When it comes to football and emotion, Minnesota is a swing state.
And this is a swing weekend, as the Gophers play their biggest game this century and the Vikings play in prime time against America’s (Most Profitable) Team.
Neither game is do-or-die; both are do-or-doubt. These are the kinds of games that can make or mar reputations, especially at maximum-scrutiny positions.
In one of the most important football weekends in memory, here is what Gophers-Penn State and Vikings-Cowboys mean for the coaches and quarterbacks who will be judged and rejudged:
Upside: His record in prime-time matchups against winning teams is well-known. It’s 0-987. That might seem wrong, but trust me. Combine reality and perception, and carry the two, and that number is right on.
If Cousins can beat the Cowboys while the football world watches, he will clear a perceptual hurdle and free himself of a nagging story line. Maybe he would even clear his head enough to make more victories like this possible.
The Vikings have four prime-time games left: at Dallas, at Seattle, at the Los Angeles/Not London Chargers and at home against Green Bay.
Whether Cousins’ inability to win these games is a real roadblock or a coincidence borne mostly of playing for a lousy Washington franchise, he will have to be the winning quarterback in a few of these games to kill his least-favorite story line
Downside: If he loses, every “narrative,” to use his favorite word, will chase him forever like zombies.
Upside: Winning at Dallas would mean a lot to the former Cowboys defensive coordinator, and would make his team 7-3 with a home game against Denver and a bye coming the next two weeks. He would be in great shape to make the playoffs and secure home-field advantage for at least a game, and given the way the Vikings have played at home, this would make Minnesota a dangerous team in January.
Downside: He publicly criticized another offensive coordinator last Sunday, a few years after chasing off his friend Norv Turner and months after chasing off his hand-picked candidate, John DeFilippo. If Zimmer’s offense sputters against the Cowboys and he either reacts poorly, he will bolster the notion that he is not someone for whom you would want to work if you’re an offensive coach.
Upside: He was deemed a backup quarterback last year, then a game-manager as the Gophers finished the season strong and even as they started the 2019 season with rather unimpressive victories.
He has become more than that lately, making big plays downfield and putting up gaudy numbers. If he could pull off an upset against Penn State, he becomes a figure of national intrigue rather than a nice local story.
Downside: If he doesn’t perform well the rest of the season, he opens the door to competition for the starting job next summer.
Upside: This is the biggest moment at Minnesota. He has won 10 consecutive games. He signed a large contract extension this week. Beat Penn State, and he will win over casual fans who have feared becoming committed, and he will elevate Minnesota’s national reputation, which would help him in recruiting.
Downside: A close loss wouldn’t hurt much. He could still finish the season with double-digit victories and an appearance at an impressive bowl, and for realists, Minnesota competing with ultra-talented Penn State may be seen as a step forward.
A blowout loss, though, would create doubt. What Fleck’s fans don’t realize is that there are plenty of people not only in the state but in the Minnesota administration who didn’t want to see him financially rewarded before he could prove he could beat a top-10 team.
Upside: The Vikings offensive coordinator is highly regarded in the organization and around the NFL. Owners and GMs watch these games, and Stefanski can elevate his status as a head coaching candidate.
Downside: DeFilippo was considered a rising star before Zimmer hired and fired him. Stefanski is in good company. This weekend, two big games will add mud or gold trim to a handful of reputations.