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.