Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Saints-Patriots Preseason

            On Saturday night, the Saints played their first home preseason game of the season, falling to the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots 26-24. The NFL preseason mostly exists as a money grab by owners and an opportunity to gouge an additional 2 home games out of season ticket holders. Pay full price for half price entertainment! (And you wonder why NFL franchises are valued in the billions of dollars.) And Saturday night’s game was no exception. Saints quarterback Drew Bress played for the most of the first quarter before giving way to backup Luke McCown, who then was replaced by Ryan Griffin, who was finally supplanted by 3rd round pick Garret Grayson. Similarly, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady played 3 series before yielding to backup Jimmy Garoppolo. NFL coaches, meanwhile, use the preseason as an opportunity to evaluate the back end of their rosters. Drafted and undrafted rookies, veterans, rehabilitating players all have an opportunity to play and demonstrate their worthiness to make the 53 man roster. With those limitations in mind, let’s take a look about what we can reasonably take away from the Saints-Patriots game for both teams.

Brees-Brandin Cooks—The Saints paid a heavy price on draft day in 2014 to move up and select Cooks (giving up a 3rd rounder to move up in the 1st round). Cooks played only 10 games in 2014 before suffering a broken thumb in Week 11 and missing the remainder of the season. On Saturday night Cooks caught four passes for 117 yards and a touchdown. The touchdown came as the result of a 45 yard pass play after Cooks beat Patriots safety Devin McCourty, playing at right corner, down the field. Safety Duron Harmon who was providing additional coverage down the field misplayed the ball allowing the speedy Cooks to get past McCourty and into the open field. If he can remain healthy, Cooks could emerge as the number one option in the Saints receiving game and lessen the loss of tight end Jimmy Graham. After the game Patriots coach Bill Belichick admitted after the game that “I’m glad we don’t have to play him twice a year.”

New England’s 1st team offense/Saints run defense—Brady played only 3 series, all of which ended with a three-and out. Without wide receivers Julian Edelman, Brandon LaFell, Aaron Dobson and tight end Rob Gronkowski, Brady was left with few receiving options. The Saints played the same without their entire starting defensive secondary as cornerbacks Keenan Lewis and Brandon Browner and safeties Kenny Vaccaro and Jairus Byrd continue to work their way back from injuries. It was a game of backups vs. backups in the passing game, with neither side really coming out on top. The Saints starting front seven kept the Patriots run game mostly in check two of the three drives opened with -5 and -3 yard runs on 1st down. For a team that finished last season 32nd in rushing defense DVOA, it represented a necessary and needed improvement.

Jimmy Garoppolo—The Patriots backup quarterback eased some concerns in case he needs to open the season as the team’s starter (that will only happen if Judge Richard Berman somehow finds that the NFL process that led to Brady’s suspension somewhat met the burden of fairness). Garoppolo went 28 of 33 for 269 yards with a touchdown and a pick. He engineered a five play, 80 yard touchdown drive inside the 2 minute warning in the first half. During a 24 yard touchdown pass to undrafted free agent wide receiver Chris Harper, Garoppolo escaped the collapsing pocket, shook off a Saints defender who nearly dragged him down for a sack, and connected with the wide open Harper.

            All in all, the game offered brief glimpses of the stars and what the regular season may hold for these two teams, and that’s about all you can hope for. 

Tuesday, August 18, 2015


The opening titles of Alfonso Cuarón’s newest film Gravity warn that life in space is impossible. The rest of the film puts that thesis to the test as rookie astronaut Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and veteran Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) struggle to survive as a relentless debris storm destroys the space shuttle, and pretty much anything else in orbit capable of supporting life. The plot is straight-forward and psychologically relentless as one disaster after another challenges Stone’s ability and willingness to make it safely to Earth. Cuarón’s Gravity triumphs because of three strengths: its use of space as a setting, the performances of Bullock and Clooney, and Cuarón’s directorial skill. 

While outer space serves as the setting for the film, Gravity continually shifts the film’s focus between shots of Earth and vastness of outer space and the cramped world that Stone inhabits. The opening of the film consists of one extended shot—I’m not sure how long exactly, but it is long. Cuarón lingers on the majesty and loneliness of space as the nervous Stone and the lame humor of Kowalski flutter in and out of view.  After Stone becomes separated from the space shuttle, she drifts off into space, spinning out of control and seemingly lost forever, until Kowalski appears as a growing speck in the distance eventually reining in the wayward astronaut. With these shifts, Gravity evokes Kubrick’s 2001 in depicting the wonder of outer space. Also, not since 2001 has space seemed so empty, vast, and cold. 

Bullock and Clooney, just hanging out. 

Bullock and Clooney provide the star power necessary to carry such a straight-forward plot that relies on the audience believing in these characters as people trying to survive in extraordinary circumstances. Clooney carries himself with charm, annoying confidence, and the wisdom of a seasoned veteran (astronaut or actor, it doesn’t really matter). His droll stories and repetition of ordinarily mundane dialogue grows more meaningful with each utterance. His instance that he “has a bad feeling about this mission” becomes more poignant with each rendering. Clooney conveys Kowalski’s confidence and experience with ease and offers a strong counterpoint to Stone’s anxious competence. In Gravity, Bullock gives the performance of her career. Actors rarely win Oscars for their performance (The Blind Side is only bearable because of her, the rest of the film is the worst kind of liberal paternalism that passes as a story of African-American uplift), but Bullock deserves it here. She expertly balances Stone’s abilities and apprehensions. Her physical acting skill shines through in the few scenes outside of her space suit. When Stone seemingly reaches safety inside the International Space Station, she curls up into a fetal position in one of the film’s most beautiful visual moments. Her movement is natural considering her circumstances. Bullock performs the act with a startling compactness. Her body moves with purpose and without waste. It is a simple movement, practiced and executed to perfection, and it embodies the greatness of Gravity. 

Cuarón works rarely and chooses his projects carefully. His last film, Children of Men, portrays a dystopian film where humanity has lost the ability to reproduce. Never has the future seemed so irreversibly dead. Cuarón’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban remains the best of the Harry Potter films. He treats the magic of the Potter universe with respect and captures the growing maturity and sense of impending danger of its characters. He waited until the 3D technology pioneered by James Cameron in Avatar before attempting to make this film. He wisely ignored the advice of studios who wanted to include a countdown clock, flashbacks, and views of a rescue mission. Cuarón kept the focus where it needed to be, on one woman’s awe-inducing journey of survival. In doing so, he offered movie audiences a stunning mediation on grasping life from the jaws of death. 

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Smoke BBQ

            Last fall, Bill ate at Ox Lot 9, a new restaurant in Covington located within the Southern Hotel, and enjoyed an excellent meal there. The restaurant is headed by the husband and wife team of Jeffrey and Amy Hansell. In his career, Jeff has worked at Commander’s Palace in New Orleans, as executive sous chef at Lüke, and at restaurants in Birmingham and Colorado. Amy has extensive front of the house experience, serving as a Food and Beverage director and general manager. Together, the couple has made Ox Lot 9 into one of the best restaurants on North Shore—garnering positive reviews from NOLA.com and elsewhere. Now for their second restaurant the Hansells have set their sights on another popular food trend: quality barbecue. Last Monday, they opened their newest venture, Smoke BBQ in Covington.

The new sign. 
            The restaurant sits at the intersection of Lee Road and North Collins Boulevard in Covington. It previously housed a bank, a café, and a Thai restaurant. While the Hansells are running the restaurant, former Ox Lot 9 sous chef Nate Meharg has assumed the role of pitmaster and Ox Lot 9’s pastry chef Breanne Kostyk is in charge of the restaurant’s pie selection. The restaurant draws elements of barbecue from across the South. The menu features homemade sausage, smoked chicken, St. Louis ribs, pulled pork, and smoked brisket. It also includes a number of homemade sides including baked beans, mac & cheese, collard greens, cheddar grits, deep fried okra, and hand-cut fries.  The appetizers range from house made pickles to peanuts to crispy pork skins to smoked chicken wings, and a cheese and sausage board. During its first week in operation, the restaurant was only open for lunch, from 11-2. This week it expands to include dinner service as well. 

The interior of Smoke 
            Last Tuesday, a few of us took the opportunity to eat at Smoke for lunch. The pulled pork fell apart effortlessly and was not overly mealy or fatty. The Carolina Vinegar sauce cut through the strong pork flavor and added a nice bit of acid. Together we sampled four side dishes: the hand cut fries, mac & cheese, cheddar grits, and baked beans. The beans contained a bit of heat and a strong vinegar flavor. They were good, but our least favorite of the four. The mac & cheese had a smooth and creamy texture that elevated it above the typical boxed mac & cheese found at other barbecue restaurants.  The grits and French fries were the stars of the sides. The cheddar shone through in the grits and the grits  themselves had a soft texture that can only come from a long simmer. The hand cut fries were seasoned—just the way good fries should be. Based on the food alone, we will be eating there again.

Pulled Pork Sandwich with Hand Cut Fries and Cheddar Grits

           After we finished our meal, our server asked us what the restaurant could have done better food/service wise. In its second day in operation, Smoke was trying to settle into a rhythm. Running a restaurant is a difficult and tricky operation, the front of the house, servers, and kitchen all need to work in harmony to ensure a successful service. It’s clear (and not surprising) that they haven’t quite hit that rhythm yet. An order of a pulled pork plate and a pulled pork sandwich became two sandwiches. Despite ample room, the tables lacked ketchup. When we were ready to order, our server had to go fetch his notepad. We traded servers at least once (they seemed to have an experienced server training newer ones). The interior of the restaurant contains only tables of four and one of them was taken up by a single diner. These minor service hiccups should work themselves out over time and did not detract from the excellent food.  

             All in all, the barbecue was delicious. The sides were a clear step above typical barbecue fare. The service needed to work out the kinks, but considering it was the restaurant’s second day in operation, Smoke should be just fine. 

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Bye, Bye Junior

            As the New Orleans Saints prepare for the upcoming season, they’ll be doing it without pass rusher Junior Galette. After an embarrassing offseason that featured a domestic violence allegation (later dropped) and the emergence of a video that apparently showed Galette hitting a woman with a belt, the Saints released him last week. The legal and moral issues in the case are clear; it was time for Galette to go. Galette’s behavior since his release—including accusing Saints head coach Sean Payton of being an alcoholic and a drug addict—offers some post-facto justification for his release. But what I want to talk about here is how this affects the Saints on the field and in the future.

Don't let the door hit you on the way out. 

            In terms of next season, the Saints will be without their best pass-rusher. Last season the Saints finished 26th in the NFL in adjusted sack rate, knocking down opposing passers on 6% of their dropbacks. Galette himself represented much of the Saints anemic pass rush—10 sacks of the 34 accumulated by Saints defenders. In the draft, the Saints selected Hau’Oli Kikaha with their second pick. The outside linebacker was expected to line up with Galette and bolster the Saints pass rush. Without Galette even more of the pass rushing responsibilities will fall on the young rookie. Additionally they will have to rely on recently signed defensive lineman Anthony Spenser (formerly of the Dallas Cowboys). Although relying on aging free agent signings seems like a bad plan to harass opposing quarterbacks. In the absence of Galette, Saints defensive coordinator/Wolfman Rob Ryan may fall back on his favorite strategy: blitzing. Even though the best defensive performance of last season, a 44-23 defeat of the Packers, featured the Saints rarely blitzing. In other words, get ready for opposing quarterbacks to have a lot of time in the pocket next year.

I'll use an excuse to put a photo of Rob Ryan on the blog
             The Galette release also hurts the Saints salary cap in 2015 and especially 2016. Due to general manager Mickey Loomis’s penchant for backloading contracts, the Saints have sat strained against the salary cap over the past several seasons—trading or releasing productive veterans in order to clear out salary, while trying to compete for a Super Bowl in the last years of quarterback Drew Brees’s contract. Currently Galette’s contract counts $12.1 million dollars against the 2016 cap. To understand how the Saints got into this situation we need to look at the contract extension he signed back in November. The contract was worth $41.5 million with $23 million in guaranteed money. In its most basic form, NFL contracts contain three different kinds of money: base salary (not guaranteed), roster bonuses (guaranteed), and signing bonuses (guaranteed). In 2015, Galette carried a $5.5 million dollar cap hit, with a $12.5 million roster bonus (the bulk of his guaranteed money) set to kick in the following year. The Saints planned then take that roster bonus and convert it into a signing bonus, allowing them to spread the cost over the remaining years of his contract. Since his release and the termination of his contract, Galette’s bonus money now accelerates onto the Saints 2016 salary cap. Following Galette’s release, the Saints now sit $11.1 million over the 2016 salary cap. With quarterback Drew Brees carrying a $27 million cap hit next year, the Saints will either be forced to trade their star player sign him to an extension.

Extend or trade?
             The release of Galette highlights the pitfalls of Loomis’s strategy. Backloading contracts can open up salary cap space, but if they go bad, the damage can last years.