Monday, April 28, 2008

A good read

It's not just for the poker table. In this age of Guitar Hero and Scrabulous, there's still no substitute for losing yourself in a great book for a few hours and being transported.

With their first-round pick in this weekend's NFL draft, the Chicago Bears took a left tackle. Several other teams also snapped up left tackles in the first few minutes of the draft, including with the overall #1 draft choice. All these precious top picks spent on the left tackle position reminded me of a book I recently devoured, Michael Lewis' The Blind Side.

Lewis has repeatedly hit the bestseller list by explaining broad trends through illustrative, compelling individual stories. In Liar's Poker, his own adventures working for the legendary trader Lew Ranieri at Salomon Brothers typified 1980s Wall Street; in Moneyball, Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane personified an analytical new approach to the evaluation of baseball talent; and in The New New Thing, Netscape founder Jim Clark exemplified Silicon Valley's eternal quest for the next hot item.

The Blind Side is the latest example of Lewis' brand of explanatory nonfiction. It traces the evolution of football from the brutish style of old-school coaches like Bill Parcells to the cerebral precision passing game pioneered by the late Bill Walsh. Under Walsh's "West Coast offense" of short, quick passes, the system was the star (though it also made stars of its players, transforming the previously undistinguished Joe Montana into a Hall of Famer).

The key to stopping Walsh's speed passing game was getting to the quarterback, and pass-rushing terrors like Lawrence Taylor soon emerged. Taylor was such a devastating force that he could win an entire game by himself, not to mention end a quarterback's career in one play, as he did to Joe Theismann.

Thus in turn did the need evolve for an anti-Lawrence Taylor, a pass-rush nullifier to protect a quarterback's "blind side" (the left side of the scrimmage line for a right-handed QB); essentially, quarterback insurance. This is the job of the outermost offensive lineman, the left tackle.

As Lewis explains it, while point scorers like quarterbacks and wide receivers get all the attention, it's the left tackle toiling in obscurity who enables an offense to run in the first place. His productivity is measured in the non-statistic of "non-sacks."

An elite left tackle is an extremely rare 300-pound athletic freak with the speed of a track star and the balance of a ballerina. While he may rarely get recognized in public, his role is so crucial that he is probably his team's highest-paid player.

Lewis' story of football's evolution culminates in the remarkable example of Michael Oher, whose unlikely tale would get laughed out of every pitch room in Hollywood. He's just your everyday Memphis ghetto kid, one of thirteen children born to a crack-addicted mother, his father murdered.

With no one to care for him, Oher spent his formative years bouncing around foster homes and dodging truant officers, repeating first and second grade en route to eleven schools in nine years. He gets rescued from this life of neglect at age sixteen, taken in by a rich white family and provided with a chance at a life.

As you've probably guessed by now, the massive, athletic Oher eventually plays a little football. He is moved to left tackle in his senior season and soon becomes one of the top prep football recruits in the country, with a legion of big-time college coaches vying to land him.

Meanwhile, his moving personal journey, as he finally receives in adolescence the basic building blocks so many of us take for granted from early childhood (a loving family, a safe home, proper food, his own bed, parental guidance, literacy), places his nascent football stardom in its proper context.

Get yourself a copy of The Blind Side. You'll love it.


Lisa212 said...

I LOVED Liar's Poker. Started The New New Thing with excitement, then life got in the way & the book was put aside for a little while & other books distracted when I returned to reading. Heard good things about MoneyBall, too. Money Culture, however, was a wreck.

I still owe you a response to an email. Many apologies -- It will come -- Life got in the way again. Had a major transition recently & still trying to settle in... Many major changes.

How are you?

Lisa212 said...

P.S. Last week, I played Guitar Hero for the first time. I'd rather read a book. (Or play DDR even though I'm TERRIBLE at it.)