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Coming Days to Test Viking Owners

January 04, 2022 - (0) comments

 

What the Wilf ownership group does in the next several days and coming weeks will reveal a lot about their thinking and make a profound statement to the Vikings’ rabid fan-base.

It’s currently a hostile public environment for GM Rick Spielman and head coach Mike Zimmer. Lead owners Zygi and Mark Wilf must certainly understand that, even though they don’t have Minnesota roots and are based in the east. What will they do this winter, if anything, about the future direction of the franchise?

The Wilfs are exceptionally loyal to their Viking employees. They bought the franchise in 2005 and Spielman, 59, has been on board from the start. Zimmer, 65, has been the coach since 2014. The Wilfs like continuity with their leaders and appear deliberate in their decisions.

They also are passionate fans with a stated commitment to deliver a Super Bowl team to this town. They have invested emotionally in Zimmer and Spielman, showing more patience than many other owners would offer. The Wilfs have also made a statement with their willingness to spend money on player payroll, and building world-class practice and stadium facilities.

But past on-field results by the team aren’t acceptable to many fans. Not as a franchise working on a 45-year Super Bowl drought, and with a more recent history that includes missing the playoffs the last two seasons and unable to play better than .500 football during 2020 and 2021. In the Zimmer era the Vikings have qualified for the post-season only three of eight times.

How capable are the Wilfs in being able to evaluate their football operation? That is a million dollar question. Are they comfortable enough with their abilities and experiences to not only determine who needs to be fired but also how to go about identifying, scrutinizing and ultimately hiring new leadership to be more successful?

The Wilfs could turn to a search firm for help regarding candidates to be new leaders. The NFL office could also be a candid source. Then, too, the Wilfs may have an inner circle they trust, perhaps including former Vikings players and coaches. Among alumni who could be useful and gets a vote here is Ben Leber. The 43-year-old former linebacker has a high football IQ and he is honest!

Mike Zimmer

The options for final decisions in the weeks ahead include firing Zimmer and Spielman, or keeping one of them. They could also keep both and insist on clearing out most, or all, of their staffs. It’s believed the Wilfs have a particularly close relationship with Spielman and after eight seasons are certainly invested in Zimmer, too.

Presumably the Wilfs will have goals for near and long term results by their team and what can be accomplished within specific timeframes. Their roster has valued players like Dalvin Cook, Danielle Hunter, Justin Jefferson and Brian O’Neill. The team doesn’t need to be imploded, even if the Wilfs decide the coaching staff and front office must have a shakeup.

The fan base and media have been turning up the “heat” for months. Now the Wilfs get the last word and it will be intriguing to see what they do, how they do it and what the results will be in 2022 and beyond.

Worth Noting

NBC’s Cris Collinsworth said during Sunday night’s Vikings-Packers telecast the team can fire Zimmer but won’t find “a better coach.”

Minneapolis attorney and sports historian Marshall Tanick notes that Austin, Minnesota born John Madden, who died last week, coached the Raiders to their 32-14 Super Bowl win over the Vikings in 1977 (Minnesota’s last SB appearance). Madden’s final game as an NFL coach came in 1978 when the Raiders defeated the Vikings 27-21 in Oakland. As a broadcaster Madden mentored former Viking quarterback Rich Gannon as he transitioned from his playing career to NFL TV color man.

Illinois, 9-3 and 2-0 in Big Ten games, enters tonight’s matchup with the Golden Gophers at Williams Arena outscoring opponents by an average of 15.6 points per game and is a conference title contender. Minnesota, the surprise of the town’s sports teams at 10-1 and 1-1 in league games, has an average point differential of 8.9 against opponents.

Powerful Illini center Kofi Cockburn, who at 7-feet and 285 pounds averages 21.8 points and 12.1 rebounds, is a difficult matchup for the smaller Gophers. Look for the Gophers to double-team and perhaps use all three of their centers, Eric Curry, Charlie Daniels and Treyton Thompson, against Cockburn.

NCAA Tournament bracketologist Joe Lunardi of ESPN projects Minnesota and Illinois as No. 10 and No. 6 seeds respectively in the Midwest Regional.

Shooting guard Amir Coffey, the former Gopher from Hopkins who went undrafted in 2019, is having a career season with the NBA Clippers averaging 16.4 minutes per game. Several games of late he has played over 20 minutes including in last night’s loss to the Timberwolves.

Could Mohammed Elazazy, the former Western Michigan offensive lineman who has entered the transfer portal, interest the football Gophers? The 6-5, 300-pound guard is from Menasha, Wisconsin.

Former Minnesota offensive coordinator Mike Sanford, now in the same role at Colorado, will be without WR Brenden Rice, a rising sophomore and son of Hall of Famer Jerry Rice, who has entered the transfer portal.

Gopher quarterback Tanner Morgan and center John Michael Schmitz—both part of coach P.J. Fleck’s first recruiting class in 2017—have announced plans to marry their girl friends in 2022. Going into their fifth seasons of competition next September, Morgan and Schmitz will be among the most experienced players in the Big Ten.

Sixty years ago the Gophers played in their second and last Rose Bowl. On January 1, 1962 Minnesota completely dominated UCLA in a 21-3 win, compiling 397 net yards to 107 by the Bruins.

Apparently no report yet on TNT’s national viewership for last Saturday’s Winter Classic matchup between the Wild and Blues at Target Field. The game dates back to 2008 and the 2020 classic hit a new TV low averaging a 1.15 rating and 1.96 million viewers on NBC. COVID-19 postponed the 2021 Winter Classic in Minneapolis.

 

Viking ‘Soap Opera’ Season Rolls on

January 02, 2022 - 1 Comment

 

Can I have the movie rights for the 2021 Minnesota Vikings’ season? Someone text the phone number of a top Hollywood producer and let’s crank this baby out by September.

If there was any doubt about the season being movie worthy, it ended a couple of days ago when maligned quarterback Kirk Cousins entered COVID protocol and was all but ruled out of tonight’s game in Green Bay against the Packers. Pandemics provide compelling theater and COVID has hung over the team since last summer when it became known Cousins and multiple teammates weren’t vaccinated.

Kirk haters have been waiting for a moment like this where he isn’t available for a potential playoff-deciding game. “It’s his fault,” the critics scream while congratulating one another on their collective wisdom.

Backdrop today includes recent media reports Kirk’s dad, Don Cousins, is condemning of head coach Mike Zimmer. Don, also a staunch anti-vaccination practitioner, reportedly gave a like to a tweet suggesting Zimmer should be fired.

Film makers love controversy and there is a lot of it with these Vikings.

Kirk has long been the subject of whether he is overrated, overvalued and overpaid by the Vikings.  A year ago then former teammate Everson Griffen suggested in a tweet it was GM Rick Spielman who pushed the Cousins free agent signing in 2018. “Ask ZIMMER if he wanted Kirk????” Griffen tweeted.

During 2021 came the revelation that in past seasons the head coach and the quarterback didn’t engage in frequent one-on-one meetings. This apparent communication lapse would be shocking for most teams but mildly surprising for the Vikings who specialize in drama.

Kirk Cousins

The dynamic between the two team leaders received national scrutiny this fall when Cousins yelled at his coach, “You like that?” Cousins grabbed Zimmer and at first this seemed more like a confrontation rather than a celebration following Minnesota’s 19-17 home win over the hapless Lions. After the game the QB insisted he was just fired up and showing his emotions from the last second victory.

The potential on-camera time for Zim in my movie is trending up after model Katarina Miketin, 38 or 39, confirmed she is dating the 65-year-old coach. The news (gossip for months) was reported by various news outlets—from the Sporting News to the New York Post. Jealous movie script writers may squabble over who takes the lead in creating the dialogue for the romance.

I wince at going too Hollywood in the film, but what if we write into the script Mike and Katarina get married? All box office hits fudge here and there. How about a touch of Karma in the wedding scene where Mike’s groomsmen include kickers Dan Bailey, Daniel Carlson and Blair Walsh?

Not on the wedding invitation list but still in the movie? Bashaud Breeland. The cornerback was cut from the roster last month after a verbal altercation with coaches at practice. He also had a dustup with Vikings fans earlier in the fall. Still, how about a little kumbaya as we start a new year?

It’s clear Kirk, Zim and Katarina receive major parts in the film but there are important supporting roles for others including franchise owners Zygi and Mark Wilf. In the movie the mysterious New Jersey-based businessmen lurk in the background as fans hold their collective breaths waiting to learn what the Wilfs decide about the fates of Zim, Kirk and Spielman. Hoping Robert De Niro will play the sometimes stern looking Zygi. (Favoring Bradley Cooper for Kirk; looking for suggestions on Zim and Katrina.)

When COVID hasn’t been haunting the Vikings in 2021, injury woes have caused more hurt. State hero and WR Adam Thielen dramatized the pain in the last game. He tried to play against the Rams with an injured ankle and help keep the team’s slight playoff chances alive. But after awhile he limped off the field and headed to the sideline with anger and frustration apparent on his face. Surgery followed and he is done for the season, but maybe more admired than ever.

Film title? Dark Purple?

Frozen in Purple could get a review, too. The temperature at kickoff tonight will be about 10 above and feel colder to players and fans. The scene at Lambeau Field should only add to the Vikings’ cold weather legacy, and in the film this can be dramatized, too.

Remember the 2016 playoff game at TCF Bank Stadium? The temp was around minus 6, the wind chill clocking in at 25 below. Bud Grant, 88, showed up wearing a polo shirt. He was a bigger hit than the Vikings who lost 10-9 to the Seahawks when Walsh blew a late field goal.

When Grant coached the Vikings he embraced cold weather. Grant didn’t allow heaters on the sideline and he encouraged players to act as if harsh weather didn’t bother them. He also liked to tell a story about how Eskimos thrived in their cold environment and that the Vikings could, too.

Grant’s last years as head coach in the early and mid-1980s had his teams playing in the Metrodome. “The things that bothered me about going into the dome is it took some of the coaching out of it,” Grant said in Ross Bernstein’s book Sixty Years & Sixty Heroes. “I could use the elements to my advantage. Things like the wind, sun, rain, snow or even a frozen field.”

Bud could be in the movie. Imagine Bud, Mike Tice and myself with cameos in the opening scene. We’re sitting at a table inside Bunny’s Bar & Grill. In the background the TV shows a Kirk-absent Vikings team playing in wintry Green Bay.

To see the rest of the film, please buy a ticket.

 

U Ends Desert Drought in Bowl Win

December 29, 2021 - (0) comments

 

It may have slipped by most University of Minnesota football fans and even a few Golden Gophers historians, but last night your favorite college program earned its first ever win in Arizona.

The drought is over. This is reported with both amusement and relief.

The Gophers beat West Virginia 18-6 in Phoenix Tuesday evening and won the Guaranteed Rate Bowl. Four previous games in the Phoenix area didn’t go so well.

In 1969 Minnesota, just two years removed from a Big Ten championship, got ambushed by Arizona State in Tempe. Back in those days the Sun Devils were members of the lightly regarded Western Athletic Conference, a league that seldom received a nod in Big Ten country.

Coach Frank Kush and the Devils saw an opportunity to make a statement to the college football world. They did just that, embarrassing Minnesota by a 48-26 score indicative of the difference between the two teams on a September night in the desert.

Maybe the Devils jinxed the Gophs back in ’69. Not only did the next several decades of Minnesota football look nothing like the glorious past of conference titles and national championships, but even a return to ‘Zona in the new millennium brought more frustration.

The Gophers had a 35-7 halftime lead over Texas Tech in Tempe in the 2006 Insight Bowl. By the end of the fourth quarter the game was tied 38-38 and the Red Raiders won in overtime 44-41. Pass-happy Texas Tech threw 55 times and Minnesota had no second half answers.

The “stubborn” Gophers made return trips to the Insight Bowl in 2008 and 2009. Same destination with the drought continuing in the desert, losing 42-21 and 14-13 to Kansas and Iowa State.

The Arizona football gods tried to hex the Gophers again last night at Chase Stadium, the baseball facility with a retractable roof. On a rainy night in Phoenix, Guaranteed Rate Bowl authorities briefly opened the roof just before kickoff to allow sky divers to prove for the umpteenth time they can land on a football field (BTW, this one with recently installed new sod).

Bowl photo courtesy of Marshall Tanick

A less than ideal playing surface had the Gophers sometimes unsure of their footing and prone to mistakes. Such was the case in the second half when wide receiver Mike Brown-Stephens fell down on his pass pattern and allowed a West Virginia interception. Yes, the Mountaineers played on the same surface but lest you forget the curse of the desert, the boys from Morgantown looked steady on their collective feet.

And if the field conditions weren’t enough to cause a pre-game “here-we-go-again” mindset, a woman named Stormy was the sideline reporter for ESPN’s telecast!

When Minnesota endured the 1969 butt-kicking that started the struggles in Arizona, the Gopher coach was Murray Warmath who was born December 26, 1912 and died in 2011. He received a birthday present of sorts this week with his former team playing the kind of dominating defense, advantageous field position and time consuming football he preached at Minnesota. His 1960 team won Minnesota’s last national championship.

Minnesota ended bad times in Arizona by holding the Mountaineers to just one touchdown and 206 total yards of offense. The West Virginia running game was shut down and the passing results were not a whole lot better. The Gophers sacked the quarterback five times, bringing frequent pressure that helped hold the Mountaineers to 140 yards passing.

This season defensive coordinator Joe Rossi removed any remaining doubt about how important he is to the Gophers. He doesn’t like being referred to as “a guru” by his players but when your defense ranks among the best in the nation and allows only one opponent in 13 games to score over 28 points, you deserve accolades.

Boye Mafe

Minnesota’s kicking game and offense had the Mountaineers starting drives inside their 30 and 20 yard lines. Gopher defensive end Boye Mafe, who had a stellar night auditioning for NFL scouts, nearly caused a first half safety while tackling the West Virginia quarterback, Jarret Doege.

Minnesota’s time of possession was 38:29. West Virginia’s 21:31. The disparity was due mostly to the Gophers hoarding the football with their running game. That success started up front with its veteran line led by right tackle Daniel Faalele who also scored high with NFL evaluators while playing his final game for Minnesota.

In the first quarter the offense failed twice inside the West Virginia 10-yard line. Minnesota’s Ky Thomas fumbled to end a drive and Matthew Trickett missed a makeable 33-yard field goal try. That cost the Gophers points on a night they could have won the game by a much larger margin.

With Rossi in charge, it looks like the Gophers can consistently produce defenses that will do their part in winning a Big Ten West Division title. But to take the next step the Gophers have to raise the bar offensively, particularly with the passing attack including better play calls, catching consistency, big gains and more points. With the return of Kirk Ciarrocca as offensive coordinator, there is hope the Gophers can develop a passing offense that better complements their successful running game.

But before washing the desert sand out of their eyes and looking to 2022, the Gophers should take a few days to celebrate their triumph in Arizona and what it represents. Minnesota finishes 2021 with a 9-4 record including three straight wins and that sounds a lot better than 8-5. This is the second time in three years the Gophers have won nine games or more.

Among the victories in 2021 was taking down a nationally ranked Wisconsin team that has won seven of its last eight games. The late November win over the Badgers was the first time the Gophers claimed Paul Bunyan’s Axe in Minneapolis since 2003.

Head coach P.J. Fleck is now 3-0 in bowl games because his teams come prepared to compete instead of arriving with a “let’s party” approach. The focus is there for four quarters. In all games during the Fleck era (dating back to 2017) the Gophers are 33-4 when leading at halftime.

Fleck’s overall record at Minnesota is 35-23 but he is 23-10 the last three seasons. His winning percentage of .603 is third best among Gopher coaches who coached in 45 games or more. Minnesota has had 19 coaches since 1900 and Fleck ranks sixth all-time in program wins.

Fleck’s Big Ten record is 21-22 after going 6-3 this fall. In Warmath’s first six conference seasons he won 15, lost 25 and tied 2. Since 2000 the Gophers have produced five winning seasons in Big Ten games, with two coming under Fleck.

Oh, yes, one other stat before signing off. Fleck is 1-0 in the desert.

 

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