In times of crisis, the NFL often resembles a quarterback on a comically drawn out run-pass option play. While the rest of the field is scrambling or taking decisive action, the league is waiting to see where everything lines up. You can call this pragmatism (and sometimes it is). You can also call it waiting around to see which way the wind blows (and sometimes it is).
While the football world won’t be as profoundly affected by the COVID-19 outbreak as some of the other major sports, which have already seen actual games suspended or canceled amid the pandemic, it would be stunning to see the NFL operate with no significant changes as the league gets a clearer picture of what’s ahead. The league has already announced restrictions around draft season travel, which we know will impact many prospects.
As Pro Football Talk asked Friday morning, does the NFL want to unleash a multi-million dollar free agent frenzy onto a reeling public that’s struggling to come to terms with potentially astronomical emergency medical bills? Does it want to hold a draft in Las Vegas without the players being whimsically transported on stage via speedboat? Does it want to continue to perpetuate the belief that people may still cluster together at that draft despite the mass cancellation of other gatherings? Does the league want its draftees to have one of the most important, defining moments of their careers shoved through on a live conference call, potentially not able to be surrounded by all their loved ones? If The Masters, slated to be held from April 9-12, is already suspended, will the NFL look aloof by continuing to sit at an arm’s length from its own employees, many of whom are still searching away for valuable draft intel?
My point: The NFL may still end up going dark. Regardless, the absence of March Madness and other sporting events has left a gaping hole in many of our lives and schedules. Luckily for the superfan, there are plenty of ways to fill the void. Here are some of the best football-themed books and movies for a prolonged period of inactivity. By no means are we looking to downplay the seriousness of the situation, instead, we're hoping to add a little levity amid all of the stress and a nice way to fill your time.
• A Fan’s Notes, Frederick Exley
A book only tangentially about football, the New York Giants and Frank Gifford. In reality, this fictionalized memoir paints the picture of a person struggling with much deeper issues; a man searching, raging, recovering and destroying. It features some of the best prose in modern literature.
• No Medals For Trying, Jerry Izenberg
A week in the life of the New York Giants, in late November 1989. This was one of the best swings at understanding Bill Parcells and the access was phenomenal. Izenberg, a long-time columnist of the Newark Star-Ledger, gets into some moments that, by today’s standards, are fairly incredible, including some tense moments in the training room wrestling with the team’s medical director about the possibility of a star player getting a pain-relief shot in his injured ankle.
• Pro Football Plays in Pictures, George Sullivan
A garage sale find, this 1971 book is a wild, elemental masterpiece and took on a new meaning for me after the Chiefs’ Super Bowl victory. There was Andy Reid running plays from a 1940s bowl game, showing just how far the league had come and the sheer size of our knowledge universe. This book is not for the tape grinder; it is relatively simplistic and is driven, in part, by some of the great close-up photography that accompanies the play descriptions. But if you’re interested in tracing the lineage of professional football over the last 70 years or so, this is well worth your time.
• Nike Coach of the Year Clinics Football Manual
Normally a yearly buy for me, this is a collection of lectures by some of the top college and high school coaches in the country. The 2018 version, for example, has a great landscape-setting talk from Ed Orgeron before he took LSU to the national championship. Coaches here discuss everything from practice setup to special teams breakdowns. It is both for the hardcore fan who wants to understand some of the top offenses in the country (systems that often filter up through college and into the pros), and for those who are interested in the motivational aspect of coaching.
• The SIS Football Rookie Handbook 2020
A few months back, during a self-improvement streak, I asked a few smart people in football what they were reading. One reply? The SIS Football Rookie Handbook. Matt Manocherian, a former Saints and Browns scout, has an analytical flare to his research and a lot of cogent thoughts about slicing through all of the politicking that often bogs down the NFL scouting process. Last year, for example, he was much higher on D.K. Metcalf, A.J. Brown and Deebo Samuel than others.
• The Education of a Coach, David Halberstam / Football Scouting Methods, Steve Belichick
I think this is a fascinating time to catch up on the greatest modern coach in NFL history. The Halberstam book is perfect because it matches a brash, reclusive subject with a detail-oriented, no-nonsense journalist who could command Bill Belichick’s attention. Every time I thumb through the book, I feel like I learn something new about Belichick. And, as time goes on, you start to learn that the man we feel is still shrouded in mystery may have just been honest with us the entire time.
The same goes for Football Scouting Methods, which is dense but utterly fascinating. To show the way a Belichick football mind works is to open up the doors for a lot of us trying to get smarter about the game. I did a piece on Football Scouting Methods a few years back, but the source material often becomes relevant again when I see different players talking about their own film study. Chiefs EDGE rusher Frank Clark, for example, tweeted (and then apparently deleted) a series of in-depth looks at his opponent in the Super Bowl, showing that, depending on which way the tackle stood, it was going to be a run or a pass. That’s Steve Belichick.
BONUS STAFF SELECTIONS:
MMQB writer/producer Mitch Goldich suggested both a re-reading of Friday Night Lights (a wonderful idea), and A Few Seconds of Panic by Sefan Fatsis, about trying to make the Denver Broncos as a placekicker. Goldich says: “Bonus read: It’s a good follow-up to Fatsis’s book Word Freak about the world of competitive Scrabble.”
MMQB senior writer Albert Breer suggested looking back at a previous dynasty, with Boys Will Be Boys. From Breer: “Jeff Pearlman specializes in these sorts of books—and this one on the ‘90s Cowboys has everything you ever imagined happening at Valley Ranch in it. One warning: It is not PG-rated.”
There’s nothing wrong with throwing on a movie to fill the time when you might have otherwise been watching sports. Plus, a bunch of football movies now have companion podcasts on The MMQB NFL Podcast feed, thanks to our Bad Football Movies series last summer.
• The Replacements (2000):
Sometimes what we need in a moment like this is not a true work of art, but something so ridiculously stupid that it takes our mind off of anything remotely serious. The Replacements, starring Keanu Reeves and Gene Hackman, is ridiculously stupid. It houses some of the worst faux-motivational quotes of all time and is full of gaping plot holes. Reeves, who plays former Florida State bust Shane Falco, goes from vagabond boat cleaner to momentary super hero.
(Listen to Bad Football Movies: The Replacements, here)
• All The Right Moves (1983)
A very young, pre-Mission Impossible Tom Cruise and peak Craig T. Nelson. This movie is about football but it is also about the first time in our lives when it seems like the walls are closing in. Set in a fictional Pittsburgh-ian steel town, work (and lack thereof) at the local mill looms over everything.
(Listen to Bad Football Movies: All The Right Moves, here)
• Varsity Blues (1999)
I think one of the most interesting things about the rewatch of Varsity Blues we did a few months ago was how modern a hero James Van Der Beek’s character was more than 20 years before his time. Maybe that was part of the point, his ability to think beyond the dunderheaded tendencies of his Texas town, but the break from typical shallow sports hero was a refreshing one. Also, he essentially popularized the Air-Raid in real time.
(Listen to Bad Football Movies: Varsity Blues, here)
• Gus (1976)
Let’s say you’re stuck inside with young kids and cannot fathom another hour of Baby Bum, Paw Patrol or Pinkalicious. Gus is an old Disney movie about a donkey from Yugoslavia who could crush soccer balls and then learns to kick a football instead. The animal revives a woebegone NFL franchise and brings a new lease on life to the animal’s handler. It’s so weird. But there’s a lot of bizarre slapstick comedy and predictable plot sub-narratives that are perfect for a PG audience. And for the older crowd, Johnny Unitas and Dick Butkus shine here.
(Listen to Bad Football Movies: Gus, here)
• Draft Day (2014)
I am still amazed at the percentage of our population that has not seen Draft Day. It is unquestionably one of the worst football movies of all time and, if you’re spending an extended amount of time indoors over the coming weeks, you have to watch it if only so I can talk to you about it. The movie whiffs on so many major societal depictions and then flails at the most general attempts to make the draft process interesting. It’s like watching a barn fire.
(Listen to Bad Football Movies: Draft Day, here)
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