It’s a familiar format – a journalist spends a season following the team closely and then writes the inside story of what happened. The NFL being what it is, this invariably means a tale of thwarted ambition and plans going awry. They’re often fascinating because they catch the details that a broader overview of the team’s history would miss out – and because they take us where, as fans, we aren’t able to go. Here are five favourites of the genre.
1Collision Low Crossers (2013) by Nicholas Dawidoff
The 2011 New York Jets must have seemed ripe for a story about a team pushing for Super Bowl glory. Instead, Nicholas Dawidoff goes inside a team that has lost the last two AFC Championship games and chronicles… an 8-8 playoff miss. It doesn’t matter because Dawidoff does an excellent job is bringing the characters alive on the page and turning complicated men like Rex Ryan and Darelle Revis into figures of empathy.
2Next Man Up (2006) by John Feinstein
Another team that looked like candidates for a deep playoff run, the 2004 Baltimore Ravens ended up in a similar position to the 2011 Jets. In this case, 9-7 and missing out on the playoffs. Feinstein details the troubles as they come – from the failed attempt to sign Terrell Owens in the off-season to the string of injuries that left the team constantly trying to patch over holes. The frustration of the players and staff is palpable.
3About Three Bricks Shy… and the Load Filled Up (1984) by Roy Blount Jr
The award for Best Near Miss of a Super Bowl Winner goes to Roy Blount Jr. He followed the 1973 Pittsburgh Steelers, who lost in the Divisional Playoff to the Raiders. The team went on to win the next two Super Bowls – part of a run of four Super Bowl titles in six seasons. This edition of the book is an update on the original (which was called ‘About Three Bricks Shy of a Load’) and includes 90 extra pages on those Super Bowl wins. The current printing, from 2004, also includes a new intro from Blount.
4No Medals for Trying (1990) by Jerry Izenberg
This book puts a different spin on the ‘inside-the-team’ schtick, with Izenberg spending a week with the 1989 New York Giants as they try to bounce back from a loss to the 49ers in San Francisco and prepare for a home game against division rivals, the Philadelphia Eagles. Full of characters, from Bill Parcells to Lawrence Taylor and plenty more, this benefits from an even greater level of detail than the books that cover a whole season. The story plays out hour-by-hour and it’s absorbing. It’s out of print but secondhand copies are pretty easy to find.
5The Proving Ground (2001) by Lars Anderson
A slightly different outing, this one. Anderson spends a year with the 2000 Scottish Claymores, in NFL Europe. It’s different in another way, too: this team actually made the World Bowl! They lost, but it’s a small victory for embedded sports writers everywhere. This is an interesting view of football on a different scale from the NFL; it’s not even on the scale of a decent college team. The Claymores, full of players desperate to prove themselves to the NFL, are adrift in a foreign country, staying in a ‘haunted’ hotel and hoping to simply keep playing a game they love.
Photo: Erik Drost