What is Vikings ownership thinking today after Saturday’s embarrassing 27-10 loss to the 49ers that knocked its team out of the playoffs?
The Vikings won their opening playoff game January 5 with an impressive win over the Saints. In advance of that game, team president and owner Mark Wilf issued a statement of confidence in coach Mike Zimmer and general manager Rick Spielman who have contracts only through this year. The Wilf ownership made clear it had “every intent” of retaining the two in the future.
Owner Zygi Wilf has been on record about his vision to see the team in the Super Bowl. The Wilfs have owned the franchise since 2005 without realizing their dream. Spielman has been a leader in formulating player personnel decisions since 2006 and had full authority since 2012. Zimmer has been head coach since 2014, making the playoffs three times and winning two NFC North titles with a Spielman produced roster led by a number of outstanding players.
Sometimes votes of confidence don’t last long. If the Wilfs decided in the coming weeks to move on from Spielman and Zimmer they would appease a mob of critics who want a change. Fans are hot after yesterday’s game that saw the Vikings look out coached, while generating just seven first downs and not able to match the aggression of the 49ers.
Fans can act passionately, even irrationally. Owners need to be more cautious. Despite their “warts” like a leaky offensive line that never seems to completely get repaired, the Vikings aren’t a broken team like so many in the NFL. Spielman and Zimmer are good at what they do. They are also high character leaders.
The question the Wilfs have to answer is whether those two give the Vikings the best chance of fielding an elite team? With that question comes another: If and when the owners want to make a change, can they identify the leadership that will take the Vikings to the next level?
Former Vikings linebacker Ben Leber talking on KFAN Radio after yesterday’s game with the 49ers: “They Mike Tyson punched us in the face. That was about it.”
Jerry Burns, head coach of the 1987 Vikings team that won its first two playoff games in 1988 including against the 49ers on the road, turns 93 January 24 and still lives in the Minneapolis area.
While Target Field seating capacity for baseball is 38,544, a hockey insider told Sports Headliners 34,000 seats will be available for the 2021 NHL Winter Classic next January at the downtown Minneapolis ballpark. He predicted it will be several weeks before tickets go on sale, with Minnesota Wild season ticket holders having priority. He also said NHL representatives were in town last week to look at the outdoor venue that will match the Wild against an as yet unannounced opponent.
The Wild has lost four of its last five games and is near the bottom in the Western Conference’s Central Division. The Wild also trails division rivals in goals, and the team’s lack of scoring could result in the franchise missing the playoffs for a second consecutive year.
If that results in a coaching change, might South St. Paul native Phil Housley be the successor to Bruce Boudreau? Housley, an assistant coach with the Phoenix Coyotes, is friends with new Wild general manager Bill Guerin.
The guess here is the Twins won’t make the highest offer to free agent third baseman Josh Donaldson and he will sign with another team.
The Twins’ starting infield for their season opener March 26 in Oakland could be: Miguel Sano, first base; Luis Arraez, second base; Jorge Polanco, shortstop; Marwin Gonzalez, third base.
In 2021 that infield could look like this: Sano, first base; Polanco, second base, Royce Lewis, shortstop; and Arraez, third base.
Quoting Dick Jonckowski at the January 9 CORES luncheon in Bloomington: “If baseball is a religion, we should be in good shape with (Dave) St. Peter heading the Twins.”
March 17 will be the release date for Game Used, the book about longtime Twins TV broadcaster Dick Bremer. Author Jim Bruton said Bremer will do book signings in southwest Florida during Twins spring training.
Announced attendance for the Timberwolves home game Thursday night was 13,720 but a source said about 6,000 fans were in Target Center. Celebrities in the crowd included Gophers football coach P.J. Fleck and Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph.
Tracy Claeys resigned during the season last fall as Washington State’s defensive coordinator and is now the linebackers coach at Virginia Tech. If not for that resignation, the former Gophers head coach might be positioned as an internal candidate for the head job at WSU which opened up last week when Mike Leach left for Mississippi State.
Enjoy a Vikings notes column in advance of Saturday’s divisional playoff game with the 49ers.
The winner moves on to the NFC championship game, and the margin of victory Saturday could be only a few points. Perhaps a field goal decides the outcome at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, and the Vikings may have an edge because their Dan Bailey has made 21 consecutive three-pointers.
The 49ers’ Robbie Gould? In the last 13 games he has only made 23 of 31 field goal attempts, a 74.2 percentage. That’s a big drop from 2018 when the 37-year-old Gould converted 33 of 34 field goal attempts.
Bailey was 27 of 29 attempts (93.1 percent) during the regular season, the fourth time in his career he has been over 90 percent. In Minnesota’s opening playoff win last Sunday in New Orleans Bailey made two field goals to help the Vikings to a 26-20 overtime win over the favored Saints.
Vikings center Brett Jones is expecting a close game. “Oh, for sure,” he said. “It’s amazing the amount of parity in the league this year, and it’s going to be like that I am sure this weekend. So we gotta be ready to execute, and all the little details matter.”
Former Viking Bob Lurtsema, who remains a close observer of the team, thinks Minnesota may win 24-21. In a critical play, either the Vikings or 49ers may take advantage of the other. “It’s (the outcome) going to come down to one mistake,” he told Sports Headliners.
The last 27 NFL postseason games, dating back to the 2017 Super Bowl, have been decided by an average of 8.1 points. Four of the league’s last seven postseason games have been decided in overtime. Eight of the past 14 playoff games (excluding neutral site Super Bowls) have been won by road teams.
The 49ers had a bye last weekend, providing more time to prepare for Saturday’s game than the Vikings. The 49ers, 13-3 during the regular season, led the NFC in points per game at 29.9. They were also No. 1 in total defense, giving up 281.8 yards per game. “That is a good football team, no doubt about it,” said Lurtsema about the NFC’s No. 1 seed.
The Vikings, 10-6 in the regular season and coming off the success of last Sunday, should approach the game with confidence, particularly defensively. Head coach Mike Zimmer and his staff will no doubt have a surprise, or two, for the 49ers defensively. They did against the Saints, lining up defensive ends Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter in the middle of the line.
Lurtsema wouldn’t be surprised to see more of that scheme Saturday from the No. 6 seed Vikings. “They (the defensive ends) get off the ball better (playing inside),” he said.
Zimmer’s surprise schemes and the talent of his defensive personnel could even help the Vikings score points. Since the team’s bye week in November, the defense has 17 takeaways, tops in the NFL. During that period of time, Minnesota also has a league-leading nine opponent fumble recoveries and eight interceptions (tied for most with the Packers).
An effective performance by the defense seems probable, but what about the Minnesota offense? That unit will need a major contribution again from running back Dalvin Cook who rushed for 94 yards against the Saints and helped balance the offense. His running takes pressure off quarterback Kirk Cousins, and at times even the offensive line because Cook is so good he can make gains with minimal openings.
Cook ran to the right with success against the Saints, with right tackle Brian O’Neill impressing with his blocking. Jones said the second-year lineman has a lot going for him including his inquisitiveness. “He asks good questions during the week and it shows on Sundays. He’s playing really good.”
Cousins had enough pass protection from his sometimes inconsistent offensive line to complete 19 of 31 passes including one touchdown throw against the Saints. He was sacked just twice for 10 yards.
“I have a lot of confidence in Brian, (and) confidence in the entire offensive line,” Cousins said. “They’ve worked very hard and done a great job all year. …They’re well coached, and they’re a big reason why we’re still playing football here in mid-January.”
The Vikings won their opening playoff game on a touchdown catch by 6-foot-6, 265-pound Kyle Rudolph in the end zone. “I wouldn’t leave any of us (tight ends) on an island like that one-on-one,” said Irv Smith, who is Rudolph’s backup. “You know, we’re bigger guys, especially Rudy with how big he is and his ball skills. It just shows the talent that he has, and the talent that this tight end group has.”
Rudolph’s performance was a bit of redemption for the 30-year-old veteran who had an uncertain future with the team last spring. Because of salary cap concerns, it was believed the Vikings and Rudolph would likely part ways, with Rudolph perhaps landing with quarterback Tom Brady and the Patriots. Instead, the Vikings and Rudolph agreed on a reported four-year $36 million extension.
Vikings offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski after being asked if he is surprised with the career consistency of Rudolph: “I’m not surprised. I think he’s one of our hardest working players. It’s hard to beat him into the building in the morning. He’s here early and he just takes his craft very seriously.”
The prediction here is Viking star wide receivers Stefon Diggs (illness) and Adam Thielen (ankle injury) will play Saturday, even if somewhat limited in how they can perform.
Santa Clara, the home of the San Francisco 49ers stadium, is located more than an hour drive from the San Francisco airport. The San Jose airport is about 10 minutes from Santa Clara.
An authoritative NBA draft website has moved Daniel Oturu, Minnesota’s sophomore center, up to No. 10 in its first round 2020 mock draft. That leads to speculation this will be his last season playing for the Gophers.
Nbadraft.net listed Oturu in the 20s awhile ago but the play of the former Cretin-Derham Hall star continues to raise his draft stock. Much improved over this freshman season, Oturu seems to even be trending upward in recent games (in the last three he is averaging 23 points and 18 rebounds).
Former Gophers coach Jim Dutcher sent great centers into the NBA while at Minnesota and he was asked Monday about Oturu’s No. 10 ranking. “I am not surprised,” Dutcher told Sports Headliners. “They (NBA scouts) look for guys like him because they want their big guys not only to be able to board and block shots, but to step out to the three-point line, and he can do that.”
The 6-foot-10, 210-pound Oturu is averaging 19.1 points per game and 12.4 rebounds in 14 games this season. He’s made .633 percent of his field goals. He is seven of 22 on three point attempts, playing on a team that relies on others to do most of the long range shooting. For a young player of his size, Oturu has a smooth shooting form and shows the potential for major improvement with the three-point shot that he will need at the next level.
In today’s NBA, centers have become both inside and outside scorers. They also need the athleticism to run the floor, transitioning from offense to defense and sometimes guarding smaller players. Oturu is averaging three blocked shots per game, another indication of his versatility and contribution to the Gophers.
Dutcher refers to Oturu as the best center in the Big Ten, and he does check a lot of boxes on an NBA scout’s list. “He’s good. I am impressed with him,” said Dutcher, who coached Minnesota to the 1982 Big Ten title.
Dutcher admires the skills of Oturu and Minnesota point guard Marcus Carr who is averaging 15.9 points per game. “Remove those two, and then there’s not an awful lot of talent there. So they struggle,” Dutcher said.
Minnesota’s Big Ten record is 2-2 and overall the Gophers are 8-6 after playing one of the more difficult nonconference schedules in the nation. The next game is Thursday night at nationally ranked Michigan State. The Spartans are the only undefeated team in the conference at 4-0 (12-3 overall).
The Big Ten is unusually competitive and balanced. “Everybody beats everybody,” Dutcher said.
The Minnesota’s chances of earning its way into the NCAA Tournament? “I Think they’re pretty good because they’re going to take a minimum seven teams (from the Big Ten),” Dutcher answered. “So you don’t have to have a great year. If you can finish .500 in the conference, you’re probably going to the NCAA.”
The Big Ten has 12 teams (no other conference has more than six) in the top 50 of the NCAA NET Rankings with Minnesota at No. 40
The Nbadraft.net first round mock draft yesterday projected former Hopkins star Zeke Nnaji, a freshman at Arizona, being selected at No. 17 in the first round. The 6-11, 240-pound power forward-center impresses in multiple ways including the energy with which he plays. “He’s really good,” Dutcher said.
Tre Jones, the Duke sophomore point guard from Apple Valley, made the website’s first round mock draft last season but he now is projected in the second round. Dutcher thinks that is a mistake, and he compared Tre favorably with older brother Tyus who is in the NBA and also played at Duke. “I think he’s a better pro prospect than Tyus was because he’s a better shooter,” Dutcher said.
Brian Dutcher, Jim’s son and a University of Minnesota alum, is head coach at San Diego State where the Aztecs are 15-0 and ranked No. 7 nationally in the latest Associated Press poll. They are one of two undefeated major college teams along with 13-0 Auburn. Brian, 60, is in early conversations for national coach of the year.
Former Gopher Amir Coffey, who has been playing mostly in the G League, made his NBA regular season debut with the Clippers last week. He has played briefly in two games.
Looks like the Vikings made good on their “chip on the shoulder” mantra the organization identified with during the offseason. After an 8-7-1 season in 2018 and not making the playoffs, general manager Rick Spielman used the phrase in the offseason.
Back in June, reserve quarterback Sean Mannion acknowledged the team’s “chip on the shoulder” mindset to Sports Headliners. “I think that would be an accurate way to describe it, for sure,” Mannion said. “The big thing is just channeling that and focusing on your craft. Using that as motivation but not letting it become destructive. Letting it be something that motivates you to work on your skills, work on your abilities, and just continuing to grow as a player.”
The Vikings earned a 10-6 regular season record and made their way into the playoffs where they won their opening game last Sunday against the Saints in New Orleans, although they were about a touchdown underdog. Saturday the Vikings play the NFC No. 1 seed 49ers in Santa Clara and they will need to continue their aggressive attitude.
After Sunday’s 26-20 overtime win in the noisy and partisan Superdome, Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer was asked about his team’s identity. “I think we’re tough,” he told listeners on KFAN Radio. “We’re good competitors. Everybody doubted us coming in here. Not one person gave us a chance to win this football game, and we’ll hear the same thing next week.”
Former Gophers football coach Lou Holtz had his 83rd birthday Monday. The legendary Holtz, whose coaching stops included Notre Dame where he won a national title, believes Alabama was the best college football team in 2019, per multiple online reports. That should be of interest to Minnesota fans because Auburn defeated Alabama and then lost to the Gophers in the Outback Bowl.
It’s believed Gophers fans outnumbered Auburn fans at the Tampa bowl game, with estimates of 20,000 or more cheering for Minnesota in its upset win over the Tigers. Gophers athletics director Mark Coyle said on WCCO Radio’s “Sports Huddle” Sunday the University sold approximately 8,000 tickets, but many more fans rooting for coach P.J. Fleck’s team found other sources for tickets.
WWE personality Brock Lesnar will be an honorary Gophers coach for the wrestling team’s Big Ten opener against Wisconsin at Maturi Pavilion Friday when the program celebrates the 20th anniversary of his NCAA Championship. Youngsters up through eighth-grade will have the opportunity to be in a group photo with the legendary Lesnar.