Category Archives: Uncategorized

Head coach Matt LaFleur questions Packers’ ‘effort’ in NFC title game loss

Packers head coach Matt LaFleur met with reporters Wednesday, three days after Green Bay’s season ended one game short of the Super Bowl with a lopsided 37-20 loss at San Francisco.

These season wrap-up news conferences don’t tend to be all that illuminating since coaches have had a chance to cool down and digest the big picture of a season.

But LaFleur? He had a lot to say in regard to the loss to the 49ers, particularly about the Packers’ energy level. When asked about the defense, which gave up 285 rushing yards Sunday, LaFleur didn’t mince words.

They definitely outcoached us,” LaFleur said. “I just didn’t feel like we played with the same urgency, the same tenacity, the same toughness. We didn’t set the edge the same as we had been earlier this season. It’s disappointing because it’s not like we didn’t know what they were going to try to do. We knew exactly what they were going to try to do. We knew they were going to run the football. … I just didn’t think we played with the same effort as what I had seen earlier in the season.”

The follow-up question to that asked how Green Bay could lack effort in a game with a Super Bowl berth on the line.

Yeah, that’s a great question. That’s something that I’m still trying to figure out right now as we speak,” LaFleur said. “I mean, I don’t understand that, because you’re there. You have an opportunity to go to play in a Super Bowl and for that to happen, it’s extremely … it’s bothersome. We have to look at ourselves, everybody. I’m gonna look inside of myself and see why weren’t our players playing with their hair on fire. I think everybody in our organization has to do that.”

Those who follow the team far more closely than I do seemed surprised by LaFleur’s assessment, either because he hasn’t questioned effort previously or they didn’t necessarily agree.

There were plenty of positives LaFleur took from the 13-3 season that were sprinkled throughout his 30-minute session. But it will be interesting to see how the notion of a lack of effort plays in the Packers locker room.

Josh Donaldson vs. the Twins: Huge success and a notable dust-up with Glen Perkins

Josh Donaldson has a .395 career batting average, .487 on-base percentage and .852 slugging percentage in 191 career plate appearances against the Twins, with all three representing the highest marks for an opponent (minimum 100 PAs) in Twins history.

But how did he arrive at those gaudy numbers – which the Twins are glad he won’t be building on now that he’s officially signed with them?

Here are some highlights and thoughts from Donaldson vs. the Twins in the last decade.

*Donaldson’s first plate appearance against the Twins came on Sept. 19, 2010, against Francisco Liriano at Target Field and, appropriately enough, ended with a walk.

Donaldson has walked 27 times in those 191 plate appearances against the Twins, a walk rate of 14.1%. That’s even better than Donaldson’s career mark of 12.4%, which is far above the MLB average (last year it was 8.5%).

In a series at Target Field last season while Donaldson was with Atlanta, he went 4 for 9 and walked five times. He walked 100 times last year with Atlanta. If he reaches that mark again this year, he’ll be the first Twins player to do so since Harmon Killebrew a half-century ago.

*In an interview with an Atlanta TV station, Donaldson offered that one reason he signed with the Twins is that, “Obviously I’ve hit really well there at their stadium.”

While that’s true – Donaldson’s career average at Target Field is .373 with 10 homers and a gaudy 1.283 OPS in 97 career plate appearances – he’s been even better against the Twins away from Target Field. In 94 plate appearances at home against the Twins, he amassed a 1.408 OPS.

*Donaldson’s patient approach paid off against a lot of bad Twins pitching last decade. From 2012-17, when Donaldson did most of his damage against the Twins, Minnesota finished No. 28 or worse (out of 30) in team ERA four times and never finished better than No. 19.

That included two monster series: three games in Toronto in 2016, when Donaldson was 6 for 10 with four homers; and four games at Target Field in 2017 when he was 10 for 17 with five homers.

*Perhaps Donaldson’s most memorable at bat against the Twins came in 2014 at Target Field and ended with a strikeout against Glen Perkins.

With the score tied 4-4 in the top of the 10th after the Twins had rallied to tie the game in the bottom of the ninth, Donaldson lofted a deep fly ball that hooked foul – per the account from La Velle E. Neal’s story the next day.

Perkins struck Donaldson out on the next pitch after that, and could be seen yelling at Donaldson – who then took several steps toward Perkins as the benches emptied. Nothing much came of it, but afterward Donaldson said he could hear Perkins swearing at him.

“OK, whatever. I didn’t feel like I disrespected him at all. I’m up there trying to win the game for our team and he’s trying to win the game for his team, juices are flowing. I don’t know what it was all about,” Donaldson said after the game. “I’ve never even spoken to the guy. I think I’ve faced him twice.”

Parker Hageman tweeted a video of the exchange last week, and Perkins replied that he and Donaldson “actually finished that conversation at the 14 all star game since we were locker mates.”

Now that discussion can continue.

Do we treat basketball brawls differently than those in other sports?

Kansas State and Kansas players brawled at the end of their men’s college basketball game Tuesday. Sometimes that word “brawl” gets tossed around loosely, but this was the real deal. It was wild, with a lot of punches and genuine anger instead of just a little end-of-game frustration.

And yet the level and duration (a couple minutes) seems like it would have made it more of a footnote instead of a main story in other sports — particularly hockey, where it seems like someone gets at least a glove in the face every time the puck is in the crease during an NHL game.

Is there a double-standard with how we view basketball fights, particularly in relation to hockey fights? It seems like there is. In grappling with the “why” in the answer to that question, some theories are practical and some are uncomfortable.

Part of it, I would guess, is that there is no physical barrier between players and fans on most basketball courts at the highest levels. When a brawl can easily spill into the seats, as the one Tuesday did (or the Malice at the Palace 15 years ago in the NBA) , it threatens our perception of safety.

NHL fans can get really close to the action, but they’re separated from harm by tall glass (thought it hasn’t always been that way; more on that in a minute). It would be very difficult for an NFL fight to spill into the stands; MLB brawls almost always happen near the pitching mound, far from the stands.

In the direct comparison between basketball and hockey, I would imagine cultural acceptance and frequency of fighting numbs us to it, while the infrequency of brawls in basketball games make them stand out.

The New York Times did a piece 10 years ago on the 30-year anniversary (now 40 years) of huge Bruins/Rangers brawl that spilled into the stands. The headline: “Over The Glass and Into Hockey Lore.” I don’t think there will be similar headlines written about the Pistons/Pacers brawl when it is remembered a quarter-century from now, though at least that NHL brawl did usher in the era of tall glass separating players from fans.

But why are hockey fights more culturally acceptable, even in 2020?  It’s less comfortable to think that the skin color of the athletes plays a role in how we view these fights, but I think it does.

And I’ll be thinking about all those things the next time I see an NHL brawl of similar scale to the Kansas/Kansas State brawl — and see how it is treated in the media.

Survey says it’s unanimous: Wild draft pick Kirill Kaprizov is next NHL star from KHL

I’m not usually in the habit of reading about the thoughts of players in the Kontinental Hockey League — the 24-team pro league with clubs in six different countries — but when one of the players surveyed is Wild draft pick Kirill Kaprizov all the rules change.

ESPN talked to seven players in the league, asking them various questions about the league and hockey in general. But the most relevant and interesting question to Wild fans came when this question was posed:

Which KHL player will be the next big star in North America?

Six of the players picked Kaprizov. The other player is, of course, Kaprizov himself.

“Thank you, we’ll see,” Kaprizov said when learning that he was the unanimous choice of his polled peers.

Some of the kudos:

Stephane Da Costa: I’d probably just say Kaprizov right now, he’s a really big star. He’s really good with the puck, he protects the puck well, he has good vision. He’s overall a really great player.

Nigel Dawes: Kaprizov. I think everyone sees it. It’s kind of a no-brainer. He’s a great player, he’s done a lot already in his young career. I’m sure he’ll face some challenges going over to North America, but the way he plays the game and the type of guy he is, and his character, I think he’ll have a lot of success in the NHL.

Ilya Sorokin: Kaprizov. His hockey intellect is very high. He has a good shot, as well as good vision.

Kaprizov, playing for CSKA Moscow, leads the KHL with 23 goals (in 44 games). He was a fifth-round pick of the Wild in 2015 and is still just 22. His potential arrival in Minnesota — on track for as soon as next season — is the stuff of dreams for Wild fans starved for a star and staring at the prospect of a rebuild in the midst of a tumble into mediocrity.

New Wild GM Bill Guerin went to see Kaprizov in Moscow in early December and came away impressed.

“He’s extremely talented,” Guerin said. “He made plays. He’s not afraid to go play in traffic. There’s a lot to like.”

The fact that every player polled picked him as the next KHL-to-NHL star doesn’t guarantee anything, but it doesn’t hurt.

Former NDSU coach helps rescue woman in labor trapped in blizzard

You might remember Saul Phillips best as the former men’s basketball head coach of North Dakota State from 2007-14. He took over when Tim Miles left to coach Colorado State and led the Bison to two NCAA tournament berths (picture is from the 2009 tournament at the Metrodome), including an upset of Oklahoma in the first round of the 2014 tournament that he parlayed into a new job at Ohio.

Phillips was let go by Ohio in March after a less-successful five-year run there and is now the head coach at Division II Northern State in Aberdeen, S.D. That’s where this story, as written about by his wife, Nicole, picks up.

Northern State plays in the NSIC, and Phillips’ squad had back-to-back road games Friday and Saturday against Augustana and Wayne State. Phillips, his wife wrote, usually takes the team bus but decided to drive himself on this trip.

But on Friday, after a win at Augustana in Sioux Falls, S.D., he was driving to Wayne, Neb., and got stuck in a blizzard. Visibility was near zero. As his vehicle crawled along the road, with very little sense of direction, Phillips saw another vehicle stranded and turned the wrong way.

Mike McFeely of the Fargo Forum picks up the story here.

“Nine times out of 10 I just keep going. The car had its lights on and you figure they have a cell phone with them to call a tow truck, so you think they’re probably OK,” Phillips said. “For whatever reason this time I thought, ‘I better knock on the window just to make sure.’ It was terrible outside and I was stopped anyway, so I got out and walked over to the car.”

What greeted him in the car was a young man and a young woman who appeared to be in their 20s and an older woman. They were enveloped in a sense of desperation. The young woman was very pregnant, in obvious distress. When Phillips asked how she was doing, she answered, “I’m in labor.

Phillips said he started to think about how he could deliver a baby in his vehicle — that’s how far labor had progressed. But he helped the family communicate with emergency dispatch. A snow plow, police car and ambulance were able to locate them stranded near Wakefield, Neb.

They were able to make it to the fire hall in Wakefield — too small for a hospital, and the nearest hospital was too far away given the progression of labor. McFeely writes that Phillips later found out the woman delivered a healthy baby girl there.

“I was stopped next to a car in a snowstorm and I went to check on them. I would like to think others would have done the same thing,” Phillips told McFeely, downplaying his role in the feel-good story. “It wasn’t like I was some calm guy making things happen. It was chaos and I just happened to be there.”

Phillips arrived in Wayne at 2 a.m. and fell asleep at 5. And oh, yeah, Northern State won its game about 12 hours later to improve to 14-4 this season.

What did we learn about Vikings from the NFC title game?

Vikings fans tend to have a fluid second-favorite team: whatever team is playing the Packers that week.

That allegiance was amplified Sunday when the horror of horrors was on the cusp of happening: the Packers were one game away from the Super Bowl, needing only a win over the team that dispatched the Vikings the previous week to make it there.

But Vikings fans’ rooting interest in the 49ers paid off handsomely Sunday when San Francisco trounced Green Bay 37-20. Aaron Rodgers has now lost the last three NFC title games in which he’s played since winning his first try after the 2010 season (2014, 2016 and 2019 seasons).

Beyond the schadenfreude that has come to define Vikings fandom, though, there was more to be gleaned from Sunday’s outcome. Namely: What did it teach us about the Vikings?

*On a basic level, it showed there’s a gap between best team in NFC North (Packers) and 49ers, and there’s a gap between second-best team in NFC North (Vikings) and Packers. It stands to reason that the Vikings are two levels removed from being a Super Bowl team.

Sure, there are advanced stats that tell us the Vikings were just as strong or better than the Packers this year and that Green Bay was either the worst or close to the worst 13-3 team of all-time.

But head-to-head means something. After 15 games, the Vikings and Packers were both 10-3 in games not against each other. But Green Bay swept the season series, including a decisive late victory at U.S. Bank Stadium. Give the edge to Green Bay, and at best acknowledge that both the Packers and Vikings were significantly behind the 49ers since both lost to San Francisco by three scores in lopsided playoff games.

*So what accounts for the gap between the Vikings and 49ers? Well, it’s not philosophy. The 49ers play pretty much how the Vikings would like to play — a strong running game setting up a passing game, all of it anchored by a very good defense. That has to be at least somewhat heartening for the Vikings.

But to me the most glaring difference is cornerback play. The 49ers had two of Pro Football Focus’ top six graded corners in the NFL this season, including No. 1 Richard Sherman. The first Vikings corner to show up on the list is Trae Waynes at No. 47, and you find former stalwart Xavier Rhodes all the way down at No. 108 (out of 114).

San Francisco’s suffocating coverage combined with its ability to rush the passer makes it very hard for teams to come back if they fall behind, as both the Vikings and Packers found out. Without even one shutdown corner, the Vikings were vulnerable this season.

*The 49ers don’t have a great offensive line, but it’s good — and becomes devastating in the run game when combined with wonderful tight end George Kittle and a scheme that keeps defenses guessing.

San Francisco has been able to run the ball in pretty much every game this season, including a combined 471 yards in two playoff wins over the Vikings and Packers. The Vikings were dedicated to the run this season, had improved run blocking and finished sixth in yards per game (133.3) during the regular season.

But in three glaring losses this season — at Chicago, vs. Green Bay and at San Francisco — the Vikings’ run game disappeared. If you can’t count on your strength when you need it most, you’re in trouble.

*Home field and a bye: San Francisco pulled out a handful of key wins this season, none bigger than a goal-line stop against Seattle in the regular-season finale, to secure the top seed at first-round bye.

There’s an element of fortune in the NFL owing to the magnitude of every game. The Vikings exploited that in 2017, getting a bye and the No. 2 seed.

The Vikings flat-out need to be sharper throughout the regular season to ease their path to the Super Bowl because, as Tennessee (and the Vikings to a lesser extent) showed this year, the magic usually runs out at some point if you have to play tough road games in the playoffs.

So step one is making sure they’re a step ahead of the Packers in 2020.

Pitino’s Gophers have played their way back onto NCAA tourney bubble

A month ago, I sat down with Gophers men’s basketball beat writer Marcus Fuller and we hashed out things that were going wrong for the 4-5 Gophers — and whether they could turn things around from a disappointing follow-up to last year’s second-round NCAA tournament appearance.

One of the numbers I dug up was particularly glaring: Teamrankings.com, in assessing the Gophers’ resume to that point, gave them just a 9.6% chance of making the Big Dance this year.

Ouch.

But that back-and-forth came out on a Sunday, the same day the Gophers upset Ohio State in their Big Ten home opener. They’ve added quality wins since then over Michigan and Penn State, going 6-2 overall since that 4-5 start.

Now at 10-7 and with one of the top strength of schedules in the country, they’re suddenly right back in the mix as a bubble team heading into a critical stretch of their season.

The aforementioned Team Rankings now gives Minnesota a 52% chance of making the NCAA field; ESPN’s Joe Lunardi has the Gophers as one of his last four teams in the field — the last of a rather absurd 12 Big Ten teams he has making it right now; on the minus side, CBS’s Jerry Palm does not have Minnesota in his field.

With Selection Sunday still two months away, though, the Gophers’ specific place in the pecking order is less important than the fact that they are even participating in the pecking order.

Minnesota is No. 41 in the NET Rankings, a useful tool. And their next seven games, starting with Sunday at resurgent Rutgers, are all-important “Quadrant 1” games — either home games against a NET Top 30 team or away game against a NET Top 75 team.

Four of those seven are on the road. The Gophers are 0-5 in true road games this season. If they come out of this seven-game stretch in good shape, we could be talking about a return trip to the tournament field.

The end of Jeff Teague and the Wolves: Never the right fit

Jimmy Butler was traded to the Timberwolves on draft night in 2017, which seems like forever ago but really was just 2 1/2 years in the past.

The next day, Jeff Teague said back then, he told his agent he wanted to sign with the Timberwolves to team up with Butler.

Not long after that, he was introduced as the Wolves’ new point guard — owner of a three-year, $57 million deal bestowed upon him by basketball boss and coach Tom Thibodeau.

At his news conference, one far more subdued than the Mall of America theatrics from Butler, Teague said this: “I’ve had an opportunity to play against Thibs and see how hard he coaches his guys and how well-coached his teams were. It was a perfect fit for me and at this stage of my career, I wanted to win and I wanted to do it in a special way.”

What’s strange is that as I pondered Thursday’s trade that sent Teague to Atlanta, I had already written the headline above — about Teague’s tenure being all about the wrong fit — before I unearthed that ironic quote.

His first year here was his best, but it was filled with nonstop comparisons to Ricky Rubio — the beloved yet flawed point guard Thibodeau had not long before dispatched to Utah for a first-round pick (that became Josh Okogie).

In an odd way, the Rubio/Teague comparisons reminded me of two decades ago, when Stephon Marbury forced his way out and Terrell Brandon was ushered in. Marbury was ferocious with his drives to the basket, which often ended with contorting layups or last-second dishes for dunks. Every possession was an event.

Brandon was almost guaranteed to use those same high screens to shoot a 17-footer. (Seriously: 47% of Brandon’s field goal attempts in 2000-01 came from between 16 feet and the three-point line, a fact that would probably give Ryan Saunders night terrors if he coached through it).

But Brandon was good at what he did. He was relentlessly dull but efficient. Those 2000-01 Wolves won 47 games and made the playoffs.

Rubio wasn’t the same caliber of player as peak Marbury, but he played the position with flair and joy. Rubio’s highlight reel is packed with no-look passes; Teague’s is filled with floaters and craftiness.

Teague wasn’t bad that first year, nor were the Wolves. They, too, won 47 games and made the playoffs — with Teague’s dutiful work in 70 games serving as the heartbeat of a joyless march back to the playoffs finally for the Wolves and again for Teague, who had never missed the postseason in his career at that point.

But if the fit problem was perception and Rubio comparisons that first year, it all fell apart in Year 2. Butler, the player he said he came to join, abandoned the Wolves early last season in Marbury-like fashion. Thibodeau, the coach/GM who picked Teague to run his team, was fired midyear. Ryan Saunders, with a new style and a new emphasis, took over as interim coach.

Teague, who had never missed more than 10 games in his previous six seasons before joining the Wolves, missed several chunks of games — including the final 15 for an ankle that required surgery — and played just 42 total.

If you sign a three-year contract, Year 2 is really the make-or-break year in terms of an extension. It was clear after last season, and with all the offseason changes to the Wolves’ power structure plus Teague’s $19 million expiring contract, that Teague’s end time in Minnesota was a matter of when not if.

After 34 awkward games this year (13 starts, but mostly off the bench) with Teague’s constant dribbling and reluctance to fire from deep even though he’s a capable shooter clashing with the Wolves’ preferred new style, the “when” was Thursday.

His final stat line often looked functional this year and throughout his tenure, but Teague’s season was defined quite nicely by new Wolves boss Gersson Rosas.

“I’ll give Jeff a lot of credit for trying and doing whatever was asked of him, to try to be a good fit in our system,” Rosas told reporters on a conference call. “I think, big picture, it’s just a different game. And the way he plays, this system is maybe not as complementary in that we need our lead guard to be a guy who pushes tempo, is more of a creator than a scorer. … He’s been very successful in this league a long time playing the way he plays. But at the end of the day, I think as personnel develop you can either fit or not fit. Jeff did everything he could on his end.”

Not a bad player, just a bad fit. That’s the story of Teague with the Timberwolves.

Gophers QB Tanner Morgan had ‘the best season you didn’t see coming’

The best quarterback in college football in 2019 was Joe Burrow, and it wasn’t close. In fact, the LSU quarterback — with the Heisman, the national championship and the 60 touchdown passes — arguably had the greatest season of any college football quarterback in history.

Burrow raising his level of play to those heights was one of the biggest quarterback surprises of the college football season. But the biggest? That might have happened right in Minnesota — at least if you believe what your own eyes and Pro Football Focus’ analysis are telling you about the Gophers’ Tanner Morgan.

Morgan was supposed to be just one of multiple options to start at quarterback for the 2019 Gophers before Zack Annexstad suffered a foot injury in early August.

PFF did a preseason ranking of all 130 quarterback spots for FBS schools, and Morgan ranked No. 86 before a single snap. In updated midseason rankings he had moved up to No. 27; and this week, PFF released its final rankings and had Morgan all the way up as the No. 7-ranked quarterback in all of FBS — behind only Burrow, Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence, Ohio State’s Justin Fields, Oklahoma’s Jalen Hurts, Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa and Oregon’s Justin Herbert.

That’s not just great company. It also illustrates just what a surprise standout Morgan was, considering all six of those other guys were in the preseason top 20.

Again, Morgan was No. 86 — a big part of the reason PFF had this to say about the Gophers QB who finished the year with 3,253 yards, 30 touchdowns, seven interceptions, a 66% completion rate and an 11-2 record:

Perhaps the best season from a quarterback that you didn’t see coming, we’re a long way from Zack Annexstad seemingly entering the year as the starter for the Gophers way back in early summer, 2019. All Morgan did was finish the year with the country’s seventh-highest passing grade as he was every bit of an elite quarterback this season. … It didn’t matter the situation, didn’t matter the throw type. Morgan made nearly every throw look easy and took advantage of his extremely talented receivers on the outside as well as anyone else did in 2019.”

And the highest single-game grade for any FBS quarterback against  a Power 5 school in 2019? That also went to Morgan in the Gophers’ program-defining win over Penn State.

This is a good time to remind you that Morgan is just a sophomore and has two years of eligibility left. But next year he’ll have to perform without star wide receiver Tyler Johnson. All Johnson did this year was finish as the highest-graded wide receiver in all of college football, per PFF.

Elite talent, indeed.

Josh Donaldson’s greatest contribution to Twins could be his defense

The Twins smashed an MLB-record 307 home runs last season, making it obvious what needed to happen this offseason if they were to improve on their overall fate coming off a 101-win season but quick playoff exit: improve their pitching.

So of course their marquee free agent signing was … a power-hitting third baseman to add to an already potent lineup?

Yes, in some ways the Josh Donaldson signing feels like an expensive luxury item — a $92 million commitment on the wrong side.

But then you add up the plus side of the ledger and it’s overwhelming. It’s never a bad thing to add to a strength, nor is there a guarantee some of the Twins hitters who soared last year won’t regress this season. Donaldson is insurance against that.

He’s a perception-changing signing, one that should at least keep the “Cheap Pohlad!” (or more likely “Cheep Pohland”) crowd at bay for at least a few news cycles.

And most of all, aside from Phil Miller’s clever story start about Twins pitchers gaining by not having to face the Twin-killing Donaldson at the plate any more, Donaldson’s greatest value to this team might end up coming on the defense/pitching side of the ball anyway.

The Twins had a bad defensive infield last season — an underrated but notable deficiency on an otherwise very good team.

One excellent metric for assessing this is defensive runs saved, a complicated but useful formula that essentially boils down to how much better or worse you are at preventing runs than an average fielder.

At every infield position last season, the Twins were on the minus side of the ledger and were in the bottom half of the league: third base (minus-1), shortstop (minus-5), second base (minus-6) and first base (minus-3) for a total of minus-15. Of particular note: Miguel Sano contributed a minus-5 at third base to that overall minus-1 number at third.

Donaldson with the Braves was a plus-15 at third base. Just by himself last season he would have made the Twins an adequate fielding infield and was 20 runs saved better than Sano at third.

What does 20 runs look like? Well, if we were talking about a pitcher it would be about the difference between Kyle Gibson (86 earned runs allowed in 160 innings) and Jake Odorizzi (62 earned runs allowed in 159 innings).

Donaldson also started 32 double plays at third base last season. Twins third basemen combined to start 23. Saving runs and converting outs will be a huge boon to the Twins and a pitching staff that grew accustomed to such things in the outfield (plus-12 defensive runs saved, eighth-best in MLB) last season but not on the infield.

The rest of the 2020 infield defense remains shaky. Jorge Polanco is functional but below average at shortstop, making up for those shortcomings with excellent offense. Same goes for Luis Arraez (minus-8 in defensive runs at second base last season), who figures to take over that spot full time. Sano’s deficiencies can be hidden more at first base, but he won’t win a Gold Glove anytime soon.

Donaldson, 34, who had three other double-digit defensive runs saved seasons from 2013-15, at least gives the infield an anchor.

He’ll also crank a lot of useful bombas, but that defense could be the thing that makes the biggest difference.