Saturday, 17 January 2015

Advance Book Review: On the Clock by Barry Wilner and Ken Rappoport

The inaugural NFL draft was held in 1936 in then-commissioner Bert Bell's suite in the Philadelphia Ritz Carlton. Jay Berwanger, the first player to be selected, never actually played a single down of professional football. The Heisman trophy winner from the University of Chicago turned the NFL down and eventually worked as a sportswriter and plastic parts manufacturer.

The draft as a low-key event with minimal media coverage. Top athletes turning down the riches of the NFL. Bankable careers in journalism. Clearly a lot has changed over the almost 80 years since the first NFL draft. Barry Wilner and Ken Rappoport's new book On The Clock attempts to chronicle the history of the event and how it has mutated from these humble beginnings into a spectacle and tentpole event of the NFL's "off" season. While it offers a few compelling passages, the book is a little uneven overall. It's a quick read and worth consideration from those looking to learn about the history of the draft but I can't recommend it incredibly strongly to casual NFL fans.
The book begins with a brief overview of the major storylines of the 2014 draft, which likely won't offer any new insights into the event. We already know whether Jadeveon Clowney is going to go first overall and if Johnny Manziel is going to fall in the draft. The authors then transition from Radio City to the Cincinnati Bengals' war room for a more interesting albeit briefer look at how teams figure out what names to write on those little draft selection cards.

The rest of On the Clock proceeds with a largely chronological overview of the draft's history and major topics. Rappoport and Wilner, both sportswriters for the Associated Press, clearly demonstrate their knowledge about NFL history and they do a fine job describing how Bell developed the draft and was also instrumental in facilitating team parity through the worst-team-picks-first draft order. There are also a few amusing anecdotes, such as how Chargers owner Barron Hilton helped his fellow AFL teams use Hilton hotel rooms to hide top college players from NFL team personnel during the heights of the AFL-NFL fight for talent. These chapters also feature brief profiles on major figures, which are unfortunately too short to really offer anything new to those already familiar with the likes of Bill Walsh and Sammy Baugh. Wilner has written a slew of children's books and at times the book feels like it is geared towards younger audiences with its simplistic prose and very brief, Buzzfeed generation-friendly chapter lengths and lists. I can't ding the book because I don't fit perfectly into their target demographic but I do feel it is worth pointing out.

Later chapters examine more recent developments of the draft and these sections have their moments. Chapters outlining the history of ESPN's draft telecast and draft experts were pretty entertaining though I wish the authors went into greater detail. Still, hearing about how the likes of Mike Mayock and Mel Kiper prepare for the draft and their biggest prognostication-related regrets were probably the highlight of the book for me.

There is a sizable amount of filler that seems like it was mainly added to tip the page count a little higher. The most egregious example is when the book detours to a list of the best and worst picks by each team with a pithy sentence or two explaining the rationale for each selection. This is followed by the best and worst picks for each position, and as you would expect there is a decent amount of overlap between the two which doesn't help matters.

In Sum

On the Clock definitely benefits from the lack of current literature on the subject. Outside of Pete Williams' more fly-on-the-wall-y 2007 book The Draft there are very few books specifically on the draft. A lot of the draft's history has been covered in a slew of other books but never in one concentrated volume. So while it isn't the best-written book in the world and doesn't go into much depth at all about the Combine and how players prepare for the draft, On the Clock is still a decent (and really the only) read for those looking to learn about the history of the institution.


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