Monday, October 28, 2013

Buffalo Bills 17 at New Orleans Saints 35 - October 27, 2013

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina decimated New Orleans and its iconic venue, the Louisiana Superdome. Even then, the building was able to house thousands of those who had lost their homes, but after they left, the Superdome was closed for several months while it was cleaned up. The Saints moved back in for the 2006 season and since then, have enjoyed much success, including the 2009 Super Bowl.

Naming rights to the Superdome were purchased by Mercedes-Benz in 2011, but it is still referred to as the Superdome by locals and visitors alike. There is free street parking a few blocks away if you get there early, but most fans choose to pay for parking in the attached garages. I took a bus and walked through some sketchy areas to get there, but this allowed me to take a few photos of the exterior.

Before entering, I took a tour around the outside; there is a statue commemorating the Steve Gleason blocked punt that happened in the Saints' first game back in New Orleans after Katrina.

The Saints also have a Hall of Fame that is open before the game; it essentially takes you through each season in the team's history and finishes with paintings for every enshrinee. No Lombardi trophy though, which was disappointing. There was this collectible plaque with tickets from every game that year.

The Superdome is the largest fixed dome stadium in the world, but still has a relatively small footprint for an NFL venue. This makes concourses fairly narrow, but I didn't have any problems getting around.

In terms of seating, the upper deck is right on top of the field, while many of the seats in the lower level are covered by the second deck, creating a dark and claustrophobic feel.

The best place to sit is hence the second deck end zone, where you are uncovered, yet very close to the action, as you might be able to notice in the shots below.

The only noticeable Mercedes Benz logo was hanging from the roof. Doesn't make me want to buy one, that's for sure.

Before the game, a Saints banner is unfurled as the Saints run on the field. Things start to get loud around that time. The acoustics were terrible where I was sitting and I couldn't clearly hear the announcer, but these poor acoustics don't affect the fans, who make the dome one of the loudest places in the league, cheering on every opposition play. Coupled with the temptations of Bourbon Street, it is no wonder that visiting teams have so much trouble winning in the Superdome.

Such was the case again yesterday as the Buffalo Bills came into town. The Saints were 5-1 but being ignored by the national media because they just go about their business with no controversy or quarterback named Manning, now that Archie has retired. That will change after Drew Brees (below, telling the Bills defense that the Saints are #1) threw 5 touchdown passes. That was the 8th time in his career he has thrown for that many TD passes in a game, a new NFL record.

Thad Lewis (below) started for Buffalo and fumbled on the first play from scrimmage, getting hurt in the process. Amazingly he came back for the second drive, but was largely ineffective, fumbling again and throwing an interception too. He is tough though, taking a ton of punishment from a physical Saints defense and playing the entire game, though he was walking like a very old man by the end of it.

My seat was high up in one end zone, where two of Brees' touchdowns ended up, including the 69-yarder to Kenny Stills. Below is Brees thowing, although not for a touchdown on this particular play.

The Bills got a Fred Jackson rushing TD (below) early in the 4th quarter to move within 28-17 and I was hoping for another comeback like the one against the Bengals a couple of weeks prior.

Sadly it was not to be as the Saints added a final score to complete the rout.

At the halfway point of my trip, I'm predicting the Saints and Bengals to meet in the Super Bowl as those are the two teams that have impressed me the most (I'm only including teams I've seen live, so save your complaints Seattle fans).

The second half of the trip begins in Miami on Thursday before I drive back north for games in Green Bay, Minnesota, and Chicago. It is the toughest part of the trip, so check back on Friday to see if I made it.



Saturday, October 26, 2013

Columbus Cottonmouths 2 at Pensacola Ice Flyers 6 (SPHL) - October 25, 2013

After watching the Tampa Bay Buccaneers implode, I didn't want to leave the State of Florida without seeing some sort of local success. Perusing the OurSportsCentral website, which lists all sorts of minor league games day-by-day, I noticed the Pensacola Ice Flyers were home on Friday evening. Pensacola makes a perfect stop between Tampa and New Orleans, and when I found out it was the season opener and the Ice Flyers would be hoisting their 2012-13 championship banner, I had no choice but to attend.

The game was played at the Pensacola Civic Center, a fairly average building with a large parking lot to the east. From there you walk up a ramp (bottom left in the photo above) to the entrances, which is also where the box offices are located. Tickets range from $29 for seats at the glass down to $10 for a special section in one corner. Only the lower bowl is open, so you might want to avoid the end zones if you want a clear view. There is a large concourse around the rink and some fans watch from there; the picture below was snapped from this concourse.

The outer area is where the concession stands are located, huge lineups formed at the intermissions, so if you want to get your food without waiting, try leaving during one of the official timeouts. Large drafts are only $6, while hot dogs are $3. There are some specialty offerings on the inner concourse, including a sandwich that was sold out by the 2nd intermission.

Before the game, it was time to celebrate the championship. The lights were dimmed and the Ice Flyers were announced one-by-one, skating out to a few cheers. The announcer then replayed some key goals in the playoff drive while fans stood and cheered loudly. As one nearby wag noted, it would be a lot more exciting with a video screen, but the Civic Center has only a dot matrix board, which would have to do.

At the end, the Presidents Cup was lowered from the scoreboard and the captain skated over to grab it and bring it to the owner, who made a quick speech and presented those few remaining Ice Flyers with a memento, perhaps a ring. Again, a video screen might have helped.

Finally, it was time to raise the banner, which looked pretty spiffy to me. After a few pictures, it was hoisted to the rafters, where it will stay in perpetuity. It will need to be straightened out though, as you can see below.

The team must have lost their focus with all the goings-on, as they gave up a couple of early goals to the visiting Cottonmouths from Columbus (Georgia, that is), but they halved the lead on a power play marker midway from Drew Baker through the first. Late in the frame, Matt Gingera of Columbus was hooked on a breakaway and was awarded a penalty shot. His effort was easily saved by John Griggs though, and Pensacola took the momentum into the second period. Joe Caveney scored twice in the first 3:33 to give the Ice Flyers the lead, and they never looked back, adding another in the second and two more in the third to win easily, 6-2.

The star of the game was Mitchell Good (#19 below) who had a goal and four assists.

The fans here were great, hating on the refs right from the beginning, even though Columbus drew 9 penalties to just 7 for the home team. There were even a couple of fights, but nothing unusual other than an eye gouge from Joe Bueltel (below).

All in all, a worthwhile evening. Back in 2010 I saw Pensacola play in Knoxville in my first SPHL game, and I would say that the quality has improved somewhat. There were still too many penalties, but there were also more nice plays and good chances and Pensacola looks like a fun team to watch.

At that time there were seven clubs, but there have been a few changes since then and there are now ten teams in the circuit, including a couple in Illinois, so perhaps it is getting a bit more recognition from players as well. Check out their website and if you are in town for a game, stop by, it is good, honest hockey.


The Cottonmouths are named after a snake, and their uniform numbers use that to their advantage, as you can see below.

The jersey belongs to Jesse Chenard, who made his first professional appearance. In the coincidence department, he is from Camrose, Alberta, which is where my father was born. Update (10/30): Chenard was released after the weekend, so this may be his only pro game if he doesn't sign on somewhere else. Update 2: Chenard signed with Watertown and played 12 games in 2014-15 before disappearing. 

The Ice Flyers wore championship jerseys that were auctioned off after the game. You might be able to make out "Champions" on the jersey worn by Donnie Harris below. Definitely a cool Christmas gift for a Pensacola pee-wee.



Friday, October 25, 2013

Carolina Panthers 31 at Tampa Bay Buccaneers 13 - October 24, 2013

After witnessing Minnesota's Monday meltdown, I left New York early Tuesday and arrived in Tampa on Wednesday evening, an 1,100 mile odyssey that took nearly 18 hours over those two days. It was actually great to be out on the road again, although I do find that more and more drivers don't understand how to use the passing lane. I've seen guys drive miles in the left lane, oblivious as the line of cars grows steadily behind them. That is far more dangerous than going 80 on an clear day, as traffic gets backed up, and others start to pass on the right. Always remember: Slower Traffic Keep Right. Thank you.

Anyway, I received a complimentary ticket courtesy of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and to pick it up, I had to drop by the head office, which is just a couple of blocks east of Raymond James Stadium and easily found by the huge flag flying next to it (above). I arrived early and was happy to see that the office also doubles as a bit of a museum, and includes the Lombardi Trophy from the Buccaneers' Super Bowl win in the 2002 season. This is the 16th Lombardi I have seen so far on the trip (6 Pittsburgh, 3 New England, 4 NY Giants, 1 Indy, 1 Hall of Fame).

I also snapped a picture of myself reflected in the football part of the trophy; a new type of selfie that should soon be all the rage among NFL fans.

The office is open Monday to Friday during normal working hours and the public is welcome to stop by if you are a true memorabilia buff. There is a guardhouse, but you will be allowed in and parking is free. The picture below is taken from the parking lot.

After that, I had a few hours to kill before game time. I was hoping for a good pre-game scene like in Indianapolis and Pittsburgh, but was sorely disappointed. There was no Bud Light tent or anything resembling a party at 4:30, just a few booths waiting to get set up. Even then there were a few fans, but they were pretty bored as well, and tailgaters had yet to show up. I took a few pictures of the exterior, but as you can see, it is not that exciting.

As I was wandering around, I saw one of the buses carrying the Carolina players and followed it in. As they would be flying out immediately after the game, all the players had small bags or suitcases which had to be inspected by what I assume was a bomb-sniffing dog. I never realized that players had to go through the whole security bit just like us fans.

Just a few steps away was the Buccaneers parking lot, and a gauntlet of fans were lined up to greet the players and coaches, who arrived one-by-one. I had never seen such access to the players, but then again, in all the other stadiums there was more of a pre-game party going on which took my attention. Many players hugged certain fans who I guess are season ticket holders of some sort, and most signed a few autographs. Below is receiver Tiquan Underwood, who has a bad case of helmet hair. Actually, what surprised me is how small some of these guys are. When wearing equipment, they seem huge, but many of them are no bigger than 5'7 and would not be recognized on the street.

After that, it was another hour until gates opened. I sat around and watched the crowd develop; it was the quietest pre-game I've seen so far, perhaps because it was Thursday night. Some employees were dressed up in elaborate pirate costumes to greet fans, a nice touch, and there was some live music, but I felt there was something missing without a beer tent.

At 7 p.m., gates opened (far too late for the 8:25 start) and the first thing I did was rush upstairs to take a picture of the sunset, which was very impressive.

Of course, I then had to take my requisite pictures of the stadium from different angles.

As you can see, there are no upper end zone seats here, and the east and west blocks are not connected. You can do a lap on the lower concourse, which includes plenty of concessions with names like "The Galley" and "The Captain's Table".  If you are a collector, you can get the souvenir helmet with ice cream for just $10.

The icon here is the pirate ship in the north end zone. It fires cannons when the Bucs score (and a few times when they don't) and is used throughout the game in other ways. Fans are not allowed on the ship during the game, but you can walk around and snap pictures.

With that done, I headed to my seat and was very surprised with its location, just 5 rows up from the south end zone. It was by far the best seat I have ever had for an NFL game. It was right in front of the tunnel from which the Buccaneers emerged, below is Vincent Jackson leaping through smoke.

The other advantage is that you are right in front of the cheerleaders; I believe they are the best in the league, but that is likely biased by my proximity.

The Buccaneers came in having lost their first 6 games of the season, and there were some very unhappy fans who blamed everything on autocratic coach Greg Schiano. There is no doubt that the team is a mess, and they made so many fundamental errors that lead me to believe they want Schiano to be fired. Bad snaps, dropped passes, penalties, and poor defense doomed the Bucs from the beginning.

Carolina scored first when Cam Newton avoided a sack and found Greg Olsen (#88) all alone in the end zone on the play above. I was focused on Richie Brockel (#47) instead, but you can see Olsen getting open as well.

Tampa QB Mike Glennon (#8) started and wasn't horrible but those simple errors committed by his teammates caused every drive to sputter. The Bucs managed a couple of field goals in the first half, but Carolina added another touchdown to make it 14-6 at the break.

In the third quarter, Newton scrambled a couple of times, with the second one resulting in another touchdown that essentially clinched the game. The first shot below is Newton running for the sideline, the second is him zooming into the end zone.

After Carolina scored yet another touchdown off a muffed punt, Tampa Bay finally gave their few remaining fans a reason to cheer with a garbage-time touchdown (below).

Your final score:

This wasn't a terrible game when compared to the Monday nighter in New York and Tampa is not that bad from what I could tell. In other words, it is not a lack of talent that has caused them to be winless. Football is a game where mistakes kill you; it is difficult to overcome sacks, penalties, fumbles, and maintain a scoring drive. The Tampa Bay players just don't seem to care right now. I think if Schiano is fired, the Buccaneers will be respectable again soon enough, but who knows when that will happen.