Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Book Club

Football has not historically produced the same volume of literature that baseball has. Is there any football book as "famous" as Boys of Summer or Behind the Mask or Ball 4 etc etc etc? And yet as the NFL continues its monolithic march, dominating all forms of media and indeed every waking moment of our lives, its ubiquity is starting to trickle down to that least-techy of mediums, the humble book.

It's that time of the year – football publishing season! As pads start to crack, we get the swarm of offerings aimed at separating a few bux from the devoted fan, who needs a fix to get thru this last month before the real games start. Most sports books are crap, but here's a few that I found excellent, really rewarding.

Football Outsiders Almanac 2009

I picked this up just a few days ago. I'm very impressed. I did not expect so imposing a publication. It's ~550 pages long! 40+ pages of intro and discussion of methods; team essays at ~8 pages per; ~150 pages of player notes; ~60 pages of college ball; ~25 pages of research articles; 20 pages of appendices.

In form and content it is the direct heir of the old Bill James Baseball Abstracts. In tone too. That's a compliment: I loved those old books. This seems exactly like one of those, transposed into the key of football.
(There's a moment in an episode of House, season 2 or 3 I think, where House walks into Wilson's office and Wilson has his feet up and is reading one of the old Baseball Abstracts. Awesome.)

I've only absorbed a small portion of the book so far. As you'd expect, I started with the Ravens piece and a Joe Flacco capsule. I'm not quite ready to declare the book as good as the old Bill James Abstracts. But that's the intellectual lineage; and it predisposes me to like it. My initial impression of the book is like my impression of the Outsiders site itself: extremely interesting and entertaining, and perhaps not quite humble enough in the face of how much we can't know about football.

(As some kind of barometer of my objectivity, I should mention that I found two errors about Flacco's TD's last season in two separate places, the Ravens essay in the early part of the book and the Flacco capsule later. Not the same error repeated, but two different errors. And I don't quite agree with the prediction for the Ravens season, I think there are some gaps in the writer's logic. So when you read my "humble enough" comment above, you may choose to take that with a grain of salt.)

I did not realize the Almanac would be so hefty. I anticipated something in the, I dunno, 100-150 page range. PDF is nice because you get it instantly; but there's an actual bound-and-printed version, and I think next time I'll go for that. I'd like to read it in bed, dip into it over a couple weeks and have it around to refer to, without having to boot up my laptop.

The book is $12 in PDF, available at their online store – the bound version is there too, and also I think on Zon, for $22.

I'm really enjoying the book. As I continue reading it, I am more and more reminded of the old Abstracts. I mean, they've stolen everything. Lofty stuff like approach, methods, goals – even their site's name is an homage to something James wrote
and detailed stuff like how the book is organized, and the kinds of quippy things he said about players. And they've done a fantastic job. You'd think I'd object when I notice just how much they've stolen from my hero; I'm the same guy who usually hates cover versions of old songs I used to love, or movie remakes, or TV series adaptations from movies, etc etc. But instead as I read it I can only admire: the book, the game-charting project and the wealth of information flowing from it, etc.

A Few Seconds of Panic: A Sportswriter Plays in the NFL by Stefan Fatsis (2008)

When I asked above if there was any football book as famous as some of the classic baseball books, the one book in the back of my mind was Paper Lion (1966). It was subtitled "Confessions of a Last-String Quarterback": George Plimpton modeled (or invented?) the new participatory journalism by joining the Lions in training camp and playing QB in an intra-squad game.

40 years later, the NFL is a very different place. Writer Stefan Fatsis, who has been a contributor to
Slate & The Atlantic & NY Times & SI, joined the Broncos for their 2006 training camp, as a kicker. This is a much more serious endeavor than Plimpton's was. Fatsis is less interested in showcasing his literary graces, and more interested in capturing "the physical and emotional realities of playing in the NFL."

He blows it out of the water. This is essential reading for the fan who wants to know "what it's like": this is what it's like. From small revelations like the strength & conditioning coach telling Fatsis "70% of your job is in here", to profiles of players and Mike Shanahan, this book is consistently fascinating. Along the way Fatsis manages to convey the strong impression that playing in the NFL is exactly the kind of job environment I would hate. Wow, such pressure.

The GM: A Football life, a Final Season, and a Last Laugh by Tom Callahan (2007)

Originally subtitled "The Inside Story of a Dream Job and the Nightmares that Go with It" when it was released in 2007, this is Callahan's profile of GM Ernie Accorsi, who retired from the game after the 2006 season. Accorsi had also been GM of the Baltimore Colts for two years in the early 80s (so he drafted John Elway) and of the Browns from 85 to 92 (so he hired Marty Schottenheimer, then replaced him with Bud Carson).

The book has an interesting structure, split into two storylines going thru alternate chapters. The odd-numbered chapters detail the ups-and-downs of the Giants 2006 season. The even-numbered chapters detail Accorsi's career, starting wth his time in the sports publicity dept at Penn St in the 60's, thru joining the Colts in the 70s, assuming their GM job, etc.

Initially I was not super-interested in the 2006 story: I'm not a Giants fan, not an Eli fan, this seemed to me to be tacked-on to the real substance of the book, in order to lend some currency so the average fan might buy it. However, this team did wind up winning the Super Bowl after the 2007 season, the year after Accorsi retired, so that storyline wound up having more interest than I expected. I had not realized how devastated by injury the 2006 Giants had been; after reading this, their championship seemed much more understandable.

The real thread of interest to me was the storyline of Accorsi's career, especially his time in Baltimore. Accorsi (thru Callahan) drops some nuggets about the Elway trade: the blockbuster that he'd gotten a tacit agreement from Elway to sign with the Colts after the fuss died down, before owner Irsay (may he rot in Hell) traded Elway out from under Accorsi; and Accorsi's belief that were it not for that trade, the Colts would likely still be in Baltimore (season ticket sales had spiked up after the draft).

I don't think you have to be a Baltimore fan to find this stuff interesting. It also talks about the Browns, and Schottenheimer, and Kosar, and scouting QBs, and building teams, and what makes the Giants organization classy, and all sorts of things.
Accorsi's career spanned the growth of the NFL, from mom-&-pop operation in the 60s to the megalithic construct it is today; he has a lot of insight into the common threads that generate success across decades.


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