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Next Man Up
A Year Behind the Lines in Today's NFL
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Bestselling sportswriter John Feinstein persuaded one NFL team to lift the extraordinary secrecy that shrouds the sport and let him see how a team operates at the closest level. One team let him join every practice, every coaches’ meeting, every players’ gathering, every strategy debate. From the give-and-take of draft day, into the grinder of summer training camps, and from 100-degree practice games to the last game in frigid conditions, Feinstein reveals how a football team works — or fails to work — as no writer has done before.
Next Man Up unveils rituals (what a coach tells a player at the moment he cuts him); rules (the inanities of league-appointed “uniform Nazis”); conflicts (the scouts vs. the coaches, the general managers vs. the agents, the offense vs. the defense, the special teams coaches vs. everybody); money (how much a journeyman makes, and how his life differs from the multi-million-dollar-a-year star players)-every nuance of a team’s life, from the owner’s goals to the coach’s day-to-day travails to the feeling of the sleet-soaked ball in the hands of a receiver on artificial turf.
The access John Feinstein enjoyed allows him to discuss with equal understanding the owner’s management strategy, the coaches’ and coordinators’ plans for each new game, and how it all affects the players themselves. Anyone who loves football — any team, in any era — will savor the thousands of details revealed here for the first time, and the extraordinary drama that goes into following week after week, the most sensational sport in America.
ALSO BY JOHN FEINSTEIN
Let Me Tell You a Story
(with Red Auerbach)
Caddy for Life
The Last Amateurs
A March to Madness
A Civil War
A Good Walk Spoiled
A Season Inside
A Season on the Brink
(A Final Four Mystery)
January 3, 2005
FROM A DISTANCE, it looked like any other football Monday in Owings Mills, Maryland. The coaches arrived early at the spectacular, brand-new $32 million facility located at the optimistic address of 1 Winning Drive. They grabbed quick cups of coffee from the first-floor cafeteria and headed up to their offices to begin their day by preparing for their morning meeting. The players came later. Like the coaches, they stopped in the cafeteria, but they sat at the round tables in groups of three and four, eating lunch before gathering in the posh auditorium that served as the meeting room when the entire team was together.
But this was a Monday like no other in the nine-year history of the Baltimore Ravens. There wasn't a soul in the organization who had thought before the season began that this would be the day when everyone said good-bye. In his first meeting with the entire team, on the morning that the veterans' mandatory minicamp began in early June, Coach Brian Billick had made his expectations clear: "We have a two-, perhaps three-year window to win the Super Bowl," he said. "In this room, we have the talent, the experience, and the understanding of what it takes to win to get to the Super Bowl and to win it. We can do it this year, we can do it again next year, and perhaps the year after, the way we're structured. We've built to this the last two years. We're ready for it."
Billick had repeated that message at training camp and on the eve of the first game in Cleveland. He had clung to it throughout the fall as the team sputtered and the dream began to fade before it finally teetered like an aging Christmas tree and collapsed with a crash on the day after New Year's. There would be no Super Bowl; there wouldn't even be a playoff game. Instead of being one of twelve teams preparing for the National Football League playoffs, the Ravens were one of twenty teams making plans for next season.
That wasn't just a cliché, either. When football coaches say next season begins on the last day of this season, they mean it. In fact, Billick had been meeting with team owner Steve Bisciotti, team president Dick Cass, and general manager Ozzie Newsome since early December to discuss the team's future. By the time the coaches met at 11 A.M. that morning, two coaches—long-embattled offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh and defensive assistant Phil Zacharias—were gone. One office over from where the coaches sat with schedules Billick had handed them for 2005, Cavanaugh was starting to clear out his office. Two phone calls had already come in from teams interested in talking to him about a job.
For everyone involved, this was a difficult day. The hallways in the building were quiet, no one knowing quite what to say to one another. In the locker room, players went through the ritual of putting their things in boxes to carry to their cars while saying good-bye to one another. Deion Sanders, the future Hall of Fame defensive back, limped around on a foot that would need surgery for a torn tendon and paused to sign autographs for younger teammates who thought there was at least a 50-50 chance he would not be back when veteran minicamps began again in June.
It had been less than twenty-four hours since the 2004 season had ended with a too-little, too-late 30-23 win over the Miami Dolphins. The victory had left the team with a 9-7 record. Had they been part of the National Football Conference, those nine victories would have easily put them into the playoffs. But in the American Football Conference, it left them a win short of the 10-6 record required to earn a playoff spot. "Only one team finishes the season satisfied," Billick told his players when they gathered for their final meeting before heading to their homes to begin an off-season full of questions. "But we all know we're sitting here because some of us didn't do our jobs as well as we could have or should have. We're all emotionally spent because of the energy we've put into the last twenty-five weeks.
"That's why I'm not here to put a lot on you right now. I appreciate the fact that a lot of you have played in a lot of pain these last few weeks. You're tired and you're hurt and I admire you for doing what you did. But we have to take a good, hard look at ourselves." He held up a spiral notebook. "I've got about ninety pages of notes in here about things that need to be looked at and improved upon before next season starts. About five of them are for the coaches; another five are for you guys. The rest are for me.
"The simple fact, though, is this: we didn't reach our expectations. I think we have a Super Bowl-caliber team in this room. There are any number of reasons why we're sitting here today having this talk instead of getting ready for a playoff game. What we have to think about going forward is this: how do we get from 9-7 to being an elite team, I don't mean a 10-6 team like last year, but a 13-3, 14-2 kind of team. That's the kind of team we all think we can be. But we have a lot to do to finish the job. That's our challenge for next year—finish what we began this season."
Billick had been far more blunt when he met with his coaches that morning. The mood of the meeting had been somber, almost glum. Everyone in the room knew what had happened already to Cavanaugh and Zacharias.
"A good man is going out that door because of what we and I haven't done," Billick said, referring to Cavanaugh. "There are also additional changes I need to make, and we'll talk about them starting tomorrow." He paused. "Don't get me wrong. This is a good room. There are good people in here. I don't like what happened today with Matt or what we're going to have to do. It's what will drive me out of this business eventually."
The coaches looked at one another. Each was scheduled to meet individually with Billick the next morning. The message was clear: others would be going out the door, too. In front of them, in addition to a schedule that told them their responsibilities from now until the first day of training camp, was the team's roster. On the right-hand side was a list of fifteen players who would be free agents. Some would not be back. The coaches would meet on January 17 along with Newsome and his staff to talk about every single player who had played for the Ravens the previous season.
Newsome and Billick had already reached the conclusion that they had not been aggressive enough the previous season. "The question we need to ask," Newsome said, "is, did we take the safe route last year by bringing back twenty-one of twenty-two starters? Did we allow continuity to become more important than upsetting the applecart and bringing someone else in who might be better than what we have?"
The questions were rhetorical. Newsome and Billick had won a Super Bowl together following the 2000 season and they wanted to win another one. Both now believed that they had overestimated some of their players based on what they had accomplished in 2003. "The biggest mistake I made was thinking that the experiences we had last year, winning the division and going to the playoffs, made us a more mature team than our collective age would have indicated," Billick told his coaches. "We were still a young team this season and we didn't handle some things that came at us very well. That's why we have to take a hard look at ourselves and at our players. I want you guys to tell me exactly what you need at each position to get better. You want a better player, find him, tell us who he is and why he's better than what we've got, and we'll go get him. We're in great cap shape. We're going to attack in free agency."
The Ravens have never been a team that makes headlines in March with big-name free-agent signings. They probably weren't going to make any major headlines in March of 2005, either, but Billick's message was clear: we need to get better. It didn't take a football genius to know that the Ravens were lacking at the wide receiver spot or that the offensive line had been through a disappointing season. The defense would be reconfigured to try to make life easier for Ray Lewis, the heart and soul of not only the defense but the entire team. Hard decisions had to be made on good players who were about to become free agents and might not be worth the money they could command on the open market. There were a number of older players, men who had been solid contributors throughout distinguished careers but simply couldn't perform at the same level anymore.
There are no guaranteed contracts in the NFL. The only money a player is guaranteed is the money in his signing bonus. From the moment that check is cashed, contracts go in one direction: the team's. A player who signs a seven-year contract is committed to that team for seven years. Once the bonus check is paid, the team isn't committed to the player for seven years, seven months, seven weeks, or seven days. That's one reason why there is no job in professional team sports as insecure as that of an NFL player. Players frequently go from starting to cut in one year because a team decides he isn't worth what he will be paid for the next season or because a team has to off-load salary because of the salary cap. Often players are asked to restructure contracts for less money. When that happens, most players are given two options: take a cut or be cut.
That was why the mood was somber when Billick met with his players that day. "We want you all back," Billick said. "But we know that won't happen. We all know the realities of this business. We talk about them all the time. We didn't reach expectations, and we now have to figure out why. We have a lot of work to do before we know about who we're going to want back. Some of you have to make decisions about whether you want to come back here.
"I have faith in the talent and the emotional makeup in this room. But this was a disappointing year. There's no getting around that. Everything we're going to try to do next year starts with the unfulfilled feelings we all have right now. Think about that in the off-season. Get rested. Get healthy. Come back here ready to finish the job we didn't get done this year."
Two weeks later, when Billick and his staff met with Newsome and his staff to go through the roster player by player and begin making decisions for the 2005 season, there were a number of missing faces. Cavanaugh had been named the offensive coordinator at the University of Pittsburgh, his alma mater. Jim Fassel, the former New York Giants coach, sat in his seat. Chris Foerster sat in what had been offensive line coach Jim Colletto's seat. Colletto had been with Billick for six years, but Billick believed he needed to bring in a fresh face to coach an aging offensive line. Mike Nolan, the defensive coordinator, was also gone, but for happier reasons: he would be introduced the next day as the new coach of the San Francisco 49ers. Newsome's top scout, personnel director Phil Savage, was also absent: he had become general manager of the Cleveland Browns.
As the coaches went through each player, there were some whose reports were read strictly as a courtesy to the coach who had written it. "You wrote it," Newsome said. "We should at least listen to it."
So they listened. In some cases the end of the report said simply: "We need to improve at this position for 2005."
In the case of one longtime veteran, linebacker Cornell Brown, Billick said quietly, "All I can say is God bless him."
In the NFL, that is what passes for a eulogy. Next Man Up.
Meet the New Boss
THE YEAR 2004 HAD STARTED VERY DIFFERENTLY for the Ravens from how it ended. In fact, exactly one year to the day prior to the breakup meetings for the 2004 season, the Ravens had hosted a playoff game in a sold-out stadium. With the third-youngest roster in the National Football League, they had won the AFC's North Division with a 10-6 record. That made them the home team for a first-round playoff game against their onetime bitter division rival, the Tennessee Titans. The game had swung back and forth all evening until a critical personal foul penalty just prior to a Ravens punt gave Tennessee field position just good enough that quarterback Steve McNair was able to maneuver his team to the Baltimore 28-yard line in the final seconds. From there, forty-four-year-old placekicker Gary Anderson converted a 46-yard field goal that barely sneaked over the crossbar to give the Titans a 20-17 victory.
The irony of Anderson's kick wasn't lost on Brian Billick. Five years earlier, in what had turned out to be Billick's last game as the Minnesota Vikings' offensive coordinator, Anderson had lined up a 37-yard kick with under two minutes remaining in the NFC Championship Game against the Atlanta Falcons. The Vikings, who had gone 15-1 during the regular season, breaking all sorts of offensive records to make Billick a hot head-coaching candidate, led, 17-10. Anderson had not missed a single field goal all season, and the 37-yarder was considered nothing more than a chip shot. In fact, Vikings coach Dennis Green had told Billick to keep the ball on the ground once the offense had driven inside the 25. A field goal would put the game out of reach, and Anderson was automatic.
Not this time. He missed the kick; the Falcons drove the length of the field for the tying score and won in overtime. They went to the Super Bowl. The Vikings went home. Two days later Billick was introduced as the new head coach of the Ravens. When Anderson's kick cleared the crossbar, dooming the Ravens, Billick's first comment to his coaches was concise: "Now he makes it."
The loss to Tennessee marked the end of Art Modell's forty-two years as owner of the franchise. Technically, Steve Bisciotti would not become the Ravens' new owner until April 9, 2004, but in a practical sense, the transfer of power began the moment the game ended. At halftime, Modell had become the first person associated with the Ravens to be inducted into M&T Bank Stadium's "Ring of Honor." Even if the Ravens had won, the game would have been their last home game under Modell's ownership. The ceremony was his farewell.
Bisciotti was new to the team only in the sense of becoming the man in charge. He had been around the franchise for four years, dating back to December 17, 1999, when he had agreed to pay Modell $275 million in exchange for 49 percent minority ownership in the franchise and the option to buy out Modell for a total price of $600 million in four years. There was never any doubt that Bisciotti would exercise the option. The only reason for the four-year delay was to give Modell and his family time to adjust to the notion of no longer running the team. Modell had purchased the Cleveland Browns in 1961 at the age of thirty-five, and the team and the National Football League had been the centerpiece of his life ever since. He had moved the team from Cleveland to Baltimore in 1996 in a franchise shift that left emotional scars on almost everyone involved. Modell believed he had no choice at the time. He had negotiated with the city of Cleveland for several years, trying to get a new stadium to replace antiquated Municipal Stadium, better known throughout the sports world as the Mistake by the Lake. When the city came up with funding for both a new baseball stadium and a new basketball/hockey arena but did not agree to build Modell a new luxury-suite-laden building, Modell began considering a move.
"There wasn't any choice," he said years later. "There was no way we could survive financially if we continued to play in the old stadium. And it was clear to me that the city wasn't going to budge."
Unlike some team owners, Modell didn't have the money to build a new stadium for himself. In fact, he was in very poor shape financially. So when the city of Baltimore offered him a sweetheart deal that included a brand-new stadium, Modell accepted the offer. He didn't want to sell the team. He wanted to pass it on to his family's next generation, notably his son David, whom he had named team president. The only way to keep the team in the family was to accept Baltimore's offer.
There was a sad irony in the fabled Cleveland Browns, one of the NFL's signature franchises, leaving Cleveland for Baltimore. Twelve years earlier Baltimore had been the victim of a franchise shift when Colts owner Robert Irsay backed moving trucks up to the team's facility in Owings Mills, Maryland, and moved the team, lock, stock, barrel, and team name to Indianapolis. Modell wasn't nearly as sneaky or ruthless. He announced the move on November 6, 1995, with several weeks left in the season, forcing the Browns to finish the season as a lame-duck team in a stunned city. He also agreed to leave behind the Browns name and all the team records so that the NFL could put an expansion franchise in Cleveland if the city ever agreed to build a new stadium (which it did, bringing the new Browns into existence in 1999).
People in Baltimore were shocked by the sudden turn in their football fortunes, but many had mixed emotions about the arrival of the new team. The departure of the Colts had scarred the city's soul because the Colts had been an emotionally important part of Baltimore. Many of the players lived in the neighborhoods around Memorial Stadium, and the team was filled with great players and great characters, none more revered than legendary quarterback Johnny Unitas. Baltimore and Cleveland are similar towns in many ways, working-class cities with now-outdated reputations as tough places with grimy downtowns. Both have been revitalized in recent years, but the character of those who live in the two cities has changed little. Each still harbors something of an inferiority complex. Losing the Colts had fed that feeling in Baltimore, and many in Baltimore, knowing how they had felt about the Colts' departure, could not help but empathize with those now going through the same trauma in Cleveland.
One Baltimorean who felt little of that was Steve Bisciotti. A self-made billionaire who had started his own company supplying temporary engineers to aerospace and technology companies out of his basement in 1983, Bisciotti had been a lifelong Colts fan and a football fan for as long as he could remember. "I wasn't crushed when the Colts left town because at the time they were awful," he said. "I didn't like it, but I also felt if the city had been willing to renovate Memorial Stadium for Irsay, he wouldn't have left. It might have cost ten million dollars to do it, and they didn't do it. So I didn't hate Irsay the way some people did. When the Browns came here because Cleveland wouldn't do anything for Art Modell, I understood. I also believed that Cleveland would get a new team as soon as it agreed to build a stadium. I didn't think people there would go twelve years without a team the way we had."
Bisciotti probably would have been more upset about the Colts' departure if he hadn't been completely immersed in building his business when the Colts left. He had grown up in Severna Park, the youngest of Bernie and Pat Bisciotti's three children. His memories of boyhood are happy: he grew up in a close, loving family and had friends who to this day remain close to him. It is remarkable that his memories are as happy as they are, given that his father died of leukemia when Steve was eight.
"We knew he was sick because there were long stays in the hospital," he said. "But it was one of those things where we were just told that Dad was sick, he needed to get better, and then he would come home and it would seem as if he was better. I honestly don't think the thought that he was dying crossed my mind until the morning when he died."
That was on a Saturday. Steve was spending the night with a friend across the street. He was surprised when his friend's dad came in early and told him that his mom wanted him to come home. When he walked across the street and saw a strange car parked outside, he knew something was up. "Once I got inside I saw my uncle Joe, Dad's brother," he said. "That's when I found out."
Later that day after lunch, the local parish priest sat Steve and his sister, Cathy, and brother, Mike, down to read them a letter that their father had written to them shortly before he died. It was a four-page, handwritten note that was meant not only to say good-bye but to tell his children his hopes and dreams for them.
"The easiest way for me to start a letter like this is to say I love you," it began. "You collectively have brought more joy and happiness and fulfillment to my life than I will ever express in a full lifetime of trying. You truly have given me as a parent so much more than I've given you. Your very existence has been a source of satisfaction that only when you become parents will you be able to understand what I'm trying to express.
"Your dad finds writing this awfully hard because there are so many things in my heart that I want to say to you, but just don't know where or how to go about doing it."
Bernie Bisciotti went on to talk about his love for his wife and about his deep Catholic faith. "Your mother also has her job cut out for her because now she will have to be both father and mother. By doing this she has her chance to prove to God how much she loves and understands what he planned for us. You also get a chance by carrying heavier responsibility to show God your love and understanding. . . . I will pray for you always and want you also to pray to God for guidance in growing into fine decent people. (Remember, God gives us the chance to make up your own minds as to what kind of people we are going to be.)"
Later, when he would go back and read the letter, Bisciotti starred the sentence in parentheses to remind himself of that message. His father concluded with a request and with his final wishes: "Love your mother always. She needs you so very much. Never—never—do anything to hurt her, because she truly is a wonderful God-like person and doesn't ever deserve to feel the pain that unloving acts of her children could cause her.
"I know how good you all are—I truthfully never met children I was ever more impressed with than you. Of course I'm terribly prejudiced and filled with love for you.
"As a selfish man, I hope you will remember me with love and I hope that in some way I have been important in helping form your character and outlook on life. The love and affection you have given me is beyond my ability to describe, but somehow I'm sure you'll find out what I mean. . . . Your Loving Dad."
Bisciotti keeps his father's letter in the desk he works at in his house. Thirty-seven years after it was written, he still pulls it out frequently to remind himself what his father wanted him and his siblings to become. It has clearly influenced him because, even with all the success and all the money he has made, he seems to make a point every day of reminding himself how fortunate he has been and goes out of his way to make it clear that he doesn't think being wealthy makes him any better or smarter than anyone else.
"I was never a good student," he said. "I got Bs and Cs and worked for them. I have a feeling if I was a kid today, I'd have been diagnosed as ADD, but back then no one did that. My mother never berated me for not doing better in school, because I think she knew I was trying. She always said to me, 'Stephen, you're going to do fine in life because people like you and you're a nice person.'"
As it turned out, he was also a born salesman. He went to Salisbury State on Maryland's Eastern Shore and helped pay for his education by working numerous jobs: pier-building in the summertime, bartending during the winter. When he graduated he went to work for a firm that supplied high-tech temporary engineers to companies, a relatively new but growing business. Less than a year into the job, he got caught on the wrong side of a power struggle between the two men who owned the company and got fired. This was in the fall of 1983. Bisciotti was engaged (he had first met Renee Foote in high school but hadn't dated her until just after he graduated from college) and didn't want to leave Baltimore. But he had a no-compete clause in his contract that said he couldn't take a job in the Baltimore area with a firm that did similar work. It was his future father-in-law, a land developer, who suggested he start his own company.
"His point was that the guy couldn't really impose a no-compete when he had fired me without cause," Bisciotti said. "He told me to start my own company, the thought being he would take me to court and that I'd have a really good chance to win on the no-cause basis. The main reason for doing it was so I could get a job that would allow me to stay in Baltimore."
By the time his former employer got around to taking him to court nine months later, Bisciotti had four employees and a growing business. Early on, he persuaded Jim Davis, his cousin and best friend growing up, to come into the company with him. Davis had a good job at Price Waterhouse but decided to make the jump anyway. He handled the books, Bisciotti handled the sales side: persuading high-tech companies to use them rather than competitors to find trained engineers quickly for short-term jobs that they didn't have enough staff for.
"I think we just outworked people," Bisciotti said. "If a company needed fifty engineers for a project, our competitors would work the phones until six o'clock, looking for guys, and then go home. We'd work until six, send out for pizza and beer, and then keep going until eleven, tracking guys down on the West Coast. If we got a potential job on a Thursday, we'd be back to the company with a list of names and résumés on Friday. Our competitors might call on Monday or Tuesday and they'd hear, 'Sorry, we've already got all the people we need.'"
Bisciotti and Davis were pretty certain they would win the court case based on the no-cause firing and based on the fact that it had taken nine months for his ex-boss to file suit. Rather than take a chance, though, they offered a settlement: $11,000 cash on the spot and an agreement not to call on certain clients for a year. The deal was made. "That next year was a little bit tough because we were limited in people we could go after," Bisciotti said. "But after that, we started to take off."
To put it mildly. The company—Aerotek—went from sales of $10 million in 1987 to $3.4 billion in 2001. "Then the economy nose-dived and our sales went down," Bisciotti said. "But in those fourteen years our business went up markedly every year."
By the time business slacked off in 2001, Bisciotti was semi-retired. In 1997 he had decided to turn a lot of the business over to his partners. His sons, Jack and Jason, were ten and eight at the time, close to the same age Bisciotti had been when his father died. "I wanted that time to be with them," he said. "I was lucky that I could make the choice at the age of thirty-seven to give up the seventy-hour weeks and spend more time at home."
By then, Bisciotti was a Ravens season ticket holder. He had put down a $5,000 deposit on season tickets when the city was a candidate for an NFL expansion team in 1993. Those teams ended up going to Jacksonville and Charlotte. Those who had put down the deposits were asked by city officials to leave their money in escrow in the event that another team became available in the future. "I figured, what the hell, it was five thousand dollars and if we ever got a team, I'd have the jump on the best seats in the house."
- On Sale
- Sep 3, 2007
- Page Count
- 512 pages
- Back Bay Books