Guest Post Dispatch: Mike Linnemann’s road trip adventure from Minnesota to the Citrus Bowl in Orlando

guestpost2Plenty of Minnesota fans are already in Orlando for the Citrus Bowl. They took a modern invention called the air-plane, and a few magical hours (and several hundreds of dollars) later they had been transported from the tundra to the sunshine.

That’s the easy way. It also doesn’t provide for much of a story. The hard way, the memorable way, the cheap way: make the 24-hour drive from the Twin Cities to Orlando. That’s what Mike Linnemann and his friends decided to do. Here is his first dispatch from their adventure:

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I’m Mike Linnemann. While I worked for a stint at the Star Tribune office in college and used to be a Gopher trackster, I’m headed to Orlando, right now, for the bowl game vs. some team that cannot understand how to spell their state’s name. I figured someone might want to hear about our journey. We’re playing against a team that has something to do with a zoo.

I’ve had a bucket list item to attend an actual legitimate bowl game since I joined college, promising a childhood friend and fellow Eagle Scout, Brent Oja, who was a football manager at the time. He went to a few with Kool Aid Maroney and spoke of late night stories and super action fun times during late December. During this past Gopher tackle football season, I called Brent often and mentioned a bowl game idea but his doctorate plans interfered and I sat without a partner. I talked to my wife, but as she’ll be in Las Vegas for the first time, for over 72 hours days after the bowl game, and she was out, too.

I found two college buddies, one of whom was an immediate yes and the other, who was dependent on driving as a cost-saving measure. As I’ve driven to Boston with my then girlfriend, now wife, and countless trips with parents as teachers during the summers, AND gas being cheaper than a bag of Goldfish Crackers, a drive was in order.

We decided to drive through St. Louis and Hotlanta on the way down, and perhaps a selfie with Elvis and a quick trip to a Big Ten school on the way back. Both trips are twenty-four straight hours.

This is an update, until now with things learned already:

*My wife loves murder mystery books. I also appear to enjoy similar themes because Serial was annihilated in twelve straight podcast episodes. It was enjoyable. Not House of Cards good, but who can beat Keyser Soze? Honestly.

*Surge exists again on Amazon. It still tastes terrible.

*Twelve hours of pre-cooked pulled pork with torta sandwiches = USA.

*In Hannibal, Mo., Google takes you through the weirdest places. I may not be alive anymore. Will test pulse at Walgreens in Orlando. See picture below:

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*Cold press coffee just clowns on Surge/Energy Drinks. It just conquers imitators.

*Craps is illegal in Minnesota. I remembered when we hit the Iowa border. It’s really a shame because the social aspect is pretty great compared to sitting at a Texas Hold Em table, wearing sunglasses indoors, not talking and being grumbly. I should write my legislators a letter on this. Making a google calendar note of this.

*Cedar Rapids is larger than I thought. Cedar Rapids the movie is better than you think. (Editor’s note: Beware of speed radar in Cedar Rapids. It turns out we got TWO speeding tickets on the last Great Baseball Road Trip, both going through Cedar Rapids, neither of which we were pulled over for at the time).

St. Louis is best exhibited by this:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WwFGJxRBRUs

*Tennessee at dawn is just as beautiful as upstate New York. Reminds me of being a boy scout and not angry at waking up.

*The South’s economy is way worse visually off than the North. (Midwest is dead, stop it.) The most apparent sign? Billboards. They’re utterly missing or blank. When I’m forced to visit/drive through Wisconsin, I see fireworks signs occasionally in bursts of twos. I’ve seen bursts of peanut picking/adult bookstores in sets of five through Georgia.

*Georgia may hit levels of my wife’s hatred of Ohio. I counted no fewer than thirty police officers on the side of the road while driving through.

This happened:

And I always thought a small, but rather relevant part of Olympic sports were to act as ambassadors to other states and schools. Bowl committees like teams that travel, right? I assume it’d good PR to have Southern schools notice us. I also think that famous Vine girl went to Auburn.

We’re entering Florida now. More to come.

Wednesday (The NFL and the lasting impression of 2014) edition: Wha’ Happened?

goodellThis is not a list. Promise. We did that already, and you can find it here. Rather, this is a brief meditation on the year that was — an evolution of thought, as it were.

Our lasting impression of 2014 is that it was the year in which our view of the NFL changed, likely forever. The scandals that rocked the league were sad enough; the way the league handled them with the three O’s — obstruction, obfuscation and, finally when backed into a corner, outrage — was something entirely different.

We estimate that outside of watching the Vikings — part of our job, still enjoyable in a vacuum — we’ve watched about four full quarters of any other NFL game this season. And we haven’t really missed it. The action itself has become less about athletes and more about X’s and O’s (and penalties) than at any point we can ever recall. Even when the action is good, the undercurrent of ugliness remains.

It’s important to note, though, that our moral outrage is primarily directed not at the actions but at the reactions. The Ray Rice video, for example, is heartbreaking and despicable, but it’s not any worse because he’s a football player. Athletes are human beings, and human beings are capable of terrible things (just as they are capable of wonderful things), particularly in the heat of the moment.

People are always going to do bad things. The reckoning is when we find out about character. That’s when the powers that be have hours, days, even months to decide what version of the story they are going to try to sell the public. Transparency is easy to see; anything less takes a more discerning eye.

This stage is where we believe the NFL across the board failed that test this year. That will be the lasting impression we have from 2014 in sports: not that athletes behave badly, but that we don’t trust the most powerful sports league in the country.

Hot Takes Roundup: Skip Bayless calls Johnny Manziel an alcoholic

hottakesJohnny Manziel is a Hot Sports Take magnet, and Skip Bayless is drawn to hot takes like we’re drawn to cheap, end of the day blog posts.

As such, Skip’s day-old take about Manziel is still plenty fresh for us and is the worthy leader in today’s Hot Take Roundup. As transcribed by USA Today, this is an actual televised conversation between professional shouters Stephen A. Smith and Bayless. Takes don’t get much hotter than this straight up shot of fireball:

Bayless: It is time for me to come down harder on a concern that I repeatedly voiced on this show before Johnny was drafted. My concern, I repeatedly said, was if Johnny continues to demonstrate that he has a problem with alcohol, and a problem with alcohol leading to partying and all that that entails, then I’m going to be out. I’m going to be off the bandwagon. I will no longer support a kid that I do like personally, and I have come to that point Stephen A. In talking to people in and around the Cleveland Browns, I believe Johnny Manziel continues to have a problem with alcohol. And I believe, Stephen A., that it is time for Johnny to get some help. He continues to lie to his executives, to his coaches, to his teammates, to the media, and most of all, he continues to lie to himself.

Smith: You’re essentially telling me that you believe that Johnny Manziel is an alcoholic and a liar? Is that correct?

Bayless: I do. Yes I do. He has a problem – if you want to call him an alcoholic, I’ll go that far. I think he can’t handle his alcohol.”

Zimmer’s comments on Adrian Peterson sound very supportive — but also noncommittal

zimmerpetersonVikings head coach Mike Zimmer had his end-of-year news conference Tuesday. As is the case every week, we found ourselves enjoying Zimmer’s style — whether we were there in person, watching on a live stream or merely reading a transcript — while also looking for opportunities to read between the lines with a coach who is pretty blunt but also can be guarded when he wants to be.

There was plenty of interesting stuff today — you can watch it here — but of course the headline-grabbing stuff was about Adrian Peterson. Here is the transcript of the first three questions and answers on the subject of Peterson, along with what we think each means:

Q: Regardless of the economic factors and maybe even political factors, do you want Adrian Peterson back on this team?

A: Well as I’ve said many, many times Adrian was always great with me. I think he’s a good person, I think, obviously, he’s a great running back. If it works out that way, and things work out, and he gets his life in order – that’s the most important thing, he gets his life in order – he gets the opportunity to come back then I will be in his corner whatever the decision is made.

To us, Zimmer is setting up a lot of wiggle room here. While clearly supporting Peterson from a personal standpoint and making it clear he would welcome AP back on the team, the phrases “if it works out that way, and things work out” … and … “whatever the decision is made” represent just how fluid the situation really is.

Q: Do you believe he still adds value to the team?

A: I think he’d add value to any team to be honest with you. I think the kid’s a heck of a football player. I was just watching our offensive tape, I was starting to go back right now with evaluating our players and I started with the offense in St. Louis. There’s a good recollection on my mind right now of him.

Ben Goessling from ESPN jokingly tweeted that this could be a trade conspiracy from the “add value to any team” part. But still, Zimmer didn’t use that question as a way to talk about how Peterson fits in with the current Vikings even if he did praise his skill set.

Q: When do you need to have that settled from an organizational standpoint?  

A: Part of it is our hands are partly tied with the NFL and what the timeframe that they give us but also it’s partly up to Adrian and make sure he’s doing what he has to do in order to get back, reinstated off the suspension. Those are all factors that we have to factor in. We would love to know ASAP just so that we can start going. You know a guy like him, your football team and offense can be different if you have him and if you don’t have him. It’s how you want to build the team around him, at least in my opinion anyway. I haven’t talked to Rick about a lot of these questions that you’re asking yet because we just finished the season but we’ll sit down and we’ll visit about all of this.

This is probably Zimmer’s strongest endorsement of Peterson, since it hints at the frustration of perhaps wanting to build a roster around him but not knowing for sure what his status will be. The overall message is what we knew already: there are a ton of factors at play when it comes to Peterson’s future, and we’re still months from any kind of resolution.

Tuesday (Packers ripe for playoff upset?) edition: Wha’ Happened?

ILSWe’re not sure how much of this is belief on the part of the author or the need to fill space as we march toward the Wild Card weekend, but SI.com’s Greg Bedard notes that in every year for the past decade, at least one NFL team with a playoff bye has lost its first playoff game — and he thinks the Packers (along with the Broncos) are ripe for a quick exit.

It seems to be contingent on the Packers playing the Cowboys — not a given since the matchups have to line up and Dallas still needs to defeat the Lions in the opening round — but here’s what he wrote:

Since the Thanksgiving blowout loss against the Eagles, the Cowboys are scoring an average of 41.3 points and allowing 19.8, and a lot of the games haven’t been that close. Dallas’ defense (22nd in DVOA) would certainly have problems stopping Aaron Rodgers and the Packers’ high-octane offense, but the ultimate antidote is a ball-control offense. Few teams can control the clock like the Cowboys, thanks to an outstanding offensive line and running back DeMarco Murray. … Add in the Dallas passing game (Tony Romo finished with a higher passer rating and completion percentage than Rodgers) and the fact that the Cowboys were a perfect 8-0 on the road this season, including a victory at Seattle, and the setup is there for a tremendous matchup, if not an outright upset, if the two teams meet at Lambeau Field.

Indeed, that would be the most intriguing matchup of the divisional round if it came to fruition. And it would be no sure thing, at the very least, that Aaron Rodgers would finally move out of his tie with Daunte Culpepper for career playoff victories (one) at Lambeau Field.

TFD: Audie Cole posted a higher Pro Football Focus grade Sunday than Chad Greenway ever has

Audie Cole was a beast for the Vikings on Sunday, finishing with 14 tackles and generally flying all over the field filling in at linebacker for Chad Greenway.

Just how good was he? Well, Pro Football Focus has this to say after Cole graded out at a +7.8 for his game:

Cole’s grade in this game is a better figure than Greenway has ever achieved. The last game Greenway has even had in that ballpark was in Week 11 of the 2008 season. … Bridgewater had another fine day but the best player on the field was Cole, who had a monster game heading into the offseason which ought to make the team think about his potential as a starter there next season.

Vikings coach Mike Zimmer has voiced some opinions about Pro Football Focus before, asking people to take those grades “with a grain of salt.”

Still, that’s a pretty eye-popping number (and game) from Cole.

Mid-day talker: Can Wild pull itself out of eerily similar tailspin with another strong January?

yeoOn Dec. 27, 2013, the Wild lost 6-4 to Winnipeg. It was Minnesota’s fourth consecutive defeat as part of a dreadful December, and the Wild found itself the next day in 9th place in the West and on the outside looking in when it came to the playoffs. A season of promise was quickly turning to a season of despair, and rumors about Mike Yeo’s job status were part of the daily Twin Cities sports discussion.

The Wild finished off the calendar year with two more losses, but that gloom and doom gave way to an equally surprising turnaround. The team went 14-4-2 in its next 20 games, launching itself toward the playoffs. From there, of course, Minnesota made the playoffs and played its best hockey in the postseason — first knocking off Colorado in seven games and then pushing Chicago in a six-game series loss. That playoff push gave Yeo new job security in the form of a multi-year contract and created all sorts of enthusiasm about the 2014-15 Wild being primed for bigger and better things.

Instead, we’re right back where we started. Like, almost literally. On Dec. 27, 2014, the Wild lost to the Jets. Just as they had in 2013, they also lost to the Flyers on Dec. 23. The Winnipeg loss was their fifth in a row — sure, three came with the caveat of earning a point as part of an overtime defeat, but the overall picture is similar to a year ago: 10th place for the Wild, griping about the system and no relief in sight.

The Wild has pulled itself from this kind of fire before, as noted above, and it really started with unexpectedly good goaltending (primarily by Darcy Kuemper). One minor thing the Wild has going for it: at only 33 games played, it has at least a game or two in hand on a lot of the teams it is chasing.

That won’t matter, of course, unless Minnesota can get a similar turnaround to last season — almost certainly, again, starting with the goaltending of Kuemper. Would you bet on Yeo and his crew turning around a spiraling season for a second year in a row?

Monday (What if Peterson played all year for Vikings) edition: Wha’ Happened?

petersonThe greatest hypothetical question for the just-completed Vikings season is, of course, what would have happened to this 7-9 squad had Adrian Peterson played the entire season instead of missing 15 of 16 games as a consequence of his legal problems?

Like all hypothetical questions, it’s impossible to know the answer (unless you have a key to an alternate universe that would play out the 2014 Vikings season with AP in the mix. If you do, please don’t use it on football. Use it on something cool like a version of The Matrix in which Tom Cruise really does get the role of Neo).

In the mean time, all we can do is make an educated guess. And here are three things we think would have happened:

1) First, clearly, it would have benefited the Vikings. We probably don’t need a hypothetical answer to know that. But how much would it have benefited the Vikings?

We’ve heard it suggested that the Vikings might have challenged for the playoffs with Peterson on the roster all year, and that is almost certainly not true. There were too many other holes on this team, and there is also the relative contribution of running backs to victories.

The site Advanced Football Analytics attempts to put a value on players called “Win Probability Added,” which is similar to baseball’s “Wins Above Replacement.” It’s an imperfect stat, but it at least gives us a baseline for a conversation.

In the course of his career, Peterson’s cumulative WPA is 4.15. Yes, just a little more than four wins for his entire career. Even in his best season, Peterson’s WPA was 1.24 (2012, his MVP year). Matt Asiata this year had a WPA of 0.45, good for 14th in the league. So based on raw numbers, even if Peterson had his best season ever, the difference between Peterson and Asiata would have been good enough for fewer than one win. (A really good quarterback can have a WPA for a single season above 5, as Aaron Rodgers did this year. Teddy Bridgewater’s WPA was 1.33 this season, 21st in the NFL and still better than Peterson’s MVP year — underscoring how much more QB play matters than running back play).

Again, this is an imperfect metric. It’s hard to account for just how much Peterson changes a defense’s focus and how he might have helped in both the running and passing games. But the best guess is maybe the Vikings would have finished 8-8 with Peterson. Maybe 9-7 in an extraordinary case. And quite possibly they would have finished 7-9, just as they did.

2) Had Peterson played all year, we’re fairly sure there would have been at least a slightly different evaluation of Bridgewater and Mike Zimmer. Both had strong first years, providing hope for the future. But both also had grades that had the caveat “considering they were without their best player for almost the entire season” attached. Had they produced close to the same seasons with Peterson as they did without him, we imagine the view would have been complimentary but not as much so for both Zimmer and Bridgewater.

3) The Vikings would now be facing a difficult offseason decision based purely on football. Peterson will turn 30 before his NFL suspension is over and well before the 2015 season. He is due to count more than $15 million against next year’s salary cap but the Vikings can cut him and pay a small fraction of that — which would free up more money to fix things like the offensive line. Based on the shelf life of NFL running backs and other holes on the team, parting ways with Peterson might be a prudent, if unpopular, decision. Had the Vikings gone into the offseason with this decision looming based solely on football, it would be very difficult to sell to the public. As it is, they face a similarly tough decision, but if they part ways with Peterson they can at least sell it as a parting of ways and a fresh start — maybe even something mutually agreed upon by both sides.

RandBall Q&A: Twins GM Terry Ryan on spending and competing

ryanWe had a chance to chat this morning with Twins GM Terry Ryan for a Q&A that will run in print and online later this week. But as often happens, we had more material than we could cram into the allotted print space. Here, then, are a few relevant leftovers from the interview — along with one definitive quote that will appear in the print version as well.

Q The narrative early in the offseason seemed to be that the payroll would likely be around what it was a season ago. What happened in the last month?

A Depending on the player and depending on the years and those types of decisions, usually ownership has allowed us to go up or down. The (Ervin) Santana signing was out of need and necessity. We need starting pitching and he was still on the board. He had interest in us, and vice-versa so we went and did that. Yeah, it affected the payroll, but I don’t recall Jim Pohlad or myself or anybody associated with the Twins saying we were going to be at a certain number.

Q Do you need more quality arms these days than you used to?

A Historically, I think it takes quite a few pitchers and I don’t think it matters if we’re talking about 1990 or 2015. You always need quantity, and if you have a combination of quality and quantity you’re in very good shape. Through the years we’ve had numbers to pick from and people down at Triple-A or maybe Double-A that you could reach down and get. But if you look at the playoff teams last year, for instance, they had people who were close or ready to go when they had a disappointment, injury or setback of some sort. Kyle Gibson showed signs last year. There was too much inconsistency but he got through the year, we didn’t have to worry about the pitch limit or protection. Now we’re beyond that and we’re hoping he takes the next step forward. (Phil) Hughes had a very good year for us, and he’s 28 and you have to think there’s more in the tank with him in terms of upside. Santana has a very good track record, but (Ricky) Nolasco had a disappointing year. We’ve got people there where you’d like to think with some tweaking, luck and work and all the things that come with it, maybe even the surroundings or environment, that we’ve got a chance, for the most part, to put a guy out there that will give us a chance. Some of those younger guys, you never know how quick some of them are going to come. Alex Meyer (who turns 25 on Jan. 3), it’s about his turn. (Trevor) May (who turned 25 in September), it’s about his turn. Those guys have plenty of minor league innings. You’d like to think they’d take a step forward and put some pressure on some of these other fellas. You’re not going to get through the schedule without having to reach down. I would think our pitching, we have (Mike) Pelfrey and (Tommy) Milone and a few other guys in that area, we have a chance to be able to at least have the type of depth you’re going to have to have to get through the schedule with consistency and winning games.

Q Have we already seen the biggest moves the team is likely to make this offseason, or is there still room for more acquisitions, either by free agency or trade?

A I don’t think there is going to be that type of impact signing. I’m not going to ever say never because you can’t tell. I never thought I’d be able to do something with Kendrys Morales last year, but right now the impact signing, no. But we still have some things we should accomplish here before we head to Fort Myers.

Final word from Ryan: “One thing that’s apparent in today’s game with Kansas City and the Pirates and some of the other teams from smaller markets is that there aren’t any excuses. There never should be, but there aren’t any now. They’ve proved that. To a degree, we did in the mid-2000s and late 2000s, but I think it’s more apparent now with the teams that are getting into the postseason that there’s no reason anybody should be making any excuses.”