There is No Headline Capable of Touching on How Shocking the Tragic Passing of Kobe Bryant and His Daughter is to the World of Sports
Numb, but in a way that makes you keenly aware that the nothingness felt is actually just your body’s instinctual reaction to your brain’s inability to process information that previously seemed implausible. Empty, but in a way that makes you keenly aware that you’re actually full of far too many feelings for just one to take precedence.
I am bound to eventually start rambling uncontrollably in trying to simultaneously collect and convey about a thousand different thoughts, but that’s the best way I can describe how I felt upon hearing the (heart)breaking news that I’m still left re-reading and re-re-reading in disbelief while desperately trying to make sense of a loss of life that, like so many others, doesn’t make any sense at all. I never dreamed of seeing myself damn near stunned to the point of sedation by the premature death of a public figure, much less one I merely took turns loving and loathing from afar. However, the realization that my opinion of Kobe Bryant was never just neutral speaks to how peerless he was in evoking - or more accurately, provoking - overly emotional reactions and responses out of anyone even casually invested in or against his tumultuous and tireless efforts.
Fact is, to almost everyone that has ever bounced a single Spalding, either before him or because of him, the sudden death of Kobe Bryant is not at all like others, as there are so few others who could truly lay claim to an aura of invincibility. I think Taj Gibson put it best when speaking of a Knicks’ locker room that was shocked somber. It feels as though all of sports, never mind anyone that had even a semblance of interest in them, lost a superhero yesterday. A flawed superhero that had trials and tribulations that were largely of his own making and earned all of his detractors in being a better reflection of the innately imperfect human condition than Superman, but a superhero nonetheless...
Immortal, as only the type of different breed and beast that could look up and down the entirely overwhelming physical force that was Shaq and know full-well he could win without him can be. Immortal, as only a predatory performer who not only got away with giving himself a nickname due to the unabashed accuracy of it, but also got away with crafting the universally understood and accepted 'Mamba Mentality' around said nickname can be. Immortal, as only a competitor who willed himself to the foul line to knock down two shots before walking himself off the court with a torn achilles in tow can be. Immortal, as only a showman who capped off an illustrious rollercoaster of a story-arch that included a fistful of championships by signing off for good with a signature 60-point performance can be. Immortal, as only someone who accomplished enough on the court to have two different numbers raised to the rafters above it in his honor can be. Immortal, as only a professional athlete who commanded the respect and appreciation of every last one of his peers despite trying to shatter their spirit every time he faced off against them can be.
Everything Kobe Bean Bryant did, and how confident/cocky/arrogant he was in doing it, sure made it seem like a guarantee that all he had to do to outlive us all was want it badly enough or scare the reaper into submission with his patented soul-searing stare and snarl. Yet, with him seemingly wanting nothing more than to continue transforming into so much more than an athlete by nurturing the multi-faceted growth of both his immediate family and his outrageously extended basketball family, we’re left pondering the potential of a man who proved, time and time again, he’d stop at absolute nothing to surpass it.
The Jordan of the next generation. Oddly enough, as psychotically centered on maximizing his own greatness as he was, referencing Kobe as he compares to the legend whose footsteps he, near literally, tried to follow while emulating every move and mannerism might be the ultimate compliment. His resume isn’t as flawless and his reputation as a person was hardly as irreproachable as that of his predecessor, largely due to playing through the era of easily accessible information. Regardless, Kobe Bryant gave late 80’s babies and beyond their own mirror image of a larger-than-life, endlessly talented, insatiable and fearless freak athlete of a performance artist whose win-at-all-costs attitude and hunger for more championships drove him straight past bordering on maniacal.
This tragedy is quite obviously bigger than basketball. There are multiple families in a state of mourning that would even be mentally crippling to the type of cutthroat, cold-blooded lunatic that is immune to the inherently human act of flinching. However, the immeasurable amount that Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gigi still had left to give to the world through sport was ever-present in every tear dropped in or around the NBA’s social circle yesterday.
A mentor who did what so few retirees do in wholeheartedly embracing and encouraging those responsible for taking the reins and helping evolve the game to which he dedicated his entire existence. A 13-year-old mentee who, based on shared love and lineage alone, it somehow wasn’t entirely unreasonable to foresee taking women’s basketball to heights previously un-peaked. The world, whose global interest in seeing a ball go through a hoop is steadily increasing by the day, lost both an international icon and a next-of-kin that was already speaking freely about carrying on a wildly intimidating legacy of wild intimidation...
Again, what’s most devastatingly heart-wrenching is the unexpected and irreversible wreckage of the multiple families that had members aboard that helicopter. Still, what makes this particular tragedy, that you sadly wouldn’t think twice of had you not recognized the one unmistakable name taken by it, so profoundly painful to so, so many is how promising and impactful the very public lives of the victims we "knew" seemed downright destined to be.
I wouldn’t have imagined saying this yesterday morning, mostly because I wouldn’t have imagined anything short of the planet imploding taking the Mamba out before the age of 100-and-something, but his passing is one that I’ll never forgot where I was or what I was doing when I learned of it. The unforgettably clutch moments. The memories of flat-out emasculation through offensive genius and defensive doggedness. The mind-blowing milestones. Hell, even the eternally recyclable memes will continue to serve as a reminders of Kobe Bryant's lasting and unapologetic imprint on the cultural landscape of society, never mind the blueprint of basketball. For better or worse, he was that transcendent in the same way that a Prince or Michael Jackson might be to an older demographic, but with the added caveat that his whole image seemed defiantly and determinedly indestructible to those that grew up shouting the only name he ever needed while throwing literally anything in a trash can from a distance.
Death obviously comes for us all. If there were a competitive person or protective father that could simply fight it off by putting his mind to it then it would have been Kobe Bryant, so him being rendered helpless as he and his daughter presumably passed away in each others arms is undeniable proof of the harshest of human truths to accept. No matter what kind of life we're living, we can only control so much in regards to our own fate.
I’d imagine that aspect of this horrific accident plays a significant part in how sharply this stings. Perhaps, even as significant a part as Kobe Bryant would have continued playing - through the guidance and development of Gianna and her teammates, the tutorship of already incredible NBA players that still revered him, and the countless other Oscar Award-worthy projects he undoubtedly had in the works - in trying to better the sport for which he served as a pillar of polarization for two straight decades.
In a word? Good.
Might be too damn bad for those fans that have perennially pointed to his production, or lack thereof, in refusing to adequately appreciate his underrated-but-undeniable impact on the vast majority of the thousand+ games he's played for one franchise. Regardless, Travis Zajac refusing the potential opportunity to take his subtly solid skillset somewhere that could actually make use of it when it matters may have saved the New Jersey Devils from themselves. That’s more than likely a sizable overstatement, as #19 could theoretically be closer to the 'Ring of Honor' than the active roster by the time this godforsaken group totally turns things around anyway, but it hardly offsets how understated his contributions have been for well over a decade.
It’s impossible to predict what a player who does all the little things at a high level could be worth to a prospective playoff team as the deadline approaches. However, the hefty contract that Travis Zajac is carrying through next season leads me to believe that he’s more invaluable to a young team that already lacks leadership than he is valuable to suitors that presumably aren’t open to paying a premium for someone who is optimally a bottom-six option. The way I see it, with a once proud organization currently in a state of (what the…) flux, losing a veteran who consistently sets the perfect example and - bless his big, stupid heart - actually wants to stay in New Jersey would be a bigger subtraction than any addition you could reasonably expect to get in return.
To be blunt about it, what we’ve seen out of the Devils this year is something that’s trending dangerously close to being considered Oilers East, but without the transcendent, equalizing force that is Connor McDavid. Point being, with things being about as stable as a three-legged table as is, moving a proven pillar of consistency whose latest act of getting his hands dirty was in planting the seeds of defensive security that have allowed Blake Coleman and Nikita Gusev to flourish offensively seems silly. Travis Zajac just finds a way to make things work, despite there being very little wizardry to his game. Therefore, I think it goes without saying that a team that canned their head coach, traded their best player, and gave their GM his walking papers all before the All Star break of a once promising season could probably benefit from the prolonged presence of a player that's long helped remedy chaos by playing the right way.
The gift and the curse of intangibles is that they can’t be measured, but what can be counted - on JPP’s fuse-lighting hand, no less - is the amount of versatile, experienced, and trustworthy commodities throughout a developing Devils’ lineup that certainly isn’t going to mentor itself. Nico Hischier might be wearing the 'C' before you can say "boo", as he is progressing towards the captaincy at a rate that makes Taylor Hall's fall from the good graces of Devils' fans seem slow. At the end of the day, however, he's just a kid with one absolute pummeling of a playoff series under his belt that could continue to learn a lot about being an unwaveringly positive influence on the room from a guy who continues to go through hell with the Devils while still proudly calling New Jersey home.
I wouldn’t have blamed Travis Zajac for a split second if he decided he were open to giving himself a realistic chance at winning a Stanley Cup elsewhere, even if that elsewhere did hit a bit too close to home. With that said, I appreciate the hell out of him being stubbornly loyal, far more than likely to a fault, towards a franchise whose rafters are lined with evidence, albeit circumstantial, of that sort of thing mattering to the process of building a winning team.
"New Jersey is where I want to be" might inspire more optimism coming from the mouth of a player that represents the Devils' foreseeable future, as opposed to a predominantly depressing past and present, but I'm just glad someone finally offered such a desire something a little more convincing than lip service.
Kyrie Irving Celebrated Martin Luther King Day by Making the Heroically Departed Roll Over in His Grave
I am going to make the mistake of giving Kyrie Irving a little benefit of the doubt in assuming that the NBA's oft-cantankerous enigma to the tragically slain Civil Rights leader comparison isn’t one that he sat down, with a pen and pad, and put a lot of thought into. In my opinion, this was just a case of him dropping whatever topical name happened to be on the tip of his tongue in trying, and largely failing, to voice his opinion in making a point about him constantly being maligned through the media's misunderstanding and misrepresentation.
Unfortunately, the ever-so-slight difference between those two things is far-too-nuanced a distinction to expect people to make on the one day a year devoted to the memory of a man who died for a cause exponentially greater than any easily-confuted conspiracy theory.
Look, I don’t want to go all “shut up and dribble” here. That’s partially because I hate the racial and “political” overtones of doing so, but it’s mostly because the last thing Kyrie Irving needs is encouragement to spend even more time singlehandedly bouncing the air out of a basketball. Still, the fact remains that someone who only manages to make the media’s job that much easier almost every time he attempts to criticize it could probably benefit from knowing when to stop talking.
Albeit for a brief and belated second, Kyrie Irving was right. At the end of the day, all that matters is how his team performs and what his teammates think of him. However, if the general population is off-put by him seamlessly making MLK’s legendary life as a martyr for the inherently human rights of minorities about himself then it stands to reason that an NBA locker room would also feel some type of way about the timing of such shameless self-importance. Simply put, I have a hard time believing that the rest of the Nets' roster isn’t looking at their best (active) player through a collective side-eye after he returned from spending two months on the sideline only to contribute more to the creation of dumbfounding and divisive distractions than the work that goes into winning...
...never mind doing so on a culturally significant holiday ahead of an important divisional game that he didn’t even fucking participate in.
Again, I don’t think Kyrie Irving thought he was making an apples-to-apples analogy between himself and one of the most accomplished activists to ever walk this decisively round planet. I do, however, think that he thought he was smart enough to speak on some off-the-padded-wall similarity without sounding like more of an insane asshole than an eccentric intellectual. That’s an egregiously obnoxious trend with him, as what he considers an unfair portrayal is what the vast majority of the basketball world has seen enough of to consider it an insufferable personality.
The absolute best case scenario here is that he was intentionally trolling for the entertainment purposes he only seems to speak of with snark, but even that would require a disingenuous and disrespectful repurposing of MLK’s purpose on a day dedicated to his awe-inspiring existence. Plus, while I think we all wish that Kyrie Irving had the self-awareness for that soundbite to be heard as sarcastic, he’s proven - ad nauseam - to be a human hot-air balloon as an aimless gasbag that needs to be tied down, psych-ward-style, to remain grounded. If we're speaking metaphorically, he makes an Ambien addict with narcolepsy seem "woke" to reality by a comparison that is exponentially more appropriate than that of the NBA's most incessant malcontent to a timeless trailblazer who sacrificed his life to the pursuit of equality.
Brad Marchand Forgot the Puck and Presumably What Remains of His Dignity at Center Ice in Gifting a Shootout Win to the Flyers
Now that’s just some good, clean family fun. The rare watch that is endlessly enjoyable by 99.9% of men, women, and children that don't diddle themselves to grainy Bobby Orr highlights like they are scrambled porn. For someone whose career has been characterized by not having so much as a...ahem...lick of shame, as much as it has been characterized by an incredible offensive evolution, it was always going to take something truly and profoundly unique to finally embarrass Brad Marchand. That something finally coming in a 'PG' package that can be guiltlessly celebrated by the masses that silently wish him far worse is just an added bonus.
I honestly can’t help but feel like there was some divine intervention at play here. If the Lord working in mysterious ways can be used to unconditionally explain the otherwise inexplicable then I have no choice but to hold the sports gods accountable for upholding karma by having one of the best stickhandlers in the entire world be the first to ever graze over a stationary puck so slightly that it barely even budged across the slickest of surfaces. An overly proud prick costing his team a game in miserable and mortifying fashion, thus being left alone in the spotlight as a sitting duck for the scorn of the most belligerent fanbase in sports is just too perfect a storm for it not to have been conceived somewhere amongst the clouds.
Like, I don't know that it couldn't possibly happen to a nicer guy, but I do know that it literally hasn't throughout the hundreds upon thousands of shootouts attempts we've seen on NHL ice over the last decade or so. A puck left resting peacefully at center ice, as if it were oblivious to the outrageous asshole being mocked incessantly for causing it no more than a stiff breeze while skating right past it. A simple pleasure, indeed.
UPDATE: It appears as though the pest is...pestered...
The Devils Backpage’d Two of Their Most Gutsy Wins of an Otherwise Awful Season With an Out-of-Nowhere Dismissal of GM Ray Shero
Because the only alternative is inconsolably weeping, ya just gotta laugh at this point. In the almost-too-comforting wake of the New Jersey Devils’ most impressive performance of the season, a convincing road win over the Washington Capitals, their ownership shockingly dropped the bomb of all bombs into what was finally starting to feel like somewhat serene waters 90 minutes before the home follow-up a night later.
Of course, you’d seek a “second” opinion from approximately six different psychics before believing that this team, as currently constructed, would string together back-to-back wins over the best team in hockey and the hottest team in hockey while riding the hot hand of…::prepare to pinch yourself::…Louis Domingue. Therefore, timing that can only be described as either hysterical or worthy of hysterics, depending on how self-deprecating you allow your sense of humor to be, was merely a product of irony.
Still, this team finally taking a sizable step in the right direction while the person who pointed them in said direction was being directed out the door is a coincidence that only a franchise in complete and utter flux could manage to “accomplish”. When you consider how quickly this season's expectations expired, this past weekend served as a hard-to-top high. Yet, even it was unceremoniously interrupted by the ultimate organizational low of managing to complete the trifecta of internal turmoil, by adding the GM to the list of casualties that already included the head coach and the best player, before the goddamn All Star break.
I’m not going to list all of them, because I have to get back to stuffing a life-size likeness of Nico Hischier to serve as my emotional support cuddle buddy until the sun shines on this predominantly dark era of Devils’ hockey. Still, other than the trade for Mirco Mueller, it was pretty tough to argue with any semi-substantial move Ray Shero made when he actually made it. Some turned out much better than others, but hardly any were scoffed at like they came from the desk of Peter Chiarelli.
Unfortunately, as much as I continued to trust in his asset management, the only thing that even his most universally praised acquisitions had in common was losing at a nauseatingly high level. So, especially if his plan of attack was to retreat and re-re-set the franchise by trading everyone that's over 25 years old and worth a damn for more yet-to-be-determined teenagers that have been relatively slow to develop on his watch, it's possible that firing Ray Shero was the right call.
He deserves all the credit in the world for spotting the sucker in the room, as that is an important skill to have in his field, and strong-arming said sucker into making a notorious and lopsided one-for-one deal that brought aboard the human rabbit’s foot that went on to become the first league MVP in franchise history. However, though he lucked into more than enough lemons in the draft lottery, he was hardly able to squeeze enough out of them to quench the thirst of a fanbase and front office that was made dehydrated by the desperate desire for more than one measly playoff victory.
If only out of fear of not being able to find a preferable power source, I personally wouldn’t have pulled the plug on Ray Shero just yet. He wasn’t the one who inked an aging goaltender to a long-term extension and the bi-polar status of Schneider's ability, never mind availability, has all but annually kicked over the bricks as he slowly but surely tried to build around a suspect defense. That said, even I can understand the “enough is enough” mindset in regards to the Devils’ rebuild and I didn’t sink hundreds of millions of dollars into a once formidable franchise only to be presented with the prospect of burning it back down to the studs - that are Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes - by pouring more gasoline on what’s largely been a five-year tire fire of an investment.
What I can’t understand, on the other hand, is the suspicious timing of what was presumably a fundamental disagreement about the immediate future of a foundering team. Never mind Ray Shero’s ousting being sandwiched by two wins that, impressive as they may be, mean very little in the long run. The timing I’m referring to is deciding there is a better (or more agreeable) man for the job shortly after letting said man complete the most impactful and tedious tasks of said job by cutting lose the head coach and orchestrating the mid-season trade of a superstar on an expiring contract. Regardless of whether or not John Hynes' termination was inevitable (it was) or whether or not there was someone more qualified to maximize what was sure to be an underwhelming return for Taylor Hall (there wasn’t), letting Ray Shero make those moves when they apparently weren't committed to letting him tend to the fruits of that labor is perplexing at best and frightening at worst.
Fans get to view a revamped roster through rose-colored glasses, but executives aren’t granted that same luxury. No matter how optimistic the outlook, there should have been an agreed upon contingency plan for the worst case scenario well before the season started and the “worst case scenario” was left feeling better about itself by looking down at the Devils’ blowing multi-goal third period leads at a rate that was impossible to anticipate.
Simply put, to only now reach an impasse in mutual understanding leaves me with very little faith that the decision makers that are still in place know what the hell they are doing. From the outside looking in, it certainly seems as though Ray Shero, Josh Harris, David Blitzer, and Hugh Weber did about as good a job at being prepped for the next chapter, never mind staying on the same page, as a bunch of housewives disguising their alcoholism in a shared love of literature at the weekly meeting of a boozy book club. If that doesn’t make you want to pop a cork and drown the sorrows of complete uncertainty then I’d greatly appreciate you lending me whatever will power you have left over.
Don’t get me wrong. Transitioning from the patently false grammatical migraine that is #WeAreTheOnes to the indefinitely forgiving #TrustTheProcess would be a welcomed change in forced enthusiasm amongst the fanbase. “Shero died for our sins” definitely does have the type of ring to it that would make Sam Hinkie brandish an envious hue. Other than that, however, there’s not much in the past of this ownership group that I want to see replicated in the Devils’ future. I’m oddly confident in Tom Fitzgerald, who was primed for taking the same position elsewhere if not for being stuck in this hand-basket to hell...
...but if the 76ers’ successful hiring of Elton Brand was any indication then we should be very wary of Martin Brodeur being gifted a feel-good, legacy-based promotion that he is in no way yet qualified to undertake.
Maybe I'm jumping the gun and that’s nowhere near in the works. Maybe the money men were comfortable in making this move because they have done far more preliminary research than I and have taken a long, nuanced look at a variety of external candidates.
I just don't think that Ray Shero getting canned for vague/cliched/canned reasons while the young roster he pieced together (from the barren wasteland that he inherited from Lou Lamoriello) was finally showing the promise of progress firmly grips anyone's hand and leads them to believe there is a well-thought out succession plan in place…never mind one that Devils’ fans should have a single ounce of faith in while blindly following an exposed organization into an unfamiliar abyss.
Mackenzie Blackwood Ate a Slapshot, Washed it Down With His Own Blood, and Immediately Proceeded to Blindly Make the Save of the Night
Priorities. If I had to judge him as a regular person, I’d say those of Mackenzie Blackwood are wildly out of whack after he sucked back blood through the grotesque grates in his newly mangled grill and decided that playing the last 20-some-odd seconds of the second period in a early January game during a season as lost as his incisors was more urgent than having a dental professional tend to whatever shards of his smile remained.
Fortunately, the criteria by which a punching bag for pucks is to be judged couldn’t possibly be more different than that of a sane and rational human being. Therefore, having the composure to live out everyone’s nightmare of frantically and futilely feeling around his mouth for teeth only to make this preposterous no-look save in under the amount of time it would take the average, everyday asshole to even consider showing face is nothing if not impressive...
I wouldn’t say I died on the hill that Cory Schneider would eventually return to form, but I apparently didn’t learn from falling head-over-heels down it every time a crappy goal or a cramp torpedoed his confidence for indefinite stretches of the NHL calendar. Point being, while it’s still way too early to be making declarative statements about Mackenzie Blackwood’s perseverance, coming out the other side of an organizational tire fire without having burned his poise between the pipes beyond recognition is an encouraging sign that he’s as mentally tough as he is physically imposing. I was as staunch a Cory Schneider apologist as any, but a short memory was simply and sadly not one of his strong suits. The same can’t be said about a guy who immediately continued swallowing up vulcanized rubber despite being unable to chew on a marshmallow.
Trying to project the potential of goaltenders long-term is such a fool’s errand that it makes weathermen look like exact scientists, as the performances of puck-stoppers often seem to be dictated by whichever way the wind happens to blow. For that reason, it only makes sense to live in the moment. Still, at this particular moment, Mackenzie Blackwood has the look of a future franchise netminder.
You can credit Nico Hischier for bringing a proud tear to the eye of all Devils’ fans with his game undergoing a perfectly timed growth spurt in the wake of the Taylor Hall trade. You can point to Nikita Gusev finding the ‘ON’ switch for a lightbulb containing 1,000 watts worth of offensive ingenuity. You can finally start to see shades of the point production that once helped win PK Subban a Norris Trophy. However, at the end of the day, the main reason the New Jersey Devils are now winning some games while consistently competing is that their 23-year-old “rookie” goalie has helped off-set the occasional in-zone idiocy of Damon Sieverson and granted them the margin of error to do so on damn near a nightly basis.
Mackenzie Blackwood's recent dominance might only be as sustainable as his early-season struggles to block so much as a beach ball...
However, to even get here from there - as the Devils have actively been hemorrhaging chances in hopes of creating more of their own - hints at his size and athleticism not being wasted on someone whose mettle is anywhere near as easily compromised as his ability to say cheese without traumatizing toddlers.
GEICO Endorsed Nico Hischier's All Star Campaign Before He Took the Ice and Continued to Prove It a Worthy Cause
Look, I hardly think the GEICO execs took a break from giggling over their multi-million dollar monetization of an animated lizard with an ambiguous accent to throw the #13 on their backs and become avid supporters of Nico Hischier's steady climb towards stardom. I don’t know how much brand exposure there is to be gained throughout a half-full Prudential Center at the moment, but it’s pretty obvious that endorsing its most talented tenant’s outside shot at joining the NHL’s elite at a league-wide showcase was a business decision.
That being said, it’s not one that I can’t appreciate, for if seeing the Devils future both spelled out and pointed in the right direction in the boldest of letters doesn’t make you smile then literally nothing during a lost season that’s been limited to minor moral victories will.
Honestly, every single resource at the Devils’ disposal should be devoted to Nico Hischier’s progression towards the perennial All Star plateau. Whether it’s by way of a pity invite to a gimmicky game or by way of an undeniable increase in on-ice impact, the evolution of their smooth-skating Swiss Army Knife should be priority number one. Be it through the product placement of endorsements on the boards or the unlicensed injection of undetectable PED’s behind them, Nico Hischier needs to be catered to...even that means hand-feeding him grapes as often as they are force-feeding him minutes. Simply put, by absolutely any means necessary, the New Jersey Devils need him to become the type of household name whose invite to All Star weekend is far more of a formality than it is a false hope.
Luckily, he's taken sizable steps towards doing just that even before a car insurance company jumped at the opportunity to pander to a particularly vulnerable/susceptible target audience. I would actually understand if those that naively questioned New Jersey’s far-sighted decision to extend the contract of a young, two-way stud at a price point above his current production have yet to take notice, for they didn't even bother to watch him actually play before the Devils’ regressed into a familiar form of irrelevance. That said, what we’ve seen out of Nico Hischier since the weight of the elephant in the room has been lifted off his line isn’t just a different player, but also a difference maker.
To call it a pleasant surprise would be to ignore that many just flat-out called it while he was crafting a full-length highlight reel out of his first appearance at the World Championships this past summer. Still, it’s refreshing to see that same type of fortitude consistently come to fruition as soon as the New Jersey Devils’ organization made it crystal clear that the fate of their future lies on the still-broadening shoulders of someone they were basically forced to trust as a first line center since well before he could legally buy himself a drink.
The defensive effort and intuition has always been there, but there has been a hell of a lot more gumption in Nico Hischier’s offensive game recently. He's been leading by example in finding and/or taking the puck with a purpose, and it's exponentially more commendable than the one that had him and his teammates blindly tossing it around like an active hand grenade the first 20-30 games of the season...
We're not just talking about one or two highlights. The point per game that he’s averaged over the last ten appearances that he's largely spent skating circles around the eye test speaks to his increased commitment to creating for himself and others. Might be too little, too late to earn an All Star Game invite, as not one player on the New Jersey Devils deserved so much as a pat on the ass before their playoff hopes were on life support. However, if fucking GEICO can recognize Nico Hischier's potential star power, even if it’s just as a regionally marketable name, then what do his stat-obsessed skeptics have left to question once they realize he's now producing with plays like this?
I Don't Know That Disappointment Is as Painful as Devastation, but the Saints Certainly Posed the Question With a Well-Deserved Playoff Loss
No mystifying missed tackle-enabled “miracle”. No inexcusably egregious act, or lack thereof, of officiating. No…well…once-in-a-lifetime, nauseatingly commercialized frozen moment in NFL history to distract from the fact that the New Orleans Saints, for the third year in a row, hardly even showed all their cards in bringing a premature end to another ‘Super Bowl or bust’ season without a chip to their name.
I’m sure many will disagree, but I can’t help but feel more disgusted by what happened on Sunday than I did by what happened when the Saints were making playoff football a more emotionally excruciating watch than a movie where the protagonist overcomes all other odds just to get hit by a bus while walking triumphantly into the sunset before the credits fatally roll. That’s probably a bit of recency bias, but the truth is that recency is all that really matters when you’re talking about trying to win another championship before the clock strikes midnight on a future first ballot HOF quarterback. Recently, everyone thought Drew Brees’ early season injury had a much fresher arm operating at peak performance when it mattered most, so there’s no bias necessary to say that him chucking a complete clunker at home against an undermanned secondary during what very well might have been his best and/or last chance to add another Lombardi to his legacy was a demonstrative disappointment.
Embarrassment. Relative to agony, that feeling probably falls pretty short on the hierarchy of haunted dreams, but it’s almost sadder that who I still consider the most complete team in the NFC bowed out of the first round in frighteningly forgettable fashion. From the top-down, a highly-talented roster led by a top-notch coaching staff simply shat the bed. The transcendent tag-team of Drew Brees and Sean Payton got taken to the cleaners by Mike Zimmer and allowed…::chokes back vomit::...Kirk Cousins to craft a whole ass tale of redemption out of no more than three or four very timely passes. An offensive line that was finally back at full strength certainly didn’t help matters, as the Vikings moved Everson Griffin inside and absolutely emasculated its weakest link, but the two men who have spent well over a decade mending otherwise brilliant minds to make their protection look pristine picked a bad day to have their worst days.
Honestly, the only time the Saints showed any urgency whatsoever prior to the 4th quarter was when the NFL's predominant defier of time constraints inexplicably decided that he absolutely had to sneak in a snap prior to the two-minute warning, and proceeded to use said snap to premeditatedly throw a soon-to-be easy interception into the double coverage of a player that hadn’t made a big play (while covered) in well over a month. Their ability to scratch and claw their way into overtime was cool and all, but at the end of yet another sad day it’s just a reminder that an offense that absolutely rolled through December, regardless of opponent, was absent for the vast majority of a home playoff game against inferior competition.
Credit Taysom Hill, Deonte Harris, and Trey Hendrickson for doing their best to keep the Saints' hopes alive, but the ultimate complimentary pieces having to serve as saviors speaks to what really cost them this game. That, of course, being that their best players apparently learned absolutely nothing about performing under pressure from the haunting heartbreak of suffering back-to-back, unprecedentedly devastating playoff defeats.
Marshon Lattimore spent 3rd down after 3rd down routinely getting dusted by a receiver who had his own rust to knock off in Adam Thielen. During the potential game-winning drive alone, Alvin Kamara lost precious time, meaningful yardage, and two of the many mind games he’s been oddly playing with himself all season. The beacon of consistent disruption that is Cam Jordan underwhelmed with his inability to anchor the defensive line and keep contain in limiting Dalvin Cook. Wil Lutz sent what is typically an automatic three points sailing wide-right instead of sending his team to the locker room tied at the half. Hell, even Michael Thomas, who presumably ran the wrong route on the play where Drew Brees quite literally dropped the ball in the red zone, was mediocre relative to the All-World expectations he’ll eternally have set for himself.
The talent atop the roster didn’t just fail to show out, it largely failed to show up, as evidenced by Drew Brees having seventy-six yards passing through three quarters and depending on his defense to grant him yet another opportunity to win the game after foolishly fumbling away a golden one late in the 4th quarter.
“Any given Sunday” and what not, but I can’t help but feel excruciatingly let down by a team that I truly believed to be irreproachably resilient after going with 5-0 without their consummate leader being able to lend so much as a healthy hand. So much so, in fact, that it makes me question their ability to rebound from this. There’s nothing to rally around this time. The only fingers to be pointed are in the mirror. For this team to put a bright, shiny exclamation point on a resurgent era of (regular season) success they’ll need to do a hell of a lot of soul-searching throughout an offseason that has no business being as long as it already feels. Throughout said offseason, their depth will likely take a sizable hit and their starting quarterback will have to carefully avoid the cliff that 40+ year old professional athletes are liable to plummet off of at a moment’s notice.
Long story short, there are plenty of reasons to doubt that the Saints can give themselves as good of a shot at a Super Bowl as they had this year, especially with this year ending the same way of far too many others during the do-or-die moments. A talented team simply spent the vast majority of an afternoon they eagerly awaited choking on their own tongue. Even if there were two ways around that fact then they have since been blocked off after having been used as detours from the harsh reality of their own missteps in painstaking postseason pasts. So don't bother arguing whether or not the offensive pass interference that allowed Kyle Rudolph room to leave the Saints locker room in ruins should have been called...
If last season taught the Saints anything it's that leaving their fate in the hands of the officials is a suicidal endeavor. Yet, they still spent a mind-blowing amount of time doing anything other than helping their own cause on Sunday, so I can't say I really understand being stunned by getting exactly what they deserved...
You don't have to stop riding with them to acknowledge, through backseat driving, that they started on their road to a Super Bowl by uncharacteristically swerving all over the goddamn place and ended up with a rightful result in watching their well-equipped ride go up in smoke.
The Saints Worked Out Antonio Brown This Morning, Which Isn't Anywhere Near as Intriguing as it is Alarming
Wait, what? No. Why?
Is the Saints’ organization just trying to give Roger Goodell & Co. a headache worthy of long-term hospitalization so that they aren’t around to orchestrate, in conjunction with the officials, a second straight subversion of a Super Bowl-worthy season? Is this all just an attempt by one of the league’s least favorite franchises to guarantee that AB will be put on the Commissioner’s Exempt List and thus won’t be available for postseason pickup by any of their potential opponents? Is Sean Payton just trying to break the tension of an upcoming playoff run by gifting his locker room the comic relief of the first-ever live performance of the highly-anticipated hit single ‘NO WHITE WOMAN 2020’?
While I appreciate the middle-finger-to-the-shield aspect of all this, I'm going to need a better explanation than doing "due diligence" on someone that shouldn't even be due internet access in the psych ward where he should be taking up residence. After all, if the question is whether or not New Orleans needs Antonio Brown then we've had the answer since Teddy Bridgewater took over and led a passing offense that was average in everything other than winning percentage to an undefeated record. With Drew Brees looking as though he recently found refreshment in the fountain of youth, the reward of adding a highly talented ticking time-bomb (that is basically destined to be defused by the NFL anyway) to an offense that is finally firing on all cylinders hardly broaches the risk of introducing a plague of a personality into an otherwise awesome locker room.
I don't need all Saints to be saintly, nor am I above celebrating a clutch touchdown scored by a nightmare of a narcissist or a self-sabotaging sociopath. However, with this team being so damn likable and deserving of a championship the last few seasons, sprinkling an alleged sexual assailant who is undeniably guilty of being an insufferable asshole into this team's chemistry would definitely make it a tinge distasteful. Both on and off the field, Michael Thomas is everything that is right about the New Orleans Saints, so to consider complimenting his play with a person who is the YIKES-to-his-yang when it matters most just feels downright dirty.
I was on board with adding another proven pass-catcher (preferably one without a severe psychological complex and/or brain damage) at the deadline, but the Saints' offensive performance of late hasn't just supported staying put at the position, it has been damn near defiant of needing reinforcements. To only now take steps toward addressing it as a need when the need no longer appears present is as flat-out baffling as a potential postseason plug-in of thy preeminent self-destructive distraction is highly concerning.
For the sake of my unconditional faith in Sean Payton, I honestly hope this workout wasn't orchestrated in anything even remotely resembling good faith. Not because Antonio Brown, when/if actually allowed on an NFL field, isn't physically capable of making an already great offense entirely unstoppable. But rather, because the one thing a team whose previous two seasons have ended in odds-defying and soul-shattering defeat doesn't need on their side is the worst kind of juju, and - to AB's dismay - I'm not talking about Smith-Schuster.
Right now, the Saints are only in dire of health, focus, and trust if they want to get where they are more than talented enough, as currently constructed, to go. I'm not sure any athlete has ever done a more demonstrative job of proving they represent none of those things than Antonio Brown, who is one flipped switch away from being back on the bat-shit crazy bullshit that got him quickly cut from an organization that was even able to control the impulses of a literal serial killer for more than ten days. You can't even tell me the last time Antonio Brown went 48 hours without being a problematic pain in the ass. What could possibly be learned during a workout that would make anyone, never mind one of the best coaches in the NFL, believe he could go a whole goddamn postseason without...well...being himself?
Ray Shero Never Discussed a Taylor Hall Contract Extension in Detail Because Neither Side Ever Gave the Other a Real Reason to Negotiate
I'm not going to go as far as saying I wasn't at least somewhat surprised to hear that, in discussing the sense it made for Taylor Hall and the New Jersey Devils to commit to one another for the foreseeable future, the discussion between Ray Shero and Darren Ferris never broached the topic of dollars. One would think that a potential contract, or at least the infancy of its framework, might be of relevance in a meeting whose sole purpose was to supposedly to see where each side stood.
Then again, one would also think that a revamped roster would make it more than six periods into the season before committing arson against every single positive vibe anyone had about its potential. The truth is, the Devils' immediate free-fall to an all-too-familiarly hellish place in the standings gave neither party a realistic opportunity to think that their partnership was anything but doomed.
I'm of the belief that, in a perfect world, both Ray Shero and Taylor Hall were open to the idea of the #9 eventually hanging in the Prudential Center rafters. In that perfect world, however, Taylor Hall would have had to have proven himself a healthy and happy difference-maker for a franchise that was proving it was well down the path to being a perennial playoff participant. I'm probably underselling it worse than the Devils did a superstar, but the world in which a former MVP couldn't buy a goal for a team that couldn't hold onto a lead if it was superglued to their sticks was far, far closer to being apocalyptic than it was to being perfect. Hell, I'm still not entirely convinced that I'm not stuck in a never-ending night terror as opposed to living out a nightmare more torturous than any that could have had Devils' fans waking up in a counterintuitive cold sweat this summer.
Perhaps the internal uncertainty had it sweltering at an unmanageable (and an immeasurable) degree, but this team was nauseatingly hot garbage with a six million dollar, 28-year old Taylor Hall. It wasn't about to be smelling all the roses by making the future concessions necessary to fit a ten million dollar (at the absolute cheapest), 30+-year-old Taylor Hall. Both parties were keenly aware of what had to happen to dodge an imminent divorce, and what did happen made spying on your parents as they scream at each other seem like a comforting watch by comparison.
Given the circumstances, it makes perfect sense that they went with a mutual split instead of having the shit-or-get-off-the-pot-style talk regarding the specifics of, metaphorically speaking, a joint bank account. It's an all-too-convenient cop-out to say that timing is everything. However, much like everything else that had their playoff pipe dream expiring faster than half-price pork, it was one major thing that should have had both sides of the aisle planning an objection to a prospective marriage between the New Jersey Devils and their Hart Trophy winner as soon as the season started (or, more accurately, failed to) winless through six. Taylor Hall knew that, his agent knew that, and Ray Shero knew that. That's why any reported meeting of the minds that took place was more focused on formalities than finances.
If you had asked me on Sunday what my thoughts were on Janoris Jenkins, I would have told you he’s more jackass than ‘Jack Rabbit’. Therefore, it would be disingenuous for me to let the black-n-gold lenses I have to view his addition through color him anything other than an asshole...
Personally, I think the r-word is about as much of a “slur” as it is a form of “slang”, in that you need to really stretch the definition of either word for it to fit either agenda. Regardless, a flat refusal to apologize for using what is now universally understood to be offensive language on social media - during practice, no less - is arguably as r-worded as anonymously talking senseless shit to professional athletes on the internet...
Janoris Jenkins lucked out in getting scooped up by a Super Bowl contender, but - with him having been already been involved in enough idiotic incidents for one word to get him cut from a team that lacks defensive talent - I think we can safely say that was due to more dumb luck than evil genius...
He might be one whose numbers are as forgiving as the complete shit-show of a secondary that had him looking like Deion Sanders relative to his positional peers, but a capable corner nonetheless. I don’t know that he’s one you'd feel great about starting in a playoff game after no more than a few weeks in your system, but you could do a lot worse as your in-case-of-emergency cover corner. Lord knows the Saints certainly have over the years, which explains why they put in the claim to protect themselves against Eli Apple potentially losing his back-and-forth battle with his own confidence when the lights are at their brightest. Again, I don't particularly like Janoris Jenkins the person, but I'd be lying if I said I didn't feel better about having Janoris Jenkins the player on my team as PJ Williams limped off the field late against the Colts.
Who knows? Maybe New York is purgatory for pissy pass defenders and New Orleans, in a way that is fittingly saintly, provides a nurturing environment that allows for their attitude and athleticism to flourish. No matter how frustrating you may find Eli Apple’s play of late, you can’t deny his almost immediate transformation from petulant problem child to competent complimentary corner after being trading from the Giants to the Saints last season. Culture clearly mattered in that (alleged head) case, so at least there is reason for Sean Payton & Co. to believe enough in their room to add a certain team's malcontent to it.
I think all Saints’ fans are in agreement that Terrell Suggs and his postseason experience would have been a preferable Christmas gift to a dinged up d-line. Still, Janoris Jenkins qualifies as another talented toy for a defense that has a history of going through them faster than a teething puppy...even if he is does come with a warning label and require a high level of maintenance to keep him together.
In Yet Another Record(s)-Setting Performance, Drew Brees Re-Introduced Himself as One of the Greats of Past and Present
To be honest, I’m fresh out of new ways to acknowledge, applaud, and admire Drew Brees’ continued greatness. When he “finally” threw the 540th touchdown pass of his career - after the officials made it clear that not even the most flawless game in NFL history will go by without them raining on the Saints’ parade, this time with a bullshit call that put history on hold until the second half - it honestly felt like the 540th time we’ve celebrated a living (and growing) legend. After reading off the following laundry list, it appears that isn’t anywhere near as hyperbolic as you’d think…
At this point, I feel stupid for not having a boilerplate statement prepared with blanks being left open for the specifics of mathematically inconceivable milestones and the increasingly defied age at which they were met. I guess what I am trying to say is that I am almost exhausted beyond words by the excellence of a quarterback who broke the record for career touchdown passes and the record for completion percentage in a game with a performance that felt pretty damn familiar. The truth is, if two contested catches had hit the ground over the course of Monday’s master class then it realistically would have had the eerily similar look of a lesson that you couldn’t pick out of lineup of those he has taught dumbfounded defenses over the last decade plus. For that reason, I was left looking like Teddy Bridgewater in the wake of a performance that was both awe-inspiring and somehow relatively run-of-the-most-finely-tuned-mill...
As for what his resurgence means for this season’s Saints team? Well, it can ditch the disguise, because it couldn’t possibly be more clear that Drew Brees’ thumb injury was just a flat-out blessing. Credit to Sean Payton's savvy, Teddy Bridgewater’s temperament, and the defense’s dominance for keeping everything in cruise control, because that early undefeated streak is at least partially responsible for Clark Kent hitting the phone booth when his duty is most urgently calling. The Saints’ ultimate equalizer is peaking, and what's largely been a pretty average offense looks primed and postseason-ready as a result. The freshness of a player who has looked 40-years-young is the closet thing to a failsafe or a fix-all, and that’s a hell of a thing for a team dealing with a bunch of injuries on the opposite side of the ball to suddenly fall back on. It helps that Drew Brees has a tool at his disposal, in Michael Thomas, that is unprecedentedly infallible in execution, but the important thing is that the arm utilizing him isn't dinged up or diminished like it appeared to be late last season.
I am interested to see what's in store this Sunday in Tennessee. The safest bet for a blowout is the Saints playing in the Dome in primetime when their All-World quarterback has his heart set and his eyes focused on putting another record in the rearview, and having the Super Bowl team in attendance for their 10-year anniversary might as well have guaranteed it a Monday Night massacre. It almost wasn’t even fair to expect the Colts, and a QB that looked much like…well…someone who was shocked to find out that he was taking the reigns of a presumed contender from a revered star who retired ten or so days before the season, to put up such an uphill fight.
For that reason, I want to see if a depleted pass rush can show better than it did against a solid offensive line that’s been entirely intact all season. The secondary won’t be granted the collective mile of margin for error like they were offered by Jacoby Brissett’s off-target throws, so whether or not they are able to give Ryan Tannehill fear-induced flashbacks to the days in which Adam Gase whispered sour nothings into his ear will speak volumes about their playoff readiness. Home-field advantage is but a pipe dream so seeing the offense keep their foot on the gas and/or an opponent's throat outdoors would also be a soothing sight for sore eyes.
That said, they couldn’t have put together a more comforting bounce-back game than they did against the Colts. The return of a remotely reliable AJ Klein allowed Demario Davis to put his full range of disruptiveness on full display and the secondary, which will be leaned on more heavily with the defensive line down three firsts worth of talent, was solid when it had to be. Most importantly, the unstoppable force we’ve seen routinely shatter records from under center kept gaining the type of momentum that even the most immovable of objects would worry about meeting head-on when it matters most.
The Taylor Hall Era is Officially Over, and the Devils Can Begin Tending to the Growing Pains of Yet Another Lost Season
Failure. In nearly every sense of an-too-familiar word, that’s what yesterday’s trade of Taylor Hall represents. I’m not even referring to the specifics of the deal, though we will get into that later. The fact that not even half-a-season after moving heaven and earth (or, ya know, just a handful of mid-round picks) to put more talent around your Hart Trophy winner, you had absolutely no choice but to ship the former league MVP out of town is, in and of itself, a disastrous disappointment.
All is not lost, as signing a star who hasn’t shown the same shine recently to a poorly-aging anchor of a 8-year, 80-something-million dollar contract would effectively end the ability of a near hopeless team to get significantly better long-term. After being offered a harsh glimpse of how far away from contention the Devils were with Taylor Hall, it only makes sense for their front office to humble themselves and build around the promising pillars of Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes that they lucked into in the lottery.
Still, Ray Shero pushed in his chips this offseason to impress the bombshell whose place on his arm was understood as conditional and last night basically served as the light-pocketed, long, and lonely walk back to the casino parking garage. The Devils, as a franchise, tried to take the next big step and fell flat on their face faster than an infant whose parents were heavy-handed with the liquid courage in trying the dab of whiskey under the tongue trick. Perhaps what they learned from such a cruel and unusual experience will serve them well going forward, but that doesn’t make the expedited execution of what now seem like asinine expectations any less of an organizational catastrophe.
As for the deal itself, the return is, for lack of a better term, meh. That's hardly unprecedented, as trading a soon-to-be-unsigned stud almost always nets you nothing more than a mixed bag of potential duds, but meh nonetheless. Ray Shero got more for Taylor Hall than he originally gave up for Taylor Hall, but not even the magic he’s worked in previous trips to the negotiating table could swindle suitors into giving up the top prospect+ that would have helped wash down what is a torturously tough pill to swallow.
Maybe Kevin Bahl turns into a towering-yet-fluid mainstay of a left-handed defensive defenseman for years to come...
Maybe the Devils make great use of another first round pick (fingers unconfidently crossed for two) by continuing to draft well. Maybe a couple middling prospects find their footing/fit and crack the bottom of the NHL lineup eventually. Maybe Taylor Hall’s age and injuries catch up to him sooner rather than later, and make this trade look more than tolerable down the road. If we are talking in definites, however, the Arizona Coyotes definitely won’t have buyer’s remorse any time soon. After being led to believe that the Devils were a group worth the cost of contention, that is simply a soul-draining reality to sit back and self-loathe.
There will be a fair share of (stupid) people blaming Taylor Hall for this team tragically plummeting back down to earth and beyond after an offseason that had everyone emotionally invested in their success rocking a shit-eating smirk from atop...pun incoming...Cloud 9. It’s just an easier thing to do than accepting the truth, which is that - be it due to unforgiving timing or unforgivable hockey - he wasn’t even close to the main reason his relationship with the Devils became doomed.
I will surmise that I don’t think he ever had the mentality and mettle required to compartmentalize his on-ice effectiveness and his off-ice impending free agency (that he absolutely earned the right to explore after suffering through one of the most excruciating early career paths imaginable). Based on his underperformance alone, he was hardly able to turn a blind eye to the black cloud that billowed bigger and bigger with every boo-worthy blown lead. Regardless, this torrential shit-squall of a season is the result of multiple futile fronts colliding to form a perfect storm of putrid. If anything, his personal struggles were just the most blatant byproduct of the saying “when it rains, it pours” coming to a fatal fruition.
Personally, I’ll always appreciate Taylor Hall for reminding Devils’ fans what it’s like to truly enjoy watching hockey again by interrupting the organizational equivalent of 'The Great Depression' with a playoff appearance that was the direct result of thee most impressive season-long solo effort (and point-streak) in the history of an otherwise accomplished franchise...
The suckfests that sandwiched it were pretty distasteful, but he took on far more than his fair share during his relatively short time in New Jersey. Therefore, I see no reason to root for anything but his continued success. I tend to think he hadn’t dismissed the possibility of doing his long-overdue winning as a Devil, but it made little - if any - sense for either party to explore a future once it was made painfully clear that that of the Devils was still far from present.
He wasn’t even close to alone in doing so, but Ray Shero woefully miscalculated whatever he thought he saw in this team. The price of doing so was always going to be the one addition that served as the pride of it since he took over. Perhaps its ends up being a blessing in one downright depressing disguise and the cap flexibility he just stretched out saves his ass in the long-run, but getting a handful of quarters in exchange for a gem of a player, whether it was just prior to what his asshole of an agent will insure as an awe-striking appraisal or not, is essentially the rotten cherry on top of a failure sundae.
Hopefully pulling the trigger on the unspoken admission of such takes the pressure off the shoulders of a relatively young roster whose play has collectively looked distracted, deflated, and defeated in part due to their most dominant player’s imminent departure. If the last two games are any indication then this should have them playing a little looser, winning once in a while, and allowing some simpletons to wrap themselves in the false sense of security that is the notion that Taylor Hall's presence solely sabotaged a largely lost season. Regardless, the full-scale inability to handle that pressure - from the never-minded net mouth, to the tumultuous top of the lineup, to the bitter bottom of the lineup, to the blunderful blue-line, to behind a befuddled bench - was proof that said roster was not even remotely ready to put one foot in front if the other, never mind go on a playoff run.
Taylor Hall himself undoubtedly makes for the easiest target, but you're going to need to put down the all-too-convenient grudge to free up even a third of fingers necessary to point out all the other people responsible for wasting his talent.
Domination. A mercilessly clinical shredding unlike almost any we could ever dream of actually seeing. What Drew Brees did in manipulating the secondary he vividly envisioned in his own head, like each defensive back had its own string on the dummy defense he was puppeteering, was the exact type of stuff his legend will come to be made of. Sunday’s slaying of shadows probably won't occupy too much time on his career highlight package, but that doesn’t mean it’s not just as important, if not more so, to the explanation of his excellence.
Above is your proof that only a thin line exists between insane and amazing, with the former often ushering in the latter. Saints’ fans weren’t just quick to take the under on the timetable of Brees’ thumb injury out of blind optimism. There was very much reason to believe he’d magically maneuver out of the constraints of modern medical practices. That reason was because he’s a psychotic competitor, which means he can often be mistaken as merely a psycho whenever he’s not literally competing against anyone other than his own insatiable self...
To be fair, I’m being biased. I would be fast to make fun of almost any other quarterback who stayed well after practice to play with himself for an hour. That bias, however, is born of watching a “6 foot tall", athletically limited passer pulverize professional football, in a way almost no other quarterback has, by way of deadly accuracy and such an acute awareness and understanding of defenses that he often times doesn’t even have to see them to actively avoid them (or coax them into avoiding him). I don't know that it's always true that you play like you practice, but it's a saying that would certainly explain why Drew Brees regularly looks like he's effortlessly acting (and reacting) out a premonition on game days.
I understand the desire to crack jokes at the expense of someone dapping up invisible men after executing an audible on an entirely open field, because "mental reps” are nearly indecipherable from manic episodes. However, with a 40-year-old being only one week removed from the type of prime performance that was him two touchdowns short of the record NFL record and a couple hours away from starring in a time slot where he’s proven beyond torturous, I think I might suppress that urge...
Those who are well into retirement after winning a Super Bowl alongside Drew Brees a goddamn decade ago are enamored with his certifiably insane preparation for a reason, and it’s because the results call for more reverence towards the otherwise irrational than an unconditional belief in organized religion.
With Injuries Mounting on the Defensive Line, the Saints Will Need to Prove Their Depth Wasn't Merely of Perception
Look, this news sucked…
…and this news, while sucking more than enough in its own right, makes that news suck even more….
The former begs questions about the long-term durability of a blossoming, endlessly athletic freak whose career will inevitably be defined by the return on the investment that ‘two firsts’ has come to be both fondly and sarcastically known by. The latter begs questions about a super-skilled pocket-penetrator's ability to regain his form as the shockingly fleet-of-foot destroyer of worlds he developed into prior to a previous season-ending setback as he heads into a contract year.
What neither should beg, however, is questions about the Saints’ ability to fulfill their Super Bowl aspirations this season. As simplistically dismissive as the following reads, injuries inevitably happen to every team in NFL. Therefore, while you’d prefer they don’t afflict starters down the stretch, the best case scenario is that you suffer them at readily reinforced positions. Everyone was basting their turkey to the Saints' defensive line depth on Thanksgiving, and I regret to inform you that depth isn’t only an amazing thing to have when it's allowing you to flagrantly fondle yourself to an embarrassment of available riches.
Let’s not forget, there were people that thought Trey Hendrickson was a better player than Marcus Davenport earlier this season. Granted, those people were prisoners of the moment and/or future inhabitants of an insane asylum, but it even being up for dumbfounding debate speaks to the evolving capabilities of a third round pick whose annually exciting August audition finally resulted in him earning an impactful role in meaningful games. Shy Tuttle might be lesser known, regardless of his starring role in a timeless GIF, but rest assured that his overall play of late is anything but bashful...
With Cam Jordan routinely causing chaos as a catastrophic combination of consistency and production, the Saints’ pass-rush is in good hands, whether or not all hands are currently on deck.
I don't mean to undersell these injuries. Losing both Davenport and Rankins for the year on the heels of a likely last-second loss of homefield advantage to their most complete in-conference competition definitely does feel a lot like the Saints stubbed the hell out of a toe or two while stumbling around recovering from a stomach-churning gut punch.
Still, the truth of the matter is that this team already passed its most trying and torturous test with flying covers. The defense held up its end of the bargain when it largely served as Teddy Bridgewater’s emergency floatation device as he soaked in the sun during an undefeated stretch as the starting quarterback. Now, it is the turn of an offense that just smacked around the best defense in football like it refused to pay its gambling debts, despite their most recurring matchup nightmare looking as though he was busy daydreaming, to pick up the slack.
If the rest of the linebackers get healthy enough to free up the dog that is Demario Davis, a lesser sheltered secondary gets its shit together, and Drew Brees continues creating chemistry by making good on the disguised blessing that was a throwing arm made fresh by over a month free of football then offsetting a decided drop in quarterback pressures shouldn't be a remotely unreasonable ask. Two of the three were presumed strengths of this team before the season even started, so it's quite fitting that they'll have to show exactly why for the New Orleans Saints to prove themselves to their fullest potential as they approach the postseason.
Act Surprised, Because it Appears as Though John Hynes Wasn't the Only One Fueling the Raging Dumpster Fire That is the New Jersey Devils
For what it's worth, what was an abominably brutal display of hockey just so happened to also serve as the perfect microcosm of a season that only can't be described as lost because you can't lose something that you never had a remotely firm grasp of in the first place.
An inexcusable early goal that could almost solely be attributed to the type of net-minding you'd expect from a drunk, narcoleptic shrimp boat captain...
An unnecessary insurance tally that was counterproductively created by a breakout as unsightly as that of a teenage fast food addict by a team that looked allergic to the puck while somehow managing to treat their own blue line as its electric fence...
Two periods of such a one-sided atrocity that it actually exhausted the aggressors into a state of excessive indifference during the third period...
Credit to Mackenzie Blackwood for keeping it depressingly dramatic for the box score watchers. However, the Devils' performance against a Dallas Stars team that was reeling from having their coach suddenly canned for undisclosed impropriety was the exact opposite of climactic in feeling like a recurring rewind of the world's least compelling movie. Ken Daneyko referred to them as "a little out of sync", but I'd argue they were very much in sink, as that's about as much of an understatement as saying the Titanic merely sprung a leak.
Be it due to him juggling lines so steadily that it could make a street performer fearful of his job security or him inexplicably benching Pavel Zacha or Jesper Bratt whenever he needed to let off some steam, instead of screaming into his pillow like a responsible adult, I too soured on John Hynes. That said, there is a reason the rest of the hockey world has come to the consensus that he's, at the very least, a pretty good coach while Devils' fans have deemed him the anti-Christ. That reason, of course, is that the rest of the hockey world doesn't desperately feel the dire need to convince themselves that a painstaking rebuild doesn't have the structural integrity of a house of cards.
If incessantly hammering John Hynes is what kept you off the ledge in regards to a hopeless and hapless team that - as currently combusted - is uncompetitive, unhinged, uncouth, and un-(_insert literally any positive adjective here_) then by all means transfer that small-minded spite to his utterly screwed successor. That said, I feel it my responsibility to tell you that you have a RADICAL misunderstanding of how important coaching is during a sport that requires you to read-and-react during a continuous, free-flowing run of play.
Unless Alain Nasreddine has his players role-playing rendezvouses between "complete strangers" like a couple that is trying to spice up their doomed partnership, there is nothing he is saying or doing during the practices they supposed partake in that has this group taking the ice with the rhythm, reason, and relation of anxious assholes boarding a crowded train around Christmas. Never mind a puck, the only reason this team can't turnover a goddamn sewer grate with ease is because it would require them to work together in unison. So scream about "adjustments" into your echo chamber if you choose, but he could have painted the Sistine Chapel of a full-scale systemic renovation and it would look like nothing more than a discolored ceiling through the partially blind eyes of beholders that can't currently string two routine passes together.
Honestly, we've reached the point in which I appreciate Alain Nasreddine more than I appreciate any single player on this team. I haven’t the slightest clue of his effectiveness behind the bench, but his bluntness in being befuddled by these bozos is both relatable and the most honest effort I've seen from anyone employed by the New Jersey Devils in weeks...
It took until the beginning of the third period for anyone to show any fight whatsoever on Tuesday night, and - wouldn’t ya know - it came in the form of P.K. Subban taking back-to-back, beyond stupid penalties. That is what Alain Nasreddine was left to praise, because almost everything else they did (or, more accurately, didn’t do) was ridiculously irredeemable.
Maybe something changes throughout the next…::checks standings and sobs uncontrollably::…FIFTY-TWO games of presumed futility. Maybe the ass end of the elephant in the room inevitably exits and gives them some space to take a deep breath and get back to basics. However, I refuse to highlight hypotheticals, celebrate mildly moral victories, or entertain visually unsubstantiated lines of feel-good bullshit (like below) in extending an unlimited pass to NHL players that switch between being demonstrably dumb and hardly half-assing it...
This circus act could currently make any coach look like nothing more than a ringleader, and I’ll begin to believe otherwise when I consistently see a bargain basement level of…::insert eye-roll::…brotherhood and brain function amongst professionals that are routinely stretching the limits in just barely qualifying as such.
You Are, Quite Literally, Better Off Tending to Your Mediocre Meat Than Questioning Sean Payton's Aggressiveness
Let’s start with indisputable fact. Sean Payton, for all his ingenuity, is not always right (::insert audible gasp::). What he is, however, is right far more than often enough to justify his unconditional and unwavering belief in just about every decision he’s ever made.
I’m not sitting here and saying that the pit that was already in my stomach didn’t develop a pit in its stomach when the Saints lined up for a two-point conversion early in one of those sick-and-twisted games whose fate feels like it’ll inevitably be decided by its result. I am sitting here and saying that in the sizable scrotum required to drop 46 points on the skull the best defense in football, largely without the help of two of your biggest matchup nightmares (Cook due to concussion and Kamara due to undisclosed ineffectiveness), reside the nuts to never look at one single yard as an actual obstacle.
Simply put, questioning Sean Payton is a fool’s errand. Not because all his calls are entirely beyond reproach, but because his answer is always going to be made smug by a stupefying success rate. We are talking about one of the most unapologetically aggressive coaches in all of sports. Someone who sparked a second half Super Bowl comeback with the most fearless onsides kick in NFL history. Therefore, and I feel like this hardly bears mentioning, you are undeniably better off staring down at the shitty slab of meat in your hand - be it inferior, expired, infantile, infertile, or impotent - than asking for an explanation from an absolute authority on offensive football. No matter how confident you are in your beef, it’ll never come remotely close in grade to the stake that a crazed competitor like Sean Payton has in his unrelenting plan of attack for the New Orleans Saints.
You do have to appreciate the passion of each and every member of the Who Dat Nation. That said, if you find yourself feeling particularly inquisitive while in a random postgame meat-and-great with a revered risk-taker….either beat it (figuratively or literally) or be ready to get grilled by the master, because Sean Payton has made far smarter people look stupid in...ahem...butchering the doubts of his naysayers.
The Dallas Stars Canned Coach Jim Montgomery Out of Nowhere for an "Act of Unprofessionalism", and the Details of This One are Sure to Be Dirty
While it’s obviously bad news that yet another hockey coach was fired for inappropriate behavior of past or present, the silver lining is that we’ve reached the stage in the righting of wrongs process during which NHL teams take impropriety seriously enough to both self-report it and act on it. The fact that whatever Jim Montgomery did wasn’t only punished after being leaked long after the fact by either a player or executive that no longer felt sworn/strong-armed to secrecy is a sign of slight progress. After all, the Mike Babcock and Bill Peters cover-ups were even more symptomatic of the culture around the sport that was a breeding ground for their self-important, overbearing, and manipulative bullshit than their actual "crimes".
Speaking of, what in the hell did a coach of a ridiculously resurgent playoff team have to do to get canned, effective immediately, after an internal investigation that was so expedited that it ended with an unceremonious ousting before the public even knew it began? The Dallas Stars clearly found his behavior to be unforgivable, but whatever they are hesitant to say (or legally inclined to not say) has got to be about 100x more tame than the results of the investigation conducted by my imagination...
It reportedly wasn’t against the law, but jay-walking is technically illegal and I have a strong sense that whatever cost him his livelihood, in the midst of its success on the highest level, was far worse than turning his nose up at oncoming traffic.
With the dirty deeds we now know hockey teams to have swiftly swept under the rug, you can’t help but wonder the size of a skeleton that was presumably too big for the Dallas Stars’ closet while the rest of their house was in outstanding order. My mind immediately went to him stuffing a much more literal skeleton under the floorboards at team facilities, which is only as much of an indictment of how much time I’ve committed to Criminal Minds as it is an indictment of a sport that has apparently been complicit in creating monsters out of mentors and vice versa. With his (now former) team having recovered from a disastrous start and currently being in place to compete for a ring, it stands to decades of ass-backwards "reason" that they thought the underage prostitution ring he was potentially advertising on the back page of the team programs would eventually cut into his prep-time come the postseason.
Dark humor aside, I’m glad that a team got out ahead of either personal or professional misconduct from one of their most forward facing representatives, albeit vaguely, instead of biting their lip, crossing their fingers, and greasing the gears on the PR machine in case of emergency (i.e. unexpected exposure). Still, one would think it has to be pretty goddamn for an NHL franchise that is flourishing on the ice to forget about hockey and take it upon themselves to uphold organizational good off of it.
The Saints Defense Looked Slightly Drunker Than the 49ers in What We May Look Back on as a Highly Intoxicated Preview of the NFC Championship Game
I'm not sure I can conjure up the appropriate words to fully describe a back-and-forth, seatbelt-less roller coaster ride of a game. If I can then I probably already did countless times over the course of a HoF career throughout which Drew Brees has been left to carry his team up-and-down the field while dragging the dead-weight of a dysfunctional defense.
I guess what I am trying to say is that, in being a game that was unlike any other, it had a hell of a lot in common with so many of the Saints' others over the years. To most, it was odd to watch two of the better defenses in the NFL this season get curb-stomped. However, an offensive acid trip - complete with a couple dumb luck turnovers, some top-notch trickery, and...as has become completely customary…a dick kick or two from astounding officiating - had the Who Dat Nation suffering through cold sweats six different ways to Sunday, circa 2014-2016.
In typical be-careful-what-you-wish-for fashion, it took the Saints' otherwise dominant defense displaying the rhyme and reason of players being aimlessly led by electricity for the passing offense to explode out of the shell of itself that it has been stuck in this season. Being without multiple starting linebackers against a revolutionized offense that feasts on the middle of the field with misdirection can partially explain how they got completely devoured, as you can't scheme sideline-to-sideline speed out of an old, rusty replacement like Craig Robertson. However, Marcus Williams' bi-annual, head-in-hands undoing of his overall improvement as a player is the type of inexcusable idiocy that was all-too-common in tarnishing what was a vintage performance from both Drew Brees and his offensive line…
When it comes to playing complimentary football, the Saints offense and defense might as well be taking turns standing on opposite sides of the sideline going barb-for-barb in a roast battle. If acts of service is their love language then they've made a compelling argument that they genuinely despise each other. Even with Deonte Harris playmaking and peacemaking on special teams, they remained as stubborn to being constructive co-habitants of the same locker room as emotionally constipated college roommates.
Never mind a theatrical reversal of roles that might have been too over-the-top for Wife Swap. During a game in which stopping absolute anything, even if it was only the damn clock, was considered a monumental moral victory, the Saints needed a 55-yard FG to redeem any points whatsoever on an absolute gift of an interception to start the second half. As if that wasn’t ironically obnoxious enough, Alvin Kamara immediately stole a rare opportunity for Saints’ fan to safely take half-a-breath by putting the ball on the turf during the first play after the forced punt that followed. The Saints' defense made just barely enough plays to allow Drew Brees a chance to do what he does best in leading a late, "game-winning" charge...annnnnd he predictably proved too efficient in leaving what the entire churning-stomach of a stadium knew to be more than enough time for him to be let down. On one hand, those are all signs that this team is still avoiding putting together their best, most complete game. On the other, it’s getting pretty late in the season to just assume that they conveniently will when it matters most.
The truth is, aside from playoff seeding, I don’t know that we can make out all that many broad strokes from the big picture of yesterday’s game. Credit to Sean Payton and Kyle Shanahan, but not even those two offensive ninjas could could draw their swords and out-duel what was a flat-out dissection of each other's defense if these two teams were to meet again. I think a ever-so-slightly sedated second half speaks to that.
That being said, I personally think (with only a hint of bias) that New Orleans’ offensive performance is more replicable than that of San Francisco. Despite having to abruptly erase Jared Cook from a game-plan that might as well have had his face on the cover, being unable to solve the mystery of whatever is now blatantly missing from Alvin Kamara’s game/glamour, and whiffing on almost every gimmicky haymaker they threw, the Saints still managed to move the ball methodically enough to keep pace with the chunk yards that Kyle Shanahan kept pulling from up his sleeve and out his ass for Jimmy G. Impossible is nothing, especially if it involves an organization that was a flare for downright foolish fatalities, but the odds alone say that he won’t be able to lean so heavily on executing through smoke and mirrors with a 100% success rate in the postseason.
Honestly, it feels like nitpicking to overreact to the result of an early two-point attempt whose failure immediately foreshadowed a mathematically fucked finish. It’s a bit much to whine about Sean Payton’s middle-schooler-playing-Madden-like approach to using Alvin Kamara to chisel helplessly at an edge that was cemented by Nick Bosa ad nauseam. Wondering what the far more effective Latavius Murray did to become the team’s resident red-headed stepchild is fair, but also too firm considering the 46-point output. You can crucify a referee for being fooled into throwing an eventual 4-point flag by Kyle Juszcyzk, whose presumably broken brain apparently regenerated in time for him to back on the field catching passes the next drive, but it's not even worth treating bullshit officiating as anything other than an unavoidable occupational hazard at this point in the season...
I suppose you could also crush a promising young player for making the rookie mistake of missing on a desperation dive that, for all intents and purposes, cost his team the game, even if he did have little business being left 1-on-1 with the Hulk-like creature that is George Kittle with the game quite literally on the line...
However, trying to pick one negative thing to harp on from what was basically a 3.5 hour anxiety attack is a fool's errand that should teach us the one thing that could actually have been learned from that game. That, of course, being that NFC Champion might damn well be decided by a figurative (or literally, who even knows) coin flip with the margins being as microscopic as they were yesterday.
The Saints suffered a tough loss that should leave them with plenty of room to self-reflect on the mistakes that kept them from winning in said margins, but it wasn't necessarily a bad loss that should have them fearing a potential trip to San Francisco in January.
Raheem Mostert Has Apparently Taken His Hearing for Granted, as He Believes the Niners are Playing on a "Neutral Field" Tomorrow
I gotta be honest, this just doesn't move the needle for me in terms of motivational material. Maybe it's the fact that Sean Payton had already pre-set Sunday's sound to deafening with his bi-annual incitement of the home crowd's most hysterical behavior...
...but Raheem Mostert's words, that were ignorant at best and idiotic at worst, hardly feel remotely realistic or relevant enough to be worthy of a spot on anyone's bulletin board.
The SuperDome? A neutral field? I'll consider fielding slights when are at all neutral, because thinking Niners fans will get so much as a word in tomorrow is almost as objectively stupid as having the basis of that claim be that they felt at home in Los Angeles, which is basically a Bed & Breakfast to all opposing NFL fans.
Bill Gates wouldn't let it interrupt him swimming laps in his infinity pool of profit if someone called him a broke ass bitch. Zac Efron wouldn't so much as turn his chiseled cheekbone for a double take if someone said he had a fat face. By the same logic, New Orleans need not waste even a single decibel in justifying with a response the idea that they are anything less than highly hostile hosts to the soon-to-be hearing-impaired.
I know he was just kissing the collective ass of San Francisco, but Raheem Mostert would have had a better chance of preying on the insecurities of Saints' fans if he said that the 49ers had an edge at quarterback tomorrow. I can't imagine there's anyone deathly afraid of Jimmy Gee-I-didn't-even-see-that-linebacker outplaying a future first ballot HoFer on his own turf, but at least there is a world in which such an outcome is possible. I'm assuming Raheem Mightstart spent the last week trying to stay in the top half of the depth chart, as opposed to collecting DNA samples from all over the greater New Orleans region and sewing shut the mouthes of sixty-some thousand voodoo dolls. Therefore, the same can't be said of the 49ers' faithful taking center stage in a building that the Who Dat Nation hardly needs outside instigation to test the structural integrity of...