The Whims and Foibles of Sports...
What a difference a week makes! Last week, the Southeastern Conference’s birthright to the BCS Title game was revoked, the Saints had suddenly gone from darling to doofus and my beloved Bosox lost All-Star Jacoby Ellsbury to the hated Yankees. But six days later, the clouds have cleared away. The earth is once again spinning on its proper axis. And Christmas is just two weeks away!
The sporting equivalent of all that bliss was Ohio State’s little kerfuffle against Michigan State and the Saints’ Sunday night steamrolling of division rival Carolina. The Buckeyes’ loss opened the door for Auburn to defend the conference’s national title against Florida State, while the Saints pistol-whipped the formerly red-hot Carolina Panthers to restore their strut. In baseball, the Evil Empire lost All-Star second basemen Robinson Cano to Seattle and signed aging Carlos Beltran, which raises their roster’s average age to 53.You probably don’t care as much about baseball this time of year as I, so let us concentrate on the subject of southern football.
This time last week, the SEC’s chances of winning an eighth straight national championship seemed as remote as Congress sitting around a campfire singing “Holly Jolly Christmas” in rounds. Top-ranked Alabama had fallen to No. 4 Auburn, leaving the SEC's highest-ranked teams out of national-title-game position. New No. 1 Florida State had only to beat 29-point underdog Duke to punch its ticket to the title game. No. 2 Ohio State faced No. 10 Michigan State riding a 24-game winning streak and the swagger of an erstwhile SEC coach: Urban Meyer, formerly of Florida. No matter that the SEC had a whopping seven teams in the Associated Press top-25 poll, including four top-10 spots. That did not matter because the Seminoles and Buckeyes were making reservations to meet at the Rose Bowl on January 6.
What the experts had forgotten was the SEC’s tradition at pulling title game invitations out of the BCS hat. In 1998, the first year of the BCS, three major teams entered the final weekend of the regular season undefeated. No. 2 Kansas State and No. 3 UCLA lost, clearing the way for No. 1 Tennessee. In 2003, one-loss LSU squeaked past one-loss Southern California and into the championship game by virtue of a BCS-computer strength-of-schedule element that was later eliminated. In 2006, one-loss Michigan and one-loss Florida were neck and neck to snag the No. 2 BCS ranking behind Ohio State. The Gators, then led by Meyer, jumped Michigan in the final BCS rankings by a tiny margin: .0101. And every one of those times, the SEC team won the title game. After Michigan State upset Ohio State Saturday, Auburn finds itself in a familiar position today with the chance to make it eight straight titles for the SEC and five straight for the state of Alabama.
The Saints also were given up for dead by some experts after Monday Night’s 34-7 dismantling at Seattle. With the hottest team in the NFL coming to town Sunday night, all of football wondered if the injuries, the one-dimensional offense and the Payton-Brees mojo had left the local heroes vulnerable. But as Mark Twain once said after newspapers reported his death: “Reports of my death are an exaggeration.”
The Saints proved they were very much alive, despite the fact they could muster only three offensive plays in the first quarter. Rob Ryan’s defense held Carolina to two field goals in successive drives, prompting a prescient comment from the broadcast team. They quoted Panthers Coach Ron Rivera saying his team could not beat the Saints by kicking field goals. Too bad, Coach! Field goals accounted for the only offense your team could generate as Ryan’s defense smothered QB Cam Newton while Brees picked apart your top-ranked defense.
The 31-13 victory does not mean the Saints are home free by any means. They travel to St. Louis next week to play a team that shocked them in 2011 when the Rams were 0-6 and the Saints had just come off a 62-7 victory over the Colts. And if anybody has bothered to notice Tampa, the Bucs have won four of five after losing their first eight. Still, the team that a week ago looked like it might not win another game once again has Who Dats pricing plane tickets to the Super Bowl.
All this upheaval reminds me of the television news spoof titled “That Was the Week that Was” that ran from 1964-65, poking fun at the humorous and unlikely events of the previous week. I concede that admitting I remember a TV show of that vintage shows my age. But so what? I might even be old enough now to play for the Yankees!
You’ve got to feel for the Saints. Not only did they stink up the West Coast like a rotting salmon on Monday night, but they lost a full day of preparation for what is arguably the hottest team in the NFL. Mysterious “aircraft problems” forced the Saints to spend Monday night in Seattle and fly back Tuesday. WDSU reported that data from the website FlightAware.com showed a plane, which had a flight history matching the Saints' away schedule, scheduled to leave at 10:10 p.m. Pacific time Monday was delayed to depart instead at 8:00 a.m. Tuesday.
The team did not get back to New Orleans until after 3 p.m. local time on Tuesday, nearly 12 hours after they had planned to return. Players were sent home to get some rest, and an afternoon of film study and conditioning at club headquarters was essentially wiped out. Even before the flight delay, coach Sean Payton expressed concern about not having his usual timeframe to prepare for the Panthers, who were able to start their preparations on Monday and will arrive in New Orleans riding an eight-game winning streak. “It’s a setback and now you’re on a short week, but we have to make the corrections," Payton said. "We have to quickly get focused on Carolina. They’re playing as good football as anybody in the league right now.”
You right about dat, coach! QB Cam Newton is a threat both passing and running the ball, but Carolina’s strength is a defense that is every bit as fearsome as the Seahawks. Seattle ranks second in the NFL in points allowed with 15.5, but in first place is Carolina, whose stingy “D” has allowed only 13.1 points. Despite all that, my guess is that the Superdome crowd will do for the Saints what the Seattle crowd did for the Seahawks, and the local heroes will prevail by a narrow margin.
But let’s get back to that mysterious aircraft problem that prevented the Saints from arriving home on time. Probably the worst travel experience a team endures is a Monday night road trip. That means an all-night flight and arrival back home in the wee hours of Tuesday when all you want to do is get to bed. When I was executive VP of the Saints, we endured another memorable Monday night trip in 1993 when the team played San Francisco. The Saints had started out 5-0 and had beaten the 49ers 16-13 in Game Four, but when the team departed for San Francisco, they were struggling at 6-3. They were coming off a tough 19-17 loss to Brett Favre and the Packers at the Superdome and were facing the 49ers, who also were 6-3. Unfortunately for the Saints, the game was not much of a contest. DB Merton Hanks returned an interception 67 yards for a touchdown in the first quarter, and the 49ers rolled to a 42-7 victory. The bedraggled travelers just wanted to get home.
The Saints’ flight departed on time and was generally uneventful until we entered New Orleans’ airspace around 5 a.m. A heavy morning fog blanketed the region, and visibility was zero. The pilot made his initial approach, but as we glided into the landing, he pulled up and decided to try it again. He came on the intercom and blamed his maneuver on “equipment on the runway.” Now, I’m thinking one of those baggage tractors was left where it should not have been, but I learned later when a pilot refers to “equipment,” he usually means another airplane is in his intended path.
A second approach was even more disturbing, because we came within about 200 feet of landing and could see the ground. But the pilot again hit the accelerator and we went back up. Flying is not a favorite diversion for many people, but a planeload of virile young males, and a few less-virile older ones, were trying to remember every prayer that Mama had taught them. Finally, on the third approach, the plane landed smoothly to a few cheers and a lot of relieved players, coaches and staff. As we shuffled out the door, I asked the pilot what was the problem. He just smiled, and said “We’re back. No problem!”
To borrow the title of the unofficial state song, the stars not only fell on Alabama Saturday; they fell on the entire Southeastern Conference. Unless Florida State or Ohio State, the world’s two highest-rated college football teams, lose in their conference title games this weekend, the SEC will be shut out of the national championship discussion one of the few times since the Coolidge administration.
That likelihood is downright repulsive to SEC football mongers, who have been spoiled with a plethora of national championships since the college conglomerate called the BCS invented such a thing. The title run is currently at seven, but unless the aforementioned upsets occur at the hands of Michigan State or Duke (Duke?), then the winner of the SEC title game must be content with hosting the Sugar Bowl and surviving a week in New Orleans with its sumptuous food, lovely ladies and all the Pat O’Brien Hurricanes the coaches can drink. Don’t throw me in the briar patch! But in case you were OD’d on turkey over the weekend, and just woke up in time for vespers on Sunday, all this occurred when Auburn upset Alabama Saturday afternoon.
There’s a reason Bear Bryant called Auburn a “cow college.” The university located in the suburbs of Opelika is officially Alabama’s agricultural college. Their facilities are magnificent, especially their veterinary sciences college, which is broken down into large animal and small animal components. And it has become obvious to anyone who watches college football that Auburn’s equine program liberally loans its leftover horseshoes to the football program for intensive rubbing at appropriate moments. How else can you explain two thrilling come-from-behind efforts in three weeks that have taken the War Eagle from an 0-8 SEC record in 2012 to the top spot and still an outside chance at a BCS title game?
I wrote that their incredible victory over Georgia a couple weeks ago was the most thrilling ending ever in a college football game. But that was before Saturday’s improbable victory on the last play of the game over the formerly greatest team in the universe. You can bet the ghost of The Bear was not at Jordan-Hare Stadium Saturday, because he refused to play the Tigers anywhere but Tuscaloosa or Birmingham, which is only fifty miles from the Alabama campus. But his successor, Nick Saban, made enough bad decisions to lose what might be his last regular season game as Tide head coach. He is rumored to have been offered $10 million a year to jump to Texas, and after Saturday, Tide fans might give him a road map to Austin.
The worst was his decision to attempt a 57-yard field goal with one gift second put back on the clock after it appeared as though RB T.J. Yeldon ran out of bounds as time expired. Replay showed a fraction of a second remained, and Saban was given another opportunity. Logic would have favored a Hail Mary pass into the end zone by Heisman Trophy candidate AJ McCarron, but Saban incredibly sent in backup kicker Adam Griffith, whose only success this season was a 20-yarder in two attempts. The freshman must have one of those legs that elicits ooohhhs and aaahhhhs during practice, but Saban believed he was ready for Prime Time. The coach sent in his normal field goal fatties to block and make sure the kid had time to get it off, which he did. But the kick was short and to the right. Return man Chris Davis alertly fielded the ball and started upfield, dodged a few fat guys and then picked up a cordon of his own blockers to prance into the end zone untouched.
Saban made a couple other decisions that are being hammered because they also did not work, although they might have looked good at the time. But the Old Bear would not have put his team in that position, at least at Auburn. His successor stepped right into a big cow college pie as the stars fell, crushing Alabama as well as the SEC’s chances at an eighth straight national coronation.
Happy Thanksgiving to one and all! It is a day set aside to give thanks for our blessings and for having family around us to participate in one of life’s grand competitions: Who gets the turkey drumsticks! Of course, Thanksgiving Day is also a day where sporting America watches football. That tradition began in 1876 with a challenge match between college football teams from Yale and Princeton and has continued with more fervor than ever.
Yes, 1876 was a long time ago. How long ago was it? Just consider that the first Thanksgiving Day game occurred only a few months after General George Armstrong Custer lost his famous Battle of the Little Bighorn to an overwhelming force of Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne warriors. If they had printed the morning line in those days, Custer would have opened as a 30-point underdog, and it did not get any better as his team proved to be no match for Sitting Bull's offensive onslaught.
After Yale and Princeton launched the Thanksgiving Day affair, it became a popular event at other colleges. The University of Michigan adopted the practice and played 19 such games from 1885 to 1905. The Thanksgiving Day games between Michigan and Amos Alonzo Stagg's Chicago Maroons in the 1890's have been cited as "The Beginning of Thanksgiving Day Football."
Football followed baseball into the professional realm at the beginning of the new century and brought the Thanksgiving Day tradition with it. In 1902, a "National" Football League, a Pennsylvania organization backed by Major League Baseball, settled its championship over Thanksgiving weekend. Members of the Ohio League played their marquee matchups on Thanksgiving Day, and in 1905 and 1906 the Latrobe Athletic Association and Canton Bulldogs, considered at the time to be two of the best professional teams, played on Thanksgiving. The Ohio League stopped holding Thanksgiving games after 1910 but in 1919, the New York Pro Football League featured a Thanksgiving matchup between the Buffalo Prospects and the Rochester Jeffersons, which ended in a scoreless tie.
However, when it comes to Thanksgiving Day football, NFL style, the Detroit Lions are credited with beginning the tradition in 1934. It was their first year in Detroit after a local radio executive, George A. Richards, purchased the Portsmouth (Ohio) Spartans, members of the NFL from 1930 to 1933, and moved the team to Detroit. Richards recognized that his Lions were taking a back seat to the baseball Tigers on the sports pages, so to attract fans, he launched a Thanksgiving Day game against the World Champion Chicago Bears. The game proved to be an all-time classic. The 1934 Lions had not allowed a touchdown until their eighth game and entered the game with a 10-1 record. But Chicago had won 11 straight games, and the Lions were fighting for a first-place tie with only a game left, a rematch with the Bears in Chicago just three days later. The plan was foiled as the Bears edged the Lions 19-16 in the holiday struggle and then prevailed 10-7 on Sunday to clinch the NFL Western Division crown.
The Lions won the 1935 NFL Championship the next year with the key game coming on Thanksgiving Day. The Lions extracted revenge for the year before, defeating the Bears 14-2 to clinch the West championship. That game solidified the Thanksgiving Day tradition in Detroit. With the exception of a six-season gap from 1939 to 1944 during World War II, the Thanksgiving Day game has been played with no interruptions.
Fast forward to 2013, when the NFL features three marquee matchups. Detroit and Dallas will host their traditional games, against Green Bay and Oakland, respectively, but the best game of the day might be Pittsburgh at Baltimore Thursday night. Both teams are a disappointing 5-6, but the Steelers are hot, having won three in a row, while the defending Super Bowl champions are roiling in the turmoil of QB Joe Flacco’s criticism of the offensive play-calling. It seems that the NFL’s latest $20 million man doesn’t like to be flanked out when the Ravens go into their new Wildcat formation.
But for the fans, it is merely continuing the tradition of Thanksgiving football that started 137 years ago! Enjoy it, and don't eat too much turkey!
Things became a little more difficult for our local heroes after NFL games Sunday. The suddenly invincible Carolina Panthers won their second straight come-from-behind game in the final minute and are still one game behind the Saints at 8-3. Indeed, Cam Newton’s bunch is taking on the appearance of the 1987 Saints, who started off 2-3 and then won ten in a row. Of course, the ’87 Saints, even at 12-3, still finished second in the NFC West to the 13-2 49ers. But the chances of the Saints holding off the Panthers in like manner will be a tough proposition.
Before they even start thinking about the Panthers, however, the Saints go on the road next Monday night to Seattle, which has been the odds-on-favorite all season to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl. They have won six in a row, have the best record in football at 10-1, and they are playing in a stadium where they have not lost since one year ago today, last November 25. That loss, 24-21 to Miami, interestingly enough was also after the Seahawks’ bye week, which is usually considered a mortal lock that a team with two weeks to prepare will win the game.
You might be of the opinion that such “rules” and statistics are only good for replacing the Sears catalog in the family outhouse. But it is still makes for an interesting discussion when trying to handicap next Monday’s game. The good news is that when the Saints are on offense, QB Drew Brees leads the No. 2 passing offense in the NFL, but the bad news is he will be facing the Seahawks’ No. 2 passing defense. That’s a draw. Seattle has more difficulty stopping the run, ranked No. 16, but that won’t matter, because the Saints don’t run the ball. Another draw.
Thankfully, defense has become a Mardi Gras mambo for New Orleans, and the Saints No. 3 rated pass defense in the League will face the Seahawks No. 24 rated passing offense. Edge to New Orleans. However, the Seahawks have the No. 2 rushing offense in the league, while Rob Ryan’s scrappers have the No. 15 rush defense. Edge to Marshawn Lynch and his offensive line. If the game comes down to turnovers, the Saints could be in trouble. The opportunistic Seahawks rank No. 1 in the league in takeaways with 26 which includes 16 interceptions. If his run game is going nowhere, and Brees feels he has to do it all, he tends to get careless. He can’t do that against Seattle. In order to win, the Saints will have to protect the ball and establish a running game, while stopping Lynch on the ground. Who Dat Nation still has nightmares about that prospect the last time they were in Seattle.
After the Seahawks, the Saints come home to face the red-hot Panthers, then hit the road to play a suddenly very dangerous Rams team. Back on the road to Carolina the next week before ending the season at home with Tampa. The Saints could easily go 1-4 over the final five weeks. That should still get them into the playoffs at 10-6, thanks to the NFC North and East divisions beating themselves up. I believe they will do better than that, but maybe no more than 2-3, with losses at Seattle, St. Louis and Carolina. Hope I’m wrong, but you can always go out to my outhouse, consult the stats and see if any other enlightenment shines through.