Peyton Manning retires having never lost to the Vikings

peytonpetersonPeyton Manning officially retired Monday having been in the NFL for 18 seasons spanning 265 regular-season starts. His career record in those starts: 186-79, a winning percentage just a tick over 70 percent. Winning 7 of every 10 games in the NFL is a mighty fine way to make a career.

He retires with some impressive credentials and this interesting distinction: there are five NFL teams that never beat Peyton Manning — and one of them is the Vikings. (The other four: Cleveland, Arizona, Detroit and Tampa Bay).

All but Cleveland are in the NFC, meaning those teams only faced Manning on the every four years cycle. (Manning went 7-0 against the Browns, though it should be noted he didn’t play particularly well against Cleveland, tossing just 6 TDs and throwing 10 interceptions in those games).

The Vikings faced Manning in 2000, 2004 and 2008 when he was with the Colts. He was gone to Denver by 2012 when the Colts came up on the division cycle again. The Vikings played Denver in 2011, before he was there, but they got him for the final time in 2015. Each time, Manning’s team won — including the last three times by a field goal. Interestingly, all four of those Vikings teams ended up making the playoffs. Here is a quick recap of those games:

2000: Manning, just 24 years old at the time and facing a Vikings team that would reach the NFC title game, threw for 283 yards and four TDs (plus one INT) in a 31-10 romp in the regular-season finale. Daunte Culpepper and Bubby Brister split time at QB for the Vikings.

2004: Manning again torched the Vikings, throwing for 268 yards and four TD passes while driving the Colts for the game-winning field goal in the closing seconds of a 31-28 victory after an Onterrio Smith rushing TD had tied the score with 3 minutes remaining. This was a Monday Night Football game, and it came during (another) mid-year swoon after a hot start under Mike Tice. The Vikings started 5-1, fell to 5-3 with the loss to the Colts and finished 8-8, sneaking into the playoffs and defeating the Packers before losing to the Eagles.

2008: I remember this game quite well. I watched it in Tom Linnemann’s basement, where I watched many games in 2008. The Vikings were in complete control through most of three quarters, but stalled drives led to five Ryan Longwell field goals and a 15-0 lead that could have been bigger. Sounds like a recipe for disaster against a future Hall of Fame QB, doesn’t it? It was. Manning got his act together. Tarvaris Jackson had an ill-timed turnover and a few bad drives. Ryan Longwell missed an important field goal. Next thing you knew, the score was tied. And then Manning was setting up Adam Vinatieri for the game-winning 47-yard field goal in the closing seconds. The Vikings fell to 0-2 with the loss but somehow rebounded to go 10-6 before again falling to the Eagles in the playoffs.

2015: A grizzled Manning, now 39 years old (15 years older than his first game against the Vikings), helped the Broncos to a 13-0 lead before Teddy Bridgewater rallied Minnesota to tie the game 20-20. Manning calmly led the Broncos on a drive that resulted in the tiebreaking 39-yard field goal with 1:54 remaining; the points stood up when Bridgewater was sacked and fumbled just short of midfield on the ensuing possession. Manning finished 17 for 27 for 213 yards, a TD and two INTs. The Vikings dropped to 2-2 but finished 11-5. I don’t remember what happened in the playoffs.

Add it up, and it’s Manning with a 4-0 record in his career against the Vikings, including three wins on field goals in the final two minutes. Total passing stats in those four games: 91 of 134 (67.9 percent), 1,075 yards, 10 TDs and 5 INTs.

The Devan Dubnyk regression many feared? It has happened

dubnykIf you look at many of the contracts Minnesota sports fans complain most bitterly about, you will note a common theme: leverage.

When the Twins signed Joe Mauer to his 8-year, $184 million deal just before the start of the 2010 season (to take effect in 2011), Mauer was coming off an MVP season, he was entering the prime of his career and the Twins were about to move into Target Field. It seemed like a good idea at the time — a bargain, even, to many when compared against what he could have commanded in free agency. There was no way the Twins could afford to let him walk. He had all sorts of leverage.

Nikola Pekovic had the leverage of strong play and a Wolves team desperate to win when he signed his 5-year deal in the summer of 2013. Richard Pitino very well might have leveraged the threat of leaving to get an extension that now includes a $7 million buyout.

All of those deals, at least right this moment, seem detrimental. Mauer, whether due to age, concussions or both, has fallen off dramatically in the past two seasons and still has three years left on his $23 million per year deal. Pekovic has been injured for much of his extension. Pitino won two Big Ten games this season and has dealt with off-court turmoil in the program as well.

In the context of those contracts, and even in the bigger picture, the 6-year, $26 million deal the Wild gave goalie Devan Dubnyk this past offseason isn’t close to bad. But the deal was another classic case of leverage leading to a deal an organization pretty much had to make in spite of any reservations decision-makers had.

Conventional wisdom and math said Dubnyk’s performance post-trade in 2014-15, a half-season that propelled the Wild into the playoffs, was not sustainable. Not only was he an iron man, but also Dubnyk was exceptional during that stretch. He played his way into being a finalist for the Vezina Trophy; that’s how good he was.

The hope among fans, the organization and even Dubnyk was that he had found the right home, something had clicked and, over the long term, he would be something close to the goalie he was for the last half of last season.

The fear was that Dubnyk had caught lightning in a bottle, so to speak, and that a regression to his old form — decent, but not upper-echelon — was also a strong possibility.

We’re less than a full season into the new deal, so it’s hard to grade out the performance as a whole. But it’s not too early to say that, for 2015-16, Dubnyk has far more closely resembled the goalie he was prior to last year’s trade than the franchise-saver he was from Jan. 14 through the end of the regular season last year.

War On Ice takes us fairly deep into some good numbers that show the Dubnyk dropoff. We’ll focus here on four of them: low-danger save percentage; medium-danger save percentage; high-danger save percentage; and overall adjusted save percentage. I’ll compare Dubnyk this year to a goalie who would be considered good but not great — the goalie with the 10th-best stats — as well as Dubnyk last season with the Wild.

*Dubnyk is stopping 96.2 percent of low-danger shots this year. Low-danger shots are what you would imagine: shots from bad angles and long distances that are considered very routine. Though 96.2 might sound like a strong number, it ranks Dubnyk 38th of 49 goalies with at least 1,000 minutes played this year. The 10th-best goalie has a low-danger save percentage of 97.4; Dubnyk with the Wild last season was at 97.6.

*Dubnyk is stopping 92.1 percent of medium-danger shots, ranking 30th of 49 goalies. The 10th-best goalie is stopping 93.5 percent; Dubnyk with the Wild last season stopped 94.1 percent.

*Dubnyk is stopping 83.4 percent of high-danger shots, ranking 21st of 49 goalies; the 10th-best goalie this season is at 84.7; Dubnyk with the Wild last year was at 85.6.

*Dubnyk’s adjusted save percentage, which takes into account the quality of shots he’s faced, is 91.4 this year (30th of 49); last year with the Wild he was at 93.2 (6th of 51 goalies who played at least 500 minutes during the time he was with the Wild).

His numbers this season are nearly identical across the board to his career numbers: three of the four (adjusted, high-danger and medium-danger save percentage) are exactly the same career vs. this year, while his career low-danger percentage is 96.4 compared to 96.2 this season.

None of this is to say Dubnyk is having a “bad” season. He was an All-Star. He’s 7th in minutes played; he’s 13th in wins. He’s a respectable 19th of 45 qualified goalies in goals against average at 2.37. And while it’s hard to remember many instances in which he flat-out stole a victory for the Wild, he has carried them for stretches of key victories.

This is merely a reminder of the power of leverage. If Dubnyk hadn’t played out of his mind for half a year, there’s no way he signs that offseason deal. That said, if the Wild had it to do over again, it would do the deal again. His cap number of $4.33 million is significant but not outlandish, and there’s something to be said for having a clear-cut No. 1 goalie locked up for several years, as opposed to the constant shuffling and worrying of years past.

There’s always a chance, too, that Dubnyk gets red-hot at the right time — either this year or in the future — since he showed he can do that last year.

Overall, though, Dubnyk has regressed to what he was before last year’s trade: a goalie that most nights is durable but more aptly is described as average than spectacular.

Legacy of Flip Saunders, draft night will stay with Tyus Jones forever

jonesThe Universe, as they say, works in mysterious ways.

Thursday morning, as I prepared for an arranged interview with Timberwolves point guard Tyus Jones, I received an Instagram notification that someone had just “liked” a photo I took and posted of Jones at his draft party last June — more than eight months ago.

When something like that happens, it tends to weird me out. Who is scouring my social media months after the fact and liking my stuff?

In this case, though, it turned out to be serendipitous. I started thinking more about that night — the Wolves taking Karl-Anthony Towns No. 1 overall and then the equal (if not surpassed) buzz of the question: would they make a trade and draft Jones?

They did, of course, and with Jones having a draft party just a block away from Target Center at the 508, it turned into a memorable night. If it was memorable enough for someone to like a photo eight months later, I figured it was worth asking Jones to revisit it.

I’m glad I did.

“I remember that night so well. I know it like the back of my hand. I’ll never forget everything about that night. It was one of the best nights of my life,” Jones said. “I just remember talking with Flip on the phone, and him telling me that the Cavaliers were about to draft me but that we already had a trade set up and I was going to be a Timberwolf. Immediately I just broke down. Being able to be a part of my hometown team and knowing that Flip believed in me, that just means the world — to know that someone is taking a chance and believes in you. And then, him, Milt (Newton) and Mr. (Glen) Taylor all walked down the street and came to my draft party. It just shows a lot about the three of them and how much of a family this is around here. Everyone treats each other like family. That was very special and something I’ll always remember.”

I told Jones of of the things I remembered most about being at that draft party was Flip grabbing him excitedly and telling him, “We worked really hard to get you, so you better play your butt off,” and maybe in more colorful language than that.

“Oh yeah. He did. He did. It was in a good way,” Jones said, smiling. “It was with the right intentions. I definitely knew what he meant. They worked hard and pulled some strings to make that trade possible, but that just shows how much he believed in me and that meant a lot.”

The sweet moment is now laced with sadness, of course. Four months later, Saunders — who was so full of energy that night — died due to complications from Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The vast basketball community has dealt with the loss in various ways. For Jones, who had built a relationship with Saunders throughout his prep career at Apple Valley, it was particularly hard.

“Me, personally, it did,” Jones said. “I’ve known Flip since I was in high school. I had a good relationship with him. The fact that he still believed in me and to be a part of his team and be a point guard on his team, that meant a lot to me.

“For him to pass,” Jones said, his voice trailing off before finishing, “he took a chance on me and made my dream a reality.”

Saunders envisioned Jones as an NBA-caliber point guard. It’s been a trying rookie season, but lately Jones has been given the chance to sink or swim as the backup point guard playing regular minutes. There has been some of both — and maybe more of the sinking if we’re being honest — but Jones remains committed to fulfilling Saunders’ vision.

“I just want to continue to improve every day on both ends of the floor,” he said. “I want to become a better floor general for this team — someone who can run the second unit when I’m out there. Just be a positive staple on this team and try to help contribute as much as I can.”

Wizards win over Wolves offers snapshot of why long 2-pointers are bad

wittmanIn mid-January, I wrote a long post about a major failing of the Timberwolves’ offense: their tendency to shoot a lot of long 2-pointers, the least efficient shot in basketball. At the time, they were taking the highest percentage of overall field goal attempts in the NBA from between 16 feet and the three-point line, while they were taking the lowest number from three-point range.

The Wolves still hold those places, but in the last month-and-a-half, they had shown at least some improvement in their percentages. At the time I did the original post, the Wolves were taking 26 percent of their shots from that dreaded “Long 2” distance. Now, even though they still lead the league, that number is down to 24.7. In the same time, they’ve seen a small uptick in the most efficient shots: from three-point range (up from 18.9 percent of shots taken to 19.1 on the season) and from 3 feet or closer (up from 28.1 percent to 29 percent).

Not surprisingly, there was a correlation in offensive efficiency. In the month of February, in fact, the Wolves led the entire NBA in points per 100 possessions (111.9, better even than Golden State). Their record for the month was 5-6 — an improvement over past months, though still not great because of some shoddy defense.

Still, the offense was humming. Free throws played a big role, but so did better efficiency on shots.

All of this is a long windup to what was, at least for one night, a regression Wednesday against Wizards in the Wolves’ first game in March, a 104-98 loss at Target Center.

Former Wolves coach Randy Wittman (who infamously, according to Kevin Love, didn’t want the forward shooting 3s here), might eschew all the benefits of “analytics,” but his team sure played last night like the one more attuned to the finer points of where to shoot — at least when it comes to shots away from the basket.

For the game, from what I can piece together from stats and shot charts, the numbers were startling and almost a perfect mirror:

The Wolves made 11 of 28 shots (39.3 percent) from between 16 feet and the 3-point line and made 5 of 14 from 3-point range. That’s a total of 16 for 42 on long jump shots, for a combined 37 points.

The Wizards were almost the exact opposite. They made 11 of 29 from three-point range and 4 of 14 on those long 2s. That’s a combined 15 of 43 on long jump shots … for a combined 41 points.

The percentages made for the Wolves were nicely in line with their season numbers. But a whopping 28 of their 75 field goal attempts were those inefficient long 2s (37.3 percent).

There were more issues than just that — including a bench that was badly outplayed and outscored Wednesday.

But at team that had been working toward better efficiency while scoring at a high rate in February had a lapse Wednesday. The Wizards scored four more points than the Wolves on long jump shots in a six-point win.

Analytics are about huge data sets and sample sizes, but sometimes one game can show a difference. Wittman said recently that “analytics haven’t won a ballgame,” but the numbers sure added up for his team last night.

Kevin Martin and the year the Timberwolves *almost made it

Kevin Martin’s career with the Timberwolves is over, as of last night, when he and the organization came to a last-minute agreement on a contract buyout that makes perfect sense for both sides.

The Wolves are in a youth movement and have a glut of wing players. Martin, 33, who isn’t getting any younger, has seen both his productivity and minutes wane this season, his third with the Wolves. He could wind up with the model Spurs (just as Andre Miller did after his buyout), which calls to mind the fact that there is a difference between a player having value and a player being the right fit on every roster.

Martin was a holdover from a different era of Wolves basketball — one that really wasn’t that long ago but feels like forever ago.

He signed in the summer of 2013 — Flip Saunders’ first year back as the personnel boss. As I wrote last week in a larger piece about Nikola Pekovic’s contract (he also signed his extension that offseason), that was the year the Wolves really “went for it,” such as it was. And that was the year they “almost made it,” such as it was (hence the asterisk in the headline, all of which I’ll try to explain).

Kevin Love had one more season, 2013-14, before he could opt out. Ricky Rubio was on the rise. Pekovic was still young and productive. The Wolves also signed veterans Ronny Turiaf, Chase Budinger and Corey Brewer. They still had veterans J.J. Barea and Dante Cunningham playing key bench minutes. Love, Rubio and Pek were the young core; the others were there for support. It was a pretty good formula and a deep roster coached by respected veteran Rick Adelman.

Martin was, by far, the most important outside free agent signing of the bunch. While he didn’t get crazy money by NBA standards (about $28 million over four years, the last of which was a player option year that is no longer on the books after the buyout), Martin was an established scorer with a clear skill set: good from three-point range, good at drawing fouls, good at making free throws.

He was everything advertised that first year with the Wolves which, in retrospect, was perhaps part of their competitiveness and their downfall all at once.

Martin averaged 19 points, while playing and starting 68 games. He drew fouls. He made threes (38.7 percent). He was a credible starter on a credible team. But his deficiencies tended to show up most in close games: he’s not great at creating his own shot, he doesn’t have the quickest release and he’s never been a great defender.

That Wolves team, when everyone was clicking, was good enough to beat anyone. They racked up some gaudy leads and lopsided wins over plenty of foes, good and bad. But those Wolves also started the season 0-11 in games decided by four points or fewer — the last of which left their record at a still-reasonable 18-20. Even with five wins in those close games, they would have been 23-15 near the midpoint. Who knows what might have happened.

Instead, they finished 40-42 — a classic sum-of-the-parts didn’t equal the whole type of team, as their team stats suggested they were much better and should have won more games.

Then again, a few extra wins might not have mattered. That was the year of the incredibly tough Western Conference, when a 48-win Suns team missed the playoffs — hence the qualifier when saying the Wolves *almost made it, since almost making it still left them far short of the postseason.

It’s unfair to say Martin was emblematic of the Wolves’ problems that season. There was plenty of blame to go around, particularly when it came to late-game failure. But he was what he was: a good but not great player who maybe looked a little better on paper than he did on the court. In that way, he was very much a symbol of that team.

Martin gave a credible effort again last season, but injuries to so many key players (Martin included) turned 2014-15 into a full-on march to 66 losses. His early three seasons with the Wolves should ultimately be remembered without malice or an abundance of fanfare — with his standing boosted some by a classy exit.

He was a nice player who met expectations while simultaneously being a key member of a team that fell short of them.

Erin Andrews didn’t ask for any of this

erinandrewsWe’re heading into another day  of the Erin Andrews civil trial, in which the sports TV reporter and host is suing the stalker who in September 2008 secretly filmed her while she was nude and the hotel in which it happened for $75 million in damages.

Pretty much every bit of detail that has emerged from the trial ranges from heartbreaking to disgusting — enough so to warrant a deeper reflection about the sexist culture that still very much permeates sports and the sports media. Among the lowlights:

*In the months between the leak of the video in 2009 and the arrest of Michael David Barrett, who made the video and was sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison, Andrews testified Monday that widespread speculation that she had somehow created the video as a publicity stunt “ripped me apart.” ESPN, her employer at the time, forced her to do an on-air interview reliving the experience as terms for returning to the air.

Let’s think about that for a moment. I remember when all of this broke. And I remember the crass idiots who thought Andrews did this to boost her career. It was and remains sexism under the guise of skepticism.

*If that wasn’t bad enough, a defense attorney during cross-examination Tuesday suggested her career has taken off since 2009, as Andrews moved from ESPN to Fox and landed other high-profile gigs and endorsements.

On the one hand, this is just a lawyer doing a job. If the job is to prove that the monetary damages being sought are out of line, one supposes this is a valid argument. On the other hand, the subtle insinuation here gets back into the territory of the publicity from the video somehow being “good” for Andrews. And again, that’s a pretty low form of humanity.

In response to the line of questioning, Nita Chaudhary, co-founder of UltraViolet, a national women’s advocacy organization, released a statement that read in part: “Comments like the ones made by their attorney today contribute to rape culture and could sway other women not to come forward with their stories of assault. Their victim-blaming is shameful and an affront to women and survivors everywhere.”

And as Lindsay Gibbs writes at Think Progress: Andrews was a rising star in the industry before this, and she’s a bona fide star now —  not because a man violated her and put her naked body all over the internet, or because of the attention she received for it, but because despite all of this, she was able to focus on her job and persevere. And she is brave for being so open about her struggles, and for continuing to seek justice in a system that so rarely provides it for women.

*Andrews, who is dating the Wild’s Jarret Stoll, said she was reluctant to date after the video leaked and believes it still clouds her relationship with Stoll to this day. “I feel sad because I think he would have loved the girl more who was there before this happened,” Andrews testified through tears on Tuesday. “And I feel guilty about that.”

Still think this was good for her or that she wanted it to happen?

*Andrews says she is haunted by this every day. It impacts the level of safety and comfort she feels in hotels. It gets brought up daily, she said, in some form. She worries that if she has kids someday, they will find out about it.

These are real feelings that nobody should have to feel. These are things that very few men will experience. But we all understand this, right? I’ll just check the Star Tribune comments for confirmation. Ah, here’s the very first one I see, from commenter “snortski”:

I hope she doesn’t get a bloody nickel.  An attractive lady who’s been privileged every second of her life wants $75 million b/c she experienced the slightest bit of discomfort.  Who cares?  … I think she’s just embarrassed b/c her body is a total meh fest, nothing special!

The dismissive “slightest bit of discomfort,” and then the objectification/shaming of her body. All in one tight paragraph.

[Note: comments have since been turned off on that story].

This is a real thing that someone not only thought but took the time to share. In 2016. Amazing. Sad. More than sad. And there are more like that on the same story and on stories across the country. There are more rational, empathetic, healthy comments as well. But at best, it’s a pretty even split.

I’ll end this with a trip back in time to August 2008. Andrews was dealing with the fallout from what, in retrospect, was a much tamer story: a reporter had written about Andrews being a distraction for wearing a “low cut dress” while covering a Cubs game in the middle of summer.

I had done a Q&A with Andrews at some point previous to that, and when the dress “scandal” was ongoing, I reached out to her for another interview that she granted. Among the things she said:

“I’m no dummy. I’m conscious that every day I have to prove myself. Being a woman, I thought at some point we were all past this. I’m not going to change. I can’t change. … I think my overall reaction is that it’s really sad that in 2008 … I have people watching every single move I make.”

A month later, she was violated the privacy of her hotel room. She didn’t ask for any of this. Nobody asks for something like that, and all victims deserve better.

Have Twins turned outfield defense strength into a potential weakness?

sanofieldOn Sept. 5 last season, the Twins debuted what had the potential to be a great defensive outfield for a decade:

Eddie Rosario in left field, Byron Buxton in center field, Aaron Hicks in right field. All three can cover a ton of ground and throw. They were a pitcher’s dream. We saw that lineup for exactly four games in 2015, all of them in September, all between the 5th and the 15th. We won’t see it again, with Hicks traded in the offseason.

The ground they covered in that brief time was stark in comparison to 2014, when the lumbering likes of Chris Parmelee, Chris Colabello, Oswaldo Arcia and Josh Willingham still patrolled the outfield much of the time while an out-of-position Danny Santana learned on the fly because Hicks wasn’t ready yet at the plate.

It was also stark compared to watching Torii Hunter work right field for much of 2015. For all Hunter offered to last year’s Twins, his defense was below par.

Looking at FanGraphs and the stat defensive runs saved above average Parmelee, Colabello, Arcia and Willingham were a combined minus-29 in 2014.

Hunter was a minus-8 in 2015.

Rosario, Hicks and Buxton — even though none played full seasons — were a combined plus-16 in 2015.

But what could have been a real strength in 2016 instead now looks like a question mark because of the direction the Twins went in the offseason and the candidates vying for roster spots this year.

Hicks, of course, was traded to the Yankees. You have to give up something to get something, and the Twins needed a long-term answer at catcher. There’s no begrudging the desire to upgrade with John Ryan Murphy, but it came with a price.

The price was sacrificing what could have been a great outfield. Had, say, Trevor Plouffe been traded for a catcher while Miguel Sano moved to third, it would still be intact. Plouffe has turned into a good defensive third baseman, but he was better defensively (at least according to FanGraphs) two years ago than he was last year.

Sano might prove to be OK in the outfield. My guess, though, is that “OK” still translates to far less than what Hicks would have provided in right field. If Arcia rebounds and starts hitting, he could also see time back in the outfield. In 2014, he was a minus-10 in defensive runs saved.

Santana could be a stopgap if Buxton isn’t ready. Rosario — who was excellent last year in the field, particularly with his arm — figures to be a constant.

Maybe if Buxton sticks and Rosario keeps playing regularly, they will cover enough ground to make up for whatever range Sano lacks. Big-picture, this at least shouldn’t be a return to the lumbering days of 2014.

But an outfield that had amazing defensive potential now feels like on some nights it will be merely OK or worse. It will be interesting to see how that impacts the 2016 Twins and a group of pitchers that still doesn’t figure to strike out a lot of batters.