The Whims and Foibles of Sports...
I hope you enjoyed your summer, because this is the week it ends. I know it’s a bit hard to realize as you soak in a cauldron of humid 90-degree days, but summer as you have known it and enjoyed it is over! Since this space is meant to inform as much as entertain, let us remind you that Labor Day on September 7 is the symbolic end to summer, although the scientific end does not come until the autumnal equinox when the sun crosses the plane of the earth’s equator around September 22. Of course, we are not talking about the symbolic, scientific or celestial versions of summer’s end but the sporting fan’s version.
For those who consult this space for enlightenment, summer ends when the Saints play their first pre-season game and college football practice begins. Who Dat fans would never confuse the equinox with the solstice (which is either of the two times a year when the sun is at its greatest distance from the celestial equator, around June 21, the longest day of the year, and December 22, the shortest day). But they do know that summer ends when the Saints travel to Baltimore Thursday night to kick off the 2015 NFL season.
True Dats are already packing up their barbecue grills, draining the pool and are laying in stores of Abita Amber, mixed nuts, chips and ranch dip they will need over the next five - and hopefully six – months of weekly masochism while watching their heroes. After two weeks of training camp, hope usually springs eternal, and this year is no different. Who Dat Nation is already predicting a rousing revival from last season’s 7-9 lethargy. However, success this year depends on a bunch of IF-bombs that include the following: IF Rob Ryan’s defense can protect a lead this year, IF Jairus Byrd can stay healthy, IF Stephone Anthony will remind anybody of Sam Mills, IF center Max Unger can anchor an offensive line that will protect Drew Brees for a change, IF Brees can keep defying the realities of age, IF Brandin Cooks can blossom into a No. 1 receiver, IF C.J. Spiller can do a reasonable impersonation of Darren Sproles, (add your own IF here).
For those fans more inclined toward the college game, LSU is again teasing Tiger Nation into thinking they can contend for the SEC title. I’m sorry, but until Les Miles signs a real quarterback instead of tossing the job up between two guys whose only NFL chances will be at other positions, LSU will continue to waste talent at other slots that is among the best in the conference. I’m anxious to see Leonard Fournette this season, but SEC defenses are sophisticated enough to contain one-dimensional offenses. LSU will win their nine games, but that might not be enough to save Miles’ job one more year.
Expectations are much more realistic in Lexington, where Mark Stoops begins his third year at the Wildcat helm. He has recruited better than any other coach in UK history, which is not yet a ringing endorsement until the team begins winning seven or more games. But I was encouraged by a story last week in the Lexington Herald that said when Stoops and his staff arrived, UK had only five players who could surpass whatever speed scale the new staff was using to measure SEC capability. Today, Stoops has 35 players who surpass that scale. UK will go 7-5 and beat Florida this year, which will make Big Blue Nation content until basketball season starts.
Other events outside the sporting realm also occurred this week that heralded the end of summer. For those of us still paying for the education of entitled offspring, school is starting. Our daughter Layne spent last week in orientation at the LSU School of Nursing, and classes begin Tuesday. Next Tuesday, the newly minted Jesuit grad, Charles Connor, heads off to Oxford, Mississippi, where he will begin making a case for his own future and, hopefully, at least four years in one place. Hotty Toddy!
Of course, just because football is beginning and kids are off to college does not mean the grass stops growing, the temperatures moderate or the pool temperature goes from 92 to 40 overnight. You still have time to take care of all those summery tasks as well as take that last-minute trip to the Florida beaches, which is exactly what the Lovely Miss Jean and I, as greatly anticipating empty nesters, are planning for mid-September.
To my thinking, there is one player in Saints camp who is in the best position to make a major difference in the team’s fortunes this season. The player is rookie first round pick Stephone Anthony of Clemson. Don’t misunderstand what I am saying. I didn’t say the position was the most important on the team. That obviously is the quarterback position, which was adequately filled last season and, presumably, will again this year by perennial Pro Bowler Drew Brees. I am saying that the inside linebacker position is the position that has the biggest need for an upgrade, and Anthony just might be the man to do it.
God knows, the team needs a run stopper who also has the speed to stick with a running back or tight end in a pass route. Based on his first few days of camp, Anthony at least looks the part, and to defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, he sounds the part. "The thing you gotta love about him is you heard him out there. He hits," Ryan said of the first-round draft pick, who has lined up with the starting defense for the first practices of camp. "He hits people, he knocks people backwards," Ryan told ESPN.com. "And we are in that business when he's playing middle linebacker."
Anthony has been with the starters while veteran Dannell Ellerbe is nursing an injury, and he's been taking full advantage. The 6-foot-3, 245-pounder from Clemson particularly stood out during a 9-on-7 run drill, repeatedly popping running backs near the line of scrimmage. "I think he's done a phenomenal job catching on," Ryan said. "He's being coached by Joe [Vitt], so you know he's being coached hard and coached well. And it shows. This guy's not flinching out there. He's in front of the huddle, he's not flinching, he's not taking a step back."
Technically, Anthony is competing for the starting Mike job with veteran David Hawthorne, but Hawthorne spent the past three years as the Saints' starting Will linebacker and slid back over when Ellerbe went out with an undisclosed injury. Anthony could earn a starting job by beating out either one of those guys. If Ryan and his new aide-de-camp Dennis Allen are going to bring the defense up to a competitive level, I believe a strong inside linebacking presence is essential. Think back to the great defenses, and most were anchored by outstanding middle linebackers. Lambert, Steelers. Lewis, Ravens. Butkus and Singletary, Bears. Nitschke, Packers.
Anthony has to take the position before he looks that far ahead, but if he is a starter going into the season, it would at least give the Saints the potential for a long-time inside presence they have not had in twenty years. That is not to discredit Jonathan Vilma, who manned the position during the Super Bowl campaign and was elected to Pro Bowls after the 2009 and 2010 seasons. But Vilma came in the rent-a-player Salary Cap era when a team could go out and buy what they don’t have. When you are talking about inside linebackers with a long-time presence, you have to go back to the years between 1986 and 1994 when Sam Mills was elected to five Pro Bowls and Vaughan Johnson who was elected to four. Mark Fields, who manned the position here between 1995 and 2000, was elected to one Pro Bowl but in 2004 as a member of the Carolina Panthers. Can Anthony take his place among guys like that? To repeat, he has a long way to go, but he is in a perfect position to do it.
Here’s a trivia question for you: Name the three inside/middle linebackers elected to the Saints’ Hall of Fame. We gave you Mills and Johnson, but if you guessed Joe Federspiel of Kentucky, you win a Stephone Anthony jersey.
You can look at the Saints’ excommunication of Junior Galette from different points of view and all come to the same conclusion. Good riddance! Opinions are like a left elbow - everybody has one – but how each of the affected constituencies greeted the team’s sudden termination of the team's sacks leader tells a lot about Galette’s impact on last year’s 7-9 record and this year’s prospects as well. The pertinent points of view in the Galette case boil down to these three: The fans, the locker room and the organization.
Who Dat Nation’s viewpoint is usually emotional, rarely logical and always subject to further review. I can see the little old lady in Luling fussing and cussing after she first learned that the team cut bait on one of its better on-field performers. Neither she, nor her more rabid brethren and sisteren, can understand why a team pays a player a king’s ransom then less than a year later cuts him? Salary cap, salary schmapp! Which fans really care about the money? All they care about is that another good player is let go at a time when the team needs every able man on board.
But even the more rabid in Who Dat Nation have friends who explained that Galette is facing at least a six-game suspension for allegations of domestic abuse and a troublesome video of him playing beach-blanket bingo on a woman’s head, which could increase the penalty. He would not have been on the field for half the season, which doubtless would affect his productivity during the other half. By all accounts, Galette is a bad guy whose most significant impact would be to poison the Gatorade this year as he allegedly did last season. Now that you know all that, my dear, how do you feel? That’s what I thought. And the fans shout: Good Riddance!
Speaking of the locker room, look at Galette’s termination from the viewpoint of his current and former teammates. Apparently, neither group shed enough tears to douse a firefly’s flame. Some have suggested publicly that Galette’s big contract last year prompted him to abandon all similarity to the small-college free agent who fought the odds to make an NFL roster and appeared damned appreciative of the opportunity. As one former teammate said, once Galette got the money, the “real” Junior Galette surfaced. That was the same Galette who was run out of Temple University for his behavior, kept his mouth shut long enough at Division II Stillman College to get noticed and then revived his bad self after he cashed the check.
Some players questioned the fact that other teammates voted Galette a team captain last year and then watched as he refused to take on the leadership role that guys like Malcolm Jenkins and Jonathan Vilma took seriously. Instead, Galette believed his status as captain came with a sedan chair, servants and a harem. But now he’s gone and, presumably, those voting for the next captain have learned their lessons. And the players shout: Good riddance!
Management’s point of view, of which I am familiar and generally sympathetic, must first lament the lost dollars that, according to reports, will take up about $5.45 million of the 2015 Salary Cap and another $12 million of the 2016 cap. Galette's release will have little practical impact on the 2015 salary cap. In other words, the $5.45 million that Galette would have counted against the cap (a $1.25 million guaranteed base salary plus $4.2 million in various bonuses) already counts and will simply shift to the "dead money" category. The only dent will be in counting the player who replaces him on the active roster. But the Saints swim in the dead money pool. The team accepted "dead money" cap hits to trade or release several veteran players during the offseason, including $9 million for tight end Jimmy Graham and $6 million for offensive lineman Ben Grubbs. That amounts to about $27 million in “dead money,” or money that has been spent based on prior decisions.
But management also must put a price on the intangibles. Character and chemistry help define such things as organizational reputation and franchise culture, which have an affect on public opinion. And that translates into ticket sales, marketing bucks and respect in the community. For those reasons, cutting Galette was cheap at twice the price. And the front office shouts: Good riddance!
Looks like we have a unanimous vote. The message should be clear to Galette: Don’t let the door hit you in the ass on your way out of the NFL.
Alvin Gentry is either the smartest guy in the room or the most malleable. Either he likes the personnel that GM Dell Demps has assembled with the Pelicans, or he merely clicked his heels and snapped to attention when Demps decided to bring back last year’s roster virtually intact. It sounds suspiciously like the latter because if efforts to re-sign free agent guard Norris Cole are successful, the Pels will have their top ten scorers and top nine rebounders from last season under contract for the 2015-16 season. So why should fans expect improvement from a 45-37 record and a cameo appearance in the playoffs?
You have to give Demps and Gentry some cred for their most important off-season move, locking up the best young player in the league for the next six seasons. Persuading Anthony Davis to take the most lucrative contract in NBA history probably did not take much doing, but the fact that Davis readily re-upped with a team that barely made the playoffs last year speaks more to Davis’ belief in his teammates than it does Demps’ skill as a negotiator.
Jim Eichenhofer, who writes for NBA.com, applauded Demps this week with statistics that show the value of roster continuity. Eichenhofer wrote that the Pelicans will have the most roster continuity this season than any team in the entire NBA, a league that has seen major changes in July. We’ll give you the stats in a minute, but the Pels’ rivals in the Southwest Division have made some seismic changes of their own, for better or worse. Dallas lost starters Monta Ellis and Tyson Chandler and were rejected by DeAndre Jordan. Memphis lost Kosta Koufous in free agency but picked up Matt Barnes and Brandan Wright. San Antonio made immense changes by landing LaMarcus Aldridge and David West, while letting go key role players Tiago Splitter, Marco Belinelli and Cory Joseph.
Eichenhofer pointed to Basketball Reference’s “roster continuity” metric – a statistic that measures year-to-year changes on NBA rosters – to show that New Orleans has relied on new faces more often than many teams, and it hasn’t helped. For instance, during the first three seasons of Dell Demps’ tenure as general manager, less than half of the team’s minutes were logged by players who were on the previous year’s roster (45 percent in 2010-11; 48 percent in 2011-12; 41 percent in 2012-13), and all three were losing seasons. Perhaps not coincidentally, the Pels enjoyed 66 percent roster continuity in 2014-15, its highest rate since 2008-09, en route to the postseason.
It is interesting to note that the Hornets/Pelicans’ best roster continuity rate since coming to New Orleans was 78 percent in 2007-08 which led to the finest season in franchise history. The team finished 56-26 in the regular season, captured the club’s lone division title and reaching Game 7 of the Western Conference semifinals.
Further evidence that roster continuity is a desired goal can be found last season, when the three rosters with the most continuity all won 50-plus games, including San Antonio (98 percent continuity, 55-27 record), Atlanta (88 percent, Eastern Conference-best 60-22) and Memphis (85 percent, 55-27). NBA champion Golden State (67-15) used 80 percent of its on-court minutes on players who were also part of the 2013-14 Warriors.
Skeptics will respond to roster continuity: “What good are Monty Williams’ players if they don’t fit Gentry’s run-and-shoot offense?” Will a new coach and new scheme make that much difference with the same players? Golden State's first-year coach Steve Kerr inherited good personnel and made them better, an example that Gentry saw all season as Kerr's top assistant. Kerr might even be an example of Bum Phillips’ wisdom. When asked how to assess Don Shula’s genius, Bum responded: “He can take his'n and beat your'n and take your'n and beat his'n."
Can Alvin Gentry take Williams’ 2014-15 roster and beat the teams ahead of the Pelicans in the vicious West? Maybe. There is no denying that the Pels were hit as hard by injuries as any team in the league last year. Six players who started the most games or played the most minutes last season lost a total of 107 games to injuries. Surely, it can’t be as bad this year, but who knows? As they say in New Orleans, a healthy team is lagniappe, or a little something extra, IF roster continuity is as important as it sounds and IF a new coaching scheme can make a difference.
It’s a shame that most New Orleanians missed the USA Women’s World Cup thrashing of Japan Sunday night. How do I know they missed it, you say? Well, it’s less looking at the morning Nielsens than just simply knowing the proclivities of New Orleans’ people. If they are consistent in anything, it’s that 83 percent of New Orleans natives (and that might be a low-side guess!), adhere to the bromide that “you can never arrive fashionably early.”
In other words, there is “time” and there is “New Orleans time.” To make it simple for the outliers among us, just say that you send out an invitation to your party with a starting time of 6 p.m. New Orleanians will lose face by arriving any earlier than 7. In other words, in New Orleans, you can be a half-hour late and still be 30 minutes early! Which is why I know most of them missed the United States’ World Cup thrashing of Japan, because for all intents and purposes, the thing was over in the first 15 minutes of play.
The goals came fast and furious, like nothing that had ever happened before in a match between two of the best teams in the world, much less a World Cup final. It started innocently enough with midfielder Morgan Brian winning a corner kick on the right side two minutes into the game. Most New Orleans viewers were still at 5:30 Mass. Moments later, Megan Rapinoe sent her kick screeching across the turf toward Cup MVP Carli Lloyd, who streaked in unmarked from the top of the penalty area for a left-toe deflection past a hopeless Ayumi Kaihori in Japan’s goal. New Orleans viewers are home now, and checking the TV listings to find the right channel.
Three minutes later, a still-unmarked Lloyd would do it again, off another set piece deep on the right side, deflecting a ricochet off Tobin Heath into the net from three yards. Time to pour the first cocktail of the evening and get ready for some world class World Cup viewing. In the 14th minute, Lauren Holiday would have a turn, volleying a misguided header by defender Azusa Iwashimizu past Kaihoro for the third score. Got to throw the burgers on the grill first, so we can comfortably sit down and enjoy dinner in front of the telly.
Two minutes after that, Lloyd added a goal that will be replayed for years, winning the ball at midfield and picking her head up to see Kaihori 15 yards off her line. Lloyd took a touch and sent a rocket from the midfield stripe toward the goal. Kaihori lunged desperately at the last minute and got a finger on the ball, but sank to the turf as the ball deflected off the post for Lloyd’s third of the game and stunning 4-0 lead. Okay, time for the World Cup, which we have come to expect will be tied at 0-0 well into the second half, and Wowser! "Hey, Agnes, it's already over. Are Swamp People re-runs on tonight?"
For the USA to run off and hide in a World Cup is like a team hitting three grand slams in the first inning of Game 7 of the World Series, or the first half of the Seattle-Denver Super Bowl or even the December, 2014, Kentucky first halfs against Kansas or UCLA. It’s over before it starts.
Although we live in a country mad about football, college basketball or baseball, keep in mind that 500 million Chinese don’t care who wins the Super Bowl, Final Four or World Series. But they do know that their team lost 1-0 a couple weeks ago to the team that is today a true world champion. Hats off to the U.S. Women’s Soccer team! And four years from now, be on time!