The Quarterly Book Report: In Which I Don’t Spend Much Time Talking About the Book I’m Talking About — Which is Michael Lewis’s "The Blind Side"

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A couple of disclaimers. I usually don’t like reading books about sports. I have no idea why; I just don’t enjoy them (and I love sports). And for reasons which are probably unfair (although I’ll explain them in a moment), I don’t like it when writers spend their careers writing books which seem formulaic. For example, John Berendt writes books about cities rich in history that have fallen on hard times but still possess a lot of odd characters that end up involved in some sort of dramatic event (see Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil; The City of Falling Angels). Mark Kurlansky writes books about seemingly mundane things (Cod, Salt) and then shows us how these seemingly mundane things did nothing less than change the world. Simon Winchester (The Professor and the Madman, A Crack in the Edge of the World) finds either an eccentric and forgotten person or a catastrophic and forgotten event and tells us how this person or event changed life as we know it.*

I didn’t mean to read Michael Lewis’s latest book, The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game. I didn’t mean to read it for a couple of reasons. It’s a book about how football was revolutionized by a specific position in football, the Left Tackle, a player whose job, if done correctly, no one ever notices. So it was a sports book. And then there was the whole writer-using a-formula thing. This looked like the same book Lewis wrote a couple of years ago about baseball, Moneyball – a book about how one baseball GM used statistics and other such things to rethink how baseball teams spend their money.

My problem with what I’m calling formula books is that it seems like the writers are mailing it in. They write a best-selling book and try to capture that magic again. But what the subsequent books lack is the sense of discovery the first book contained. Berendt’s first book, about Savannah, GA, kept me interested because it seemed as though everything kept surprising Berendt. He didn’t know what he was going to find, so he was continually discovering something he seemingly couldn’t wait to tell readers about. His book on Venice, Italy, however, lacked that same sense of discovery, of I-can’t-wait-to-tell-you-about-this-ness. He seemed to be looking for the same sorts of things he’d seen in Savannah. He didn’t allow himself to be surprised. Kurlansky’s book Cod was an interesting history because it was quirky and as you read the book, you can feel Kurlansky’s excitement as he learns something new about a fish (A FISH!). He can’t wait to tell people about it. But by the time he got to writing about salt? He wasn’t expecting to be surprised by salt.

Etc.

So what I’m saying is – the writers I’ve mentioned can come up with interesting subjects, but what they often fail to do is capture their initial sense of excitement at discovery. The later books read as though the writers sat down with a specific outline, an outline of what worked so well in the first book, and then followed that outline rather than allowing themselves to be surprised by their subject. It’s as though they knew the ending before they began the first page.

So a bit of backstory on Michael Lewis and why I thought The Blind Side would be yet another boring sports / formula book. Lewis’s Moneyball contained three major characters. A statistician, Bill James – a guy who labored away unknown for years crunching away at seemingly useless baseball numbers to try to make sense of the game from a semi-scientific perspective. There was the “baseball maverick” – the GM of the Oakland A’s, Billy Beane, who was trying to come up with a way, statistically, to put the best team on the field for the least amount of money. And then there were a few players I’ll call the third character – players on whom Beane conducted his economical / statistical experiments.

Lewis’s football book seemed like it would do the same thing. There was a nerdy guy who watched thousands of hours of high school football game-tapes in an attempt to rate them for college scouts. There was a “football maverick” – Bill Walsh – who tried to come up with a more efficient way to run an offense. The third character, though.

My guess is that Lewis probably envisioned several players to serve as the third character in this book. But when he ran across the story of Michael Oher, his book was no longer about football. His outline was wadded up and thrown away. He couldn’t wait to tell readers the story of Michael Oher.

The story of Michael Oher really is an incredible one. By the time the nerdy game-tape watching man saw Oher on film, he was a 6’ 5”, 350 lb. junior in high school. No one had ever heard of Michael Oher because, for all practical purposes, he hadn’t existed until he was 15. Up until then, he’d been more or less homeless, fending for himself on the streets of Memphis. The Memphis public school system, which he’d attended off and on, didn’t have records for him. He couldn’t read or write to speak of. He lived in the worst public housing project in Memphis.

Through a chain of fairy-tale-like events, Michael one day finds himself at Briarcrest Christian High School. One out of only you-can-count-‘em-on-both-hands black students at a school that was created as a way to ensure that white students wouldn’t have to learn alongside black students in the ‘60s. No one really knew what to do. He didn’t. Teachers didn’t. Coaches didn’t. Then in steps Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy. Sean is an announcer for the Memphis Grizzlies and a volunteer coach at Briarcrest. He goes home one day and tells his wife about this HUGE kid he’d seen at school.

Through more fairy-tale-like events, Michael begins to live with the Touhy family (they eventually adopt him).

For the most part, Lewis doesn’t provide critiques of what he sees. He tries to just tell a story. There is some critique, but he leaves most of that up to readers. But this book, with a title that makes a football reference the casual fan might not understand, with a dust jacket displaying the x’s and o’s of a football play, is, dare I say, an important book. But it is not an important book because it describes how a game evolved (I’m guessing that only a third of the book, or less, is actually about football). I think it’s important because it raises questions that we don’t like to ask about race, about drugs, about high school athletics, about meritocracy, about education, about an economic system that is oppressive to certain groups, about people allowing themselves to be victims of this system. It raises these questions about the Heartland of America in 2007. Lewis raises all of these questions through the story of Michael Oher and the Touhy family. All of whom refused to ignore the problems of race, drugs, meritocracy, etc.

This story – the one Lewis can’t wait to tell us – leads him places he probably never wanted to go. It takes him to the heart of the projects in Memphis. It takes him into the foster-care system. It takes him into both the public and private school systems in Memphis. He learns things he didn’t know he wanted to know, but now he can’t wait to tell you about them.

*I’m picking on writers I actually like – these are all good writers, and I’m probably not being fair to them, but whatever.

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12 Responses to “The Quarterly Book Report: In Which I Don’t Spend Much Time Talking About the Book I’m Talking About — Which is Michael Lewis’s "The Blind Side"”

  1. juvenal_urbino Says:

    What? There’s something in The Heartland (queue angelic chorus) that isn’t all freckle-faced kids and amber waves of grain? But, but . . . how can it still be The Heartland, Santa?

    Top-notch review. Just out of curiosity, what does Lewis say Bill Walsh’s role was in the development of the left tackle?

  2. Michael Lasley Says:

    The passing game was, by modern standards, non-existent before Walsh. There was a greater chance of rushing for more yards per play than passing. And completion percentages were something like 30% (maybe a bit more, but ludicrously low). Walsh and the “West Coast Offense” used multiple receivers and screens and short passes so the completion percentage rose dramatically, except when the QB was getting pressured. Sounds commonsensical now, but at the time, no one really thought about pressuring QBs. Sacks weren’t even a statistic until the 80s -when Lawrence Taylor came along. So Walsh had to come up with a way to stop Lawrence Taylor. If they stopped him (or the type of D-linemen that followed in his footsteps), his QBs would excel. If they didn’t, they’d look really bad (and get really hurt). Bill Walsh is the one who discovered that the Left Tackle was *the* main player to protect the QB because that is the “blind side.” The other O-lineman to Walsh didn’t really matter. So he’s the one who created the passing game as we know it (as an Off. Cor. for Cinci, I believe), and then had to come up with a way to make it work consistently, which he theorized depended more on the Left Tackle than the QB.

    Did that really quickly, so I’m not sure if I answered your question fully. But Walsh was pretty much laughed at when he first started passing all the time. Fired from jobs and whatnot. But when he stumbled on the idea of the Blind Side and how to protect it, ordinary quarterbacks (Montana for one, and then there were a couple of others who’d had miserable careers until Walsh and Left Tackles came into their lives) became Pro-Bowlers.

  3. Al Sturgeon Says:

    Way to go, Mikey! Great post for Super Bowl week!

    Hey, does the book deal with Air Coryell and where he fits into this picture?!

  4. Michael Lasley Says:

    I’m nothing if not timely, Al.

  5. Michael Lasley Says:

    Oh. And I have no idea about Coryell. I don’t recall him being mentioned in the book (if he was, it wasn’t much of a mention). Walsh was developing his West Coast Offense while he was in Cincinatti, which would have been late ’60s early ’70s. Ish. And then at San Diego in the mid 70s. Just before Coryell became their head coach. So it seems there would be some overlap in their coaching philosophies. But Walsh’s offense depended more on the amount of time a QB had than Coryell’s, it would seem (for serious, I did about three minutes of research to find out who Coryell even was). Coryell liked the deep ball, which required a strong arm. Walsh depended on short passes which required a quick decision and the fraction of a second longer of protection that a good Left Tackle could provide. (I’m completely making stuff up now.) Because everything about Walsh’s offense relied on timing. Coryell’s QB’s needed time, but they seemed to throw the long ball more, so the fractions of seconds weren’t as important. Coryell didn’t *depend* on timing as Walsh did. If any of that makes sense.

  6. juvenal_urbino Says:

    I was wondering about that myself, Al. I mean, I haven’t studied the stats or anything, but in general I think the whole “Bill Walsh invented the modern passing game” argument is much overstated.

    Mikey’s second comment, I think, is much closer to the truth: Walsh invented the purely timing-dependent passing game. Before Walsh, the default play in the NFL was the run up the middle. It was the safest play an offense could run (almost no chance of a turnover, almost no chance of losing yardage), and therefore it was the first play a defense had to be able to defend. If you couldn’t stop that, the offense could do anything it wanted.

    What Walsh did, ISTM, was substitute the short, quick, timing-dependent passing game — the quick slant over the middle, in particular — for the run up the middle. Or rather, he didn’t substitute it, he made it the passing-game equivalent. Now defenses had to be equally aware of a run play and a pass play, because a Walsh offense was as likely to run the latter in any given situation as the former.

    It wasn’t that teams didn’t really throw the ball before Walsh came along. The Steelers and Raiders and Cowboys threw the ball quite well and quite a lot in the 70s. It was that defenses knew better when to expect a run and when to expect a pass, because there was no pass play that was anywhere near as low-risk as the run up the middle. There were exceptions even before Walsh; teams that would throw the ball in any situation. Don Coryell’s teams are the best example I can think of.

    Anyway, my take on Walsh is that he proved you could have a passing game that was almost as low-risk as a conservative running game by basing your plays on quick throws, precise timing, and very precise routes. That’s an accomplishment and it did change the game, much the way the wishbone did before, and the zone blitz has, since. But it doesn’t equate to inventing the modern passing game, IMHO.

  7. Michael Lasley Says:

    Good points, JU. And I really don’t know enough about football history to speak authoritatively. But, yes, Walsh is given, in Lewis’s book and many others, for the modern passing game. You mentioned that there were teams in the 70s who passed, but the difference was, as you point out, Walsh made it less risky by passing more or less horizontally rather than vertically. Much different than what the other teams were doing, from what I understand. But really, all of my knowledge comes from Lewis, who makes Walsh out to be a football god.

  8. juvenal_urbino Says:

    Well, and mine comes just from having been very much a fan from a young age. Lewis apparently has studied the stats; I haven’t.

    Walsh made it less risky by passing more or less horizontally rather than vertically.

    Sure, but my question for Lewis is: and you think that is the modern passing game?

    The NFL did go through a phase when if your team’s offense didn’t look like the 49ers’, you were a totally uncool coach. But that fad ended long ago. To wit: nobody runs a pure Walsh offense anymore. Defenses adjusted, and the Coryell-style vertical game made a comeback. The modern passing game does both. That’s why I say Walsh added a significant new wrinkle, like the wishbone had, but that’s all.

    You know, now that I think about it, I think one could credit the QB class of ’83 (plus Dan Fouts) with inventing the modern passing game and have just as strong an argument as for Walsh. If you want to attribute it to coaching, though, my perception as a fan is that Coryell had as much to do with it as Walsh, followed by Marv Levy and, to a lesser extent, Don Shula. (Three out of 4 of whom had one of those QBs.)

  9. Michael Lasley Says:

    Good points. I really don’t follow football enough to know. And I really don’t enjoy NFL football all that much. But I think what Lewis is trying to say about Walsh is that it wasn’t just the QBs or the passing game itself. It was his discovery that the Left Tackle was *just* as important as the QB. And that was something no one else did. (The other systems required great QBs, his didn’t.) In fact, after Walsh, there were a couple of Left Tackles in the league (whoever the guy from Baltimore is, for example) who made lots more money per year than the QBs on their teams.

    And I’m guessing Walsh is given so much credit because the 49ers seemed to be THE team in the 80s when that offense became popular.

  10. Al Sturgeon Says:

    That’s a quality observation. I’d buy it.

  11. juvenal_urbino Says:

    The other systems required great QBs, his didn’t.

    I agree with Lewis on that, at least.

    Since this is largely a CsofC crowd, did Harding Academy get mentioned in his survey of Memphis Christian schools?

  12. Michael Lasley Says:

    JU — the only Harding mention was in a game that Briarcrest played against them. But nothing substantive — they were just lumped in with the rest of the private, Christian schools in Memphis.

    And his take on Briarcrest was kind of mixed. On the one hand it was full of rich white kids who sometimes didn’t exactly reflect Christianity. But then the student body did go out of their way to welcome Oher into the school, even before they knew he was a star athlete (no one knew he was — not even him). Which seems uncharacteristic of the stereotypes of rich white kids.

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