The Whims and Foibles of Sports...
That headline should not surprise anyone, whether you know and respect the Manning family, as I do, or believe this is the year of the Panther, which I also do. If the rumors of retirement are accurate, there could be no better thing in sports than Peyton Manning going out as a Super Bowl champion. Too much is made of NFL thuggery and concussions and performance-enhancing drugs, and too little is made of the true gentlemen of the game, like Archie, Peyton and Eli Manning.
Oh, our heroes can’t play forever, and fans over the years have rooted just as hard for the jerks so long as they wear their favorite team’s uniform. But when we have a player who epitomizes all the desirable qualities, good humor and noble deeds, you have to root for him in what is likely his last appearance in uniform. So, yes, I’ll be cheering hard for Peyton Manning and the Broncos to win the game, because it would put a righteous exclamation point on a career well played. But do I think it’s going to happen? Sadly, I believe the Carolina Panthers have consistently shown this season that they have that special quality that makes champions.
The game will boil down to which defense contains the other team’s quarterback. Cam Newton could not do what he does without an outstanding offensive line, which will pose a good test for the Denver defense. Led by LB Von Miller and rush end Demarcus Ware, the Broncos’ pass rush pummeled New England’s Tom Brady in the AFC championship game. I don’t think they will do the same thing to Newton for several reasons. Newton is the rare quarterback whose size, speed and smarts are sharpened by a willingness to go airborne to get the first down or into the end zone. His speed and ability to create plays does not allow the defenders to zero in and turn a pass rush into target practice like Denver did with the stationary Tom Brady. The Panthers have seen a lot of zone coverage, where defenders look back toward the line of scrimmage, because of Newton’s ability to take off and run. But receivers like TE Greg Olsen can find gaps in zones if they get enough time.
On the other side, the Carolina defense has its own set of problems, starting with the quarterback they will face. For all of Manning's success as one of the most prolific passers in NFL history, the Broncos made it to Super Bowl 50 by running a disciplined, controlled offense. They took minimal risks with the ball, allowing the defense and special teams to set up scoring opportunities through superb execution. Although the approach runs counter to the way the Broncos have played in previous seasons with Manning under center, the philosophical shift gave the team the best chance to win with an aging QB who has athletic/arm limitations.
To his credit, Manning bought into the change, exhibiting better ball security in the playoffs (one giveaway) after a poor regular season (17 giveaways in just 10 games). He has avoided forcing throws into tight windows, while routinely tossing the ball out of bounds instead of attempting a risky throw down the field.
In Super Bowl 50, Manning will see more zone coverage from the Panthers, which means he needs to do a great job of manipulating defenders with his eyes to keep aggressive playmakers like Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis and Josh Norman from jumping routes in their respective areas. Manning needs his "spot" to step into throws down the field, which means the pass rush to the inside of the offensive line is essential for Carolina to collapse the front of any potential pocket. The Panthers were effective with this approach against New England, utilizing the inside talents of defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short. The key is to maximize pressure, stunts, and games to the inside.
The Panthers will use various four-man front alignments, but invariably somebody on the inside is bound to be single blocked. Expect the Panthers to work their focus on creating confusion and/or penetration over the center and guards in hopes that they can induce a hurried throw. Carolina has a history of turning those balls into turnovers.
Super Bowl 50 will depend on whose defense can expose cracks in the opposing quarterback’s game. Denver’s defense that looked so dominant against New England will face a different type of guy on the other side on Sunday. But I believe the Carolina defense will be more effective, pouring cold water on the farewell of an NFL icon. Panthers 31, Denver 14.
In a sporting week where everything else is ignored in the lead-up to a Super Bowl, let’s talk about something else. Oh, I have my opinion on the big game, which is probably no different from most of you, but I’ll share that with you later in the week. For now. let’s talk SEC basketball. Hey, don’t turn the channel yet. I know the coveted word most commonly following “SEC” is “football,” but I hope you tuned in for some great basketball games Saturday that pitted ten SEC teams against ten from the Big 12.
The Big 12 is another conference whose fans prefer oblong to round, but this year it happens to be the best basketball conference in the nation. And on Saturday the SEC was a couple of foul shots from turning the events into a Mexican standoff. Or maybe it was closer to an Australian standoff for LSU and a Canadian standoff at Kentucky.
The big game of local interest was LSU hosting No. 1 Oklahoma. Tiger fans filled the P-Mac, thanks to students who were back in school, and for nearly 36 minutes it looked like their heroes were about to spring a major upset. LSU took an early lead and stretched it to 14 midway through the second half behind some dead-eye long-range shooting. But the Sooners chipped away when, trailing 65-60 with 4:41 remaining, star guard Buddy Hield did his best Steph Curry impersonation. Hield sank back-to-back three-pointers to give the Sooners their first lead since early in the first half. LSU came back and tied or traded the lead with Oklahoma eight times the rest of the way. Antonio Blakeney responded with a pair of clutch three-pointers on assists from Tim Quarterman, including one that tied the game at 75-75 with 25 seconds remaining before losing, 77-75.
The glaring omission in this report is the absence of all-everything Ben Simmons, who barely touched the ball down the stretch. It’s puzzling to me why the offense doesn’t run through the talented 6-11 Aussie, although Coach Johnny Jones said afterward it was Oklahoma’s defense that kept Simmons from the basket on Saturday. With their record now at 13-8, LSU needs to unleash Simmons or it may suffer the indignity of being the first team in memory to have the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft but not make the NCAA tournament.
Kentucky had other problems losing to No. 4 Kansas in overtime. The Cats lead with five minutes to go before Wayne Selden Jr. did to the Wildcats what Hield did to LSU. Selden scored a career-high 33 points, mostly on long threes, while Kansas held Kentucky’s leading scorer, Canadian freshman Jamal Murray, to 6-of-11 shooting and a modest 15 points.
Kentucky’s biggest problem turned out to be fouls, both for them and against them. Although UK had seven more field goals than Kansas, they also had 33 fouls called against them, which led to 47 Kansas free throws and a 17-point edge at the foul line. All four Kentucky “bigs” fouled out, three of them before the game went into overtime. After 6-8 Alex Poythress fouled out in the last minute of OT, Kentucky did not have a man on the floor taller than 6-4. When Kansas was on defense, they knew which Wildcat to send to the line. UK freshman Isaiah Briscoe chunked six free shots, many of them late when just one would have helped the Cats avoid overtime.
The Big 12 wound up winning seven of the ten games, but four of the wins were by their bottom-feeders throwing off our bottom-feeders. Three of their ranked teams won, while two of them lost when unranked Florida beat No. 9 West Virginia and No. 5 Texas A&M beat No. 14 Iowa State. The third SEC victory was Arkansas’ overtime win over Texas Tech. I hope the conferences continue this mid-season rivalry. It’s good for the sport, it’s good for fans and it gives the SEC the opportunity to throw off its much maligned reputation as a basketball softy, outside of Kentucky and an occasional partner.
Sporting fans, we are looking at the first Generation Gap Super Bowl in history. Fetty Wap vs. Bon Jovi. Uber versus Yellow Cab. Instagram versus e-mail. Straight Outta Compton vs Gone with the Wind. It became clear in the postgame celebrations after Sunday's conference finals when Cam Newton was dabbing with his posse on the sidelines while Peyton Manning was still being wheelchaired from interview to interview.
Never has a Super Bowl seen rival quarterbacks with such an age disparity. Manning at 39 is closer to AARP than the 26-yr-old Cam Newton has traveled from puberty. But both were magnificent in their own way as they led their teams into Super Bowl 50. The NFL lords had an inkling this one would be special when they strayed from their tradition of Roman Numerals and actually put a number on it so fans would not need to carry Latin-to-English dictionaries. Little did they realize the matchup they would have. The two quarterbacks’ very different ways of getting to the big game can be isolated in two plays that tell you all you need to know about each one.
In the third quarter, Manning faced a third and long when, his receivers covered by a sagging New England defense, he pulled the ball down and ran 12 yards before falling forward for a first down. Wordsmiths normally describe such a play as a “scamper” but Manning's run was more like your grandfather trying to walk down a hill and being overcome by gravity. It was Manning’s first positive playoff rush since 2006, and his longest playoff run since his first appearance in the playoffs. Even his teammates were giddy on the sidelines, but while painful in the execution it was beautiful in the result.
Newton, not to be upstaged, faced a similar third-and-long situation late in the third quarter when his game was all but decided. He could have handed off or thrown the ball into the end zone, but it was a QB run all the way. Newton took the shotgun snap and dared the Arizona defenders to tackle him as he leapt into the end zone, did a somersault and landed on his feet his arms folded, the crypto-Superman pose and celebration to come.
It's going to be a very different lead up to this Super Bowl 50, at the 49ers' new gym in Santa Clara on Feb. 7. The game hype will be Manning's farewell, and likely retirement if Denver wins, vs. Newton's introduction to Super Bowl royalty and the promise of more to come. Pay close attention to the advertising. Ads for Lyrica, Belsomra and Tecfidera will be competing with spots for Far Cry Primer, Lego Marvels Avengers and new products that Apple will invent in the next two weeks.
And the rooting interests also will be divided along generational lines. Every Baby Boomer outside the Carolinas will root for the old guy while every fan under the age of discretion will Dap for Cam. And when we finally get there, the winning team will be the one whose defense can figure out and stop either the old guy or the kid.
Archie Manning is a New Orleans legend because he was the Saints’ only hint of greatness during a decade of misery. He was voted the conference MVP, and was elected to the Pro Bowl, but he never enjoyed a winning season. His teams never made the playoffs, usually languishing at the bottom of their division and never struck fear in the hearts of opponents.
Is Anthony Davis about to become the next Archie? A great player on a bad team? It might be too early to suggest such heresy, but look at the facts we have so far. Archie was the second overall pick in the 1971 NFL Draft and in his second year he led the league in pass attempts and completions and led the NFC in passing yards, though the team's record was only 2–11–1. In 1978, he was named the NFC Player of the Year by UPI after leading the Saints to a 7–9 record. That same year, Archie was also named All-NFC by both the UPI and The Sporting News. He was selected to the Pro Bowl in 1978 and 1979.
But during Archie's tenure in New Orleans, the Saints had nine losing seasons. They only managed to get to .500 once, in 1979, which was also the only season they finished higher than third in their division. In the twilight of his career, he was traded to the Houston Oilers (1982–1983), and then finished his career in 1984 with the Minnesota Vikings. Archie’s 2,011 completions ranked 17th in NFL history when he retired, although his record as a starter was 35–101–3, the worst in NFL history among QBs with at least 100 starts.
Now let’s look at Anthony Davis. New Orleans selected AD as the first overall pick in the 2012 NBA draft, after winning a national championship at Kentucky. (Sorry about the shameless plug, but Wildcat fans this season have only our memories to cheer us up!) In only three-plus years in New Orleans, Davis has not compiled a significant body of work, but a definite pattern of excellence is forming.
In his rookie season, Davis was an NBA All-Rookie First Team selection and finished second in NBA Rookie of the Year voting. Davis’ 20 double-doubles was the most in his rookie class, yet the Hornets finished out of the playoffs with a 27-55 record. In his second year with the newly renamed Pelicans, Davis began the season with a pair of double-doubles, including 26 points and 17 rebounds against Orlando on November 1, becoming the youngest player in franchise history to record 25 points and 15 rebounds in a game. In the third game against Charlotte, Davis became the first NBA player with 6 blocks, 6 steals and 25 points in a game in the last 20 years. The Pels were 1-2. Later that season, Davis became the youngest NBA player ever to have at least 30 points, 10 rebounds and 5 blocks in a game, and he was selected to replace Kobe Bryant in the 2014 NBA All-Star Game. Still, the Pels finished with a 34-48 record.
Early in the 2014–15 NBA season, Davis scored a career-high 43 points along with 14 rebounds against the Utah Jazz. He entered the December 12, 2014 contest against the Cleveland Cavaliers with a player efficiency rating (PER) of 32.9, which was the highest in NBA history if maintained for the full season. In the final game of the regular season, a must-win game that would send the Pelicans to the 2015 NBA Playoffs, Davis recorded 31 points, 13 rebounds, and 3 blocks in a 108-103 victory over the defending-champion San Antonio Spurs.
Davis' season was one of the most impressive in NBA history, finishing with averages of 24.4 points, 10.2 rebounds, 2.9 blocks, and leading the league in player efficiency rating with 30.89. In the playoffs, the Pels lost four in a row to Golden State, although Davis averaged 31.5 points and 11.0 rebounds, and 3.0 blocks per game, joining Shaquille O'Neal, Hakeem Olajuwon, and Karl Malone as the only players in the past 20 seasons to average 30 points and 10 rebounds in the playoffs. Davis finished 4th in the NBA Defensive Player of the Year Award voting and 5th in the NBA Most Valuable Player Award voting.
The playoff appearance, followed by this year’s abysmal start, teased New Orleans fans much like the Saints and Archie did after their 8-8 record in 1983. The Saints took another backward step the next year, and the current Pelicans look even worse. So the question is valid. Will AD become another great player on a perennially bad team or will management give him the supporting cast to lift his team to the upper level? The clock is ticking.
It’s been a persistent problem the past few years that the Saints’ Salary Cap situation is among the worst in the NFL. We’ll show you just how bad in a moment, but since scrambling to get under the cap seems to be an annual rite of spring for our local heroes, fans tend to slough it off as just something else a team must do, like inflating the balls to the prescribed psi. But I’ve never seen a correlation between properly inflated footballs and losing games.
That is not the case with the Salary Cap. In fact, there is a direct correlation between a team’s Salary Cap situation and that team’s ability to field a playoff team, which doesn’t bode well for the Saints, whether Sean Payton is here or not. You want proof? How about the fact that nine of the ten teams that had less cap space to spend on active players this season did not make the playoffs. Looking at it another way, nine of the sixteen teams who had the most cap room made the playoffs. The more cap room available to spend on players, the greater flexibility a team has to add free agents or even extend contracts of players important to their success.
This will come as no surprise to anyone, but the Saints had the lowest cap money available to them of any club in the NFL this season. To get an idea of what that means, take a look at the other teams directly behind the Saints: the 49ers (5-11), the Bucs (6-10), the Titans (3-13), the Bears (6-10), and, well, you get the idea. The less available cap room, the worse a team is likely to fare.
The No. 1 reason teams can’t spend their available cap room is the amount of “dead money” they incur that eats up that room. Past renegotiations in which the Saints have extended contracts by turning salary into bonuses, pro-rated over future years, leaves “dead money” when that player is cut. The day of reckoning is delayed, but eventually at hand.
The Saints’ 2015 cap number, according to the website OvertheCap.com, was just under $145 million. However, they only spent $104.5 million on players, which means that nearly a quarter of their designated cap was unavailable because it was eaten up by past deals. The Saints’ “dead money” totaled over $34 million, which was at least $5.5 million more than any other team. And they are not out of the woods for 2016.
Junior Galette’s deal, renegotiated shortly before he was cut for conduct problems, took up $5.45 million of the 2015 cap, although that paled compared to the $9 million that died when the team traded Jimmie Graham. Galette may be gone, but he will not be forgotten when the Saints take a look at their 2016 cap. Galette’s pro-rated bonus takes up $12 million of the 2016 cap. And that’s even before the team has made their first decision on which vets they cut this year. They will save the player’s salary, but every one has money pushed forward. If the team cuts Marques Colston, Zack Strief and Jahri Evans, they will eat another $13 million in pro-rated signing bonuses. With Galette, that adds up to $25 million with more likely to follow, pushing them closer to their 2015 handicap.
Many cap watchers blame Drew Brees’ huge contract for the Saints’ problems, and that is now being recognized as a trap to avoid for other NFL teams. Last week, the Wall Street Journal ran a story about the dilemma teams face paying a top quarterback. The story’s sub-headline hit the nail on the head for the Saints by saying “a massive QB contract can cripple the rest of the team.” “There is no question that Brees’ big contract left the team hamstrung when it tried to fill spots around him,” said the Journal. “Thus, the cutting of still-productive players for Cap reasons has contributed to the deterioration of a Super Bowl winner.”
Other facts from the Journal story support the quarterback pay problem. New England’s Tom Brady will count $14 million to the Patriots’ 2016 cap, but 13 other quarterbacks this season take up even more space from their team’s salary cap. Nine of them failed to lead their teams to the playoffs this season, and, of the four who did reach the postseason, three barely snuck in as either a No. 5 or No. 6 seed. Then there’s Peyton Manning, who had been relegated to backup duty behind Brock Osweiler until he made a dramatic cameo off the bench last week. None of the top three highest paid quarterbacks - Brees, Atlanta’s Matt Ryan and San Diego’s Philip Rivers - are on playoff teams. In fact, none of them led their teams to winning records.
And that’s the dilemma the Saints face in the off-season. They will renegotiate with Brees to create more room this year and push more of his money into future years, creating more problems down the road. Renegotiating for cap space has become such an annual event for some teams that the NFL might as well add Salary Cap Relief Day to their calendar of critical NFL events such as Super Bowl, NFL Draft and Game Ball Inflation Day.