The Whims and Foibles of Sports...
You probably have your own memories of hot division races and how your favorite team either won it at the wire or lost in disappointing fashion. But the 2017 NFC South Division race reminds me of one such instance that has given me bad dreams ever since. In 1991, the Saints rode a sinister rollercoaster in which they enjoyed their greatest triumph only to suffer a heartbreaking loss to a division rival. And the same divisional matchup could happen this year.
After the Falcons defeated the Saints Thursday night and the Panthers came back to beat Minnesota Sunday, only one game separates the three teams. The 9-4 Saints and 9-4 Panthers seem to have the advantage with their schedules, although each team must face 8-5 Atlanta. The irony is that a Falcons sweep could leave all three teams with identical 11-5 records, which could give the Falcons the division title, send the Saints back to Atlanta for a playoff game, and send the Panthers on the road as the last wild card.
In any case, the playoff Saints probably will play their first game against a division rival, which sends the willies up my spine. I recall vividly the 1991 NFC West race in which the Saints won their first division title only to lose their playoff opener to arch-rival Atlanta. The ’91 Falcons were not just a good team, they had swag that the NFL had not seen before, as featured in an NFL Network special last Friday night (and probably in subsequent re-runs). As the promotional blurb said: “1991 saw a young Deion Sanders entering his prime – a primetime, if you will.” It was his third season with the Falcons, and Deion scored five touchdowns four different ways – receiving, punt return, kick return and a pick six. “We brought swag and hip hop to the NFL,” Neon Deion said on the program. “It was fly!”
The coach of that team was the iconoclastic Jerry Glanville, who said that team was “The most fun team ever in pro football.” One member of the team was a second-round QB whose stat line for the season was four pass attempts, no completions and a pick six on his first NFL toss. Glanville thought so little of him that they traded him after the season to the NFL wilderness of Green Bay which Brett Favre quickly turned into a garden of championships.
The Saints started the season like gangbusters, winning their first seven games before losing to the Chicago Bears at the Superdome. Jim Mora's team came back to defeat the Rams and 49ers for a 9-1 Division leading record, but a disastrous four-game losing streak, including a shocking 23-20 overtime loss to the Falcons, dropped them to 9-5 with two games to go. Again, the Saints rallied, shutting out the Raiders and then clinching the division with a 27-3 win at Arizona. We were all confident when we learned our opponent would be the Falcons who finished 10-6 and would have to come to New Orleans.
The teams played even for three quarters, but a 1-yard Dalton Hilliard run gave the Saints a 20-17 lead early in the fourth quarter. After the Falcons’ Norm Johnson tied it with a 36-yard field goal, Atlanta got the ball back, and disaster loomed. As he had done three times earlier in the two previous games, WR Michael Haynes provided the back-breaker. A 61-yard touchdown catch from QB Chris Miller with 2:41 left gave the division rival Falcons a 27-20 victory. I will never forget the feeling of watching Haynes fly down the field, our hopes dashed once again.
We tried to extract a bit of revenge a couple years later when we signed Haynes to a free agent contract. But it was too late. The fear of playing a division rival in the playoffs will forever evoke images of bad things happening.
I’m a big fan of sports writer Dan Jenkins, one of those twangy Texas scribblers who writes in a foreign language. At least, that’s how his writing sounds to the rest of us who wonder at the magnificent way he explains the wildlife park that we call “sports” in words shorter than “watermelon.”
Some of my Jenkins favorites: “Always keep in mind if God didn’t want golfers to have mulligans, balls would not come three to a sleeve.” How about this one: “Baseball would be a lot more exciting if more third basemen were hit in the teeth by line drivers.” Back to golf: “The devoted golfer is an anguished soul who has learned a lot about putting just as an avalanche victim has learned a lot about snow.” And to the sport of the season: “Until Sammy Baugh, pro football in Texas was a one-paragraph story on the back page of Monday’s sport section.”
Speaking of professional football in Texas, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones is well aware of the effect of Texas sportswriters on how he conducts his daily business. At a dinner a few years ago for fabled editor Blackie Sherrod, who hired Jenkins and a cast of other revelers at the Fort Worth Press, Jones roasted the entire species: “When I came to Dallas,” Jones cracked, “this room (of sportswriters) greatly influenced me. I saw how you could take a little bit of fact and put a lot of bullshit with it and really do something in sports!” Since Jones and Roger Goodell have been engaged in their recent parry and thrust routine lately, nobody is quite sure how much is fact and how much is bullbleep, but as their snit has evolved I’ve wondered how Jenkins’ greatest contribution to sports literature would have applied to Jones?
I am talking about Jenkins’ legendary section in his classic book Baja Oklahoma in which he memorialized “Mankind’s Ten Stages of Drunkenness.” It is a masterful description of those of us who start tippling, are emboldened to have another and on and on until the world lays bare at our feet. If you have never heard it before, then the application to Jerry Jones might give you some sense of perspective. I humbly offer to you:
The Ten Stages of Jerry Jones
1. Witty and Charming, 2. Rich and Powerful. I can see oilman Jones in his early courting of the NFL to buy “America’s Team.” He was charming and convincing that he had the financial wherewithal and the smack to fit right into the group.
3. Benevolent. After he bought the team, Jones established the Jones Family Foundation that supports numerous community outreach and has continued to become one of the NFL’s great philanthropists.
4. Clairvoyant. Jones’ business acumen has often been interpreted as a clairvoyance that takes a business-as-usual practice and spins it into a bigger pie. His deal with Pepsi, only months after he bought the team, violated the league’s relationship with Coke, but the parties compromised which set a tone that had other owners believing in Jones’ intuitive ideas.
5. F---- Dinner! We’ve all been at the point where we would rather have another drink than go to dinner, but this stage also reflects Jones’ intensity and assertiveness in dropping what he is doing to move quickly into another revolutionary idea that will make even more money.
6. Patriotic, 7. Crank up the Enola Gay. Jones was quick to take former QB Roger Staubach’s service in the U.S. Navy and expand it to regular tributes to the military. Like the guy at the end of the bar who sees the National Anthem on the big screen, you can almost picture Jones standing, saluting and wishing the football in his suite contained the nuclear codes.
8. Witty and Charming, Part II. This is where Jones begins to talk even more sweetly to his fellow owners about new initiatives and projects that will only expand the pot, so long as they agree with him.
9. Invisible, 10. Bulletproof.. The final stages came officially when Jones was elected earlier this year to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. At that point, I could see Jerry’s eyes glazing over as he eyed the end zone. He races downfield, avoiding the league office’s defenders as he crosses the only goal left that he has not achieved. Jones has denied his fight with Goodell was to take over the Park Avenue commissioner’s suite, but that goal fits right in with Jenkins’ final stage. His hero, fueled with copious amounts of alcohol – or power? – is convinced he is right even as he reaches the ultimate stage of delusional behavior.
This is another Road Trip story with a happy ending. I attended the Kentucky Book Fair in Lexington last week to sign copies of my latest book, “Integrated: the Lincoln Institute, Basketball and a Vanished Tradition.” With smart phones and Sirius XM, sporting enthusiasts are never too far away from the madness, but the trip gave me a chance to get away and remind myself that I have another life out there somewhere. Only Brother Jerry’s offer of tickets to Rupp Arena made me depart from my respite to see Kentucky’s young Wildcats defeat East Tennessee State Friday night. But on the stand I would testify that I was there for the Book Fair.
For a writer, or a general facsimile thereof, signing your book at a book fair is like selling fudge brownies at a Sugar Festival. The patrons don’t need your product, they have a lot of choices from which to select, but once they pick yours, they can savor the sweetness of a good story well told, and you get to drink the cold glass of milk. Of course, some of the things I’ve written might be better enjoyed with a glass of Makers Mark, but a book fair is a great opportunity to talk about your work with book lovers and fellow authors alike as well as doing things a little differently yourself.
This author, who is more comfortable in front of a laptop, assumes a different persona at the book fair, turning into part huckster. My spiel to turn browsers into buyers went something like this: “How ya doin’? Getting all your Christmas shopping done here? If somebody you know likes basketball and its history, then my book would be a great gift.” (Speaking of which, you can click on the icon at the right and do some of your own Christmas shopping right here!)
One browser listened to my pitch but was more concerned with telling me of his experiences. Some browsers like to chat, and the author must beware of the ones who stand in front of your table talking while obstructing the view for potential buyers. You listen politely, at least until a potential buyer leans around Chatty Charlie to pick up a copy of your book and starts thumbing through it. That’s why many folks in retail are googly-eyed, keeping one eye on polite and one eye on potential until you finally offer Charlie your hand and turn to the potential buyer.
Another pitfall that faces the author, especially when the fair is close to his home town, is when old friends come to see you. That’s very nice until you see a familiar face but can’t recall the name. That happened to me at least twice on Saturday, when a buyer whose face was familiar but whose name I could not recall bought a book. If the name does not surface after a casual chat, my flummoxed response is “Who should I make this out to?” You hope they give you a name – a brother, a relative - and not the dreaded “Just address it to me!” That is when the writer employs Plan B and responds: “Spell it for me, because I signed a book once for a guy named ‘Smith,’ and after I signed, he told me he spelled his name ‘Smythe’.”
Overall, the days away were a good break. I sold some books, saw some old friends and made some new ones. And the visits with relatives and golf with Brother Jerry and our old SAE pal Frank Farris, made the road trip, as my beloved cousin Sharon says: “Fuuuuunnnn!”
I returned to my normal world while driving back on Sunday. I found the right Sirius-XM channel and listened in frustration to most of the Saints’ game with Washington. The Lovely Miss Jean, whose patience with long drives is short, endured my ranting at Sean Payton’s mid-game reluctance to hand Mark Ingram the ball. After he ran for a 36-yard TD in the first quarter, he largely disappeared. It seemed to the frustrated traveler that the Saints’ ground game was the only thing working. QB Drew Brees was getting whacked almost every time he dropped back and the crippled defense could do little to stop Washington’s pass or run games.
We were past Tuscaloosa when the Redskins took a 31-16 lead, and we turned into an Arby’s for a late lunch. (Best fast food in America!) When we returned to the car, I was finished subjecting myself to the misery of a lost cause, so I turned the Sirius XM dial to Classic Vinyl. That allowed me to take a breath and gave my bride a little peace.
Brother Jerry called around 3:30 and said he didn’t want to call during the Saints game, but “congratulations.” I said “for what?” He said “for the Saints winning.” I responded, “They got their a---- kicked!” And my brother, ever delighted at correcting me, informed us: “No, they won in overtime.”
And I thought to myself: "Holy s---! I'd better not leave town again. This team is special!"
The NFL’s death spiral has turned inward. After the League has endured external disruptions over National Anthem player protests, lower TV ratings, unhappy sponsors, lower attendance and concerns about whether the game is unsafe, Dallas owner Jerry Jones is leading an insurgency from within. Jones’ stated purpose is to stop a lucrative contract extension for Commissioner Roger Goodell that in reality would result in Goodell’s ouster.
Owners elect a commissioner to do two things: Make Money and Handle Problems. There is no doubt that Goodell has made money for the owners as league revenue has surged to an estimated $14 billion. Goodell has been well compensated, pulling in more than $200 million in salary and bonuses since becoming commissioner in 2006. But the problems persist, and the popular perception is that Goodell has done little to halt the slide. That's a good reason but not the real reason.
Jones’ motivation is purely personal after Goodell moved to suspend Cowboys star RB Ezekiel Elliott after a prolonged investigation of several domestic violence incidents. It wasn’t the first time Jones stood at the gates of the NFL commissioner’s office, waving pitchforks and torches. Barely eight months into his ownership of the Cowboys in 1989, Jones joined a cabal of insurgents who protested the selection of Saints President and GM Jim Finks to succeed Pete Rozelle as commissioner.
After Pete Rozelle announced his retirement at the March owners’ meeting in Phoenix, a committee led by Pittsburgh’s Dan Rooney recommended Finks for the job. It was a logical selection since Finks was considered one of the top executives in the league, having built the Minnesota Vikings teams that appeared in four Super Bowls and the Chicago Bears team that won it all after the 1985 season. Even more remarkably, Finks had turned around the league’s doormat Saints into a playoff team in his second year. Finks also had the respect of the players since he had come into the NFL as a quarterback and defensive back with the Pittsburgh Steelers and was elected to the Pro Bowl in 1952. He would often walk down the hall from his tiny office on David Drive and spend time in the locker room talking with his players about their concerns and regaling them with stories of the old days. There were no flies on Finks.
However, there were objections to the process. Minnesota President Mike Lynn was the most outspoken, voicing outrage that the majority of owners did not have input in the process. It was personal for Lynn because Finks proved to be a tough act to follow. The Vikings had not made it back to the Super Bowl during Lynn's years in charge, and Lynn would never be a football man in the minds of the team or community. Lynn’s only football experience came in Memphis, where he was a theater manager who became active in trying to lure NFL exhibitions to the city. In 1974, Lynn was hired as an assistant to Vikings owner Max Winter and in 1975 was named to succeed Finks who had resigned to become GM of the Bears. The resentment likely started when Winter introduced his new president as “Mike Lynch.”
But in 1989, Lynn was successful at persuading other owners that the process to elect a commissioner was unfair. His goal was solely to deny Finks the opportunity he spent a lifetime earning. Rooney felt strongly enough about Finks’ support that he announced an owner’s meeting to formally vote on the new commissioner. Rooney was aware of the pushback and urged Finks to call some of the reluctant owners to smooth things over, but Finks refused. He told me privately, “If I have to campaign for it, I’ll have to owe people, and a new commissioner can’t do his job if he owes anybody.”
Lynn had persuaded ten other clubs to vote against the Finks nomination, including former Finks supporters Bob Irsay of Indianapolis and a new owner who was a surprise addition to Lynn’s cabal. Earlier that year, Jerry Jones, his son Stephen and head coach Jimmie Johnson had spent a day in New Orleans talking with Finks and his staff about how to put together a successful organization. Despite Finks spending time with a new owner and giving him a peek under the tent of success, Jones sided with Lynn and voted against Finks.
After much discussion and debate, Rooney realized the insurgents had locked arms and, more concerned about making a point than picking the right man, would never vote for Finks. He withdrew Finks’ name and switched his support to the No. 2 choice, Paul Tagliabue, the League’s long-time legal counsel.
Nearly 30 years later, Jerry Jones has assumed the Mike Lynn role and is rallying support to make a point. Having a major voice on who is, or is NOT, commissioner was personal for Mike Lynn in 1989 and it’s personal for Jones today.