Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Were the Saints victims of bad officiating or bad coaching?

As anybody who even casually follows American football now knows, the New Orleans Saints lost to the Los Angeles Rams, and therefore missed out on a trip to the Super Bowl, on a game that was marred by a blatant officiating error. The referees failed to call an obvious pass interference penalty late in the tied game that would have benefitted the Saints and perhaps had helped them win:

The Rams defender, Nickell Robey-Coleman, clearly blows up Saints wide receiver TommyLee Lewis while the ball is still in the air, a textbook example of pass interference. There was some helmet-to-helmet contact there, too, which is also a non-no. Robey-Coleman has admitted that he got to Lewis early and that he expected to be flagged on that play.

Had the penalty been correctly called, the Saints would have been awarded first-and-goal and probably would have scored with no time left for the Rams to come back. As it was, the Rams did have enough time to get the ball back and send the game into overtime, where they punched their ticket to the Superbowl, 26-23.

I watched the game with my native New Orleanian fiancé; she was apoplectic. After the game was over, my Facebook feed (which is full of Saints fans) exploded. Twitter exploded as well. The Who Dat Nation is furious; Saints fans are putting up billboards, a New Orleans lawyer is suing the NFL, and even Louisiana Governor Jon Bel Edwards is formally complaining to the NFL.

None of these protests will change the outcome; bad calls (or non-calls) are simply part of the game. Furthermore, as the Houston Press's Sean Pendergast argues, that missed call is not what cost the Saints the game. The real culprit, he says, is Saints head coach Sean Payton:
That call did not lose the game for the Saints. If you're looking for someone to blame, Who Dat Nation, look no further than your head coach, who completely botched the final two minutes of that game. The Saints had the ball on the Rams 13 yard line, 1st and 10, with 1:58 left in regulation and the score tied at 20-20. The Rams had two timeouts left, so basically what this meant was that if the Saints just ran the ball three times and kicked a field goal, the Rams would have the ball with about 45 seconds left, down 3, with no timeouts. Instead, Payton called for two pass plays that went incomplete (one of them was the missed pass interference call) and essentially gave the Rams two extra timeouts. The Rams wound up with the ball, down 3, with 1:44 left and one timeout, more than enough time to kick the tying field goal and send the game to overtime. Yeah, the referees botched that P.I. call, but Payton had an avenue to win that would have kept the zebras out of the mix, and he chose not to use it. Sean Payton lost this game.
Pendergast has a point, as I found myself scratching my head on the poorly-executed short pass attempt on first down. However, I'm willing to give Payton and his staff the benefit of a doubt on the playcalling late in the game because he didn't want to settle for a field goal; he wanted to score a decisive touchdown. The conservative running strategy Pendergast advocates would still have given Rams quarterback Jared Goff 45 seconds to get his team into tying field goal range: difficult, but by no means impossible when you have a good quarterback. For the Rams to go the length of the field and score a touchdown to tie the game with such little time remaining, however, would have been much more difficult.

Furthermore, Pendergast is being a bit disingenuous in his writing. The only reason Payton's second pass play call went incomplete is because of the interference; judging by the trajectory of the ball,  TommyLee Lewis would likely have caught Drew Brees's pass if Robey-Coleman had not prematurely wiped him out. Pendergast's claim that Payton should have "kept the zebras out of the mix" by not passing the ball is also bizarre. Referees are always in the mix: it's their job to officiate the game - and to do so correctly - on every down. That means calling obvious pass interference penalties when they occur.

Besides, I sympathize with the Saints because I've seen a team miss a trip to the Super Bowl on poor officiating myself. Mike Renfro was inbounds!

We'll never know for sure, of course, if the Saints would have actually won that game even if the refs made the correct call. The Rams were in the NFC Championship game for a reason, after all: they were pretty good themselves. But there's no question that the Saints would have been in a significantly more favorable position to win if the flag had been thrown.

The NFL is going to spend the offseason discussing changes in officiating, including making "judgement calls" such as these reviewable. That's little comfort for the Saints or their fans.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

RIP Herb Kelleher

The founder of Southwest Airlines passed away last week:
Herb Kelleher, the eccentric founder of Southwest Airlines who helped revolutionize low-cost air travel, died Thursday. He was 87. 
The company announced his passing in a statement that described Kelleher as a "pioneer, a maverick, and an innovator." The cause of death was not disclosed.
"His vision revolutionized commercial aviation and democratized the skies," the company said. 
"Herb's passion, zest for life, and insatiable investment in relationships made lasting and immeasurable impressions on all who knew him and will forever be the bedrock and esprit de corps of Southwest Airlines."
Legend states that Kelleher and pilot Rollin King met at a restaurant one night in the 1960s and drew Southwest's original route map - a triangle connecting Houston, Dallas and San Antonio - on a cocktail napkin. It's an awesome story, even if it might not be completely true. What is true is that other airlines rightfully felt threatened by what was at the time a revolutionary business model. Even though Southwest was incorporated in 1967, litigation kept it from flying until 1971:
Kelleher was a young lawyer living in Texas before leaving his firm to start Southwest in the 1960s with the goal of providing low-cost transportation among Houston, Dallas and San Antonio. But then-competitors Braniff, Trans Texas, and Continental Airlines fought to keep his startup out of the skies with a temporary restraining order.
Kelleher personally fought the ban, without charging a penny in legal fees, all the way to the Supreme Court of Texas, which eventually ruled in favor of Southwest.
The company, which has become known for its lack of seating assignments and all-coach cabins, began flying in 1971. It evolved into a driving force in the airline industry with routes all over the United States.
Southwest is now the third-largest airline in the United States, in terms of passengers carried, and currently flies to 99 destinations in 11 countries or territories.
"I knew nothing about airlines, which I think made me eminently qualified to start one because what we tried to do at Southwest was get away from the traditional way that airlines had done business," he told NPR's Guy Raz in 2016. "I think that was very helpful."
Kelleher served as Southwest's executive chairman from March 1978 until May 2008 and as president and CEO from September 1981 through June 2001, according to the company. He held the chairman emeritus title at the time of his death. 
"His vision for making air travel affordable for all revolutionized the industry," Southwest chairman and CEO Gary Kelly said in a statement. "But his legacy extends far beyond our industry and far beyond the world of entrepreneurship. He inspired people; he motivated people; he challenged people—and, he kept us laughing all the way."
USA Today's Ben Mutzabaugh lists five innovations that Kelleher's airline introduced to US air travel. Many of these have been adopted by other carriers, both in the United States and abroad.

Zelenci Nature Reserve

2018 might be over, but my series of posts about the big event of last year - last summer's trip to Europe - is not.

The Zelenci Nature Reserve is located in the extreme northwest corner of Slovenia, only a few miles from both the Italian and Austrian borders. It is fed by springs and is the source of the Sava River, which winds its way through Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia before feeding into the Danube in Belgrade.

We first discovered Zelenci in 2016, when we took a day trip from our timeshare Austria to Tarvisio, Italy and Kranjska Gora, Slovenia (this is why I love Europe: three countries in one day!). It was at the top of the "go back to see it again and show my parents" list as we planned the 2018 trip, and for good reason:

 Zelenci is stunningly beautiful, with its its clear blue water and the backdrop of the Julian Alps.

Another view, taken from an observation tower that has been built at the edge of the springs. The nature reserve is right off the highway linking Kranjska Gora to Tarvisio and sees a steady stream of visitors.

Ground level perspective. We'll never get tired of this view.

A duck paddles across the water, which is so clear that you can see the trout swimming underneath the surface. The springs stay at a constant temperature year-round and do not freeze in the winter.

Corinne and take a photo at the edge of the spring. After visiting Zelenci, we continued on to Kranjska Gora - about five minutes away by car - where Corinne was in for a bit of a surprise!

More information about Zelenci (including pictures of what it looks like in season other than summer) can be found here and here. There is no admission fee; however, as of last summer the snack bar at the entrance was no longer there.

Sunday, January 06, 2019

RIP Doug Johnson

Another television personality from my childhood has passed away:
Houston native and longtime local weathercaster Doug Johnson died Thursday, as reported by KPRC, where he worked for decades. He was 79. 
Johnson's career at KPRC spanned 33 years, starting in the early-'60s when he began work as a radio announcer and later co-hosting "Scene at 5" with Ron Stone. The two had a natural chemistry together, which translated to loose humor off screen.
Johnson was a Native Houstonian, who was born and grew up in the Heights and attendaed what was then Reagan High School before attending TCU. After a stint in Fairbanks, Alaska, he returned to Houston in 1962. He joined KPRC and co-anchored the “scene at 5” with Ron Stone (who himself passed away a decade ago):
His rapport and friendship with Stone was apparent to anyone who watched the duo. That chemistry is what made the newscast so enjoyable, according to Bruce Bryant, who directed the show.
“It had humor in a place that you wouldn’t normally find humor,” Bryant said.
The personality-driven newscast featured stories that were on the lighter side of news and finished with a chat segment that showcased the pair’s innate ability to connect with people.
“There was no pretense with them,” Bryant said.
In a segment that became the stuff of television lore, Johnson employed a chicken to help him tell the weather, but Wilma the Weather Chicken had her own ideas of what to do on television. Instead of pecking on the rain cloud or sun, Wilma took flight and landed on top of a camera. Johnson was bitten when he went to retrieve the fowl from her roost. 
While there was the lighter side to his job, Johnson guided Houstonians through some of the worst natural disasters the city has ever experienced.
Johnson was on duty when Hurricane Alicia hit in 1983. We closely followed his reporting up to and until the brunt of the storm hit Houston and we lost power. Maybe it was simply because I was a kid at the time, but there was something reassuring about his reporting leading up to the storm: it was as if everything was going to be okay because Doug Johnson was with us. 

Via KPRC, a retrospective of Doug Johnson's career here in Houston, including the aforementioned chicken incident:

New year, same ol' Texans

At first glance, the Texans appear to have had a good 2018. They were able to pull themselves out of a disappointing 0-3 start to go on a nine-game winning streak, end the regular season with an 11-5 record, and win the AFC South Division for the third time in four seasons. They also beat the evil Dallas Cowboys, which is always a good thing.

All that said, a closer look at their record reveals that the Texans were luckier than they were good this past season: they benefitted from poor overtime decisions by the Colts and Cowboys (the former too aggressive, the latter not aggressive enough), they escaped with wins at Denver and Washington after their opponents missed game-winning field goals, and of the thirteen teams they played, only five ended the season with winning records.

Yesterday, Luck (quite literally) caught up with them:
A year ago at this time Andrew Luck was at home struggling with an injured shoulder that cost him the entire season.
On Saturday he wrote a happy ending to the latest chapter of his comeback season, throwing for 222 yards and two touchdowns and the Indianapolis Colts raced out to a big lead and cruised to a 21-7 win over the Houston Texans in the wild-card game.
Luck put on a show in his hometown in a stadium where he'd attended games throughout childhood and played in them since high school, throwing for 191 yards and two touchdowns before halftime to help the Colts (11-6) build a 21-0 lead.
Andrew Luck got help from Colts RB Marlon Mack, who torched the Texans’ run defense for 148 yards, as well as from an Indianapolis defense that made Houston QB Deshaun Watson’s playoff debut a miserable one and held the Texans to their lowest offensive production of the season.

The end result is a familiar one for the most mediocre and underwhelming franchise in Houston sports history: a lackluster performance in, and early exit from, the playoffs. Is anybody really surprised?

Of course, the social media memes came fast and furious after the game ended, including this one:

Ouch! At least the University of Houston realized that they needed to cut Major Applewhite loose* after that embarrassing bowl game. The Texans, on the other hand, will probably give Bill O'Brien a contract extension.

Chronicle writer Dale Robertson's recap of the game is here. ESPN's Turron Davenport thinks the season was generally successful and wonders about the offseason. The Houston Press's Sean Pendergast looks at the game's winners and losers and makes a depressing observation about J.J. Watt:
[...] I listened to his post game media session, which lasted all of a minute and twenty seconds, and it sounded like a guy who (1) was depressed over another team playoff failure, and (2) realized that he is going to be 30 in March, and that it appears he may never even play in a conference title game, let alone a Super Bowl. Kudos to Watt for coming back from multiple horrific injuries to be an All Pro again, but I do wonder after losses like Saturday's if he wonders what his chances are of ever competing for a Super Bowl here.
I agree. I feel bad for J.J. He deserves a Super Bowl ring, but he will never win one as long as he wears a Texans jersey.

*I'm still working out my thoughts on Applewhite's firing and Dana Holgorsen's hiring, but a post is on its way.