The Whims and Foibles of Sports...
I know it’s probably a dereliction of duty, especially when Who Dat Nation is buzzing over burning questions such as whether free agent Pierre Warren will beat out draft choice Vinnie Sunseri for that all-important No. 10 slot in the defensive secondary. Still, I took a week off from football and spent the weekend at the PGA Golf Tournament in Louisville, staying at my brother Jerry’s home, located barely two miles from the golf course.
Valhalla Country Club is like home to me, a former dairy farm where our father picked up milk through the 1970’s and where we witnessed the USA’s last Ryder Cup victory in 2008. I have enjoyed nearly forty years in and around sports, but the 2008 Ryder Cup stands alone as the single greatest sporting event I have ever attended. A dozen Super Bowls, a couple of World Series, an NBA Final and Kentucky’s 2012 Final Four victory in the Mercedes Benzon Superdome scramble for runner-up honors. But no matter what your favorite sport, there is something very special about attending a major golf championship in person.
By now you know that Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland withstood a weekend of rain, mudslides and threats by the young and old, in the persons of Ricky Fowler and Phil Mickelson, to win his fourth major and second in a row. While this PGA tournament was the most exciting in years, I still think a major lacks the team drama of a Ryder Cup. Every team or individual match elicits partisan shouts of “USA, USA, USA” from the Americans and animated Europeans singing the “Ole, Ole, Ole, Ole” cheer favored by soccer fans. At a major, the fans are courteous to all players, and good shots are applauded, no matter who makes them. Of course, the fans have their local and regional favorites, and Kentuckian Kenny Perry took that honor with standing ovations and celebratory shouts on his birthday Sunday.
When you attend a major golf tournament, you see a lot more color and spectacle than the network TV announcers can squeeze into their broadcasts. The first two days of the event, spectators move around the course, finding opportune nests to watch five or six groups containing their favorite players pass through. On Thursday and Friday, Jerry and I found great locations at the par-5 No. 7 hole that featured the split fairways, one longer but safer while the other dared the player to drop a shot of more than 200 yards over water and on or near the narrow green.
The rolling topography of Valhalla created several natural amphitheaters around holes where spectators sat on hillsides only twenty or thirty yards from the players. Such a perch was No. 6 where we saw Tiger Woods implode on Friday, missing a short putt then rimming his attempted tap-in for a double bogey. Our favorite location was the hillside overlooking the par-3 No. 14 hole, which also afforded views of the greens at No. 13 and No. 16. That was our favorite spot for the Ryder Cup, with its straight-on view of 217-yard tee shots cascading off a clifftop green that sat at least four stories above a rolling stream below.
That spot was ideal on Saturday when Friday’s rain had disappeared and we saw every player who made the cut take his swings. Seeing them up close affords the spectator instant impressions of the players, no matter which rung of the leader board they inhabit. Veteran Jerry Kelly of Milwaukee looked like a course marshal, with his goatee and easy demeanor. Portly Brandon de Jonge looked like he had spent more time at the concession stand than at the practice range, and Britain’s stately Colin Montgomerie strode to the green like an Oxford don preparing to give a lecture on the archers at Agincourt. When Freddie Jacobson of Sweden and Rafael Cabrera-Bello of Spain, a pair vastly out of contention, stepped onto the 13th green, a flock of buzzards mysteriously appeared and began circling, confirming their fate.
Most of the attention Sunday also was skyward, as the recurring rain made life more difficult for all at the grounds. Thursday’s showers had turned some walkways and open areas into slippery mud holes, but heavy rains on the final day nearly drowned the 40,000 spectators if not the tournament itself. Play actually was halted about 1 p.m. when a squall doused the first twelve of the 37 scheduled twosomes on the course and halted play for two hours while Jerry and I huddled under a large, yet increasingly porous, umbrella.
When play resumed around 3 p.m., the leaders soon asserted themselves with a series of birdies and eagles, while the lesser players plodded through the muck and circumstance just to finish. While some players tip-toed over puddles or muddy patches on their way to No. 14, J.B. Holmes, another Kentuckian, splashed through them like an icebreaker in the Arctic. Obviously, his Dry Joys were accustomed to mud holes, likely having navigated cow pies and deer scat in earlier days.
Many spectators had bailed out by that point, choosing to watch the game in front of a dry flat screen and a fridge full of beverages. I will admit that brother Jerry and I joined them, preferring to watch the final few holes from the comfort of his living room. It was dry, the play was competitive and the restroom and beverages were within easy reach.
It’s amazing how much you can learn about the local team by reading out of town sources. Did you know the Saints’ defense was cutting edge and on the verge of setting a new standard among NFL ball-hawkers and pigskin pilferers? Neither did I until I read a story in Friday’s Wall Street Journal titled “The Future of Defense in the NFL." With offensive output, as measured by total yards gained, increasing steadily the past three years, something had to be done to curb the trend of offensive domination. And that something is about to hatch in Who Dat Nation.
As the Journal declared: “Those inside the league say the New Orleans Saints are quietly crafting an unorthodox defense that could change the game and become the shape of defenses to come.” The local wipe, which comes to you in print form three days per week, too often sacrifices the quality of analysis for the quantity of minutiae that would fill the Slidell phone book. Readers are served glowing features on the stars and newcomers along with lite servings of such appetizers as the “pillow menu” that allows players to order late-night room service or the facilities at the Greenbrier Resort that provides such recreational diversions as skeet shooting. This is sweet and chatty, but football fans eventually want to read about football.
Speaking of which, the Journal anointed the resident defensive teddy bear, Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, as architect of the NFL’s defensive revolution. The key to this change sounds simple but is a dramatic shift from NFL practices and tradition. Basically, the Saints want to play the best eleven players they can find. Ryan was forced into this revelation after injuries depleted his corps of linebackers in 2013. That left him with two options: play bad linebackers or get creative with positions. Ryan went the latter route and stressed the safety position, playing as many as four safeties at once and playing three at a time in his default defensive package.
In the NFL, some teams play as few as one safety and almost no team ever employs more than two. Safeties are bigger than cornerbacks, who typically cover wide receivers, but faster than linebackers, who are built to stop a running back and take on offensive linemen. They can be 60 pounds lighter than some linebackers but 20 pounds heavier than some corners. They can cover the athletic tight ends now in the NFL and take on the league's rising group of tall receivers all while giving up only a little bit of speed from a cornerback. A bonus in Ryan's mad-scientist scheme is that he can position the safety anywhere from 20 yards away from the quarterback to right on the line of scrimmage, rushing the quarterback off the edge. The result? The Saints improved from last in the NFL in yards allowed in 2012 to fourth last season, Ryan's first with the team.
During the offseason, they bet plenty of money that the safety was a big reason, signing Jairus Byrd, one of the top free agents in the market, to a six-year, $56 million deal, despite having plenty of safety depth and less than plenty of salary-cap space. A month later, the team brought back safety Rafael Bush by unexpectedly matching an offer from the Falcons. A month after that, they took Alabama's starting safety, Vinnie Sunseri, in the draft. New Orleans spent last year's top pick on a safety, too—Kenny Vaccaro. Since camp opened at the Greenbrier Resort, free agent rookie Pierre Warren has inserted himself into the mix with some sterling play.
The endgame, said Ryan: "The three-safety package comes in a lot more than it's ever done in football. We have five really talented safeties on the roster and we plan on playing them all because they are really good players." The rise in offenses with just one back in the backfield, and no fullback, has made it easier for the Saints to experiment since they don't have to worry much about big beefy blockers colliding with the safeties, who are considered small when it comes to the run game. "Our three-safety deal is because the game is changing. You have to have more guys who can cover, run can do all these different things," Ryan said.
Thanks to the Journal for that insight, which is important to Saints fans no matter where it comes from. I just wish the Times Pickonyou would devote more space to the “why” rather than the “who, what, where and when” of the journalistic mantra. This is not a new phenomenon that we can blame on a reduced print publication schedule, and forgive me, but I still do not believe most fans get their news online! I will never forget a visit to New Orleans in the late 1980’s by the late, great sports columnist, Will McDonough of the Boston Globe. As we sat watching practice, he was thumbing through the local sports page when he told me: “If I tried to get some of this crap past my desk, they’d throw it back in my face.” Maybe so, but they’d love you in New Orleans!
Two stories in the newspaper this week guaranteed to me that NFL training camps are under way. The first, of course, is the only story that New Orleans football fanatics are talking about, that the Saints descended upon the Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia to begin another positively certain Super Bowl quest. The second story meant the same thing in my own peculiar linkage of thoughts when swarms of mayflies descended on the Midwest in their annual suicide mating rituals!
Now understand that your pedestrian NFL observer will not likely link a team’s Super Bowl chances with the mating rituals of a bug, but we’ll get to that in a minute. First, the fact that little local uproar greeted the news that the Saints were again taking training camp out of the state reflects the modern “can do no wrong” attitude of Who Dats toward their team. It wasn’t always that way, including the year we took the team out of stifling heat, humidity and afternoon thunderstorms to bucolic La Crosse, Wisconsin, in the late 1980s.
The politicos in Baton Rouge were incensed that owner Tom Benson was enjoying state benefits through improvements at the Superdome, and the local fandom was up in arms that nearby Hammond wasn’t good enough for the new regime headed by GM Jim Finks. Fans did not realize that no matter what the good folks of Hammond and Southeastern Louisiana University tried to do, their facility still sat in the middle of a boiling crawfish pot. Our first year, in 1986, head trainer Dean Kleinschmidt counted more than 130 liters of IV fluids that had to be hot-wired into the veins of withering players. Each IV meant the next practice day was lost.
The Saints tried Hammond again the following year, but July 1987 turned out to the one of those monsoon summers where the rains came early and often. To find a suitable – aka “dry” – indoor practice facility meant numerous hour-long bus rides to the LSU indoor facility or the Superdome, when it wasn’t hosting tractor pulls or Motocross events. Finks and Coach Jim Mora began looking for a better way.
When the move to La Crosse became a reality, the local wipe was so incensed that it even used a rare Midwest heat wave to show how ill-advised that decision was. We arrived in La Crosse to temperatures in the high 90’s that sometimes topped the 100 mark. Even without the humidity of the lower Mississippi River, the heat on the northern end of that ripple was uncomfortable. So during first week of camp, the Times-Pickonyou ran a page 1 weather boxscore that frequently read: “La Crosse 98, New Orleans 94.” But after we were settled and the heat dissipated, the mayflies came.
Any New Orleans resident who has endured the swarms of Formosan termites around the first of May can get only an inkling of what we experienced. Unlike the small flying termites, a normal mayfly is the size of a dragon fly, while the bull mayfly is as big as a pigeon. Well, not really, but it seemed that way when a swarm can blot out every street light in town. Unlike the Formosan termites, which orient themselves to the light of the moon, mayflies flock to NFL training camps near streetlights and lamps. The recent story said that last week, swirls of green, yellow and blue splashed across radar screens at the National Weather Service in La Crosse like a rainstorm on an otherwise clear night.
I remember rising early from my University of Wisconsin La Crosse dorm bed for a 6 a.m. run and crunching my way through the streets and swarms of dead mayflies stacked around light poles. Wow, I thought those mayfly mating rituals must be dandies to leave all this carnage behind! I half expected the dead mayfly carcasses to return to life and become a horror movie, but the annual siege is not so funny for those who still put up with it. News reports blamed at least one traffic accident on the infestation although there was no word on how many people were missing. Sorry, I couldn’t resist that one.
I’m not sure if West Virginia has anything to equal the mayfly. Mosquitoes don't have the cache or the sexual drive, from what I hear. But as long as training camp achieves its purpose, Who Dat Nation can be content with another Super Bowl and continue to endure its May Day ritual of hosting the Formosan termites.
Okay, this is the week to get ahead of the crowd. The Saints travel to the historic Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia on Wednesday to begin another training camp, so the word will soon be out. The windows are open in Las Vegas, and you can still get the Saints at attractive odds, so get in line or online. Airlines are booking flights to Phoenix for Super Bowl XLIX, on February 1, 2015. It is time to strike! Don’t be late! The Saints are going to win the Super Bowl!
Of course, a few other things have to happen before our local heroes make their second trip to NFL Heaven, but as training camps are opening around the NFL, those appear to be just formalities. We know the Seahawks must abdicate the throne they won a year ago, but don’t worry. That process is in the works. Teams that win the Super Bowl rarely go to two in a row, because they spend too much of the off-season enjoying the adulations, endorsements and attention that comes with the NFL championship. Seattle has had its well-deserved turn in the limelight, just last week having been named “Best Team” in all of sports at the annual ESPY awards. DB Richard Sherman also won an ESPY, for the sporting world’s “Best Breakthrough Athlete,” and he has been a hot item since February, his opinion sought on such myriad topics as world peace, immigration policies and fracking. Of the other candidates, Peyton Manning’s toughest opponent is Father Time as he dearly wants to return to the winner’s circle and others such as the 49ers, Patriots and Packers will be lurking.
But I like the Saints to spend late January in the desert, so let me count the reasons, in order of importance. Reason 1 – Drew Brees is still performing at a high level. He has weapons in his arsenal such as TE Jimmy Graham and WR Marques Colston and a complement of young receivers. I am still concerned about the offensive line’s ability to protect him over a long season, but the Saints’ brass seems to be comfortable with the protection squad, so I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt.
Reason 2 – The defense ranked in the top five last season and for the first time in three years has the same coordinator orchestrating it all. Rob Ryan did wonders with the defense last year, restoring the attacking model of Gregg Williams. This season should be even more compelling with a stronger secondary and hungry, maturing young linemen such as Pro Bowler Cameron Jordan, whose confidence has never been higher. He recently told NFL Total Access: “This is the year I get a Super Bowl.”
Reason 3 – The team has added playmakers to the lineup. Every NFL team can line up 45 good players and still go 0-16. The winning teams have playmakers, and the Saints added two big ones in Jairus Byrd and top draft pick Brandin Cooks to go along with Graham and Brees. Byrd is a ball-hawk who will do for the 2014 Saints what Darren Sharper did for the 2009 Super Bowl champions. Interceptions and disruption. Cooks is a faster Darren Sproles and that speed will make him more effective in the quick pass and run routes that Brees loves.
Reason 4 – Sean Payton wants desperately to win another Super Bowl while Brees is still operating at a high level. A good example is the drafting of Cooks at No. 1 when arguably a more pressing need was a linebacker or cornerback. Payton and Brees will long be considered one of the top coach/quarterback teams in the NFL. Several off-season polls named Payton among the top two or three coaches in the league because of his motivation. He gets more out of his players than most other coaches. Another Super Bowl victory will only enhance that reputation. And it could come this year, so don’t waste any more time. Strike now! The needle is pointing up!
You know, there are so many good stories in the sporting world that I really don’t like to write about the same old thing all the time. However, this is New Orleans and everywhere I go, Saints fans ask if Jimmy Graham is going to sign his contract or hold out. I hesitate for a moment, wishing I had enough C.O. Jones in me (consult your Spanish dictionary for that one!) to respond: “Haven’t you heard? He just announced he's retiring from the NFL to play small forward for the Pelicans!” Or join the USA Soccer team and help win the 2018 World Cup. Or become a croupier at Harrah’s casino. Or enlist for Navy SEALs training. Or any response other than “of course he’ll sign. Haven’t you been listening?”
For those of you whose interests do not include the vicissitudes of football contracts, Tuesday is the final day the Saints and Graham are allowed by the NFL to sign a multi-year contract before the start of the 2014 regular season. If they can't, Graham will be forced to either play under the one-year franchise tag for $7 million or sit out the season. Graham just lost a grievance because he wanted to be declared a wide receiver, which would have increased his franchise tag to $12 million from a paltry $7 million, which represents the average yearly salary of the top five paid players at their respective positions. Thank goodness, the arbitrator showed some clear thinking when he agreed with the NFL Management Council argument that the tight end position has evolved to the point where a team will line him up anywhere on the field in order to obtain a favorable matchup against the defense. Personally, I would line him up at the Budweiser stand because I don’t believe any of the normal overweight patrons standing in queue could cover him while carrying 20-oz. beers in each hand.
But the arbitration was last week’s news, because this week’s news will occur on Tuesday when Graham finally answers the question bedeviling Who Dat Nation: "Will he or won't he?" Of course, Graham’s final option is to hold out and not play at all, which is a decision that should immediately make him eligible for the flag football team at Eastern State Hospital where he can play wide receiver, quarterback or even coach the damned team if he chooses. His eligibility for the funny farm would be guaranteed if he chose that option, because the last day to sign a franchise tag tender is November 11, which means he could miss the first ten weeks of the season then sign the tender. If he chooses that option, he would earn 7/17 of the $7 million tag, which according to my IPhone calculator is about $2.88 million. Boy, that would teach management a lesson, huh?
I have predicted on three television programs in the past two weeks that Graham and his agent are smarter than that. I believe that before midnight Tuesday, he and his veteran bagman Jimmy Sexton will take an Airline Highway bus to the Saints office and ink a contract that will probably be in the range of $48 million over five years, with about $20 million of it guaranteed. Sexton has displayed sensibility with previous deals, which makes me think Graham will do the prudent thing and sign the new deal. Fortunately, he is not represented by a bomb-throwing agent who wants to keep his own name in the public eye and keep the pot boiling in a ridiculous effort to think that attracts future draft choices that he is recruiting.
A new deal also can give the Saints more flexibility with their Salary Cap. Graham currently counts the full $7 million to the cap, but a new contract would spread the guaranteed money over the term of the contract and produce a lower cap number in the first year or two. If Graham makes that decision, Who Dat Nation will stop agonizing and begin looking at airfares to Phoenix, the site of Super Bowl XLIX next February 1, and, most importantly, I will have written my last column about Jimmy Graham and his financial follies.