Following are opinions from Mille Lacs County Times editor-sports editor Gary Larson, reporter Luther Dorr and former Times intern Logan Marxhausen. Note: This feature is written on Monday each week.
•Question: The Minnesota Vikings open the 2012 season by hosting Jacksonville Sunday. What’s your assessment of this Vikings team?
-Dorr: They were basically horrible in their exhibition games, especially in the third game which everyone seems to judge now as the key exhibition game. I thought Christian Ponder should have played in the final game last week. And I didn’t think Sage Rosenfels should been released. He’s a dependable back-up quarterback. Joe Webb, despite his athletic ability, played poorly in the exhibition games and the kid they kept as the third-string quarterback has no experience. But, who really knows how the team will do, or how Adrian Peterson will fare when he gets back in the lineup? There are so many question marks at this point. Some fans talk about how it’s a very young team but if the young players aren’t any good, that’s not a plus.
-Marxhausen: The Vikings are trying to build up from last year’s debacle. They went into the season with a rookie quarterback and a rookie head coach hoping to cast a shadow over the second failed Brett Favre attempt. The Vikings are going to need to build that foundation as well as build rapport amongst players. This team is going to face many challenges as it did last season and is relying on young, inexperienced players to compete in a very vicious game. It’s hard to see the silver lining for the Vikings. Head Coach Leslie Frazier has faced insurmountable odds since starting for the Vikings and has a lot of pressure on him to win in an uphill battle.
-Larson: The same woes that plagued the team last season (offensive line, defensive secondary, average receivers) appear to be back, along with a question mark at linebacker.
•Question: What’s your prediction for the opener and the Vikings’ season record?
-Dorr: Let’s remember that this team had a 1-7 record at home last season. Remember the days when the Vikings dominated in the Metrodome? Let’s also factor in that Leslie Frazier is 0-8 in his coaching career against NFC North teams. But you can argue that those statistics don’t have anything to do with 2012. OK, consider this: Six of Minnesota’s first eight games are against teams, like the Vikings, predicted by Sports Illustrated to have sub-.500 records, and four of those games are at home. September and October will be the time to get wins because during the last two months only one of the eight teams the Vikings play is predicted to be under .500. And four of those games are against Chicago and Green Bay. Columnist Sid Hartman considers that a bonus for the Vikings because by then those two teams MIGHT be banged up. The Vikings should win the opener against lowly Jacksonville but, if they don’t, the team will be hard pressed to get the six wins they should at least get. I hope I’m wrong and they get eight.
-Marxhausen: The Vikings first two games give them a really good chance at being undefeated for part of the season as they take on Jacksonville and Indianapolis in the first two weeks. Jacksonville is going to be an interesting match-up for the Vikings because they will be the first to see Maurice Jones-Drew in action after he finally ended his holdout. The Jaguars like to keep the ball on the ground to try and limit the risk of turnovers through the air. I think the Vikings have what it takes to beat the Jaguars to start the season on the right page. The Vikings have a lot of young players vying for starting positions because nobody’s spot is safe and that brings another level of competition to the table. Sunday’s game will be a lower-scoring game with the Vikings topping the Jaguars 20-17. The rest of the Vikings season will not be as successful, with the team finishing 4-12.
-Larson: Logan is correct. The Vikings will finish 4-12, unless they lose the opener Sunday – then, it’s 3-13. But the team, with a new stadium in its pocket, doesn’t have to be very good until that stadium opens. On Sunday, it’s Minnesota 33, Jacksonville 17.
•Question: Look into your crystal ball. Who will the NFC and AFC divisional winners be? What teams will be playing in the NFC and AFC playoff finals? What teams advance to the Super Bowl and who wins that game?
-Dorr: When I saw this question from Gary, I gave myself an NFL test and the results were not too good. I tried to list the 32 teams in the league (I thought there were only 30) and came up with 28. Then I tried to list the starting quarterbacks and got only 17 of the 32 and knew only 14 first names. The other 15? Do you know Brandon Weeden of the Browns, or John Skelton of Arizona, or Ryan Tannehill of Miami? If you do, go to the head of the class. (I’m told there are 10 starting at quarterback this year who have never started an NFL game.) I knew there was a rookie at Washington (Robert Griffin) but couldn’t think of his name. That means my crystal ball, at best, is very clouded and that any predictions (translate: guesses) are likely to be way, way off. AFC division winners: Ravens, Texans, Broncos and Patriots: NFC division winners: Saints, 49ers, Giants, Packers. AFC finals: Patriots, Broncos: NFC finals: Saints, Packers: Super Bowl: Patriots beat Saints. And you can take it to the bank that at least half of those will be wrong. One more thing: I think it comical that fans and media types, locally and nationwide, are criticizing the replacement refs. Have you ever listened to a Vikings post-game radio show in the past when fans called in to say the refs cost their team a win? Or listened to local radio broadcasters (homers to the end) complain about the reffing? The memories are short.
-Marxhausen: The NFC is going to be quite similar to the playoffs set up last year with the New York Giants, Green Bay, New Orleans and San Francisco leading their division. I suspect that the Detroit Lions and Carolina Panthers will emerge as the two wild card teams. The AFC will have New England, Baltimore, Houston and Denver as division winners, with Pittsburgh and the New York Jets following as wild card winners. The NFC finals will feature New Orleans against Green Bay and the AFC will display New England and Baltimore. New England will topple over New Orleans in the Super Bowl match-up of Brady vs. Brees with Brady finding retribution for last season Super Bowl loss
-Larson: In the NFC, let’s go with the New York Giants, Green Bay, Atlanta and San Francisco as division winners, with New Orleans and Dallas as wild cards. In the AFC, it’s New England, Baltimore, Houston and Denver as division winners and Cincinnati and Kansas City as wild cards. It’s Green Bay over New Orleans in the NFC finals and Baltimore over New England in the AFC finals. Green Bay tops Baltimore in the Super Bowl.
•Question: The University of Minnesota football team topped Nevada-Las Vegas 30-27 in triple overtime to win its season opener. What are your thought on that game? How will Minnesota do Saturday in its hole opener against New Hampshire?
-Dorr: I know absolutely nothing about New Hampshire except that the school has good hockey teams. Minnesota should win that game easily, I would think, but will need a lot better performance from quarterback MarQueis Gray. I wish him well, and he played well at the end of the 2011 season, but was horrible against UNLV. Minnesota should have had at least a 24-3 lead early in the second half. By my count, Gray missed on four possible TD passes, two of them wide open. You can’t hit every pass but he should have hit at least two TDs by then and the game could have been a rout against an inexperienced and jittery freshman quarterback. Some key penalties were costly and veteran Troy Stoudermire’s mistakes were costly. Still, it was a win. A couple years ago when some fans and some in the media were calling for Gray to replace Adam Weber (now in the NFL) at the U of M, it was my opinion then that the Gophers wouldn’t become a winning program with Gray at the helm. I hope he’s gotten past that point.
-Marxhausen: A win is a win no matter how you get it. The Gophers started off the season on a wobbly foot taking three overtimes to beat UNLV, but the players left the stadium with smiles on their faces as they finally pulled out a victory. The only thing that spoils the victory is that UNLV’s rankings were near the bottle of FBS. The Gophers did better than UNLV in every offensive category and yet they still had issues finding the end zone and that will be the folly of the Gophers this season. Struggling to execute and get touchdowns allows for teams like UNLV to stay in the game. The game against New Hampshire will follow the same suit as the UNLV game. The Gophers will struggle to take control over the game, but will finish with a low-scoring victory.
-Larson: I’m happy the Gophers pulled out a win and now, for several upcoming seasons, we won’t have to listen to or read about the athletic director and coach whine about having to open the season on the road. I’m also happy Minnesota was able to fight and claw its way to victory against a team ranked 112th out of 124 major college teams. On the road, no less!
The win bodes well for a Gopher victory against New Hampshire, a FCS team (not major college) Saturday. But, Minnesota will need to clean up its act to avoid a loss in its home opener. Final score: Minnesota 27, New Hampshire 20.
•Question: The University has authorized the sale of alcohol at TCF Bank Stadium this season. Is that a good idea?
-Dorr: If you want to increase revenue, and generate more interest among fans, especially younger ones, sure it is. Why not?
-Marxhausen: The University of Minnesota is making a very smart move for the situation they are currently in. The sale of student season tickets has gone way down and is far short of its goal. The sale of alcohol will be a good tactic to bring in more fans, especially students, to fill in the stadium and will also be a huge revenue boost. Sad thing to say is it might not be the best choice possible if something were to happen along the same lines as the 20-year-old who fell and died in the Georgia Dome during the Tennessee-North Carolina State game. Police reports say he had been drinking for more than three hours before the incident.
-Larson: Fans may have needed a belt or two the past two seasons at home games just to handle what was taking place on the field. It will be interesting to see if fans show up in the tank before game time or go into the tank during the game. It’s a sad story if student and overall attendance increases because of the availability of liquor, rather than interest in the football team.
•Question: The Minnesota Twins put Joe Mauer on waivers last week. No team claimed Mauer. What did you think of putting the star on waivers and that no team claimed him?
-Dorr: It – putting star players on waivers – routinely happens throughout every season. So it’s no big deal. As far as no one claiming him, that wasn’t a surprise. What team wants to pick up that huge salary for a guy that hasn’t shown much power except for one season? He’s the designated hitter in many games for the Twins so a National League team couldn’t use him as much unless it was strictly as a catcher and first baseman.
-Marxhausen: Although Mauer is quite talented and has revolutionized the catcher position to be both an offensive and defensive player, but he comes with a lot of baggage attached. The Twins were seeing if anyone would be interested in taking the hefty contract off their hands or make a trade offer for some prospects. It was never a big deal for me because I figured the only team I saw willing to take Mauer in the first place was the Yankees and they already pay out enough. Players get put on waivers all the time for terrible teams looking to unload salary. The Boston Red Sox were successful when they sent Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett to the Dodgers as they opened up salary space.
-Larson: It was surprising to see Mauer’s name on the waiver wire, even though it likely didn’t mean much. It was interesting to hear some Twins fans say they were disappointed Mauer wasn’t claimed and others say they were shocked to see Mauer was on waivers. What a drop for Joe, though, from a record contract to waivers!
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