Once quarterback Matt Cassel was placed on injured reserve three games into the year, the Vikings season was mainly about the growth of rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater and how he adjusted to the NFL.
He jumped into the mix faster than anticipated with Cassel’s foot injury, but Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer’s that Bridgewater’s on-the-job training will benefit the quarterback, the offense and the organization down the road.
“I really think you learn best from playing,” Zimmer said. “That’s what I believe, and I’m glad that he’s playing. …What I was nervous about at the beginning of the year was I didn’t want to get him beat up, I didn’t want to get him gun-shy, I didn’t want to get him a bunch of bad outings where he didn’t have the confidence and that attitude that he was going to do the things that he’s doing.”
Another concern Zimmer had with Bridgewater making his first start four games into his career was his health. The Vikings have gradually lost three starting offensive linemen and shuffled around at every position except left tackle Matt Kalil, who has been inconsistent, and center John Sullivan.
Bridgewater is tied with Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for the eight most sacks taken in the NFL this season with 32. Zimmer believes the protection has improved as of late with Bridgewater sacked a combined six times against a good Jets and Lions defensive line.
“I’m glad that we’re keeping him upright,” Zimmer said. “You can think back, and I know it’s just my belief, you think back on some of the quarterbacks that have had to play as rookies or been playing as rookies and got the heck beat out of them and they haven’t made it. So that was the most important thing to me to start this season is that we take care of him and when it’s time, it’s time.”
It’s evident Bridgewater has made gradual strides over the course of this season, with many learning experiences along the way in 10 career starts. The latest occurred in a 16-14 loss to the Lions at Ford Field on Sunday, when the Vikings offense couldn’t score in the second half and missed out on two opportunities in the final four minutes to take the lead.
“I think in the long run his playing and going through all these experiences and getting a chance to play against Green Bay, Chicago and Detroit will be a big factor for us in the future because he’s been through these things now,” Zimmer said. “It’s not new. If he wasn’t playing, that fourth quarter[against the Lions], the things that happened in the ballgame, maybe next year we’re in the same boat and he’s learning from it then as opposed to learning from it now.”
The Twins have made two significant offseason moves in free agency, so far, adding Torii Hunter on a one-year deal and, of course, pulling in Ervin Santana on a four-year, $55 million deal.
It will almost certainly push the team’s payroll above $100 million for the first time since 2011 — a season, of course, that proved via a 63-99 record that spending money does not always translate to victories.
The consensus, though, is that Hunter and Santana should — at the very least — make the Twins better. The question within that consensus is to what degree the Twins (70-92 last season) will be better, and that’s where things get a little more complicated.
If we look at Fan Graphs, we see that the Twins are still predicted to be the last-place team in the AL Central — Tigers first, Cleveland second, Kansas City third and the White Sox fourth.
Now, Fan Graphs win projections for 2015, as always, are a little more bunched together than the way things actually will shake out. The highest win total is 88; the lowest is 70. That’s a gap of 18 wins; last year, the gap between the best and worst teams was 34 wins.
The Twins are near the bottom, though, projected to win 76 games. Fan Graphs sees them much as they saw last year’s team: a good offense (projected to score the ninth-most runs in MLB in 2015 after scoring the seventh-most in 2014) with a poor pitching staff (slated to give up the third-most runs, even with the addition of Santana).
If you want to look at a national outside source, Jim Bowden from ESPN gives the Twins a B-minus grade for their offseason moves and says, “They’ve improved the team, though this is still a last-place club.”
Those are about as disparate of sources as you’re going to find — crunched numbers vs. a gut reaction, and both are saying the Twins are still the bottom-feeders in the Central.
Much of the problem, of course, is that even though the Twins are better, the rest of the division is pretty good. Detroit, even after trading Rick Porcello and likely losing Max Scherzer, has some dominant starting pitchers and a fearsome lineup. The Royals might have overachieved last year, but they overachieved all the way to the AL pennant. Cleveland quietly won 85 games last year after winning 92 the year before. And the White Sox have made the biggest splash of anyone in the division this offseason.
So what hope is there? Well, as we wrote today, there is at least hope that a rotation that hasn’t finished better than 26th in starters’ ERA any of the past four years could at least approach adequate in 2015 if Santana, Phil Hughes and Ricky Nolasco have average seasons.
There is the notion that the team was better last year than in the previous three, which was supported by the eye test, a few more wins and a simple stat: in games decided by 5 runs or more, the Twins were 21-26. That means they won their fair share of blowouts. From 2011-13, in games decided by five runs or more, they were 43-89.
And there is the notion that young players will continue to improve and perhaps get a boost of energy from a new managerial/coaching regime.
It’s reasonable to think the Twins will approach .500 next season. Where that puts them in a better AL Central? Well, we’ll just have to see how it plays out.
Vikings left tackle Matt Kalil had one the worst games in his career the first time he faced Lions defensive end Ezekiel Ansah this season. His performance improved dramatically the second time around in the 16-14 loss at Ford Field on Sunday.
Ansah was held sackless for the first time in three games. Kalil held his own with the Vikings offense neutralizing the Lions pass rush by rolling rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater out of the pocket and incorporating quick passes.
Ansah had a career high 2.5 sacks on Kalil at TCF Bank Stadium in the first contest. He had just a tackle to his name in the stats sheet.
“That was his only stat, so I think I came out of there pretty well,” Kalil said. “He’s a pretty raw player, and he hasn’t even tapped his potential, so I’ll be seeing a lot of him. To play well against him, coming out on top like that, felt pretty good.”
The Vikings reduced their sack total in half in their second, and final, matchup against the Lions. They allowed four sacks with three backup offensive linemen at left guard, Vladimir Ducasse, right guard, Joe Berger, and right tackle, Mike Harris.
“They do a lot of stuff and sometimes they’ll stress the pocket,” Kalil said. “[Ndamukong] Suh was on his game too making some plays, but it’s just different things to help keep those guys off balance.”
Outside linebacker Chad Greenway is a finalist for the inaugural NFL Sportsmanship Award.
Each NFL team nominated one of its players for consideration for the award and a panel of former players from the NFL Legends Community, including Warrick Dunn and Curtis Martin, pared down the field from 32 players to eight. The winner will be determined by a vote from current players.
Competing with Greenway for the new award are Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald, Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis, Lions receiver Calvin Johnson, Steelers safety Troy Polamalu, Patriots receiver Matthew Slater, Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith and Broncos defense end Demarcus Ware.
The winner will be announced during the NFL Honors awards ceremony the night before the Super Bowl, and he will receive a $25,000 donation from the NFL Foundation to the charity of his choice.