The Whims and Foibles of Sports...
Readers who labor under the Pelican state flag learned Thursday night that our new governor doesn’t play fair! Gov. John Bel Edwards marked his 30th day in office with a televised warning to all residents that if their elected legislators don’t solve the state’s budget deficit, there won’t be football next fall! He declared that unless a solution is found, student-athletes in all sports could find themselves ineligible immediately and looking for a place to play. Wow! Talk about a crisis! People slough off threats of higher taxes or cutting services, but no football?
Edwards’ threat immediately left many LSU fans around the state wondering if the governor is going to pull the season plug on their beloved Tigers. They needn’t worry too much since LSU athletics is self-funded through ticket sales, marketing revenue and donations to the Tiger Athletic Foundation. What they might be concerned about is that the couple mil a year athletics donates to the university is not enough to cover other academic expenses which would be susceptible to a cut.
You can bet that Edwards’ threat is being discussed with far greater concern today at schools such as UL-Lafayette, UL-Monroe, Nicholls State, McNeese, Northwestern Louisiana, Southeastern Louisiana, Southern, Grambling and the University of New Orleans. Of course, UNO has been through all this before in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which I detailed in my book, Where the Water Kept Rising. I wrote in the book that the most ridiculous aspect of these inevitable funding crises is this: Under the state constitution, virtually every department in state government is protected from the budget axe, except higher education and health care. I’m not going to repeat that for our readers who live outside of Louisiana, but somehow, somewhere the misguided mavens who determine such things decided that the two disciplines most critical to the present and future well-being of our state can be stripped naked when the need arises. Who cares if hospitals and emergency care facilities close or if universities can’t keep their lights on to give state students a jumpstart into their future?
Robert Mann, a member of the LSU Journalism faculty and a columnist for the local wipe, describes the present crisis simply: “Because almost everything is protected by statuary or constitutional dedications, the only places to cut deeply are higher education and health care. Thereupon, LSU and its sister institutions are seized as hostages, threatened with destruction until enough public outrage and fear prompt lawmakers and the governor to pony up the funds to keep the lights on and classes running….Too often, excellence was not the goal unless we were talking about athletics.”
Which returns us to the new governor’s threat tactics. Edwards has convened a special session of the legislature on Sunday that will run until decisions are made on resolving the crisis. Each one of the venues named above has local legislators who want to keep the lights on and the footballs and basketballs pumped up. But the only way to make them pay attention is to put the fear of Tuscaloosa into them by scaring their football fans who care enough to vote and will complain to their duly elected representatives.
I must admit I stood up and took notice when he announced that one of the programs being cut immediately is the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students (TOPS), which gives high-performing high school students the assurance of free tuition at any Louisiana school. My daughter, Layne, is at LSU Nursing School and has received her TOPS scholarship for the spring semester. That benefit is now in jeopardy of being rescinded and replaced by a demand note. The Lovely Miss Jean and I have started discussing contingency plans in the event that TOPS is not restored.
We are fortunate that we can cover the expense if we receive a retroactive bill, but what about those thousands of students who can’t? I can see a major number of dropouts from every school around the state, including LSU, hitting the streets or even taking out student loans that linger into adulthood. But if those students have to drop out of school now or in the fall or forever who really cares? You can bet the legislators of this backwater province feel that’s a small price to pay so long as their favorite school will have a football season!
“You can’t handle the truth!”
Jack Nicholson’s stirring challenge to Tom Cruise in the movie “A Few Good Men,” applies equally this morning to any so-called expert – this one included – who thinks he can predict football games. After relying on Truths that appeared to be self-evident in picking the Carolina Panthers to run our beloved Peyton Manning out of Super Bowl 50, we are dining today on Crow omelets, and it doesn't taste so bad!
It’s not like any of the experts really wanted Carolina to beat Denver and send Peyton to pasture in defeat. It was just that the Truths as we knew them made the case for Carolina. QB Cam Newton’s size, speed and intelligence would help him avoid the Broncos’ feared pass rush, something that even the legendary Tom Brady of Team Patriots could not do. It was another prevailing Truth that Carolina had enough defense to corral a Manning of diminishing skills long enough for Newton to push the ball downfield as he had done all season long, including playoff routs of Seattle and Arizona.
The most compelling pregame Truth held that through their 15-1 regular-season run and march through the playoffs, the Panthers produced stretches on offense were they looked all but impossible to defend. They scored a league-best 31.3 points per game during the regular season as Newton’s legs and arm froze defenses, allowing him to slip away from tacklers until a receiver came open downfield. It was an offense for which no one had an answer until Denver showed us the real Truth.
As Jason Gay of the Wall Street Journal said today, the game “wound up being an old-fashioned tractor pull featuring Denver’s Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware, who pushed the Carolina line around, denied Newton mobility and never allowed Carolina any real momentum.” So let that be a lesson to those of us who try and show the peasants how smart we are before a game. The real Truth is in the game itself, as the Broncos forced four turnovers and sacked Newton six times in a resounding 24-10 victory. And Peyton can enjoy the rare moment of capping a wonderful career in ultimate fashion, by going out on top.
Denver’s Miller, who was named the game’s MVP, forced two fumbles, one going for a touchdown in the first quarter while the other essentially sealed the game in the fourth. Less flashy but just as effective was his linebacking partner, former Kentucky star Danny Trevathan, who recovered two fumbles and led the Broncos with eight tackles.
That final Truth the game revealed is one our local heroes should heed if they ever hope to reclaim the NFC South from Newton. They need to emulate the Denver model and find a pass rusher like Miller, who can chase him all over the field. Those guys don’t grow on trees, but when the Saints are pondering what to do with their meager finances, they should take a few bucks away from another position and put it into the pass rush.
Maybe even Drew Brees, who retains the same agent as Peyton Manning, can take a tip from the latest Super Bowl champion and shave a little money off his own bank account to improve the defense. Peyton took a pay cut, the Broncos won the Super Bowl, and that’s the Truth!
That headline should not surprise anyone, whether you know and respect the Manning family, as I do, or believe this is the year of the Panther, which I also do. If the rumors of retirement are accurate, there could be no better thing in sports than Peyton Manning going out as a Super Bowl champion. Too much is made of NFL thuggery and concussions and performance-enhancing drugs, and too little is made of the true gentlemen of the game, like Archie, Peyton and Eli Manning.
Oh, our heroes can’t play forever, and fans over the years have rooted just as hard for the jerks so long as they wear their favorite team’s uniform. But when we have a player who epitomizes all the desirable qualities, good humor and noble deeds, you have to root for him in what is likely his last appearance in uniform. So, yes, I’ll be cheering hard for Peyton Manning and the Broncos to win the game, because it would put a righteous exclamation point on a career well played. But do I think it’s going to happen? Sadly, I believe the Carolina Panthers have consistently shown this season that they have that special quality that makes champions.
The game will boil down to which defense contains the other team’s quarterback. Cam Newton could not do what he does without an outstanding offensive line, which will pose a good test for the Denver defense. Led by LB Von Miller and rush end Demarcus Ware, the Broncos’ pass rush pummeled New England’s Tom Brady in the AFC championship game. I don’t think they will do the same thing to Newton for several reasons. Newton is the rare quarterback whose size, speed and smarts are sharpened by a willingness to go airborne to get the first down or into the end zone. His speed and ability to create plays does not allow the defenders to zero in and turn a pass rush into target practice like Denver did with the stationary Tom Brady. The Panthers have seen a lot of zone coverage, where defenders look back toward the line of scrimmage, because of Newton’s ability to take off and run. But receivers like TE Greg Olsen can find gaps in zones if they get enough time.
On the other side, the Carolina defense has its own set of problems, starting with the quarterback they will face. For all of Manning's success as one of the most prolific passers in NFL history, the Broncos made it to Super Bowl 50 by running a disciplined, controlled offense. They took minimal risks with the ball, allowing the defense and special teams to set up scoring opportunities through superb execution. Although the approach runs counter to the way the Broncos have played in previous seasons with Manning under center, the philosophical shift gave the team the best chance to win with an aging QB who has athletic/arm limitations.
To his credit, Manning bought into the change, exhibiting better ball security in the playoffs (one giveaway) after a poor regular season (17 giveaways in just 10 games). He has avoided forcing throws into tight windows, while routinely tossing the ball out of bounds instead of attempting a risky throw down the field.
In Super Bowl 50, Manning will see more zone coverage from the Panthers, which means he needs to do a great job of manipulating defenders with his eyes to keep aggressive playmakers like Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis and Josh Norman from jumping routes in their respective areas. Manning needs his "spot" to step into throws down the field, which means the pass rush to the inside of the offensive line is essential for Carolina to collapse the front of any potential pocket. The Panthers were effective with this approach against New England, utilizing the inside talents of defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short. The key is to maximize pressure, stunts, and games to the inside.
The Panthers will use various four-man front alignments, but invariably somebody on the inside is bound to be single blocked. Expect the Panthers to work their focus on creating confusion and/or penetration over the center and guards in hopes that they can induce a hurried throw. Carolina has a history of turning those balls into turnovers.
Super Bowl 50 will depend on whose defense can expose cracks in the opposing quarterback’s game. Denver’s defense that looked so dominant against New England will face a different type of guy on the other side on Sunday. But I believe the Carolina defense will be more effective, pouring cold water on the farewell of an NFL icon. Panthers 31, Denver 14.
In a sporting week where everything else is ignored in the lead-up to a Super Bowl, let’s talk about something else. Oh, I have my opinion on the big game, which is probably no different from most of you, but I’ll share that with you later in the week. For now. let’s talk SEC basketball. Hey, don’t turn the channel yet. I know the coveted word most commonly following “SEC” is “football,” but I hope you tuned in for some great basketball games Saturday that pitted ten SEC teams against ten from the Big 12.
The Big 12 is another conference whose fans prefer oblong to round, but this year it happens to be the best basketball conference in the nation. And on Saturday the SEC was a couple of foul shots from turning the events into a Mexican standoff. Or maybe it was closer to an Australian standoff for LSU and a Canadian standoff at Kentucky.
The big game of local interest was LSU hosting No. 1 Oklahoma. Tiger fans filled the P-Mac, thanks to students who were back in school, and for nearly 36 minutes it looked like their heroes were about to spring a major upset. LSU took an early lead and stretched it to 14 midway through the second half behind some dead-eye long-range shooting. But the Sooners chipped away when, trailing 65-60 with 4:41 remaining, star guard Buddy Hield did his best Steph Curry impersonation. Hield sank back-to-back three-pointers to give the Sooners their first lead since early in the first half. LSU came back and tied or traded the lead with Oklahoma eight times the rest of the way. Antonio Blakeney responded with a pair of clutch three-pointers on assists from Tim Quarterman, including one that tied the game at 75-75 with 25 seconds remaining before losing, 77-75.
The glaring omission in this report is the absence of all-everything Ben Simmons, who barely touched the ball down the stretch. It’s puzzling to me why the offense doesn’t run through the talented 6-11 Aussie, although Coach Johnny Jones said afterward it was Oklahoma’s defense that kept Simmons from the basket on Saturday. With their record now at 13-8, LSU needs to unleash Simmons or it may suffer the indignity of being the first team in memory to have the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft but not make the NCAA tournament.
Kentucky had other problems losing to No. 4 Kansas in overtime. The Cats lead with five minutes to go before Wayne Selden Jr. did to the Wildcats what Hield did to LSU. Selden scored a career-high 33 points, mostly on long threes, while Kansas held Kentucky’s leading scorer, Canadian freshman Jamal Murray, to 6-of-11 shooting and a modest 15 points.
Kentucky’s biggest problem turned out to be fouls, both for them and against them. Although UK had seven more field goals than Kansas, they also had 33 fouls called against them, which led to 47 Kansas free throws and a 17-point edge at the foul line. All four Kentucky “bigs” fouled out, three of them before the game went into overtime. After 6-8 Alex Poythress fouled out in the last minute of OT, Kentucky did not have a man on the floor taller than 6-4. When Kansas was on defense, they knew which Wildcat to send to the line. UK freshman Isaiah Briscoe chunked six free shots, many of them late when just one would have helped the Cats avoid overtime.
The Big 12 wound up winning seven of the ten games, but four of the wins were by their bottom-feeders throwing off our bottom-feeders. Three of their ranked teams won, while two of them lost when unranked Florida beat No. 9 West Virginia and No. 5 Texas A&M beat No. 14 Iowa State. The third SEC victory was Arkansas’ overtime win over Texas Tech. I hope the conferences continue this mid-season rivalry. It’s good for the sport, it’s good for fans and it gives the SEC the opportunity to throw off its much maligned reputation as a basketball softy, outside of Kentucky and an occasional partner.
Sporting fans, we are looking at the first Generation Gap Super Bowl in history. Fetty Wap vs. Bon Jovi. Uber versus Yellow Cab. Instagram versus e-mail. Straight Outta Compton vs Gone with the Wind. It became clear in the postgame celebrations after Sunday's conference finals when Cam Newton was dabbing with his posse on the sidelines while Peyton Manning was still being wheelchaired from interview to interview.
Never has a Super Bowl seen rival quarterbacks with such an age disparity. Manning at 39 is closer to AARP than the 26-yr-old Cam Newton has traveled from puberty. But both were magnificent in their own way as they led their teams into Super Bowl 50. The NFL lords had an inkling this one would be special when they strayed from their tradition of Roman Numerals and actually put a number on it so fans would not need to carry Latin-to-English dictionaries. Little did they realize the matchup they would have. The two quarterbacks’ very different ways of getting to the big game can be isolated in two plays that tell you all you need to know about each one.
In the third quarter, Manning faced a third and long when, his receivers covered by a sagging New England defense, he pulled the ball down and ran 12 yards before falling forward for a first down. Wordsmiths normally describe such a play as a “scamper” but Manning's run was more like your grandfather trying to walk down a hill and being overcome by gravity. It was Manning’s first positive playoff rush since 2006, and his longest playoff run since his first appearance in the playoffs. Even his teammates were giddy on the sidelines, but while painful in the execution it was beautiful in the result.
Newton, not to be upstaged, faced a similar third-and-long situation late in the third quarter when his game was all but decided. He could have handed off or thrown the ball into the end zone, but it was a QB run all the way. Newton took the shotgun snap and dared the Arizona defenders to tackle him as he leapt into the end zone, did a somersault and landed on his feet his arms folded, the crypto-Superman pose and celebration to come.
It's going to be a very different lead up to this Super Bowl 50, at the 49ers' new gym in Santa Clara on Feb. 7. The game hype will be Manning's farewell, and likely retirement if Denver wins, vs. Newton's introduction to Super Bowl royalty and the promise of more to come. Pay close attention to the advertising. Ads for Lyrica, Belsomra and Tecfidera will be competing with spots for Far Cry Primer, Lego Marvels Avengers and new products that Apple will invent in the next two weeks.
And the rooting interests also will be divided along generational lines. Every Baby Boomer outside the Carolinas will root for the old guy while every fan under the age of discretion will Dap for Cam. And when we finally get there, the winning team will be the one whose defense can figure out and stop either the old guy or the kid.