What An Opportunity

Jets best Bills, and Times’ reporting, as always, impresses

In Sports on September 23, 2013 at 1:15 am
Santonio Holmes

Photo by Ben Solomon for The New York Times

For this week’s edition of The Best Sportswriting I Read This Week, I chose to review The New York Times’ game story on the New York Jets defeating the Buffalo Bills, 27-20, on Sunday.

Here is a link to the story: Jets Overcome Their Mistakes With One Long Pass.

It’s a thoroughly well written article – and well written on deadline (it is worth noting this story, full of analysis and stats and exquisite writing, was online before The News had any game story up) – though there are some strategies author Ben Shpigel employs with which I respectfully disagree. We’ll get into those later.

Let’s talk about what makes this article great …

Every stellar story – even a game story – starts with an extraordinary lede.

“The ball left Geno Smith’s right hand as if shot by an arrow. It landed on Santonio Holmes’s fingertips like a bird returning to its nest.”

These two sentences display excellent setting of the scene and imagery. The author could have simply said “Geno Smith fired a pass to Santonio Holmes,” but he put in creative imagery to make the scene come to life. Smith doesn’t throw the football; he shoots it out like an arrow with a precise destination – its nest. Holmes doesn’t catch the ball with his hands; he gently snares it on his fingertips. Who says you can’t get creative in a game story? There are two metaphors here in the lede. Great break-from-the-norm writing.

I was once told every lede should pass the “that was cool” test. This passes.

Every great lede ties into something bigger.

“So tight was the coverage on Holmes that the catch, which produced the winning touchdown in the fourth quarter of the Jets’ 27-20 victory against the Buffalo Bills on Sunday, strained the bounds of plausibility. Then again, much of what happened at MetLife Stadium did, too.”

I like this sequence because it makes it clear the Smith-to-Holmes moment means more than just those six points (though they were, of course, integral points). The play is representative of the day as a whole – that what you thought should happen, given conventional logic, and what actually happened in the game were two very different things. It was one of the strangest games I have ever watched, with flags and mistakes covering the field in abundance.

The ‘why does this game matter?’ explanation

“Three games into this season, already a theme has emerged for the Jets. As capable as Smith is of committing a mindless turnover – and he threw two more ugly interceptions Sunday, running his season total to six – he is just as likely to do something, anything, that sends a jolt of excitement rippling through the crowd and the Jets’ sideline.”

This is thorough analysis in a game story. I like that. It’s bigger than the nuts and bolts.

“The Jets were able to record an important divisional victory to keep pace in the A.F.C. East, a game behind unbeaten New England and Miami, because of a defense that pummeled Buffalo quarterback E. J. Manuel and a revived running game (182 yards, including 149 by Bilal Powell) and, most of all, because of that throw by Smith and that catch by Holmes.”

This sequence puts the game in perspective. ‘Why does this Jets win matter?’ one might say. ‘It’s only an early-season game between two young, struggling teams.’ Well, it matters quite a bit, actually, because it keeps New York close behind the unbeaten division leaders and shoots Buffalo to the AFC East’s basement.

The background information

“After their loss at New England on Sept. 12, the Jets had nine days to prepare for Buffalo. Nine days to prepare for Manuel and C. J. Spiller and the N.F.L.’s fourth-ranked rushing offense. Nine days to prepare for Mario Williams and Kyle Williams and a defense operated by the Jets’ former coordinator Mike Pettine, who last week said that he would be ‘a liar if I stood here and said this game didn’t mean more to me.'”

This paragraph goes beyond the game story. It stretches back earlier in the week and gives the reader some background knowledge on why this divisional rivalry was a little bit heightened this time around.

“Maybe so, but it also meant a lot to Ryan, who adores scheming against a rookie quarterback. Only once in six previous games had Ryan lost to a rookie (Russell Wilson of Seattle), and all week he exuded confidence that no amount of debriefing by Pettine could help Manuel overcome the pressure he would face Sunday.”

This paragraph is also important to provide supplemental information and let the reader know everything the writer knows.

The quality description

“A legal pad could not slide between their bodies.”

This is great because everyone knows what a legal pad is and knows just how thin it is. Putting the separation between defender and receiver in these terms, instead of leaving it at “Rogers blanketed Holmes,” makes the reader see just how tight the coverage was. ‘Wow,’ a reader might think, ‘that’s not very much space at all.’ Now it really makes sense just how incredible that pass was.

That’s concrete imagery and a veteran writing technique. Very well done.

What I didn’t like

“He spun around and scampered the remaining distance, about 25 yards, into the end zone. The Jets led by 20-6 after Nick Folk drilled a 34-yard field goal with 9:48 remaining in the third quarter.”

This seems like a harsh transition to me. It just goes from the scene of the catch, which occupies five sentences, to another moment earlier in the game. I understand there are spatial and time constraints, but this transition is perplexing to me.

“Buffalo took advantage of the Jets’ struggles, kicking one field goal and then another, before benefiting from what could be best described as self-destruction by Jets cornerback Kyle Wilson.”

I liked the analysis earlier, but I’m not sure I like this. It seems too opinionated to be in a game story. I like that the writer injects his voice, but I don’t like the opinion. I was always taught game stories should be objective. If this was a column, it would be a different story, but this is a game story. I’m not a proponent of subjective statements like this one.

  1. […] Sept. 23, 2013: Jets best Bills, and Times’ reporting, as always, impresses […]

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