The Whims and Foibles of Sports...
The first week of the NFL season has come and gone, and not much has changed. The Browns are still terrible, the Patriots are still dominating and injuries are becoming more of a concern. But, locally, the old news is that game officials still shoot themselves in the foot, as we saw on Monday Night Football.
After a frustrating off-season of lawsuits, rules changes and proposed movies, none of it flattering to game officials, many Saints fans chose a fashion statement as their weapon, leaving their Black and Gold wardrobes in mothballs and entered the Superdome wearing notorious black and white stripes. Some striped shirts carried messages such as “Thief,” emblazoned where the nameplate should be, and others carried yellow flags, symbolizing the flags that weren't thrown in last year's NFC championship game. The appearance of Monday night's game officials brought the expected chorus of boooos, but it was not long before Who Dat Nation was reminded who was really in charge.
The league zebras inflicted an additional dose of derision to Saints fans in front of a national audience. The Saints were driving inside a minute to cut into a 14-3 Texans’ lead, but a botched call cost a precious 15 seconds taken off the clock. That could have been enough time for QB Drew Brees to have run two more plays and gotten closer than the 56-yard attempt they were left with that kicker Wil Lutz missed. At least, NFL director of officiating Al Riveron admitted the error at halftime, although it did not appease Brees. “That can’t happen,” he said after the game. “If we have 15 more seconds, are you kidding me? You know we’re gonna get closer. That’s a game changer!”
They tried to do it again in the fourth quarter after Houston tied the game with 37 seconds left but missed the extra point. But wait a minute! A Saints’ player hit the ground in front of kicker Ka'imi Fairbairn and brushed his foot. Fairbairn must have majored in acting at UCLA because he dropped to the ground in a dramatic performance worthy of Laurence Olivier in Hamlet. That prompted another flag for roughing the kicker, and the ensuing re-kick put Houston up 28-27. ESPN announcer Booger McFarland described it on air as "a ticky-tack call at this point of the game." In other words, to quote Brees: “Are you kidding me?”
Fortunately, the Saints’ QB was fired up enough to show the NFL what he can do with a dying clock and one time out. His pass to Ted Ginn put the ball at the Texans’ 40-yard line with two seconds left, enough for Lutz’s 58-yard game winner. Whether the officials just panic in the closing minute or it's something more nefarious, the NFL could not have sent a more hurtful message to New Orleans, delivered on its national Monday Night billboard: “We screwed you out of a Super Bowl last year, and we can do it again this year because we are in charge!”
Another story that occupied far too much attention during the opening weekend was the curious case of Antonio Brown. Although he was one of the most productive receivers in the league during six seasons with the Steelers, the Pittsburgh brass tired of his selfish antics and traded him to Oakland at the fire-sale price of two mid-level draft choices. Oakland, whose founding father Al Davis burnished the team’s reputation as mavericks and rebels, sounded like the perfect spot for Brown. His new boss would be Jon Gruden, the sneering head coach whose nickname Chucky comes from a demonic doll in a horror movie. Perfect fit, right?
Wrong, because Brown’s shenanigans bit the hand that was going to pay him a guaranteed $30 million. He was cut Saturday morning and by sundown had been signed by the Patriots, the most recent safe harbor for dysfunctional characters. In recent years, the Patriots have taken in such perceived trouble-makers as Randy Moss and Corey Dillon.
I imagine Coach Bill Belichick has a sports psychologist on speed-dial to address the multitude of behavioral oddities that Brown has displayed. Brown obviously is arrogant, although that is not a fatal flaw in his industry. Belichick obviously believes he can harness Brown’s behavior because he did it with Moss and Dillon. But does Brown’s vision of his importance to New England mesh with Belichick’s vision of how Brown fits with the Patriots? Will Brown realize that he needs the Patriots more than they need him? Delusional behavior can be fatal if he believes he is more important than the team.
But maybe winning is the cure. Moss and Dillon became valuable team members and won Super Bowl rings. My feeling is that Brown’s fuse is a lot shorter than Moss’. I believe he needs professional help, and I am not talking sports.
If the name Steve Scaffidi doesn’t ring a bell, just picture the old silent movie clip of the bulldog who grabs the pants leg of a bank robber and won’t let go until the police arrive. That isn’t too far off the New Orleans filmmaker’s goal, which is to grab the pants leg of Roger Goodell and hold on until the whole story behind the infamous no-call that may have cost the Saints a Super Bowl championship is told. And Scaffidi wants to tell it.
His upcoming film, titled “Not in My House!” will document what happened in that microsecond of certain penalty/ targeted hit/ No Call and then attempt to discern “why?”
That was the message he delivered to USA Today in an article that appeared Tuesday, from which the following is excerpted: “New Orleans filmmaker Steve Scaffidi, who often tackles serious subjects like the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the death penalty, knew what his latest documentary project would be about 30 minutes after the NFC Championship Game ended. Like many of his fellow fans, Scaffidi’s outrage largely focuses on the fact that four officials who were part of the crew that day live in Southern California including crew chief Bill Vinovich, down judge Patrick Turner, who was closest to the play, and two others who were in position to help correct the mistake, inside judge Gary Cavaletto and back judge Todd Prukop … (and) whether or not implicit bias played a role in the decision not to throw a flag.”
For “Not in My House,” Scaffidi has met with former NFL players, executives and others to discuss the story he wants to tell. He also has written a letter to Saints owner Gayle Benson requesting a meeting. As Scaffidi says: “It is important that she understands our intention is not to take down the NFL or produce a half-baked conspiracy theory film. In fact, our goal is to produce a powerful and entertaining documentary that is a thorough examination of the process that led to the most controversial missed call in the history of the NFL." Mrs. Benson has not responded.
Although a passionate Who Dat, Scaffidi has also tackled difficult non-sports assignments. His film on the death penalty titled “Execution” was screened to large audiences both in this country and abroad. In his production “Forgotten on the Bayou,” Scaffidi accompanied a survivor of Hurricane Katrina to the Oval Office to meet with President George W. Bush. He also wrote and produced “Ain’t Dat Super,” a celebration of the Saints’ 2009 Super Bowl victory that played to large crowds at the Mahalia Jackson Theater.
Scaffidi has the plan, the website (www.ghostriderpictures.com) and the theme song performed by local artists Lynn Drury and the Dat Pack. What he does not have yet is the toughest hurdle for any independent filmmaker - the required funding. His goal is to raise $750,000 to make the film, and he has been meeting almost daily with potential investors, both in New Orleans and elsewhere. Scaffidi hopes the funding is in place soon so he can begin shooting with his crew to interview Goodell, the game officials, the players and anyone else who can shed light on what happened on that infamous play. He wants to travel to Los Angeles prior to the Saints and Rams game on September 15, which he sees as “the ultimate springboard to kicking off our production.”
“Believe it or not, a bunch of my friends have told me I should just move on," Scaffidi said. “But there’s 5 million people in the Who Dat fan base and according to social media I’ve been doing, 80% are on my side and we can’t move on. Football isn't just a game, it’s a multi-billion dollar industry that takes taxpayer money to build stadiums and holds cities hostage to give them stadiums so why should they not be held responsible just like any other business? If a waitress made the mistake those officials made of that magnitude it would be like putting arsenic in your food and mistaking it for salt.”
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For the sake of full disclosure, Scaffidi approached me several months ago to introduce the project, and I have been in touch with him since. My son, C.C., who is in his final semester to earn his degree in the film studies program at the University of New Orleans, has been helping Scaffidi on the project.
Random thoughts while hoping you enjoyed your glimpse of Saints starters this preseason …
Unfortunately, the only similarity to the Saints' final preseason game this Thursday and the regular season is that ticket holders get to pay the same price for both. Since the NFL eliminated the gradual roster cutdowns in favor of one final cutdown, more fringe players get to hang around an extra week or two. That’s good for the team, because they have more time to evaluate while reducing injury exposure for the starters and front-line backups. Many of the fellows wearing Saints uniforms who play on Thursday night will be hoping to impress enough to be considered a practice squad prospect, either here or somewhere else. But tune in anyway if your version of high drama is watching Drew Brees standing on the wings in a baseball cap …
Speaking of quarterbacks, I became an Andrew Luck fan on October 11, 2010. It was moments after a Stanford teammate fumbled and USC’s Shareece White picked up the loose ball and headed the other way. Luck immediately went after Wright and laid him out with a tackle that should be featured in a video about tackling. Wow! A quarterback who could channel Dick Butkus! Show me more! And he did show us more, after he was selected by the Colts to follow Peyton Manning. I was saddened by Luck’s unexpected retirement this weekend at age 29, but I understood it. Football is a violent game in which careers are ended in a blink. Luck was snake-bitten the past few years and decided he didn’t want to risk his long-term well-being. Good for him. But after a year of regaining his health, will he miss the game? That might be about the same time that a couple of old-timers named Brees and Brady will be holding their own press conferences. Wonder if Luck would unretire if he had the opportunity to follow a second Hall of Famer and revive his own chances for a bust at Canton …
Speaking of no luck, I am taking major issue with the lack of respect my Kentucky football team has been shown this off-season. I know they lost some major studs from their 10-3 team of a year ago, including No. 7 overall NFL draft pick Josh Allen, RB Benny Snell and their entire veteran secondary. Vegas has the over-under for UK victories at only 6.5, while other predictions are for fewer wins and no bowl eligibility. USA Today ranks the Wildcats No. 62 in the nation, four spots behind UK’s opening opponent, Toledo of the Mid-American Conference. Kentucky is favored over the Rockets by 11½ points Saturday at Kroger Field, which doesn’t seem like a lot of points against a team that was 7-6 last season and lost some key defensive starters of its own. I believe the Cats will cover that spread and go on to win at least eight games. This is the time for Coach Mark Stoops to show he has put together a program that is sustainable. So there! ...
And speaking of respect, let’s tip our caps to the new Little League World Series champions from New Orleans. The team polished off two previous champions – Hawaii 9-5 on Saturday and Curacao 8-0 on Sunday - to win Louisiana’s first Little League title. As I watched both weekend games, I had two recurring thoughts. No. 1, I was hoping UNO Coach Blake Dean was preparing scholarship offers for RF Reece Roussel and 3B Marshall Louque. Roussel set a LLWS record with 17 hits, in only 23 at bats, while Louque’s timely hitting included seven doubles, a record matched by Roussel. No. 2, I had never seen so many sets of braces on one field. The reflections off the smiles of the entire team had to be another record: Most Braces in a LLWS game.
I am writing this missive while sitting on a heating pad. I was lacing up my golf shoes this morning when I felt a twinge in my left side along the belt line. It wasn’t bad but it was annoying, especially since I had already completed my stretching followed by my three-mile Old Fartlek run-walk-run, all without incident. My training program is strictly designed to exempt me from the nagging pain so common to the mere mortals who exist in my age grouping. But there it was, and it persisted through the next few hours of golf.
I finished playing and returned home, showered and then rubbed the afflicted area with this magical balm given to me by a golfing buddy. It’s not FDA-approved, but the label assures me it is used by “professional athletes, the Canadian military and over 3,500 health professionals.” That’s good enough for me! But then a thought hit me. If I have to put up with such physical frustrations at my age, what must it be like for Drew Brees?
After all, to hear the sporting press tell it, he is ancient in his field and susceptible to any number of age-related maladies. He could collapse at any moment! After all, age is relative, and a professional football player beyond the age of 40 is only one step away from extinction. That was the thread running through a long analysis last week by ESPN’s Bill Barnwell who advanced the case that Brees might be nearing the end of his Hall of Fame career. Of course, we all reluctantly admit that Brees is near the end of his career, but he has not shown irrefutable evidence he is there yet. Barnwell, on the other hand, tried to make the case that Brees already could be at the station with a ticket to Palookaville in his hand.
Barnwell built his case by looking at the decline in Brees’ performance over his final four games of the 2018 season compared to the first 11 games, which Barnwell said could have been “the best stretch of play we’ve ever seen from an NFL quarterback.” The Saints started at 10-1 while averaging more than 37 points per game, but as the season wore on, Brees’ high level of skill declined in several areas.
On deep passes, defined by the league as beyond 16 yards, Brees was “an absolute savage” during the dominant start, completing more than 60 percent, averaging nearly 17 yards per attempt along with nine touchdown passes and only one interception. During his final games, however, Brees completed just 41.3 percent of those passes, averaged 10.8 yards per attempt with only one TD pass and two interceptions.
In red zone plays, Brees & Co. averaged 5.7 points per trip inside the 20-yard line through the first 12 weeks. From Week 13 on, however, the team declined to 4.9 points per trip (which is not horrible and is actually the league average). Pressure was another bit of Barnwell’s statistical argument, showing that before Thanksgiving, teams sacked Brees on less than 13 percent of their pressures but the rest of the way that figure doubled, to 25 percent.
Addressing the age factor directly, Barnwell looked to see if a late season decline is consistent with other top quarterbacks as they aged and concluded that “every quarterback in this age bracket has some chance of turning into a pumpkin in any given season without warning.” Retiring after significant, sudden declines were Brett Favre (41), Jim Kelly (36), Dan Marino (38) and Peyton Manning (39). Injuries forced the retirements of Troy Aikman at age 34, and Steve Young at 38. But just maybe Brees and Patriots QB Tom Brady - who is 17 months older - fit into another category with John Elway and Joe Montana, both of whom retired at age 38 on their own terms.
I know a city full of fans who hope Brees’ performance continues at a high level into 2019 because the alternatives to a healthy Brees don’t fill anyone with much comfort. Teddy Bridgewater has not given us any solace that he could step in and play at a Brees level right now. His preseason performance against first- and second-teamers has been uneven at best. The third man in the room, Taysom Hill, is everybody’s favorite non-starter and has had his moments. He reminded me of Fran Tarkenton in rallying the Saints over the Chargers on Sunday, but by the time he got into the game, the starters and many first-call backups have long put on their baseball caps.
No, the best, and maybe the only, chance the Saints have to win another Super Bowl is a healthy Brees. And if he gets a twinge, I’ll even slip him a stick of my magical balm if that will keep him on the field.
Different people look for different things the week of an NFL team’s first preseason game. Players new to the team look for opportunity. Coaches look for depth. Starters look for a short evening. And Who Dat Nation is just happy to see their heroes on the field once again after another long frustrating off-season. And all the above should be happy for one other thing. No disruptions.
Player holdouts are the most common form of camp chaos but it also can include player rants or suspensions or even front office shenanigans such as the Arizona Cardinals executive who was slapped with an embarrassing DUI over the weekend. The news media loves it, because they can only take so many position drills, scrimmages or interviews before they are begging for something else to report on. But the Saints, at least so far, have not accommodated at Camp Tranquility.
Now if you want degrees of disruption, it’s out there in abundance. Chargers running back Melvin Gordon, Redskins’ tackle Trent Williams and Texans’ pass rusher Jadeveon Clowney are all out of camp and want new contracts. And if you want Disruption with a Big D, look at the Big D where running back Ezekiel Elliott is generating daily drama as he holds out for a new contract, although he has two years remaining on his current one. Elliott says he is prepared to hold out for the season, kind of like the Steelers’ Le’Veon Bell did a year ago, although those two contract years aren’t going away. If a player has a contract in place that is not fulfilled, it is tolled, which simply means it is pushed forward.
And if you are a fan of HBO’s “Hard Knocks,” you know that Oakland’s disruption is not necessarily a holdout. Their newest high-priced weapon is Antonio Brown, who wasn’t paid enough by the Steelers – players call that “lack of respect” – and wrangled a suitable treasure from the Raiders. The only problem with that is that Brown has not been able to practice yet. The initial culprit was his unconventional training methods that included an off-season visit to a cryogenics institute in Paris. The same type of people who froze Ted Williams’ body for a revival thaw at a later date - the Red Sox could use you now, Ted! - apparently did not tell Brown to cover his feet adequately and he contracted frostbite on his feet and can’t run. But Brown’s tale gets better.
With his foot almost healed, Brown says he is not playing because the NFL won’t let him wear his favorite helmet. It seems Brown wears an older model that is no longer certified by the NFL Safety Police. So until Brown gets his binky back, which isn't likely after Monday's ruling from an arbitrator that he must use an approved model, he is filling the Raiders’ camp with copious amounts of disruption.
Regarding Elliott and the other holdouts, I am appalled at the naïveté of some players who sign a big contract that puts them at the top of their position but don’t understand that NFL means “not for long.” In their case, they are among the highest paid when they sign the contract but they will remain on that lofty perch only until the next player at the position signs his contract. Agents demand it, club negotiators bow to it but some players don’t understand they are receiving a longer term deal because the term is what makes those dollars worth it to the club.
So, while Elliott wishes for rain in Dallas, just be hopeful that you are in New Orleans. The most disruption you’ll likely see at Saints camp this year is when Zion Williamson and his Pelican teammates make a cameo appearance from their practice gym over by the tracks.