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The Whims and Foibles of Sports...

Don't let Saints' suicide dampen the joy of Christmas!

by J.W. Miller on 12/22/14

Okay, so you still are walking around mumbling about what happened to the Saints’ once-promising season. You recall a formerly trustworthy pundit who happens to inhabit  this space predicting a possible Super Bowl appearance. Even after slogging to a 2-4 record, loyal Who Dats rationalized by saying three of those losses came by a total of six points and just as easily could have gone the other way. 

Their faith was rewarded by two impressive victories, against Green Bay and at Carolina. Tied at 4-4 with their confidence restored, the Saints, instead of reaching for that bottle of mojo juice that would propel them to running the table, grabbed the hemlock. Call it what you like, Saints fans did not realize they were participating in a suicide watch that would turn their hallowed home-field advantage into Dr. Kevorkian’s laboratory. 

With all that disappointment, they still had a chance to revive the body, thanks to a division filled with death wishes. However, the 30-14 pasting by the hated Falcons on Sunday ended the misery. The body is cold and do not be surprised if it’s kicked one more time at Tampa in the season’s final game next week. But nobody wants to hear about misery during a season of joy. In fact, Mrs. Lincoln, despite the bad things that have happened, life is pretty good. 

On Saturday, I watched my beloved Kentucky Wildcats make a major statement in their quest for a ninth NCAA basketball title. I could not believe my eyes as the nation’s top-ranked team jumped on UCLA from the tip. In just a few minutes, Kentucky was up 24-0 and my tight circle of SAE brothers were texting the love back and forth, typified by my own proclamation: “I’ve seen goat ropings, cockfights and tractor pulls, and I ain’t never seen nothing like this!” Truth be told, every one of us wished the Cats could have saved some of those baskets for next Saturday, when they play arch-rival Louisville on a hostile court. But let’s deal with that then. 

We’ve got Christmas coming up this week with all its related joy and blessings. Speaking of personal blessings, my daughter Lindsay and her husband Andrew arrived Sunday with our newest addition. Keegan is six months old, well behaved, handsome and is surely destined for greatness. Already, he shows coordination and athleticism, like last night when he grabbed his plastic giraffe on the seams and tossed a perfect spiral to a reindeer ornament streaking across the verdant field of the Christmas tree. And with that completion, all the misery of the Saints’ season and even the joy of being a Wildcat fan took a back seat to what really matters. 

So to my legions of faithful readers and friends, I hope you enjoy similar moments this week. Have a very Merry Christmas until we get together again. 

Baseball card collectors can thank Sy Berger!

by J.W. Miller on 12/19/14

Until earlier this week, I had never heard of Sy Berger, who died Sunday at age 91, but I knew him well. You see, Sy Berger was an executive with Topps in the early 1950s, and it was he who transformed the relatively homely and simple cards of baseball players into informative and collectible keepsakes. Baseball cards have been around since the nineteenth century, but not until Sy Berger did they include statistics, color photos, better design and even a facsimile of each player’s autograph. 

And like most American boys growing up in the Fifties, I collected Sy Berger’s creations like a madman. I bought them at the grocery store that my grandfather owned before he retired and sold out to a man named Earl Holloway. Today, the store would have been a target for Mike and Frank of the American Pickers TV show, but when my grandfather, C.C. Miller, owned it, the store carried items of function for a rural community. 

I remember the glass candy case and kegs of nails standing side-by-side with bins of beans, corn and seeds for planting. A boxy soft-drink machine held rows of Coke, Pepsi and my favorite, Grapette, sitting in water kept ice-cold by blocks of ice at the bottom. A wooden bench was usually occupied by area farmers who would come in for a chat or to play pinochle or hearts on a large circular playing board they balanced on their knees. Of course, when the men returned to the fields, I would grab a handful of nails from a keg and drive them one-by-one into the wooden bench until it looked like a belly-up porcupine.

When Mr. Holloway bought the store in about 1958, he began to add new items of interest, including the small flat packs of bubble gum that contained baseball cards. It wasn’t long after that before every stray nickel I had became an investment into my heroes. Baseball card collecting wasn't all for trading or decorating your bicycle spokes. It was serious business for a young man in the Fifties. With every purchase, I ripped open the pack, stuffed the 2-inch square of gum into my mouth and chewed away, hoping to find a treasure pack of Red Sox players. Ted Williams would have been the ultimate catch, but I also would have welcomed a Frank Malzone or a Jackie Jensen. 

Instead, more often than not I received a roster of unknowns. Danny Kravitz, an outfielder with the Pirates, was a frequent visitor, as were Bob Schmidt, a catcher with the Giants, and George Anderson, a second-baseman with the Phillies. It did not matter at the time that Anderson would grow up to become Sparky Anderson, one of baseball’s greatest managers. To me, he was a nobody in a pack of nobodies. But I kept him and all the others and over the next two or three years I collected such luminaries as Mickey Mantle, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Ernie Banks. My greatest collecting coup was a complete set of the 1960 All-Star Game starters, which included Stan Musial, Joe Adcock, Al Kaline, Yogi Berra and Bill Mazeroski. 

I neatly arranged my cards in a shoebox, each player carefully filed by team. Some teams, like the local favorite Cincinnati Reds, were nearly complete, while other teams like the Washington Senators could have been playing with a roster of only five or six for all I knew. Over the years I upgraded their display, to a large three-ring binder with plastic slots for each card. My professional life took me to different places, and that binder went with me from Kentucky to Baltimore to New York to New Orleans to Buffalo to Chicago and then back to New Orleans, where its journey ended in tragedy. 

We evacuated our house on August 27, 2005, and when we returned nearly a month later, Hurricane Katrina had devastated my collection. Although it sat on a high shelf in my closet, it was lapped by the rising waters and was soaked. I probably should have taken every card out of its plastic slot and dried them individually, but we had other things to worry about in those days. I left them in the binder, and when it dried most of the cards stuck to the plastic that enclosed them. Removing them would have destroyed them. 

My cards are still in the binder, which I pulled out of a box when Sy Berger died. They would not be much good to a collector in their condition, but the memories they provoked will forever remain priceless. 

If you Google "teaser," you'll see a Saints' helmet!

by J.W. Miller on 12/16/14

In a desperate attempt to figure out this whacky NFL season from the local perspective, I went right to America’s most popular source for answers to puzzling questions. I went to Google and punched in “teaser.” In only .35 seconds, I received 23,400,000 possible answers, and I began sorting through them to find the right one. My discerning eye immediately was drawn to website addresses for several Teasers Men’s Clubs, with locations in Twin Forks, Montana; Flint, Michigan; Key West, Durham, North Carolina, and elsewhere. The Teasers of Phoenix even awards its customers a pint of draft beer for $3 to go along with, well, you know, its other treats. 

I took a shower and returned to sort through other forms of “teaser,” including hair salons and chocolate factories until I found what I was looking for. A website boldly advertised “brain teasers and mind games.” And that is what the local football team is doing to its fans this season. We are all the victims of a giant hoax, thanks to the local NFL affiliate. Teaser is not to be confused with Taser, but either could be used to describe what the local football team has done to its fan base this year. The Saints go on the road and win a game. They come home to the formerly friendly Superdome and they can't beat Tulane’s band. 

Supporting this hypothesis was the Saints’ effortless 31-15 win at Chicago Monday night, a game that was not as close as the score indicated. The secondary intercepted three Jay Cutler passes, while the pass rushers sacked the NFL’s most well-paid hapless quarterback seven times. Drew Brees' offense was efficient and productive. The Bears aren’t very good, but the win reflects a season that has never been experienced in these parts before. The Saints have been good, and the Saints have been bad, but this season, the Saints team has teased its loyal fans with an equal dose of each. 

After limping to a 2-4 record, the Saints convincingly took care of Green Bay at home and Carolina on the road. Who Dat Nation knew the ship had been righted, the NFC South title was assured and they might even run the table. But then, the team failed to rush San Francisco QB Colin Kaepernick on 4th and forever in the final seconds, which gift-wrapped an unlikely 49er victory. The next two games also were at home, but the Bengals and Ravens enjoyed the Saints’ hospitality to dole out two more losses. 

The fans were prepared the next week, knowing disaster loomed at Pittsburgh, one of the more inhospitable places in the NFL. Of course, the Saints winked into the camera and beat the Steelers like a borrowed mule. Whipsawed all season, the innocent Who Dats welcomed to town the limping division rival Carolina only to be teased again. The Panthers avenged their earlier loss by not only beating the Saints but embarrassing them in the worst loss of the Payton-Brees dynasty.  But by now, the more wizened fans had started to figure it out. The Saints would go to Chicago, otherwise known as the Who Dat Memorial Gardens, and look like the ’85 Bears in Black and Gold. Sure enough, that is exactly what they did. 

Their 6-8 record is tops in the division, and holding on would assure a home playoff game. This week’s obstacle to such bliss is their long-time nemesis, the Atlanta Falcons, who come to town Sunday. Will the Saints continue to play the role of teaser, losing again in the once-friendly confines, or will they sprinkle their teasing with holiday cheer? We won’t know until dusk on Sunday, but I would suggest Saints fans turn the tables on this long slog of playful torment. Come to the game dressed from top to bottom in red, Santa Clause beard is optional, and cheer loud for the Falcons. Only that way will the Saints think they are on the road where it’s okay to win the game.

Here's what can happen when you turn down a job offer!

by J.W. Miller on 12/12/14

Stop me if I’ve told you this one, but after I accepted Jim Finks’ offer to join him in New Orleans in the summer of 1986, my old boss at the NFL Management Council, Jack Donlan, told me to find my replacement before I left New York. I thought it would be an easy matter finding an enthusiastic young up-and-comer to join Donlan in the NFL’s labor relations department. The Collective Bargaining Agreement, which came as the result of a 57-day players’ strike in 1982, would expire in another year, and Donlan needed a spokesman to represent the position of NFL owners. Surely, the first person I asked would jump at the opportunity. 

I soon discovered it wasn’t so easy. My first choice was a young sportswriter from Cincinnati who had just joined Newsday, the daily paper based on Long Island. But Peter King preferred writing about the NFL than helping to make the news, so he declined. Today, King is at Sports Illustrated and is considered the premier NFL writer in America. I talked to a couple other writers, none of whom wanted to make a move, so my thinking moved in-house.

I knew a bright, young guy in the NFL’s public relations department who had impressed me with his smarts and his willingness to take on any task assigned by the League’s longtime PR guy, Joe Browne. I talked to the young man and told him that a move to the Management Council was a step forward for him and would get him noticed, not only as the spokesman for NFL owners but by the owners themselves. If he wanted to go out to a club to make his bones, the Management Council was the place to do it. 

We talked a couple more times, and he sounded interested, but he said he wanted to get the opinion of then-Commissioner Pete Rozelle. We spoke again the next day, and he politely declined. “Pete says he’s got other things in mind for me,” he told me. Looking back, I often wonder how that worked out for Roger Goodell.

But, seriously, Goodell has had a tough couple of years as the current NFL boss, and things just got tougher. Goodell told the Wall Street Journal this week “I blew it” after the outcry over his handling of a domestic-violence case involving former Baltimore Ravens star Ray Rice. The case has focused the commissioner’s attention on the off-field conduct of his players, who often faced graver consequences for using steroids than for punching a spouse or girlfriend. 

Goodell told the Journal he regrets doing too little on past cases, particularly when measures could have prevented future abuse. “Our penalties didn’t fit the crimes,” he said. That is why Goodell unveiled a tougher personal-conduct policy Wednesday at a meeting with NFL team owners. An accused player, for example, will immediately go on paid leave following formal charges or an independent investigation under the proposal that would also apply to all NFL personnel, including owners. The new rules mark a shift for the NFL, which has been criticized for failing to properly address instances of domestic violence by players. 

Since 2000, 135 domestic-violence allegations have been made against NFL players. Adjudication of the cases have varied from no-contest pleas to charges being dropped after wives or girlfriends withdrew their accusations. League punishments typically were, at most, one-game suspensions. Changes are also evident in the league’s New York City headquarters on Park Avenue, where female executives and consultants, some newly hired, sit in Goodell’s corner office around a conference table covered with victim photos and anti-violence educational materials. The topic of discussion is domestic abuse.

Goodell probably never has regretted taking my old job with the Management Council, although the microscope under which club executives are watched by the likes of Who Dat Nation pales to the far larger one he is under as Commissioner. And, in times like these, that microscope has been replaced by a magnifying glass that focuses the searing rays of criticism squarely on Goodell's  backside. 

SEC should push for an eight-team football playoff

by J.W. Miller on 12/08/14

Thank goodness there’s something more interesting to write about today than the Saints, who continued their Jekyll and Hyde season Sunday with an embarrassing 41-10 loss to a mediocre Carolina team. So, while Sean Payton is preparing his Crescent City Conundrums to go north and undoubtedly pummel the Chicago Bears, let’s turn our attention to the big news of the weekend, the College Football Playoff selections. 

The Sugar Bowl people have to be overjoyed at the marquee matchup between Alabama and Ohio State, the winner of which should be favored to beat Oregon or Florida State in the championship game. Bama deserves to be the No. 1 selection, and Ohio State arguably is the hottest team in America, winning eleven in a row after an inexplicable early 35-21 home loss to Virginia Tech. In its first season, CFP selection day has become one of the biggest non-game events in American sports. I happened to be following it on Sirius radio while driving home from a visit to Kentucky, flipping back and forth between the College network, ESPN radio and the NFL Network. Even the latter gave proper attention to the selections between their customary Sunday morning NFL chat. 

I have to admit I was disappointed that TCU was dissed so badly after earning the No. 3 slot last week. How in tunket, only four days later and after a 55-3 win over Iowa State, could they drop TCU all the way to No. 6? If the selection panel felt so strongly about Ohio State, why weren’t they included in the top four last week? Sure, they decimated No. 13 Wisconsin with a third-string quarterback, but I’m not convinced that one game should make that much of a difference at that point in the process. 

Furthermore, I did not understand dropping TCU behind Baylor in the final selections, even though Baylor beat ranked Kansas State in their final game. I repeat the previous argument: If the panel felt that strongly about Baylor, which gave TCU its only loss, then why wasn’t Baylor ranked in the top four last week? I think the impact of those late performances is going to influence conferences to schedule more carefully in the future and try to arrange top-tier matchups at the end of the season. Beating a ranked team obviously has more impact than hosing a team like two-win Iowa State. 

The CFP panel did say they would be tweaking their formula for years to come, and I have a suggestion. Expand the format to eight teams. The NCAA should welcome the opportunity for more revenue, and the networks would pay richly for the programming. That also would have shifted the controversy from the critical 4, 5 and 6 teams to the less-defensible No. 8, 9 and 10 teams. Placing an eight-team format over this year’s rankings, Baylor, TCU, Mississippi State and Michigan State would be included with the only possible controversy coming from fans of No. 9 Ole Miss. Sure, you beat Alabama, but you lost three games which is an easier argument that anything Baylor or TCU fans are hearing today. 

The Southeastern Conference should push hard for an eight-team format, because it would mitigate the late-season cannibalism that dropped Mississippi State and Ole Miss in the rankings. If the SEC does produce the best college football in America, as every football fan in the Old Confederacy claims, having two or three teams in an eight-team playoff would provide a better opportunity to prove it!

In our eight-team format, the first round of four games could be played two weeks after the selection show on the home fields of the top four ranked teams. The games would provide great on-campus excitement and four more billboards for the college game. This year, that would have sent No. 8 Michigan State to Tuscaloosa, No. 7 Mississippi State to Oregon, No. 6 TCU to Florida State and No. 5 Baylor to Ohio State. Winners of those games would be sent to the top bowls, as they are now, this year the Sugar Bowl and Rose Bowl. Each losing team could be sent to the other four bowls in the playoff rotation, which includes the Orange, Cotton, Fiesta and Peach bowls. 

However the process is tweaked in the future, the fact remains that a playoff is long overdue. College football fans already are already marking their calendars for January 12, which is when the final two teams will meet in Dallas to decide it once and for all. Who Dat Nation might consider doing the same. By that time, their local heroes will at home lounging while the organization will be well into its post-season evaluations and scouting meetings. Trying to determine what went wrong in 2014 and how they can fix it by 2015. 

























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Are Titans interested in Cutler? 

The Titans are reportedly interested in Bears QB Jay Cutler according to NFL.com, which reported the team is "doing its homework." Cutler, a hometown boy who attended Vanderbilt, sustained much of the blame for the Bears’ demise, but the Titans must not see LSU’s Zach Mettenberger as the answer.


49ers to parole Harbaugh? 

Jim Harbaugh will be shouting “don’t throw me in  the briar patch,” if it's true that the 49ers will fire their head coach immediately after next week’s final game. Michigan has reportedly made a six-year, $48 million offer to the former Wolverine QB, and Harbaugh’s old NFL team, the Chicago Bears, could be interested. 












Week 17 NFL Picks

Take Lions +7.5 at Packers
Take Bengals +3.5 at Steelers
Take Giants vs. Eagles +2.5
Take Cardinals +6 at 49ers
Take Raiders +14.5 at Broncos

Last week 3-2
Season Record 32-47-1