The Whims and Foibles of Sports...
Since the Saints took the day off yesterday, I was thinking of doing the same thing today. But after I weighed my responsibilities, I decided to slog ahead, do my duty and try to make some sense of a very rollercoaster weekend. I could be forgiven for laying low since I returned late Sunday from a week in the heartland where I saw Kentucky’s dismal come-from-ahead loss to traditional rival Tennessee. Be heartened, that is all I’m going to say about that.
After all, LSU fans couldn’t care less about the rest of the SEC not named Alabama, and deservedly so. After their big win Saturday in T-town (as my Tide friends call it), the LSU faithful are feeling pretty chesty. I even heard that my brother-in-law, the former Tiger football player who has been on Family IR after breaking a leg a few months ago, jumped up from his solitary perch and danced a whirligig around the room.
Nobody was dancing at the Superdome Sunday after the Saints’ unexpected whuppin’ administered by their arch-rival, the Falcons. That comes under the topic of welcome to the NFL where the expected is elusive, the unexpected sends the faithful into paroxysms and the only whipped cream you get is from a pie in the face. Games like that bring out the clichés: It’s a long season. A loss will do the Saints good. Better to identify your vulnerabilities now than in the playoffs, etc., etc.
Truth be told, the Falcons needed a big win to try and turn their season around far more than the Saints needed a win to pad their record. The reality is that the Saints were two games up in the division at kickoff, and despite their poor performance, they are still two games up in the division. You could say the Saints might have lost some ground in the race for home field advantage in the playoffs, but how important is that, really? You could ask the recent World Series participants, both of whom totally debunked the myth of home field advantage. In case you weren’t watching, the Washington Nationals lost all three of its home games but won the Series with four wins in Houston.
But is home field advantage much more important in the NFL? According to a Boston Globe study three years ago, home teams win about 57 percent of the total number of games played during the regular season and a slightly higher percentage, 62 percent, in the playoffs. If you don’t count the wild card games, the percentage goes up to 68 percent. So home field does have its merit, but why the home team wins is the big question. We’ve all experienced the jet-engine din that Who Dat Nation creates when the other team is trying to call plays. But studies show that outside of a couple illegal procedure penalties, the noise is not a factor in comparing game statistics.
I believe that whatever advantage goes to the home team comes not during the game but in the 24 hours before. Players are creatures of habit and routine, which are interrupted by airplane flights, bus rides to the hotel, makeshift meeting rooms and hotel beds. On game day, they bus to the stadium through a phalanx of middle fingers and less graphic forms of hostility and they dress in a locker room where they hang their clothes in a cubby smaller than a junior high school locker. (I remember the visiting locker room in old Cleveland Municipal Stadium where players took off their street clothes and had to hang them on nails hammered into the walls while dodging streams of water flowing out from the nearby gang shower.)
And when your team matriculates to the playoffs, as Hank Stram might have said, you can magnify all of that by two or three days, plus national media attention that is a far greater interruptor than the local scribes and barking dogs, and home starts to look pretty good. So, baseball aside, home field does have its advantages despite the fact that we are sitting here one day after the Saints laid a large egg with their so-called home field advantage against the Falcons.
So what does that mean for the immediate future? I’m guessing that after Sean Payton digested the game film, Tampa Bay’s home field advantage next week has shrunk to the same level of importance that the Saints experienced Sunday.
Yes, the World Series is over so let’s give a tip of the cap to the Washington Nationals in winning what was one of the strangest fall classics ever. Strange because home-field advantage was ushered to the curb as the visiting team, for the first time in the history of major team sports, won in each of the seven games. That’s like your grandmother hosting Christmas dinner only to watch the ungrateful savages ignore her oven-baked turkey, mashed potatoes and cornbread while they wolfed down Aunt Dorothy’s banana salad, Aunt Emily’s oyster casserole and Aunt Ann’s turkey sausage soufflé. Damned near unAmerican!
But now that we just enjoyed another football bye week, we have plenty of time to look ahead to what formerly was called the Hot Stove League. That is where the executives of the 29 Major League Baseball teams that did not win the World Series try and decide what went wrong and how they are going to fix it. I understand the feeling. After every championship season, there is one genius and a bunch of idiots.
I was never with a team that won the Super Bowl, so I’ve lived much of my professional life as an idiot. So I was wondering after the baseball idiots do their offseason reflections, will they follow the winning formula of the past two Series winners and stack up on stars? Or is there another way?
The star search was the path to glory for the last two World Series champs, according a Wall Street Journal story last week that labeled the Nats’ path to success as “the power of stars.” Leading up to this season, they had signed free agent Max Scherzer, who won the Cy Young award in Detroit and then followed with two more with the Nats. They extended former No. 1 overall draft pick Stephen Strasburg for $175 million and re-signed essential veteran Ryan Zimmerman for $100 million.
They also tried to re-sign another of their own stars in Bryce Harper last off-season but dropped out of the bidding after he rejected their $300 million offer and signed with the Phillies. No problem, with half of that money they signed pitchers Anibál Sanchéz and Patrick Corbin, who pitched three shutout innings in relief of Scherzer in Game 7. In October, Scherzer, Strasburg, Corbin and Sanchez accounted for 70% of the Nats’ innings and notched a collective 3.01 ERA. “To win a world championship, your stars have got to be stars,” said Nats’ GM Mike Rizzo. “And our stars were stars in these playoffs.”
The Red Sox took much the same path in winning the 2018 Series. They traded for pitcher Chris Sale and signed free agent pitchers David Price and Craig Kimbrel and slugger J.P. Martinez. During the season, they traded for pitcher Nathan Eovaldi who arguably was their best pitcher down the stretch, and eventual Series MVP Steve Pearce. GM Dave Dombrowski wrapped those veterans around home-grown products such as Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, Andrew Benitendi and Jackie Bradley, Jr., and the Sox won their fourth Series title since 2004.
But a strategy gaining traction is the one popularized by the Oakland A’s and adopted by the Tampa Bay Rays and Minnesota Twins: Develop your own stars and when their value soars trade them for prospects - more potential young stars. The underlying theme here is that it’s not always the best team that wins the World Series. It’s just as often the hottest team in the second half of the season.
The rumors around MLB is that one of the “power of stars” recent champions may soon be headed in the opposite strategic direction. When the Red Sox hired GM Dave Dombrowski in 2015, they gave him a blank check to build a championship club and he delivered. But now the Red Sox have the highest payroll in baseball, and owner John Henry wants to scale back with a process-oriented architect who can steer the franchise efficiently through the transition to the next championship.
Last week Henry hired 36-year-old Chaim Bloom as president of baseball operations. Bloom’s last posting was Tampa where he helped build a team that finished 12 games ahead of the Red Sox and went to the playoffs. Oh, and their $60 million payroll ranked No. 25 of the 30 teams, $160 million behind the No. 1 Red Sox. Sounds like change is a’comin’.
This could be a good lesson for the Nationals’ brass. The Red Sox made nary a change to their 2018 championship roster and flopped. But that should have been no surprise. This was the 19th straight year that the winner of the World Series failed to repeat. Boston made it 10 of 19 who did not even made it back to the playoffs.
You think somebody will slip that stat to the Nationals’ decision-makers. They already have seen Strasberg decline his four-year player option, and they declined Zimmerman's option. And they haven’t even sobered up from their parades, parties and other celebrations yet!
I had a great idea a few weeks ago, right after Drew Brees cracked his thumb on a Ram horn and was staring at a 6- to 8-week rehab. The scenario went this way: We knew Teddy Bridgewater would replace Brees during a very difficult stretch of the schedule. After all, the local heroes had fallen a game behind the Rams and then had to travel to Seattle where the Seahawks almost never lose to good teams. Then the Cowboys would come to town spitting vinegar that this is – finally – their year. Tampa Bay was up next and was scoring more points than Wilt Chamberlain’s Warriors, then the Saints hit the road again for games at Jacksonville and Chicago where the Bears were another 2018 playoff team.
We’d seen an uninspiring Bridgewater in mediocre mop-up roles and late-season games that didn’t matter, so the best Who Dat Nation could hope for was to break even before Brees could return. Looking even further down the road, Bridgewater would likely punch his ticket for free agency, to nobody’s regret, and the Saints would likely go into the 2020 NFL Draft looking for their quarterback of the future.
And, boy, did I have the guy! And he wears No. 9, cementing a linkage with Brees. But they could give him 19! YEAH, that's the ticket. Johnny Unitas wore 19! Wow, kismet was working overtime! Yessir, LSU’s Joe Burrow was my guy!
Burrow had gone from a serviceable quarterback in 2018 to doing weekly impersonations of Bert Jones or, heck, Peyton himself! He makes good decisions, has an adequate arm and can pull the ball down and run himself out of trouble when necessary. Good Old Joe had been ignored by every mock draft outside the Burrow Family Mock Draft and Barbecue. The early mocks had a handful of familiar quarterbacks going in the first round: Bama’s Tua Tagovailoa, Georgia’s Jake Fromm, Oregon’s Justin Herbert and Oklahoma’s Jalen Hurts. Under my scenario, Burrow would be available at the lower end of the first round where the prescient and perceptive Saints will likely pick. In Burrow, they would snatch up the best bargain since BOGO Blizzards at Dairy Queen.
Flash forward six weeks later.
Who Dat Nation wants the Saints to do the magic they often do and keep Bridgewater as the Brees-in-waiting. The likelihood is even greater that Bridgewater will hit free agency, now with a resume that includes a 5-0 record for the NFC title contenders. Burrow has looked nearly as good and now is the king of Baton Rouge, the leader and inspiration of the No. 1 Tigers. And not surprisingly, Burrow has been discovered by the NFL Mock Draft mavens.
Today, Chris Trapasso of CBS Sports declared Burrow should be the top pick in the 2020 NFL Draft. I kid you not. That's Numero Uno. Top of the Crop. A slot worth maybe $40 million in 2020. That is major cheese! Quoth Trapasso: “Joe Burrow has been the best quarterback in college football this season, and we need to start talking about him potentially going No. 1 overall. For real. The LSU passer is completing nearly 80 percent of his passes at 10.8 yards per attempt with 30 touchdowns and four picks playing in the SEC. Goodness. He’s been mostly very poised inside the pocket and has flashed athleticism on scrambles. As a former top recruit, he has the inherent ability to be the top pick, and in this mock draft he goes No. 1 overall to the Cincinnati Bengals.”
The selection of Burrow by the Bengals would be consistent with what has happened the last two years when relatively overlooked quarterbacks at the start of the season - Kyler Murray and Baker Mayfield - shot to the top of the draft. Sorry to disappoint you LSU cum Saints fans, but I guess the Saints won’t have the chance to draft Joe Burrow.
So you are probably asking yourself: “Who WILL the Saints draft next year?” And my answer to you: “Draft? Draft? What do you mean Draft? It’s only October!”
This just in: Next week the Saints will sit Cam Jordan, Demario Davis, half the offensive line and Latavius Murray, just to make it even with the Cardinals. Breathe deeply and consider that the above is the product of a vivid imagination, although it is almost as preposterous as what we saw Sunday. Because of injuries, the Saints sat Hall of Fame QB Drew Brees, offensive sparkplug Alvin Kamara, rising TE Jared Cook, safety P.J. Williams, WR Tre’Quan Smith and defensive lineman Trey Hendrickson, and they still rolled over the Bears like they were playing the 1987 Spare Bears.
The score was 36-10 with three minutes to go and could have been 48-10 when Sean Payton cleared the bench and the Bears made the final score almost respectable. That kind of performance reflects the team’s sufficient depth to withstand serious injuries to its starting unit, most notably backup QB Teddy Bridgewater.
This epistle is starting to sound like the Teddy B Weekly Wipe (OMG, we didn't even change the photo this week!) I assure you that Bridgewater's unexpectedly high level of play merits the coverage. And now, our latest permutation of critical analysis focuses on what decisions for the team and player will his current play create later? Bridgewater's 5-0 record as Brees’ replacement – which could be 6-0 if Brees sits against Arizona this week - will prompt some agonizing decisions after the team’s final game.
The Saints' decision will be framed by how much longer Brees can play at a high level, and that answer may come in the last half of the season. The expectation is that Brees will come back as good as ever, but what if he doesn’t? What if he experiences another injury that sidelines him for another period of time? Would that be a signal that Brees is no longer indestructible? Would the Saints be cast into a situation like the Colts found themselves with an injured Peyton Manning? Although that decision was a difficult one, it was made easier by the fact the Colts had the top pick in the draft and a generational quarterback available in Andrew Luck of Stanford. The Saints would be in much the same situation, with a proven starter already in the building. Would they dare make that move?
Bridgewater also has a decision to make assuming Brees returns intact. Is a big-money contract his top priority? There will be suitors out there offering to put Steady Teddy among the top ten highest-paid quarterbacks. But Bridgewater has shown he is perceptive enough to know that money often isn’t the only important factor in where you play. By all accounts, he had long-term financial security on the table with the Dolphins last spring but decided to re-up with Sean Payton and Brees.
How badly does Bridgewater want to stay in New Orleans working with Payton? If the Saints bring back Brees for another run, can they hope Bridgewater is patient enough to stick around? That makes sense if Bridgewater has infinite patience and Brees gives an indication of when he might hang it up. Bridgewater will turn 27 on November 10 and could inherit the throne here before he is 30. It would be a lot to ask, even if the Saints bump his pay to around $10 million per year, up from the current $7.5 million.
But that would take away two years of peak earning power for Bridgewater, who already has seen a devastating injury almost end his career. The Saints also are likely to need that extra money for upcoming deals with Kamara and Marshon Lattimore. That suggests that the most likely scenario right now is that Brees comes back intact, will play here at least two more years and Bridgewater goes on the market.
But there are always the private conversations that neither you nor I will ever hear. What if Brees tells Payton and Bridgewater that if the Saints win the Super Bowl, it will be his last season? The Saints give Steady Teddy a contract that he has earned, and Brees, now with two Super Bowl rings, shortens his timeline for a certain Hall of Fame induction. Nobody wants Brees to retire, but would another Super Bowl trophy on Airline Drive make it easier for Who Dat Nation to accept it?
The questions and possibilities are endless.
If Teddy Bridgewater has achieved anything this season, he has added another feather in Coach Sean Payton’s genius bonnet. If Payton had not pushed the re-signing of the free agent quarterback after last season, the Saints might not be at 5-1 today and a favorite to make the Super Bowl. Of course, with Pope Francis inadvertently expressing his blessing on the Saints this week, Who Dat Nation is trying to enlist the Pontiff to use his spiritual influence to speed up Drew Brees’ recovery and send Bridgewater back to the bench.
But what if Brees’ recovery takes longer than we are being told? Or horrors! what if he comes back and suffers another injury, this time ending his season? Are we comfortable enough with Teddy Bridgewater leading the Saints into the annual New England Patriots’ Invitational? Well, backup quarterbacks have done it before, most recently when Nick Foles took over for Tyler Wentz during the 2017 season and then shocked the Patriots in Super Bowl LII. But my favorite backup rags-to-riches quarterback took over for the No. 1 guy twice during the season and led his teams into Super Bowls. And his story has some very interesting parallels with Teddy Bridgewater.
His name was Earl Morrall and, like Bridgewater, he was named to the Pro Bowl early in his career despite lackluster statistics. In 1957 with the Steelers, Morrall was tapped for the all-star game despite completing only 48% of his passes and throwing 12 interceptions against 11 touchdowns passes. Eleven years and three teams later, Morrall, then 34, took his signature crewcut hair style to Baltimore as the backup to legendary Johnny Unitas, the reigning league MVP.
But Unitas, who was a year older than Morrall, tore an arm muscle in the final preseason game, and Morrall led the Colts to a 13-1 record and the playoffs. After dispatching the Vikings and Browns to win the NFC title, the Colts were upset by the New York Jets 16-7 in Super Bowl III, still the NFL's greatest upset. Morrall was named NFL MVP that season but next year went back to the bench.
Two years later, Morrall again relieved an injured Unitas in Super Bowl V and rallied the Colts to a 16-13 victory over Dallas. Unitas was injured again during the 1971 season and Morrall was 7-2 as a starter although the Colts lost the conference title game to Miami. Morrall was released after the season, and was signed by his old Colts coach, Don Shula, who had moved on to the Dolphins.
Morrall, then 38, backed up young star Bob Griese for five games, but Griese was injured and Shula once again called Morrall out of the bullpen. It was arguably the greatest season in NFL history as the Dolphins went undefeated, winning all 14 regular season games and two playoff games before edging the Redskins, 14-7, in Super Bowl VI. In his career, Morrall was 22-1 as a starter in the two seasons he led teams to the Super Bowl.
Teddy Bridgewater has a ways to go to top that, but he is 4-0 after becoming the Saints’ starter. He has not dazzled the statistical line while subbing for Brees and even ranks behind other backups such as Kyle Allen of Carolina, Gardiner Minshew of Jacksonville and Mason Rudolph of Pittsburgh (who is injured) in the traditional methods of rating quarterbacks, But the most important statistic is winning, and there is where Bridgewater has excelled.
Like Earl Morrall, Bridgewater replaced an aging legend with a steady, workmanlike game enhanced by good receivers, a good offensive line and a solid defense. Could Steady Teddy achieve the same Super Bowl glory as Earl Morrall if called upon? Nothing personal, but most Who Dats hope he never gets the chance.