The Whims and Foibles of Sports...
It just hit me after I finished watching the Saints put forth their best defensive effort in years, but to no avail, in a 16-13 loss to the Giants on Sunday. In my current life as a gentleman author, I have a lot more in common with suffering Saints fans that I ever realized. The life of a Saints’ fan, especially after two last-second losses to start the season, is fraught with frustration. The life of a writer, whose book he thinks is worthy of publication but is repeatedly rejected, is also fraught with frustration. Let me break it down for you and see if you feel my pain as I feel yours.
After the first two weeks of the season, frustrated Saints fans must think a voodoo princess sitting in some remote location is sticking pins into Saints’ players at inopportune times. You want examples? Last week, the Saints were trying to protect a 34-27 lead and had the Raiders on the ropes. With a fourth-and-long in the final seconds, QB Derek Carr threw a ball over the head of WR Michael Crabtree and out of bounds. Every Saints fan present or watching raised their fists in victory in what should have been a game-ender.
But like a hurricane flag raised over a peaceful bay, a yellow flag fluttered through the air causing sphincters throughout Who Dat Nation to pucker in sequence! The Saints were charged with pass interference. A yellow flag should never fly in the wake of an uncatchable ball, but it did. You could almost see a voodoo pin stuck in the defensive players' backs. The freaky call had Saints fans asking themselves what they had done wrong? Did they not wear the proper clothing on game day or touch the top of the door jamb when the Saints had the ball or rub the heads of their children when it was third-and-one or eaten the same pregame meal they have eaten every week since 2006?
A similar disturbance to the force occurred Sunday after the team’s previously maligned defense held QB Eli Manning, a two-time Super Bowl champion, to three field goals the entire day. Despite losing corner P.J. Williams to a concussion, the already thin secondary, now patched together with bubble gum and baling twine, held Manning, Odell Beckham Jr. and Victor Cruz in check most of the way. The pass rush shook off its Game 1 lethargy and made some big plays, especially the sack and fumble caused by New Orleans’ own legacy overachiever, Michael Mauti. If the defense plays that way the rest of the way, the Saints will be back in the playoffs.
However, the voodoo queen stuck another big pin into the field goal unit. The Giants penetrated the middle of the line and blocked a 38-yard field goal attempt and ran it back for a touchdown, “a ten-point turnaround,” according to Coach Sean Payton. Again, a freaky play negated an otherwise wonderful performance, and Walgreen’s recorded another spike in Sal Hepatica and Pepcid sales!
So how does how does sports-induced trauma relate to that suffered by ink-stained wretches trying to write books? After I retired from the University of New Orleans I returned to my roots as a writer with my first book, “Where the Water Kept Rising.” I was proud of the effort and it achieved modest sales, mostly in the areas ravaged by Hurricane Katrina. But that was like a preseason game. I wanted to get into the literary playoffs. I wrote a novel that a New York agent liked, and we signed a contract. He started calling on all the big publishing houses, the equivalent of being ahead by three touchdowns at the half, and I knew I was headed for stardom!
Over the next few months, he sent me copies of letters and e-mails from editors that must use the same form rejection letter. They talk nice at first: “He’s a good writer…” or “He has a nice style…” or “I like the subject matter…” But then, like an errant flag thrown on fourth-and-long, they proceed to apologize: “We’re not into that genre…” or “the characters do not jump off the page…” or, simply, “We have to pass (and run away?).” And all conclude with the insincere brush-off: “We wish you luck finding a publisher.” Saints fans are like an author, writing a book that he thinks is great, then sitting alone in the forest while the yellow flags of editors fly like locusts.
But then a few months ago I was pitching another manuscript to another publisher, and a funny thing happened. They loved it! They said the writing was “crisp,” the subject matter was “compelling,” and they offered me a contract. The frustration is over, at least for this book. I will reveal details later, but publication is scheduled for January. And you know what else? The football equivalent of a publisher’s love – the Atlanta Falcons – are coming to the Mercedes-Benzon Superdome Monday night.
And just maybe they will bring a sure-fire cure for football fans' frustration.
By now, you probably have heard about the new credit card that Baton Rouge International Airways is sponsoring that promises “less miles and no points.” Get it? And in Lexington, they are starting to call head coach Mark Stoops “the possum” because his teams play dead at home and get killed on the road. No offense to the possum. Miles and Stoops are ringmasters of only two big tents in the Southeastern Conference, which has won over 80 percent of its non-conference games since 2006. But on college football’s ballyhooed opening weekend, the “best college football conference in America” went 6-6 against non-league opponents, after Ole Miss’ collapse Monday night against Florida State.
There was no formula for futility, as SEC teams choked away big leads, fell to upstarts from lesser conferences and in at least two cases were embarrassed by teams they paid to fall dead. It could have been worse, but Tennessee escaped against Appalachian State, and Arkansas edged Louisiana Tech by a point. What’s going on here? Does the opening weekend mean that SEC football is now Alabama and a dozen dwarfs? Has the curtain been pulled away to reveal Nick Saban lounging on his throne like a Persian satrap amid a dozen or so midgets with palm leaf fans? A 52-6 pummeling of a ranked USC team Saturday confirmed the Crimson Tide's dominance, in conference and out.
Other than Georgia coming from behind to defeat North Carolina, Florida's workmanlike win over UMass and Auburn playing No. 2 Clemson close, there was not much joy at SEC headquarters. SEC watchers should have seen an evil moon rising on Thursday night when Tennessee, touted as a Top Ten team in the preseason, was beaten by confirmed giant-slayer Appalachian State. You will recall the Mountaineers set the football world reeling a few years ago when they went to Ann Arbor in 2007 and defeated a good Michigan team. They gave every indication they were going to do it again in Knoxville, leading 13-3 at the half. But the Vols scrambled back, tied the game late and then won it in overtime, 20-13.
On Saturday, a couple of other teams who were paid to come in, be polite and lose went home with big paychecks and victories. Mississippi State took a 17-0 home field lead at halftime, apparently had a few celebratory beers in the locker room, then came out and lost to South Alabama. Kentucky promptly followed the Bulldog plan. The Wildcats took a 35-10 lead over Southern Mississippi at Commonwealth Stadium before Mark Stoops gave them the rest of the night off. The Golden Eagles proceeded to run the table the rest of the way in a 44-35 upset. That’s when my college roommate, Bill Gorman of Hazard, declared via text: “They oughta just plow up the field and plant corn!”
In the prime matchup of local interest, LSU at Wisconsin (cue John Facenda!) at legendary Lambeau Field, the tundra was temperate while the only thing frozen was LSU’s offense. Les Miles’ longstanding critics chocked away more evidence that he is a miserable recruiter of quarterbacks. Brandon Harris’ performance was spotty, to be charitable, as reflected in LSU’s first-half drives: 3 plays and a punt, 3 plays and a punt, 6 plays and a punt, 1 play and a fumble, 5 plays and a loss on downs and 3 plays and an interception. With weapons like Leonard Fournette, Malachi Dupree and Travin Dural, how can they not do better than that? It also appeared as if new defensive coordinator Dave Aranda eliminated tackling practice during preseason workouts. The Wisconsin running backs looked like a pinball machine, LSU tacklers bouncing off every Badger ball that kept rolling.
I can only say the SEC is lucky that South Carolina and Vanderbilt played each other and not some hungry team from another conference. One of them had to win, but the Gamecocks’ 13-10 win on Thursday night was so ugly it did not inspire anyone to think that winning might become a habit in Columbia this season.
One positive aspect of a dismal performance is that it can’t get much worse. Can it?
After three pre-season games, it is becoming apparent that the Saints will go about as far this season as their offensive line will take them. QB Drew Brees is being chased all over the field, and the run game is erratic. The unit is average and thin, which means any injury, such as the one that took Terron Armstead out of the game against Pittsburgh, will be felt. Judging by what we have seen so far, Sports Illustrated’s prediction of six wins and last place in the NFC South is becoming hauntingly possible.
You only need to look at the team’s strategy of acquiring offensive linemen during the Sean Payton era to see how things have declined to this point. The Saints’ formula for drafting offensive linemen sounds like Jimmy Dean’s recipe for making sausage, but without the sizzle. The team has not made offensive line a high-round priority, and even when they have put an emphasis on the position in the draft, and selected a lineman in the higher rounds, the results have been far short of expectations. The only saving grace has been the team’s ability to discover gems in the lower rounds or even in free agency. But that is called “luck,” and luck is not a good draft strategy.
I am not yet counting Andrus Peat as a bust in only his second year, but any player drafted 13th in the first round had better contribute quickly and efficiently, which Peat has not. Coincidentally, the only other offensive lineman the Saints drafted in the first two rounds in the Payton era started out much the same way. T Charles Brown of USC, taken in the 2010 second round, spent most of his rookie year on the inactive list and started only eight games the next two years before starting 14 games in his fourth year. The team’s success in drafting offensive linemen – including two current starters – has come when they’ve taken players either from small schools and/or in the lower rounds. Armstead was a good get in the third round of 2013 out of Arkansas Pine Bluff, while Zack Strief was a seventh-round find from Northwestern in 2006. In the meantime, the team discovered Carl Nicks (5th round, 2008, Nebraska), Jermon Bushrod (4th round, 2007, Towson) and Jahri Evans (4th round, 2006, Bloomsburg). When 31 other teams pass up players like that multiple times, it’s your good fortune. Luck.
Last season, I wrote a column about how Jerry Jones, shortly after he bought the Cowboys in 1989, called Saints owner Tom Benson and asked if he and his management team could come to New Orleans and spend a day with GM Jim Finks to get some advice on how to set up an organization the right way. One piece of advice that clearly got the attention of the Cowboys’ brass was when Finks spoke about the drafting philosophy that he had refined during his years in Minnesota, Chicago and now New Orleans. That philosophy was simple, but not easy: “Build your team from the inside out.” Draft linemen on both sides of the ball and then build around them.
Jones took that philosophy and made it his own over the next quarter century. Three members of their current line have been to the Pro Bowl, and each one came in the first round of the draft. In 2011, the Cowboys’ top pick was OT Tyron Smith from USC. In 2013, it was C Travis Frederick from Wisconsin and in 2014 it was G Zack Martin from Notre Dame. Those three join an impressive list of eight other offensive line Pro Bowlers the Cowboys have drafted since Jones heard Finks’ advice about building from the inside out. The Cowboys have other problems, but one of them is not the offensive line.
As I said in that column, which tried to analyze what happened to the Saints in 2014: “Critics can throw rocks at Rob Ryan’s defense, but my answer is the team has not done a good enough job in building the offensive line.” You can point to reasons why, such as Brees’ megacontract limiting the ability to strengthen other positions. But that’s an excuse, not a reason. You need The Man behind center, and the Saints have The Man. It’s just that these days The Man might get killed because of the boys in front of him.
As a former college athletic director, I saw both sides of Title IX, the 1972 federal law that barred sex discrimination in education programs receiving federal money. I experienced the juggling act which forced cash-strapped programs to cut men’s sports rather than add women’s sports to achieve gender equality. But the argument that the law discriminated against men pales sadly after American women athletes again proved their superiority on a global scale at the Rio Olympics.
American women were an afterthought at the 1972 Summer Olympics, the last one before Title IX, winning just 23 medals compared with 71 for the U.S. men. The women were absent from the medal podium in gymnastics. They didn't win a single gold in track and field, managing just one silver and two bronze. In Rio, American women won 61 medals, including 27 golds, versus 55 total and 18 golds for the men. Another five medals, including one gold, came in mixed competitions. That trend began at the 2012 Olympics in London when U.S. women for the first time won more medals than the men - 58 to 45. London also marked the first time the U.S. sent more women to the games than men, which again occurred in Rio where American women outnumbered men 292 to 263.
Today, Title IX is given much of the credit for revolutionizing women's sports, and the last two Olympics offer one measure of how dramatic that transformation has been. But is it enough? Some critics believe the next battleground is the fight for respect for women athletes. When Corey Cogdell-Unrein of the U.S. Olympic team won a bronze medal in women’s trap shooting, the Chicago Tribune reported the news, but left out a key detail: her name. It described her only as the wife of Bears lineman Mitch Unrein. The Tribune story generated some snarky tweets, including one that said: “Congrats to that Bears lineman who apparently deserves all the credit here.” Another sarcastic observer wrote on Twitter: “But what does her dad do? Or her brother? I need to know more about this Olympian’s male relatives!”
The issue has shifted from the number of women participating in the Olympics to the media’s characterization of them more as appendages of their husbands, fathers or male coaches than as elite athletes in their own right. According to a weekend story in the New York Times, verbal offenses that look like sexism are called out almost daily by readers and viewers. The instances have been so frequent that news sites have been able to build lists of the most boneheaded examples.
NBC’s Al Trautwig, who saw Sanne Wevers of the Netherlands writing in a notebook after completing her balance beam routine, wondered aloud if Wevers might’ve been writing in her diary, a decidedly feminine cliché. Retired gymnast and current Olympics analyst Nastia Liukin was quick to inform Trautwig that Wevers was likely using the notebook to calculate her scores. And then there was the praise heaped upon Andy Murray by BBC presenter John Inverdale, who mentioned that Murray was the first "person" ever to win two Olympic tennis gold medals. Murray looked up curiously and responded: “I think Venus and Serena (Williams) have won about four each.”
And the battle rages.
To say that Peter Finney’s long career as a New Orleans writer and sports columnist lasted a lifetime is not an exaggeration. In fact, it lasted 68 years, which, according to the current Gregorian calendar, I achieved on my last birthday. Man, that’s a long time for one person to be doing the same thing, but the tributes that have rolled in since Pete Finney died Saturday morning at age 88, suggest that every day of those 68 years was a day well spent.
As a young sporting writer at the Baltimore Evening Sun, I was familiar with Finney and his work, but I had never met him. I was more friendly with the New Orleans NFL beat guys such as Dave Lagarde and Will Peneguy, but after I moved on to the NFL and then to the Saints I saw Finney’s impact. His face appeared on page 1 of the sports section five days a week, informing, cajoling and advising his readers on the topic of the day. If he had been born a few years earlier, ESPN would have called and asked him to share his enthusiasm and knowledge with a nation of sports maniacs, but Pete would probably have declined. He was a New Orleans guy, born in the French Quarter, educated at Jesuit and Loyola, and probably would have felt uneasy talking about things anywhere else.
Pete Finney was clearly the Babe Ruth of New Orleans sports journalism. But as the Ruthian legend is not complete without a chapter on Lou Gehrig, the Peter Finney story is not complete without a mention of another giant in New Orleans journalism, Bob Roesler. It is hard to think of one without the other, especially if you knew them or were a regular reader of their columns. A review of their columns over the years shows different styles, both directed at informing the fans by giving them a seat on the sidelines, the draft room or in the executive suite.
Roesler was the diplomat or statesman whose writing was aimed at long-term goals and solutions, like how to keep the Superdome as a first-class facility or what impact a Super Bowl would have on New Orleans. Finney, on the other hand, gave fans a daily perspective of their team’s current condition. If the fans wore paper bags on their heads when the Saints did poorly, Finney’s columns sounded like he was wearing a bag when he wrote them. Even when a new administration took over the Saints, as we did in 1986, he was telling his people not to get too excited.
“A good start,” said Finney's lead after new head coach Jim Mora’s first game, a 10-7 preseason victory at Denver. But Finney was not about to jump on the bandwagon yet, as he cautioned a few paragraphs later: “History tells us it’s foolish to get excited over what happens when a team is taking its exhibition cuts.” Indeed, the next season, after a nine-game winning streak and the team’s first playoff appearance seemed to wipe away twenty years of misery, Finney perfectly described the feeling of a long-suffering Who Dat Nation after Minnesota's 44-10 annihilation. “They came to watch the Benson Boogie at a Viking funeral. Instead, what they got was a trip into the past.”
Over the years, I became close to both men’s sons, interestingly enough, independently of their fathers. Pete Jr. was a writer with The Times-Picayune who had a brief fling at the New York Daily News when I was at the NFL office. After I came to the Saints, a member of our medical orthopedic team was Dr. Tim Finney, who still toils on the Sunday sidelines. The third Finney son, Mike, is a golf pro in Louisville who my brother Jerry came to know as an assistant pro at Valhalla, the frequent PGA stop. Mike arranged for Jerry and I to play the private course that once was a dairy farm where our father picked up milk.
I became acquainted with Bob’s son Toby when our children attended St. Dominic School together and since as members of the same monthly Bible, book and beverage club. Toby keeps me posted on his dad, who is not doing so well these days. He and wife Chloe have long moved out of the Lakefront home they rebuilt after Hurricane Katrina, and dementia has slowed him down. But as the tributes rolled in for his colleague this weekend, I couldn’t help but think of Bob and Pete together, as an ink-stained entry that kept New Orleans sports journalism at the top of their profession for a lifetime.