The Whims and Foibles of Sports...
You really have to hand it to Mickey Loomis and the Saints brass for pulling off the biggest early upset of free agency. While most of us smart guys were lamenting that their lack of Salary Cap space would retard any efforts to beef up the offensive line, Loomis and Coach Sean Payton decided the team had a more glaring need: A defensive disrupter. The signing of safety Jairus Byrd on Tuesday gives the team a big-play, Pro Bowl ball hawk who makes plays, and that tells me a lot about the Saints thinking.
Byrd’s signing is clearly a nod to the winning formula that brought Seattle a Super Bowl victory last month. Their defense was modeled on disrupting their opponents’ offenses through fumbles and interceptions while their low-risk offense benefitted from short fields and no pressure to win games themselves. (Remember the 2012 Saints when QB Drew Brees knew he had to put at least 30 points on the board, because his defense would give up at least that many.) The stats make the point even more clearly. Seattle’s top-rated defense led the NFL with 39 takeaways in 2013, including 28 interceptions. No other team had more than 21 picks. New Orleans had the fourth-rated defense in the league, but ranked 29th in takeaways, including only 12 interceptions. The signing of Byrd is a definite move toward the Seattle defensive model, and with Brees on the other side of the field could even be more imposing.
Byrd replaces Malcolm Jenkins, who signed with Philadelphia Tuesday. I remember fondly Jenkins’ play that saved the 2012 game when Tampa WR Vincent Jackson caught a pass over two Saints defenders and appeared to have nothing in front of him but the end zone. The problem was the 75 yards it would take him to get there, and Jenkins immediately reacted, chased him and caught him at the one-yard line. He made another big play last year against the Bears when his blindside blitz of QB Jay Cutler led to a field goal. But despite those shining moments, Jenkins was not a big-time disrupter like Byrd, who could do the same things for the 2014 Saints that Darren Sharper did for the 2009 Super Bowl champions.
The addition of a defensive disrupter does not mean the offensive line doesn’t still need help. Free agents Brian de la Puente and Zach Strief likely will command more money than the Saints want to pay, and that is okay. The Saints have been as good as any team in the league at finding and developing obscure offensive linemen. They drafted Strief in the seventh round in 2006, and De la Puente was a rookie free agent who went through six teams before New Orleans signed him to the practice squad in 2010. Both have developed into solid players who can be replaced. The free agent market includes a handful of veterans who feel slighted that their current teams wouldn’t pay their price and will likely take less money to play for a contender. The draft also will be full of candidates, and a 10-year starter might be available when the Saints pick at No. 27.
The signing of Byrd proves that the Salary Cap will not stop Loomis and Payton from doing what it takes to improve the team. They will add $3.5 million to the cap once they unload RB Darren Sproles, and DT Brodrick Bunkley ($6.1 million in 2014) could also be on the chopping block. RB Pierre Thomas ($2.9 million) was been mentioned as a possible cut, but the team negotiated a new two-year contract with the veteran Wednesday. As Byrd’s signing shows, Loomis and Payton will do whatever it takes to get better.
Early in the Salary Cap Era, the Saints were right up against the maximum, and as chief contracts negotiator I remember going to one player and his agent to ask if he would help the team by renegotiation his contract. He had signed a large contract the year before, and his first season under big money fell far short of his previous performance. My view was that he was worth less than the year before, so I proceeded accordingly and crafted a contract that reduced his cap number for the current year, but also reduced his base pay in the back-end years.
My proposal was received like a road apple wrapped in puff pastry. “We agreed to help you with the cap,” screamed the agent, “but we’re not taking a pay cut!” And that is the day I learned that players might agree help the team but only if it does not affect them.
I apparently grew up with a gross misconception of the word “help.” I always thought “help” is when you sacrifice something to benefit others. You give to your favorite charity by giving up some of your own hard-earned money. Or when you “help” your church or civic club with a drive or project, you give up some of your free time and energy. The key is sacrifice. You give up money, time or something else of value that you can keep if you like.
When an NFL player “helps” the team get under the Salary Cap, he sacrifices nothing. A usually large base salary is broken up into salary that counts now and bonus that counts in future years. But it is always the same amount. I wish NFL teams, players and writers would stop saying a restructured contract is “helping” the team. The only way a restructured contract helps the team is to help put it into worse financial problems in future years.
The Saints have been as busy in the “help me” business as anybody in the NFL the past few years, but this year charity begins at home. The team could have tried to extend the contracts of such high-priced players as Will Smith, Jabari Greer and Roman Harper, but they chose to terminate them. In like manner, in past years they might have restructured Lance Moore’s contract to make it more cap friendly, but they have terminated him and probably will do the same with Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas. They have younger players behind the aforementioned and wisely are going to give them the chance to get better. It’s a bold move for a playoff team to jettison productive veterans, but it will help their cap situation immensely in future years.
Not every team is so inclined and continues to ask their players to “help” with restructured contracts. Exhibit A on the 2014 Cap Carousel is the Dallas Cowboys. Of course, their books showed them at $25 million over the projected cap just a few weeks ago, so they needed all the help they could get. Over the past week, the Cowboys have asked for “help” and restructured the contracts of lesser-known millionaires such as LB Sean Lee, CB Orlando Scandrick and OG Mackenzy Bernadeau, as well as their most recognizable tycoon, QB Tony Romo.
In re-working the deals for Lee and Scandrick, the Cowboys reduced their base salaries to $750,000 and turned the difference into signing bonus, most of which is pro-rated into future years. Lee was scheduled to count $7.5 million and Scandrick was set to count $6.601 million against the cap. Bernadeau would have made about $2.75 million this year, but most of that will now be pushed forward. The Cowboys converted $12.5 million of Romo's $13.5 million base salary into a signing bonus, lowering his cap number from $21.8 million to $11.8 million. That saved $10 million in cap savings this year but will be accountable in future years.
The most interesting renegotiation for Jerry Jones is a return to the well for DE Demarcus Ware, who is due $12.75 million in salary and bonuses in 2014 with a cap number of more than $16 million. Ware signed a six-year contract extension in October 2009 that has been renegotiated three times already, clearing cap space for the Cowboys each of the past three offseasons. But at 31 and coming off his worst year with only six sacks, Ware is clearly on the decline and is not worth his current contract.
Ware did say he is willing to restructure his contract to help the team. But a pay cut? “No, I didn’t say that,” Ware said recently. “I said I will do whatever I need to do to maneuver some things around to help the team out. I’m for that. It’s nothing new to me. But pay cut and restructure are two different things. You hear what I’m saying?”
Wow, isn’t this where we started this discussion?
The Jimmy Graham franchise tag dispute reminds me of a Disney movie. You remember Dumbo the Flying Elephant whose oversized ears gave him the ability to soar like an eagle? Well, imagine Dumbo going to Walt Disney asking for a raise. It might go something like this:
Dumbo: Mr. Disney, I know you hired me as an elephant, and I do have a trunk and big ears and kind of look like an elephant, but I think I should be paid like an eagle. Disney: Dumbo, that’s the dumbest thing I ever heard of. You aren’t an eagle. An eagle is the symbol of our country, the epitome of bravery and courage. You are an elephant.
Dumbo: But how many elephants do you know who can fly? (To make his point, Dumbo flies around the room, buzzing Disney once or twice before returning to a soft landing at the negotiating table.) Let me ask you about some of your other stars. Was the Little Mermaid a fish or a girl? You didn't go to that movie to see her fins! Do you pay Roger Rabbit union scale? No, he makes more money than the Easter Bunny. Does Donald get paid like a duck? Donald was the original Duck Dynasty! And what about Mickey Mouse? Disney: Don’t go there, pachyderm. I knew Mickey Mouse, and you are no Mickey Mouse. He was a versatile actor! Could do a lot of things!
Dumbo: And when is the last time he played a mouse in a movie? He was restricted by definitions until he broke the stereotype. He was versatile, valuable and you won big with him! And you are paying him accordingly. Disney: And you are still an elephant! (Dumbo, exasperated, dips into his briefcase with his trunk and pulls out a thick document.)
Dumbo: Mr. Disney, I have in my trunk a copy of the most recent CBA, the Cartoon Bargaining Agreement, and I open it to Section 35, paragraph 12, which clearly states: “Character’s salary will be based on the role at which he participated in the most scenes during the prior cartoon year.” Since most of my scenes are at an altitude where I am soaring above the tallest buildings, I should be paid like an eagle. Disney (rubbing his chin, then scratching his head): But there are no eagles in any Disney movie. There are a lot of Beagles! There’s Bugle Beagle and Burger Beagle in Duck Tales. There’s even the Beagle Boys. If you don’t like that, we could pay you like Dalmatians. There were at least 101 of them.
Dumbo: But they were all cast members, bit players, the seven dwarfs, not stars. I am a star, and I want to be paid like a star! Disney: Look, big ears, what you are asking is for me to create an entirely new character group. Sort of a hybrid that does not exist, and I am not going to set the precedent. Why, the Simpsons and South Park people would kill me!
Dumbo: Well, I guess I'll see you in the grievance hearing. Did you know the hearing officer is the Lion King? Disney: Wait a minute! The Lion King is not a neutral! I protest! Where’s Hercules when I need him?
I have this trusted team of three advisers, you see, who counsel me on every aspect of University of Kentucky basketball and football. We were all fraternity brothers at UK back before laptops and cellphones, but these are not guys who just crawled out of the holler. One is a former Major League Baseball and NFL executive. Another owned a cable-TV company and insurance agency. The third is a dentist who once looked in George Clooney’s mouth. I am not making this up.
I am honored to include myself in this group, which I am happy to report is now technologically cutting edge. This week, we all added the ideograms and smileys called Emogis to our cellphone messaging. Our messages now are spiced with more thumbs-up, happy faces and lightning bolts than we knew existed just weeks ago. All of which adds gravitas to our concern over Kentucky’s young and erratic basketball team.
Flashing back to opening day, the Wildcats were ranked No. 1 in the world after Coach John Calipari snagged an unprecedented freshman class of six McDonald’s All-Americans. The lead-up to the game included Cal’s musing on the possibility of a 40-0 season, which he said he always wanted and wouldn’t it be nice if it happened this year. But the coach always inserted the caveat that freshmen players fresh out of the package carry warning labels and not money-back guarantees. Whether the coach was preparing the fans for possible failure or not, his warning was prescient as his freshmen played like freshmen the first half against then No. 2 Michigan State then made it interesting and actually tied it up before losing. Then followed losses to Baylor and North Carolina, and the Wildkittens looked mortal.
In most civilized countries, a 21-6 record and national ranking would be celebrated. But Big Blue Nation is anything but civilized when it comes to its expectations for Wildcat success. Nothing less than the school’s ninth national championship will satisfy. Right now, BBN is asking why six-loss Kansas is ranked No. 5 and six-loss Duke is No. 6, while the six-loss Wildcats are all the way down at No. 17? The immediate reaction is that everybody hates Kentucky and always has, but the evidence is mixed. The Blue Devils have more quality wins (then-No. 1 Syracuse, Virginia, Michigan and UCLA) than UK’s lone win over Louisville, although the argument against Kansas may be valid. The Jayhawks just clinched the Big Eight Conference for a record tenth year in a row, but Oklahoma State and Baylor are not Florida, which beat Kansas earlier in the year. Kansas has beaten Duke and Baylor but has also lost to Kansas State, Colorado, Baylor, San Diego State and Villanova.
But we are about to enter March, and the past is prologue. I don’t believe Kentucky will win the NCAA title this year. The freshmen and a couple of sophomores who play are too erratic. Each player among the top seven or eight has disappeared at times in games. They are not a good foul-shooting team. They do not shoot well from 15 feet and beyond. They still are too lackadaisical on defense. They do not play well consistently away from Rupp Arena. When they get into the tournament, just one of those faults will kill them against a hot-shooting team.
Can they do it? Absolutely. The list of NCAA champions is full of teams that got hot toward the end of the season and won it all, such as 1983 North Carolina State, 1985 Villanova, 1988 Kansas and 1998 Kentucky. And it won’t be like they have any more true road games in the tourney. Big Blue Nation will match or exceed any other fan base who will travel.
But the current Wildcats were not the topic of conversation this week among my core of advisers. The big news Wednesday was the first commitment to the Class of 2015. Shooting guard Charles Matthews is an athletic 6-5 who plays on the same Chicago club team that produced Derek Rose and Anthony Davis. My advisers like the signing. The Emojis were running wild! The future is secure.
Saturday was the first day of the spring that New Orleans sporting fans really begin looking forward to the first Saturday in May. No, the Jazzfest schedule was not announced, although I hope Bruce Springsteen, Eric Clapton and the Avett Brothers perform on the first weekend. You see, on the first Saturday in May, the second weekend of Jazzfest, I will be on the rail at Churchill Downs in Louisville for the 140th running of the Kentucky Derby.
I am not a racing expert, but I can read the Daily Racing Form and I know what a speed rating is and I lamented the recent Washington Post buyout of its legendary racing writer Andy Beyer. Did I also mention I almost tanked my ninth semester at UK because of the Keeneland Fall Meet? Hey, what would you have done: Go the races or attended a Sociology class that I needed to get my degree? In any case, I got a C and the degree, but my current Derby anticipation began forming Saturday.
The Risen Star Stakes at the New Orleans Fairgrounds saw Intense Holiday nip Albano in the stretch. The victory vaulted the Todd Pletcher colt into first place in the Derby points standings, which determines which horses qualify for the most famous horse race in America. Leading the standings in February is like leading at the first turn since the major qualifying races are yet to come, but jockey Mike Smith said his winning mount is still young and has a lot of room to get better. Intense Holiday was coming off a third-place finish in the Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream in January, but was the only horse to make up ground on Cairo Prince, the early Derby favorite who ran away from the field. Saturday’s betting favorite, Vicar’s in Trouble, had a tough time starting from the No. 13 post position but battled throughout and made a respectable charge at the top of the stretch to finish third.
The road to the Derby is a long one. Nine weeks remain during which some unexpected turns or wash outs will completely change the minds of the betting public. That's the nature of this journey, with Triple Crown prep races run every weekend until April 19 and with the horses themselves changing dramatically. Keep in mind what Mike Smith said above, that these horses aimed at the Triple Crown are still youngsters, like teens in high school. Although they're officially 3, many of these horses are actually still 2, and at this stage in their development, they can change with shocking suddenness.
We can still have our early favorites, and I usually side with somebody who knows more than I do about it. With Beyer taking a sabbatical, I turn to Jenny Rees, the Louisville Courier-Journal’s respected race writer, who likes Top Billing over Cairo Prince in her early standings. The Shug McGaughey trained son of Curlin came from near dead last to lose by a length at the Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream on Saturday. He was gaining on the other horses in the mile-and-sixteenth race and would have caught them at the Derby’s mile-and-a-quarter. Top Billing also has the added benefit of 2013 Derby winner Joel Rosario in the irons.
McGaughey’s other horse generating some early interest is Honor Code, which beat Cairo Prince in the Grade II Remsen Stakes at Aqueduct on November 30. Honor Code has the great Secretariat in both sire and dam bloodlines, which ain’t all bad when you are talking about winning the Derby. So between now and the first Saturday in May, I will be watching the Derby ranking unfold and updating you on the results.
But I still hope that the Boss, Clapton and the Avett Brothers are not playing Jazzfest on Derby Day.
Clarification: An interested reader commented on my column on postgame press conferences. For the sake of fairness, and because he knows a little bit about the subject, I pass on his comments to you: “The Russian coach couldn't carry my jock when it comes to post game comments!!!!! The game I made the Playoff comments was against the 49ers and son Jim was the Defensive Coordinator for SF and I think Peyton threw 5 picks. So give me a break will you? LOL!” (signed) Jim Mora