Kudos to the NFL for the oldie-but-goodie bombshell news release late on a Friday. Luckily, though, I didn’t have my memory reformatted over the weekend. That means no one forgot about LeBron passing off against Utah Friday night, either.
Why is the Saints situation such a big deal? Here’s the most important point to remember, at this moment, about the Saints, Gregg Williams and bounties: few have seen the league’s report on the matter. The NFLPA was told Friday morning an announcement on the matter would come later that day, and that was the first the union heard of the investigation. The esteemed Peter King of Sports Illustrated could only cite in his story "one club source who was briefed on the investigation," and CBSSports.com’s Mike Freeman obtained a memo the NFL sent to its teams with some details.
So, while it’s known this issue is very important to Roger Goodell, it’s publicly unclear just why. We’ve heard plenty about player safety and the reported dishonesty of Saints players and officials, but not even the players accused of wrongdoing know exactly what the NFL found out. Maybe the idea of coaches incentivizing injury is what boils Goodell’s blood. Or maybe he’s concerned with the most interesting and important question to me -- when Michael Ornstein, a convicted felon who did plenty for the Saints during their Super Bowl season, and others contributed to the pool, what was in it for them? If you’re stuck thinking about penny ante bets between violent millionaires, you might be missing what could make this scandal so damaging.
But until the NFL's report comes to light, everyone is guessing on some level.
Hopefully, Gregg Williams has some hobbies. Williams’ players have loved him, and many have defended him. Maybe they’ll throw him a retirement party, too, because it seems unlikely he will ever coach again. There’s no way an authority figure in the 21st century NFL can remain one after being exposed encouraging players to injure their opponents. Of course, maiming of some sort is reasonably expected when trying to hit someone as hard as humanly possible. But when the NFL is docking guys five figures for doing what they’ve been taught, and suspending guys like James Harrison for doing so repeatedly, how can Williams be welcome in the league when allegations of Williams’ bounties date back to the mid-’90s? Seeing how apologetic Williams was about the findings of a report he probably hasn’t seen, he probably sees it all flashing before his eyes.
Sean Payton and Mickey Loomis might need something to do, too. Payton and Loomis, the Saints GM, are now entangled in their second scandal in two years. The last involved a lawsuit, painkillers and the Drug Enforcement Agency. Just as was the case then, Loomis was accused of covering up wrongdoing. Just as last time, Payton was close enough to the alleged action that his name came up. Perhaps this pair is no different than a couple of top-notch players, where their jobs are saved by their performance. But calls from the DEA and NFL Security within 22 months? That’s a lot of letters, and it may ultimately be too much for the architects of the most successful era in Saints history to survive
Blame LeBron...again? In a way, the severe overreaction to Bron’s dish to Udonis Haslem for the last shot Friday night at Utah is a testament to just how freakishly good he’s been this season. There doesn’t appear to be anything else to knock in his game. He’s the best perimeter defender in the NBA. He’s become a fully rounded, inside-outside threat now that he’s added a post arsenal. He’s still the best passer in the league, and he now shoots over 40 percent from three-point range. But with all of those talents, he’s still not the kind of superstar people want, the sort that craves the responsibility of taking the last shot.
In his best moments, he’ll make the right play. In his worst, he’ll shy away from pressure. Friday night, he was the fourth quarter monster he never was against Dallas in last year’s Finals. On the last possession, he was the same guy who hit Damon Jones in the corner to knock the Wizards out of the 2006 playoffs. This time, the shot didn’t fall. I would have loved to see him take the shot because he was on fire and should have been as confident as he ever could be. But if Haslem can’t be trusted to make an open 16-footer off a perfect pass, he shouldn’t have been on the floor. Hell, if he couldn’t be expected to make that, he wouldn’t be in the league. Bron’s an easy target, but that situation was a waste of bullets.
But never blame Dwyane Wade. This should have been Wade vs. Kobe Bryant, this after Wade broke Kobe's face and left him sporting the Dumb Donald mask. Kobe scored 18 in the first quarter. Wade, after coming unglued and drawing four fouls in 3:14 on his way to the showers, scored 16 all game. He faced the man with five rings, the contemporary standard for winning in the NBA, and took himself out of the game. Wade wasn't dropped in retribution by a disposable player, but Kobe torched him and the Heat for 12 points in the first six minutes. The greatest beneficiary of this "Big 3" era remains Wade. With LeBron, he played in the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 2006, and no one notices when he drops a prime-time stinker like he did Sunday.
Welcome back to top seed consideration, North Carolina. That noise you heard after Carolina destroyed Duke was a sigh of relief from Kentucky, Syracuse and Kansas, for the Tar Heels are poised to earn a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament with an ACC Tournament championship. That sounds much better to the potential top seeds than seeing what might be the second-best team in the country on the other side of their regional bracket. Don't forget -- a huge reason Kentucky beat UNC at Rupp Arena in December was UK had Anthony Davis to block a shot Inspector Gadget couldn't have swatted in time. Aside from the Wildcats, no team in America can overwhelm opponents like UNC. And while Duke isn't as good as their record indicates, this same team beat Michigan State and Kansas this season. It's the 27-4 Heels' most impressive victory, and one that may begin setting the table for who gets which of the top eight seeds.
Again, baseball attempts to make something count that shouldn’t. Adding a one-game Wild Card playoff will give incentive to a team second in its division not to settle for the last playoff spot, but do you know the average gap between the top two teams in the American League Wild Card standings over the last 10 seasons? 4.85. That’s a big gap to settle with one game. Just you wait until the top Wild Card team is much better than the second, and it’s sent packing because it ran into someone like Justin Verlander. I see what MLB is trying to do. I wonder if Bud Seling sees what this gimmick might generate instead.
Wait, who did you say is working out at Duke? Not even Peyton Manning sightings would get me to drive 10 minutes to Wallace Wade Stadium for football purposes, so I’ll have to trust accounts and video that Manning’s throwing the ball well and seems to be improving rapidly. Of course, this film really isn’t much different than watching Yi Jianlian take a chair to school. The only throws Manning makes that will matter will be in, presumably, super secret workout sessions with the teams willing to kick the tires on who could be the most unique free agent to ever hit the market -- an all-time great quarterback who might have years left.
Nothing says "backhanded compliment" like the franchise tag. My good buddy Tim Cowlishaw always wonders why guys complain about receiving the franchise tag. I’d like to direct his attention to Ray Rice and Matt Forte, two players who are unquestionably the engines that make their offenses go. After being tagged, both will receive tenders for $7.7 million in 2012. That’s only $28.3 million less in guaranteed money than Adrian Peterson received from his 2011 extension, and neither Forte nor Rice is assured a down -- or a dime -- past this year’s promise. It’s life in the NFL, but it’s enough to make you wonder why more running backs don’t follow Chris Johnson’s lead and hold out for leverage. The Ravens and Rice both sound certain a long-term deal will be worked out. I'd have a hard time feeling so comfortable.
Let me know when Tiger Woods does something that matters. On the heels of Tiger's breathtaking 62 in the final round of the Honda Classic comes this reminder -- if it's not a major, why should I care how Tiger Woods fares? It doesn't matter whether he won or lost the event (FWIW, he lost). It's been like this for more than 10 years, and it remains the case even though he's struggled. Only two men have won multiple majors on both sides of 35 -- Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player. He's too old, and it's been too long to presume good days for Tiger are signs of incremental growth. There's no need for milestones when they might just be aberrations. And unless those moments happen over the course of a weekend in one of the four tournaments the average American cares about, I'm not particularly interested.