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QB Kirk Cousins’ Image Changes in 2022

November 15, 2022 - (0) comments

 

Kirk Cousins is on a historic personal path in 2022.  The Vikings’ quarterback is being viewed as a winner after a past of mostly mediocre results by teams he led in Washington, D.C., and Minnesota.

The 8-1 Vikings are off to a start unlike anything Cousins has experienced since he became a regular in Washington in 2015.  That season the Commanders finished the season 9-7.  Cousins’ next two seasons in D.C. saw the Commanders go 8-7-1 and 7-9.  A hefty free agent deal (reportedly three years, $84 million) brought Cousins to Minnesota before the 2018 season where he has been part of teams with records of 8-7-1, 10-6, 7-9 and 8-9-1.

That’s a cumulative record of 57 wins, 54 losses and one tie as an NFL starting quarterback dating back to 2015.  Cousins also has a 1-2 playoff record with the Commanders and Vikings.

At age 34, in his 11th year in the NFL, Cousins is gaining ground in the public view as a winner and even being mentioned as a potential NFL MVP.  He is flourishing in a quarterback friendly environment unlike anything he has experienced before as a professional.

Cousins is making both routine and difficult throws that have the Vikings headed to their first NFC North championship since 2017.  He has been primetime this season leading the Vikings to comeback wins, with the most recent Sunday’s game for the ages overtime victory against the Bills in Buffalo.

Kirk Cousins

Cousins’ performance and leadership has been questioned in the past but he’s answered critics by thriving under new head coach Kevin O’Connell who is known as a quarterback whisperer.

Cousins’ disconnect with previous head coach Mike Zimmer is well documented but now the veteran has found a productive relationship with O’Connell whose skills include superb play-calling and creativity in adjusting offensive schemes. O’Connell said Monday, while praising Cousins, that his quarterback has been tasked with a new system this year and “we’re asking a lot out of him.”

Putting labels on football players is dicey business. For critics to label the Cousins of the past something other than a winner really depends on perspective.  Just being able to quarterback an NFL team year after year can be viewed as enough to gain respect with fans and media.  Cousins has been a regular starter for the last eight seasons and along the way earned a reputation as a top 12 to 15 pro quarterback.

Not bad.  But the 2022 version of Cousins looks better than ever and he is surrounded by coaches and players that can do their share of the heavy lifting.  Whether it’s the phenomenal WR Justin Jefferson, the explosive RB Dalvin Cook, the improved offensive line or timely playmakers on defense, the vanquishing Vikings are far from a one-man show.

Give the Vikings credit for winning seven consecutive games since losing to the Eagles on September 19. But four of their eight wins are by four points or fewer and their schedule has not been daunting. Their nine opponents have a cumulative record of 42-43.  Only three opponents, the Eagles, Dolphins and Bills, have winning records.

And that stat brings up one of the beefs that has dogged Cousins’ quarterback career.  He has long been criticized for his performance against teams with a winning record.

He has lost about two-thirds of such games as the Vikings’ quarterback (per Fanduel), but in fairness remember that football is a team game and a lot can go into outcomes and records (Rams QB Matthew Stafford won a Super Bowl last winter after a dreadful record of wins and losses with the hapless Lions). If the Vikings finish with a gaudy regular season record and make a deep playoff run, even that Cousins wrap of not beating teams with winning records will lose some of its sting.

Cousins believes lessons from the past help his leadership now. “…Sometimes when you’re not winning, those are the times where you have to come in with a smile on your face, upbeat, still bring energy, make sure practice is still fun,” he said. “That’s really, I think, the test of leadership, is when it’s not easy to do things, that you still bring energy and focus and preparation. And so, certainly, when you’re winning, there’s a little more wind at your back, but you can’t really let it change the way you approach things and not ever get too high or too low.”

Worth Noting

Former University of Minnesota and Notre Dame football coach Lou Holtz talking about Harvey Mackay’s 90th birthday: “He doesn’t count his years. He makes his years count.”

Mackay hosted a birthday celebration in Phoenix last weekend.  Mackay, the Minnesota-born, UM alum and New York Times best selling author, is close friends with Holtz who coached the Gophers in 1984 and 1985 before going to Notre Dame and winning the 1988 national championship.

“The Amazing Hondo,” St. Paul’s John Hughes, is a Mackay favorite and he entertained with his magic tricks at the birthday celebration.  Hondo, 70, is still playing recreational basketball in the Twin Cities with pals including Dennis Fitzpatrick, the former St. Thomas star.

Hughes took his nickname years ago from legendary Celtics great John “Hondo” Havlicek.

 

‘Erban Safaris’ Full of Golden Gopher Tales

November 08, 2022 - (0) comments

 

In about two weeks Steve and Dorothy Erban and their Minnesota guests will be enjoying the warm temperatures of California.  Their Stillwater-based Creative Charters company is offering five-and-seven-day packages to watch the Golden Gopher men’s basketball team play in the SoCal Challenge November 21 and 23 in San Juan Capistrano while experiencing the warm weather and attractions of the California Coast.

Like many of the company’s trips, there will be more to enjoy than the game. “We call ourselves creative, because that’s what we try and do,” Steve told Sports Headliners.

Creative could mean spending nine days in Hawaii as the Erbans did in 1996 when the basketball Gophers were playing there.  Or it could mean experiencing what Steve refers to as the “ultimate Gopher hole.”  When the football Gophers played in El Paso, Texas for the 1999 Sun Bowl, Steve came up with the idea of taking his travelers on a three-hour trip to visit the Carlsbad Caverns (maximum depth 1,600 feet).  Then the Creative Charters group visited a ranch for a big party that included a country band for entertainment.

“You try to make it so it’s not just the game,” Steve said.  “It’s something people can enjoy and remember.”

With a show biz flair, it’s not surprising Creative Charters’ admirer Jim Erickson said: “Steve and Dorothy are the Barnum & Bailey of Gopher sports travel.”

Creative Charters has been promoting mostly Gophers men’s basketball and football fan trips since 1993. The Creative Charters’ website does have other offerings including travel to the Kentucky Derby and to the state of Montana where Steve once lived.  The Erbans come up with varied destinations and stay flexible like during the Gopher women’s dream basketball season of 2004 when Creative Charters filled up planes to attend the Final Four.

Dorothy & Steve Erban

The Erbans are passionate Gopher fans and the last 29 years have been emotionally gratifying, if not always financially successful.  Among recent successes was an extended trip to Pennsylvania to experience more than the Minnesota-Penn State football game. The 160 guests got to see Gettysburg National Battlefield and were appreciative of the opportunity. ”You don’t…get any better than that, when they all thank you for getting them set up,” Steve said.

Steve is an architect, and both he and Dorothy are passionate about horse racing.  They have been racehorse owners, promoters of the sport in Minnesota and regular attendees at the Kentucky Derby. In 2021 they were inducted into the Canterbury Park Hall of Fame.

The Erbans devote a lot of time to Creative Charters.  After all, you don’t just go out and charter an airplane. Dorothy handles much of the back-end work including reservations and transactions.  “We kind of say, Steve is the creative, I am the charter,” Dorothy said.

The Erbans estimate they have taken Gopher football and basketball travelers on 500 to 600 trips over the years.  And then there have been many other trips including travel to Kirby Puckett’s induction to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2001 in Cooperstown, New York.  That excursion came up in conversation when Steve was talking about how things don’t always go as planned.

The Erbans had four groups going to Cooperstown. Steve was bringing the last one to New York when the flight out of Chicago was cancelled. The Erbans responded by using their resources and ingenuity to make other arrangements including taking a ferry across a lake. “We walked into the (Hall of Fame) breakfast five minutes late at 8 o’clock in the morning,” Steve remembered.

After nearly three decades the Erbans are considering selling Creative Charters. “I think our reputation and what we’ve done with Gopher fans…is sort of amazing when you think about it,” Steve said. “…Obviously, we’re getting a little long in the tooth, and it’s time to hope that there are some people out there that have that same sense of Gopher sports.

“We’re not…travel agents. We create things for our Gopher fans because we are fans and season ticket holders.  And so, yes, I think we’re open now to talk with people that would be interested in continuing this on.”

Creative Charters got its start when coach Clem Haskins’ Minnesota basketball team was playing in the 1993 NIT Finals in New York.  For the semifinals there were only a handful of fans at Madison Square Garden watching the Gophers defeat Providence.  Erban decided to charter a 727 so Gopher fans could cheer on the team in the championship game.

Response was so enthusiastic Steve chartered a second plane. “We filled two airplanes in less than 24 hours,” he said.

Steve’s delegation arrived in New York on gameday without tickets for the game.  He met with the assistant ticket manager who told him a big block of seats would be far from the court.  “I said, Listen, these people paid $200 to fly out to see (their team) and they’re not sitting up there. We gotta be closer to the court. ..”

Steve asked for every available ticket 20 rows or closer to the court, knowing his customers would be scattered but have prime viewing.  He bought 286 tickets and had one extra. The Gophers made their fans happy winning the NIT, 62-61 over Georgetown.

Steve’s interest in travelling to Gopher games got started in 1988 when Haskins’ team played in the NCAA Tournament in Greensboro, North Carolina. A pilot himself, he flew his young son Bryce to Greensboro where there were eight to 10 Minnesota fans. With such small numbers, the strangers became friends watching the Gophers win two games in Greensboro before being eliminated from the tournament the following weekend.

Among the friends Steve made is Paul Dillon, now a semiretired farmer living near Porter, Minnesota (west of Marshall).  Steve and Paul have attended every Gophers NCAA Tournament game (24 total) dating back to 1988. “I think what’s interesting about it is that we can say we’re the only human beings on planet earth that have ever done this, and you had to be at the first one (to get the streak started),” Steve said.

Paul has been a Gopher basketball season ticket holder for over 45 years, saying he “just fell in love” with the program decades ago. He and his wife have travelled often with the Erbans and are going to California later this month. He refers to the trips as “Erban safaris” and describes Steve as a “very, very close” friend.

Steve is proud of the 11 total years he and Paul attended all the tournament games. “What was real interesting is two years ago, (with) COVID, they weren’t letting anybody in except parents.  Obviously, we were going to tell (AD Mark) Coyle if we got to the NCAA (Tournament) we can’t stop this tradition.

“And so, with COVID what we were going to do is if the Gophers got in, we were going to go to the stadium and stand between the doors, and listen to it (the game) on the radio, so we could say we were in the gymnasium.  But we didn’t get in (the tourney), so it didn’t make any difference.”

There you go, more creativity.

 

Vikings’ Offense with New Dimension Now

November 05, 2022 - (0) comments

 

How much will the Vikings’ acquisition of tight end T.J. Hockenson improve the offense? “I would say it adds…probably 25 percent dimension to the offense,” analytics expert Daniel House told Sports Headliners.

Hockenson, 25, was traded by the Lions to the Vikings Tuesday and is expected to play in Sunday’s road game against the Commanders. A 2020 Pro Bowl selection, the former Hawkeye and Iowa native was the eighth overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft.

This season Hockenson has started all seven games for the Lions, totaling 26 catches for 395 yards. That’s the most receiving yards in his career through the first seven games of a season, and he has three touchdowns.  His 15.2 yards per catch is the most in the NFL among all qualifying tight ends in 2022.  He is also considered a capable blocker, but it’s his pass catching ability, including on deep balls, that is most attractive.

House is a well-known sports journalist in Minnesota whose analytics and other football knowledge draws online readers following the Golden Gophers and Vikings. He’s been impressed with the new front office and coaching of the Vikings, including the Hockenson deal.

“I think it’s one of those moves that takes the Vikings offense to another dimension,” House said.. …”If you take away (WR Justin) Jefferson, you’re going to give Hockenson some good matchups.  If you give coverage attention to Hockenson, that will free up some of the other playmakers too.  Also, (RB Dalvin) Cook running the football.  He’ll run into wider boxes, which is good as well.”

Kevin O’Connell photo courtesy of Minnesota Vikings

Head coach Kevin O’Connell has been impressive with schemes and play calls to keep the offense effective for the 6-1 Vikings, but the addition of Hockenson is expected to make that job easier. While it may have been difficult to put the deal together obtaining Hockenson, it’s a no-brainer to see why the move (that included exchange of draft choices for both teams) was put together. Starting tight end Irv Smith Jr. is injured and out indefinitely. Then, too, his pass catching has been underwhelming. Opposing defenses have been focused on stopping Jefferson, the team’s superstar receiver.

“I just like the way that the offense is built,” House said. “I feel like it’s very modern. Kevin continues to tweak it and now we’ll see sort of what it looks like with Hockenson because he’ll sort of fill that Tyler Higbee (Rams tight end in a similar offense) type of role.”

This is part of what House wrote on Twitter when the Vikings acquired the 6-5, 248-pound Hockenson who was a three-star recruit coming out high school: …”Still on rookie deal w/ fifth-year option next year, gets separation at the top of routes, great hands and creates mismatch possibilities.”

O’Connell said his defensive coaches, who had to prepare for Hockenson in the past, acknowledge what a talent the Vikings are acquiring.  “They were more excited than anybody to get him on our roster and know what he can do for us,” O’Connell said.

Quarterback Kirk Cousins has targeted tight ends on 18.9 percent of his passes so look for that to change in coming weeks. Hockenson needs to assimilate the offense and learn to play with his new teammates so don’t expect him to be on the field a lot Sunday. But his acquisition has sent a message to the team and fans the Vikings are serious about winning.

Vikings Notes

In an email to Sports Headliners, a former NFL front office executive pointed out that without acquiring Hockenson, and with Smith injured, the Vikings likely would be starting reserve Johnny Mundt. He wrote Mundt “is ok on short routes and a good blocking tight end but not a down field threat.”

Jefferson has caught 63 passes of 20+ yards since entering the NFL in 2020—the most in the league by 12 catches during that span (Cooper Kupp and Mike Evans have 51 each).

Observers believe starting WR Adam Thielen, 32, has diminished speed from earlier in his career and is unlikely to be with the Vikings next year. Look for Minnesota to prioritize a wide receiver or two in the 2023 NFL Draft.

Cousins made a 17-yard touchdown run last Sunday against the Cardinals, although his speed has been clocked at a pedestrian 4.9 seconds in the 40-yard dash.

BTW, Cousins is a fan of fast food and made that known early in his Vikings days when he talked about patronizing Portillo’s.

O’Connell, with a win Sunday against the Commanders, can become the fifth NFL head coach since 2000 to win seven of his first eight career games, joining Jim Caldwell (2009), Jim Harbaugh (2011), Matt LaFleur (2019) and Mike Martz (2000).

Although it’s early November, Sunday’s game is only Minnesota’s third in an opponent’s home stadium. The Vikings have a loss at Philadelphia and a win at Miami, and a neutral site victory over the Saints in London.

The NFL season is about at the midway point and the final average score margin (9.52) as of last Tuesday was the lowest through the first eight weeks of a season since 1970. Fifty-five games had been decided by a touchdown (six points or fewer), the most such games through week eight in NFL history.

Brooks Bollinger, the former quarterback who played with multiple NFL teams including the Vikings, is the latest guest on “Behind the Game.”  He talks with co-hosts Patrick Klinger and Bill Robertson about his playing and coaching career that included leading the high school football programs at Hill-Murray and Cretin-Derham Hall.   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fiFEhXuMwBc

The Commanders franchise is being shopped for sale. Forbes values the franchise at $5.6 billion but Front Office Sports newsletter speculates the final price could be $6 billon, making the transaction the largest ever in the world for a pro team. Chelsea FC sold for $5.3 billion earlier this year.

 

 

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