The Whims and Foibles of Sports...
Coaches receive more credit than they deserve when things go well and probably more blame than they deserve when things go badly. However, when the Saints let a sure victory get away from them Sunday at Detroit, blame should lay squarely on the shoulders of Head Coach Sean Payton.
In case you missed the game, the Saints had a commanding 23-10 lead with under four minutes remaining and the Lions facing third down. Detroit QB Matthew Stafford hit WR Golden Tate on a short sideline throw, which turned into a 73-yard touchdown. But Who Dat Nation did not panic. The Saints defense had been playing well, so the offense just needed to keep the clock moving and the game is over.
Now, my idea of keeping the clock moving is to run the ball. Mark Ingram and Pierre Thomas both had made key runs earlier in the period, and with three running downs, why couldn’t they do it again? If the Saints don’t get a first down, which ices the game, then they punt and let the Lions try to come back with no time outs. But nooooooo, Payton has to get cute and throw the ball, which invokes the old Woody Hayes theory that when you throw the ball, three things happen and two of them are bad. Drew Brees had been rattled by the Lions’ pass rush in the second half to the point where at the end of the game he didn't complete a pass in 10 straight attempts.
So of course, Payton dials up a pass on third down, Brees telegraphs the throw, which lands right into the welcoming arms of Lions DB Glover Quin. Lions ball on the Saints’ 14-yard line. On a day in which Detroit's offense struggled to move the ball, it was an unforgivable mental mistake, but Brees never should have been put in that position. Hope springs eternal, however, and the Saints almost pulled it out, taking the Lions to fourth down. But mistakes are fatal, and a questionable pass interference call on the Saints allowed Bradford to hit Corey Fuller in the back of the end zone for the go-ahead score.
The Saints had one last chance to go down and hit a field goal, but by that time Brees was shell-shocked. He went out in four downs and the game was over. Payton can be forgiven because he has seen his quarterback pull these kinds of games out before, but those days might be long gone. At least by the performance we’ve seen this year.
Improbable come-from-behind wins are great, but only if you are the one coming from behind. The game and its disappointing finish reminded me of another game the Saints had in the bag against an NFC North team and lost it. It was October 3, 1999, when the Saints led the Chicago Bears in Soldier Field 10-0 with two minutes remaining. It was a game of journeymen quarterbacks when the Saints split the day up between a pair of Billy Joe’s – Hobert and Tolliver – while the Bears went with Shane Matthews.
But the former Florida Gator got hot late, and with 1:57 hit Curtis Conway in the end zone for the Bears touchdown. Once again, the Saints could not hold onto the ball inside the two-minute warning. The Bears got the ball back and Matthews and Conway took them down the field, capped off by Conway’s sliding catch in the corner of the end zone as time expired. The Bears’ offensive coordinator received some pats on the back after that game, although he had been shut out for the previous 58 minutes. You might have heard of him. A guy by the name of Gary Crowton, whom LSU fans later hung in effigy after a few losses. As I said, he probably got more credit than he deserved for the victory, but a win is a win.
The reason I remember that game so vividly was that I had just joined the Chicago Bears front office, and I was on the right end of a memorable comeback. At least, that time.
It is not easy living behind enemy lines. Oh, you can find an adequate hiding place to hunker down so long as there is no conflict, but once the shooting starts, you’ve got to find cover. So it is this week with the only Kentucky fan on Vicksburg street. I have lived in New Orleans for the most part since 1986, and I been able to handle the UK-LSU rivalry pretty well. It might be because anytime my Wildcats play the Tigers at anything, one team or the other is usually heavily favored. Butt-kickings do not breed intense rivalries. That’s why I never have feared gunfire when I fly my 4’ x 6’ UK banner outside my house during basketball season because the Wildcats usually win. It has been just the opposite in football season when the Tigers usually prevail. I pull the drapes, stock up on adequate beverages and endure the inevitable.
But we UK fans are seeing a little glimmer that this year might be different. The Wildcats are 5-1 and riding a mini-wave of SEC victories over Vanderbilt and South Carolina. Coach Mark Stoops has brought a new attitude to Lexington along with two straight top-25 recruiting classes. Kentucky’s performance, compared to their recent years, has been absolutely incredible. On the other hand, LSU appears on the upswing after the 5-2 Tigers won last week at Florida in the same swamp where Kentucky suffered its only loss.
The Tigers have struggled this year, at least as far as their fans are concerned, primarily because they have lost more underclassmen to the NFL over the past three years than any other school. At Florida, their freshmen started to show some maturity. The oddsmakers seem to think a top program, even with its perceived troubles, is a better bet than a rising team that hasn’t done it yet. That is why LSU is a 9½ point favorite, and it is difficult to argue with logic. Kentucky doesn't have a true quality win. The victory over South Carolina is the best of the lot, but the remaining schedule is by far the tougher side, starting this week.
LSU saved its season by pulling out a win at Florida last week, avoiding its first 0-3 start in the conference in 15 years. It wasn't a pretty game, with the passing game still a mess, but it showed a lot of promise for a turnaround thanks to the effort of freshman running back Leonard Fournette (career-high 140 yards, two touchdowns) and a defense that came up big in the end. History is also on the Tigers' side. Kentucky last won in Baton Rouge in 1998 when a last-second field goal gave the visitors a 39-36 victory. QB Tim Couch led the Kentucky upset by completing 37 of 50 passes for 390 yards and three touchdowns.
But crazy things seem to happen when Kentucky travels to Baton Rouge. The first in my memory was a football game in 1968 when I was sports editor of the Kentucky Kernel, the campus newspaper. The Wildcats were big underdogs but fought hard in a 13-3 Tigers victory. The crazy things occurred after the game when two black Kentucky players tried to get a bite to eat after the game and were refused service at a Baton Rouge eatery. Race was a volatile topic in those early years of SEC integration, and since I was the only reporter on the team plane, I heard about it on the flight home. My scoop in the Kernel drew national attention.
I could also throw out some UK basketball wins in Baton Rouge such as the 1994 game when Kentucky overcame a 31-point deficit to win or even the 1996 game when the Wildcats led 86-42. At halftime! But for every Wildcat moment, some LSU football snob will remind me of the so-called “Bluegrass Miracle” of November 9, 2002 at Commonwealth Stadium. Devery Henderson caught a tipped pass from Marcus Randall for a 74-yard game-winning touchdown with no time on the clock and UK Coach Guy Morriss still dripping from a premature Gatorade bath from his players.
Mark Stoops may not have a chance to enjoy a Gatorade bath on Saturday, but at least one Kentucky fan will fly the flag proudly. I just hope my LSU friends hold their fire!
I hope you card-carrying members of Who Dat Nation used your bye week wisely. Did you go to the job jar, full of tasks that have been ignored for months since the Saints reported to the Greenbrier Ritz-Carlton for tea and training camp? Did you tackle that first purging of your closets since Katrina did it for you last, or did you devote your day to property improvement and mowed the lawn or finally hammered that loose fence board back into place? I'll bet some of you reluctant souls ignored the job jar altogether and joined the bustle of carefree innocents along Bayou St. John cutting their own grass (usually with parsley), while some of you golfed or goofed off, went fishing or went drinking at the normal late-summer plethora of festivals. People making merry and Mary making Mojitos by the pool. Ah, yes, a bye week Sunday afternoon in New Orleans is many things to many people, but nary a foul word heard nor a single TV remote sailing through a window.
But as Mick Jagger so poetically informed us in a less complicated time: “It’s all over now!” The Saints are back in action Sunday, and the wailing and gnashing of teeth begin anew amid reasons aplenty for bayou angst. The local heroes travel to Detroit, whose own season has been fairly positive through Lion eyes. They are tied for first place with Green Bay in the old Black and Blue division, and their 4-2 record is evenly split, 2-1 at home and 2-1 on the road.The latter included a 17-3 trouncing of Minnesota on Sunday. The Lions also are an early two and a half point favorite. All that doesn't matter much to Saints fans who never agonize over their upcoming opponent when they’ve got agony enough at home to keep them sweating.
Sure, the overtime win over Tampa Bay was welcomed, but it wasn’t convincing enough to take the Who Dats out of therapy this week. It might have been easier if the Bucs had taken that narrow loss back home and beaten Baltimore, but they didn’t and they didn’t. Ravens win in a walkover, 48-17! The Bucs are a bad team that could have easily beaten the Saints, which has the Who Dats rolling the bones over whether their team is also bad or just momentarily bewildered.
They played well in spurts against the Bucs, especially late in the game and overtime. That should lift the spirits, but Who Dats have seen this team confuse them all season long. The defense played well when it counted against Tampa, so have they finally figured out how to play angry or will they return to meek and polite? No takeaways, no sacks, no quarterback pressures? No encouragement for Who Dat Nation! But the latest concern for wizened Who Dats is how much will the loss of Jimmy Graham hurt Drew Brees’ passing attack? They know the Pro Bowl tight end has been Brees’ only option this season, and they rub their worry beads, hoping Brees can effectively compensate with Brandin Cooks, Marques Colston and Kenny Stills.
Yes, like Christmas or a child’s birthday, the bye week comes but once a year, so I hope you enjoyed yours. This coming Sunday, your favorite team returns you to the pain and frustration of a very confusing season.
The Saints’ rocky start had at least one fan turning his attention elsewhere this past weekend. The Black and Gold pulled it out against Tampa on Sunday, but the highlight of my weekend was ten solid hours of SEC football on Saturday. And when it was over, the new polls showed that if the college football season ended today, three SEC teams would join Florida State in the new final four format. Here’s about five minutes of that long day, including some things you might have missed:
Things kicked off early with Texas A&M at Mississippi State, the new No. 4 team in the nation. LSU fans can’t feel too bad about the Tigers’ loss to Mississippi State, which demolished the high-scoring Aggies. QB Zach Prescott and the Bulldogs could be ringing cowbells in the playoffs if they keep playing like this, but I had one angry moment when an announcer asked which player has the SEC all-time single game yardage record. As an SEC observer for nearly six decades, I wracked my brain until I saw the answer: Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M? Horsefeathers! They should have an asterisk for these conference-switching newbies. I got the same feeling when I saw the game scores coming in and learned that Maryland lost its first “Big Ten” game, to Ohio State, and Louisville beat Syracuse in an “ACC” matchup. Say it ain’t so, Virginia, who the last time I looked was still in the ACC. Oh yeah, the other big “Big Ten” match was Nebraska at Michigan State! Arrggghhh!
The other morning game was Florida at Tennessee, a great matchup between programs headed in different directions. Tennessee Coach Butch Jones has had two straight top-10 recruiting classes, most of whom are in the starting lineup, while Gator Coach Will Muschamp will likely have a tin can tied to his ass at the end of the season. But the Gators came from behind to win it in the fourth quarter, which is good news on a personal level. I’ve invested one college education in Gainesville with daughter Lindsay, so I’m vested in the Swamp People. Plus, as we used to say in the old days in Lexington: Kick’em in the Vols!
The big game of the day for most folks was Alabama, last week’s No. 3, at Ole Miss, who became the new No. 3, with a win. Roll Tide vs. Hotty Toddy was a Miller family feud. Cousins Sam and Jordan, the former a Bama grad and the latter a sophomore, were rolling tide against my son C.C., who wants to attend Ole Miss next year. He had plenty of support from his grandmother Gloria, a native of Gulfport who comes from a long line of Rebel fans. Dad noticed there are more neckties per capita at an Ole Miss game than anyplace else in the world, so I’d best hide mine before C.C. takes off for Oxford. And no cargo pants, according to one fan’s sign: “Saban wears cargo pants!”
But seriously, the last four minutes of that game were classic. Ole Miss TD. Alabama fumble. Ole Miss TD pass. Roughing the kicker on an extra point, then a blocked kick! The Tide needed a TD to win and throws into the end zone. Interception! Rebs win! Hotty Toddy! The sobering moment during that game was the injury to Bama WR Kenyan Drake, which you knew was bad when you saw the player’s foot twisted to a 90-degree angle. But the Rebel players and the fans showed good sportsmanship, cheering the player as he was carted off the field. Wonder what the Baton Rouge crowd would have thrown at him on his way out?
Speaking of whom, I didn’t spend much time on LSU at Auburn, the new No. 2 team, which seemed to be over shortly after the national anthem. I did have two thoughts that pertained to Les Miles: 1. He might have missed out on the best high school player in New Orleans last season. WR Speedy Noll of Karr looked like Jerry Rice in Texas A&M’s loss at Starkville, and 2. I wonder if Miles and Michigan already have a deal done for him to become coach of the woeful Wolverines?
But by then I was occupied by the day’s grand finale in Lexington. I’ve always found it easier to watch a game when your expectations are low and UK was 1-20 against Steve Spurrier teams and five-point underdogs going into the game. But I’ve also learned you don’t confuse expectations with hope, which I will admit withered a bit after the Gamecocks ran through UK like a hot knife through butter and took a 14-0 lead. But the Cats reeled off 17 in a row and made it a game, then the ‘Cocks ran off their own streak and led 38-24 headed into the fourth quarter.
It was at the 11 minute mark that Kentucky turned the offense over to running back Jojo Kemp. I never could understand why a team can’t stop another team when they know what’s coming, but South Carolina watched helplessly as Kemp, taking the snap directly from center, gained acres of yardage that led to two touchdowns and a tie game inside three minutes. Then the defense stepped up, and LB Bud Dupree, who should be an NFL first-rounder next spring, plucked a tipped pass out of the air and took it six yards for the winning score.
Mark Stoops has the Wildcats believing in themselves, and probably looking forward to their next SEC opponent. Let’s see, after a home game with UL-Monroe next week, they come to Baton Rouge. Wow! Coach Stoops vs. Coach Stupid. Another game between a team on the uptick and another struggling. And I expect it to be just another day in the SEC!
The last time I agonized over a Saints loss was on December 16, 1995 when the Green Bay Packers left the Superdome with a 34-23 victory. It would be my final season as a Saints executive, and my angst was explainable because when you are an NFL lifer who understands that the iconic “NFL” really means “not for long,” a loss of a game can mean loss of a job. That shoe fell the following May 17 when owner Tom Benson called me into his office after a week at Manresa, the Catholic retreat, to tell me he had experienced a vision which included me in another line of work. My wife Jean was heavy with our second child at the time and gave birth to our son Charles Connor two days later, on May 19, in what the family today jokingly calls our “Benson-induced labor.” But I am straying far from our topic of the day which agony over a Saints’ loss.
Who Dat Nation has a right to its sackcloth and ashes this morning after their heroes stunk up AT&T Stadium with a 38-17 loss to the Cowboys that wasn’t as close as the score would indicate. They were beaten on the ground, in the air, on special teams, in the coaching booth and on the sidelines where Coach Sean Payton stood by helplessly as if his headset was turned off. This might have been the ugliest performance during the Payton Era when expectations have been high and the team performance has usually come close to matching them. But Sunday night was a low point that has Saints fans walking around in a daze after expecting so much more.
I will admit that I, too, was sucked in by all the hype perpetuated by the Saintsations cheerleaders who are disguised as local writers and even the national press. In fact, let me give you the Top Ten Lies, in no particular order, that we all heard when we believed the Saints were going to the Super Bowl: 1. Free agent safety Jairus Byrd will turn a fourth-ranked defense into an impenetrable force. 2. Junior Galette and Cam Jordan could be the best pass rushing line combo since Gino Marchetti and Gene “Big Daddy” Lipscomb. 3. Patrick Robinson is ready to take over the other corner spot. 4. The offensive line is underrated. 5. Drew Brees can play at a high level for ten more years. 6. Mark Ingram will take advantage of his “contract year” and finally live up to expectations. 7. Brandin Cooks will give the offense more than Darren Sproles did. 8. Sean Payton is one of the top three coaches in the NFL. 9. Kenny Stills and Joe Morgan give the Saints the deep threat they’ve lacked. 10. Jimmy Graham will show that he is worth every penny of his new contract.
Now, as a public service and a counterpoint to the above, I will present a list of Top Ten Truths that we have all learned after four games, although trimming it to ten is difficult: 1. The team has no killer instinct, losing leads to Atlanta and Cleveland before losing the game. 2. The passing game is too predictable. 3. Graham is double-teamed every time he gets two yards beyond the line of scrimmage. 4. The offensive line can't make a hole, but is as full of holes as a Swiss cheese. 5. Khiry Robinson is not the answer at running back. 6. Cooks needs more touches. 7. Marques Colston has lost a step or two. Or three. 8. Kenny Vaccaro has the sophomore jinx. 9. The defensive line couldn’t stop Brownie Troop Six. 10. The only players who can tackle are offensive players after a Brees interception. Feel free to add your own “truths” here.
The only thing that will take the Saints and Who Dat Nation out of their current agony is to apply the Rule of Holes. Since the Saints have dug themselves into a big one, they should stop digging. Or else the agony will continue, and I’m not sure how much longer Who Dat Nation can take it.