The Whims and Foibles of Sports...
The Orleans Saints on Sunday were on the wrong end of a play that will live forever in team infamy. We all watched as Minnesota WR Stefon Diggs caught a desperation pass from QB Case Keenum and rambled 61 yards untouched into the end zone as time expired in a play that will be memorialized as maybe the greatest playoff moment ever.
Long-time Kentucky fans immediately saw the parallels in Diggs’ catch that sends the Vikings - and not the Saints - into the NFC championship game against the Philadelphia Eagles. That play became the Saints’ Laettner moment. Christian Laettner’s shot that sunk Kentucky is considered the greatest in NCAA tournament history. The play is still, 26 years later, used in the CBS basketball intro, although it came during a regional final and not the Final Four.
Likewise, it didn’t matter that Diggs’ catch was two steps away from an appearance in the Super Bowl and not in the game itself. We will see it over and over and over again in years to come. Vikings fans will call it the Minnesota Miracle and they will remember where they were when it happened, and the capacity of U.S. Bank Stadium will grow over the years, expanded by those who claim to have been in the stands and saw Diggs’ heroics in person.
It’s funny, but just before Diggs put the dagger in the Saints’ chest, I thought of all those games during our Finks-Mora years when the 49ers or Packers or Bears came from behind to beat the Saints in the closing moments, and I had a brief flash of fantasy that now maybe it’s time the Saints become heart-breakers. One play later, the collective hearts of Who Dat Nation were broken yet again, but this time was worse. The play was so unlikely and so unexpected that it will become the signature moment in Saints’ futility.
It’s over but it will never be forgotten. You can bet the play, like the Laettner moment, will become an iconic representation of the unpredictable nature and excitement of the NFL playoffs. Of course, they never consider the victims of such drama who suffer all over again every time it’s shown. This morning, Who Dat Nation has tossed another needless, shocking memory onto the stack.
It doesn’t matter that the Saints overcame a 17-0 first-quarter deficit and fought back valiantly. Drew Brees’ offense came alive in the second half as he threw two touchdown passes to Michael Thomas to draw within 17-14 before a Kai Forbath field goal stretched the Vikings lead to 20-14. But Brees was hot, and he found Alvin Kamara in the end zone for a 21-20 lead before Forbath kicked another field goal with 3:00 remaining for a 23-21 Vikings lead. Brees countered quickly, marching the Saints back to within field goal range, thanks to a 4th and 10 completion to Willie Snead.
Brees faced third down and a yard to go. A first down would have allowed time to dwindle to a Will Lutz chip shot at the horn, but Mark Ingram was stuffed at the line. Lutz’s go-ahead field goal came with 25 seconds remaining, giving Minnesota a glimmer of hope. The Vikings were out of timeouts and three pass attempts left them only at their own 39 with ten seconds remaining. Then Saints rookie Marcus Williams donned the horns worn since 1992 by Kentucky’s John Pelphrey, who stood behind Laettner, allowed him to catch a long in-bounds pass from Grant Hill, turn and shoot the winning shot with no resistance as time expired.
Then, as now, the underdogs who almost pulled off the upset are left with a lifetime reminder of their most agonizing moment.
If vengeance is a dish best served cold, the Saints’ next playoff game will be played in the right spot. The Accuweather forecast for Minneapolis and vicinity is for eight inches of snow late in the week followed by a high of zero and low of minus-14 on game day. If you’re thinking of attending, “put on two of everything,” as Jim Finks, the only man who ever headed up both franchises, would have advised.
Make no mistake about it, the road to the Super Bowl is fraught with peril. It’s littered with pot holes the size of Texas, fallen trees blocking the path, and sometimes snow-covered paths that impede progress. The teams that get through it need a sharp axe, a chainsaw and sometimes a snowplow. Luckily, the Saints seem to have all that and more, which makes it fitting that the next mile goes through Minnesota. The conditions will be perfect for serving up a little vengeance, and both teams have sufficient reason to look at the game as a revenge match.
Who Dat Nation well remembers opening day of this season when their heroes traveled to Minnesota and had their fannies spanked, 29-19. Of course, the season soon turned around so it is hard to look back at that game with bitter feelings. It's another story when playoffs are on the line, as both teams know. And the compelling fact is that both teams have inflicted past playoff misery on the other.
The Vikings igloo is still chilled by nightmares of the last time their team faced the Saints in a playoff game. Minnesota in 2009 was led by future Hall of Famer Brett Favre of Kiln, Mississippi (which I have since learned is pronounced KILL. Seriously!) Favre had returned to the NFC North from a disastrous season with the Jets, and he recovered in fine fashion, starting all 16 games for the 12-4 Vikes. In the NFC Championship game at the Superdome, Favre fought Drew Brees to a near standstill, but two interceptions thwarted drives and the 31-28 victory sent the top-seeded Saints to the Super Bowl.
Older Who Dats recall another memorable playoff disappointment as their best reason for vengeance. In 1987, the Saints rebounded from a 3-3 start and ran off nine straight wins for their first-ever winning season. Going into the playoffs, hopes were higher than they ever had been for the franchise that never in 19 years of existence enjoyed a winning season. And why would we not be excited? A home game against an opponent lucky to be there? The 8-7 Vikings had lost three of their last four games, had scored one more point during the season than they surrendered, and their most effective quarterback was a journeyman backup. We all thought it was the perfect playoff start to let the Dream continue.
Indeed, the Saints scored first after Vikings QB Tommy Kramer fumbled and Bobby Hebert connected with WR Eric Martin for a 7-0 lead. The defense, led by the Dome Patrol, looked invincible on the next series, sacking Kramer and forcing a punt. But the Saints’ Mel Gray could not handle the ensuing kick, and the roof of the Superdome might as well have fallen in. Backup QB Wade Wilson came into the game and gave his best Fran Tarkenton impersonation as the Vikings rolled, 44-10. What could have been a Dream Season for the ages was ended, and those of us who were there haven't forgotten!
The 2018 footnote to that game is the fact that the Vikings’ tight end that day contributed to the Saints’ slide when he caught a touchdown pass from Wilson to make the score 17-7. But I wonder who he will be pulling for this week? The son of former tight end Steve Jordan, who added to the Saints' past misery, is DE Cameron Jordan, the All-Pro leader of the New Orleans defense.
The new year starts off with a bang in New Orleans as Alabama defeats Clemson 20-17 in the Sugar Bowl to avenge its championship game loss a year ago. The title game is an All-SEC affair after Georgia picks off four Baker Mayfield passes to defeat Oklahoma 31-14, then rolls over the Tide 27-24 for their first national championship since Herschel Walker was a pup. Paul Finebaum declares the SEC as the best conference of all time in any sport, any country.
LSU Coach Ed Orgeron fires Offensive Coordinator Matt Canada and hires his old Northwestern State teammate Bobby Hebert. Said Orgeron: “Hey, Bob and me unnerstand each udder, which me and dat Canuck could not be doin’ all season, me!” In the NFL, the Saints beat the Panthers and Eagles in the playoffs but fall to the Vikings in the conference championship game. Minnesota can’t solve the Pittsburgh pass rush in the Super Bowl, losing to the Steelers, 27-13, as LB Bud Dupree is named MVP with three sacks of QB Case Keenum.
The Saints re-sign Drew Brees to a two-year, $54 million contract, but lose Kenny Vaccaro to Carolina in NFL Free Agency. Commissioner Roger Goodell opens the NFL’s March meeting with the national anthem, but Dallas owner Jerry Jones takes a knee. The league’s legal team recommends an NBA-type lottery with the team whose name is drawn required to sign QB Colin Kaepernick. New England owner Bob Kraft says if they are modeling the NBA, then the lottery should be “weighted” with the playoff teams having fewer chances than the teams with the worst records. Owners from the Browns, Giants, Texans and Jets immediately protest, and the recommendation is tabled until the next lawsuit is filed.
In NCAA basketball, UNO wins the Southland Conference tournament and upsets No. 4 seed Kentucky to advance to the round of 32. Coach John Calipari says the Wildcats’ disappointing season is the best thing that could happen since only two of his top eight players will be drafted and the others will return. UNO falls to Villanova which defeats Texas A&M in the championship game for the men’s title. Connecticut returns to the winner’s circle, defeating Immaculata for the women’s title.
In the NFL draft, the Browns take UCLA QB Josh Rosen with the No. 1 overall pick, followed by the Giants who take USC QB Sam Darnold then trade QB Eli Manning to Denver. Said Eli of the trade: “Great deal. Peyton says he will rent his house to me!” Picking 29th, the Saints draft Ohio State DE Sam Hubbard. Classic Empire wins the Kentucky Derby by a length over Gormley, but he can’t duplicate the Triple Crown feat of his half-brother American Pharoah, and is outrun by Gormley in the Preakness.
The Yankees, led by Aaron Judge’s 65 and Giancarlo Stanton’s 63, set a home run record but the team’s pitching falls apart, and the Red Sox win the AL East. The Sox upset the Astros in the ALCS final and beat the Dodgers for their fourth World Series title this century, after which David Ortiz annoucing he is coming out of retirement to "get one for the thumb!" Ortiz changes his mind after he is elected mayor of Boston.
LSU starts the college football season pounding Georgia Southern, 52-10, and winning impressively at Texas, 37-24. But after they come home and fall to Northwestern State, 21-0, Orgeron fires Hebert and hires sports talk show host Jim Rome to replace him. Said Orgeron: “Rome be da most offensive person I ever did meet, cher!” After an 8-4 season, the LSU Board of Supervisors fires AD Joe Alleva and hires Paul Finebaum. In announcing the shakeup, Chairman Stephen Perry said: “Nick Saban wouldn’t come back, and Finebaum is the closest thing to Saban we could find.”
The Saints go on an early season roll, winning their first 10 games despite losing QB Drew Brees for six of those games with a hamstring pull. Backup QB Taysom Hill doesn’t miss a beat in Brees’ absence, and his insistence on retaining his kick coverage duties saves the team a roster spot. Brees returns after Thanksgiving, and the Saints win their final six games to take the No. 1 seed going into the playoffs.
HEY, IT COULD HAPPEN! HAPPY NEW YEAR TO ALL!
There was little question and little doubt the last time the Saints made it to the Super Bowl. Our local heroes went through the 2009 season like a buzz saw, winning their first 13 games and clinching the NFC top seed before the partridge flew into the pear tree. Oh, they had close wins at St. Louis, Washington and Atlanta, and, yes, they lost the last three meaningless games in a strategic move to rest the starters for the playoffs. But there was little doubt the Saints could and would win the Super Bowl.
Flash forward to the current season, and the conviction outside of Who Dat Nation is not nearly as firm. The Saints could yet run the table and win their second Lombardi Trophy, but right now they are committing too many penalties, too many turnovers and third downs have been an adventure. Those little deficiencies suggest trouble if they advance far enough to play the Eagles or the Rams. That does not mean all is lost. It merely means owner Tom Benson might have to stay vertical at least one more year to see his team match its greatest triumph. In fact, if anybody is going to Las Vegas soon, place a $20 on the nose for me that the Saints will win the Super Bowl after the 2018 season.
My optimism includes the assumption that GM Mickey Loomis will re-sign QB Drew Brees for the remainder of his career. The team’s most important player is a physical phenomenon, much like his elder peer Tom Brady. Neither Brees nor the Pats’ QB, who is 17 months older, show any signs of slowing down. Brees is the lynchpin of an offense that features a solid offensive line and enough weapons to put 30 points up on any given day. And, if Brees is in the barn, here are the others reasons I think next year will be the year:
Youth is well served. Many of the problems we are seeing now stem from young players making stupid plays and mistakes. But those are significantly reduced with experience. Consider that the 2009 Saints had veterans at nearly every key position and, as a team, averaged 27.7 years of age. The 2017 Saints have rookies or second-year men at key positions and average only 26.1 years of age. In 2018, the young studs will have another year of experience which should cut down on their mistakes.
Defensive improvement. Coordinator Dennis Allen has put together a formidable group from the ashes of what was probably the worst defense in the league. The linebacker renovation started with free agent A.J. Klein and Mante Te’o and received an unexpected jolt from rookie Alex Anzalone before his injury. The secondary starts two rookies in Marshon Lattimore and Marcus Williams, while second-year man Ken Crawley has started 11 games and third-year man P.J. Williams has started five. That doesn’t even include Delvin Breaux, a solid starter before he was cursed with injuries. All should be better and more comfortable in the same scheme next year.
Free Agency - A free agent priority should be a rush end to complement Cameron Jordan who is enjoying his best season. Second-year lineman Sheldon Rankins will only get better, and pass rusher Alex Okafor has declared his intentions to re-sign with the team, and the Saints will try and accommodate him. The upcoming free agent most likely to get more money elsewhere is SS Kenny Vaccaro and possibly utility offensive lineman Senio Kelemete. Either or both could be replaced.
2018 Draft - The Saints traded their No. 2 pick in the 2018 draft to draft some guy named Alvin Kamara in the 2017 third round and have been enjoying it a year early. Personnel guru Jeff Ireland has done a remarkable job with the past two drafts, and the draft of 2017 is one of the best in team history for immediate contributors. The 2016 class was almost as good with WR Michael Thomas, Rankins, Bell and free agents DB Ken Crawley, DB De’Vante Harris and WR Tommylee Lewis. One can only assume that Ireland will uncover some gems who will contribute immediately to the 2018 Saints. If the Saints do not get sufficient value in free agency, I would expect them to target a defensive lineman in the first round.
Wild card - But what if a quarterback whom Coach Sean Payton loves drops into the lower 20’s where the Saints are likely to pick? It would not surprise me if Baker Mayfield fell down the board since most mock drafts see the Heisman Trophy winner as only the fifth-best quarterback in the 2018 class. The main reason? He’s short, plus he’s from Texas. Although the latter isn’t a reason, the combination of height and home worked well the last time Payton signed a short quarterback from Texas. Two years of studying under Brees might allow Baker or another talent to take over eventually.
You probably have your own memories of hot division races and how your favorite team either won it at the wire or lost in disappointing fashion. But the 2017 NFC South Division race reminds me of one such instance that has given me bad dreams ever since. In 1991, the Saints rode a sinister rollercoaster in which they enjoyed their greatest triumph only to suffer a heartbreaking loss to a division rival. And the same divisional matchup could happen this year.
After the Falcons defeated the Saints Thursday night and the Panthers came back to beat Minnesota Sunday, only one game separates the three teams. The 9-4 Saints and 9-4 Panthers seem to have the advantage with their schedules, although each team must face 8-5 Atlanta. The irony is that a Falcons sweep could leave all three teams with identical 11-5 records, which could give the Falcons the division title, send the Saints back to Atlanta for a playoff game, and send the Panthers on the road as the last wild card.
In any case, the playoff Saints probably will play their first game against a division rival, which sends the willies up my spine. I recall vividly the 1991 NFC West race in which the Saints won their first division title only to lose their playoff opener to arch-rival Atlanta. The ’91 Falcons were not just a good team, they had swag that the NFL had not seen before, as featured in an NFL Network special last Friday night (and probably in subsequent re-runs). As the promotional blurb said: “1991 saw a young Deion Sanders entering his prime – a primetime, if you will.” It was his third season with the Falcons, and Deion scored five touchdowns four different ways – receiving, punt return, kick return and a pick six. “We brought swag and hip hop to the NFL,” Neon Deion said on the program. “It was fly!”
The coach of that team was the iconoclastic Jerry Glanville, who said that team was “The most fun team ever in pro football.” One member of the team was a second-round QB whose stat line for the season was four pass attempts, no completions and a pick six on his first NFL toss. Glanville thought so little of him that they traded him after the season to the NFL wilderness of Green Bay which Brett Favre quickly turned into a garden of championships.
The Saints started the season like gangbusters, winning their first seven games before losing to the Chicago Bears at the Superdome. Jim Mora's team came back to defeat the Rams and 49ers for a 9-1 Division leading record, but a disastrous four-game losing streak, including a shocking 23-20 overtime loss to the Falcons, dropped them to 9-5 with two games to go. Again, the Saints rallied, shutting out the Raiders and then clinching the division with a 27-3 win at Arizona. We were all confident when we learned our opponent would be the Falcons who finished 10-6 and would have to come to New Orleans.
The teams played even for three quarters, but a 1-yard Dalton Hilliard run gave the Saints a 20-17 lead early in the fourth quarter. After the Falcons’ Norm Johnson tied it with a 36-yard field goal, Atlanta got the ball back, and disaster loomed. As he had done three times earlier in the two previous games, WR Michael Haynes provided the back-breaker. A 61-yard touchdown catch from QB Chris Miller with 2:41 left gave the division rival Falcons a 27-20 victory. I will never forget the feeling of watching Haynes fly down the field, our hopes dashed once again.
We tried to extract a bit of revenge a couple years later when we signed Haynes to a free agent contract. But it was too late. The fear of playing a division rival in the playoffs will forever evoke images of bad things happening.