Monday, April 09, 2007

Book Review: Next Man Up

Life > blogging. Posts coming when written. Such will continue. Draft will be blogged that day, where "that day" is defined as "before I got to bed that night," at least for Day One. Etc.

So, the next football book I read as Next Man Up: A Year Behind the Lines in Today's NFL by John Feinstein. In the interest of full disclosure, I am an alumnus of, and fan of the basketball team of, Georgetown University. John Feinstein, long affiliated with The Washington Post, has a long-running conflict with Georgetown University, particularly its basketball team, which apparently stems from Coach John Thompson's actions during the 1980's (supposedly, Feinstein believed Big John gave WaPo colleague (and Hoya beat writer) Michael Wilbon preferential treatment and access denied to Feinstein (A Season on the Brink may have been originally intended to be about Georgetown rather than Indiana)). Anyway, I read this book in the week before the Final Four, so my views of this book may be colored by a dislike for Feinstein. Disclosure #2: I am a fan of the Tennessee Titans, and have little, if any, affection for the Baltimore Ravens or their coach, Brian Billick. Notwithstanding my admitted biases, I have done my best to not let my personal feelings interfere with my review of the book.

Because, frankly, the book is bad enough without me bringing any axes to grind. Next Man Up results from John Feinstein's season-long time with the Baltimore Ravens during their disappointing 8-8 2004 campaign. Now, as Feinstein freely acknowledges, following a team for an entire season (tooting his own horn alert: as he did, fairly innovatively, with Indiana in A Season on the Brink) has become sort of a sports cliche. Ironically, the title of the book results from a phrase describing the tremendous pressure upon NFL players. Naturally, the Ravens in 2004 returned 21 of 22 starters from their 2003 AFC Central-champion team, and overall had about as little roster turnover as any team in recent NFL history. Feinstein's a competent journalist, but he occasionally lets his prose get a little journalist-y, sacrificing comprehensible sentence structure for the sake of a "nice" turn of phrase (I'd provide examples, but I've already returned the book to the library, and flipping to most any random page would do just as well).

Most distressingly, Feinstein displays no inklings that he understands football at all, or really anything else. His comprehension is limited to repeating those things told to him by GM Ozzie Newsome, Coach Brian Billick, owner Steve Bisciotti, or any of the players. There's no sense of anything deeper, or that goes beyond the fresh day-to-day impressions, nothing that betrays the sense you're reading a 400 page tome instead of the latest installment of a three-column weekly feature. He sounds like an idiot when he talks about the salary cap. His writing on the games bears all the insight of John Madden... the taped one that repeats canned phrases in the video games (boom! he's on his back!). He can't get the name of the practice squad right.

Here's something minor, but maybe telling. He writes, briefly, about the 2004 presidential election; Billick's a Republican, but he talks to Feinstein, so he's ok, and almost all the players are apathetic Republicans because of taxes. Now, I was surprised to read this, because The Tennesseean did interviews of Titans players and hopefuls during the 2004 training camp season, including which of Bush and Kerry the player preferred. Now, some veteran players dodged the question (Steve McNair: "Steve McNair"; Brad Hopkins, or maybe Fred Miller: "Do you really think I'm going to answer that?"), but the only two players who said they were Republicans were ex-Oklahoma teammates Andre Woolfolk and Rocky Calmus, while many players (20+?) expressed a preference for Kerry. So, who do you believe, the journalist who can't get stuff right and is making a generalization, or the players on another team? Pardon me for being skeptical, but I'm leaning against Feinstein.

And so it goes. There's no reason this couldn't have been a good book, and it is a competent one. But that's all it is, and I can't recommend it for that, unless you're a Ravens fan.

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