Any Given Halloween

by Bert Bartlett

When it goes off as scheduled, the game of football quickly defines who is mentally and physically prepared to play it, and can be quite unmerciful to those who aren’t. It is an expedited meter of justice, does not clog anything, and does not beg many questions. Appeals? Check the scoreboard. The rigors of the game define its austerity, but are not exclusive of sentiment, in that it can render a verdict on who brings some heart of the matter to this particular day. It inherently provides the NFL with its marketing mantra, Any Given Sunday.    

The hardest hit by the Saints on Sunday was unfortunately levied on a member of the chain gang. Clearly, all of Who‘Dat Nation was expecting the home team to win, the margin of victory to provide the only nominal drama. It was supposed to be a glorified scrimmage, preceding a holiday matchup against a marquee opponent.

Which is all fine and dandy, except somebody forgot to fill the Cleveland Browns in on the script, who cared less about their miserly record. Cleveland is the home of the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame, and the only song the visitors wanted to hear was the Rolling Stones’ Brown Sugar, and ‘dat ‘dey did. Loud and clear.  

In the second quarter as Sean Payton attempted to guide his ship, the glazed, wide open look in the head coach’s eyes resembled a captain who knew his hull had taken on a terminal amount of water, wishing he could turn the clock back to redo preparations. Coaches with his experience on the sidelines know right away when their teams have been had from a ready standpoint, having been on both sides of the equation, and quickly the disposition tries to shift to how best not to panic, bail out, and maybe even somehow come out on top of the deluge. No, here on Souls Of The Saints, we don’t portend to be mind readers, but we like to think we have something of a clue as to what’s going on out there.

Tricked would be inaccurate as to how the Browns got up, and stayed up, on the Saints. Much of this game was calculatingly won by their coaches in a film fest during the week, when they spotted lots of their opponents’ tendencies on special teams and defense, including pursuit without anybody staying home, and a big vacancy in the middle of the Saints punt rush unit that they could exploit for a whopper of a gain. Calling the fake deep in their own territory actually increased its odds of success. In many respects, it looked as if the Browns staff knew the Saints better than they knew themselves. Former Saint Scott Fujita knew how to get an interception in the Red Zone. The treats of the superlative game planning were for all of the Cleveland fans tuning in around Lake Erie.    

Most disheartening though, was at about 10:00 left to play, after the Saints closed the gap  to 10 points, on the ground, the Browns simply jammed the ball down the Saints throats for all but about 2.5 minutes, their rookie quarterback being a threat only as a sandlot receiver. Good teams, heck, most teams, simply get the ball back in that situation. Game, set, match.

Unlike the birth of another son earlier in the week, it was not a memorable day for Drew Brees. All those interceptions likely included some receivers not running or adjusting to the right routes. When an obscure Brown veteran defender, last name Bowens, had a pair of picks, it was cruel word play indeed, as the quarterback was forced to watch his new baby’s name on the back of another jersey, with an “s” symbolizing twins – for two touchdowns, rambling into the end zone for 12 stolen points.      

The Saints just sleepwalked into their own house and turned it into horrors, too deep to come out of it unscathed. It was the most thorough waxing they have endured in recent memory, preceding their Super Bowl campaign, and at the hands of unlikely sculptors. It was as if a dark brown bat was flying around in the rafters of the Superdome, and New Orleans got spooked. Boo!

Humble Pie was not reserved exclusively for the team. Based on some past media images, in the previous post, this page made some sarcastic comments about the men who call the shots for the Browns, general manager Mike Holmgren and head coach Eric Mangini. They were along the lines of big productions, Einstein, the interstate system, and a television sitcom. There was nothing sarcastic about what Cleveland did on the field Sunday, engineering a most impressive upset, and the joke was very much on us, so we’ll do the right thing, salute the victors, and stand corrected. Sort of. 

The Pittsburgh Steelers will have little empathy for whatever frame of mind the Saints bring to the Superdome on Halloween night. They will knock on the door of the place, not say anything, promptly walk in, and try to pillage it. New Orleans will not be able to call the police for help, and will survive only if they have paid attention to all their own details.

Their head coach, Mike Tomlin, got my attention by quoting Robert Frost in a press conference when joining the team in 2008. He got their players’ also, as they went on a roll and won the Super Bowl in his maiden voyage, though they defended it half heartedly last season (Please don’t think – sounds familiar! Bad karma!).

The Steelers have always been committed to defense. Linebacker James Harrison sets the tone for it, and is a nightmare for opposing players desiring his turf, the kind of specimen one would be wise not to try and circumvent if he was working the door of a lounge. When the team was invited to Washington to meet President Obama to celebrate their last title, Harrison had no interest in going. Nor will he be mesmerized by the potential of the Saints offense, whoever made the Pro Bowl last year, or if Reggie Bush suits up.  

At 5-1, the Steelers feel they will compete for another championship. Their record is very good, considering they lost their starting quarterback at the outset to a suspension after a ghoulish off season incident in Georgia. In the spring, Sports Illustrated published  a thorough, investigative piece about it, not intending it to be bashing as much as a circumstantial bird’s eye view of what transpired. If accurate, the picture it painted wasn’t pretty, a stereotypically bad one for an elitist, self indulgent pro athlete (despite whatever the P.R. types say and do); a strong arm posse, a booze cruise with blatant disrespect and perhaps criminal trespass of the opposite sex, off duty lawmen with their own interpretation of the law in the star’s back pocket, and young, female hormonal vulnerability to the draw of celebrity and nouveau riche wealth. This was the kind of story that, if it was somehow responsible for and resulted in the lights suddenly being turned out on the show that is pro sports in this country immediately, very few with a conscience would care.

Whatever Ben Roethlisberger does on his own time and nickel is entirely his personal business, but he made it somebody else’s – including the league’s and fans of  it – with allegedly and egregiously crass behavior in a public venue. There was nothing through the limited camera lens of this story to intimate big in his character, and afterwards, reportedly the Steelers front office was close to trading him, as it soured their stomachs too. Am not sure if they were really that close to clicking the shutter, but no doubt, more than a few women fans in Pittsburgh have to have some dubious pleasure whenever he throws a touchdown, or a pass of any kind.

Second, third, chances and more are still part of this culture, as are bad days at the office like the Saints just had. New Orleans needs to somehow cash in on this opportunity to beat a good outfit as they flirt with .500 at the season’s midway point. It will be difficult relative to how they have been playing. ‘Dis is the spot where Faith is required. Their chances may increase if the tempo on offense is picked up; it really has been creeping around too much. But after last Sunday’s red light alert, the likelihood of the team showing up dyslexic again is negligible. Under the moon, amidst ghosts, goblins, and whatever else Sunday night, in front of a national costumed audience, supremacy in the colors of Black & Gold is at stake. Let’s hope it’s the Saints’ turn to provide some fire to do the burning.

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