Review of Nate Jackson’s Slow Getting Up

9780062108029_custom-19693480dbdea4cd97ec84a6b79740bdae05ca47-s6-c30Slow Getting Up: A Story of NFL Survival from the Bottom of the Pile by Nate Jackson
Harper (2013)
ISBN-10: 0062108026
ISBN-13: 978-0062108029
256 pages

I have very mixed reactions to this book about the life of a football player on the margins.  Let me start off with what I liked about it.

Nate Jackson details his life as a marginal player in the NFL.  Basically he hung on through the practice squad and playing on special teams, with a few stints on the field itself.  If there is a theme to the book it’s twofold.

One is the prevalence of pain and injury in the NFL and how that makes it even more difficult to hang on when you’re always on the bubble of being cut or released. Jackson seemed to be somewhat injury prone with bad shoulders and later a balky hamstring, not to mention a knee injury he suffered.

The second theme is how the players love football, or at least in this case maybe it is a love-hate relationship with football as that is certainly how the account of this career comes off.  I could never tell really whether Jackson hated football or loved it.  But he must have loved it or at least needed it like a drug to go through all he did to hang on to his football career.

And Jackson has seen it all, from the practice squad, to great players on the Denver Broncos, to NFL Europe, and a last, final hurrah in the United Football League, a very, very small league for struggling want to be players and those, like Jackson, hanging on by their bootstraps for one more chance at an NFL career.  (I wonder if the same can be said about the coaches as Jim Fassel coached in the UFL).

The book is told from the point of view of the player and what life in the NFL means, which is a lot of pain, little time with family or friends, and near total devotion to one’s craft and to keeping the body sound.  And for some, the few minutes of glory of being on the field and making a big hit on special teams or a great catch is worth it.

Jackson mostly stayed away from the Xs and Os of the game and personalities. The most we heard about personalities was his great respect for Bronco’s receiver Rod Smith, and how he liked Jake Plummer and Mike Shanahan (the later who gave him a chance at the behest of none other than Bill Walsh).

This was a very interesting account of the daily life of a player on an off the field and what it means to dedicate yourself to the NFL, especially for a player on the margins.

What I didn’t like about the book, and it grated on my nerves throughout, is the smart-alecky writing style.  It’s as if every anecdote and chapter is wrapped in this veil of smarmy humor that comes across, to this reader, and childish and not funny, as I am sure it was intended.  Not that a book like this couldn’t use some of this type of levity, but the entire book is written in that vein.  That was a huge turnoff.

I also really never could tell whether Jackson loved the NFL or hated the NFL or both.  I suspect both given the struggle with injuries and that he mostly grouses about life in the NFL.  But then as noted, he did hang on for as long as he could through the injuries, NFL Europe, and the UFL.  Why put yourself through that if you didn’t love it on some level?  And he never talks about whether he truly cared about winning or losing games.

And I would have liked to read more gossipy scoops on the players he played with like Plummer and Cutler and Brandon Marshall or things going on in the NFL generally.

Finally, even though told from the view of the “common player” it really is about Nate Jackson, not the NFL and really not the other players.

And for these reasons, at the end of the day, I wouldn’t recommend it.

Slow Getting Up: A Story of NFL Survival from the Bottom of the Pile

Review of The Last Headbangers by Kevin Cook

Headbangers

The Last Headbangers: NFL Football in the Rowdy, Reckless ’70s: The Era that Created Modern Sports by Kevin Cook
W. W. Norton & Company (2012)
ISBN-10: 0393345874

288 pages

The Last Headbangers is a history of the NFL in the 1970’s through the prism of the rivalry between the Oakland Raiders and the Pittsburgh Steelers.  The Raiders, the fun loving, renegade group of misfits versus the blue collar, lunch pail Steelers with a ferocious defense.  Cook describes their battles as a biker gang versus a construction crew, a pithy and apt description.

The theme of the book is quite clear, that 1970’s football, still a throwback to the old days of banging heads and taking no prisoners on the field, morphed into a sanitized, scripted, corporate product in the 1980’s.  He brackets this metamorphosis between Franco Harris’s Immaculate Reception in a 1972 playoff game against the Raiders to Dwight Clark’s “The Catch” in 1982 when the San Francisco 49’ers defeated the Dallas Cowboys to usher in a new football dynasty.  Here I’ll just quote the author.

The Last Headbangers represents two years of research on the NFL in the 1970s. While working on the book I came to believe that the league entered a pivotal era with Franco Harris’s Immaculate Reception in 1972, an era in which new rules, television, aggressive marketing, a special generation of players and coaches, and a changing America combined to help pro football dominate the sports landscape. In my view the game took on its modern form in the ’70s, and what I consider “’ 70s football” ended with Dwight Clark’s 1982 touchdown grab, now known as The Catch, ushering in a more corporate, scripted, and regulated version of the sport, exemplified by the great 49ers teams of the ’80s.  (Cook, Kevin (2012-08-27). The Last Headbangers: NFL Football in the Rowdy, Reckless ’70s–The Era that Created Modern Sports (Kindle Locations 3666-3671). Norton. Kindle Edition.)

Cook also details the rule changes that have essentially made the passing supreme and created a game where defensive players can barely look at an offensive player meanly without getting a flag thrown.  Most of these changes hamper defensive backs from touching a receiver after five yards and limit the amount of contact they can make against “defenseless” receivers – all to create a sanitized game and open up offense and scoring.

The majority of the book, however, is the inside story behind the Raiders and Steelers organization, with particular emphasis on the Immaculate Reception (or Immaculate Deception as Raiders fans call it).  It is mostly a history of these two franchises in the 1970’s.

Overall Cook does an excellent job of describing the games and these two teams throughout the 1970’s.  For many fans I am sure it will be highly entertaining as the writing is excellent and the story well told.

I thought the best aspect of the book was describing the friendship between the Raiders’ linebacker Phil Villapiano and the Steelers’ running back Franco Harris who continue to argue over the Immaculate Reception.

But for me this book ultimately disappointing for a couple of reasons.

First, I have read a copious amount of NFL history, so most of the details in the book I have read elsewhere.  Granted it is well written and likely entertaining for others, but for me it’s simply rehashing what I’ve already read.

Second, I’m not sure I buy the core premise of the Immaculate Reception and The Catch necessarily being the bookends of eras.  The rise of the passing game and rules that have sanitized professional football into a more sterile corporate image have been ongoing through decade of the 1980’s and into the 2010’s.  It’s not easy to put bookends around the trend as Cook does.  Although 1978 probably was a seminal year as that is when many of the rule changes started to move the NFL into the passing frenzy we see today.

And I won’t quibble too much about the title, although it seems a bit inaccurate.  How can the 1970’s be the era that created modern sports when the theme is that that era is over and a bygone past?  It wasn’t the era that created modern football; it was corporatization of the sport, really more so in the 1990s through today that lead to the NFL of today.

As summation, for those who have read a lot of football history and are interested in it, this is a good place to start with the caveats noted above.  For hardcore football fans, there’s not really a lot new here.

The Last Headbangers: NFL Football in the Rowdy, Reckless ’70s–The Era that Created Modern Sports

Review of Perfection: The Inside Story of the 1972 Miami Dolphins Perfect Season

griese-cover-198x300Perfection: The Inside Story of the 1972 Miami Dolphins’ Perfect Season by Bob Griese and Dave Hyde
John Wiley & Sons, Inc, 2012
ISBN: 978-1-118-21809-9 (hardback)
272 pages

The Miami Dolphin’s 17-0 perfect season in 1972 is also a look back at what professional football was about in the early 1970’s – running the ball and defense.  Bob Griese was a cerebral quarterback but he did not put up gaudy stats.  In fact, most of the season Griese was on the sideline injured while a 37 year old Earl Morrall lead the team, or at least managed the game by handing off to Larry Csonka, Mercury Morris, and Jim Kiick.

Isn’t it truly amazing that he Miami Dolphins went undefeated with a backup quarterback at the helm most of the season?  In today’s NFL that would almost certainly be impossible.

Griese’s retelling of that 1972 team is an interesting inside look at historically one of the best teams in football.  The only drawback to the book is that it really doesn’t have a lot of new material in it.  Much of these stories have been told in other places through various medium.  Nevertheless it is still an entertaining look back a great team.

There were a few key themes in the book that I found particularly interesting.  First was the fact the running game with Larry Csonka smashing people and the No Name Defense lead by linebacker Nick Buoniconti were really the heart and soul of the team and the reason for the undefeated season?.  Running the ball and defense wins championships.  Where did that go in today’s NFL?  Unfortunately, for players like defensive tackle Manny Fernandez, who definitely should have been the MVP of Super Bowl VII and in the Hall of Fame, suffered because nobody really paid attention to the individuals and they didn’t get as much public credit for their efforts as they deserved.  The middle linebacker position was already a glamour position because of players like Sam Huff and Dick Butkus so Buoniconti became the face of the defense.

Second was team unity.  Griese recounts that Marv Fleming, a tight end from Green Bay, came to the team and noticed the segregation between black and white players.  There was not racial tension on the team, but that was alien to Fleming in Green Bay.  He took charge of making sure the players integrated the locker room and to some degree their social lives, which likely helped team chemistry.  In other places Griese talks about team unity and its importance to their accomplishments.

A third theme is a reminder of just how crazy and brutal the game was in the 1970’s even though players were not making all that much money at the time.  Getting out of hospital beds to go play in a game, playing with injuries that would keep some players today on the sideline for weeks, and the pain pills and other pills to get players though the game.  While Griese does not go into excruciating detail on this, he clearly acknowledges it.

As mentioned earlier another very important point is just how vital it was to play together as a team.  That is what makes championship football.  Jim Kiick wasn’t happy about getting demoted so Don Shula could get the speedier Mercury Morris on the field, but when he got his chances he made the most out of them.  And when Earl Morrall was taken out of a game in the playoffs and then Griese handed the starting job going forward, he might not have liked it but he took it well and Griese acknowledges how much that meant to him and the team at the time.  And of course on the field, a tight knit group of players who played well together as units.

This book is full of great stories about the players taking us through the season a week at a time, with certain larger points being made in each chapter.  And clearly going 17-0 wasn’t easy.  The Dolphins had some close calls in a few games.  But they achieved perfection, and cling tenaciously to their legacy to this day.
Perfection: The Inside Story of the 1972 Miami Dolphins’ Perfect Season

The Debate is Over: Tom Brady is the Greatest Quarterback in NFL History

Book Cover: Tom Brady vs. The NFL

The Case for Football’s Greatest Quarterback: Tom Brady vs. The NFL by Sean Glennon
Triumph Books, 2012
ISBN-13: 978-1-60078-636-5 (pbk.)
256 pages

Sean Glennon has written a well-organized, cogent argument why Tom Brady is the best quarterback in NFL History.  He does this by comparing the statistics, both regular season and post-season, as well as the long term success of other candidates’ respective teams versus Tom Brady.  He also uses more subjective measures such as talent around the quarterback and championship wins.  He uses all of this data and more to show that Tom Brady stacks up as the best ever.

The chapters a broken down comparing Tom Brady to other great quarterbacks, interspersed with breakdowns of each of Brady’s seasons and his team’s accomplishments.

What this book doesn’t do is trash the achievements of other quarterbacks.  All the quarterbacks presented in this book are rightfully considered the greatest that ever played the game.  You don’t hear the author trashing the achievements of Peyton Manning, for example.  In fact, the author lauds the achievements of the other great quarterbacks to which he compares Brady.

Glennon does such a great job of making his arguments I won’t rehash them here, but I will make a few points on a couple of items in the book.

Peyton Manning

Tom Brady vs. Payton Manning is the first chapter of the book that directly compares Brady to another great quarterback and Tom Brady vs. Joe Montana is the last one.  That was brilliant placement of those two chapters as Manning would be the current day quarterback to most likely get some strong arguments in his favor, and Joe Montana, of course, many incorrectly consider the best ever.

The Peyton Manning chapter is very similar to some of the arguments I have made to why Tom Brady really is a better quarterback than Manning and I’ll just throw in a few comments here to say that I agree.  First, championships do and should matter in this evaluation.  It’s not the only thing, but it is one thing that should be looked at.  At least the player’s and his team’s accomplishments in post-season play should be strongly considered.  And despite all the great talent the Colts have had, for whatever reason, they really slump in the playoffs and Manning doesn’t always perform that well when he gets there.

Second, Manning’s entire career has been spent with superior offensive talent.  Manning has had the luxury of a strong running game (Marshall Faulk and Edgerrin James) most of his career, and a Hall of Fame bound receiver in Marvin Harrison and an elite receiver in Reggie  Wayne.

Brady, on the other hand, has taken average receivers and offensive talent and led them to three Super Bowls.  But for a dropped pass that would have undoubtedly been a game winning touchdown by the woebegone Reche Caldwell, Brady would have lead a group of below average receivers to a Super Bowl.

And what happens when Brady gets an elite receiving corps?  19-0, 50 touchdown passes and a bevy of other offensive records.  Granted the Patriots lost in the Super Bowl that year, but the achievement is one that is still phenomenal. This was followed by another Super Bowl appearance after the 2011 season.

Glennon does a nice job of making these points, and more.

Joe Montana

I think the chapter on Joe Montana is the one that really brings to light how Brady is better than Joe Montana.  Yes, the one thing Montana has over Brady is four Super Bowl wins, and 4-0 at that, while Brady is 3-2.  But I have never heard anyone argue that Terry Bradshaw is the equal of Joe Montana and he is 4-0 in Super Bowls too.

But when one looks over the long-term success of Montana’s teams and many of the statistics, Montana clearly doesn’t stack up to Brady.  And Montana had what some consider the best receiver ever to play the game in Jerry Rice most of his career, a strong running game, and a stout defense that usually ranked at the top of the league.  Being one of the most talent laden teams of that era the 49’ers probably should have made it to more than four Super Bowls, but they didn’t.

Now in the current salary cap era, no offense to a lot of Brady’s former teammates, the Patriots have never assembled great offensive talent around Brady for much of his tenure at quarterback.  When they have the results speak for themselves (now they just need to fix the defense).

Ben Roethlisberger

Big Ben is not given his own chapter but he is mentioned with other current elite quarterbacks. I hear a lot of people try to make the claim that Roethlisberger is a Hall of Fame quarterback. He probably is based just on his team having won two Super Bowls but they have also failed to make the playoffs frequently as well. And Roethlisberger played poorly in two of the three Super Bowl appearances (a win against the Seahawks and a loss against Green Bay).

The Steelers won Super Bowl XL despite Roethlisberger’s poor play.  He has the distinction of being the quarterback on a winning Super Bowl team with the worst passer rating, an abysmal 22.6.  He threw two interceptions, one on a terrible pass that set up the Seahawks for an easy touchdown.  I suspect the poor play of Big Ben is the reason the Steelers finally went to a trick play and had former college quarterback Antwaan Randle-El throw a touchdown pass to Hines Ward.

I’m not pointing this out to denigrate the accomplishments of Big Ben, but he is no Tom Brady.

Conclusion

Now I will quote from the last words of the book.  This is not a spoiler because you already know the book’s conclusion:

“And the reality is the greatest quarterback in NFL history is not Peyton Manning, not Bart Starr, not John Elway nor Dan Marino.  It’s not Sammy Baugh or Otto Graham.  And no, it’s not even Joe Montana.”

When you sit down and honestly and fairly review and compare the careers of the best who ever played, you can only reach one conclusion: The greatest quarterback in the history of the NFL is Tom Brady.  Pure and simple.”

Tom Brady vs. the NFL: The Case for Football’s Greatest Quarterback

DOUG BAKER’S 2012 MIDSEASON ALL PRO TEAM: DEFENSE

J.J. Watt, aka King of Swat, DE, Houston Texans

DOUG BAKER’S 2012 MIDSEASON ALL PRO TEAM: DEFENSE

DE:  J.J. Watt, Houston Texans
DE:  Jason Pierre-Paul, New York Giants

DE:  Chris Clemons, Seattle Seahawks
DE:  Cameron Wake, Miami Dolphins

DT:  Vince Wilfork, New England Patriots
DT:  Justin Smith, San Francisco 49’ers

DT:  Darnell Docket, Arizona Cardinals
DT:  Haloti Ngata, Baltimore Ravens

LB:  Clay Matthews, Green Bay Packers
LB:  Bobby Wagner, Seattle Seahawks
LB:  Navarro Bowman, San Francisco 49’ers
LB:  Patrick Willis, San Francisco 49’ers

LB:  Demarcus Ware, Dallas Cowboys
LB:  Justin Houston, Kansas City Chiefs
LB:  Connor Barwin, Houston Texans
LB:  Von Miller, Denver Broncos

CB:  Charles Tillman, Chicago Bears
CB:  Richard Sherman, Seattle Seahawks

CB:  Patrick Peterson, Arizona Cardinals
CB:  Tracy Porter, Denver Broncos

SS:  Kam Chancellor, Seattle Seahawks
SS:  Bernard Pollard, Baltimore Ravens

FS:  Earl Thomas, Seattle Seahaws
FS:  Danieal Manning, Houston Texans


P:  Zoltan Mesko, New England Patriots
P:  Andy Lee, San Francisco 49’ers

Special Teamer: Corey Graham, Baltimore Ravens


DEFENSIVE PLAYER: 
J.J. Watt, DE, Houston Texans

DEFENSIVE ROOKIE:  Bobby Wagner, LB, Seattle Seahawks