Vikings legend Carl Eller makes the case for keeping Case Keenum

Vikings legend and Pro Football Hall of Famer Carl Eller was making the media rounds Wednesday at Mall of America, promoting a few things, including an auction featuring several items from his personal collection — among them an autographed game-worn Vikings jersey and Pro Bowl helmet. I had a chance to chat with him about a number of things (full interview will be part of a podcast later this week).

Here’s Eller …

On the Vikings’ NFC title game loss to the Eagles: “It’s hard to digest it. They were caught flat-footed. They took a beating, and that’s the only way you can look at that. … When that happens, you just have to face it front and center. What that does is it lets you know exactly what you have to do. They were really close, and they were on the main stage. But they didn’t get it there. This is only a lesson, that’s all. This is something they’ll learn from and grow from. They’re a much better team than the score indicates. … They live with that. But the point is that if they take this as a lesson, they’ll be back again.”

On how his Vikings teams moved past Super Bowl losses: “I don’t think you can move past them. I wouldn’t say they haunt us, but they did for a number of years. … I think it motivated us to go back and try again. We wanted to, desperately. The fans talk about disappointment, but they should have some empathy for us to go through it.”

On Drew Pearson: “I know Drew. I know him really well. … He never admits (the push-off) and I press him every time. Like hey, when are you going to admit it. That’s between him, Nate Wright and the official. I think I actually met the guy who threw the bottle from the stands. That’s not called for, but football is great because there are all those moments you never forget.”

Comparing this year’s Vikings defense to the Purple People Eaters: “I think they’re still chasing us — not in the sense that they don’t have their own thing, but I think there is pride in wanting to live up to that legend. That’s really good. I’m proud of this group. I think they’re a good group and (Mike) Zimmer is a good coach.”

Who should be the Vikings starting quarterback in 2018: “Well Case Keenum took them on that route. He didn’t start the season, but he played all the rest of them. He’s a winner and he’s a good guy. (Teddy) Bridgewater I think still has to come back to see what he can do. Sam (Bradford), I don’t know if he’s really had a chance to show what he can do when he’s healthy. Right now the case would be for Case.”

Will the Vikings win a Super Bowl during this lifetime? “I’m glad you included yourself in that. … But that’s the great thing about the NFL. Everyone has a chance at the start of the season.”

Desperately seeking content: Super Bowl radio row at Mall of America

Signs point you clearly and emphatically to the various Super Bowl media areas at the Mall of America, the massive shopping complex in Bloomington that this week is doubling as a hub for all things related to the big game on Sunday.

There is the media center: a sea of connected tables, power strips and cables. There is the media lounge and press conference areas, where player and coach interviews will be conducted: self explanatory. All of this is fairly distant from the public eye, behind doors on the second floor.

But if you up one level to the third floor of Mall of America, by the food court — sorry, Culinary on North as the more upscale quick options are now referred to as a group — suddenly you find a massive mingling area informally known as “radio row.”

When I look up, Shake Shack is about a first down away from me. Directly behind me is Moose Mountain Adventure Golf.

Here you find national radio, local radio and everything in-between. And the Star Tribune, of course. None of us are explicitly wearing signs that say it, but we might as well have placards on our tables next to our company names that read: “Desperately seeking content.”

As someone covering a Super Bowl for the first time, this spectacle is all new. Upon arrival before 9 a.m. Monday, things are already warming up – not full-throttle, which we will achieve later in the week as Super Bowl gets closer, but the vibe is clear.

Potential radio and podcast guests are mingling around, almost all of them with something to sell or pitch. Pro Football Hall of Famer Andre Tippett, a former Patriots star, is being interviewed by a bunch of radio stations. He’s moving deftly from spot to spot, all on behalf of a national jewelry company.

A flier on my table when I arrive is pitching an interview with Minneapolis native Joe Laurinaitis, Road Warrior Animal of pro wrestling fame (um, yes please, that was an easy booking). Within 20 minutes, I’ve been pitched another interview with someone else with a book to sell.

Almost the entire area is surrounded by a half-wall that serves as the “fan gallery” where people strolling through the mall — or here specifically for Super Bowl-related activities — can observe radio row.

Vikings fans, still stung by the NFC Championship Game loss to the Eagles and recognizing this week would have been entirely different had that outcome been reversed, are nevertheless part of the crowd. There’s a boy in a Harrison Smith jersey, plus two older fans showing their eras of fandom by wearing Steve Jordan and Fran Tarkenton jerseys.

The out-of-town media marvels at the scale and size of the Mall of America, sprinkling in some jokes about the Minnesota weather in the process. (Hint: It’s cold here, and it’s only going to get colder as the week goes on). The phrase, “I’m trying to gather my bearings” is used frequently.

A significant percentage of everyone working already looks tired and/or stressed out, seemingly forgetting two important things: One, this is going to be a long week and we need to pace ourselves. Two, this is all about a game. Shouldn’t it be fun?

Even through all the craziness, I sure hope so.

How worried should we be about Jimmy Butler’s knee injury?

When Timberwolves guards Jimmy Butler and Jamal Crawford were both late scratches when the Wolves faced the Raptors last week, my first strange thought was that they had strategically picked a point in the season to both get some rest and put more responsibility on Karl-Anthony Towns and especially Andrew Wiggins to carry the team.

Head coach Tom Thibodeau added to the mystery by being evasive when asked about Butler’s knee injury, saying “he may have” when asked by reporters if Butler had an MRI performed. Butler was deemed to not be walking with a limp after the Raptors game.

But while that makes a certain amount of psychological sense and perhaps even strategic sense, it is more the stuff of conspiracy theories than anything.

Crawford is a durable veteran who played all 82 games last season and has been a key contributor here. Butler has a reputation for being as competitive as they come. Crawford returned after missing two games with his toe injury. Butler — who is in the top five in average minutes played per game this season in the NBA — has now missed four in a row.

If we take both injuries at face value as legitimate — and again, unless we are reading too deeply into things there’s no reason not to — the next question is this: How worried should we be about Butler’s knee?

In the short-term, the absence of Butler and Crawford was actually a boon for the Timberwolves. Wiggins was sensational against the Raptors in a huge win, and he was even better in another good win against the improving Clippers. If Thibodeau had hoped other players, particularly Wiggins, would step up to fill the void left by Butler and Crawford, those games validated those hopes and proved the Wolves — who were blown out twice earlier this year in games Butler missed — could win without their new star.

The last two games, though, have been a much different story. Minnesota gave up 43 points in the third quarter of a 123-114 loss at Portland, and then had to play Golden State on a back-to-back, losing 126-113 in a game that never felt in doubt. The Wolves easily could have lost both of those tough games even with Butler healthy, but his absence is certainly being felt.

Even in those two wins over the Raptors (115-109) and Clippers (126-118) the Wolves had defensive lapses. Their defensive rating in the last four games, with Butler out, is 119.4 — second-to-last in the NBA during that span behind only the Knicks. Considering the Wolves with Butler had a recent stretch where they held seven consecutive opponents under 100 points, that’s a big lapse.

The good news is Butler doesn’t seem too far off from returning. He at least warmed up before the Golden State game before deciding he couldn’t go. And the Wolves, who are in the overall midst of a tough stretch of games, get a little reprieve in short-term with their next two games against the Nets (18-30) at Target Center and on the road against the Hawks (14-33). Even if Butler shut it down until the all-star break — the Wolves have 10 more games, several winnable, until then — the Wolves should be OK.

Beyond that, though, it’s pretty obvious that any hopes the Wolves have of not just making the playoffs but getting a favorable seed and advancing hinge largely on Butler.

Long story short: Until Butler is back, the knee is a reason to worry.

Return of Vikings’ pass rush, healthy Everson Griffen key in 2018

When the Vikings traveled to London and faced the Browns on Oct. 29, they brought home a comeback 33-16 win that sent them into the bye week with a comfortable 6-2 record.

Unfortunately, they also brought back something else: A case of plantar fasciitis — a painful foot injury — suffered by premier pass rusher Everson Griffen during the game. Griffen ended up missing just one game, a testament to his recovery regimen, but the injury seemed to have a lingering impact.

Griffen amassed 10 sacks in those first eight games — at least one in every game in the first half of this season, including the Browns game in which he suffered the injury. In the final seven regular season games, after sitting out the Washington game with the injury, Griffen had just three sacks.

The Vikings’ pass rush statistics as a team followed a similar pattern. They had 24 sacks in the first eight games, a pace for 48 (which would have put them in the top five in the NFL this year). But they had just 13 sacks in their final eight regular season games, finishing the year with 37 — tied for 17th in the NFL.

Minnesota survived and even thrived in the second half of the season, compiling a 7-1 record. Numbers from Pro Football Focus suggest Griffen was still having an impact rushing the quarterback, ranking 18th in pass rush productivity in the second half of the season after being 14th in the first half. He was still getting hits and hurries, just not sacks. Add the fact that defensive end partner Danielle Hunter had a better second half than first half, per PFF, and it’s not like the Vikings weren’t getting any rush. Sometimes a hurry is just as good as a sack if it results in an incomplete pass (or, even better, if it leads to an interception).

That said, Griffen showed up on the injury report late in the season, an indication that foot injury was perhaps still lingering. In the postseason, he managed just five total pressures in 72 pass rush snaps combined against the Saints and Eagles. The Vikings had just three sacks combined in those two games — a factor, albeit perhaps not the biggest one, in a defense that allowed 55 opponent offensive points over the final six quarters of the postseason.

Vikings coach Mike Zimmer has vowed to examine all areas of the team, including the defense, to build on strengths and fix weaknesses heading into 2018. Getting Griffen fully healthy and getting the pass rush back to where it was in the first half of 2017 will certainly be keys next season.

The Vikings are likely to regress in 2018, but by how much?

The disappointment for the Vikings and their fans of missing out by one game on a chance to not only play in a Super Bowl but do it in U.S. Bank Stadium is enough to leave oodles of regret this offseason.

The longer-lasting regret, though, might come from the recognition of how improbably — and nearly perfectly — 2017 aligned for the Vikings to have success, and how difficult that will be to duplicate.

The NFL is littered with examples of teams that made a big leap in victories from one year to the next — the Vikings went from eight to 13 between 2016 and 2017 — only to experience a natural regression the next season. There are certainly some exceptions, including the almost-always excellent Patriots who are going on nearly two decades of consistency and will face the Eagles in Minneapolis on Feb. 4.

But it will be difficult for the Vikings to win 13 games again next season for a variety of factors. Among them:

*The schedule gets a little tougher next year than it was this year. By virtue of winning its division, Minnesota will face other first-place teams next year (whereas last year the Vikings played other third-place finishers). The Vikings also only had seven true road games in 2017, getting to play the Browns in London in what was officially a home game for Cleveland. The road slate looks particularly daunting in 2018: Green Bay Packers, Detroit Lions, Chicago Bears, Los Angeles Rams, Seattle Seahawks, Philadelphia Eagles, New York Jets, New England Patriots. I see a lot of quality opponents there, and a lot of long trips to coasts.

*The Vikings beat the Packers twice last year, with Aaron Rodgers missing most of the first game and all of the second game because of his broken collarbone and its subsequent impact on the Packers’ playoff chances. Assuming Rodgers is back to full health next year, sweeping Green Bay will become a far more daunting proposition.

*The Vikings had the best third-down defense of any team since the NFL started tracking that statistic in 1991. Part of that is surely related to scheme and the overall strength of the defense, neither of which figure to change much, but even a modest natural regression in that area in 2018 from “historically great” to “really good” could alter the course of some games.

The good news is that the Vikings’ 13-3 record was not compiled via some fluke of winning an extraordinary number of close games. ESPN’s Bill Barnwell in August correctly pegged a lot of teams from 2016 that were primed for regressions in 2017 — including the Giants, Raiders and Cowboys. He also correctly forecasted the Jaguars and Eagles were primed for massive improvements. Several factors went into that assessment, but a big one is point differential. The Vikings’ expected won-loss record based on point differential in 2017 was 11.7-4.3, which is worse than their actual 13-3 record but not drastically different.

The Vikings also should have dynamic running back Dalvin Cook back for 2018 after he missed much of last season with a torn ACL, and virtually all of their top defensive players are back as well.

But given next year’s schedule, the likelihood of a downtick in third down defense and of course the uncertainty the Vikings face with their quarterback and offensive coordinator, some regression is likely. It’s still very reasonable to imagine the Vikings winning 10 or 11 games next season, contending not only for a playoff spot but another division title. But 13-3 again? That would truly be a feat.

Was Wednesday the first step toward legalized sports gambling across the U.S.?

For decades, major professional sports leagues in the United States have performed a delicate dance when it comes to wagering on games. They know sports betting — legal in Nevada, with most of the action in Las Vegas — is a distinct part of why leagues like the NBA and NFL have achieved wild popularity, but they’ve also publicly maintained their distance (and even have actively worked against the expansion of gambling) for fear of an image or integrity problem.

But that sentiment seems to be shifting. The NHL has a team in Las Vegas now, and the NFL’s Raiders soon could follow suit. On Wednesday, perhaps more notably, the NBA took a major step in the courtroom in supporting the expansion of legalized sports betting nationwide and laying out a blueprint for what that might look like.

ESPN’s Brian Windhorst writes: “Dan Spillane, an attorney for the NBA, testified in front of a New York State Senate committee and for the first time made it clear what the league’s price would be to become a partner in legalizing the multibillion-dollar industry. The NBA wants 1 percent of every bet made on its games in addition to other regulations, a request that could create massive revenue for the NBA and other sports leagues in the future. Spillane also said the NBA wants more widespread access to gambling for its fans, pushing for bets to be made legal on smartphones and kiosks and not just inside casinos and racetracks.”

Several states are already working on legislation that could come into play if the U.S. Supreme Court makes it legal to wager on sports in casinos and at racetracks.

But the testimony from the NBA’s attorney makes it clear the league would potentially be interested in far more than that. Whether it’s a sign of the times or the potential for revenue (always assume it’s the latter) prompting the change of heart, it could have a massive impact on sports betting in the U.S.

That said, there figures to be some pushback from casinos regarding leagues getting richer. American Gaming Association President and CEO Geoff Freeman released this statement Wednesday:

“We are pleased that the National Basketball Association (NBA) today joined with the gaming industry in support of vigorously regulated sports wagering. We can all agree that the 25-year ban on sports wagering has been a failure in every regard. Now, let’s get real about eliminating the illegal market, protecting consumers and determining the role of government — a role that most certainly does not include transferring money from bettors to multi-billion dollar sports leagues.”

It’s time to stop moping about the Vikings and go all-in on Wild, Wolves, Twins

It’s hard not to wallow in Sunday’s Vikings loss, and it’s going to be even harder as signs of a Minneapolis Super Bowl between the Eagles and Patriots dominate the region for the next week-and-a-half.

But pretty soon it’s going to be time to move on. Maybe you need an extra minute or two, but I say the time is now. It’s over. It happened. Even if you can’t yet appreciate how good this Vikings season was in totality, maybe you can appreciate that there are plenty of other good sports story lines to occupy your attention right now.

In short: It’s time to go all-in on the Timberwolves, Wild and Twins (and of course the Lynx, but you should have been all-in on them for the last seven years).

The Timberwolves are tied for the third-best record in the Western Conference at 31-18, having just won two very important games against Toronto and the Clippers while Jimmy Butler and Jamal Crawford are out with injuries.

Andrew Wiggins, a liability at times earlier this season, started to improve his all-around game around the time the Wolves took off about a month ago. And in these last two games, with Butler and Crawford out, he’s been magnificent. If Wiggins can sustain anything close to that level of play when Butler returns to the starting lineup — maintaining his aggressiveness and efficiency even with another primary wing scorer on the floor — the Wolves will be dangerous.

Dangerous this season is relative given just how good Golden State remains, but it’s not unrealistic for the Wolves and their fans to set their sights not only on making the playoffs for the first time since 2003-04 but also winning a series.

The Wild is finally healthy enough and playing with the kind of urgency that has it back at least in the playoff conversation. Minnesota is 8-2-2 in its past 12 games, keeping pace with other red-hot Western Conference playoff contenders while slipping past some others.

The Wild is seeking its sixth consecutive playoff appearance. Three of those ended in the first round. The other two ended in the second round. But in the NHL, getting into the postseason means you have a chance. The Wild is trending in that direction right now.

The Twins have made some mid-level moves to shore up their bullpen, signing Addison Reed, Fernando Rodney and Zach Duke this offseason. That combined with even a serviceable rotation and the continued progression of a very good young lineup should be enough to put the Twins in contention for at least another Wild Card berth in 2018.

The real prize, though, is a potential splash move at the top of the rotation. The Yu Darvish sweepstakes could be decided soon, and the Twins are one of a handful of teams in the mix to sign him. If they are able to pull that off, or even if he signs elsewhere and they are able to sign a starter on the next free agent tier level, their ability to truly contend would be greatly boosted.

Maybe the Vikings sting is still too fresh and you only view this attempt at optimism as another likely opportunity to have your heart broken.

It’s your choice, but what’s the point of being a fan if you aren’t going to care deeply about a team?

This (updated) list of Minnesota sports misery is sad

While most of us only keep a mental tally of everything that has gone wrong in Minnesota sports in the last 20 years or so, I have a Twitter follower who apparently keeps a written list handy.

Will Ragatz, a journalism student at Northwestern University in suburban Chicago and a Twin Cities native, tweeted at me and others after the Vikings NFC title game loss Sunday with a rather lengthy and sad rundown of all the bad things that have happened since the Twins won the World Series in 1991. I retweeted it and about 1,000 people have liked it, so maybe it needs an even wider audience?

Now, it should be noted: plenty of good things have happened in that span of time as well, including four WNBA titles by the Lynx, two NCAA men’s hockey titles by the Gophers as well as countless other championships and playoff runs. But, yeah, the bad things are pretty bad. And they don’t even include college sports! And he left some things off from the pro teams!

Such as it is, if you’re ready for it, here is Will’s list. Feel free to add to it in the comments.

Offensive line, Keenum under pressure let Vikings down at the worst time

On Friday, about 48 hours before the kickoff of the NFC Championship Game between the Vikings and Eagles, I spent entirely too much time fixated on one particular worry when it came to the Vikings’ chances: their offensive line — and subsequently Case Keenum’s ability to handle an pressure given up — against the Eagles’ defensive front four.

It was the one area where Philadelphia seemed to have a distinct advantage. The Vikings’ offensive line, while much improved as a unit during the regular season, struggled at times even while compiling a 13-3 record. What appeared to be some pass blocking deficiencies were mitigated largely by Keenum’s ability to both avoid sacks when pressured and to still excel when throwing under pressure.

According to Pro Football Focus — a good tool, though not a perfect one — Keenum faced pressure on 39.3 percent of his regular-season dropbacks, the third-most of any NFL quarterback. But he was sacked on just 10.4 percent of those pressures, the second-lowest rate. And his passer rating under pressure of 78.5 was eighth in the league.

Against the Saints and a strong front four, that deteriorated. Keenum was still pressured at a relatively high rate (32.6 percent of his dropbacks), but his passer rating under duress was a paltry 5.1 — by far the worst of any QB in the division round. He threw a key interception under pressure that could have been the narrative had the Vikings not produced the Minneapolis Miracle.

After studying those contrasting statistics, and considering that the Vikings had made the decision to start Rashod Hill at tackle against the Eagles while moving Mike Remmers to guard — a decision designed to get their five best offensive linemen on the field in the wake of Nick Easton’s injury — I was legitimately worried about the Eagles game.

Remmers was by far the Vikings highest-graded tackle this season, finishing with a PFF grade of 69.6. Riley Reiff was at 48.6 and Hill was at 43.6. Even with five players they liked on the field, could the Vikings as they were aligned keep the Eagles from getting pressure? And when the Eagles got pressure, how would Keenum perform?

I quickly shushed those worries, though, and looked for any statistic that would more closely align with my bold prediction: Vikings 27, Eagles 10. One drive in, that looked pretty good as the Vikings marched down the field for a 7-0 lead. But in the end, the offensive line and Keenum’s poor play under duress told much of the story of the day — at least the part we could reasonably predict, unlike the totally out-of-nowhere collapse of a typically stout defense.

Per PFF, the offensive line ended up yielding pressure on 24 of Keenum’s 50 dropbacks, a full 48 percent. Some of that is a function of playing from behind, to be sure, since the Eagles knew the Vikings were going to pass on several downs as the score became more lopsided.

But plenty of it happened early — including the play that changed the entire game, when Chris Long beat Hill on an outside move and hit Keenum as he threw, resulting in a pick-six. Now, again, here’s where PFF is imperfect. It’s possible Keenum dropped back too far on that play and was to blame for the pressure. And he certainly could have stepped up in the pocket since the pressure came from the side he could see.

Still, all games are graded using the same tools. Hill and Reiff were marked by PFF as having allowed a combined 14 pressures against the Eagles. The other six tackles playing in the conference championship games (two each for the Patriots, Jaguars and Eagles) allowed just 13 combined. Remmers graded out well at guard, but overall the Vikings had a dismal pass blocking efficiency (again, per PFF) of 59.5.

To put that in perspective, all three other teams in the conference championship games had at least an 83 in that category. To put that further in perspective: The 2016 Vikings had a pass blocking efficiency of 75.1, ranking 23rd in the NFL. It might have been even worse had they abandoned any notion of a downfield passing attack midway through the year.

This year’s Vikings were much improved with a pass blocking efficiency mark of 79.3, good for 13th in the NFL during the regular season. Their tackles — primarily Reiff and Remmers, though Hill subbed for both of them at times because of injuries — allowed 78 total pressures after last year’s injury-ravaged gang of tackles allowed 120. That’s a major upgrade.

But an offensive line that both from the eye test and from statistical measure was improved from 2016 to 2017 struggled at the worst time. Making matters worse, Keenum had just a 60.4 passer rating under pressure against the Eagles — far better than his showing against the Saints but nowhere near his solid 78.5 regular-season mark. That 60.4 mark would have ranked him just 23rd among passers in the regular season.

It’s not all a blame game. There’s at least equal (if not more) to be doled out as credit to an Eagles defense that has been doing this all year. Expecting Keenum to keep avoiding sacks while avoiding turnovers … while also expecting an improved but vulnerable offensive line to keep the Eagles at bay one week after struggling against the Saints was probably too much to ask.

The potential problem was sitting in plain sight long before Sunday’s kickoff, even if I preferred to ignore it.

When considering Vikings quarterbacks, don’t forget Kyle Sloter

When considering the Vikings’ quarterback situation heading into 2018, much of the conversation — and rightfully so — is focused around Case Keenum, Teddy Bridgewater and Sam Bradford.

All three have laid claim to the Vikings starting job at various points in the last three years, and all three are free agents.

But it’s also not quite accurate to say every Vikings 2017 quarterback is a free agent, nor is it quite right to ignore one other passer who could be a factor: Kyle Sloter.

That’s not to suggest Sloter is a dark horse candidate to be the team’s starting quarterback in 2018, but the Vikings have made it clear they like the undrafted former Northern Colorado quarterback.

First, they paid him nearly triple the going rate to sign him to their practice squad in 2017 after the Broncos cut him at the end of the preseason. He sparkled in four preseason games for Denver, throwing for 413 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions with a 125.4 passer rating.

The Vikings promoted Sloter to the active roster early in 2017 after Bradford was injured and maneuvered to keep him on the 53-man roster even as Bridgewater and eventually Bradford returned to health. He’s the only Vikings QB under contract for next season.

“All I know right now is that I’m signed for the next two years, and it seems like they want me here,” Sloter told me Monday as players cleaned out their lockers back at Winter Park. “I’m excited to be here and be a part of the Vikings. I don’t know what’s going on with the other three. Those aren’t decisions that I make. I’m going to be excited for whatever the future holds and whatever quarterbacks are here.”

Sloter never threw a pass for the Vikings as a rookie in 2017, but he served as the No. 2 quarterback behind Keenum for a stretch – perhaps a sign of the Vikings’ comfort level with him.

He was undrafted, sure, but so was Keenum. At 6-4, 218 pounds, Sloter has prototypical size for a quarterback.

“All I can do is prepare myself and be ready for OTAs,” Sloter said. “The Vikings tell me they like me enough to have me come in here and compete. Not really much has been said. People don’t want to show their hand going into next season. I don’t really know what their whole outlook is on me, just that they know me and like me.”

The Vikings also like Keenum, Bradford and Bridgewater for various reasons. Sloter is a fan of all three, too.

“All three can start anywhere. If they need someone to go to bat for them for their character, I’m their guy. I believe in all of them. They were all high-character guys in the room. They helped me a ton,” Sloter said. “I wish all four of us could be back next year. That’s the way I look at it. … I wish them well wherever they’re at.”