The Whims and Foibles of Sports...
There really is no “off-season” in the NFL, but if you follow the NGS, the “no-games season,” which we are in at present, then you know the draft is over and virtually all the valuable free agents have re-signed with their old teams or sought greener pastures elsewhere. However, there is one player still available who at one time was considered a rising star. Colin Kaepernick led the 49ers into the playoffs in 2012 and 2013, had some rough patches and injuries in 2014 and 2015 then decided to kneel during a national anthem during the 2016 preseason.
Last season, the 49ers organization descended to the level of dysfunction and the team finished 2-14. It wasn’t all Kaepernick’s fault, as his NFL QB Rating was 17th in the NFL and his 16-4 TD to Interception ratio was the best of his career. He’s still only 29, usually the prime for an NFL QB, but he is also unemployed. There are many theories as to why. Teams are punishing him and fear he will do it again on their sidelines. His mobile style of play isn’t in vogue anymore. He isn’t worth the distractions he creates. Each theory makes some sense, but I am not suggesting Kaepernick as a possible signing for the Saints. I only bring him up because of an article I saw last week about an athlete far more familiar to local fans who engaged in a similar protest and believes he was blackballed for it.
Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf’s two years at LSU as Chris Jackson are among the best seasons anyone has ever put up in college basketball history. A freshman campaign featuring a 30.2 scoring average, an NCAA record, and countless tales of 50-point nights led Jackson to be called the Next Pistol Pete. It’s even more remarkable when you consider in his sophomore season Jackson had to share the ball with teammates like Shaquille O’Neal and Stanley Roberts. Jackson was the third overall pick in the 1990 NBA draft by Denver, and three times averaged over 18 points per game. He was a 90.5% career free throw shooter which would have been best ever if he was not 40 free throws short of qualifying for the career title.
Then at the beginning of the 1995-96 season, he decided he would not stand during the national anthem before games. Few noticed this for most of the season as Abdul-Rauf would just stretch during the song or stand with his hands on his hips. It wasn't until March that a local reporter noticed and wrote about it. On March 12, 1996, commissioner David Stern passed down a one-game suspension to Abdul-Rauf for his refusal to stand. Two days later, the NBA compromised, forcing Abdul-Rauf to stand during the playing of the national anthem, but allowing him to close his eyes and look downward. Abdul-Rauf decided to say a Muslim prayer quietly to himself instead, but the damage had been done.
Abdul-Rauf decided that standing during the national anthem and saluting the American flag wasn't a part of his Islamic belief system. Abdul-Rauf's willingness to stay strong for what he believed in ultimately helped lead to an early exodus from the NBA. He played his last NBA game at age 28 then played in Turkey, Russia, Italy, Greece, Saudi Arabia and Japan before retiring in 2011. Today, he is still playing basketball, touring with a three-on-three league, but he is speaking out.
Last year Abdul-Rauf told the website The Undefeated that he views the American flag as a symbol of oppression and racism, similar to Kaepernick’s remarks. He has been silently protesting oppression and racism for more than 20 years. “I hold true to it,” he told Jerry Tipton of the Lexington Herald-Leader last week in a story about the three-on-three league. “If you feel there’s something wrong and you want to change it, whether you’re an athlete, whether you’re a doctor, whether you’re a garbage man, we all have been given a voice by God, and we have a right to voice our concerns,” he said.
Reasonable people can disagree on how best to voice concerns, he told Tipton. Each person must decide a course of action. “Whatever it is, you have to live with those consequences,” he said. Colin Kaepernick has learned that lesson the hard way.
The Saints went into this offseason with one goal: To improve a porous and often humiliating defense. Have they achieved their goal? Barring any 11th hour acquisitions, the unqualified answer at this point is, well, uh, maybe! The reason for my spring skepticism rests with one position and one that traditionally has been the backbone of a stingy defense. I am talking about linebacker. The Saints have added some warm bodies since last year, but none have been penciled in as definite starters.
As Coach Sean Payton declared at the end of the three-day rookie minicamp Sunday: “Going into the season, we’re going to have competition. There won’t be any assumed starting positions; there will be very few of those. We’ve signed players this offseason, we’ve drafted players to those positions this offseason and we’ll try to get the best combination of players out there.” When I hear comments like that, it makes me think of the coach who bragged about having three quarterbacks who were competing for the starting job. A wag in the back of room raised his hand, stood and declared: “Coach, if you have three quarterbacks, you don’t have A quarterback.” The implication is that competition is good, but in order to excel, a team must have proven starters at key positions.
Traditionally, linebacker has been one of those positions that darned near guaranteed success. Who Dat Nation might be spoiled when we talk about linebackers because around here we still think of the Dome Patrol. Rickey Jackson, Sam Mills, Vaughan Johnson and Pat Swilling all were invited to the Pro Bowl in 1991, the only time four players at the same position from one team have made a Pro Bowl together. But times change. Should we be upset because the Saints do not appear to have one recognizable linebacker who could dent the fans’ vote for the Pro Bowl?
Before we condemn our local heroes, maybe we should look at the value of the linebacker position in the modern NFL. Just how key is the position in a world that seems more intent on hybrid positions, floating fronts and dime coverages? This ain’t your 5-4 Okie anymore, Alice! A year ago, NFL.com’s Bucky Brooks ranked 24 identifiable positions on the field, starting with everybody’s No. 1, quarterback. The second most important position was pass-rusher, whether it comes from a defensive end or an outside linebacker. Middle linebacker, the position glorified by guys named Ray Lewis, Jack Lambert, Dick Butkus and Mike Singletary was the ninth most important position overall and fourth-most important defensive position behind left cornerback and defensive tackle. Weakside LB ranked 12th overall while strongside LB ranked 19th. That suggests the position is not as important as it once was. Or is it our perception?
The evolution of offenses has altered the emphasis on burly, run-stopping linebackers and placed greater emphasis on speed. The tight end and running back positions are filled with speedy big guys running post routes and running backs slithering out of the backfield catching 70 passes a year. That has forced defenses to adjust with speed. The Arizona Cardinals have even come up with a new position name – “moneybacker” - for the defensive player who can go in the box and take on offensive linemen and are also speedy enough to cover a tight end or back. Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor, a four-time Pro Bowler on one of the league’s most dominant defenses, has become the symbol of physicality in an NFL secondary. Chancellor’s time as a linebacker comes in sub packages and he’s a strong safety in Seattle’s base defense.
The transformation of strong safety into a linebacker takes one traditional 'backer off the field because today's defense has less to do with adding size to the secondary than adding speed to the front seven. That leaves a team with linebackers who are still willing to be as physical as any other linebacker but with the speed to help nullify the matchup issues presented by speedy running backs, slot receivers or giant tight ends? Does that description fit the Saints’ personnel?
For the record, the returning players are Dannell Ellerbe, Craig Robertson, Nate Stupar, Stephone Anthony, Hau’oli Kikaha and Travis Feeney. Free agent pickups include A.J. Klein from Carolina and Manti Te’o from San Diego, and Adam Bighill from the Canadian League. In the draft, New Orleans selected Alex Anzalone in the third round and then signed Sae Tautu as an undrafted free agent. Not exactly a group to be confused with the Dome Patrol! But in today’s NFL, maybe they don’t need to be.
Expectations are a great and cruel thing. We all have them, we all want them and we all suffer a terrible emotional death when we don’t get them. Charles Dickens wrote about them in his novel Great Expectations, but I’ll bet you didn’t know that G.E. was Dickens’ 13th novel? Do you think he knew his 13th novel was coming up so he decided it should contain a subliminal message of fear and just plain “bad luck” so familiar to triskaidekaphobiacs everywhere?
Pip, the young Dickens’ protagonist, struggled with his expectations, which is exactly where my favorite college basketball franchise finds itself once again. I don’t know if Kentucky coach John Calipari reads Dickens, or anything other than scouting reports and recruiting bios, but he is slowly writing another chapter of great expectations for Kentucky basketball fans. We filed into the reading room of Great Expectations 2017-18 on Saturday after one of the biggest commitments in the current college basketball recruiting cycle unexpectedly picked the Wildcats.
The decision of Kevin Knox, a 6-foot-9 forward out of Tampa, came out of the blue for Big Blue since the major recruiting services had him headed to Duke, North Carolina, Missouri or Florida State (where his father played football). Knox's recruitment was virtually under the radar as he sought little publicity for himself which is rare when for any McDonald's All-American. Knox becomes the top-rated recruit in a class that already was rated No. 1 by Scout.com with five other 5-star players. Knox joins small forward Jared Vanderbilt, power forward P.J. Washington, center Nick Richards and point guard Quade Green. Guard Hamidou Diallo enrolled in January and declared for the 2017 NBA Draft but didn’t hire an agent. He will participate in the NBA combine next week before deciding whether to return to UK.
Personally, I do not expect Diallo to return, but Knox’s signing helps soothe the potential loss. Of all the players Kentucky signed, Knox will likely have the most visibly appealing and adaptable game at the college level. He can play the 3 or the 4, but because Kentucky has so many bigs, he'll likely play at small forward where he could be a regular double-double guy. UK figures to be loaded with forwards next season, with returning sophomores 6-9 Wenyen Gabriel, 6-10 Sacha Killeya-Jones and 6-10 Tai Wynyard joining the newcomers.
But this book isn’t finished yet. Calipari is still writing the script for this version of Great Expectations and looking for more characters to play key roles. Attention now shifts to 5-star big man Mohamed Bamba, who is considered among the top three 2017 recruits. “If they get Bamba, too, and Diallo comes back,” said Evan Daniels, Scout.com’s director of recruiting, “you’re looking at a preseason top-3 team — a team that can win it all.”
We’ve heard this before, but something usually gets in the way. Three-for-33 in the second half against Georgetown in 1984; Nazr Mohammed 0-for-6 at the line in an OT loss to Arizona in 1987; Terrence Jones 1-for-5 at the line in a 3-point loss to UConn in 2011; Nigel Hayes’ 3-pointer that beat the clock, or didn’t, that enabled Wisconsin to tie and go on to win in 2015. You get the idea.
I’m not whining that Kentucky doesn’t win the NCAA title every year. We’ve won eight, second-most in history, but we EXPECT to win it every year. Will Kentucky’s 2017-18 season parallel the joy Pip felt when he and Estella were reunited in the garden or will it simply reflect Dickens’ themes of ambition, desire and disappointed expectations and go back on the shelf? Thanks, Cal, for giving us another class with Great Expectations and adding to the sweet agony of being a Kentucky basketball fan.
Once a year, I get delusional and think I know enough about racing to pick the horse that will win the Kentucky Derby. I’m not a huge tout, but it’s a matter of pride, having been bred and raced myself only about 25 miles from historic Churchill Downs. Truth be told, my personal record at picking Derby winners falls somewhere behind my ability to pick winners of the Tour de France the World Cup or the Westminster Dog Show. All of which goes to show that I keep doing it because it’s a humbling experience, and the Lovely Miss Jean says I need more humbling experiences.
Picking the Derby winner this year is especially difficult, even if I knew what I was doing. It might be better simply to look at the individual stories and pick a sentimental favorite. Louisiana has some rooting interests, including three horses trained by Fair Grounds mainstay Steve Asmussen – 15-1 Hence, 20-1 Lookin at Lee and 30-1 Untrapped, who finished second in the Risen Star Stakes at the Fair Grounds. Then there is the Desormeaux brothers, with trainer Keith saddling 50-1 Sonneteer ridden by brother Kent. But then you can look at two other stories and find some major sentiment, such as the half-blind horse and another whose trainer was kidnapped twice by Venezuelan rebels. You can’t make this stuff up!
The latter is trainer Antonio Sano who will saddle 15-1 Gunnevera. Sano had acquired quite a record as a trainer in Venezuela. He got his first horse in 1988 and by the time he left 11 years later he had won 3,338 races and remains the country's all-time leading trainer. But a so-called "horse mafia" has been known to kidnap jockeys. The Venezuelan Observatory of Violence says there are more than 40 kidnapping gangs in the country, some which work with police. The first time Sano was kidnapped it was a low-grade "express kidnapping," where the victim is driven around the city and asked to empty out their bank accounts at as many ATMs as they can. He was captive only a couple hours that time.
But in 2009, seven armed men emerged from an SUV in front of Sano’s house at 5:30 a.m., dragged him into the vehicle and held him for 36 days, most of them shackled to the wall of a room with no window, no toilet and no running water. Sano's wife, Maria Christina, collected as much money as she could, sold assets and called upon the kindness of relatives, horse owners, trainers, jockeys and even grooms to pay the ransom amount, believed to be around $70,000. The Sanos found their way to South Florida, where Sano saddled his first horse at Gulfstream on April 3, 2010 and had his first winner that same day. His Derby entry, Gunnevera, sold for a meager $16,000 at the 2015 Keeneland September Sale but has shown he belongs with the big boys, with a 4-2-1 record in nine starts.
Another great story is Patch, a 30-1 long shot trained by Todd Pletcher. One of three entries bred at historic Calumet Farm in Lexington, Patch’s path to the starting gate is as unlikely as Sano’s. Last year, an ulcer developed on the globe of his left eye and, no matter the treatment, it grew worse and wouldn’t heal. The only alternative was to remove the eye which cost Patch his entire 2-year-old campaign. Running with one eye, Patch was closing on Louisiana Derby winner and fellow Kentucky Derby hopeful Girvin as they hit the wire at the Fair Grounds on April 1. His only other action was a second in his first start at Gulfstream on Jan. 15 and a win there just more than a month later. Lack of experience is probably more of a concern than the lost eye.
But back to picking a winner. Not one entry is considered the odds-on favorite to win, as is usually the case, because a handful of colts have compiled reasonably impressive records. The slight favorite is 4-1 Classic Empire, winner of the Arkansas Derby and one of the more seasoned 3-year-olds in the field. Classic Empire has won five of his seven starts for total winnings of more than $2 million. McCraken, a 5-1 pick with a 4-0-1 record in five starts, has home track advantage as three victories came at Churchill Downs. Irish War Cry is listed at 6-1, and he has won four of five starts. But enough about the also-rans!
My pick is 5-1 Always Dreaming. I like his No. 5 post position, but more so because he is saddled by Pletcher and ridden by Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez, who won the 2011 Derby aboard Animal Kingdom. Always Dreaming will run even with Classic Empire for much of the race but will outlast him in the stretch. Gunnevera, ridden by Javier Castellano, racing’s winningest jockey the past four years, makes a late bid to finish third.
See how easy that was?
I had a lot of thoughts running through my head before the draft started Thursday night. The first one was undying gratitude to the lovely Miss Jean for accepting her sister’s invitation to spend Thursday through Sunday at the beach. I missed her, but the unaccustomed silence allowed me to sit in front of the TV and watch more draft machinations than I probably had watched since my days in a handful of war rooms. Actually, in some ways it was better than being in the war rooms.
I could have an adult beverage anytime I wanted, plus when it was over I didn’t have to get on the phones and beg members of the great unwashed and undrafted to sign with my team. The post-draft rush for free agents is a circus all its own, as any club person will tell you. Late in the draft, the personnel director puts together a list to fill the roster. We need to sign this many offensive linemen, that many defensive backs, a smattering of wideout receivers and a varied assortment of wherever we needed cannon fodder for training camp. After the free agents were locked up, Jim Finks had a practice of sending one of our assistants out for several gallons of daiquiris. A time of great relief, plus another way your favorite team boosted the local economy!
The way the draft fell for the Saints didn’t really surprise me but some moves or non-moves were interesting. All the hoopla about coveting a pass-rusher must have had a couple of major IF’s attached, such as IF there is nobody else with a significantly higher grade, or IF we can’t trade up without sacrificing third-round or higher picks in a deep draft, or IF Atlanta doesn’t trade over our heads and take our guy!
The rush on quarterbacks and other offensive players left the Saints in a prime position to take any one of a handful of pass rushers with the No. 11 pick, but it became apparent they could go in another direction when Marshon Lattimore, the acknowledged top cornerback in the draft, was passed on by several teams that the mock drafts identified as his next home. In fact, after the Titans and Chargers took wide receivers at #5 and #7, I tweeted to my legion of followers: “The Saints are going to get somebody they never expected to be there.” Then, after Cincinnati picked yet another wideout at #9, I tweeted: “Lattimore or (DE) Jonathan Allen?”
Coach Sean Payton confirmed later that they had graded Lattimore as one of the top four players in the draft, so you can’t fault the pick. It was a position of need, and they filled it with the highest-rated guy at the position. Interestingly, Alabama’s Allen kept falling, and I would not have been surprised if the Saints had traded up for him, but Washington grabbed him at #17. That shifted the suspense to what the Saints would do at #32 with the pick they received from New England for WR Brandin Cooks.
Several edge rushers kept dropping, and I fully expected Commissioner Roger Goodell (weren’t the Philly fans really shouting “GOOOOOOODELL”?) to announce “there’s been a trade.” He did that several times, but it wasn’t on behalf of the Saints. Pass rushers Charles Harris, Tak McKinley and Taco Charlton all went between 22 and 28, fertile ground for a Saints trade-up, but they stayed put. The hated Falcons did their best to rattle Who Dat Nation when they jumped up and swiped UCLA’s McKinley at #22 (and later plucked LSU’s LB Duke Riley at #75, one spot before the Saints picked Florida LB Alex Anzalone).
There were still some rush ends available when the Saints went on the clock at #32, but none of them rated as highly at Wisconsin OT Ryan Ramczyk, whom Payton says had a top-15 grade. I will say the Saints believe in their grading system! I have no problem taking a good player, especially a lineman, but the question is: Would you rather have Cooks or somebody who might not play this year? Former Cleveland GM Mike Lombardi tweeted his thoughts: “Another obvious observation. The 32nd pick was not as talented as WR B. Cooks.”
But the Saints did not sit on their hands if a prospect with a high grade falls beyond his value. Acquiring Tennessee RB Alvin Kamara at #67 in return for a second-round pick next year makes sense if the Saints gave Kamara a second-round grade. The Saints would expect to get a good player with a second-round pick next year, so why not pick him now and put him to work a year early? After all, at what price is the clone of Reggie Bush or Darren Sproles?
Let me put in a final word on the Patrick Mahomes fascination. I never believed for a minute the Saints were interested in a quarterback with the No. 11 pick, but the public’s spy, golfer Ryan Palmer, who along with teammate Jordan Spieth were invited into the war room, revealed the contrary. The Saints, Palmer said, “were big into Mahomes,” until Kansas City traded into the #10 spot and took him. They probably would not have taken him over Lattimore, but here’s my take on Mahomes.
He may be the next Jay Cutler, a guy who has great skills but who replicates a sub-.500 college career at the next level. The Wall Street Journal earlier this week published a list of NFL quarterbacks, some highly drafted like Cutler, Tim Couch and Brady Quinn, who were less than average when it came to winning games in the NFL. Is there a correlation between not winning in college and not winning in the NFL? Thankfully, that is one question the Saints don’t have to wait around for.