Enjoy a Friday notes column.
If you ask Bob Lurtsema, the Vikings are “almost a no-brainer” to be back in the playoffs next year. The former Viking defensive lineman, who sits in the press box for home games and remains close to his beloved franchise, wasn’t happy with the results of last Sunday’s loss to the Bears, and a 8-7-1 record that wasn’t good enough to qualify for the postseason, but he told Sports Headliners things will be better in 2019 if management keeps its core players in place.
Lurtsema’s optimism focuses on quarterback Kirk Cousins, who in 2019 will be in his second season with the club and will have more familiarity with receivers. Lurtsema is still confused as to why the franchise’s decision makers turned away from quarterback Case Keenum who was on “the same page” as his receivers and was a huge contributor in helping the Vikings to a 13-3 record in 2017. Nevertheless, he admires Cousins, too, describing him as a “very, very good quarterback.”
“They will be back (in the playoffs) if they don’t make a lot of changes because it’s a passing league, and Cousins has a tremendous work ethic and is respected by teammates,” Lurtsema said.
Put Lurtsema in the same category as so many fans that the enough effort from the Vikings in the fourth quarter of Sunday’s 24-10 loss to the Bears who dethroned Minnesota as NFC North Division champions. He described himself as a poor loser and he saw an absence of intensity from both the offense and defense including late in the game when the Vikings trailed only 13-10.
Any subpar effort in such a big game is on both the players and coaches. Difficult to understand but head coach Mike Zimmer did offer some insights at his news conference yesterday.
Zimmer said his previous Vikings teams had a nasty attitude that included the approach they were going to win regardless of circumstances or situations. He commented to organization insiders during the season that the 2018 group had a different “vibe.”
“…I can’t figure out why, because we have a lot of the same guys back,” Zimmer said. “We have good football players. I wasn’t really different than I normally am. But for some reason, we didn’t finish the games like we’d finished before. I don’t know why. We had the lead in a bunch of games last year that we finished, and this year we were playing catch up more so, so I don’t know if that’s it or not. But we’re going to get that mentality back, I can promise you that.”
A lot of fans want ownership to dismiss Zimmer and general manager Rick Spielman, but both are good at what they do. Zimmer has to develop a better working relationship with whoever his offensive coordinator is going to be and allow that leader a lot of authority. Spielman must solve the personnel problems on the offensive line, particularly at the guard positions.
Could the Wilf ownership group find football leaders better than Zimmer and Spielman? Sure but it is a big IF and apparently not a direction the Wilfs want to pursue yet.
This could be an opportune time for Vikings fans to take a deep breath and reconsider how difficult it is to win in the 32-team NFL where the draft and other rules dictate parity. It’s an extremely competitive industry filled with talented decision makers trying to put their team among the league’s elite.
Sports Illustrated’s December 31 issue included an eight page feature on the Vikings with details about Spielman’s superstitious routine on home game days. He wakes up at 5 a.m., takes his dogs for a walk and eats the same breakfast sandwich (egg, bacon and peanut butter), according to the story. He shaves the left side of his face first, and puts his socks and shoes on before his pants. He also drives the same route to U.S. Bank Stadium including buying gas at the same station and ending his purchase on a zero.
Lurtsema said “stats maybe for losers” but the goals of NFL defenses include holding opponents under 100 yards rushing and less than 150 yards passing. The Bears rushed for 169 yards and held the Vikings to 63. Chicago had 163 yards passing, while limiting the Vikings to 132.
Among free agent signings the Vikings announced this week was running back Roc Thomas, a rookie with the club in 2018 who was on the active roster for nine weeks. His signing could be an indication veteran running back and 2019 free agent Latavius Murray won’t be back with the team.
Sue Platou, who passed away late last month, had a popular sportscast segment decades ago on WCCO TV when appearing as “Bronco” she predicted the outcome of Vikings and Golden Gophers football games. Her first husband was 1956 and 1957 University of Minnesota quarterback Bobby Cox, who is the only Gophers football player ever to be on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
More in next Monday’s column on attending last night’s upset Gophers win against Wisconsin in Madison including Badgers fans booing and leaving the Kohl Center when the game was still undecided.
USA Today reported in yesterday’s issue that NFL TV ratings were up eight percent over 2017 for games on CBS, NBC and ESPN. Fox was up four percent.
“Mean” Gene Okerlund passed away last week and was known to much of the nation’s pro wrestling fans for his TV interviews of WEE performers but he got his start with the Minneapolis-based AWA and Verne Gagne. Gene’s friend and former wrestler Jim Brunzell emailed that Okerlund had three kidney transplants prior to his passing.
Phil Esten, the former Gophers athletic department executive most recently at Penn State, starts his new job as athletics director at St. Thomas on January 14.
Monday is the last day to make reservations for next Thursday’s CORES lunch program at the Bloomington Event Center, 1114 American Blvd. Mike Max, one of the best radio-TV sports journalists in town, will be the speaker. For reservations and other information, contact Jim Dotseth, email@example.com.
The Minnesota Wild are among the promoters involved with the 6th Annual USA Hockey Blind Hockey Summit scheduled August 23-25 at the TRIA Rink at Treasure Island Center in St. Paul. There are approximately 150 blind hockey players in the United States, including in Minnesota. All players are legally blind, with some having no vision. The event next August will include games for participants of various sizes and skill levels, plus a coaching clinic, a “try-it” session for local newcomers and a community banquet.
The Minnesota Football Coaches Association reports exceeding the 2018 Tackle Cancer fundraising goal of $325,000 with a total of $340,000. In seven years the MFCA has raised over $1.6 million.
Jim Dutcher told Sports Headliners on Monday that coach Richard Pitino’s Golden Gophers will finish fourth in the Big Ten standings this winter. Dutcher, Minnesota’s Big Ten championship basketball coach in 1982, also predicted the Gophers will defeat Wisconsin tomorrow night in Madison on the way to earning an invitation in March to the NCAA Tournament.
Dutcher, who coached some of the best teams in Gopher history, believes Michigan, Michigan State and Indiana are the top three programs in a loaded Big Ten that this week has seven teams ranked in the Associated Press and USA Today top 25 national polls. Minnesota, 11-2, isn’t one of those ranked teams yet but Dutcher likes the potential of Pitino’s group.
The Gophers’ physical size is one of the team’s attributes and their rotation of lengthy bodies got a boost this week with the return of injured power forward Eric Curry. He adds size, depth, experience and skill to a group that includes Daniel Oturu, Matz Stockman, Jordan Murphy and Amir Coffey.
Dutcher refers to Murphy and Coffey as potential all-conference players who can lead Minnesota back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in two years. As of Monday, Murphy was leading the nation in rebounding at 12.6 per game. The senior forward is eighth in Big Ten career rebounds with 1,065. He is also Minnesota’s leading scorer.
As a three-position player at point guard, shooting guard and small forward, Coffey can defend, pass, dribble and score inside and outside. Dutcher considers the Minnesota junior as “probably the most versatile player in the conference.”
While Murphy is consistent in his play, Coffey needs to be steadier. Dutcher and others want to see more of the performance Coffey had in a December Big Ten win over Nebraska, 85-78. Coffey scored 32 points, with six rebounds and six assists against the Cornhuskers. Dutcher said the 6-foot-8 former Hopkins star “almost single handedly won” the game for Minnesota.
A front line of Coffey, Murphy and Otru is a strength for a Gophers team that some experts don’t rate as highly as Dutcher. Guard play beyond Coffey is a bit suspect, although Dutcher and others like the accurate long range shooting of freshman Gabe Kalscheur. The two guards that Dutcher said need to come through are senior Dupree McBrayer and sophomore Isaiah Washington.
McBrayer usually starts games, with Washington playing significant minutes off the bench. When McBrayer is on the floor, the team often defers to Coffey as its point guard or playmaker. McBrayer and Washington have struggled to score this season, making 41 and 27.6 percent of their field goals. On three-point shots their percentages are .29.3 and 13.8.
“I think if there’s a question mark on this team it is the ability to make the three and ability to defend the three,” Dutcher said. “That’s where they gotta get better.”
(Minnesota’s team three point percentage is 30.6, while opponents are making 35.3 percent.)
Washington has impressed with his playmaking including assists. He leads the team with 53 and has been at his best in recent games.
Minnesota is 1-1 in Big Ten games, while the Badgers are 2-0 and 10-3 overall. The Badgers are ranked No. 22 the AP poll and No. 23 by USA Today.
Dutcher doesn’t hesitate when predicting a Minnesota win. “They should beat Wisconsin,” he said. “Wisconsin maybe overrated.”
The Badgers are led by senior center Ethan Happ, who is one of most productive players in the country. He is averaging 19.2 points per game, 10.7 rebounds and 4.9 assists.
The Badgers, though, may not have as much talent as Minnesota. “We’re a lot deeper than Wisconsin and we should give them some real problems guarding us on the inside if we can get Happ in a little foul trouble,” Dutcher said.
WCCO Radio and TV sports personality Mike Max speaks to the CORES lunch group January 10 at the Bloomington Event Center (formerly the Knights of Columbus building), 1114 American Blvd. For reservations and other information, contact Jim Dotseth by next Monday, firstname.lastname@example.org. CORES is an acronym for coaches, officials, reporters, educators and sports fans.
The Gopher volleyball team hasn’t seen the last of Oregon, the team that ended Minnesota’s season in the NCAA Tournament in early December in Minneapolis. Coach Hugh McCutcheon told Sports Headliners his Gophers will face the Ducks in 2019 as part of the Big Ten/Pac-12 Challenge.
McCutcheon will have 15 of 18 players returning from his Big Ten champions who were 27-4 overall last year. That’s the most returnees he has had in his seven seasons as Gophers coach.
Twins personnel boss Derek Falvey talking on Sunday’s WCCO Radio “Sports Huddle” program didn’t hesitate in referring to his starting outfield positions being set for 2019 with Eddie Rosario in left, Byron Buxton in center and Max Kepler in right.
Joe Haeg, the Brainerd native who is a starting offensive tackle for the Colts, was available to the Vikings in the 2016 draft but the club past on him in the fifth round after choosing offensive lineman Willie Beavers from Western Michigan in the fourth round. Haeg was an All-American at North Dakota State and is expected to start for the Colts in their playoff game against the Titans Saturday. Beavers is no longer with the Vikings.
Haeg played in the 2011 Minnesota High School All-Star Football Game with C.J. Ham and Brandon Zylstra, both of whom are now with the Vikings. Haeg was a major contributor to the 2010 Brainerd team that upset Eden Prairie in the state high school playoffs.
Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, son of the former Twins pitcher by the same name, threw his 50th touchdown pass of the season on Sunday. He joins Tom Brady (50 in 2007) and Peyton Manning (55 in 2013) as the only NFL quarterbacks ever to throw 50 or more TD passes in a single season.
That was Cretin-Derham Hall alum Jashon Cornell making plays on the defensive line for Ohio State in yesterday’s Rose Bowl win over Washington.
What does the Vikings ownership do now with their football leadership?
Does the Wilf family even think about changing head coaches and/or general managers?
Zygi Wilf’s stated goal is a Super Bowl and before the 2018 season started the Vikings were among the NFL favorites to play in the big game next February. Yesterday the Vikings finished one of the most frustrating seasons in franchise history when they didn’t qualify for the playoffs and earn the opportunity to play in Super Bowl 53.
In five seasons as head coach Mike Zimmer has a 47-32-1 record. His clubs have won two NFC North Division championships. The Vikings reached the NFC title game about a year ago. That’s a better resume than a lot of franchises achieve over a five-year period.
Zygi Wilf has long been an admirer of former NFL coach Bill Parcells who also happens to be close with Zimmer. The Parcells influence reportedly was a factor in Zygi wanting Zimmer to be the coach. It might be difficult for the Wilfs to be emotionally invested in Zimmer and now consider parting ways.
Zimmer has mostly fulfilled expectations as a defensive coaching authority. There have been times when his units were among the NFL’s best. There have also been big moments like the NFC title game against the Eagles in January of 2018 when the defense didn’t show up in a 38-7 loss.
And late in yesterday’s game Minnesota needed to defeat the Bears to make the playoffs but the defense was subpar. Never was this more evident than in the fourth quarter when the Vikings trailed by three points, 13-10, but couldn’t stop the Bears from driving for a long touchdown and making a two-point conversion.
The Vikings haven’t found sustained offensive success during the Zimmer-Spielman partnership. The last few years have been a revolving door of offensive coordinators and quarterbacks. This season (8-7-1 final record) ended with an offense that lacked identity and productivity, and played a major role in the club defeating just one team with a winning record at the time the Vikings played them.
Spielman, who has been involved with player personnel decisions for the Vikings for 13 seasons, has struggled to put together an offensive line that is consistently successful. This season’s version played mostly mediocre football and sometimes awful like yesterday when the Bears just pushed Minnesota’s offensive linemen around on too many plays.
It was Spielman and Zimmer who decided spending a guaranteed $84 million last offseason on quarterback Kirk Cousins was a next step to a Super Bowl. Perhaps it will work out but so far Cousins, who often appears too deliberate in processing while in the pocket, has only added to his reputation of not being able to defeat winning teams (4-25 record).
Spielman has made many correct personnel moves over the years including draft choices like wide receiver Stefon Diggs, running back Dalvin Cook, tight end Kyle Rudolph, defensive ends Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter, and safety Harrison Smith. He has helped shape the franchise with free agent signings like defensive tackles Linval Joseph and Sheldon Richardson. He has also enhanced his roster with hard to find talent among undrafted college free agents (cue the music for wide receiver Adam Thielen).
Spielman is a high character guy who presumably has a solid track record of communications with the Wilfs. It’s hard not to like Spielman who counting his time with other NFL clubs has nearly 30 years of experience in player personnel work.
Since the Wilfs began operating the franchise in 2005, the value has increased dramatically. Zimmer and Spielman have played a major role in that monetary gain with Forbes now valuing the franchise at $2.4 billion. The Vikings, for whatever their season records, have been mostly entertaining and so popular in the state that no other sports entity is even worth mentioning in the same breath.
Yet during the Wilf era the team has won just two playoff games. Twice the Vikings have advanced to the NFC title game but didn’t advance to the Super Bowl. During the last five years the Vikings have missed the playoffs three times, with 2018 particularly frustrating and at times chaotic.
If the Wilfs were to change their football leadership, who would they turn to? There are many individuals who would love the opportunity to lead the franchise but the Wilfs know what they have in Zimmer and Spielman. Is that good enough for them?
Fox TV analyst Troy Aikman talking yesterday about the Bears-Vikings game: “It will be a long offseason for Kirk Cousins and company.”
If Gophers junior wide receiver Tyler Johnson wants to apply for the 2019 NFL Draft, he and other underclassmen must do so by January 14. The draft is April 25-27 in Nashville.
Look for the Vikings to continue their interest in hosting a future draft.
The late Murray Warmath, the Gophers’ 1960 national championship football coach, would have been 106 years old last Wednesday. Former players remembered the coach’s influence on their lives in email exchanges.
The Twins have one of the five most improved farm systems in baseball, according to a Mlb.com story last Thursday by Jim Callis. He wrote that shortstop Royce Lewis and outfielder Alex Kirilloff “rank among the most elite prospects in the game.”
St. Thomas Academy running back Brendan McFadden, the Pioneer Press East Metro Player of the Year, has a preferred walk-on offer from Rice where 2017 Minnesota Mr. Football award winner Antonio Montero (Eden Prairie) is on the roster. Ivy League schools are also recruiting McFadden.
Linebacker Luke Herzog, also from St. Thomas Academy, will be a preferred walk-on at North Dakota.
The University of St. Thomas football team, 8-2 last season, was ranked No. 15 nationally by D3Football.com in its final poll. That’s the 10th consecutive year the Tommies have finished among the top 20 teams in the website’s final poll. Only two other Division III programs have accomplished that, Mount Union and Mary Hardin-Baylor.
Hill-Murray alum Jake Guentzel, the Penguins forward in town Monday night to play the Wild, has reason to celebrate the New Year. The 24-year-old recently signed a $30 million, five-year contract extension. Guentzel is in his third season with the Penguins and is on track for a career season in goals, assists and points.
Former Wild forward and Virginia, Minnesota native Matt Cullen, 42, has recently returned from the injured reserve list and is a valued leader on the Penguins.
Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor talking yesterday on WCCO Radio’s “Sports Huddle” show regarding a potential trade to help his inconsistent team: “I don’t see anything that is going to help in the near future.”
The Mount St. Mary’s men’s basketball team the Gophers defeated yesterday, 71-53, is 3-10 on the season, and has played one other Big Ten team, losing to Maryland, 92-77.