New book tries to explain how the NFL really does and doesn’t work

Photo by David Becker/Getty Images
Photo by David Becker/Getty Images /

In his new book, Playmakers, Mike Florio sets out to pierce readers’ misconceptions about how the NFL really does and doesn’t work.

Over the last 20 years, Mike Florio has distinguished himself as one of the most prominent names in NFL analysis. Through his blog ProFootballTalk, and as an analyst on NBC’s Sunday Night Football. there is hardly anything that has happened in the league in the last two decades that he has not commented upon.

Now, Florio has written his first book, Playmakers: How the NFL Really Works (And Doesn’t), attempting to make sense of the shifts and changes in the NFL during that period, offering a capsule history of the league since the turn of the century. However, while the book does indeed cover these transformative moments, it fails to offer the necessary perspective that would make it an insightful work.

The book is split into 10 sections, each featuring about 10 chapters. The sections all cover broad topics from “The Draft” to “Owners,” from “Healthy and Safety” to “Off-Field Player Misconduct.” In the chapters, which focus on individuals or specific events, Florio’s experience as a blogger and radio host is evident. Nearly every single one of them is three pages long, prizing brevity and quick-hitting takes over depth. Also, the writing itself feels almost adversarial, with each page filled with argumentative statements. However, it is not always clear just what readers are to be convinced of.

Playmakers is a book where trite statements like “The fact that a Tom Brady became buried so deep in the [NFL Draft] process shows that ultimately no one really knows what they’re getting when it’s time to put names on draft cards” are delivered as if they are revelations. Who does not know this? Take this excerpt from the introduction:

"“We’ve become conditioned over the years to think it’s glitz and it’s glamour and it’s riches and it’s luxury and it’s whatever else is good and enviable to play in the NFL. It’s not. It’s pain and it’s agony and it’s surgeries and it’s pressure and it’s stress and it’s everyone you know wanting some of what you have, and it’s a far cry from the fun, thrilling life that a resentful nation of fans believes to be.”"

I do not know anyone who still believes these things. In a post-Kaepernick, post-Ray Rice, post-League of Denial world, these beliefs about the NFL being a glamorous or relatively moral enterprise have long been untenable. It simply feels like Florio is late to the party, sharing opinions that may have been provocative a decade ago, but feel staid and commonsense now.

The book does function as a tribute to the NFL’s elasticity. It’s too big to fail. As he writes, “The game is a multibillion-dollar business that continues to thrive in many respects because of itself, and in many more despite itself.” The league “never seems to be very far from actual or potential scandals” but continues “making more and more money” regardless. On the whole, such scandals, despite their prevalence and seriousness, “never seem to do much damage to the ever-rising bottom line.”

It’s a bleak statement that is certainly correct, but it’s also one that Florio seems ill-equipped to explore or take to its logical conclusion. He analyzes the NFL’s issues through an amoral lens, caring ultimately about how they affect the league. While he purportedly does this to critique the league, or show the issues inherent to it, it ultimately means he performs the same task he appears to criticize.

Government oversight may be what the NFL fears most

There are some interesting statements near the end of the book about how what the NFL fears most is governmental oversight. Florio appears to believe that such oversight and regulation is not certain, but it is likely, especially with gambling establishing a stronger foothold nationwide. As he seems to see it, the struggle to avoid this will be the defining story of the next several years in the NFL.

If the NFL wants to stave it off, they need to do a better job of enforcing rules and increasing accountability. However, as he acknowledges, the NFL has historically been “far more reactive than proactive,” an issue that has caused and exacerbated a number of the problems detailed throughout the book. Can the NFL break that habit?

In one way, Playmakers compares unfavorably to Ben Detrick and Andrew Kuo’s much more enjoyable The Joy of Basketball. Both books attempt to make sense of their respective sport’s recent past, though structurally, Florio’s book is organized topically rather than alphabetically. However, while The Joy of Basketball clearly relishes the NBA and the game of basketball, possessing a clear point of view that can help cast well-known players and teams in new lights, Playmakers lacks that distinctiveness and that delight. Common are chapters where Florio simply recounts an event or topic of conversation from years past, but without offering any new insights or opinions on it, prompting this reader to wonder what they were supposed to take from it.

Playmakers is a disappointing book that contains a lot of information and a handful of strong opinions but never adds up to anything solid. Though it offers a broad look at the NFL of the last 20 years, it is lacking in depth. Perhaps there are football fans who will enjoy reliving these past two decades with Florio, or more casual fans who want to familiarize themselves with the league that will find this useful, but on the whole, it does not seem clear who this book is for. There are many better books on the modern NFL and while Playmakers may cover more topics than most, the best of its competitors make up for this by featuring stronger research, greater depth, and better prose.

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