Bears 20, Vikings 10: The game story in 1 GIF

This season after Vikings games, I’ve been putting together a story of the game in five GIFs (and some accompanying words, too). It’s been a fun exercise. See, I did it here and here, for example. Those were some good times.

But it’s late. Nobody wants to read about that putrid display in Chicago. They just want to head straight to the comments. So here you go: the story of the game in one GIF. That’s it:

fire garbage dumpster dumpster fire

Five things that have gone right for the Wild so far

dubnykI’m not contractually obligated to tell you that I’m losing 6-0 in my friendly wager with Rocket over which team will win more games this season (Wild or Wolves), but I do think it’s only fair to point out the good so far for the Wild after pointing out the bad so far for the Wolves.

Some of these things are fairly obvious, but even so they’re worth illustrating — again to both see exactly how the Wild is getting it done during this 6-2-1 start and also to see if we should expect more of the same. So here are five things that have gone right for the Wild:

1) Devan Dubnyk. The Wild’s starting goalie was off to a decent start through his first handful of games, but suddenly he looks like a brick wall. With three consecutive shutouts (94 saves total), Dubnyk has looked in large part like the savior he was down the stretch in 2014-15 instead of the average goalie he was much of last season.

Here’s where the question of “sustainability” and “regression” become tricky. Obviously Dubnyk won’t put up 73 more shutouts in a row, but that doesn’t mean he won’t continue to play at a high level. The Wild scored 13 goals combined in those three shutouts, so even good play from the goalie might be enough on a lot of nights.

2) Penalty killing. Dubnyk can take some credit for this, too, since his 96.3 save percentage while short-handed is among the best in the NHL, but playing short-handed requires effort from everyone on the ice. The Wild has allowed just one goal in 26 opponent power plays — best in the NHL. The Wild has scored one short-handed goal, too, so essentially Minnesota is even when down at least one man. That’s incredible.

Again, that rate won’t continue. It’s healthy to be skeptical of just how good the Wild can be on the penalty kill as the season goes on, considering Minnesota was 27th in the league in that metric last year. But new personnel and new systems can work wonders in special teams situations. So far, the penalty kill has been a major strength.

3) Even-strength goal scoring. The flip side of special teams is the Wild only has four power play goals in 30 chances. But Minnesota has compensated with 27 even-strength goals in nine games. That’s a ton, and it’s a big part of the reason Minnesota ranks No. 2 in the NHL in overall goals per game so far (3.56).

4) Balanced scoring. Perhaps just as impressive as all those even-strength tallies is how they are being distributed. The Wild has had 18 different players score at least one goal already, and nobody has more than four (newcomer Eric Staal is the team leader at that number, Ryan Suter and Charlie Coyle have three each, and a ton of guys have two).

Good hockey teams have good balance. The Wild has shown it can roll four lines and get some offense from its blue line. Sustaining that will be a key for a team that is missing Zach Parise right now and that doesn’t have any lights-out scorers to begin with.

5) Riding the wave of a new head coach. A new voice in a hockey locker room can have a major impact, at least in the short term. (Remember, the Wild won eight of its first 11 under interim John Torchetti last season).

Bruce Boudreau seems to be pushing the right buttons so far, and he’s easily the Wild’s most accomplished coach since Jacques Lemaire. His track record suggests the Wild can keep winning, though it’s also reasonable to expect Minnesota to go through some lulls after the honeymoon phase is over.

Five things that have gone wrong for the Wolves so far

thibsIn a recapping some thoughts on the weekend for Monday’s paper, I led off with a few sentences about the Timberwolves. The gist: the sky is not falling after two losses, but that doesn’t mean we can’t classify setbacks at Memphis and Sacramento as bad losses.

Another takeaway: it’s far too early to draw any hard conclusions about this year’s team, particularly in relation to disappointing Wolves teams in the past. That said, we can attempt to understand a little more about what has gone wrong so far to better gauge A) what needs to improve and B) how easy that will be.

1) Three-point disparity. The Timberwolves last season made 287 fewer three-pointers than their opponents (3.5 per game) and made them at a lower rate (33.8 percent for the Wolves, 35.5 percent for opponents).

Coach Tom Thibodeau has noted the disparity between threes made and threes allowed last year, saying in the preseason that the gap basically meant the Wolves were starting every game 10 points behind. Improving on that is a point of emphasis. In three of Thibs’ five seasons in Chicago, the Bulls made more threes and shot a higher percentage than their foes. The other two years, they were basically even. So even if Thibodeau isn’t going to turn the Wolves into the new Warriors or Rockets, he’s knows the value of 3 vs. 2 and coaches accordingly.

With the Wolves so far this season, though, it’s been more of the same thing we saw over the balance of last season. Minnesota has made 13 of 40 (32.5 percent) of its threes, while opponents have made 20 of 50 (40 percent). If you’re scoring at home, that’s exactly 3.5 more threes per game for opponents, and again that 10-point starting gap Thibodeau referenced.

Considering the Wolves have lost their two games by an average of exactly 3.5 points, this is very meaningful. That said, it’s also the kind of thing that might be correctable as the Wolves get more comfortable in Thibodeau’s system — both offensively and defensively.

2) The defense still isn’t there. Speaking of Thibodeau’s system, he has a reputation of being a defensive-minded coach. The Wolves, outside of three-point shooting, were a capable offensive team last year — but they were often a brutally bad defensive team last season. Remaking these Wolves in his defensive image will be Thibs’ toughest task, and so far it’s not going so well.

Through two games, the Wolves rank in the top half of the NBA in the “offensive four factors” (effective field goal percentage, turnover percentage, offensive rebound percentage and free throw/field goal attempt percentage). But they’re in the bottom half of the NBA defensively in those four categories.

Combined with the three-point numbers, this is where the “same old Timberwolves” narrative picks up steam. But again, remember: this is a sample size of 96 minutes under a brand new coach. I fully expect the defensive numbers to improve because Thibodeau won’t put up with players who don’t or won’t play defense. Ricky Rubio’s elbow injury against Sacramento (the extent of which isn’t yet known) would hurt in that regard, though rookie point guard Kris Dunn was drafted with a defensive reputation.

3) Free throws. This is a new wrinkle from last year, when the Wolves ranked fourth in free throw percentage (nearly 80 percent) and second in free throw attempts per game (27) — real strengths of the offense. So far in two games, the attempts are robust (30 per game), but the Wolves have made just 42 of 60 overall (70 percent). If they were making at the same rate as last year, they would have about six more points to spread over two games — points that could have made a difference in one or both games considering they lost by 3 and 4 points, respectively.

Of the things that have gone wrong so far, this one is the least worrisome long-term. This is a good free-throw shooting team. They’re still getting to the line. Those misses were costly, but they should turn into more makes long-term.

4) A young team is still learning to build on leads and close out games. This one and No. 5 are a little less concrete. The Wolves have held early leads of 17 and 18 points, respectively, in these two losses. In the NBA, virtually every game is going to tighten from there — but the good teams find a way to avoid giving it all back. The Wolves haven’t been able to stop the bleeding offensively or defensively when they get in a rut (as evidenced by Sacramento’s 24-1 run in the second half).

“The third quarter was a problem, a big problem,” Thibodeau said. “We have to get a lot tougher. That’s what I see.”

Again, that’s easier said than done. Instilling that toughness to finish games — something the Wolves started to do better toward the end of last year — will be another key for the new coach.

5) The burden of expectations. Just speculating on this one, but fans are more excited and optimistic about this Wolves team than at any point in more than a decade. The only squad that comes close is the 2013-14 group that went 40-42 with Kevin Love leading the way.

Players have talked openly about the postseason being a goal. National publications have fawned over the young Wolves. There are real expectations for turning potential into results this season, and that’s a weight much of the Wolves’ young core is unaccustomed to carrying, at least as pros. That burden isn’t going away. If it’s a factor, it’s the kind of thing that players will have to nearly to thrive off of.

Ratings for Bill Simmons’ ‘Any Given Wednesday’ on HBO are terrible

simmonsWhen Bill Simmons’ new TV show “Any Given Wednesday” debuted on HBO in June, it was the culmination of somewhat of a bidding war for the services of the former ESPN giant.

Four months later, the show is performing so poorly that some are already speculating where Simmons could wind up next — on the rebound, if HBO decides to dump him.

The most recent episode Wednesday drew just 82,000 live viewers — the poorest showing of any of the 16 episodes since its June 22 launch.

As noted by The Big Lead, the show’s 9 p.m. (Central) time slot put it in direct competition with the World Series and NBA games this past week, meaning much of Simmons’ potential core audience was likely watching something else. And as noted during the initial run of mediocre ratings, the show has done better in non-live platforms like HBO Now.

Still, both pieces note the lack of viral content on the show. And in the Big Lead item, the discussion quickly pivots from talk of an underperforming show to speculation as to whether HBO would consider moving on from Simmons in spite of a reportedly hefty investment in him — and where Simmons would go if that happened.

I don’t have HBO. I also have never once considered searching for clips of Simmons’ show. Perhaps my habits are reflective of Simmons’ five million-plus Twitter followers (though I confess, I also unfollowed Bill on that platform a while ago, probably because of one too many Boston sports rants).

Still, while 82,000 viewers is far more than anyone who has ever watched a TV show I was on (in its heyday, the critically acclaimed “Purple Funk” cable access show brought in about 200 viewers a week), it’s a little startling to think that barely 1 percent of his Twitter followers watched his show live last week.

Maybe the show will hit its stride with some tinkering and strong lead-ins (an episode in early October, right after “Deadpool,” had 267,000 live viewers).

If not, as TBL writes: “Simmons can blame the struggles of ESPN NBA Countdown back in 2014 on the show’s producers. Perhaps ESPN nixed the ‘Grantland Basketball Hour’ before it had a chance to flower. But, Simmons was given autonomy and control for ‘Any Given Wednesday.’ Maybe HBO was not that great of a fit, but this failure will stick to him.

Without Bridgewater’s injury, a Joe Thomas trade would be much easier

joethomasElements of Teddy Bridgewater’s season-ending injury will naturally remain a prominent part of this 2016 Vikings season.

On a human level, nobody wants to see a player suffer such a devastating injury — particularly his teammates and coaches, and particularly because Bridgewater is such a likable person.

On a professional level, there will always be the element of “what-if” when imagining how the season would have played out if he was healthy.

That said, the professional aspect had started to fade some when the Vikings traded for Sam Bradford and jumped to a 5-1 start — with Bradford playing well in the process.

But I’m here to revisit the on-field impact of Bridgewater’s injury in a different light: if he hadn’t been lost for the season, necessitating the Bradford trade, would offensive tackle Joe Thomas be a Viking?

We meandered to the subject on this week’s Access Vikings podcast, starting slowly when I wondered — on behalf of Vikings fans — if Minnesota should be considering making a deal for Thomas before Tuesday’s trade deadline. Reports suggest Cleveland is willing to part with him for a second-round pick.

Podcast co-hosts/Vikings writers Matt Vensel and Andrew Krammer made numerous good points as to why that would be difficult at this point (the talk starts around the 41:05 mark. The short answer: the Vikings are already hard pressed up against the salary cap — they needed some creativity just to sign Jake Long, another tackle, to a prorated veteran minimum deal — and also have less ammunition when it comes to draft picks. Rick Spielman was pretty clear a couple of weeks ago that any more improvement will have to come from within, a notion also pushed forward by coach Mike Zimmer.

The play of the offensive line all season — and particularly in Sunday’s loss to Philadelphia — has made fans thirsty for an upgrade regardless. They were desperate enough to latch onto what seemed like a pretty harmless quote from Seattle coach Pete Carroll Wednesday about the Vikings’ offensive line as a sign that Minnesota was going to trade for Thomas (really, it seemed like he was merely referencing Long).

However: if Bridgewater hadn’t been lost for the year, it’s not at all crazy to think the Vikings might have made a move for Thomas.

It’s reasonable to assume the Vikings would still be a contender based on Bridgewater’s projected improvement and what we now know about the defense’s dominance. It’s also reasonable to guess the offensive line would still be a problem if it was Bridgewater, not Bradford, under center.

Eliminate the Bradford trade — which cost the Vikings a first-round pick and a conditional fourth-round pick — and the Vikings have more ammunition to get Thomas. They also would have the cap room to do it, since Bradford’s number ($7 million) wouldn’t be on the books. Thomas’ pro-rated cap hit on the Vikings, if he was traded this week, would be about $5.5 million.

The Bradford trade also told us that Spielman A) thinks the Vikings are a legitimate contender this year and B) was willing to be bold and part with valuable draft capital in the pursuit of a game-changing player at a critical position. Bradford fits that bill. Thomas does, too.

That’s not to say the Vikings couldn’t still theoretically make a trade. But there are a lot hurdles that simply wouldn’t exist if not for Bridgewater’s injury. Add that to the pile of “what-ifs” from 2016.

Friendly wager: Who wins more this year — Wild or Wolves?

rubioThe history of wagering with my friend Rocket goes back at least 25 years, when we each put up $5 — a decent sum of money back in our early teen years — on the 1991 World Series. I took the Braves, my favorite team. He took the Twins.

When I grudgingly paid up, it was a moment I wouldn’t forget.

Fast-forward 25 years, and we have a new wager brewing. This one is a friendly one — no money involved, though we will likely think of something embarrassing that the loser has to do — involving the Timberwolves and the Wild.

The Vegas over-under win totals for both teams were similar (Wolves 41.5, Wild 43.5). I requested no points. I just took the Wolves, while Rocket took the Wild, straight up.

I’m a gentleman.

Rocket, on the other hand, has been texting me pretty much every time I mention the Timberwolves in a blog post (which is often) of every time the Wild wins (to remind me that he is now up 4-0, which is a ludicrous comparison since the Wolves season doesn’t even start until tonight).

Though I will be concerned if the Wild keeps getting to face emergency goaltenders, on average I am mostly just looking forward to seeing how this all plays out.

The good news for Minnesota sports fans is that both teams figure to be interesting. They might even both make the playoffs, which has happened only one other time: the 2002-03 season.

It wouldn’t be shocking to see both teams’ win totals in the mid-40s at the end of the year, with our precious friendly wager in the balance.

I’ll take the drama of 1991 with a different ending, please.

Bert Blyleven back as Twins TV analyst — but doing fewer games

blylevenBert Blyleven has been a Twins TV analyst for more than two decades, but in that time he’s seen his role reduced. Based on a two-year contract he agreed to recently, that role will be even smaller in 2017 and 2018.

Blyleven is slated to do 80 games on Fox Sports North in both of those years, which would represent a reduction of 20 games from recent seasons.

Twins President Dave St. Peter confirmed that Blyleven and play-by-play voice Dick Bremer will both be back in 2017 and 2018. He said the Twins and FSN proposed the 80-game package to Blyleven — which the Hall of Fame pitcher accepted — and are “jointly considering multiple options” for the other 70 games expected to be televised by FSN.

Roy Smalley, Jack Morris and Tim Laudner — all former Twins players, as is Blyleven — served as FSN analysts in 2016.

Blyleven’s previous contract was a five-year deal that had him doing 100 games per season — which represented a reduction from his previous workload, when he did virtually every televised game.

Blyleven has his share of fans and critics (the latter group isn’t afraid to voice opinions on Twitter). He had a minor dust-up in 2015 with his anti-Detroit tweets and appeared more critical of the Twins at times during their 2016 season.

St. Peter did not give a specific reason for the further reduction in games and shorter duration of this contract.

On this date in 1987, umpires helped the Twins win Game 7 vs. Cardinals

A female caller who had read what I wrote about Minnesota sports teams being victimized by bad officiating calls over the years — including Game 5 of the WNBA Finals — left a voicemail Monday reminding me that Vikings coaching legend Bud Grant was often fond of saying the calls even out over the years.

It was shocking to hear a Minnesota fan say such a thing, but I have it saved for posterity.

As if proving this caller’s point, on Tuesday Twins Daily posted a video of highlights from Game 7 of the 1987 World Series — a 4-2 Twins victory over the Cardinals that happened exactly 29 years ago. There were a ton of botched calls from that game — the vast majority of which helped the Twins.

Does anybody really remember this? Or at least remember it in the same way they remember Drew Pearson or Phil Cuzzi? Maybe things do really even out, and we tend to forget the ones that went our way?

In any event, here’s the compilation:

Randy Moss, in dress shoes, makes FG that Cardinals and Seahawks missed

I wrote extensively about the Cardinals and Seahawks both missing field goals from inside 30 yards in overtime of Sunday night’s game. The longer was 28. The shorter was 24. So Monday, former Vikings wide receiver Randy Moss showed the world just how easy it is to make a field goal of that length. True, he didn’t have the pressure of all those fans watching him with a game on the line. But he was in dress shoes, so

It’s good! If you’ve ever messed around kicking field goals, you know 28 is a very reasonable distance. But 30? That’s asking a lot, if you ask me.

5-1 Vikings vs. 5-2 Gophers: a massive gap in perception

claeysA disclaimer, first: Like many of you, I’ve watched enough Gophers football and Vikings football this year to know the relative eye test winner between the two is clearly the purple.

So what follows is not an attempt to argue otherwise. But it is an exercise in perceptions at an interesting point in both the Gophers’ and Vikings’ seasons.

Records: Vikings are 5-1, Gophers are 5-2.

Scheduling break: The Vikings’ crossover games against AFC opponents are against the South, easily the worst division in that conference. The Gophers had a favorable non-conference slate and avoided several top Big Ten foes.

Public perception: The Vikings are one of the best teams in the league and their head coach is halfway to a statue outside of U.S. Bank Stadium. The Gophers are mediocre and their head coach is halfway to losing his job.

How we got here: The Vikings won their first five games of the season, launching talk that the team is a legitimate Super Bowl contender. The Gophers won their first three games during non-conference play, lost two close games to decent teams, then won their last two games.

Most recent game: The Vikings played their worst game of the season, turning the ball over four times and staggering on offense in a 21-10 loss to the Eagles that angered fans. The Gophers played one of their worst games of the season, sputtering on defense in a last-second victory over Rutgers that angered fans.

Combined record of opponents: The Vikings have defeated three teams with winning records and two with losing records. Their only loss is to a team with a winning record. Combined, their six opponents are one game over .500 at 20-19. The Gophers have defeated two teams with even records, two teams with losing records and one team with a winning record. Both of their losses came to teams with winning records. Combined, their seven opponents are one game over .500 at 27-26.

Upcoming opponent: The Vikings have a road game Monday at a struggling opponent in Illinois (the Bears) in which Minnesota is favored by six points. A victory would help restore any faith that was lost in Philadelphia last week, while a loss would cause fans to worry more. The Gophers have a road game Saturday against a struggling opponent in Illinois (the Illini) in which Minnesota is favored by five points. A victory would give them a three-game conference winning streak and put them on a path to a bowl game and even an outside shot at contending in the Big Ten West. A loss would convince some fans that nothing will ever go right in the modern history of the program.