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The Whims and Foibles of Sports...

Saints woes pale compared to other NFL issues

by J.W. Miller on 09/15/14

Random thoughts on the Saints’ woeful start while wondering what is happening to the game I love?

I don’t care what anybody says, the Saints’ shocking loss at Cleveland on Sunday came down to one poor coaching decision. You remember, less than two minutes remained in the game, and the Saints had the ball with a third and five at the Browns’ 31-yard line. That was well within the range of kicker Shayne Graham, so why not hand the ball off tackle to Mark Ingram, who had been running well all day? Even if you don’t make the first down, Ingram could have picked up at least two or three to give Graham a 44-yard attempt, well within his comfort zone. 

But, no, Sean Payton outsmarted himself again and called a pass play in which four things can happen and three of them are bad: incompletion, interception or sack, which is what happened when Pierre Thomas apparently missed a blocking assignment. That put the ball back on the 38-yard line and forced a punt. Browns QB Brian Hoyer probably watched the video of how Matt Ryan carved up the Saints’ pass defense last week, and proceeded to do the same thing. Patrick Robinson was called for pass interference, but on the other side of the field, the Cleveland receiver was left wide open on a busted assignment, and, to quote the famed sporting philosopher Yogi Berra, it was “déjà vu all over again.” 

Rob Ryan’s pass defense over two games now has the dubious stat line of allowing four touchdowns, 652 total yards and a completion percentage of 65 percent. By the way, that comes with zero intereceptions from a secondary that was supposed to be a strength this year. If it takes three years to judge a draft pick, then Robinson has now taken two games to convince everyone that he’s a liability. By the way, I didn’t hear Jairus Byrd’s name mentioned very much on Sunday, and ditto strong safety Kenny Vaccaro. Do they still have the sophomore jinx? 

Even without the Saints stumbling out of the gate, last week was painful enough in the NFL, which has endured much criticism for Commissioner Roger Goodell’s handling of the Ray Rice affair. We said here when it happened that a two-game suspension for domestic abuse was lighter than light, but Goodell responded this week that the penalty came after discussions with Rice and his victim/wife. The commish said he did not want to unduly embarrass Mrs. Rice. I’ve seen this movie before. No good deed goes unpunished! Rice is a thug, and he deserved a far heavier penality, even if his wife comes across as a bit less than Little Mary Sunshine. 

The Rice deal is bad enough, but the NFL was heavily penalized last week in the public eye for excessive piling on. RB Adrian Peterson of Minnesota, who has always been held up as a paragon of integrity and professionalism, has been indicted for hitting his son with a switch. I do not know if the “switch” was a four-foot wagon tongue or if it was pulled off a weeping willow tree, which I experienced a couple times in my own youth. But the ensuing chatter has reminded us that last year, another of Peterson’s sons was murdered, allegedly by the mother’s live-in boyfriend. Peterson had only learned he was the boy’s father two months before his death and had been planning to meet him. ESPN quoted Peterson as saying he was now “more careful to cherish his time with the four children who don't live with him.” That doesn’t count a 3-year-old son with a woman Peterson just married on July 19.  

And we haven’t even mentioned the sordid case of Carolina’s Pro Bowl defensive end Greg Hardy who was on the inactive list for Sunday's game against the Lions. Hardy was found guilty in July by a Mecklenburg County judge of assaulting and threatening his former girlfriend. 

What is happening  to the game I love? Drug suspensions are taken for granted as more than twenty players are now on some form of suspension ranging from two games to one year. Apologists can rationalize and say it's always been there and blame the proliferation of ubiquitous social networking and the fact that nobody can escape their transgressions any more. But since today's athlete has grown up with that scrutiny they should be more mindful of it. You can wring your hands about the Saints’ 0-2 start, but they will straighten out their problems. I am more concerned about what is happening to the game I love, and I don’t have an answer.

Defensive disintegration send Who Dats to the ledge

by J.W. Miller on 09/08/14

My mother-in-law, the Saints fanatic, has been talking about selling her very nice house in the Lake Terrace community and buying a high-rise condo. Thankfully, this decision has been tied up in the committee of her four daughters and their four slobs of husbands who are allowed to listen but not speak. If a decision had been made prior to Sunday’s 37-34 Saints’ loss at Atlanta, then the eight of us and probably selected teams of the New Orleans Fire Department would have spent Sunday night and probably most of Monday coaxing her off the ledge. 

Indeed, she and the rest of Who Dat Nation was duly overwrought, distraught and taken aback by the performance of their favorite team, which disintegrated before their eyes in the second half against the hated Atlanta Falcons. What made it worse for her was that she watched the game at her new favorite drinking hole, Bobby Hebert’s Cajun Cannon restaurant in Metairie, which was for most of the afternoon a festive venue. In fact, one of her friends set the tone early when he became the first patron ever to devour the seven-layer hamburger and fries with shrimp sauce, thereby having his meal comped by management. 

The Saints were doing some devouring of their own in the first half as Drew Brees’ offense looked in mid-season form and ran out to a 20-7 lead with seconds left in the half. But that was when the first cracks of the defensive disintegration began to show.  Two long passes from QB Matt Ryan set up a 53-yard field goal by Matt Bryant at the gun, and I said to my son that the three-point gift might come back to haunt the Saints. 

If there is anyplace I would not want to be on Monday, it would be in the defensive meeting room when Coordinator Rob Ryan convenes his first ass-chewing of the season. During his unit’s disintegration, Ryan on the sidelines looked like a candy store owner lashed to the cash register while a regiment of Cub Scouts ravaged the cupcake aisle. The defense probably couldn’t have stopped eleven Cub Scouts, or even Brownies, in the second half as QB Ryan picked them apart like he was stealing. The Saints could not tackle, they could not cover Julio Jones or any other receiver and they approached Falcon running backs like they were carrying a hornet’s nest instead of a plump pigskin. 

Could the Saints’ defense really be as bad as it looked? After ranking No. 4 overall in the NFL last year under Rob Ryan, then adding a playmaker like Jairus Byrd to go along with a vibrant young defensive line and coming stars like Kenny Vaccaro, I thought the Saints defense would be a great fantasy league pickup. Today, they looked as bad as the woeful 2012 unit that ranked dead last in all-time NFL defensive futility. 

But Saints fans need to give the devils their due. We were all lulled into thinking the Falcons were done after their miserable 4-12 performance last year. Today, it looks like they truly were a beat-up, injury-plagued unit that could return to their 2012 13-3 status if they stayed healthy. On Sunday, they clearly re-inserted themselves as true contenders for division honors. If their health was in question, then they received their cure by rallying to defeat a team that many people, including your benevolent scribe, believed might have a Super Bowl in their future. 

The Falcons might be that good, but I hope the Saints defense isn’t as bad as it looked Sunday. If it is, any talk of a high-rise condo for my mother-in-law or equally infected members of Who Dat Nation should continue to be tied up in committee. 

LSU comeback turns Miles from idiot to savant!

by J.W. Miller on 08/31/14

Random thoughts while wondering if the Browns should have signed the Texas A&M offensive coordinator instead of drafting Johnny Manziel ...

Well, the first week of the college football season is behind us, and the biggest impression is that the NCAA wanted fans everywhere to know that computers will no longer be picking the season champion. The new playoff system, in which a select panel will choose the four semi-finalists, was Topic No. 1 on every broadcast, and, believe me, I watched a bunch! You heard it from the commentators, you saw it on the bottom-screen crawls and you even saw it during commercials. Did you know that Notre Dame’s beloved Rudy had the idea forty years ago? Well, that’s what the commercial said … 

I was tempted to pack it in when Wisconsin took a 24-7 lead against LSU Saturday night, but I told myself  I’d watch one more series. Then another series and another, and, all of a sudden, Les Miles looked less the idiot than a savant. LSU was bailed out by its defense, and that's not going to happen every week, but they are undefeated and have a reasonably easy September, which should give QB Anthony Jennings some time to fine-tune his game. He was miserable into the third quarter, and he must get better for LSU to compete in upcoming games with Auburn, Alabama or Texas A&M. By the way, heralded freshman RB Leonard Fournette looked like a freshman without the heralds, but there's nothing like a come from behind win against a ranked opponent to take the pressure off ... 

Speaking of Alabama, Nick Saban has his own quarterback problems, whether to stay with fifth year senior Blake Sims or switch to Florida State transfer Jacob Coker. My advice to Nick after watching Sims run the team against West Virginia: It doesn’t matter; just tell him to hand off and not worry about the rest. When you’ve got studs like T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry carrying the ball, why would you even think about floating a pass into the air? The pair combined for 239 yards and three touchdowns, which sounds like classic Saban who always seems to have two good backs who take turns mowing down opposing defenses. Hey, that strategy has brought the Tide three national titles since 2009 and could do it again …

Speaking of studly running backs, if there is another one out there as talented as Georgia’s Todd Gurley, I would stop the season and award the Heisman Trophy today. Gurley scored four touchdowns and set a school record with 298 all-purpose yards, leading the No. 12 Bulldogs to a 45-21 victory over No. 16 Clemson Saturday night. Gurley ran for 198 yards and three touchdowns and returned a kickoff 100 yards for another score. That’s a Heisman-like average of 17.2 yards every time he got his hands on the ball! If the Bulldogs can get past South Carolina in Columbia this weekend, they could be 9-0 when they go to Auburn on November 15 … 

Speaking of undefeated, Marc Stoops has to be happy with his second opening day as Kentucky’s coach. Sure, they were playing Tennessee-Martin and not Tennessee-Knoxville, but QB Patrick Towles showed confidence and ability, their running back by committee was impressive and new safety A.J. Stamps had three “Holy Sh--!” moments with a one-handed interception and two big hits. The Wildcats are rebuilding around young players, which means a lack of depth can sink them. However, if they can keep their key players healthy, all of a sudden games with Vanderbilt, Mississippi State, Tennessee and Louisville all appear within reach ...

Speaking of playoffs ...  Playoffs? Playoffs? Talk of postseason play will be heard in Lexington this year, but not until October 17. That is the date of Big Blue Madness, when the nation’s top-ranked basketball team starts official fall practice.

Saints' hopes depend on a healthy Brees

by J.W. Miller on 08/25/14

It was reassuring to see Drew Brees in uniform and playing at a high level on Saturday night, even if it was just for two series. In his first action of the preseason, Brees made his short stint look like skelly drills when he methodically took his team down the field against little apparent opposition from the Colts' first teamers. He was passing, he was handing off and, ye gods! he even was running the ball to gain key yardage. I could have done without the latter, and I am certain that most of Who Dat Nation felt the same way. 

When Brees took off and picked up a sliding first down in the second series, I could almost hear Sean Payton’s sphincter puckering all the way from Indianapolis. The fourth quarter of the Super Bowl, okay, but not a meaningless exhibition game. It is so obvious that Brees is the lynchpin for the local heroes that the specter of injury can’t even be contemplated. But this is the NFL, and it happens. Just ask the folks in St. Louis today who are scrambling to find a quarterback after losing starter Sam Bradford for the season Saturday night against Cleveland. Bradford tore the same ACL that shortened his 2013 season which now leaves the Rams in the hands of Shaun Hill, a 13-year journeyman from Maryland. I have a masters degree from Maryland, and I’ve never heard of Shaun Hill! 

Speaking of Maryland, while I was working on the degree, I was covering the Baltimore Colts who had won three straight AFC Eastern Division titles. It was 1978 and the team thought they were positioned to finally snap the Steelers’ AFC stranglehold when they headed into the last preseason game, at Detroit. But their hopes evaporated when Lions’ rookie DE Bubba Baker grabbed QB Bert Jones and drove him into Silverdome’s concrete-hard surface. Jones’ throwing shoulder was separated, and he was out for the season. Enter backup QB Bill Troup, and the Colts’ were done, finishing 5-11. 

That is what can happen when a team loses its starting quarterback. An NFL team doesn’t go into a Sunday like a “Weekend at Bernie’s” where they can prop their injured star in an easy chair and expect everything around him to progress normally. An example was obvious Saturday after Brees put on a baseball cap with minutes remaining in the first quarter. What happened? Not much, thanks to his backups, Luke McCown and Ryan Griffin, who played the last three-plus quarters. McCown made a couple of nice runs but completed only three of ten pass attempts while Griffin, the Great Greenie hope from Tulane, hit eight of thirteen attempts but only produced one field goal. 

Brees’ health was the last thing on anyone’s minds after he appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated looking for all the world like a Megatron warrior, waving two gigantic ship’s ropes and surrounded by all manner of sadistic contraptions. The story trumpeted his great condition, which he followed with talk about playing until he’s 45. All that instantly disintegrated with an injury to some obscure muscle called an “oblique,” which infused even more irony since the muscle is located near what we mere mortals affectionately call our “love handles.” That fatty tire around most of our waists does not exist on the svelte quarterback, but neither have most of us suffered an oblique injury. 

I know, I should be satisfied that Brees is back and playing like the Brees we all expect to take the Saints deep into the playoffs. But this is the NFL, and I know what can happen.

Finks not as lucky as Manfred in commissioner vote

by J.W. Miller on 08/17/14

The election of Rob Manfred as Major League Baseball’s next commissioner reminds us of a similar NFL election a quarter-century ago that had major implications for the New Orleans Saints. Some owners tried to block Manfred's candidacy, much like a bloc of NFL owners blocked the candidacy of Saints president and general manager Jim Finks in 1989. 

Chicago White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf, one of the oldest of baseball’s old school owners, led a charge against Manfred, arguing for a commissioner who would take a harder stance with the players once the next labor dispute arises. But retiring Commissioner Bud Selig began pulling the strings to ensure the favored result for Manfred. After the owner vote was deadlocked with Manfred just short of the three-quarters majority needed to be elected, Selig talked to the holdouts, including Reinsdorf, and eventually produced the unanimous vote that signaled harmony. Fortunately for Manfred, his election to succeed Selig turned out much better than it did for Finks. 

Pete Rozelle announced his retirement at the spring owners’ meeting in Palm Springs, California, in March, 1989, and speculation began immediately on who would succeed the legend. Rozelle named a selection committee to identify a new commisioner and chose Steelers’ president Dan Rooney as chair. As the summer proceeded, two names surfaced as primary candidates. Paul Tagliabue, who had been legal counsel for the NFL for many years, and Finks, president and general manager of the New Orleans Saints. 

Early sentiment favored Finks overwhelmingly. A former quarterback and defensive back with the Steelers, Finks had forged a sterling record as chief executive with the Minnesota Vikings and Chicago Bears before achieving the impossible, turning a moribund Saints franchise that had never had a winning season in its first 19 years into a league powerhouse. Finks was universally respected, well-liked and was a logical selection. The problem was that Finks’ selection was TOO logical. 

Rooney’s committee consisted almost exclusively of “Old Guard” owners, including NFL icons such as Wellington Mara, president of the New York Giants, and Michael McCaskey, president of the Bears and grandson of league founder George Halas. They were accustomed to having their way, and the committee submitted Finks’ name alone to the full membership for ratification. The owners met in a Chicago hotel to take a vote, while a confident Finks waited in his suite with wife Maxine and his four sons, two of whom were married and brought their wives.

When the owners’ meeting began, it became apparent that some owners saw the process as a Russian election in which one candidate was presented for a “yes” or “no” vote. Like MLB, the NFL required a three-quarters majority, which meant Finks needed at least 21 votes from the 28 owners. New Dallas owner Jerry Jones was one of the protesters, claiming the committee was ramrodding Finks without giving the membership an option. Mike Lynn, president of the Vikings and an old Finks rival, joined in and they convinced a handful of other owners, including Bob Irsay of the Colts and Georgia Frontiere of the Rams, to stonewall the Finks’ vote.

When the first vote was taken, Finks received 19 votes while nine owners declined. Rooney went to Finks and asked him to call several of the reluctant owners to ask for their support, but Finks, a principled man to the end, refused. His reason: any owner who changed his vote might expect a payback from a Commissioner Finks. Finks would not put himself in such a position. “If they don’t want me,” Finks said, “I am not going to try and change their mind.” 

Several other votes were taken, but the Chicago Nine would not budge. Rozelle talked to Rooney, known by some in the League as “Dan, on the other hand” for his ability to come off his position to achieve a compromise, and offered a solution. The committee would withdraw Finks’ name and offer Tagliabue, who some said was Rozelle's choice all along, as an alternative. Although the compromise was objectionable to most owners, the switch was offered as one “for the good of the League” and was immediately accepted. Paul Tagliabue was the new commissioner of the NFL.

Rooney called Finks to give him the bad news, which Finks accepted with grace. “The worst part of it,” Finks said later, “was the balloons.” The Finks clan had expected a celebration, and the wives of sons David and Tom brought balloons and decorated their suite in anticipation. “They (his family) were ready for a celebration,” Finks said, “but I wound up going back to New Orleans and kept sawing wood.”

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Week 2 NFL Picks!

L-Take Saints at Browns +6.5
L-Take Titans over Cowboys +3.5
W-Take Cardinals at Giants +2.5
L-Take Vikings +3 over Patriots
L-Take Bucs over Rams +5.5

Last week 1-4
Season Record 2-8

QB Brian Hoyer sees a rare moment of pass pressure from the Saints as he avoids Cameron Jordan for a short gain during the Browns' win.