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.