Great Biography of Joe Namath

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If you read one biography of Joe Namath this is the one to read.  It is extremely detailed and well done.

It covers his life growing up in a middle(ish) class family in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania and his athletic exploits that made him a hometown hero.  He was even brash and bit incorrigible as a teenager, a trait that he clearly kept his whole life.  A solid portion of the book is dedicated to his family history and formative years, which laid the groundwork for his life.

I really enjoyed and learned a lot from the book about his years under coach Bear Bryant at Alabama.  It shocks me that Bear Bryant, the hard-nosed, disciplinarian coach somehow coaxed the best out of a rebel like Joe Namath and then immediately following Namath, Ken Stabler.  Namath was suspended for the last game and a bowl game in 1963 for being caught drinking, but Namath accepted the punishment and to this day speaks very highly of Bear Bryant.  Interestingly, Namath spent the weekend living under the coach’s roof hiding from the media.

Unfortunately for Namath he suffered a serious knee injury at Alabama and he played his entire AFL/NFL career with compromised knees.  He was certainly one of the most gifted throwers of all time and it’s a shame we could not see Namath in professional football at full strength.  His knees were so bad he couldn’t be drafted by the military for the Vietnam War.  People scoffed at the fact he had a medical deferment but played professional sports but that is how bad his knees were.  It’s amazing he was as good a quarterback as he was in the pros.

Of course, the book goes through Namath’s more well known pro career with the Jets of the AFL, his huge initial contract, “the guarantee” and win in Super Bowl III over the Baltimore Colts.  But it also talks about some of his troubles with the League because of his purchase of a nightclub where gangsters/mafia/gamblers hung out and the whole drama over being forced to sell it and his somewhat wild social life.

Finally, the book details his personal life which is somewhat well know and I won’t belabor here.

Overall, I’d highly recommend this book to NFL fans.

Namath: a Biography

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Meet Bill Parcells, Bill Walsh, and Joe Gibbs

51-6MwiGHtLGuts and Genius tells the saga of the three heads coaches that truly did dominate the NFL in the 1980’s.  The author walks through the football lives of Bill Parcels (New York Giants), Bill Walsh (San Francisco 49’ers), and Joe Gibbs (Washington Redskins).  Between these coaches, through the 1980’s into the early 90’s, they won 8 Super Bowls and left an indelible print on the NFL.

There are a few key common themes that tie these coaches together besides their winning ways.

First, they were football savants.  While each had their philosophies and systems, especially Walsh with the West Coast Offense, they were also flexible enough to adjust their approach to meet the strengths and weaknesses of their own teams and that of their opponents.  Of the three Walsh probably has the most long-term impact on the game with this short passing game designed to stretch the field horizontally and allow playmakers to get the ball in space and move the ball the down the field.  He also left a much more extensive and successful coaching three than Gibbs or Parcells.

The second theme is leadership.  While each coach had extremely different personalities, they each found ways to connect with and motivate their players to play as a team and achieve more as a unit than they could as a collection of individuals.  They each formed lifelong connections with many of the key players and coaches during their eras.

A third theme is that each started off slow trying to rebuild moribund franchises and had many insecurities and self-doubt.  Even when they were successful, the stress and insecurities almost doubled because the standard was always winning the Super Bowl.  Anything else was almost considered a failure.

Finally, and most disturbing, is the extreme stress and unfathomable hard work it took to accomplish the perfection each chased.  Reading about the extreme stress each felt to win it all, with Gibbs basically living at the football facility to such an extent he missed his sons growing up, and the health, mental, and physical toll football took on these men is profound.

While there is probably nothing profoundly new in this book, it was extremely well written, told in a concise, efficient, and lively prose, and frankly it is hard to put down.  For some reason, at least for this reader, it even provoked emotion and remembrances of the great teams these men led.  And while it goes from one coach to the next from chapter to chapter, that approach worked very well here, and facilitated understanding how these coaches interacted with each other, their teams, and how their journey’s unfolded.

I found this to be a very interesting and worthwhile read.

Guts and Genius: The Story of Three Unlikely Coaches Who Came to Dominate the NFL in the ’80s

Julian Edelman: Super Bowl LIII MVP

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This is an excellent memoir by Super Bowl LIII MVP Julian Edelman.

The memoir is aptly named as well: relentless.  This is the saga of an undersized but determined athlete who persevered through high school, college, and the NFL to overcome his lack of size with relentless determination to succeed.

Julian walks us through his entire athletic career overcoming all the doubters and shaping himself into a successful athlete at all levels of football.  What is truly amazing is his ability to go from a small college quarterback at Kent State and learn a whole new craft of being a successful wide receiver in the NFL.  That is not an easy transition even for the most gifted of athletes but Edelman not only has done it but now has one of the iconic catches in Super Bowl history and now a Super Bowl MVP that will etch his name in football history in perpetuity.

I also liked how the book is interspersed with thoughts from coaches and teammates throughout his athletic journey.

This is a great book that shows that relentless determination can allow anyone to live their dreams.

Relentless: A Memoir

What Makes the Cleveland Brows — Well, the Cleveland Browns

81xogvlrxul._ac_ul320_sr208,320_I bought this book on a whim because I like reading about football.  I am a New England Patriots fan but I do share the misery of losing seasons with bleak prospects for the future.  From 1987 to 1995 the Patriots had a losing record every year except one, including seasons of 1-15 and 2-14.  We also had bad ownership until Robert Kraft bought the team and turned it around.  Much of what happened to the Patriots during that span of time is a lot like what has happened to the Browns.

This book lays out the key themes that have made the Browns the worst team in the NFL for the last decade.  Let’s lay it out here.

Bad ownership. While the three owners during this time are not bad guys like a Victor Kiam or Daniel Snyder, they certainly did not know how to establish a winning team.  They never came up with a structure that was clear on who was running football operations, so internally GMs, Head Coaches, Team Presidents often worked at cross-purposes.  With no structure and no accountability in place, the Browns have churned though coaches and front office personnel with no continuity in place.  A losing formula.

Horrible drafts.  The author goes through just how utterly awful the Browns drafts have been.  Every year the first-round yields busts and before the rookie wage scale, salary cap issues.  Johnny Manziel and Justin Gilbert in the first round of the 2014 NFL draft???  It doesn’t get much more disastrous than that.  Add to that players they missed out on that they could have drafted like LaDanian Tomlinson and Kalil Mack.

Bad quarterbacks.  I don’t even recall how many bad starting quarterbacks the Browns have gone through in the past decade.  Tim Couch got hurt behind and awful line then Brady Quinn turned out to be a bust.  From Tim Couch to DeShone Kizer it’s been 1st round draft pick busts, perineal back up quality quarterbacks (Doug Pederson, Brian Hoyer, Colt McCoy), or has beens (Trent Dilfer, Jeff Garcia, Jason Campbell).  Not a winning formula.

Bad Coaches.  Up through and including Hue Jackson, the Browns have had bad head coaches.  The author has some affinity for a few of them but frankly I just don’t see any of the coaches as quality head coaches.

No culture.  The Browns created a losing culture by having zero stability in leadership positions and not establishing one voice to run football operations.  Mike Lombardi, who was briefly the General Manager of the Browns, said they never established any kind of culture, much less one of winning, which is needed to be a winning franchise.

Hope for the future?  Time will tell.

This book might be painful for Browns fans but it certainly lays out the reasons for its abysmal showing the past two decades.

The Browns Blues: Two Decades of Utter Frustration: Why Everything Kept Going Wrong for the Cleveland Browns

What It Takes to be a Winning NFL Team

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Gridiron Genius covers a wide range of topics and is grounded in the author being in the NFL for 30 years and around some of the best minds in the game.

The author, Michael Lombardi considers his three key mentors and greatest NFL minds Al Davis (despite his quirks), Bill Walsh, and Bill Belichick.  He lays out what he considers the ingredients to establishing a consistently winning franchise.  I won’t cover every detail here but hit the big picture.

Culture.  The team has to have positive, supportive, and winning culture to be successful.  Personal agendas among owners, coaches, and players undermine teamwork and undermine the team’s ability to succeed.

Leadership.  Leadership comes from all levels of the organization from ownership, coaches, and players.  But the key cog in the wheel that keeps a team going in the right direction is the head coach.  He sets the tone for the entire organization and the team.  If the team doesn’t respect the head coach (even if they don’t like him) then the ability to succeed starts to fall apart.  The quarterback is also key on a team. For better or worse, the quarterback is at the center of attention and in today’s NFL you can’t win without a good quarterback.

The program.  Another key to winning football, of course, is talent evaluation but with a caveat.  All teams have specific systems on offense and defense they run and player evaluation should be about players that fit the system.  A player can be extremely talented but if their skill set does not fit the system, they won’t be successful.  Players that are versatile and can play many positions are coveted because they can plug and play into any system or take over for injured players at positions they have not played.  Teams that don’t pay attention to this often fail.

Special teams.  The best and most consistent teams also place and emphasis on special teams plays.  Special teams can win or lose games.  How many times have we seen a team loose in the playoffs or Super Bowl because of poor special teams play?  Plenty.

Quarterback. A great quarterback isn’t necessarily the most athletically gifted, although that helps, but it’s the quarterback who is smart, understands the offense, plays within his strengths, and gets rid of the ball fast.  It’s as much intellect as athletic talent that makes a quarterback great.  How many extremely gifted and athletic quarterbacks fail to reach their potential?  Many.  Tom Brady, the greatest quarterback of all time, and Joe Montana, a great quarterback in his own right, are not the most athletically gifted, they are the smartest and know what to do with their talent and the talent around them.

Game planning.  Teams do run systems have certain strengths and weaknesses on their teams.  But those teams that can be versatile in their game plan on both sides of the ball, and shut down an opponent’s strengths and take advantage of their weaknesses are those that win!

Overall this is a very interesting and insightful book and a great look at what it takes to be a winning football team at any level.

Gridiron Genius: A Master Class in Winning Championships and Building Dynasties in the NFL

What It’s Like to be an NFL Player

51stshiw5zl._sx327_bo1,204,203,200_ (2)If you want to know what it’s like becoming and being an NFL football player then this book is a great start.  The author takes an ethnographic approach by interviewing hundreds of players and spending a great deal of time with others at different levels of the journey.  While it is an academic approach to the topic, the writing is clear, concise, and illuminating.

The author has a few key themes he puts forth to describe the process from high school to the pros.  First, football at all levels he describes as a “totalizing institution.”  That means if you truly aspire to go from one step to the next the player has to be all in and the institutions that control football also end up controlling the players life.

This leads to a second theme which the author calls the sports industrial complex.  At each step of the journey the player’s life is dominated by the game and those that control it.  Big time NCAA football profits greatly on the unpaid backs of all the athletes in profit generating sports and professional football is controlled by a club of billionaires who want to pay the athletes as little as they can get by with.  There is a clear undercurrent that college and NFL athletes are exploited by these respective institutions, especially more marginal players who will never see the multi-millions of the uber gifted athletes.

He also describes the journey as a “tournament” that a player goes through to get to each level from high school to college and then the pros.  Very, very few make it all the way to the pros and the more marginal players that do have to hang on desperately to stay in the game.

The author also touches on masculinity and the fear of admitting weakness, which cause many to ignore injuries or concussions and tough it out at their own detriment.  It is also why players who may be suffering from mental illness may avoid seeking help at their peril.

For those that not only make it through the tournament but have longer than average NFL careers, much of the reason some suffer emotionally and in other ways (not including nagging injuries) is because their entire lives have been consumed and controlled by the game and upon exit there can be a cataclysmic void.  Players who are unprepared emotionally and financially for it face a tough road after they exit the game.

Finally, there is a chapter about racism and how black athletes are disadvantaged (and black coaches more so) in the process.  I won’t go into the arguments he makes here but if you think about the plight of Colin Kaepernick, whether you agree with him or not, that sheds some light on the issue.  It’s a good chapter with some things I totally agree with and some a bit more questionable.

Overall, this was a illuminating look into the journey of the NFL athlete.

Not for Long: The Life and Career of the NFL Athlete

Bruce Arians Insights on QBs

downloadBruce Arians deserved a better writer than Lars Anderson to discuss what it takes to be an NFL quarterback.  The book is a mess in a lot of ways with side trips in the middle of chapters that don’t necessarily related to the topic at hand.  There is a good book in here somewhere.

With that said, Arians has a lot of important points to make about what it takes to be an NFL quarterback.  Here he profiles those he has worked with most closely: Peyton Manning, Kelly Holcomb, Ben Roethlisberger, Andrew Luck, and Carson Palmer.  All are very different quarterbacks but with a lot of the traits Arians looks for in an NFL signal caller.  Unfortunately, a lot of the chapters start meandering into other topics, but nonetheless they are great vignettes about some of the best quarterbacks in the league and one primarily a backup quarterback (Holcomb) who Arians got the most out of.

What is the most important attribute for an NFL quarterback?  First, it’s brains.  To be successful in the NFL a quarterback doesn’t have to be the best athlete on the field, but he probably has to be one of the smartest.  The ability to watch film, read defenses in fast paced live action, and get the ball where it needs to be with accuracy and velocity ultimately is the key.  But football smarts is essential to success regardless of other factors.

You also must have heart.  The willingness to take a big hit to get the ball off, the willingness to play through pain, and the willingness to prepare hard and do what it takes to maximize potential.

You have grit, which Arians defines as “handling success and failure equally”.  You can’t get too up and down over wins and losses but have to compartmentalize and move on to the next game.  If a QB throws an interception or a pick six (an interception returned for a touchdown), the QB can’t get rattled but has to move on to the next play.

And you have to be leader.  An NFL quarterback must be somebody others on the team look up to as an example and want to play with.  And all the traits above set that example.

From athletic point of view obviously an NFL quarterback has to have decent arm strength but it doesn’t have to be a rocket.  Accurate throws to all parts of the field are what set quarterbacks apart.  And the quarterback has to be athletic enough to avoid rush and move around in the pocket, what many call “pocket presence”.  You don’t have to be the best athlete just athletic enough.

As Arians notes, a lot of big armed, athletic quarterbacks have failed in the NFL because they did not posses these traits.

The other interesting part of this book is how some potentially great quarterbacks lack the maturity to play quarterback in the NFL.  Arians was with Baltimore when they scouted Ryan Leaf and Peyton Manning as their first NFL draft pick.  Arians walked around both players’ campuses incognito and just asked around about what people thought of them.  Everybody had good things to say about Manning and nothing bad, while nobody had anything but bad things to say about Leaf.  So that ingrained in Arians a clear lack of leadership and we see what happened to Ryan Leaf.

Overall this was an interesting book about NFL quarterbacks, just annoying disjointed and unorganized at times.

The Quarterback Whisperer: How to Build an Elite NFL Quarterback