excellence at what it is.

Pet peeves: I'm not really sure Bowden knows much about football, but he uses his access ruthlessly, so that's not really important. As a book by a beat writer about a team during the time he covered it, you wouldn't expect a bibliography, and there isn't one. An index would have been hugely valuable, and I definitely would have referred to it even while reading the book, but of course there isn't one.

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