Tuesday, July 31, 2012

A Couple Weeks Ago's Book: The Games that Changed the Game

I'm getting closer, I swear! One of the nice things about Book a Week is how different these past two books have been in pretty much every way possible.

On an administrative note, of my five July entries, one was on July 1 and three are on July 31. It's like I'm posting a lot this month, only not. Well, guess that's the way it goes.

July 15-21: The Games that Changed the Game by Ron Jaworski with Greg Cosell and David Plaut

Non-Fiction (2010 - 285 pp.) 

The Games that Changed the Game is nominally by Ron Jaworski and two senior NFL Films producers but is written as a first-person narrative by Jaworski. I applaud the lack of a named ghost writer and the consequent notion that this is Jaworski's writing voice - it's a good voice. I presume Greg Cosell and David Plaut did mostly behind the scenes work related to these and other games. The setup works well. 

The book's subtitle, "The Evolution of the NFL in Seven Sundays", says it all. Jaworski tracks seven coaches through groundbreaking performances their teams had, specifically on one side of the ball. Three offences and four defences are included. Having grown up too late to have seen any of these games but the last two, with only the last one holding any clarity, the book was a football history lesson to me. I imagine fans of different ages would get drastically different impressions of the protagonists herein, and that's the kind of conversation I've had many times with my dad. 

The Xs and Os are only sometimes drawn. This is where a good working knowledge of NFL formations helps the reader greatly. Familiarity with the players involved isn't always as important, as Jaworski often gives detailed mini-biographies, but every little bit helps. Although the mechanics of each drive provide the real meat of the book, it's the back stories that make it all worthwhile. Think of the drives Jaworski charts as the economic base and the character-driven subplots as the superstructure, if you will. The book is more exciting than any football-based fiction and it's written with boundless enthusiasm toward the subject. 

There are really only two qualms I can have. One is which game is picked to exemplify Dick LeBeau's still-feared zone blitz. Jaworski admits this openly - the problem is that he picked a game those vaunted Steelers lost. It's not so much the outcome of that particular game as the other games Jaworski mentions in the chapter, specifically the three Steelers/Bills rematches over the next three seasons that would see the Steelers win out. It's as though the necessity of picking the first big game when the strategy was revealed won out over picking the best game, yet this logic specifically isn't used in the game chosen to show off Buddy Ryan's 46 defence. The other one is that the two most recent offences chosen are from late 1980 and early 1982, less than a year and a half apart. If not for mentions of more recent offensive innovators like Mike Holmgren and Andy Reid peppered into the book's last four chapters, a reader might think offensive innovation ended with Bill Walsh! That said, the difficulty of condensing thousands of hours of film into seven games is so unfathomable I can't hold Jaworski at fault. Plus, there's the important detail in the paragraph directly following this one... 

Ron Jaworski knows galaxies more about football than you or I ever will, and nothing we can do will change that reality. The kind of perspective that is only gained through decades of football obsession shows in each description or anecdote. There are times when Jaworski injects a few pages of his personal experience into sections that don't immediately strike the reader as during his playing era (the '70s and '80s, right up to a final game as a Kansas City Chief in 1989). He's earned that right. He's also a great storyteller, making me feel like I was the young Bills fan who learned passing mechanics from watching a Joe Namath road game. 

Ease of Reading: 8* 
Educational Content: 9** 

*If you aren't a lifelong football fan, this number drops dramatically. Someone altogether unfamiliar with the game may as well be reading Bleak House
**It's extremely educational about football. That doesn't make it educational about history, politics, economics, literature, or any of the other wonderful topics that usually make a book rise in this category. This is really, really educational about football, though.

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