A position defines the Vikings, Packers, Gophers and it’s not the quarterback

Three football teams dominate conversations in the Twin Cities: the Minnesota Vikings, Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Gophers.

The Vikings are 5-1. The Packers are 3-4, having lost consecutive games to the Giants, Jets and Commanders. The Gophers, after being dismantled by Penn State on Saturday, are 4-3, 1-3 in the Big Ten, on a three-game losing streak and tied for last in the West Division.

There’s one position that has played a key role in the relative fates of these three teams, and it’s not quarterback. It’s one of the most crucial roles in modern football – the No.1 receiver.

When future Hall of Fame coach Tony Dungy was the defensive coordinator for the Vikings, he offered fascinating insight into NFL game theory. He said defenses don’t need multiple stars to be great. They needed a big player who commanded double teams and influenced game plans and play calls.

Hall of Fame defensive tackle John Randle was that player for Dungy. He commanded double teams. He beat double teams. He made attacking game plans predictable.

In recent years, the star receiver has become a similar influencer. Consider:

The Vikings have won four close games in a row against bad or battered teams. They had an offensive explosion and a win over what was thought to be a good team – scoring 17 points in the first half of a 23-7 win over the Packers.

In that game, Vikings star Justin Jefferson caught nine passes for 184 yards and two touchdowns.

A week later, in a 24-7 loss at Philadelphia, Jefferson struggled against star cornerback Darius Slay, and the Vikings offense looked inept.

Over the past three weeks, Jefferson has averaged 9.3 catches and 136 yards in victories on one possession. Without Jefferson, the Vikings may question their new head coach’s expertise instead of enjoying the bye weekend as a first-place team.

Matt LaFleur became the Packers coach in 2019. In his first three seasons, he, Aaron Rodgers and star receiver Davante Adams had 13 regular season wins.

This season, with Adams in Las Vegas, the Packers are 3-4. They produced a 100-yard receiving game — by Allen Lazard in a three-point overtime win over New England.

On Sunday, the Packers played in Washington. Rodgers completed six of his first 10 passes. The four misses were a drop by Lazard, a drop by tight end Robert Tonyan, miscommunication on a deep throw with Romeo Doubs and a drop by Aaron Jones.

On the Packers’ first offensive play of the season, rookie Christian Watson dropped what should have been a Rodgers 75-yard touchdown pass against the Vikings. Their offense, without a star receiver, seems dysfunctional.

Tanner Morgan wasn’t supposed to be a starting quarterback in the Big Ten. He signed up for West Michigan to play for PJ Fleck, then followed Fleck to Minnesota and became a backup to Zack Annexstad.

Morgan became a starter when Annexstad was injured and had a remarkable second season in 2019, producing career bests with 3,253 yards, 10.2 yards per attempt and 30 passing touchdowns.

In his other four seasons, he produced 33 touchdowns. He hasn’t had 2,100 passing yards in any other season.

Did Morgan become a better player in 2019? No. He had two NFL-caliber receivers, Rashod Bateman and Tyler Johnson, making spectacular catches and stretching defenses.

This season, the Gophers are 3-0 when top receiver Chris Autman-Bell is playing and 1-3 when he’s not playing. True, Autman-Bell has played in non-conference games against weak opponents. It’s also true that he may have produced the Dungy effect in one or two of the Gophers’ losses, either making big plays or commanding double teams that opened up space for the approach. a teammate.

Jefferson is the Vikings’ most important player and the reason they are 5-1.

Losing Adams is the simplest explanation for the Packers’ sudden mediocrity.

And if Fleck is to regain his status as a nationally recognized coach, he will have to find himself another Bateman.

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