COLLISION LOW CROSSERS: A Year Inside the Turbulent World of NFL Football, by Nicholas Dawidoff. Little, Brown and Co., 485 pp., $29.
First, to be fair: "Collision Low Crossers," Nicholas Dawidoff's chronicling of a season with the New York Jets, is excellent stuff. The author spent 2011 embedded with Rex Ryan's team, and his doggedness and observational skills produce an insider's look that brings to mind Roy Blount's classic ode to the 1974 Pittsburgh Steelers, "About Three Bricks Shy of a Load."
Better than good.
It's really good.
And yet . . .
As I read through the nearly 500 pages of details from the Jets' 2011 season, I repeatedly found myself returning to a point that -- just being honest here -- sort of damns the entire project. Namely, why the heck would anyone want to read a tome on the 2011 Jets' season?
Technically, this is not Dawidoff's fault. He found a team that offered access, and he wisely accepted. There was no way he could have known New York would wind up 8-8, or that quarterback Mark Sanchez would play uninspired, blah football, or that most of the roster's components were forgettable, mediocre parts.
Yet, what Dawidoff is responsible for is the book's timing -- or, in this case, lack thereof. Historically speaking, works like "Collision Low Crossers" -- the title refers to a defensive tactic -- always come out in the months after the final game of the season. Publishers demand a rapid turnaround, so the buzz hasn't completely faded by the release date. Truth be told, that's why the sports book landscape is littered with so many awful chronicles. They're often rushed hack jobs that are more concerned with marketing than editorial quality.
Dawidoff, however, is no hack. He's an elite journalist and agile wordsmith whose books include "The Catcher Was a Spy" -- one of the great works of the sports genre. He knows the business; knows supply and demand, the short memory of the sports fan and the importance of the quick release (something Sanchez has never seemed to grasp). How this wasn't on shelves in 2012 is a head scratcher.
The problem is, while the writing is crisp, much of "Collision Low Crossers" feels stale and dated. By now, most Jets fans have had their fill of Ryan -- the loud, cocky coach whose antics were repeatedly highlighted on the 2010 season of HBO's "Hard Knocks." We know he's a defensive savant, we know he's jovial, we know he's loyal. So, while Dawidoff presents some rich paintings of the coach's antics (one pregame pep talk is particularly memorable), nothing here is new or surprising. Dawidoff also devotes great time to Mike Tannenbaum, the former Jets general manager, and the way he goes about building a football team. Were Tannenbaum still running things, this could be interesting. Once he was fired at the end of last season, the information became, well, antiquated. The same goes for Brian Schottenheimer, the long-gone offensive coordinator. And Darrelle Revis, the long-gone star defensive back. And Shonn Greene, the long-gone starting halfback. Their Jets narratives were, at the time, relevant. Now, they're not.
That said, if you're a football fan (Jets loyalties be damned) who simply wants to understand the inner workings of an NFL franchise, this is your book. Short of "Real Sports," "Collision Low Crossers" is as close as one can come to sitting inside the meeting rooms, evaluating players and designing strategies. During one preseason game, the author is actually allowed to call a defensive series -- a fascinating chain of events that perfectly illustrates the fleeting highs and lows of the profession.
Within minutes, Dawidoff goes from genius to dolt -- and his genuine emotion leaps from the pages. "Tannenbaum had pointed out to me that in recent years in the NFL, anywhere from half to three-quarters of the games had been decided by one score," he writes. "And sheathed right there in that cold, blunt statistic was the murmuring anxiety of every team's predicament: The NFL had achieved such a level of parity that a form of competitive entropy existed. In any given game, either team could win. Tannenbaum, and the coaches, were in command of what they could not control; and so it was their job to be responsible for the irresponsibility of others."
That's the power of great sports writing, and Dawidoff (unlike the perennially exasperating Jets) is as good as they come.
If only it had come a bit sooner.