Strange Brouhaha

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Next Man Up

I just finished reading "Next Man Up" by John Feinstein. It's the story of the Baltimore Ravens' 2004 NFL season. The Ravens, coming off of a 2003 season that saw them win their division but lose in the first round of the playoffs, gave Feinstein an unprecedented amount of access to meetings, practices and personnel--the NFL is normally extremely secretive, but the Ravens have always (sort of) bucked that trend.

The book is a great behind-the-scenes look at the running of a football team. It's not so much a book about playing football--you're not going to learn what a nose tackle does, or the theory behind a 4-3 defense, or why a team might want to run plays out of the shotgun formation--as it is about how a coaching staff tries to get its team through a season in more or less one piece. They face tough decisions about who to cut and when, morale issues, personality conflicts and, surprisingly (at least to me), they even have to deal with religious battles in the locker room. You learn a lot about what it's like to try to manage "fifty-three rich young men".

The writing is typical Feinstein. He's a great sportswriter, which means that the prose tends to be a bit purple sometimes. If you've read any of his superlative golf books, you know what I mean and you know that, at least the way Feinstein does it, it's extremely gripping. Feinstein, for me, has two unique gifts: first, he can make the boring seem exciting; and second, he just has a way of making you say "Man, I want to do that!"

The Ravens' 2004 season was a disappointment in a lot of ways. They finished 8-8, a record which would have gotten them to the playoffs in the NFC, but was no good for the AFC, and were plagued by injuries and shoddy play. The game recaps are mercifully brief, but Feinstein manages to bring them to life--in a few spots, I was saying "Hoooooly crap" just like I do for a great play when I see it on the television.

As with "A Good Walk Spoiled" and "Open" and the other golf books, where he made an essentially impossible job sound appealing and effortless, I kept thinking as I was reading "Next Man Up" that playing in the NFL must be the best job ever. Yes, even when Musa Smith gets his leg Theismanned. (Smith is still playing; the injury didn't end his career the way it did for Joe.)

This is another great Feinstein page-turner. I always recommend Feinstein's books to people regardless of whether they like sports. This book is no exception. Even if you don't really like football all that much, "Next Man Up" is a dramatic, old-school page-turner.


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