The Whims and Foibles of Sports...
How many times have you made a casual statement about your favorite team’s chances, and somebody responds “Put your money where your mouth is!” That’s usually enough to wither your conviction like an ice-water shower. The last time somebody said that to me was in late March, always a dangerous time for Kentucky basketball fans, and I wound up treating my golfing pal Dave and his wife Rita to dinner. Did I mention that Dave is a Kansas State grad and had proprietary information about the game? He must have for his Wildcats to beat my Wildcats, but, hey, it was a good meal and the Lovely Miss Jean enjoyed it.
But now, such bravado has been monetized by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision that allows individual states to take bets on sporting events. And one of the first states to go all in is our little community on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Mississippi had a leg up on the competition with its long history of gambling - legalized and otherwise - that began as an economic stimulant during the Great Depression. In more recent years, plush casinos have thrived along the Redneck Riviera, and they had long prepared for the opportunity to offer sports gambling.
So, naturally, it was incumbent upon me, as point man for sporting deplorables, to investigate this newfound outlet for stupidity while helping the local economy. I took the opportunity two weeks ago when Charles Connor, Layne and I celebrated another anniversary of the Lovely Miss Jean’s 29th birthday. A casino in Biloxi houses one of our favorite steak restaurants, and the casino next door had one of the first sports books to open in the state.
So, after a wonderful dinner we wandered over to the Beau Rivage and sought out its sports book. This is strictly under "research," you understand? We were ushered into a large 245-seat room with tables and chairs and two-dozen large-screen televisions that carried various live sporting events and a huge tote board that listed odds. The clientele looked a little more intense than the one-armed bandit crowd. Several were marking tout sheets and others watched games, the winners clearly distinguished by their cheshire cat grins while the losers were chewing on their cocktail glasses, not realizing that the ice had melted.
Just outside the room was a bank of computer terminals manned by smiling young men and women who were present to explain to us novice Jimmy the Greeks how it all worked before they were happy to take our money. My son was more interested in the craps tables because he fully expected to see the ghost of Roger Moore in his white tuxedo jacket tossing a few winners to the croupier’s call of faites vox jeux. Of course, I was more interested in how many different ways I could invest in Mississippi’s economy.
Consulting a rack of various printed sheets, I learned that I could place different bets on a single live or upcoming event or a “future” bet on a particular team’s season. The over-under on Kentucky football victories was 5.5, which seems low until you realize that the guys who set those numbers are named Guido and sit around picking their nails with a stiletto. Like Dave the K-State guy, they usually have inside information. But I made the trip for another reason and that was to put my money where my mouth is.
As readers of this erstwhile epistle well know, I follow three teams, one in each of the major sports. I am a somewhat educated Saints fan, having spent ten years on the Benson payroll. I am a devoted Red Sox fan ever since my father introduced me to the skill and ability of Ted Williams. And, I am a rabid and often maniacal Kentucky basketball fan. All three deserve my support, so I walked haltingly to the first available betting window and opened my wallet.
I had taken similar action many times at the racetrack, where I would throw down a few bucks on a horse with a good pedigree, shiny silks or a jockey whose name I could pronounce. More often than not, betting for me was like hitting a golf ball into a lake and deciding I could have lessened my frustration by simply throwing the ball into the water. But these bets had some cred to them.
The Saints, before their two lackluster opening matches, were picked by Sports Illustrated as the best bet in the NFL at 15-1 odds. The Red Sox have the best record in baseball and could set a record for victories in a season, which makes their 12-1 odds to win the World Series a no-brainer. And my beloved Wildcats are once again loaded with freshman talent but also have some upperclassmen this year to provide necessary experience. They are at or near the top of everybody’s NCAA Final Four list, which explains their relatively modest 4-1 odds.
So I did it. I plucked from my wallet three Benjamins and laid one on each team to win it all. If I had waited until today, I might have taken the Saints' bet and laid it all on Kentucky football to win six games. But even that night, I walked away with the haunting feeling that my son, who won $31 by channeling James Bond at the craps table, was the night’s big winner.
Yeah, I watched the Saints get pulverized Sunday by Tulane – or was it Nicholls? - but I wasn’t devastated. Why? Two reasons. Reason One, it was the first game of a long season, and how many times have we seen the better teams at the end of the season sleepwalking in September? In fact, last year the Saints lost their first two games, and Who Dat Nation was about to second-line off the Crescent City Connection when the team rocketed back into contention. And Reason Two that I wasn’t throwing golf balls at the TV? Because Kentucky beat Florida on Saturday night, and I was still floating on rare air.
You might have heard about it. Kentucky had not beaten Florida since 1986, the year that I came to New Orleans in the Jim Finks Redemption Caravan. Geez, that was a long time ago! Just think about how long the Saints went without a winning season, and that was only 19 years! But 31 years? That’s a generation of Big Blue fans who automatically penciled in “loss” next to the Florida game when the schedule comes out. Do you remember 1986? Some act named Mr. Mister had two songs in the top ten. The most popular movies were Top Gun, Aliens and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. I know, you’ve seen them all recently on Netflix, but I bet you still don’t remember Mr. Mister!
By the way, the Saints were 7-9 in 1986, and that team could have beaten the team you saw Sunday. I was disappointed that the Saints looked positively anemic against a Tampa team that was 5-11 last year and was playing with its backup quarterback. A lot of things went wrong for the home team, but I'm only going to mention a few concerns.
Going into the game, Saints fans were not too worried about Mark Ingram’s loss to a four-game suspension because they knew QB Drew Brees would make everything okay. But after gaining 43 yards on the ground Sunday, the Saints have to be rethinking their strategy on how to survive the next three games without Ingram. The new kid on the block, Mike Gillislee was picked up from the Patriots who must have known something Sean Payton didn’t. Gillislee’s second-quarter fumble that was returned for a touchdown and a 31-17 Tampa lead was the first time I thought this game might not be what everybody expected.
And then I thought about the Kentucky running game against Florida, and I felt better. Junior RB Benny Snell says he is the best running back in the SEC, and nobody could disagree after he ran through, over and around the Gators for 175 yards on 27 carries. Snell has a chance this year to become the all-time rushing leader at Kentucky (I can hear the wiseacres thinking that’s like being the all-time home run hitter for the Toledo Mud Hens). No, it’s not, dammit!
Tampa QB Ryan Fitzpatrick looked like Fran Tarkenton with his timely throws and scrambling for first downs and a touchdown. I haven’t looked it up, but Fitzpatrick’s stat line - 21 of 28 passes for 417 yards, four touchdowns, a 14.7 average per attempt, no sacks and no interceptions - was one of the most efficient performances against the Saints quarterback in years. It didn’t hurt that Marshon Lattimore looked nothing like the 2017 defensive rookie of the year as WR Michael Evans took him to the woodshed repeatedly. The other defensive backs looked confused as DeSean Jackson and TE O.J. Howard had their own way. Of course, when the only example of a Saints’ pass rush were penalized under the new protect-the-QB rules, you can’t expect a quarterback to worry too much.
Then I thought about how Kentucky’s secondary handled the Florida passing game. QB Feleipe Franks, who was headed to LSU until Les Miles was fired, completed only 17 of 38 attempts for 232 yards and two touchdowns. Franks had a critical fourth-quarter pass intercepted by DB Darius West and it could have been worse as Kentucky DB’s dropped two or three other Franks’ tosses that could have been taken the other way.
So after this column’s two favorite football teams did the unthinkable this past weekend, what can we expect next weekend? Kentucky should have an easy time with Murray State, but if you think it’s going to get easier for the Saints, you might be mistaken. They host the Cleveland Browns, who arm-wrestled Super Bowl hopeful Pittsburgh to a 21-21 draw in much the same way Tampa beat the Saints. They took advantage of turnovers and they got big plays, including a game-tying touchdown pass from QB Tyrod Taylor to Josh Gordon that tied the game inside the final two minutes.
Let’s hope DeSean Jackson and Michael Evans don’t have Gordon’s Twitter address.
One of the less publicized, yet ongoing, debates among NFL general managers and personnel wizards is whether to trade or hold on tight to future draft picks. Some resist trading draft choices because that is your future. Others would readily trade a future draft choice to get a player who could help their team right away. Does that latter sound familiar? When the Saints dealt two high picks in the 2019 Draft to fill 2018 needs, it was obvious. Your favorite team is loading up and putting all their eggs in the Super Bowl LIII basket!
When I was with the Chicago Bears, our GM Mark Hatley, who had worked under Bum Phillips in New Orleans, was trying to pump up an anemic Bears offense. We were in the first round of the 2001 draft, and Hatley had already drafted a wide receiver at No. 8, and he was trying to trade back into the first round to add one more key player. I remember him running into the war room, saying he had just gotten off the phone with one club that would give up their No. 23 pick for next year’s first-rounder, and Hatley believed the player he targeted would be there. However, team President Ted Phillips did not want to trade a future first-rounder and vetoed the deal. Hatley was disappointed and then downright furious when the No. 23 pick came and the team who had agreed to give up the slot drafted the player Hatley coveted, RB Deuce McAllister of Ole Miss. Sometimes you get lucky!
Flash forward to the Saints of the present who flipped the scenario and got the players they wanted by trading future picks. Last year, when the Saints saw a diminutive running back with a much higher grade fall into Round 3, it was worth giving up a future No. 2 pick. Alvin Kamara's Rookie of the Year season more than justified the trade. They did it again during the 2018 Draft, trading their 2019 No. 1 choice to move up and select Marcus Davenport, and they did it again last week, trading a future No. 3 pick to the Jets for QB Teddy Bridgewater.
When I first heard about the deal, it didn’t make a lot of sense, trading a relatively high pick for a player on a one-year contract who might not even see the field this year. That also meant the Saints could go into the 2019 NFL Draft without their first-round pick and their third-round pick. But after a glass or two of Mother Makers, it was clear that the Saints brass was covering all their bases, even the unthinkable event of a Brees' injury. Would you rather have Taysom Hill, Tom Savage or Teddy Bridgewater ready in case Brees went down?
And besides, just how valuable is the 2019 draft? I took a look at positions that might need to be filled next year, and the news is encouraging. Nearly every starting player on both sides of the ball is under contract for 2019, which lessens the need for high draft choices. Eleven offensive players and thirteen defensive players who are projected to log significant playing time this year are under contract for next year. The only potential major free agent on offense is RB Mark Ingram, and we could get a peak at his future value in the first four games when he is suspended.
Brees has another year left on his contract, the offensive line is intact, and the young skill players won’t hit meaningful free agency for a couple years. Some tight ends could be unrestricted free agents, but those positions can be filled by other means. On defense, A.J. Klein, Demario Davis and Alex Anzalone are under contract, and the young secondary will be around for awhile. Ditto the defensive line.
A loaded roster and the free agent market make the 2019 draft less important than it might otherwise have been. So not having a No. 1 or a No. 3 pick is manageable, especially if Davenport becomes this year’s Kamara, high present value for a future asset. The investment in Bridgewater is simply an expensive insurance policy in the event Father Time finally taps Brees on the shoulder. And, if the Saints believe Bridgewater is Brees’ successor, they’ve got an entire season to convince the former Louisville star that New Orleans isn’t a bad place to hang your helmet.
Make no mistake about it, Who Dats! The Saints are playing for another Super Bowl run this year and will let 2019 take care of itself.
Are you ready for some football? This is the most exciting two weeks of the year for many folks, with the advent of the college football season this week and the National Football League next weekend. And why not? Your team is undefeated, you have swallowed down everything you’ve been told about your local heroes, and what lay ahead of you is 4-5 months of bliss, raindrops and buttercups. National championships, bowl games and Super Bowls loom large in our plans.
The actual games will be a relief after months of news about the problems on its periphery. Even as we await in great anticipation for the games to begin, we see football under siege. We have a silent wish that all the negative talk would just go away and things could be like they’ve always been. Don’t fool yourself. Football has always had problems. Debilitating injuries or so-called “conditioning” that gets out of hand and results in a young man’s death or even a head coach ignoring another coach’s improprieties or abusive behavior toward his spouse.
Fans mock new rules intended to curb injuries when officials call them inconsistently. Why don’t they just throw the flag and put the offender in a dunking booth behind the bench? Let the fans throw footballs to trip the trigger. If it’s a real cheap shot, exile the offender to D-League and a week with the Fort Wayne Mad Ants. Games are light-hearted affairs and their problems should but, too, right? Well, not always.
We recoil when we perceive bad news as an attack on our institutions. Such problems and behavior have always been with us, but like alarming new trends in crime statistics, maybe we’ve just changed our reporting methods. Social media has eliminated what used to be our “secrets,” both innocent and not so, and even the stupid things we said when we were young and stupid haunt us when the record is reprised. Facebook, and Twitter have opened our lives to such an extent that we need to remind our young people that even your most well-intentioned remarks can and will be used against you years in the future when you’ve risen above others or even when applying for a job.
Bad things happen in sports as they do in our society, but don’t get mad. Simply recognize and educate yourself on the issues, and realize that our games are imperfect because those involved are imperfect. Cherish the part of football that intrigues us, encourages us and thrills us to our marrow. Go ahead and get excited when your favorite college team kicks off this weekend or when the Saints or your favorite NFL team goes to the post next weekend. It’s okay, because the part of football that we love is the game itself.
You’ve read it here before, but I’m going to repeat a story that puts our games in perspective. On the cusp of a big game, my old coach in Buffalo, Marv Levy, was asked if the upcoming match was a “must win?” Levy looked the reporter squarely in the eye and responded: “A must win? World War II was a must win. Football is a game.”
Good health is a blessing, especially as you get older. Regular readers know this through my periodic ramblings on running and exercise and through the tab on this website titled “Stay Fit.” So when I had an opportunity to send that message to a larger audience, I did it. The Wall Street Journal has a regular Monday column called “What’s your workout?” So a few weeks ago, I sent the columnist a proposal on my personal workout that I believe has helped me and would be beneficial to anyone who wants to stay in shape past their physical prime.
The writer of the column, Jen Murphy, responded immediately that it sounded like something they would use, and she would pitch the idea to her editors. A week later I received a thumbs-up response, the result of which appears in today’s Journal, along with some photos of your modest scribe in various permutations of working out. You can pick up a copy at your local newstand to see the published article, but here is an excerpt of my pitch:
Half a lifetime ago, I was an active member of the New York Road Runners Club when I worked at the National Football League office in New York (1981-86). The preferred workout for distance runners in those days was a method called “fartleks,” a Swedish term that simply means interval training. A ten-mile training run might consist of two miles at a moderate pace and then a faster race pace for a half mile, then repeat until you reach your goal. The purpose was to improve endurance and increase speed over whatever race distance I was running.
Earlier this year, I turned 70, and I still run, but I have adapted my old marathon training method to my current physical capability. I have revised and rebranded the fartlek workout to become the “Old Fartlek” workout for seniors like me.
I knew I would continue running in retirement, but I soon discovered how a high intensity workout was affected by the aging process. Trying to maintain a race-worthy level of conditioning became detrimental when the sprint portions of my fartlek workouts turned into hamstring pulls or other ailments that sometimes kept me off the road for weeks. Each time I healed up, I came back with lowered expectations that traded race training for a focus on good health for the long term. That is when the Old Fartlek workout began to evolve.
Today, the running portion of the Old Fartlek workout is merely a moderated version of my marathon training workout with an added component. I begin my Old Fartlek workout with a 15-minute stretching program that includes 70 pushups (one for each year), followed by a series of core and lower back stretches. The program progresses to a one-mile jog from my house to a community walking path where I walk one mile before jogging the third mile back home five or six days a week. I follow my daily workouts with 18 holes of golf (I’m a 13 handicap), after which I work on my latest writing project.
There will come a day when my Old Fartlek intervals will flip to two miles walking and one mile jogging, or even shorter increments, but that is the beauty of the workout. It is adaptable to the individual’s conditioning and goals.
Over the years, I have seen colleagues and friends who were not as old as I deteriorating physically because, in my view, they were not working to maintain good physical condition. I pledged that would not happen to me. Now, when I am around people my age, some of them remark “how good you look!” and ask my secret. I tell them it’s no secret. It takes commitment and a modest amount of work. The Old Fartlek workout is disciplined, but don’t wait too late to start. Most seniors have made financial plans to secure their retirement, but many ignore the physical investment they should be making to help secure their long-term health.
I hope you read the column and think about how the benefits that I have received might benefit you. As with any physical program, however, make sure you see a doctor or health professional to make sure it can work for you. Here's to your good health!