Friday, January 5, 2007

Blind Sided (with Science)

The January 8, 2007 issue of The New Yorker contains a series of book comparisons by Adam Gopnik on recent books about football (including John Feinstein's "Next Man Up", Charles P. Pierce's "Moving the Chains", and Michael Lewis' "The Blind Side") with some earlier football books (including George Plimpton's "Paper Lion", Dan Jenkin's "Semi-Tough", and Roy Blount Jr.'s "About Three Bricks Shy of a Load.")

Gopnik does an credible job of comparing across eras (the earlier books describe a younger, more naive NFL that is, in Gopnik's view "funner.") He also compares the state of football literature to the state of baseball writing, with Bill James and the statistical analysis of hardball being taken as a given.

Gopnik starts his piece with a nice vignette of Joe Namath dodging controversy in the New York Jet press box at a recent game:

Someone asks Namath is he believes that [Jet QB] Chad Pennington is in a slump...Namath is suddenly intent. "No, he's a good quarterback," he says seriously. "I've only watched him this year as a fan, on television. I haven't had a chance to break down the passing game to see if Chad's going to the right spots or going to the wrong receiver." You sense that the distinction the old quarterback is making -- between watching as a fan and actually watching -- is, for him, larger than he can quite explain. It isn't just that he hasn't watched as attentively as he might have; watching "as a fan, on television," means that he hasn't really watched at all...

...[W]hat is really astonishing is to be reminded again of how different this game looks depending on where you see it from, on where you're standing (or sitting) while you watch it. When you watch a pro football game from the Crimean War general's viewpoint of the press box, you can see what's going to happen. On television, the quarterback peers out into the distance within the narrowed frame of the midfield camera and for a moment everything seems possible; the view can't know if there's a wide-open man fifty yards deep or if there is nothing ahead of Pennington but despair - four men crowding two receivers, who aren't even bothering to wave their arms...If you're watching live, Namath's point comes home; on television you see free will instead of a series of forced choices, mostly bad. The quarterback, the gallant general, peering out, in command, becomes, in reality, a stitch in the pattern already woven, his fate nearly sealed before he gets to fiddle with it.

But while Gopnik references Lewis' book, what's interesting is the parallels between Gopnik's analysis of Namath's view of play, and how Lewis analyzes the protection provided by the Left Tackle (playing on the blind side to the right-handed quarterback), in describing a playoff game between the San Francisco 49ers and the Minnesota Vikings in 1988. And what's even more interesting is that Gopnik didn't make (or perhaps acknowledge) the connection:
What happens on this first serious encounter between these two huge men happens so fast it's nearly impossible to comprehend with the naked eye in real time. [Viking Chris] Doleman sprints upfield, probably expecting to collide with [49er Steve] Wallace on his first or second step - but he doesn't. Wallace has taken a new angle. 'I had to make sure that his body was completely by me...wait...wait...Then I hit him.'

He'd met Doleman as deep in the backfield as he possibly could without missing him altogether. They collided, briefly, at the spot Doleman wanted to be making a sharp left to get at [49er Joe] Montana. The hit kept Doleman from turning, and drove him further upfield. Steve Wallace had trade the pleasure of violence for the comfort of real estate.

Nobody notices, of course. His contribution was the opposite of drama. He'd removed the antagonist from the play entirely. What the fans and the television cameras see if 49er wide receiver John Taylor come wide open in the middle of the field. Joe Montana hits with a pass, and Taylor races for a gain of twenty yards.

(Gopnik's piece is not available on line.)

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