Category Archives: Uncategorized

Meltdown in Chicago puts Twins on collision course with Yankees

This Major League Baseball season features just 60 games, played without fans, with rules seemingly made up on the fly (seven-inning doubleheaders? Sure!) and playoff expansion that includes more than half the teams making it into the postseason.

It is, to be sure, a season like no other. But as the regular season heads toward the finish line in a little more than a week, it is nice to know that in these unprecedent times there are still signs of normalcy to which we can hope to cling.

Namely: If the season ended today, a sentiment that is only 8 games away from being true for the Twins, their first-round playoff opponent would be none other than the Yankees.

It’s amazing how this reality calcified around these two teams so quickly after being far off the radar.

As recently as a week ago, New York was sputtering badly enough to put a berth in this expanded postseason in jeopardy. But the Yankees have since won eight straight (outscoring opponents 71-20 in the process) — putting them at 29-21, enough for ESPN’s standings to list them at a 100% chance to make the playoffs.

As recently as a few days ago, the Twins were flying high after a sweep of Cleveland. The entered a four-game series with the White Sox just a game back of the AL Central lead. But three losses in those four games has left Minnesota three back with eight to play, and Chicago has the tiebreaker as well.

At 31-21, though, the Twins are also 100% locks to make the playoffs per ESPN, even if they haven’t officially clinched a berth.

The Twins are wedged into second place in the division, three games behind Chicago and three ahead of Cleveland. The Yankees are in a similar spot in the AL East – 3.5 behind Tampa Bay, 2.5 ahead of Toronto.

As it stands now, the Twins would be the No. 4 seed as the second place team with the best record. The Yankees would be No. 5, as the second-place team with the second-best record. Houston, the second-place team in the AL West, is just 25-25 and unlikely to catch either of them.

It’s far from certain that things will finish this way, but it would take some rather significant movement over the final handful of games to dislodge the Twins and Yankees from the 4/5 seeds – and a first-round playoff meeting — based on their current position. Perhaps the biggest drama is whether the Yankees will overtake the Twins record-wise and win the right to host that best-of-three opening series in front of their own cardboard cutouts instead of the ones at Target Field (before one lucky team heads to the California bubble).

We all know the postseason history between the teams, but just to recap:

2019: Yankees sweep

2017: Yankees single game wild card win

2010: Yankees sweep

2009: Yankees sweep

2004: Yankees won final three games in a 3-1 series win

2003: Yankees won final three games in a 3-1 series win

That’s Yankees 16, Twins 2 – including 13 consecutive postseason victories over the Twins.

Maybe it has to be this way. Maybe this odd season can’t have any other conclusion.

Maybe these revamped Twins can channel the passionate energy of Sergio Romo and Josh Donaldson – the latter getting ejected Thursday in an amusing, awesome but also inarguably damaging home plate display after a go-ahead home run – to finally take down the Bronx Bombers.

Or perhaps it will just be another frustrating chapter for the Twins.

Or maybe one of these teams will slump or surge and this whole thought exercise will be for nothing. It would be a shame, though.

If the Yankees fall to the Twins, and nobody is around to see it, would it still make a sound? I have to imagine it would be loud and clear in living rooms all across Minnesota.

What on earth are GM Bill Guerin and the Wild doing?

Wednesday’s news that the Wild sent Eric Staal to Buffalo in exchange for Marcus Johansson was enough of a head-scratching moment that it requires the exploration of a bigger question: What exactly are Bill Guerin and the Wild doing here?

The Wild is in need of centers and doesn’t have a ton of financial flexibility. And so Minnesota … traded its popular top-line center for someone less productive and more expensive ($4.5 million cap hit next year vs. $3.25 million for Staal, with both on the final year of their deals).

What in the name of Nino Niederreiter for Victor Rask is happening? Here are three working theories:

*Guerin is stockpiling more of the types of players that Dean Evason wants, and there are more moves to come.

This is certainly the most optimistic, benefit-of-the-doubt explanation — and it’s one Guerin himself advanced in talking about the trade Wednesday.

“Sometimes it’s just not a great fit,” Guerin said of Johansson’s time in Buffalo. “But I think Marcus fits well with us, and he’s going to get a lot of opportunity. Dean knows him very well from Washington and believes he can be an impactful centerman. He’s going to get that opportunity.”

The Wild also acquired another center with size (Nick Bjugstad) recently and could trade Matt Dumba for another forward that fits into a younger and faster style.

Still, the idea of constructing a roster around Evason’s preferences is a bit far-fetched. He only signed a two-year contract after shedding his interim tag. While he’s done a good job so far, we’re a long way from knowing if Evason is the Wild’s long-term coach. Which brings us to …

*The Wild is using 2020-21 as a rebuilding year given that it figures to be impacted by coronavirus and the team needs a reboot anyway.

This feels like the most plausible scenario. No team readily admits to rebuilding, and Wild owner Craig Leipold has been hesitant to commit to anything more than roster revisions in the past. But he did say late last September — yes, almost a full year ago, yes, during the preseason of the season that’s still happening now — that he can see the fruits of a longer-term vision.

“I want to win a Stanley Cup,” he said at the time. “And if somebody came down and said, ‘OK, here’s a guaranteed five-year plan. You’re absolutely going to win it, but you’re going to have to go through a little pain and suffering.’ You show me that plan that gets me there, I’m good.”

The best thing the Wild has going for it in 2020-21 is the idea of Kevin Fiala and Kirill Kaprizov teaming up on a top line — centered by someone! — and becoming the sort of devastating offensive force that can carry a team in both the regular season and the playoffs.

But to build around those two, the Wild will need some time and cap space. They can clear a decent amount of room after this season.

And if there are some growing pains this year with an unbalanced, oddly matched roster — not quite tanking, but not quite doing everything to win now, which maybe explains the Staal trade — well, a high draft pick next summer wouldn’t be the worst thing to add to a young team.

*There is no plan, and Guerin is just making trades because he’s stuck with limited options.

OK, I’m not really serious with this one. Guerin is a professional and I’m sure there’s a plan. But he does seem to understand there’s a need to do SOMETHING to get the Wild out of a cycle of being good enough to contend for a low playoff seed and nothing more.

“If I don’t make moves, nothing will happen,” Guerin said Wednesday. “We’ll just stay the same, and that’s not the idea.”

What different place will the Wild land? That remains to be seen.

Has Twins closer Taylor Rogers been bad, unlucky or a little of both?

Twins fans who grew accustomed to the pleasant comfort of Taylor Rogers entering a ballgame have been jolted in 2020 by a much different experience.

The Twins closer, so dominant over large stretches of 2018 and 2019, has been somewhere between ordinary and downright shaky through 49 games this season. His relative plunge has been mitigated by the rise of other Twins relief pitchers and a deep roster that has forged ahead to carve out a 30-19 roster and near-certain playoff berth.

But while in a normal season there would be plenty of time left to divest himself of this slump, this year’s condensed regular season ends in 12 days — and those aforementioned playoffs, where mistakes or triumphs loom larger, are right around the corner.

So what do we make of Rogers, whose ERA swelled to 4.86 Monday night while allowing two eighth-inning runs to Cleveland and taking his fourth loss already this year?

Is he the same pitcher getting different results or a different pitcher getting different results? Or maybe more to the point: Has he been bad, unlucky or some combination thereof? Here are some numbers that can help us arrive at a conclusion:

*First off, we need to acknowledge that the dropoff seems so stark in large part because Rogers had a very long way to fall from a lofty pitching perch.

From July 2, 2018 through July 18, 2019 — more than a full season, during which Rogers pitched in 73 games (including eight in the early part of 2019 in which he was asked to get at least six outs) — Rogers threw 79 innings, allowing just 47 hits, 11 runs and 16 walks while striking out 95 batters for a ridiculous 1.25 ERA.

He was likely to come down from that sort of heater at some point, particularly since he allowed an absurd .169 batting average on balls put in play from July 2 through the end of 2018. When you figure .300 is about average, that’s quite an over-performance.

*And he did come down from it last season, to a degree. From July 20 to the end of last year, he had a 4.44 ERA in 24.1 innings, though his peripherals (four walks, 34 Ks) were good. The biggest culprit seemed to be balls were finding holes, to the tune of a .345 opposing batting average on balls put in play.

But most of that came during a brutal stretch that lasted until mid-August, after which he was more or less himself again.

 

*That brings us to this weird season. I won’t profess to know what it’s like to suddenly pitch in empty stadiums in the middle of a global health pandemic (while serving as your team’s union rep on the side), so I want to give any player this season some grace.

But I also see some numbers in front of me that are not good. Rogers has pitched 16.2 innings, giving up 23 hits, 13 runs (nine earned) with three walks and 20 strikeouts. When opponents put the ball in play, they are hitting an otherworldly .412.

That last number tells us he’s running into at least some measure of bad luck, almost in equal proportion to his good luck in the back half of 2018. So, too, does his FIP — a calculation similar to ERA that tries to take elements of fortune and fielding out of the equation. Rogers’ FIP this year is 2.90 — almost identical to last year’s 2.85 mark.

*But the eye test suggests Rogers’ pitches haven’t been as crisp. Fangraphs tells us that he’s had an uptick in fastballs thrown (56% vs. 50% last year) but that his average fastball velocity was right around 95 mph both years. Deeper in the numbers we find some indications, though, that his command has been suffering this season.

 

Opposing batters have a “hard hit” rate of 39.6% this year on 53 batted balls — way up from 28.6% and 29.9% the past two seasons against Rogers. Similarly, the line drive rate against Rogers jumped to 30.2% this season, up from 18.1% last year. It stands to reason that opponents will have a higher BABIP when they are hitting the ball harder.

Another interesting FanGraphs stat: If a reliever has a win probability added of at least .06 in a particular game, he is credited with a “shutdown” performance. If the WPA is minus-.06 or lower, he is tagged with a “meltdown” performance. Last year Rogers had 38 shutdown and just seven meltdown games. This year? Seven shutdown games and five meltdown games.

 

 

*The logical conclusion seems to be the Rogers has been a little unlucky but that his struggles aren’t an illusion. He’s not putting hitters away with the same ruthless efficiency (.343 OPS against Rogers once got to two strikes last year, vs. .702 this year) and the times he misses his spot are getting tagged.

Some of this is also owing to small sample size noise that could have been smoothed out over the course of a 162-game season. A few bad outings can wreck a reliever’s stats in a short season.

But more importantly, they can wreck a team in the postseason.

 

Here’s how 7 prominent ex-Vikings fared in debuts with new teams

The Vikings had a clunker of a 2020 opener Sunday for a variety of reasons. One of them: They had a lot of roster turnover, particularly on defense, and their new additions on that side of the ball struggled mightily in a 43-34 loss to the Packers.

A lot of those prominent former players are on other teams now. In case you were wondering, here’s how seven of them fared Sunday:

*Xavier Rhodes: The 30-year-old former first-round pick and a staple of the Vikings’ defense for seven seasons was the target of fan ire (and quarterback throws) in 2019 as he became a symbol of a Vikings pass defense that slipped. He signed with the Colts in the offseason, and Week 1 … was rough.

Pro Football Focus graded Rhodes No. 60 out of 73 corners who played at least 43 snaps in Week 1 as Jacksonville rallied to defeat the Colts 27-20. On the Jaguars’ go-ahead touchdown, it was a far cry from Rhodes closed.

Rhodes was nowhere near the ball on an easy throw and catch. He already has some in Indy wondering if the one-year deal he signed was a bad idea.

That said, Vikings corner Holton Hill — who played a lot of the snaps on the outside that Rhodes would have played Sunday against the Packers — graded No. 73 of 73 corners.

*Mackensie Alexander: The underappreciated Alexander had a strong debut with the Bengals, grading No. 12 of 73 corners as Cincinnati held the Chargers to 16 points and QB Tyrod Taylor to a 75.4 passer rating. That the Bengals lost 16-13 was more on the offense than defense.

Alexander shouldered a big load, playing 62 defensive snaps and was counted on extra perhaps because another ex-Viking, Trae Waynes, was hurt during Bengals training camp and is expected to miss most of the season.

*Stefon Diggs: After a 2019 season in which he was both vocal about his displeasure and productive on the field, Stefon Diggs was traded to the Bills in the offseason. He made his Buffalo debut and largely got what he wanted: A team-high nine targets, good for 8 catches and 86 yards from his new QB Josh Allen in a 27-17 win over the Jets.

It was enough to earn Diggs the 17th-best grade among 86 receivers targeted at least four times in Week 1, per Pro Football Focus. His former co-star in Minnesota, Adam Thielen? He had the No. 1 grade.

*Everson Griffen: It was a rough Dallas debut for Griffen after a largely productive 10 seasons with the Vikings. He was credited with 2 quarterback hurries and three tackles but no sacks in 42 snaps as Dallas lost 20-17 to the Rams.

The Cowboys gave up 422 yards on offense and only sacked Rams QB Jared Goff once. It was hardly all on Griffen, but his PFF grade — No. 62 out of 63 defensive ends playing at least 35 snaps — tells a pretty bleak story.

*Linval Joseph: The big defensive tackle had a solid debut with the Chargers, getting credited with three QB hurries and three tackles while grading No. 24 out of 60 qualifying interior linemen. He helped the Chargers keep Joe Mixon (19 carries, 69 yards) largely in check in a 16-13 victory. He was certainly missed at U.S. Bank Stadium.

*Teddy Bridgewater: How’s Teddy lookin’? Pretty good. Given the starting job in Carolina, Bridgewater helped the Panthers rack up 30 points and led two late scoring drives that put them ahead 30-27. The go-ahead score came on a 75-yard TD pass to Robby Anderson on a nice long sideline throw. His total QBR for the week was No. 8 out of 32 quarterbacks.

The ending, though, was frustrating for fans of the Panthers and Bridgewater. After the Raiders rallied to take a 34-30 lead late, the next Panthers drive ended after five plays — all runs, including a 4th-and-1 try that was stopped short — and Carolina lost.

*Jerick McKinnon: Remember him? He was a key contributor out of the Vikings backfield, particularly in 2017 after Dalvin Cook was hurt. But he signed a lucrative free agent deal with the 49ers that offseason and has been hurt ever since. He finally made his 49ers debut on Sunday, rushing three times for 24 yards and grabbing three receptions — including a touchdown that put San Francisco ahead in the fourth quarter. Alas, the 49ers also lost 24-20 after a late Cardinals rally.

Five times we panicked about the Vikings defense under Mike Zimmer

After watching the Packers rack up 522 yards while QB Aaron Rodgers breezed through the game with such calm that he probably didn’t even have to wash his jersey, it is tempting to declare this Vikings defense an un-fixable mess and decide that the season is over before it has really started.

The Vikings’ 43-34 loss to the Packers — a scorigami, in case you were wondering, in that it is the first time in NFL history a game has produced that exact final score — was as disheartening and frustrating as it was predictable.

In it some of the base fears about this team came to life: The new corners are raw and will need time after a strange offseason that curbed development; going against a future Hall of Fame quarterback in Game 1 was hardly an ideal introduction.

Remember two years ago when the defensive line was made up of Danielle Hunter, Linval Joseph, Sheldon Richardson and Everson Griffen? Yeah, none of those guys dressed for the Vikings on Sunday, and three of them aren’t on the roster. The defensive line was bad.

And the Vikings offense sputtered early, unable to stay on the field. The usual suspects of below-average pass protection and magnified Kirk Cousins mistakes doomed the Vikings to a game of playing from behind.

It’s correct to be alarmed. But at the same time we need some perspective. Some important things to remember: It’s foolish to judge a Mike Zimmer team after even four games, let alone one. And attempts to deem the Vikings’ defense as being in serious trouble in the past have tended to be greatly exaggerated.

Maybe you did that in 2015, when the Vikings gave up a season-high 433 yards and 38 points to Seattle during the regular season and assumed the same would happen in the playoff rematch — only to watch Minnesota give up just 226 yards and 10 points in what would have been the story of the game if not for Blair Walsh’s missed kick.

How about 2017, when the Vikings lost 31-24 and were steamrolled by 216 rushing yards by the Panthers late in the season? Maybe you forgot that they won their next three games, allowing 17 points and 189 rushing yards combined in those three?

OK, then there’s 2018: They allowed 556 and 471 yards in a pair of losses early and late to the Rams and Patriots. They followed each game with some of their best defense of the season and didn’t allow more than 364 yards in any other game.

Or even last season: In the two games after they allowed a season-high 37 points and 444 yards in a loss to Seattle, they allowed a combined 17 points and an average of 288 yards in two wins.

As we are reminded often by financial product advertisements: Past performance is no guarantee of future results. But Zimmer has enough of a track record and history that he can be allowed a mulligan and a teachable moment.

“We didn’t make enough plays. Guys got out of position a couple times,” Zimmer said after the Packers loss. “We’ll just get back to work; we’ll be all right.”

If a lot of coaches said what he said, the temptation would be to roll your eyes.

Instead, let’s watch what happens on the field and in the box score next week against the Colts — and in subsequent weeks against the Titans, Texans and Seahawks, whose offenses will stress Zimmer’s defense in different ways.

If the corners and pass rush don’t improve in both scheme and results, you can ramp up your worry. Until then, treat Sunday — at least defensively — as a clunker instead of the start of a trend.

End racism? Messaging from NFL, booing from fans shows the challenge

The NFL — heck, pro sports as a whole … heck, our country as a whole — is in a much different spot in the conversation on social justice and racial inequality than even six months ago.

National polling suggested support for Black Lives Matter doubled this summer from where it was in 2016 — around the time that Colin Kaepernick knelt before the national anthem during an NFL preseason game. As the idea that racism is a major problem has become the majority opinion in the United States, athletes have been more willing to speak out — and their leagues have had no choice but to follow them.

That includes the NFL, which perhaps had the furthest to travel of all the major U.S. leagues given its recent past. That said, if Thursday’s opener between Kansas City and Houston is any indication, any progress in this realm will be a matter of two steps forward and (choose your own adventure/number) steps back.

Two things stood out Thursday:

*The obvious one was the reaction to members of the Texans and Kansas City stood arm-in-arm in the center of the field before the game. It came after the Texans stayed in the locker room during the playing of both “The Star Spangled Banner” and “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”

The linked-arm moment, a simple but notable display of unity, was greeted with boos from fans. Not all fans. There was plenty of clapping and cheering, too. But there were not many fine people on both sides of the idea of unity. That’s a pretty simple “yes, good idea.”

As Texans defensive end J.J. Watt said: “The moment of unity I personally thought was good. I mean the booing during that moment was unfortunate. I don’t fully understand that. There was no flag involved. There was nothing involved other than two teams coming together to show unity.”

Don’t believe there was booing? Here’s some good evidence from the 25% capacity stands in Kansas City.

Were those fans booing because they don’t want social justice or the all-encompassing “politics” mixed in with their football, as so many blank Twitter avatars who joined the site in August 2020 would suggest?

Well, those fans seem to like it just fine when politics they agree with are mixed with sports. What they probably don’t like is having to think about something that challenges their belief system. And maybe watching Thursday Night Football is the only media they consume that challenges those beliefs.

These topics are all around us for a good reason: Until we address them, maybe we don’t deserve the full escape from reality that football fans seem to crave.

*USA Today noted that the NFL had signs and videos encouraging fans to vote and declaring “Black Lives Matter.” The latter is something I never imagined seeing in a league-sanctioned way inside a stadium. So we can’t overlook that as a significant marker.

But we also can’t overlook the irony of juxtaposition in the end zone: on the end line, a message declaring “end racism” … and just a couple yards away, painted in giant letters inside the end zone, the team name “Chiefs” — a racist nickname.

Maybe it’s “not as racist” as the Washington team name that was finally changed earlier this year, but when we accept degrees of racism as cultural norms we only enable the problem.

An insightful thought on this comes from a Kansas City-based Fansided interview with Dr. Stephanie Fryberg, a Professor of Psychology at the University of Michigan and a member of the Tulalip Tribes:

The problem with the Washington team was not limited to the fact that it was a slur. The problem is about the use of Native mascots more generally. Using Chiefs as a mascot opens the door to demeaning and mocking Native peoples. First, it gives license to fans to play Indian—to put on redface, wear chief headdresses, and imitate Native songs and dances.

Thursday’s game featured just that — Kansas City fans doing the “tomahawk chop,” even as the team has vowed to look into this practice and its harmful effects. (Photo above).

All of this serves as a reminder: Racism is not a single event. It’s a system. Slogans and unity displays can raise awareness, but awareness only takes us so far. The NFL should get some credit for the steps it has taken, but Thursday should remind us — as so much does these days — of how far we have left to go.

Bruce Boudreau: ‘I don’t want to end … by being let go in February’

Former Wild coach Bruce Boudreau could probably make a good living for the rest of his life by talking about hockey, as he has been doing in recent weeks for NHL Network.

But the always quote-worthy Boudreau is a coach at heart, and on a recent ESPN on Ice podcast he reiterated his desire to get back behind a bench — preferably as a head coach but possibly as an assistant — after being fired by the Wild in mid-February.

“I don’t want to end … (as) an NHL coach by being let go in February,” Boudreau said. “I’m pretty driven to do it again. I want to get back to it.”

Specifically addressing a question about rumblings that he could become an assistant with the Maple Leafs — Boudreau was born in Toronto and played 134 career NHL games for the Leafs — Boudreau said such an arrangement is a possibility but not a preference.

“I’d love to be a head coach first. That’s what I’ve been every year but one,” he said. “But I want to coach in the NHL. The one thing about head coaches is they know what they want as assistant coaches. I could definitely fit the bill. Whether I’m asked or choose to go there is another thing. I don’t think I could sit at home and not be involved in hockey.”

Boudreau was in his final year of a four-year contract and coaching for his third GM (Bill Guerin) when he was fired Feb. 14. The Wild was surging on a 7-3-1 stretch at the time and chasing a playoff berth.

Under interim (now permanent) head coach Dean Evason, the Wild played well until the season was interrupted — ultimately making it into the qualifying round of the expanded bubble postseason before losing a best-of-five series to Vancouver in four games.

Boudreau addressed on the podcast the enormous challenges that have faced coaches in the bubble. Whether he gets another chance — hopefully in a more normal 2020-21 season –remains to be seen.

“The way the league is going I really believe it’s a win-now league so (teams) are looking at experienced coaches for the most part,” said Boudreau, who has coached 984 career NHL games. “The trend is going for guys who have been there and done that. … In my position I hope that’s a trend that continues.”

Vikings’ biggest question: Can they protect Kirk Cousins in obvious passing situations?

Friday will mark six full months since the NBA shut down, starting a chain reaction of sports leagues around the United States hitting pause in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. I have not been in the Star Tribune office since the end of that week. To say things have changed quite a bit in half a year is the understatement of the century.

Ah, but here we are at the dawn of an NFL season — and the uncomfortable comfort, if you’re a Vikings fan, of asking a very familiar question: Can the Vikings, with talent on both sides of the ball, do one fundamental thing that likely will make or break their season?

Can they protect quarterback Kirk Cousins, particularly when the down and distance reflect that they are almost certainly going to attempt a forward pass?

We talked about this on the most recent Access Vikings podcast, much like we probably in 2019, 2018, 2017, etc. Reader Eric got to the point a lot faster than I ever will when he asked us this question:

How do you think the offensive line will hold up with two shaky guards?

I could offer up a shrugging emoji and end the post right here. If we’re being honest: Nobody knows.

But the question is worth at least a little more exploration because of how 2019 played out and how the Vikings head into 2020.

First, the good news: The Vikings were 10-5 in their meaningful regular-season games last year and scored a playoff upset of the Saints using a blueprint that should give them hope for this season. They converted a whopping 10 of 18 times on third down, including a handful of third-and-long situations where Cousins made plays. Other times, they largely stayed “on schedule,” including basically all of their game-winning TD drive in overtime — which culminated in a Cousins pass to Kyle Rudolph on 3rd-and-goal from the 4.

Overall, the Vikings converted on 42.4% of third downs last season — ninth-best in the NFL, after being 26th in the league in 2018 at 35.8%.

OK, are you ready for the bad news? In a lot of key games last year, the Vikings were dismal in obvious passing situations. Most notably: An early 16-6 loss to the Bears; a crushing 23-10 late loss to the Packers; and the season-ending 27-10 playoff loss to the 49ers.

In each of those games, the Vikings defense kept them in the game but the offense couldn’t get anything going. Minnesota was a combined 11 for 40 on third down in those three losses, and Cousins was sacked a combined 10 times in obvious or likely passing situations (second and long or third and long).

Much of the pressure on Cousins came up the middle, where guards Pat Elflein and Josh Kline plus center Garrett Bradbury struggled. This year Dakota Dozier replaces Kline, which would be hard to consider an upgrade. The Vikings are banking on continuity, coaching and scheme to have more success this year — hence the good question form Eric.

The trouble last year was exacerbated by two more factors: Poor run blocking grades for Dalvin Cook and Alexander Mattison (particularly after Cook had a strong Pro Football Focus grade in 2018) and the fact that Cousins doesn’t really improvise. He ran for just 8 first downs in all of 2019. For all his strengths, perhaps Cousins’ biggest weakness is that when a play breaks down he seldom makes a play to keep the chains moving.

Those are all ingredients in a recipe that could spell doom again for the Vikings — probably not most weeks, but quite possibly when it matters most. It’s the single biggest thing limiting their ceiling, at least until proven otherwise.

 

Vikings position-by-position: A confidence breakdown

I’m having a hard time sorting out this Vikings season because of the significant roster turnover and the general unpredictability fostered by the coronavirus-shortened offseason and lack of preseason games.

In life, when such things happen, it’s helpful to take things day by day. With the Vikings, to gain some clarity on what to make of this team, I’ve decided to break the roster down position-by-position in a rather unscientific way: Assigning a number 1-10 to my confidence level with each group. Some clarity to this was added Monday when the Vikings released their first “unofficial” depth chart of the season.

This is imperfect. But maybe it will help you, too, as we prepare to watch this team play in less than a week. Here we go, in order of my greatest to least confidence in a position group:

Linebacker: Confidence level – 8. There’s a great deal of continuity and comfort here with Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr in tandem for the sixth consecutive season. Add in Eric Wilson, a solid third starter, and this is a strong group. Pro Football Focus didn’t love Barr’s 2019 season, and the depth might be in question if there is an injury, but overall I feel good about the Vikings linebackers.

Running back: Confidence level – 7. Who knows what the future will bring for Dalvin Cook in terms of a contract extension. The present season, though, should reveal a running back eager to produce and stay healthy. When the latter is the case, Cook is among the best in the NFL. But that’s a big if, since he’s missed 19 games in his first three seasons. Alexander Mattison provides fairly seamless production as a backup, and fullback C.J. Ham has plenty of value. Cook and Mattison are poor pass blockers, which is preventing the confidence level from being even higher.

Defensive line: Confidence level – 6. The stunning recent trade for Yannick Ngakoue boosted this group, giving the Vikings one of the strongest edge rush tandems in the league along with Danielle Hunter. As with the other side of the ball on the line, though, I’m worried about the interior players. That knocks this grade down a spot or two.

Quarterback: Confidence level – 6. Kirk Cousins is a durable, above-average quarterback. He was better in 2019 than he was in 2018, leading the Vikings to the playoffs and a win in the wild card round. If this was Cousins alone, the ranking would probably be a 7. But I don’t think his ceiling is any higher than that, and any long-term injury to him would be devastating.

Special teams: Confidence level – 6. Dan Bailey was very solid last season, as was punter/holder Britton Colquitt. The Vikings seem to have shored up special teams, but I’d like to see it be drama-free for another season before I get too excited.

Wide receiver/tight end: Confidence level – 4. An awful lot of ifs on this list. I’d like to make the number higher if … Adam Thielen is healthy/productive … if Justin Jefferson is the real deal and overtakes Bisi Johnson as the No. 2 receiver … if Irv Smith Jr. takes another step forward this year. Stefon Diggs made life very interesting last season, but through it all he was productive. His departure can’t be overlooked and is enough to make me uncomfortable at the outset.

Secondary: Confidence level – 4. This is a real feast-or-famine group. Vikings safeties Harrison Smith and Anthony Harris might be the best duo in the NFL. But while the Vikings will certainly keep more than just those two safeties – yep, they were it on the initial 53-man roster and depth chart – they are vulnerable to injuries there. As for corner, we are about to see a season of trial by fire for Mike Hughes, Holton Hill, Jeff Gladney and Cameron Dantzler. They will face a ton of great quarterbacks, and we have no evidence – yet – that they collectively will be up to the task.

Offensive line: Confidence level – 2. The Vikings are sure banking on coaching and hope here. Tackles Riley Reiff and Brian O’Neill should be functional. But the interior of the line is a massive question mark. Dakota Dozier, Garrett Bradbury and Pat Elflein start the season atop the depth chart. Ezra Cleveland, drafted in the second round as a tackle, is a second-team guard to start the year. I see no meaningful upgrades to a group that was subpar a year ago. This position group is a perennial worry, and 2020 is no different. As Pro Football Focus wrote: “The Vikings have a good zone-blocking line that gave their running backs the third-highest percentage of positively graded blocks per rush last season, but there are holes in pass protection that can be exploited, especially in must-pass situations against good defensive lines.”

As long as that’s the case, the Vikings’ overall ceiling will only be so high, and my confidence in them will be reflected accordingly.

In post-Bert Blyleven TV era, it’s time for Justin Morneau to shine

In reality, the Twins’ TV transition away from analyst Bert Blyleven started a long time before Wednesday, when a rather abrupt-seeming announcement in the afternoon signaled that Blyleven was about to work his final game after a quarter-century with the team.

Blyleven used to work pretty much every game from the time he started with Midwest Sports Channel in 1996 through the first decade of this century. That was reduced to a five-year contract in which he worked 100 games a year, then down to 80 in 2017 and 2018, then 50 last year. This year, he was slated to do just 30 games — a number further reduced to 16 in the truncated season.

The Twins’ search for a new primary analyst as Blyleven’s workload was reduced seemed to zero in on three candidates: Justin Morneau, Roy Smalley and Jack Morris. Others worked a handful of games to various levels of fanfare — including former Twins manager Tom Kelly and former players Torii Hunter and LaTroy Hawkins.

But the shortened season left room for just four analysts this year, trimming Hawkins and Jim Kaat from the previous plan: Blyleven, Morneau, Smalley and Morris. It was reported that Morneau was given roughly 24 games this year, while Blyleven ended up working 16. Smalley and Morris are splitting the rest.

So Morneau was already inching toward the role as primary analyst. But it also felt like as long as Blyleven was still doing games, his presence — and rightfully so — was going to loom large over the group even if his role was largely reduced.

Now? It sure feels like it’s Morneau’s time to shine. The 2006 AL MVP with the Twins has grown into the analyst role nicely since starting in 2018. He’s not prone to excitement — the chief knock on him early on, which persists to a degree, is that he is too quiet — but Morneau offers smart analysis from the perspective of both a former player and a student of the game.

I feel like Smalley provides the same sort of analysis — that I learn something from listening to both Smalley and Morneau — while Morris is more like Blyleven in that he is more prone to spin stories and talk about the good old days.

It’s easy to imagine the Twins and FSN proceeding with Morneau as the lead analyst in 2021 and beyond, while Smalley, Morris and others fill out the schedule. I asked people on Twitter who they would pick, and there was a strong pro-Morneau sentiment — plus a couple who wondered if reporter Marney Gellner might get some work as a welcome voice in the booth.

It’s hard to get people on Twitter to agree about much, but when the choice for lead analyst in 2021 was restricted to Morneau, Smalley, Morris or “other,” more than 80% of people voted for Morneau in the poll I ran.

How long will Morneau — who lives in Medina and has five young children — be at the top of the list? That’s hard to say. But he’s only 39, and Blyleven did this for a quarter-century.