It’s not about the Vikings, it’s about a Viking

The Vikings lost 27-24 in overtime to Cincinnati last Saturday, a game that featured enough astonishing mistakes to fill a hundred hours of post-game call-ins. Kevin O’Connell calling an absolutely woebegone quarterback sneak in overtime, one that involved the smallest player on the roster trying to push the quarterback forward behind a famously undersized center, watching it fail, then calling the exact same play again, is probably the one that will live the longest in the memory.

But. The more I let this game settle, the more I realized that talking about the Minnesota Vikings this year - and, I’m starting to realize, every year - is not really a monologue about a team. In today’s NFL, talking about the team really means just talking about the quarterback.

Saturday, it was Nick Mullens, and it was his turn to remind us why the Vikings’ backup quarterback has been a backup quarterback. Mullens threw an awful goal-line interception to eliminate a chance of points; he also tossed an interception that might be the single worst decision made on an NFL field this year, one that might be career-defining if it only received a nickname like “the Butt Fumble.*”

That video was posted by the NFL itself. Mark Sanchez may be a color commentator these days, but even the league won’t let him forget his career lowlight.

Mullens also threw a third interception, that was returned for a touchdown, but it was wiped out by a penalty. He might point to two touchdowns as well, but one involved Jordan Addison scooping a poor throw off his shoe tops and running the ball thirty yards into the end zone, and the other involved Mullens winging the ball wildly into the end zone and having Addison come down with it.

The two most analogous positions to NFL quarterbacks, in terms of importance, are probably starting pitchers in baseball, and goaltenders in hockey. And if anything, the importance of those two positions have decreased in the past few years - dramatically so, in terms of starting pitchers in baseball, where complete games have become unicorns and the five-inning start is the new seven-inning start.

Even in the NHL, it used to be common to see a dozen or more goaltenders play 60 or more games in a season, and it was not unheard of to see a netminder play 70 or more games; Martin Brodeur played 70 or more games twelve times in his career. Last year, just seven goaltenders played 60 games, and Connor Hellebuyck led the way with 64; the Vezina Trophy winner, Linus Ullmark, played only 49.

In the NFL, though, things have gone very much the opposite direction. Virtually every offensive advancement and league rule change over the past decades has been part of a transition away from running plays and towards passing plays. There are many reasons for this; not only are safeties no longer allowed to try to murder opposing wide receivers, but defensive backs now have to be less physical with receivers than the Timberwolves are with opposing wings. Defensive lineman are now extremely athletic and harder to push out of the way for running plays.

It’s also true that coaches now expect to throw the ball 70% of the time, instead of a generation ago, when coaches either were wild, spiral-eyed passing converts, or approached the whole subject doubtfully and with emergencies in mind, like men choosing between thin ice on a lake or a pack of wolves on the shore.

At any rate, all of NFL football is about quarterback against quarterback, now. The rest of the rosters are now simply bit-part players who are defined in relation to the quarterback; can the offensive line protect him? Can the receivers get open for him? Can the defense stop him?

Anyway, Nick Mullens lost 27-24 to Jake Browning on Saturday. On Sunday, we’ll watch Mullens, or perhaps Jaren Hall, take on Jared Goff.

The Wild: improving oneself, through fooling oneself

The Wild are still buried in seventh place in the Central Division, but the one thing we know is that since John Hynes became the head coach, they’re markedly better. After all, they’re 8-3 under Hynes, on the heels of a seven-game losing streak, so clearly they’re a much, much better team. Right?

Here’s where I point out that, though the Wild have seven points in their last four games, they haven’t won a single one of the games in regulation. They’ve scored nine goals in those four games, and haven’t gotten four regulation goals in a single night in any of their last seven.

Their goaltending has been much, much better; Marc-André Fleury stood tall (and also stacked the pads, I guess) to beat Boston last night, 4-3 in overtime. It was a big win, one that saw the Wild score twice in the last half of the third period to come back and take the lead, though they did give it up late when the Bruins scored on the power play and with an empty net.

I’m not too convinced, though. If we had ties instead of overtime, they’d be 1-3-3 in their last seven games, despite the improved goaltending. Kirill Kaprizov scored two goals last night (and did his first-ever TV interview), and actually looked something like himself in terms of skating, so perhaps he alone can fix them; he needs to be a superstar and not a second-liner, if the Wild are going anywhere.

Looking at the fancy stats, the Wild’s playoff chances are back up into coin-flip territory; the stats seem to believe that the Stars, Jets, and Avalanche are playoff locks in the Central, and then either the Predators or Wild (or potentially the Coyotes, if you squint) would claim the fourth spot. Even with everything, you do have to feel at least a little hopeful about the Wild’s chances of beating out Nashville and Arizona.

Walking in a Wolves Wonderland

I still don’t want to say much about the Timberwolves, out of fear that talking about them will somehow cause me to wake up from a dream season, but let me say a few things:

The Minnesota Timberwolves have the best record of any team in the NBA. They are on pace for 65 wins. They beat up on Dallas after falling behind 17-2, which does not happen; they fell behind Miami by double digits, and fought back by suffocating the Heat on defense and playing inordinately clutch basketball, which does not happen.

Anthony Edwards is amazing and Rudy Gobert is the league’s defensive player of the year and Naz Reid is NAZ REID and Mike Conley is all of the good parts of every other Wolves point guard without the downside, and Jaden McDaniels is quietly and in a way the most important piece of all, except for Karl-Anthony Towns, who maybe has been the team’s best player?

Perhaps the biggest thing I can’t get over is last season’s trade for Conley, in which the Wolves rid themselves of D’Angelo Russell and got a much better fit in Conley, but somehow ALSO got three draft picks AND Nickeil Alexander-Walker, who I thought was a made-up person but has turned out to be a very important proto-McDaniels.

The Wolves… won a trade? And if Gobert keeps playing like this, maybe that trade doesn’t look like a disaster either?

What is happening right now? Have the Wolves ever had a competent general manager? What is this feeling of joy that I feel when I watch the Timberwolves play?