After a frustrating off-season of lawsuits, rules changes and proposed movies, none of it flattering to game officials, many Saints fans traded their Black and Gold wardrobe entered the Superdome wearing notorious black and white stripes. Some of their shirts carried messages such as “Thief” emblazoned where the nameplate should be, and the appearance of the officials brought a chorus of boooos. But it was not long before Who Dat Nation was reminded who was really in charge.
The league zebras inflicted an additional dose of derision in front of Monday Night Football’s national audience. The Saints were driving inside a minute 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. “If we have 15 more seconds, are you kidding me? You know we’re gonna get closer. That’s a game changer!”
They tried to do it again in the fourth quarter after Houston tied the game with 37 seconds left but missed the extra point. But wait a minute! A Saints’ player hit the ground in front of the kicker and brushed his foot, sending the kicker into a dramatic performance worthy of Laurence Olivier in Hamlet. Another flag flies for roughing the kicker, and the ensuing re-kick put Houston up 28-27. To quote Brees: “Are you kidding me?” Fortunately, the Saints’ QB was fired up enough to show the NFL what he can do with a dying clock and one time out. His pass to Ted Ginn put the ball at the Texans’ 40-yard line with two seconds left, enough for Lutz’s 58-yard game winner.
Whether the officials just panic in the closing minute, the NFL could not have sent a more hurtful message to New Orleans, delivered on its national Monday Night billboard: “We screwed you out of a Super Bowl last year, and we can do it again this year because we are in charge!”
Another story that occupied far too much attention during the opening weekend was the curious case of Antonio Brown. Although he was one of the most productive receivers in the league during six seasons with the Steelers, the Pittsburgh brass tired of his selfish antics and traded him to Oakland at the fire-sale price of two mid-level draft choices. Oakland, whose founding father Al Davis burnished the team’s reputation of mavericks and rebels, sounded like the perfect spot for Brown. His new boss would be Jon Gruden, the sneering head coach whose nickname Chucky comes from a demonic doll in a horror movie. Perfect fit, right? Wrong, because Brown’s shenanigans bit the hand that was going to pay him a guaranteed $30 million. He was cut Saturday morning and by sundown had been signed by the Patriots, the most recent safe harbor for dysfunctional characters.
In recent years, the Patriots have taken in such perceived trouble-makers as Randy Moss and Corey Dillon. I imagine Coach Bill Belichick has a sports psychologist on speed-dial to address the multitude of behavioral oddities that Brown has displayed. He obviously is arrogant, although that is not a fatal flaw in his industry. Belichick obviously believes he can harness Brown’s behavior because he did it with Moss and Dillon. But does Brown’s vision of his importance to New England mesh with Belichick’s vision of how Brown fits with the Patriots? Will Brown realize that he needs the Patriots more than they need him? Delusional behavior can be fatal if he believes he is more important than the team. But maybe winning is the cure. Moss and Dillon became valuable team members and won Super Bowl rings. My feeling is that Brown’s fuse is a lot shorter than Moss’. I believe he needs professional help, and I am not talking sports.Jim Miller's new book, "Integrated: the Lincoln Institute, Basketball and a Vanished Tradition" is now available from the University Press of Kentucky or at Amazon.com.
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