Saturday, October 9, 2010

More Than A Game

A couple weeks ago I picked up Brian Billick’s More Than A Game, The Glorious Present and Uncertain Future of the NFL. I can’t tell if the title is overplaying the contents of the book yet, but for sure if you have been a fan of NFL Football for any length of time you will undoubtedly enjoy the book for the quantity of anecdotal insights about coaches, players and teams with whom you’ve become familiar with over the years.

According to a recent Esquire poll of 20 and 50 year old men, NFL football is the most watched spectator sport for young and old alike. For this reason alone a publisher like Scribner would take a chance publishing an insider's perspective on the game, especially when co-authored by a New York Times bestselling sportswriter.

This is not my first book by or about an NFL coach. Billick took his Baltimore Ravens to a Super Bowl, which gives him the privilege of having his story told. Last year I read Tony Dungy’s excellent Quiet Strength: The Principles, Practices, and Priorities of a Winning Life, and before that The Education of a Coach, about the fabled Bill Bellichek, who turned the disorganized New England Patriots into a dynasty in the new era of free agency.

Billick’s story is his own, but not unlike Bellichek’s or Dungy’s in this sense. Dungy went to Tampa Bay to coach a team of losers and turned them into winners, but having failed to bring home a Super Bowl trophy found himself displaced. At Indianapolis he helped put it all together, and did indeed achieve remarkable things, bringing home the big prize in Super Bowl XIV. Billick, who cut his teeth under the Minnesota Vikings’ Dennis Green, took over a Baltimore Ravens team that had never had a winning season in its history. The previous year his Vikings had been 15-1, so a daunting challenge lay ahead of him. Yet Billick turned the franchise around and did what needed to be done to build a formidable team.

This book is less about that and more about the challenges facing coaches, managers and teams today, not so much through citing statistics as by stringing together anecdotes. The chapter I’d just finished on the plane from Dayton to Detroit dealt with aspects of the college football draft, with insights into the various methodologies and criteria coaches use to select new talent. Tom Landry, for example did everything by the numbers, speed, height, weight, arm strength, etc. San Francisco 49ers coach Bill Walsh would have tapes assembled featuring every candidate’s 15 best and worst plays from the college careers. Tony Dungee also added a character criteria to his assessments. If a player had had a minor scrape with the law, a small “c” would be written on the player’s sheet. If they’d had a major issue, there would appear a large “C” on his assessment, and the Colts never hired a player with that capital C.

What is interesting are the uncertainties in so many situations and decisions. Billick underscores the difficulties of assessing future success when drafting quarterbacks. Because of salary caps, a top quarterback can become an expensive bite from the pie you have to work with. And over the past fifty years the odds of getting winner are only 50/50. No matter how stellar an athletes numbers in college, the pros are a different animal. And no one gets it right more than half the time. Billick points out, however, that there is another stat that accompanies the drafting of top dollar quarterbacks in the first rounds. 100% of the time, the coach that drafted him is gone within three years if he turns out to be a lemon.

Another variable that makes things hard to anticipate are the hidden off-field behaviors that can ultimate become a distraction, or worse. Michael Vick's dog fighting activities were not only an embarrassment to the league, but damaging to his value to sponsors who invested so much in the aura he created as a superstar. This week's headline involving Brett Favre's "inappropriate passes" can't help be a distraction for the team as they face the Jets tomorrow.

In the book, Billick shares how difficult interviews with potential draftees can be. It becomes extremely difficult to uncover and evaluate the potential problem baggage a player might be carrying because they learn rote answers to put themselves in the best light possible for consideration. The Ravens' owner Steve Biscotti had an interesting interview question that cut through the mustard in these situations. He would ask, "Okay, what's the worst thing you ever got away with?" Not, what is the worst thing on your record, but what has been going on that nobody knows about. The players get confused, because they do not know what the owner knows or doesn't know.

Billick, after looking at a player's rap sheet, once asked, "Look, you're either a thug or you're stupid. Which is it?" The player looked straight back at Billick and asked, "Are those my only two choices?" Billick writes that he knew right then the guy wasn't stupid, and it turned out he wasn't a thug either, playing nine solid years without a spot of trouble.

The book is filled with the kinds of stories only an insider can tell. If you like football, check it out. It's an insight-filled read.

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