Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Book Review: Year of Pain

Some books I feel like deserve a long review. Kenny Hand's Year of Pain: The 1989 Houston Oilers Season is not one of those. Hand, a longtime Houston Post scribe, as the subtitle suggests, put together a book chronicling the 1989 Houston Oilers season [N.B. Year of Pain was published in 1990]. Now, this is an old and much-imitated form of doing a book, and the results can be very good or, well, not so much.

My primary problem with Year of Pain is that beyond seeming a larger degree of access to Oilers coach Jerry Glanville than most journalists, I don't get the feeling that there's anything in the book that any other reporter covering the team, or now any other person, couldn't have written. It's better edited than a collection of my long-form game recaps when I wrote those every Sunday, but it doesn't feel fundamentally that much different. For one, there doesn't feel like much of an overarching narrative to the book. This isn't a fiction book; the outcome is known when the book is published, but the chapter on any individual game week could have been (and well may have been) written the week after that game, depriving you of any sort of bigger picture. Whatever its other faults, even Next Man Up was able to tell the story of a season, not just the story of individual weeks. Of course, as somebody who doesn't necessarily care about the normal narrative, reading Hand's normal columnist gloss on the game isn't necessarily helpful in getting a feel for what happened and why and how each game turned out the way it did; that's definitely a YMMV point, though.

Hand did at least have pretty decent material to work with. The Oilers were in the early days of their fun but ultimately deep unsatisfying run of seven straight years in the playoffs without making even a single conference championship game, and Jerry Glanville was under pressure to improve on the two previous wild card appearances. The AFC Central in those years was a good example of why the AFC was better than the conventional wisdom created by NFC Super Bowl triumphs would have you believe (that said, 1989 was the first year of the stretch where you could plausibly argue the NFC actually was better, though the AFC Central did go 11-5 against the NFC Central)-none of the Bengals, Browns, Steelers, or Oilers was a great team, but three of the four were coming off 10-plus wins in 1988 and each would end the 1989 season with 8 or 9 wins.

The season would go down to the finish line, as the Oilers lost their last two games to the Bengals (the infamous 61-7 game) and Browns to fall from a division title and bye to the wild card, and then completed the trifecta by losing to the Steelers in the wild card game. Glanville would leave the Oilers in the offseason (pseudo-non-firing) to coach the Falcons, and Jack Pardee would arrive for his four years of playoff disappointment. Oh, and those Oilers were also one of the most penalized teams in NFL history, a proud result of Glanville's policy of drawing the "too aggressive" line way past the "stupidity" line. The elements for an interesting book were there, but, well, it's a trip down memory lane for old Oilers fans only.

Bonus "hey, that guy" note for people who don't remember what famous people were assistants on the 1989 Houston Oilers: future Oilers/Titans general manager Floyd Reese and of course the defensive backs coach was future Miami Dolphins head coach Nick Saban.

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