Nate Jackson played six years for the Denver Broncos. He is the author of a memoir, “Slow Getting Up: A Story of NFL Survival from the Bottom of the Pile,” and “Fantasy Man: A Former NFL Player’s Descent into the Brutality of Fantasy Football.”
‘He is the glamour guy; the rich guy; the face of the franchise; and, when things go wrong, the guy who takes the fall.” That’s how John Feinstein breaks down the role of NFL quarterback in football fans’ minds in “Quarterback: Inside the Most Important Position in the National Football League.”
It’s a premise borne out in one vignette featuring the Baltimore Ravens’ Joe Flacco, who, after a loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, takes the blame when it’s not really his fault: Despite a receiver’s dropped ball, a struggling offensive line and no running game, Flacco faced reporters in the postgame news conference and said: “We sucked as an offense, and I’m the quarterback, so I’m responsible. It’s pretty simple.”
Quarterbacks call their teams’ plays and make the most money, and league rules are tweaked to protect them. They are the sport’s golden children. But in “Quarterback,” despite an intriguing premise, we never learn what precisely it is that makes quarterbacks the most important men on NFL teams’ 53-man rosters — we’re mostly just assured that they are.
“In thirty-two cities,” writes Feinstein, “the quarterback carries the hopes and dreams of millions of fans.” He cites quarterbacks such as Carson Wentz, “whose loss to injury would ruin a team’s season.” But by “ruin a team’s season,” he must mean “secure a championship,” because after the Philadelphia Eagles lost Wentz to injury last year, they went on to win the Super Bowl. The NFL quarterback mold is being broken, and Feinstein doesn’t always seem to take that into account.
“Quarterback” follows four current NFL QBs — Flacco, Alex Smith, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Andrew Luck — through the ups and downs of the 2017 season, and the book is peppered with each man’s backstory for context. Feinstein’s hope was, he said, to profile smart, seasoned veterans who could let us in on the psyche of an NFL quarterback, the most high-profile position in America’s most popular sport.
Salary talk is constant, as are the statistics that (in theory, at least) determine how much players are worth to their teams. But Feinstein doesn’t provide enough context — offensive strategy, coaching philosophy, intangibles, marketability — to help the reader understand whether quarterbacks’ hefty salaries are justified. It’s simply assumed that they are, because that’s the way it is. In “Quarterback”-world, teams’ ability to win seems to be measured by the capability of the quarterback and nothing else.
Feinstein is a talented writer whose words take you right onto the field, reliving games you’d forgotten and bringing back storylines you’d just as soon forget: Colin Kaepernick’s travails, Deflategate, Ray Lewis’s obstruction-of-justice guilty plea, Ray Rice’s assault charge, various allegations against Jameis Winston, the Browns-are-awful trope and so on. The anecdotes are interesting, but they feel like opportunities to moralize in a way that has nothing to do with the subject at hand.
He’s best when he turns explanations over to the experts. Throughout the book, his interviews give dimension to the numbers. Behind the big plays and big contracts, beyond the caricatures and cliched sound bites, are men with families, trying to perform at a high level. Harvard graduate Fitzpatrick has been on the bumpiest ride. Drafted by the St. Louis Rams in 2005, he’s since played for six other teams: Cincinnati, Buffalo, Tennessee, Houston, the New York Jets and now Tampa Bay. “When things go well, everyone loves you,” says Fitzpatrick. “When they don’t, people fall out of love in a hurry.”
Luck’s career has been different. Drafted first overall in 2012 by the Indianapolis Colts to replace a legend, Peyton Manning, Luck has largely panned out, even though he’s missed chunks of the past two seasons because of a shoulder injury. “I went back to practice because that had been the plan,” he said of his early return. “I was supposed to be feeling good enough to practice, so I told myself I was — when I wasn’t.”
His identity was “tied up in being a football player,” and in the wake of injuries, says Luck, “it got to the point when I thought of football, I associated it with pain, anguish, and failure. Now I’m learning again to see — and enjoy — the game the way I once saw it.”
The NFL tends to strip the joy from the game of football. It is a dream until you achieve it, then it becomes someone else’s dream, and your role in sustaining it can become a burden. Luck seems to have found peace of mind while playing, which is rare.
If “Cool Joe” Flacco has any such existential dilemmas, he isn’t showing it, taking everything in stride, including boos from the home crowd, fired coaches, bad press and the Ravens’ drafting of his eventual replacement. “It’s a business. I get it,” Flacco says.
The real star of “Quarterback,” though, is Smith, traded this season to the Redskins, to whom Feinstein seemed to have had the most access. Like Luck, Smith was a No. 1 pick, but in his case, it was unexpected: “It was a little bit like, ‘Toto, we aren’t in Kansas anymore,’ ” Smith said. (After several up-and-down years with the San Francisco 49ers, Smith would, indeed, end up in Kansas City.) His first few years in the NFL, he played under a series of different offensive coordinators, which meant learning different offenses. Like languages all their own, if you don’t know an offense fluently, it’s hard to play well. When Smith finally got some coaching stability in Jim Harbaugh and things started to click, he suffered a concussion and had to miss a game. When he came back the next week, his starting job was gone, the ball turned over to the then-surging Kaepernick. No hard feelings from Smith, though: “Kaep played very well. I understood Jim’s thinking.”
Smith is the team player every coach hopes he can find in a quarterback: a selfless, steady leader who does things the right way, which just makes his recent injury more devastating for everyone.
One of the book’s blind spots is diversity, which Feinstein acknowledges. “I needed an African-American voice in this book,” he admitted, so he featured Super Bowl XXII MVP Doug Williams. But Williams’s story, although well told, doesn’t quite fit. Some context is added to his legendary 1988 Super Bowl performance and his current position in the Redskins’ front office. But Williams’s journey from Grambling State to the NFL, the U.S. Football League (USFL) and back to the NFL, where he out-dueled Hall of Famer John Elway in the Super Bowl, doesn’t sync with the stories of the other four quarterbacks on whom Feinstein focuses.
Football is a demanding game, even for — maybe especially for — its highly touted quarterbacks. But what is it that makes them so great?
It’s not the lights or the cameras — it’s the action, what a quarterback does with the football in his hands. And what he does depends as much on mental agility as on physical agility. How he reacts to the dangerous swarm of human bodies moving away from him and toward him at the same time, often beautiful, always violent. It’s what every quarterback — no matter what he says when the camera is rolling — knows all too well.
By John Feinstein
Doubleday. 368 pp. $27.95