There must be something about the sportswriter John Feinstein that team executives and athletes trust. His behind-the-scenes books flaunt his access. The details he mines over months of hanging around locker rooms and sidelines do not yield uniformly flattering results, but every year he returns with proof that another sports organization has agreed to his "season with" treatment.
He started nearly two decades ago, when he persuaded the dyspeptic college basketball coach Bob Knight to let him be his resident fly on the wall with the 1985-1986 Indiana Hoosiers. The product, A Season on the Brink, was a huge best seller but displeased Knight.
The latest organization to say yes to Feinstein's eavesdropping was the Baltimore Ravens, a National Football League franchise whose wealth of characters animate Next Man Up. It is a team with few limits on traditional codes of athletic silence, thanks to coach Brian Billick, an alternately arrogant and sensitive man whose motivational ploys include showing players a scene from Goodfellas in which a mobster stomps across the street to pummel a neighbor who hit on his wife.
"Just make sure we walk across that street on Sunday," Billick advised his players before their season opener against Cleveland.
The book is constructed like an episode of "Columbo": From the start, there is no doubt that the Ravens underachieved in 2004 and did not make the playoffs four seasons after beating the Giants in the Super Bowl. They were, by season's end, a football corpse with a 9-7 record; Next Man Up is Feinstein's account of what went wrong, as he follows them from the high optimism of training camp to the final game and the coaches' post-mortem.
* Title: Next Man Up, A Year Behind the Lines in Today's NFL
* Author: John Feinstein
* Description: Illustrated, 502 pages
* Publisher: Little, Brown & Co
* Retail price: US$25.95
The fact that the Ravens failed does little to dampen interest in this huge clan, with its friendships, cliques, religious divisions, injuries, jealousies, ambition, dysfunction and a little bit of crime. They have a terrific back story. The team used to be the Cleveland Browns before a wrenching move that their owner at the time, Art Modell, made for big money. They also have two pre-eminent stars: the linebacker Ray Lewis, who was briefly accused of murdering two men in 2000 and pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice, and the running back Jamal Lewis, whose part in a drug deal before he came to the Ravens led to plea negotiations that occur during the course of the book.
Ray Lewis, who is unrelated to Jamal, is as much a star of the book as Billick. He is a loud, ferocious linebacker, with the most intense game face in the league. His preacher-like exhortations might read like screenwritten hyperbole, but in his voice, they inspire his teammates.
There appears to be no place where Feinstein was prohibited from prying -- or at least he offers no evidence of times when he was told to take a hike. He was in the draft room to listen to maneuverings that beat reporters are never privy to; in coaches' meetings where brutal judgments are made about the relative talents of certain players; in locker rooms at halftime, and in Billick's office for the poignant moments when he cuts a player.
"At some point you have to figure out if you're done chasing this dream," Billick told a young wide receiver as he cut him. "Have you given any thought to what you'd do? Do you have your degree from USC?"