Danecdotes: Guess what? I'm optimistic again!
It's the most wonderful time of the year.
I know Christmas and New Year's Day are behind us now. It's time for my annual round-up of the Minnesota pro sports teams.
Last year, my column was understandably very negative. The teams most of us root for either collapsed horribly or were just plain bad from the start. Naturally, my outlook for the year was not a pleasant one.
For the most part, though, I am happily eating crow.
So far, three of the four major pro teams in Minnesota have greatly exceeded my expectations. The fourth team, the Wild, weren't that bad to begin with, so 2017 was quite fun for the common Minnesota sports fan, and once again - perhaps, foolishly - I'm back to being hopeful for nearly every Minnesota team.
Let's take a look at the "Big Four" teams individually.
Well, this one has been rather surprising.
After a supremely disappointing 2016 season, where injuries completely stalled the team after a 5-0 start, I had little hope in the Vikings having a great season this year. I thought there was a chance of them sneaking into a wild card spot, but there were too many question marks for me to have the utmost confidence. Those questions included:
• What is our quarterback situation? Will Sam Bradford find success? Will Teddy Bridgewater be back?
• Did we overpay for mid-tier offensive linemen just to shake things up?
• With Adrian Peterson parting ways with the Vikings, how would the running game be for the team?
• With defensive anchors (Everson Griffen, Xavier Rhodes, Harrison Smith) locked in for the future, would the rest of the anchors fill in the gaps?
The answers to every one of those questions has exceeded my expectations. The team finished the regular season with a record of 13-3 (second-best in team history), a division title and the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs.
Firstly, the quarterback situation is still a bit in flux, but in the best possible way. Bridgewater was not ready at the beginning of the year, and Bradford was sidelined early with yet another knee injury, leading us to rely on third-stringer Case Keenum, who has not played like a third-stringer at all this season.
Keenum has shocked the football world, more than doubling his career win total. He finished the regular season with a passer rating of 98.1 and completed nearly 68 percent of his passes for 3,547 yards while throwing more than three times as many touchdowns as interceptions.
The Vikings spent a lot of money to bring in offensive linemen Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers, then they drafted center Pat Elflein. Those three, when healthy, have done a stellar job of keeping Keenum on his feet this season, as Minnesota QBs have only been sacked about 1.6 times per game.
Did we overpay? Maybe not, because it sure is paying off.
Adrian Peterson - our offensive anchor for nearly a decade - parted ways with the Vikings in the offseason. That was fine. I think it was time for both parties to try something new. The Vikings followed up by signing Latavius Murray and drafting Dalvin Cook to join Jerick McKinnon in the Vikings' backfield.
For the first few weeks of the season, Cook appeared to be in the running for rookie of the year considerations, but a knee injury sidelined him for the rest of the season. In his absence, McKinnon and Murray have performed admirably, doing enough to compliment the surprisingly stellar passing game.
Speaking of the passing game, the work of Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs cannot be overstated. Thielen in particular has come into his own as one of the top receivers in the league. Also, tight end Kyle Rudolph has become one of the better red zone threats a team can have.
Of course, the team is where it is because of its lights-out defense. Griffen, Rhodes and Smith have really been the stars of the show, but Linval Joseph, Danielle Hunter, Anthony Barr and Andrew Sendejo have quietly become tremendous assets to have - maybe Barr hasn't been so quiet, as he is now a three-time pro bowler and officially the most hated person in Wisconsin after his hit put Aaron Rodgers out of commission for the season.
All of that makes for a dangerous team.
I keep hearing folks in sports media say the Vikings are trying to become the first team to play in a Super Bowl in its home stadium. Frankly, I wish they would stop.
Yes, if the Vikes reach the Super Bowl, they will make history. However, I have watched several great Minnesota teams (1998, 2000 and 2009 come to mind) fall short and have a very solid understanding of how fragile the season is at this point.
Sure it could happen. The season could also be over by Sunday - the last time the Vikings played the Saints in the playoffs, it didn't go their way - so for all of us Minnesotans to avoid sheer heartbreak, let's take this one week at a time.
Looking to next season, I am a little worried that the Vikings won't be able to match the success of this season.
All three of our quarterbacks will be free agents this offseason. I have very little doubt Bradford will not return, but I am worried Keenum - who has been a top-five quarterback this season - will find a team willing to pay him more than the Vikings will. It sounds like he's having fun in the purple and gold, but money is a powerful factor.
I think Bridgewater will return, but is he the same quarterback that he was before his injury? I guess we'll find out one day.
I would also assume offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur will find a head coaching job in the offseason. What does that mean for the Vikings offense? Who knows?
Regardless of the outcome, this season has been unexpectedly fun.
While the Vikings have been a surprise in 2017, the success of the Twins is absolutely the out-of-nowhere story of the year for Minnesota sports.
The Twins were downright abysmal in 2016, easily the worst team in Major League Baseball, with 103 losses and just one player (Eduardo Nunez) earning a spot on the all-star game roster.
It was the worst season in Twins history, so surely they would make some major offseason roster changes, right? Not so much. New coach? Nope.
But guess what? None of that mattered, as the Twins finished second in the division with an 85-77 record and became the first team in MLB history to make the playoffs after losing 100 games in the previous season. They were eliminated right away by the New York Yankees, but it doesn't change the fact the 2017 was wildly successful based on preseason expectations.
It was unlike anything I had seen from the team in a long time. For starters, they actually showed some competence on the mound. Starting pitchers Ervin Santana, Jose Berrios and Kyle Gibson combined for 42 wins - with Berrios averaging nearly one strikeout per inning - and the defense behind them kept them in the game when pitchers had an off night.
As a team, the Twins tied for the second-best fielding percentage, just .001 points behind the league-leading Miami Marlins.
Second baseman Brian Dozier and center fielder Byron Buxton each won a Gold Glove award, and skipper Paul Molitor was named American League Manager of the Year.
Joe Mauer's batting average ended up above .300 for the first time since 2013, and the Twins had three players - Ervin Santana, Miguel Sano and Brandon Kintzler (who was traded to Washington a few weeks later) - earned a spot on the all-star game roster.
Looking ahead to 2018, it seems as though much of the roster should be back for the new year - with the possible exception of Sano, but we played fine without him while he was injured in 2017. There is even talks of management spending the money to sign a high-end starting pitcher like Yu Darvish, who struck out 209 batters in 2017. That could be fun, but time will tell.
Maybe this team will rubber-band back to the bottom of the standings, but I can't help but be excited for what comes next.
Side note: Torii Hunter seems like a great color commentator. Hopefully we see (or hear) more of him in 2018.
Yet another team I didn't expect much from at the end of the previous season, and rightfully so. The last time the Timberwolves played a postseason game, I was a few weeks away from getting my driver's license. The team has had 10 coaching changes in that span, and a laundry list of lottery picks have come and gone. Since Kevin Garnett left the team (the first time) in the summer of 2007, the only Wolf to earn a spot in the all-star game is Kevin Love, and now he's off winning and contending for titles with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Then in the offseason, the Wolves did something they rarely do: they shook up their roster. That, my friends, has seemingly made all the difference.
They started the offseason hoopla on draft night by trading for all-star guard Jimmy Butler. They then signed point guard Jeff Teague, forward Taj Gibson and off-the-bench extraordinaire Jamal Crawford to overhaul the team's supporting cast surround young anchors Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins.
Now we are more than two months into the season, and it seems the changes in personnel have paid dividends.
The Timberwolves are currently 25-16 - as of Monday, Jan. 8 - and are ranked first in the Northwest Division and fourth in the Western Conference. At the rate they are going, they should easily qualify for the postseason, and maybe even have the home-court advantage in the first round.
After all of the free agent signings in July, I predicted the Timberwolves would be at best the fifth seed in the west and lose in the first round of the playoffs. Now, I may give them the No. 4 seed, but I am still not anticipating a deep, meaningful playoff run. There are just too many great teams - Golden State, Houston, San Antonio - that I think would easily top Minnesota in a seven-game series, assuming they stay healthy.
However, since they have gone without a postseason berth since my high school days, I personally can't wait just to see them in that position.
It is only January, and a lot can happen in the final 31 games of the regular season, but the Minnesota Timberwolves are actually fun to watch for the first time in several years. Barring some major collapse, I think they are going to continue to be fun to watch for the rest of the season.
Here's the only one of the big four teams that I don't feel is on the upswing.
As of Monday, Jan. 8, the Wild have a record of 22-17-3 (47 points), firmly in the middle of the pack in the Western Conference and second-to-last in the Central Division just ahead of Chicago (had you told me four months ago that these two teams would be last in the division, I think I would have laughed).
Part of the Wild's struggles can be blamed on injuries. Zach Parise is finally on the roster after missing all of October, November and December with back issues. Charlie Coyle missed nearly half of the games this year with a leg injury and Nino Niederreiter has been on the sidelines his fair share this season.
Looking at the stats, the Wild seem very much like a middle-of-the-pack team. They are scoring an average of 2.88 goals per game (16th in the league) and allowing an average of 2.9 goals per game (18th) but they take the second-fewest shots per game in the league. The team's save percentage of .910 tied for 16th in the league, and their power play offense is scoring on 19.5 percent of their chances, which is good enough for (you guessed it) 16th in the league. Their penalty kill, on the other hand has been one of the best in the league, keeping opponents scoreless 82.8 percent of the time when they are down a man.
Eric Staal is among the top 10 in the league in goals and top 40 in overall points, but he is alone in that regard for Wild skaters. Goalie Devan Dubnyk (15-9-2) has been fine when he has played, but a bit more offense around him would be great.
It is entirely possible the Wild slip into the playoffs - they are only one point out of the No. 8 seed at the moment - but it will take a whole lot of healthy players to help this team get past the first round.
In the past few years, the Wild have been a fine team, but haven't really made any major strides in that time. Not to sound pessimistic, but I think it may be time to make some changes. The team seems to be standing still, and it would be great to see some forward momentum.
Of course, the pro sports success doesn't stop there in this state. I'm not an avid watcher of the Minnesota Lynx and don't feel very qualified to analyze them, but there is no denying that they have been the great sports story for Minnesota this decade. For the sixth time in seven years, the Lynx made it to the WNBA finals. For the fourth time in that span, they brought home the title.
There hasn't been a Minnesota team with this level of sustained success to my knowledge since the Minneapolis Lakers of the 1940s and 1950s. Hopefully, they can maintain that for the rest of the decade.
So there you have it. As a Minnesota sports fan for the past few decades, I can't help but feel like these teams will break my heart again before you know it, but hopefully - just like last year - I'm so very wrong.