The Whims and Foibles of Sports...
A crisis of immense proportions has arisen in Kentucky, and it is the duty of her native sons to come home. That’s why I am packing up the buggy and heading to the heartland this week. In case you live in a cave or a barn without a basketball hoop nailed above the door, you are certainly aware of the University of Kentucky’s 84-83 overtime loss to Seton Hall at Madison Square Garden on Saturday. The loss put the Cats at 7-2 and a likely drop from their No. 9 pregame slot into the terrible teens when the new polls come out.
And it is up to me, a faithful son of the Bluegrass and official Maker’s Mark ambassador, to do all I can to fix things. I know I probably sound like the Saints player who, flying back with the team from a road game, was informed of a disturbing crisis that had hit a part of the country. The player rushed to the front of the plane and emphatically told Coach Bum Phillips: "Coach, we oughta get this plane on the ground and find out what's going on!"
But after I did my part to solve the six-quarter Saints’ offensive malaise Sunday (with appropriate assistance from Taysom Hill's blocked punt), I now turn my talents northward to help cure the strange inconsistency that threatens the Wildcats’ goal of a ninth NCAA basketball championship. That was almost a given before the first game of the season and enough to entice me to put down a Benjamin at the local sports wagering parlor which is now completely legal in my little piece of the Gulf South.
I have written that once Mississippi legalized sports gaming at their coast casinos, I rushed over and put down wagers on my three favorite candidates for temporary immortality. The Red Sox complied, winning the World Series at 4-1 odds, so in a sense I am playing with house money. A bet on Kentucky to win the NCAA championship was also going off at 4-1, the lowest pre-season odds for any contender. (Yes, the Saints are my third bet!) But the first tip that things might not go my way for UK was the first center court tip-off against Duke. I am often more stubborn than slow on the uptake, but it did not take a genius to realize that the subsequent 34-point ass-kicking might suggest that my Wildcats are less than an even match with the hated Blue Devils and probably a few others.
It was the type of humbling that was not expected after Kentucky demolished four international teams in a pre-season sojourn to Paradise Island in the Bahamas. Those three matches, which made the Wildcats appear ready for the Golden State Warriors, now raise suspicions that their opponents were shanghaied from the armada of cruise ships that ring the harbor. One source had the temerity to suggest that the games were part of the cruise ship options that include packages for full internet, bar tab and tours of local places of interest. Who would have thought that the box that listed “recreational diversion at the island’s largest sports arena” would allow you to suit up against the Kentucky Wildcats?
The Bahamas blowouts were long forgotten after the Duke debacle and even during parts of the next seven home games, all Kentucky victories against such juggernauts as Winthrop, Monmouth and the YMCA of Rabbit Hash, Ky. Big Blue Nation expected the same level of opposition when the Cats went on the road Saturday to face Seton Hall, a team that even hated Louisville had beaten. But a strange inspiration overtakes Wildcat opponents who consider UK the closest they will ever get to the Final Four. They begin playing like Loyola of Chicago at crunch time.
Seton Hall used an assortment of three-point shots thrown from various locations inside Madison Square Garden and outside on 34th Street, the last of which in regulation gave the Pirates a three-point lead with 1.1 second remaining. The generous officials must have felt sorry for the visitors and put the clock at 1.5 seconds, just enough time for Kentucky’s Keldon Johnson to throw up his own prayer from the mid-court stripe that went cleanly through the nets and sent the game into overtime. Surely, that was the omen the Wildcats needed that would assure victory. Even the members of Big Blue Nation who filled the Garden turned their conversations to dinner at Elaine’s or Mama Leone’s?
Coach John Calipari must have been in on that conversation because his instructions to his team before the extra period did not include anything about defense. Seton Hall scored the first two baskets of the OT and then used another blind-shot three-pointer with 8 seconds remaining to send the Wildcats and their following back home in tears. Calipari, who doesn’t count wins or losses until March, said his team needed a game like that and they would be fine when they needed to be. I’m a trusting guy, but I’m going to see for my own self when Kentucky hosts Utah Saturday at Rupp Arena. I can yell and scream all I want at the TV – as the Lovely Miss Jean will confirm - but I believe the players will react far more constructively to my basso-profundo instructions in person.
In case you think my trip is strictly humanitarian in nature, know that I am appearing at the Scott County Historical Society in Georgetown on Thursday night for a talk and book-signing of my current book, “Integrated: the Lincoln Institute, Basketball and a Vanishing Tradition.” Basketball might not be as important in December, but my book makes a great Christmas gift. In case you were wondering!
Random thoughts on superstitions, winning streaks gone bad and my favorite football team....
The Sports Illustrated jinx may be alive and well, as the New Orleans Saints learned last week. The Saints’ 10-game winning streak and chatter about QB Drew Brees being the hands-down favorite to win the NFL MVP award prompted the magazine to put Brees on the cover. Well, we all know the peculiar things that happen to athletes or teams that are featured on the magazine’s cover. Such as …
Last March, SI ran a cover heading into the NCAA basketball tournament featuring No. 1 Virginia. The Cavaliers became the first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 seed and not by a small margin, 74-54 to the UMBC Retrievers. And then there's this: During the 2017 NFL season, cover subjects included Aaron Rodgers, J.J. Watt and David Johnson, all of whom had their seasons ended by injuries. And what about this one: In the lead-up to the 2017 World Series, SI’s cover featured the L.A. Dodgers with the caption “Best Team Ever?” The Dodgers proceeded to lose 17 of their next 22 games, but recovered in time to lose the World Series to the Houston Astros.
The 2016 MLB preview included the Mets’ pitching staff as the reason the Mets would once again be Amazin’! Matt Harvey proceeded to have the worst year of his career, Jacob deGrom started slowly before undergoing season-ending surgery, and star reliever Jeurys Familia was arrested for domestic violence. Closer to home, LSU fans might remember the 2015 cover that featured RB Leonard Fournette and the 5-0 Tigers who followed up the recognition by losing three straight games and knocking themselves out of playoff contention.
Most of us say we don’t believe in jinxes, but we are the same folks who avoid walking under ladders or who turn the other way after a black cat crosses our path. Maybe it’s in our DNA since New Orleans reputedly leads the league in haunted houses, garlic crucifixes and Voodoo priestesses, but is there really an SI cover jinx? I would prefer to think it was more a relentless Cowboys’ pass-rush that contributed to a rare off night between Brees and his receivers than it was any mysterious spectral upsurges traveling through the vapor.
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I’m hoping the 13-10 loss at Dallas that ended the Saints’ 10-game win streak does not mean bad things to come as it did for two earlier versions when I was with the Black and Gold. After a frustrating 34-33 loss to San Francisco in the 1988 opener, the Saints won their next seven games only to have the streak stopped by the Rams, 12-10. After the streak, the Saints went 3-5 to finish 10-6 but lost the divisional tie-breakers and missed the playoffs. In 1991, the Saints won their first seven games, but after a 20-17 upset by Chicago in the Superdome, they went 4-4 and lost a heart-breaking 27-20 playoff to the hated Falcons.
I’d rather the Saints handle it as they did in 2009, winning their first 13 to clinch the home-field advantage then losing their next three basically meaningless games before defeating Arizona and Minnesota in the conference playoffs and Indianapolis in the Super Bowl. Yeah, that would work!
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I’m proud of my Kentucky Wildcats for their 9-3 season and New Year’s Day appointment with Penn State in the Citrus Bowl. When Coach Mark Stoops came to Lexington six years ago, he installed a program that has shown improved performance each season and is now in the conversation about SEC football contenders.
Pass rushing LB Josh Allen will be drafted in the NFL top ten next spring and RB Benny Snell could go in the first two rounds should he forgo his senior year. And, for the first time in years, Kentucky should have another handful of players who will hear their names called on draft day. Stoops improved recruiting, obviously believing the mantra "good players make good coaches"!
Despite all this, Cat fans are grousing that Florida, with the same 9-3 record, is ranked four spots ahead of Kentucky although the Cats beat the Gators in Gainesville. Leaving my emotion at the door, I will only say that if Kentucky had beaten Florida in Week 10 instead of Week 2 AND not lost to a miserable Tennessee team, things would have been different. Wait ‘til next year!
If your buddy in a bar asked you to name the top offensive teams in the NFL, you would probably press the bet, get the stakes as high as you could and then figure out how you were going to spend your winnings. It’s an easy question when you consider the Saints and QB Drew Brees seem to be setting new standards at scoring points while the Rams and Chiefs are as proficient in their own schemes as evidenced by last Monday night’s 115-110 Rams victory. Excuse me, that was the Warriors and Lakers score, but whatever the final tally (54-51), both teams proved they are right up there with New Orleans offensively.
The Saints are No. 1 in the league at points per game (37.2), ahead of the No. 2 Chiefs (36.7) and No. 3 Rams (35.4). The Saints are No. 2 to the Rams in turnover ratio (+11 to +8) and No. 1 in the league in time of possession (33.1). Impressive numbers, but today’s point writ large is this: when considering which team has the best shot at winning the Super Bowl, the Saints have a distinct edge. And that is because of a suddenly cohesive and healthy defense. The Saints aren’t the only team that can score a fistful of points, but when you look at the other major Super Bowl contenders, defense sets the Who Dats apart.
Understandably, none of the three offensive juggernauts rank in the top half of the league in defensive statistics. Too many big leads allow too much trash scoring in the fourth quarter after the starters are done for the day. But certain defensive statistics are significant when comparing the Saints with the Rams and Chiefs. For example, how many times has a big penalty in a tight game hurt your favorite team? Ask LSU’s faithful after that landslide of questionable calls in the Texas A&M snakepit. The good news for this conversation is that Saints are one of the least-penalized defenses in the league, having been flagged 55 times for 513 yards. Conversely, the Rams have heard the Law & Order theme 67 times for 609 yards while the almost felonious Chiefs have committed 74 penalties for 603 yards.
The Saints rushing defense ranks No. 1 in the league at 73 yards per game, a healthy improvement from the 111.7 yards per game of last season. If an opponent can't run effectively and must pass, that's music to the defensive ears, even if it's LA's Jared Goff or KC's Patrick Mahomes. No opposing running back has rushed for more than the 69 yards Tampa’s Peyton Barber gained in the opening day loss. Even NFL rushing leader Todd Gurley managed only 68 in the Saints’ 45-35 win over the Rams in Week 9.
Overall, the Saints defense has allowed 358.9 yards per game (15th in the NFL), ahead of the Rams 372.5 (20th) and the Chiefs at 414.7 (30th). More importantly, the Saints have allowed 23.3 points per game (14th), ahead of the Rams’ 25.6 (20th) and the Chiefs’ 26.7 (27th). That reveals the best indicator of combined offensive and defensive contributions to victory: The Saints have the No. 1 point differential in the league at 13.9, a field goal ahead of the Chiefs at 10 and the Rams at 9.8.
Complementing the statistical superiority of the Saints have been the intangibles that win games. Evidence Thanksgiving Day against the Falcons when an opportunistic Saints defense stopped three Atlanta drives with takeaways in the red zone.
We have a long way to go, but if the current standings hold up, the Saints will face the Rams in the NFC championship and then the Chiefs in the Super Bowl. Looking at the stats, the offenses will continue to light it up, but the Saints’ defense will make the difference on whether or not a second Super Bowl title comes to New Orleans.
We could go on and on about the Saints this week, about how they are the hottest team in the league and how they scored 99 points the past two weeks and how QB Drew Brees is having his best season, one that could not possibly deny him his first MVP award.
It’s hard not to be giddy over the Saints’ season, which on Sunday included the worst beatdown of a defending Super Bowl champion in history. They cake-walked to a 48-7 win over the Eagles, who are going through one of those “when will it stop?” injury plagues. Key starters are dropping like flies, including three more players during the game. Speaking of injuries, I wish Coach Sean Payton would think about giving Brees some relief during games that are basically decided by halftime.
Announcers Joe Buck and Troy Aikman even mentioned at the midway point of the third quarter that Payton should be thinking about it, but backup Teddy Bridgewater didn’t come in until about 5 minutes to go in the game. Frankly, I think it would make sense to give Bridgewater some time calling real plays if there is any desire to have him stay interested enough to stick around. An obstacle is the old head coaching paranoia that says the other team is ready to mount a rally for the ages, so you can't let up.
Okay, but think about this frightening “what if:” the second worst thing that could possibly happen to the Saints over the last six games is for Brees to go down with an injury. You want to know what's worse than that? The very worst thing that could happen is for Brees to get hurt in the fourth quarter of a game that is well under control.
Let’s shift gears for a minute and consider some whimsical NFL news that popped up in the past week. Do you really believe the Cleveland Browns are considering former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for the vacant head coaching position? Huh? This sounds like something former owner Art Modell, cocktail in hand, would cook up just to get everybody talking about the Browns. Indeed, sources have reported that the idea came from owner Jimmy Haslam, a donor to Republican campaigns who knows Rice. GM John Dorsey tried to put some distance between fact and fiction. He issued a statement saying the Browns are putting together a list of potential candidates but that Rice “has not been discussed.”
But think about who we are talking about. The Browns haven’t been to the playoffs since Rice was in the Bush administration, and they have made worse decisions since then. Since 2001, their first-round draft choices have included quarterbacks Johnny Manziel, Brady Quinn, Brandon Wheeden and Tim Couch; defensive linemen Courtney Brown and Gerard Warren; running backs Trent Richardson and William Green; and a host of other forgettables. And most of those players were picked at the top of the draft when you would presume the better players congregate.
But this is the Browns! At least Rice has football connections, of a sort. It was a poorly kept secret among NFL insiders that Rice and former WR Gene Washington were longtime companions. Washington spent many years on Paul Tagliabue’s staff, so Condi could have picked up something by osmosis from her fellow Alabama native. And she was added to the inaugural College Football Playoff selection in October, 2013, for whatever reasons.
But if you really want to have fun with this one, you can let your imagination run wild. If any changes come to the Saints, do you think stripper Chris Owens would make a dandy play-caller? You would probably see a lot of naked bootlegs! Ya think?
I’ll end this little romp with a name you need to remember: Bubba Parham. He plays basketball for the Virginia Military Institute (VMI), and he could be the next Steph Curry if VMI’s game Sunday evening at Kentucky is an indication. Parham, a 5-11 sophomore, made 10 three-point shots, many of them from 30 feet and beyond in a 92-82 loss. I watched on the SEC Network, and he was dazzling!
Parham would dribble to the three-point line until a defender picked him up, then he would take a step back and let it fly. His shots could have brought rain, arcing high into the air before coming down in the center of the basket. Kentucky tried to double-team him when he crossed the center line to no effect. Parham would back out and suddenly go up with a quick release, one shot made while he was falling backwards. Parham's play drew a mix of awe, fear and respect from UK fans who don’t mind a little sideshow as long as their Cats win the game.
With the NBA game evolving into a three-point shooting match, scouts are encouraging college players to developing those skills. Although you may not have heard about Bubba Parham before today, you might keep an eye on him. Your favorite NBA scout is, for sure.
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.