The Whims and Foibles of Sports...
It was reassuring to see Drew Brees in uniform and playing at a high level on Saturday night, even if it was just for two series. In his first action of the preseason, Brees made his short stint look like skelly drills when he methodically took his team down the field against little apparent opposition from the Colts' first teamers. He was passing, he was handing off and, ye gods! he even was running the ball to gain key yardage. I could have done without the latter, and I am certain that most of Who Dat Nation felt the same way.
When Brees took off and picked up a sliding first down in the second series, I could almost hear Sean Payton’s sphincter puckering all the way from Indianapolis. The fourth quarter of the Super Bowl, okay, but not a meaningless exhibition game. It is so obvious that Brees is the lynchpin for the local heroes that the specter of injury can’t even be contemplated. But this is the NFL, and it happens. Just ask the folks in St. Louis today who are scrambling to find a quarterback after losing starter Sam Bradford for the season Saturday night against Cleveland. Bradford tore the same ACL that shortened his 2013 season which now leaves the Rams in the hands of Shaun Hill, a 13-year journeyman from Maryland. I have a masters degree from Maryland, and I’ve never heard of Shaun Hill!
Speaking of Maryland, while I was working on the degree, I was covering the Baltimore Colts who had won three straight AFC Eastern Division titles. It was 1978 and the team thought they were positioned to finally snap the Steelers’ AFC stranglehold when they headed into the last preseason game, at Detroit. But their hopes evaporated when Lions’ rookie DE Bubba Baker grabbed QB Bert Jones and drove him into Silverdome’s concrete-hard surface. Jones’ throwing shoulder was separated, and he was out for the season. Enter backup QB Bill Troup, and the Colts’ were done, finishing 5-11.
That is what can happen when a team loses its starting quarterback. An NFL team doesn’t go into a Sunday like a “Weekend at Bernie’s” where they can prop their injured star in an easy chair and expect everything around him to progress normally. An example was obvious Saturday after Brees put on a baseball cap with minutes remaining in the first quarter. What happened? Not much, thanks to his backups, Luke McCown and Ryan Griffin, who played the last three-plus quarters. McCown made a couple of nice runs but completed only three of ten pass attempts while Griffin, the Great Greenie hope from Tulane, hit eight of thirteen attempts but only produced one field goal.
Brees’ health was the last thing on anyone’s minds after he appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated looking for all the world like a Megatron warrior, waving two gigantic ship’s ropes and surrounded by all manner of sadistic contraptions. The story trumpeted his great condition, which he followed with talk about playing until he’s 45. All that instantly disintegrated with an injury to some obscure muscle called an “oblique,” which infused even more irony since the muscle is located near what we mere mortals affectionately call our “love handles.” That fatty tire around most of our waists does not exist on the svelte quarterback, but neither have most of us suffered an oblique injury.
I know, I should be satisfied that Brees is back and playing like the Brees we all expect to take the Saints deep into the playoffs. But this is the NFL, and I know what can happen.
The election of Rob Manfred as Major League Baseball’s next commissioner reminds us of a similar NFL election a quarter-century ago that had major implications for the New Orleans Saints. Some owners tried to block Manfred's candidacy, much like a bloc of NFL owners blocked the candidacy of Saints president and general manager Jim Finks in 1989.
I know it’s probably a dereliction of duty, especially when Who Dat Nation is buzzing over burning questions such as whether free agent Pierre Warren will beat out draft choice Vinnie Sunseri for that all-important No. 10 slot in the defensive secondary. Still, I took a week off from football and spent the weekend at the PGA Golf Tournament in Louisville, staying at my brother Jerry’s home, located barely two miles from the golf course.
Valhalla Country Club is like home to me, a former dairy farm where our father picked up milk through the 1970’s and where we witnessed the USA’s last Ryder Cup victory in 2008. I have enjoyed nearly forty years in and around sports, but the 2008 Ryder Cup stands alone as the single greatest sporting event I have ever attended. A dozen Super Bowls, a couple of World Series, an NBA Final and Kentucky’s 2012 Final Four victory in the Mercedes Benzon Superdome scramble for runner-up honors. But no matter what your favorite sport, there is something very special about attending a major golf championship in person.
By now you know that Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland withstood a weekend of rain, mudslides and threats by the young and old, in the persons of Ricky Fowler and Phil Mickelson, to win his fourth major and second in a row. While this PGA tournament was the most exciting in years, I still think a major lacks the team drama of a Ryder Cup. Every team or individual match elicits partisan shouts of “USA, USA, USA” from the Americans and animated Europeans singing the “Ole, Ole, Ole, Ole” cheer favored by soccer fans. At a major, the fans are courteous to all players, and good shots are applauded, no matter who makes them. Of course, the fans have their local and regional favorites, and Kentuckian Kenny Perry took that honor with standing ovations and celebratory shouts on his birthday Sunday.
When you attend a major golf tournament, you see a lot more color and spectacle than the network TV announcers can squeeze into their broadcasts. The first two days of the event, spectators move around the course, finding opportune nests to watch five or six groups containing their favorite players pass through. On Thursday and Friday, Jerry and I found great locations at the par-5 No. 7 hole that featured the split fairways, one longer but safer while the other dared the player to drop a shot of more than 200 yards over water and on or near the narrow green.
The rolling topography of Valhalla created several natural amphitheaters around holes where spectators sat on hillsides only twenty or thirty yards from the players. Such a perch was No. 6 where we saw Tiger Woods implode on Friday, missing a short putt then rimming his attempted tap-in for a double bogey. Our favorite location was the hillside overlooking the par-3 No. 14 hole, which also afforded views of the greens at No. 13 and No. 16. That was our favorite spot for the Ryder Cup, with its straight-on view of 217-yard tee shots cascading off a clifftop green that sat at least four stories above a rolling stream below.
That spot was ideal on Saturday when Friday’s rain had disappeared and we saw every player who made the cut take his swings. Seeing them up close affords the spectator instant impressions of the players, no matter which rung of the leader board they inhabit. Veteran Jerry Kelly of Milwaukee looked like a course marshal, with his goatee and easy demeanor. Portly Brandon de Jonge looked like he had spent more time at the concession stand than at the practice range, and Britain’s stately Colin Montgomerie strode to the green like an Oxford don preparing to give a lecture on the archers at Agincourt. When Freddie Jacobson of Sweden and Rafael Cabrera-Bello of Spain, a pair vastly out of contention, stepped onto the 13th green, a flock of buzzards mysteriously appeared and began circling, confirming their fate.
Most of the attention Sunday also was skyward, as the recurring rain made life more difficult for all at the grounds. Thursday’s showers had turned some walkways and open areas into slippery mud holes, but heavy rains on the final day nearly drowned the 40,000 spectators if not the tournament itself. Play actually was halted about 1 p.m. when a squall doused the first twelve of the 37 scheduled twosomes on the course and halted play for two hours while Jerry and I huddled under a large, yet increasingly porous, umbrella.
When play resumed around 3 p.m., the leaders soon asserted themselves with a series of birdies and eagles, while the lesser players plodded through the muck and circumstance just to finish. While some players tip-toed over puddles or muddy patches on their way to No. 14, J.B. Holmes, another Kentuckian, splashed through them like an icebreaker in the Arctic. Obviously, his Dry Joys were accustomed to mud holes, likely having navigated cow pies and deer scat in earlier days.
Many spectators had bailed out by that point, choosing to watch the game in front of a dry flat screen and a fridge full of beverages. I will admit that brother Jerry and I joined them, preferring to watch the final few holes from the comfort of his living room. It was dry, the play was competitive and the restroom and beverages were within easy reach.
It’s amazing how much you can learn about the local team by reading out of town sources. Did you know the Saints’ defense was cutting edge and on the verge of setting a new standard among NFL ball-hawkers and pigskin pilferers? Neither did I until I read a story in Friday’s Wall Street Journal titled “The Future of Defense in the NFL." With offensive output, as measured by total yards gained, increasing steadily the past three years, something had to be done to curb the trend of offensive domination. And that something is about to hatch in Who Dat Nation.
As the Journal declared: “Those inside the league say the New Orleans Saints are quietly crafting an unorthodox defense that could change the game and become the shape of defenses to come.” The local wipe, which comes to you in print form three days per week, too often sacrifices the quality of analysis for the quantity of minutiae that would fill the Slidell phone book. Readers are served glowing features on the stars and newcomers along with lite servings of such appetizers as the “pillow menu” that allows players to order late-night room service or the facilities at the Greenbrier Resort that provides such recreational diversions as skeet shooting. This is sweet and chatty, but football fans eventually want to read about football.
Speaking of which, the Journal anointed the resident defensive teddy bear, Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, as architect of the NFL’s defensive revolution. The key to this change sounds simple but is a dramatic shift from NFL practices and tradition. Basically, the Saints want to play the best eleven players they can find. Ryan was forced into this revelation after injuries depleted his corps of linebackers in 2013. That left him with two options: play bad linebackers or get creative with positions. Ryan went the latter route and stressed the safety position, playing as many as four safeties at once and playing three at a time in his default defensive package.
In the NFL, some teams play as few as one safety and almost no team ever employs more than two. Safeties are bigger than cornerbacks, who typically cover wide receivers, but faster than linebackers, who are built to stop a running back and take on offensive linemen. They can be 60 pounds lighter than some linebackers but 20 pounds heavier than some corners. They can cover the athletic tight ends now in the NFL and take on the league's rising group of tall receivers all while giving up only a little bit of speed from a cornerback. A bonus in Ryan's mad-scientist scheme is that he can position the safety anywhere from 20 yards away from the quarterback to right on the line of scrimmage, rushing the quarterback off the edge. The result? The Saints improved from last in the NFL in yards allowed in 2012 to fourth last season, Ryan's first with the team.
During the offseason, they bet plenty of money that the safety was a big reason, signing Jairus Byrd, one of the top free agents in the market, to a six-year, $56 million deal, despite having plenty of safety depth and less than plenty of salary-cap space. A month later, the team brought back safety Rafael Bush by unexpectedly matching an offer from the Falcons. A month after that, they took Alabama's starting safety, Vinnie Sunseri, in the draft. New Orleans spent last year's top pick on a safety, too—Kenny Vaccaro. Since camp opened at the Greenbrier Resort, free agent rookie Pierre Warren has inserted himself into the mix with some sterling play.
The endgame, said Ryan: "The three-safety package comes in a lot more than it's ever done in football. We have five really talented safeties on the roster and we plan on playing them all because they are really good players." The rise in offenses with just one back in the backfield, and no fullback, has made it easier for the Saints to experiment since they don't have to worry much about big beefy blockers colliding with the safeties, who are considered small when it comes to the run game. "Our three-safety deal is because the game is changing. You have to have more guys who can cover, run can do all these different things," Ryan said.
Thanks to the Journal for that insight, which is important to Saints fans no matter where it comes from. I just wish the Times Pickonyou would devote more space to the “why” rather than the “who, what, where and when” of the journalistic mantra. This is not a new phenomenon that we can blame on a reduced print publication schedule, and forgive me, but I still do not believe most fans get their news online! I will never forget a visit to New Orleans in the late 1980’s by the late, great sports columnist, Will McDonough of the Boston Globe. As we sat watching practice, he was thumbing through the local sports page when he told me: “If I tried to get some of this crap past my desk, they’d throw it back in my face.” Maybe so, but they’d love you in New Orleans!
Two stories in the newspaper this week guaranteed to me that NFL training camps are under way. The first, of course, is the only story that New Orleans football fanatics are talking about, that the Saints descended upon the Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia to begin another positively certain Super Bowl quest. The second story meant the same thing in my own peculiar linkage of thoughts when swarms of mayflies descended on the Midwest in their annual suicide mating rituals!
Now understand that your pedestrian NFL observer will not likely link a team’s Super Bowl chances with the mating rituals of a bug, but we’ll get to that in a minute. First, the fact that little local uproar greeted the news that the Saints were again taking training camp out of the state reflects the modern “can do no wrong” attitude of Who Dats toward their team. It wasn’t always that way, including the year we took the team out of stifling heat, humidity and afternoon thunderstorms to bucolic La Crosse, Wisconsin, in the late 1980s.
The politicos in Baton Rouge were incensed that owner Tom Benson was enjoying state benefits through improvements at the Superdome, and the local fandom was up in arms that nearby Hammond wasn’t good enough for the new regime headed by GM Jim Finks. Fans did not realize that no matter what the good folks of Hammond and Southeastern Louisiana University tried to do, their facility still sat in the middle of a boiling crawfish pot. Our first year, in 1986, head trainer Dean Kleinschmidt counted more than 130 liters of IV fluids that had to be hot-wired into the veins of withering players. Each IV meant the next practice day was lost.
The Saints tried Hammond again the following year, but July 1987 turned out to the one of those monsoon summers where the rains came early and often. To find a suitable – aka “dry” – indoor practice facility meant numerous hour-long bus rides to the LSU indoor facility or the Superdome, when it wasn’t hosting tractor pulls or Motocross events. Finks and Coach Jim Mora began looking for a better way.
When the move to La Crosse became a reality, the local wipe was so incensed that it even used a rare Midwest heat wave to show how ill-advised that decision was. We arrived in La Crosse to temperatures in the high 90’s that sometimes topped the 100 mark. Even without the humidity of the lower Mississippi River, the heat on the northern end of that ripple was uncomfortable. So during first week of camp, the Times-Pickonyou ran a page 1 weather boxscore that frequently read: “La Crosse 98, New Orleans 94.” But after we were settled and the heat dissipated, the mayflies came.
Any New Orleans resident who has endured the swarms of Formosan termites around the first of May can get only an inkling of what we experienced. Unlike the small flying termites, a normal mayfly is the size of a dragon fly, while the bull mayfly is as big as a pigeon. Well, not really, but it seemed that way when a swarm can blot out every street light in town. Unlike the Formosan termites, which orient themselves to the light of the moon, mayflies flock to NFL training camps near streetlights and lamps. The recent story said that last week, swirls of green, yellow and blue splashed across radar screens at the National Weather Service in La Crosse like a rainstorm on an otherwise clear night.
I remember rising early from my University of Wisconsin La Crosse dorm bed for a 6 a.m. run and crunching my way through the streets and swarms of dead mayflies stacked around light poles. Wow, I thought those mayfly mating rituals must be dandies to leave all this carnage behind! I half expected the dead mayfly carcasses to return to life and become a horror movie, but the annual siege is not so funny for those who still put up with it. News reports blamed at least one traffic accident on the infestation although there was no word on how many people were missing. Sorry, I couldn’t resist that one.
I’m not sure if West Virginia has anything to equal the mayfly. Mosquitoes don't have the cache or the sexual drive, from what I hear. But as long as training camp achieves its purpose, Who Dat Nation can be content with another Super Bowl and continue to endure its May Day ritual of hosting the Formosan termites.