December 14, 2017

They’re Pistols

Thirty-two years after his final game and more than two decades after his death, Pete Maravich remains a unique and divisive figure in the history of American sports.  Maravich was perhaps the most entertaining basketball player of his time and certainly the most watchable college basketball player of all time.  In three seasons at LSU (1968-1970), Maravich averaged 44.2 points per game and, with his colorful socks and mop of hair, looked like the lovechild of Pete Seeger and Elgin Baylor.

Maravich was born in Pennsylvania but his blood was Cajun as he played college ball in Louisiana and then, after spending his first four NBA seasons with the Atlanta Hawks, moved to the New Orleans Jazz for whom he would play five seasons including his most spectacular.  Maravich was flashy, brilliant, confounding, frustrating and, deservedly, a Hall of Famer and it’s painful and supremely unjust that he died so young, of an undiagnosed congenital heart defect, in 1988 at the age of 40.

Much of what makes Maravich such a debate starter is his style of play and philosophy toward basketball.  He scored a lot, yes, but wasn’t so keen on trying to stop the other guy from scoring.  Maravich said he never understood his defensive detractors noting that when he would look at the box score at the end of the game and he had scored 40 points and the guy who was guarding him had scored only 20 “isn’t that defense?”

Maravich’s blood, hubris and plan of attack is alive and well in the state of Louisiana and has long since captured the hearts and minds of the New Orleans Saints.  The Saints are football’s merry band of Pistol Petes adorned not with sloppy socks but a regal fleur-de-lis.  And while Sean Payton’s apostles don’t shoot jump shots they do run a fast break offense that scoffs at ball control and clock management and lives by the belief that footballs were created for the one and only purpose of being moved past the goal line.

The Saints unapologetically pistol-whipped the Detroit Lions, 45-28, on Saturday night in New Orleans in their NFC wild card game, rolling up an NFL playoff record 626 yards of offense.  Quarterback Drew Brees, as always, was the point guard of this pigskin blitzkrieg completing 33 of 43 passes for a Maravichian 466 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions and a whole lotta funk and fun.

The Saints are to offense what Picasso was to nudity.  They make the practice of moving the football a transcendent, Avant-guard affair in which shock is common, yardage is sacred and points are more valuable than time.  Whether it’s through the air or on the ground, New Orleans never concedes that another touchdown cannot be compiled and only turns off the guns when the game is safely in hand as it was tonight when the Saints, graciously, took a knee at the end rather than punk those Lions with a 52-spot.

It seems as if nothing can stop the Saints as long as…they’re playing inside.  Especially on their home carpet.  The Saints are now 9-0 at home this season, averaging 41.5 points per game and, in their last three home games, including the playoff victory over Detroit, have scored exactly 45, 45 and 45.  But on the road the Saints turn from Pete Maravich into merely George Gervin, putting up 27.2 points per game.  It seems the only thing that might be able to slow down Brees, Payton, Jimmy Graham, Marques Colston, Pierre Thomas, Darren Sproles, Robert Meachem and the rest of the French Quarter is an act of God.  The Saints are sinfully offensive but can they score in the cold?  The rain?  The wind?  San Francisco?

New Orleans now has a date in San Francisco with the 49ers who sport the NFC’s top defense, allowing just 308 yards per game which is what Drew Brees can usually rack up with a sneeze.  The weather forecast for San Francisco next Saturday is sunny and 60 degrees so maybe the indoor Saints won’t turn blasphemous in such conditions.  If the weather holds, the Saints will roll and will almost certainly find themselves in Green Bay a week later for an NFC Championship game tussle with the Packers which will be a rematch of the NFL’s opening night thriller.  The Packers won that one, 42-34 at Lambeau Field on a warm September night.  The average high temperature in Green Bay is 24 degrees in January which is a field goal below New Orleans’ road game points average.

Pete Maravich was unstoppable but he never had to play at Lambeau in January.  If the Saints can get past the Niners then brave the elements and beat the Packers (assuming, of course, Green Bay makes it that far) it will be a religious experience and a remarkable triumph.  It can happen so long as the Saints think warm thoughts and keep on chuckin’.

…As the Saints continue their playoff march they are accompanied in their home state by the quest of Pistol Pete’s alma mater to claim college football’s national title.  LSU hosts Alabama at the home of the Saints, the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, in the BCS Championship game on Monday night.  With a victory, the Tigers will claim their third national championship since 2003 and Louisiana will be to football success what California is to fake body parts.

Is there something in the water?  In Walker Percy’s 1987 novel The Thanatos Syndrome, a heavy supply of sodium is added to the drinking water and LSU’s football team goes unbeaten for three years.  No mention was made of the Saints, though.  Back in the 1980s, the Saints had a good defense but were nothing like the offensive juggernaut they are today.  Back then, a team averaging 41 points per Sunday in New Orleans was something that not even science fiction dared to play with.

The truth has turned out to be more fantastic than fiction.


Are You Ready for Some Two-Hand Touch Football?

Now don’t get me wrong, I applaud that the NFL is tackling the safety issues. The fact that there does not seem to be much outcry from the players about all the new rules in recent years tells me that the players are, for the most part, behind the new safety rules. However, football is a violent game and is a game where players wear pads and helmets. Hard hits and bruises are a part of football.

Which brings me to this weekend. Fourteen quarterbacks threw for more than 300 yards, including three throwing more than 400 yards and of course the ever exalted Tom Brady throwing for more than 500 yards. (A feat I have to add would not have happened if not for Miami’s disastrous play calling. Fourth and half a yard and they choose to throw rather than give to Reggie Bush? Good luck this season Miami.)

The league has created so many rules about hitting and even going so far as to ensure a dramatic decrease in the number of kickoff returns. It’s no wonder there is so much offense now. Players are afraid to tackle and make punishing, message sending hits for fear of getting fined and/or suspended. Witness San Francisco 49ers’ Joe Nedney in Sunday’s game against Seattle “fall” after hardly a hair was touched when he attempted a field goal. Penalty. In the same game a flag was thrown after what appeared to be a hard-hitting head shot. Replays said otherwise. A penalty was still issued.

If the NFL is going to continue to crack down on hard hits and create a game that discourages real tackling, which some argue compromises the game, then I think an additional “challenge” concept needs to be developed. One that allows coaches two additional challenges, just like current replay challenges, which are allowed to be used on penalties and whether or not a head shot is a head shot or a quarterback was truly roughed up.

Six games this weekend saw both quarterbacks throwing for more than 300 yards, a first in the game’s history. More touchbacks were recorded in one game at Lambeau Field than all of last year. I believe this year will be the most offensively productive year in NFL history. It would not surprise me that two or three quarterbacks reach 5,000 yards passing and even potentially knocking Dan Marino’s season record down two or three notches. I would also expect players to get tired of touchbacks, which means possible multiple touchdown returns of 105 yards or longer. Witness 49ers’ Ted Ginn Jr. returning a kickoff and punt return in the fourth quarter within a minute of each other. Are defenses mailing in kickoff returns because they expect a touchback or are they too afraid to take down players like they used to?

In recent years, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning have been accused of crying foul every time someone touches a hand on them. It would make perfect sense then, especially for offenses, to keep the crybaby routine up until the league intervenes because a two-hand touch game means more offense and statistics, and the NFL backs it because fans love to see high scoring games and productive offenses. The bottom line: more offense equals more money! (This was evident on Monday as two Patriot defenders simply watched Miami quarterback Chad Henne scramble towards the goal line.) I am still amazed whenever I see a punt or field goal blocked successfully since the margin of error to reach the ball without touching the kicker is so small.

Player safety should always be a primary concern. I’ll never forget seeing Steve Young unconscious on the field. And cheap shots should be penalized with fines and suspensions, if necessary. But much of football is mental and if you take away the fear factor defenses rely on so much, then football becomes a two-hand touch proposition. With referees not taking chances and calling questionable hits viewed only in real-time, more and more players will hold back which means poor tackling and high offensive output. Perhaps, this is what the NFL truly intended when it began implementing so many rules.