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Pro Writing From Amateurs

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I sense some restlessness on the site, and I feel it too. Four football annuals have been published so far and it's clear that their quality is slipshod. You're hungry, and what you really want is better material to work with.

Paul Zimmerman of Sports Illustrated offers some better material in this week's mailbag, where he touts Scientific Football 2005, a 467-page tome by one K.C. Joyner of Altamonte Springs, Florida. I have a lot of respect for Zimmerman, the longtime S.I. writer and author of the now out-of-print The Thinking Man's Guide to Pro Football. While I disagree with a lot of his points, Zimmerman is the most thorough analyst around. That's because he's the only analyst at any of the major publications who watches tape. He watches lots of it. And he's found a kindred spirit in Joyner, who claims to have taped and broken down every game of the '04 season for his inaugural book.

Joyner's goal is to offer the football nut a comprehensive look at the pro passing game. Scientific Football rates the quarterback, receivers, tight ends, backs, linebackers and defensive backs on their effectiveness at completing or preventing forward passes. What inspires Zimmerman is Joyner's fearlessness at deflating the reputations of the media darlings. Established stars like Champ Bailey get dressed down. So do Madison Avenue wannabes like the young Eli Manning and the established Michael Vick,who is, if I read Joyner correctly, one of the most error-prone QBs in the NFL.

Joyner seeks the truth on the field, which is not obvious to the TV-aided eye, since the screen only shows play roughly five yards past the line of scrimmage. HDTV will improve on this greatly in the next few years but for the time being, we're often left to the hyperbole of the announcers. And it is their lazy ramblings that Joyner threatens to demolish.

I can appreciate Joyner's effort. When I wrote for TheBoys.com a decade ago, I used old tapes of Cowboys games from 1991 through 1995 as the basis for my scouting reports. All my game reports hit the web only after I'd watched the tape twice. It's painstaking work, but it provides a much richer perspective on the game.

I'm also excited to see an outsider take on the established football press. As the preseason annuals have shown, this is an area that is ready to be blown up and reconstructed. While we've seen a proliferation of alleged former scouts in the draft book market, the preseason and in-season publications do not look much different than they did 20 or 30 years ago. Pro football is at the place where baseball writing was about fifteen years ago, when sabermatricians got frustrated with the lousy quality of baseball writing and took it upon themselves to do a better job.

I was a regular on the usenet forum rec.sport.baseball back in the early '90s and watched a group of "regular guys" create a set of home-cooked metrics to better understand what was happening on the field. One was a meteorologist. Another a medical student. Another was fresh from law school. Another was a business consultant. They combined their writings with those of other wise and original thinkers, took a deep collective breath and, like Joyner, created their own book.

The first issue of what they called The Baseball Prospectus was photocopied and mailed to buyers. The next year, they found a publisher. Today, BP is one of the more respected baseball publications on the market. Established analysts like Peter Gammons, who made fun of the "statheads" in their early years, now quote their material as gospel. Many of its original writers still work on the book. Some now write for ESPN. One, Dave Pease, is now in the front office of the Toronto Blue Jays.

These guys helped change the way baseball is watched and appreciated. Joyner now seeks to remake the football landscape. His book is pricey, at $49.95, but I'm going to buy a copy. Anybody who can provide a more honest appraisal of the game deserves all the help he can get.

Update: I e-mailed K.C. Joyner asking for an interview and he has graciously accepted. I'm not sure when we'll get to hear from him; he's quite busy since the Sports Illustrated piece, but says he's always eager to talk to hardcore fans. If you have any questions for K.C., post them in the thread. His ratings promise to be more detailed -- and more surprising -- than those we've reviewed here the last few weeks.