The Whims and Foibles of Sports...
After three pre-season games, it is becoming apparent that the Saints will go about as far this season as their offensive line will take them. QB Drew Brees is being chased all over the field, and the run game is erratic. The unit is average and thin, which means any injury, such as the one that took Terron Armstead out of the game against Pittsburgh, will be felt. Judging by what we have seen so far, Sports Illustrated’s prediction of six wins and last place in the NFC South is becoming hauntingly possible.
You only need to look at the team’s strategy of acquiring offensive linemen during the Sean Payton era to see how things have declined to this point. The Saints’ formula for drafting offensive linemen sounds like Jimmy Dean’s recipe for making sausage, but without the sizzle. The team has not made offensive line a high-round priority, and even when they have put an emphasis on the position in the draft, and selected a lineman in the higher rounds, the results have been far short of expectations. The only saving grace has been the team’s ability to discover gems in the lower rounds or even in free agency. But that is called “luck,” and luck is not a good draft strategy.
I am not yet counting Andrus Peat as a bust in only his second year, but any player drafted 13th in the first round had better contribute quickly and efficiently, which Peat has not. Coincidentally, the only other offensive lineman the Saints drafted in the first two rounds in the Payton era started out much the same way. T Charles Brown of USC, taken in the 2010 second round, spent most of his rookie year on the inactive list and started only eight games the next two years before starting 14 games in his fourth year. The team’s success in drafting offensive linemen – including two current starters – has come when they’ve taken players either from small schools and/or in the lower rounds. Armstead was a good get in the third round of 2013 out of Arkansas Pine Bluff, while Zack Strief was a seventh-round find from Northwestern in 2006. In the meantime, the team discovered Carl Nicks (5th round, 2008, Nebraska), Jermon Bushrod (4th round, 2007, Towson) and Jahri Evans (4th round, 2006, Bloomsburg). When 31 other teams pass up players like that multiple times, it’s your good fortune. Luck.
Last season, I wrote a column about how Jerry Jones, shortly after he bought the Cowboys in 1989, called Saints owner Tom Benson and asked if he and his management team could come to New Orleans and spend a day with GM Jim Finks to get some advice on how to set up an organization the right way. One piece of advice that clearly got the attention of the Cowboys’ brass was when Finks spoke about the drafting philosophy that he had refined during his years in Minnesota, Chicago and now New Orleans. That philosophy was simple, but not easy: “Build your team from the inside out.” Draft linemen on both sides of the ball and then build around them.
Jones took that philosophy and made it his own over the next quarter century. Three members of their current line have been to the Pro Bowl, and each one came in the first round of the draft. In 2011, the Cowboys’ top pick was OT Tyron Smith from USC. In 2013, it was C Travis Frederick from Wisconsin and in 2014 it was G Zack Martin from Notre Dame. Those three join an impressive list of eight other offensive line Pro Bowlers the Cowboys have drafted since Jones heard Finks’ advice about building from the inside out. The Cowboys have other problems, but one of them is not the offensive line.
As I said in that column, which tried to analyze what happened to the Saints in 2014: “Critics can throw rocks at Rob Ryan’s defense, but my answer is the team has not done a good enough job in building the offensive line.” You can point to reasons why, such as Brees’ megacontract limiting the ability to strengthen other positions. But that’s an excuse, not a reason. You need The Man behind center, and the Saints have The Man. It’s just that these days The Man might get killed because of the boys in front of him.
As a former college athletic director, I saw both sides of Title IX, the 1972 federal law that barred sex discrimination in education programs receiving federal money. I experienced the juggling act which forced cash-strapped programs to cut men’s sports rather than add women’s sports to achieve gender equality. But the argument that the law discriminated against men pales sadly after American women athletes again proved their superiority on a global scale at the Rio Olympics.
American women were an afterthought at the 1972 Summer Olympics, the last one before Title IX, winning just 23 medals compared with 71 for the U.S. men. The women were absent from the medal podium in gymnastics. They didn't win a single gold in track and field, managing just one silver and two bronze. In Rio, American women won 61 medals, including 27 golds, versus 55 total and 18 golds for the men. Another five medals, including one gold, came in mixed competitions. That trend began at the 2012 Olympics in London when U.S. women for the first time won more medals than the men - 58 to 45. London also marked the first time the U.S. sent more women to the games than men, which again occurred in Rio where American women outnumbered men 292 to 263.
Today, Title IX is given much of the credit for revolutionizing women's sports, and the last two Olympics offer one measure of how dramatic that transformation has been. But is it enough? Some critics believe the next battleground is the fight for respect for women athletes. When Corey Cogdell-Unrein of the U.S. Olympic team won a bronze medal in women’s trap shooting, the Chicago Tribune reported the news, but left out a key detail: her name. It described her only as the wife of Bears lineman Mitch Unrein. The Tribune story generated some snarky tweets, including one that said: “Congrats to that Bears lineman who apparently deserves all the credit here.” Another sarcastic observer wrote on Twitter: “But what does her dad do? Or her brother? I need to know more about this Olympian’s male relatives!”
The issue has shifted from the number of women participating in the Olympics to the media’s characterization of them more as appendages of their husbands, fathers or male coaches than as elite athletes in their own right. According to a weekend story in the New York Times, verbal offenses that look like sexism are called out almost daily by readers and viewers. The instances have been so frequent that news sites have been able to build lists of the most boneheaded examples.
NBC’s Al Trautwig, who saw Sanne Wevers of the Netherlands writing in a notebook after completing her balance beam routine, wondered aloud if Wevers might’ve been writing in her diary, a decidedly feminine cliché. Retired gymnast and current Olympics analyst Nastia Liukin was quick to inform Trautwig that Wevers was likely using the notebook to calculate her scores. And then there was the praise heaped upon Andy Murray by BBC presenter John Inverdale, who mentioned that Murray was the first "person" ever to win two Olympic tennis gold medals. Murray looked up curiously and responded: “I think Venus and Serena (Williams) have won about four each.”
And the battle rages.
To say that Peter Finney’s long career as a New Orleans writer and sports columnist lasted a lifetime is not an exaggeration. In fact, it lasted 68 years, which, according to the current Gregorian calendar, I achieved on my last birthday. Man, that’s a long time for one person to be doing the same thing, but the tributes that have rolled in since Pete Finney died Saturday morning at age 88, suggest that every day of those 68 years was a day well spent.
As a young sporting writer at the Baltimore Evening Sun, I was familiar with Finney and his work, but I had never met him. I was more friendly with the New Orleans NFL beat guys such as Dave Lagarde and Will Peneguy, but after I moved on to the NFL and then to the Saints I saw Finney’s impact. His face appeared on page 1 of the sports section five days a week, informing, cajoling and advising his readers on the topic of the day. If he had been born a few years earlier, ESPN would have called and asked him to share his enthusiasm and knowledge with a nation of sports maniacs, but Pete would probably have declined. He was a New Orleans guy, born in the French Quarter, educated at Jesuit and Loyola, and probably would have felt uneasy talking about things anywhere else.
Pete Finney was clearly the Babe Ruth of New Orleans sports journalism. But as the Ruthian legend is not complete without a chapter on Lou Gehrig, the Peter Finney story is not complete without a mention of another giant in New Orleans journalism, Bob Roesler. It is hard to think of one without the other, especially if you knew them or were a regular reader of their columns. A review of their columns over the years shows different styles, both directed at informing the fans by giving them a seat on the sidelines, the draft room or in the executive suite.
Roesler was the diplomat or statesman whose writing was aimed at long-term goals and solutions, like how to keep the Superdome as a first-class facility or what impact a Super Bowl would have on New Orleans. Finney, on the other hand, gave fans a daily perspective of their team’s current condition. If the fans wore paper bags on their heads when the Saints did poorly, Finney’s columns sounded like he was wearing a bag when he wrote them. Even when a new administration took over the Saints, as we did in 1986, he was telling his people not to get too excited.
“A good start,” said Finney's lead after new head coach Jim Mora’s first game, a 10-7 preseason victory at Denver. But Finney was not about to jump on the bandwagon yet, as he cautioned a few paragraphs later: “History tells us it’s foolish to get excited over what happens when a team is taking its exhibition cuts.” Indeed, the next season, after a nine-game winning streak and the team’s first playoff appearance seemed to wipe away twenty years of misery, Finney perfectly described the feeling of a long-suffering Who Dat Nation after Minnesota's 44-10 annihilation. “They came to watch the Benson Boogie at a Viking funeral. Instead, what they got was a trip into the past.”
Over the years, I became close to both men’s sons, interestingly enough, independently of their fathers. Pete Jr. was a writer with The Times-Picayune who had a brief fling at the New York Daily News when I was at the NFL office. After I came to the Saints, a member of our medical orthopedic team was Dr. Tim Finney, who still toils on the Sunday sidelines. The third Finney son, Mike, is a golf pro in Louisville who my brother Jerry came to know as an assistant pro at Valhalla, the frequent PGA stop. Mike arranged for Jerry and I to play the private course that once was a dairy farm where our father picked up milk.
I became acquainted with Bob’s son Toby when our children attended St. Dominic School together and since as members of the same monthly Bible, book and beverage club. Toby keeps me posted on his dad, who is not doing so well these days. He and wife Chloe have long moved out of the Lakefront home they rebuilt after Hurricane Katrina, and dementia has slowed him down. But as the tributes rolled in for his colleague this weekend, I couldn’t help but think of Bob and Pete together, as an ink-stained entry that kept New Orleans sports journalism at the top of their profession for a lifetime.
Sorry that the cancellation of the Pro Football Hall of Fame game delayed your football Jones for another week. But hang in there! You can make it until Thursday when our local heroes open the 2016 preseason at New England. Although a game where the starters might go in for one series is not what Saints fans have been waiting nearly eight months for, but it IS football. Kinda sorta. And Who Dats did have the opportunity to both cheer and gnash their teeth during the Hall of Fame induction.
There was a definite New Orleans flair among the inductees, some eliciting pleasant memories and others not-so. Eddie DeBartolo, Jr., owned the 49ers Evil Empire that the Saints never seemed to conquer. Kenny “Snake” Stabler limped through the end of a great career when he played the Saints from 1982-84. Dick Stanfel was interim head coach during an abysmal 1980 season. But among the inductees lurks the largely unknown fact that Brett Favre could have played the bulk of his Hall of Fame career in a Saints uniform. You never heard that? Well, here’s the story:
The Saints had a marvelous year in 1992, finishing 12-4 before blowing a two-touchdown lead in the fourth quarter and losing a shocking playoff game to Philadelphia. Defense was the team’s strength, and GM Jim Finks still had not forgiven QB Bobby Hebert for his season-long holdout in 1990. Hebert’s contract had expired, and Finks was more than willing to let him go and look elsewhere. We signed journeyman Wade Wilson for the 1993 season, which suddenly darkened with Finks' illness. Despite a 5-0 start, the team limped home with an 8-8 record.
Coach Jim Mora and player personnel director Bill Kuharich started working to fix the most critical position on the field. Interestingly, the Packers had a young QB who was a restricted free agent and might be available. Brett Favre was a Mississippi boy from Kiln, less than an hour from New Orleans, and had grown up a Saints fan. He was more than willing to come in for a visit. Kuharich arranged for Favre to visit the Saints facility and work out for Mora and quarterback coach Carl Smith. As the primary contracts negotiator, I also witnessed Favre’s workout. This all must be put into the context of time. We were not watching a certain Hall of Famer that sultry morning but a 24-year-old quarterback in his third year in the League.
Even then, Favre was known as an erratic gunslinger. He had thrown 19 touchdown passes in 1993, but he also had thrown 24 interceptions, and his passer rating of 72.2 was near the bottom of all starting quarterbacks. The Packers had gone 9-7, but their quarterback was far from a finished product. Kuharich and the coaches insisted that Favre’s visit include a workout, and Favre readily agreed. That turned out to be a bad decision. Favre’s throws that morning to a forgotten receiver were long, low, high and short. I remember the expressions of those watching ranged from disappointment to disbelief.
Nobody issued Finks' standard line when cutting players – “give him an apple and a road map” – but we thanked Favre for coming and sent him on his way. It was clear the Saints would not make an offer that the Packers could match anyway, but it always made me wonder "what if" Favre had blown our socks off during that workout and we had gone all-out to sign him? It would have avoided the next three frustrating years with Jim Everett at the helm followed by a decade of pretenders in the “BB” era, before Brees.
If you have a Facebook account, you probably receive a daily handful of messages, birthday announcements, invitations and videos from friends, acquaintances and total strangers who are friend-of-friends. But I’ll bet you’ve never gotten a message from the Botswana Olympic Team! I received such a message this week, a few days before the 2016 Olympics opens in Rio de Janeiro on Friday night.
I don’t know anybody in Botswana. I even had to consult a map that informed me the tiny African nation occupies much of the northern border of the Republic of South Africa. However, things became clear when I saw that the sender was a guy I hired when I was AD at the University of New Orleans. Randy Horner, who served as UNO’s swimming coach from 2007 to 2010, is in Rio coaching Botswana’s swim team.
You are forgiven if you think Botswana's Olympic swim team might draw comparisons to the less-than-legendary Jamaican bobsled team of the 1988 Calgary Games. Horner's entire team consists of two swimmers. Naomi Ruele, competing in the 50-meter women’s freestyle, attends Florida International University where Horner has been head coach since he left UNO. Horner’s other participant is Nova Southeastern University’s David Van Der Colffin, who will compete in the 100-meter backstroke.
Horner’s Facebook video from Rio provided a close-up of the Olympic swimming venue as well as a tour of the athletes’ dormitory. It was spartan but hardly resembled the cesspool depicted in recent stories. So much negative news has been written about the Rio Olympics that I’m almost expecting the biggest medal winner this year to be the Mayhem guy from the Allstate commercial. For more than a year, the event has been beset by problems. It started with construction overruns and union problems with workers building the venues, and since then it seems like almost every week a new crisis erupts.
Brazil and much of Central and South America have been submerged in a health crisis with the rise of the Zika virus. Many of the world’s top golfers have declined to participate in the Games, including the acknowledged top three in the world – Jason Day, Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth. Other sports also have been affected. American cyclist Tejay van Garderen cited Zika as his reason for not going to Rio, and while basketball star Stephen Curry didn’t specifically cite Zika, he noted that “other factors” played a role in his decision to skip the games.
More recently, pollution problems in Rio de Janeiro have gotten so bad that officials moving sailing or rowing boats are using gloves, medical staff are on standby to treat infectious cuts and athletes must shower immediately after leaving the water. Sewage continues to pour into Guanabara Bay which will host the triathlon, sailing and marathon swimming events. Despite new measures taken by the teams, a 16-month testing program showed 1,400 athletes 'face potentially serious health risks' - as do any Olympic tourists who choose to swim at Copacabana Beach.
More menacing are threats of violence that have prompted Olympics officials and police to step up security efforts. A story in Thursday's Wall Street Journal described a police crackdown on drug syndicates that could use the global event as a chance to embarrass Brazilian authorities and police. And, unfortunately, the threat of terrorism lingers anyplace where large numbers of people gather.
Whatever happens - all of it uneventful, we pray - Randy Horner will be there to see it. His FIU swimmer, Naomi, does not compete until next Friday, August 12, against strong swimmers from Australia and the Netherlands. That means her Olympic moment will likely be short, a fact that Horner understands. “I’m here for three weeks for a 25-second race,” he responded when I texted my congratulations. “But, hey, it’s still the Olympics!”