Over the weekend, Minnesota's highest-profile football teams exposed the ugly side of their sport.
The Gophers lost, 13-10, to Iowa at Huntington Bank Stadium. The Vikings lost, 40-3, to the Cowboys at U.S. Bank Stadium. Both games were unsightly. What was truly ugly about them was the head coaches' willingness to put players at risk.
Vikings coach Kevin O'Connell played offensive tackle Christian Darrisaw one week after Darrisaw suffered a concussion. Darrisaw left the Cowboys game because of another concussion and he now will miss Thursday's game against New England while back in the protocol process.
O'Connell has earned a reputation as a likable and humane coach. It is difficult, this early in his tenure, to tell whether he was cavalier about Darrisaw's health or whether he sincerely felt Darrisaw was healthy enough to play without further damaging himself.
O'Connell talked about the importance of the protocol Tuesday and said "health and safety is the number one priority." Two days earlier, though, Darrisaw was lining up against the Cowboys. Even though Darrisaw cleared the league's flawed concussion protocol, O'Connell still should have kept him off the field.
In the NFL, players being paid life-changing salaries have agents and belong to a union. Players shouldn't be put at risk, but they have allies should they choose to challenge a coach's decision.
The Gophers' P.J. Fleck has, like O'Connell, cultivated a reputation as a player-friendly coach. Saturday, he allowed his star senior running back, Mo Ibrahim, to carry the ball 39 times against a physical defense.
Ibrahim's carries in the last five games: 30, 36, 32, 36 and 39 — all in less than a month's time. Before this five-game stretch, Ibrahim had played in 33 games for the Gophers, and had totaled five games of 30 carries or more, and in only one game had he carried more than 33 times.
Ibrahim missed most of the 2021 season after suffering a ruptured Achilles tendon in the opener against Ohio State. He is a great college football player with a future in the NFL. Fleck is putting him at risk for injury, and could be damaging his ability to make a living carrying a football.
Unlike Darrisaw, Ibrahim does not have an agent (officially), a union or a life-changing income. He is at the mercy of one coach's decisions.
Fleck's overuse of Ibrahim in the past month doesn't represent one red flag — it represents a bouquet of them.
Fleck needed Ibrahim's greatness in an important game against Iowa, so Ibrahim carried the ball 39 times. That's too many carries for a college back with a physical running style, but if that game represented one impassioned attempt to steal a victory, perhaps it could be excused.
But Ibrahim carried 30 times in a 45-17 loss to Penn State, 36 times in a 31-0 victory over Rutgers and 36 times in a 31-3 victory over Northwestern. There was no reason for Ibrahim to be overworked in those games — particularly in blowout victories over terrible Rutgers and Northwestern teams.
Those rushing totals are an indictment of both Fleck's recruiting and offensive philosophy, as well as evidence of his willingness to put a player at risk.
This is Fleck's sixth year with the Gophers. Unlike in the outlier season of 2019, all of the players on the roster are his recruits. He was an NFL receiver who recruited Rashod Bateman, yet his receiving corps this season is so thin that an injury to Chris Autman-Bell destroyed his passing offense. His backfield is so thin that Ibrahim carries the ball even when games are out of hand.
Next year, Fleck will be without two of his security blankets — Tanner Morgan's leadership and Ibrahim's brilliance. Fleck is 25-26 in the Big Ten, including 13-11 since the 2019 season that was supposed to transform the program.
With a remarkably easy schedule and a team filled with sixth-year and other seniors, this was supposed to be the Gophers' year. They are 4-4 in the Big Ten.
Fleck is making 2019 look like an aberration aided by the previous regime's players.
Saturday, the Gophers play at Wisconsin. Ibrahim should be limited to 25 or so carries. If the Gophers can't win without overusing their star back, blame Fleck's recruiting.