The Whims and Foibles of Sports...
The Saints have never been here before after nine games, and I am not talking about wins and losses. Their current 8-1 record stands second to the 9-0 start run off by the eventual Super Bowl champions in 2009, but that’s not the HERE I am talking about. At this point of the season, no Saints player has been the leading candidate for NFL Most Valuable Player. Not even during the magical Super Bowl year was QB Drew Brees given as much consideration for the honor as previous winners Peyton Manning and Tom Brady.
This season, Brees has played magnificent, MVP-calibre football, as his performance Sunday at Cincinnati will attest. Watching Brees dismantle the Bengals was like watching your GPS smoothly maneuver you over obscure highways and strange byways as you simply follow blindly along and wonder “how did it do that?” Against Cincinnati, Brees led the team to scoring drives on their first nine possessions, which is one off the all-time record, including a surgical 22 of 25 completions for 265 yards and three touchdowns. Throw in rushing performances by Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara, only one penalty the entire game and a defense that resembled the ’85 Bears, and you saw perfection.
In fact, during the game, I was thinking of Don Larsen, the journeyman Yankees pitcher who threw the only perfect game in World Series history, over the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1956. I had already written the headline for this column: “Apologies to Don Larsen, but Saints toss perfect game!” My Louisville pal, Jeff Duncan of the local wipe, had the same idea and wrote it today with Coach Sean Payton’s qualifier that it wasn’t perfect but it was close.
But perfect, schmerfect, it was a team win to the standards that Brees has been providing all season. His completion percentage is 77.3 percent which is ahead of the all-time season mark of 72%, held by none other than Drew Brees. Throw in 2,601 passing yards and 21 touchdowns versus one lone interception. His passer rating of 123.8 is running ahead of Aaron Rodgers’ current record of 122, set in 2011 during his own MVP season. A week ago in the team’s biggest game of the year, Brees laced the 8-0 Rams with 346 passing yards and four touchdowns, including a game-saving 72-yard TD to Michael Thomas.
Watching Brees operate, it is hard not to agree with former Chiefs and Falcons TE Tony Gonzalez who says Brees is not simply one of the best quarterbacks to play the game. He is the greatest quarterback to play the game. We can empty a few kegs arguing that one, but the immediate question? Is Brees the 2018 NFL MVP?
Some observers believe team performance influences the voters. Must the Saints win the Super Bowl for Brees to have a chance at the award? Interestingly, the numbers don’t back that up. Looking at every Associated Press MVP since the Saints came into the League in 1967, only six quarterbacks whose team won the Super Bowl were voted the league MVP by the Associated Press. The numbers even suggest that losing the Super Bowl might enhance a quarterback’s MVP hopes. Over the same time period, 13 quarterbacks whose team lost the Super Bowl were eventually named league MVP.
I know, figures can lie and liars can figure, so where does that leave Brees’ chances to win the 2018 MVP award? I would say that his total body of work, including all-time passing yards leader, second now to Peyton Manning in lifetime touchdown passes, a chance to finish the year with the all-time best QB rating for a season and the best all-time completion percentage, weighs heavily in his favor. A subliminal factor is the sentimental vote, which counts for something. Brees will be 40 in January. But it’s his time not because he is near the end of his career but because he deserves it.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not criticizing long winning streaks, like the Saints currently enjoy with seven in a row. In fact, they are quite preferable to long losing streaks of which they have enjoyed more than we need to recall. All I am saying is that upon reviewing the history of Saints winning streaks of seven or more, I’ve got to say that Tom Petty was right when he sang “Comin’ down is the hardest thing.”
I say that with some authority, having been involved in three of those long winning streaks, all of which ended abruptly and did not produce the result we all hoped for. Fortunately, my streaks all occurred in the previous century, so we will not discuss those of more recent vintage, such as the eight-game skeins of 2011 and 2017. The winning streaks that I remember came at a time when such things were new and strange and had never been experienced by Saints fans who were more accustomed to wearing Schwegmann’s bags over their heads rather than caps with a fleur-de-lis on the front. You might think this is ancient history, so consider it a public service for those Who Dats who do not remember life without GPS, shopping on your cellphone or American Idol.
Quick Quiz: In the first 20 years of the Saints’ existence, what was the longest winning streak during any one season? Six? Five? Keep going. Four! Sorry, Charlie, but between 1967 and 1986, the Saints never won more than three games in a row. If you find that hard to believe, consider that they had a handful of entire seasons in which they didn’t win three games.
Things changed in 1987 after a narrow loss to the 49ers prompted Coach Jim Mora to beat his team across the backside with his now famous “we ain’t good enough” ship’s rope. At 3-3, the Saints would rush out to the longest streak in team history when a 23-14 win at the New York Giants on November 22 was their fourth straight. So consider how fantastically impossible it seemed when they reeled off another five wins for nine wins in a row and a 12-3 final season record and their first playoff appearance in team history.
That game started out like just another victory with a 10-yard Bobby Hebert TD pass to Eric Martin on the first series and the Saints defense forcing a punt. But Saints punt returner Mel Gray fumbled the kick which led to a Minnesota field goal, and then it really got bad. Anthony Carter showed how punts should be returned, and 84 yards later, the Vikings would never look back. What a crusher! Nice winning streak but playoff disappointment.
The 1987 season triggered a turn toward respectability for the franchise and expectations of more winning streaks. It almost happened again the next season after a disappointing 34-33 opening loss to, who else?, the 49ers. The Saints won their next seven games and were eying the playoffs when the Rams limited the Saints’ running game to 33 yards and rode four Mike Lansford field goals to a 12-10 upset. The Saints struggled to a 3-5 record during the second half and missed the playoffs despite a 10-6 record. Nice winning streak but playoff denial.
Three years later, the Saints won their first seven games and looked as though 1991 might be their year. But the next week a stubborn Chicago Bears defense forced two fumbles and held the Saints’ running game to 51 yards in a 20-17 win at the Superdome. Despite winning their next two, the Saints struggled but held on for an 11-5 record and their first division championship in team history. Then in the playoffs, division runner-up Atlanta crushed Who Dat hopes with a 27-20 victory. Nice winning streak but playoff disappointment.
So my lesson today is this: The mother of all winning streaks - the 13-0 run to begin the 2009 season - should be the model. Do it like the 2009 team. Winning streaks are nice, but they don't count for much without wins in the playoffs!
I got a phone call last night about 30 seconds after the Boston Red Sox clinched the World Series title with a 5-1 win over the Dodgers. It was my son, Charles, who had watched the game and wanted to share my joy at the Sox’ championship. We talked, we laughed and we shared a tear (mine) over all the good times we have enjoyed and our memories with the Red Sox at the center. After we hung up, it reminded me of a similar phone call I had made to my father, Charles, seconds after Boston won the 2004 World Series.
That was memorable because it was the Series that ended the “Curse” of trading Babe Ruth to the Yankees after the 1918 Series. The Sox were no longer lovable losers, and we shared the moment. Dad was born four years after the trade of Ruth which meant he never had seen the Sox win a World Series. Oh, they had been there a few times; in 1946 when SS Johnny Pesky held the ball and allowed the Cardinals’ Enos Slaughter to score the winning run; in 1967 when the Impossible Dream of worst to first fell just short thanks to the Cardinals’ unhittable Bob Gibson; in 1975 against the Big Red Machine, and, the most painful of all, Bucker's boot in 1986 against the Mets.
Dad caught Red Sox fever at a young age because Louisville was the franchise’s Triple-A farm team between 1939-1955, during his formative years. He saw shortstop Pee Wee Reese star for the Colonels, and he was upset when Red Sox player-manager Joe Cronin, also a shortstop, traded Reese to Brooklyn. But the flame was lit, and Dad infected me in my formative years.
I followed the Red Sox religiously before they had a Nation, primarily through the Sporting News and daily newspaper. I remember us spinning the radio dial to find late-night broadcasts when the Sox were playing at Detroit, Chicago or Cleveland. It was a delight when they made it to the Saturday TV Game of the Week, but that meant they probably were playing the Yankees, who were owned then by CBS and had sports television to themselves. When the Red Sox of Ted Williams were hopelessly out of it, we watched the World Series from the outside, with our noses pressed to the glass.
But we compensated. Just before Dad’s 70th birthday, my brother Jerry and I decided if we could not take Dad to a Boston World Series, we would treat him to a weekend series at Fenway, which we did. He always told us that was the best trip he ever took. Mom was tolerant of our obsession, having been born in Detroit and remaining a raging Tigers’ fan.
I’ve instilled the same passion in Charles the younger. When he was 15, we flew to Boston for a weekend of games, along with some sightseeing and general bonding. Since then, we trade Sox news, and he understands why I can’t get through the lyrics to “Tessie,” the Red Sox’ long-time anthem, without tears. We even watched together the movie “Fever Pitch,” the Jimmy Fallon/Drew Barrymore love story wrapped around the Red Sox’ World Series victory of 2004. When they showed the comebacker to pitcher Keith Foulke for the final out that forever ended the Curse of the Bambino, I cried like a baby.
It was only a movie, but it reminded me that of that night on October 27, 2004 when I grabbed the phone to share that moment with my father. Dad died in June, 2006, so he never got to see the Red Sox' subsequent World Series' championships or their emergence as a regular contender. He never said it that night, but I felt that after finally seeing the Sox win the World Series he was at peace.
Seconds after my son called last night, I received a text from my old friend and SAE fraternity brother Paul Jensen who had spent many years with the almost-as-long-suffering White Sox. “When the White Sox won in 2005,” Paul texted, “my brother placed a pennant on dad’s headstone. Baseball does that. The game is a family heirloom with loyalties handed down through the generations.” Paul gets it.
I also know that somewhere Dad is smiling. The Red Sox are champions.
Sporting thoughts while wondering why Las Vegas considers No. 12 Kentucky a 7-point underdog at 4-3 Missouri on Saturday …
Kenny Rogers sang that a successful gambler knows “when to hold’em and when to fold’em.” Rogers probably never met Saints Coach Sean Payton, whose play-calling defies the logic promoted in Rogers’ song. Instead, when Payton’s opponent seems to have a stacked hand, Payton pushes all his chips to the middle of the table.
If you want proof, just take a look at some of his calls in Sunday’s 24-23 victory over the Baltimore Ravens. In the first drive, Payton ordered a fake punt from his own 34-yard line, and it worked. In the same drive, Payton ordered his team to go for it on fourth down two more times, and they both worked. “Those fourth and a half yarders are tough for me to concede,” Payton said after the game.
When you have a mindset to push convention, it’s good to have two Aces up your sleeve: Reliability and upredictability. Payton has both in QB Drew Brees and QB/slash/SAK (Swiss Army Knife) Taysom Hill. Behind 17-7 going into the fourth quarter, Brees piloted three scoring drives that led to a rushing touchdown by Alvin Kamara, a field goal and touchdown passes to TE Ben Watson and WR Michael Thomas, his 500th and 501st by the way. Along the way, he also sneaked (snuck?) three third or fourth and short plays to achieve first downs.
Hill also had his moments, beginning with the fake punt in the first quarter that kept the Saints’ opening drive alive. He took snaps at the wildcat position, running for a first down or handing off to Kamara. That’s in addition to his other duties as kickoff return man and gunner on the kickoff teams. The only mistake Hill made came in that opening drive when he took the snap on a run pass option and tossed the ball behind Kamara resulting in a lost fumble. Other than that, no complaints.
So if you’ve got one of the best quarterbacks of all time in the game and a jack-of-all-positions to inject a little insanity now and again, I guess it’s not really gambling. It also doesn't hurt to have the guts of a burglar and the luck that makes the kickers of two opponents miss two-foot putts that give you two wins.
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The World Series opens in Boston Tuesday night, and if the Red Sox beat the L.A. Dodgers, they will solidify their claim as the team of the (21st) century. The Sox won the World Series in 2004, 2007 and 2013, rivaled by only San Francisco, which also won three, in 2010, 2012 and 2014. You might not know that Boston held even a loftier position at this point in the last century, having won five fall classics, in 1903, 1912, 1915, 1916 and 1918.
But then owner Harry Frazee traded the star of the 1918 team, P/OF Babe Ruth, to the Yankees, casting his team into baseball purgatory almost forever. The Sox do not have a dominating Ruthian star on the current team, but they did win more games than any other team in baseball this year with timely hitting and solid pitching.
But just in case, the message of a lifelong Red Sox fan to team ownership is this: If they beat the Dodgers, please don’t screw up the rest of the century by making any stupid trades!
When you hear players and coaches say it takes individuals to make a team, you probably think they are talking about the various personalities who man critical playing positions. But those who are fortunate enough to be around a professional sports franchise know that many anonymous individuals help make up the team. Like Glennon “Silky” Powell, the Saints long-time assistant equipment manager who died last week a few days before his 72nd birthday.
A fixture in the Saints' locker room for 38 years, until his retirement in 2012, Powell was as much a part of the Saints’ franchise as the fleur-de-lis on the helmets. To describe the role of an equipment manager in pro sports is not easy. Let’s just say it’s like a coal shoveler in the engine room of a luxurious ocean-going vessel. It sounds glamorous until squalls hit and the temperature rises. And the temperature in a football locker room rises and falls depending on the previous week’s game, mood swings of players and coaches and seemingly innocuous tasks as players’ ticket orders.
But with each wave of new players, always younger than those before, equipment managers and team trainers assume a mantle of respect. They are the adults in the room, playing different roles ranging from disciplinarian to father confessor and even friend. Friends of Silky Powell are grieving this week, but each one is handling it with stories and memories that reflected the joy that the ever-smiling Silky brought to the locker room. Archie Manning told me of a time when he was rehabbing from bicep surgery and Silky was drafted by trainer Dean Kleinschmidt to play catch with the quarterback. “I started with five-yard throws to Silk and he would throw it back,” Manning said. “By the time I had built up to 20 yards, Silk developed bicep tendinitis in his arm.”
Sometimes, tasks that appeared to be simple required prior knowledge and experience. Powell and Simmons were responsible for collecting ticket orders from players the week of a home game. When a prominent player’s order was turned in as “2-2-2-2,” they knew the order was for four pairs, strategically placed in different sections of the Superdome. But when a part-timer was assigned to take the order before one game, he read “2-2-2-2” as eight tickets together in the same row and submitted it to the ticket office. Minutes before the game, the angry player confronted the equipment guys, claiming his order had been screwed up, and his life was in danger. Silky and Dan would have known that the player’s “2-2-2-2” order was for two tickets each for four girl friends, each to sit in different sections.
Powell was a son of the Irish Channel, and an athlete himself in his younger days at Redemptorist High School. One childhood friend told me about Silky’s skill as a baseball player, saying “you may not believe it, but I’ve never seen such a beautiful hook slide into second base as Silky’s.” Silky also was known to hold his own in pickup basketball games around the old practice facility off David Drive. If Silky had an enemy, it was his weight that seemed to rise and recede like a storm tide. Once, when Silky’s girth approached alarming proportions, President and General Manager Jim Finks offered him $1,000 if he would lose 100 pounds. Silky made an effort, but after a while he thanked Finks and told him he’d rather continue living large.
Glennon Powell was given the nickname “Silky” by family members who likened him to a prominent racehorse named Silky Sullivan. The thoroughbred’s reputation was as one that started slowly but finished near or at the front of most of his races, just like Silky’s place in the hearts of those who knew him.
A memorial service will be held on Saturday, October 20, at the L.A. Muhleisen Funeral Home, 2607 Williams Boulevard, in Kenner.