The Whims and Foibles of Sports...
Okay, this is the week to get ahead of the crowd. The Saints travel to the historic Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia on Wednesday to begin another training camp, so the word will soon be out. The windows are open in Las Vegas, and you can still get the Saints at attractive odds, so get in line or online. Airlines are booking flights to Phoenix for Super Bowl XLIX, on February 1, 2015. It is time to strike! Don’t be late! The Saints are going to win the Super Bowl!
Of course, a few other things have to happen before our local heroes make their second trip to NFL Heaven, but as training camps are opening around the NFL, those appear to be just formalities. We know the Seahawks must abdicate the throne they won a year ago, but don’t worry. That process is in the works. Teams that win the Super Bowl rarely go to two in a row, because they spend too much of the off-season enjoying the adulations, endorsements and attention that comes with the NFL championship. Seattle has had its well-deserved turn in the limelight, just last week having been named “Best Team” in all of sports at the annual ESPY awards. DB Richard Sherman also won an ESPY, for the sporting world’s “Best Breakthrough Athlete,” and he has been a hot item since February, his opinion sought on such myriad topics as world peace, immigration policies and fracking. Of the other candidates, Peyton Manning’s toughest opponent is Father Time as he dearly wants to return to the winner’s circle and others such as the 49ers, Patriots and Packers will be lurking.
But I like the Saints to spend late January in the desert, so let me count the reasons, in order of importance. Reason 1 – Drew Brees is still performing at a high level. He has weapons in his arsenal such as TE Jimmy Graham and WR Marques Colston and a complement of young receivers. I am still concerned about the offensive line’s ability to protect him over a long season, but the Saints’ brass seems to be comfortable with the protection squad, so I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt.
Reason 2 – The defense ranked in the top five last season and for the first time in three years has the same coordinator orchestrating it all. Rob Ryan did wonders with the defense last year, restoring the attacking model of Gregg Williams. This season should be even more compelling with a stronger secondary and hungry, maturing young linemen such as Pro Bowler Cameron Jordan, whose confidence has never been higher. He recently told NFL Total Access: “This is the year I get a Super Bowl.”
Reason 3 – The team has added playmakers to the lineup. Every NFL team can line up 45 good players and still go 0-16. The winning teams have playmakers, and the Saints added two big ones in Jairus Byrd and top draft pick Brandin Cooks to go along with Graham and Brees. Byrd is a ball-hawk who will do for the 2014 Saints what Darren Sharper did for the 2009 Super Bowl champions. Interceptions and disruption. Cooks is a faster Darren Sproles and that speed will make him more effective in the quick pass and run routes that Brees loves.
Reason 4 – Sean Payton wants desperately to win another Super Bowl while Brees is still operating at a high level. A good example is the drafting of Cooks at No. 1 when arguably a more pressing need was a linebacker or cornerback. Payton and Brees will long be considered one of the top coach/quarterback teams in the NFL. Several off-season polls named Payton among the top two or three coaches in the league because of his motivation. He gets more out of his players than most other coaches. Another Super Bowl victory will only enhance that reputation. And it could come this year, so don’t waste any more time. Strike now! The needle is pointing up!
You know, there are so many good stories in the sporting world that I really don’t like to write about the same old thing all the time. However, this is New Orleans and everywhere I go, Saints fans ask if Jimmy Graham is going to sign his contract or hold out. I hesitate for a moment, wishing I had enough C.O. Jones in me (consult your Spanish dictionary for that one!) to respond: “Haven’t you heard? He just announced he's retiring from the NFL to play small forward for the Pelicans!” Or join the USA Soccer team and help win the 2018 World Cup. Or become a croupier at Harrah’s casino. Or enlist for Navy SEALs training. Or any response other than “of course he’ll sign. Haven’t you been listening?”
For those of you whose interests do not include the vicissitudes of football contracts, Tuesday is the final day the Saints and Graham are allowed by the NFL to sign a multi-year contract before the start of the 2014 regular season. If they can't, Graham will be forced to either play under the one-year franchise tag for $7 million or sit out the season. Graham just lost a grievance because he wanted to be declared a wide receiver, which would have increased his franchise tag to $12 million from a paltry $7 million, which represents the average yearly salary of the top five paid players at their respective positions. Thank goodness, the arbitrator showed some clear thinking when he agreed with the NFL Management Council argument that the tight end position has evolved to the point where a team will line him up anywhere on the field in order to obtain a favorable matchup against the defense. Personally, I would line him up at the Budweiser stand because I don’t believe any of the normal overweight patrons standing in queue could cover him while carrying 20-oz. beers in each hand.
But the arbitration was last week’s news, because this week’s news will occur on Tuesday when Graham finally answers the question bedeviling Who Dat Nation: "Will he or won't he?" Of course, Graham’s final option is to hold out and not play at all, which is a decision that should immediately make him eligible for the flag football team at Eastern State Hospital where he can play wide receiver, quarterback or even coach the damned team if he chooses. His eligibility for the funny farm would be guaranteed if he chose that option, because the last day to sign a franchise tag tender is November 11, which means he could miss the first ten weeks of the season then sign the tender. If he chooses that option, he would earn 7/17 of the $7 million tag, which according to my IPhone calculator is about $2.88 million. Boy, that would teach management a lesson, huh?
I have predicted on three television programs in the past two weeks that Graham and his agent are smarter than that. I believe that before midnight Tuesday, he and his veteran bagman Jimmy Sexton will take an Airline Highway bus to the Saints office and ink a contract that will probably be in the range of $48 million over five years, with about $20 million of it guaranteed. Sexton has displayed sensibility with previous deals, which makes me think Graham will do the prudent thing and sign the new deal. Fortunately, he is not represented by a bomb-throwing agent who wants to keep his own name in the public eye and keep the pot boiling in a ridiculous effort to think that attracts future draft choices that he is recruiting.
A new deal also can give the Saints more flexibility with their Salary Cap. Graham currently counts the full $7 million to the cap, but a new contract would spread the guaranteed money over the term of the contract and produce a lower cap number in the first year or two. If Graham makes that decision, Who Dat Nation will stop agonizing and begin looking at airfares to Phoenix, the site of Super Bowl XLIX next February 1, and, most importantly, I will have written my last column about Jimmy Graham and his financial follies.
The least understood platitude in all of sports is that decisions are made based on the best information available at the time. Teams lay out the facts before them, inject them with some probability theory and then pull the trigger. That does not always mean the decisions work out, and sports is littered with good examples.
I have written about my own experience with sound decisions gone bad, the most grievous of which came when I was the Saints executive who had to announce we were cutting kicker and cuddly icon Morten Andersen. Who Dat Nation was up in arms, and my mother-in-law even told her friends that it wasn’t her fault that I married into the family. But from our point of view, we had a 36-year-old player whose performance had clearly declined the past two years, and we had other positions we felt needed bolstering under the new Salary Cap. Of course, Andersen got a new lease on life, returned to the Pro Bowl and even kicked in a Super Bowl, and the Saints looked like idiots.
And that sad tale brings us to the current state of affairs at the latest division of Benson Management, the New Orleans Pelicans. While every day we see stories of how Lebron might go back to Cleveland and Carmelo is flirting with the Lakers and the Mavericks are loading up for one final run while Dirk Nowitzki is still vertical, the only Pelicans news comes from the summer league. Wow, Patric Young might not have been drafted, but he could be the answer! The Pelicans have not made a ripple in NBA free agency, the only means left of improving the team, because questionable decisions of the past couple years have exhausted their available funds.
Forget that David Stern forced the Chris Paul trade and that New Orleans had to take what it could get, subsequent decisions have put the team in Salary Cap jail. You also might point to the health thing and say that a team can’t lose least three starters for most of the season, as the Pels did last year when Eric Gordon, Jrue Holiday and Ryan Anderson spent more than 50 percent of the season on the injured list. Those three players make up about $35 million of the $55.5 million counting toward this year’s salary cap.
But forced trades and injuries aside, the problem has been some moves that sounded good at the time but are looming as major blunders. It started with matching the Phoenix offer for Eric Gordon, who was the only value obtained in the Paul trade to the Clippers. They also obtained center Chris Kaman and forward Al Farouq Aminu in that deal, but the former bolted after one season, and the latter had more than enough time to prove he was a bust. Matching the offer to Gordon sounded like a good idea at the time, because after losing the best player in franchise history the team could not lose the only player who could rationalize that trade. However, Gordon fumed after New Orleans matched the offer, and he hasn’t recovered. When he plays, he is a shadow of his former self, but we can’t really judge that because he has spent so much time on the injured list. The Pels are trying to unload Gordon, but no team wants to pick up an expensive problem.
Ditto the trade last year that sent the No. 6 pick, Kentucky’s Nerlens Noel, plus this year’s No. 1 pick, to the 76ers for Jrue Holiday. It was a bold idea at the time, but it did not work out after Holiday played only 34 games in 2013-14. Of course, Noel was idled for the entire season, although he showed promise in the 76ers first NBA summer league game this week, scoring 19 points including 7 of 7 from the line and four steals. And on draft night a few weeks ago the Pelicans brass might as well have gone to the movies.
The team recently completed a conditional trade with Houston for 7-foot center Omer Asik, who would come to New Orleans as Anthony Davis’ protector in the paint. Asik is not much of a scorer, but he would get some rebounds, and he would protect Davis from being banged around by the other big guys in the league. However, the Salary Cap apparently will be less than expected, and the Pels probably do not have the cap room to sign Asik unless they trade Anderson, whose cap number is close to Asik’s. Also rumored to be sitting at the airport is the last component of the Paul trade, the ever-improving Austin Rivers.
Did I mention that in order to get Asik, the club would give up their No. 1 pick in 2015, if it falls between No. 4 and No. 19? That might work if the team gets back to the playoffs with Asik’s help and has a low draft pick next year, but that sounds a lot like a Dusty Springfield song: “A’wishin’ and hopin’ …” To the Pelicans’ brass, however, it must have sounded like a good idea at the time.
My son is currently embroiled in one of those rare rites of passage in which I, as a parent, can participate with his blessing. We are engaged in the nomadic tour of college campuses so that my son, Charles Connor Miller, or “C.C.” to his friends, will rise up when the tour is ended and declare THAT’s where I’m going to college! I, as parent, am involved only as much as playing chauffeur on the current world tour and later, with my son’s enthusiastic blessing, as the primary source of funding this great adventure.
C.C. has narrowed his list to four schools – Kentucky, Ole Miss, Alabama and LSU – four estimable SEC schools that offer the best intercollegiate athletics that money can buy, which certainly has my attention, both as parent and sporting enthusiast. We all know that attending college because of the basketball or football team should not be not the No. 1 reason you pick one college over another, but it is a decision that will affect the rest of his life. Once he makes the selection, the student has doomed himself to eternal fandom, not to mention a disproportionate influence on his wardrobe selection forever. In choosing where he will spend the most impressionable four years of his life, he is in fact choosing which team for whom he will spend a lifetime cheering for, agonizing over, throwing rocks or bouquets at their coaches and confirming or protesting their season results to the alumni association with either a check or a lump of coal.
I, as parent, have been through this before so I have the advantage of how to influence the process. My older daughter Lindsay was inundated from childhood to the song in my own heart - My Old Kentucky Home. I was not convinced that my advice made an impression until she chose to attend the University of Florida. I did not make the same mistake with my second daughter, Layne, and generally kept quiet about Kentucky, but she wanted to study Equine Sciences, so I had at least a 50-50 chance that she would wind up in the Bluegrass. When the night of her announcement came (ESPNU should have covered it!) her mother and I thought she would pick the University of Georgia, which had offered her a small academic stipend. Or maybe Florida, which was her sister’s recommendation. But she surprised us when she confidently announced: “I’m going to be a little Wildkitty!” Glory, Hallelujah! I should have learned to keep my mouth shut sooner!
That brings us back to the current world tour, which took us Sunday and Monday to Tuscaloosa and the University of Alabama. C.C. already has seen Ole Miss and Kentucky, and we will finish up at LSU on July 18. I have not pushed Kentucky any more than the others, unless you count the three all-expenses paid trips to UK's Final Fours in 2011, 2012 and 2014 and having the alumni association send him cards and trinkets on his birthday.
I must say that C.C. has remained noncomittal on all the trips we have taken. In addition to judging the relative merits of each school’s football and basketball programs, we have discussed majors and programs and what he thinks he might study, but he is not tipping his hand on the institution itself. Will he choose Alabama and forever after affix the response “Roll Tide” to any text, e-mail, letter, question or comment? Will he choose Ole Miss so that he can greet his Rebel-loving grandmother with “Hotty Toddy,” as she has done ever since he visited Oxford? Will he choose LSU and learn from which direction the visiting team’s buses are most vulnerable to rock and Molotov cocktail attacks? Or will he choose Kentucky and fulfill his father’s dying wish? (Just kidding about the dying wish, but it could mean a few more Final Four trips together!)
But in all seriousness and sincerity, I have told him that this decision is one he needs to make on his own. Whatever he believes is best for him is fine with me, so long as he has sound reasoning behind it and understands that he is choosing a rooting interest, and probably wardrobe enhancements, forever.
Although it is unfair to ask him to rank his schools with one visit to go, after we left Tuscaloosa Monday afternoon I couldn’t resist and asked him: “what do you think?” For the first time, I got a peek into his thinking. His answer did not disappoint me, nor did it surprise me, coming from an 18-year-old Jesuit High School senior-to-be. “Well, right now it’s really close,” he responded, “because they’ve all got really good-looking girls.” I almost shed a tear. He sounds like he’ll fit right in, wherever he goes!
NFL arbitrator Stephen Burbank pleasantly surprised me Wednesday when he upheld the Saints’ use of the tight end franchise tag on Jimmy Graham. The immediate effect of the decision is that the Saints do not have to scramble and rework contracts or terminate players in order to make up the $5.3 million difference between the tight end tag and the wide receiver tag, which Graham coveted. The reason Burbank’s decision surprised me was that arbitrators are usually attorneys or former judges who often rely on language or precedent which limit their flexibility of reason when other factors might suggest another decision.
Specifically, Graham and his attorneys from the NFL Players Association argued that the current Collective Bargaining Agreement specifically states that a player must be franchised at the position "at which the Franchise player participated in the most plays during the prior League Year." Obviously, this provision was adopted so a nefarious club executive could not franchise a star quarterback at placekicker money. However, the lines between the tight end and wide receiver positions have blurred over the years through the increased creativity of NFL offensive schemers.
For example, the Saints in my day had two tight ends, Hoby Brenner and John Tice, who were more like extra offensive tackles. They were of great benefit in the running game, but were not much threat in the passing game. However, as Charles Darwin suggested, evolution can really screw up tradition! Today’s tight ends are often bigger and certainly faster than your father’s tight ends, and they are often the go-to weapon in modern offenses. Graham’s skills, speed and ability to outjump defenders make him an ideal poster boy for the tight end evolutionary chart.
What I feared from arbitrator Burbank was a literal reading of the CBA and that, yep, he would rule that Graham lined up more often as a “wide receiver.” If Burbank had ruled so, chaos would have rippled through the League like a wave cheer at the World Cup. Such tight ends as Rob Gronkowski and Vernon Davis would demand their contracts be renegotiated to the higher standard. Graham did line up either in the slot or out wide on 67 percent of his snaps last year, but Burbank agreed with the Saints and the NFL Management Council on the evolution of the position.
The tight end position has always involved a combination of splitting out wide to run pass routes and staying in to block. Burbank determined that Graham was officially lining up at the position of tight end either when he was close to his line or when he was flexed out into the slot "at least if such alignment brought him within four yards of (the nearest offensive) lineman." Burbank wisely said he only considered those plays because evidence showed Graham was lined up within four yards of the line on more than 50 percent of his snaps. Burbank determined it wasn't essential for purposes of the grievance to consider snaps where Graham lined up farther out.
As an interesting aside, one of Burbank's former subjects inadvertently gave a signal last weekend that I read to mean the arbitrator would rule in the club’s favor. Incredibly, Drew Brees admitted he had spoken with Burbank and had been told of the decision in advance. If true, that’s not good form for a neutral arbitrator, but Brees followed that revelation with a diplomatic comment that whichever way the ruling lands, both sides should get together on a contract. If Graham had won, I doubt Drew would have been that diplomatic.
So where do they go from here? If you look at the Brees grievance in a similar franchise tag dispute, Brees won and then dilly dallied on a contract until becoming the league’s highest paid QB just before training camp. Look for the same to happen in Graham's situation, although this time around the Saints have the leverage. They could lock up Graham for two straight years with the franchise tag at salaries of $7.053 million this year and $8.46 million in 2015. Of course, Graham could refuse to sign the tenders and hold out of training camp, but that would be bluster. When your team is prepared to make you the highest-paid player at your position, then you eventually sign their deal. And so will Graham.