John Feinstein, the resident fly-on-the-wall of American sports journalism, lands this time inside the National Football League, and the result is...

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“Next Man Up: A Year Behind the Lines in Today’s NFL”
by John Feinstein
Little, Brown, 512 pp., $25.95

John Feinstein, the resident fly-on-the-wall of American sports journalism, lands this time inside the National Football League, and the result is another insightful book.

For “Next Man Up: A Year Behind the Lines in Today’s NFL,” Feinstein was granted unlimited access for the 2004 season with the Baltimore Ravens. The result is a compelling behind-the-scenes chronicle. After entering the season with Super Bowl aspirations, the Ravens endured a disappointing 9-7 campaign and failed to make the playoffs.

However, their failures and shortcomings probably made this book more interesting than if they had completed a successful season. The fact that the franchise previously won the 2001 Super Bowl adds extra credibility to the way coach Brian Billick and general manager Ozzie Newsome operate.

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Feinstein is a National Public Radio commentator who has written more than a dozen books, including “A Season on the Brink,” which followed volatile Indiana University basketball coach Bobby Knight. His “A Good Walk Spoiled” took readers inside the ropes of the PGA Tour. His previous football book was “A Civil War, Army vs. Navy,” which told as much about America’s military academies as it did about college football.

People just seem to open up to Feinstein — and some of the conversations in this latest book are fascinating.

New owner Steve Bisciotti tells coach Billick, “You have some bad habits. For example, you always address me as ‘young man’ when you see me, and my wife as ‘young lady.’ First of all, I’m five years younger than you. I’m not some kid and neither is my wife. Second, I’m about to become the owner of this team — your boss — and you greet me the same way you greet some kid coming up to you for an autograph. That’s disrespectful.”

Billick and Bisciotti both come off well in the book, and so does Newsome. Among the players Feinstein examines are Ray Lewis, the All-Pro linebacker once accused of murder, Jamal Lewis, the running back who served time for a role in a drug deal, and Deion Sanders, one of the best athletes in American history.

Feinstein’s unlimited access put him where beat reporters never get to go. He was in the team’s meeting room when Billick showed a scene from the movie “Goodfellas,” in which a mobster strides across the street and beats up a neighbor who had been hitting on his wife.

“Just make sure we walk across that street on Sunday,” Billick tells his team, as the opener against Cleveland approaches.

He recounts conversations when players were cut, when coaches yelled at players and also yelled at each other. During one game, defensive coordinator Mike Nolan screamed at offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh, “What the hell are you doing?” and continued a profane rant because he didn’t like Cavanaugh’s play-calling.

Feinstein has a gift for explanation and an eye for the unusual. Few fans probably know, for example, that NFL teams like to know the hand size of potential draft picks. On cut-down days (when players are culled from the roster before the regular season begins), a scout or other employee is assigned to stand in the doorway of Billick’s office and announce the arrival of the doomed player, so there is no question to whom Billick is talking in case it is a no-chance rookie the coach has barely met.

At times, Feinstein can be a wordsmith:

“General managers generally look at first-round picks the way fathers look at their eldest daughter; just as almost no one is good enough to marry your daughter, almost no one is good enough to trade a first-round pick for.”

Feinstein describes the NFL as a “cultural monolith” and in his introduction he writes:

“I was asked often during the season if anything really surprised me. The answer was (and is) yes; the constant tension. The NFL is the most insecure world there is in professional sports because the season is so short, leaving little margin for error… “

When I finished reading the book, I had one silent request: “Hey, Feinstein, go do a hockey book. I want to know more about the sport and have you as my guide.”