Brian Billick’s time as head coach of the Baltimore Ravens ended after his team went 5-11 in the 2007 season. Coach Billick believes his fate turned on one particular game: the 27-24 loss to the New England Patriots, who completed that regular season unbeaten.
“What if we’d won that game, been the only team in the league to beat the Patriots in the regular season?” he writes in his 2009 book, More Than A Game. “Would I still be coaching the Ravens today? My guess is that probably I would. But I could be wrong. That’s the knife’s edge that this game is played on…”
That knife edge is clear to see in John Feinstein’s Next Man Up, which focuses on Coach Billick’s 2004 Baltimore Ravens. Feinstein spent a year following the Ravens and chronicles a team that went into the season expecting to be Super Bowl contenders and finished with a desperate bid to squeeze into the playoffs.
Feinstein got great access to Coach Billick and his staff as well as to the players. There’s not much sign of general manager Ozzie Newsome, who Feinstein says had to be convinced to allow him inside the team. However, Steve Bisciotti, beginning his first year as majority owner, was keen on the idea and he plays a prominent role in the early parts of the book.
Things went wrong early, with the Ravens losing out in their attempt to sign wide receiver Terrell Owens. They agreed a trade with his team, the San Francisco 49ers, only to be told after arbitration that Owens was, in fact, a free agent. The receiver signed with the Philadelphia Eagles.
Without Owens, and with the other big-name free agents already off the market, the Ravens were forced to put their faith in an under-strength receiving corps.
Things got worse. In the second week of the season, they lost Todd Heap, the star tight end and favourite receiving target of young quarterback Kyle Boller. By the time Jamal Lewis began a four-game suspension later in the season, the Ravens offense was in all kinds of trouble.
It’s a better story on the defensive side of the ball, even though Deion Sanders, lured out of retirement to play nickel back, spends a lot of time injured. We see the emerging Ed Reed, who pops up with some spectacular interception returns, and whose partnership with defensive leader Ray Lewis is beginning to take shape. Terrell Suggs figures occasionally too, as a young starter from whom big things are expected.
Any Ravens fan will know how the season turned out but Feinstein does a good job of building an involving narrative, even for those who followed the season at the time. The team seemed capable of so much and yet with each game some new misfortune seemed to thwart them.
Next Man Up compares well with 2013’s Collision Low Crossers by Nicholas Dawidoff, who spent a year inside the New York Jets. That book features some of the same people as this one, incidentally – notably Rex Ryan and Mike Pettine. However, Dawidoff really digs into the playcalling strategy at certain points – much more than Feinstein does.
You’ll learn plenty about Bisciotti and Ozzie too, even though the general manager does keep his head down. Feinstein does a good job of weaving in the personal stories of those involved – each time a player or coach moves into the story, we get a potted biography and thumbnail sketch of his personality.
This is a great read for any NFL fan and for Ravens fans it’s absolutely essential.