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The Minnesota Vikings play their final exhibition game of the season Thursday night, at Buffalo. Exhibition games, which the Kool-Aid-drinking NFL public relations folks have convinced us to call “preseason” games, don’t matter in the scope of the real season. Not a bit.
If your team does well in an exhibition game, was it because the other team didn’t have its first unit in for even half the game? If your team does badly, is it became your coach just wanted to get another look at a couple of new guys, so it didn’t matter?
There are traditions that have been formed even for exhibition games in the NFL, and among those is that the starters play one series in the first game, maybe one quarter in the second, and the full first half in the next to last exhibition, and then the first unit takes the day off for the final exhibition. If the Vikings follow that form-chart, which is the ultimate devotion to analytics, it could signal the most dysfunctional preparation for a regular season in team history.
Under ordinary circumstances, the starting unit seizes on the chance to shine in the first half of the next to last game, then goes to the bench relaxed, because win or lose, they know they’re ready to take the final exhibition week off and focus on execution for the regular-season opener.
The Vikings beat the Arizona Cardinals 20-9 last week in their next-to-last exhibition, which sounds fine, but they trailed 9-7 at halftime when the punchless Cardinals kicked three field goals, and the Vikings got an explosive 85-yard run for a touchdown by Dalvin Cook. Millionaire quarterback Kirk Cousins, however, was the opposite of sharp, and he took the first unit offense down with him. In the game that was supposed to show he was set for the season, Cousins completed three of 13 passes, for 35 yards, was sacked twice, and had several passes blocked at the line of scrimmage.
Sean Mannion, who apparently has convinced coach Mike Zimmer that he should be the back-up, was 6-9 for 57 yards in the third quarter. It wasn’t until Kyle Sloter came in for the fourth quarter that the Vikings seemed to wake up. Sloter was 6-7 for 102 yards, passed for a touchdown and led another touchdown drive as the Vikings pulled out the victory.
If you like to judge by quarterback ratings, Sloter had a 158.3 quarterback rating, Mannion was 84.0, and Cousins 39.6. A-trocious.
The most positive thing was Cook’s 85-yard romp through a Swiss-cheesy defensive unit. He gained a total of 88 yards, meaning he only carried one more time, and the Vikings had a total of 190 yards rushing — which looks a lot less impressive when you deduct Cook’s 85-yard run and drop the total to 105. The all-new offensive system, put in for this season to capitalize on Cousins’s style of quarterbacking, was supposed to be more of a hurry-up, quick-huddle thing. But Zimmer said the team had no spirit, and some players got to the huddle late and missed the play-call, and others were slow coming out of the huddle.
The point here is whether Zimmer will go by the form chart and not play his starting unit, or will he throw out the form chart and say that Cousins and his unit need to get sharp, so they’re going to play?
The same day the Vikings played so poorly but won a meaningless exhibition game, the Washington Redskins announced that newly-acquired Case Keenum will be their season-opening starting quarterback.
A year ago at this time, I had watched brief moments of the Chicago Bears in two exhibition games and realized that the Monsters of the Midway had strengthened their tough and nasty defense, improved their running game, and, most importantly, had found a quarterback in Mitchell Trubisky — another of that new breed of NFL quarterbacks who are at their best when flushed from the pocket and forced to improvise. So I wrote in this space that while all the Minnesota and Wisconsin NFL fans are arguing about whether the Vikings or Packers will win the division, I was picking the Chicago Bears to win it. Some folks dismissed my prediction as the raving of a wayward puck-head. But they won it.
New year now, and Aaron Rodgers looks good for the Packers, so the argument has started anew — who will it be, the Vikings or the Packers? I say they will battle it out for second place, again, because the Bears will win it again. Rodgers can improvise, but with advancing age, we don’t want him to put himself into position to be fragile, so let him scramble only when he’s in desperate circumstances. Cousins’s biggest weakness is his inability to improvise, or to function efficiently when flushed from the pocket. And Trubisky, much like Russell Wilson in Seattle, or — dare we say? — Case Keenum in Washington, among others, is at his best against top defenses.
So for the first time in my writing history, I am actually recommending sports fans might want to tune in to the Vikings final exhibition game Thursday night. It actually could tell us how close the Vikings are to being ready for prime time, which comes September 8 against Atlanta.
FALL SPORTS TAKE OVER
The University of Minnesota is about to start its “exhibition” season also, leading up to the Big Ten, where the Gophers are looking for baby steps in striving for being competitive. Tough thing is that they should romp against South Dakota State — also Thursday night, in a moment of great scheduling — but beware. Those four schools — North Dakota, North Dakota State, South Dakota and South Dakota State — love nothing more than to embarrass their big buddy to the East.
UMD, by far a more sure thing if you want to watch a winner, is a week away from opening its Northern Sun season, at home, against Minot. The UMD women’s volleyball team, another sure winner, is still a week away from opening in the Palm Beach Atlantic Tournament in Florida next week.
Then the Bulldogs play in the St. Cloud State Invitational tournament the following weekend, before coming home to Romano Gym to open the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference dogfight on September 20 and 21.
As orientation week spread across campus last weekend, the UMD volleyball team gave coach Jim Boos a look at the roster under simulated game conditions at Romano Gym last Sunday. Boos, a stickler for following the rules, was concerned that there might be too much media attention when the Bulldogs, a Division II power, played a few scrimmage games against neighboring St. Scholastica, a Division III power itself, picked as a contender in the Upper Midwest Athletic Conference.
So, we won’t tell anybody about it. But Boos would have been wise to tell his administration the same thing. If they wanted to keep it secret, maybe they shouldn’t have set up all those tables outside and given away a variety of sandwiches to all the incoming folks who were interested in going inside Romano Gym to watch the competition.
And inside, the scoreboards were working, and the big-screen video kept everybody up to date on the on-court action. We don’t want to be reporting any scores or anything, but UMD looked as strong as you might expect, and both teams got what they wanted out of the action.
UMD has a good nucleus in place, and a couple of newcomers looked impressive — particularly Hope Schjenken, a freshman from Deer River, and Brianna Weyenberg, a redshirt freshman from Appleton, Wis.
Senior Brooke Schermann was a solid performer for St. Scholastica, under the watchful eye of Dana Moore, who is starting her 23th season as Saints volleyball coach. Schermann may be the Saints top gun offensively, but she had to use her skills to try to block the potent swings of the Bulldogs on that day — which showed off a lot more than the NFL does in exhibition play.