Wednesday, September 29, 2004

A Sharper Pepper?

Since their inception, the Vikings have created in their fan base high expectations. Those expectation rose dramatically in the 1970s with the emergence of the Purple People Eaters defense.

But while the focus of the great Vikings' teams of the 1970s was on the defense, the QB always seemed to be at the eye of any storm--a trend that has continued through the present day. When the Vikings have lost, the fans have usually looked to the offense and the QB, whether it was Tarkenton, Kramer, Gannon, Dils, Moon, Johnson, McMahon, Cunningham, or George. It is, therefore, not suprising that fans continue to find flaws in the Vikings' QB, and that fans continue to ask whether the current QB is the best option.

This fan scrutiny applies not only to QBs donning Vikings' uniforms, but to every QB in the NFL. And for good reason, as the quarterback is the only player who touches the ball on every offensive snap. Therefore, the quarterback is in the best position to influence the offense in every game, and the first player that comes to mind when considering where a team might be able to improve its play.

At this point in the 2003 NFL season, many Vikings' fans could be excused for celebrating the insertion of Gus Frerotte into the starting QB role, following an injury to Daunte Culpepper near the end of the first half of the third game against Detroit. No matter what the coaches were saying, no matter how much many in the local media wanted to put a good face on it, Daunte's play in the first two plus games last season was less than stellar.

When players underperform, or just stink, coaches fall back on a pat refrain--"we don't measure the QB's performance by statistics, the QB is our emotional leader," they say. Yet, when the same QB has a QB rating over 100, the coach is the first to pump the player for offensive player of the week--not based on heart, but on stats. Therefore, stats seem to matter. And Daunte's stats through game three of last season were less than one would expect from a player recently inked to a 10-year contract, including a nice signing bonus.

On the road against the Packers in week 1, Daunte was 15/30 for 195 yards, 3 TDs and 0 INTs. Daunte also rushed nine times for 50 yards, but fumbled twice (losing both), and was sacked twice for -12 yards. The Vikings won the game 30-25 and Tice called Daunte's performance efficient.

In week 2, Daunte was 20/26 for 214 yards, 2 TDs and 0 INTs. He also carried the ball 7 times for 17 yards, fumbling three times (losing 1), and was sacked 3 times for -16 yards. Tice hailed Daunte's performance. I did not, despite a 24-13 home victory over the Bears.

At Detroit in week 3, Daunte was 7/13 for 105 yards, 0 TDs and 0 INTs. He rushed twice for 16 yards and 2 TDs with zero fumbles beforing an injury forced him to leave the game.

Week three looked like the week that Daunte was beginning to turn it around after two uninspiring games, though it is difficult to call 7/13 passing inspiring when it comes against Detroit's early-2003 defense.

While the first two plus games of 2003 left ample room for fans to wonder whether the Vikings' coaching staff should at least give Gus Frerrotte a shot at QB, Daunte was re-inserted into the starter's role after recovering from his injury. Unfortunately, Daunte's final three games of 2003 looked very much like the first three games of 2003.

Against Chicago, on the road, Daunte was 24/34 for 222 yards, 1 TD and 1 INT. Daunte rushed 4 times for 16 yards and was sacked twice for -7 yards. The Vikings lost on a game ending INT in the endzone.

Back in the cozy confines of the Metrodome the following week against KC's porous defense, Daunte was 20/29 for 260 yards, 3 TDs and 1 INT. Daunte also rushed 3 times for 16 yards, fumbling twice (recovering both), and was sacked twice for -14 yards. The Vikings won handily, 45-20.

On the last weekend of the season, at Arizona, Daunte was 18/28 for 197 yards, 1 TD and 1 INT against the worst defense in the NFL. Daunte also rushed 7 times for 40 yards, fumbled once (recovered), and was sacked 1 time for -5 yards. The Vikings lost despite sacking Arizona QB Josh McNown 8 times for -69 yards and holding Arizona to -17 yards of offense in the third quarter. Pitiful.

Virtually everyone who coached, wrote about, or spoke about the Vikings refused to place any blame on Daunte for the abysmal finish to 2003. And there is certainly ample support for criticizing the game plans in the last two road games, but Daunte's numbers simply do not immunize him from criticism.

Which brings us to the point of all this discussion--whether Daunte is a better quarterback this year than he was last year. The numbers, to date, are mixed, but the performance nevertheless appears improved over this time last year and over the last three games of 2003.

In week 1, at home, against the purported defensive juggernaut Dallas Cowboys, Daunte was 17/23 for 242 yards and 5 TDs. He rushed 6 times for 25 yards and was sacked twice for -0 yards. The Vikings crushed the Cowboys 35-17.

At Philly in week 2, Daunte was 37/47 for 343 yards, with 1 TD and 1 INT. He rushed 8 times for 41 yards, fumbled twice (losing one), and was sacked 4 times for -11 yards behind Adam Haayer's debut at right tackle. The Vikings lost 27-16.

Last week, the Vikings beat Chicago at home behind 19/30 passing by Daunte for 360 yards and 2 TDs. Daunte ran the ball 6 times for 13 yards and 1 TD, fumbling twice (recovering both), and was sacked 3 times for -10 yards.

Against Chicago and Dallas, Daunte's QB rating was over 130. And even against Philly, it was around 100. Daunte's performance against Dallas and Chicago was good enough to earn him NFC Offensive Player of the Week honors--an honor that suggests that, even if Daunte has flaws, his flaws are less than those held by his peers.

The QB rating tells us something about Daunte's performance this year versus last, in that it suggests that Daunte was very efficient in two games and above the norm (about 85-88) in the third game. Pretty good for any NFL QB.

Equally impressive is the fact that, despite injuries to his starting right tackle, blocking tight end, and center, and despite the dismal performance of Haayer in the Philly game and at the beginning of the Chicago game, Daunte, while feeling the heat and taking sacks, lost minimal yardage on sacks (-21 on 9 sacks versis -26 on 5 sacks in the last three games last season). That suggests that Daunte may be overcoming his greatest shortcoming--the deer in the headlights syndrome. No longer does Daunte freeze in the face of pressure, instead stepping up in the pocket and finding the outlet for what usually amounts to a fairly sizable gain.

And, although Daunte continues to put the ball on the ground, he has lost only one fumble this season. That doesn't mean that the fumbles don't hurt (despite Daunte's contention), as the fumbles amount to a loss of down and often mean the end of a potential scoring drive. But it suggests that Daunte is being more considerate of how he carries the ball. Against Chicago, on a play similar to the play in which he was stripped at the goal line against Philly, Daunte simply settled for a shorter gain, going to the ground early to protect the ball. That's smart running and a maturing QB.

One shortcoming that clearly carried over from last season, however, is Daunte's unsettling road results. Daunte simply has not won on the road. That has to change. And it will require the same kind of game that Daunte has played at home this year--minus the fumbles--for such a change to transpire. If that happens--and much of Daunte's road success hinges on the coaching staff's game planning and play calling--Daunte may shed his three greatest foibles in the same season. And that could save the Vikings and Tice.

Up Next: Can't a Brother Get Some Love?

Baseball For A Day

My oh My! It sure looks like MLB owners have been up front with their books all along. The word out of MLB headquarters is that the Montreal Expos will soon be the D.C. Somethingorothers. That's great. Now baseball just needs someone to run the team in a town not known for supporting baseball.

But times change. As does fan support. As does ownership entrenchment against encroachment upon one's turf.

Apparently, as incentive for Baltimore Orioles' crumudgeony owner Peter Angelos to change his mind about filing a law suit against MLB for, among other things, MLB's purported breach of a promise to Angelos that the Orioles would retain exclusive rights to the D.C. market, MLB has offered to guarantee an as-yet-to-be-determined minimum (positive) revenue.

Oops! Doesn't MLB mean to say that it will guarantee Angelos will lose less than he would if the Orioles continued to hold a monopoly over the D.C.-Baltimore metropolitan area? I mean, why promise a profit when everyone else is losing money hand over fist--right?

Or maybe MLB knows something about the finances of MLB teams that it is not letting on. Or Maybe Bud simply took out another "bad" loan.

I'm betting on the former. I'm betting that MLB is pretty healthy, despite the bitching and moaning that Bud and his cohorts constantly throw out for public consumption. I'm guessing that, when a losing team like the Milwaukee Brewers stands to earn over $14 million in net profits in 2004, the state of baseball is much better than Bud has let on. And I'm also betting that MLB's health is not an artifice of 2004.

To ensure that the Orioles earn a minimum of X dollars each year--a figure certain to be in the millions or why even bother offering it as a negotiating ploy to open the D.C. market--MLB has to know that it has resources to make good on such an offer.

Maybe MLB intends to raise the money to guarantee its offer from a sale of the Expos to a D.C. interest. That makes sense. But it also shows that MLB--at least in the minds of MLB--is a good investment. After all, who would pony up hundreds of millions of dollars--enough to give a little kick to each owner and still leave MLB millions to pay off Angelos--if there were no return?



And MLB knows this. They've known it for some time. They knew it when they agreed to pay more than double the market price to contract the Twins (alas, they forgot to buy the Minnesota Court System) and they knew it when the took on an Expos orphaned by its carpet-bagging, former owner. MLB knows it is still a money-making venture, or it would not have made these deals.

How do I know? If MLB were hemorrhaging money, as Bud et. al. have long claimed, buying the Twins would not require an offer of more than double their market value. In fact, given MLB's purportedly bleak future, Pohlad should have been willing to sell for below market value. And there would have been no battle over who gets the Red Sox.

And if MLB truly were hemorrhaging money, why promise Angelos a profit when everyone else is staring at a certain loss?

It doesn't make sense, unless what MLB has said about its finances for the better part of the past 10 years doesn't make sense. And that, folks, makes a hell of a lot of sense.

Sunday, September 26, 2004

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

A win is a win is a win. This is becoming a common refrain for the Vikings' coaching staff these days. And, after watching several games to which the Vikings' players and coaches have attached this refrain, one thing is clear--when someone says a win is a win they mean "we won today in spite of ourselves." And that is what the Vikings did on Sunday, winning despite several shortcomings.

In a game that never seemed in doubt, the Vikings defeated the Chicago Bears on Sunday by the score of 27-22. This despite several injuries to starters, numerous penalties, and several missed scoring opportunities.

The Good

When the Vikings gather at Winter Park on Monday morning, they will have several items from Sunday's victory over the shorthanded Bears to which they can point with unexpected optimism, including improved rushing, kickoffs, punt returns, offensive line play, and the possible discovery of a semblance of a middle linebacker.

SOD was at his best on Sunday, rushing and receiving for over 200 yards combined. The most impressive play of the day for SOD came in the first series of the second half when he broke two tackles and juked five Bear defenders en route to a 35-yard run that set up a Minnesota touchdown. SOD appears to be getting stronger every week, diminishing the extent to which the services of Moe Williams (who is apparently not ready to go full tilt) and Michael Bennett are necessary. Unfortunately, SOD likely will be sitting for a few weeks.

Aaron Elling also vastly improved his kickoffs on Sunday. After starting the game with a high, short kick to the 18 that was returned to the 37, Elling gradually improved, kicking his last two kickoff at the 6 and four yards deep in the endzone. Elling had another kickoff two yards deep in the endzone. If Elling continues to kick deep (and high), all that is left is for him to learn how to kick field goals and Tice's stubbornness may bear fruit (which, alas, may only encourage Tice to remain stubborn on other matters, such as whether the Vikings should play conservative on the road, in the division).

And, despite injuries to Jim Kleinsasser, Mike Rosenthal, and Matt Birk, and the continuing awful play of Adam Haayer, Mike Tice did what he does best, putting together an offensive line that protected Daunte and opened holes for SOD. With Withrow replacing the injured Birk and Dorsey replacing the faltering Haayer, the Vikings' offense was able to move the ball at will, whether in a one or two tight end set. That is particularly encouraging because it suggests that Kleinsasser's absence will not be as debilitating as it appeared it would be just last week.

Finally, the Vikings appeared to find a partial solution to their middle-linebacker conundrum, as Thomas played a respectable game filling in for the less-impressive, injured Henderson. Thomas Jones did run roughshod through the defensive line and up the gut, and the Vikings were facing a lesser quality QB in Rex Grossman, but Thomas at least kept the defense together in a way that neither Henderson nor Henderson's predecessors were able to do against similar opposition. And that is encouraging enough, at least for this week.

The Bad

The bad in this game mirrored the bad from last week and the week before--failure to convert in the red zone. These failures turned what should have been a blowout into a close game that could have gone the other way.

The Vikings continued their frustrating offensive play this season on their opening drive. After driving inside Chicago's 25, SOD was stopped for a loss on a running play and Culpepper followed with a fumble for a loss of 6 yards. The Vikings were forced to attempt a 46-yard field goal which Morten Andersen missed (no way does Morten hit from 50 on a regular basis, as suggested by Tice).

Score: Minnesota 0, Chicago 3

What Score Should Have Been (minimum): Minnesota 3, Chicago 3

After a touchdown drive and defensive stand, the Vikings again moved the ball at will inside the Bears' 20-yard line. After two incomplete passes, however, the Vikings were forced to settle for a 42-yard field goal (barely over the cross bar).

Minnesota 10, Chicago 6

Should Have Been: Minnesota 17, Chicago 6

Following several nice plays on their next drive, the Vikings faced a 3rd and 1 inside the Bears' 20. Rather than pick up the first down, the Vikings looked for the endzone. The Bears flushed Culpepper from the pocket and Daunte was forced to throw the ball away. Bad call just before half on a short play and it cost the Vikings. The resulting field goal attempt was botched and the Vikings again failed to capitalize inside the red zone.

Minnesota 10, Chicago 6

Should Have Been: Minnesota 24, Chicago 6

After halftime, the Vikings failed to capitalize on two more scoring opportunities as an early snap left Kelly Campbell open to a Bears' rush. The Bears demolished Campbell on the attempted end around and scooped up the subsequent fumble, returning it to Minnesota's 49-yard line. The Bears settled for a field goal. This botched opportunity also raised the question of the Vikings would run an end around so close to the goal line where defenders are more apt to recover from a misdirection play? Curious.

Minnesota 17, Chicago 9

Should Have Been: Minnesota 31, Chicago 9 (Edinger missed a 39-yard field goal attempt).

Minnesota also failed to convert points on a Kelly Campbell kickoff return. Despite returning the kick for a TD, the TD was nullified on a penalty (there were actually two penalties, both on rookies). Minnesota settled for a 24-yard field goal on the subsequent drive after failing to convert a 3rd and 1 from the 6 (Linehan called a rollout. Hmmmm....).

Minnesota 20, Chicago 9

Should Have Been: Minnesota 38, Chicago 9

None of this, of course, considers whether Minnesota would have scored points after picks had Minnesota's d-backs picked any one of the four passes delivered to their hands.

Final Score: Minnesota 27, Chicago 22

Should Have Been: Minnesota 45, Chicago 24

The Ugly

Ugly is the 49ers losing 34-0 to Seattle, Atlanta beating Arizona 6-3, or the Bucs' offense. Though the Vikings did not reach such depths on Sunday, they came perilously close in two areas in which they demonstrated consistent shortcomings last year--penalties and kick coverage.

The Vikings finished the game with 11 penalties, including 3 illegal motion penalties on Randy Moss. Tice implied that the officiating crew was a bit flag happy, but replays supported each of the calls. Moreover, the Vikings should have had two other penalties that might have changed the outcome of the game.

The first such missed penalty occurred in the first half with the Vikings leading 7 to 6. On third down, Terrance Shaw clearly pushed the Chicago receiver in the back before the ball arrived. Out came the flag. The infraction was clear, the call was made, and that appeared to be that.

But, in what is becoming a recurring theme, Tice threw the challenge flag, not to review the play but to draw the officials' attention to something that he had seen and the officials might have missed. Tice contended that the ball had been tipped, thus negating any possible pass interference. The officials huddled and quickly concurred with Tice. The only problem was that the ball was never tipped. And it wasn't even close. Chicago was forced to punt and Minnesota drove for a field goal.

Minnesota also benefitted from the zebras' failure to spot Kenny Mixon in the Bears' backfield prior to the snap on a failed two-point conversion attempt. That botched call kept the Bears from retrying the conversion from one yard out and, likely, from pulling within 2 at 20 to 18. That call changed the dynamics for the remainder of the game, giving the Vikings some much-needed cushion, knowing that Chicago needed a touchdown rather than a field goal.

As much as the Vikings did not receive the benefit of the call last week at Philly, it thus appears that they received the benefit of the call this week. And it may have been a necessary benefit to secure their second victory of the season.

Kickoff coverage was also putrid, but it is was it is. Tice claims players simply fail to understand where their lanes are and how to stay in their lanes. Is it really that difficult?

Player Evaluations:

Losing steam: EJ Henderson, Adam Haayer, Marcus Robinson, Morten Anderson.

Gaining MO: SOD, Corey Withrow, Nat Dorsey, Mike Nattiel, Dontarrious Thomas, Aaron Elling.

Up Next: Attendance figures and quality.

Saturday, September 25, 2004

Bears' Thinning Airline Spells Victory for Purple

With a likely letdown following an unexpected victory at Lambeau Field last week, significant injuries to their secondary, and a date with a Vikings' team looking for red-zone redemption, the Bears are ripe for a loss on Sunday. And, although we have not been able to count on the Purple for much the past three seasons, one near automatic has been the Vikings' ability to put away bad teams (even good teams) at home, particularly after a shoddy road loss. Sunday should prove no different.

What the Vikings Will Do

Look for the Vikings to feature Moe Williams in the offense--always a good idea, but one that is only employed by Tice and Co. when there are no alternatives. Fortunately, with Kleinsasser and Bennett out, Williams must and will play a key role for the Vikings. That's great news for Vikings' fans and maybe it will get Moe removed from his playmakers-style forced backup role (one that Vikesgeek finds entirely irrational given Williams' consistently strong performances when he is given an opportunity to play).

With Mike Rosenthal out for the remainder of the season, the Vikings spent the past week weighing their options at the right tackle position. Adam Haayer will start against Chicago and be spelled by rookie Nat Dorsey. But if Haayer and Dorsey are unable to provide Daunte sufficient time to pass and are unable to run block--both shortcomings for Haayer in his debut last week against Philly--Tice appears willing to move Birk to right tackle and to use Cory Withrow at center. Tice's pedigree working with the offensive line suggests that he will work out the offensive line problems sooner rather than later (if only he understood defensive lines as well).

If the Vikings' offensive line gives Daunte time to pass, the Vikings will look for Moss, Burleson, and Campbell deep and may even try to spring Robinson. Wracked by injuries, Chicago's secondary appears to be in disarray and should be vulnerable to every type of pass play. The Vikings love to heave it deep in front of the home crowd and should not disappoint local talk radio fans with their approach Sunday. Look for at least two deep touchdowns.

On defense, the Vikings will try to force Chicago to pass. That sounds odd for a team that has demonstrated virtually no ability to stop the passing game, but Chicago has yet to show it can throw the ball consistently. The Bears' appear to have a revuvenated running game and love to swing the ball wide, run quick slants, and screens (i.e., everything they never tried to do under Shoop), but much of the short feeds off the running game. Without a successful running game, the Bears have trouble doing anything right on offense. Chicago's offense is much improved over last year, but its loss of Marty Booker in the Ogunleye trade and the inexperience at QB--despite Minnesota's weak defense--should allow Minnesota an opportunity to keep Chicago at bay.

To bolster the defense, Tice has removed Dontarrious Thomas from the starting unit--moving him to third string behind Mike Nattiel--and will move Claiborne to the strong side and put the veteran, Keith Newman, at weak side linebacker. That still leaves the inexperienced E.J. Henderson at middle linebacker, and leaves the Vikings even more lean at linebacker than last season. It also makes one wonder how good Minnesota's corp of young linebackers really is. The bet here is that they are nowhere near as good as Tice had advertised all summer, but they should be good enough to slow the slowness that already is the Bears' QB.

Tice has also promised a shake-up on special teams, vowing that every starter except Daunte and Randy will play special teams and that rookies will sit. While this again raises the question of whether the Vikings are anywhere near as deep as Tice has claimed, at least the mystery should be gone as to whether players will stay in their lanes on kicks.

The major concern that Tice has left unaddressed in any fashion--sensible or otherwise--is that of the kicking game. Bennet's punting has been brutal, but shines like a beacon from the football heavens in contrast with the Vikings' placekicking escapades. Elling remains unable to kick at an NFL level, i.e., high and deep, sometimes kicking high, sometimes kicking deep, never kicking both, but sometimes kicking neither. And the Vikings appear to have zero confidence in Elling's ability to kick long field goals, as witnessed by Tice's decision to have Morten Andersen attempt a 44-yard field goal that was approximately 20 yards outside Andersen's current range. This is quickly becoming one of Tice's classic borne-out-of-stubborness blunders as Tice appears unwilling to admit that the Vikings simply erred in drafting Elling (and Nattiel, and Offord, and Rogers, and.....).

Despite the team's increasingly apparent and numerous shortcomings, the Vikings have fewer shortcomings than the Bears this week and play at home where the Vikings usually win. Although the Bears may score more--I still have post Shoop Bear-score-prediction-concussion syndrome that causes me to underestimate a vastly improved Bears' offense--I suspect the Vikings will take this game easily. Though that's what Green Bay thought last week.

Vikings 34, Bears 14.

Setting the Record Straight on '98

One lost reader has already forgotten his Vikings' non-championship history. Perhaps he has simply pushed the Atlanta game to the far recesses of his memory, but, alas, he must be set straight.

This reader is under the impression that former Vikings' head coach Denny Green ran out the clock in the first half of the 1998 Championship Game and went for it in the second half en route to a shanked field goal loss to the Atlanta Falcons. No no, my friend. Just the reverse.

In a moment of hubris, Denny had Randall Cunningham sling another pass near the end of the first half with the Vikings holding a comfortable lead and with momentum clearly in the Vikings' favor. The result, as all but one of us knows, was that Chuck Smith beat Todd Steussie, hit Cunningham, and force a fumble. Atlanta recovered at the 14 and, on the next play, Chandler hit a wide open Mathis for a TD, stealing the momentum going into halftime. Minnesota did get the ball back just before halftime--at which time Denny decided it was wise to run out the clock--but the damage had been done.

At the end of the second half, with the number one offense of all time in reasonable field position and with time on the clock, Denny suddenly went cold and decided to run out the clock and play for overtime. At home. As no other coach in a similar situation would have done.

To the one fan that does not recall this horror, welcome back.

Up Next: Post game.

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

No Defense for Offensive Defense

After an off-season of promoting his newly minted defense, Vikings' Head Coach Mike Tice may finally be getting the message. It is one thing to promote a good product, it is quite another to promote a bad product. The problem for Tice is that he has banged his drum so loudly touting his "much improved" defense (his words, surely nobody else's), that anything less than a clear and dramatic improvement over last year's "defense" (again, Tice's words alone), are bound to disappoint. Even more disappointing, however, is the discovery that this years' version of Vikings' defense may even be worse than last year's version.

The poster child for the Vikings' defensive shortcomings this year is defensive lineman Chris Hovan. Following what appeared to be a breakout season in 2002, Hovan spent the summer bulking up with former Vikings' long-snapper Mike Morris. The added bulk made Hovan look big, but it did not help him play big. Instead, Hovan routinely failed to track the QB and, equally routinely, failed to record tackles.

Despite an effort to slim down and tone up, Hovan's 2003 downward spiral continued into 2004. After a reportedly tense confrontation with Vikings' coaches in the wake of a disappointing performance against the Dallas Cowboys, Tice believed Hovan had been motivated to move out of his "rut." Of course, to move out of a rut, one must be in a rut. Hovan's numbers suggest that his rut is more of a routine that we should expect to see continue--at least until Tice pulls the plug on him.

And Tice may be losing patience with Hovan. On Monday night's halftime show, Tice was shown in a meeting with other Vikings' coaches discussing approaches to motivating Hovan. Tice understood that ABC would be airing the conversation and clearly took the opportunity to try to reach Hovan from another angle. Given that Hovan was not privvy to the halftime show, maybe Tice planned to give Hovan one more shot to show he should start for the Vikings, no matter how Hovan performed against the Eagles.

If that were Tice's thinking, the thought process may have changed given the lows of Hovan's performance on Monday night.

The key Hovan play etched in the Vikings' fan's memory of Monday night--and perhaps the only play that Hovan figured into in a statistically meaningful way--was McNabb's touchdown scramble. On that play, a play in which McNabb ran 20 yards with nary a brush against his jersey by a Viking defender, Hovan was sent flailing across the field by a single blocker. Despite how it looked, the blocker did not have a running start or catch Hovan from the blind side. Rather, the blocker merely destroyed Hovan on a straight up block, carrying Hovan across the field--arms flailing over his head--as Andre the Giant might have tossed around a raggedy anne doll.

For the night, Hovan recorded the following statistics: zero sacks, zero tackles, and zero assists on tackles. Mind you, the Vikings are not asking for miracles from their highest paid defensive lineman. They merely want competence. The standard on most teams for the purported team sackmaster is that that player record an occassional sack. The Vikings have long since dropped this request of Hovan and now seek the mere occassional tackle. . . or assist.

Hovan is perplexed. Did he not have numerous sacks in college? Did he not have some sacks at the beginning of his career? Does he not bleed purple and gold? Does he not idolize John Randle? Have the Vikings not invested an awful lot of time in him to give up now?

Hovan also claims that he is double, even triple teamed. I might not have the best vantage point watching from at home, but the coaches appear to agree with me that Hovan is not even beating one-man blocking schemes. The McNabb TD scramble was the perfect example. And Hovan's laments sound a bit implausible even to someone who does not have the benefit of viewing the entire game from several angles. Why, after all, would any team commit two blockers to Hovan when Hovan cannot even record a tackle, even though he plays in the middle of the defensive line? That's a tough sell.

But maybe Tice is still sympathetic. As with Elling--who, by the way, had one more tackle than Hovan on Monday night--the Vikings have indeed invested quite a bit in Hovan to simply cut and run. And removing Hovan from the starting unit would be yet another admission that the Vikings' off-season moves were a bit less genius than Tice et. al. let on. Maybe, in fact, Jevon Kearse or Adewale Ogunleye would have been an upgrade to the Vikings' defense.

But maybe Tice is starting to get the real deal. His job is on the line, both with the Vikings and in the NFL. His past success working with offensive linemen is no guarantee of future job security if he continues to ignore the deficiencies of those with whom he is charged. It is not clear who would replace Hovan, though it would probably be Steve Martin who batted down a pass as Hovan's sub on Monday. Tice claimed the Vikings were "very deep" on the defensive line. Now it is time to show this depth. And, if it is not there, Tice will have some explaining to do.

Mo Moe

It is time that Moe Williams received his due. He is the Leroy Hoard Plus of today's Vikings' team. All he does is get chunks of yardage, make smart plays, block, and put the ball in the end zone. Think the Vikings missed Moe on the goal line Monday night?

Monday Night Blather

During the Dennis Miller days of MNF, I longed for a return of Boomer Esiason to the MNF booth. When it became evident that Miller's days were numbered, Miller inexplicably became a reasonable color man, deciding that it was not necessary to color every statement with an analogy to Greek sheepherders (Freud would go nuts with Miller). Nevertheless, I was content with ABC's decision to pull the plug on Miller, not because I thought Miller was an egghead out of his element doing football color analysis, but because Miller was clearly too uniformed about the NFL to make sensible, relevant comments. And that says a mouthful.

Then ABC hired John Madden to team with Al Michaels with the intention of getting back to basics--at least, the Madden basics. ABC thought they they finally had a winning combo--its first since Dandy Don, Frank Gifford, and Howard Cossell. Alas, it has not worked.

Madden rambles about nothing more than ever and Michaels goes along for the ride while pretending to weigh in Madden's point--a difficult task given that Madden never really has a point.

On Monday night, before I could hit the mute button for the umpteenth time, Madden saluted Pat Tillman for the millionth time. It's as if Madden wants to assure everyone that he is a true patriot, not to be mistaken with all the non-patriots who do not sleep with Tillman's jersey tucked under their pillow. Not to be outdone, Michaels intoned that "Tillman was a true hero, embodying everything that is right and good about America." It might mean something if either Michaels or Madden were saying it for the first, or even merely the 100th time, but to hear this refrain ad nauseum gets old. How about the game, boys?

Up Next: The Bears think they got it. They are right, but "it" isn't what they think it is. Plus, so much to do and so little time in which to do it.

Monday, September 20, 2004

So Right and So Wrong

Sometimes you hit the nail on the head and the nail refuses to budge. Such was the case on Monday night. Just as predicted, the Vikings dominated the Eagles on offense, held their own on defense, and were bad on special teams. This should have led to a Vikings' victory. Yet, despite a nearly 2:1 time of possession advantage over the Eagles, the Vikings left Philly 1-1, rather than 2-0.

The Eagles held up their end of the bargain on Monday, scoring 27 points, but the Vikings did not settling for a mere 16 points when the statistics and nearly everything else suggested that the Vikings would have and should have scored closer to 34.

What Went Wrong

The Vikings were done in by the three Bs--bad penalties, bad play, and bad officiating--in that order. The penalties were excruciating for several reasons. First, they inevitably came after Minnesota had driven deep in Philly territory and, on one occassion, after Daunte had strolled into the endzone for a Minnesota touchdown. Second, several of the penalties were committed by inexperienced players who otherwise contributed little to the game. Third, at least two of the more costly penalties--against Randy Moss and Matt Birk--were dubious penalties that cost Minnesota at least 10 points, perhaps more.

Moss' penalty came on a second and 1 play from the Philly 14. Culpepper threw the ball 20 yards out of the endzone, but the official--ever dutiful (except when the home team dropped a pass but nevertheless received credit for a 45-yard TD)--flagged Moss for pass interference even though Moss pushed an obstructing defender, nobody could catch the ball which had sailed far out of bounds, and Moss gained no advantage on the push. This is not pass interference. Why the call? There are several possibilities, but none that justify the call. After the penalty, the Vikings settled for a missed Morton Andersen field-goal attempt (more on this later).

The officials called a second dubious penalty in the second half, this one for holding, against Matt Birk, following Daunte's TD scamper. Replays showed that Birk had control of his man and may have had some jersey, but if that was holding it's time to start fitting NFL players with flags. The standard for holding in the NFL tends to be whether the contact disables an opponent to the point that (1) the offender has clear grasp of the victim and (2) the victim falls to the ground. Neither criteria was met in this case, but the official let the yellow fly anyway, perhaps goaded by one of the Philly fans lurching over the endzone padding. The penalty forced Minnesota to settle for a field goal.

Conservatively, the two blown penalty calls against Minnesota cost the Vikings 10 points. The Vikings lost by 11. But the officials also muffed the TO TD call, when replays clearly showed that TO never had possession of the ball and that the ball even hit the ground at one point. The Vikings could have challenged the play but, come on guys, just get the call right on the field. Several possessions earlier, Tice had to throw the challenge flag to draw the officials' attention to their clear miss of an illegal pass to the QB. Had Tice not thrown the challenge flag--even though such a non-call is not challengeable--the officials would have proceeded without making the proper call. Challenges are intended to serve as a complement to competent officiating, not as a crutch for an overmatched officiating crew. Clearly, this was not a well-officiated game from the Vikings' perspective. And it may have cost the Vikings a victory.

But before we lament the zebras' performance on Monday, a review of the Vikings' own self-inflicted wounds are in order, for had the Vikings not made the mistakes that they did, they still could have beaten Philly without the benefit of a soundly officiated game.

While the officials made some bad calls against the Vikings that cost the Vikings points, the officials also made some good calls that cost the Vikings points. Four of these calls--against Adam Haayer and Jeff Dugan--stalled otherwise promising Minnesota drives and directly contributed to the Vikings' loss.

Haayer, subbing for the injured Mike Rosenthal, looked thoroughly overmatched at right tackle. When Jevon Kearse wasn't beating him like a drum, Haayer was fumbling over his own feet or those of his fellow linemen. But his coup de grace for Haayer, however, were two holding penalties that killed Minnesota drives.

Dugan, starting for the injured Jimmy Kleinsasser, looked even worse. contributing zero receptions, zero rushes, and several missed blocks. To top off his performance, Dugan tossed in two false starts in the same series to kill a promising drive in Philly territory. I had refrained from suggesting that Duggie only made the squad because he and Tice are fellow-Terps, but after tonight's performance....Yeesh. The Vikings may already be searching the waiver wires for a TE.

But penalties were not the only problem for the Vikings, as other factors led to stalled drives. Most notable was the absence of blocking by Minnesota's vaunted offensive line. Daunte was under constant pressure and SOD was virtually silent. This was a lousy showing for all of Minnesota's linemen.

I could continue by noting that Daunte has fumbled the ball 70 times in 60 games--an NFL record--but that's piling on. Plus, Daunte played an otherwise great game. Despite having no time to pass on most plays, and despite the repetitive malfunctions of his offensive line, Daunte played with as much apparent focus as he has in any game since he joined the Vikings. The numbers don't bear it out, but this was a stronger performance by Daunte than his 146-rating game against the Cowboys. And if Daunte continues to perform at the level he performed at tonight--and, presumably, inches across one or two goal-line surges--the Vikings offense will be fine in spite of itself.

The same cannot be said of special teams, however. In a previous column, I suggested that Tice's special teams' decisions may be his undoing in Minnesota. Morten Andersen missed a 44-yard field goal attempt with the wind at his back and Aaron Elling--re-signed exclusively to kick long field goals and kick off--was not called on to kick a long field goal, consistently kicked-off short, and had a horrendous kick late in the fourth quarter--one that more resembled an Elway pass to a wide-open receiver than an NFL kickoff--that dashed any hopes Minnesota had of pulling out a victory. If Elling is in uniform tomorrow, he clearly has some of the pictures that Solomon had of Denny and that Jones has of Gardy. There is no other explanation for such nonsense.

Hail Twins

I would be remiss if I did not add my two cents on the Twins' clinching of the Central Division for the third straight season (particularly since I missed the beginning of the Vikings' game to watch the end of the Twins' victory over the Sox).

Prior to the game, our favorite mouth from the South Side, Mark Buehrle, guaranteed that the Twins would not clinch when he was on the mound. First, how pathetic. It has come to this for Buehrle--a promise not to be around for the final humiliation. Second, what did Buehrle mean? Of course he would not be on the mound when the Twins clinched, even if he were the starting pitcher. If the Twins clinched, as they did, the Twins would clinch when the Twins' pitcher was on the mound as the Sox have last at bat at home.

Surely Buehrle understood this and simply meant that the Twins would not win a game that he was pitching. Well, the Twins did win a game that Buehrle was pitching and the Twins' victory was largely attributable to Buehrle's poor performance as four Twins players went deep on little B.

What made the victory over Buehrle even more satisfying was that last week Buehrle had gone out of his way to insult all Twins pitchers not named Santana or Radke. Silva looked pretty good in besting, by far, Chicago's purported ace.

In the end, the Twins got their clinching victory, and Twins' fans--as they have grown increasingly accustomed to--are assured of at least a few more seasons of seeing a Chicago team led by a blowhard with an inflated sense of his own ability, an underappreciation of his opponents' ability, and a fixation on proving himself right rather than playing good baseball. C'est la vie, Chicago, c'est la vie.

Tomorrow: Where's the D? Plus, when the mute button is the best alternative.

Saturday, September 18, 2004

What I Hate About You

No, dear reader, this is not a column about you. Rather, it is a column about something near to the game yet, inevitably, so shrouded by deception--unreasoned perception. Since the Vikings'-Eagles' tilt on Monday involves this phenomenon, and since most of you are visiting this site primarily because I promise some Vikings' content, I shall start with the MNF game.

As of this writing, the Eagles are a 3 1/2-point favorite over the Vikings on Monday. This is fairly close to the original Vegas line, which means that Vegas--and bettors--both believe that Philadelphia is a slightly better team than Minnesota. Throw out the 3 points given to the home team and the Eagles are favored to win by a 1/2 point (feel free to round to 1). But is this an accurate assessment of the talent on the two squads? Is Philly really a better team than Minnesota?

As with anything, how one reaches a conclusion on talent depends greatly on what criteria one considers relevant. At first blush, the Eagles look pretty solid. In their first game of the 2004 season, the Eagles beat the NY Giants 31-17 and the newly acquired offensive weapon--Terrell Owens--scored three TDs. For good measure, Michael Westbrook added 119 yards rushing, while the defense threw in 4 sacks.

That sounds pretty good. Good enough to make the Eagles a favorite at home this Monday and good enough to make the Eagles favorites over a Vikings' team that is expected to make the playoffs. But, of course, the operative word is sounds. The Eagles sound good, but how good are they?

How good the Eagles are at this point in the 2004 season depends, in part, on how good one perceives the Giants to be. Last season, the Giants lost their last 9 games. They could not stop the run, they could not stop the pass, and, clearly, they could not win games. This year, the Giants are equally inept on offense, due, in full, to their lack of a starting QB (Oh where oh where has our Kelly Collins gone, oh where oh where could he be? With his hair cut short and his goatee cut long, oh where oh where has he gone?). The Giants have an apparently washed-out veteran QB warming the center's buttcheeks until rookie Eli Manning, no matter how green, becomes a more promising option as a starter (something that probably already has happened). A playoff caliber team should throttle the likes of the Giants this season, and the Eagles mostly did so. But that doesn't mean that the Eagles are any better than any of the other playoff teams in the NFC, all of whom would likely provide a similar showing against the Giants. As such, the Eagles' victory over the Giants offers little help in assessing the talent of the Eagles versus other NFC playoff-caliber teams. And how good the Eagles will be on Monday depends on how good one perceives the Vikings to be.

The Vikings dismantled what some considered to be one of the top defenses in the NFL en route to a 35-17 victory over the Cowboys last Sunday. Whether one agrees with the assessment of the Cowboys being an elite NFL defense--and I happen to believe they are somewhere below that status--the Cowboys unquestionably have a more capable defense than do the Giants. Both the Eagles and Vikings played at home last week so neither victor wins bonus points for strutting their stuff on the road. That means we can look at each team's offensive performance straight up.

The Vikings scored more points against a better defense last week and made it look easy. Moreover, while the Eagles relied on their primary weapon--TO--to score, Minnesota showed that it could score at will even without going to its primary target--Moss. If the Eagles take Moss out of the equation, as the Cowboys tried to do, Minnesota can go to Robinson, Burleson, Campbell, or Wiggins. If the Vikings focus on defending TO, the Eagles can turn to, well, the running game. And for every Westbrook, the Vikings can counter with a SOD. Even with Michael, Moe, and Jimmy out with injuries, Minnesota is simply a deeper offensive team and more difficult to cover. If Daunte "drives the bus," the Vikings' offense will do well this season, particularly against teams like Philly that have not demonstrated an ability to stop the run and that appear vulnerable to the pass.

Vikings 1, Eagles 0

Although the Vikings have the the edge on offense, whether they have the more impressive defense is much more a matter of perception--and one must wince hard to see a sterling defensive performance by either the Vikings or the Eagles last week.

The Cowboys scored 17 points against the Vikings, but should have had more. Dallas settled for a field goal on its opening drive despite driving deep inside Minnesota territory. On their second drive, the Cowboys settled for even less--a botched field goal attempt--despite holding the ball for nearly an entire quarter on the drive. Pitiful. A good offensive team would surely have scored on the drive and probably would have scored a touchdown. As such, the Vikings get credit only on the scoreboard for holding the Cowboys to 17 points. One could argue that the Cowboys got lucky in scoring a touchdown at the end of the first half, but the TD was only "lucky" if by "lucky" one means the Vikings defense was atrocious--a condition that tends to be more debilitating over the course of a season than would be mere bad luck.

To make matters worse, the Cowboys threw for over 350 yards. The Cowboys' rushing totals were not good, but they were forced to pass once they got behind so we do not know whether the Cowboys--without their starting running back against Minnesota--would have faired better given a tight game. That makes all the more remarkable, however, the fact that Vinny Testaverde (who the Vikings made look like Doug Flutie playing the Vikings in 2003) was able to throw for 352 yards. The Vikings knew the 'Boys were going to pass and still were unable to stop the carnage. That's bad pass defense, no matter how hard Brian Williams hits the receiver.

But as bad as the Vikings were against the pass, the Eagles were equally inept against the rush--which, given the state of the Giants' QB situation, speaks volumes. The Eagles were free to load up against the Giants, putting eight or nine in the box, as neither Warner nor Manning could hit anything on the field for much of the game. Nevertheless, the Giants rushed for 190 yards against the Eagles' defense. That's not good. That's bad.

Given the ineptitude of the Giants' QBs, what is not yet known is how solid/porous the Eagles' secondary is. Given their loss of two Pro-Bowl corners in the off-season, the guess here is that a thumb will not stem the tide--the dam is going to burst sometime this season, and probably sooner rather than later.

Though the Vikings' secondary is weak in coverage, the Vikings are good against the run. The Eagles are lousy against the run and appear set for a major letdown in their secondary. While it says little when measured against the good defenses in the NFL, the Vikings thus have the edge on defense over the Eagles.

Vikings 2, Eagles 0

Special teams

Mike Tice has drafted, benched, cut, and re-signed a kicker of dubious ability within the span of one NFL season. Tice has also signed Vinny Testaverde's boyhood NFL idol--Morten Andersen--to shore up the Minnesota kicking game. Because Mort cannot kick off or kick long field goals, Tice felt obliged--in a contract season for the coach--to bring back a kicker in Aaron Elling who also cannot kick off or kick long (or short) field goals. The rationale for Tice's enamoration with Elling is that Elling could kick in college and the Vikings "have invested so much in the kid." Didn't we invest a lot in Waswaa Serwanga as well?

Despite Tice's off-season contentions, the Vikings remain one of the few teams in the NFL unable to find a bona fide NFL kicker. This, alone, means that the Vikings cannot possibly be considered to have a better special teams than the Eagles, who have a bona fide NFL kicker (and punter, for that matter).

Vikings 2, Eagles 1

Special teams' play is important in the NFL, particularly on the road and particularly if the weather conditions are sloppy--as they may be on Monday night in Philly, but defensive and offensive play rank higher. Westbrook may well have a good game, and TO may well have two TDs against Minnesota, but, if Daunte maintains his composure, the Vikings should handle the Eagles, and they should do so to the tune of 34-24. Clearly, this prediction contradicts conventional perception of the ability of the Eagles and the Vikings, but conventional perception appears blind to what matters in this matchup.

Up Next: More about "you" and other things that matter.

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

The Eighth Circle

According to Dante Alighieri, the eighth circle of hell is divided into ten concentric ditches. Into these ditches fall those guilty of sins of fraud and malice. Dante offered a sample of persons who had fallen into each ditch, but did not have the foresight of Nostradamus to predict which 21st century figures would help fill the never-ending void in these trenches. Alas, that is left to us.

Although Vikings' Coach Mike Tice seems like a nice enough fellow, in Dante's time, Tice's afterlife certainly would have involved eternal torture. Given his penchant for pandering to and seducing fans, Tice surely would have been destined for at least the first ditch of the eighth circle of hell, where he would have been lashed by horned devils throughout eternity. Tice would have earned this plight by his straight-faced contentions that the Vikings' (1) have depth on defense and (2) as of Tuesday, have depth, in particular, at cornerback. Gaaahhh--straight to the first ditch of the eighth circle, coach.

Tice might not think that eternal damnation in the first ditch is so bad, however, being the product of a system that relishes motivational lashings, even if they are normally of the tongue-variety. But a glimpse down the concentric ditches suggests a presumably more disconcerting destination for Tice. Past the bodies of those mired in excrement and those baptized in fire prior to being welded into the fabric of the crevices below Hell's eighth circle--way down at the depths of the eighth circle--are those guilty of the sin of falsifying. Falsifiers are left to create and pick their own scabs--much like a coach who must live with the lot that he has created. And, judging from the rantings of coaches when questioned about decisions gone awry, most professional coaches, including Tice, likely would prefer to avoid this fate.

Today, with most established religions being so forgiving, Tice might fair better in the afterworld--but he may want to be more honest on matters of import if only to hedge his bet. If Tice had been honest in the off-season, he may have said the following of the Vikings' defense:

1. We expect something from a first-round, pass-rushing defensive end, but not as much as we would have expected out of the incumbent to the position who will miss several games at the beginning of the season while serving a league suspension for his second DUI.

2. We expect something from a second-round, second-year middle-linebacker, but not as much as we got out of an aging, but veteran middle-linebacker.

3. We expect our newly signed cornerback to be an upgrade to the secondary, but only because last year's incumbent was beyond awful.

4. We expect improvement out of our strong-side linebacker, but only because he was injured so often last year that he could contribute almost nothing.

5. Given our expectations, to make significant strides on defense this year, we need to add a veteran middle linebacker, two veteran corners, two outside linebackers, and a veteran defensive end.

Because Tice became enamored with his own prediction that the Vikings would fill their defensive chasms with draft picks--in a manner no current-era team has accomplished en route to the Super Bowl--and the addition of one veteran starter, he did not make these statements. Nor did he make these additions. Tice went one better yesterday when he announced that the Vikings are now deeper at secondary with the additions of two cornerbacks--free agents Terrance Shaw and Ralph Brown. Tice called the move "an upgrade in our depth."

As Tice did in the off-season with the defensive line--calling it the "deepest in the NFL"--he is now doing with the secondary. On Monday, the Vikings put Ken Irvin on IR (out for the season). That left the already much-maligned Rushen Jones as the only nickle back and the Vikings without an NFL-caliber dime back. Tice immediately scoured the wires and found the eminently unwanted Shaw and Brown.

How bad could Shaw and Brown be? Considering that, last year, Shaw was a backup for Oakland's porous secondary and Brown was a reserve for the Giants and considering that Brown was cut by the secondary-challenged Skins this year, pretty bad. But Tice is bound to confound the issue by extolling the "depth" that Shaw and Brown bring to the Vikings' secondary. The addition of Shaw and Brown undoubtedly gives the Vikings more active corners than they had on Monday (though the Vikings have the same number of active corners today as they did going into Sunday's game, with the loss of Irvin and the cutting of another corner corner from the active roster to make room for the additions), but neither Shaw or Brown--or even, were it possible, the two morphed into one--represents an upgrade over Irvin. As such, this sounds like another Tice canard.

Tice may not like what he sees when he looks at his defense. That would not be all that revealing for a team that has short-changed its defense for several years running. But selling the defense as a Superbowl defense when it is not does more harm than Tice apparently realizes. Not only does it make fans surly when they realize the truth, it also sets the coach up for a fall at the end of the season when Red--though equal as an accomplice--looks to satiate the surly fans by letting the ax fall.

Had Tice been more transparent about the shortcomings of the Vikings' defense, Red might have opened his treasure chest to sign a Holdman, Trotter, Wistrom, Sapp, Gold, Ogunleye, or the like. At a minimum, fans might have understood if the Vikings were done in by their defense again this season. Instead, Tice chose to go the sell route--a route with a steep slope, in or outside of Dante's Hell. Only a deep run through the playoffs can give that sell a happy ending and remove--and that run, it appears, will rest on the shoulders of the Vikings' offense.

Up Next: Numbers--I mean it this time! Plus, the depression that is Detroit and Chicago.

Monday, September 13, 2004

Some Whipping Cream and Some Half and Half

Vikings Finish What Cowboys Attempt to Start

The Minnesota Vikings did what they had to do on Sunday--they won a home game. More impressive, however, was that the Vikings did so despite some clear deficiencies and the handicap of not taking the field until the second quarter.

After an atrocious first quarter in which the Vikings had possession for a paltry two minutes and fifty-three seconds and the Dallas Cowboys appeared on the verge of making good on Coach Bill Parcells' pledge to dominate time of possession, the Cowboys returned to form (circa 2002) and the Vikings' offense emerged.

In the first quarter, Daunte Culpepper threw a pass behind his intended receiver on what appeared to be a poorly constructed screen play. On the next play, Culpepper threw the ball into the line. On third down, Culpepper found Marcus Robinson on a nice look and pass. That appeared to be what Minnesota needed, but appearances were deceiving.

After two rushing plays accumulated 5 yards--in part because SOD had to change directions on the second after realizing that he could not go right--Culpepper and Burleson hooked up on a passing route that Burleson inexplicably ran short of the sticks. Darren Bennett, Tice's new punting savant, then lofted a beautiful, spiralling kick toward the teflon roof, that, unfortunately, did not have the same carry as it had altitude, landing in the arms of the 'Boys' return man at the 19. Still, the Cowboys were facing eighty-one yards between the line of scrimmage and the end zone. Surely the newly minted defense--the one Coach Tice had so boisterously tauted leading up to the regular season--would now show its mettle. Right? Not quite.

After scoring a field goal on a relatively leisurely drive on its opening possession (9 plays, 67 yards, 3:58), Dallas again showed patience and a willingness to attack the less-than-remarkable Vikings' secondary. When Methusula Testaverde was not completing passes to wide-open receivers--often left wide open by the Vikings' new secondary star, Antonio Winfield--the Cowboys' no-name runners were rushing for chunks of yardage against what Coach Tice deemed "the deepest defensive line in the NFL"--clearly a quantitative statement at this point in the season.

What saved the Vikings in the first quarter, and perhaps in the game, was Dallas' inability to convert a touchdown on this drive--or its first drive--and Dallas' botched field-goal attempt after a twelve-minute drive. The botched field-goal attempt, following a mind-numming 12 minute 59 second drive, clearly deflated the Cowboys and woke up the Vikings.

On the next four possessions, the Vikings--led by some good reads and accurate passes by Culpepper and some nice runs by the under-appreciated Moe Williams and the lucky-to-be-playing Onterrio Smith--scored four touchdowns and, despite a minor hiccup on a ridiculously lax defensive set that permitted the Cowboys to score a long touchdown just before halftime, the game was over.

From this point on, the game was even fairly boring, save for several hard hits by Brian Williams--the kind that Ken Irvin apparently will no longer make for the Vikings.

But although the game ended in a Vikings' whipping of the Cowboys, there are serious reasons for concern, particulary on defense.

What We Learned

The game against the Cowboys showed several things. First, it revealed that the Vikings' defense still needs considerable improvement. Testaverde lit up the secondary for 354 yards. What will the younger, more agile Donovan McNabb do next week? What would Peyton Manning do? Yikes.

Part of the quandry for the Vikings is that--despite having another $20 million to spend this season and money to spend last season--the team failed to make many necessary improvements on defense. Outside of Winfield, the Vikings failed to sign a legitimate starter on defense. Last season, the Vikings could have signed Dre Bly. They opted not to do so. This season, they could have signed Jeremiah Trotter for a song. They opted not to. Instead, the Vikings are relying on first and second year players at critical positions, including middle linebacker, cornerback, and defensive end. After Ken Irvin injured himself tripping on a seam in the new field turf in warmups--an injury that it appears will cost Irvin the season and the Vikings their only legitimate nickle back (and the remnants of what Tice last year boasted was part of a dynamic duo of cornerback additions along with the departed Denard Walker)--the Vikings were so qualitatively depleted at corner that they were forced to start Rushen Jones; Jones only made the team because the Vikings had no choice but to keep another corner.

But corner is not the Vikings' only defensive liability at the moment. As it stands, the Vikings are weak at linebacker and weak--and thin--throughout the secondary. More troubling is the fact that, despite their youth and purported speed, the Vikings' linebackers and secondary do not seem to get to the ball, instead opting to back-pedal on plays and allowing balls to be caught in front of them. If this is Cottrell-ball, it might be time to break out the Sherm Lewis D-plans. Winfield was guilty of this approach on several occasions, collapsing into the fetal-like, prevent-defense mode. Only Brian Williams appeared to have any instinct for the plays coming the Vikings' way.

The second thing we learned today is that Mike Rosenthal isn't much better this year than he was last year. Rosie had a blatant and absolutely pointless block from behind in the second quarter--for which he was duly penalized--and, again, failed to demonstrate blocking ability on running plays. The particular penalty can be forgiven as a once-per-season moment of idiocy. Rosenthal's poor blocking, however, cannot be viewed in such a manner. The Cowboys' apparent awareness of the Vikings' shortcomings on the right side of the offensive line led them to overplay the left side of Minnesota's line, making it more difficult to run right(behind Rosenthal) and more work to run left. This will wear on the Vikings over the course of the season. While the problem should have been addressed in the off-season, now is a better time than never to address it. Alas, the Vikings appear convinced that the bulked-up Rosenthal is the answer on the right side, having recently signed him to a contract extension. Even if the Vikings move in another direction in the near future--i.e., even if they cut Rosie in favor of a better player--they will eat his signing bonus. Ahh, the lessons that Todd Steussie did not teach us.

The third thing that we learned on Sunday is that the Cowboys are not as dominant on defense when they play NFL-caliber offenses. Last season, the 'Boys played mostly junk offenses en route to building a reputation as a strong defensive team. On Sunday, the Boys looked like boys on defense as they stopped nothing. The Vikings ran over them and passed at will. Next week, the Vikings will face a better rushing defense in the Eagles, though Philly's secondary losses in the past off-season may mean plenty of Vikings' scoring through the air.

Finally, the Vikings affirmed that their offense is fairly potent. We knew it would be, but the common wisdom was that it would be a bit better than last year. SOD looks very strong, Moe Williams--when Tice deigns to play him--looks even stronger, and can catch and block, and the Vikings have four legitimate receivers for perhaps the first time in their history. This will be a tough defense to stop if Culpepper maintains the patience that he exhibited on Sunday. As Tice is wont to say, "all Daunte needs to do is drive the bus."

Up Next: A look at the numbers. Plus, how the other half lives.

Thursday, September 09, 2004

Vikes Preview Tonight

Check back for more Vikings information prior to the game Sunday and after the victory over the Cowboys!