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Feinstein is the man behind it again

Virtually everything about the National Football League is supersized -- the players, the salaries, the egos -- and, as best-selling author John Feinstein captures in his latest book, ''Next Man Up: A Year Behind the Lines in Today's NFL," the stakes.

Feinstein was granted complete access to the Baltimore Ravens during the 2004 season, and the season-behind-the-scenes format is familiar to anyone acquainted with the author's previous work. His seminal ''A Season On The Brink" was the all-time best-selling sports book for 15 years until it was recently surpassed by Laura Hillenbrand's ''Seabiscuit," and the formula works again for him in his 18th book.

In the Ravens, he found a compelling subject. The team entered the 2004 season with big dreams, having won the Super Bowl in 2000 and convinced they were equipped to do so again. Their cast of marquee characters is familiar even to novice fans: controversial linebacker Ray Lewis, flashy Deion Sanders, and the fulcrum, brash head coach Brian Billick.

Feinstein deftly chronicles just about every punt, pass, and kick along the way, from the organized chaos of draft day, to the meat grinder known as training camp, through all 16 games of the season. ''Next Man Up" is at its most engaging when Feinstein lets the reader be a fly on the wall during private moments. We hear the coaches' vulgar bickering during a game, and we're allowed to listen in as Billick and his staff assess players' chances of making the roster.

Feinstein attempts to use the Ravens to paint a broader picture of the NFL. He succeeds, confirming the perception that the notoriously secretive league is not a sport so much as it is a cold, multibillion-dollar business, where every detail is micromanaged and fringe players are treated as interchangeable commodities. Next man up, indeed.

If there is a downside to Feinstein's insider status, it's that any harsh criticism is aimed only at those on the periphery. ''Monday Night Football" broadcaster Al Michaels, Redskins owner Dan Snyder, and FCC chairman Michael Powell take their share of hits, and deservedly so. They come across as strikingly arrogant. But the same could be said of Billick.

One of the great revelations is that Billick walks the last mile to the stadium on game day. It's literally an ego trip, as he basks in the praise and plaudits of the purple-and-black-clad masses.

Yet Feinstein brushes off Billick's arrogance as a ''part of his personality," and when it comes to numerous other Ravens personnel who have found their names in unflattering headlines over the years, the author shoots right past misunderstood or complex, and portrays them as sympathetic.

Given this, it's hard not to wonder whether the access blurred Feinstein's critical eye.

Feinstein redeems himself, however, by introducing us to interesting personalities we may have otherwise known only as names on a jersey. Journeyman lineman Ethan Brooks talks with heart-wrenching candor about losing his young wife to cancer. Tight end Darnell Dinkins's wonderment at realizing his NFL dream is endearing. And it's hard to suppress a gasp when it's revealed that rookie kick returner B.J. Sams is the youngest of his father's 26 children. (Yes, 26; ''He started young . . . and he finished old," Sams says.)

It's such vignettes that ultimately make this a worthwhile read, particularly for those who spend their fall Sundays glued to the couch. Unlike the Ravens, who missed the playoffs on the season's final day, ''Next Man Up" does not come up short of the goal.

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