When it comes to serious books about professional athletes, John Feinstein is the champion of authors. Next Man Up: A Year Behind the Lines in Today's NFL is his 18th book about sports in the United States, and most of them have reached bestseller status.
So it is tempting to treat "Next Man Up" with a so-what-else-is-new attitude.
But it is his first book focusing on professional football, which makes it newsworthy. Tackling a new sport and the individuals who make it so fanatically popular across the nation on Sundays for about half of every year shows that Feinstein is willing to grow as a reporter and writer rather than rest on his laurels.
With "Next Man Up," Feinstein uses a technique employed by many sports journalists before him - spending a season immersed in the atmosphere of one team - in this case, the Baltimore Ravens. His theme is also nothing imbued with special insight - that football is a violent, injury-filled sport, so that little-known players will become the next men up when the stars go down.
Like Feinstein's other books, however, "Next Man Up" is easy and pleasant to read. Even those who are not fanatical football fans will find that, beyond the information provided on players and coaches, there are two other engaging topics in the book: Feinstein's ruminations on how reporting and writing about football are different from reporting and writing about other sports, and his portrayal of the business side of the game through conversations with Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti.
Feinstein explains to readers his approach to this book: "One way was to use an approach I had enjoyed in writing about the pro golf tour, the pro tennis tours and Major League Baseball - just follow the sport for one season, from the draft through the Super Bowl. Certainly it would have been interesting to watch different teams, players and coaches at critical times during the course of a season. But I knew doing such a book on the NFL wouldn't be at all like golf or tennis, because those sports are covered year-round by only a handful of people and are in the consciousness of most of the public only during those few weeks a year when their major championships are played. Baseball is covered like a blanket, but unlike football, there is constant access to the players, coaches and managers, allowing someone like me to develop relationships and follow stories. I knew I wouldn't get that opportunity in football, writing with nothing more than a media credential."
As a result, Feinstein decided to seek access to a mostly closed-off professional league beyond what a media credential would allow. He approached Bisciotti because of a mutual friendship with University of Maryland basketball coach Gary Williams. By all accounts known to Feinstein, Bisciotti was a modest, unpretentious, likable multimillionaire. He made his fortune by founding a company that supplied temporary engineers to aerospace and technology corporations. Then he cut way back on his work life before age 40 to spend time with his family and keep professional football alive for fellow Baltimoreans after the original city team absconded to Indianapolis.
Bisciotti approved Feinstein's request for complete access, showing a degree of trust exhibited by few corporate titans. The Ravens' general manager Ozzie Newsome expressed reservations but reluctantly agreed to play along when coach Brian Billick expressed his comfort with the arrangement.
The Ravens did not win a championship during the 2004 season chronicled by Feinstein. Neither did they sink to a losing record. Their solid record of nine wins and seven losses is not the stuff of high drama. But because of his unprecedented access to a team, Feinstein conveys plenty of drama grounded in the daily lives of the athletes, coaches, and owners.
Professional football fans cannot lose by reading this book. As for the rest of us, "Next Man Up" provides interesting glimpses into a strange but popular cultural realm.
• Steve Weinberg is a freelance journalist in Columbia, Mo.