One of the difficulties that fans of all NFL teams face is that they all want their teams to win, yet we all know that, in the end, only one team wins it all. That means that the fans of the remaining 31 teams end the season on a down note.
That's the big picture.
On a more micro-level, it has been suggested in the Twin Cities, and, undoubtedly across the United States in other NFL cities, that it is our irrational moroseness, given the failure of our local team to win the Super Bowl, that causes us to vent when the local team loses. But the equation is quite a bit more sophisticated than that. And, in Minnesota, a significant element of that remaining portion of the equation rests with our understanding both of what was promised and what was done by the Vikings' front office in the off-season.
Prior to the start of the 2004 season, Vikings' head coach Mike Tice stated that the Vikings were on track to compete for a championship. Tice was not referring to the championship of the NFC North or the woeful NFC. No, Tice was referring to the Super Bowl championship.
To bolster his view, Tice noted improvements throughout the defense, particularly among the linebacking corps. Some were fooled by Tice's promise that Donterrious Thomas would make a difference, that Chris Claiborne would be relevant, and that EJ Henderson could handle the middle linebacker position. But those were the fans that critics (who were part of this club) now speak of in disparaging tones.
Those of us who have followed the Vikings for some time knew that this was a canard. The Vikings' linebacking corps was worse than last year, we contended. Not only were the Vikings counting on an oft-injured, underachieving (or perhaps simply not very good) outside linebacker to set the tone, they were relying on a virtual rookie to call plays at middle linebacker.
And that was the upside to this linebacking corps. Sprinkle in some inexperienced Mike Nattiel and Raonall Smith and only blind faith could lead anyone with knowledge of the game to buy the Tice linebacking corps koolaid circa 2004.
But what really stirs the pot and puts the bee in the bonnet of Vikings' fans is when the front office enters the 2004 season with the pledge that they have met their off-season goal of making the Vikings' defense championship material. They did not. And they did not do so because they did not even make the effort. Yes, the Vikings signed Antoine Winfield but they really had no choice. They needed to sign someone to a large enough salary to meet the NFL floor and Winfield fit their needs. Winfield's signing thus was more of a case of fitting a salary and a need to an NFL requirement than it was a design to get the missing piece to the puzzle. The missing piece(s) to the puzzle remain at large. And it is unlikely that they will be found next season.
What infuriates Vikings' fans, and justifiably so, is not that the Vikings do not win it all every year. Most fans are not that dilusional. No, what infuriates Vikings' fans is the bold-face attempt to sucker the fan into believing that the Vikings are more than they are in an attempt to keep the gravy train of season-ticket holders rolling into the Metrodome. And, to this end, even more infuriating, is when the Vikings' ownership/front office send out signals that the dike is repaired and that a failure to spend additional dollars on defensive personnel means not that the Vikings did not get what they needed but that the Vikings spent their money more wisely than did other teams.
And that, in a nutshell, is the type of bold face lie that rankles Vikings fans and which might, by 2005, compel many season-ticket holders to refuse to renew their tickets at sure to be higher rates.
Why Spending Matters in the NFL
The Vikings and some of their defenders suggest that money is not a cure all for what ails the Vikings. These individuals point to failed draft choices, injuries, and "mental mistakes" to bolster this contention. They also point to teams like the Yankees and state that the Yankees are proof that how much money a team spends is not a valid predictor of success. But while that argument holds some water with respect to MLB teams, it is entirely unpersuasive in the NFL, a fact attributable to the unique salary structure under which the NFL operates.
Unlike other professional sports, the NFL imposes a hard salary cap with an accompanying salary floor. The Vikings barely hit the floor this year. And this failure, given other dynamics of the NFL system, have left them behind in the race for NFL talent.
To understand this, it is instructive to contrast Major League Baseball with the NFL.
MLB has a luxury tax that is meaningless to nearly every team in terms of being a deterrent to spending. There is no hard salary cap in MLB and no salary floor. Teams can spend as much or as little as they like.
But the lack of a cap is not the only important difference between the NFL and MLB with respect to a teams ability to procure talent. Of equal significance is the source of talent.
MLB has three sources of talent--the draft, the farm system, and free agency. The NFL has two sources of talent--the draft and free agency. This difference means that NFL teams have only one way to obtain experienced talent, and that is through free agency. Moreover, because there is no farm system in the NFL, there is no place for those who are not picked up as free agents to continue to hone their skills. These players simply find a real job and hope that their one-year window doesn't pass before someone gives them a chance again. In MLB, teams can look to the minors to fill holes and need not rely on the equivalent of a rookie-league player to fill a pressing need.
Because there is no minor league system in the NFL, and because the shelf life of players not in organized ball is approximately one year (Jeff George excepted), the pool of free agents is much more finite in the NFL than it is in MLB. Which means that NFL free agents, particularly the good ones, can command higher dollars. It also means that teams that wish to procure veteran talent will need to spend. And when they spend, they will do so with the cap ceiling in mind. That cap both tempers salary escalation and compels teams to push the limits of the ceiling to compete with others also in the market for free agency. And this all means that the teams that want veteran talent will be forced up against the cap ceiling.
But we don't even need to know all of this to understand the basic dynamic of NFL free agency. In 2004, the difference between the NFL's salary cap floor and ceiling is approximately $16 million dollars. In MLB 2004, the difference between the highest and lowest team salaries was in excess of $150 million dollars. Just looking at the disparity that the two systems creates suggests one clear conclusion--spending in the NFL matters more than it does in MLB. And, given the competition by teams competing within a $16 million dollar range, one can be certain that there is a closer correlation between talent and salary in the NFL than in MLB and that refusing to spend in the NFL means placing one's fortunes with one's current roster plus rookies. And that doesn't win championships in the NFL--ever.
How Fans Can Make a Difference in 2005
The Vikings refused to spend this season, despite numerous opportunities to spend wisely. They refused to spend because of another dynamic in the Twin Cities' market, the fact that the Vikings sold out this season (and last season, and the season before). And Red was under no pressure to satsify the natives. They were, apparently, already satisfied.
The only thing that can change this mindset is for fans to refuse to renew their season tickets for 2005. One of two things will result from such a fan response, either Red will open the wallet to lure viable free agents to the Vikings or Red will sit on what he has.
And perhaps that is the Vikings' fans' true number one off-season priority.