Ask the Sportswriters

Following are opinions from Mille Lacs County Times sports editor Gary Larson, reporter Luther Dorr, former Times intern Logan Marxhausen and sports fan Ben Johnson. Note: This feature is written on Monday each week.

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•Question:  The Minnesota Vikings fell to 0-3 as they lost to the Cleveland Browns 31-27 at Mall of America Field Sunday. Many experts felt the Vikings would notch their first win against a previously winless Browns team. What are your thoughts on the game? Is it time to sit quarterback Christian Ponder and give back-up Matt Cassel a shot? What are Minnesota’s chances of reaching the playoffs? (Just three teams have made the playoffs after starting out 0-3 since 1990.)

-Dorr: Back in 2010, when coach Leslie Frazier was hired during the season to replace Brad Childress, and in 2011, I consistently wrote that I didn’t think Frazier was qualified to be the coach. I always believe in giving credit where credit is due, however, and 2012 was a good year. But after Sunday’s loss I wonder again about Frazier. I listened for awhile to the post-game show on KFAN and the guy hosting the show kept saying Ponder this, Ponder that, Ponder this, Ponder that. Here are a few of the things he forgot or neglected to mention: 1) The lowly Browns had scored 1 touchdown in their last 21 possessions. In their first 5 on Sunday they had THREE. 2) Coach Frazier incorrectly challenged an official’s call and the Vikings were penalized, although the referee incorrectly administered a 15-yard penalty instead of taking away a time out. Minnesota might have gotten a touchdown there (they would have been inside the Cleveland 15) instead of a field goal. 3) The Vikings have scored 81 points in three games, more than 25 – yes, more than 25, or 78 percent – of the NFL’s 32 teams. The 27 should have been enough to beat Cleveland and 30 should have been enough to beat Chicago. The defense is giving up 32 points a game and surrendered 409 yards to a Cleveland team that had its third-string quarterback playing and had traded its top running back a few days earlier. 4) A fake punt and a fake field goal, both by Cleveland, were huge in the game. How can a team, at the pro level especially, not see a receiver standing out to the side on a field goal situation? That play went for a touchdown. 5) The Vikings had the ball on their 14 with 4:22 to go. What was the first play? A run by a wide receiver that went for no gain. Then, on 3rd-and-5, Cleveland called a time out with 3:32 to go. The Vikings, without running a play, also called one after that, completely wasting a time out they could have used on their final possession.  6) At least five times in the second half the Vikings had an incomplete pass on first down and then ran Adrian Peterson on 2nd-and-10, with no success. It was almost laughable. You knew it was coming and so did the Browns. 7) Peterson lost a fumble for the third game in a row, including one with good field position early in the second half. The list could go on. If you think those  things would be rectified with Cassel in instead of Ponder, it’s time for a change. And no, the chances of making the playoffs are slim or worse. Maybe the Vikings should stay in London.

-Marxhausen: How? What? Really? The Browns? That was my first reaction after coming home from work to find out the Vikings lost to the Browns. The Vikings had all the things going their way heading into the game. 1) The Vikings are coming home from two road losses hungry for a win. 2) The team your playing just traded its best player away for a draft pick. 3) The opposing team’s starting quarterback has an injury and is sitting for the game. The Vikings played terrible on both sides of the ball, making Cleveland look better than it is. I can’t blame Christian Ponder entirely for the offense not being more successful, but as quarterback, he is the leader of the team and the team is failing. Matt Cassel could be the answer to rally the offense around, so why not give him a shot? At this point there is very little probability the Vikings will make the playoffs so as sad as it is to say the season is almost over.

-Larson:  Like Luther, I’ve had doubts about Leslie Frazier. And, it’s time for the Vikings to act now and start looking ahead to 2014 and 2015. After this week’s game in London the Vikings have a bye week. A good time for a coaching change. Why wait to the end of a lost season to start moving in a new direction? There will likely be plenty of changes before the 2014 season starts, so why not begin making them now? Ponder and Cassel will close out the final 13 games simply because there is no one else. That should change with next spring’s draft. There’s no chance this team will make the playoffs.

-Johnson: If the Vikings make the playoffs after their performances in their first three losses, it would have to be considered one of the biggest season-turnarounds in NFL history.  Christian Ponder struggled once again, throwing another interception and losing a fumble while failing to reach the end zone in the air.  His performance, however, wasn’t the lone reason the Vikings lost the game.  A fake punt and fake field goal by the Browns, along with a successful passing game, certainly contributed to the Browns’ win.  I think the collapse in special teams and defense for the Vikings may be the result of a ripple affect from Ponder’s struggles.  Sadly, I don’t think either Ponder or Cassel are a part of the solution for a future offense.  If Leslie Frazier decides to shake it up and start Cassel, I am open to changes in an attempt to turn the season around.

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•Question:  The University of Minnesota football team completed its non-conference schedule 4-0 by topping San Jose State 43-24 Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium. What are your thoughts on the game? Has Mitch Leidner, who ran 24 times for 151 yards and four touchdowns Saturday, taken the starting quarterback position away from the injured Philip Nelson? What’s your prediction for Saturday’s Iowa at Minnesota Big Ten opener?

-Dorr: I don’t think Nelson has lost his job but he’s apparently not fully recovered from his hamstring injury. San Jose State obviously couldn’t stop Leidner from running, although I saw just a few clips from the game and don’t know how he got that many yards, sometimes with an empty backfield. San Jose’s defense can’t be too good. The key against Iowa will be stopping Iowa running back Mark Weisman, who ran all over the Gophers in a loss to the Hawkeyes last year. And he’s been doing the same in Iowa’s 3-1 start this season. If Minnesota’s defense, somewhat porous to this point, can’t control Weisman, it’ll be a hard game to win. If the defense does control Weisman somewhat, Minnesota has a chance to win. It’s hard enough to predict games and even harder when neither team has played a conference game. Because I’m a Gopher fan I’ll take the Gophers in a close game.

-Marxhausen: The Gophers did exactly what they planned to do. They got their repetitions against weaker opposition to get ready for Big Ten play. The Gophers may have found something in Mitch Leidner. He looked very athletic and composed in running the ball. The Gophers are a running team and if you have this capable of a quarterback running so successfully, there aren’t going to be many games you can’t win. Minnesota owned the clock and kept the ball safe to reduce turnovers. I would like to see what Leidner can do against Iowa to see if his success continues.  Iowa has a tough defense but if the Gophers can stick to the run game I see the Gophers winning.

-Larson:  While the competition wasn’t very tough, a tip of the hat to coach Jerry Kill and his team for not stumbling during non-conference play. Two solid quarterbacks are better than one, a lot better than none, and Kill has indicated he’s find playing time for both Leidner and Nelson. We’ll find out a lot about the Gophers Saturday against a good Iowa team, one that will have plenty of fan support. It’s the Hawkeyes, 27-23.

-Johnson: Mitch Leidner’s performance Saturday was impressive.  I’m not sure if it was a game considered to be an audition for Leidner, but I think the Gophers can use him this season.  Having both Nelson and Leidner in an offense could be fun to watch.  Iowa’s recruiting group this year is supposed to be one of the best in the school’s history. They looked tough as they mowed through Western Michigan this past week, 59-3.  It will be a good match-up Saturday but I have to go with the Hawkeyes 31-27.

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Do you have an opinion on this week’s question? Do you agree or disagree with the sportswriters? Let us know by sending an e-mail to editor.millelacscotimes@ecm-inc.com or a note to Mille Lacs County Times, 225 S.W. 2nd St. Milaca, MN 56353. Or comment online.

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