Loyal readers...(sigh)...I stand before you a broken man. Having just watched the dreaded Yankees buy, er, um...I mean "win" their 27th World Series Title, and the 5th of my lifetime -- and knowing all too well of the impending chest pumping and flagrant arrogance that will be proudly displayed by insufferable Yankee fans for the ensuing calendar year -- I find myself face down on the canvas. Perhaps this will motivate my beloved Red Sox and imbue them with some of the pre-2004 passion that fueled their quasi-dynastic run earlier this decade. I can only hope that Theo Epstein is sick to his stomach at the sight of this Yankee jubilation and wants nothing more to ensure that it does not happen again. This offseason will be very telling. But for the time being, Red Sox Nation isn't choice realty. Needless to say, I am not exactly in love with the world of sports at this moment. But this is not a forum of pessimism and self deprecation (see: Ragin' Rubin). To that end, I have decided to take stock of my [sports] life, and appreciate all the things that I should be thankful for. So, this being the Holiday Season and all, let's gather 'round and give thanks for the following gifts from the world of sports.
The NFL: The Gift That Keeps on GivingWe all know that the NFL is the undisputed king of the American sports scene, so let's start there. Regardless of your rooting interests, you cannot deny that there are some incredible story lines embedded deep within the fabric of this season. Well, unless you are a Browns, Raiders, Lions, Rams, Bucs, Bills, Titans, Chiefs, or Seahawks fan...as their records stand at a combined 14-60 (a .233 win percentage). Members of those respective fan bases thusly reserve the right to remain in a thankless, joyless, despondent state for the remainder of the NFL season - or as I like to call it, The Rubin Zone. But for the rest of you, here are the most intriguing yarns spun by the 2009 NFL season that will make for a season worth being thankful for:
2009 New Orleans Saints = 1999 St. Louis Rams
That's right, ladies and gentlemen, one decade after it's inception, The Greatest Show on Turf has returned in most glorious fashion, this time in the form of the high flying Saints (who from now on shall bear the title of Greatest Show on Turf 2.0). The parallels between these two teams are uncanny, which certainly bodes well for New Orleans, as the '99 Rams went on to Super Bowl glory and amassed a 37-11 record over the next three seasons ('99-'01). Then Marc Bulger took over the starting QB job, leading the team to a most inglorious 47-73 record ever since (and that's including a 12-4 campaign in '03. Eesh.) Ladies and gentlemen, the Marc Bulger era! The lesson for the Saints: do not replace Drew Brees with Marc Bulger.
Arguably, the Saints boast the most impressive -- and nightmarish for opposing defenses -- offense since those Rams. Even as a die hard Patriots fan, I would never claim that the record setting Patriots offense of '07 is superior to either of these two clubs. The '07 Patriots were horrendously unbalanced. They depended entirely on their devastating passing attack -- which was fine through their first eighteen games -- until their offense came to an alarming halt when the Giants utilized their athletic defensive line to put constant pressure on Tom Brady. This effectively stymied the previously unstoppable passing game, and with no reliable ground game to fall back on, well, you know what happened. Ugh -- now I'm depressed. Wasn't this supposed to be an uplifting, thankful column? Damn it all. Moving on.
Anyways, the '09 Saints compare much more favorably to the unstoppable '99 Rams than the one-dimensional '07 Patriots. Even a casual fan could tell you that Drew Brees is playing at a level that compares to -- and likely exceeds -- the play of Kurt Warner all those years ago. Such is common knowledge among most NFL circles, especially Fantasy Football players. But in addition to the passing game, the '09 Saints have a ground game that is comparable to that of the '99 Rams (i.e. Marshall Faulk in his prime), if not (gasp) superior. Now, before I am verbally accosted and accused of football blasphemy, allow me to explain. Marshall Faulk was a dynamic, game changing running back; one of the greatest of all time. He was an incredibly talented dual-threat that could run between the tackles as well as catch passes out of the backfield. He required rigorous game planning and always had to be accounted for by opposing defenses. The Saints do not possess such a player. However, the combination of running backs Pierre Thomas, Mike Bell, and Reggie Bush provide what was brought to the table by the illustrious Marshall Faulk. Thomas and Bell deliver a reliable one-two punch on the ground -- with Thomas looking better and better with each passing week -- while the much-maligned Bush is finally settling into a niche that is conducive to his unique abilities (dangerous kick returner, elusive home-run threat in the backfield, slot receiver, and offensive decoy). Between Brees, the running back by committee, and all the weapons that Brees has downfield, the Saints possess the most dangerous and most balanced offense since the Greatest Show on Turf. But don't just take my random conjecture for it. Let's take a closer look at the stalwarts of each of the respective high octane offenses to see how they compare at a statistical level, shall we?
1999 Kurt Warner: 65.1 Comp % 4353 Yds 41 Tds 13 INTs
2009 Drew Brees: (Season Projection): 68.3 Comp % 4585 Yds 37 TDs 14 INTs
1999 Marshall Faulk: Rushing - 1381 Yds 7 TDs, Receiving - 87 Recs 1048 Yds 5 TDs
2009 Saints RBs: (Season Projection) Rushing - 2228 Yds 22 TDs, Receiving - 516 Yds 3 TDs
1999 Rams Offense: 32.9 PPG,
2009 Saints Offense: 39.0 PPG
(Note: I did not include any other of St. Louis' running backs besides Marshall Faulk, because none contributed anything of statistical significance. The second leading rusher on that '99 Rams team was their FB, Robert Holcombe, with a whopping total of 294 yards. Don't even act like you remember him.)
What's the one glaring difference between the '09 Saints and the '99 Rams? The Saints have been there before. This unit is two disappointing seasons removed from a run to the '06 NFC Championship game, before running into the brick wall that was the '06 Bears defense. Drew Brees and Co. lost that game in the frigid conditions of Chicago's Soldier Field - which thwarted their (at the time) one dimensional passing attack. Now, not only do the Saints have a balanced enough offense to win on the road in January playoff conditions, but they will likely secure home field advantage throughout the playoffs, thus mitigating such concerns. And even if they do not secure home field advantage, the other team in position to do so is the Vikings - who also play in a dome. The stars are aligning nicely for New Orleans, not to suggest that they even need such cosmic assistance in the first place.
Suffice to say, if you enjoyed the offensive spectacle put on by the '99 Rams, you are in for a treat for the remainder of this year. This Saints team is capable of some very special things. But the question becomes, will the '09 Saints end the season the same way as the '99 Rams - hoisting the Lombardi Trophy? Just imagine if these Saints (currently 7-0) meet up with the Colts (also currently 7-0) in the Super Bowl? Both of these teams look like world-beaters, and with Drew Brees and Peyton Manning each playing the best football of their respective careers (in my opinion, at least), that could be a Super Bowl for the ages. Color me excited. Or imagine the New Orleans crossing paths with Tom Brady and the Patriots, as the Pats continue their revenge tour for that crushing Super Bowl defeat and the subsequent injury-plagued '08 season? Brady seems to be rounding into form and this team should just be hitting their stride come playoff time. We'll know the potential of that intriguing Super Bowl match-up when the Pats and the Saints share the field under the Monday Night Football spotlight on November 30, which should be an absolutely dynamite contest. Or, consider a match-up with the defending champion Steelers. That would be undeniably enticing as well. Even if the Saints do not reach the Super Bowl, the likely other candidate is the Brett Favre-led Vikings (allow that last one to sink in for a minute). I'm going to repeat myself. The other legitimate NFC Super Bowl contender is the Minnesota Vikings, with Brett Favre under center. Can you even fathom Brett Favre, at the age of 40, returning to the Super Bowl adorned in Viking purple and gold? Staggering.
Needless to say, however this NFL season plays out, I'll be affixed to my TV every step of that way. It is a season is so rife with story lines that there literally isn't enough time in the day to properly dissect them all. But then again, as sports fans as well as a society, we have a tendency to over-analyze. So why don't we just sit back, watch these story lines unfold, and -- dare I say -- enjoy ourselves in the process? This yarn is not nearly completely spun, but one thing is for sure - it's going to be one hell of a ride. Thanks, NFL...for taking my mind off the Yankees.
Until next time, stay tuned and stay classy.