Thursday, Oct. 18, 2018


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Rattle QB Rodgers? Yes, It’s Possible

September 14, 2018 - (0) comments

 

Aaron Rodgers is the master of the fourth quarter miracle. The Packers quarterback has led so many comebacks that Sbnation.com wrote an article this week about 11 of them just against the Bears and Lions.

The story was prompted by last Sunday night’s mythmaking rally against the Bears in Green Bay’s opening game of the season. A national NBC television audience watched a gimpy Rodgers, unable to put much weight on his left knee, lead the Packers to a 24-23 win, after the Bears had built a 20-0 early second half lead.

Since 2008 Rodgers has shown a flair for the dramatic, sometimes even the impossible. Former Vikings linebacker Ben Leber watched Sunday’s game with a feeling that when the Bears had a cushy lead it wasn’t going to last.

Leber told Sports Headliners this week that he probably would choose Rodgers over anyone else to lead a comeback if his team was in a bad spot. “He has an uncanny way of finding throws and finding seams,” Leber said.

Mike Zimmer

Rodgers played with a left knee sprain and it affected his mobility. Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer could see that as he watched tape this week of the game. “He didn’t move quite as well, but he did move and make some throws,” Zimmer said. “He didn’t really get outside the pocket after that. The guy is incredible. He makes every throw, gets the ball out quick, sees pressure. …”

Even hobbling around on one solid leg Rodgers may have been better than any other quarterback in the NFL. His arm strength is reminiscent of former Packers and Vikings legend Brett Favre.

“He’s learned how to manage a game and throw balls down the field even just throwing off one foot—whether it’s his back foot or a front foot,” Leber said. “If he didn’t have that arm strength, he would not have been as effective with that bad knee.”

The Packers have been coy this week about whether that injured left knee will keep the quarterback sidelined when the Vikings play at Green Bay on Sunday. Today official word will come whether he is “okay, questionable, doubtful or out” for the game between the two clubs who are the most likely to win the four-team NFC North Division title that also includes the Bears and Lions.

The news could cast a pall over Packer Nation. If Rodgers can’t play, the Packers would be at a huge disadvantage against the Vikings, who are superior to Green Bay in just about every way except at quarterback. Football is the ultimate team game but the Rodgers-led Packers are kind of a one-man band.

Even if Rodgers can play, there has to be concern in America’s Dairyland and all over Packer Nation. Their hero will be 35 in December and he is looking more vulnerable. In an early season game last year against the Vikings, Rodgers broke his collarbone on an infamous play. He missed most of the year and his absence ruined the Packers’ chances of being a playoff team.

This year Rodgers is hurt again. What if he plays this Sunday but takes an early blow to his knee? Can he withstand that? Rodgers is all about guts and courage but his mobility is a prime asset in his skillset.

Leber said even a healthy Rodgers is not an impossible assignment for the Vikings who have won four of the last five games against Green Bay. He suggested if the Vikings do things like play enough tight coverage on receivers, knock down passes and hurry throws, Rodgers can get frustrated, even rattled.

What Rodgers wants to do is hit the Vikings with long strikes down the field. The Vikings can frustrate Rodgers if he doesn’t have those opportunities. “I think that he gets antsy,” Leber said. “He wants to stay aggressive, and I don’t think he likes playing that game where he has to dink and dunk (short passes). I think he wants to sit in the pocket and throw the ball down the field.”

The formula for playing against Rodgers includes wearing him down during the game. “..I would say like every quarterback, nobody likes to get hit,” Leber said. “If you can constantly pressure him, and get him rattled—I mean he’s not immortal.

“But he is a much tougher quarterback (than most) to go against because he is a strong quarterback. He’s tough, he’s mobile. He’s extremely smart and savvy, and always thinking one step ahead.”

Zimmer is among the sharpest defensive strategists in the NFL but don’t expect him to create some grand design for Rodgers that will confuse the quarterback. Leber played 10 seasons in the NFL and he knows his X’s and O’s, too. “…As far as coverages go, and schemes, no, there is really nothing that he (Rodgers) hasn’t seen. It just comes down to his offensive line executing and giving him the time to throw.

“But I don’t think you’re going to go into a game ever thinking, ‘Hey, we’ve got something so cool and so creative that it’s just going to blow his socks off and he’s not going to know what to do.’ ”

How Rodgers plays Sunday—if he does—will have a lot to do with his supporting cast, of course. During the offseason the Packers released wide receiver Jordy Nelson, a longtime Rodgers favorite. Leber thinks the move results in a “dip in talent” for the receiver roster because Nelson was so effective in finding openings to catch passes from Rodgers. Leber likes the group of running backs and wants to see more of the offensive line before making evaluations.

Against the Bears the Green Bay offensive line struggled to contain star Chicago pass rusher Khalil Mack. When the Vikings come to town Rodgers and his protectors will have to contend with a defense that could be the NFL’s best. Minnesota has playmakers in every position including bring-the-pressure defensive ends Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter.

Even against the mythmaker Rodgers, Leber forecasts a Vikings win on Sunday, 24-20.

 

Twins to Explore Free Agent Market

September 12, 2018 - (0) comments

 

Enjoy a Wednesday notes column on baseball, basketball, football, sports wagering and tennis.

Twins president Dave St. Peter said the club will look at the free agent market this offseason, but that won’t be the main path for improving a team that had Central Division title ambitions last spring but is 12 games under .500 with the schedule ending September 30.

St. Peter said in an interview with Sports Headliners this summer that the roster core in the future will be comprised of players with the club now and in the farm system. He expressed confidence in the personnel already under the franchise’s contractual control.

Although the results and impact weren’t significant from the club’s free agent shopping last winter, St. Peter termed the efforts “aggressive.” He also debunked speculation that for whatever reasons free agents aren’t interested in coming to the state and playing for the Twins.

“I don’t think there is anything that detracts free agents from wanting to come to Minnesota,” St. Peter said. “I think that’s a fallacy. I don’t think it’s accurate. We haven’t played significantly in that space (pursuing free agents) so there really isn’t a lot of track record.

“I can assure you this past offseason we spent a lot of time talking to some very prominent free agents and they were all very willing to come to Minnesota. Normally, it comes down to dollars. That’s ultimately the driver.”

A remarkable half century association with St. Thomas ends next spring when Tommies athletics director Steve Fritz retires. Fritz will end an affiliation of 52 consecutive years with the school that began with being a student-athlete in basketball. He has known various roles at St. Thomas including coaching the men’s basketball team to the 2011 Division III national championship.

St. Paul Saints owner Mike Veeck has his team in the finals of the American Association playoffs against the Kansas City T-Bones. This could be the Saints’ first league playoff championship since 2004. The Kansas City, Kansas based T-Bones were originally the Duluth-Superior Dukes.

Veeck told Sports Headliners yesterday morning he was evacuating his home in Charleston, South Carolina and was headed to Florida because of hurricane Florence.

Before Joe Mauer came to the plate last night with the bases loaded, the Target Field public address system played the theme song from the Rocky movie, “Gonna Fly Now.” Mauer responded with a 416-foot home run to center field and later came out of the dugout for a curtain call. After the sixth inning blast, the Twins went on to defeat the Yankees 10-5, ending an eight game losing streak to New York.

The Vikings’ Mike Zimmer after being asked if he ever feels like he has the wind at his back while coaching in the NFL. “No, I always got the wind in my face. …”

P.J. Fleck

When Mark Coyle was the athletic director at Syracuse he was interested in P.J. Fleck. Coyle was looking for a new head football coach in the fall of 2015 and Fleck was among recommended potential candidates. Fleck was coaching at Western Michigan and Coyle told Sports Headliners that people he trusted suggested contacting the young head coach who was gaining national attention.

Coyle said the two had a brief conversation because Fleck let it be known that coaching in the Big Ten was his dream and he didn’t want to pursue the Syracuse opening that ultimately was filled by Dino Babers. Coyle described the talk as a “really good conversation” and appreciated Fleck’s honesty and career ambitions.

The Broncos’ record was 8-5 in 2015 and then 13-1 the next season. That near undefeated 2016 season certainly got Coyle’s attention and on January 6, 2017 the then 36-year-old Fleck was named Minnesota’s head coach.

If there was a negative about the Gophers’ quality win against Fresno State last Saturday night, it was the home attendance at TCF Bank Stadium. The announced attendance of 38,280 was the lowest for a nonconference game in stadium history. It was also the second smallest crowd since the stadium opened in 2009.

Minnesota had an announced crowd of 41,291 for its first game of the season. That was on a Thursday night instead of a Saturday evening like the Fresno State game. The weekend night figured to pull more customers and so, too, did the opponent because Fresno is much better than New Mexico State who the Gophers opened against on August 30.

The Gophers, 2-0 going into Saturday’s home game against Miami of Ohio, have a number of intriguing freshmen and sophomores. Because Blaise Andries plays in the interior offensive line, he is more difficult to observe than many of the other young players but the redshirt freshman guard from Marshall, Minnesoa has caught Fleck’s attention. The coach refers to the 6-5, 315 pound Andries as someone who is “going to be a really great player.”

Part of Andries’ skillset is his intelligence. Fleck said, “He’s going to be an actuary, right. Remember, I didn’t even know what an actuary even was, and he wants to be that.”

Fleck believes Andries could eventually be moved to tackle. That switch would partially be determined by where he is needed as Minnesota also has promising young offensive linemen like true freshmen Curtis Dunlap Jr. and Daniel Faalale.

Former Gophers football player Kim Royston was named athletics director at Southwest High School in Minneapolis earlier this summer. The city school system might be close to naming a replacement for ex-Gopher basketballer Trent Tucker who resigned last winter as AD for all the public high schools in Minneapolis.

Former Gopher football captain Jim Carter is grateful for all the get well wishes this week after being hospitalized and receiving two angiogram procedures. He suffered a heart attack last Saturday with one of his arteries being 90 percent blocked. Now recovering, he texted yesterday that the response from people “has been humbling and somewhat overwhelming!”

Vikings safety Harrison Smith was named NFC Defensive Player of the Week today.  In Minnesota’s opening win against the 49ers Sunday he had eight tackles, one interception and one fumble recovery.  Smith could become a finalist for NFL Defensive Player of the Year.

Gopher basketball coach Richard Pitino said on WCCO Radio’s “Sports Huddle” show Sunday he is still waiting word from the NCAA whether Pittsburgh transfer and guard Marcus Carr will be eligible this fall. Carr averaged 10 points and four assists as a freshman last season at Pittsburgh.

Playing tennis added an average of 9.7 years to a person’s life, according to a Danish study reported last week by the Dailymail.com.

Shelley Buck, tribal council president for the Prairie Island Indian Community that owns Treasure Island Resort & Casino, said on a recent segment of TV’s “Behind the Game” that legalized sports betting won’t be as profitable for operators as other forms of gambling already in place. She also said casinos like Treasure Island have the experience and infrastructure to handle sports betting if and when it is approved in Minnesota.

A pro football source predicted to Sports Headliners that the approval of legalized sports betting in Minnesota is only a couple of years off.

 

Kirk Cousins Can End QB Carousel

September 10, 2018 - (0) comments

 

In his debut game Kirk Cousins justified ownership’s investment in him, and the $84 million quarterback set expectations he can lead the Vikings offense at a high level for years to come.

Cousins completed 20 of 36 passes in Minnesota’s 24-16 opening game win over the 49ers yesterday at U.S. Bank Stadium. He threw touchdown passes to Stefon Diggs and Kyle Rudolph in a game the Vikings seemed to control most of the time.

Showing a powerful arm, he even side-armed a completion while being hit. But he also threw the ball with finesse when needed. Not known for his running, he was mobile enough to avoid defenders yesterday. He was also tough enough to put his head down and dive for an attempted first down late in the game. No sliding to avoid tacklers and possible injury.

Although Cousins was ruled inches short of gaining a first down, he received the approval of Mike Zimmer after the game. The expected response might have been no way does the coach want his high-priced quarterback risking injury, but Zimmer told KFAN Radio listeners differently.

“I want him to get the first down,” Zimmer said. “That’s how our team plays. If he gets it there, we have a chance to run out the clock and win the football game.”

Cousins was a grinder both passing and running against the 49ers including 26 yards carrying the ball. For the game he threw for 244 yards and had an impressive 95.1 passer rating.

Kirk Cousins

Now in his seventh NFL season, Cousins played his first six years with the Redskins before signing with Minnesota during the last offseason as a free agent. He is the Vikings’ seventh starting quarterback since the 2008 season. Meanwhile, Minnesota’s three rivals in the NFC North have collectively experienced a lot more stability at the most important position on the field.

Dating back to the 2008 season the Packers’ No. 1 guy each year has been Aaron Rodgers. Matthew Stafford has owned the starting job in Detroit since 2009. Even the lowly Bears have known continuity with Jay Cutler being the man from 2009-16. Since then Mitch Trubisky has the job.

Cousins’ predecessors are Gus Frerotte, 2008; Brett Favre, 2009-10; Christian Ponder, 2011-13; Ted Bridgewater, 2014-15; Sam Bradford, 2016 and Case Keenum, 2017. Favre was wonderful but couldn’t defeat old age. Frerotte and Ponder weren’t up to the opportunity. Bridgewater and Bradford were too fragile. Keenum, considered a journeyman until his impressive play last year, got snubbed by the front office during the offseason in favor of Cousins.

Despite the revolving door at quarterback the Vikings have managed to win four division titles since 2008. This is both an accomplishment and a gift from inept rivals. Rodgers, no worse than the NFL’s second best quarterback, is a load to compete against each season. The Lions and Bears, though, have been erratic and dysfunctional operations during the previous 10 years.

Since 2008 the Vikings have just two playoff wins and no conference titles. Cousins, with his $84 million three-year deal, will be expected to be a leader in changing that.

The teams he quarterbacked in Washington didn’t have big ambitions or results but he did create some impressive numbers. He had 4,093 passing yards and 27 touchdown passes with the Redskins last season. He is one of two quarterbacks (Philip Rivers is the other) with 4,000+ pass yards and 25+ touchdown passes in each of the past three seasons.

Yesterday Cousins led an offense that overall was okay. The Vikings didn’t have a lot of success running the ball, gaining 116 yards in the game. The highlight for the offensive unit beyond the debut of Cousins was the return of second-year running back Dalvin Cook who didn’t play most of last season after his ACL injury.

Cook had been used minimally in the preseason but didn’t show any “hangover” from his injury, surgery and rehabilitation. The Vikings used Cook as a receiver and runner on the first four plays of the game.

As compelling as the Cook and Cousins storylines were, as usual the defense was the foundation of the win. The 49ers tried to get the unit off balance with an imaginative approach that featured bootlegs, crossing patterns and receivers who might have been considered unlikely targets.

The 49ers also picked on rookie cornerback Mike Hughes. While they had some success, it was Hughes who came up with one of the game’s biggest plays when he ran a third quarter interception into the end zone for a 17-6 Minnesota lead.

Twice in the game San Francisco got inside the Vikings’ five-yard line. The best the 49ers could do was come up with one field goal, even though Minnesota was short-handed because of injuries in the secondary.

Cousins might have watched that defense yesterday and said a few “amen’s” of gratitude. It was a good beginning for the 30-year-old quarterback who no doubt would like nothing better than to build the kind of longevity that Rodgers, Stafford, and even Cutler, have earned in the NFC North.

 

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