The Whims and Foibles of Sports...
The NFL conference championship games are this weekend, and I’ll be pulling for the Packers and the underdog Titans. But let’s be honest. If another monsoon rainstorm sits over my little bungalow all day and knocks out my Direct TV again, I would not throw my hands into the air, scream at the top of my lungs or promise God that if he stops the deluge, I’ll never miss another Sunday of church.
No, if I could not watch the NFL playoffs on Sunday, and there is a high probability that I won’t, I could deal with it. Hey, it’s just the games to see which teams go to the Super Bowl. Who cares?
So, where did I, all of a sudden, develop this tolerance, this forbearance, this open-minded willingness to miss the NFL’s penultimate weekend? It hit me this past Monday at the kickoff of the College Football Playoff championship. After all the excitement of the past college football season culminated in LSU’s championship victory over Clemson at the Superdome, the NFL playoffs hold darned near zero interest for me.
I know I’m late to this party, but how could I feel otherwise after an entire season of watching LSU week after week build what many are saying was the greatest college season of all time? I became a huge Joe Burrow fan watching his flawless performances of dropping rainbows into the hands of a coterie of gifted receivers or, in the rare event nobody was open, pulling the ball down and running for the first down or more.
The latter-day Chinese Bandits defense was not as flashy as the offense, but when your offense is averaging 48 points a game, you don’t have to be. But when they needed a big play, Grant Delpit, Derek Stingley Jr. or another defender was there to make it. And above it all, I loved Coach Ed Orgeron growling “Geaux, Tigers,” before and after his team whupped up on another frustrated foe. Oh, if the Saints were still playing, that interest level would withstand LSU’s assault on the college football record books. But they aren’t, and I expended all my football energy for another year on Monday.
Whether you are still interested or not in what happens this weekend, that has nothing to do with my latest revelation: There’s just nothing that equals college football when the team you follow is in it. That might seem like a small amount of heresy, coming from an incurable Kentucky basketball fan, but it’s true. My text chain of other UK fraternity brothers even rationalizes the occasional hardwood loss by joking: “Well, good thing we’re a football school!”
I’m not going to start comparing why college football is better than college basketball, but if you know anybody who is compiling a list, you might start with officiating, which generally has far less effect on deciding a football game. I'm not saying football officials are better than basketball officials, but (excepting the Saints' infamous "No Call") the numbers can absorb some miscues. Poor officiating in basketball can change an entire game. A reminder that basketball has five starters, and if one of them gets two fouls in the first five minutes of a game, he sits for the rest of the half. And if two of the five get two fouls in the first five minutes, it could cost a championship.
No mistake about it, college football, at least for this past season, was better, and there I will end this paean to college football and plan my weekend. It will not include the lottery on which teams wind up going to the Super Bowl. I got my football Jones Monday night.
This time last year, I wrote about the three ways your favorite team can get knocked out of the playoffs: 1. They lose the game because of their own mistakes, like the 2017 loss at Minnesota that came after the Saints whiffed a tackle on a Hail Mary; 2. They can have the game taken away from them, like last year’s infamous No Call loss to the Rams; 3. Finally, you can get sent home because the other team is better and you just get beat, which perfectly describes Sunday’s 26-20 overtime loss to Minnesota.
The Vikings beat the Saints up front on both sides of the ball. The Saints’ offensive line could not stop the Vikings’ pass rush, and their secondary put a bag over Michael Thomas’ head all day. The Saints’ defensive line couldn’t stop the Vikings’ running game until it was too late, and QB Kirk Cousins always seemed to have enough time to find the open receiver. “No,” the Vikings tight end did not commit offensive pass interference on the winning touchdown pass, and “No” there isn’t a conspiracy against New Orleans. Our team has simply been the victim of unbelievably, cataclysmically BAD luck.
How else do you explain the normally flawless Wil Lutz’s missed short field goal at the end of the first half that could have provided the eventual winning margin? Or the apparent fumble that Vonn Bell picked up and carried into the end zone for the late go-ahead touchdown that was called back because Dalvin Cook’s knee was down? Or Drew Brees’ first-of-the-season fumble late in the game one play after Taysom Hill’s long run gave Who Dat Nation hope?
Don’t waste time trying to find reasons why fate has so often favored the other team. Fate is spiteful and pitiless, unforgiving and cruel. Fate can kick you in the codpiece every day of your life if she wants to. Do you think Saints fans deserved a break after the ignominy of the last two years? Fate disagrees. Welcome to sports. Or, as my old boss Jim Finks would say after a tough loss: “That’s show biz!”
The game was so frustrating that it could make you want to hang it up and retire. No, I don’t mean Brees, who I think will play another two or three years. I was talking about me.
The Saints’ season is over, and so is mine. I’ve been writing this column for ten years, and I think it’s time to give you back the opportunity to do something else with your lives other than reading the periodic ravings of a madman. Why am I putting away my keyboard? Let’s just say it’s not easy being witty and charming for 10 years running.
Jim Mora liked to say that a coach can stay in one job too long, and I believe a columnist can do the same. I believe somebody in my position has a responsibility to identify worthy topics they care about to share with readers like you. But when I sort through the issues of sports today to find interesting subjects, I often feel like I’m sifting s*** in the hopes it will turn into gold dust.
This is not an emotional decision. It comes with great thought that I will share with you in the coming weeks. I was planning on ending JWMillerSports.com after the Saints won the Super Bowl, but I guess that boat sailed. I am going to continue writing this column over the next month or so until I end at all with one final farewell. Until then, I will share your disappointment that the Saints lost their chance for another Super Bowl while Drew Brees is still around.
But, honestly, do you know what I feel worse about? The crumbling sports book ticket in my pocket that would have paid $1,100 if the Saints had won the Super Bowl.
It’s the Christmas season when all around us is happy and bright. So why am I in a dither, when every game I watch is like a lump of coal in my throat? I can partly blame the Saints who are in a race for home field throughout the playoffs, and we all know the importance of that. Even so, we care about our favorite teams too much sometimes, and it creates behavior that we aren’t always proud of. No, I’ve never thrown my TV off a third-floor balcony, probably owing more to the fact that I’ve never lived in a house with a third-floor balcony than the emotional roller-coaster I ride during a game.
There, I admit it! Your normally mild-mannered correspondent can act like a horse’s patoot when I am watching one of my favorite teams play poorly or, horrors! even lose a game. Caring about how you conduct yourself during the week is much easier than caring about how you conduct yourself in the two or three hours while your favorite team is tugging at your emotions. I don’t act ugly in public, with the exception of the occasional wayward 3-foot putt. That is because the former is governed by logic and the latter is often governed by emotion. But golf isn’t logical so that doesn’t count.
I have always been emotional about Kentucky basketball and football to the point where I talk constantly during a tight game, occasionally shouting at the television or fist-pumping a good play. That’s not unnatural for an avid fan of any team. Then there was the time when undefeated Kentucky lost in the Final Four and I stormed out of the house and roamed the neighborhood streets for an hour. But that was only once. You would think that even as sports fans we would evolve and mature, but as I get older, I find that my mood swings during games have become worse.
Take the Saints’ 38-28 win over Tennessee on Sunday. Or, better yet, sit with me while I watch the game. They get behind 14-0, and I can’t believe I am watching the same team that dismantled the Colts on Monday Night Television (when nary an evil word passed my lips). The offense looked sluggish, and it seemed that every time the Saints would make a nice gain, it would be canceled by a penalty. Eight penalties in the first half is enough to squeeze the ulcers! Even at 14-0, I was trying to be philosophical, that there’s a long way to go and the Saints have overcome adversity before, and that seemed to work like a tumbler of Sal Hepatica.
When the Saints fought back and took the lead, Good Jimmy’s mood was floating on angels’ wings. I was even trying to crack jokes with The Lovely Miss Jean, who is the best person in the world for me to watch a game with because she ignores most of my antics. She also knows not to invite anyone to watch a big game at our house.
A good example of why came in the fourth quarter, when the Titans closed the 10-point deficit. The Saints are up 31-21 with 11:43 remaining and on their own 9-yard line, and I’m imploring Drew Brees to start killing some clock. Instead, he throws two incomplete passes and then appears to be sacked for a safety. Jean flags me for my first F-bomb of the day, although Brees was ruled down at the one-yard line. I’m looking for the dog to kick before I remembered he died. Of natural causes, I should add.
The Titans take a short punt and march down the field and score, making it 31-28 with 7:27 to go. Bad Jimmy returns and spiders began crawling up my legs. I feel a knot in my stomach that feels like a watermelon, when the Saints can’t make a first down and go to punt formation at midfield. Every Who Dat in the house knows Taysom Hill is going to take the snap and make something happen. But his perfect pass hits Justin Hardee’s hands and bounces away. ARRRGGGHHH! I thought they had cut him! The Titans have the ball with four minutes to go, and I can envision another touchdown over Janoris Jenkins, our latest swinging door. I’m trying to chew my nails, but I’d already done that and am down to the bloody knuckles.
Then Ryan Tannehill’s deep pass completion is fumbled, Saints recover and the sun comes out and the birds begin to sing and all is right with the world. But not for long. I’m praying for a touchdown and not a field goal that would give the Titans another chance when Brees and the wonderful Mike Thomas put me out of my misery. Final score 38-28, and Good Jimmy happily joins The Lovely Miss Jean in wrapping Christmas presents while watching the Cowboys and Eagles. It's fun to watch a game that doesn’t even blip on my emotional Richter scale.
National Signing Day, at least the early version, is college football’s answer to the NFL Draft but without Mel Kiper Jr. It’s an exciting time when the rich get richer and the majority of programs that operate in the red begin to plot how this year’s sterling class will help them qualify someday for the Bad Boy Mowers Bowl or the Cheez-It Bowl. Hey, I’d set my sights on the Tropical Smoothie Café Bowl since naming sponsors typically spread their products around to players, coaches and administrators.
Deservedly so, most attention still goes to football blue-bloods like LSU, Alabama, Ohio State, Clemson and Georgia, which typically fill their classes with five- and four-star players as judged by scouting services. Those five teams are again at the top of the heap this week, but a bit further down the list is another team that deserves some modest attention. Ranked with the 19th best class this season on Rivals.com is none other than my Kentucky Wildcats. (No, Uncle Phil, I don’t write about Kentucky every week, and I know their class is ranked 8th in the SEC, but hear me out!)
Coach Mark Stoops has his program on the rise. This signing class includes a five-star defensive lineman in Justin Rogers of Oak Park, Michigan, and a five-star offensive tackle in John Young of Louisville Christian Academy. Sprinkle in a double-handful of other four-star players, mostly offensive and defensive linemen, and the Wildcats have bolstered critical positions with SEC-worthy players. As I write this, I see a news flash that Kentucky has just signed four-star corner Joel Williams of Baton Rouge Madison Prep Academy. On November 20, Williams listed a final six of LSU, Alabama, Georgia, Florida and Kentucky, but he chose the Wildcats. That was similar to the other players Kentucky signed whose favorites also included Ohio State, Michigan, Auburn and Penn State in addition to the aforementioned schools. That cements the point that Kentucky is now competing with the nation’s best and is actually winning some of those battles. And not even counting in the signing day haul are transfers such as QB Joey Gatewood (Auburn) and corner Kelvin Joseph (LSU).
How these players develop will be the key, and Stoops and his staff have a track record in that department. Josh Allen, last year’s winner of both the Chuck Bednarik and Bronco Nagurski awards as the best defensive player in the nation, was a two-star recruit out of Montclair, New Jersey. Stoops and his staff developed Allen into the seventh player drafted who currently leads all NFL rookies with 10 sacks for the Jaguars. Last year, Allen and a veteran secondary led a defense ranked among the top 20 as the Wildcats compiled a 10-3 record that included a Citrus Bowl win over Penn State. Career rushing leader Benny Snell was drafted in the fourth round by Pittsburgh and has seen considerable action this season while the entire secondary is in the NFL – Derrick Baity (HOU), Mike Edwards (TB), Lonnie Johnson (HOU) and Derrick Westry (DAL).
The loss of those players compelled many prognosticators to dismiss the Wildcats this season, predicting a record of 5-7. It was hard to disagree with a rebuilt secondary, questionable pass rush and after QB Terry Wilson went down with a knee injury in Game 2. But Stoops and offensive coordinator Eddie Gran converted star wide receiver Lynn Bowden Jr. to an option quarterback whose run-first offense chewed up yardage and time of possession. Considering all the above, UK's 7-5 record was acceptable and only two plays away from 9-3 after come-from-ahead losses to Florida and Tennessee. The young defense again ranked in the NCAA’s top 20, and almost every starter returns. QB Wilson will be back to lead an offense that features shifty running backs and a veteran offensive line anchored by All-SEC center Drake Jackson.
Kentucky players were again recognized nationally with winners of two national awards this season. Bowden won the Paul Hornung Award as the most versatile player in the nation while punter Max Duffy won the Ray Guy Award as the best at his position. Both Bowden and Duffy were named AP first-team All America. Bowden won’t be back, having declared that Kentucky’s bowl meeting with Virginia Tech on New Year’s Eve will be his last game as a Wildcat before he enters the 2020 NFL Draft. If Who Dats want another weapon who would add a Randall Cobb presence to the Saints’ wide-open offense, Bowden is your man.
So, yes, I’m proud of what Mark Stoops has done to build a respectable program at Kentucky. Is it there yet? Absolutely not, but it’s headed in the right direction. In fact, how about a daring prediction? In the next three years, Kentucky will win the SEC East and play for the conference championship. And remember, you heard it here first!
As far as weeks go, the past one was a pretty good one for lovers of LSU’s top-ranked football team. Not only did LSU take over the top seed in the College Football Playoffs but it turned out to be Award Week in Baton Rouge. Gad, there were more awards up the river than a Betty Crocker bake-off!
Wide receiver Ja'marr Chase received the Fred Biletnikoff Award as the top wideout in college football. Safety Grant Delpit won the Jim Thorpe Award as the top defensive back even though on Monday freshman Derek Stingley was named to the AP All-America first team while Delpit was named to the second team. Passing game coordinator Joe Brady won the Frank Broyles Award as the top assistant coach in college football. QB Joe Burrow won the Davey O’Brien award as the top quarterback in the nation and also the Maxwell Award as the top college player. Those were merely preliminaries to the big one, the Heisman Trophy that Burrow was presented on Saturday night. Fittingly, Burrow’s emotional acceptance speech gave due credit to “Coach O,” Ed Orgeron, who was named the top coach in college football.
I really like and admire what Orgeron has done since taking over for Les Miles three years ago. Yes, when he talks it sounds like he's gargling gravel, and I believe his "Go Tigers" signoff of every interview is more genuine than contrived. The kids love him and they'd go through a levee wall for him. You can tell that just watching the body language, and it was confirmed by Burrow's heartfelt, tearful thank-you.
Did I miss any awards? Surely there was a national award for the Golden Girls. What? There wasn't? Every true resident of Fansville would lift their Dr. Peppers in the direction of their pristine pedestals if given a chance. I demand a recount! Even if the Golden Girls were not eligible for an award, Louisiana Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin was justified in putting wings on a slow Monday by naming it “LSU Football Day” around the state. Winning teams deserve all the honors they get, but most players would probably trade the individual baubles for the national championship trophy. Stick around, lads, the Tigers are hot.
Burrow’s confidence and cool in the pocket reminds me of the college years of Andrew Luck or Peyton Manning. Mr. Cool! His offense is taken right out of the Saints playbook (literally, thanks to Sean Payton disciple Brady), and he has the weapons to execute it. His line gives him time, but he also has the wheels to get out of trouble. I believe Burrow’s offense can outscore Oklahoma’s, but they will get an Alabama-type of test with QB Jalen Hurts. Nick Saban’s former pupil leads the nation in yards per attempt (11.8) and yards per completion (16.4), and he is responsible for 51 touchdowns. But I believe the difference will be the Tiger defense that has more playmakers than Oklahoma’s.
And that would set it up for a final game in the Superdome against the Ohio State and Clemson winner. Bring'em on!
The Saints' pasting of the Colts on Monday night sets up a very interesting final two weeks in the NFL. The hated Falcons did the Saints a big favor in upending the 49ers Sunday to revive the local chances for home field throughout the playoffs. Now the Saints, 49ers, Seahawks and Packers all have 11-3 records, which allows us to establish rooting interests for Who Dat Nation. Now listen closely ...
The following scenarios work only if the Saints win their last two games, at Tennessee and at Carolina and finish with a 13-3 record. The Titans still have a chance at the playoffs and won't go away gracefully. In fact, the Saints are only favored by a point-and-a-half. A tussle at division rival Carolina also will be expected, but our local heroes should prevail.
The Packers go to 10-4 Minnesota next Monday night and enter the game as 4-point underdogs. Go Vikes! A Minny win would give the NFC North rivals four losses each. The 49ers host the fading Rams this weekend, and we'll concede that one to those renegades. Then in Week 17, those who shall not be named travel to Seattle where they will be decided underdogs. Pray for a pummeling by the home team, which would give the 49ers four losses and the Seahawks the bye. But, since the Saints beat Seattle, Brees and the Gang will hold the top seed and home dome throughout the playoffs.
You got that? Stay tuned.