The Whims and Foibles of Sports...
You know, timing really is everything. Here we are less than a week from a presidential election that much of America would rather avoid, and a large block of voters – myself included – have reduced our decision to a choice between the lesser of two evils, the liar or the megalomaniac. But then, suddenly on Wednesday night, a bolt of lightning shot down from the heavens and split my skull wide open. At that moment, I knew what I was going to do! I am going to write in Theo Epstein for President!
The man who built the Chicago Cubs and the Boston Red Sox before them into world champions is today being praised as a lock for the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. After all, he took the two most beleaguered - and beloved - franchises in sports and gave them World Series titles after droughts of 108 years in Chicago and 86 in Boston. When they won the World Series on Wednesday night, it was proof that Epstein made the Cubs great again, and why couldn’t he do the same thing for a beloved but beleaguered America?
I know it’s a little late to rally the country behind a man who has been much too busy the last 14 years turning two cursed franchises into championship teams. Epstein had a plan for success that was not always popular, but it worked, not once but twice. He is a proven winner, so why couldn’t he do the same for America in a much tougher league?
Epstein took over the Red Sox before the 2003 season at age 28, the youngest general manager in baseball. He was candid with Bosox loyalists, saying the only proven strategy for longtime success was the tear it down to the studs and the rebuild. Sure enough, Epstein traded away beloved SS Nomar Garciaparra, but he also made key acquisitions such as Kevin Millar, P Curt Schilling and an overweight Twins castoff named David Ortiz. Before the 2004 season, Epstein signed Terry Francona as manager, and the Red Sox won their first World Series in 86 years. They repeated in 2007 and again in 2013, two years after Epstein had told the Cubs faithful that under his plan they would be bad before they would be good, but once they were good, they would stay that way.
True to his word, the Cubs finished in last place in the National League Central for the first three years of Epstein's presidency, before advancing to the NL Championship Series in 2015 and then the world championship in 2016. Epstein not only rebuilt the Cubs and the Red Sox into champions, he did it by toppling two curses of biblical proportions. He did not face locusts or frogs, and he didn’t turn the Charles River to blood in Boston, but he sure as hell turned it into champagne in 2004 when the Sox won their first World Series since 1918. With the Cubs, Epstein sacrificed the fatted Billy Goat on the altar of great pitching, great defense and a bevy of young hitters who assure success will continue.
Therefore, I ask my fellow Americans: Are you better off now than you were a few years ago? The Red Sox and Cubs damned sure are, and they can thank Theo Epstein, the wunderkind of sports turnarounds. You don’t like the way your nation is going? You want somebody to come in and clean out the trash bin and rebuild an administration that cares about you? No lies, scandal or braggadocio, just results?
Remember this when you go to the polls on Tuesday: You can, and probably will, do a lot worse than Theo Epstein.
I had made up my mind on the subject of this column long before the Saints took on Seattle Sunday, and I was just hoping for something to happen in the game that would justify the subject. Now, don’t let this feed the popular belief that writers write what they want whether the evidence justifies it or not, but in this case, yeah, that’s what happened. Guilty as charged! Fortunately, it worked out.
I was going to write about linebackers, a subject which became timely after the Saints’ 25-20 win over the Seahawks. MLB Dannell Ellerbe was back in the lineup and made a large difference in the team’s ability to stop the Seattle run. And newbie LB Nate Stupar made the play of the day for the home team with his acrobatic interception of a Russell Wilson pass in the second quarter. The Seahawks led 14-6 at the time and were in good position to extend their lead. But as Wilson released the ball, Stupar jumped the route with a full diving extension to pick off the throw, giving the ball back to the Saints at Seattle’s 37-yard line and shifting momentum to New Orleans. With a short field to work with, the Saints capitalized when QB Drew Brees scored on a 1-yard dive nine plays later to pull within a point at 14-13. So now that LB Stupar justified my premise, let me tell you why I wanted to write about linebackers.
This week, Alex Gelhar of NFL.com wrote a wonderful story on the Dome Patrol, that historic group of Saints linebackers who became the first defensive unit from one team to start a Pro Bowl game. The story made me think that the traditional role of linebackers as epitomized by the Dome Patrol seems to have diminished over the years, with the emphasis now on pass-rushers and shutdown cornerbacks. Even the Saints seem to be content with filling the position with free agents and draft choices that flash or burn. It's hard to believe that in another day the Saints had maybe the fiercest unit ever to play for one team.
The Dome Patrol story fittingly opened with the unit's role in the 1987 game that marked the official turnaround of the franchise from have-nots to a contender. The Saints led 20-14 at Pittsburgh late in the fourth quarter, but in the last seconds the Steelers were driving to go ahead. When the Dome Patrol’s commander, 5-9 brick wall Sam Mills, stuffed RB Frank Pollard's fourth-down attempt at the goal line, announcer Hank Stram said it looked like “throwing popcorn at a battleship.” The victory guaranteed the Saints' first winning season. I was there, and I will never forget it, but I have many other memories about the Dome Patrol.
If Mills was the brain of the unit, burly Vaughan Johnson was the brawn, Pat Swilling was the flash and Rickey Jackson was the heart. Gelhar’s piece at http://www.nfl.com/domepatrol adequately describes each player and the significance of the unit itself to the franchise’s evolution, but I want to add a personal recollection of Sam Mills. I regretted that Mills left the team in a contract dispute that I had a major role in. He was 35, a time when most players who are still around are starting their physical descent, and in the Salary Cap era we chose not to pay Mills what his agent was demanding. Sam left, went to Carolina and rubbed our noses into it a few times with Panther victories and three more Pro Bowl selections.
I did not see him again until 1998 when I was toiling for the Buffalo Bills and Sam had retired and joined the Panthers’ coaching staff. I took the time to write him a letter in those days of pen and ink, telling him that I enjoyed our years together in New Orleans and, while his skill was unquestioned, I considered him even more a man of great integrity and was one of the finest people I’d ever had the opportunity to work with in the NFL. Soon after that, the Panthers came to Buffalo for a game, and I made a point of going down on the field to see Sam. I never made it that far.
I was getting off the elevator, and he was coming out of the visiting locker room when we saw each other, and he gave me that wide, gap-toothed grin of recognition. We hugged, and he told me how much he appreciated my letter and that everything worked out as it was meant to be. A few years later when Mills was diagnosed with inoperable cancer, I thought of our final meeting. Linebackers today may not be as critical to team success as they were in past days, but people smarter than I can have that debate. All I know is that my final moment with Sam Mills is still my fondest memory of the Dome Patrol.
As a Chicago native, Anthony Davis is probably rooting for the Cubs in the World Series. No big news there. But there is another, more sinister connection between the Pelicans’ All-NBA power forward and Chicago baseball. It’s the question that Davis-watchers are reluctant to consider after only four years as New Orleans’ brightest – and possibly only - professional basketball star. Is Davis destined to become another Ernie Banks – the legendary Cubs star who was a perennial all-star on a team never quite good enough to contend for a championship?
That question will be addressed Wednesday, a day after the Cubs and Indians throw their first pitches, when the Pelicans begin the 2016-17 NBA season at home against Denver. I must admit that rooting for basketball success in a city where football is king has been a task not unlike rooting for football success in Lexington, Kentucky. And therein lies the twine that binds both. Watching Kentucky take the 2012 NCAA championship in the Superdome behind Davis was ecstasy for this Kentucky fan, and three months later when the Wildcat star was drafted No. 1 overall by the then-NOLA Hornets I knew NBA titles surely would follow.
Success came quickly. Davis won a gold medal that summer with Team USA in the 2012 Olympics, and was named to the NBA All-Rookie First Team. The next season, he became an All-Star for the first time and led the NBA in blocked shots per game. He has since become a three-time All-Star, the youngest player to score 59 or more points in an NBA game, and last year was named as the one player NBA general managers would want if they were building a team.
But today, after four NBA seasons, the personal performance has far outweighed the team results. He is a force on the court, but only when he is on the court. A series of lingering ailments have slowed Davis to the point that he has missed 20 percent of his team’s games. His injuries have ranged from concussions to chest contusions to hip strains to sprained ankles and shoulders. In all, Davis has missed 68 games with injuries to an incredible 13 body parts. I would have a hard time naming 13 body parts without Grey's Anatomy! In his only season at Kentucky, Davis never missed a start in 40 games. His absence has doubtless contributed to three losing seasons and a cumulative .414 winning percentage during his time in New Orleans.
You will hear about his historic counterpart over the next couple of weeks when a wizened announcer inevitably intones the legend of Ernie Banks. He played for the Cubs between 1953 and 1971, but his first winning season was in 1963 when the Cubs won 82 and lost 80. It was Banks’ 11th season at 1060 W. Addison street. He did not enjoy even a sniff of team success until the end of his career when Leo Durocher was hired as manager in 1966. The Cubs had winning records from 1967 through Banks’ retirement year of 1971, but the closest they came to a pennant was in 1969 when they finished eight games behind the Miracle Mets. The Cubs had other quality players in those years such as Ferguson Jenkins, Ron Santo and Billy Williams, but they did not have enough to contend for a pennant.
That sounds hauntingly familiar for the Pelicans. GM Dell Demps made the decision a year ago to keep his team intact and re-signed all of his potential free agents. That tactic has been a proven path to success, but only if you also retain the coach. Demps dumped Monte Williams and then expected the roster to fit into Alvin Gentry’s system, whatever that was intended to be. The results were disastrous, and the failure to fit plus an ER full of injuries doomed the Pels to a 30-52 record and another missed playoffs. Demps and Gentry have retooled for this season, hoping to give Davis some help. No. 1 draft pick Buddy Hield gives Gentry the guy who could start the transformation to the Warriors’ fast-paced offense that Gentry helped put together in a previous lifetime. (It’s frightening when you think that Hield is only six months younger than Davis. Has Davis been too young for the NBA until now or is Hield too old to be a rookie? Hopefully, at 23 they are the perfect age to become a core of success.)
But it takes more than two to tango in the NBA. Demps signed former Bulls’ guard E’Twaun Moore and ex-Pacers forward Solomon Hill to help patch up the team’s erratic defense. He then gave Davis some familiar support, signing 6-9 ex-Rocket small forward Terrence Jones, who helped AD hoist the 2012 NCAA trophy at the Superdome. Only the Shadow knows how effective these new players will mesh with Davis and the cast of usual suspects from last year. Tyreke Evans will miss the first month of the season after surgery on his leg and former all-star PG Jrue Holiday’s ETA is unknown after he missed the entire pre-season to be with his wife who recently underwent brain surgery. Neither centers Alexis Ajinca nor Omer Asik would be on the roster if Trump were commissioner, and their expected contributions in the paint are just as elusive.
So, my advice as we look ahead at another basketball season in Football Town? Enjoy the World Series, light a candle to Anthony Davis’ good health and hope Ernie Banks gets the recognition he deserves this week!
A friend contacted me a couple of months ago with an “opportunity.” Red lights and sirens immediately went off in my head, but I listened politely. She said that sometime during the NFL season, a new sports app would be introduced that promises to hit the country by storm. I know about apps. I have an IPhone and I use apps to tell me the weather or give me up-to-date news and sports or even allow me to access my bank account. I’m not much into recreational apps that play word games or shoot pigs with Angry Birds or whatever they do, but my wife and my kids, who are much more attuned to modern habits that I consider wastes of time, are avid participants.
My friend gushed over the possibilities of the upcoming sports app that allows “players” to click on the app during their favorite team’s games and predict what plays the team will call and other game-related decisions. It’s free to download, free to play, and you can compete with your friends in a “game within the game.” And there are benefits! Calling a play correctly allows a player to earn points and reach levels of achievements that earn rewards like shirts, hats, game tickets or even trips to games.
So, I asked, how do you earn tickets and trips for free? If something sounds too good to be true, then it usually is. If the game is free for most players to play, where does the money come from? That prompted a brief education that now has convinced me what my children have been trying to tell me for years, that I am a Total Troglodyte who no longer understands how the world works.
This new sports app, which will carry the name FireFan, operates on a platform that is now common in the ever-growing world of games and gaming. I had never heard of the app “Candy Crush,” but I’ve learned that 96% of its players play for free and the site generates nearly $1 million a day in revenue. Every day! The FireFan model is similar. Major sponsors apparently are so concerned about viewers’ ability to fast-forward through their very expensive TV commercials that they are willing to pay a player one game token – equal to $1 - to click on the app and watch a 15-second ad of their product. Players may watch up to five commercials in a 24-hour period and accumulate tokens for gameday. Players who want to play more may purchase token packages, starting at 99 cents. The FireFan developers expect most players to play with the house’s – or sponsor’s - money.
Speaking of developers, you can judge the potential of any enterprise these days by the investors and management. To wit, I learned that Mark Cuban, Michael Jordan and Ted Leonsis (majority owner of the Washington Wizards and Capitals) have given the developers $44 million to create initiatives that can tap into the growing enthusiasm surrounding sports games. The FireFan app was developed by Mark Mongie, the former Creative Director at EA Sports who developed the mega-popular Madden NFL game and the successful NASCAR Thunder game. I am convinced.
The “opportunity” my friend mentioned came to some of us who have platforms in the sporting business and would be willing to spread the word. And that is what I am doing. Pre-register now for free to play when the app comes out by clicking on or pasting into your browser: https://www.firefan.com/?code=JWMsports and become a member of the “JWMsports” team. Send it to your friends so you can create some gameday competition of your own.
Full disclosure compels me to acknowledge that every player who signs up for my team generates a small percentage of sponsor money for my team, the proceeds of which will likely go to charity. My reward is showing my kids that dad is no longer a Total Troglodyte.
That legendary soothsayer and part-time football coach Vince Lombardi once dropped this tidbit of wisdom on his acolytes: “Winning is a habit.” But he added in the same breath: “Unfortunately, so is losing.” The Saints know all about the losing habit, so many times racing out to a lead, maybe a big lead, and then watching helplessly as the other team suddenly wakes up and the margin fritters away. The script has been played out so many times in recent years that now it’s almost expected. The celebrants of Who Dat Nation, who start off drinking toasts to their favorite team, switch to the hard stuff in order to endure the inevitable.
But in the past two games, our heroes have shown the other side of Lombardi’s Law, that they might finally have learned how to win. Sunday’s 41-38 victory over the slumping Carolina Panthers had elements of both qualities. The team took a 21-0 lead in the second quarter, thanks to the wizardry of QB Drew Brees and some unexpected heroics from his mates, including a 59-yard punt return by rookie water bug Tommylee Lewis and an interception in the end zone by DB newbie Sterling Moore.
In the Saints’ past, such abundance has been reduced when the ephemeral intangible called momentum suddenly and without reason shifts the other way. That happened Sunday when the Saints had the ball 4th and 2 on the Carolina 31-yard line, leading 21-0. Coach Sean Payton had several options, including the fans’ pleas to “go for it!” Had he gone for it and made it, the team might have been on their way to a fourth touchdown and it would have been “Turn out the lights, Agnes.” The team had gone for it earlier on fourth down and scored a TD on Coby Fleener’s sneaky inside sweep around right end. In the alternative, Payton could have gone conservative and sent out K Will Lutz to try a 48-yard FG, which I think would have been the weenie pick. I was with the crowd on this one, expecting Payton to dial up something magical that would keep things going in the positive direction. Even if they failed, the worst thing that could have happened is that Carolina gets the ball on their own 31.
Payton, unexpectedly, instructed Brees to take a long count and try and draw the Panthers into an offside. Being the grown men that most Panthers are, they kept their collective cool and didn’t budge. So now the Saints had a 4th and 7 on the Panthers’ 36 and poor Lutz trotted out to attempt a 53-yard FG, which he pushed wide right. That is when the Saints became mere mortals and Big Mo shifted to the Panthers’ side of the field. The reigning Super Bowl runner-up proceeded to abuse a cowering Saints’ defense that appeared to return to the bad habits of losing. The visitors outscored the Saints 38-17 over the next half-hour of game clock, and the score was tied with just under three minutes to play.
And that is when Brees showed that just maybe his team has changed its worst habit and now has learned how to win. He marched his mates down the field, and with 11 seconds remaining, he turned the baton over to Lutz. The rookie kicker, who had grooved a 33-yarder to close the first half, calmly secured his spot on a Mardi Gras float by hitting the bulls-eye from 52 yards out for the win.
One game does not make a habit, but coming on the heels of a similar ending in the Saints’ last game, we might be seeing a total change of personality. You can’t always do it on your own, though. Two weeks ago at San Diego, trailing 34-21 with five minutes to go, the Saints got the breaks they needed through two inexplicably gift-wrapped fumbles. Still, you need to convert the breaks, and the Saints did on their way to a 35-34 win. And that’s what teams that have established a winning habit have learned how to do.
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I am an NFL lifer, but my old league needs to loosen up. The latest hubbub was the apparent threat to fine Saints WR Brandin Cooks if he repeated his “archer” TD celebration. Kentucky fans will remember the same last year when sharpshooting guard Jamal Murray followed each made three-pointer by pulling an invisible arrow out of his quiver and firing into the worshipping crowd at Rupp Arena.
So, when Cooks outran the Panthers’ secondary for a first-quarter 87-yard TD pass from Brees, inquiring minds wondered what the third-year receiver would do. Sure enough, Cooks appeared to pull the arrow out of the quiver, but the only thing he launched was a kiss to the fans between outstretched arms. Cooks took the high road and avoided another tempest in the media teapot, but he shouldn't have to do that.
One of the announcers made reference to Cooks’ gesture, saying the NFL has declared that “shooting a bow and arrow is an act of violence.” Excuse me? Maybe the slashing motion across your throat or maybe even pretending to pull the pin out of a grenade with your teeth and tossing it at your opponent. Or maybe abusing your spouse or girl friend or a child or even yourself with drugs. But a TD celebration? C'mon!
No wonder the reputation of the “No Fun League” continues to grow!