The Whims and Foibles of Sports...
Only New Orleans can turn abject disappointment into a party. Of course, just about anything that happens in New Orleans is reason enough for a party. Even deaths are celebrated by jazz funerals in which the sorrow of passing is replaced by a celebration of a life well lived. And that’s what happened Sunday when thousands of fans turned off their televisions and descended downtown to protest the game they should have been in.
The impromptu Blackout and Gold parade marchers second-lined at Jackson Square, down Canal and Poydras streets and gathered at Fulton Street in a massive display of anger. And the world noticed, especially after a relatively dull Super Bowl that featured the least points and the most punts in the game’s 53-year history. The Wall Street Journal’s Jason Gay summed it up when he wrote: “I’m half convinced this sleepy Super Bowl was the result of a hex from the good people of New Orleans, still seething that a missed call in the NFC Championship prevented their beloved Saints from being here. This is what the NFL gets, for messing with New Orleans."
The NFL probably could have done something to curb the anger. Commissioner Roger Goodell could have flown to New Orleans a day or two after the game, stood beside Gayle Benson and selected Saints representatives and addressed the fans. He could have explained why he was prevented by NFL rules from interfering, why the league will encourage the Competition Committee to amend the rules and prevent it from happening again. And, oh yes, he could have apologized to the fans. But he didn’t, and every day the infected wound grew more raw and toxic.
Although it may be difficult to reconcile New Orleans’ strong tradition of Catholicism and professed religious faith with its penchant for ribaldry and revelry, Who Dat Nation apparently took a cue from Scripture to get through their grief. Luke 4:23 contains the well-traveled phrase, “Physician, heal thyself.” And that’s what the Who Dats did. They confronted their demons, particularly Goodell, and celebrated one of the greatest seasons in team history.
QB Drew Brees added to the suddenly upbeat mood by proclaiming his team is still within the window of opportunity. Next season it will welcome back its maturing stable of young stars such as Alvin Kamara, Michael Thomas, Marshon Lattimore, Ryan Ramczyk and Marcus Davenport along with its solid group of crafty veterans such as Cameron Jordan, Demario Davis, Max Unger, Terron Armstead and Brees himself. If Sheldon Rankins recovers from his torn Achilles, they re-sign Mark Ingram and can pick up a wide receiver in free agency or the draft, the table would be set for another run. Indeed, the Westgate Las Vegas morning line today has the Saints, Patriots and Rams at 8-1 behind the Chiefs at 6-1 to win Super Bowl LIV.
Sunday’s fan protest turned into a cathartic celebration that put the travesty of the past two weeks behind them and allows them to look ahead. They won’t soon forget they were cheated and are less likely to forgive it, but another run at a Super Bowl next year would make No Flag Gate far less painful.
YES!, I’m still ticked off, and NO! I do not plan to watch the Super Bowl or any other football until training camp, and I will only watch the NFL draft because Kentucky might have its biggest draft-day haul in history. But before we leave the subject of football, some news items have popped up the past couple of weeks that reminded me of some interesting tales from the Saints past that might help ease the pain.
SAINTS PAY OKAFOR FOR MISSED INCENTIVE. The Saints paid Alex Okafor a $400,000 incentive bonus for making five sacks, although the rush lineman only recorded four sacks during the season. He fell one sack shy of the target, but the Saints paid him anyway. “The Saints have given me opportunities since I got here, and I’m just blessed and grateful that they still believe in me and are taking care of me the way they are,” Okafor said.
That brought to mind my annual post-season meetings with GM Jim Finks when we would go over the incentive list to confirm who earned bonuses and who did not. Our typical playing time incentives were $2,500 for playing 25% of the total snaps, $5,000 for playing 50% or $7,500 for playing 75%. They were not cumulative; the higher level the player earned is what he got. One player achieved 24.5% of the offensive plays, and I marked it as earned. “Wait a minute,” Finks said. “We don’t round off here. He didn’t earn it.” And that’s how QB John Fourcade missed out on a few extra bucks that season. I wonder if Okafor would send him a check?
SAINTS ANNOUNCE DEAL WITH CASINO. In December, the NFL and the Saints announced a new partnership with Caesar’s Entertainment Corporate as the first-ever official casino sponsor of the NFL. Caesars owns Harrah’s Casino in New Orleans. After Chris Hemmeter opened the first casino in New Orleans in 1993, the printing company that printed the Saints GameDay program came to us about accepting some rather lucrative ads the casino wanted to buy. I requested permission at an NFL meeting to accept such advertising, but I was rebuffed based on the NFL’s longtime aversion to any form of gambling.
The growing proliferation of casinos around the country had other clubs asking the league office the same question and some were receiving different answers. The Redskins were allowed to accept signage advertising from the Maryland Lottery. The Patriots were allowed to accept advertising from a Native American casino. But I had to tell our GameDay sales group that casino advertising was off limits to us.
Fast forward into the season, and I got a call from Jay Moyer, Commissioner Pete Rozelle’s legal counsel, who informed me the Saints were being fined for accepting casino ads in GameDay. I adamantly denied it, and Moyer asked if I had a program handy. I did, and he instructed me to look at “page 82.” I flipped to page 82 and saw a K&B drugstore ad, and I told him so. He told me I must have the wrong page or the wrong game, because his copy contained a full-page ad for the local casino.
I was flabbergasted, and I called the head of the GameDay sales group, who sheepishly confessed. The 100 GameDay magazines that were delivered to the Saints office contained the drugstore ad, but the 10,000 or so that were sold in the Superdome carried the casino ad. Needless to say, the third-party sales group paid the fine.
FANGIO IS NEW HEAD COACH OF THE BRONCOS. Vic Fangio was Jim Mora’s linebackers coach and one of my best friends when we were both with the Saints. He has made the circuit over the years for his defensive acumen and most recently served with distinction as the Bears’ defensive coordinator. Vic is a great defensive tactician, but my favorite Fangio story reflects his good nature and his calm demeanor in the face of adversity. I remember it so well because it was his cool that calmed my adversity.
We were frequent golf companions, because Vic was a good player and generous, but not intrusive, with tips that tried to improve my game. On the day in question, we were out at the original Eastover Golf Course, which was a challenging tract off Bullard avenue. It was on a par 3 hole that had a long, wrap-around sand trap guarding the right side of the green, a frequent landing spot for my shot. Sure enough, kerplunk!
I took my sand wedge and swung hard, but it dug in and moved the ball about three inches. I swung again with a similar result, although the ball did not move quite as far. My third swing was even uglier than the first two but not nearly as ugly as my mood. I turned and flipped my sand wedge in a whirlybird toward the cart. The club hit the roof standard, bent into a “V” and fell to the ground. I walked over, picked up the offending stick, snapped it in two and threw both pieces into the woods.
If Eastover was known for anything besides double- and triple-bogies, it was snakes and gators. But Vic calmly walked into the woods, retrieved the portion of club that attached to the clubface, handed it back to me and said: “You can get this re-shafted.” Feeling like the doofus I was, I apologized and have never thrown a club since. Thanks again, Vic, and good luck in Denver!
There are three ways to lose a game. First, you get beat by a better team. You can understand that and you go back to the drawing board to get better. Second, you can lose a game with poor execution or an ill-timed mistake. But stuff happens, and you can understand that, too. Third and the worst of all is when you do nothing wrong, your execution is good enough to win but you get it taken away from you. And that’s the one you can’t understand nor forgive. And that’s what happened to the Saints Sunday in the Superdome.
In case you missed it, the game was tied, the Saints were driving, trying to kill enough clock to kick a game-winning field goal at the buzzer. They were one play from achieving that when Drew Brees’ pass to Tommylee Lewis was interrupted by a helmet-to-helmet mugging by Rams DB Nickell Robey-Coleman while the ball was in the air. Both side judge Gary Cavaletto and down judge Patrick Turner were in position to make the obvious interference call or, at worst, a personal foul against the defender.
But instead of making the call that all America saw, Cavaletto looked at Turner and Turner looked back at Cavaletto, each expecting the other to pull their flag. But neither one acted. No flag, fourth down, and the Saints had to kick with plenty of time on the clock for QB Jared Goff to rally his team, which he did. The Rams tied it with 15 seconds to go, then won it in overtime. Former official Dean Blandino, working the broadcast for Fox-TV, said they missed the call. Coach Sean Payton got a phone call in the locker room from the NFL director of officials who admitted the crew blew the call. Payton threw off the risk of a fine and said afterwards: “They blew the call.”
The Saints had the game taken away from them. So where does that leave thousands of grieving, angry Who Dats who can’t understand how the system failed them. I can’t make them feel better except to encourage them not to react the way Kentucky fans reacted nearly two years ago in a similar situation.
It was the NCAA Elite Eight in 2017 when Kentucky and North Carolina met with the winner advancing to the Final Four. But in the first half, an official named John Higgins decided to control the game. He called two early fouls on Kentucky’s three best players – De’Aaron Fox, Malik Monk and Bam Adebayo – virtually taking them out of the game. The three sat on the bench for much of the first half as North Carolina took control. The Wildcats fought back and tied it with seconds to go but lost the game on a last-second shot. Coach John Calipari commented afterwards: “It was amazing we were still in the game after they nearly fouled out all our players.”
Big Blue Nation was angry but a small proportion of fans decided if Higgins made their lives miserable, they would return the favor. A video appeared after the game titled “John Higgins’ Sabotage of Kentucky,” featuring footage of the game and a picture of Higgins next to one of his roofing business’ trucks and a invitation to rate Higgins’ business at a Yelp-type website. A Kentucky radio show host posted Higgins’ home and business phone numbers and fans took the cue. They inundated social media and clogged the website of Higgins’ business with negative reviews and comments about his company’s work and even his personal habits.
“You’re gonna pay,” one Kentucky fan wrote to Higgins, and threats and harassment followed. For his next games, Higgins, in fear for his life, hired a bodyguard. A few months later, Higgins filed a harassment suit against the radio host that is still pending.
So does that give Who Dat Nation any ideas? I hope not. The love and passion that our sports teams engender often compel us to go overboard. We can be angry, and it’s going to hurt for a long time, but let’s not be stupid. It is unbelievable that two officials didn’t have the stones to make the right call in a huge game. Even Referee Bill Vinovich distanced himself, saying he did not see the call. Errors of omission can be just as devastating as errors of commission.
I almost wish John Higgins would have moonlighted for a weekend and been part of Vinovich’s crew. He wouldn’t have been afraid to blow the whistle.
My grandson Keegan is 4 1/2 and loves to watch football and scrum with his 2 1/2 year old sister Ella. She is not only beautiful, but an able tackler, so Keegan has a good training mate with whom to sharpen his skills. My only scouting report on his athletic ability comes from his mom, who might be a bit partial, but I’m thinking that once he gets over his infatuation with soccer, he might become a gridiron force to be reckoned with. So indulge me while I fantasize for a moment at Keegan’s athletic future, and my purpose will become clear.
I envision Keegan is a quarterback and enjoys an All-America career at Virginia Tech (his dad’s alma mater). He is drafted in the first round of the 2035 NFL Draft by the Washington Redskins (his favorite team) and in two years leads his team to the NFC championship with a 63 to 44 win over the Los Angeles Rams. The next week in Super Bowl LXX, Keegan leads the Redskins to an electric come-from-behind 77 to 74 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs. The electronic scribes of the day hail Keegan’s victory as a generational phenomenon. After all, he defeated two teams that, in succession, were led by 41-year-Jared Goff and his geriatric peer, 41-year-old Patrick Mahomes. You see where I’m going with this?
NFL fans will not have to wait for Keegan to become a young quarterback who faces a couple of old coots in an effort to win the Super Bowl, but that’s the best way I can explain just what we are facing in the NFL conference championship games. Ice the beer, grill the chicken wings and order your favorite multi-topping pizzas as you watch two young quarterbacks who were Keegan's age when their aged opponents came into the NFL. In other words, never before have both conference championship games featured two veteran elite quarterbacks facing teams led by Millennials.
If you don’t know what a Millennial is, go to You Tube for Micah Taylor's humorous explanation, but in popular terms it refers to the younger generation. And on Sunday, you’ll see two of their entitled delegates take the pitch. Goff, 23, leads the Rams against the Saints and QB Drew Brees, who turns 40 on Tuesday, while Mahomes, who is also 23, leads the Chiefs against the venerable Tom Brady, who is 41.
Andrew Beaton of the Wall Street Journal characterizes the games as a “potential generational torch passing.” Brees and Brady have “ritualistically carved up defenses for years in the most diabolical way, peppering opponents with precise and traditional passing attacks. Mahomes … (and)… Goff have invaded the league’s elite by playing completely differently. They star in explosive offenses that renounced the same norms Brady and Brees mastered en route to Super Bowl wins.” The fact is that the four quarterbacks lead the top four offenses in the NFL this year which helped earn their teams the top four seeds in the playoffs.
So who will prevail? Will experience and performance over time win out? It would be a resounding statement if the Saints and Patriots win and head for the Super Bowl. Brees and Brady have performed at an elite level for many years, avoiding career-threatening injuries and solving multiple defensive schemes intended to stop them. They have endured rules interpretations, a revolving door of teammates and scandals (see: Bountygate, Inflategate, etc.). Or will youth be served as the young guns replicate their free-wheeling styles that might signal the direction of where the NFL is headed? More scoring, less emphasis on defense and rules changes to pump up the numbers.
It’s a generational question worthy of a Gallup poll, and I believe the answers would be predictable. Respondents over the age of 40 would favor the Brees-Brady combination by a margin of 74 percent to 26 percent, while respondents age 39 and under would favor the Mahomes-Goff combination by a margin of 36 percent to 20 percent. The remaining 44 percent took their participation medals and went to Starbucks.
I hate the Philadelphia Eagles, I really do. I know it’s fashionable in New Orleans to dislike any team that dares to think they can beat the Saints. After all, our local heroes are the top-ranked, first-seed, most wonderfullest team in our National Football League playoff pantheon. Just ax anybody! So Who Dat Say Dey Gonna Beat Dem Saints? Who Dat? Who dat, indeed!
But I will be pulling harder for the Saints this week than normal, because the Eagles have done me wrong. More than once! In fact, two of the most disappointing moments in my 20 years as a league and club executive came at the slime-green-dripping hands of the Philadelphia Eagles. Sometimes you pull for one team and other times you pull against another. Sunday afternoon’s playoff game in the Superdome will be one of those rare confluences when I will be pulling for one team while absolutely abhorring the synthetic turf that their opponents walk on.
So why is there no Brotherly Love between me and the NFL representative from the city of the same honorific? Sit down, pour a cool drink and listen to my story.
I can empathize with Chicago fans, coaches and execs after the Bears were upset by the Eagles yesterday at Soldier Field. My last NFL game as a participant came in January, 2002, when I was an executive with the Bears and we were set to host the Eagles in a playoff game. The Bears had gone 13-3 to win the old NFC Central Division and held a No. 2 seed to the Rams, both of which earned a first-week bye.
I already had announced my retirement from the NFL, and I thought it would be a wonderful way to go out if my team made it to the Super Bowl, which would be played in New Orleans. A triumphant finish to Miller's farewell tour! That hope was supported by the fact that we had the NFL’s top-ranked defense, led by LB Brian Urlacher and FS Mike Brown, that had allowed only 203 points during the season. QB Jim Miller (I was referred to in Halas Hall as “the other” Jim Miller) was not spectacular but steady enough to lead an opportunistic offense that was ranked No. 11 in the league. We also were somewhat a team of destiny, having recorded five comeback wins during the season.
We were confident after the Eagles defeated Tampa in the wild card round, and the oddsmakers agreed. But early in the game, we lost QB Miller to an injury, and Eagles QB Donovan McNabb led the Eagles to a 33-19 upset. That wasn’t the way I wanted to end a 20-year NFL career, but that game wasn’t my worst memory of the Eagles. That came nearly a decade earlier, on January 3, 1993, when the Saints hosted the Eagles in the first round of the playoffs.
In my opinion, the 1992 team was the best Saints team of the Jim Mora era. We were 12-4 although once again finishing as runner-up in the NFC West to the hated 14-2 49ers. The Dome Patrol was at its peak with the best defense in the league, and Bobby Hebert’s offense was efficient and effective. Indeed, the Saints dominated the first three quarters of the game and held a 20-10 lead heading into the fourth quarter. But things fell apart quickly. Hebert threw three interceptions, two to future Saint Eric Allen, and the Eagles scored an amazing 26 points in the final quarter to win.
I remember sitting in the press box with personnel chief Bill Kuharich and GM Jim Finks. We usually stuck around after a game, but that day we were too shell-shocked to do anything but sit there while a stunned crowd filed out of the stadium. It was also Finks’ last game with the Saints. A few months later, he would resign to begin a one-year battle against cancer.
So, to Drew Brees and the present-day Saints, I have one request. Remember whatever you did on November 18 when you beat the Eagles 48-7 and do it even better. I suspect the Eagles will not make the same mistakes they did that day and already are plotting how they can disappointment me a third time. But don’t let them, Drew. Please!