The Whims and Foibles of Sports...
Happy Bye Weekend! Hope you got to the wife’s job jar or however you passed the time while wondering how local football has declined to such a state. LSU's 38-17 loss to Ole Miss didn’t make you feel any better about the Saints’ situation, but we’ll talk more about the Tigers’ problems further down.
Exhibit A of the Saints’ decline was actively addressed last Monday when defensive coordinator Rob Ryan was fired, although anyone who believes interim coordinator Dennis Allen will do any better with the same cast probably thinks Bobby Jindal should be president. But since you can’t fire 25 guys, the coordinator is sacrificed, and we’ll see how that works out.
Just how bad has the Saints’ defense been over the first ten games? Pretty awful, and dead last in the league’s three critical defensive statistics: points allowed per game, yards allowed per game and yards allowed per play. That is bad enough, but the Saints’ performance through ten games has been so bad that, if extrapolated over a 16-game season, is on track to become the NFL’s worst defense statistically since the league went to 16 games in 1978. That’s the year Affirmed became the last Triple Crown winner until American Pharoah! Terry Bradshaw had hair and was the NFL MVP. Charlie McClendon was still head coach at LSU! Ron Guidry won a game as the Yankees beat the Dodgers in six games in the World Series. Disco was king, and the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive” was the No. 1 song.
My point? That’s a helluva long stretch to be the worst of anything!
So if the Saints are in the running for the worst defense since at least 1978, who could possibly have been as bad? It’s hard to believe, but two teams have given up more points per game over a season than the Saints’ 31.5 average. The 1981 Baltimore Colts, yes that’s Baltimore Colts, allowed 33.3 points per game. They were followed in futility more recently by the 2008 Detroit Lions that gave up 32.3 points per game.
But no team in recent history has been as generous as the Saints in giving up 6.7 yards per play, although the 2012 Saints were close. The Saints of short-time defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo gave up 6.5 yards per play. Even the 1981 Colts only gave up 6.1 yards per play! The 2015 Saints' current yards allowed per game of 424.3 is a smidgen behind the same Colts’ yards-per-game average of 424.4, but the Spagnuolo Saints were worse, giving up a record 440 yards per game while holding the opposition to 28.4 points per game.
Ranking among the top three all-time in those key stats makes the argument that the 2015 Saints is the worst defense of all time. They've got six games left to fix it!
Troubles in Tigerland - I don’t understand all I know about LSU’s sudden freefall from national championship contender to a bunch of Baton Rubes. They have talent, including Leonard Fournette, who is watching his Heisman Trophy chances evaporate with every loss. They have a handful of other players on the roster who are likely to move on to the NFL in the next season or two. Something I did not know until Verne Lundquist announced it on Saturday, but LSU has 40 players currently on NFL rosters, more than any other college. Of course, maybe that’s not such a big deal since the No. 2 and No. 3 teams - Miami with 37 and Southern Cal with 35 – haven’t threatened to win any national championships themselves lately.
I wanted an authoritative answer on the Tiger woes, so I went right to the top and asked my most valued expert on LSU football. My brother-in-law, who is a former Tiger player, says the most likely reason the Tigers have been tamed is “Les (Bleeping) Miles.” Like most LSU fans who are busily sharpening pitchforks and lighting torches, he believes that Miles is a great recruiter but terrible coach. Sounds like the same criticism thrust upon Dale Brown years ago.
But after watching most of the last three Tiger losses, one glaring deficiency stands out to me. Their line play, on either side of the ball, has not been very good. Good defense starts with pass rushing and run-stopping, and when a team gives up 38, 31 and 30 points in three straight losses, it’s easy to blame the fat asses up front. If you can’t rush the passer, your secondary can’t cover all day, and if you can’t stop the run, well, you get the idea. The Most Frightening Stat of the Day: The Tiger defense has given up an average of 435 yards per game in the three losses. That’s even more than the Saints give up!
The same thing goes for offense. Fournette has had a terrible time finding running lanes. Alabama and Arkansas did a fantastic job of pushing the LSU offensive line backward, shutting the running game down totally, while Ole Miss held Fournette to 4 yards per carry. All the teams employed the “spy” method of defending Fournette, in which one or two players had the responsibility to watch his every move. When the defensive line wins its battle up front, the linebacker or strong safety assigned to Fournette is free to move in and limit No. 7 to minimal yardage.
Texas A&M will give LSU an opportunity this weekend to regain its swagger for a New Year’s Day bowl appearance. But after the past three games, that won’t be in the Sugar Bowl or Fiesta Bowl. The best they hope for now is a second-tier matchup in the Outback Bowl, possibly against Northwestern, and nobody in these parts figured on that one a month ago.
It was halftime of the Saints game yesterday when I checked my Twitter account for any wisdom on why the hometown heroes were getting pistol-whipped by a very average Redskins team. Fletcher Mackel, sports director of WDSU-TV in New Orleans, remarked that on its current pace of 394 total yards in the first half alone, Washington’s offense could gain 800 yards on the very offensive Saints defense. I hit “reply” and suggested to Mackel that the Saints adopt the city’s pothole policy when it comes to filling holes. Put an orange cone in front of the hole and maybe the Redskins running backs would drive around them just as thousands of New Orleans drivers do every day.
Fletcher liked the remark so much that he invited me to appear on the WDSU 4 p.m. news on Monday afternoon. I was practicing my ad-libs during my morning run today, but when I returned I saw a text from Fletcher that gave me all the fodder I needed: “They just fired Rob Ryan. Be on the set at 3:45.”
Firing of the Saints’ defensive coordinator comes as no surprise, since the team’s defense ranks dead last in the NFL in just about every conceivable category except “Bars visited by Coordinator.” Despite the numbers, for anyone who might wonder why a team would fire its coordinator at this point of the season, the answer is “you can’t fire all the players.” Rob Ryan isn’t a bad coach, but he wasn’t a particularly good coach for one simple NFL absolute: “Good players make good coaches.” The flip side is just as true: “Bad players make bad coaches,” and “bad” coaches get fired.
Anyone who thinks the Saints defense will suddenly rise up to become the 1985 Bears, coincidentally coached by Rob’s father Buddy Ryan, is sadly mistaken. The Saints do not have enough good, healthy or experienced players on defense to do much better than they’ve done under Ryan. There are a lot of reasons for that, including decisions on draft choices who have not panned out and signing free agents who either could not stay healthy or whose performance declined after the big pay day.
Other critics might feel that Ryan is merely the scapegoat since the NFL has become a league of “what have you done for me lately?” Miami and Tennessee fired their head coaches before the halfway mark in the season, the first time that had ever happened in the NFL. Are there more changes on the way? The stories suggesting Sean Payton will leave after this season suddenly gain some traction as the team’s play continues to plummet. Will he leave? Will owner Tom Benson clean house? Who knows? But Fletcher Mackel also wrote an interesting piece on his blog to the effect that Benson is above all a businessman who is motivated by success and is not satisfied with failure.
A salesman who sells the most cars in New Orleans one year endears himself to Benson for that year, but his success becomes his curse. He merely set the bar higher and is expected to do it every year. I can guarantee you that Benson’s expectations after his Super Bowl championship was that his team would do it again and again. It’s been six years now, and the current season looks like it will be the team’s third losing season, without a playoff appearance, in the past four years.
I remember another Saints head coach who never won a Super Bowl but whose team recorded the franchise's first winning seasons and ranked fourth in the league in victories over a seven-year span. But when his next three teams went 8-8, 7-9 and 7-9, Jim Mora was gone. Nothing would surprise me now.
I had intended on watching a lot of football this past weekend, but I wound up playing a lot of golf. More on that later as I clean out the notebook and leave the enigma of the Saints to you …
Kentucky vs. Duke in the third game of the season, which occurs Tuesday night, doesn’t generate the fire of a March or April tournament matchup, but it’s still a grudge match. Kentucky is the Blue Devils’ biggest rival next to North Carolina, and Duke is Kentucky’s biggest rival next to nobody because, well, bad blood. The Lexington Herald-Leader’s Jerry Tipton posed the question: Why do Kentucky fans hate Duke? The obviously answer is the 1992 regional final when Christian Laettner put a knife into Kentucky hearts with his last-second shot. Wildcat fans are still simmering that Laettner wasn’t kicked out of the game earlier for stomping on UK’s Aminu Timberlake who had fallen to the ground. It doesn’t matter that Kentucky and Duke have faced each other in two Final Fours, and the Wildcats prevailed each time.
In 1966, Texas Western’s upset of Kentucky for the championship is hailed for its black vs. white racial overtones. Nobody remembers that Kentucky beat Duke in the opening game to get there. I’ve often wondered, if Duke, who also had no black players who dressed, had beaten Kentucky and then lost to Texas Western if Duke Coach Vic Bubas would have been pilloried as the symbol of racism that UK Coach Adolph Rupp had to carry around. In 1978, Kentucky and Duke met in the NCAA championship game, and the Wildcats prevailed behind Jack “Goose” Givens’ 41 points. Six years after Laettner, Wildcat fans could take some solace in the 1998 regional championship game, when the Blue Devils blew a seemingly insurmountable 17-point lead in the last nine minutes and Kentucky rallied to win the game on their way to another NCAA championship.
Since then, the two teams have played each other only three times, all early in the season, and Duke has won them all: 71-60 in the Jimmy V. Classic on December 22, 1998; 95-92 in the Jimmy V. Classic, November 18, 2001; and 75-68 in the Champions Classic on November 13, 2012. That tells me Duke usually wins the early games, while Kentucky, with the exception of 1992, usually wins when it counts …
Speaking of bad football, Kentucky’s offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson might be the worst play caller I’ve ever seen. I have ranted all season that Dawson does not call a pass route under 15 yards, and he does not have a play-action pass in his playbook. When short yardage is needed, he calls a running play into the middle of the line that is usually stuffed. His typical first-down call is an incomplete pass followed by a run. I’m not making this up, as any member of my in-game alumni texting crowd will attest.
Good coordinators fit their plays to their personnel, but Dawson is one of those geniuses who call plays without regard to the ability of his players to pull it off. Consider that Kentucky’s offensive line will not win many trench wars, which makes it a bad idea to run the ball up the middle in a short-yardage situation. Holes are more likely to open when a team runs off tackle or runs wide, but not when the defensive linemen have dug in between the guards. Saturday’s disappointing loss to Vanderbilt provided several examples of the above.
First quarter, UK had a third and goal situation at the Vandy 1-yard line, and Dawson called a dive up the middle. The running back was stuffed. Instead of kicking a field goal on 4th and 1, which would have put the Wildcats up 6-0, Head Coach Mark Stoops says go for it. He obviously has not been watching film of his team’s short yardage play this season. Dawson called another run into the thick of the line. Stuffed again; Vandy ball. Later, Kentucky had a first down and goal at the Vandy 1-yard line. Dawson’s first call was a running back dive into the center’s butt. Stuffed. Second call was a pass play, when the tight end’s slant route was held at the line. Incomplete. The next two plays resembled running plays into the Maginot line, both stopped by a back-pedaling offensive line that was pushed back two yards at the snap.
You want more? Still in the second quarter, the Kentucky defense recovered a fumble at the Vandy four-yard line, and Dawson did not call a run but a fade route, a difficult pass play that depends on perfect execution. It was intercepted in the end zone. In their last possession of the second quarter, Kentucky had a 4th and 1 at midfield, and Dawson called a 20-yard pass. Incomplete, and Vandy immediately scored.
For the sake of full disclosure, I did not see the latter play, because I was already headed to the golf course to take out my frustration on some innocent golf balls. By the way, I did the same thing Sunday after the Saints' defense allowed 1,256 yards in the first half against the Redskins. It really was only 394 yards, but the point is there is a silver lining in bad football. More golf!
Sports fans are among the most coddled creatures on the planet. We want our teams to fight hard, win all their games and for our coaches to all act like Pat O’Brien at George Gipp’s bedside. And, above all, we don’t want our beloved participant-athletes to express any opinions or protest any subject that does not have to do with the last or the next game.
That partly describes the unspoken reaction to the news that African-American athletes at the University of Missouri threatened to boycott games and practices until university president Timothy M. Wolfe resigned, which he did Monday morning. At issue are alleged instances of racism directed at black students and an equally alleged lack of action by administrators that combined to create an intolerable atmosphere on campus. The players’ protest is being hailed by such as The New York Times, which called the protest “the most high profile example to date in which athletes who drive the multi-billion dollar college sports machine are demanding change.”
I don’t agree with The Times’ tenor, which seems to be celebrating protest of authority and success rather than protest against racism. Similar critics of “the machine” lauded efforts of football players at Northwestern University who attempted to unionize. That protest rankled my non-union sentiments developed when I worked at the NFL Management Council, the ongoing foil of the NFL Players Association.
But any charges of racism are disturbing, even from the perspective of a fiscally conservative, socially liberal white guy who cries at movies showing injustice, have entertained black friends in my house and is even writing a book about the injustices suffered by African-American high school teams after desegregation. Did I mention that when I see a carload of black people driving down my street, I watch the car until it turns the corner? Boy, talk about a conundrum of conflicting contradictions! Looking at a racial protest in an athletic environment from a comfortable white perspective is a difficult enterprise. But maybe the events need some context.
Sunday afternoon, the Lovely Miss Jean and I watched a wonderful little movie about Vivien Thomas, an African-American surgical technician who developed the procedures used to treat blue baby syndrome in the 1940s. Thomas was hired as a laborer to clean up the laboratory of Dr. Alfred Blalock, then a surgeon and researcher at Vanderbilt University. Blalock was impressed with Thomas’ curiosity and technical skills and even asked Thomas to join him when he became head of the surgery program at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. Many of the surgical breakthroughs credited to Blalock came from Thomas, although he still had to punch in with the janitors and use the “colored” restroom. Blalock’s research earned him the cover of Life Magazine, while Thomas’ valuable input could not be acknowledged because of his color. At the end of the movie, Thomas was finally acknowledged with an honorary doctorate for his life’s work, and Jean and I both shed tears.
Then two hours later, I watched the news of the Missouri protest and immediately wondered what the hell was going on? Was it an over-reaction in a racially charged community or was it a legitimate protest that even had the white players and Coach Gary Pinkel pledging their support?
I guess my reactions are typical of non-activist whites whom black activists deplore for their lack of activism. Is there an acceptable middle ground for those of us who recoil at injustice, but who also become numb to protest, however legitimate? I don’t know. I am concerned, but I am also confused.
You may be just sobering up from that fantasmagorical Saints’ shootout win over the New York Giants on Sunday, but when you finally come to your senses, consider this: We have just experienced what might be the most memorable 30-hour streak in sports history. I am not talking about wall-to-wall ball of close games. I am talking about a series of events that sporting fans will still be talking about ten years from now. And, although it is during the meat of the college football season, not one college game entered into it.
In order, beginning just after 5 p.m. on Saturday, we saw the following: American Pharoah’s last race, a thrilling New York Marathon, a record-setting Saints’ victory and, ending just after 11 p.m. Sunday, a World Series championship. Let me make my argument, and then I welcome you to come up with another previous window that can equal it.
American Pharoah had done enough to garner all-time status by becoming the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years. But on an overcast day at Keeneland, the nation’s most beautiful race course, Pharoah won the prestigious Breeders Cup mile-and-a-quarter Classic in a course record of 2:00. That performance was an incredible send-off, considering it was a full five seconds off the course record and stunningly close to Secretariat’s all-time Kentucky Derby record of 1:59 2/5 over the same distance. Being one of 12 horses to win the Triple Crown, American Pharoah was already legendary, but thanks to horse racing's 1984 creation of this annual two-day best of the best, American Pharoah became the first Triple Crown winner to double down, and he did so by a dazzling 6 1/2 lengths.
On Sunday morning, two Kenyans won the women’s and men’s New York Marathon races, a not-so-memorable fact until you look at the individual performances. Mary Kitany dominated the women’s race in 2:24.25, more than a minute ahead of her closest competitor. Stanley Biwott ran a cautious race then accelerated into a blistering finish, winning his first major marathon, in 2:10.34. Biwott was in a four-man pack until he launched three hammering miles between Miles 21-23 of 4:24, 4:30 and 4:33 to surge ahead. The New York Marathon stands on its own as the epitome of speed, strength and endurance, qualities that were exhibited once again Sunday.
Around midday, lovers of offensive football were in their glory during the Saints’ victory over the Giants. QB Drew Brees tied an NFL record with seven touchdown passes, and his 511 passing yards fell 43 short of tying the NFL’s single-game record. His opponent, homeboy Eli Manning, threw six touchdown passes of his own, a combined total that broke a 46-year-old N.F.L. single-game record for touchdown passes by two quarterbacks. Brees’s seven touchdowns tied a league record, and the 101 points were the third-highest total in N.F.L. history. Brees also set the NFL record for most career games with five or more touchdown passes with his 10th, breaking a tie with Eli’s big brother, Peyton. It was almost an injustice that the game was decided on a field goal, the first attempted by either team, as Kai Forbath drilled a 50-yarder to give New Orleans the walk-off victory.
If you weren’t stoked by then, Kansas City’s ninth-inning rally and 12th-inning explosion gave the Royals their first World Series championship since 1985. The Mets seemed to have it in the bag as the ninth inning began, leading 2-0. Mets Manager Terry Collins wanted to go to the bullpen, but starter Matt Harvey talked him into one more chance to pitch the first complete game World Series shutout since Curt Schilling did it with the Phillies in 1993. But as the Royals have shown time and time again, you can never count them out.
Harvey walked leadoff batter Lorenzo Cain who stole second base and scored when Eric Hosmer ripped a double to left field. Jeurys Familia was brought in, and Mike Moustakas’ grounder pushed Hosmer to third base. Salvador Perez hit an easy grounder to David Wright at third base, who looked Hosmer back then casually tossed the ball to first base. Hosmer bolted home, and first baseman Lucas Duda made an errant throw to catcher Travis d'Arnaud, and the game was tied at 2-2. For the sake of full disclosure, I will admit that I watched two more innings, and then went to bed, one inning too early.
In the 12th, Perez singled, and pinch-runner Jarrod Dyson stole second base then moved to third on Alex Gordon’s ground out to first. Christian Colon put the Royals up 3-2 with a line drive single to left field. That would have been enough, but to add insult to injury, second baseman Daniel Murphy, as he did in Game 4, booted a sure double-play ball which opened the gates. Alcides Escobar doubled to left field, adding an insurance run, and Cain drilled a bases-clearing double to left-center, for the 7-2 final score.
If your favorite college team had an especially big win, you can start the clock a bit earlier on Saturday and roll that into the mix. But for my money, the events above provided a weekend for the ages!