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Ex-GM: Playoffs Toss Up for Vikings

October 25, 2021 - (0) comments

 

Former Vikings GM Jeff Diamond has seen enough of his old team to predict it’s 50-50 whether Minnesota makes the playoffs.

With a bye on the schedule yesterday, the Vikings sit at 3-3 with 11 games remaining starting with next Sunday night’s game against the 5-2 Cowboys. “When you look at it right now you gotta say, yeah, probably 9-8 or 8-9 is most likely. But if they got hot they could go to 10-7,” Diamond told Sports Headliners.

A St. Louis Park native, Diamond was GM of the 15-1 Vikings in 1998. After leaving the organization he became president of the Titans who played in the 2000 Super Bowl. He has more than 20-years experience as an NFL executive, and is now self-employed.

Vikings fans are focused on a key stretch of the schedule with four upcoming games against the Cowboys, Ravens, Chargers and Packers. Diamond, though, cautions the 49ers, the opponent after the Packers, are “no slouch.”

“If they can get through that 3-2, or even 2-3, I think they’ll be okay to still make a run at the playoffs,” Diamond said. “If they’re 1-4, or 0-5 (in that stretch of games), it’s going to be tough.”

It will almost certainly require a winning record for the whole season to make the playoffs.  Perhaps even 10-7.

Forecasting the outcome of games is often tricky as anyone who has ever wagered on football knows. Diamond recalled how Vikings legendary coach Bud Grant talked about the timing of when an opponent shows up on the schedule and how important that is in determining results. Whether your team, or the foe, has key players injured, weighs heavily on the outcome of games. Other factors are how teams match up physically and in scheme.

Kirk Cousins

Diamond finds plenty to like about the Vikings who he lists between 12 and 15 on his NFL power rankings. Asked what’s right about them, he first mentioned Kirk Cousins. “I think what’s right is, the quarterback is playing great. He’s playing the best he’s ever played.”

Diamond referenced the offense’s “terrific” three wide receivers including Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen. “I think K.J. Osborn is probably the surprise guy of the year on the team to me, compared to what the expectation was going into the year after his rookie season (2020),” Diamond said. “…He’s been so impactful as we’ve seen including the winning touchdown in Carolina (October 17).”

At times the offensive line has been shaky in protecting Cousins but overall the unit’s play has surpassed expectations of many close observers. Diamond likes the possibility of rookie Christian Darrisaw replacing veteran Rashod Hill at left tackle.

“I think he’s much more athletic than Rashod Hill,” Diamond said. “He’s a wider body in there. He’s harder to get around. He’s got better feet. …I think he’ll just get better, better and better.”

The Vikings drafted Darrisaw in the first round last spring and he’s a confident rookie. “I never shy away from anything,” he said. “It really doesn’t matter who you are, I’ll be ready.”

In the 2021 draft the Vikings selected guard Wyatt Davis in the third round as another potential piece to bolster the ongoing rebuild of the offensive line. Davis has yet to play but he intrigues Diamond.

“One of the things I’d like to see is can he play center, perhaps if they ultimately make the decision that (Garrett) Bradbury is not coming along as they hoped,” Diamond said.

The Vikings used their No. 1 selection on Bradbury in 2019 and his struggles are well documented. “I still have some concerns about Bradbury when he goes against some of those really tough, big, strong nose tackles…and defensive tackles,” Diamond said.

The Vikings have been mixing newcomers with returning players on defense. No doubt that has contributed to inconsistency including the unit faltering at the end of games. A bright spot is the Vikings’ ranking among the sack leaders in the NFL.

While talking about the pass rush, Diamond said the return of potential all-pro defensive end Danielle Hunter (injured last season) makes a “humongous difference.”

The other defensive end opponents sometimes must deal with is 33-year-old Everson Griffen who signed on for a second career stint with the club in August. “Everson Griffen has been a surprise with how well he’s played,” Diamond said.

Another offseason acquisition was talented veteran cornerback Patrick Peterson who will miss the next few games because he is on injured reserve. With a list of who’s who quarterbacks coming up on the immediate schedule, the timing of Peterson’s hamstring injury is unfortunate. Diamond speculated Peterson might be back for the Packers game November 21, after his replacements see gifted passers like Dak Prescott, Lamar Jackson and Justin Herbert.

Jeff Diamond

Replacements Bashaud Breeland and Cameron Dantzler have been inconsistent. Peterson’s absence also impacts cornerback depth. “That’s gotta be a big question mark,” Diamond said about the cornerback situation.

November and December look like a nail-biting time for the Vikings and their fans. There are things to fret about including kicker Greg Joseph who could end up being tasked with pressure field goals that determine whether Minnesota makes the playoffs. In the pressure department he’s been inconsistent so far.

“It’s a little bit up and down with Greg Joseph, and I think he’s still gotta be a question mark as we go forward,” Diamond said.

 

U Goal to Lead League in ‘High Fives’

October 20, 2021 - (0) comments

 

New University of Minnesota basketball coach Ben Johnson puts his team in front of a Williams Arena crowd for the first time in less than two weeks when the Golden Gophers play an exhibition game against the Golden Bears of Concordia-St. Paul.

The November 1 game will provide first impressions of a roster with two returning players from last season. That total of two comes with an asterisk. Senior redshirt forward Eric Curry, who has struggled through injuries during his college career, is back and available for limited playing time but junior forward Isaiah Ihnen is out for the 2021-2022 season with a knee injury.

This Gopher team is not only new to the fans but also to themselves. The arrival of 13 new players with different backgrounds, skill sets and personalities makes Johnson’s crew among the most transitional in the college basketball world.

This roster is loaded with players who before transferring to Dinkytown were members of mid-major and lower division college programs. The collective talent, judged by past performances, looks modest. As expected, media forecasts have Minnesota finishing last in the Big Ten standings.

For the Gophers to win games, Johnson preaches unselfishness to his players. They have to sacrifice on the court for one another. Do the little things and the most important ones to make the whole better than the parts. Be a unit that plays with a togetherness the opponent can’t match.

“We need to be a team of all teams,” Johnson said. “We need to lead the league in high fives and butt slaps.”

Johnson’s roster has eight seniors, two juniors, two sophomores and three freshmen. That maturity could result in a buy-in all season to what Johnson and his staff are teaching and asking of the players.

The coach knows his team must not only be selfless, but also imposing. “We’ve gotta be the toughest team, especially this year. We don’t have a lot of room for error. Our mental toughness, our physical toughness has got to be on point.”

If the players are to perform the way Johnson intends for them, it will help if they like one another. He said the “chemistry,” including off the court, is there. The players are bonding. “Their personalities all meshed,” he said.

Ben Johnson

Johnson and his assistants are determined to have both player and team development be core values in their program. They want to see and for fans to witness the improvement of the team and individuals.

Playing together, toughness and improvement are to be bedrocks of the new program. “When fans walk away from Williams Arena, we want them to know what Minnesota basketball is all about,” Johnson said.

Worth Noting

Johnson talking about assistant coach Dave Thorson: “He is going to have a heavy voice in what we do defensively.”

Lindy’s college basketball magazine is among the media predicting a slow start to the new Gopher basketball era. “Ben Johnson’s dream job in his hometown should come with some grace from the fans,” writes Lindsey Willhite.

Lindy’s top 100 prep seniors for the class of 2022 includes at No. 63 Gopher commit Braeden Carrington of Park Center. Other Minnesotans on the list are No. 15 Michigan State commit Tre Holloman from Cretin-Derham Hall and No. 96 Boston College commit Prince Aligbe from Minnehaha Academy.

A tweet yesterday responding to a GopherHole post that Johnson’s team isn’t ranked in the AP preseason top 25: “Also, water is wet.”

The 3-0 Wild has only nine players on its roster who were with the club at the beginning of the 2019 season, including Joel Eriksson Ek who had the winning goal last night in overtime against the Jets. GM Bill Guerin, hired before the 2019 season, has reshaped the team and apparently the culture.

Owner Craig Leipold credited the fans for the energy that helped the Wild to the 6-5 win in front of a raucous crowd.  He said that’s “the best marketing” the club could have.

Leipold on whether his team can go undefeated in the 82-game regular season: “I don’t think so.”

The Timberwolves open their season tonight at Target Center against the Rockets and it looks like two overriding elements will determine whether Minnesota can make the playoffs for only the second time since 2004. The Wolves core players have to avoid long stretches without being sidelined. Second, this team must go from being one of the NBA’s worst defensively to at least mediocre.

Set the ceiling for wins at 45.

The public will take a wait-and-see approach. “They’re tackling people to come to games,” a sports executive said Monday.

From the Nobody Asked Department but. …James Franklin will be the next head football coach at USC. Joe Brady will take over at LSU.

Vikings QB Kirk Cousins passed for 373 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions for a 112.6 rating in Sunday’s 34-28 overtime win against the Panthers. He now has 20 career games with at least 300 passing yards, three touchdown throws and a passer rating of 110-or-better. That surpasses the Packers’ Aaron Rodgers (19 games) for the most such games by a QB in his first 10 NFL seasons.

Vikings wide receiver Adam Thielen said his superb TD catch at the pylon Sunday was in the same space of the Carolina stadium end zone where he dropped a ball in 2017.

Amani Hooker, the Titans safety from Park Center, returned from the injured list to play in Monday night’s upset win over the Bills. The 2019 fourth round draft choice is considered a potential star in Nashville.

With Billy Beane and Theo Epstein reportedly turning down the opportunity to lead the Mets, have to wonder if Twins boss Derek Falvey will receive an inquiry.

Minnesota youth of the 1960s loved the Twins but many worshipped Mickey Mantle and rooted for him when the great center fielder came to Met Stadium with the Yankees. If still alive, the Mick would be 90 years old today.

Danny Olsen, a Huntington Bank communications leader, is also an assistant boys basketball coach at Eastview High School.

 

Zimmer Won’t Be Fired Any Time Soon

October 18, 2021 - (0) comments

 

Mike Zimmer has survived his critics so far. With the Vikings headed into a bye week and not playing again until October 31, the embattled head coach won’t be dismissed mid-year.

Fans, many of whom have been frustrated with Zimmer for years, are howling for his termination. Despite a two-game winning streak that has pulled the season record to 3-3, the criticism is intense mostly because Minnesota has missed the playoffs two of the last three years and continues to play conservative offense.

Only a deep run into the postseason, perhaps necessitating a trip to the Super Bowl, will pacify the large number of Zimmer critics. While the Vikings have the potential to be a playoff team, the inconsistency shown so far won’t even be enough to make the playoffs.

Ahead on the schedule are two games against the 5-1 Packers. Other 5-1 teams to contend with are the Cowboys, Ravens and Rams. Minnesota must also play the 4-2 Chargers.

A deeply disgruntled fan-base can hit the Vikings ownership hard, both financially and emotionally. Angry patrons stop buying tickets and boycott other revenue sources of the franchise. When boos fill U.S. Bank Stadium, it sends a message to ownership that customers are very unhappy.

It’s likely that inside the organization expectations were high for this season. Zimmer, now in his eighth season as Minnesota head coach, is expected to deliver a winning season and make the playoffs. It seems probable only that result will save his job.

Mike Zimmer

Owners Zygi and Mark Wilf are fans, too, but they are disciplined in their actions. They have been loyal to employees, including those who have been with the organization even longer than Zimmer. The Wilfs approved the hiring of Zimmer in 2014, know him well and are probably emotionally invested in the 65-year-old head coach. Their position regarding Zimmer’s job status is likely to give him the full season to see what the Vikings can accomplish.

Those who want a coaching change during the season are unlikely to see it.

Worth Noting

After Saturday’s win over Nebraska, Minnesota head coach P.J. Fleck is 17-8 in his last 25 games. That’s the best stretch for a Gopher coach since Glen Mason was 17-8 in 2002 and 2003.

The Bowling Green football team is 2-5 this season and has lost three straight games since its stunning upset of the Gophers who were 30 point favorites. Fleck said Saturday the game was probably his worst coaching performance since taking over at Minnesota in 2017.

As bad as the Gophers played, they almost certainly win that game if All-American running back Mo Ibrahim and best wide receiver Chris Autman-Bell are available. Best guess is the season-ending loss of Ibrahim costs Minnesota at least two wins this season.

Fleck met with his boss, athletic director Mark Coyle, after the Bowling Green debacle. The coach said he appreciated Coyle’s advice, “Time to row.”

Nebraska native Scott Frost, the embattled Cornhuskers coach now in his fourth season in Lincoln, was supposed to be the program’s savior. Awhile back his arrival generated plenty of praise including this quote from college football announcer Tim Brando: “…I believe he will be the most successful Division I coach in college football since Nick Saban was hired in Tuscaloosa.”

The Big Ten West Division winner could go to the Rose Bowl, with the East Division champ advancing to the College Football Playoff. Minnesota, at 2-0 in division games, is among the teams in the early running for the West championship.

Two seats were assigned to Rose Bowl representatives at Huntington Bank Stadium for the Nebraska-Minnesota game. Other seat assignments were for scouts of the Vikings, Seahawks and 49ers.

Nashville calling? The Gophers have been to the Music City Bowl three times and are a decent bet to end up there December 30. Last trip to that bowl was 2005.

Condolences to family and friends of Gary Reierson, who recently passed away. He was a standout in baseball and football for the Gophers in the mid-1960s. Gary had a successful career in sales and was president of the Old Timers’ Hot Stove League.

Doesn’t seem likely the Twins will want to re-sign Nelson Cruz despite management’s appreciation of his hitting production and leadership before dealing him last summer to the Rays. As a free agent this offseason he might command a $10 million deal and the budget conscious Twins have sustained serious financial losses the last two seasons.

Money is better spent on starting pitching. On paper right now that unit looks like the stuff of an expansion team.

Maybe new Timberwolves owner Alex Rodriguez, whose voice is heard on Fox’s national baseball games, can use his influence to help the Twins land in a future Field of Dreams game. A Twins-Brewers game seems like a natural, with Minneapolis and Milwaukee less than 240 miles from Dyersville, Iowa.

Ticket interest in the Minnesota Wild doesn’t heat up until later in the football season but the St. Paul-based team gets a break with its home game next Sunday because the Vikings have a schedule bye. Look for the Wild to announce a sellout for tomorrow night’s home opener against the Jets.

If the Wild, 2-0 on the season, continue with a hot start there will be credit given to GM Bill Guerin for creating a better culture on the roster by dumping veterans Zach Parise and Ryan Suter during the offseason. Parise, 37 and now with the Islanders, has no goals or assists in two games. Suter, 36, has an assist in two games for the Stars and is expected to have a bigger impact on his team than Parise.

In the “State of Hockey” there are no Minnesota franchises in the United States Hockey League but new commissioner Bill Robertson and other leaders of the top junior league are considering expansion beyond the current 16 teams. Suter owns the Madison Capitols.

Tickets for the general public go on sale Thursday to watch the 2022 Women’s Final Four in Minneapolis. Prices start at $100 for the April 1 and 3 games at Target Center. ncaa.com/wbbtickets.

 

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