Monday, October 28, 2013

Review: Collision Low Crossers (2013)

By Nicholas Dawidoff

Let's get this out of the way from the beginning.

"Collision Low Crossers" ranks as one of the best pro football books ever written.

The worst part of it might just be the title, which is a phrase (I think) to describe how defenders try to disrupt pass receivers who run short crossing patterns a few yards from the line of scrimmage between the defensive linemen and the linebackers. It's not a phrase that rolls off the tongue at first, but try to remember it the next time you are shopping for a football book. It's worth the effort.

Nicholas Dawidoff, the author of a few other fine books, had the idea of spending a full year with a professional football team. He contacted the New York Jets, who - considering how paranoid pro football is as an industry when it comes to revealing secrets to outsiders - surprisingly agreed to open the doors to him in 2011.

Dawidoff was given total access to everything connected with the team. He had a locker, attended practices, sat with general manager Mike Tannenbaum during games, and so on. Tannenbaum and head coach Rex Ryan are obviously two members of a small group that would even consider something like this. What's more, hardly anything was "off the record." No wonder Dawidoff took 8,000 pages of notes during the year.

The 2011 season might be remembered at first as the Year of the Lockout. Just after the author arrived, the collective bargaining agreement between the NFL and its players expired, and a new one was not in place. So the owners locked the doors and essentially suspended operations. While Dawidoff might have thought this was a bad break at the time, it actually worked in his favor. He still showed up virtually every day at the Jets' complex in New Jersey, and he probably had the chance to develop closer relationships with the members of the coaching staff.

That pays off throughout the book. Most coaches in the NFL come off as slight variations of vanilla in personality, with Ryan as an exception. Here we get to know almost all the coaches as people, and the portraits show that they really do have personalities.

However, the assistant coaches work hard. Very hard. No one seems to ever sleep in the football business, and they all miss countless family events throughout the season. The only thing that makes it even close to worthwhile is winning, and everyone still remembers that only one team out of 32 gets to win that last game of the season in early February - which leaves disappointment lurking for all the rest.

That leads to one of Dawidoff''s main points. The game is so involved and so complicated, that it's difficult for anyone to come close to judging the work of the coaching staff. Few have any idea what's really going on. A glance at the won-loss record by outsiders probably isn't enough.

While the author spends much of his time with the coaches, particularly on the defensive side, he doesn't ignore the players either - although he's not quite as close. There are plenty of good stories there, and the best is the most obvious - the starting quarterback. Mark Sanchez was hailed as the man who would lead the Jets to the promised land when he was drafted, and it looked as if he'd do that after two good years after entering the league. But Sanchez definitely took a small step back in 2011, and that helped to create a split between a solid defensive unit and an inconsistent offensive group. It's more poignant now, since we know Sanchez's career had spiraled downward since then.

There's also insight on fringe players. Take Aaron Maybin, a former first-round draft choice who flopped in Buffalo. Maybin had his moments every once in a great while with the Jets in 2011, and shown to be a fun, interesting person. He's also unable to remember play calls and is the only Jet to even discuss life after football. Very enlightening.

The fun really comes when Dawidoff does his impression of a fly on the wall. What's it like when there is no agreement among football staffers about a particular draft choice? How does a team recruit players when free agency opens in a particular year? How are rookies treated? (Hint to that last one: Think errand boy.)

If that weren't enough, Dawidoff's writing is excellent and thoughtful, and his personal observations on the nature of the game are always interesting. When he writes that football is now designed to produce games and often comes down to a battle of wits between quarterbacks and defensive coordinators, it's easy to nod in agreement.

This runs almost 500 pages and can be a little technical and jargon-filled in spots, but fans of the game won't complain. "Collision Low Crossers" should take its rightful place as one of the best sports books of the year.

Five stars

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