Thursday, Nov. 22, 2018


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Vikes’ Record Stirs Leadership Question

November 02, 2018 - (0) comments

 

The Vikings start the second half of their 16-game schedule on Sunday with a home game against the Lions. Minnesota’s 4-3-1 record is a disappointment to many observers, including perhaps team owners.

A Super Bowl favorite going into the season, the Vikings’ record doesn’t match the hype. Against the better teams on the schedule Minnesota has one win, two losses and a tie.

The second game of the season, a 29-29 tie with the Packers, was a precursor to the frustration to follow. Rookie kicker Daniel Carlson failed the Vikings and their attempt to defeat their expected No. 1 rival in the NFC North when he missed three field goals on September 16.

While the Vikings did score a 23-21 road win over the defending Super Bowl champion Eagles, Minnesota also has losses to two NFL powers, the Rams and Saints, and an inexplicable embarrassment against the Bills. In that September 23 home loss to the Bills, the Vikings looked unprepared and disinterested in a game that they were favored to win by more than two touchdowns.

Kirk Cousins

As owners, the Wilf family has provided all the resources needed and asked for to help their football organization become elite. The Vikings play their home games in arguably the best football stadium in the country—U.S. Bank Stadium that opened in 2016. Their new practice and corporate headquarters in Eagan that opened this year is equally state-of-the- art. The Wilfs also okayed a guaranteed $84 million deal for new quarterback Kirk Cousins during the past offseason. The player payroll includes multiple Vikings earning more than $10 million per season. The team’s salary cap space is among the lowest in the NFL because of the owners’ willingness to pay top wages to players on the payroll now.

Owner and chairman Zygi Wilf is on record wanting to see his franchise in the Super Bowl. The Wilfs, including Mark Wilf who is an owner and club president, are football fans and that means they can get emotional about their team. They are also aggressive business people accustomed to success. These are serious folks and their patience with the organization’s football leaders presumably has limits.

The Wilfs acquired the Vikings in 2005. They hired now general manager Rick Spielman in 2006 and even then empowered him with major player personnel decisions. Spielman, with the Wilfs approval, made Mike Zimmer head coach in 2014. Front office executives and coaches in pro football often don’t achieve the longevity Spielman and Zimmer have earned in Minneapolis, but the Wilfs may eventually have doubts about their franchise’s leadership.

If the Vikings don’t make the playoffs after this season—or have an early exit from postseason competition—then what? Given the resources provided, and the expectations of a Super Bowl sooner rather than later, it seems fair to speculate that Zimmer and Spielman will be evaluated with discerning eyes the rest of this season.

Worth Noting

The eight teams the Vikings have played so far, including the 3-3-1 Packers, are a combined 29-32-1—with the parade led by the 8-0 Rams and 6-1 Saints. The remaining teams on the Viking schedule are a combined 24-19-1. The second half of the schedule includes another Packers game and two each with the Bears and Lions.

The Lions, historically inconsistent, have a 3-4 record, but with wins against the Packers and 6-2 Patriots who the Vikings visit on December 2.

Shannon Brooks ran for 154 yards last week against Indiana in his debut game of the season before injuring his knee. He isn’t expected to play for the 4-4 Gophers tomorrow against Illinois and his availability for the team’s other three remaining games is unknown. He is such a difference maker, Minnesota might not reach six victories and earn a bowl game invitation without him.

What were the preseason odds the Gophers would have to play this season without three of their best players because of injuries? Safety Antoine Winfield Jr. is their premiere player, and two of the better running backs in the Big Ten are Brooks and Rodney Smith.

Two of the three leading Big Ten receivers in yards per game are Minnesota natives. Purdue’s Rondale Moore is averaging 107.8 yards in conference games, while Minneapolis native and Gopher Tyler Johnson is second at 104.8. Eden Prairie’s J.D. Spielman, playing for Nebraska, is third in the league at 104.0 yards per game.

Sports Headliners wrote last week about the 1968 Gophers-Hoosiers football brawl when Minnesota’s Jim Carter took off his helmet and used it as a weapon. Teammate and fellow running back Barry Mayer emailed a few days ago about the fight and couldn’t help needling Carter. Teammates wondered in the days after the brawl why Carter took his helmet off and exposed his noggin. Mayer joked that his friend apparently felt “he didn’t have anything to lose.”

Carter countered by saying via email “my noggin was already sore from blocking for Mayer—something he never did for me!”

Bert Blyleven, 67, announced on Twitter this week he will work a reduced Twins broadcast schedule in coming years—50 games as a Fox Sports North analyst in 2019 and 30 in 2020.

Max Johnson from Lakeville and Bowling Green State University is the Hockey Commissioners Association National Player of the Month . The 5-10, 183-pound forward tied for the NCAA scoring lead with 13 points in October, helping the WCHA’s Falcons go from unranked in preseason polls to No. 9 nationally following a 5-1-1 opening month.

It looks like a “make or break” season for the Wild’s Charlie Coyle, a hockey industry source told Sports Headliners. Coyle, now 26, is in his sixth season with the Wild and this fall has two goals and four assists in 12 games. He is talented enough to score 25 to 30 goals for a Minnesota team that needs scoring, per the source.

Mark Madsen, in town earlier this week as an assistant coach with the Lakers, played for the Timberwolves from 2003-2009. The good-natured Madsen was one of the worst players but best human beings in franchise history dating back to 1989.

Happy birthday to Star Tribune sports columnist Michael Rand, a Grand Forks, North Dakota native who turned 42 on Tuesday.

It will be interesting to see who WCCO TV chooses to replace Mark Rosen next spring. Broadcast companies don’t pay as much compensation for news and sports anchors as in the past. The new person at WCCO might negotiate a deal north of $150,000 annually.

 

Golden Gophers ‘Love Being Underdogs’

October 31, 2018 - (0) comments

 

Expectations among national media aren’t that optimistic for the Golden Gophers basketball team that plays a home exhibition game tomorrow night against Minnesota Duluth and then opens the nonconference schedule November 6 with a Williams Arena matchup versus Omaha.

Injuries and the suspension of senior center Reggie Lynch wrecked a potential top 20 ranked finish last winter. After a promising start, Minnesota ended 15-17 overall, 4-14 in Big Ten regular season games. The lingering disappointment of last season is apparently enough to darken the view by national media about the 2019 Gophers, with some predictors seeing a mediocre record ahead and no NCAA Tournament invitation.

Redshirt sophomore center Eric Curry countered that view. “We love being underdogs,” he said.

“Our goal is to win the Big Ten championship,” said sophomore point guard Isaiah Washington. “It’s nothing less than that.”

Michigan State, as usual, is the Big Ten favorite but Curry said his team isn’t intimidated by the Spartans. He believes the Gophers can make a “huge run in the (NCAA) Tournament.”

Minnesota coach Richard Pitino likes his team, too. Among reasons for his optimism is the roster’s versatility. He said redshirt senior center Matz Stockman is the only Gopher who can’t play multiple positions.

Coffey photo courtesy of Minnesota Athletic Communications

Junior Amir Coffey, who at 6-foot-8 appears to be emerging as the club’s starting point guard, can play three positions. A small forward and shooting guard in the past, Coffey has been impressing—even wowing—teammates in practice.

“He’s been amazing,” Curry said. “So unique that he can play three spots.”

Pitino, Curry and other Gophers talked to the media on Sunday. Then it was announced Monday Curry had surgery on his left knee, the same knee that caused him to miss all of last season following a more complicated surgical procedure. Expectations are it will be four to six weeks before he plays again.

Curry missed Sunday’s scrimmage open to the public because of swelling in the knee. Any long-term absence will not be good for the Gophers because he is a versatile scorer and passer, playing either center or power forward.

Pitino included defense when talking about Curry, explaining that the 6-foot-9 Curry does subtle things that are important. “We’re a much better team when Eric is healthy,” the coach said.

Curry said that in practices the top five players had been him, Coffey, senior forward Jordan Murphy, and senior Dupree McBrayer and freshman Gabe Kalscheur, who are shooting guards or wings in Pitino’s offense. Others who will play significant minutes include freshmen front courters Jarvis Omersa and Daniel Oturu, combo guard Brock Stull and Washington.

There’s proven talent in the group including with Coffey and Jordan who are on a short list of potential All-Big Ten players. By high school reputation there is promising talent, too, with Washington, Omersa, Oturu and Kalscheur. Oturu, who could be one of the Big Ten’s best freshmen, will have more opportunity early now with Curry sidelined. Oturu, 6-foot-10, has the potential to impact games on offense and defense while playing center.

The talent and depth could expand in the next couple of weeks if the Gophers receive a favorable waiver from the NCAA on combo guard Marcus Carr’s eligibility for this season. As a freshman last season at Pittsburgh he led the team in assists and steals, and at 10 points per game ranked third in scoring average. He and the Gophers are asking for eligibility this season, instead of having to sit out a year.

“Marcus plays like a veteran,” Pitino said. “He’s a fantastic competitor. He’s a special player.”

The Gophers’ backcourt depth might have taken a blow if rumors had proven true that Washington wanted to transfer after an up and down freshman season. The flashy point guard from New York City, who mostly came off the bench last season, denied the rumors were true.

“Oh, no,” he said. “I am just going to stay because I love the area, and I don’t think I got time to sit out a whole year and just waste time, so I’d rather just stay here and finish the job.”

Washington said he’s wanted to play in the NBA since he touched a basketball as a two year old and watched a game on TV. The fact is he is more entertaining than many players already in the pro league but he needs to be steadier in his play. “My biggest thing is improving on the defensive end,” he said.

The Gophers could prove talented, versatile, deep and even flashy this season with highlight reel plays by Washington, Coffey and others. If so, the wins will follow and so will the crowds at Williams Arena. The noisy and even intimidating home court advantage the Gophers have isn’t lost on the players.

“Oh, yeah, I see it coming,” said Omersa. “They’re going to come and watch.”

 

Birthday Raves for Vikings DE Hunter

October 29, 2018 - (0) comments

 

Enjoy a Monday notes column on Vikings, Gophers and NBA newsmakers.

Vikings defensive end Danielle Hunter turns 24 today and he is already a star. Teammate and safety Harrison Smith told Sports Headliners: “I mean that’s even better, how young he is—how much football he has ahead of him.”

An insider with the Vikings organization didn’t want his name printed but raved about Hunter who is the fifth player in NFL history to have 31 sacks before turning 24. The insider believes Hunter’s “potential is through the roof.”

Hunter was only 20 years old when the Vikings selected him in the third round of the 2015 NFL Draft. By the 2016 season he became the youngest player in Vikings franchise history to lead the team in sacks, coming up with 12.5. That total was the most by any NFL defensive end, and third highest in the league.

Hunter continues to improve and the Vikings continue to appreciate him, with the source above even referring to his Hall of Fame potential.  And Smith added more praise,“Yeah, I mean he’s just constantly getting better, and he’s making the…plays for us.”

Through the schedule’s first seven games the Jamaican-born Hunter was the only player in the NFL to record at least a half sack in each game. He is tied for second in league sacks with eight.

Vikings wide receiver Adam Thielen, who has ascended from a practice team player to a potential NFL MVP candidate, remains humble and well-liked by teammates, including tight end Kyle Rudolph who was joking about the Detroit Lakes native a few days ago.

“The only thing (change) that I’ve really noticed is he’s got a much more expensive backpack now,” Rudolph said. “He had kind of a cheap backpack and now he’s got a nice little compact backpack.”

Thielen’s contract reportedly runs through 2020 and pays him $19,246,000, according to Spotrac.com. With his record setting season and weekly heroics, that is a one-sided deal for the Vikings. But Thielen said last week no revised contract talks are being discussed now, or planned for after the season.

Vikings wide receiver Chad Beebe was an undrafted free agent this year, the same status Thielen had in 2013. Beebe told Sports Headliners he’s learned about improving his skills from being around Thielen and the veteran’s success story has motivated him.

“So I’ve appreciated him a ton,” Beebe said. “Being able to look at his story inspired me.”

That was Vikings general manager Rick Spielman at Friday night’s Minnesota-Indiana game, perhaps to watch Hoosiers senior safety Jonathan Crawford and Gophers offensive tackle Donnell Greene.

Former Viking Adrian Peterson had 149 rushing yards and scored two touchdowns in the Redskins’ 20-13 win yesterday over the Giants. Peterson, at 33 years and 221 days old on Sunday, was the oldest player in NFL history to have at least 100 rushing yards and both a rushing and receiving touchdown in a single game.

Minnesota quarterback Tanner Morgan, who threw for 302 yards and three touchdowns in the win over Indiana, was named the Big Ten’s Co-Freshman of the Week today along with Michigan State quarterback Rocky Lombardi.

Ryan Burns

Ryan Burns, the recruiting authority from GopherIllustrated.com, told Sports Headliners Minnesota is likely to make the recruiting of junior college defensive backs a priority for its remaining class of 2019 scholarships. That might mean both a safety and a cornerback.

During an interview Burns contacted Jason Clark, father of prep quarterback Jacob Clark, to check on a rumor that his son was being targeted to flip his commitment from Minnesota. Not true, Jason quickly answered.

The 6-5 quarterback from Rockwall, Texas is expected to enroll at Minnesota in January. Burns said it could be likely that Clark will be elevated from a three-star ranking to four by the time he joins the Gophers.

Although the Gophers ended a four-game 2018 Big Ten losing streak Friday night, the lack of wins hasn’t negatively impacted, according to Burns. The 2019 class is ranked No. 32 nationally in the team rankings by 247Sports.

Josh Richardson, reportedly part of the proposed trade deal between the Heat and Timberwolves that Minnesota rejected, is averaging only about three points per game fewer than Jimmy Butler (20.6) and is four years younger.

LeBron James, in town tonight with the Lakers to play the Timberwolves, made his NBA debut 15 years ago on this date, October 29, 2003.

It was the last Sundays in October that the Twins won their two World Series titles. October 25, 1987 and October 27, 1991 they won Game Sevens at the Metrodome.

 

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