An Inside Look That Strips The Face Paint Off The NFL

Nov 23, 2013
Originally published on November 23, 2013 7:44 pm

Nicholas Dawidoff's Collision Low Crossers: A Year Inside the Turbulent World of NFL Football may be the best book I've ever read about football. It is certainly the most detailed account of the players inside the helmets and the coaches obscured from an enthralled public by large, laminated playsheets.

Like a brilliant coach, Dawidoff's approach relies on smart tactics and skillful execution. First of all, he outworked the competition, living with the New York Jets all year. The coaches kept such long hours, and Dawidoff's home was so far away from the training facility, that the coaching staff offered up couches and spare bedrooms to their chronicler.

If the coaches worked until 3 in the morning, Dawidoff worked until 3 in the morning. Dawidoff became so close to the team that defensive coordinator Mike Pettine named a blitz after him and even allowed the writer to call plays in a preseason game.

Dawidoff reveals the game through his access and skills of observation and expression. Jets fans, who wondered what went wrong during a disappointing 8-8 season in 2011, will revel in details, like linebacker Aaron Maybin's need to wear wristbands with plays written on them because he simply couldn't remember his assignments.

Also compelling: the explanation behind key plays in a late-season loss to the New York Giants that essentially eliminated the Jets from playoff contention.

In that game, Jets safety Brodney Pool's absence on a Victor Cruz 99-yard Giants touchdown was baffling. His ineffective tackling on an Ahmad Bradshaw touchdown run was also ruinous. Dawidoff reports Pool was likely concussed during an earlier play.

Dawidoff never calls Pool's condition a concussion, but describes Pool as half-blind and disoriented on the sideline. Pool insisted the coaches not be told of his condition because he was sure head coach Rex Ryan would remove him from the game. As Jets then-defensive leader Jim Leonhard says, Ryan "wants guys to be healthy. He knows it's bigger than football. He doesn't put people in harm's way."

That assessment of Ryan rings true throughout the book, and Dawidoff calls him the most inspirational person he's ever met. Throughout Collision Low Crossers, Dawidoff humanizes the coaches and players.

For instance, the Jets offensive coordinator, Brian Schottenheimer, was fired after the 2011 season. From hundreds of calls to sports radio and dozens of conversations with friends and family members who are Jets fans, I haven't heard one person express remorse for that personnel decision. Typical of the criticism of the coordinator was this passage on Sports Illustrated:

"For many the fault will lie with offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, who's likely to play the role of scapegoat in light of New York's failure to make the playoffs. That's fine — the Jets were unimaginative in their play-calling for much of the season and often failed to take advantage of their talented roster."

That's unfathomable, Dawidoff says. "If anything, like a lot of coaches, what he had going for him was imagination. What a coach can do is spend his whole life looking at his opponent, trying to understand his opponent, trying to understand his deficiencies."

That kind of respect for the coaches might not be what fans want to hear. We're always told the game is remorseless, a notion that practically demands callousness among fans. Discovering the drive, humor, dedication and humanity in our gladiators could shake the screaming partisans and the fire-the-coach callers on sports radio.

Collision Low Crossers resonates with the fan who has a long connection to the game, who either played, coached, or both. A fan for whom the bonds of a Pop Warner or high school team were meaningful, and for whom the NFL is an exulted, yet mysterious destination.

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"Collision Low Crossers" is a new book from author Nicholas Dawidoff about the New York Jets' 2011 season. He spent an entire year with the team, and the result is a perspective rarely seen from America's favorite sport. He spent a football Sunday in a bar with NPR's Mike Pesca talking about the Jets and how this book came to be.

MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: Molly Pitcher's Ale House, Upper East Side of Manhattan. Most of the fans sipping their Bloody Marys and scarfing down brunch burritos are New York Jets fans. As such, they bemoan the dropped passes, they praise the big hits, they focus their attention when the quarterback connects with a receiver. Nicholas Dawidoff knows that fans glimpse but a sliver.

NICHOLAS DAWIDOFF: One of the things I most liked about it was that the public and I - as a member of the public - are watching something that on some small level we understand what the results are. But what's really happening, it's all process, and we have no idea of the process.

PESCA: So we settle in as the game is about to start. As I begin to interview him, I say: Listen, if this is a blowout, by no means do you have to stay. Dawidoff says: Oh, I would never miss a minute. The game is about to kick off.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Buffalo has won the toss. They've deferred to the second half. Rex Ryan, his fifth year as the head coach of the Jets.

PESCA: It was Rex Ryan who first interested Dawidoff, a casual football fan. Ryan was brash, funny, loud and huge. Dawidoff would soon come to see him as the most inspirational person he'd ever met. But it wasn't necessarily football that Dawidoff, a Pulitzer Prize finalist, was drawn to. He writes stories about outsiders who joined established institutions and come to affect the culture. Country stars, the topic of one of Dawidoff's books, fall into that category. So do CIA agents, who Dawidoff compares to football people in that they're resigned to living in a world thought to be understood by outsiders but which is actually obscured.

And that's how Dawidoff saw his role here, to demystify. The players may be mountainous, but they've seldom been fleshed out. And the coaches, especially the assistants, well, they're the guys who fans blame for losses. They're hidden behind visors and headphones speaking in a type of cant. Dawidoff came to see them differently.

DAWIDOFF: They're NFL coaches for a reason. They are seriously motivating, nurturing, intelligent, kindhearted, dedicated people. I mean...

PESCA: One day, Rex Ryan approach Dawidoff and asked him a question. Ryan knew that Dawidoff's father was a distant troubled figure who battled mental illness. You're expecting a child. Does being a dad worry you, given your own history, the coach wanted to know. What's that like? Dawidoff was touched.

DAWIDOFF: You know, a lot of people in my life who know all about my childhood, they've never asked me anything about this. And it was just completely natural for Rex to ask about it. And that might seem like a very personal line of (unintelligible) for somebody who doesn't know you that well, but Rex is completely used to talking to people on the most intimate terms. People reciprocate at that level of comfort, and they become closer to him and they'll do more for him.

PESCA: Soon, our talk turned to Mike Pettine, the Bills' defensive coordinator, whose team was having its way with the Jets. He was interrupted as a Jets defenseman made a big play.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Dump off. Jackson is caught from behind. It's Sheldon Richardson. He's in the running.

DAWIDOFF: What a beautiful and seductive thing to - oh, that's a beautiful play. This guy Richardson is going to be a sensational NFL player.

PESCA: That was one of the few highlights for the Jets. Though Dawidoff has as different a take on loss as he does on the other gladiatorial narratives we've been fed about football, a main reason for football's popularity, he says, is that the sport actually doesn't usually have a happy ending.

The coaches and players certainly yearn to win. But they know, or at least they intuit, that loss is more revealing. To reveal was Dawidoff's purpose and his accomplishment with this book. Mike Pesca, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.