Following are opinions from Mille Lacs County Times sports editor Gary Larson, former Princeton Union-Eagle editor and sports columnist Luther Dorr, former Times intern Logan Marxhausen and sports fan Ben Johnson. Note: This feature is written on Monday each week.
•Question: The Minnesota Vikings defeated the Detroit Lions Dec. 29 to finish the season with a 5-10-1 record. Besides coaching, what areas are the most crucial to improve heading into the college draft and free agency as the team heads into 2014.
-Dorr: The number-one priority seems to be on the defensive side of the ball, especially if they lose some free agents that most experts expect will leave, such as Jared Allen. Defensive backs, linebackers and linemen – there seem to be needs at all those positions. The offensive line was so-so – good at times, not very good at other times, although a third-string running back gained over 100 yards against a Lions team that didn’t seem too interested in that final game. Many say there is a need at quarterback. Maybe signing someone like former Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman would do the trick. That’s right, they did that and he didn’t play. The whole quarterback thing was handled poorly, I thought, and that needs to be solidified by next September, no matter who it is.
-Marxhausen: The game against Detroit was unusual. The defense actually showed up and took control of the game. It was in the backfield the entire game, putting pressure on quarterback Matt Stafford. He did make a few, but the Calvin Johnson-less Lions couldn’t finish the job. If the Lions did have Johnson in though, the Vikings would have been hurting. The first need for the Vikings is a play-making defensive back. Yes, there are important decisions to be made, such as resigning Jared Allen, but the secondary has suffered so much over the years and the Vikings need that shut-down corner back to play against the Lions (Johnson), Packers (Jordy Nelson) and Bears (Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffrey). In the draft the Vikings need to look for a linebacker early on in the first round to fill that hole left at linebacker. The Vikings should not even look at quarterbacks unless they mean to draft one in the later rounds. Also, any additions to the offensive or defensive in free agency would be a huge improvement.
-Larson: Did the Vikings over achieve this season, or did they under achieve? I predicted three or four victories, so I’ll take the view the team over-achieved its talent. This team needs help. A lot of help. The No. 1 priority is to find a young quarterback – not for 2014 but for 2015 and beyond. Fans won’t take more uncertainty at that key position after this past season’s guessing game by the coaching staff. Minneapolis Star Tribune columnist Jim Souhan recently suggested, in a pitch for Seattle assistant Darrell Bevell as new head coach, the Vikings latch on to Texas A&M quarterback Johnny (“football”) Manziel and bring in Brett Favre to tutor the Fran Tarkenton clone. I’ll second that idea, even if it means giving up some high draft picks to move up in the draft. No position is more important or noticeable than quarterback. And, the Vikings can’t afford to waste the talents of 2013 rookie receiver Cordarrelle Patterson. Minnesota needs a consistent passing game to cut loose star back Adrian Peterson.
-Johnson: It is obvious the Vikings need a dependable quarterback. With the eighth overall pick, experts are suggesting the Vikings hold off on a quarterback and not burn up a first round pick (the few top-tier quarterbacks are all projected to go before the eighth pick). There are so many positions on defense the Vikings need to address that it may be wise to go after a defensive end, defensive nose guard, or linebacker in the first round. If they did this, I think they would get the same caliber of quarterback in the second round as they would the first, based on who is in this year’s draft. The other area needing improvement is the offensive line.
•Question: What do you think of the firing of head coach Leslie Frazier and what should the Vikings be looking for in a new head coach?
-Dorr: The firing may or may not have been warranted but it was almost inevitable. Some say that the axe should have fallen on general manager Rick Spielman instead for the material that he provided Frazier. Still, with the same players and the addition of Cordarrelle Patterson, perhaps the best rookie in the NFL this past season, the Vikings failed miserably after making it to the playoffs with a 10-6 record lin 2012. The defense went in the tank the first three games when the Vikings, with Christian Ponder as the starting quarterback, averaged 32 points a game and lost all three games in the last minute. A 3-0 start would have taken away the quarterback controversy and perhaps the season would have been way different. I think it would be good if the team hired a veteran NFL coach, although it might be time to steer away from the pool of recycled NFL head coaches.
-Marxhausen: It was tough to see Leslie Frazier go because fans know what a good and smart coach he has worked so hard to be. Frazier may not have the best record as a head coach, but the entire load can not be dropped on him. Offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave must take some of the blame as well. While he is creative with his offensive plays, including featuring running plays for Cordarrelle Patterson, he never brought Christian Ponder up to Matt Ryan’s level as the Vikings hoped he would do when he signed on three years ago. I would like to see an offensive minded coach take the reins at head coach and bring the Vikings offense up from the bottom of the NFL. With a star like Adrian Peterson, it should be easy to get the offense rolling.
-Larson: It was time for a change and general manager Rick Spielman should also have been let go. Frazier’s post game interviews were often puzzling – like he hadn’t seen the same game as others had. He often ignored and seemed oblivious to the team’s shortcomings, especially at quarterback. It’s good he quickly landed on his feet at Tampa Bay. Apparently, there are good candidates available to take over as head coach. Someone with more fire and emotion than Frazier displayed, like former player and head coach Jack Del Rio, or a talented coordinator like Darrell Bevell would be a good choice. The team appears to be researching several candidates and that’s good.
-Johnson: I think a change in head coach for the Vikings was needed. I was never a big fan of Leslie Frazier. You could have put a wax statue of the man on the sidelines and had as much of an expression as he portrayed. Frazier is a very smart coach and will fit in well as a defensive coordinator for Tampa Bay. He doesn’t have the persona of an NFL coach. I tend to favor a coach who can get his team fired up before and during the game. One that will stand up for their team when there is a bad call or who will light a fire underneath a player who is taking plays off. John Gruden or Mike Ditka would be a great fit for Minnesota, however, neither seems to be interested. Someone of that mold would be fun to see leading the Vikings.
•Question: What did you think of this past weekend’s NFL Playoff results and who are your picks to win this weekend?
-Dorr: The only surprise for me was the domination of Cincinnati by San Diego. All four were good games to watch. I’ll admit I was surprised by the difficulty Indianapolis had in edging Kansas City by one point. Indy quarterback Andrew Luck proved that he is one of the coming stars of the NFL. I’m guessing that home teams Denver and Seattle will win their games this weekend and that home team New England can edge by Indianapolis, although that one is a bit iffy. And it’s a 7:15 p.m. game, meaning the weather could really be a factor. San Francisco, on the road at Carolina, should win that one in a very close contest. But you know there will be an upset in there somewhere, or maybe two.
-Marxhausen: The wild card weekend match-ups proved to be a fun and exhilarating to start the playoffs. With three games decided by three points or less, the only team not to make it close was Andy Dalton and the Cincinnati Bengals. Dalton had a tough game, making poor decisions when getting pressured by San Diego’s defense. The Packers should have won or at least had multiple chances where they could have taken the lead, but those chances were missed and 49er quarterback Colin Kaepernick has beaten the Packers yet again in the playoffs. New Orleans going on the road to Philadelphia in an outdoor stadium and winning was my biggest upset for the weekend. Only 3-5 on the road this season, the Saints were able to move the ball and shut down Philadelphia quarterback Nick Foles. The Colts-Chiefs game was downright nasty and left a bitter taste in your mouth if you are a Chiefs fan. The rushing touchdown where the bounce comes towards Andrew Luck and he makes the leap into the end zone was an incredible finish for the Colts. I like Seattle over New Orleans, New England over Indianapolis, San Francisco over Carolina and Denver over San Diego.
-Larson: The NFL answered the challenge of many exciting college bowl games by providing several thrilling games of its own. Home field didn’t prove to be much as an advantage as Indianapolis was the lone team to win in its home stadium. This weekend it will be a bit different as New England, Denver, Seattle and Carolina all win at home.
-Johnson: The Packers vs. 49ers game was fun to watch. Luck finally ran out for the Packers, whose season came to a close after riding the waves of injuries and personnel changes throughout the season. The comeback that Indianapolis had on Saturday was also impressive. After being down 31-10 at halftime, it roared back, winning 45-44 over Kansas City. I’m going with the Saints and the Panthers to both win this weekend in the NFC and Patriots and Broncos to win in the AFC.
•Question: How much progress do you feel the University of Minnesota football team made this past season and what does it need to improve on heading into 2014? And, did the Texas Bowl loss to a mediocre Syracuse team impact Minnesota’s overall season?
-Dorr: There’s no doubt the team made progress, especially on the defensive side of the ball. They were finally able to be physical with Big Ten teams, including a Nebraska team that came up with an impressive bowl win. And they weren’t blown off the line of scrimmage by the Wisconsin and Michigan State teams, even in those last two losses. But, let’s face it, they lost to a Syracuse team that twice lost by 56 points during its season. The game is ancient history by now but I remember thinking at the time that changing quarterbacks after the first two series of the game was a horrible way to start a game. I simply didn’t understand that. Still, without giving up a 70-yard punt return near the end of the game, the Gophers likely win and a 9-4 season would look good. I think that loss took some of the luster off the Gopher season. The offense, mainly the passing game, needs to be improved if Minnesota is going to take another step forward. We’ll find out in 2014 if that four-game winning streak in the Big Ten was a fluke, or a harbinger of things to come.
-Marxhausen: The Gophers would have made a great deal more progress if they had been able to shut down the 6-6 Syracuse Orange. Maybe they were not properly prepared or they were not excited to be there, but the Gophers put up a terrible performance in a game they should have won. All Syracuse did was pound the ball and succeeded while doing so, while the Gophers could not consistently move on offense for scores. The Gophers need to improve everywhere. There is not one position where the Gophers should feel comfortable about and not address this offseason on their recruiting trips. Other than running back David Cobb coming back next season, the Gophers have a lot of work to do at the other positions. It is not going to be as simple as picking good players and having them do well, but rather the team and coaches working together and looking more like a true football team.
-Larson: The Gophers didn’t seem too excited about playing in the Texas Bowl and didn’t look prepared for a game that under 3,000 Minnesota fans were interested in enough to head south to attend. The loss dampened the progress the team showed during the season a bit but an overall mark of 8-5 was a step forward. Minnesota needs to continue to build depth and settle on one starting quarterback heading into the 2014 season. Next year will be another pivotal one for coach Jerry Kill and his program. The non-conference schedule will include Texas Christian and the Big Ten schedule ends with games against Iowa, Ohio State, Nebraska and Wisconsin. Eight victories may be hard to come by.
-Johnson: The Gophers had a great year. Not many people predicted a 4-4 Big Ten record which included a win over Nebraska. Going into next season, the Gophers need to work on their passing game and on fourth-quarter defense. The Texas Bowl did have an impact on the Gopher season but they were a dropped ball away from winning the game. I’ve expressed my displeasure with bowl games. So, I tend to focus on Big Ten Conference match-ups and with that, the Gophers had a successful season.
•Question: The University of Minnesota men’s basketball team, under new coach Richard Pitino, opened the Big Ten season by losing at home to Michigan before topping Purdue Sunday, also at home. What are the prospects for this team in the Big Ten this season and do you think Pitino’s running style will work in the Big Ten?
-Dorr: Unlike many of my brethren in the Twin Cities media, I have yet to jump on the Richard Pitino bandwagon, a bandwagon that got very full as the Gophers moved to an 11-2 record in November and December. Most of those on the bandwagon were critics of Tubby Smith and they were having a field day. Trouble is, in the horrendous loss to Michigan and for the last half of the second half in the Purdue win, I thought I was watching a Tubby Smith team. Tubby’s teams struggled to defend three-point shooters, often not being able to identify who was hot. That happened in the Michigan game as the defense let a player who had hit three in a row get open for two more that were unguarded. And it also happened against Purdue. Minnesota’s shot selection, often a problem with Smith-coached teams, led to the Wolverines overcoming a 36-30 Minnesota lead. And, when the Gophers led by 16 with seven minutes to go against Purdue, some hurried three-point tries allowed the Boilermakers to get back in the game. Of course, if Andre and Austin Hollins had shot even an average percentage against Michigan, the Gophers would have won. Michigan’s best player was out with an injury and star Glenn Robinson sat out the last 17 minutes with an injury. Minnesota should have won that game. Point guard Mathieu needs to be a little more disciplined than he was against Michigan. Pitino seems to have the team playing with more energy so far and the Gophers will need that, and more, to get six or more Big Ten wins.
-Marxhausen: The game against Michigan was a good one and the Gophers could have won, but they fell apart in the closing moments of the game. Looking at the schedule of Tubby Smith compared to Pitino, there are not many differences. – wins against the lower teams with some tough losses against better teams. The Gophers have not beaten any team that is worth even noting when talking collegiate basketball. They have had one true test this season, against Syracuse, and they lost by eight points. Pitino still needs some time before his style is incorporated into the players who still don’t look entirely comfortable playing this style. But, the fast-paced style could prove beneficial when playing Big Ten teams because they are not used to seeing it. Taking a half-court game and turning it into a full-court game is no easy task. Once Pitino recruits a few classes the style will run more smoothly and the Gophers will look better on the court.
-Larson: Can a run-and-gun team succeed in the Big Ten where patience is a virtue on offense and powerful rebounding is a key on defense? Probably not but new coach Pitino is going to give that a try for at least one season. Minnesota’s non-conference record was deceiving and four or five victories in Big Ten play is where the team is headed.
-Johnson: I haven’t watched the Gophers play yet but I’m excited to see what Pitino brings to Minnesota. The Gophers have been itching for a better record in the Big Ten and the expectations will be high for Pitino in the next few years. It appears that the Gophers have a few good shooters from the outside but have shown weakness in offensive rebounding. Looking at their schedule, the Gophers have quite a stretch after Penn State (Jan. 8) against four ranked teams in a row. We may find out early what kind of team the Gophers will have this season.
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