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10 Jan 2005

Book Review: Big Play

Big Play
by Allen Barra
Published by Brassey's

Reviewed by Michael David Smith

Big Play, Allen Barra's collection of his best articles and essays, is a compilation of two decades of some of the smartest and most original writing about football you'll ever read. Barra's rare mixture of passion for the history of football and understanding of the way the game is played today makes him one of the best football writers in the country.

Barra revels in supporting players he thinks the rest of the football media have ignored. He makes a compelling case for Tim Brown's greatness, especially in calling him a terrific all-around player, reminding us that he was a splendid kick returner until the Raiders decided to play him on offense full-time. At the same time, I remain unconvinced about Barra's comparisons of Brown to Jerry Rice. Barra says that "if they traded quarterbacks over the course of their careers, then Rice's numbers might be Brown's and vice versa." Rice clearly had better quarterbacks than Brown (Barra has a funny line, noting that reciting all of Brown's quarterbacks is "a feat not unlike being able to name all the Roman emperors between Marcus Aurelius and the fall of the empire") but I don't think that accounts for all of Rice's statistical superiority.

But in another discussion of a neglected star, I'm with Barra completely: He says the greatness of Herschel Walker has never been appreciated, and he points out that Walker's stats ought to put him in any discussion of the best all-around player in the history of the game. How many fans realize that Walker has more combined yards than some of the all-time great all-purpose backs like Marcus Allen or Thurman Thomas?

Barra includes two essays he wrote in the late 1990s about Steve Young and John Elway, but in a new introduction he says he no longer stands by his opinion that Young is one of the all-time greats and Elway wasn't great. For a writer as unconventional as Barra, it's disappointing to see him trot out the tired old line that a quarterback is judged by his Super Bowl rings. He points out that Steve Young lost to Troy Aikman in the 1992 and 1993 NFC championship games, but he doesn't mention that the Cowboys were the more talented team at nearly every other position. And then he seems to reverse course later, writing about former Alabama quarterback Jay Barker, "Barker's defenders constantly pointed out that the team was undefeated since he had become the starter, but to me that made as much sense as pointing out that the Tide were 22-0 since I started writing checks with my lucky Alabama pen."

Barra also relies too heavily on a quarterback's championships when he compares Bart Starr to Johnny Unitas, although he nonetheless makes a compelling case that Starr is overlooked when discussing the great quarterbacks of the 1960s.

But where I disagree most with Barra is the controversy over another quarterback who hasn't won a ring, Donovan McNabb. He writes about the infamous incident in which Rush Limbaugh resigned as an ESPN commentator after saying the media over-rated McNabb because they wanted a black quarterback to succeed. Barra's argument that "Limbaugh pretty much spoke the truth" is, frankly, dumb. That article is online here; I leave it to you to see for yourself.

What's best about Barra is his irreverent humor. He's not afraid to take on the game's sacred cows, and when he does it, he makes you laugh. "As football coaches go," Barra writes, "Lou Holtz is probably an okay guy (which is to say that he's probably an enormous jerk by any other standard)."

Speaking of Notre Dame coaches, Barra's support of Tyrone Willingham now seems a bit outdated, but he hits the nail right on the head in the same essay when he writes that Notre Dame "is the only college that talks itself into believing that football dominance and academic excellence are compatible."

Barra's love of history comes through most clearly in his frequent citations of Pudge Heffelfinger, the first person ever to play football for money. In addition to Heffelfinger, the old-timers Barra discusses include Bear Bryant, Bronko Nagurski, and Eddie Robinson. Barra's next book will be a biography of Bryant. If it's as smart, straightforward, and well-researched as this one, I look forward to reading it.

Posted by: Michael David Smith on 10 Jan 2005

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