The Whims and Foibles of Sports...
Thank goodness the Saints picked Week 4 to post their first victory of the season. A 1-3 record is nothing to get excited about unless your team is the Lions, who likely will be 0-4 by midnight Monday. But looking at the NFL standings this morning, 1-3 is the new 2-2. Eleven teams are sitting comfortably at the bottom of their divisions with 1-3 records right now, which means that none of them have been mathematically eliminated from anything just yet.
Of course, that would have changed drastically for the hometown heroes if one of the ballboys had not introduced Drew Brees to C.J. Spiller after the clanked field goal attempt left Who Dat Nation stunned. “Mr. Brees, meet Mr. Spiller. You obviously do not know each other, judging by your relationship over the first three weeks of the season, but why don’t you sit here for a minute and chat while Al Michaels tries to explain what’s going to happen in overtime tonight?” I can picture that conversation: “Hey, C.J., nice to meet you,” Brees says. “How about a wheel route touchdown so we can all go home?” And that is what happened in the NFL’s shortest overtime game in history, 13 seconds, and the Saints are rolling at 1-3.
That is a good thing, because I was dreading the possibility that the team would continue on a schneid that would take them to the dreaded 0-5, at which time all things terrible happen. I mean it. You can look it up. When a Saints team goes 0-5, you can expect to open the refrigerator and have a leftover hot dog materialize into something that wants to eat you or a Tyrannosaurus has taken over your bedroom. Believe me, I know. I’ve been there.
It was twenty years ago this week when the Saints lost to Philadelphia 15-10 to go 0-5. Owner Tom Benson was livid, so he called a meeting with his management team, which included head coach Jim Mora, VP of personnel Bill Kuharich and me, then VP of Administration. “If you can’t straighten this out, I will,” Benson told us, slamming his fist on his desk. He pointed to Mora and demanded that the head coach fire two coaches. He turned to Kuharich and told him to cut a handful of players, and to me he demanded that I fire one person in every administrative department.
We sat there in stunned silence before trying to convince the owner that internal change might be okay in the car business, but in the NFL it means letting the world know you’ve panicked. The fans would stop coming, the players would shut it down and the NFL probably would step in and investigate. That discussion lasted for the next three hours, with each of us making a case why it was a bad idea to deviate from our former boss Jim Finks’ conviction that the best solution to a bad situation was to “keep sawing wood.” But Finks was gone, and finally Benson said “You haven’t convinced me, but I’ll think on it.” Whew!
Thankfully, the next game was a 33-30 win over Miami, and the team won six of its last nine to finish 7-9. The bad part came after the season when Benson must have decided that the one guy who didn’t coach or didn’t have any say in picking players was the problem, and I was fired. Unfortunately, more turmoil happened the following year when the Saints again went 0-5 and Mora resigned with the record at 2-6.
And that is why an 0-5 record always means disaster, at least in my humble experience. So rejoice, Who Dats! Your team is 1-3, along with a bunch of other teams who are thankful they aren’t 0-5. And while you are rejoicing, say a prayer for those poor Lions, will you?
You’ve got to hand it to Luke McCown, who played a pretty darned good game in the Saints’ 27-22 loss at Carolina on Sunday. McCown went 31 of 38 passing for 310 yards, and at least half of his seven incompletions were dropped balls. It wasn’t his fault that the Saints pass rush still can't find its way to the quarterback with a road map. Panthers’ QB Cam Newton took his merry old time finding receivers, and if nobody was open he just pulled the ball down and took what he wanted on his own. As Jim Mora famously intoned years ago, “We just ain’t good enough,” and the long season continues.
Thankfully, that wasn’t the best sporting event of the weekend. Of course, my Kentucky Wildcats finally gave QB Patrick Towles some protection and the defense played well in a victory over No. 22 Missouri. Since my son is a freshman at Ole Miss, I have added the Rebs to my must-see TV, and they did a workmanlike job defeating stubborn Vanderbilt. And the more I see Leonard Fournette, the more I see Herschel Walker or Bo Jackson as he led LSU to victory at Syracuse. But the last event of the weekend might have been the most significant. Jordan Spieth won the FedEx Cup playoff and regained the No. 1 ranking in the world in coldblooded fashion. Bogies at 5, 6 and 10 gave 2013 champ Henrik Stenson an opening, and down the stretch Spieth scrambled, but he did not miss a putt when he needed it.
Talk about buried leads, we finally have arrived at the subject of today’s lesson: Has Spieth done enough to dislodge Triple Crown Winner American Pharoah as 2015’s outstanding athlete? The Bob Baffert-trained 3-year-old surged into the national limelight by winning the Triple Crown of racing this year for the first time since 1978. Both the golfer of the year and the horse of the year have good arguments for the title. Whose accomplishment is more significant?
American Pharoah became the 12th horse to win the Triple Crown and the first since 1978 when Affirmed defeated Alydar in all three races. American Pharoah joined an elite club that includes such luminaries as Seattle Slew in 1977, Secretariat in 1973, Citation in 1948 and Whirlaway in 1941. Spieth became only the sixth man to win the Masters and U.S. Open in the same calendar year, joining such a lineup as Ben Hogan in 1951 and 1953, Arnold Palmer in 1960 and Jack Nicklaus in 1972. Tiger Woods amazed the world by doing it at age 26 in 2002. For the record, a golfer named Craig Wood was the first to achieve the double in 1941. So is Spieth in a more exclusive club than even American Pharaoh?
I think the question turns on how close Spieth came to winning the grand slam of golf, which has never been done. If Spieth had pulled off a victory at the British Open at St. Andrews, he would have been the only person on the planet to win the first three tournaments, but he missed a three-way playoff by one stroke. At the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits, Spieth played Alydar to Jason Day’s Affirmed, losing by three strokes. By my math, he was six strokes short of winning the British Open and the PGA. Even before the FedEx championship, no golfer in history has had a year like that. Then on Sunday, he polished off the most lucrative year in golfing history by winning the FedEx Cup and its $10 million bonus to return to the world's No. 1 spot. The FedEx win put a large exclamation point on Spieth's case not to mention boosting his total golf earnings in 2015 to a record $22 million. The best part is that he’ll be back next year and presumably many years to come.
I’m a big racing fan, and I appreciate American Pharoah’s winning the first Triple Crown in 38 years. But after the Breeder’s Cup at Keeneland on October 30-31, he will be retired, and we likely will only hear of him again when other horses pursue his most recent record. Spieth should only get bigger and stronger and his best golf may still be in his future, but a great group of other young golfers will make it hard for Spieth to top the best season a golfer has ever had.
Jordan Spieth nips American Pharoah at the wire to become my athlete of the year.
Assuming you came in off the ledge sometime during the night, you really need to sit down, take a deep breath and think about how you are going to handle the next fifteen weeks of what promises to be a very, very long Saints’ season.
Some of your anxiety could be traced to your refusal to take Tampa and the ten points that were being offered up to high noon on Sunday. We all heard the network geniuses promising the Saints would bounce back with a vengeance and that ten points were no barrier to this being the “slam dunk” game of the week. And we all heard the critics who were calling Tampa’s No. 1 draft pick The Winston Cup after the juggernaut Tennessee Titans left so many treadmarks up his back last week.
But a strange thing happened on the way to the recovery room. The ambulance hit a bus as Tampa Bay outlasted a very uninspired Saints team in a disappointing 26-19 loss. The outcome might have been foretold if you were one of the skeptics who woke up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat thinking about the last time a No. 1 draft choice quarterback came into the Mercedes Benzon Superdome as a heavy underdog.
On September 9, 2012, Robert Griffin III played his first regular season game by completing 19 of 26 passes for 320 yards and two touchdowns while adding 10 carries for 42 rushing yards in a 40–32 victory. The Saints almost could be forgiven for that game since it was the first game of Sean Payton’s Bountygate suspension, and the team was playing shorthanded from a scheming and motivational perspective. But Payton was on the sidelines Sunday, pleading with the officials, his players and even his own quarterback, who apparently changed a call on a two-point conversion that went for naught.
Winston was less spectacular than RG III, completing 14 of 21 passes for 207 yards, but he was not intercepted and he took advantage of the Saints’ evolving defense for most of the day. Interesting how the RG III game three years ago raised the same questions that Sunday’s loss raised. Either the Saints’ pass rush is awful or the Tampa Bay offensive line is better than we think. Probably a little bit of both. Although the Saints’ pass rush appeared better than at Arizona, Winston had all the time he needed to find open receivers for most of the day. And, true to the principle of NFL astrophysics, the black holes in the secondary widen proportionally to the amount of time your defense gives the quarterback to throw.
The Saints’ offense did not help. QB Drew Brees did not look sharp, probably because his receivers could not get open consistently. Marques Colston did all he can do with his declining skills, and C.J. Spiller teased us a bit early with some nifty runs. Willie Snead mixed in some good catches with some rookie mistakes, and please, stop telling me that 6-6 Brandon Coleman will become Brees’ favorite red zone target. When Brandin Cooks caught a harmless pass in the fourth quarter, commentator Ronde Barber called him “one of the most exciting players in the conference.” Gee, I wonder when are we going to get to see him? And young kicker Zach Hocker officially wore out his welcome with a missed field goal and extra point down the stretch. Paging Dustin Hopkins !
After two weeks of total disappointment and frustration, I can promise you that you will get over it, but not if you endure what could become another fifteen weeks of repeats. You might consider changing your Sunday habits and take up Bridge or go bowling or even work on that golf game on Sunday afternoons. After what I have seen so far, you’d be saving yourself a lot of grief, and you might even discover that playing a game with 52 cards is far more gratifying than watching a team that is playing short of a deck.
Brace yourselves, boys and girls, because Sunday’s 31-19 loss at Arizona just might be a snapshot of what could be a long Saints’ season. You can’t pin this one on one player or unit. It was a true team effort pushed along by mistakes and lack of execution from a combination of veterans, of whom we expect much, and young players who have been pushed out of the foxhole before they have experienced live fire.
An early, almost comical indication of what lay ahead came in the second period when the Saints trailed 7-3 and Arizona was driving. QB Carson Palmer lofted one into the end zone, the Saints' DB jostled the receiver and the ball fell to the ground. Flags flew, and Referee Walt Anderson announced “three penalties on the play.” Saints’ fans perked up because maybe the obvious pass interference call would be canceled by an offensive infraction. But, no, the first penalty was a defensive hands to the face on the Saints, which was declined. The second was illegal contact, which was also declined, and then the pass interference was confirmed. The Cardinals’ scored their second TD on the next play and went up 14-3.
Overall, the secondary committed five accepted penalties, including three by Delvin Breaux (one pass interference, two holding), one by Damian Swann (facemask) and one by Kyle Wilson (pass interference). But you can’t entirely blame these young guys whose heads were on a swivel all day. Penalties on the secondary come when the quarterback has time to go through his progression of receivers and pick the best option. The Cardinals’ offensive line was so impenetrable that Palmer could have enjoyed a sip of mocha latté before he had to throw the ball. Cameron Jordan came close a few times as did rookie Hau'oli Kikaha, but for most of the day Palmer was untouched.
Offensively, I was encouraged, especially in the first half, by the Saints’ attempts to generate a ground game. Both Mark Ingram and Khiry Robinson ran hard early, but as we have seen so many times in the past, head coach Sean Payton and QB Drew Brees sooner or later abandon the run, leaving us with a weak 54 yards on 20 carries. That left the bulk of the offensive load to Brees, who appeared devoid of any receiver who could get open past the line of scrimmage. The only thing that worked was flares to the running backs, although Brees kept trying to force passes to Marques Colston, who just doesn’t seem to be able to get open consistently any more. I am also getting a bit tired of hearing about the potential of the young receivers.
Potential means you haven’t done it yet, and none of the young receivers stood out with the exception of Brandon Coleman’s catch and stretch for the Saints’ only touchdown. Coleman had at least one key drop, and if he had run harder to block his man, Ingram might have scored on that late screen pass. It’s also time to see Brandin Cooks’ game-breaking ability that we’ve heard so much about. The most consistent receiver during camp was rookie Willie Snead, who had one super catch and run of 63 yards when he finally got the chance. Let him play more, and, yes, I still think the Jimmy Graham trade was necessary.
And while you can take Sean Payton’s track record of rolling sevens to Vegas, I do not agree with his decision to punt the ball at fourth-and-6 from his own seven-yard line with 1:58 left in the game. One note this morning agreed, pointing to a “win probability chart” posted at Pro Football Reference, which said the decision to punt decreased the Saints' odds for winning by 23.5 percent. I know that figures can lie and liars can figure, but I would far more trust Drew Brees to pick up six yards when he needed it than I would trust a young and battered defense to get the ball back. A couple plays later, it was moot after the game-clinching touchdown run by the Cardinals' David Johnson, through the Saints young and battered defense.
One positive note is that the Saints can take all they learned in Arizona and apply it this week in the home opener against Tampa Bay, which lost their home opener 42-14 to Tennessee. The Bucs should keep the Saints out of last place in the NFC South this season while trying to convince the world that Jameis Winston is an NFL quarterback. The Titans defense, ranked just above the Saints at 27 last year, sacked Winston four times, intercepted him twice and knocked away four passes. I'll bet you Rob Ryan is studying the tape of that game over and over and over again.
I kind of suspected it before Saturday, but now I am convinced. If you are an aficionado of finely tuned football defenses, then you might want to take a couple months off and look for a place where there won’t be any scoring for a while. Like Ashley Madison’s impounded website. Yes, friends, scoring of the gridiron variety will be up this season for opponents of our modest little website’s two favorite teams. We saw a concrete example of a defense-less autumn Saturday night with Kentucky’s luckier-than-an-outhouse-rat’s victory over a Ragin’ Cajun juggernaut from Lafayette. But more on them later.
The Saints open the NFL season Sunday at Arizona, which is good news because it isn’t Denver, New England or Green Bay, each of whom could score 50 points against our local heroes this week. Four NFL preseason games and a lot of wishing and hoping reveals a team that is going to have a hard time stopping anybody. The Cardinals offense ranked 24th last season, which should not put the fear of Manning into anyone, unless you watched the Saints play most of the preseason without their expected starting secondary.
The official injury report will not be out until Wednesday, but the Labor Day list is not encouraging. Keenan Lewis, the team’s best defensive back, will miss four to six games. The man expected to guard the other side, free agent pickup Brandon Browner, missed all four pre-season games and his status is doubtful. Their No. 1 replacement, free agent Devin Breaux, also missed the last preseason game. At strong safety, Kenny Vaccaro missed most of the preseason, and Jairus Byrd is doing his best Jrue Holiday impersonation and might as well be vacationing in Rio. The health of the secondary is especially critical since the Saints have not shown they can rush the passer. If you can pressure the quarterback, you can get away with average defensive backs. But when you can’t, you can’t. I’m sorry, Who Dat Nation, but I see six wins this season, as Drew Brees’ offense will not be able to keep up with the team’s generous defense.
My other defensive snit came in Lexington Saturday night, where Kentucky tried to blow a big lead against UL-Lafayette. The Wildcats overcame a puzzling performance by a new offensive coordinator to take a 33-10 lead in the third quarter. Their first play from scrimmage was a 75-yard explosion up the middle by tailback Stanley “Boom” Williams, but new coordinator Shannon Dawson is a latter-day Mouse Davis, who thought running plays were merely a chance to rest his wideouts before the next fire drill. Dawson rarely went to the run again, preferring to throw in the Towles, that is, QB Patrick Towles, whose accuracy was reminiscent of the old joke about horseshoes and hand grenades.
When Lafayette finally wised up to the fact that they did not have to worry about the run, they shut down the UK passing game then launched a comeback that was greased by Kentucky’s refusal to play defense. During the last 18 minutes, Lafayette’s offense ran up and down the field like a Tijuana jailbreak, scoring three touchdowns and a couple of no-touch two-point conversions to tie the score with five minutes remaining. Kentucky took advantage of a couple Cajun penalties and went ahead inside the final minute to avoid embarrassment.
Lafayette played an inspired game, which proves that the best teams in the Sun Belt and Conference USA (Western Kentucky beat Vandy) can beat the worst teams in the SEC. A defensive implosion against a 17-point underdog does not bode well for Kentucky the rest of the way when they likely will be favored only against Vandy, Eastern Kentucky and UNC-Charlotte. Based on Saturday’s performance, another five-win season would put a crimp into Mark Stoops’ plodding progress.
Five wins at Kentucky, coupled with six wins at the NFL level, could make this a long season for our favorite teams.