Kirk Cousins is an ‘$84 million flop’? Let’s be serious

Welcome to the Wednesday edition of The Cooler, where one of our core missions as always is to throw cold water on hot takes. Let’s get to it:

*Mike Freeman, a longtime NFL writer now with Bleacher Report, offered up a pretty hot take on Vikings QB Kirk Cousins after Sunday’s 30-20 loss to the Saints.

He starts here: Is Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins showing he’s worth $28 million a year? That he’s worth $84 million in guaranteed cash? Is that the kind of player anyone saw when they watched him Sunday night?

He meanders a while, making some valid points and some questionable ones, before arriving here at the end:

Cousins was supposed to be a part of this group this season. Instead, he is so average he sweats margarine. So let’s ask that question again. Is Cousins showing he’s worth $28 million a year? That he’s worth $84 million in guaranteed cash? The answer is obvious.

Here’s the thing: Freeman is right that there are things about Cousins that are troubling. He makes some risky throws. He has had a league-high 15 passes batted down. His fumbling is a ticking time bomb.

And yes, the stats he racked up in the Saints game (31 for 41, 359 yards) were somewhat hollow — though it could also be argued that if Adam Thielen didn’t fumble the Vikings would have won that game and the whole opinion piece wouldn’t have been written.

But he also fails to mention that Cousins (per Pro Football Focus) has been pressured on 155 dropbacks this season, most in the NFL. That accounts for 40.9 percent of his dropbacks; of QBs who have been full-time starters this year, only the Texans’ Deshaun Watson has been pressured on a higher percentage of dropbacks. Cousins has navigated the pressure quite well.

In referencing how Washington is 5-2 after going with Alex Smith this season and how the Vikings were 13-3 a year ago without Cousins, he doesn’t note how much defense factors into both records.

But the biggest crime is that the argument comes from a false premise. If the argument is about whether Cousins is worth $84 million guaranteed, the answer is far more nuanced than yes or no. Salaries can’t be measured in a vacuum, and value means different things to different franchises at different times.

You pay $84 million because that’s the new going rate for a second-tier quarterback — which is what Cousins is — or at least that was the going rate this past offseason. In fact, it was actually less than the going rate since the Jets offered Cousins $90 million total and he took less to sign with the Vikings.

You offer that kind of money because you are looking to finally stop a revolving door at quarterback that has plagued a franchise for more than a decade — a constant change at the most important position in sports that hasn’t stopped you from being competitive but has stopped you from meaningful long-term QB planning.

And you offer that kind of money because you realize that even though you went 13-3 last season with Case Keenum having a career year, the combination of Keenum’s play, amazingly good health on defense and every imaginable scheduling break will not be a sustainable winning model in 2018 and beyond.

Cousins, on pace to throw for more than 5,000 yards this season, has been everything advertised and more. He’s contributed to losses, but I dare say he’s contributed more to wins.

PFF has him ninth overall in their QB rankings, while ESPN has him 11th in Total QBR. That’s right where he should be, and it’s higher than any other Vikings free agent QB option would be right now.

He’s been far from perfect, but so much farther from a flop.

*Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel tries to pump the brakes on the notion that the Packers are throwing in the towel on 2018 after trading safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and running back Ty Montgomery at the deadline Tuesday. Maybe it will be addition by subtraction. Time will tell.

*Meanwhile, the Lions traded top receiver Golden Tate on Tuesday. This is a good time to point out that the NFC North is tightly bunched — the Vikings and Packers are sandwiched between the 4-3 Bears and 3-4 Lions — and two of those teams arguably got weaker or at least decreased their talent level. It’s also a good time to point out that of the eight remaining Vikings games, five are against division foes.

Will Halloween hold the key for a Jimmy Butler to Houston deal?

Last week, it was reported by ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski that the Rockets offered  the Timberwolves four first round picks — in 2019, 2021, 2023 and 2025 — as part of a package for Jimmy Butler.

Shams Charania later reported that the deal also would include two injured Rockets players: Brandon Knight and Marquese Chriss. Charania indicated in a video on Stadium that the Wolves have no interest in taking on those two players, but it at least set the parameter for an interesting deal.

What’s interesting, though, is that both Chriss and Knight were acquired from Phoenix in late August. Per the NBA’s strange and complicated collective bargaining agreement, they are eligible to have their salaries aggregated as part of a trade package two months after the completion of that deal.

That date arrives Wednesday on Halloween, meaning their salaries (close to $18 million combined this season) would be enough to match Butler’s money and make a deal work. Also, one or the other could be included in a deal with other Rockets players more easily once Wednesday arrives.

It might be a moot point if the Wolves aren’t interested in acquiring either player. But we should also get ready for another round of Houston rumblings once Halloween arrives.

Knight, 26, was the No. 8 overall pick in 2011 and has a year left on his contract at more than $15 million next year. He’s a combo guard who has averaged 15.2 points and 4.3 assists in his career, but he missed all of last season with a torn ACL. He had what was termed cleanup surgery in September and has yet to appear in a game this season.

Chriss, a 21-year-old power forward and the No. 8 pick in the 2016 draft, hasn’t played yet this season while nursing an ankle injury but is no longer on the injury report and could make his debut Tuesday.

Both players could be rotation players for the Wolves when healthy, but neither seems to be a game-changer.

The bigger question looming is just how long the Wolves are willing to sit on Butler before the environment becomes so toxic they are compelled to deal him. They probably bought themselves some time with a 124-120 victory over the defense-optional Lakers on Monday, but they have Utah on Wednesday before embarking on a tough five-game road trip that starts Friday at Golden State.

The Wolves are 3-4 now and really have only looked awful in one game — the 125-95 home loss to Milwaukee on Friday. That said, they have had plenty of stretches in various games where they looked out of sorts. If they go, say, 2-4 in their next six games and arrive back home 5-8 while questions about Butler continue to swirl? Maybe a deal gets done sooner rather than later.

That was the thinking of Wojnarowski, by the way, on a recent podcast with ESPN colleague Zach Lowe (and yes, it’s hard to keep the chain of ESPN basketball podcasts straight).

Starting around the 1 hour mark, Woj and Lowe talked extensively about the Halloween deadline as something that could shake a trade loose, while Wojnarowski talked about how the Wolves’ fortunes could impact a trade.

“That loss to Milwaukee … they’re getting booed every night at home. Nobody is getting booed more than the coach. And so I think that more than anything is probably going to speed up a conclusion to this,” Wojnarowski said, albeit before Monday’s win over the Lakers. “The case that Tom Thibodeau or Scott Layden can make to the owner that if we’re just patient and we’re playing well and winning we have plenty of time, if it’s going as badly as it is, that more than anything else speeds up this trade process. … I’d be shocked if he was there at Thanksgiving. It just feels like it will be sooner.”

There was also a discussion of how the four first-round picks could be a sliding scale sort of thing depending on who else is included in a deal.

Just spitballing here, but what about: Chriss, Eric Gordon — who the Wolves reportedly covet in any Rockets deal — and three first-round picks? That gives you a young asset (Chriss), a player to help you still be competitive this year (Gordon) and a lot of potential future help (three picks).

In any event, it sounds as though there will be more to pay attention to Wednesday than just trick-or-treating and the return to Target Center of old pal Ricky Rubio with the Jazz.

Expect Prince-themed Wolves jerseys to be unveiled Thursday at Paisley Park

The Timberwolves this morning sent out a news release for a “major business announcement” taking place Thursday at Paisley Park — Prince’s sprawling Chanhassen estate.

While nothing has been officially confirmed by the team, I’m told the Wolves will be unveiling a new Prince-themed uniform to be worn on select occasions. The unveiling, which is not open to the public, is set for 10 a.m. Thursday.

A partial look at the new uniform — which honor the Minnesota music legend who died in 2016 — was leaked on social media last week by a Wolves fan account in France. The jersey top includes a color and font that surely looks Prince-themed.

Maybe there’s only room in this market for one team to honor Prince? This announcement comes not long after the Wild announced it was switching its goal song from “Let’s Go Crazy,” which it had used for the last two years, back to “Crowd Chant” by Joe Satriani.

Bert Blyleven’s FSN role reduced to 50 games in 2019 (and 30 in 2020)

Bert Blyleven’s steadily declining role as a Twins TV analyst on Fox Sports North broadcasts will decrease again in 2019, team president Dave St. Peter confirmed Monday.

Blyleven, who did 80 games in both 2017 and 2018, will do 50 games in 2019 and just 30 in 2020.

Earlier on Monday, Blyleven tweeted that he was selling his condo in downtown Minneapolis, prompting a question of whether he was leaving the booth.

He replied to that: “Actually the Twins/FSN offered me less games for the next 2 seasons because they said they are going in another direction. I agreed to their request. Go Twins!”

St. Peter said Blyleven’s role as a special assistant with the Twins should expand as he does fewer games on TV. He added that the full analyst lineup isn’t set yet for next season.

Jack Morris, Roy Smalley, Torii Hunter, LaTroy Hawkins and Justin Morneau all did work as analysts last season. The Twins and FSN want to hear more of their voices.

“We could include some new folks, but the large majority of those games will go to people who were involved last year,” St. Peter said. “Hopefully, we’ll see most if not all those guys back as part of our TV mix.”

St. Peter said he understands some fans might be upset to hear less of Blyleven. Before doing 80 games each of the past two seasons, he had a five-year deal to do 100 games each season. Before that, he did virtually every game alongside play-by-play voice Dick Bremer.

“I think Bert is an incredible character who has a strong connection to a lot of our fans,” St. Peter said. “We’ve also had positive reactions with some of the other folks involved.”

Aaron Rodgers, new head coach of the Packers?

OK, Aaron Rodgers has obviously not taken over as the head coach of the Packers.

But given Green Bay’s struggles so far this season — despite playing well Sunday, the Packers lost 29-27 to the Rams and sit at 3-3-1 through seven games — and some of the criticism the Packers QB has levied at head coach Mike McCarthy this year, a labeling gaffe by a Milwaukee TV station is worth at least a laugh.

On the chyron during Rodgers’ postgame interview Sunday, he is labeled as the Packers head coach.

USA Today’s For The Win had a look at some of the reaction from fans — many of whom seemed like they would support the player-coach concept over more McCarthy.

NFL.com, by the way, has an interesting story bout how irate Rodgers and his teammates were about Ty Montgomery’s late fumble on a kickoff return against the Rams — when Montgomery apparently went rogue and was supposed to instead take a knee in the end zone.

Hat/tip to the Twitter feed of local Fox 9 reporter Dawn Mitchell, where the gaffe was seen.

Vikings loss was more like a replay of the 2009 NFC title game

Welcome to the Monday edition of The Cooler, where I promise you won’t have to stay up after 10 p.m. to watch sports tonight. Let’s get to it:

*The buildup to Sunday night’s game between the Vikings and Saints meant all of us got to watch multiple replays of the Minneapolis Miracle and relive the glory of Stefon Diggs’ catch that gave Minnesota  playoff win over the Saints in January.

But Sunday’s itself, a 30-20 victory for the Saints, unfolded much more like a different previous playoff matchup between the two teams.

The Vikings on Sunday outgained New Orleans 423-270, held the ball longer and generally were the more dominant team. But gut-punch turnovers — including one right before halftime — completely changed momentum and told the real story of the game.

Sound familiar? That was the cruel script in the 2009 NFC title game, when the Vikings outgained the Saints 475-257 but were minus-four in the turnover department in a 31-28 loss. The Brett Favre interception near the end of regulation was the final cruel turnover twist, but the botched handoff between Favre and Adrian Peterson near the goal line at the end of the first half — with the teams tied 14-14 — was costly as well.

On Sunday, it was Adam Thielen’s fumble that turned what seemed destined to be a 20-10 or 16-10 Vikings halftime lead into a 17-13 deficit and set the tone for an ugly, mistake-filled second half.

*The Vikings, by the way, have turned the ball over 11 times through eight games. That’s not an egregious number — it puts them a little better than the middle of the pack in the NFL — but it’s a pace for 22 after they had just 14 turnovers a year ago (third-fewest in the NFL).

I like that the Vikings have recognized the need to take a few more chances this year — including fourth-down attempts against a top offense like New Orleans — but their identity right not seems to be muddy. Are they a Mike Zimmer ball-control team based on defense or are they a John DeFilippo team willing to gamble more? The ideal answer is “both,” But I’m not sure the Vikings have achieved that balance in a positive way yet.

*In case you missed it, the Seahawks clinched their 28-14 win over Detroit on Sunday with a very unusual play that would have looked awful if it didn’t work (except it did).

Pinned at their own 3 and forced into punting formation near the end of the game, the Seahawks called for punter Michael Dickson to run out of the end zone for a safety. But he started running to his right, saw open space in front of him and took off — gaining 9 yards on the 4th-and-8 play to pick up a first down and let Seattle seal the game.

“He went against all traditions and everything, but he saw the situation and he took advantage of it,” Seattle coach Pete Carroll said. “It was truly a surprise.”

*The only stat you need about Game 3 of the World Series on Friday:

Is the reported proposed Rockets trade worth considering for Wolves?

Welcome to the Friday edition of The Cooler, where there’s always the next seven years. Let’s get to it:

*ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported on Thursday that the Rockets have resumed their pursuit of Jimmy Butler and are dangling four first-round picks — in 2019, 2021, 2023 and 2025 to fall within NBA rules — as part of a package to get him from the Timberwolves.

We don’t know at this point if the Wolves are interested in listening to this offer, though as our Chris Hine points out a deal heavy on future assets might not be as appealing to head coach/basketball president Tom Thibodeau as a deal that helps him win now.

The bigger question, though, is this: Should this reported trade interest the Wolves?

Well, assuming the picks don’t have much protection on them — which sounds like is the case — they could end up being quite valuable if the Rockets fall on hard times down the road.

But one would also imagine that if the Rockets made the deal and were able to sign both Butler and James Harden to extensions to pair with Chris Paul over the next several years, Houston will remain a top contender and at least most of those picks will be near the end of the first round and therefore less valuable.

The wild card is that having four additional first round picks over the next seven years, regardless of potential slot, would give the Wolves all sorts of resources for more trades.

At the end of the day, I think I’d still rather have the deal the Heat were reportedly willing to do involving Josh Richardson and a first-round pick. At least with that you know you’re getting a solid player with the potential to be even better. Four first round picks could wind up yielding little or nothing beyond a couple useful rotational players.

But I wouldn’t hang up the phone on the Rockets. It’s a unique trade proposal and is the kind of thing that — if played right — could be the kind of home run this franchise needs to hit.

*Speaking of Butler, you might have noticed that one of the players the Wolves dealt to get him — guard Zach LaVine — is off to a blistering start offensively. He’s topped 30 points in each of his first four games and is third in the league with a 32.3 average for Chicago.

The downside: The Bulls are 1-3 and LaVine’s defense is still a major question. Basketball Reference lists his offensive rating and defensive rating as both 120. LaVine gives and takes away.

*This is the 27th anniversary of Kirby Puckett’s Game 6 World Series home run that sent the Twins into Game 7 and even more drama in 1991. TPT Twin Cities has a cool feature on the fan who caught that home run ball.

KAT’s offensive struggles: Cause for alarm … or pause and relax?

Five games of an NBA season is a hiccup more than a likely microcosm given that there are 77 more yet to play. In terms of the ratio of season completed, the Wolves have played the equivalent of one full NFL game. You wouldn’t judge the Vikings after just one game, right? (Wait, don’t answer that).

That said, the starts of any season in any sport lend themselves to microscope treatment. The first five games of any NBA season are judged more intensely as a group than, say, Games 44-48.

As a result, even with no other context or factors, Karl-Anthony Towns first five games for the Timberwolves this season would be drawing some scrutiny. A third-team All-NBA player just a season ago when he averaged 21.3 points and 12.3 rebounds, Towns has scored just 16.4 and grabbed 9.2 boards through these first five games.

It started with a foul-plagued eight-point opener at San Antonio and has generally been an unfamiliar struggle on offense from there for Towns.

That it has coincided with two other major things has only added to the scrutiny: 1) Whatever tension that exists between Towns and Jimmy Butler, the Wolves star who wants a trade and has never been shy about critiquing Towns (and is still awkwardly around to deliver those missives even while awaiting a deal); and 2) Towns agreed to a 5-year, $190 million extension in the offseason. With more money (though the deal doesn’t kick in until next year) there are greater expectations and quicker gripes. Just ask Joe Mauer or Andrew Wiggins.

The rhetoric ramped up even more after KAT’s 5-for-17, 14-point performance in Wednesday’s 112-105 loss at Toronto. In particular, there was a sequence late in the third quarter where Towns air-balled a three-pointer and was quickly subbed out. Wolves TV analyst Jim Petersen, who has praised Towns plenty over the years but also tends not to sugarcoat things, said on the broadcast: “KAT just has that look in his face like he doesn’t want to play tonight, so, so be it.”

You can read that as a question of his desire … or a little softer, like Towns was just out of sorts. However you frame it, Petersen wasn’t wrong. KAT looked off, and has looked off for much of this season.

Is that a cause for alarm … or do we need to hit pause and relax a little?

That’s a difficult and interesting question.

Let’s start by noting that it hasn’t been all bad for Towns. He’s making a more noticeable difference on defense and has 10 blocks in his last four games. In home wins over Cleveland (late) and Indiana (throughout), his defense — a self-identified point of emphasis this year — helped win the game.

He’s been held to 17 points or fewer in four of the five games, with his 31-point outburst against Dallas coinciding with the one game Butler missed while resting. That could be circumstantial or it could mean something.

He has 82 points total (16.4 average) in five games — the same as he scored in Games 8-12 last season. He scored 85 points total (17.0 average) in Games 15-19 and just 76 in Games 21-25.

I’ll stop there, but this gets back to the original point that things are more magnified at the start of the year. Do you remember thinking KAT struggled offensively (at least to the degree you do now) in any of those specific five-game stretches last year?

For his part, Towns doesn’t seem worried. “This is an anomaly to me,” Towns said after Wednesday’s game. “This is something that won’t happen usually. I go into the gym, work hard, I know what I put into my craft. … When it comes to the next game, I’ll be ready to go.”

Those are all valid contextual points, but … the subtext of Butler’s presence and Towns’ contract shouldn’t be ignored. If Towns thought Butler would be gone by now and that the offense (heck, the whole team) would be centered around him in a more positive environment, that hasn’t happened.

And if that’s the root of what’s going on here — if this is more than just a small sample size slump — something needs to give.

With Rocco Baldelli, Twin Cities sports bosses get even younger — and cooler

Welcome to the Thursday edition of The Cooler, where you’re only as old as you feel. Let’s get to it:

*Birthdays are a good reminder of the aging process, and I’m hit with a double-whammy right now: My 42nd full trip around the sun will be complete next week, but in the mean time yet another person younger than me has been hired in a position of authority in Minnesota sports.

Rocco Baldelli, who just turned 37 last month and is therefore almost a full five years younger than me, is the new Twins manager.

Judging by his Twitter feed, he might be the coolest boss in Twin Cities sports and the only hipster in the bunch — unless I missed it somewhere and Mike Zimmer or P.J. Fleck also dressed up like a character from True Detective for a Halloween Phish concert (Baldelli is a huge fan) in 2014.

Baldelli also has tweeted about the Netflix show Stranger Things, taken a shot at outgoing EPA director Scott Pruitt, retweeted posts about Bob Dylan and Prince (as if he knew he would be one of us someday) and frequently posts pictures of his dog.

It’s only a matter of time before he has a condo in North Loop to complete his profile.

But Baldelli is not the youngest of the major coaches and sports executives in this town. He’s just part of a growing group that can make a guy feel old until he gains some perspective (more on that in a minute).

The chief baseball executive who hired Baldelli, Derek Falvey, is 35. New Gophers women’s basketball coach Lindsay Whalen is 36, as is Gophers men’s basketball coach Richard Pitino. Fleck is 37 for another month.

All except Whalen replaced people in the same jobs who were a decade or two older.

You’d think this youth movement was something new, and it kind of is. But some of this feeling of youth is a product of eyes of the beholder.

If you were 10 (like I was) when Tom Kelly took over as full-time manager of the Twins in the 1987 season, he didn’t seem exceedingly young even if he was, at age 36, even younger than Baldelli is now.

Bud Grant was 29 when he accepted the job coaching the CFL’s Winnipeg Blue Bombers. The Vikings wanted him to be their head coach at age 33 as an expansion team in 1961, but he waited until the ripe old age of 39 in 1967 before he took the job.

Flip Saunders 40 when he took over (the first time) as Wolves head coach during the 1995-96 season.

More recently, Mike Yeo was 37 when he accepted the job as Wild head coach in 2011.

Some of the difference now — in addition to the advancing age of the author — is that managers and head coaches across sports are skewing younger as a byproduct of teams craving the newly valued skill of relating to players.

From all indications, Baldelli checks that box and more.

But if you think I feel old, think about Joe Mauer. If he comes back for another season, he’ll only be two years younger than his manager.

Wait, that makes me feel old, too.

Do the Vikings really need to run the ball more?

The most obvious change with the Vikings offense from last year to this year under new offensive coordinator John DeFilippo and new quarterback Kirk Cousins has been a shift away from a running-based attack to a passing-based attack.

A year ago, with Pat Shurmur calling plays and Case Keenum primarily under center, the Vikings had the second-most rushing attempts (501) of any team in the NFL while ranking just 21st in pass attempts (527).

Through seven games so far this season, it’s been pretty much the complete opposite. The Vikings rank No. 3 in pass attempts with 300 already this season while ranking No. 24 in rushing attempts with 152. What was once close to an even split has become almost a 2 to 1 ratio of passes to runs.

Saying this is a source of tension between head coach Mike Zimmer and DeFilippo would be going too far, but Zimmer indicated in his postgame comments after Sunday’s win over the Jets — when the Vikings passed 40 times and ran 24 times but benefited from some late-game runs by Latavius Murray — that he would prefer more of a balance.

“Sometimes we get impatient and we have to control the clock and control the running game. (In the) first half we didn’t really stick with it at times again,” Zimmer said.

From this, though, a relevant question emerges: Is Zimmer correct or is the mentality of establishing the run the product of an old-school sentiment that doesn’t apply in the modern NFL?

Well, first things first. The Vikings went 13-3 and reached the NFC title game last season with balance. Zimmer is a defensive-minded coach, and those coaches tend to value long drives, ball control and safer offensive schemes that don’t put defenses in bad field position.

And it should also be pointed out that game situations have dictated some of the Vikings’ imbalance. They were playing from behind against the Packers, Rams and Bills for much of those games and theoretically needed to score more quickly through the air.

Cousins alluded to that Wednesday when he was asked if he expected to be throwing the ball so much when he joined the Vikings, basically saying he had no set expectations and that each game is different.

The push-pull is that the pass-happy Vikings have scored more points this season, averaging 25.3 points through seven weeks after averaging 23.9 per game last season. This year’s mark would be even better without six missed field goals and a better red zone conversion percentage.

But they’ve also turned the ball over nine times already (on pace for 21 this season) after turning it over just 14 times last season. They rank No. 24 in plays per drive and No. 28 in average drive time after being in the top 10 in both categories last season.

That said, both of those last stat categories are on thin margins. Does holding the ball for an extra 20 seconds per drive (difference between last year and this year) really make that much of a ball-control difference or benefit the defense more than a increasingly potent offense does?

I’d say running the ball in the NFL these days is still important (particularly in keeping pressure off Cousins), and I imagine DeFilippo is sincere when he says he wants to run the ball effectively.

But if forced to choose between balance and explosiveness I’d choose the latter. In a lot of cases, I’d say a running game is a want instead of a need in the modern NFL.

On that last point, I wonder if the head coach and offensive coordinator agree.