NEW ORLEANS — In less than 12 hours Friday, the professional and college sports landscape changed dramatically in New Orleans and Baton Rouge, respectively.
At 11 a.m., LSU athletics director Joe Alleva announced the firing of immensely popular men’s basketball coach Johnny Jones after five mostly successful seasons in Tiger Town, though Season 5 was a real stinker and ultimately led to Jones’ demise.
Around 10:30 p.m., multiple news outlets reported the Saints had traded speedy fourth-year wide receiver Brandin Cooks and a fourth-round pick to the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots for first- and third-round picks in the upcoming draft.
Jones’ exit with two years remaining on his contract came after a 10-21 campaign, one that started 9-4 and finished 1-17. A closer look reveals a historic 15-game losing streak and a 2-16 scorecard inside the Southeastern Conference, a total recipe for disaster.
Jones, 55, leaves as the school’s fourth winningest men’s basketball coach with a 90-72 record that featured at least 19 wins in each of his first four seasons. He will pocket a settlement of a shade more than $900,000 in base salary, or roughly one third of his anticipated earnings over the next two seasons.
Cooks’ departure, too, was somewhat expected since word first leaked out a week before the start of free agency of a potential deal between the Saints and Patriots. Then, once the Saints signed free agent wide receiver/return specialist Ted Ginn Jr. on Thursday, it seemed only a matter of time before they would part ways with Cooks, a highly productive receiver who now has to check his “My Way” mindset in at the door for the Patriot Way.
Here is my take on both developments:
COOKS BECAME EXPENDABLE
The CliffsNotes version is this: Ginn, who turns 32 April 12, replaces the 23-year-old Cooks as the team’s primary deep threat and the Black and Gold add to a growing cache’ to presumably upgrade a talent- and statistically-challenged defense.
The trade came down two years to the day after the Saints shipped scoring machine tight end Jimmy Graham and a fourth-round pick to Super Bowl XLIX runnerup Seattle for Pro Bowl center Max Unger and a first round pick (No. 31).
The Cooks trade doesn’t necessarily close the door on the Saints continuing their pursuit of Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler, the hero of Super Bowl XLIX with his last second goal-line interception that preserved a 28-24 victory against the Seahawks.
Butler has been tendered a $3.91 million offer from the Patriots as a restricted free agent but cannot be part of any trade until under contract.
Thus, we are left to mull the current events.
The bottom line is defense wins championships. As good as quarterback Drew Brees continues to be at age 38, the offense has shown that it can’t do it alone.
That said, teams aren’t usually in the business of ridding themselves of valuable assets unless (1) they have a need to upgrade other areas of the team, (2) the team has issues with said player, (3) said player has, or will in the future, price himself out of the picture, or (4) another player (i.e., Michael Thomas) suddenly becomes the future.
I suspect all four in some way apply to Cooks.
The success or failure of this trade for the Saints will be determined by what they do with the 32nd and 103rd overall picks from the Patriots, whether they package them with other picks such as their own No. 11 to upgrade the defense or if they use them independently.
I know this: Those picks better produce a bigger bang than in the 2015 draft when the Saints spent No. 31 on Clemson linebacker Stephone Anthony, who appears to have been fool’s gold. He led the team in tackles as the starting middle linebacker during his rookie season, then was banished to the background last season.
Unheralded linebacker Craig Robinson played well in the middle last season and now it appears newly-acquired free agent linebacker A.J. Klein will be the man in the middle this season.
ONE-AND-DONE BEN SIMMONS GREASED THE SKIDS FOR JONES
While it’s easy to point to this season as Jones’ downfall, I’m of the opinion that the skid was greased a year ago when NBA-bound freshman phenom Ben Simmons and a talented supporting cast failed to live up to the lofty expectations.
Yes, the Tigers finished 19-14 overall, 11-7 in conference play in 2015-16. But an embarrassing 71-38 loss to Texas A&M that bordered on a team quitting on its coach in the SEC Tournament semifinals served to punctuate what had deteriorated into a totally dysfunctional roster by season’s end.
Jones’ curious decision to decline a likely NIT invitation exacerbated the issue and abruptly ended Simmons’ mostly disappointing one-and-done season. While proving to be a bona fide NBA talent (Philadelphia made him the No. 1 overall draft pick last June), Simmons’ basketball brilliance did more to divide the team than to conquer, and there were few tears shed when he entered the draft.
When asked recently if he had any regrets signing Simmons, Jones said “no” and would do it again.
To which I say, Johnny Jones got caught up in the collateral damage of his own doing and ended up one-and-done as well after Simmons’ departure.
Too bad because Jones, a longtime LSU assistant under former coach Dale Brown and member of the school’s 1981 Final Four team, deserved better.
In hindsight, Jones — and LSU — would have been better off without Ben Simmons.