The Whims and Foibles of Sports...
Random thoughts on superstitions, winning streaks gone bad and my favorite football team....
The Sports Illustrated jinx may be alive and well, as the New Orleans Saints learned last week. The Saints’ 10-game winning streak and chatter about QB Drew Brees being the hands-down favorite to win the NFL MVP award prompted the magazine to put Brees on the cover. Well, we all know the peculiar things that happen to athletes or teams that are featured on the magazine’s cover. Such as …
Last March, SI ran a cover heading into the NCAA basketball tournament featuring No. 1 Virginia. The Cavaliers became the first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 seed and not by a small margin, 74-54 to the UMBC Retrievers. And then there's this: During the 2017 NFL season, cover subjects included Aaron Rodgers, J.J. Watt and David Johnson, all of whom had their seasons ended by injuries. And what about this one: In the lead-up to the 2017 World Series, SI’s cover featured the L.A. Dodgers with the caption “Best Team Ever?” The Dodgers proceeded to lose 17 of their next 22 games, but recovered in time to lose the World Series to the Houston Astros.
The 2016 MLB preview included the Mets’ pitching staff as the reason the Mets would once again be Amazin’! Matt Harvey proceeded to have the worst year of his career, Jacob deGrom started slowly before undergoing season-ending surgery, and star reliever Jeurys Familia was arrested for domestic violence. Closer to home, LSU fans might remember the 2015 cover that featured RB Leonard Fournette and the 5-0 Tigers who followed up the recognition by losing three straight games and knocking themselves out of playoff contention.
Most of us say we don’t believe in jinxes, but we are the same folks who avoid walking under ladders or who turn the other way after a black cat crosses our path. Maybe it’s in our DNA since New Orleans reputedly leads the league in haunted houses, garlic crucifixes and Voodoo priestesses, but is there really an SI cover jinx? I would prefer to think it was more a relentless Cowboys’ pass-rush that contributed to a rare off night between Brees and his receivers than it was any mysterious spectral upsurges traveling through the vapor.
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I’m hoping the 13-10 loss at Dallas that ended the Saints’ 10-game win streak does not mean bad things to come as it did for two earlier versions when I was with the Black and Gold. After a frustrating 34-33 loss to San Francisco in the 1988 opener, the Saints won their next seven games only to have the streak stopped by the Rams, 12-10. After the streak, the Saints went 3-5 to finish 10-6 but lost the divisional tie-breakers and missed the playoffs. In 1991, the Saints won their first seven games, but after a 20-17 upset by Chicago in the Superdome, they went 4-4 and lost a heart-breaking 27-20 playoff to the hated Falcons.
I’d rather the Saints handle it as they did in 2009, winning their first 13 to clinch the home-field advantage then losing their next three basically meaningless games before defeating Arizona and Minnesota in the conference playoffs and Indianapolis in the Super Bowl. Yeah, that would work!
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I’m proud of my Kentucky Wildcats for their 9-3 season and New Year’s Day appointment with Penn State in the Citrus Bowl. When Coach Mark Stoops came to Lexington six years ago, he installed a program that has shown improved performance each season and is now in the conversation about SEC football contenders.
Pass rushing LB Josh Allen will be drafted in the NFL top ten next spring and RB Benny Snell could go in the first two rounds should he forgo his senior year. And, for the first time in years, Kentucky should have another handful of players who will hear their names called on draft day. Stoops improved recruiting, obviously believing the mantra "good players make good coaches"!
Despite all this, Cat fans are grousing that Florida, with the same 9-3 record, is ranked four spots ahead of Kentucky although the Cats beat the Gators in Gainesville. Leaving my emotion at the door, I will only say that if Kentucky had beaten Florida in Week 10 instead of Week 2 AND not lost to a miserable Tennessee team, things would have been different. Wait ‘til next year!
If your buddy in a bar asked you to name the top offensive teams in the NFL, you would probably press the bet, get the stakes as high as you could and then figure out how you were going to spend your winnings. It’s an easy question when you consider the Saints and QB Drew Brees seem to be setting new standards at scoring points while the Rams and Chiefs are as proficient in their own schemes as evidenced by last Monday night’s 115-110 Rams victory. Excuse me, that was the Warriors and Lakers score, but whatever the final tally (54-51), both teams proved they are right up there with New Orleans offensively.
The Saints are No. 1 in the league at points per game (37.2), ahead of the No. 2 Chiefs (36.7) and No. 3 Rams (35.4). The Saints are No. 2 to the Rams in turnover ratio (+11 to +8) and No. 1 in the league in time of possession (33.1). Impressive numbers, but today’s point writ large is this: when considering which team has the best shot at winning the Super Bowl, the Saints have a distinct edge. And that is because of a suddenly cohesive and healthy defense. The Saints aren’t the only team that can score a fistful of points, but when you look at the other major Super Bowl contenders, defense sets the Who Dats apart.
Understandably, none of the three offensive juggernauts rank in the top half of the league in defensive statistics. Too many big leads allow too much trash scoring in the fourth quarter after the starters are done for the day. But certain defensive statistics are significant when comparing the Saints with the Rams and Chiefs. For example, how many times has a big penalty in a tight game hurt your favorite team? Ask LSU’s faithful after that landslide of questionable calls in the Texas A&M snakepit. The good news for this conversation is that Saints are one of the least-penalized defenses in the league, having been flagged 55 times for 513 yards. Conversely, the Rams have heard the Law & Order theme 67 times for 609 yards while the almost felonious Chiefs have committed 74 penalties for 603 yards.
The Saints rushing defense ranks No. 1 in the league at 73 yards per game, a healthy improvement from the 111.7 yards per game of last season. If an opponent can't run effectively and must pass, that's music to the defensive ears, even if it's LA's Jared Goff or KC's Patrick Mahomes. No opposing running back has rushed for more than the 69 yards Tampa’s Peyton Barber gained in the opening day loss. Even NFL rushing leader Todd Gurley managed only 68 in the Saints’ 45-35 win over the Rams in Week 9.
Overall, the Saints defense has allowed 358.9 yards per game (15th in the NFL), ahead of the Rams 372.5 (20th) and the Chiefs at 414.7 (30th). More importantly, the Saints have allowed 23.3 points per game (14th), ahead of the Rams’ 25.6 (20th) and the Chiefs’ 26.7 (27th). That reveals the best indicator of combined offensive and defensive contributions to victory: The Saints have the No. 1 point differential in the league at 13.9, a field goal ahead of the Chiefs at 10 and the Rams at 9.8.
Complementing the statistical superiority of the Saints have been the intangibles that win games. Evidence Thanksgiving Day against the Falcons when an opportunistic Saints defense stopped three Atlanta drives with takeaways in the red zone.
We have a long way to go, but if the current standings hold up, the Saints will face the Rams in the NFC championship and then the Chiefs in the Super Bowl. Looking at the stats, the offenses will continue to light it up, but the Saints’ defense will make the difference on whether or not a second Super Bowl title comes to New Orleans.
We could go on and on about the Saints this week, about how they are the hottest team in the league and how they scored 99 points the past two weeks and how QB Drew Brees is having his best season, one that could not possibly deny him his first MVP award.
It’s hard not to be giddy over the Saints’ season, which on Sunday included the worst beatdown of a defending Super Bowl champion in history. They cake-walked to a 48-7 win over the Eagles, who are going through one of those “when will it stop?” injury plagues. Key starters are dropping like flies, including three more players during the game. Speaking of injuries, I wish Coach Sean Payton would think about giving Brees some relief during games that are basically decided by halftime.
Announcers Joe Buck and Troy Aikman even mentioned at the midway point of the third quarter that Payton should be thinking about it, but backup Teddy Bridgewater didn’t come in until about 5 minutes to go in the game. Frankly, I think it would make sense to give Bridgewater some time calling real plays if there is any desire to have him stay interested enough to stick around. An obstacle is the old head coaching paranoia that says the other team is ready to mount a rally for the ages, so you can't let up.
Okay, but think about this frightening “what if:” the second worst thing that could possibly happen to the Saints over the last six games is for Brees to go down with an injury. You want to know what's worse than that? The very worst thing that could happen is for Brees to get hurt in the fourth quarter of a game that is well under control.
Let’s shift gears for a minute and consider some whimsical NFL news that popped up in the past week. Do you really believe the Cleveland Browns are considering former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for the vacant head coaching position? Huh? This sounds like something former owner Art Modell, cocktail in hand, would cook up just to get everybody talking about the Browns. Indeed, sources have reported that the idea came from owner Jimmy Haslam, a donor to Republican campaigns who knows Rice. GM John Dorsey tried to put some distance between fact and fiction. He issued a statement saying the Browns are putting together a list of potential candidates but that Rice “has not been discussed.”
But think about who we are talking about. The Browns haven’t been to the playoffs since Rice was in the Bush administration, and they have made worse decisions since then. Since 2001, their first-round draft choices have included quarterbacks Johnny Manziel, Brady Quinn, Brandon Wheeden and Tim Couch; defensive linemen Courtney Brown and Gerard Warren; running backs Trent Richardson and William Green; and a host of other forgettables. And most of those players were picked at the top of the draft when you would presume the better players congregate.
But this is the Browns! At least Rice has football connections, of a sort. It was a poorly kept secret among NFL insiders that Rice and former WR Gene Washington were longtime companions. Washington spent many years on Paul Tagliabue’s staff, so Condi could have picked up something by osmosis from her fellow Alabama native. And she was added to the inaugural College Football Playoff selection in October, 2013, for whatever reasons.
But if you really want to have fun with this one, you can let your imagination run wild. If any changes come to the Saints, do you think stripper Chris Owens would make a dandy play-caller? You would probably see a lot of naked bootlegs! Ya think?
I’ll end this little romp with a name you need to remember: Bubba Parham. He plays basketball for the Virginia Military Institute (VMI), and he could be the next Steph Curry if VMI’s game Sunday evening at Kentucky is an indication. Parham, a 5-11 sophomore, made 10 three-point shots, many of them from 30 feet and beyond in a 92-82 loss. I watched on the SEC Network, and he was dazzling!
Parham would dribble to the three-point line until a defender picked him up, then he would take a step back and let it fly. His shots could have brought rain, arcing high into the air before coming down in the center of the basket. Kentucky tried to double-team him when he crossed the center line to no effect. Parham would back out and suddenly go up with a quick release, one shot made while he was falling backwards. Parham's play drew a mix of awe, fear and respect from UK fans who don’t mind a little sideshow as long as their Cats win the game.
With the NBA game evolving into a three-point shooting match, scouts are encouraging college players to developing those skills. Although you may not have heard about Bubba Parham before today, you might keep an eye on him. Your favorite NBA scout is, for sure.
The Saints have never been here before after nine games, and I am not talking about wins and losses. Their current 8-1 record stands second to the 9-0 start run off by the eventual Super Bowl champions in 2009, but that’s not the HERE I am talking about. At this point of the season, no Saints player has been the leading candidate for NFL Most Valuable Player. Not even during the magical Super Bowl year was QB Drew Brees given as much consideration for the honor as previous winners Peyton Manning and Tom Brady.
This season, Brees has played magnificent, MVP-calibre football, as his performance Sunday at Cincinnati will attest. Watching Brees dismantle the Bengals was like watching your GPS smoothly maneuver you over obscure highways and strange byways as you simply follow blindly along and wonder “how did it do that?” Against Cincinnati, Brees led the team to scoring drives on their first nine possessions, which is one off the all-time record, including a surgical 22 of 25 completions for 265 yards and three touchdowns. Throw in rushing performances by Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara, only one penalty the entire game and a defense that resembled the ’85 Bears, and you saw perfection.
In fact, during the game, I was thinking of Don Larsen, the journeyman Yankees pitcher who threw the only perfect game in World Series history, over the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1956. I had already written the headline for this column: “Apologies to Don Larsen, but Saints toss perfect game!” My Louisville pal, Jeff Duncan of the local wipe, had the same idea and wrote it today with Coach Sean Payton’s qualifier that it wasn’t perfect but it was close.
But perfect, schmerfect, it was a team win to the standards that Brees has been providing all season. His completion percentage is 77.3 percent which is ahead of the all-time season mark of 72%, held by none other than Drew Brees. Throw in 2,601 passing yards and 21 touchdowns versus one lone interception. His passer rating of 123.8 is running ahead of Aaron Rodgers’ current record of 122, set in 2011 during his own MVP season. A week ago in the team’s biggest game of the year, Brees laced the 8-0 Rams with 346 passing yards and four touchdowns, including a game-saving 72-yard TD to Michael Thomas.
Watching Brees operate, it is hard not to agree with former Chiefs and Falcons TE Tony Gonzalez who says Brees is not simply one of the best quarterbacks to play the game. He is the greatest quarterback to play the game. We can empty a few kegs arguing that one, but the immediate question? Is Brees the 2018 NFL MVP?
Some observers believe team performance influences the voters. Must the Saints win the Super Bowl for Brees to have a chance at the award? Interestingly, the numbers don’t back that up. Looking at every Associated Press MVP since the Saints came into the League in 1967, only six quarterbacks whose team won the Super Bowl were voted the league MVP by the Associated Press. The numbers even suggest that losing the Super Bowl might enhance a quarterback’s MVP hopes. Over the same time period, 13 quarterbacks whose team lost the Super Bowl were eventually named league MVP.
I know, figures can lie and liars can figure, so where does that leave Brees’ chances to win the 2018 MVP award? I would say that his total body of work, including all-time passing yards leader, second now to Peyton Manning in lifetime touchdown passes, a chance to finish the year with the all-time best QB rating for a season and the best all-time completion percentage, weighs heavily in his favor. A subliminal factor is the sentimental vote, which counts for something. Brees will be 40 in January. But it’s his time not because he is near the end of his career but because he deserves it.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not criticizing long winning streaks, like the Saints currently enjoy with seven in a row. In fact, they are quite preferable to long losing streaks of which they have enjoyed more than we need to recall. All I am saying is that upon reviewing the history of Saints winning streaks of seven or more, I’ve got to say that Tom Petty was right when he sang “Comin’ down is the hardest thing.”
I say that with some authority, having been involved in three of those long winning streaks, all of which ended abruptly and did not produce the result we all hoped for. Fortunately, my streaks all occurred in the previous century, so we will not discuss those of more recent vintage, such as the eight-game skeins of 2011 and 2017. The winning streaks that I remember came at a time when such things were new and strange and had never been experienced by Saints fans who were more accustomed to wearing Schwegmann’s bags over their heads rather than caps with a fleur-de-lis on the front. You might think this is ancient history, so consider it a public service for those Who Dats who do not remember life without GPS, shopping on your cellphone or American Idol.
Quick Quiz: In the first 20 years of the Saints’ existence, what was the longest winning streak during any one season? Six? Five? Keep going. Four! Sorry, Charlie, but between 1967 and 1986, the Saints never won more than three games in a row. If you find that hard to believe, consider that they had a handful of entire seasons in which they didn’t win three games.
Things changed in 1987 after a narrow loss to the 49ers prompted Coach Jim Mora to beat his team across the backside with his now famous “we ain’t good enough” ship’s rope. At 3-3, the Saints would rush out to the longest streak in team history when a 23-14 win at the New York Giants on November 22 was their fourth straight. So consider how fantastically impossible it seemed when they reeled off another five wins for nine wins in a row and a 12-3 final season record and their first playoff appearance in team history.
That game started out like just another victory with a 10-yard Bobby Hebert TD pass to Eric Martin on the first series and the Saints defense forcing a punt. But Saints punt returner Mel Gray fumbled the kick which led to a Minnesota field goal, and then it really got bad. Anthony Carter showed how punts should be returned, and 84 yards later, the Vikings would never look back. What a crusher! Nice winning streak but playoff disappointment.
The 1987 season triggered a turn toward respectability for the franchise and expectations of more winning streaks. It almost happened again the next season after a disappointing 34-33 opening loss to, who else?, the 49ers. The Saints won their next seven games and were eying the playoffs when the Rams limited the Saints’ running game to 33 yards and rode four Mike Lansford field goals to a 12-10 upset. The Saints struggled to a 3-5 record during the second half and missed the playoffs despite a 10-6 record. Nice winning streak but playoff denial.
Three years later, the Saints won their first seven games and looked as though 1991 might be their year. But the next week a stubborn Chicago Bears defense forced two fumbles and held the Saints’ running game to 51 yards in a 20-17 win at the Superdome. Despite winning their next two, the Saints struggled but held on for an 11-5 record and their first division championship in team history. Then in the playoffs, division runner-up Atlanta crushed Who Dat hopes with a 27-20 victory. Nice winning streak but playoff disappointment.
So my lesson today is this: The mother of all winning streaks - the 13-0 run to begin the 2009 season - should be the model. Do it like the 2009 team. Winning streaks are nice, but they don't count for much without wins in the playoffs!