Sunday, October 31, 2004

They Might (Not) Be Giants

The Giants roll into the Metrodome today on the heals of a disappointing home loss to the Detroit Lions. The Giants can take some solace in the fact that they are but one of the Lions' three road victims this season. But that might be the most positive spin the Giants can put on last week's loss.

Minus the spin, the Giants were left to explain a 15-point home loss to team that had two road victories in 2004 by a total margin of 11 points. Maybe the Giants were looking ahead. After all, the Lions had just registered a bona fide and complete melt down at home in a 38-10 collapse against the Pack.

But there was more to it than that. Despite equaling the Lions in net yardage for the game, the Giants had two turnovers to the Lions' zero. Even more ominous were the 6 sacks that the Giants' offensive line allowed, and that cannot bode well for the creaky Kurt Warner who will be without his starting center on Sunday.

If the Vikings hope to replicate the Lions' success last week, they need to do what they appear to have been trying the past two weeks--applying more pressure, more often, and with variation. And the defensive linemen will need to get their mitts up as well to ensure that Warner is unable to get quick releases over the center. If the Tennessee game was a glimpse of defense to come, the Vikings' offense should have more than enough power to overcome the Giants at home this week.

Run Tiki, Run (or Catch Tiki, Catch)

When the Giants have the ball, they likely will employ numerous stunts and screens. If last week is any indication, Raonall Smith and Antoine Winfield appear up to the challenge posed by the screen. The rest will be left to Williams and Hovan in the middle. If they can stop Tiki Barber, the Vikings' offense can stay on the sidelines.

But that's a big "if." Barber tends to play well against Minnesota and has played well against the entire league this season. On the year, Barber is fifth in the NFL rushing the ball, averaging over 100 yards per game. He also averages four receptions a game to the tune of 60 yards per game. Pretty decent production.

Barber's success likely will turn as much on the success of the Minnesota defense in stopping him as it will on the ability of Warner's receivers to catch the ball. Fortunately for the Vikings, Amani Toomer may not play Sunday (game time decision). That would mean that Warner would be left with a receiving corps of Ike Hilliard, Jeremy Shockey, and a host of unknowns. The Giants will feel Toomer's absence, if he is unable to play, as he leads the Giants in receiving yards. If the Giants' passing game collapses so too should Barber's running game.

Throw Daunte Throw (or Run Mewelde Run)

On offense, the Vikings expect to have the services of Randy Moss. That will help the Vikings generate points even if Moss is only well enough to draw double coverage, as it will open the field for Robinson. If Moss plays, he likely will draw coverage from Will Allen with a safety rolling over. Allen is much shorter than Moss at 5'10", but the Giants have little alternative, because (1) Allen is their best cover corner (although Moss acquits himself quite well in the face of Allen's defense recording 5 TDs in the last three meetings against the Giants) and (2) there is still the dilemma of who will cover the lanky Robinson.

Robinson does not have the speed he once possessed but he still has his size. That means that the Giants can mark Robinson with the taller but slower Will Peterson. That is, unless Moss is gimpy. In which case the two corners likely would switch assignments and all would be well for the Giants secondary.

Except that the Vikings still have Burleson when they employ a three-receiver set, and the Giants have only the remaining safety to cover the speedy Burleson. And, unfortunately for the Giants, if the safety were capable of such a feat, he would be playing corner, not safety. Which is why the Giants face the same predicament that all other NFL teams face when opposing the Vikings' offense. Add Jermaine Wiggins to the mix and it should be a tough day for the Giants' defense.

The key, however, will be the Vikings' rushing attack. If Mewelde Moore is able to continue his strong running, the Vikings will force the Giants to bring more defenders up to the line. The odds of that are pretty good given that the Giants rank 22nd in run defense.


The Giants are a difficult team to read. They have road victories at Green Bay and Dallas but a home loss to the Lions in their most recent game. They have a good pass rush but were beaten as much by the pass (230 yards, 2 TDs) as by the run in their loss to the Lions. That makes them look good, good, and bad.

But the Giants lost to the Eagles in a similar manner as the Vikings lost to Philly and beat the Cowboys in similar fashion as the Vikings. That makes them look comparable to the Vikings.

This suggests either a Vikings' win or a close game with either team having a chance. I like the Vikings at home, though, even if Tiki gets his yards.

Vikings 28, Giants 17.

Thursday, October 28, 2004

Moving Up

Two weeks ago, despite a 3-1 record, it was unclear whether the Vikings should be considered one of the top teams in the NFL. Of their four games at that point, three were against teams with losing records and one was against a team with a winning record. The Vikings defeated the three teams with losing records--as they were expected to do--but lost to the one winning team that they faced, Philadelphia.

Looking back on the first quarter of the season, the Vikings thus had two lingering issues. The first was whether they could win consistently on the road. The second was whether they could defeat opponents with winning records. While a road victory at Houston brought reason for optimism it did not demonstrate consistency. That challenge would be left for the second quarter of the season.

When the Vikings defeated New Orleans in their fifth game of the season, they answered questions about their road-worthiness that had been lingering since last season. In winning consecutive road games for the first time in the Mike Tice era, the Vikings also laid to rest a ghost of 2003--the penchant for losing to, and getting drubbed by, losing teams on the road.

The Vikings followed up their victory over the Saints with a fairly dominant victory over the Titans. But the victory did little to help the Vikings move up in our rankings, except to allow the Vikings to maintain their ground while all teams around them appeared to be losing their grip, because the victory came against a losing team. The Vikings were decided favorites to beat the Titans and took care of business in winning on Sunday. But that victory alone is insufficient to demonstrate that the Vikings yet belong in the upper echelon of NFL teams. They're getting close, but it will take some victories over winning teams (see, NY Giants, Indianapolis Colts, and Detroit Lions) to raise the Vikings near the top of these rankings.

Rankings for Week Seven

At this point in the season, the Philadelphia Eagles are clearly ahead of the rest of the NFL. Despite playing in the second toughest division in the NFL (and having already knocked off the Giants), the Eagles are a perfect 6-0. And they are not only winning games, they mostly are winning large, by an average of 13 points per game. That separates this week's Eagles from this week's Patriots and Jaguars.

The Patriots and Jaguars fall in a group of their own, closely behind the Eagles. While Jacksonville is 5-2, its two losses have come against teams with winning records (Indianapolis and San Diego). The Jaguars also have two quality wins against Indianapolis, at Indy, and Denver.

The Patriots probably are at least the equal of the Jaguars, if not better, but have not yet been tested to the same degree. While the Jaguars play in the toughest division in the NFL, the Patriots play in the third best division, weighted down by Buffalo and Miami (and soon to be weighted down even more by the much overrated Jets). The Patriots narrowly defeated Indy and the Jets at home and have handled their other opponents, but their other opponents have a combined record of 7-18. It's difficult to know what that equates to on the ability meter. For now, however, it places the Patriots below the Eagles and on par with the Jaguars.

The next group includes three teams that continue to show improvement over disappointing 2003 seasons--the Jets, Chargers, and Lions--and two teams that probably won't be at this lofty perch in the rankings for long--the Falcons and Chiefs. Atop these five teams stand the Colts, a team that would have fit in nicely with the Patriots and Jaguars in group two if not for last week's loss at home to the Jaguars.

Despite the early-season lovefest surrounding Michael Vick and the Falcons, it is becoming increasingly evident that the Falcons are not for real (unless, by "for real," one means bad). In their break-down game last week against the Chiefs, the purported top rushing defense in the NFL allowed 8 rushing TDs. That's more than all but two teams have for the entire season. Not good.

And Michael Vick appears to be a big part of the problem. Not that that is a surprise, since, as we have pointed out from time to time, running QBs do not succeed in the NFL in the long term. This is especially true of running QBs who have yet to develop an accurate passing touch.

I'd say it is going to be a(nother) long season in Atlanta, but that would dismiss the wretchedness that is the NFC West. In a league (proudly) filled with mediocrity, the Falcons represent, at best, the most mediocre of the mediocre, yet they do so in a division that represents the vestiges of all that led the NFL to strive for mediocrity in every city.

The NFC South currently ranks as the second worst division in the NFL. While the AFC South stands at the top of the rankings with a +3 margin of good wins versus bad losses, the NFC South pulls in with a -3 tally. The worst division, the NFC West, stands at a -5. And, lest anyone think that one or two teams are doing the heavy dragging in the NFC South, every team in the division has at least one bad loss. As a consequence, it is quite conceivable that the Falcons will accumulate enough victories to reach the playoffs, but, based on their performance to date, they would be the team that all other teams dream of playing.

The next group is led by the Vikings, followed by the Steelers, Giants, and Broncos. These teams all appear more capable of making a playoff run than do the Falcons and one or two of these teams could end up in the top 5 in short order, but, for now, they are where they are because they have failed to beat winning teams (Steelers, Vikings, Giants) or have failed to beat bad teams (Denver).

Either the Vikings or the Giants will get a bump next week after their head to head tilt (more on this in the next column), while the Steelers have an opportunity to get a quality win against the Patriots and the Broncos should add a "quality" win against the 5-2 Falcons.

The next group begins the descent into mediocrity. This group contains one team that appears on the rise, the Texans, three that appear on the decline, the Titans, Cowboys, and Bengals, and one team that is already falling, the Browns. It is difficult to call the Bengals a team on the decline given that they have not finished the season with a winning record in 14 years (!), but the Bengals look worse this year than they did last year.

Last year, the Bengals ranked in the bottom third of NFL team defenses allowing 24 points per game. This year, the numbers look modestly better with the Bengals allowing 23.2 points per game through six games, but consider the competition. In their first six games, the Bengals have played the Jets, Dolphins, Ravens, Steelers, Browns, and Broncos. None of these teams averages even 23 points a game.

It's difficult to win with defense when your defense gives up points to these teams. That's particularly true when your offensive production falters below last year's level. All of which means that it is unlikely that the Bengals will break their losing ways this season.

The next group includes Baltimore, Green Bay, Seattle, Carolina, New Orleans, Arizona, Buffalo, and San Francisco. Combining Green Bay's offense and Baltimore's defense gets you the number one team in the NFL, hands down. Taking each team as they stand gets you two teams that have nothing on one side of the ball. Neither team plays in a great division, yet both can still make the playoffs despite huge liabilities.

Seattle is returning to Earth after a quick beginning to the season and appear to be the same old team the Vikings dusted last season at the dome--some offensive pop with zero defense. Carolina also appears to be on the decline, due mostly to injuries to key players.

While New Orleans, Buffalo, and San Francisco appear headed for inclusion in the ranking's bottom-feeder group, Arizona may be moving up in the coming weeks on the strength of their offense. Though it is hard to get too excited about any team scoring 25 against Seattle or 28 against San Francisco, the Cardinals will continue to play the weaklings of the NFL as the season progresses, and will have Anquan Boldin back in the fold this week. That might be all that Denny Green needs to help Phoenix rise.

The remaining group includes the Rams, Redskins, Buccaneers, Dolphins, Raiders, and Bears. The Rams fall to this last group, despite their position atop the NFC West, because of their feeble performance this season in the face of bad opposition. The Rams have two losses this season to teams with losing records, including a 31-14 loss to the woeful Dolphins (they of the 12.3 points per game average, inflated by their 31-point outburst against the Rams). Moreover, all of the Rams' victories this season have come against teams in the NFC South or NFC West, the two worst divisions in the NFL at this point in the season. While that makes the Rams' loss to the Dolphins less suprising, it certainly does not help the Rams in these rankings.

The Dolphins winning streak is unlikely to continue and the offensively challenged 'Bucs, Bears, 'Skins, and Raiders appear ready and able to challenge for the number one pick in next year's draft.

Up Next: Vikings Rout the Giants?

Sunday, October 24, 2004

Shutting Down and Moving On

When last we met, the Vikings were basking in the glow of their second consecutive road victory and their fourth victory in five games. The atmosphere surrounding the team was optimistic, but guarded.

Optimism sprouts from a league leading offense that amasses TDs the way some teams accumulate holding penalties. Optimism springs from amassing offensive totals that rival the Vikings' 1998 record-setting offensive performance, despite the absence of one of their key offensive weapons for the better part of a road game. And optimism leaps from the success that the Vikings have had on the road this season, after miserable failures against woeful road opponents in past seasons.

But optimism is tempered in Minnesota. This guarded optimism is the result of distant past and recent darkness. The distant past includes failures against the Chiefs in a Super Bowl in which the Vikings were heavy favorites, misery in three other Super Bowl games that the Vikings had a right to be in but played as if their appearance was merely an afterthought. And the distant past includes that game against Dallas, when the refs screwed the home team.

The recent darkness includes losing to an overmatched, underskilled, overachieving Atlanta team, at home, in the NFC Championship game, despite being one of the heaviest favorites in NFL history, a darkness tempered only by the realization of most true Vikings' fans that, but for the loss to the Falcons, the Vikings would have lost their fifth Super Bowl, despite the near certainty that the Vikings would have entered the game as favorites.

The most recent darkness includes all that is last season, from the 6-0 set-up to the abysmal finish. Last season saw the Vikings become the first team to begin the season 6-0 and miss the playoffs, an ignominious feat made possible by late season losses to the NFL's 2003 bottom feeders. The most painful of these losses, of course, was the loss to the Cardinals, in an Arizona stadium filled with Vikings' fans, on the last play of the season, on 4th and forever.

And what the dark days have meant for Vikings' fans is that it is never too soon to lament the inevitable. It is never too soon to wonder what will go wrong or to point to the team's achille's heal--the weakness that inevitably will undo the league's otherwise best team.

And, through last week's victory--in spite of the victory itself--we were bracing ourselves for the inevitable once again. This time, it was posited, we would be done in not by lack of passion, poor officiating, bad luck, or revelation that we were merely masquerading as contenders (circa 2000), but by lack of a defense, any defense. For in 2004, the Vikings were once again attempting to pull a 1998, but without a marquee defensive lineman. And we knew better.

We knew that the Vikings could not stop anyone. Not the Cowboys. Not the Eagles. Not the Texans. Not the Saints. Not even the Bears! The defense wasn't a fraud, we said, for that would be an insult to true frauds!

But then last week became this week. The Vikings played a team that has had a rough season but has still managed to score some points. But the Vikings stoned them--cold. And what was a porous defense shut down a quality running game, a running game that Tennessee Titans' Coach Jeff Fisher earlier in the week had opined would be able to run wild against the Vikings' defense. But it did not. And the passing game was worse for the Titans.

Some of the Titans' woes could be attributable to Steve McNair's first-half injury, but not all or even most. Before McNair hobbled off the Metrodome floor, he was 2 of 6 for 7 yards. He may have doubled those totals had he stayed.

No, the Titans did not flail about on offense primarily as a consequence of McNair's injury, they flailed primarily because the Vikings' recent commitment to being agressive--pressuring the QB, stepping up on plays, actually using the safeties on running and passing plays, and simply playing with more tenacity--is beginning to pay dividends. For part of last week and most of this week, the Vikings appear to have an NFL-caliber defense. Raonall Smith played a great game, Chris Hovan made several noticeable contributions, and the Vikings' secondary was up on the ball the entire game. And, for the first time in decade, it was actually more enjoyable to watch the Vikings' defense than it was to watch their offense. And the offense was not too shabby.

All of which confirms what some long-suffering Vikings' fans have long-suspected--it's the system. Teams that sit back, as the Vikings have done since approximately 1996, give ground. Teams that attack, as the Vikings did this Sunday, usually succeed enough to keep the other team honest. And sometimes more.

Of course, it could just be a one-game blip, but a one-game blip is more promising than anything else we have seen from the Vikings' defense in recent years. And, if the offense stays true to form, if it is not a blip, the Vikings truly could be moving on to much bigger things such as......

Well, no need to jinx us.

Up Next: Where we stand.

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Porous Defense?

Yesterday was a day to enjoy another Vikings' road victory. Today is a day to return to reality. And reality for the Vikings is that, as good as their offense is, their defense is still what holds this team back.

After five games, the Vikings rank near the bottom of the NFL in nearly every defensive statistic. Minnesota ranks 30th out of 32 teams in yards allowed per game, yielding a whopping 384 yards. Only Indianapolis (385) and New Orleans (414) allow more yards per game. For the Vikings, this averages out to 6.2 yards per play. Only the Saints (6.3) allow more yards per play.

In contrast to these numbers, the league leading Broncos have allowed 224 yards per game and the Redskins have allowed 4.1 yards per play, both through six games. And while the Vikings are dead last in the NFL allowing 23 first downs per game, the Broncos are number one allowing a mere 12 first downs per game.

The Vikings are 26th in third down conversions allowed, with teams converting at a 42% clip. Houston is last in the league at 50% and Washington is first allowing just 23%.

The Vikings fair about the same on fourth down, allowing teams to convert 71% of the time, ranking Minnesota at 26th in this statistic. San Francisco, Buffalo, and New Orleans rank last having allowed conversions on 100% of opponents' 4th down attempts (Tampa Bay also has a 100% success against rate but opponents have only attempted one fourth-down conversion against the Buccaneers).

Minnesota's defense is equally abysmal with respect to yards penalized, having been penalized 41 times for 354 yards to rank the Vikings 27th in this category. The 8.6 yard average reflects the numerous pass interference calls that the Vikings have sustained this season. Denver is last in the league with 52 penalties for 482 yards and a 9.3 yards per penalty average. Houston and New Orleans rank just below Minnesota.

And if you are into being depressed, consider that the Vikings brought in a new defensive coordinator, Ted Cottrell, signed a purportedly grade A cornerback in Antoine Winfield, drafted a pass-rushing expert in Kenechi Udeze, moved Chris Hovan to his "more natural position" (bench?), and had more experience at linebacker than they had last season (save, of course, for middle linebacker), and the Vikings still are much worse than they were last season--a season that ended when the Vikings allowed a touchdown to a nobody QB on 4th and forever from nearly midfield. Yikes!

Last season, despite having what even the most informed of NFL observers rightly considered a shaky defense, the Vikings ranked 23rd in yards allowed per game (334), 28th in yards per play allowed (5.4), 24th in first downs allowed per game (20), 19th in 3rd down conversions allowed (34%), 15th in fourth down conversions allowed (42.9%), and had the third lowest yards-penalized total (720).

While it was difficult to put a good spin on last year's numbers, it is nearly impossible to put a good spin on this year's numbers. Despite injuries to Claiborne and Henderson, the Vikings cannot say that injuries have hurt their defensive performance, as there is no statistical evidence that either Claiborne or Henderson are an upgrade to what the Vikings currently have in the linebacking corps. Nor can the Vikings continue to say that the numbers reflect a "bend but don't break" game plan, as they have allowed an average of 25 points per game.

But, despite the clear dreariness that is the Vikings' current version of defense, the Vikings can point to one statistic that bodes well for them. While the Vikings have been porous on defense, they have been so against some of the better offensive teams in the NFL--Philadelphia (6th), Dallas (10th), Houston (11th)--and against a respectable New Orleans offense (17th) and a Chicago team that was much better with Rex Grossman than it has been with Jonathan Quinn.

Perhaps, as the Vikings take on the Titans, Lions, Jaguars, and Redskins of the league, their defense will firm up. Of course, there are also those other teams, such as the Giants, Packers, Colts, and Seahawks, that are certain to reassert reality for the Vikings' defense. And it is these more high-powered offenses that also happen to play good enough defense that they could stand in the way of the Vikings' post-season ambitions.

Tomorrow: Winning in spite of themselves.

Monday, October 18, 2004

Red Hot Pepper and Nausea

Daunte Sets Mark

Daunte Culpepper continued his impressive play last night in the Vikings' 38-31 victory over the New Orleans Gophers, uh, Saints. Culpepper threw for over 400 yards with 5 touchdowns as the Vikings marched through the Saints' "defense" at will. The 5 TDs brought Daunte's season total to 18 TDs and marked the first time in NFL history that a QB has thrown 5 TD passes in three different games in the same season.

Daunte was credited with three turnovers in the game but can hardly shoulder the entire blame for those turnovers. His fumble was the result of an early and poor snap and his INT on a long pass to Moss--though the result of a forced pass--likely would not have resulted in an INT had Moss not tweaked his hammy. Moreover, fans have been clamoring for the Vikings to unleash Daunte and for Daunte to play with a little more abandon. Last night's game appeared to be a healthy dose of pragmatic abandon.

And when Daunte was not zipping perfect goal line passes to Jermaine Wiggins, a pinpoint pass to Moss at the back of the endzone, or lobbing a perfect sideline pass to Marcus Robinson to pull the Vikings out of deep hole in their own end, rookie Mwelde Moore was shredding the disappearing act that is the Saints' defense. And shredding with more aplomb than one should have a right to expect of rookie playing in his second game.

Great offensive performance.


Lest it be said that I view the local sports scene through rose-colored lenses, I shall provide a little rain. I'll save the rain that is the Vikings' defense for tomorrow, but cannot let pass for another day the comments of national and local sports commentators and our favorite local coach.

Never would I have imagined that my "favorite" (read "least disliked") announcer on ESPN's Sunday Night Football would be Paul McGuire. McGuire incessantly repeats himself and makes inane points, but that pales in contrast on the grating scale with the contributions of his booth partners.

Mike Patrick is a virtual non-entity, largely relegated to mimicking what others have already said. That means that Patrick is repeating the statements that McGuire has alread repeated. Or worse, that Patrick is repeating Joe Theismann!

Theismann's gems included this sparkler:

"I mean, the Vikings are running up over 400 yards a game but they are allowing 294 yards a game. They are giving up the same number of yards that they are gaining. That's not good."

No it's not Joe. But it's more a result of your failure to appreciate differences than it is the result of result. Thanks for the continued insight.

Theismann also suggested that the Saints were shafted when they were called for helmet-to-helmet contact after a Saint player lowered his arms and turned himself into a human missile, launching himself directly into Daunte's facemask after the ball was clearly downfield. The play was the reason the NFL implemented the helmet-to-helmet contact rule. But Thesimann was non-plussed. Instead, still irate that the Vikings had not been called for what appeared to be slap of Aaron Brook's helmet by a Vikings' defender, Theismann went on a tirade. Only after McGuire convinced Theismann that the helmet-to-helmet contact call was both a good call and one that must be made, did Theismann shut his yap. At least for a play.

And what would I prefer to the ramblings of ESPN's NFL analysts who continue to over-hype, over-analyze, and dumb up the booth? Something more akin to ESPN's college football analysts who properly savaged the Gopher's performance against the underdog Michigan State Spartans.

Despite entering the game at East Lansing as a 9.5-point favorite, the Gophers managed to hand Michigan State a 34-point victory. That's some light lifting, a fact not lost on the ESPN analysts.

Although falling victim to ESPN's dictate that all ESPN-televised games be hyped as great match-ups, the ESPN analysts covering the Gophers-Spartans game quickly identified Minnesota's weaknesses and roundly condemned the Gopher's "effort."

Minnesota receivers dropped passes left and right, Minnesota coaches continued to call the same offensive plays that have not worked for the past two weeks--refusing to incorporate a short-passing game into the game plan--and continued to insist on playing the invisible defense, defenders continued to refuse to tackle or even touch receivers and running backs, players looked like they were disinterested and played even more so, and Mason continued to place blame everywhere but at home.

Although Mason initially stated that the loss was on the coaching staff, today, he appeared to revert to form, suggesting that he simply doesn't have the talent to compete in the Big Ten. Mason stated that "the effort was there, despite my initial impression that we [the coaches] simply had not gotten the players up for the game." He also claimed that "the tackling wasn't as bad as I thought it had been" (this begs the question of what Mason's definition of "tackling" is).

Reading between the lines, what Mason is saying is that he and his staff did the best they could do to prepare the team to play and the team had made improvements in tackling from the Michigan game. That's what Mason decided to go with on Monday after the numbness of losing big as a heavy favorite had worn off. And he went with this because Mason refuses to acknowledge his mistakes. The mistakes are not with the coaching in the world of Mason, at least not with his coaching, they are with execution. But if that is true, and we are not subscribing to that notion at Vikesgeek, isn't Mason condemning himself in another area in which he routinely bangs his own drum? Isn't Mason saying that he simply cannot recruit good players?

Mason's final comment of the day again reflected the coach's unwillingness to accept blame for his team's short-comings, as he stated that he was going to look into the defensive schemes and make some changes. This was Mason's attempt to distance himself from the defensive playcalling that has been more Wackeresque the past two years than it was during the Wacker era. By saying he would look into the defensive schemes and make changes, Mason was saying that he had been hands off on defense, relying on the purported expertise of defensive coordinator Greg Hudson. Even if Mason truly was out of the loop on defensive playcalling he is indicting himself on two levels without apparently realizing it. First, he is acknowledging that he does not coordinate game plans, even when the situation clearly calls for the intervention of a purportedly experienced head coach. Second, he is acknowledging that his defensive coordinator is not suited for his position.

And none of this surprises Vikesgeek.

Finally, our local sportswriter is still at it, once again shilling for legislative funding of a new stadium. This time, the writer is plugging a new stadium for the Gophers--a stadium that the Gophers need, according to the writer, to compete in the Big Ten.

After the Gophers were demolished by Michigan State in Michigan State's renovated stadium, the local writer opined that Glen Mason might well wish that he had taken the coaching position at Michigan State a couple years ago when it was offered to him. The implication, of course, was that, had he taken the Michigan State job, Mason would have been on the winning end of yesterday's game (unlikely), a victory made possible almost solely by the existence of the refurbished stadium.

What puzzles this blogger are the statements made by the same local writer when the state legislature was debating whether to build an indoor football stadium to house the Gophers and Vikings. At the time, our local writer stated that the Gophers needed an indoor stadium to attract top-caliber athletes to play in Minnesota. The speed of turf ball, he stated, certainly would entice speedy d-backs, receivers, and backs to play for the maroon and gold. And the location of the dome, at the crossroads of downtown Minneapolis and the U of M campus would attract students and professionals alike.

Now, our local writer is contending that the dome was a mistake because it is not on campus. The solution, of course, is an outdoor stadium on campus. In other words, the solution is for the Gophers to play in a stadium similar to old Memorial Stadium, where the Gophers played prior to moving to the dome.

Thank god for the wisdom of our local writer. But he was not done.

According to our local writer, one of the major problems facing the Gophers' athletic department is that the Gophers do not draw well at home. To demonstrate this point, the writer noted that the Gophers will draw "only" 42,000 fans for homecoming against Illinois. That, according to the writer, is the consequence of playing at the dome.

Wow! Where shall we begin?

Let's start with the fact that 42,000 fans (counting only tickets already sold) is a fairly healthy turnout for a game against Illinois. Add to that the fact that, as demonstrated in the Michigan State loss, the Gophers are not a particularly inspiring team, and, in that light, 42,000 fans looks very good.

But our local writer appeared more concerned with turnout at the dome versus what he appears to believe would be a boon in turnout should the Gophers return to a campus stadium, rather than whether 42,000 is good under the circumstances. And from that perspective, his point is sublimely--rather than merely entirely--ridiculous.

The suspicion here is that even with advance ticket sales of 42,000 this week, far fewer fans will be in the dome on Saturday after the loss at Michigan State. Put the game outside on a very chilly October Saturday and even fewer fans likely would attend. Even if fans wanted to turn out in large numbers at a new stadium, however, our local writer protests too much, for, if the Gophers were playing in the stadium currently being proposed for the U of M campus they would have already sold out, as seating capacity of around 42,000 is proposed for the new stadium.

But let's get real about the deal. U of M fans do not attend Gopher football games for reasons largely left unaddressed by our local writer. First, the Gophers have not had a legitimately good team since the 1960s. That wears on a fan base.

Second, the current head coach continues to overhype his team and the fans are wise to this tactic. The Gophers have not defeated a Big Ten team that has finished the year with a winning conference record in the last two seasons.

Finally, Minneapolis is not Iowa City, West Lafayette, Madison, Ann Arbor, East Lansing, Bloomington, Happy Valley, or Columbus, where the University is the center of attention. The Gopher football team, at best, ranks third in local sports interest in October. And that assumes that the Wild are on hiatus, the Twins are out of the playoffs, and the Timberwolves' regulars season has not yet begun. At worst, the Gopher football team ranks, in order, behind the Vikings, Twins, Wolves, Wild, and Gopher Hockey. And when the Gopher Women's b-ball begins, the football team can fall behind them in rank order. And, though apparently unfathomable to our local writer, some people even have plans that do not include the local sports scene.

For writers who cannot deal with that, it may be time to cover sports in a different town. And it clearly is time to drop the line that the Gopher football team's woes are directly correlated with the lack of an on-campus stadium. Fans attend games when a team is good or shows promise. When a team continues to disappoint--even regress--there is little reason to show support, particularly when showing support costs time and money.

Up Next: All Purple, including Tice's progress and rankings.

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

2004 Inaugural Team and Division Rankings

While the New England Patriots have captured the headlines with their vanilla play in a lame division, the real beast of the NFL this season (if there is such a thing) is the Philadelphia Eagles (sorry Vikings' fans).

Below are this week's rankings for each team and each division, followed by some commentary. Contrary to other rankings, these rankings rely on groupings. The purpose of these groupings is to acknowledge that there is little difference in NFL team qualities at certain intervals. This is attributable to the fact that most NFL teams win the games that they are expected to win (at least in hindsight) and lose the games that they are expected to lose.

This should make ranking NFL teams relatively easy, but it does not.

What confounds rankings is that NFL teams play highly unbalanced schedules. Each team plays its division brethren twice a season and each division team plays every team from a select division in the opposing conference each season. The rest of each team's schedule is based on the previous year's performance.

All of this makes it difficult to assess the performance of teams at the beginning of the NFL season. But, after five weeks of play (four for some teams) there is at least something upon which to base a ranking of NFL teams.

The ranking system I provide does not consider record as the overriding factor. Instead, it considers record, combined with good wins, bad losses, and division rank, in determining rank. A good win is defined as a win against a team above .500. A bad loss is defined as a loss against a team below .500. Good wins and bad losses are elastic, meaning that a win against a good team today may become a win against a bad team by year's end. Division rank is determined by net good wins/bad losses for the division as a whole with minor consideration given to overall division record.

Without further ado, the season's inaugural rankings:

I begin with the division rankings since I will make reference to these rankings throughout.

The current division rankings, in order, are as follows: AFC South, NFC East, AFC North, AFC West, NFC North, AFC East, NFC West, NFC South.

The first four teams in this year's inaugural rankings are Philadelphia, New England, New York (AFC), and Indianapolis, in that order. The Eagles have three good wins to New England's one good win and thus win the early-season ranking battle. The Jets and Colts also have one good win.

The most likely fraud in this group is the Jets. Although the Jets are 4-0 with one good win and no bad losses, they have beaten three teams with records below .500. The Jets also play in one of the weaker divisions in the NFL, a division with a combined record of 8-9, two teams without a victory this season, and a division tally of 3 bad losses to 2 good wins. The same could be said of the Patriots, but the Patriots have a better history than do the Jets, so the Patriots get a pass--for now.

The next six teams in the rankings are Denver, Detroit, Atlanta, Jacksonville, San Diego, and Cleveland. The most likely fraud in this group is Atlanta. Although the Falcons generally have played good defense, they have done so against weak competition. While the Falcons likely will make the playoffs, this will be a result more of the fact that they play in the weakest division in the NFL than a consequence of a strong Falcons' team. The pundits suggest that the Falcons will only get better once Vick takes flight. It hasn't happened yet against suspect competition, and I would not bank on it.

The next group of four includes Minnesota, Seattle, New York (NFC), and Pittsburgh. The most likely fruad in this group is Minnesota. The Vikings likely will compete for the NFC North title this season, but a tough seven week stretch near the end of the season will determine of what this team is made. Despite being 3-1 with a good chance of going 4-1 on Sunday, and despite a formidable offense, the Vikings still have an atrocious defense--ranked 31st out of 32 teams. The Vikings have yet to beat a winning team this season and failed miserably against the only winning team that they faced. Unlike 1998, when Minnesota rode a strong offense to the NFC Championship game, other NFC teams, such as Seattle, St. Louis, Philly, New York, and Green Bay, can keep pace with Minnesota's offense. And Philly and New York, and possibly Seattle, have the defense to slow Minnesota's offense. Without significant improvement on defense--improvement that the Vikings have yet to show this season--the Vikings look like the biggest fraud of this group.

The next group in the rankings includes Baltimore, St. Louis, Dallas, Houston, and Tennessee. The fraud in this group is Dallas. The Cowboys are old, hurt, and/or awful at quarterback and wide receiver, and appear to have one of the worst defenses in the NFL--despite broad acclaim to the contrary at the beginning of the season. It doesn't help that Dallas will face two of the better teams in the NFL twice each this season. But that's life in Big D.

The next group includes Chicago, Cincinnati, New Orleans, Carolina, Oakland, and Kansas City. It would be an oxymoron to define a fraud in this group since none of the teams is ranked high enough. Each of these teams has struggled this season, with Carolina and KC suprising some with their poor play, Oakland showing its age, Chicago showing its injuries, and Cincinnati showing, well, that it really is Cincinnati at heart.

The most disturbing performance in this group, though not unexpected, has to be that of the New Orleans Saints. The Saints continue to underachieve (if you believe that Brooks is a quality QB and that Haslett is a quality coach), losing two games to teams with losing records, and generally playing lousy football given the prevailing expectations. I happen to believe that the proper expectations for the Saints are that they are a middle-of-the-pack team, but that just confirms their placement here.

The team most likely to rise from this group is Carolina, by default. Chicago has no QB and too many other injuries, particularly in the secondary, Cincinnati is not very good even when healthy (though that could change if they play Kitna), Oakland is old with a weak offense and slow defense, and KC is in a tough division with Denver and San Diego and has no defense. Carolina plays in the weakest division in the NFL and has 12 games left to catch Atlanta. I like Carolina's odds.

The final group in this year's inaugural rankings includes Arizona, San Francisco, Buffalo, Green Bay, Washington, Tampa Bay, and Miami. These teams truly have been pathetic this year. Only Green Bay appears to have the ability to score against any defense, but Green Bay has a putrid defense of its own and will not be able to outscore too many teams. Plus, Green Bay has lost four of its first five games, with three losses already at home! Arizona will improve with the return of Anquan Boldin, and they play in the second worst division in the NFL, but if St. Louis shows any ability this season, St. Louis and Seattle should ensure that Arizona does not rise above this plateau in 2004.

That's it for now. Check back tomorrow for Vikings' pregame!

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Assuming the Image of Leadership

Whether where you stand depends on where you sit or where you sit depends on where you stand, depends on who you are. In the world of sports, at least in the world of mid-size market sports and college sports, it is clear that where you stand depends on where you sit. We need venture no further than our own backyard to establish this truism.

On a warm October weekend full of promise for local sports fans, the Minnesota Twins, Minnesota Gophers, and Minnesota Vikings each provided evidence to support this notion. And, in so doing, each demonstrated that in this part of the country players take on the persona of their leaders.

Take, for example, the Minnesota Twins. Throughout the season, the Twins have trotted out the mantra that the Twins "play ball the right way." Fans have yet to receive a full accounting of what, precisely, this means. Presumably, it means that the Twins, void of any true homerun hitter, rely on the sacrifice, keen baserunning, adept fielding, gutty pitching, and comraderie to win games.

Twins' Manager Ron Gardenhire has preached "playing the right way" since he took over the managerial role with the Twins, with the mantra reaching fever pitch this season. In fact, Gardy was so committed to preaching that his team "plays the right way" this season that he sometimes neglected to ensure that it was the case, as players were often seen freelancing at the plate and appeared particularly inept at situational hitting and baserunning.

No matter, Gardy's boys bought into Gardy's mantra. So much so that players such as Torii Hunter routinely tossed out the line--"we play the right way."

Prior to the ALDS against the Yankees, Hunter said that he hoped that the Twins had an opportunity to play the Yankees in the ALDS, because he thought the Twins had a chance to knock off the Yankees. In support of this proposition, Hunter suggested that, while the Yankees have the greater payroll, the Twins "play the right way."

Gardy appeared to encourage this line of thinking through the ranks, encouraging his players to "be aggressive" and to "take chances." After Hunter and Cory Koskie were thrown out foolishly attempting to stretch hits an extra base, Gardy defended the players' attempts as consistent with the Twins' "aggressive style of play." Gardy stated that he would not attempt to restrain such play because it is the type of ball the Twins play, baseball played "the right way."

The conundrum for Gardy and the Twins is not that the Twins' players might take the philosophy of being "aggressive" too far--which they clearly did against the Yankees--but that Gardy has enticed his players to buy into a philosophy that is unlikely to produce a championship. It is not that the philosophy is necessarily anathema to team sports, but that the philosophy is counter-productive to motivating a team like the Twins to defeat a team like the Yankees.

The Twins entered the series with the Yankees believing two things: (1) that the Twins play a different style of baseball than do the Yankees and (2) that the Twins' style of baseball can unseat the Yankees, particularly in a short series. These are obviously good beliefs for a team to buy into at the outset of a MLB playoff series.

Unfortunately, the Twins' players also bought into the necessary corollary of the Gardenhire philosophy. To wit, the Twins cannot beat the Yankees unless the Twins get some breaks. If the body language of Twins players did not convey this message in game 2 of the series, the body language and play in game 3, after the Twins fell behind, made it abundantly clear.

And if there was any doubt that the "play the right way" philosophy has become a euphimism for "we can beat anybody on any given day but will probably lose to big payroll teams because they can throw more at us" philosophy, it was laid bare by Hunter after the Yankees eliminated the Twins from the playoffs when Hunter stated that "the Yankees were just better--they bought more talent."

Sadly, Hunter had already forgotten that, despite mistakes in game 2, despite the Yankees playing like the Yankees, the Twins still could have and should have won game 2. And game 4. And that would have been the series--advantage Twins.

But in the aftermath of game 4, the consensus--from Hunter, to Gardy, even to the usually rational GM Terry Ryan--was that the Twins lost to a higher payrolled roster, one that was more forgiving of errors than was the Twins' lower budget squad.

While there is no dispute that there is some merit to this contention, there also should be no dispute that the Twins had the talent to defeat the Yankees. That the Twins failed to do so is as much a consequence of the team's collective inferiority complex--one that inevitably kicks in when the Twins play the Yankees--as it is of poor execution. And that is a reflection of the Twins' "play the game the right way" philosophy and the hidden message that the philosophy betrays.

While the Twins philosophy may be leading them astray, they appear to be in a better mental state than the Glen Mason-led Gopher football team. Mason, never one to shy away from an opportunity to pat himself on the back (not even after a loss), led the Gophers to Michigan last weekend to battle for first place in the Big Ten.

During prep week, Mason was all shucksy with the media, feigning self-deprication at mention of his accomplishments.

And Mason has accomplished quite a bit during his time at Minnesota. He has turned a team that was once routinely routed by schools such as Michigan, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Illinois, Purdue, Penn State, Northwestern, Michigan State, and Iowa, and a team that sometimes lost to Indiana (!) into a team that can compete with any team in the Big Ten. Mason has done this by expanding the Gophers' recruiting base and landing in-state talent. These are significant accomplishments for a team that played as if it were serving an NCAA death penalty for the better portion of the three decades prior to Mason's arrival in Minnesota.

But the problem for the Gophers--at least for the Gopher fans--is that that is both not enough and more than anyone should have a right to expect of a Gopher coach. And that makes the situation--as viewed by Mason--a win-win for the coach and a lose-lose for Gopher football fans.

When the Gophers win, Mase pats himself on the back, suggests that the players overachieved by executing a flawless game plan, and strongly hints that the victory surpasses the rightful expectations of any rational Gopher fans.

When the Gophers lose, Mase pats himself on the back, bemoans the inability of young, inexperienced, and/or less talented kids to execute a flawless game plan, and complains that Gopher fans' expectations are too high--and, oh yeah, please pass the raise on my one million plus salary.

After the Gophers lost a very winnable game at Michigan on Saturday afternoon, reporters questioned Mason's offensive playcalling in the fourth quarter and his decision to essentially pull the defense of the field on Michigan's winning drive. Rather than answer the question, Mason began his typical post-game salute to himself.

"You know," he said. "When I first came to Minnesota, nobody knew the state existed. Nobody knew the University existed, let alone that there was a D1 football team at Minnesota. I changed that."

Yes, coach. No doubt you did. And the players you brought in had something to do with that as well. But the question was....

"I heard the question," Mase continued. "Let me ask you this. 'Cuz maybe I don't see so well. But I believe we are 5-1, not 1-5. Right? Right?!"

Yeah, coach. You are 5-1. And you were 5-1 last season. But that's not the point. The point is that for the past two seasons, you have failed to defeat a Big Ten team that has (or is likely to) finish the season with a winning conference record. And that means that you are not progressing, despite your record.

Worse, yet, is Mase's continuing insinuation that it might not get much better than it already is. That this is the best that Gopher fans can hope for. If that is true, surely there is little point in continuing to pour millions into the football program and little point in lobbying for an on-campus stadium. If the Gophers cannot even aspire to beat the best, then surely, at a minimum, there is one too many million dollar salaries being paid out by Minnesota tax payers today.

But the true downside of Mase's philosophy on football at the U rests not with how it affects fans' impressions of Mase, but with how Mase's philosophy affects his players and their gametime performance. The Gopher team that played the fourth quarter at Michigan looked like a team that had bought into Mase's implicit philosophy that Minnesota football teams should lose to Michigan football teams. That kind of mindset, and its trickle-down effect on the players, led to the demise of John Cooper at OSU.

Maybe Mase wants to rethink his strategy.

While the Twins and Gophers appear to be following suspect philosophical approaches taken by their managers, the Vikings may have a more adept manager at the helm.

All last season, Mike Tice said "playing outside is different and playing on the road is different. It just is." And Tice coached as if it was. And the Vikings failed miserably on the road. And that failure kept the Vikings out of the 2003 playoffs.

This season, Tice appears willing to acknowledge that playing on the road and/or outside is only different from playing at home and/or indoors if the players believe that it is and if the coaches game plan as if it is.

Against Philly, the Vikings had a good game plan--control the ball. They controlled the ball, they just forgot to finish scoring drives. Against Houston, the Vikings did not control the ball as much as they would have liked but they finished scoring drives. Both games featured passing attacks (50 passes against Houston), with the Houston game featuring many more deep passes with a healthy blend of short- and mid-range passes and a good rushing game. There was no attempt to dumb down the game plan to play on the road. And while the Vikings probably should have won at Philly, they did win at Houston. And that marks a significant improvement over last year and an improvement directly correlated with Tice's changing philosophy and how his team responds to his philosophy.

On the winning drive against Houston, the Vikings--for the first time in recent memory--played to win rather than not to lose. That's a good start for turning around the Vikings' road woes and a good lesson for Mason and the Gophers.

Up Next: What I promised before. Plus, more. See you then!

Q of the Day:

Does anyone think Carlos Beltran will be wearing anything other than Yankee pinstripes next season?

Monday, October 11, 2004

Minimal Exorcism

At last writing, we knew that at least two of Minnesota's sports teams would not exorcise demons this past weekend. What we did not know was whether the Minnesota Vikings would follow the dubious lead of the Twins and the Gophers or forge a new path.

On Sunday afternoon, with the roof over the Texans' stadium open, the Vikings chose the latter and proved that Minnesota teams can succeed in spite of their demons--and in spite of themselves.

After a first half in which the Vikings dominated in every conceivable category, Minnesota took a 14-0 lead into the lockerroom and Coach Tice was brimming with pride.

The Houston Texans were on the losing side of that statistic and their coach, Dom Capers, had a different impression of the first half. "We didn't play our game," he said. "We let Minnesota dictate the pace and take us out of our game," he followed.

But Capers did not rest with these cliches. He rumbled to the locker room and let loose with the expletives. Capers also left his veterans to hand out some additional tongue lashings.

Apparently, tongue lashings and tirades trump complacency in the NFL locker room--though lashings and tirades also appear to take a quarter or so to take hold.

After the third quarter, the Vikings looked to be comfortably in control of the game with a two touchdown lead (once a three TD lead). But then the Vikings apparently remembered that they were playing a road game and the sky fell in. Well, almost.

After the Texans rallied to tie the Vikings, it appeared that the Vikings were destined to lose yet again, on the road in the elements.

But after receiving the ball in overtime, and after being forced to punt (as all Vikings' fans resignedly expected), the Vikings did something improbable--particularly given the circumstances of the 4th quarter. Rather than folding and allowing the opponent to drive down the field for a game-winning score, the Vikings' defense improbably rose to the occassion.

The defense was not there in the third quarter. It was not there in the fourth quarter. But, inexplicably, the Vikings' defense emerged in overtime and even sacked Texan QB David Carr. Unbelievable.

More unbelievable was that the Vikings drove into Houston territory on its next possession and almost sealed the game when Culpepper hit Robinson for what almost certainly would have been a game-winning touchdown. Of course, the expected happened; Robinson dropped the pass as his bulging eyes appeared to knock the ball out of his open mitts.

But just when a weekend of dispair was about to set in, just when it appeared that Robinson was not the answer at the #2 receiver, everything changed.

Facing a 3rd and 12 from midfield, the Vikings salvaged Minnesota sports fans' weekend and exorcised their road-weakling demon. Two plays after dropping the game-winning pass, Robinson redeemed himself when he caught a slant pass for a 50-yard touchdown.

The game was not without some of the flaws that have appeared in earlier games this season. The Vikings' secondary lost another pick--this one in the endzone and this one ultimately permitting Houston to drive for the tying TD; The Vikings again had too many penalties--10 for the game, including four on Nat Dorsey (one holding and three false starts); and Chris Hovan, though more present in the mix (probably as a result of increased rest as he primarily backed up Steve Martin), again had an uninspiring game.

But, as Tice says, a win is a win. And, in the NFL, where only Cleveland, on the road, gets blown out, that's not bad. At least it's not a loss.

Up Next: First ratings of the season. Plus, more post-game. See you then!

Saturday, October 09, 2004


This weekend was to be a grand one in Minnesota sports. That it was not is attributable to the demons that each of the local teams faced. Whether the Vikings can salvage a weekend of once highly anticipated returns, depends greatly on whether the Vikings can exorcise a demon of their own.

The Twins started the Friday-Saturday downer off with a performance that only a Minnesota sport's fan can truly appreciate. The night began with a quick, though requisite small, lead. That lead quickly disappeared. And, when it became evident that the Twins were no match for the less-than-spectacular Kevin Brown (who messed with the Twins' hitters' heads by throwing the ball right down the middle of the plate), the Twins got loopy.

First, Hunter tried to stretch a double into a triple with nobody out and the Twins trailing big. Hunter claims he was just being aggressive and that he would do it again. If so, Hunter needs some base-running coaching.

But at least Hunter had a chance at third. Two batters later, Koskie was out by several feet trying to stretch a single into a double. Throw in a ball dropped over the fence for a home run and a few signs of resignation and that was that.

The Gopher football team felled the next domino in the weekend of dashed Minnesota sport's fans' hopes when it once again failed to put away the Michigan Wolverines. Leading by four late in the fourth quarter, the Gophers went into their "enable offense" mode--an offense that enables the opponent to get the ball back quickly--despite reasonable field position, two stout running backs, and a decent passing game.

During the Gopher's fourth quarter meltdown, the Gophers twice ran running plays deep in their backfield, despite clear indications throughout the game that Michigan was not going to be fooled regarding who the ball carrier was. Both plays went for big losses and left Minnesota in uneviable passing situations.

Despite the suspect playcalling, Minnesota needed only one more first down with just over three minutes to play to end the game. It did not happen.

Instead, the Wolverines got the ball back on their own 15 and took one minute to march for a touchdown. The only question was why it took even that long, as Minnesota had clearly gone into its special version of prevent defense during which all players in the vicinity of the play are required to retreat from the ball carrier (or, in the alternative, are required to miss easy tackles).

The Gophers had an opportunity to recover from the Wolverines quick strike, but more questionable playcalling led to a terrible pass on 4th and 2. And that was that.

The Twins wrapped up the spectacular sports smorgasbord on Saturday night in Minneapolis, losing to the Yankees in 11 innings.

It would be easy to say that the Twins lost because Gardy pulled Johan after 5 innings, despite the fact that Johan had held the Yankees to one run. And, had Johan pitched a couple more innings, the Twins could have used Balfour's spectacular two innings, and Nathan's spectacular outing to close out the game. But that would be nonsense.

Plus, we know better than to believe that Johan's short stint was the reason the Twins lost to New York.

The Twins lost to New York on Saturday, as well as on Friday, for the same reason that the Gophers lost to Michigan on Saturday--because neither the Twins nor the Gophers can exorcise their respective demons.

The Twins' demon is the Yankees, as the Twins cannot beat the Yankees when it matters. Not to get home field advantage in the playoffs, not to advance in the playoffs. Unfortunately, that's the positive/half full angle.

The negative/half empty angle is that the Twins simply cannot hit in the clutch. One of the classic lines from the loss on Saturday was the Fox analyst saying of LeCroy, pitch-hitting in the 11th, "he can change the game in a hurry." This comment came with nobody on base and LeCroy stepping to the plate with all of 9 (!) homeruns all season! Every batter in the Yankees starting lineup had more homeruns this season. Sadly, the Fox analyst would have been correct had he said, "LeCroy is as likely as any Twin to change the game in a hurry." It would not have meant much, but it would have been true.

Just as the Twins cannot exorcise their demon, the Gophers, after nearly two decades trying, cannot exorcise their demon--the Wolverines. The half-full angle is that the Gophers are simply snake bit against Michigan.

The half-empty angle is that Mason chokes when it matters against Michigan, calling conservative offensive plays and refusing to play tight defense for fear of incurring game-turning penalties or getting burned deep.

I'll go with the rosier demon theory for now and allow Mason a one week reprieve. But whether rosey or gloomy, the fact remains that our beloved Gophers once again lost to our hated Wolverines.

The real test for the weekend comes Sunday when the Vikings play the Texans in Houston. Unlike the Twins and Gophers, the Vikings are favored to beat the Texans. Half-full guy says favorites win out this weekend.

Half-empty guy says another Minnesota team fails meet fan expectations this weekend, losing yet another game on the road, in the elements (assuming the roof is off of the stadium), and making the weekend a lost weekend for fans of the big three sports.

Up Next: Post game with hopes of being more full than half-anything.

Friday, October 01, 2004

Stadium Talk

Three years ago, a local sportswriter took a break from smoochin' the buttcheaks of local sport's team owners to castigate Carl Pohlad for attempting to contract the Twins. Then a local judge forced the Twins to remain in existence and, suddenly, our local sportswriter had a change of heart, reverting to his former, well-known, butt-smoochin' ways.

Today, that very columnist is once again beating the drum of despair, attempting to frighten locals into believing that the departure of the Twins and Vikings is imminent failing legislative funding for new stadiums for both teams.

The most interesting/laughable contention that our local columnist makes today is that the Vikings and Twins cannot compete on a regular basis without the additional revenue provided by a new stadium. Of course, this is sheer idiocy.

With the exception of the past three years, the Vikings have been at least as consistent as any other NFL team in making the playoffs. And this is not a surprise given the talent that the Vikings have had on their roster for the better part of the past 30 years.

But how can this be? The Vikings have never enjoyed the revenue streams now associated with ownership rights to stadium revenue. They have never had seat licenses, full concession rights, full parking revenues, naming rights, limitless corporate skyboxes, or advertising rights. Being competitive thus seems virtually impossible--particularly when many teams already have some, if not all of these ownership revenue streams.

The answer for the Vikings is that each NFL team receives a motherload of annual revenue from the league and the league has a hard salary cap. The largesse bestowed upon each team by the NFL, as a result of licensing agreements and television rights, provides each team enough revenue to meet approximately 70% of the cap. Teams must rely on their own resources to account for the remaining 30%, with the most prominent source of additional revenue being ticket sales. Because the Vikings consistently sell out at an average ticket price of approximately $40 and a seating capacity of 60,000+, the Vikings gross approximately $2.5 million per game on ticket sales alone. That equates to $25 million per season, not including interest earned on season ticket sales and waiting list down payments, putting the Vikings' revenues well over the NFL spending cap. And it does not include what is probably another $20 million in tax breaks (as a conservative estimate) owing to salaries and other business expenses.

To put it mildly, no matter the Vikings' "loss" of revenue from non-existent revenue streams, the Vikings remain competitive because they are able to spend to the cap (even though they do not) and still turn a hefty profit. The fact that Red wants a new stadium thus has nothing to do with Red's ability or willingness to spend more on the team and everything to do with Red wanting a greater return on his investment. There is nothing inherently wrong with Red's ambition, but there is something wrong with Red's message--carried to us via his local sportswriting stooge--that he must, out of economic necessity, leave town if a new stadium is not built soon.

The Twins have a more compelling claim, if also fraudulent, that they need a new stadium to compete. As evidence of this need, our local sportswriter notes that other teams have new baseball stadiums, including Baltimore, Colorado, San Francisco, Milwaukee, Texas, Cleveland, Detroit, Seattle, Houston, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, San Diego, and Arizona, and that the Twins are falling behind in the competitive race.

Let's see. The Twins are in the playoffs for the third straight season, playing in a "low-revenue" stadium. Of the 14 teams with new stadiums, none have yet secured a playoff spot this year and only one likely will. What does that suggest about new stadiums and all their revenue? Merely that there is no necessary correlation between increased team revenue and the ability to compete.

What is even more damning of the argument that teams need publicly financed stadiums to compete, however, is that there is a built in rebuttal to any criticism of a team's failure to make good on its promise to be competitive with a new stadium--teams can always say that, with the proliferation of new stadiums, they are able merely to maintain the status quo. Most assuredly, the next step will be to approach the locals for even greater subsidies than already conceded in conforming with the teams' request for a new stadium. And if the locals finally put their foot down, the team will threaten to move. Which is right where we started, right?

The only solution is to determine the value to the locals of maintaining a sports franchise and, if that franchise is deemed of sufficient value to the community, to work with ownership to make retention of the team viable for both the club and the locals. Build a new stadium in a rundown part of town, give the keys to the owner, let the owner decide the concessions, and give the city naming rights and parking revenue, and slap a tax on the tickets to pay for construction. Once construction is paid for, save the tax revenue for what is sure to be the next request for a publicly funded stadium. Finally, reach agreements with the respective league and team by which ownership agrees not to move the team for X number of years--preferably correlated with the number of years it will take to pay off construction of the stadium.

But certainly don't be cajoled into buying the story of despair offered by our local columnist on a routine basis. He has a stump, but that stump is rotten and void of any thoughtful analysis of the issue.