Collision Low Crossers
A Year Inside the Turbulent World of NFL Football
By Nicholas Dawidoff
Little, Brown, 2012, 496 pp.
At the beginning of the 1963 season, George Plimpton joined the Detroit Lions. The idea was to embed with the players, report what it was like, and then transmit to the rest of the universe the unique experience of being a football athlete. The result was the classic Paper Lion (as the title spoils, Plimpton didn’t make it past training camp). This past fall, fifty seasons later, came Nicholas Dawidoff’s Collision Low Crossers. It’s a report of his year—centered on the 2011 season—embedded with the New York Jets. Like Paper Lion, it will stand as its era’s exemplary document of how the National Football League is consumed. Dawidoff received a truly heroic amount of access to the Jets, especially once you adjust for the hyper-secretive nature of NFL franchises, which guard playbooks as though they’re nuclear suitcases. And he has used it to write a story almost all about the coaches.
The book’s myopic perspective is not all Dawidoff’s fault. He is a creature of his times. The gulf between middle-class readers and players today might be insurmountable. Through the 1970s, most players were normal-sized and clocked in at ordinary jobs during the offseason. Today, most fans who do not come from the same (predominantly poor, predominantly black, disproportionately southern) neighborhoods as the players fail to see any themselves in most of the athletes. It is probably no accident that the popular nickname for Calvin Johnson, the best wide receiver in the league, is Megatron—a robot. (Incidentally, for a good player’s-eye view of the NFL, I recommend the former tight end Nate Jackson’s memoir, Slow Getting Up, also published last year.)
Fans’ approach to the players has changed the way they view and consume the sport itself. Early in Collision Low Crossers, a coach compares players “in their helmets and pads to armored knights on horses—‘You knew there was somebody in there but you didn’t know who the hell it was!’” The metaphor is especially telling. Football is an endeavor in which the players have one code of honor to uphold among themselves, but the spectators just want a triumphant winner as well as a loser bloodied and knocked off his horse. For this reason, more “sophisticated” fans’ reverence has shifted mainly to the coaches and executives (and to the five or six best, invariably white, drop-back quarterbacks), whose jobs seem much more intelligible to them. They dissect their brilliant and/or stupid decisions to go for it on fourth down; they analyze the decisions to be made in the annual draft; they ponder the respective advantages of the 4-3 and 3-4 defenses. This sort of thing can be fun, but it is a strikingly dispassionate way to root, root, root for the home team. To paraphrase Susan Sontag, perhaps we need an erotics rather than a hermeneutics of football. (Then again, given that the fundamental unit of football is one extremely oversized man pummeling another, an erotics may be the last thing football needs.)
Either way, Dawidoff is as guilty as the rest of us. He has composed history from the top down. The Jets’ upset victory over the New England Patriots in the playoffs three years ago, he tells us, was mainly the coaches’ doing: “they’d forged an intricate mousetrap for Tom Brady.” The players barely exist until training camp begins, nearly 200 pages in. Dawidoff writes frankly about the coaches’ spring boredom due to an owner-initiated labor lockout that forbade the coaches from contacting their players. But when he writes, “The lockout wore on everyone,” it is impossible to believe him, because there is every indication that at the time he had as much contact with Jets players as the coaches did. “On the one hand, the players were actual people the coaches guided, taught, and came to know and care about,” Dawidoff reports. “On the other,” he continues, “the players were abstractions, works perpetually in progress for the coaches to edit, improve, even transform.” Any reader of Collision Low Crossers will see that Dawidoff primarily sees the players this second way.
It is understandable that a middle-aged journalist would find much in common with the defensive and offensive coordinators Mike Pettine and Brian Schottenheimer, the general manager Mike Tannenbaum, and most of all the charismatic head coach Rex Ryan. But one wants to know more about the fifty-three guys who appear on the field. Dawidoff provides a few heartfelt backstories. As characters, though, the athletes tend to fall neatly into one of two stereotypes: insightful spouts of wisdom who Play The Game The Right Way, like safety Jim Leonhard, or unbelievably gifted headcases like cornerback Antonio Cromartie. (It will not shock you to learn that Leonhard is white and Cromartie is black.) The grand exception is Darrelle Revis, the cornerback who was probably the very best player in the league a few seasons ago. In the book, as in reality, he is both a physical specimen and a well-balanced football genius.
In Dawidoff’s account, we spend more time at dreary Saturday night meetings in drab hotel ballrooms than we do at the action-packed games.
Dawidoff deserves props and our thanks for what must have been exhausting reporting. The writing is good at getting out of the way of the story. As for the story itself, though, there hardly is one—really it is just Dawidoff hanging out with the team. Many readers will find the book’s lack of a tidy, overarching narrative fatally boring, but I admired the reportorial and intellectual honesty in Dawidoff’s refusal to impose a conceit that was not there. (Similarly, the dearth of women in the book—I counted one female character, the Jets’ sports psychologist—plainly isn’t Dawidoff’s fault.) It makes sense that the season itself should feel vaguely out-of-focus, because, Dawidoff convincingly tells us, that’s how it feels to the players and coaches. We spend most pages at the Jets’ practice facility in Florham Park, New Jersey—discussing snacks, attending quarterbacks’ meetings, seeing teammates in the hallways—because that is where the Jets spend most of the time; for the same reason, we spend more time at dreary Saturday night meetings in drab hotel ballrooms than we do at the action-packed games.
Similarly, Dawidoff barely touches upon the profound ills that plague football, because that would not accurately reflect the discourse within the organization. “The subject of concussions never came up except in the context of regulations,” Dawidoff reports. Of a pre-draft workout, one coach, acknowledging racial realities, remarks, “It looks like a fucking slave auction,” but the remark is intended to be forensic (if ironic) observation rather than normative condemnation. The book is suffused with an awareness that it is basically requisite for NFL players to reify themselves: we are told that they routinely waive parts of their own bodies so that a team is not on the hook if someone re-injures, say, his right wrist; Tannenbaum describes a running back who slyly fails to block a blitzing defender as “making a business decision.” But to Dawidoff, these are just the facts: bodies are money.
In a profile of Ryan he wrote several years ago for the New York Times Magazine, Dawidoff reported that Tannenbaum had consulted several Masters of the Universe over at JP Morgan about the best way to game the NFL’s salary cap. The NFL’s cap is much stricter than those of other leagues, essentially mandating the same maximum payroll for each team. This parity makes it even more vital to acquire talent on the cheap. The bankers advised Tannenbaum to sign players with “bad values,” presumably on the theory that in their cases, lower salaries are the result of something other than on-field skill. And this indeed was a big part of Tannenbaum’s strategy (the exception being Tim Tebow, whom Tanenbaum ill-fatedly signed for the 2012 season, who is all values and no talent).
The JP Morgan anecdote certainly tells you a lot about Wall Street. But perhaps Dawidoff fails to include it in his book because that gambit didn’t pan out so well for Tannenbaum. Time and again in Collision Low Crossers, character proves as decisive as talent. The team’s stellar defense is not just gifted, it is disciplined. The offense, by contrast, is a mess in every sense. The team’s devolution comes in no small part at the hands of talented but frustrated wide receivers such as Santonio Holmes and Plaxico Burress, whose tantrums aren’t just insubordinate, but plainly disrespectful to their teammates.
In this respect, Tannenbaum and his Wall Street compadres are unlike each other. Tannenbaum’s interests are much more closely aligned to those of his players than JP Morgan’s was to its clients’. It is much easier for a big bank to traffic in “bad values” in order to save money. Tannenbaum was fired after a poor 2012 season. Jamie Dimon just got a huge raise.
Today, only two seasons later, most of Collision Low Crossers’s dramatis personae have moved on from the Jets. (An exception is Rex Ryan, who picked up a deserved contract extension in January after guiding a rebuilding Jets roster to a respectable 8-8 record.)However, the person who is by far the likeliest still to be a part of the Jets organization in, say, ten years is not really a character in the book at all. Owner Woody Johnson—whose fortune comes from Johnson & Johnson, and who is a top Republican fundraiser—is mentioned five times in the entire book, according to the index, or six if you count the acknowledgements (where he gets top billing, having, Dawidoff says gratefully, “very generously permitted me to immerse myself”).
So maybe the lesson of Collision Low Crossers—and of Tannenbaum’s fate—is that, for all their differences, the players are in the same boat, roughly, as the coaches and the fans. Life is certainly hellish for the coaches, if not quite as much as it can be for the players, and their status with the Jets is similarly tenuous. And more fans should be able to identify with the players, too. We ought to look beyond their superhuman abilities and, in rare cases, stratospheric salaries, and instead learn to see them as put-upon workers much like ourselves. The only NFL job with any kind of stability is owning a team. The league is unusually stark proof of the truism that there are exactly two types of people in the world: those who work for others, and those who have others working for them.
Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic.