The Whims and Foibles of Sports...
I am writing this missive while sitting on a heating pad. I was lacing up my golf shoes this morning when I felt a twinge in my left side along the belt line. It wasn’t bad but it was annoying, especially since I had already completed my stretching followed by my three-mile Old Fartlek run-walk-run, all without incident. My training program is strictly designed to exempt me from the nagging pain so common to the mere mortals who exist in my age grouping. But there it was, and it persisted through the next few hours of golf.
I finished playing and returned home, showered and then rubbed the afflicted area with this magical balm given to me by a golfing buddy. It’s not FDA-approved, but the label assures me it is used by “professional athletes, the Canadian military and over 3,500 health professionals.” That’s good enough for me! But then a thought hit me. If I have to put up with such physical frustrations at my age, what must it be like for Drew Brees?
After all, to hear the sporting press tell it, he is ancient in his field and susceptible to any number of age-related maladies. He could collapse at any moment! After all, age is relative, and a professional football player beyond the age of 40 is only one step away from extinction. That was the thread running through a long analysis last week by ESPN’s Bill Barnwell who advanced the case that Brees might be nearing the end of his Hall of Fame career. Of course, we all reluctantly admit that Brees is near the end of his career, but he has not shown irrefutable evidence he is there yet. Barnwell, on the other hand, tried to make the case that Brees already could be at the station with a ticket to Palookaville in his hand.
Barnwell built his case by looking at the decline in Brees’ performance over his final four games of the 2018 season compared to the first 11 games, which Barnwell said could have been “the best stretch of play we’ve ever seen from an NFL quarterback.” The Saints started at 10-1 while averaging more than 37 points per game, but as the season wore on, Brees’ high level of skill declined in several areas.
On deep passes, defined by the league as beyond 16 yards, Brees was “an absolute savage” during the dominant start, completing more than 60 percent, averaging nearly 17 yards per attempt along with nine touchdown passes and only one interception. During his final games, however, Brees completed just 41.3 percent of those passes, averaged 10.8 yards per attempt with only one TD pass and two interceptions.
In red zone plays, Brees & Co. averaged 5.7 points per trip inside the 20-yard line through the first 12 weeks. From Week 13 on, however, the team declined to 4.9 points per trip (which is not horrible and is actually the league average). Pressure was another bit of Barnwell’s statistical argument, showing that before Thanksgiving, teams sacked Brees on less than 13 percent of their pressures but the rest of the way that figure doubled, to 25 percent.
Addressing the age factor directly, Barnwell looked to see if a late season decline is consistent with other top quarterbacks as they aged and concluded that “every quarterback in this age bracket has some chance of turning into a pumpkin in any given season without warning.” Retiring after significant, sudden declines were Brett Favre (41), Jim Kelly (36), Dan Marino (38) and Peyton Manning (39). Injuries forced the retirements of Troy Aikman at age 34, and Steve Young at 38. But just maybe Brees and Patriots QB Tom Brady - who is 17 months older - fit into another category with John Elway and Joe Montana, both of whom retired at age 38 on their own terms.
I know a city full of fans who hope Brees’ performance continues at a high level into 2019 because the alternatives to a healthy Brees don’t fill anyone with much comfort. Teddy Bridgewater has not given us any solace that he could step in and play at a Brees level right now. His preseason performance against first- and second-teamers has been uneven at best. The third man in the room, Taysom Hill, is everybody’s favorite non-starter and has had his moments. He reminded me of Fran Tarkenton in rallying the Saints over the Chargers on Sunday, but by the time he got into the game, the starters and many first-call backups have long put on their baseball caps.
No, the best, and maybe the only, chance the Saints have to win another Super Bowl is a healthy Brees. And if he gets a twinge, I’ll even slip him a stick of my magical balm if that will keep him on the field.
Different people look for different things the week of an NFL team’s first preseason game. Players new to the team look for opportunity. Coaches look for depth. Starters look for a short evening. And Who Dat Nation is just happy to see their heroes on the field once again after another long frustrating off-season. And all the above should be happy for one other thing. No disruptions.
Player holdouts are the most common form of camp chaos but it also can include player rants or suspensions or even front office shenanigans such as the Arizona Cardinals executive who was slapped with an embarrassing DUI over the weekend. The news media loves it, because they can only take so many position drills, scrimmages or interviews before they are begging for something else to report on. But the Saints, at least so far, have not accommodated at Camp Tranquility.
Now if you want degrees of disruption, it’s out there in abundance. Chargers running back Melvin Gordon, Redskins’ tackle Trent Williams and Texans’ pass rusher Jadeveon Clowney are all out of camp and want new contracts. And if you want Disruption with a Big D, look at the Big D where running back Ezekiel Elliott is generating daily drama as he holds out for a new contract, although he has two years remaining on his current one. Elliott says he is prepared to hold out for the season, kind of like the Steelers’ Le’Veon Bell did a year ago, although those two contract years aren’t going away. If a player has a contract in place that is not fulfilled, it is tolled, which simply means it is pushed forward.
And if you are a fan of HBO’s “Hard Knocks,” you know that Oakland’s disruption is not necessarily a holdout. Their newest high-priced weapon is Antonio Brown, who wasn’t paid enough by the Steelers – players call that “lack of respect” – and wrangled a suitable treasure from the Raiders. The only problem with that is that Brown has not been able to practice yet. The initial culprit was his unconventional training methods that included an off-season visit to a cryogenics institute in Paris. The same type of people who froze Ted Williams’ body for a revival thaw at a later date - the Red Sox could use you now, Ted! - apparently did not tell Brown to cover his feet adequately and he contracted frostbite on his feet and can’t run. But Brown’s tale gets better.
With his foot almost healed, Brown says he is not playing because the NFL won’t let him wear his favorite helmet. It seems Brown wears an older model that is no longer certified by the NFL Safety Police. So until Brown gets his binky back, which isn't likely after Monday's ruling from an arbitrator that he must use an approved model, he is filling the Raiders’ camp with copious amounts of disruption.
Regarding Elliott and the other holdouts, I am appalled at the naïveté of some players who sign a big contract that puts them at the top of their position but don’t understand that NFL means “not for long.” In their case, they are among the highest paid when they sign the contract but they will remain on that lofty perch only until the next player at the position signs his contract. Agents demand it, club negotiators bow to it but some players don’t understand they are receiving a longer term deal because the term is what makes those dollars worth it to the club.
So, while Elliott wishes for rain in Dallas, just be hopeful that you are in New Orleans. The most disruption you’ll likely see at Saints camp this year is when Zion Williamson and his Pelican teammates make a cameo appearance from their practice gym over by the tracks.
Last week, a reporter for a local television station called, asking my reaction to the Saints’ $100 million, five-year extension for WR Michael Thomas. Of course, he didn’t get me the first time he called - I was on the golf course and the phone was muffled - so he left a message. That gave me some time to think about it, so after I finished playing I went home to prepare before I called him back.
I expected the questions to focus on the obvious, such as “Is Thomas worth the money?” or “How will another big contract affect the salary cap?” or “Will this contract prevent the Saints from adding quality depth?” Reprising the advice my old boss Jim Finks once gave me to “always practice your ad-libs” before going into an interview, I had my answers ready. But the reporter did not ask me anything about the team, the structure of the contract or the salary cap. He asked me what I thought the fan reaction would be to the biggest contract ever given to a wide receiver in the NFL.
I responded that the fans should be ecstatic, because the Saints’ brass made a decision on Thomas’ value which is obviously considerable. I further said that most fans care far less about what their heroes were making as long as they are on the field trying to win another Super Bowl. That answer was in line with a Twitter poll that had been posted, claiming that 75% of the fans were happy Thomas signed, although 25% had some reservations. And therein lay the rest of the questions.
His big question was, paraphrased: “Do you think the fans see big contracts as an excuse for the team to raise ticket prices?” I responded that bigger contracts are less a factor for higher ticket prices than the result of the recent explosion in television rights fees and new media such as the NFL Network. That is because the Salary Cap is linked to the major source of revenue, which is the network TV contract. The salary cap has always risen in proportion to the revenue increases from the network TV contract.
I did some retroactive fact-checking when I got off the interview, and the facts lined up as I thought they would. From sources available on the internet, the salary cap has risen 41% since 2014 while the average NFL ticket price has risen only 18.75% over the same period. Taking it further back, the cap has risen 53% since 2009 while ticket prices have risen 37% and since 2006, the cap has gone up 84.5% while ticket prices have risen 60.7%. But he persisted.
Do you think the fans are being priced out of the game? I acknowledged that is the situation with the Super Bowl, whose $2,500 ticket price is well beyond most season ticket holders. But I don’t believe any club will alienate its fans with dramatic ticket price increases. (The L.A. Chargers might be the exception with a $177 average ticket price that is at least 50% higher than any other club!) Of course, there are always fans who decide for one reason or another that they can’t or won’t pay higher prices, but there always has been somebody laying in the weeds, waiting to take their tickets.
I frankly believe that losing turns off fans more than higher prices. In other words, I don’t believe that Saints fans are fazed in the least by the big contracts bestowed upon their heroes. An old NFL adage is that “blue players make blue plays,” with blue usually the color code on the personnel board for a star player. The Saints are smart enough to know that, which is why they will continue to lock up the players they consider the keys to their success.
So what's ahead? I believe that Alvin Kamara, Terron Armstead and Marshon Lattimore will be driving around in Michael Thomas’ Brinks truck in the not too distant future, and Who Dat Nation will be ecstatic!
Okay, Who Dats, I know you’re fired up about Saints training camp opening up, and I know you believe your heroes are destined to win the 2020 Super Bowl. But are you ready to back up those lofty expectations with your money? I did on Friday when I traveled to my local sports book, at the Hollywood Casino in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, and put down a little gold on the Black and Gold.
Regular readers of this erstwhile epistle will recall that about this time last year, when Mississippi approved sports wagering at select casinos, I high-tailed it to the Beau Rivage casino in Biloxi, the first sports book to open on the Gulf Coast, to do my part for Mississippi’s economy. As I wrote then, I put down a Benjamin (Mr. Franklin’s picture is on the $100 bill) on each of the three teams that I write most about. Thankfully, all three were legitimate choices to win their championships.
My three bets were on the Red Sox at 4-1 to win the World Series, Kentucky at 4-1 to win the NCAA basketball title and the Saints at 15-1 to win the Super Bowl. (Please don’t whine to me about the “No Call” game because I was cheated out of some serious cheese!) Thankfully, the Sox covered all my bets by winning the World Series, so I finished my first round of wagering with a little jingle in my jeans.
So on Friday when I went to the Hollywood casino (they pronounce it casina over here!), my intentions were to bet on the Saints to win the Super Bowl and Kentucky football to win seven games or more. I still regret not wagering on Kentucky football last year when the over-under was 5.5 wins and they wound up winning ten games and finished No. 12 in the nation. I think Kentucky football is again heavily undervalued this year at the official Vegas over-under of 6.5 wins, so I was intending to put a little extra on that wager.
But when I arrived and began looking over the tout sheets with the available bets, the Kentucky over-under was not listed. It seems that Vegas came to the same conclusion that I and announcer Kirk Herbstreit came to, that Kentucky should be a lock to win at least seven games. But I was locked out of that one and had to make another plan.
I thought about another wager on the Red Sox, who had a poor start and are playing better, but I question whether their pitching can hold up down the stretch. I also thought about my basketball Wildcats, who are listed as one of the favorites to win the Final Four this year. But I decided not to bet on them this year, in an effort to hedge my emotional well-being. It’s hard enough when your favorite all-time team loses, but to lose AND cost you cold cash is emotional overload. I’ve even considered betting on their opponents in big games just so I can win either way. Cats win the game, I’m fired up! Cats get beat, and I get paid. Sounds disturbing, but so is caring too much about a basketball or a football game.
Besides, I honestly think the Saints are a better investment this year. They not only have improved the roster in key spots, they should have the chip on their shoulder from the previous two NFC playoff debacles. So I placed two bets on the Saints.
The first bet is 9-2 that they will win the NFC championship game and get to the Super Bowl. The second bet is 10-1 they will win the Super Bowl. For your information, the oddsmakers favor the Rams to win the NFC title game, and the Patriots – over the Chiefs, Rams and Saints - to win the Super Bowl. What do they know?
So are you ready to put your money where your hope is? Only believers need apply!
The last time we talked seriously about the Saints and football was probably before the Who Dat mob marched through the streets demanding the head of Roger Goodell on a pike. How dare he empower such stumblebums in striped shirts to take away the Saints chance at a second Super Bowl appearance? And what does Who Dat Nation have today but a hurtful gnawing in the stomach that just won’t go away?
It didn’t help that the NFL Network chose Friday night, the day the rookies reported to training camp, to replay that game. It’s almost as though somebody keeps rubbing it in our faces with the reminder that although our favorite team might have been victimized, they still lost the game that will live in infamy (apologies to F.D.R.), at least around here.
Not much significant has happened in the six months since the event. The NFL has made some rules changes to discourage such a travesty from happening again but you won't notice them. A local filmmaker is planning on shooting a documentary on what really happened on that last play. Last week, a state civil district court judge allowed a suit filed by a local attorney to get to the “truth” about the no-call and require the officials and Goodell to testify. Nice try, but anybody who thinks the suit will get past an appeals court outside the state wants Blake Bortles as his starting quarterback.
Nothing has happened to mollify Saints fans. They got whacked in the teeth and they keep getting reminded of it. And now here comes Who Dat Nation, wounded though its members be, marching right back to its customary position at this time of year. Standing in front of the Gates of Hope, the opening of training camp, hunched over a bit but still resilient and yearning for this year to give them another miracle. The seeds of that miracle, if it becomes that, have been planted, watered and nurtured the past few months and will sprout this week when the veterans join the rookies in camp.
There are many reasons for optimism that this group can do what they did not achieve last year. Drew Brees leads that list of reasons, which you already know, and some new additions will be an upgrade. TE Jared Cook should return us to the thrilling days of yesteryear when the Saints had a tight end who could spread the field and catch passes. C Nick Easton is solid, if unspectacular, and should give top pick Erik McCoy time to learn his trade. RB Marc Ingram may be missed more in the locker room than on the field, but Alvin Kamara should be even better in his third year. Michael Thomas is an elite receiver, and maybe Cook and second-year man Tre’Quan Smith can give him some relief, and maybe Keith Kirkwood will make a run for a starting spot.
The defense should be even better than last year, with a healthy Marcus Davenport making it difficult to double-team Cameron Jordan. Ex-Patriot Malcom Brown is a good addition at defensive tackle, especially with Sheldon Rankins’ injury situation, and Marshon Lattimore and Eli Apple could be the starting corners here for years. We'll get around to all the positions as we go through camp, but I believe that top to bottom they have a chance to be better as a team.
You might even be a little giddy if you believe the wise guys in Vegas who set the odds to win the 2020 Super Bowl. Their favorites are the Patriots and Chiefs, both listed at 6-1, followed by the Saints and Rams at 8-1. I think that shows that Vegas also believes the Saints should have been the NFC representative last year by placing them dead even with the team that did become New England’s annual lunch.
So I guess someday soon, I will venture down to my own little Gates of Hope - my local Mississippi sports book - and put my money where my mouth is. After all, I still have my uncashed Super Bowl wager slip from last season to remind me that the Saints were 15-1 then and damned near made it.