Thursday, January 8, 2009

The Anxiety Of Influence

The Anxiety of Influence is a theory first put forth by literary critic Harold Bloom. He contended that all poets are inspired to write by existing poets and therefore their work is weaker because it's derivative of what came before. In order to free themselves from the shadow of older works, the strongest younger poets must form their own distinct style using one of six "Revisionary Ratios". Coaching an NFL team, like writing poetry, demands uniqueness in exchange for success. To succeed, a coach, much like a poet, must expand on the styles of those he worked under, not just imitate them.

In the book, Bloom proposes a sort of "poet tree" starting with Shakespeare who begat Milton who begat Keats and so on. In the NFL the coaching tree is even more direct, with the apprentice having actually studied under the master. In this case, Shakespeare would be Bill Parcells (It would be nice to trace it all the way back to Vince Lombardi, but Parcells only coached under Ray Perkins). His coaching tree is wide, with former assistants Bill Belichick, Tom Coughlin, Sean Payton, Ray Hanley, and Tony Sparano advancing to be head coaches in the NFL.

Belichick, being the strongest coach to descend from Parcells' tree, has become so strong that including college coaches, his tree is already wider than Parcells'. Eric Mangini, Romeo Crennel, Kirk Ferentz, Nick Saban, Pat Hill, Al Groh and Charlie Weiss have all leveraged their success under Belichick into head coaching jobs.

The two pupils that landed NFL jobs certainly have not enjoyed the success expected of them after leaving the Patriots. In four years with the Browns, Romeo Crennel had a 24-40 record while Eric Mangini (23-25) was just fired by the Jets with a year left on his contract. Coincidentally, the Jets, who went from 4-12 last year to 9-7 this year fired Mangini, who has now replaced Crennel with the Browns, who went from 10-6 to 4-12, at a job that Belichick was once fired from.

Not to say that Crennel is a stronger coach, but I think Mangini is still most plagued by the Anxiety of Influence, having an almost father-son like dynamic with Belichick. There were the icy, standoffish handshakes, the SpyGate tattling, and now son is following in father's footsteps to the one job he couldn't conquer.

This concept obviously applies to writing as well. I'm not the first person to use this concept in reference to sports. I believe that would be Max Kellerman, who occasionally casts Jordan as Shakespeare on his radio show on 1050ESPN, New York. He purports that Kobe suffers from the Anxiety of Influence while LeBron has been more successful in cutting his own path by distributing the ball and involving his teammates more than Jordan ever did. Kobe wears #24, as if to signify that he is the next Jordan, while LeBron wears #23 as a tribute, but has a much different playing style than him.

The stuff I write for this blog is undoubtedly influenced by the sports bloggers, writers and analysts I read and listen to. My pieces on collusion were inspired to some extent by Shysterball. I've explicitly paid homage to FJM. The post I wrote yesterday about the Eagles (and the name of this blog, for fuck's sake) have Big Daddy Drew's fingerprints all over them. I would not have come up with the idea for this post if I didn't listen to Kellerman at work basically every day.

Part of this phenomenon that Bloom fails to mention is that by virtue of being early to the medium, those guys had more room for original thought. They were frontiersman, staking their claims and finding their niches. Unlike the finite amount of land on the frontier though, the news cycle always churns up more material. It's the specific angles (like Awful Announcing or Shysterball) and conventions (like FJM, Leitch's "royal we" or the character sketches on KSK) that get taken up, sort of like styles of poetry. The problem with both is that, the later you are to the party, the more you have to tip toe around styles and voices that have already been established.

Will Mangini be successful with the Browns? That depends if he can step out of Belichick's shadow and establish his own coaching style that takes some of the core components of his sensei, and add some unique wrinkles of his own. Being fired by the Jets and the resulting fresh start with the Browns should give him the chance to start anew.


  1. Very insightful. I love how Belichick has a niche for turning "promising" assistant coaches into "dull" head coaches. How exciting have the Jets, Browns, and Irish games been in the past few years? I know I want my team's head coach pouting on the sidelines every week.

  2. Thanks gentlemen.

    Greg - you're right. His assistants all seem to take his bland media realtions and sideline persona, but not any of his amazing success to their new jobs.

  3. Great post. While I hate Belichick as a person, his genius cannot be replicated.