The Whims and Foibles of Sports...
My grandson Keegan is 4 1/2 and loves to watch football and scrum with his 2 1/2 year old sister Ella. She is not only beautiful, but an able tackler, so Keegan has a good training mate with whom to sharpen his skills. My only scouting report on his athletic ability comes from his mom, who might be a bit partial, but I’m thinking that once he gets over his infatuation with soccer, he might become a gridiron force to be reckoned with. So indulge me while I fantasize for a moment at Keegan’s athletic future, and my purpose will become clear.
I envision Keegan is a quarterback and enjoys an All-America career at Virginia Tech (his dad’s alma mater). He is drafted in the first round of the 2035 NFL Draft by the Washington Redskins (his favorite team) and in two years leads his team to the NFC championship with a 63 to 44 win over the Los Angeles Rams. The next week in Super Bowl LXX, Keegan leads the Redskins to an electric come-from-behind 77 to 74 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs. The electronic scribes of the day hail Keegan’s victory as a generational phenomenon. After all, he defeated two teams that, in succession, were led by 41-year-Jared Goff and his geriatric peer, 41-year-old Patrick Mahomes. You see where I’m going with this?
NFL fans will not have to wait for Keegan to become a young quarterback who faces a couple of old coots in an effort to win the Super Bowl, but that’s the best way I can explain just what we are facing in the NFL conference championship games. Ice the beer, grill the chicken wings and order your favorite multi-topping pizzas as you watch two young quarterbacks who were Keegan's age when their aged opponents came into the NFL. In other words, never before have both conference championship games featured two veteran elite quarterbacks facing teams led by Millennials.
If you don’t know what a Millennial is, go to You Tube for Micah Taylor's humorous explanation, but in popular terms it refers to the younger generation. And on Sunday, you’ll see two of their entitled delegates take the pitch. Goff, 23, leads the Rams against the Saints and QB Drew Brees, who turns 40 on Tuesday, while Mahomes, who is also 23, leads the Chiefs against the venerable Tom Brady, who is 41.
Andrew Beaton of the Wall Street Journal characterizes the games as a “potential generational torch passing.” Brees and Brady have “ritualistically carved up defenses for years in the most diabolical way, peppering opponents with precise and traditional passing attacks. Mahomes … (and)… Goff have invaded the league’s elite by playing completely differently. They star in explosive offenses that renounced the same norms Brady and Brees mastered en route to Super Bowl wins.” The fact is that the four quarterbacks lead the top four offenses in the NFL this year which helped earn their teams the top four seeds in the playoffs.
So who will prevail? Will experience and performance over time win out? It would be a resounding statement if the Saints and Patriots win and head for the Super Bowl. Brees and Brady have performed at an elite level for many years, avoiding career-threatening injuries and solving multiple defensive schemes intended to stop them. They have endured rules interpretations, a revolving door of teammates and scandals (see: Bountygate, Inflategate, etc.). Or will youth be served as the young guns replicate their free-wheeling styles that might signal the direction of where the NFL is headed? More scoring, less emphasis on defense and rules changes to pump up the numbers.
It’s a generational question worthy of a Gallup poll, and I believe the answers would be predictable. Respondents over the age of 40 would favor the Brees-Brady combination by a margin of 74 percent to 26 percent, while respondents age 39 and under would favor the Mahomes-Goff combination by a margin of 36 percent to 20 percent. The remaining 44 percent took their participation medals and went to Starbucks.
I hate the Philadelphia Eagles, I really do. I know it’s fashionable in New Orleans to dislike any team that dares to think they can beat the Saints. After all, our local heroes are the top-ranked, first-seed, most wonderfullest team in our National Football League playoff pantheon. Just ax anybody! So Who Dat Say Dey Gonna Beat Dem Saints? Who Dat? Who dat, indeed!
But I will be pulling harder for the Saints this week than normal, because the Eagles have done me wrong. More than once! In fact, two of the most disappointing moments in my 20 years as a league and club executive came at the slime-green-dripping hands of the Philadelphia Eagles. Sometimes you pull for one team and other times you pull against another. Sunday afternoon’s playoff game in the Superdome will be one of those rare confluences when I will be pulling for one team while absolutely abhorring the synthetic turf that their opponents walk on.
So why is there no Brotherly Love between me and the NFL representative from the city of the same honorific? Sit down, pour a cool drink and listen to my story.
I can empathize with Chicago fans, coaches and execs after the Bears were upset by the Eagles yesterday at Soldier Field. My last NFL game as a participant came in January, 2002, when I was an executive with the Bears and we were set to host the Eagles in a playoff game. The Bears had gone 13-3 to win the old NFC Central Division and held a No. 2 seed to the Rams, both of which earned a first-week bye.
I already had announced my retirement from the NFL, and I thought it would be a wonderful way to go out if my team made it to the Super Bowl, which would be played in New Orleans. A triumphant finish to Miller's farewell tour! That hope was supported by the fact that we had the NFL’s top-ranked defense, led by LB Brian Urlacher and FS Mike Brown, that had allowed only 203 points during the season. QB Jim Miller (I was referred to in Halas Hall as “the other” Jim Miller) was not spectacular but steady enough to lead an opportunistic offense that was ranked No. 11 in the league. We also were somewhat a team of destiny, having recorded five comeback wins during the season.
We were confident after the Eagles defeated Tampa in the wild card round, and the oddsmakers agreed. But early in the game, we lost QB Miller to an injury, and Eagles QB Donovan McNabb led the Eagles to a 33-19 upset. That wasn’t the way I wanted to end a 20-year NFL career, but that game wasn’t my worst memory of the Eagles. That came nearly a decade earlier, on January 3, 1993, when the Saints hosted the Eagles in the first round of the playoffs.
In my opinion, the 1992 team was the best Saints team of the Jim Mora era. We were 12-4 although once again finishing as runner-up in the NFC West to the hated 14-2 49ers. The Dome Patrol was at its peak with the best defense in the league, and Bobby Hebert’s offense was efficient and effective. Indeed, the Saints dominated the first three quarters of the game and held a 20-10 lead heading into the fourth quarter. But things fell apart quickly. Hebert threw three interceptions, two to future Saint Eric Allen, and the Eagles scored an amazing 26 points in the final quarter to win.
I remember sitting in the press box with personnel chief Bill Kuharich and GM Jim Finks. We usually stuck around after a game, but that day we were too shell-shocked to do anything but sit there while a stunned crowd filed out of the stadium. It was also Finks’ last game with the Saints. A few months later, he would resign to begin a one-year battle against cancer.
So, to Drew Brees and the present-day Saints, I have one request. Remember whatever you did on November 18 when you beat the Eagles 48-7 and do it even better. I suspect the Eagles will not make the same mistakes they did that day and already are plotting how they can disappointment me a third time. But don’t let them, Drew. Please!
I am certain you are anxiously awaiting New Years Day when No. 14 Kentucky takes on No. 12 Penn State in the Citrus Bowl. No? Well, it’s not exactly a marquee bowl in the College Football Playoffs scheme, but it is the most prestigious bowl to invite the Wildcats since the 1999 Outback Bowl. (Yes, I remember, Penn State beat Kentucky in that one, because brother Jerry and I were sitting in Raymond James Stadium that day.) But it’s all a matter of perspective.
One man’s Citrus Bowl or Fiesta Bowl may be another team’s toilet bowl, which is the way some of my LSU friends see their matchup with Central Florida tomorrow. I get that, because Big Blue Nation sees the NCAA basketball tournament the same way. LSU and a lot of other schools would love to play in the NCAA basketball final 16 which Kentucky fans see as a speed bump on the way to the Final Four. But, like I said, it’s all perspective. Frankly, Kentucky football fans regard the Citrus Bowl as their Super Bowl!
Big Blue Nation has reason to show some optimism over its long-suffering football program. Kentucky went 9-3, its best season since Jimmy Carter was President, and probably left some money on the table in losses at Texas A&M and Tennessee. But when was the last time that the Wildcats were actually being talked about in the same breath as Georgia when the two teams met to decide first place in the SEC Eastern Division. The Dogs prevailed, but just being there suggests that Kentucky football has turned a corner it has been peeking around, maybe since Bear Bryant hung his hounds tooth hat in Lexington.
The thing that speaks loudest about Kentucky’s possible arrival into the upper tier of the SEC is recruiting. Good players make good coaches, and good players win championships. And while it’s going to take Kentucky a few more seasons like 2018 to be taken seriously, Coach Mark Stoops and his staff at least are competing with the big boys for players.
A recent recruiting roundup in the New Orleans Times-Picayune confirmed such when the reporter wrote: “Amite athlete Devonta Lee is one LSU expects to land … and though Kentucky is making a big push for him, LSU is considered the favorite.” The next paragraph discussed Georgia cornerback Jay Ward, whom the newspaper said “was a Kentucky commitment, but now LSU is considered the team to beat.” The story did not mention that Lee’s high school teammate, dual-threat QB Amani Gilmore, has signed with the Wildcats. Kentucky might not get Lee or Ward or many other recruits that other teams covet, but it is well beyond the days when they competed with the likes of East Carolina, Louisiana Lafayette and Tulane for players.
Of course, there’s a long way to go. Rivals.com’s SEC rankings after the December 19 signing day ranked Kentucky No. 12 among the 14 SEC schools. That’s about where you should be ranked with zero five-star recruits and four four-star recruits. Compare that with top-ranked Alabama with three five-stars and 22 four-stars; second-ranked Georgia with five five-stars and 14 four-stars or LSU’s three five-stars and 10 four-stars. Stoops will counter that his recruiters have been successful at picking up lower-rated players and developing them into five-star status.
There is sufficient evidence to support the sign-and-develop theory. Kentucky’s three best players include Josh Allen, a likely high NFL first-round pick who won multiple post-season awards as the top defensive player and linebacker in the nation. Allen came to Kentucky as a two-star recruit with his only other offer from that gridiron juggernaut, Monmouth. RB Benny Snell, who garnered first-team all-SEC as well as All-America honors, was a three-star recruit in 2016, while offensive guard Bunchy Stallings, another three-star in 2014, was named first-team All-SEC this year. I don't know if that strategy breeds loyalty, but not one is passing up the bowl game although more Wildcats could be drafted next spring than any previous year.
LSU fans may be disappointed their team is not playing for the national title, but to Kentucky, the Citrus Bowl provides a hint of what its program could become. And at least for now, Big Blue Nation is just happy to be here. Like I said earlier, it’s all a matter of perspective.
I’m not going to take up much of your time today, seeing as how this is one of the busiest weeks of the year and you’ve probably got some Christmas shopping yet to do. So for the last time this year I will shamelessly suggest one or both of my books that appear in the right-hand column of this page. They are worth the read, and any purchases will go to the Miller children’s milk fund so they will have something to drink beside beer. But seriously …
Please don’t call the Saints’ 12-9 win at Carolina Monday night an “ugly” victory. Losses are ugly. Wins are beautiful, although sometimes the paths to glory are filled with pot holes. QB Drew Brees appeared to struggle for the third game in a row, but thank goodness the defense is playing as well as any unit in the NFL right now.
Much of Brees' problems is due to the bumps and bruises along the offensive line. Starting left tackle Terron Armistead missed another game, and his backup Jermon Bushrod left the Carolina game with an ailment of his own. Andrus Peat moved over from left guard to play tackle, while seventh-rounder Will Clapp of LSU took over for Peat. Center Max Unger also went out, with an apparent concussion, which left undrafted second-year man Cameron Tom at snap. Attrition happens during the slog of a long season, and the Saints have been fortunate to have kept most of their core players healthy …
There are only a few more shopping days left until the playoffs. The good news is that the Saints have a two-game lead over the Rams and Bears and need to win one of their final two games to assure the critical No. 1 seed for home field throughout the playoffs. If the Saints lose to Pittsburgh and Carolina, both home games, they could fall to No. 3 – and lose their first-round bye - if the Rams and Bears win out. The best scenario is for the Saints to beat Pittsburgh at home on Sunday, which would assure home-field and allow Coach Sean Payton to rest his starters in the finale against Carolina. We might even get to see Teddy Bridgewater play a full game ...
Mission accomplished with my trip to Kentucky this past week. I sold a few books after my presentation to the kind folks at the Georgetown-Scott County Museum, then the Wildcats played their best game of the season, defeating Utah by a couple of dozen points. They’ll need to continue their uptick against No. 9 North Carolina Saturday to establish the Christmas mood around the Bluegrass. Big Blue Nation will either find their stockings filled with the sugar plums and bourbon balls of hope for a ninth national championship or find them filled with the twigs and coal of disappointment ...
As for me, I’m going to join you in a little yuletide cheer and give you some relief from my weekly screed. I assure you I will be back in another week or so. Even if you don’t buy my books!
THANKS FOR READING, AND MERRY CHRISTMAS TO ALL!
A crisis of immense proportions has arisen in Kentucky, and it is the duty of her native sons to come home. That’s why I am packing up the buggy and heading to the heartland this week. In case you live in a cave or a barn without a basketball hoop nailed above the door, you are certainly aware of the University of Kentucky’s 84-83 overtime loss to Seton Hall at Madison Square Garden on Saturday. The loss put the Cats at 7-2 and a likely drop from their No. 9 pregame slot into the terrible teens when the new polls come out.
And it is up to me, a faithful son of the Bluegrass and official Maker’s Mark ambassador, to do all I can to fix things. I know I probably sound like the Saints player who, flying back with the team from a road game, was informed of a disturbing crisis that had hit a part of the country. The player rushed to the front of the plane and emphatically told Coach Bum Phillips: "Coach, we oughta get this plane on the ground and find out what's going on!"
But after I did my part to solve the six-quarter Saints’ offensive malaise Sunday (with appropriate assistance from Taysom Hill's blocked punt), I now turn my talents northward to help cure the strange inconsistency that threatens the Wildcats’ goal of a ninth NCAA basketball championship. That was almost a given before the first game of the season and enough to entice me to put down a Benjamin at the local sports wagering parlor which is now completely legal in my little piece of the Gulf South.
I have written that once Mississippi legalized sports gaming at their coast casinos, I rushed over and put down wagers on my three favorite candidates for temporary immortality. The Red Sox complied, winning the World Series at 4-1 odds, so in a sense I am playing with house money. A bet on Kentucky to win the NCAA championship was also going off at 4-1, the lowest pre-season odds for any contender. (Yes, the Saints are my third bet!) But the first tip that things might not go my way for UK was the first center court tip-off against Duke. I am often more stubborn than slow on the uptake, but it did not take a genius to realize that the subsequent 34-point ass-kicking might suggest that my Wildcats are less than an even match with the hated Blue Devils and probably a few others.
It was the type of humbling that was not expected after Kentucky demolished four international teams in a pre-season sojourn to Paradise Island in the Bahamas. Those three matches, which made the Wildcats appear ready for the Golden State Warriors, now raise suspicions that their opponents were shanghaied from the armada of cruise ships that ring the harbor. One source had the temerity to suggest that the games were part of the cruise ship options that include packages for full internet, bar tab and tours of local places of interest. Who would have thought that the box that listed “recreational diversion at the island’s largest sports arena” would allow you to suit up against the Kentucky Wildcats?
The Bahamas blowouts were long forgotten after the Duke debacle and even during parts of the next seven home games, all Kentucky victories against such juggernauts as Winthrop, Monmouth and the YMCA of Rabbit Hash, Ky. Big Blue Nation expected the same level of opposition when the Cats went on the road Saturday to face Seton Hall, a team that even hated Louisville had beaten. But a strange inspiration overtakes Wildcat opponents who consider UK the closest they will ever get to the Final Four. They begin playing like Loyola of Chicago at crunch time.
Seton Hall used an assortment of three-point shots thrown from various locations inside Madison Square Garden and outside on 34th Street, the last of which in regulation gave the Pirates a three-point lead with 1.1 second remaining. The generous officials must have felt sorry for the visitors and put the clock at 1.5 seconds, just enough time for Kentucky’s Keldon Johnson to throw up his own prayer from the mid-court stripe that went cleanly through the nets and sent the game into overtime. Surely, that was the omen the Wildcats needed that would assure victory. Even the members of Big Blue Nation who filled the Garden turned their conversations to dinner at Elaine’s or Mama Leone’s?
Coach John Calipari must have been in on that conversation because his instructions to his team before the extra period did not include anything about defense. Seton Hall scored the first two baskets of the OT and then used another blind-shot three-pointer with 8 seconds remaining to send the Wildcats and their following back home in tears. Calipari, who doesn’t count wins or losses until March, said his team needed a game like that and they would be fine when they needed to be. I’m a trusting guy, but I’m going to see for my own self when Kentucky hosts Utah Saturday at Rupp Arena. I can yell and scream all I want at the TV – as the Lovely Miss Jean will confirm - but I believe the players will react far more constructively to my basso-profundo instructions in person.
In case you think my trip is strictly humanitarian in nature, know that I am appearing at the Scott County Historical Society in Georgetown on Thursday night for a talk and book-signing of my current book, “Integrated: the Lincoln Institute, Basketball and a Vanishing Tradition.” Basketball might not be as important in December, but my book makes a great Christmas gift. In case you were wondering!