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Opinion: Drew Brees’ injuries leave Saints with QB decision that could define season — and beyond

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After learning that quarterback Drew Brees could miss extended time with injuries that, according to multiple reports, include multiple rib fractures and a collapsed lung, the New Orleans Saints now find themselves faced with an intriguing decision while preparing to host the NFC South rival Atlanta Falcons on Sunday.

Jameis Winston or Taysom Hill?

That’s the question coach Sean Payton must decide. The outcome of the decision could dramatically shape the franchise both for the short and long term.

Payton on Monday afternoon declined to confirm an ESPN report on Brees’ status and also refused to name a starter.

However, by Wednesday when the Saints return to the practice field, players likely will have learned the direction their team is headed in the interim. 

Winston, the 2015 No. 1 overall pick by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, signed with New Orleans this offseason in search of further development and redemption following the end of his five-year run as a starter.

Hill, an undrafted fourth-year pro, has distinguished himself as an impactful utility player for New Orleans, lining up at quarterback, tight end, fullback and wide receiver while also playing on special teams.

It marks a second straight year the Saints have found themselves in this predicament. Last season, when a torn thumb ligament in Brees’ throwing hand sidelined him for five games, Payton turned to backup Teddy Bridgewater over Hill, who served as a fixture on offense through his wide range of positions. Bridgewater rewarded the coach by going 5-0 as a starter. 

With Bridgewater having moved on to become the Carolina Panthers’ starter, whichever quarterback Payton chooses this year will try to extend the team’s six-game winning streak and help the 7-2 Saints overtake the Green Bay Packers for the top spot in the NFC.

Both quarterbacks offer different elements.

Winston possesses greater experience having started 70 games for his career. The former Heisman Trophy winner and 2015 Pro Bowl pick also is the more decorated of the two. Blessed with a big arm, Winston last season surpassed the 5,000-yard mark, something only six other quarterbacks have ever done (Brees has done it five times), and recorded 33 touchdown passes. 

As he demonstrated Sunday when he directed three scoring drives (two field goals and an Alvin Kamara touchdown), Winston gives the Saints the ability to execute an offense that resembles a Brees-led attack. Saints coaches simplify what they ask of the quarterback, but they wouldn’t have to overhaul the playbook to position him for success. Starting Winston also enables the Saints to continue to use Hill as the change-of-pace weapon to throw opponents off.

Going to Winston against San Francisco made sense because he had worked behind Brees all week and attended all of the quarterback meetings while Hill bounced from one position group meeting to another in preparation for his usual slash role. Turning to the multi-purpose threat as quarterback would have meant scrapping a chunk of New Orleans’ game plan for the 49ers.

Hill would bring another dimension to the position. The BYU product averages 5.5 yards per carry and, with his capability to execute run-pass option plays, would pose a threat of unpredictability.

However, Hill is a far less accomplished passer, having completed only 10 of 18 passes for his careerwith no touchdown passes and one interception to his name.

With Hill as his starter, Payton likely would have to more drastically change the way the Saints attack, which could prove disruptive. 

The mark against Winston involves his history of poor decision-making. In his final season in Tampa, he threw 30 interceptions — the most by any player in a single season since 1988 — including an NFL record six returned for touchdowns.

Winston chose a backup role with the Saints over a chance to compete as a starter in 2020 because he believed Payton’s expertise with quarterbacks could help him reach his maximum potential. He likened that tutelage to a Harvard education.

But is half of a season enough to transform him into a more disciplined passer? 

It was only a half of football, but Winston certainly seemed more conservative in his approach on Sunday. He completed six of 10 passes for 63 yards without any turnovers .

A move to Winston seems like the no-brainer given his experience and more expansive passing skill set. And many around the league expect the coach to settle on Winston for this week’s game against the Atlanta Falcons.

But the Saints’ fondness for Hill creates some mystique, or at least the illusion of a debate. This offseason, the team signed him to a two-year, $21 million contract that features $16 million in guaranteed money. In 2021, Hill will make more than a handful of top quarterbacks still on their rookie contracts.

Winston, meanwhile, is earning just $1.1 million for this season.

As mentioned, Payton’s decision could help shape the future of the Saints’ quarterback position.

This could be the 41-year-old Brees’ last year, so this midseason stretch in his absence could serve as an audition for 2021 and speak to how New Orleans views Winston and Hill. 

A nod to Hill seemingly would suggest that Payton views him as the quarterback of the future and that the coach would be comfortable having him shed his utility role after this season. 

Turning to Winston could indicate that, in addition to believing the former Florida State product gives him the best chance to win now, Payton also wants to evaluate him extensively as a potential long-term replacement for Brees.

That’s not for certain, however. Bridgewater’s five-game stint last season wound up serving as a showcase for the rest of the league rather than New Orleans.

Either way, it all boils down to this: for however long Brees’ injuries sideline him, his replacement will receive a golden opportunity. The next man up will receive the chance to play for one of the game’s best play-callers while surrounded by one of the league’s top supporting casts. He will have the chance to contribute to a playoff run. And the quarterback selected also will receive the chance to solidify his future role.

Read from source: https://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/nfl/columnist/mike-jones/2020/11/16/drew-brees-injury-jameis-winston-taysom-hill-saints-quarterback/6316535002/

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Lionel Messi wins Ballon d’Or 2021 to claim record seventh trophy

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independent– Lionel Messi has won the men’s 2021 Ballon d’Or, and a record seventh trophy, at an awards ceremony in Paris on Monday evening.

Messi, 34, held off the challenge of Bayern Munich’s Robert Lewandowski, Real Madrid’s Karim Benzema and Chelsea’s Jorginho to collect the prize and move two clear in his long-running battle with five-time winner Cristiano Ronaldo, who was among the 30 players shortlisted but did not feature in the top three for the first time in 11 years.

Messi was the favourite to collect the award after winning the Copa America with Argentina earlier this year – his first major international trophy – despite one of his less impressive periods at club level: Barcelona finished third in La Liga and fell in the first knockout round of the Champions League. However, Messi scored two goals as Barca won the Copa del Rey final and he was La Liga’s top goalscorer once more, before switching to Paris Saint-Germain in the summer.

Lewandowski did pick up the consolation prize of the newly formed Striker of the Year award, while the Women’s Ballon d’Or went to Barcelona captain Alexia Putellas.

Further awards went to Gianluigi Donnarumma for the Yashin Trophy of best goalkeeper, to Barcelona midfielder Pedri as the starlet was handed the Kopa Trophy and another new award went to Chelsea for Club of the Year for their on-pitch achievements with both men’s and women’s teams.

Lewandowski can feel hard done by after another stellar year of goalscoring for Bayern Munich saw them retain the Bundesliga title. He scored a record 41 Bundesliga goals in the 2020-21 season and is leading the charts again this season with 14 goals from 13 games, but perhaps suffered at the ballot box from not enjoying more success with his country, Poland, in a year of major international tournaments. The 33-year-old was expected to win his first Ballon d’Or last year but the award was cancelled due to the pandemic.

Jorginho, 29, might also feel he could not have done much more given he won the Champions League with Chelsea and two months later won the European Championship with Italy, playing a key role at the heart of midfield in both sides.

The highest-ranked Premier League-based players after Jorginho included his Chelsea team-mate N’Golo Kante in fifth, Cristiano Ronaldo in sixth and Mohamed Salah in seventh.

Raheem Sterling, 15th, was the highest-ranked English player.

As the early rankings unfolded, Ronaldo posted a social media message claiming France Football’s Pascal Ferre had spoken “lies” about the reasons why the United forward was not at the awards ceremony and that his only ambition was to win more Ballon d’Ors than Messi.

After claiming his award at the end of the ceremony, Messi remarked that Lewandowski had “deserved” the award in 2020 and hoped that France Football awarded it to him retrospectively, after last year’s awards were cancelled due to the pandemic.

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Chelsea run riot against Juventus in performance befitting of champions

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independent– Roman Abramovich was in London but couldn’t make Stamford Bridge on Tuesday night, and he probably missed what he has most wanted during all his time at Chelsea.

This was a display entirely befitting of European champions, where they just motored over one of the continent’s biggest names in magnificent fashion. Even more pleasingly, the first three goals in this 4-0 win over Juventus were scored by different academy products – with the exceptional Reece James standing, or perhaps sprinting, given his energy, above all.

That was what was most ominous for the rest of England, and Europe. Chelsea put in such a performance without Romelu Lukaku, Mason Mount, Kai Havertz and with N’Golo Kante having to go off before half-time.

Despite that, there was no disruption to the team’s level. They just kept going, in the way they have been purring of late.

That is another striking element about the team right now. It is remarkable to think they started this season in rather muted fashion: controlling games, yes, but not exactly creating much. They seem to have gone up a level in recent weeks, with the promise of even more to come. This put them top of the group and through to the Champions League last 16, while perhaps illustrating they stand at the top of the competition’s main contenders.

Some of this should be put into the context of Juventus’ own drop-off. This was nowhere near the calculated 1-0 victory over Chelsea as recently as September, let alone the title-winning spell of most of the last decade. Their ongoing rebuild was simply deconstructed.

Massimo Allegri’s side just couldn’t match Chelsea’s intensity. The Italian was getting extremely animated from the game’s start, aghast at the gaps in his team. Thomas Tuchel had evidently learnt a lot from that September setback.

Chelsea had an energy that was missing that day, meaning Juventus on Tuesday evening couldn’t sit back comfortably, let alone break. As early as the first minute, Kante was just cutting through their half to force an opportunity that saw Chilwell miskick from just yards out. It should have been 1-0. They wouldn’t have to wait too long. Juventus were just hoping to make it to half-time, such was the extent of the siege.

The brilliant James almost caught Wojciech Szczesny out with a smart free-kick from wide on 24 minutes, before Trevoh Chalobah fired in from the corner. Chelsea were away.

They also knew they needed to score one more to ensure they had a superior head-to-head against Juventus. So, for the second half, they just upped it some more.

The three-minute spell just after half-time was precisely the type of thrilling whirlwind both Tuchel and his ultimate boss would have idealised. Juventus by then really couldn’t live with them. They were overwhelmed.

That was never clearer than for the clinical nature of James’s strike. With Juventus unable to clear their lines, and the ball bouncing around so invitingly, the wing-back imposed a bit of order and class on the fair. James chested the ball down before arrowing a supreme strike into the far corner of Szczesny’s goal. That made the young England international Chelsea’s top scorer for the season, which says a lot about both his evolution and the multi-angled nature of Tuchel’s attack. That was only emphasised by the different nature of the next goal, mere moments later. He had more to come, and so did Chelsea.

On for Kante, Ruben Loftus-Cheek slipped the ball through for Callum Hudson-Odoi to finish. It was that kind of night for Chelsea. It was barely a match.

Long before the end, the home crowd were mocking Juventus as much as their former Arsenal goalkeeper, as the oles and waheys came out for so many passes. Chelsea were toying with Juventus by then.

There was still the crescendo to come, a beautifully creative moment to top it off. James swung over a divine David Beckham-like crossfield ball for Hakim Ziyech, who whipped it through for Timo Werner to finish. This Chelsea, remarkably, look like they’re only getting started.

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China’s ultramarathon tragedy and the survivors threatened for speaking out

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bbc– When Zhang Xiaotao woke up he was in a cave and somebody had lit a fire to keep him warm. He had no idea how he’d got there.

Zhang’s frozen unconscious body had been found by a passing shepherd who’d wrapped him in a quilt and carried him over his shoulders to safety. He was one of the lucky ones.

In May this year, 21 competitors died at an ultra-running event in northern China hit by extreme weather conditions: hail, heavy rain and intense gales caused temperatures to plummet, and nobody seemed prepared for it.

Only a small number felt comfortable talking about what happened – and some have been threatened for doing so.

The sun was out on race day in Baiyin, a former mining area in China’s Gansu province. Some 172 athletes were ready to run 62 miles (100km) through the Yellow River Stone Forest national park.

The organisers were expecting good conditions – they’d had mild weather the previous three years. They had even arranged for some of the competitors’ cold-weather gear to be moved forward along the course so they could pick it up later in the day.

But soon after Zhang arrived at the start line, a cold wind began to blow. Some runners gathered in a nearby gift shop to take shelter, many of them shivering in their short-sleeved tops and shorts.

Zhang started the race well. He was among the quickest to reach the first checkpoint, making light work of the rugged mountain trails. Things started to go badly wrong just before the second checkpoint, some 20km into the course.

“I was halfway up the mountain when hail started to fall,” he later wrote in a post on Chinese social media. “My face was pummelled by ice and my vision was blurred, making it difficult to see the path clearly.”

Still, Zhang went on. He overtook Huang Guanjun, the men’s hearing-impaired marathon winner at China’s 2019 National Paralympic Games, who was struggling badly. He went across to another runner, Wu Panrong, with whom he’d been keeping pace since the start.

Wu was shaking and his voice was trembling as he spoke. Zhang put his arm around him and the pair continued together, but quickly the wind became so strong, and the ground so slippery, that they were forced to separate.

As Zhang continued to ascend, he was overpowered by the wind, with gusts reaching up to 55mph. He’d forced himself up from the ground many times, but now because of the freezing cold he began to lose control of his limbs. The temperature felt like -5C. This time when he fell down he couldn’t get back up.

Thinking fast, Zhang covered himself with an insulation blanket. He took out his GPS tracker, pressed the SOS button, and passed out.

Closer to the back of the field, another runner, who goes by the alias Liuluo Nanfang, was hit by the frozen rain. It felt like bullets against his face.

As he progressed he saw somebody walking towards him, coming down from the top of the mountain. The runner said it was too cold, that he couldn’t stand it and was retiring.

But Nanfang, like Zhang, decided to keep going. The higher he climbed, the stronger the wind and the colder he felt. He saw a few more competitors coming down on his way up the mountain. His whole body was soaking wet, including his shoes and socks.

When he finally did realise he had to stop, he found a relatively sheltered spot and tried to get warm. He took out his insulation blanket, wrapping it around his body. It was instantly blown away by the wind as he’d lost almost all sensation and control in his fingers. He put one in his mouth, holding it for a long time, but it didn’t help.

As Nanfang now started to head back down the mountain, his vision was blurred and he was shaking. He felt very confused but knew he had to persist.

Halfway down he met a member of the rescue team that had been dispatched after the weather turned. He was directed to a wooden hut. Inside, there were at least 10 others who had decided to withdraw before him. About an hour later that number had reached around 50. Some spoke of seeing competitors collapsed by the side of the road, frothing at their mouths.

“When they said this, their eyes were red,” Nanfang later wrote on social media.

Zhang, meanwhile, had been rescued by the shepherd, who’d taken off his wet clothes and wrapped him in a quilt. Inside the cave, he wasn’t alone.

When he came to, about an hour later, there were other runners also taking refuge there, some of whom had also been saved by the shepherd. The group had been waiting for him to wake up so they could descend the mountain together.

At the bottom, medics and armed police were waiting. More than 1,200 rescuers were deployed throughout the night, assisted by thermal-imaging drones and radar detectors, according to state media.

The following morning, authorities confirmed that 21 people died, including Huang, who Zhang overtook, and Wu, the runner he’d kept pace with at the start of the race.

A report later found that organisers failed to take action despite warnings of inclement weather in the run up to the event.

As news of the deaths broke on social media, many people questioned how the tragedy could have happened. Some competitors, such as Zhang and Nanfang, chose to write about their experiences online to help people understand what it was like.

But Zhang’s post, written under the name ‘Brother Tao is running’, disappeared shortly after it was published.

When Caixin – a Beijing-based news website – re-uploaded his testimony, a new post appeared on the account a week later, begging the media and social media users to leave him and his family alone.

It later transpired that Zhang had suspended his account after people questioned his story. Some accused him of showing off for being the sole survivor at the front of the pack, others had sent him death threats.

“We don’t want to be internet celebrities,” he wrote online, adding that the man who saved him had also faced pressure from the media and “other aspects”.

“Our lives need to be quiet,” he wrote. “Please everyone, especially friends in the media, do not disturb me and do not question me.”

The survivors weren’t the only ones to find themselves put under pressure.

One woman, who lost her father in the race, was targeted with social media abuse on Weibo after questioning how her father was “allowed to die”. She was accused of spreading rumours and using “foreign forces” to spread negative stories about China.

Another woman, Huang Yinzhen, whose brother died, was followed by local officials who she claimed were trying to keep relatives from speaking to each other.

“They just prevent us from contacting other family members or reporters, so they keep monitoring us,” she told the New York Times.

In China it’s typical for relatives of those who have died in similar circumstances – where authorities face blame – to have pressure placed on them to remain silent. For the government, social media attention on any possible failings is not welcome.

A month after the race, in June, 27 local officials were punished. The Communist Party secretary of Jingtai County, Li Zuobi, was found dead. He died after falling from the apartment in which he lived. Police ruled out homicide.

The Baiyin marathon is just one of many races in a country that was experiencing a running boom. Its tragic outcome has brought the future of these events into question.

According to the Chinese Athletics Association (CAA), China hosted 40 times more marathons in 2018 than in 2014. The CAA said there were 1,900 “running races” in the country in 2019.

Before Covid hit, many small towns and regions attempted to capitalise on this by hosting events in order to bring more tourism into the area and boost the local economy.

After what happened in Baiyin, the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection accused organisers of some of the country’s races of “focusing on economic benefits” while they are “unwilling to invest more in safety”.

With Beijing’s hosting of the 2022 Winter Olympics just months away, China has suspended extreme sports such as trail running, ultramarathons and wingsuit flying while it overhauls safety regulations. It is not yet clear when they will restart. There have been reports that not even a chess tournament managed to escape the new measures.

But without events like these, people wishing to get involved, perhaps even future star athletes, are finding themselves frustrated. In some cases, as Outside Magazine points out, athletes could take matters into their own hands, venturing into the mountains without any regulation whatsoever and putting themselves at risk.

Mark Dreyer, who runs the China Sports Insider website, wrote on Twitter: “If this incident has removed the top layer of the mass participation pyramid – as seems likely – there’s no telling what effect that would have at the lower levels.

“The long-term effects of this tragic – and avoidable – accident could also be significant.”

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