The Whims and Foibles of Sports...
I saw an ad last night for the resumption of HBO’s series “Game of Thrones,” and I thought of the Saints. The tagline of the series is “winter is coming,” and the temperature dropped considerably for the local heroes on Wednesday. In what was prompted by a No. 2 NFL ranking among teams over the Salary Cap, the Saints bid farewell to such past stalwarts as Will Smith, Roman Harper and Jabari Greer and announced they would not attempt to re-sign former defensive captain Jonathan Vilma.
The moves freed up around $17 million in cap space for 2014, putting the team about $3.7 million under the maximum, according to Spotrac.com’s Cap Tracker. The urgency of making the cuts now was prompted by the February 17 deadline to give Jimmy Graham a qualifying tender. The Saints and Graham’s agent are debating whether the All-Pro should be qualified as a tight end at about $6.5 million or a wide receiver at around $11.5 million. The argument is spurious since Graham was drafted as a tight end, lines up primarily as a tight end and has been elected to two Pro Bowls as a tight end. Graham’s argument is supported by his superior athletic ability, which allows him to split wide, execute deep routes and outrun defensive backs, super skills that more resemble wideout receivers.
But the bigger issue is that the Saints' action carries the Double Whammy of losing good players while restricting the ability to get better. Welcome to Salary Cap Winter! The cutting of the three players is the first fallout from all those previous years' renegotiations to create room. Renegotiating contracts works so long as the player whose contract is renegotiated is still a member of the team. He keeps playing while his renegotiated amount keeps moving forward until he is cut. When the player is cut, he is gone but not forgotten by the Salary Cap.
The money charged to Smith, Harper and Greer from past renegotiations counts $8.7 million against this year’s cap. Add to that other former players, such the $1 million left over from Garrett Hartley’s amortized signing bonuses, and you wind up with $10,450,000 of “dead money” counting against the Saints’ 2014 Cap. That money is not available for the team to improve. Put in laymen’s terms, you go to your boss and get an advance on your salary to pay bills. Using future money to pay for current bills helps you now, but what about the future when you have the same bills but you’ve already spent the money? Unfortunately, Wednesday’s cuts may only be the tip of the Capberg. The team still has more than $97 million that must be accounted for, some now, some in future years.
Nobody is wishing ill on our local heroes, but history points up two good examples of Salary Cap Fallout. The Dallas Cowboys won three Super Bowls between 1991 and 1996, but from 1997 to 2004, they had two winning seasons. In the first four of those, Troy Aikman was still at QB and Emmitt Smith at RB, but their salaries and past renegotiations would not allow the team to get better around them.
Likewise, the San Francisco 49ers’ long run of dominance was highlighted by renegotiations and Cap gymnastics that kept the team under the Cap at the expense of the future. It came crashing down after 1998, Steve Young’s final year. Over the next twelve years, from 1999 to 2010, the 49ers had two winning seasons and lost the two playoff games in which they participated. I remember asking Carmen Policy, the 49ers president and financial genius, why he kept pushing money forward, knowing the Day of Reckoning was coming? His response: “We were still winning. You do everything you can do to keep winning.”
That is hard to argue against. As long as the Saints are winning, they will do everything they can to delay the Day of Reckoning. But if history is any indicator of the future, Salary Cap Winter is Coming. Bundle up!
You know, I could almost learn to like the Winter Olympics if only I was daring enough to turn off the volume of my TV. I could enjoy the artistry and athleticism of the ice skating competition without becoming baffled by the announcers’ insistence on enlightening me with the scoop that the 15-year-old Russian girl just completed an impossible Triple Sochow after coming off a Double Lutz that she punctuated with an Axel out of the Arabesque position. And I thought you could only get a Double Lutz at Starbucks?
One event that is simple enough for even me to understand is the men’s downhill skiing which was on Sunday afternoon. Watching a skiier bounding down a 45-degree slope seemingly out of control, his poles flying away from his body while he leaned left, then right before knocking over some of the stakes marking the course is darned good entertainment. You can almost see James Bond flying past the Austrian with five or six white-clad mercenaries shooting at him with machine guns. I remember when Roger Moore received a call from Her Majesty, he left a beautiful, naked double agent in the sack. “Oh James.” Of course the beauty was playing for the other team and tipped off the bad guys who started tearing across some of the greatest scenery this side of Sochi.
I thought of Bond again when a handful of skiers came through the trees with rifles over their shoulders, but I only had stumbled onto the Biathlon competition. Ski, hit the ground, shoot. Ski, hit the ground, shoot. That’s like the Lower Ninth Ward after a heavy rain. But maybe a little staged gunfire is what the Winter Olympics needs to attract American viewers who are more accustomed to counting concussions than watching some kid “shred the gnar” or achieve a perfect “air to fakie” maneuver while sliding down a rail on a snowboard. I have to acknowledge that these kids are athletes of a sort, but I still have a hard time watching much more than the American competitors.
Let's be honest. It is difficult for an American sports fan to get too excited about any competition in which Norway is favored to win. The only thing I know about Norway is that an old friend of Swedish extraction used to recite a poem that he said revealed the difference between Norway and the rest of Scandinavia: “A dozen Swedes hiding in the weeds, chased by one Norwegian.” Well, he thought it was funny, but the point is that Norway’s Olympic representatives have dominated the Winter Olympics for years, despite having one of the smaller populations among competing nations. Goggles off to Norway!
It is comforting to hear familiar voices like Tom Hammond, NBC’s racing expert from Lexington, or Cris Collinsworth, the wideout turned NFL color guy, interviewing the American athletes. Comfortable Bob Costas invites American viewers to sit by the fire in his living room and enjoy a hot buttered rum. Matt Lauer and Meredith Viera of the Today Show are taking their turns, while funnyman Dan Patrick also is be on hand to lend his pithy commentary. I really am looking forward to Al Michaels, who fittingly, will do the Hockey competition. “Do you believe in Miracles? Yes!”
I tried to watch some of the ice skating Sunday night until my son reminded me that the 50th anniversary of the Beatles appearance on Ed Sullivan was on CBS. Now, that was something I could understand with no interpretors needed. An impressive roster of singers paid tribute to a handful of Beatles classics, while some former Sullivan employees added colorful stories about that night. But the gold medal moment was when Paul and Ringo reunited to sing the intro from “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” That was one Olympic moment that had my son and I singing along. I even remembered the words.
The secret of the Seattle Seahawks' Super Bowl victory can now be revealed! The Hawks were not dominant until they added a very important cog who just happens to be an old friend, key advisor and relative good guy. Attorney Jim Noel, who has served in such diverse sporting outposts as the National Football League, ESPN and the USGA, moved to Seattle during the football season and promptly took charge. Noel is no stranger to the great Northwest having done his undergrad work in Journalism before heading to the University of Alabama law school. When he is not waxing poetic on the virtues of Crimson Tide football, Jim is informing us just what the Twelfth Man thing really is all about, and we’ve given him the space to explain it to the Lilliputians. Enjoy!
Seattle held the politest victory parade ever on Wednesday, celebrating the Seahawks Super Bowl championship. There were 700,000 people downtown, and there wasn’t a single f-bomb, or even a “Broncos Suck” cheer. The whole city is the antithesis of its team’s trashiest-talking player, CB Richard Sherman. The parade consisted of about 10 duck-boats full of players and coaches.
About halfway through the procession, a gap of almost a minute separated the first group of vehicles and the rest. It was speculated that the second group was delayed because they stopped for a red light on the 4th Street parade route. But as nice as these folks are, they can get riled up over their Seahawks, because they’re the Twelfth Man.
The number 12 is everywhere in Seattle. Mostly, it’s on blue-and-white flags. They fly on the Space Needle, on construction cranes (there are lots of those – this is a boomtown), in the storefronts of hundreds of businesses and on countless cars (most of which always drive at or below the speed limit). People randomly hire planes to fly around town towing a 12 flag – no corporate logo, no “Beat The 49ers” exhortation, just 12.
It’s the most inclusive fan affinity strategy in all of sports. The Twelfth Man makes it sound like you’re on the team, not just for it. That’s why Hawks fans’ proudest moments come when they actually make opponents lose yardage. The Seahawks lead the league in most false-start penalties committed by visiting teams playing in the noisiest stadium in the league, Century Link Field.
Seattle fans now have something else to be proud of, their first world championship since the 1979 Sonics. And they celebrated in typical Seattle style – never have so many people had so much good clean fun.
All 12 of them.
The one thing that stood out to me about National Signing Day was that Kentucky did not announce it had beaten out East Carolina, Louisiana Lafayette or Tulane for any of the 28 players who signed with the Wildcats. Au contraire, UK did sign players who had offers from the likes of Alabama, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Penn State and Nebraska. By noon, UK had signed a recruiting class that was considered the best in school history. Rivals.com ranked Kentucky’s class as No. 17 in the nation, ahead of such luminaries as Texas, Penn State, Oregon and Nebraska. Wow, what a difference a new coaching regime can make. Hats off to Head Coach Mark Stoops and his staff.
But let us dwell on the positive. To Big Blue Nation, Kentucky’s unprecedented recruiting performance is like being the ninth most beautiful model in Sports Illustrated's annual swimsuit spread. Taking it by the numbers, Kentucky signed 28 players from 10 different states. Eleven of them came from Stoops' home state of Ohio which was special because most of them had offers from the Buckeyes. But Stoops seemed most pleased that the Wildcats got the top talent in Kentucky to come to UK. "Really feel good about what we did in Kentucky," Stoops told the Lexington Herald. "I said that a year ago in my opening press conference about how important it was to recruit this state. So to sign the top four guys in the state this year was very important to us."
In fact, it was the first time that any in-state school signed four of the state's top five commitments since Rivals started tracking that statistic a decade ago. "It's huge for the success of our program to keep the kids that are the best players and the best fits for us in the commonwealth, to keep them home," said offensive coordinator Neal Brown, who is UK's lead recruiter for Kentucky. "It's important to lay the foundation for future recruits of Kentucky to say why not come to Kentucky and build this program?" Indeed, UK paid for a commercial to that effect that ran on local stations during Sunday’s Super Bowl.
I know it was Groundhog Day, but who would have expected Denver’s offensive line to have seen its shadow then disappear into its burrow for the remainder of Super Bowl Sunday? That is the only explanation I can come up with to explain the Broncos’ dismal performance in Sunday’s runaway near Far Rockaway. Even the hometown Denver Post reported this morning: “The Broncos suffered from a horrific case of stage fright. Jitters turned to panic. Panic leaked to disaster. Disaster became humiliation. On the biggest stage in America, before more than 100 million television viewers Sunday, in arguably the greatest live event in the world, the Broncos imploded. They were destroyed by the younger, more energized, rougher, tougher Seattle Seahawks 43-8 in Super Bowl XLVIII at MetLife Stadium.”
But it all started with the failure of the offensive line to show up or even realize the game had started. Peyton Manning was victimized by his chief protectors from the first snap when C Manny Ramirez launched a shotgun pass over Manning’s head that wound up as a safety and the earliest score in Super Bowl history. The pattern set, the unit was consistently overwhelmed by Seattle's never-ending wave of pass rushers.
The lack of protection resulted in two limp duck passes that wobbled into the hands of Seattle defenders, including the one that effectively ended any hopes of a Denver comeback. The Seahawks led 15-0 in the second quarter when Manning, under heavy pressure, attempted a floater to Knowshon Moreno that landed into the arms of LB Malcolm Smith. The game’s eventual MVP returned the gift 69 yards for a touchdown and a 22-0 lead. Game, set, match! The game was so out of hand so early that the Denver run game that had so effectively controlled the clock in the first two playoff rounds and had allowed Manning to keep defenders off balance was virtually non-existent.
I can empathize with the Denver offensive line, because I had my own problems during the game. Let me set the scene on Vicksburg Street where it was a balmy 74 degrees with a slight drizzle. We have two TV’s with expanded cable, one in our family room and one in a smaller “TV room” where I conduct my experiments with NCIS repeats, American Pickers and Swamp People. Both sets were tuned into Fox to accommodate our frequent moving between restroom and concession stand. In fact, I had just taken three dozen wings off the grill and was watching the set in the family room adjacent to the kitchen.
The Fox pregame show was on, and the panel had just “dedicated” the broadcast to their colleague Terry Bradshaw, whose father passed away late in the week. They went to a commercial, and I pop a cold one, expecting the kickoff at any second. I can hear the sound from the TV Room, and I realize the sets are not in sync. But that sometimes occurs if one set is tuned to Fox-HD and the other to Fox 8. Then the Lovely Miss Jean, who was passing the other set, informed me that the game had already started.
We go into the TV Room and see the score 5-0, and the first-quarter clock at about 8 minutes. I return to the family room, where the TV is still showing a commercial. Miss Jean goes into the bedroom where the TV has basic cable, and it shows the game on with the same 5-0 score. I turn off the TV in the family room and turn it back on, but it goes back to a commercial. We check the channel, and sure enough it is on Fox. But no game. I am ranting and raving that I have missed the early scoring, including a rare safety, but Miss Jean tells me to calm down.
As things turned out, maybe I should have continued watching the TV in the family room. So that was the problem. The Denver offensive line obviously was watching the same broadcast I was watching. That didn't work out so well for Manning who was trying to burnish his Hall of Fame credentials. The only thing I regret was that I missed the Budweiser ad with the puppy.
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A Super Bowl blowout is never expected, but it has happened more often than the NFL would like to remember. Of the forty-eight games played, only eighteen have ended in single-digit margins, and half of all Super Bowls have ended with the teams two touchdowns apart. The Groundhog Day blowout was not the biggest of all time, and it wasn’t even the worst Broncos blowout in history. Sunday’s game ranked in a tie for third behind the two biggest Super Bowl blowouts, both of which were both played at the Louisiana Superdome. On January 28, 1990, the San Francisco 49ers dog-whipped John Elway’s Broncos, 55-10, four years after the Bears embarrassed the Patriots 46-10 on January 26, 1986.