The Whims and Foibles of Sports...
It’s interesting how different sports teams elicit different images, especially from those of us who don’t know much about the teams. Take tonight’s national championship college football match between Oregon and Ohio State. Are you more Buck or more Duck? Living in SEC country, we didn’t get a whole lot of information about either team, one being in the far north, the other playing all their games after midnight Central time. Therefore, as a public service to all disaffected Southeastern Conference football fans who will be tuned into the SEC network tonight in hopes of finding a repeat of the 2011 BCS Championship game between Alabama and LSU, I offer this audible Rorschach Test so you can see which team you might gravitate toward:
Uniform color. If you are a wardrobe conservative, then you would likely favor the drab Buckeye scheme of red and gray, a combination that would be comfortably found in board rooms, on soda cans or on a Smart car sales lot. However, if your color sensibilities have been liberated, you will choose the bold Oregon combination of yellow, green, pewter and white with swatches of an unknown color that Nike has not yet named. You are likely to find those colors on interstate overpass signs, carnival carousels or internet ads for Netflix. This one’s a tossup.
Movies. Ohio State fans will never forget the teary-eyed romantic comedy “Goodbye Columbus,” which starred Richard Benjamin as Neil, a young man of humble means who falls in love with Jewish-American-princess Brenda (Ali MacGraw). Their romance is out of the question so far as Brenda's suburbanite parents are concerned, so Neil and Brenda rendezvous in some of the sleaziest motels ever seen in a 1960s film including The Bates Motel. On the other hand, the University of Oregon campus was transformed into Faber College in the movie that had parents of college-aged children quickly making applications to trade schools. The tone of "Animal House" was set with the opening shot of the statue of the school’s founder on which was inscribed the motto, "Knowledge Is Good." Pledge master John "Bluto" Blutarsky (John Belushi) led a rebellion of comical misadventures that included a road trip to kidnap young ladies from Emily Dickinson University. Belushi and his frat brothers are thrown out of school, and, stripped of their student draft deferments, they commit one last, utterly senseless and screamingly funny act of rebellion, making a shambles of the university's annual homecoming parade. Big Edge to the Ducks.
Famous Graduates. A website called “Grad Ranker” lists famous alums of every school, but it’s curious that three of Ohio State’s top four graduates on the website are Jeffrey Dahmer, George Steinbrenner and Bobby Knight. So if you have a soft spot for serial killers, arrogant sports owners or … Bobby Knight, then you might lean Buckeye. On the other hand, everybody knows Nike czar Phil Knight has contributed zillions to build the athletic program of his alma mater, but did you know that Oregon graduates include a combination of beauty and comedy? Lindsay Wagner (the Bionic Woman), Howard Hesseman (Dr. Johnny Fever on WKRP in Cincinnati) and David Ogden Stiers (Dr. Charles Winchester in M*A*S*H) bring smiles to your lips. Not to mention its most illustrious graduate, at least in my household, my brother-in-law and eminent New Orleans barrister, Henry St. Paul Provosty. Edge Ducks.
Mascot. The simple question here is would you rather be represented by a cuddly creature whose image was loaned to the school from Walt Disney himself or would you rather be represented by a nut? Oregon lore has it that a half century ago Disney gave the school a handshake agreement that it could create a mascot based on his hugely successful Donald Duck cartoon character. That was the birth of “Puddles” the rotund, bouncy and rather humorous Duck that patrols the sidelines at Oregon sporting events. Ohio State, on the other hand, realized early that there's not a whole lot you can do with a buckeye, which is a nut that grows on the state tree. The story is that a campus-wide "Name the Buckeye" contest in 1965 selected Brutus Buckeye to be the mascot. Brutus has a buckeye head and block O hat, scarlet and grey shirt emblazoned "Brutus" and "00,"red pants with an Ohio State towel hanging over the front and high white socks with black shoes. Are you still awake?
This can only give hope to any school whose mascot is either a pecan, a persimmon or a pomegranate. Unless you can see yourself cheering: Go, you fighting Persimmons! give the edge and match to the Ducks.
If the first week of the new year proved anything to sporting fans, it proved that even the teams we consider the best can be beaten. The prime local example was the Sugar Bowl in which Ohio State shocked top-ranked Alabama 42-35 to move on to the championship game Monday night against Oregon. A near-upset of a lesser note occurred on Tuesday in Lexington, where top-ranked and previously invincible Kentucky survived its Southeastern Conference opener in overtime against an inspired Ole Miss team.
The fact that anybody can be beaten is what keeps the Las Vegas sports book in business (although failure to cover the spread does not quite carry the universal gravitas as losing the game). Most of the so-called experts picked the Tide to easily handle the Buckeyes, and when they went ahead 21-6 with eight minutes to go in the first half, the prophecy appeared to be fulfilled. But then, most celebrating Bama fans forgot that Ohio State coach Urban Meyer imported his formula that earned him two NCAA titles at Florida. Speed kills, and it eventually doomed the Tide.
If I was a betting man (which my record in picking NFL games proves I am not!), I would take the seven points that Las Vegas says will be Oregon’s margin of victory in Monday night’s championship game. Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota is responsible for those odds, the latest evidence of which was his march through Florida State’s defense in the Rose Bowl. But, as we have learned, anybody can be beaten.
Kentucky learned that the hard way on Tuesday night, when an Ole Miss team that had lost to Western Kentucky, Dayton and Charleston Southern, came into Rupp Arena and darn near derailed the Wildcat Express. The Wildcats left the gate in customary form, racing to a 12-0 lead before 5-10 guard Stefan Moody limbered up from three-point range. Moody’s quickness forced Calipari to bench his own pint-sized dynamo, 5-9 freshman Tyler Ulis, who was victimized by Moody’s ability to hurl long-range mortar shells over him.
Moody made five of the Rebs’ nine three-point baskets, and was fouled on another attempt with 4:06 remaining in overtime when leg cramps forced him out of the game. Call that Kentucky Lucky, because the Rebs had hit all 15 free throws in regulation. The home team was saved by the rule that allows the fouling team to choose the shooter in the event a player leaves the game. Kentucky tabbed M.J. Rhett, who missed two of three, paving the way for Willie Cauley-Stein’s hustle and sophomore Aaron Harrison’s own long-range and foul shooting to preserve the 89-86 victory.
Although Big Blue Nation was obviously happy with the victory, they should realize their team can be beaten. The 40-0 record that seemed so realistic when they were dominating the likes of Kansas and UCLA now seems less of a sure thing. The numbers say South Carolina is better than Ole Miss, and the Cats play the Gamecocks in Columbia. The numbers say Georgia is better than Ole Miss, and the Cats play the Bulldogs in Athens. LSU is better than Ole Miss, and the Cats play the Tigers in Baton Rouge. The numbers say Florida is better than Ole Miss, and the Cats play the Gators twice. Kentucky might end up unbeaten, but after Tuesday we know they aren't unbeatable.
As a footnote, it was interesting that on Wednesday Kentucky coach John Calipari admitted the one coach he admires most is Alabama’s Nick Saban. Speaking on ESPN’s Dan Patrick Show, Calipari said Saban is the ultimate player’s coach who cares for his players like few other coaches. Cal might have to apologize to UK football coach Mark Stoops on that one! Damien Harris of Berea, Ky., the nation’s top-rated high school running back, is scheduled to choose between the Wildcats and the Crimson Tide on Friday!
Shortly after Jerry Jones bought the Dallas Cowboys in the spring of 1989, he called Saints owner Tom Benson for help. Jones, a co-captain and starting guard of the Arkansas football team that won the 1964 national championship, had headed for the oil fields after graduation and made a fortune as a wildcatter. He also was just smart enough to know what he didn’t know about his new toy.
He had heard from other owners that Saints’ general manager and president Jim Finks ran one of the best organizations in the National Football League. So he called Benson and asked if he and his management team could come to New Orleans and spend a day with Finks to get advice on how to set up an organization the right way. Finks viewed new owners with an attitude somewhere between that of a annoying neighbor and a little rich kid in a candy store, and he was still breaking in his own new owner in Benson. But in the National Football League, club executives are smart enough to know that a new owner could one day be your new boss, so he agreed.
Finks drafted his vice president of administration to sit in on the meeting, which he convened around a large round conference table in his office at the Superdome. Jones was polite and gracious and his son Stephen paid rapt attention, although new head coach Jimmy Johnson clearly would have rather been in the film room or on the golf course. But one piece of advice clearly got the attention of all the Cowboys’ brass. Finks spoke about his 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, and today the Cowboys are in the playoffs largely because they have the best offensive line in football. Three members of their line have just been elected to the 2015 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. Add in veteran T Doug Free, a 2007 fourth rounder from Northern Illinois, and 2012 free agent G Ronald Leary from Baton Rouge and Memphis and you have a group who has protected QB Tony Romo adequately and made enough holes for RB DeMarco Murray to gain 1,845 yards this season. Smith, Frederick and Martin 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.
That the Dallas method was once Saints doctrine is ironic when you try 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. QB Drew Brees was pressured into fumbles and interceptions that probably would have been reduced by better protection. Granted, Salary Cap issues don’t allow the club to do everything it needs to do, but the draft is still a viable way to pick up quality players and develop them.
A peek at the Saints’ draft history suggests a belief that offensive linemen can be found in the lower rounds or in free agency. In the Sean Payton era, the Saints have drafted only two offensive linemen in the first two rounds, and neither Jammal Brown (No. 1 in 2005) nor Charles Brown (No. 2 in 2010) were worth a saucer of spit. The 2015 Saints are in dire need of a center, the jury is still out on second-year man Terron Armstead at left tackle, and RT Zack Strief is not the dominant blocker who keys a run game.
The team probably can’t afford top free agents who would improve the line immediately, but they can add quality by emphasizing it in the draft. Maybe it’s time for the Saints to follow the Cowboys’ model which once upon a time was the philosophy around here.
In the college football semi-final playoffs, Alabama beats Ohio State 49-14 in the Sugar Bowl and Oregon runs past Florida State 31-17 in the Rose Bowl. The Seminoles' Jameis Winston is arrested after the game, accused of stealing soap dispensers from the locker room. “I did it to help my NFL draft position,” Winston claims. Before the championship game, the Ducks try to get an edge by enlisting the Robertson family of Duck Dynasty to generate southern support, but the experiment fails when Uncle Si sets up a turkey fryer and attempts to fry Puddles, the Ducks’ mascot, for the pregame meal. Nothing helps as the Tide wins the national championship behind Amari Cooper’s three TD catches and T.J. Yeldon's 163 yards rushing.
Defending NFL champion Seattle is upset in the NFC playoffs by the Dallas Cowboys who go on to beat Green Bay for the conference title. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones misses the game in fear that his latest chin tuck would freeze on the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field. In the AFC, Tom Brady extends his lifetime 9-3 record against Peyton Manning as the Patriots down the Broncos in the title game.
The week before the Super Bowl, Dallas QB Tony Romo suggests that Brady’s wife, super model Gisele Bundchen, might be happier with “a real man.” Brady starts the game at strong safety and on the first play from scrimmage sacks Romo in a flagrant helmet-to-helmet hit that knocks Romo cold. Brady is ejected, and the game goes down in history as the Backup Bowl as Patriots QB Jimmy Garappolo outduels the Cowboys’ Brandon Weeden in a 42-41 slugfest marred by a record number of penalties and ejections. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell immediately launches an inquiry.
After the NFL season, the Saints make drastic moves to get under the Salary Cap, terminating G Jahri Evans, LB Curtis Lofton, DT Broderick Bunkley, LB David Hawthorne, two PR assistants, six marketing reps and three quality control coaches. They re-sign WR Marques Colston to a two-year contract at the league minimum, but even all that is not enough. QB Drew Brees is persuaded to restructure his contract to make the necessary room this year, but it increases the amount of dead money pushed forward to 36% of the anticipated 2016 cap.
LSU Coach Les Miles restructures his contract to base his compensation solely on incentives for bowl victories, SEC titles and the national championship. When asked about the unconventional agreement, Miles says "No reasonable person would do it, which is why I did it!" AD Joe Alleva says privately that the new contract will save the athletic department $3 million a year. The contract also instructs Miles to trade in his trademark white hat for a purple one. The contract language specifies: “Villains should not wear wear white hats.”
Kentucky’s basketball team goes undefeated, beating Duke and Arizona in the Final Four for the school’s ninth national championship. In an unprecedented move, the AP’s final poll ranks the Wildcats’ White Team No. 1 and the Blue Team No. 2. Afterward, the Harrison twins, center Dakari Johnson and freshman Trey Lyles announce they are returning to school to win another championship.
Bob Baffert’s American Pharoah nips Todd Pletcher’s Daredevil at the wire to win the 141st Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs. Triple Crown dreams fade quickly, however, as American Pharoah is doomed by an outside post position in the Preakness and finishes six lengths behind stablemate Dortmund. The Belmont Stakes is immediately canceled for lack of interest. In the NFL Draft, the Saints at No. 13 select 6-7, 312-pounder offensive tackle Andrus Peat of Stanford. They continue to address the offensive line in the second round, picking the top-ranked center, 6-5 308-pound Cameron Erving of Florida State. They shore up their linebacking corps in the third round, choosing inside LB Denzell Perryman of Miami.
In the NBA, the New Orleans Pelicans finish strong but fall to Portland 4 games to 3 in the Western Conference Finals. However, the Trailblazers can’t solve playmaking guard John Wall as the Washington Wizards win the NBA championship in six games. Pelicans' forward Anthony Davis is named league MVP. In the NBA draft, Kentucky center Willie Cauley-Stein is drafted No. 1 by the New York Knicks, Duke’s Jahlil Okafor is drafted No. 2 by Minnesota, Arizona’s Stanley Johnson is drafted No. 3 by Philadelphia and UK forward Karl-Anthony Towns is drafted No. 4 by the Los Angeles Lakers. When he goes undrafted, Kentucky junior Alex Poythress announces he is returning to school for his senior year, prompting Coach John Calipari to unveil plans for a three-platoon system next season.
In baseball, the Cubs take an early season lead and coast to the National League pennant behind Jon Lester’s 21 wins. His old team, the rebuilt Boston Red Sox, make a strong rebound, but fall in the playoffs to the L.A. Angels who win the American League flag. The Cubs and Angels split the first six games of the World Series, but in Game 7, Johnny Giavotella’s pinch-hit homer in bottom of the ninth gives the Angels a 3-2 win and their second World Series title.
LSU follows another disappointing 8-4 season by firing Head Coach Les Miles two days before Christmas. Saints Coach Sean Payton resigns to succeed Miles, although his team is leading the NFC South with a 5-10 record. Saints owner Tom Benson names QB Drew Brees as the NFL's first playing head coach since George Halas in the 1920's.
Hey, it could happen! May your own year be more predictable! Happy New Year to All!
Thankfully, the most disappointing season of the Sean Payton era is over, and now the Saints head coach and GM Mickey Loomis will concentrate on picking up the pieces. Or cutting them. Or restructuring them. Or performing any unnatural act that is allowable under the confounding and frustrating rules of the NFL Salary Cap.
No doubt, Loomis and Payton want to keep the team solvent as long as they consider QB Drew Brees as the foundation for a renovation. As we Katrina survivors well know, if you believe your foundation is solid, then you rebuild around it. If you don’t, then you bulldoze it and start over. I don’t think the Saints’ hierarchy is ready to call in the Demolition Diva just yet, even though Brees began showing cracks this season. He committed more judgment errors than he has in the past, with the possible exception of the 2012 season when Payton was suspended. He committed critical fumbles and forced passes into double- and triple-coverage, as he did twice on Sunday that resulted in red-zone interceptions. Brees' mistakes, combined with a timid defense for most of the season, gave the Saints a minus-13 in the critical takeaway/ giveaway stats, good for 31st place ahead only of Oakland.
How can they fix it? Unfortunately, the NFL Salary Cap does not allow logical men to make logical decisions when it comes to rebuilding. We saw a glimpse last year of what can happen when the team was forced to jettison such players as Will Smith, Malcolm Jenkins, Roman Harper, Lance Moore and Darren Sproles. Those moves gave the team money to play with, but in doing so they sacrificed leadership, which became a problem during the 2014 season. Never before had we heard such intimations of immaturity and players who didn’t have a winning work ethic or attitude come from a Payton locker room. Those new attitudes were purchased with the money saved by cutting the aforementioned veterans.
It might not be any better this off-season. According to www.Spotrac.com, which monitors each team’s salary cap situation, only four teams are over the projected cap for 2015. Not surprisingly, the heroes of Who Dat Nation lead that group and are far and away in the worst financial position in the NFL. Right now, the Saints are $22.4 million over the projected cap for 2015, behind the 49ers at $12.7 million over, the Cardinals at $11.2 million over and the Dolphins at $4.7 million over. The only way to reduce that number is terminations or restructuring of contracts, the latter of which has contributed to the current problem.
Saints' cost-cutters will be looking closely are such contracts as WR Marques Colston, who caught the winning TD pass against the Bucs on Sunday. Colston counts $9.7 million toward the 2015 cap, and cutting him would restore $7 million in salary and workout bonus. However, $2.7 million in past signing and restructuring bonuses count, and a termination would accelerate $2.7 million in amortized bonuses pushed into 2016 because of past restructurings. The actual savings of cutting Colston could be as low as $1.5 million.
Similar math will have to be done on such players as guards Jahri Evans ($11 million to the 2015 cap) and Ben Grubbs ($9.6 million), as well as LB Curtis Lofton ($9 million), DT Broderick Bunkley ($6 million) and LB David Hawthorne $6 million). It will not be an easy or a painless task.
This is where I would love to have seen Jim Finks operate. The Saints’ Hall of Fame President and GM became sick and resigned the year before the Cap was fully implemented in 1994 so we will never know. However, I suspect his tactics would not be too far from those utilized by Loomis and Payton up to now to keep a good team together as long as possible. However, when that team falls to 7-9, it begs the question: Is the foundation still strong enough to make the Saints a team worth saving?