In 2011, when Nicholas Dawidoff embarked on his new book, “Collision Low Crossers,” his chronicle of a year embedded with the New York Jets, the team was coming off consecutive appearances in the AFC championship game and seemed to be at the cusp of reaching the Super Bowl.
They were a uniquely talented team with a garrulous head coach, Rex Ryan, who was suddenly a bona fide star, embraced by the football world as being the opposite of taciturn New England Patriots mastermind Bill Belichick.
Ultimately, that team would go 8-8, finish five games behind the Patriots in the AFC East, miss the playoffs, and leave Ryan in tears by year’s end, blaming himself for not seeing the tension in the locker room and underestimating his team’s selfishness.
While the book focuses on the Jets, it’s really an inside examination of how professional football works. Dawidoff takes readers on a guided tour: from the combines, through the draft, practices, preseason, and regular games, inside the daily and weekly meetings and conversations involving scouts, coaches, and players as the team’s leaders evaluate personnel and formulate strategy.
Beyond that, Dawidoff also illuminates the inner life of the game, essentially how failure is so clearly at the core of the NFL experience — certainly more the norm than unalloyed victory. This is, in the end, a tale of a group of men who put so much into their work, often at the expense of everything else in their lives, even though they usually don’t get rewarded for it.
The writing here toggles between diaristic reflections and elegant profile stories. It is an exhaustive 460-page journal. In a way that is both honest and compassionate, “Collision Low Crossers” is an insightful and witty window into a weirdly insulated world that on almost every level is hard to comprehend from the outside.
Ryan is the center-of-the-universe head coach who for better or worse tries to make a cutthroat professional environment feel like a family with him as the head of the household. His coaching staff is composed of bright football minds who are also close friends. As endearing as it is, it ended up being his downfall.
What is clear throughout is how much Ryan and his staff are consumed by it all. They study game tape the way others watch “Breaking Bad.’’ They decorate their walls with the platitudes of their profession: “In God we trust; for everyone else we need data.” They spend 16-hour days trying to solve problems that may or may not have answers.
They speak in a language of either insults or evaluations, both equally sharp. A tentative player has “glass in the shoes.” A mediocre player is “just a guy.” A player that moves with extreme urgency is a “scalded dog.” A lineman that doesn’t is a “bloated tick.”
Sacrifice is the norm. For coaches, the entry-level pay is low. Divorce rates are high. Dawidoff describes defensive backs coach Dennis Thurman as “divorced, with two grown daughters who lived in Texas, and in his middle fifties, Thurman remained the cornerback out on his own edge.’’
The people Dawidoff examines chase after glory and, whether it’s a call that didn’t go their way, a draft pick that didn’t pan out, a play that dissolved right in front of them, they run on regret. They’re so caught up in the day-to-day machinery that they barely have time to look back and appreciate the process they’re constantly drowning themselves in.
Why do they do it? He does offer some hints.
During one preseason game, coach Mike Pettine lets Dawidoff call a few plays on defense. On one of his calls, the Jets give up a 20-yard pass. But on another, they come up with an interception and run it back for a score.
Dawidoff is shocked by the sheer joy he sees in the coaches around him.
“I was incredulous and now felt like a kingpin who’d been sampling some of his own product,” he wrote. “In the aftermath, I was struck by how purely happy the coaches were.”