Ever wanted to follow an NFL team for an entire season with full access to their practice facilities, locker room, and players? Same with me. Author John Feinstein was lucky enough to get that opportunity. He followed the 2004 Baltimore Ravens from draft day beginning to disappointing end and he details his journey in his novel Next Man Up.
Feinstein could not have made a better choice of teams to follow. The Ravens were under new ownership (Art Modell had just sold to minority owner Steve Biscotti) and were in a make or break year for a lot of players as well as coaches. He picked a team with many trials and tribulations (Jamal Lewis and his drug case) but also a team with loads of character and talent (Ray Lewis, Deion Sanders).
The coach for the Ravens is also an ideal choice for one to follow. Brian Billick knows what he is doing, he’s been at it for a long time, and is considered one of the better coaches in the league. He knows how to handle his players, and because Feinstein has such unbridled access to the team, he can pick Billick’s brain, and that is exactly what he does.
Starting from day one, the reader gets to see how everything in the Ravens organization works. It starts in training camp. We get the scoop from the coaches about what they are looking for out of the players they brought to camp. Feinstein then does a good job of telling the stories of those players. He shows us which ones are “slapdicks,” there just to fill a training camp spot and get hit around with no real chance of making the team. He then describes the position battles that are occurring, and the decisions that Billick and his staff, including general manager Ozzie Newsome and the rest of the coaches, must make on who to keep and who to cut.
From the get go we see why the title of his book is Next Man Up. It refers to the instability of life in the NFL. No one knows who is going to be there the following day depending upon injuries as well as talent level. One of the centerpieces of this story is of Corey Fuller, a veteran defensive back who has lost a step, and probably won’t get much playing time. The coaches are weary to cut him because it was partly him who brought Deion Sanders into camp, and because he is such a strong presence in the locker room. Some coaches feel he just isn’t good enough to play in the league anymore, but despite his struggles the team keeps him on throughout the year because of his leadership ability.
This Ravens team entered the year with Super Bowl aspirations, and Billick constantly reiterates that to his team. They face a disappointing season, and the book chronicles that. They win some games that they aren’t expected to win, but lose games that they need, including the season opener against the Cleveland Browns. The Book talks of the struggles of quarterback Kyle Boller and the hot water that offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh is in because of his struggles.
Feinstein then takes us week by week throughout the year. He talks of the preparation that the team goes through in the week leading up to the game, in terms of meeting, film study, and practices. Then he talks about the pregame rituals of the players, both on the field and in the locker room. The pregame prayer directed by either Billick or Ray Lewis, to what happens in the trainers room to get players ready.
If you have ever wondered what it is like on the inside of an NFL organization, this is the book for you to read. Feinstein does a fantastic job describing what happens not only in the year as a whole, but weekly. I recommend this book to everyone.
Overall Rating: 4.5 out of 5