I'm an avid reader of sports books. As such, I get a lot of recommendations. I've gotten more recommendations for John Feinstein books than I can count on both hands. I've read a couple of them (The Punch, Caddy For Life) and really enjoyed his style. What I didn't realize until I was at my local bookstore several weeks ago is that Feinstein had written a current book about professional football.
Actually, the funny thing is, when I was in San Diego for Training Camp I brought this book with me (although didn't find time to read it). At least four of my relatives picked up the book, asked me what it was about, and then said "I love Feinstein. How have I never heard of this?" Exactly. Somehow this book flew completely under everyone's radar and that's a shame because it's a great read.
I'm smart enough to realize that as the fan of a team, I'm rooting more for the ownership than anything. It's the most stable part of the team and probably the only thing that will be the same about them in ten years. The second most stable part of an organization is it's front office. I am a huge fan of scouting and that whole side of football. If I had the patience to be an intern for years and get paid nothing, I probably would've tried to become an NFL scout and eventually a GM. Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately for you readers, I don't have any patience at all.
Feinstein's book is supposed to give you a look behind the curtain of every aspect of the 2004 Baltimore Ravens. However, you're provided only glimpses of the locker room and the relationship between the players. That makes sense when you think of the theme of the book; there is always a younger player waiting behind you in the NFL, ready to take your spot. The most important people in that scenario are not the players, though. The most interesting part of the book is the meetings between coaches, the GM and the scouts. They're are the one that determine the fates of these players, and sometime they determine it for reasons you'd never think about.
With most teams, the GM and the scouts are either unknown to the fans or keep themselves and their opinions closely-guarded. That couldn't be more true than with A.J. Smith and the Chargers. Next Man Up gives you insight into all of what you're missing. Seeing how closely a Head Coach and General Manager work together, and how important a functional relationship between the two is to the success of a football team, I completely understand why Marty Schottenheimer had to be let go. The GM and HC decide, together, who is cut and who stays. On a weakly basis they come together to re-examine the roster and see if there's a weakness that needs to be filled (usually by signing a FA and cutting someone with the team).
The book does a great job of delivering on it's promised access. I feel as though I know everybody in the Ravens organization and their personality, including a lot of the players. It's an interesting season for a Chargers' fan to reflect on, considering the one we just deal with in San Diego. The 2004 season started with lots of Super Bowl hype for the Ravens and ended with an 8-8 record. It started with the fans not trusting Kyle Boller to him having a strong second-half of the season, partially because he was being personally coached by Jim Fassel.
Really, anything you've ever wanted to know about the inner-workings of an NFL football team can be found in this book. The only possible exception is that players are mostly left alone outside of gamedays and practices. There are reports of one player partying too much (he changes his ways), and lots of talk about relationships and issues amongst teammates, but you walk around not knowing much more about the guys on the field.
The stars of this book are Mike Nolan (who is almost too quiet and nice until his fuse is lit), Brian Billick (a philosopher who works his team like Phil Jackson and speaks about tradition a lot) and Ozzie Newsome (the nice, quiet guy with a wonderful mind for drafting). "Stars" may even be the wrong word, because the main thing you come away with is how well these guys work together and how important that is. The front office must work as a well-oiled machine. When one piece isn't pulling it's weight (like OC Matt Cavanaugh), the rest of the team is pulled down (and not just on the field).
For anyone who watches the NFL Draft and likes to watch position battles, this is the book for you. If you're more excited by a wonderfully-executed screen pass than a hail mary pass, this book is also for you. If you don't care to know anyone on the team besides Rivers, Gates, LT and Merriman.....first I'd ask you how you made it to BFTB....but also, this book is not for you. This is about all of the little things that build a team and make a team successful (or not successful) over the course of a season. Highly recommended.
Yes, I am aware that this is two books in a row that have something to do with the Ravens. Not my fault. If Feinstein had written this book about the Chargers, I'd read it over and over until I had it memorized.