The Whims and Foibles of Sports...
Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not criticizing long winning streaks, like the Saints currently enjoy with seven in a row. In fact, they are quite preferable to long losing streaks of which they have enjoyed more than we need to recall. All I am saying is that upon reviewing the history of Saints winning streaks of seven or more, I’ve got to say that Tom Petty was right when he sang “Comin’ down is the hardest thing.”
I say that with some authority, having been involved in three of those long winning streaks, all of which ended abruptly and did not produce the result we all hoped for. Fortunately, my streaks all occurred in the previous century, so we will not discuss those of more recent vintage, such as the eight-game skeins of 2011 and 2017. The winning streaks that I remember came at a time when such things were new and strange and had never been experienced by Saints fans who were more accustomed to wearing Schwegmann’s bags over their heads rather than caps with a fleur-de-lis on the front. You might think this is ancient history, so consider it a public service for those Who Dats who do not remember life without GPS, shopping on your cellphone or American Idol.
Quick Quiz: In the first 20 years of the Saints’ existence, what was the longest winning streak during any one season? Six? Five? Keep going. Four! Sorry, Charlie, but between 1967 and 1986, the Saints never won more than three games in a row. If you find that hard to believe, consider that they had a handful of entire seasons in which they didn’t win three games.
Things changed in 1987 after a narrow loss to the 49ers prompted Coach Jim Mora to beat his team across the backside with his now famous “we ain’t good enough” ship’s rope. At 3-3, the Saints would rush out to the longest streak in team history when a 23-14 win at the New York Giants on November 22 was their fourth straight. So consider how fantastically impossible it seemed when they reeled off another five wins for nine wins in a row and a 12-3 final season record and their first playoff appearance in team history.
That game started out like just another victory with a 10-yard Bobby Hebert TD pass to Eric Martin on the first series and the Saints defense forcing a punt. But Saints punt returner Mel Gray fumbled the kick which led to a Minnesota field goal, and then it really got bad. Anthony Carter showed how punts should be returned, and 84 yards later, the Vikings would never look back. What a crusher! Nice winning streak but playoff disappointment.
The 1987 season triggered a turn toward respectability for the franchise and expectations of more winning streaks. It almost happened again the next season after a disappointing 34-33 opening loss to, who else?, the 49ers. The Saints won their next seven games and were eying the playoffs when the Rams limited the Saints’ running game to 33 yards and rode four Mike Lansford field goals to a 12-10 upset. The Saints struggled to a 3-5 record during the second half and missed the playoffs despite a 10-6 record. Nice winning streak but playoff denial.
Three years later, the Saints won their first seven games and looked as though 1991 might be their year. But the next week a stubborn Chicago Bears defense forced two fumbles and held the Saints’ running game to 51 yards in a 20-17 win at the Superdome. Despite winning their next two, the Saints struggled but held on for an 11-5 record and their first division championship in team history. Then in the playoffs, division runner-up Atlanta crushed Who Dat hopes with a 27-20 victory. Nice winning streak but playoff disappointment.
So my lesson today is this: The mother of all winning streaks - the 13-0 run to begin the 2009 season - should be the model. Do it like the 2009 team. Winning streaks are nice, but they don't count for much without wins in the playoffs!
I got a phone call last night about 30 seconds after the Boston Red Sox clinched the World Series title with a 5-1 win over the Dodgers. It was my son, Charles, who had watched the game and wanted to share my joy at the Sox’ championship. We talked, we laughed and we shared a tear (mine) over all the good times we have enjoyed and our memories with the Red Sox at the center. After we hung up, it reminded me of a similar phone call I had made to my father, Charles, seconds after Boston won the 2004 World Series.
That was memorable because it was the Series that ended the “Curse” of trading Babe Ruth to the Yankees after the 1918 Series. The Sox were no longer lovable losers, and we shared the moment. Dad was born four years after the trade of Ruth which meant he never had seen the Sox win a World Series. Oh, they had been there a few times; in 1946 when SS Johnny Pesky held the ball and allowed the Cardinals’ Enos Slaughter to score the winning run; in 1967 when the Impossible Dream of worst to first fell just short thanks to the Cardinals’ unhittable Bob Gibson; in 1975 against the Big Red Machine, and, the most painful of all, Bucker's boot in 1986 against the Mets.
Dad caught Red Sox fever at a young age because Louisville was the franchise’s Triple-A farm team between 1939-1955, during his formative years. He saw shortstop Pee Wee Reese star for the Colonels, and he was upset when Red Sox player-manager Joe Cronin, also a shortstop, traded Reese to Brooklyn. But the flame was lit, and Dad infected me in my formative years.
I followed the Red Sox religiously before they had a Nation, primarily through the Sporting News and daily newspaper. I remember us spinning the radio dial to find late-night broadcasts when the Sox were playing at Detroit, Chicago or Cleveland. It was a delight when they made it to the Saturday TV Game of the Week, but that meant they probably were playing the Yankees, who were owned then by CBS and had sports television to themselves. When the Red Sox of Ted Williams were hopelessly out of it, we watched the World Series from the outside, with our noses pressed to the glass.
But we compensated. Just before Dad’s 70th birthday, my brother Jerry and I decided if we could not take Dad to a Boston World Series, we would treat him to a weekend series at Fenway, which we did. He always told us that was the best trip he ever took. Mom was tolerant of our obsession, having been born in Detroit and remaining a raging Tigers’ fan.
I’ve instilled the same passion in Charles the younger. When he was 15, we flew to Boston for a weekend of games, along with some sightseeing and general bonding. Since then, we trade Sox news, and he understands why I can’t get through the lyrics to “Tessie,” the Red Sox’ long-time anthem, without tears. We even watched together the movie “Fever Pitch,” the Jimmy Fallon/Drew Barrymore love story wrapped around the Red Sox’ World Series victory of 2004. When they showed the comebacker to pitcher Keith Foulke for the final out that forever ended the Curse of the Bambino, I cried like a baby.
It was only a movie, but it reminded me that of that night on October 27, 2004 when I grabbed the phone to share that moment with my father. Dad died in June, 2006, so he never got to see the Red Sox' subsequent World Series' championships or their emergence as a regular contender. He never said it that night, but I felt that after finally seeing the Sox win the World Series he was at peace.
Seconds after my son called last night, I received a text from my old friend and SAE fraternity brother Paul Jensen who had spent many years with the almost-as-long-suffering White Sox. “When the White Sox won in 2005,” Paul texted, “my brother placed a pennant on dad’s headstone. Baseball does that. The game is a family heirloom with loyalties handed down through the generations.” Paul gets it.
I also know that somewhere Dad is smiling. The Red Sox are champions.
Sporting thoughts while wondering why Las Vegas considers No. 12 Kentucky a 7-point underdog at 4-3 Missouri on Saturday …
Kenny Rogers sang that a successful gambler knows “when to hold’em and when to fold’em.” Rogers probably never met Saints Coach Sean Payton, whose play-calling defies the logic promoted in Rogers’ song. Instead, when Payton’s opponent seems to have a stacked hand, Payton pushes all his chips to the middle of the table.
If you want proof, just take a look at some of his calls in Sunday’s 24-23 victory over the Baltimore Ravens. In the first drive, Payton ordered a fake punt from his own 34-yard line, and it worked. In the same drive, Payton ordered his team to go for it on fourth down two more times, and they both worked. “Those fourth and a half yarders are tough for me to concede,” Payton said after the game.
When you have a mindset to push convention, it’s good to have two Aces up your sleeve: Reliability and upredictability. Payton has both in QB Drew Brees and QB/slash/SAK (Swiss Army Knife) Taysom Hill. Behind 17-7 going into the fourth quarter, Brees piloted three scoring drives that led to a rushing touchdown by Alvin Kamara, a field goal and touchdown passes to TE Ben Watson and WR Michael Thomas, his 500th and 501st by the way. Along the way, he also sneaked (snuck?) three third or fourth and short plays to achieve first downs.
Hill also had his moments, beginning with the fake punt in the first quarter that kept the Saints’ opening drive alive. He took snaps at the wildcat position, running for a first down or handing off to Kamara. That’s in addition to his other duties as kickoff return man and gunner on the kickoff teams. The only mistake Hill made came in that opening drive when he took the snap on a run pass option and tossed the ball behind Kamara resulting in a lost fumble. Other than that, no complaints.
So if you’ve got one of the best quarterbacks of all time in the game and a jack-of-all-positions to inject a little insanity now and again, I guess it’s not really gambling. It also doesn't hurt to have the guts of a burglar and the luck that makes the kickers of two opponents miss two-foot putts that give you two wins.
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The World Series opens in Boston Tuesday night, and if the Red Sox beat the L.A. Dodgers, they will solidify their claim as the team of the (21st) century. The Sox won the World Series in 2004, 2007 and 2013, rivaled by only San Francisco, which also won three, in 2010, 2012 and 2014. You might not know that Boston held even a loftier position at this point in the last century, having won five fall classics, in 1903, 1912, 1915, 1916 and 1918.
But then owner Harry Frazee traded the star of the 1918 team, P/OF Babe Ruth, to the Yankees, casting his team into baseball purgatory almost forever. The Sox do not have a dominating Ruthian star on the current team, but they did win more games than any other team in baseball this year with timely hitting and solid pitching.
But just in case, the message of a lifelong Red Sox fan to team ownership is this: If they beat the Dodgers, please don’t screw up the rest of the century by making any stupid trades!
When you hear players and coaches say it takes individuals to make a team, you probably think they are talking about the various personalities who man critical playing positions. But those who are fortunate enough to be around a professional sports franchise know that many anonymous individuals help make up the team. Like Glennon “Silky” Powell, the Saints long-time assistant equipment manager who died last week a few days before his 72nd birthday.
A fixture in the Saints' locker room for 38 years, until his retirement in 2012, Powell was as much a part of the Saints’ franchise as the fleur-de-lis on the helmets. To describe the role of an equipment manager in pro sports is not easy. Let’s just say it’s like a coal shoveler in the engine room of a luxurious ocean-going vessel. It sounds glamorous until squalls hit and the temperature rises. And the temperature in a football locker room rises and falls depending on the previous week’s game, mood swings of players and coaches and seemingly innocuous tasks as players’ ticket orders.
But with each wave of new players, always younger than those before, equipment managers and team trainers assume a mantle of respect. They are the adults in the room, playing different roles ranging from disciplinarian to father confessor and even friend. Friends of Silky Powell are grieving this week, but each one is handling it with stories and memories that reflected the joy that the ever-smiling Silky brought to the locker room. Archie Manning told me of a time when he was rehabbing from bicep surgery and Silky was drafted by trainer Dean Kleinschmidt to play catch with the quarterback. “I started with five-yard throws to Silk and he would throw it back,” Manning said. “By the time I had built up to 20 yards, Silk developed bicep tendinitis in his arm.”
Sometimes, tasks that appeared to be simple required prior knowledge and experience. Powell and Simmons were responsible for collecting ticket orders from players the week of a home game. When a prominent player’s order was turned in as “2-2-2-2,” they knew the order was for four pairs, strategically placed in different sections of the Superdome. But when a part-timer was assigned to take the order before one game, he read “2-2-2-2” as eight tickets together in the same row and submitted it to the ticket office. Minutes before the game, the angry player confronted the equipment guys, claiming his order had been screwed up, and his life was in danger. Silky and Dan would have known that the player’s “2-2-2-2” order was for two tickets each for four girl friends, each to sit in different sections.
Powell was a son of the Irish Channel, and an athlete himself in his younger days at Redemptorist High School. One childhood friend told me about Silky’s skill as a baseball player, saying “you may not believe it, but I’ve never seen such a beautiful hook slide into second base as Silky’s.” Silky also was known to hold his own in pickup basketball games around the old practice facility off David Drive. If Silky had an enemy, it was his weight that seemed to rise and recede like a storm tide. Once, when Silky’s girth approached alarming proportions, President and General Manager Jim Finks offered him $1,000 if he would lose 100 pounds. Silky made an effort, but after a while he thanked Finks and told him he’d rather continue living large.
Glennon Powell was given the nickname “Silky” by family members who likened him to a prominent racehorse named Silky Sullivan. The thoroughbred’s reputation was as one that started slowly but finished near or at the front of most of his races, just like Silky’s place in the hearts of those who knew him.
A memorial service will be held on Saturday, October 20, at the L.A. Muhleisen Funeral Home, 2607 Williams Boulevard, in Kenner.
On Monday night, if the football gods are cooperative, Saints’ QB Drew Brees will pass Peyton Manning and become the all-time passing yards leader in NFL history. The Monday Night Football crew, as well as the Pro Football Hall of Fame, are primed and ready with all the in-game stoppages, mini-tributes and historical balloons they can drop on America to celebrate a major milestone in league history. But it's likely that none of those balloons will tell the story of the man who drafted Brees out of Purdue and gave him the platform to complete his first passing yards on his way to the NFL record.
John Butler, general manager of the San Diego Chargers in 2001, carefully constructed the scenario that brought Brees into the NFL. I write with some knowledge of this because I worked with Butler for two years in Buffalo after I left the Saints in 1996, and we talked about how Brees became a Charger. Butler was a larger than life guy, a burly, tough brawler from the streets of Chicago who loved football but did not take academics seriously in high school. College was out of the question, so in 1964 Butler began a four-year hitch with the Marines and was soon shipped to Vietnam. He grew up over there, surviving combat while learning discipline and determining that the direction for the rest of his life was football.
By 2001, we had both left Buffalo, having tired of our shared task of trying to manage erratic owner Ralph Wilson. By then, I was contracts negotiator in Chicago and Butler was in his first year as GM of the Chargers. When we spoke after the 2001 NFL Draft, Butler was giddy over his first draft in San Diego in which his first two picks would become Hall of Famers. The Chargers had the No. 1 overall pick that year and needed a quarterback after the previous administration had jettisoned the ill-fated Ryan Leaf the previous year.
The 2001 draft was heavy with higher-rated wide receivers and defensive players, and, outside of Michael Vick, the best quarterback options were Quincy Carter of Georgia, Marques Tuiasosopo of Washington and Brees of Purdue. Instead of using the No. 1 overall pick, Butler decided to parlay its value to fill more than one major hole. He knew Atlanta also was in the market for a quarterback and coveted Vick, so Butler swapped his No. 1 pick for Atlanta’s No. 5 pick plus a third-rounder in 2001 and a second-rounder in 2002. When the draft got to the No. 5 slot, Butler wisely chose RB LaDanian Tomlinson of TCU, the top running back in the draft. Then the games began.
Butler was impressed with Brees from his interviews and the fact that he had played four years in college and displayed uncanny maturity and decision-making ability. But would he get the opportunity to draft him? Butler was afraid that Brees would not get past Miami at No. 26 or Oakland at No. 28, and he tried to use his multiple picks to trade back into the first round. Those attempts failed, but when both teams drafted defensive backs, Butler was home free. With San Diego’s own No. 1 pick in the second round, he chose Brees. “I really didn’t think he was going to be there,” Butler said. “I knew he had first-round talent.”
That first season, Brees only played in one game, backing up QB Doug Flutie in a 5-11 season. The script flipped in 2002, as Brees became the starter and led the Chargers to a respectable 8-8 record. But during that season John Butler got sick. Always a heavy smoker, Butler developed lymphoma and died in April, 2003, at age 56, never seeing the fruits of his greatest draft. Brees struggled the following season, starting 11 games, but he was benched for five games behind Flutie. New GM A.J. Smith, Butler’s assistant with the Bills and Chargers, was not sold on Brees. During the 2004 draft, Smith made the memorable draft day swap of Eli Manning for Philip Rivers.
But an interesting thing happened that season. The Chargers went 12-4 and made the playoffs. Tomlinson rushed for 1,335 yards and 17 touchdowns and Brees threw 27 touchdown passes against seven interceptions and made his first Pro Bowl. Butler’s plan was vindicated. Brees would play for the Chargers one more season, before Rivers became the starter and Brees’ story would find a happy ending in New Orleans.