The Whims and Foibles of Sports...
Attention, Who Dat Nation! Summer camp opens this week, your team is still undefeated, draft picks will surely become instant contributors, signed free agents will compete for Comeback Player of the Year and other starters will ascend to the Pro Bowl netherworld. Summer will end someday, and the air is beginning to blow cooler with football talk. How can this not be the best time of the year? And this year, I might just jump on the bandwagon.
I am a generally optimistic guy, often over-estimating my favorite teams’ potential, but hope is always better than pessimism. Who wants to go into a season bemoaning another collapse when the new season could be “The Year!” But this year I actually see things that fuel my optimism and suggest to me the Saints will temper the fans’ frustration. Several reasons fuel my optimism, not the least of which is the belief that QB Drew Brees can continue his high-level play and leadership for at least one more year.
I’ve taken shots at Brees and his agent for their negotiating style and tactics of the past, but my prejudice is more from 20 years in NFL management, all of it on the opposite side of the Players’ Association and agents. There is no doubt that Brees has the heart of a lion and is the unquestioned leader of this team. I just hope he and agent Tom Condon realize that the club has no good reason to hand him a three- or four-year extension in the $22-milion per year range. (See column below.) Brees needs to deflect any more questions about his contract and concentrate on football. Go out and have another good year, lead the team back to the playoffs and then you will have negotiating leverage this time next year.
Absent any of the above, and it is likely that Brees will be forced to take the same path that other future Hall-of-Famers like Peyton Manning, Brett Favre, Joe Montana and even Johnny Unitas had to take. Finishing your career in another uniform other than the one where you saw your greatest moments is not the ideal scenario, but it is reality in the Salary Cap era.
While Brees is the best reason for optimism this season, No. 2 is the club's efforts to address its most glaring problem. It’s sad when your offense is near the top of the league year after year and your defense is near the bottom. That has contributed to the helpless sense among Who Dats that no matter how many points the Saints score or how far ahead they get, there’s a great chance for an implosion in the fourth quarter. That’s been the case in three of the last four years, and fixing that was the No. 1 priority for the Saints’ cut-and-paste squad.
LB James Laurinaitis and DL Nick Fairley were good free agent signings and should give new coordinator Dennis Allen some stability up front. No. 1 pick Sheldon Rankins of Louisville looks the part and could step into a starting position while second-year LB Stephone Anthony showed early signs of brilliance last year. DE Cameron Jordan is reaching his peak and gives the defense some rare Pro Bowl swagger. The secondary should show addition by subtraction, meaning they instantly are better with Brandon Browner someplace else. If they can remain healthy, the unit of corners Keenan Lewis and Delvin Breaux and safeties Jairus Byrd and Kenny Vaccaro could be among the best in the league. The problem is that this group has never been able to remain healthy, which means the team has been forced to finish the season with perennial backups in the irons. Jim Finks used to say that injuries are the worst things about sports because no matter how well a team drafts, scouts and secures players, players aren’t much help if they can’t stay on the field.
Back to offense, Brees has two solid receivers in Brandin Cooks and last year’s rookie surprise, Willie Snead, and rookie Michael Thomas is a big body who will be groomed to replace the retired Marques Colston. TE Coby Fleener probably isn’t as good as his contract implies, but with Brees he has the opportunity to emerge as a credible midfield threat. RB Mark Ingram has secured his place as a hard running, pass-catching weapon, while C.J. Spiller could finally become the third-down option that he displayed in last year’s thrilling victory over Dallas. The offensive line instantly became better last year with the addition of C Max Unger and the emergence of LT Terron Armistead. On special teams, Thomas Morstead is one of the league’s top punters, although one of the goals in training camp will be to find a placekicker.
Running through this roster is one more reason I believe the Saints will bounce back this season, and that is character. GM Mickey Loomis and Sean Payton have brought in very few players whose personnel folder was stamped with the big red “C” for “character problems.” In the NFL and most professional sports, having good character does not guarantee superior performance, but good players with good character can go a long way. They might not overtake Carolina this season, but 10-6 should get them in the playoffs, where anything can happen.
It’s hard to write about anything else in sports today after watching the Classic two-man race for the British Open championship Sunday at Royal Troon. Yes, I still call it the “British” Open because to do otherwise is elitist, snooty and downright discriminatory to all the other “opens” in golf. Forgive my propensities toward the peasantry, but I will talk more about golf later.
Today, only a week from the opening of Saints training camp, the big question locally is whether or not the Saints and QB Drew Brees will agree on a new contract before opening day. My bet is they won’t, for a number of reasons, but the best is that contracts do not generally get done unless either, or both, sides feel the pressure of a deadline. That does not exist with Brees under contract for the 2016 season.
Another reason is that an agent always argues that “the market," and nothing else, dictates a player’s value. The Saints have no compelling reason to agree to demands whose only rationale is “the market.” The market is insane. Andrew Luck recently became the NFL's highest-paid player after signing a five-year, $122.97 million contract extension with the Colts. You can Google "highest paid NFL quarterbacks" and you get an idea of what agent Tom Condon is likely to demand for a client whose body of work is superior in most respects to the players listed. Brees averages $20 million a year, which barely cracks the Top Ten, and you know Condon wants more.
The other reason I don't think a new contract is at hand is because the Saints must look at REALITY as another factor. At 37, Brees is an aging quarterback whose team has had three losing seasons in the past four years. His statistics have declined every year over the past four years. His yardage totals have dipped each year since 2011, which may not so much a sign of slowing down, because Brees led the league in passing yards every year except for 2013. He only threw 32 touchdown passes last year and only 33 the year before (he threw 46 in 2011). The more nuanced approach shows a guy who is aging well, continuing to put up massive numbers, and generally hampered by the fact his team has a terrible defense.
Some critics say Brees’ current contract is one reason the team has declined, because it can’t afford to keep its better players with so much tied up in one player. I think it’s more bad drafts and miscalculation on some free agents, but one thing that can’t be denied is the inevitable decline of an aging player. We haven’t seen that yet, and Who Dat Nation hopes we don’t this year. But the Saints are not inclined to gamble additional money on that chance.
A contract demand now is likely in the range of four years and $100 million, with more than $65 million guaranteed. Other than paying for a year in which Brees is already locked in, such a contract gives the team nothing and would even make Brees essentially uncuttable through the 2018 season when he will be 40. That would be an issue only if Brees should experience a sudden decline similar to Peyton Manning, but even Peyton got old. On the other hand, if the Saints do nothing, Brees has a big year and the team does well, they can respond as best they can to the demands of a 38-year-old free agent quarterback. But if the Saints do not return to the playoffs, they will have a lot more money at hand to determine their future. There is no compelling reason why the team should overpay now.
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A final word about the British Open: The match between Henrik Stenson and Phil Mickelson was the rare golfing extravaganza in which two guys nearly lapped the field. We’ve seen one guy play Secretariat-at-the-Belmont before in Tiger Woods’ 15-stroke annihilation of the field at the 2000 U.S. Open (see note above!). That was the pinnacle of runaways, but on Sunday both Stenson and Mickelson seemed to be playing a different game.
Although Stenson and Mickelson were fortunate that their Friday and Saturday tee-times avoided much of the late-day winds and rain that bedeviled Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy and Jason Day, their mastery of blind shots over the gorse and through the gnarly two-foot rough was unequaled among the rest of the field. In fact, Stenson and Mickelson were neck and neck until Stenson broke away with a 50-foot birdie putt on 15.
The Swede won his first title by three strokes at a remarkable 20-under par, a record for a major. Phil finished 11 strokes ahead of his nearest challenger, who could become a great future trivia question. Of course, we will remember it here as third place went to former Kentucky star and SEC champion, J.B. Holmes.
I must confirm something that might have escaped many SEC football fans hungering for information about their favorite teams at SEC Media Days this week. Yes, Kentucky is participating and Coach Mark Stoops took the podium Wednesday to talk about his fourth season at UK. But the Wildcats’ prospect of climbing out of the conference cellar is not what I want to talk about. It’s the 2016 Kentucky team poster that was introduced.
The poster takes on a special significance in the wake of the police killings in Dallas and the unrest in the African-American community over officers’ alleged targeting of young black men. The poster is headlined “Make a Stand” and it features four black players who were the first of color to sign at Kentucky in the late 1960s. The design of the poster is modeled after a statue honoring the four UK players who integrated Southeastern Conference football - Nate Northington, Greg Page, Wilbur Hackett and Houston Hogg. That statue will be unveiled Sept. 22 in front of UK’s new football practice facility.
The 2016 season marks 50 years since Northington and Page enrolled at UK in 1966 when no other SEC school had broken the color line. The following year, Northington, a defensive back, became the first black player to start for an SEC team, but Page tragically suffered a broken neck in practice that year and died 38 days later. Those facts, on their merits, stand as significant, but I had a small role in their struggle, as sports editor of the campus daily, the Kentucky Kernel.
In those days, the major plum for the sports editor was the ability to take one road trip with the football team. That year, the Wildcats had four road games, at Ole Miss, West Virginia, Tennessee and LSU. My SAE house roommate, Billy Gorman, and I often drove to nearby games, which meant West Virginia and Tennessee, so I picked the faraway and exotic venue of Baton Rouge. It was the first time I had ever flown, and I will never forget the thrill and anticipation when the team plane took off from Bluegrass Field. I also will never forget the moment on October 19, 1967, when I stepped onto the turf at Tiger Stadium before the game and the fans began yelling “Tiger bait, Tiger bait” at every member of the Kentucky party. That was a hostile welcome to road life on the SEC, but that memory was offset by the huge po-boy sandwiches in the pressbox.
The Wildcats of coach Charlie Bradshaw fought hard that day but came in second, 13-3, although the real story came later. The team spent the night in a Baton Rouge hotel and was scheduled to fly out the next morning. Waiting in line to board the plane that morning, Houston Hogg came up to me and asked “Did you hear what happened to us last night?” Hogg had attended Hazard High School with my roommate Gorman, and through him I had became friendly with Hogg.
He told me that after the game he and Hackett had gone out to find something to eat, but when they entered a restaurant they were told they would not be served. They were told if they wanted to eat, they had to go to the back door and something might be available. The players left and returned to the hotel. When I returned to Lexington, I wrote the story for the Kernel, and it received national attention.
It might be hard for anybody under 50 to realize, but 1967 was a much more tumultuous time in a racial context than today. Sparked by a police raid on a black power hangout, Detroit had erupted into the worst race riots ever in the nation, with 43 people dead, including 33 African Americans and 10 whites. During the year, other racial disturbances led to at lest 83 deaths across the country, including major riots in Tampa, Cincinnati, Atlanta, Newark, Plainfield and Brunswick, New Jersey. Fortunately, Kentucky never saw trouble on the level of Detroit or Watts. In fact, the big local news that year occurred when Muhammad Ali, formerly Cassius Clay of Louisville, was stripped of his heavyweight boxing title for resisting military draft as a Muslim minister.
Unveiling a team poster might seem insignificant, but the decision to honor the pioneers of SEC football integration is not. In fact, it is a refreshing reminder that at least once upon a time a courageous change was made that stands in stark contrast to the problems, real or perceived, that beset us today.
What a week in sports! Queen Serena and Underdog Andy win at Wimbledon, Portugal upsets France in overtime to win its first European soccer championship, Kevin Durant hijacks the NBA and the Pelicans give $10 million a year to a couple guys who made the all-single digit team. So why are none of those stories being discussed this morning anywhere south of the Tombigbee Canal? Because, Bubba, SEC Football Media Days is here!
As you read this, head coaches, players and conference officials are in Birmingham, preparing to shuttle between stages as media types from SEC venues strain to hear all the insight you can cram into a large thimble. The reporters who have been there before know what's coming and have already written their stories, including pithy quotes from the coaches who say the same things every year.
Nick Saban will downplay talk of a national championship, although that is Alabama’s one and only test of a successful season, while Les Miles will give a folksy rendition of how his young LSU team will show up every week, knowing that RB Leonard Fournette gives the Tigers a sizable edge before kickoff. A new head coach like Kirby Smart at Georgia will say how excited he is to head up a program with the Bulldog tradition while looking ahead to a conference championship match with his old boss, Saban. Barry Odom at Missouri, another new head coach, will also tell you how proud and happy he is to be head guy at Mizzou while privately giving thanks that he has Kentucky and Vanderbilt at home this season.
Of course, some coaches will simply decline to answer questions about subjects other than football. Butch Jones of Tennessee will refuse to comment on the $2.48 million settlement last week of a lawsuit that charged the UT athletics department, especially the football program, with creating an abusive environment that led to sexual assaults. Hugh Freeze at Ole Miss will take a cue from Davis and decline comment on a Sports Illustrated story last week on the NCAA investigation into the Ole Miss athletic program.
The fate of the Rebel program, fresh off a 10-win season and Sugar Bowl victory, hinges on the NCAA's investigation that began with the women's basketball program in 2012 and has spanned four years, three sports and 28 alleged violations. Thirteen of those are in the football program, including fixing ACT tests, significant booster involvement and nearly $15,000 in extra benefits for 11 football players, recruits and their families. Remember Laremy Tunstil’s acknowledgement of a Tweet he sent to an assistant coach requesting payment of his mother’s gas and water bill?
Three other coaches might be asked about a column last week by John Adams of the Knoxville News-Sentinel that presented a tongue-in-cheek prediction of who might get the first pink slip under their doors this season. Adams wrote that Steve Spurrier caught most people off guard last fall when he quit in the middle of South Carolina's season, “but all he missed was a season-ending, five-game losing streak that left the Gamecocks with an un-Spurrier-like 3-9 record.” With that in mind, Adams recommended when these coaches should quit:
Derek Mason of Vanderbilt will exit on September 9. The reason? “The Commodores should win their opener against South Carolina. And the next three games, against Middle Tennessee State, Georgia Tech and Western Kentucky, also are winnable.But Vanderbilt also could lose any one of those three games. So why take the risk?”
Mark Stoops should exit Kentucky on September 2. Why? “The Wildcats are accustomed to losing to just about everyone in the SEC. But an opening-season loss to Southern Mississippi would be jarring even to a fan base that so often expects to see its team get knocked around. Stoops won't likely win enough games to keep his job anyway. So why take the chance of a possibly embarrassing loss in the season opener?”
Will Muschamp will leave South Carolina on August 31. Why? “Never mind that Muschamp was just hired after last season. He has been at South Carolina long enough to figure out this team should be every bit as bad as last year's, which means it likely will lose the opener to Vanderbilt. So why not wait for a better job? No matter what Muschamp does, schools can't wait to hire him. He was a coach-in-waiting at Texas without ever having been a head coach. Florida hired him even though he had no head-coaching experience. And South Carolina hired him after he failed at Florida. Based on his track record, he will end up with a better job than South Carolina if he quits before the opener.”
And you can see it all live! The SEC Network is showing the coaches and players interviews even as we speak. As a public service, here is the schedule for the week, including Les Miles’ and Leonard Fournette’s appearance on Thursday:
MONDAY, JULY 11
*All times Central.
11:35 p.m. – 2:25 p.m.
• SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey
• Auburn (Gus Malzahn, Carl Lawson, Montravius Adams, Marcus Davis)
2:30 – 5:30p.m.
• Florida (Jim McElwain, David Sharpe, Jarrad Davis, Marcus Maye)
• Vanderbilt (Derek Mason, Ralph Webb, Zach Cunningham, Oren Burks)
TUESDAY, JULY 12
8:35 – 9:00 a.m.
• Steve Shaw, SEC Coordinator of Football Officials
9:05 a.m. – 12:25 p.m.
• Georgia (Kirby Smart, Jeb Blazevich, Brandon Kublanow, Dominick Sanders)
• Mississippi State (Dan Mullen, Richie Brown, Fred Ross, A.J. Jefferson)
1:00 – 4:00 p.m.
• Tennessee (Butch Jones, Joshua Dobbs, Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Cameron Sutton)
• Texas A&M (Kevin Sumlin, Myles Garrett, Trevor Knight, Ricky Seals-Jones)
WEDNESDAY, JULY 13
9:05 a.m. – 12:05 p.m.
• Alabama (Nick Saban, Jonathan Allen, O.J. Howard, Eddie Jackson)
• Arkansas (Bret Bielema, Brooks Ellis, Deatrich Wise Jr., Jeremy Sprinkle
1:00 – 4:00 p.m.
• Kentucky (Mark Stoops, Jojo Kemp, Courtney Love, Jon Toth)
• Missouri (Barry Odom, Sean Culkin, Charles Harris, Michael Scherer)
THURSDAY, JULY 14
9:05 a.m. – 1:35 p.m.
• South Carolina (Will Muschamp, Deebo Samuel, Marquavius Lewis, Mason Zandi)
• Ole Miss (Hugh Freeze, Chad Kelly, Evan Engram, D.J. Jones)
• LSU (Les Miles, Leonard Fournette, Ethan Pocic, Tre’Davious White)
You’ve probably seen the golf club commericial where the very smug duffer is showing off his new clubs to his playing partner. The problem is that his bag is filled with 14 drivers, all of which have a different attribute but none of which would be very effective for certain shots, such as chipping over a trap to a tight lie. Translate that to the Pelicans of last season who featured some pretty good scorers, but who were totally flummoxed when the ball went to the other side of the floor. Call it tight lies or Stephen Curry wedges to the pin, the Pels were miserable trying to stop them.
Although former coach Monty Williams was considered a defensive specialist, GM Dell Demps filled the roster with scorers. As a result, terrible defense has been the lone consistent the past four years, totally neutralizing the otherwise otherwordly efforts of Anthony Davis. The team has ranked 28th, 26th, 22nd and 28th in the NBA, ahead cumulatively of only the Lakers. Two seasons ago, under Williams, the Pelicans were the worst in the league at protecting the paint. Last season under new coach Alvin Gentry, who was coaching Williams’ players, the team improved significantly around the rim but conceded an avalanche of 3-pointers.
Gentry arrived last year after the roster was set, but according to the team’s 2016 draft and most recent decisions in free agency, he is dissembling that bag of drivers and trading some for other clubs. Shooter Buddy Hield was the first major addition, giving Gentry the guy who could start the transformation to the Warriors’ fast-paced offense that he helped put together. After secuting Hield, he addressed defense in the first days of free agency with the signing of former Bulls’ guard E’Twaun Moore and ex-Pacers forward Solomon Hill at a combined $82 million over four years.
At first blush, it is disturbing to see the scoring the Pels effectively traded away in allowing forward Ryan Anderson and guard Eric Gordon to sign with the Rockets for a combined $133 million over four years. Anderson and Gordon averaged 32 points per game, although both missed significant time with injuries. Gordon played in just 56% (221/394) of Pelicans games in five seasons, and Anderson logged minutes 70% (230/328) of the time over his four seasons. They were knockdown shooters, which is exactly what the Rockets wanted, but the key is that both were atrocious defenders. Letting them go in favor of Moore and Hill saves the team $51 million while bringing in two guys who actually enjoy stopping the other guy.
While Moore (7.5) and Hill (4.2) will score 20 points less per game than Anderson and Gordon, Gentry apparently believes he can spread those points between Hield, Davis, Tyreke Evans and Jrue Holiday. But the ability of Hill and Moore to stop the other team’s best scorers could make it a net-net gain for the Pels. In Indiana, Hill was a good enough defender to draw the task of stopping the likes of Kevin Durant or LeBron James. Beyond individual on-ball defense, Hill provides the basketball IQ on the weakside that New Orleans has sorely lacked.
The scouting report for Moore in Chicago is similar. Intelligence, effort, and versatility led to him also regularly drawing the Bulls’ toughest matchup on the floor. Moore often guarded the opposing team's best perimeter defender, which could help fix a glaring weakness of the Pelicans last season. Moore also has displayed the basketball IQ that helps him know where to be in rotations, reading passing lanes or just flat out communicating with teammates. Having mature, unselfish veterans around Davis and Hield will give the young stars the freedom to operate in the manner that LeBron and Kyrie Irving did with the Cavs.
Last year, the Pelicans had enough scorers, but they couldn’t play defense. That’s like having a golf bag with nothing but drivers. But now, by adding a few wedges and putters in the bag like Moore and Hill, the Pels have a chance to shave some strokes and climb up the leaderboard night after night.