La Velle E. Neal III
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La Velle's 3-2 Pitch: Three observations and two predictions on Sundays.

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It seems fitting that the year in which Devin Hester will be inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame is the same year the league came to its senses about how it regulates kickoff returns.

Hester had 19 return touchdowns, five of them kickoffs, during his career. He opened Super Bowl XLI with a kickoff TD against the Colts.

The longtime Bear would have been significantly marginalized in today's game, as the league enacted measures through the years to reduce the risk for injuries, like moving kickoff spots up and eliminating the wedge. The game suffered under these overbearing rules.

But NFL now is addressing the excitement void it created. New rules for next season will practically demand that kicks be returned, while avoiding the series of car crashes that used to occur during them. The new rules will bring more thrills, and scoring, to the game.

Kickoff returns are back in vogue! Vikings fans will be able to see exactly what Kene Nwangwu brings to the table. Former Viking Cordarrelle Patterson, already the all-time leader with nine kickoff return touchdowns, signed a two-year, $6 million deal with Pittsburgh after the rule change was announced. At 33, he suddenly has more value.

The game is better off when all phases — offense, defense and special teams — are able to provide as much excitement as possible.

And that brings us to the other announcement this week: the controversial hip-drop tackle, in which a ball carrier is wrapped up from the side or behind then pulled down by the weight of the defensive player, is being outlawed. There is an increased injury risk from the maneuver, and just like the league's previous concerns over kickoffs, health and safety is a concern.

There were varying reactions. Former Viking Ben Lieber is worried that it will lead to defensive players tackling lower, leading to more knee injuries or collisions with fellow defenders. Bears coach Matt Eberflus, a defensive savant, said he doesn't want to lose offensive players and also advocates a hamstring tackle technique he believes is less dangerous.

But the Vikings' Harrison Smith summed it up perfectly with a post on X, when asked what he thought about the rule change.

"As a human: mostly indifferent," he wrote. "As a business person: The NFL is protecting the merchandise. National audience tunes in to see offense. Further protect offensive players/potentially weaken tackling attempts(win-win). As Hitman: Dislike, more defensive fines, true sport weakens."

Bingo. The league wants to avoid injures, particularly blows to the head, as much as possible. It also wants excitement and scoring. In one week, we saw one group of players freed and another group restricted by the NFL's plans to address both issues.

Sorry, Hitman Harry.

Twins miss pitching fix

The Twins warned us in October that they were reducing payroll. And they have, to the tune of about $30 million.

But they still missed an opportunity to lengthen their rotation last week when lefthander Jordan Montgomery signed a one-year, $25 million contract with Arizona. The deal came with a $20 million vesting option for 2025 that activates when he makes his 10th start. So it's more like a two-year deal, barring injury.

It's still a short-term deal the Twins could have taken while pausing their payroll purging. They haven't had a quality lefty starter in over 15 years. They are projecting to draw more than 2 million fans for the first time since 2019, so revenues will be higher. And the Twins wouldn't have to sweat out the back end of their rotation as much. It was a short-term deal worth taking on.

Wolves arena isn't settled

Marc Lore and Alex Rodriguez had scouted potential locations for a new arena when they were bidding to become majority owners of the Timberwolves and Lynx. Glen Taylor, who remains the majority owner after that plan fell through, has indicated that he's fine with staying in Target Center for now, but how long is that?

The arena has been renovated three times since it opened in 1990 and is the second oldest venue in the NBA. From day one, Lore and Rodriguez floated the idea of a modern arena. And there is nothing that boosts a team's value than a new home court. With the Wolves having smashing success, interest is high. And while Taylor, who also owns the Star Tribune, has stated that his basketball teams are no longer for sale, a new arena will guarantee pro basketball in town for decades to come.

So I don't expect the new arena chatter to completely die down. And don't forget that the Gophers are kicking around renovating Williams Arena or building a new Barn, and the Wild and St. Paul officials want to upgrade Xcel Energy Center too.

And two predictions ...

Coming home winners: The Twins will enter their home opener on Thursday against the Guardians with a 4-1 record.

Call on the Calder: Brock Faber should win the Calder Trophy as the NHL's best rookie. But the award will go to Chicago's Connor Bedard because he was more hyped going into the season.