On Fire

“We didn’t score 50, but 40 was enough.” — Orlando Apollos Head Coach Steve Spurrier after blowing out the Atlanta Legends 40-6 on Feb. 9.

After a playoff collapse from the Atlanta Braves and down seasons from the Falcons, Hawks and Georgia Bulldogs, the Alliance of American Football’s (AAF) Atlanta Legends seemed like a team the city’s sports fans could finally get excited about again.

But after the Legends debuted in an embarrassing 40-6 defeat to the Orlando Apollos, it might be time for the city to give up on American football and accept it’ll only excel at the other football (looking at you, Atlanta United).

Ex-Falcons practice squad quarterback Matt Simms led the Legends’ offense to start the game, but he was quickly replaced by former Georgia Bulldog Aaron Murray after throwing a pair of interceptions. While Murray still leads the SEC in career passing yards, his success in college football’s best athletics division did not immediately translate to the AAF.

Neither quarterback managed to score a touchdown.

A game that could’ve begun a heartwarming redemption arc for one of the two Georgia underdogs will instead be enshrined with the image of ex-Los Angeles Chargers and Korean-American kicker Younghoe Koo scoring the AAF’s first-ever points. Koo might prove to be the only Atlanta Legend to earn his legendary status.

The Legends’ defeat might be best explained by late-breaking coaching changes, a classic staple of Atlanta football. Both Head Coach Brad Childress and offensive coordinator and former Falcons quarterback Michael Vick stepped away from their coaching responsibilities before the season even started in decisions reminiscent of Bobby Petrino’s unceremonious mid-season departure from the Falcons in 2007.

But at least the NFL is a real football league.

The AAF is yet another soon-to-be-failed experiment in testing the NFL’s monopoly on professional football. The United States Football League and United Football League are already in the NFL-alternative graveyard, while World Wrestling Entertainment’s Vince McMahon plans to bring his XFL back from the dead next year. While McMahon’s ill-fated league brought us Rod Smart’s legendary “He Hate Me” jersey before its 2001 collapse, it’s unclear what the wrestling mogul hopes to accomplish by competing with an already-marginalized NFL competitor.

Only time will tell if Roger Goodell’s culturally dominant NFL can withstand these upstart challengers amid its own ongoing concussion, officiating and labor problems. But it’s hard to bet against a multi-billion dollar industry, and if the Legends’ performance is any indication of the AAF’s football product, then Childress was probably smart to bail out early.

The Legends will make their Atlanta debut on Feb. 24 at Georgia State Stadium — but that’s if the AAF is still in operation by then.

“The odds were stacked against us. It hasn’t been that way for us in a while, and it certainly was this year.” — New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, after yet another Patriots win in the AFC Championship Game.

To the surprise of absolutely no one — except maybe the team itself — the New England Patriots are once again heading to the Super Bowl.

Before the game, Patriots players seem to have been convinced of their underdog status after the Kansas City Chiefs opened as AFC Championship favorites. Despite the fact that the last time the Patriots weren’t favored to win a playoff game was in January 2014, and that the team had appeared in seven consecutive AFC Championships prior to their matchup with the Chiefs, wide receiver Julian Edelman felt emboldened to sell T-shirts emblazoned with “Bet Against Us.”

The Patriots’ delusional underdog narrative had been building for awhile prior to the matchup with the Chiefs, however. After his team throttled the Los Angeles Chargers last week, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady told Around the NFL that “everyone thinks we suck.”

Except you’d be hard-pressed to find a single person who thinks so. Not even the irrelevant ex-Ravens quarterback and commentator Trent Dilfer does anymore.

Everyone may want the Patriots to suck, but to our collective chagrin, they do not. The team coached by Sith Lord Bill Belichick has clearly made some kind of devil’s bargain that will inevitably result in their own undoing at some point, but that day is not today. Whatever karmic forces tasked with restoring order to the universe must be biding their time so that, when these forces do act, the world will not be subject to the plight of annoying Patriots fans for at least a generation.

On the topic of annoying Patriots fans, let’s talk about the most annoying one: President Donald Trump. Immediately after the game, our insecure fanboy-in-chief congratulated the team on their victory, targeting his praise at his friends Brady, Belichick and team owner Robert Kraft. King Donald of Orange apparently sees no problem with enjoying American football in the midst of a government shutdown that’s keeping hundreds of thousands of hardworking federal employees from receiving paychecks.

So as Atlanta’s date with the Super Bowl approaches, you can take comfort in the fact that at least people will finally stop talking about football — and the Patriots — once it’s over.

But if you’re Tom Brady, that silence probably just means everyone thinks you suck.

“We didn’t come in with a mentality, feeling like we had all these mistakes. We came in actually on a high note.” – Ohio State wide receiver Terry McLaurin after the team’s 49-20 rout at the hands of unranked Purdue.

If the current climate of college football is surprising to you, you probably don’t go to a school with a football team. Alabama is still an uncontested first overall, quarterback Tua Tagovailoa is still on lock for the Heisman and the Big Ten is still an absolute embarrassment.

After Ohio State star defensive lineman Nick Bosa’s sudden-but-unsurprising decision to put his own future above the Buckeyes’, Head Coach Urban Meyer finally managed to lead his second-ranked team to an inspiring defeat. But this loss was almost unremarkable; had Ohio State sealed the deal and actually lost to Northwestern earlier in the year, Meyer’s accomplishment would not be receiving the attention it deserves.

Where Meyer really isn’t getting enough credit is his role in helping Michigan finally gain the lead in the Big Ten East. Head Coach Jim Harbaugh’s Wolverines tenure has been exceptionally mediocre so far despite his $40 million contract, so Michiganders everywhere should thank Meyer for this professional courtesy: it might give Harbaugh and his taxpayer-funded khakis a chance at the Big Ten title for the first time since their 2004 shared championship with Iowa.

And with Northwestern somehow leading the Big Ten West, it would take a truly mythical meltdown for Harbaugh’s Big Blue to blow this game. They might even have to one-up their 2015 botched punt against Michigan State that handed the undeserving Spartans a victory with time expiring.

But if you still aren’t convinced that this year’s Big Ten is a complete joke, I encourage you to start watching American football. Because you clearly haven’t been already.

Surprisingly, their football team’s unpredicted upset of Ohio State wasn’t the only story in Purdue sports this week. Alumni quarterback Drew Brees passed for the 500th touchdown of his career, a feat that only four other NFL players have achieved, while leading his Saints to a 24-23 victory against the Baltimore Ravens. His victory made him the third quarterback in NFL history to best all 32 teams.

Except it almost didn’t happen. The Ravens’ fourth-quarter touchdown would have sent the game to overtime had kicker Justin Tucker not missed the extra point for the first time in 223 career attempts. His lapse evoked scenes of the River City Relay, or the 2003 Saints-Jaguars game that the Saints lost after lateralling their way to a unbelievable touchdown — only for kicker John Carney to miss the extra point. Time is a flat circle, or whatever.

So congratulations, Boilermakers, for being this week’s biggest story in sports. Hopefully it makes up for having to live in West Lafayette, Ind.

“It’s been one of those years, but we are going to go down swinging to the bitter end.” — Jimmie Johnson, before last weekend’s race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval

Sure, the Braves might’ve clinched a playoff spot last weekend. And sure, the United States got blown out at the Ryder Cup. But the weekend’s most interesting sporting event belongs to NASCAR ー that is, if you think it’s a sport.

NASCAR fans are used to watching drivers race on ovals and road courses, but this weekend they were treated to the debut of the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval ー a track that combines the banked turns of an oval with the left and right turns of a road course.

And it was glorious.

Though the course was slightly reconfigured after Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr. and Erik Jones managed to destroy their cars in practice, the race itself still had plenty of wrecks. In a late-race restart, then-leader Brad Keselowski brought out another caution after driving his car headfirst into the Turn 1 wall.

Yet those car-eviscerating blunders pale in comparison to Johnson’s attempted last lap pass of Martin Truex Jr. for the lead. Coming out of the track’s final right-hand turn, Johnson clipped Truex, sending both of them skidding and opening the door for third-place Ryan Blaney to take the checkered flag.

But it gets worse.

This race was a playoff elimination race — only the top 12 drivers advance to the next round. After recovering from his spin, Johnson crossed the finish line in eighth position, tying with teammate Alex Bowman for 11th place in the points. That is until, Kyle Larson plowed his car into the front-stretch wall to compensate for his blown-right front tire, passing a stalled Jeffrey Earnhardt to capture a 25th-place finish and an extra point.

A point that tied him with both Bowman and Johnson.

And with Bowman and Larson controlling the tiebreakers, seven-time NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson thus eliminated himself from title contention. So if that guy you’re socially obligated to interact with before class tries to talk to you about how close that Ohio State game was, how disappointing the Falcons’ near-win was or, especially, how good his weekend was, your sagacious On Fire correspondent permits, nay, commands you to ignore him.

There is only one sport in the world where the whims of track owners and executives are so unchecked that an entirely new genre of venue can be debuted in the middle of the playoff schedule without much recourse.

There is only one sport in the world whose CEO and chairman can impose ridiculous, ad hoc drug sanctions only to get himself arrested for drunk driving with oxycodone in the car.

And that sport is NASCAR. So if you haven’t been following the attention-starved downward spiral of America’s best reason to drink on a Sunday afternoon, you should be.

“Throwing it deep … for Ridley … he’s got it! Breaks a tackle — and it’s going all the way!” — the part of last Sunday’s Falcons game meant to build up fans’ hopes, in order to worsen the pain of an eventual loss to the Saints

Your Atlanta Falcons might be resting at 1-2, they might have only beaten the Carolina Panthers and they might have just lost starting safety Ricardo Allen for the season, but this loss could propel them to a division title and the opportunity to avenge their postseason defeats at the hands of — well — just about everyone.

For Georgia sports fans, Falcons wide receiver Calvin Ridley has certainly made up for his role in UGA’s defeat at Alabama’s hands in last year’s College Football Playoff National Championship. After all, Ridley wasn’t responsible for catching Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa’s game-winning touchdown pass. And after yesterday’s three-touchdown performance, Ridley’s probably passed the Falcons’ other Alabama wideout, Julio Jones, on offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian’s depth chart.

Speaking of the devil, the much-maligned play-caller’s real test this season won’t be finding a new way to fumble the Falcons’ playoff hopes — or, for that matter, to find a way to one-up his drug-fueled departure from USC’s football program. And it won’t be finding a way to keep Jones from scoring more than three touchdowns all season, because he already did that last year. No, the pressure is really on Sarkisian to craft some way of letting Atlanta sports fans down more than the Braves are fixing to.

And the man’s certainly got momentum on his side. He already lost a $30 million lawsuit during the offseason.

But back to the Braves. They’re headed to their first MLB playoff appearance since 2013, when an eighth-inning home run by then-Dodgers infielder Juan Uribe brought in two runs — and sent the Peach Clobbers home. And barring Atlanta-esque late-season collapses by either the Dodgers or the Cubs, it looks like the Braves are headed to another National League Division Series against pitcher Clayton Kershaw’s Blue Crew. The potential for a playoff matchup between ex-Baltimore Orioles, now-Dodgers third baseman and shortstop Manny Machado and ex-Orioles, now-Braves right fielder Nick Markakis should certainly give Baltimore sports fans a thrill. Or, at least, another reason to seethe over Orioles General Manager Dan Duquette’s job security.Regardless, your merciful On Fire correspondent hopes that the Braves’ season ends better than Uribe’s career, which was cut short by a ground-ball-induced unfortunate event. At least his sacrifice probably reminded some that cups are for more than just holding beer and catching home runs.

“We’re going back to the SEC Championship this season, y’all. And they’ll have to put us in the playoffs this time!” — an Auburn fan before last Saturday, probably

We’re just starting the fall sports season, but your prescient On Fire correspondent can already tell where things are heading — it’s as clear as the intentions behind that 3 a.m. text from your overeager “study buddy” from economics class. In the realm of college football, the Alabama Crimson Tide added a 62-7 pummeling of Ole Miss to their record, though they didn’t punch their playoff ticket yet.

But that’s OK. The rest of the NCAA did for them.

Bama fans had much to be vindicated by this weekend. The brilliant Head Coach Scott Frost, who led UCF to their 2017 “National Championship” alongside Alabama, demonstrated his ingenuity — this time, in finding a new way for his Big Ten Nebraska Cornhuskers to disappoint at home: a loss to the Sun Belt’s Troy University Trojans.

But wait, there’s more. The Auburn Tigers, whose 26-10 defeat of Alabama last year kept college football’s best team out of the SEC Championship, managed to lose to the SEC’s other tigers, LSU. Meanwhile, then-suspended Head Coach Urban Meyer’s Ohio State showed the Big Ten’s true colors in a near-defeat to TCU. Yet that was one of the Big Ten’s best performances this week: highly ranked Wisconsin choked against BYU while Rutgers fell to Kansas, who apparently don’t just play basketball.

Speaking of other sports that people watch to kill time between football games, the Atlanta Braves appear set for a playoff run with their commanding lead of the NL East. The Braves’ roster is loaded with talent poached from the 2014 Baltimore Orioles team: right fielder Nick Markakis and pitchers Brad Brach, Darren O’Day and Kevin Gausman. The quartet seem likely to demonstrate the administrative incompetence of the somehow-still-an-Oriole General Manager Dan Duquette, whose impeccable resume includes giving former slugger Chris Davis $161 million to do … well, we’re not exactly sure what.

Over in the American League, your On Fire correspondent is impressed by the Red Sox’s remarkable hundred-win performance, which is the team’s first since 1946. Ever since pitcher David Price parted ways with “Fortnite,” they’ve seemed destined to avoid the legendary fried-chicken-and-video-games collapse of 2011. However, only time will tell if the franchise of slur-spouting fans can avoid a PlayStation-induced relapse.

Elsewhere in football’s shadow, Brad Keselowski locked himself into the next round of NASCAR’s playoffs after a chaotic race in Las Vegas, wherein half the playoff field found a way to wreck themselves before they checked themselves. Washed-up Jimmie Johnson continued the worst season of his career, securing a 22nd place finish that still put him ahead of half of the once-great Hendrick Racing’s other entries. Can — or will — Rick’s ex-superteam ever bring back the days of housing Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the same garage?

While we’re still wondering about that, we do know that a few things are certain: death, taxes and Alabama dominating college football.

It’s September. The first winds of fall are in the air, and college students nationwide awaken every Saturday with dreams of victory in their hearts. They leave their dorms and run across campus in a beautiful mass of school spirit until they reach their campus’ football stadium, where they join their peers at tailgates, forming lifelong friendships and memories as the smell of burgers and hot dogs fill the air.

Meanwhile, your pioneering On Fire correspondent is joining his fellow Emory students in making a similar coming-of-age trek across campus: the Saturday evening stroll from Harris Hall to the legendary “KOLLEGE” party. It’s esteemed traditions like these, formed across centuries, that make Emory a bastion for collegiate tradition and pride.

“But you’ve never experienced a gorgeous early-autumn afternoon in Michigan’s ‘Big House!’” you cry.

Your sagacious On Fire correspondent smiles and responds: “Ah, but have you ever strolled from the hallowed halls of Emory’s Sigma Chi to the stunning green lawns of Alpha Tau Omega, watching 150-pound white dudes in Chubbies throw a frisbee to the soaring melodies of Post Malone’s “Beerbongs and Bentleys,” while they repeatedly glance across the street towards the sorority lodges?”

Yes, friends and disciples of On Fire, college football season has returned. And with it, students across the nation are teaming up to cheer on their comrades on the gridiron, and Emory students are doing the exact same things that they were doing last week, with slightly cooler weather.

Alas, 2018 marks the 182nd straight football-less year at Emory. But why should we let other schools steal all the spotlight? Emory, of course, is located in one of the nation’s most fertile recruiting areas. It has natural local rivals in Georgia State and Kennesaw State (Ga.). And, believe it or not, it is already home to some incredibly qualified footballers.

Contrary to popular sentiment, your stunningly athletic On Fire correspondent is not referring to himself or herself, though it has been rumored that he or she throws a mean spiral.

No, your cannon-armed On Fire correspondent refers instead to a number of promising players scattered throughout the Emory campus.

After all, who better to play quarterback than Dooley herself? The undead skeletal demon and part-time Emory mascot already has a built-in offensive line in her security guards. Some scouts have expressed concern about Dooley’s brittle bones not being able to stand up to hits in the pocket, but the whole “immortality” thing should help her withstand the rigors of a full college football season.

How about a head coach to lead the newly-minted Emory football team? There are too many choices to count. The best coaches are people who can make tough decisions — people who can evaluate the numbers in front of them and not be bogged down by any emotional connections — aka the entire Emory administration.

Emory infamously cut their journalism, education and visual arts programs in 2012, which left a sea of students alone and rudderless and sounded the death knell on a few of Emory’s finest programs. But your economically savvy On Fire correspondent applauds the administration for its foresight and inability to let things like “the interest of its students” and “campus-wide protests” stop them from ensuring that more money is funneled into the Goizueta Business School.

The proof is in the numbers, after all. Since the school-wide cuts in 2012, Goizueta has skyrocketed from 19th in the U.S. News and World Report rankings all the way to … 21st.

When reached for comment, Emory’s head football coach reportedly blamed SEC bias.

“Don’t blame it on the sunshine, don’t blame it on the moonlight, don’t blame it on the good times, blame it on the Boogie.” — Jackson 5

The No. 6 seed New Orleans Pelicans completed their first-round sweep of the No. 3 seed Portland Trail Blazers 131-123 at the Smoothie King Center in New Orleans on April 21. And yes, that’s the name of their stadium.

Your On Fire correspondent believes there are many reasons for this surprising sweep. Pelicans center Stretch Armstrong — whoops —  Anthony Davis played like the MVP candidate he is, averaging 33 points and pulling in 12 rebounds per game for the series.  Then there was Pelicans point guard Rajon Rondo, who gave slightly more than minimal effort for the first time since 2008 and dished out 13 assists per game while still being unable to hit a jump shot.

But there was a notable absence from this series: Pelicans four-time all star center DeMarcus Cousins, whose season ended with a torn achilles on Jan. 26. Cousins was in the midst of a fantastic season, averaging 25.2 points, 12.9 rebounds and 5.4 assists with a true shooting percentage of .583. Over the past three seasons, ESPN’s estimated wins added (EWA) had Cousins adding anywhere between 14-17 wins a season, making him (statistically) one of the 10-15 most valuable players in the NBA.

When the Pelicans added Cousins, many thought that the dynamic duo of Boogie and The Brow would be the kind of one-two punch New Orleans needed to compete in the Western Conference. Boogie was the peanut butter to Davis’ Jelly; the socks to his shoes; the John Legend to his Chrissy Teigen.

But with the Pelicans absolutely demoralizing a higher-seeded Portland team, Boogie suddenly seems more like a third wheel than a bride-to-be. Davis don’t need no man — he is the strong, independent superstar Kentucky fans have been telling us since they started recruiting him out of fifth grade. Davis doesn’t need Cousins’ peanut butter because Davis isn’t just some jelly — Davis is Nutella. Davis doesn’t need socks — he’s Crocs. Davis doesn’t need a John Legend — he’s Oprah.

The numbers bear this out. Losing Cousins and adding power forward and Theodor Herzl doppelganger Nikola Mirotic, shouldn’t make a team better. But it did. Seemingly, his gaudy individual numbers don’t translate to team success.

Throughout his six years in Sacramento, the one city in California you couldn’t pay this On Fire correspondent to live in, Cousins never led his team to more than 33 wins. Even without markedly better talent, the Kings’ current dumpster fire team only won six fewer games compared to the Boogie led train-wreck two years ago, Cousins’ last full season with the team — a far cry from his 14-17 EWA.

But how did the Pelicans improve after losing a two-time Second-Team All NBA player?

With Cousins, the Pelicans defensive rating was bottom-10 in the league. Over the last 34 games without him, their defensive rating has been in the top five.

Per the Ringer, without the slow-footed Boogie, the Pelicans have trapped the pick and roll much more aggressively with Holiday and Rondo. The quicker Mirotic can recover to either the shooter or roller in a way that Cousins can’t with cinder blocks for feet.

Ultimately, this should all amount to just a barbershop conversation about Cousins with my hairstylist Katya. Except, Cousins is about to be a free agent this summer. Seeing green (no, not the WEED Stephen A), Cousins expects to receive a max contract. Unfortunately, coming back from a torn achilles is always difficult and unpredictable. Even assuming he is 100 percent healthy, should New Orleans offer a max contract to a player who wins as rarely as Cousins?

There’s nothing more American than grabbing a hot dog, heading to the ballpark and watching nine guys from the Dominican Republic make magic on the field.” — Will Ferrell

With the conclusion of March Madness and subsequent desire to bet on all things sports-related to win back the $10 buy-in you lost after Virginia fell first round, have no fear: a new sports season is fully underway. Baseball is back and ready to be the source of all your disappointments as you follow a team for 162 games that last three hours each, just to find out your favorite team has no chance at making the playoffs.

Regardless, your On Fire correspondent is ready to give you an all-encompassing season preview so you can be prepared to make small talk with that one relative who is oddly obsessed with the game.

As much as it is fact that Wednesdays follow Tuesdays, carrots are healthy, Emory is better than Oxford, etc., nothing has changed with the long-held practice that the New York Yankees will spend every possible dollar to build a superteam. Instead of taking strong analytical efforts to develop young players, the Yankees have continued to be the Alpha Chai Latte Brads from Long Island, N.Y., who simply buy their way to the top. By acquiring GQ poster boy Giancarlo Stanton to guarantee the team even more home runs, the Yankees are once again ready to be the most hateable team.

While the Yankees did everything they could to improve, the Miami Marlins did everything they could to tank. By selling every star player, including the aforementioned Stanton, the Marlins sit at the level of a student who flunked out of “baby bio” and are now taking full pass/fail classes on the basket-weaving track. Most shocking with this Marlins development is the divorce between the organization and the “Marlins Man.” Laurence Leavy (78C), the Emory grad turned successful lawyer, became a fixture at all top sporting events by rocking a bright orange Marlins jersey at prominent seats at the World Series, Super Bowl, Kentucky Derby, etc. Now, by not renewing his season tickets, he is the biggest free agent in baseball willing to take his talents away from South Beach, Fla. Maybe, just maybe, he will next be spotted as the sole fan at Chappell Park for an Emory baseball game.

As a change in the game this year, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred has led the charge to pick up the pace of baseball play. By shortening the amount of mound visits and considering instituting a pitch clock, Manfred may in fact speed up the game so much that games will be more short-lived than your freshman-year desire to be pre-med (still improbable).

The 2018 season should ultimately be one of no surprises: Yankees will be good, Marlins will suck and top-down decisions will ruin the national pastime.

However, if the owner of Maggie’s can take an active role in campus elections, then I guess anything may be possible this season.