We’ve come a long way in five years, Minnesota pro sports

tirefireOn Dec. 31, 2010, the local pro sports landscape was a smoldering tire fire about to catch full blaze.

The Vikings, who just a year before had made it within a whisper of the Super Bowl, had imploded in Year 2 of the Brett Favre experiment and were clearly headed for a rebuild that would produce just three victories in 2011.

The Wild were stumbling through year three of a four-year playoff drought and would fire head coach Todd Richards in 2011.

The Timberwolves were in the midst of a 17-win season, not to be confused with the 15-win season of 2009-10 that preceded it.

The Twins? They finished a glorious first regular season at Target Field just a few months before the calendar flipped to 2011, but they were also swept by the Yankees in the playoffs. It was the warning sign nobody was ready for, one that would predict four consecutive 90-loss seasons starting in 2011.

The Lynx, at the end of 2010, had won exactly one playoff game (and no series) in their entire history. They were a floundering franchise trying to get a foothold in the local market.

Local pro soccer was a mess; the longtime Thunder had been replaced by the Stars, with a murky financial and ownership situation looming as 2010 become 2011.

All of this is a long way of saying: we’ve come a long way in five years.

Five years later, the Vikings head into the regular-season finale with a playoff berth sewn up and a chance to win the division against rival Green Bay. They look like they have found their long-term coach and quarterback, two huge keys in the NFL these days.

The Wild has made the playoffs each of the last three seasons, making it to the second round each of the past two, and appear headed for another postseason berth and shot at Stanley Cup glory.

The Timberwolves appear to have a better foundation for the future than at any point since the first go-round of Kevin Garnett. They are not winning at a big rate yet, but they are greatly improved this year over last and appear to have a chance to legitimately turn the corner.

The Twins, after those four dreadful seasons, had a winning 2015 and, much like the Vikings and Wolves, their best years seem to be ahead of them.

The Lynx? All they’ve done is won three WNBA titles since 2010, going from afterthoughts in the league and in this market to a dynasty to be reckoned with.

Pro soccer went from floundering to solid footing when Bill McGuire bought the franchise and re-branded it Minnesota United. Things took another leap forward in 2015 with the announcement that McGuire’s group had won a bid for a Major League Soccer expansion team. As 2016 beckons, so does work on a new stadium.

It’s hard to say for sure that we’re headed for a golden age in local pro sports, but it’s not hard to say this: compared to where things were five years ago, this feels awfully good — and all indications are that it will only get better.

Plenty of credit for Vikings’ success, but it starts with Zimmer

zimmerAs someone who tends to be an Indignant Minnesotan, I read a recent ESPN.com Insider story/list of the five NFL head coaches who have been most impressive this season with a certain slant. The premise was that Bill Belichick is and always will be No. 1. What followed was the next five, and as is the case with many lists like this my eyes immediately searched for the Minnesota connection (in this case Vikings coach Mike Zimmer).

Alas, he didn’t crack Mike Sando’s top five. To be sure, the five who did — Ron Rivera, Bruce Arians, Andy Reid, Jay Gruden and Todd Bowles — are worthy. But it was hard for me to imagine even an exclusive list of most impressive coaches that didn’t include Zimmer, who has taken a young team with a second-year QB into the playoffs with a chance to be NFC North champs.

It doesn’t really matter, of course, but it does reinforce this opinion: when doling out credit for the Vikings’ evolution from 5 wins in 2013 to 7 wins last year in Zimmer’s first season to 10 and counting this season, there are plenty of stops along the way. But a persuasive argument can be made that at the top you should put the common denominator: Zimmer himself.

The head coach’s steady hand has pushed almost all the right buttons since taking over, establishing himself as a coach who commands respect and gets respect but also who gives respect to his players in a genuine way. He has cultivated what looks to be — at least from a distance — a near-perfect team-coach relationship.

He has been given talent to work with — and kudos certainly should go, too, to GM Rick Spielman for assembling a roster that some NFL insiders agree has caught up to the Packers and in fact surpassed the NFC North rivals in terms of talent at many positions.

But Zimmer has also done a wonderful job in his two seasons of identifying the types of players who will excel in his system and helping them become standouts while also elevating to new heights those players whose tenures with the Vikings predate his. He has remained steady in his approach; while some of us (yeah, this is a self-critique) screamed for Cordarrelle Patterson to get more offensive snaps, Zimmer and his coaches stuck with the players they trusted. And the offense has responded. He pieced together winning game plans with his three best defensive players out.

All of his players obviously deserve plenty of credit, too. They are the ones making the plays. You can preach and scheme all you want, but if players lack the mental and/or physical gifts to execute a plan and make plays, very few good things will happen.

But even those of us on record at the beginning of the season with a prediction of a 10-win season, playoffs and a chance to win the NFC North on the final weekend (yeah, I’m praising myself here because so rarely am I right about these things) would agree that in practical terms the Vikings have arrived a year ahead of schedule. Prevailing sentiment was that these two years at TCF Bank Stadium would be building seasons, with the Vikings really ready to make a leap when they moved into their permanent new home at U.S. Bank Stadium in 2016.

Instead, here they are — with a puncher’s chance to overtake the Packers and with an anything-can-happen ticket already into the playoffs. It took a total team effort to get here. But if you’re looking to put someone at the top, Zimmer is that guy.

NFL player, after seeing ‘Concussion,’ feels ‘a bit betrayed’

A few weeks back, I saw an advance screening of “Concussion,” a movie chronicling Bennet Omalu’s discover of CTE in NFL players and the league’s subsequent fight to obscure his discovery. I focused not so much on the film itself but the larger issue that the movie raises: namely, the complicated relationship we all have with football now that we know the long-term risks.

My relationship is complicated because I write about football (and many other sports) for a living. But it’s nowhere near as complicated as that of D’Brickashaw Ferguson, a veteran NFL offensive lineman. Ferguson saw “Concussion” recently and has also read up on the subject. He wrote about it for SI.com, and he wrote quite well.

Ferguson wrote about being naive about what could cause brain injuries, with a few key lines:

After learning all of this, I feel a bit betrayed by the people or committees put in place by the league who did not have my best interests at heart. Dr. Elliot Pellman was one of the Jets’ team doctors when I was a rookie in 2006, and to learn that he was a part of the group that tried to discredit the scope and impact of brain injuries among players within the league is disheartening.

And:

It’s a different conversation when you are involved in the story and not just watching a movie about it. I fear the unavoidable truth is that playing football has placed me in harm’s way, and I am not yet sure of the full extent of what it might cost me. And yet, would I do it all again? I would, considering what I have accomplished on and off the field because of my relationship with football. My involvement in the game from eighth grade to the NFL has been a journey that I couldn’t imagine not having as part of my life story. But learning about CTE and brain injuries have made me wonder if I would so easily allow my child to follow my footsteps. If I had a son, would I let him play? I struggle to answer this question. I sincerely believe that the game has and will continue to improve on all levels and put its players in the best possible position, but I do have doubts in whether that is something that I would want to let my child pursue.

You can read the entire piece here.

Gophers 21, Central Michigan 14: Better than the opposite

quicklaneI hesitate to call the Gophers’ Quick Lane Bowl appearance Monday vs. Central Michigan a no-win proposition since quite literally that’s not true, but in judging the reactions of some observers it sure felt that way.

If Minnesota would have lost to Central Michigan, putting an unflattering bow on a 5-8 season, the naysayers would have pounced on the opportunity to declare the loss was one more bit of proof that the Gophers will never be good. How could they be, if they can’t even win the Quick Lane Bowl?

But that didn’t happen. Minnesota won 21-14 in a balanced game. That didn’t dampen the spirits of those who wanted to discredit the program, though. The talking points: the Gophers almost lost to a bad team; they still finished with a losing record; they didn’t even deserve to be in the bowl game in the first place.

Perhaps it’s a good time to remember this, on the heels of both the Quick Lane Bowl and the Vikings’ victory over the Giants: a win is a win. You can only play who is on your schedule. If your starting point is to discredit what transpires, win or lose, based on the quality of opponent, meaning of the game or both, then what’s the point of even caring or watching?

Certainly the Gophers recognize Monday’s victory for what it was: a nice way to end a disappointing season, a victory that broke a seven-game bowl losing streak, and a victory that in every way possible was better than the alternatives of either not playing or playing and losing.

Same goes for the Vikings, who took advantage of a disinterested Giants team and cruised to a playoff berth Sunday. Beating a bad team is sure better than losing to a bad team.

It is possible to maintain that perspective, even if it appears some fans just want to be unhappy no matter what.

The Colts are reportedly set to sign ex-Viking QB Josh Freeman

freemanThe Colts went into this season with one of the best young quarterbacks in the league. Andrew Luck had been remarkably effective and durable in his first three seasons in the league, playing all 48 games from 2012-14.

But he’s played just seven games this season, forcing Indy to turn to Matt Hasselbeck and then Charlie Whitehurst. Now both of those veterans are ailing (Hasselbeck is doubtful next week, Whitehurst is on IR), Luck’s status is still uncertain and … well … desperate times call for desperate measures.

Per the Twitter feed of Bob Kravitz, the Colts worked out Josh Freeman — who hasn’t appeared in a regular-season NFL game since that Monday night debacle for the Vikings against the Giants in 2013 — and are likely going to sign him. Stephen Morris, who came into the league in 2014 as an undrafted free agent, is the likely starter. Freeman, assuming he’s signed, could see action if something happens to Morris.

What a country. What a league.

Teddy Bridgewater: The Vikings’ rare 3,000-yard passer

teddyrodgersEarly on in Sunday night’s rout of the Giants, Vikings QB Teddy Bridgewater passed a modest but still significant passing yardage milestone: 3,000 yards in the 2015 season.

No big deal, right? Well, it probably shouldn’t be. After all, 21 other NFL QBs have already reached that mark this season, while seven are already past 4,000 yards. Last season, 22 QBs threw for at least 3,000 yards and 11 threw for more than 4,000.

Daunte Culpepper used to routinely reach this mark. He got there in 2000, 2002, 2003 and 2004 — the last of which being the season in which he shattered the team record (still standing) with 4,717 passing yards. In all, a Vikings QB has reached the 3,000-yard mark 16 times.

But in the 10-season span between 2005 (the year Culpepper blew out his knee) and 2014, just one Vikings quarterback made it to 3,000 yards: Brett Favre in 2009. Yes, as the NFL grew increasingly pass-happy (there were just 14 QBs who threw for 3,000 yards in 2005, while the number has been at least 20 every season this decade), the Vikings went in the opposite direction.

This speaks to a lot of things, of course. At the head of the list is inconsistency at the QB spot since Culpepper’s injury, which has impacted the Vikings year-to-year and more specifically within seasons. It’s been rare for a Vikings quarterback to play a full season (or close to it) in the last decade. Favre did it in 2009 and topped 4,000 yards. Christian Ponder did it in 2012 (though he came up just short of 3,000 at 2,935). The fewer games your primary QB plays in a season, the less likely you are to have a 3,000-yard passer.

That quarterback shuffle, of course, speaks to the Vikings’ decade-long search for a permanent quarterback solution post-Daunte. Tarvaris Jackson and Ponder were failed draft picks. Stopgaps like Gus Frerotte, Matt Cassel and Donovan McNabb were not particularly effective. Favre had one magical season, and that accounts for the one 3,000-yard season before Bridgewater cracked the code this year.

Having a quarterback reach the 3,000-yard mark is a given for two-thirds of NFL teams these days. For the Vikings, it’s cause for celebration — a modest benchmark, sure, but a signal that for a nice change of pace they have stability at the position.

Vikings fans: Please stop talking about preferring a loss to Green Bay

Sunday was a weird day in the NFL. Most of us went into the day thinking the Vikings would likely have a playoff spot wrapped up by the time their Sunday night game kicked off. After all, all that needed to happen was Carolina beating Atlanta OR Seattle beating the Rams. Carolina hadn’t lost all year. Seattle was a huge home favorite.

So much for that.

It created an odd tenor for the Vikings vs. Giants game, whereby the Vikings hadn’t clinched a playoff spot but by virtue of Green Bay getting walloped at Arizona it had already been determined next week’s game at Lambeau would decide the NFC North champ.

I have a feeling Mike Zimmer secretly enjoyed this. He’s an earn it guy, not a back it in guy, and having his team need to stay sharp by beating the Giants was a great thing. And his team certainly did that, with the Vikings dominating New York.

The surprising Seattle loss combined with the Vikings win added another interesting dynamic to the postseason puzzle: Minnesota has three separate teams it could face in the first game of the postseason, now that it has clinched a spot.

A win next week at Green Bay gives the Vikings the No. 3 seed. Regardless of what Seattle does next week, the Seahawks would be the No. 6 seed (if they finish in a tie with the Packers at 10-6, Green Bay has the tiebreaker). That would mean the Vikings will host Seattle if they win the division.

A loss next week at Green Bay presents two outcomes based on what Seattle does. If the Seahawks lose to the Cardinals, the Vikings would be the No. 5 seed and play at Washington. If the Seahawks beat the Cardinals, the Vikings would be the No. 6 seed and turn right back around for a third crack at the Packers (the Seahawks have the tiebreaker edge over the Vikings).

I presented these scenarios on Twitter tonight, and there is an undercurrent of Vikings fandom that suggests the Vikings would be better off losing next week in order to potentially play Washington (or even Green Bay) instead of a matchup with Seattle, which dominated the Vikings at TCF Bank Stadium earlier this year.

Here’s the thing: I understand the place from which this sentiment is coming from. But it really needs to stop. Winning the NFC North by beating the Packers at Lambeau would be a symbolic victory. But it would also be more than that.

The playoffs are full of tough teams. Washington is playing well right now. You always want the home game, regardless of opponent. Seattle, here, in frigid January might be a totally different team than the one we saw a few weeks ago. Get the three seed, win a home game, win a road game, and there’s a chance you’ll get to host the NFC title game if the other top team goes down.

If the Vikings end up losing next week and up as the No. 5 or No. 6 seed, so be it. But that’s the fallback, not the preference. Always.

MLS at TCF? U official says there have been preliminary talks

I had a chance to catch up Friday with Scott Ellison, the associate athletic director for facilities at the U of M, on a number of subjects. We mainly chatted about the end of the Vikings’ tenure at TCF Bank Stadium, which will be the focus of a later print Q&A, but I also asked him about soccer.

There are no guarantees yet when Minnesota United will begin play in Major League Soccer, but the two choices are 2017 and 2018. If it’s the former — which SI.com reported recently is seeming more likely — United’s new stadium won’t be complete yet, and they’ll be looking for a temporary home for one season.

There has been speculation about where United will wind up in that case. SI.com noted that Target Field is a possibility for at least some games.

As for TCF Bank Stadium? I asked Ellison about that, and here’s what he said: “Yeah, there have been some prelimary talks, just trying to figure out if it’s possible. With the artificial turf it’s hard. That would be one consideration. And how do you flip the turf from soccer to football. That’s about as far as we’ve gotten — is it feasible based on our schedule?”

That sounds quite preliminary, indeed, but it is interesting that such a contingency is already being discussed before anything is made official on United’s start date.

TCF’s artificial turf is a drawback. When the stadium hosted a major international match between Manchester City and Olympiakos in the summer of 2014, temporary sod was placed on the field. Players complained about the quality, and Ellison noted that it’s “not a good solution.”

“You can’t get a sod depth that enables root growth,” he said. “That’s the big thing. You have to have a base that stabilizes it.”

Further evidence that Karl-Anthony Towns is a good person

townsTimberwolves rookie Karl-Anthony Towns seems like a good person. This perception, formed over the past several months of merely observing and listening to the No. 1 overall pick, should not be taken as a fact. There are too many examples of people throughout history from all walks of life — certainly not just athletes — who have a public persona that does not match their behind-the-scenes existence.

As such, any opportunity to see an athlete like Towns away from a basketball court or a media scrum is a chance to make a better-informed decision about him as a person. To some fans, that doesn’t even matter. To them, as long as a player produces on the field/court/ice, what they do off it is irrelevant. Others will buy the public persona no matter what. Still others overcorrect and assume the worst about star players.

In any event, Thursday presented a chance to see Towns away from the court — albeit at a manufactured corporate appearance, but one that had potential. Towns surprised 15 boys and girls from a YMCA in North Minneapolis with $150 DICK’S Sport Goods gift cards at the store in Richfield as part of DICK’S “Sports Matter” initiative. He shot baskets with the kids in the store and took them on a shopping spree to help them use their gift cards.

These types of giveaways are common around the holidays. Caribou Coffee teamed up with Zach Parise. Former North Stars players shopped Friday at Toys ‘R’ Us, purchasing items to donate to Toys for Tots. It’s good PR for the stores and the athletes. It helps people in need. It makes for good video. Everyone is happy.

I was particularly interested in Towns, though, on a number of levels — first and foremost being he is barely 20 years old himself, only a handful of years older than some of the kids he was surprising Thursday. Tabbing someone that young as a role model can be a lot to put on them, but that’s where Towns finds himself.

What I look for at events like this are signs that an athlete isn’t just going through the motions. These are obligations, yes, but do the athletes understand just what they mean?

Towns checked all the right boxes in his introduction to the kids, a made-up ruse in which it was pretended that the kids needed basketballs to shoot on one of the in-store hoops, whereby Towns emerged from a hidden doorway with basketballs in hand. He was engaging and obliging, even honoring a request to dunk on one of the baskets. He walked around with the kids for a good 15 minutes, checking out shoes and other merchandise.

Then there was a brief break so Towns could chat with assembled media members. But before that, while a member of the DICK’S team was doing on-camera interviews, there was a moment that stands out above the rest when trying to assess Towns’ character.

Towns was chatting with a couple corporate folks who were handling the event. I was several feet away, within earshot but not in the conversation. Unprompted, Towns started talking about how the event was going so far. He conveyed that he felt like he had spent a lot of time already with the younger kids, but that he wanted to make sure once the interviews were done that he got a chance to spend more time with the older kids. The gist was that he wanted to spread his time equally and ensure everyone got the most out of the experience, himself included.

A minute later, he was on camera, providing the requisite sound bites about loving to see the smiles on kids’ faces when he walked in to greet them. Anybody can say that. I’m almost positive Towns meant it.

“Almost positive” is about as close as we can get to knowing what athletes — or anyone, really — are all about. So consider that a compliment and a further indicator that Towns is, indeed, the good person he seems to be.

ESPN’s McShay: Spielman ‘underrated,’ Vikings will look to draft another LB

spielmanThe 2016 NFL draft isn’t until late April, but ESPN assembled a conference call with draft expert Todd McShay today, Thursday, Dec. 17 to talk about it. That says a lot about many things, and maybe it even says something about me because yes, I jumped on it to ask McShay about the Vikings. My two-part question (sneaky!) asked him to both evaluate GM Rick Spielman’s performance in the draft, particularly in the last four years when Minnesota has had eight combined first-round picks, and look ahead to what the Vikings might be thinking in 2016. Here is what McShay had to say:

*ON SPIELMAN AND RECENT DRAFT HISTORY: “They’ve put themselves in good position, really, when you look at what they’ve been able to do. I think Rick Spielman has done a really good job and is one of the better, more underrated GMs when you look at his draft history.

“I know he has a couple issues. Christian Ponder is obviously the one that stands out. But it looks right now like Teddy Bridgewater, while he hasn’t had an amazing year, continues to develop. That looks to be a good pick, right at the end of the first round, after getting Anthony Barr (in 2014). They’ve played (Barr) differently than he was played mostly at UCLA, and it’s benefited him. They had a plan for Barr, and they’re getting the most out of him.

Eric Kendricks, I love that pick from a year ago. Trae Waynes and Kendricks, we’ll see, it’s very early. Sharrif Floyd is starting to play better, and we saw more out of him this year. I think overall when you look at Matt Kalil, Harrison Smith … some of the guys you can look at and say they haven’t been exceptional, but overall they haven’t had many misses and that’s critical in early rounds. I think they’ve done a very good job. Stefon Diggs is a good example of a guy they found in the fifth round who has been able to come in and been a big help to the football team.”

*ON WHAT THE VIKINGS WILL LOOK FOR EARLY IN THE 2016 DRAFT: “Chad Greenway, I believe his contract is up at the end of this year, and with a lot of good weakside linebacker types in this year’s draft, I think that’s a position to watch. Jaylon Smith from Notre Dame probably will be gone based on where Minnesota is projected to draft right now, but with if Darron Lee from Ohio State ends up leaving early, Miles Jack from UCLA, there are some good players who could wind up fitting what they need at that position. So that would probably be the top spot there I would say if you’re looking at next year considering some of the contracts and what they’re looking at.