The Whims and Foibles of Sports...
If Teddy Bridgewater has achieved anything this season, he has added another feather in Coach Sean Payton’s genius bonnet. If Payton had not pushed the re-signing of the free agent quarterback after last season, the Saints might not be at 5-1 today and a favorite to make the Super Bowl. Of course, with Pope Francis inadvertently expressing his blessing on the Saints this week, Who Dat Nation is trying to enlist the Pontiff to use his spiritual influence to speed up Drew Brees’ recovery and send Bridgewater back to the bench.
But what if Brees’ recovery takes longer than we are being told? Or horrors! what if he comes back and suffers another injury, this time ending his season? Are we comfortable enough with Teddy Bridgewater leading the Saints into the annual New England Patriots’ Invitational? Well, backup quarterbacks have done it before, most recently when Nick Foles took over for Tyler Wentz during the 2017 season and then shocked the Patriots in Super Bowl LII. But my favorite backup rags-to-riches quarterback took over for the No. 1 guy twice during the season and led his teams into Super Bowls. And his story has some very interesting parallels with Teddy Bridgewater.
His name was Earl Morrall and, like Bridgewater, he was named to the Pro Bowl early in his career despite lackluster statistics. In 1957 with the Steelers, Morrall was tapped for the all-star game despite completing only 48% of his passes and throwing 12 interceptions against 11 touchdowns passes. Eleven years and three teams later, Morrall, then 34, took his signature crewcut hair style to Baltimore as the backup to legendary Johnny Unitas, the reigning league MVP.
But Unitas, who was a year older than Morrall, tore an arm muscle in the final preseason game, and Morrall led the Colts to a 13-1 record and the playoffs. After dispatching the Vikings and Browns to win the NFC title, the Colts were upset by the New York Jets 16-7 in Super Bowl III, still the NFL's greatest upset. Morrall was named NFL MVP that season but next year went back to the bench.
Two years later, Morrall again relieved an injured Unitas in Super Bowl V and rallied the Colts to a 16-13 victory over Dallas. Unitas was injured again during the 1971 season and Morrall was 7-2 as a starter although the Colts lost the conference title game to Miami. Morrall was released after the season, and was signed by his old Colts coach, Don Shula, who had moved on to the Dolphins.
Morrall, then 38, backed up young star Bob Griese for five games, but Griese was injured and Shula once again called Morrall out of the bullpen. It was arguably the greatest season in NFL history as the Dolphins went undefeated, winning all 14 regular season games and two playoff games before edging the Redskins, 14-7, in Super Bowl VI. In his career, Morrall was 22-1 as a starter in the two seasons he led teams to the Super Bowl.
Teddy Bridgewater has a ways to go to top that, but he is 4-0 after becoming the Saints’ starter. He has not dazzled the statistical line while subbing for Brees and even ranks behind other backups such as Kyle Allen of Carolina, Gardiner Minshew of Jacksonville and Mason Rudolph of Pittsburgh (who is injured) in the traditional methods of rating quarterbacks, But the most important statistic is winning, and there is where Bridgewater has excelled.
Like Earl Morrall, Bridgewater replaced an aging legend with a steady, workmanlike game enhanced by good receivers, a good offensive line and a solid defense. Could Steady Teddy achieve the same Super Bowl glory as Earl Morrall if called upon? Nothing personal, but most Who Dats hope he never gets the chance.
The last few weeks have not been kind to the NCAA. Despite college football attracting millions of stone-cold serious fans to the annual Alabama/Clemson Seasonal Challenge, that other major sport has hijacked much of the attention, and it hasn’t been good.
In late September, Kansas University, which is playing musical chairs with Kentucky and Michigan State for the top pre-season ranking, was notified that the NCAA will soon release allegations detailing multiple major violations connected with the Adidas payoff scandal. Then a week ago, California Gov. Gavin Newson signed a bill allowing college athletes in the state, principally basketball players, to earn endorsement and sponsorship money, setting up a facedown with the NCAA. And to top it off, on Friday night Kansas took off the worry mask and put on party hats as that legendary communicator and gangsta rap artist Snoop Dogg helped them kick off their version of basketball midnight madness with a show that featured slithery pole dancers, fake $100 bills shot out of a cannon and his own ribald concert that muh-fuh’d its way into college promotional history.
Call the fun police! Hoops hijinks has hijacked the NCAA’s serious season!
The California governor’s action, which only rubber-stamped a bill passed unanimously by the California legislature, has the NCAA in a major dither. The bill would allow college athletes in the state to accept money for product endorsements or sponsorship activities beginning in 2023. Such a practice runs counter to the NCAA’s longstanding mantra that college athletes under its purview are amateurs who receive an education and should not profit financially for their talents. That argument has been eroded in recent years by the amount of revenue the NCAA pulls in annually, reportedly more than $1 billion in 2018, as well as the rising salaries that go to coaches.
Before the bill was passed, the NCAA had written to the governor, threatening to ban athletes in California schools from competition if he signed the bill into law. The NCAA also said the bill was unconstitutional, setting up the prospect of lengthy litigation. I don’t think the California bill is as loathsome as the NCAA contends. Colleges are not going to start paying every basketball or football player in the program. Only the stars would likely have a chance to receive compensation, but therein lies my biggest concern.
California schools would suddenly have a huge recruiting advantage for blue-chip football or basketball players. For example, if Kansas and UCLA are recruiting the same player, the Bruins could enlist a local advertiser and bump their offer from the cost of attendance to include money for a paid endorsement from the local Chevy dealer. The better the player, the bigger the money, and there’s not a thing the NCAA could do about it.
NCAA violations are nothing to laugh about, especially the Adidas scandal that has taken down former Louisville coach Rick Pitino and tightened sphincters at Arizona, Auburn and other institutions, including hoops royalty Kansas. The notice of alleged major violations against the Jayhawks came two weeks after a former Adidas consultant with close ties to Kansas Coach Bill Self was sentenced to one year of probation after pleading guilty to taking part in a “pay for play” scheme to attract top high school recruits to play at colleges sponsored by Adidas.
Text messages between Self and the Adidas consultant, Thomas Gassnola, were used in the 2018 federal court trial of two Adidas officials and an aspiring NBA agent. Gassnola testified in court that he made payments to the mother of Kansas player Billy Preston and to the legal guardian of Silvio De Sousa, another KU player. The notice by the NCAA informs Kansas to grab your ankles, because they apparently have enough evidence to take down the coach and reduce the Kansas program to a shadow of its traditional, well, Self!
Speaking of whom, the head coach apparently has failed the test in NCAA rules and regulations, but he apparently knows less about gangsta rappers. Snoop Dogg headlined a concert that followed KU's “Late Night in the Phog” celebration that officially tips off the 2019-20 season. Maybe Self’s promotions people told him that Snoop has recorded duets with mainstream artists such as Justin Timberlake and Katy Perry but forgot to tell the coach that Snoop’s regular repertoire inclines toward raunchy performances spiced by his lyrical profanity.
The repeated use of words that rhyme with “fire truck” prompted Athletic Director Jeff Long to issue an apology immediately after the not-so-family-friendly performance. But depending on the NCAA’s announced violations of Self’s program, he might not have to worry about California paying a player he is recruiting in 2023 or which entertainer headlines next year’s “Late Night in the Phog.”
A remarkable thing occurred this past weekend that should have raised the eyebrows of any fan who has questioned the skill, the intentions and probably the heritage of NFL game officials. On Saturday, the NFL and the NFL Referees Association reached agreement on a new collective bargaining agreement that goes through the 2025 season. The current deal was set to expire next May. No information was given on improved methods of training or rules reviews or even the hands-off conversation of full-time officials. Nothing other than the subliminal news that the quality of officiating you have been seeing is the same quality of officiating that you will be seeing forthwith.
That such a deal would come at a time when game officials seem to be making more and bigger errors on calls and rules interpretations is odd to me. I am certain the officials pushed for an extension – call it job security – because criticism of their performances has come from coaches and players – the people who are affected the most – as well as disgruntled fans. NFL coaches and players probably would speak out more if not for the inevitable fines the league hands out for criticizing officials. They could take a tip from Jim Finks, who, when asked about questionable officiating after a Saints game, told the assembled reporters: “The league office has instructed club officials that we will be fined if we comment on lousy officiating.”
Working under Finks for seven years, I received a good education of NFL policies and procedures and what happens on both sides of the white lines. But hardly a game goes by that I don't want to throw the remote control at some pea-head in a striped shirt who makes another bad call. And it’s not only the alleged bad calls against teams I am rooting for, which have been easy to find for anyone who watches Saints games, but I also find myself shouting at the screen even when it benefits my team. Against the Cowboys on Sunday night, I thought the Saints were the beneficiaries of some generous calls that stymied a sluggish Dallas offense. Questionable calls alone did not beat the Cowboys, but they certainly helped the Saints’ stellar defense in the 12-10 victory.
You might believe that the Saints deserve some love from the zebras after the infamous No-Call during last year’s conference championship loss to the Rams and borderline incidents in the first two games this season. You will remember in the opener against Houston with less than a minute to go in the first half, the Saints were driving to cut into a 14-3 Texans’ lead. But a botched call cost a precious 15 seconds taken off the clock. That could have been enough time for QB Drew Brees to have run two more plays and gotten closer than the 56-yard attempt they were left with that kicker Wil Lutz missed. At least, NFL director of officiating Al Riveron admitted the error at halftime, although it did not appease Brees. “That can’t happen,” he said after the game.
The refs again fanned the Who Dat flame in the Saints' Week 2 rematch against the Rams, when Cameron Jordan’s fumble recovery and apparent 80-yard touchdown run was called back because the officials mistakenly had blown a whistle and stopped play. Those examples seem to confirm the local belief that the officials hate the Saints. But it’s not only happening to the Saints. Ask the Broncos or the Vikings about the officiating.
In Week 2, the Bears led the Broncos 13-6 with less than a minute to play, when Denver QB Joe Flacco hit Emmanuel Sanders in the end zone. Coach Vic Fangio audaciously went for the two-point conversion, but his team was called for delay of game. Settling for a game-tying PAT, the long-range kick was missed. But wait! The Bears were called for offsides, and the two-point conversion was back on and was successful. Payback? Nope! With 30 seconds remaining, Bears QB Mitchell Trubisky was sacked, but the officials called Denver’s Bradley Chubb for roughing the QB. (Believe me, I’ve seen the replay and so can you on You Tube, and it was a hard, but clean, tackle.)
With 9 seconds to go and facing a fourth-and-15 at his own 40-yard line, Trubisky dodged pass rushers then found Allen Robinson for a 25-yard gain, down to the Broncos’ 36 as the clock flashed :00 ! But wait again! The officials ruled the Bears called time out before time expired and put 1 second back on the clock. Eddy Pineiro nailed the 53-yarder. Bears win, Broncos screwed.
The same week, the Vikings trailed the Packers 21-7 late in the first half when QB Kirk Cousins hit WR Stefon Diggs in the end zone. The officials on the field signaled touchdown, but word came down from above that the play was under review. Dalvin Cook was called for offensive pass interference, and the touchdown was taken down. The Vikings lost the game, 21-16.
The timing of the referees' extension might simply be laid to the fact that the NFL wants to avoid, apparently at all costs, the contentious labor dispute in 2012 when the NFL locked out the officials. The league used replacement officials through the first three games of the season with several calls creating controversy. The trigger to a resolution was a Monday night game between Seattle and Green Bay in which the soon-to-be-known Fail Mary pass from Russell Wilson to Golden Tate was ruled a touchdown after Tate and a Packers’ defender caught the ball simultaneously.
However, replays showed that Tate shoved a defender with both hands and should have been flagged for pass interference. The photo of the catch (shown above) showed one official signaling touchdown and another signaling incomplete pass became a poster against replacement officials, and the regular refs were back at work the next week.
But in the last few months we have lived through far worse calls – or No Calls. So what was the urgency to assure that this band of the blind will stay on the job and continue to dish out more aggravation in the foreseeable future? It might make sense if you look at a typical management view of the nature of a labor union, to protect its rank-and-rile. In other words, unions work to preserve mediocrity instead of promoting excellence. And if recent performance is any indicator, these guys are mediocre at best.
One of sports’ enduring clichés is that the team is bigger than one player. You probably could not convince turd-in-exile Antonio Brown of that fact, but the most recent evidence is the Saints’ unlikely win at Seattle on Sunday. That victory did show that the team is bigger than one player, even if that player is future Hall of Famer Drew Brees.
Teddy Bridgewater came in and played a steady, mistake-free game while his teammates took care of the rest. From the punt return for a touchdown by undrafted rookie Deonte Harris to the magical feet of Alvin Kamara to the scoop and score by Vonn Bell that highlighted a total defensive effort that held a prolific Seahawk offense to 14 points until four minutes remained in the game. “Well, look, that’s why it’s a team,” head coach Sean Payton said after the game. “There was something about the week we had in the locker room, even in the pregame.”
The loss probably came as a huge surprise to the Seahawks, who are as formidable in their outdoor insane asylum as the Saints have been in the Mercedes Benzon Superdome. They could be forgiven for expecting a victory over a team playing without its leader and coming off a disappointing loss to the Rams, their all-of-a-sudden conference nemesis. I know how they feel because the game reminded me of another Saints team years ago in which the cleat was on the other foot.
It was December 1, 1991, and the Saints were on their way to their first division championship. They were 9-3 at the time, and the 49ers were 6-6 and struggling. Their future Hall of Fame QB Joe Montana was out for the season, and their other FHoFQB Steve Young was hobbled with an injury. That left journeyman Steve (or as Jim Finks called him “Sonny”) Bono in the irons. A couple weeks earlier, the Saints defense had suffocated Bono, holding him to 15 completions in 32 attempts for a measly 131 yards, in a 10-3 win at the Superdome. Now we get to feast on good old Sonny again!
We flew to San Francisco fully expecting to bring home another victory. Rumors flew around that Young may be ready to play, but when we arrived at Candlestick Park, we received word that Young again was inactive and Bono would be the one dodging the Sack Pack. I remember exhaling a big sigh of relief. But what transpired is the reason they play the game anyway.
Neither team scored in the first quarter, but in the second period Bono got the Niners on the board with a 19-yard TD pass to WR John Taylor. The Saints came back quickly to tie the game on a 6-yard Steve Walsh strike to WR Floyd Turner. But on the ensuing kickoff, Dexter Carter ran 98 yards in, around and through the Saints cover team to give the home team a 14-7 lead. Morten Andersen drew the Saints closer with a 52-yard field goal to close the half, but Mike Cofer matched that with a 42-yarder of his own, and the Niners led 17-10.
The Saints tied the game on a 6-yard run by Fred McAfee, and a 3-yard TD pass from Walsh to Turner gave the Saints a 24-17 lead entering the fourth quarter. But before I could light the victory cigar, Carter caught an 11-yard touchdown pass from Bono to tie the game and a few minutes later “Sonny” hit Jerry Rice for a 47-yard strike to put the Niners up. The Saints did not score again in the 38-24 Niners’ victory, reminding all disbelievers that Steve Bono had the same team around him that had made Montana and Young so dominant.
Flash back to today. Our local heroes are now 2-1 against three teams that made the playoffs last year, and they face another one with the 3-0 Cowboys coming to town next week. The Saints started the season with the toughest schedule in the league, and after Brees went down the naysayers came out in force. But another team effort on Sunday will put the league on notice that the Saints are resilient, talented and more than up to the task of surviving without Drew Brees. Just ask Sonny Bono!
Many years ago when my nephews and nieces were young enough to watch Mardi Gras parades on my shoulders, I suffered one major injury in the practice. A nephew was tired of his lofty perch and asked Uncle Jim to let him down. I proceeded to do so by reaching up and locking my four fingers under his armpits to lift him off and put him safely on the ground. But during the process, he apparently saw an attractive float coming up and decided he wanted to stay where he was. Without telling me.
When I placed my fingers under his armpits and pushed up, he locked down and a sharp pain from the middle finger and ring finger on my right hand suddenly shot down into my wrist. It hurt like hell, and Uncle Jim was done for the evening as a convenient perch. The true fallout came the next day when I tried to play golf, but when I tried to grip the club with my right hand, the hand gave way and the club fell to the ground. I had badly strained a ligament, and I would be on the sidelines for nearly a month.
This little episode did not affect anyone on the planet but me, but I remember it in empathy when I saw Saints QB Drew Brees ram his right thumb into Rams’ defensive lineman Aaron Donald. He went to the sideline for treatment, but when he tried to pick up a ball, he dropped it like a hornet's nest.The verdict Monday was that Brees tore a ligament that will likely keep him out of the lineup for at least six weeks.
The Saints have not released an official statement as of this writing, but Dr. Gleb Medvedev, an orthopedic hand surgeon at Tulane, told the Advocate it was likely the ulnar collateral ligament which is located in the area where the thumb meets the hand. An unfortunate event for the Saints and bad mojo for sure, but we all knew the day was coming when Brees would prove to be mortal. That day might be here. Or, he could heal to the point where he could return to the starting lineup and lead the Saints to another Super Bowl victory. This entire situation could be merely another hurdle that champions overcome or it could be disastrous.
What happens next will largely depend on Brees’ replacement. You will note that I did not immediately anoint backup QB Teddy Bridgewater as the place-holder for Brees. I have watched him closely, as you have, during the preseason and during most of Sunday’s 27-9 loss to the Rams. I know Bridgewater is the highest-paid backup QB in the league, which is based on his years as the starting QB in Minnesota in 2014-15. Bridgewater was selected to play in the Pro Bowl after the 2015 season in which the Vikings won their first division title since 2009. He received that honor despite ranking No. 21 among the league's quarterbacks that year, according to NFL Reference.com.The next season a horrific knee injury kept him in the training room for nearly two seasons.
Coaches and personnel guys will tell you there are not that many quality quarterbacks in the league. I am talking about QB’s who can get your team through a game in which the starting QB is injured or, in the Saints’ case, step in and seamlessly run one of the better offenses in the NFL for several games. I use that phrase guardedly, because our hometown heroes looked anything but a potent offensive juggernaut after Bridgewater came into the game. To my eyes, Bridgewater just has not been that impressive at running the Saints' offense. But I am not the coach.
I expect Coach Sean Payton to hand the ball to Bridgewater in Seattle on Sunday and expect him to perform at a high level. I believe Payton appreciated Bridgewater’s decision to re-sign with the Saints after his one-year contract expired last season. On Bridgewater’s part, it was a gutsy, yet rational move, to turn down a lucrative offer to become the Miami Dolphins’ starter and continue to grow under Payton and Brees. An element of his decision had to be the possibility of one day succeeding Brees as the starter.
Bridgewater now has that opportunity, but I do not believe it will be an extended audition. I believe Payton will give Bridgewater every chance to succeed, within limits. Sean Payton wants to win, and if Teddy Bridgewater can’t do that, the coach will not hesitate to insert Taysom Hill, everybody’s favorite handyman, into the starting lineup sooner rather than later.