Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Book Review: The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game

I should preface any review of a book by Michael Lewis with a disclaimer: Lewis is one of the few writers today whose work I will purchase sight unseen. As with Lewis’s luminaries Malcolm Gladwell, Chuck Klosterman, and David Sedaris, I tend to have an unconditional interest in any topic they choose to explore.

Lewis’s previous book, the seminal Moneyball, had a profound impact on my life for two reasons. First was its underlying premise: baseball scouts and experts had for too long been relying on their intuition—rather than making use of what the statistics were reporting—to build their teams. As such, they wasted time bidding on overvalued talent while disregarding those neglected prospects who could actually improve their club’s performance. Enter Oakland A’s GM Billy Beane, a man wary of the perils of “gut instinct” and the allure of the “5-tool prospect,” who goes on to consistently out-perform his competitors, and all without the benefit of a huge payroll. The concept had personal appeal to me, because it has applied to so many aspects of my own life, professional and otherwise. As humans, we’re all prone to making judgments that are distorted by our own fallibilities and biases. Therefore, whenever statistical tools are available, we should use them—and if we’re paid for our insights, using statistical analysis should be considered a fiduciary duty. Lewis’s contempt for Beane’s less sophisticated counterparts was overt; like me, he thinks their under-management is a moral crime.

So that was the hook, but the real meat of the Moneyball story was the character study of Beane himself. This was a man whose decisions contradicted those of men who were older and presumably wiser, and who certainly had more experience. It takes courage to be the one outlier who refuses to acquiesce to the current standards and practices, regardless of how certain you are of your correctness. Beane was also heroic for choosing to stay in a line of work that had begun in failure (prior to his GM career, he was a bust as a Major Leaguer despite being once considered to be among baseball’s top prospects). And finally, Beane was passionate. I used to be deeply troubled by the fact that I am largely unable to watch Yankee games, because I get so upset and enraged any time they don’t win. How twisted is it, I thought, to love a team so much that you can’t watch them actually play?? However, we learn in Moneyball that Beane is also incapable of watching his team, and it’s arguably quirkier because he actually works for them—they’re literally his team. Beane was the first person I ever heard of who shared my bizarre affliction, and I have to say I took comfort in the discovery that I have company. I delighted in the anecdotes of him listening to the games on a little transistor radio while running on the treadmill, all while he was actually in the stadium where the game was being played! It made my fretting and pacing and constantly clicking the internet scoreboard for updates (even though I could simply turn the game on TV if I wanted) look downright normal.

All of this build-up is simply to illustrate that I have tremendous respect for Lewis’s topic choices, his writing style, and his thought-provoking conclusions. Therefore, I was slightly disappointed with his latest endeavor, The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game. In many ways, The Blind Side mirrors Moneyball’s narrative model: we get a description of a game undergoing a paradigmatic shift, interspersed with a character study of one of the players involved in this evolution. In this case the game is football, the sweeping change is an increased reliance on the left side of the offensive line, and the subject is Michael Oher, currently playing for Ole Miss.

We come to meet young Oher when he enrolls in an elite Memphis private school, Briarcrest, to play football. Oher, the black son of a single mother with a crack addiction, has risen from the direst circumstances the modern inner-city ghetto can provide. His harrowing early life, his good fortune to become the beneficiary of a prominent white Memphis family who more or less adopts him, and the complications that result when an outsider struggles to adjust socially and succeed academically in a private school, are all vividly detailed. Oher’s tremendous size and natural athleticism allow him entry into the high school, but his perseverance (and the perseverance of his adopted family, the Tuohys, particularly their indomitable matriarch, Leigh Anne) keep him from failing out. Eventually, despite the obstruction of the NCAA, which Lewis depicts as a hopelessly backward bureaucracy, Oher makes it to Ole Miss, where he now plays as an offensive lineman. Oher’s story is reminiscent of the two kids in the brilliant documentary, Hoop Dreams, and overcoming-impossible-odds tales are always gripping. Had Lewis simply focused on that tale, and perhaps waited to see how Oher fares in the NFL—assuming he makes it—the story would have been complete and satisfying.

However, Lewis cuts in and out from Oher’s saga by chronicling how in the past twenty-five or so years, football coaches and officials have placed increasing significance on offensive linemen, particularly those on the left side, because they protect the quarterback’s "blind side" (most quarterbacks are righties and hence drop back to pass looking to their right). As evidence, Lewis supplies anecdotes of how mobile linebackers in the early 80s, particularly Lawrence Taylor, lined up on the quarterbacks’ left and became terrorizing forces. Their threat compelled innovative coaches, chiefly Bill Walsh, to neutralize them with increasingly larger and more agile linemen. As a result, linemen, who had previously been seen as expendable, interchangeable components, became sought-after commodities who commanded larger salaries. There is a wonderful interlude where we visit former 49ers lineman Steve Wallace, now retired in luxury. Wallace was an erstwhile journeyman who prospered handsomely late in his career after the change in perception of his value suddenly landed him an unimaginably high contract. Lewis also briefly profiles some of the position’s current stars, such as Walter Jones and Jonathan Ogden, and how incommensurately large their contract sizes are compared to their predecessors.

The problem for me is that the connection between Oher and the evolution in football is not nearly as direct as Beane’s was to baseball. In Moneyball, Beane is portrayed as the revolutionary pioneer of the change in his sport. Oher, however, is neither a founder nor even a unique exemplar of the change in football strategy (that would have been someone such as Walsh or Wallace). True, if Oher does eventually become a high NFL draft pick with a huge contract offer, it will be due to his ability to play what has correctly come to be thought of as a key position. However, Briarcrest’s (and arguably Ole Miss's) decision to admit Oher would have happened regardless of his position on the football field. In fact, Oher was originally groomed as a basketball player, and even after he transitioned to football he first lined up on defense. The school’s administration took one look at Oher and recognized that he had enormous athletic potential somewhere on a field or in a gym; they did not take him because they believed he now played the “it” position in football. In other words, had Oher been born 20 years earlier and had all of the same good fortunes bestowed upon him, he would still have gone on to play college ball; it just so happens that he’s playing a position that’s now perceived as marquee.

This isn’t a huge problem, except that the loss of connectivity makes for a bit of a disjointed book. With Evolution, I often felt as if I were reading two books, neither of which gets fully fleshed out. I am still unclear why Lewis did not choose to either wait on Oher, whose future is still up in the air at the time of this writing, or delve deeper into the biography of someone such as Ogden—who has already established himself as a Pro Bowl lineman—to better augment his thesis on football’s evolution. In fact, had Lewis just waited a few more months, he would have seen cerebral Jets O-line star D’Brickashaw Ferguson get drafted high out of UVa and shine as a rookie, or he would have witnessed Steve Hutchinson sign a monster off-season deal with the Vikings strictly because of his blocking prowess. Lewis could have then done a few more chapters discussing what exactly goes into being an All-Pro lineman—what distinguishes the best, mentally and physically? How do they train and prepare, especially compared to their antecedents?

Oher could then have gotten his own book, and Lewis could have focused entirely on the social implications of poor inner-city children who receive advantages because of their athleticism, or discussed further some of the other misguided absurdities of the NCAA—topics at which he only has time to gloss over here.

This is far from a scathing review; I would recommend this book to anyone (especially football lovers, obviously). For someone as talented as Lewis, I simply have higher standards. In the most recent issue of ESPN Magazine, he has a small article on new evidence that suggests most football coaches are making a mistake when they choose to punt on fourth-and-short, and you can almost feel his desire to parlay it into another book with Moneyball-like effects. Hopefully, he’ll succumb to the temptation.

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