The Whims and Foibles of Sports...
It’s been a persistent problem the past few years that the Saints’ Salary Cap situation is among the worst in the NFL. We’ll show you just how bad in a moment, but since scrambling to get under the cap seems to be an annual rite of spring for our local heroes, fans tend to slough it off as just something else a team must do, like inflating the balls to the prescribed psi. But I’ve never seen a correlation between properly inflated footballs and losing games.
That is not the case with the Salary Cap. In fact, there is a direct correlation between a team’s Salary Cap situation and that team’s ability to field a playoff team, which doesn’t bode well for the Saints, whether Sean Payton is here or not. You want proof? How about the fact that nine of the ten teams that had less cap space to spend on active players this season did not make the playoffs. Looking at it another way, nine of the sixteen teams who had the most cap room made the playoffs. The more cap room available to spend on players, the greater flexibility a team has to add free agents or even extend contracts of players important to their success.
This will come as no surprise to anyone, but the Saints had the lowest cap money available to them of any club in the NFL this season. To get an idea of what that means, take a look at the other teams directly behind the Saints: the 49ers (5-11), the Bucs (6-10), the Titans (3-13), the Bears (6-10), and, well, you get the idea. The less available cap room, the worse a team is likely to fare.
The No. 1 reason teams can’t spend their available cap room is the amount of “dead money” they incur that eats up that room. Past renegotiations in which the Saints have extended contracts by turning salary into bonuses, pro-rated over future years, leaves “dead money” when that player is cut. The day of reckoning is delayed, but eventually at hand.
The Saints’ 2015 cap number, according to the website OvertheCap.com, was just under $145 million. However, they only spent $104.5 million on players, which means that nearly a quarter of their designated cap was unavailable because it was eaten up by past deals. The Saints’ “dead money” totaled over $34 million, which was at least $5.5 million more than any other team. And they are not out of the woods for 2016.
Junior Galette’s deal, renegotiated shortly before he was cut for conduct problems, took up $5.45 million of the 2015 cap, although that paled compared to the $9 million that died when the team traded Jimmie Graham. Galette may be gone, but he will not be forgotten when the Saints take a look at their 2016 cap. Galette’s pro-rated bonus takes up $12 million of the 2016 cap. And that’s even before the team has made their first decision on which vets they cut this year. They will save the player’s salary, but every one has money pushed forward. If the team cuts Marques Colston, Zack Strief and Jahri Evans, they will eat another $13 million in pro-rated signing bonuses. With Galette, that adds up to $25 million with more likely to follow, pushing them closer to their 2015 handicap.
Many cap watchers blame Drew Brees’ huge contract for the Saints’ problems, and that is now being recognized as a trap to avoid for other NFL teams. Last week, the Wall Street Journal ran a story about the dilemma teams face paying a top quarterback. The story’s sub-headline hit the nail on the head for the Saints by saying “a massive QB contract can cripple the rest of the team.” “There is no question that Brees’ big contract left the team hamstrung when it tried to fill spots around him,” said the Journal. “Thus, the cutting of still-productive players for Cap reasons has contributed to the deterioration of a Super Bowl winner.”
Other facts from the Journal story support the quarterback pay problem. New England’s Tom Brady will count $14 million to the Patriots’ 2016 cap, but 13 other quarterbacks this season take up even more space from their team’s salary cap. Nine of them failed to lead their teams to the playoffs this season, and, of the four who did reach the postseason, three barely snuck in as either a No. 5 or No. 6 seed. Then there’s Peyton Manning, who had been relegated to backup duty behind Brock Osweiler until he made a dramatic cameo off the bench last week. None of the top three highest paid quarterbacks - Brees, Atlanta’s Matt Ryan and San Diego’s Philip Rivers - are on playoff teams. In fact, none of them led their teams to winning records.
And that’s the dilemma the Saints face in the off-season. They will renegotiate with Brees to create more room this year and push more of his money into future years, creating more problems down the road. Renegotiating for cap space has become such an annual event for some teams that the NFL might as well add Salary Cap Relief Day to their calendar of critical NFL events such as Super Bowl, NFL Draft and Game Ball Inflation Day.
Fletcher Mackel of WDSU-TV Channel 6 had me on the top of the news Monday at 4 p.m. and was in a tizzy about all the rumors that Saints Coach Sean Payton was jumping ship and heading to Philadelphia or Miami or San Francisco or Dallas or Real Madrid or somewhere other than here. I’ve seen this about two hundred times before, when the nervous nellies of a team’s fan base get together with the hometown press, put two and two together and conjure up a logical news allegation.
Even my dear mother-in-law, who is the most avid 88-year-old fan in Who Dat Nation, was calling me Monday morning, asking me to reassure her that the stories of Sean leaving just ain’t so. I tried to tell her that it’s not even a story, but an allegation of the possibility of a plausible perception of the suggestion that there might be a story in there somewhere, maybe, and we're going to bring that to you live at 6.
I’m not picking on Fletcher, who with twin brother Travers, are the sons of the late Frank Mackle, one of the all-time great guys and one who even tried to teach me how to play golf. That might have been Frank’s only loss, because he came up undefeated when he and his wife Judy produced Fletch and Trav.
So I told Fletcher that in my experience a coach with two years left on his contract, working for a stable owner and for a GM who is a personal friend and a smart guy will likely stay where he is. Did I mention that he also has a Hall of Fame quarterback at his disposal, still playing at a high level and who might play until he’s 45, and those guys don’t grow on trees. Well, said Fletcher, he still disagreed and he thought there was enough smoke around his ankles that he knew there was a fire out there somewhere.
After all, there was so much evidence that supported the bail-out. Payton didn’t meet the press on Monday as he usually did, and, my God, he even skipped his Monday night radio show on Clear Channel WWL-AM, which he gets a healthy sum to answer questions from the faithful. Stations in Miami have been reporting for a month that the Dolphins are interested, and they fired their coach, so there's an empty parking space in the Fins' lot. And a report from NFL.com, which receives far more credibility than it deserves, reported that the Saints’ price for Payton would be at least a second-round draft choice. The reporter who actually leaked that absurdity to the world ought to have his Tweet license revoked for such a preposterous assumption.
WDSU’s news anchor, Scott Walker, is a man of sound mind who looks cautiously at the plausible and askance at the illogical. Even before I arrived on the set, Scott and Fletcher had been engaging in Twitter wars of the “Yes he is,” “No he isn’t” variety. So Fletcher asked another question after the stated final one, and I told him on air for all of New Orleans to hear: “Take a cold shower and let’s move on, because Payton is not going anywhere!” I could hear Walker and weather guru Margaret Orr guffawing in the background, unable to cover their live mikes or their skepticism at their intrepid sporting scribe's conviction that this was a big story.
Now here it is, two days later, when Payton met the assembled media, as he had promised on Monday, and he laid it out. “New Orleans grows on you. It’s home and … I guess I’ll say what Zack Strief said the other day. I’ll be here until they don’t want me anymore!”
So now the barking dogs of the media can stop chasing their tails and finally move on to a really big story. Like where will Brandon Browner be allowed to set new lows of incompetence next season?
Buckle your chinstraps, boys and girls, because here’s what my crystal ball says is going to happen in the next twelve months:
In the College Football Playoff championship, Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry gains 220 yards rushing, the Alabama defense shuts down Clemson’s running game, and the Tide rolls 41-28. After the game, Nick Saban declares he is committed to Alabama for life. The following day the New York Giants announce that Saban has signed a seven-year $70 million contract to be their new head coach. The Saints reach an agreement with the Dallas Cowboys for Sean Payton’s services, receiving Dallas’ first-round pick in the 2016 NFL draft (No. 4). Payton signs a seven-year contract for $1 more than Saban’s $70 million. Saints GM Mickey Loomis immediately announces that Jon Gruden has agreed to become head coach of the Saints, for $1 per year more than Payton.
The Cleveland Browns make NFL history when they hire Rafael "Rafa" Benítez as head coach. The Spanish football manager was fired January 4 by Real Madrid, and has never coached American football. “Football is football,” said Browns owner Jimmy Haslam. “None of these other jokers have won a European Football Cup, a Champions League title or a FIFA Club World Cup! Rafa will straighten out Johnny Manziel, that’s for sure!”
Les Miles rejects a multiyear contract extension by LSU and announces he is taking over for Nick Saban as Alabama’s head coach. The Tiger Athletic Foundation immediately announces a parade through downtown Baton Rouge, and names former Eagles and Oregon coach Chip Kelly as grand marshal.
In the NFL playoffs, the Chiefs and Redskins spring early-round upsets. The Chiefs beat Houston and Denver in the wild-card and divisional rounds, and the Redskins beat Green Bay and Carolina. Washington doesn’t have an answer for Arizona in the NFC title game, while Kansas City edges Cincinnati for the AFC championship. In the Super Bowl, the Kansas City juggernaut keeps rolling as the Chiefs defeat the Cardinals 21-17 behind QB Alex Smith, voted the Super Bowl MVP.
New LSU Coach Chip Kelly installs redshirt freshman Trey LaForge of Jesuit High School as his starting quarterback in spring workouts after incumbent Brandon Harris sits out the spring in a contract dispute. The Saints make drastic moves to get under the Salary Cap, terminating G Jahri Evans, WR Marques Colston, T Zack Strief, two PR assistants, six marketing reps and three quality control coaches. QB Drew Brees agrees to a two-year extension that reduces his 2016 cap number by $10 million but increases his dead money in future years by $32 million. In an effort to get under the NFL Sanity Cap, the team gives DB Brandon Browner his release, an apple and a road map.
During the NFL’s annual spring meetings in Charlotte, a court in New Orleans rules for Saints owner Tom Benson in his dispute with his family. Benson is delighted and becomes the hit of the meetings by Doin’ the Dab poolside! NFL owners accept Congress’ offer of a perpetual antitrust exemption in exchange for the removal of “Redskins” as the nickname of the Washington franchise. Owner Dan Snyder then solicits naming rights for the team, and in 2016, the Washington Battlefrogs will begin play.
Kentucky’s basketball team overcomes early season sluggishness to win its ninth NCAA title, 67-63, over No. 1 ranked Michigan State. The Wildcats’ 5-9 guard Tyler Ulis is named tournament MVP, then announces he will enter the NBA draft. Ulis retains 5-3 Muggsy Bogues, the shortest player ever to play in the NBA, as his personal trainer.
In the NFL draft, the Saints select Ohio State DE Joey Bosa with the No. 4 pick, obtained from Dallas in the Sean Payton deal, and OLB Myles Jack from UCLA with their own pick at No. 12. In the Kentucky Derby, Nyquist and Swipe continue their Affirmed/Alydar rivalry - the two thoroughbreds had finished 1-2 in three races as 2-year-olds. Trainer Doug O’Neill’s Nyquist again wins, by a length. Keith Desormeaux’s Swipe gets his revenge in the Preakness, edging Brody’s Cause at the wire as Nyquist fades to fifth.
The New Orleans Pelicans win 30 of their last 40 games to earn a spot in the playoffs, but they again fall to Golden State in four games. Stephen Curry sets an NBA record with 57 consecutive 3-pointers, then comments: “I did it as a tribute to Joe DiMaggio, who was from the Bay area!” The Warriors again beat the Cavaliers 4 games to 3, and LeBron James announces his retirement to run for governor of Ohio, succeeding GOP vice presidential candidate John Kasich.
LSU’s Ben Simmons is the first player selected in the NBA draft, by the Los Angeles Lakers. The Australian native comments: “It’s a bloody oath, mate, me wardrobe is already purple and gold!” The Pelicans select Kentucky guard Jamal Murray with their first-round pick, then trade him to Philadelphia for a cheesesteak sandwich franchise and the deed to the Benjamin Franklin Bridge.
In the major golf tournaments, Zach Johnson wins the Masters, sinking a 150-yard approach shot through a holly bush for an eagle to beat Jordan Spieth by one stroke. Dustin Johnson leads the U.S. Open at Oakmont by three strokes, but four-putts the final hole to give Jason Day the title. Day also wins the British Open at Royal Troon, while Spieth wins the PGA Tournament at Baltusrol by 18 strokes. In baseball, the Cubs take an early season lead and coast to the National League pennant behind 24-year-old Kris Bryant’s 48 home runs. The Cubs and L.A. Angels split the first six games of the World Series, but in Game 7, Johnny Giavotella’s homer in the bottom of the ninth gives the Angels a 3-2 win and their second (2002) World Series title.
The Saints bounce back and go 9-7, but are shut out of the playoffs as Carolina again wins the NFC South, with a 13-3 record. Coach Jon Gruden locks himself in his office and watches a marathon of Chucky horror movies until he is rescued in time for draft meetings. LSU football runs the table during the season and wins the SEC championship over Florida as RB Leonard Fournette rushes for 2,100 yards and wins the Heisman Trophy. LSU, at 13-0, is ranked No. 1 in the final CFP poll and faces Ohio State in the title game. Unfortunately, the championship game is played in 2017, which is beyond the capabilities of our crystal ball.
Hey, it could happen! Happy New Year to All!
The death Wednesday of Doug Atkins at age 85 brought back fond memories in Who Dat Nation while reviving one scary moment for a young club executive. A fearsome defensive end for the 1963 champion Chicago Bears, Atkins was an eight-time Pro Bowler between 1958 - 1966 and a 1982 inductee into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Of course, at 6-8 and 260 pounds, he also was a bigger than life member of the first three New Orleans Saints’ teams going from the best lineman in the game to one of the Saints’ legendary characters.
My favorite Atkins story has him at training camp in 1969 at St. Paul’s School in Covington. He was 40 years old and irascible, a player his teammates respected but didn’t mess around with. But whoever put together the rooming list for camp must have done it with a dart board, because he made the monumental mistake of rooming two rookie cornerbacks in the room right over Atkins’ first-floor suite. One night early in camp Atkins was trying to get some sleep after another grueling day in the hot Louisiana sun. Boys being boys, the rookies just wanted to let off some steam. They had their boom-box blasting out every known song that Doug Atkins didn’t know.
But rather than inconveniencing himself by walking up the steps, which could have resulted in a fatality or two, Atkins didn’t even get out of bed. Instead, he pulled a handgun from under the bed, and aimed at a ceiling tile in which he had scrawled a bulls-eye. Boom! Boom! He put two slugs dead-center. The bullets penetrated the dormitory’s thin floor like a cannonball through a Dixie cup. The music stopped immediately, and Atkins had no more problems with the upstairs neighbors.
A quarter-century later, it was 1994, and I was Executive VP of the Saints and had just signed my first major free agent. Michael Haynes was a wide receiver with the Falcons, who always had given the Saints problems, and now he was a Saint. Haynes wore No. 81 in Atlanta and wanted the same number in New Orleans. Of course, his request was quickly granted. The problem was that No. 81 was Doug Atkins’ number and had been retired.
Nothing was said until training camp when word came to me that a huge deputy sheriff in Humboldt, Tennessee, was ready to kick my ass. It was a stupid oversight on my part, and one that I tried to correct with a phone call to the man who was once described as “a law unto himself.” But all I could think of was the terrified rookies at training camp and the fact that Atkins still was familiar with firearms.
For modern fans of NFL Films, Atkins is perhaps best remembered as the inspiration for an especially creative segment starring John “The Voice of God” Facenda: "Doug Atkins was like a storm blowing over a Kansas farm house," Facenda famously intoned in 1983. "He came from all directions. All you could do was to tie down what you could and hope he didn't take the roof."
Regular readers of this space know I have soft spots for the Saints, Kentucky basketball and the wonderful people I’ve met over nearly forty years in professional and college sports. So, in this final column of 2015, let me give you some thoughts from all three areas.
If the Saints' win over Jacksonville proved anything, it’s this: Drew Brees can still fling it, even though he was limping from a torn plantar fascia. The offensive performance on Sunday was reminiscent of 2009 when the Saints were invincible. Hats off! Or maybe it proved this, that Delvin Breaux is giving hints of that shut-down corner that the Saints have spent a bunch of money trying to secure. He picked off another interception and made other plays that only enhance his personal rags-to-riches story. Or even this: that every game he plays, Brandin Cooks is proving that he is just what the Saints thought he was, a great deep threat who can also tough enough to catch it across the middle. The evidence of the latter, his 4th quarter catch in the middle of four defenders that led to the confirming TD.
Or, how about this: that head coach Sean Payton should have given Rob Ryan his own bar stool before training camp. One day of joy is not enough to erase a miserable season for Who Dat Nation, and there will be more pain to follow in the off-season. We’ll get into that in depth later, but suffice it to say that the Saints’ salary cap situation for 2016 already is the worst in the NFL. Saints' contracts in place for 2016 are over the anticipated 2016 cap, the only NFL team in that position. Another cap purge is coming, and it is likely to claim some long-time favorite players. But, then again, Saints fans only have one more game to complain about Brandon Browner!
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Kentucky’s 75-73 win over arch-rival Louisville on Saturday was a great way to end a year in which its 38-1 team was denied a ninth NCAA championship. But the game also represented good news and bad news for Big Blue Nation. The good news: the Wildcats can win games without much of a contribution from their heralded freshmen. The bad news: the Cats were outrebounded by 10, and they are not going to shoot 11-for-23 from beyond the arc every week.
Any win over the hated Cardinals is a good one, especially on a day their heralded freshman class took the day off. Although UK’s freshman class was ranked the consensus No. 1 in college basketball, 77% of the UK points against Louisville came from veteran players, including one senior, two juniors and a sophomore. Somebody will eventually look this up, but that has to be the highest percentage of non-freshman points in a game since John Calapari came to Lexington in 2009.
Granted, the team’s leading scorer going into the game is a freshman, but guard Jamal Murray could manage only 12 points one week after sinking seven three-point shots in a row in a loss to Ohio State. The team’s second-leading scorer, freshman G Isaiah Briscoe, took himself off the floor after twisting an ankle in pre-game warmups, and 6-11 C Skal Labissiere was no factor for the sixth game in a row. The incredible shriking act of a guy once considered a top-three NBA pick, led one Big Blue pundit to label him LaPUSSiere.
For the record, senior F Alex Poythress contributed 14 points and six boards; junior G Dominique Hawkins had 13 points, including three key 3-pointers, and junior F Marcus Lee scored 8 points and grabbed 7 boards. The biggest man on the floor, however, was 5-9 sophomore point guard Tyler Ulis, who scored 21 points, dished out 8 assists and even had a blocked shot in 39 tireless minutes. Big Blue Nation may be concerned, but for bragging rights, they are ranked No. 1 in the state.
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New Orleans lost a wonderful ambassador this week with the death of Jerry Romig on December 23 at age 86. The pioneering broadcaster, civic booster and public relations executive was best known as the Saints public address announcer for an incredible 44 seasons. "There were three loves in his life - Jan, his wife; his seven children and the Saints," said his son, Mark Romig, who took over the stadium mike for his dad. Romig had been in failing health for some months, and cited health concerns, including injuries suffered in a fall at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, as one reason for his retirement in August 2013 from his post as Saints stadium announcer.
"It's been fun. Good night, I love you," were Romig's last words as he shut off his microphone for the last time. And, lord knows, in a city that cherishes loyalty and reveres its heroes, Who Dat Nation loved Jerry Romig.