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.
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?"
"No, Coach, I don't," the player said. "But I'm not done chasing."
Feinstein was there when coaches yelled at players, coaches screamed at referees and coaches sniped at coaches. He memorably recounts an explosive confrontation between the defensive coordinator, Mike Nolan, and the offensive coordinator, Matt Cavanaugh, who were both in the press box at the time. "Pass, pass, pass!" Nolan shouted unreservedly at Cavanaugh, whose tenuous status with the team is a continuing theme in the book. "What the hell are you doing!"
This is a very serious book, with few flashes of humor. The team's former clown prince, Tony Siragusa, retired in 2002 to patrol the sidelines for Fox's network telecasts. The Ravens of 2004 are, like all other teams, on a weekly march toward physical ruin, as Feinstein amply illustrates, as well as a model of the NFL's financial Darwinism. Salaries are not guaranteed from year to year, and sleep-deprived coaches can dispense with players if they've lost a step or are scheduled to earn too much in the coming season.
Feinstein compellingly tells of the slide of Chris McAlister, a defensive back who seems to lose his desire soon after signing a huge new contract; he watches as the team's brain trust plans an athletic intervention for McAlister, a loner with a penchant for partying. "He's not doing anything in practice," says one coach. "He's not competing."
Without their knowing, another player, Corey Fuller, himself on shaky ground, confronts McAlister and rights his listing teammate in terms he wouldn't accept from the coaches.
"For the money they're paying you, they don't expect you to play well some of the time, they expect you to play well all the time," he tells him.
* 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
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