Sid Hartman
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The Vikings and Green Bay Packers have won the past seven NFC North titles, the Vikings with two and the Packers with five. But when former NFL MVP and Vikings quarterback Rich Gannon looks at the prospects for the two teams in 2018, he sees possibilities and question marks.

The Vikings are coming off their most successful season since 2009, but their 38-7 loss to the Eagles in the NFC Championship Game and their uncertainty at quarterback going into next season means they’re still a team in transition.

Meanwhile the Packers — after missing the playoffs for the first time in eight seasons and losing Aaron Rodgers for eight weeks in the middle of the season because of a broken collarbone — have completely torn apart their front office and coaching staff.

Gannon, who does color commentary for Packers preseason games and recently turned down a quarterbacks coach position with Jon Gruden and the Oakland Raiders, said the Packers have become too reliant on Rodgers.

“They made changes to the coaching staff, they have to get Aaron Rodgers’ contract [extension] straightened out,” Gannon said. “They replaced defensive coordinator Dom Capers. They replaced the quarterbacks coach [Alex Van Pelt with Frank Cignetti Jr.]. They’re disappointed that they didn’t finish better this season. They have a good quarterback, but the defense has really been a thorn in their side the last couple seasons.”

Zimmer’s influence

Gannon believes the drastic transformation of the Vikings defense under Mike Zimmer has made an impression on the Packers.

While Zimmer is 4-4 against Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy since taking over as coach in 2014, he has won four of the past five contests against the Packers.

“[The Packers have] relied so much on the right arm of Aaron Rodgers, [and] the defense simply hasn’t been the same as it was when they won the Super Bowl several years back,” Gannon said. “They have to play better on that side of the ball. Mike McCarthy has been very loyal to Dom Capers … but it was time to make a change.

“I think that they have to get faster on that side of the ball. I think they look at what the Vikings did and what Mike Zimmer has done with that defense, Mike Zimmer’s defense is significantly better than what the Packers have and they realized, with a great quarterback like Rodgers, they have to improve on the defensive side of the ball.”

When asked to forecast the 2018 battle in the NFC North, Gannon thought the Vikings’ schedule — which will include road games against Green Bay, Seattle, New England, Philadelphia and the L.A. Rams — would be a hurdle.

“I think they have a good coaching staff and a good core of quality players with good toughness and leadership,” he said. “That is important. I think if you look at Mike Zimmer and how he puts together a football team, it is about toughness and discipline and doing the right things. I think it’s a well-coached team. You lose [former offensive coordinator] Pat Shurmur, and that is a big loss for the offense.

“But I think they’ll put together a good football team. Look, you know this division is going to come down to the Vikings and Packers, it always seems like it does. But don’t count out the Lions. They have a new coaching staff and a pretty good quarterback in Matthew Stafford.”

Similar QB profiles

It seems like the Vikings’ quarterback decision will come down to either Case Keenum or Kirk Cousins, and I believe Keenum will be the choice. Gannon, who spent 17 pro seasons between four franchises, compared the two.

“I would tell you that for what it’s worth, I think they are similar players,” he said. “Cousins has more starts under his belt, although I think they’re similar-type players when you look at them physically and their characteristics. I don’t know that there is a significant difference when you look at what they’re going to be like in two or three years.

“Here’s the argument to keep Keenum: You know him, you’ve seen him, you’ve worked with him, you know how he prepares, how he studies, how he gets along with his teammates. You have intimate knowledge of the player and the person.

“In Cousins’ situation, you don’t. You have a pretty good sense of coaches who have worked with him and players who have played with him, but it’s not necessarily six in one hand, a half-dozen in the other.”

Still, Gannon acknowledged the biggest part of the Cousins question, and the part Zimmer touched on last week, and that’s the $30 million per season he will most likely demand.

“I know it’s the cost of doing business, but it’s crazy,” Gannon said. “I mean, you look at his record as a starting quarterback and he’s hovering around .500. That concerns me a little bit. He’s not Aaron Rodgers, doesn’t have that arm talent, but he is tough. He’s gritty. He does a lot of the things that you like at that position. He’s a smart guy, good leadership skills.

“But you look at the lack of postseason experience, the win/loss record, and you say, ‘Is it worth paying him?’ He’s probably going to get the most money of any starting quarterback in the league and that includes [Tom] Brady and Rodgers.”


• After notching back-to-back Mountain West Conference regular-season crowns at Nevada, Eric Musselman — the son of former Gophers and Timberwolves coach Bill Musselman — was named conference coach of the year. Brian Dutcher, the son of former Gophers coach Jim Dutcher, is at San Diego State and defeated Musselman and Nevada 79-74 in the regular-season finale.

Tre Jones had his McDonald’s All American Game basketball jersey delivered to him last week at Apple Valley High School. His brother, Wolves point guard Tyus Jones, played in the game in 2014. Tre will play for the West team on March 28 at Philips Arena in Atlanta. “I wanted it bad,” Tre told USA Today. “I knew that I’d have to put in a lot of work to get it done.”

• It seems apparent now that the Twins and Brian Dozier will not get a contract extension done and Dozier will be a free agent in 2019. One thing to keep an eye on is these other second basemen who are currently slated to become 2019 free agents: Daniel Murphy with the Nationals, Ian Kinsler with the Angels, Logan Forsythe with the Dodgers, Asdrubal Cabrera with the Mets and D.J. LeMahieu with Colorado.