It’s (very) early, but Vikings’ offense still lagging far behind defense

NFL teams tend to be constructed — based on philosophy, salary structure and available players — in such a way that they are stronger on one side of the ball than the other.

We’ve seen ample evidence of that in Vikings history, particularly in the last 25 seasons spanning Dennis Green’s hiring in 1992 to the present.

Green’s first team in 1992 had balance — fourth in the NFL in points scored and seventh in points allowed — and rode that to an 11-5 record (followed by a disappointing home playoff loss to the Bears, the first Vikings game I ever saw in person). Soon, the offense was outpacing the defense (two top-10 finishes in the next five seasons, with zero for the defense). With the addition of Randy Moss in 1998, the Vikings had one of the best offense’s in NFL history and a solid defense that finished sixth in points allowed. The offense kept flowing for Green, but the defense faltered and played a big role in the slide that got him fired in 2001.

The imbalance toward offense continued under Mike Tice, with Daunte Culpepper and Moss putting up big numbers while the defense couldn’t get its act together (the Vikings never finished better than 19th in points allowed under Tice).

When Brad Childress took over, he proclaimed offensive dominance but it was the defense that propped up early versions of his teams. Finally, by 2009, things evened out and the Vikings had capable units on both sides of the ball — finishing second in points scored and 10th in points allowed during Brett Favre’s magical year.

Then the offense quickly fell apart and Childress was fired. Leslie Frazier took over and produced defenses that finished 31st and 32nd in the league among his three full seasons.

Mike Zimmer was brought in to fix that, and he did (fifth in points allowed two years ago, sixth last year) — but now the offense is the unit languishing in the land of mediocrity (or worse).

Again, personnel has tons to do with this. The Vikings loaded up on young talent in recent drafts and had more success picking those players than the ones they chose on offense. Zimmer had a young quarterback his first two years, and then that young quarterback suffered a devastating knee injury before the 2016 season. The transition from Teddy Bridgewater to Sam Bradford, coupled with injuries, poor decisions and poor play on the offensive line, left the Vikings with a massive imbalance between defense and offense.

Thursday’s preseason opener was just that: the first of four games that don’t count (the Vikings won 17-10 at Buffalo, in case you missed it). But if you were looking for evidence that the gap between the two units might be closing, giving the Vikings a real chance to contend in 2017, you were disappointed.

The first unit offense had three drives that produced a total of 24 yards and no points. The offense has some talent, but it’s hard to envision this group being anything better than average when you evaluate the offensive line and skill positions objectively.

The good news is the defense should be a top-10 unit for several years to come and buy the offense some time to finally catch up. How important is it to have both sides going strong?

Well, the Vikings have only had a top-10 scoring offense and defense in three of those 25 years since Green took over: 2009 (12-4, NFC title game), 1998 (15-1, NFC title game) and 1992 (11-5, division champs). Those are the first, second and tied for third best regular-season records for the Vikings in that span.

This season will be all about how much the offense can close the gap. That will determine what kind of timeline the Vikings are on — if at all — to truly compete for a championship.

Thursday was not a good sign, but the larger sample size is yet to come.

Timberwolves uniforms: Let’s all agree to disagree

The Timberwolves introduced two new uniforms (with two more to come) Thursday, continuing an evolution of appearances spanning nearly three decades as an organization.

Their web site suggests this new look is the fifth different style the Wolves have had since they joined the NBA in 1989. There were the originals worn until 1996; there was a re-brand in 1996 to capitalize on the dawn of the Kevin Garnett era; there was a switch in 2008, then a tweak in 2010, and now Thursday’s Nike reveal.

My contention is there are really only four distinct looks because 1) The uniforms they wore for two seasons starting in 2008 were so hideous that we should never be forced to look or talk about them and 2) the Wolves quickly realized this and revamped those duds in 2010 with a similar but much better effort.

So after the new releases Thursday, there were two burning questions that needed answering: 1) What did folks think of the new jerseys? 2) If they had to rank the four (defined by me) eras of Wolves jerseys 1-4, what would be their order?

None of the responses truly shocked me. Instead, they only served to reinforce two ideas: People love to have STRONG opinions about the clothing athletes wear, and those opinions are quite diverse. (When the Lynx unveil a new logo Friday during halftime of their game, it will give everyone a chance to have new opinions).

On the subject of the two new Wolves uniforms, there seemed to be a predictably even split between love and hate. I really like the clean lines, simple look and color scheme (and I’m not just saying that because Glen Taylor owns the Timberwolves and this newspaper). Others on Twitter agreed with sentiments such as, “They look great!” while others said the stripes were “hideous” or compared the jerseys to those a team might use for practice.

The greater controversy (such as it is) seemed to emerge, though, when attempting to rank the four eras of Wolves jerseys. My order puts the original uniforms on top, with the new uniforms second, the ones they just replaced third and the Garnett-in-his-prime era jerseys last.

There was plenty of support for the contention that the original jerseys — and the logo of the wonderful, almost smiling Timberwolf — are the best. There are those among us who remember having a baseball cap with that logo that was so stained with sweat by the time it was tossed out that the smell couldn’t even be eradicated by a run through the dishwasher.

As it turns out, nostalgia and green trees are a powerful combination for plenty of other folks who said they like the 1996-2007 Wolves jerseys the best. To be fair, the Timberwolves have never made the playoffs wearing any other clothes, and those jerseys did span almost the entire original Garnett era (though KG conveniently wore each of the first three styles, as pictured above).

Some of us just don’t like the trees or the font. That’s OK!

Some people really didn’t like the jerseys the Wolves just replaced, but others of us were just fine (if not overly inspired) by them. At least we could all agree that the jerseys worn briefly in the late 2000s were terrible.

Wait.

“I mean, these actually weren’t terrible. I appreciated the green elements” one Twitter reply stated.

With uniforms as in so many aspects of life these days, perhaps the only thing we can agree on is to disagree.

Five things to know about Twins Thursday starter Dietrich Enns

If you woke up Thursday morning excited about the Twins’ four-game winning streak and sudden re-emergence in the AL Wild Card race (they’re just 1.5 games back of Seattle for the final spot, with Kansas City and Tampa Bay in between those two), you naturally might have checked next to see who is pitching for the Twins as they go for a four-game, home-and-away sweep of the Brewers on Thursday night in Milwaukee and a season-high five-game winning streak.

You would have then seen the name “Dietrich Enns,” and if you hadn’t been paying very close attention to the events of the past couple weeks you might have said, “Wait, who?”

So let’s get caught up to speed with five things you need to know about Enns:

1) He’s a 26-year-old lefthander, he is set to make his MLB debut and he was acquired less than two weeks ago as one of two prospects obtained from the Yankees in the Jaime Garcia trade. (The other, 21-year-old righthander Zack Littell, has gone 15-1 this season between Class A and Class AA). What’s interesting is that if Enns pitches well and ends up contributing down the stretch, the strange sequence of deals involving Garcia — acquired by the Twins from the Braves, made one start, then Minnesota slumped and dumped him to the Yankees while still taking on his salary — might end up feeling less like a straight “sell” situation for the Twins. Garcia gave up five runs in 4.2 innings in his Yankees debut and is slated to pitch again Friday. The perception of trading Garcia away, which can be second-guessed now that the Twins are suddenly back in the playoff chase, could change if Enns pitches well.

2) Enns has put up gaudy minor league numbers. Over six seasons, 111 appearances (51 starts) and close to 400 innings, he has a 27-15 record with a minuscule 1.89 ERA. Last year he was 14-4 with a 1.73 ERA working almost exclusively as a starter between Class AA and Class AAA. This year he has a 2.28 ERA in the minors. For his minor league career, he’s averaging slightly more than one strikeout per inning and has given up only 13 career home runs — a notable stat against the power-hitting Brewers and perhaps one of the reasons he was tabbed to start Thursday.

3) So why has it taken so long for a lefty with those numbers to make it to the majors? Well, the short answer is he doesn’t have overpowering stuff. Originally a 19th-round pick in 2012 out of Central Michigan, Enns’ fastball is in the low-90s and he mixes in a change-up plus a breaking ball. That repertoire suggests he relies a lot on location, changing speeds and keeping hitters off-balance — something that gets harder when you go against the best hitters in the world.

4) Enns has also been slowed by significant injuries. He had Tommy John surgery midway through the 2014 season, and his recovery gobbled up a good chunk of 2015 as well — though he put up very good numbers both of those seasons. He missed more than two months this season with a shoulder strain, but again has returned to pitch well.

5) Is he on Twitter? You bet! Most of his tweets seem to be about religion, teammates, other sports or compression shorts.

Must-see: Two of the four new Timberwolves uniforms have been revealed

It’s the moment a lot of you have been waiting for (and, yes, the moment some of you could not possibly care less about):

The new Timberwolves uniforms, made by Nike, are here. The team released two of the four primary designs Thursday morning.

The “Icon” edition is the darker one, while the “Association” edition is the lighter one. And yes, the Fitbit logo is on it, as promised.

If you followed the leaks of the jerseys that trickled out in recent days, the designs shouldn’t be a surprise. They look pretty much exactly like what Karl-Anthony Towns was wearing in a leaked video game image.

There will be two more primary uniforms released in the coming months, as the NBA is going to four total uniforms — with no home or away designation — in this reboot with Nike. It’s interesting to note that the new jerseys won’t be available for purchase until Sept. 29.

Also, if you are one for reading a lot into a small detail, it should be noted that Andrew Wiggins’ jersey is included in both the video and still images released by the team. I’m not sure they would do that if he was under consideration to be traded for Kyrie Irving … though I suppose it would look even more conspicuous if he was left out.

You can get more details on the jerseys and the history right here.

Here’s a look at the full Icon look, including shorts.

I have to say — and I’m not just saying this because Glen Taylor owns both the Star Tribune and the Timberwolves — I really like the new look. Plenty of you probably agree. Maybe just as many of you disagree. Let’s hash it out in the comments.

Brick at new Braves ballpark proclaims: ‘Hrbek cheated!’

Somehow I missed this bit of magic when I went to SunTrust Park, the Braves’ new field, in June. So I’m glad Twitter follower Chris was able to rectify the situation.

At the new Atlanta ballpark, they sell “Legacy Bricks” similar to the ones at U.S. Bank Stadium. And it seems one Braves fan with a long memory used his or her money wisely by purchasing a brick proclaiming, “Hrbek cheated! Braves forever” on it as a tribute to the Twins first baseman and his manhandling of Ron Gant in the 1991 World Series.

Now: I’m not sure Chris realizes I grew up a huge Braves fan and agree wholeheartedly with the spirit of the brick. But the next time I’m in Atlanta, you best believe I will try to find that brick.

New Timberwolves uniforms are coming Thursday; leaked guesses are already here

We’re one day away from the official unveiling of the Timberwolves’ new Nike uniforms. A source told me last week to expect to see the new look on Thursday, and if Minnesota follows the same template as other teams for their reveal you should be ready to see the new look first via the Wolves’ official Twitter account.

If you’re an impatient type who prefers to see what the new uniforms might look like, there have been a couple of recent leaked images. As noted by the Uniwatch blog — which exists because people are obsessed with sports clothes — they are just potential looks.

One is a video game screen shot and the other is on a mannequin, but both bear some similarities to each other with the placement of the Nike logo on the jersey, the thick horizontal stripe near the top of the jersey, the different color around the neck and the style of shorts. One thing I don’t see on either one is a Fitbit logo — something the Wolves will wear on jerseys this year.

Perhaps more interesting is an Instagram post from earlier today by Wolves star Andrew Wiggins in which he appears to be wearing the new shorts — which look an awful lot like the ones Karl Anthony-Towns is wearing in the video game leak.

A post shared by Andrew Wiggins (@22wiggins) on

Per this NBA.com piece, 12 NBA teams have done their official reveals so far — Sacramento was the first a few weeks ago, and Utah just this morning was the most recent.

The Timberwolves have had three distinct uniform styles (shown above, all on KG) in their history (the colors and font were tweaked a little bit between 2010 and 2011 but the look is pretty much the same).

If those leaked looks are accurate, it would be a pretty distinct departure. I have to say I love the look from the video game, but I’m not as crazy about the green. But again: who knows if those are even real. If we can all be patient for one more day, we can all react to the actual four primary uniforms they will wear in 2017 and beyond.

Twins played their way (again) into a fun, awkward position

On July 30, barely a week ago, the Twins made an early-morning trade of left-handed pitcher Jaime Garcia to the Yankees. Garcia, who made just one start (in a victory) for the Twins after being acquired from Atlanta when the Twins were buyers, was suddenly dispatched after a rough week that turned Minnesota into sellers.

At the end of that Sunday, after the Twins had blown a 5-0 lead in a 6-5 loss to the A’s, they were 50-53 — and a full seven games behind Cleveland in the American League Central and a five games behind Kansas City (with two other teams to climb over) in the race for the second Wild Card spot.

A rational person playing the percentages — a description which we must conclude describes Twins bosses Derek Falvey and Thad Levine — would have looked at that situation and decided this season just wasn’t meant to be. A day later, right at the trade deadline, the Twins dealt away closer Brandon Kintzler — a free agent at the end of this season, but a reliever good enough to make this year’s AL All-Star team.

In return for those two veterans, the Twins received three pitching prospects: Zack Littell, Dietrich Enns from the Yankees for Garcia and Tyler Watson from the Nationals.

This wasn’t quite a fire sale, since Brian Dozier and Ervin Santana — arguably the Twins two best players to be mentioned in trade rumors — stayed in Minnesota. But it was a pretty clear message that management had turned the page to 2018 and beyond.

The Twins lost their next game in San Diego to fall to 50-54. What followed, though, was a modest surge: five wins in the next seven games, including three in a row in comeback fashion over the past three games. The Royals, who had been red-hot when the Twins decided to sell, have lost seven of nine. Nobody else in the Wild Card race has really distinguished themselves.

Suddenly, after just one pretty good week, the Twins find themselves back in the chase: just 1.5 games back, albeit as part of a cluster of six teams all within two games of one playoff spot.

Granted, per MLB.com, the Twins still have just a 6.9 percent chance of reaching the postseason. They trail Cleveland by 5.5 games in the division race, so at this point we are almost certainly talking about a Wild Card berth and a long shot at making what is now a one-game playoff with the other Wild Card team.

But it happened so suddenly — as quickly as the Twins had disappeared, they reappeared — that they are now in a fun and awkward position.

The fun part is nobody expects anything of the Twins at this point, and the team appears to be playing with a certain attitude that is both loose and determined as a result. That can be a winning mix.

The awkward part is there will inevitably come a point where the Twins’ depleted bullpen (minus Kintzler, who already has two wins in four scoreless appearances in Washington) or weakened starting rotation (minus Garcia and now with Adelberto Mejia on the disabled list) falters and costs the team a game.

The bullpen has actually been great since the Kintzler trade. Matt Belisle has two saves in the committee approach so far and has been quite good overall lately after some rough early outings. But there will be howls from fans if and when he falters.

If the Twins come up short of the playoffs — which is still the very likely outcome — there will be a nagging curiosity among fans (and maybe even players themselves) what might have happened if they hadn’t suddenly become sellers.

This hot streak will be fun while it lasts, but the second-guessing will be a thing to watch, too.

Five things Minnesota and Wisconsin sports fans should agree on

Minnesota and Wisconsin fans don’t agree on much when it comes to local sports. (They do agree on a lot of things in life since we’re virtually the same creatures outside of our sports allegiances, but neither group would want to admit that).

That said, there are five things that fans on both sides of the border should agree are true when it comes to sports:

*The Twins and Brewers are playing four times this week — Monday and Tuesday in Minneapolis, then Wednesday and Thursday in Milwaukee. It’s nice when these teams play, and the rivalry is pretty good regardless, but listen: It’s so much better when the teams play six times in a season — a full three-game series in each city, sometime in the summer, over a weekend.

The MLB schedule changed in 2013, making the two home, two away thing the norm based on geographic interleague rivalries. As it is, this is the fourth time in five seasons the Twins and Brewers have done this Monday-Thursday home-and-away series. The worst was last year when it was in April. The best in that five-year span: a three-game weekend series at Target Field in early June, then a three-game weekend series at Miller Park in late June. It sure was nice when that was the norm, not the exception.

*Speaking of which, we should all agree on this regardless of where we live: Target Field is a superior ballpark to Miller Park, largely because Milwaukee’s park has a roof that makes it feel giant. The roof makes it easier to plan a road trip but harder to enjoy it.

*If we can agree on that, Minnesotans should be willing to agree with Wisconsin fans on this: Lambeau Field is awesome. It is quite possible to hate the Packers and still love this beautiful stadium. The Vikings improved their stadium situation dramatically when moving from the Metrodome to U.S. Bank Stadium, but they will never match what Lambeau has to offer.

*It’s fun to have Brett Favre as the quarterback of your team. By a lot of measures, Aaron Rodgers is a superior quarterback to Favre, but when it comes to capturing the hearts of Packers fans it feels like No. 4 still leads by a wide margin. His greatness was a part of it, but so was the manner in which he played — high-risk, high-reward.

Vikings fans grudgingly admired it for several years, then learned full well what it felt like to root for it during Favre’s two seasons here. Outside of 1998, I’d say 2009 is the most memorable and fun Vikings season of the last 40 years. Favre was a huge part of that.

*When all else fails, when Minnesota and Wisconsin fans can’t agree on anything else, it’s helpful to turn to common enemies. On the pro side, fans can always agree to dislike the Bears. On the college side, Iowa is a safe bet. If an argument ever gets to heated between rival fans, it can usually be defused by saying something like, “Yeah, well the Bears are still the worst.”

On Sept. 2, U building officially becomes ‘Joel Maturi University Sports Pavilion’

In less than a month, one of the University of Minnesota’s most visible athletic buildings officially will be renamed for former athletic director Joel Maturi.

The school announced that Sept. 2 is the date the Sports Pavilion — home to Gophers volleyball, wrestling and gymnastics — will get its new name. Per a news release sent Tuesday:

The formal name for the facility will be the Joel Maturi University Sports Pavilion and the building’s exterior will bear the name “Maturi Pavilion.” Signs above the west and south entrances of the facility will be unveiled as part of a brief public ceremony beginning at 5 p.m., prior to the Gopher Volleyball’s 7 p.m. match that evening against Tennessee.

Maturi, who served as Gophers AD from 2002-12 and was known for his support of non-revenue sports, expressed gratitude. He said in the news release: “I have truly been blessed in my athletics journey. This is certainly the apex.”

When I last checked in on the U of M’s plans to rename the Pavilion in honor of Maturi several months ago, there was some controversy involved in the process. As the news release states, the renaming “is the culmination of a renaming process that began after the Senate All-University Honors Committee nominated Maturi for the recognition and the Board of Regents voted to approve that request in its December meeting.”

Some thought the approval of the renaming came through a process that didn’t involve enough public discussion, while others questioned whether Maturi deserved such an honor.

Board of Regents Chairman Dean Johnson said at the time, ““When you offer up an honor to an individual there at times will be someone who doesn’t agree. They voice their opinion for whatever kind of reason. I expect Joel Maturi has a lot of supporters but also detractors. In the end, (the naming vote) passed and the reality is that it will move forward. Is everyone happy? Mr. Maturi, in his capacity as AD, had difficult situations. You hire coaches, you fire coaches, you live and die on the amount of money you raise and the facilities you put together and your win-loss records. When I think of Joel Maturi I think of his ability to bring men’s and women’s athletes under one AD and give equal opportunity and competition to both.”

Ex-Viking Matt Kalil takes another shot at his former team

It’s probably safe to say that it was good for both parties involved that former Vikings left tackle Matt Kalil signed with the Panthers in the offseason.

After five injury-marred and largely disappointing seasons here after being the No. 4 overall pick in 2012, Kalil needed a change of scenery and the Vikings needed to try something else — which ended up being free agent signee Riley Reiff.

Still, it’s been interesting to hear Kalil take some shots at Minnesota now that he’s gone. Back in March, Kalil’s gripe was with the treatment he received from fans. He said he left Twitter because of harassment while he was playing with the Vikings.

This week, in a feature story in the Charlotte Observer that deals with Kalil now playing with his brother Ryan with the Panthers, there was this:

The Panthers think a healthy Kalil, reunited with his brother and working with offensive line coach John Matsko, is primed for a big bounce-back. Matt said he’s fired up to play for Matsko, who helped Oher get back on track before a concussion sidelined him last year and eventually led to his release. “(Matsko) is the first guy I’ve played for that kind of demands excellence from his offensive line room,” Matt said.

Kalil had two offensive line coaches with the Vikings: Jeff Davidson for his first four years and Tony Sparano last year. He’s certainly entitled to the opinion that those coaches didn’t demand excellence, but it seems strange. Also, if you’re a professional playing at the highest level, shouldn’t the demand for excellence come from within?

In any event, Kalil says he’s healthy and feeling ready to get back to the level he played at as a rookie in 2012. It will be interesting to see how the left tackle spot works out for both the Panthers and the Vikings this season.