Wednesday, February 23, 2005

With the Seventh Pick in the 2005 NFL Draft, the Minnesota Vikings Select.....

There are numerous questions surrounding the Vikings' trade of Randy Moss to the Oakland Raiders for Napoleon Harris, the seventh overall pick in the 2005 NFL draft, and a late-round pick in the 2005 draft. Among those questions is whether the Vikings made the move to reduce the amount which they were under the cap; whether the Vikings could have received a greater return had they played their cards more adeptly; whether the trade makes the Vikings a better team; and whether the Raiders acted responsibly by trading for a player that they clearly coveted.

Each of these questions merits greater scrutiny. And each of these questions will receive such scrutiny over the next few weeks in this column. Today, however, I focus on one element of the third question in this string of questions--whether the trade makes the Vikings better.

At the outset, it appears that the Vikings took a step back in personnel. They lost a star receiver and gained a linebacker that had fallen out of graces in Oakland. How bad is that? Consider that Oakland was among the league dregs in defense. Consider also that one of Oakland's beefs with Harris is that he could not play in the 3-4 defense.

The 3-4 defense utilizes two middle linebackers. That should make the duties of any one middle linebacker less onerous than were that same linebacker operating in a 4-3 defense with sole middle linebacker responsibilities. Yet, somehow, Harris could not adapt. At a minimum, it makes one wonder what Harris' real problems are. Linebackers have difficulty moving from a 3-4 to a 4-3, not the other way around. Something is wrong with this picture.

I have also noted that, from either a prorated or straight up perspective, Harris' production declined last year. More frightening, however, is that he had fewer tackles in either of the past two seasons than did E.J. Henderson in 2004. The Vikings are suggesting that Harris will add value by making better decisions. But his decision-making, in the easier to play 3-4 defense, is what compelled the Raiders to bench him for several games last season and to play him more sparingly overall.

On face value, the Vikings' acquisition of Harris thus appears to be a gain in only one respect--it helps replace some of the salary cap value that the Vikings gave up by trading Moss. Though the two were not scheduled to earn similar salaries, Harris still had a large enough cap value to help off-set some of Moss' cap loss and to help make the $8 million or so hit to the Vikings' cap from the accelerated portion of Moss' signing bonus help the Vikings stay within shouting distance of the NFL salary floor.

Draft Choice

I'll spend more time delving into the salary cap implications of the Moss deal--both for the Vikings and for the Raiders--later this week. But, assuming that the Vikings use the seventh overall pick in the 2005 draft, the real jewel of the deal might be the meaningful draft pick that the Vikings picked up in the deal, the number seven overall pick. And four players stand out as possible picks at number seven.

Given the slim pickings in the 2005 draft, the Vikings will be forced to give serious consideration to drafting the best available player at number seven. While the Vikings need a place kicker, cornerback, and safety, no college player fits any of those needs and merits being drafted with the number seven pick. That leaves the Vikings looking at filling two long-standing needs--linebacker and defensive end--and one sudden need--wide receiver--with the number seven pick.

The Possible Victims

Though the 2005 NFL draft is as lacking in star quality as any in NFL history, there are at least four players that would look good in a Minnesota uniform for years to come and who might be available if and when the Vikings make a selection at number seven. Those players are Braylon Edwards, Mike Williams, Derrick Johnson, and Matt Roth. I begin with a look at Edwards, the best bet in the top 10, and consider the likelihood that he falls to Minnesota at number seven.

Braylon Edwards

Those in the Midwest undoubtedly are familiar with Edwards, a tall, lanky, yet very strong and swift wide receiver in a Moss-like mold. To get a picture of just how good Edwards can be, consider his game against Michigan State last season. Trailing by 17 points with 8.43 remaining in the game, everyone in the stadium understood one thing, Michigan would have to go deep often. That meant that Michigan would look to Edwards.

The point was not lost on Michigan State which had been double covering Edwards the entire game. Even with the double coverage, Edwards found some room. But even more impressive was the fact that, when Michigan was forced to go to Edwards, Edwards came up not big, but huge.

All Edwards did in the last 8.43 was catch numerous passes and score. But for Moss fans, what is most impressive about Edwards' accomplishments against Michigan State is how Edwards scored. Despite double-, sometimes triple-coverage, Edwards scored three touchdowns on receptions of 36, 21, and 24 yards. Edwards scored his first two touchdowns in regulation; the final score clinched the comeback for Michigan in triple overtime.

In the Michigan State game, Edwards caught 11 passes for 189 yards. On the season, Edwards had an equally impressive 97 receptions for 1330 yards--a 13.7 average--with 15 TDs. That, folks, is in eleven games. Edwards topped it off with three TDs against Texas in the Rose Bowl.

Edwards had nearly identical statistics in 2003. The TD totals don't equal Moss' 1997 total of 25, but Edwards faced some stiffer competition than did the Thundering Herd in its first year of play in Division I-A. That counts for something, and suggests that Edwards can have at least a significant impact at the pro level in his rookie season, on sheer ability alone.

Many scouts believe that Edwards will be the second player taken in the draft. But that would have Miami picking up Edwards. While Miami needs receivers, among other things, it really needs a running back. Given Miami's difficulties with the running game last year, and their changing of QBs this year, selecting a running back would make considerable sense for the Dolphins. So too, however, would it make sense for the Dolphins to pick up a QB with NFL potential. Does that sound like the Dolphins' recent M.O.?

Even if the Dolphins pass on Edwards, for the Vikings to have a shot at him, Edwards would still need to slip past several other teams with wide receiver needs, including San Francisco, Chicago, Tampa Bay, and Tennessee. With pressing needs at running back, and seemingly at quarterback, the 49ers would be unwise to draft a wide receiver, but who knows with that franchise. The 49ers also have needs at virtually every position on defense but no defensive player appears worth the number one money. Do the 49ers overpay to get the player they need, do they trade down, or do they simply take one of the two big running backs worthy of the number one pick in this years' draft?

Chicago desperately needed a receiver, but the Bears' recent signing of Mushin Muhammad might sufficiently dampen that need to steer the Bears in another direction. That could mean that the Bears draft a cornerback on another overreach or that the Bears look to deal down in the draft. If the Bears do trade down, however, their trading partner likely will be someone looking for either a running back or a receiver.

Tampa Bay could also use a wide receiver, but really needs a QB. There are two respectable QBs near the top of this year's draft board, and TB may be looking in that direction. And since a receiver is worthless without a QB, barring a free agent QB signing, TB appears an unlikey candidate to draft Edwards.

Of all of the teams above Minnesota in the 2005 NFL draft, Tennessee may be the most desperate for a wide receiver. After cutting the high-producing Derrick Mason, the Titans are without a big play receiver, though Drew Bennett appears on the rise and the Titans may have a more pressing need at running back. Moreover, while Edwards would serve as an adequate replacement for Mason, he would come with a high signing tag. And the same cap woes that forced the Titans to release Mason may force the Titans to trade down in the 2005 draft.

If teams draft according to need in the 2005 draft, the Vikings would thus have a good chance of drafting Edwards. Alas, teams often act unpredictably in the draft, particularly in a thin draft, and particularly when a trade like that of Moss to the Raiders has generated so much focus on receivers. With a lean draft for receivers, teams may feel the need to grab while the grabbing is good. That might take Edwards off the board prematurely. But that should leave Williams...

Up Next: Williams, Johnson, and Roth.

Another Walker Deal?

The Minnesota Vikings and Oakland Raiders announced today that they have agreed, in principle, to a deal that will send Vikings' wide receiver Randy Moss to the Raiders in exchange for a player and two draft picks. The deal, sure to be one of the most discussed in Vikings' history, marks either a shift in organizational philosophy or a continuation of the Vikings' front office trend of misplaying the market.

Why the Trade Happened

Apparently, the Vikings' organization was much more exasperated with Randy Moss than they have let on. Sure we knew that Moss had become trade bait following season-ending antics that further sullied his reputation as a less-than-team player, but for the past two weeks the Vikings have insisted that any trade for Moss would be a trade for value. Today's deal confirms the contrary.

But add to the Moss-as-malcontent theory the fact that Moss is the Vikings' highest paid player despite touching the ball only a select few times a game and the Vikings had reason to consider this move. High salaries go to quarterbacks or middle linebackers these days, not to receivers. And despite Moss' ability to change the dynamics of the opposing defense, his talents either were overpaid in Minnesota--particularly when taking into account the lockerroom discontent that he apparently had sown--or the Vikings' coaching staff simply has never learned how to use Moss to get the most out of his abilities. Or both.

What the Vikings Will Receive

While the deal sending Moss to the Raiders has yet to be finalized, the terms are set. In exchange for Moss, the Vikings will receive linebacker Napoleon Harris, the Raiders' first-round selection in the 2005 draft (number seven overall), and a "late round" Raiders' draft choice in 2005. That looks more like an NBA-style salary/malcontented player dump than it does an NFL trade of a sterling wide-receiver talent.

Harris is clearly the "jewel" of this deal from the Vikings' end. But, following an outstanding rookie season with 81 tackles in 15 games, an even better second year with 109 tackles in 16 starts, Harris' numbers slid to 60 tackles in 14 games (nine starts). That's a bit less than in his rookie season when prorated over 16 games and factoring in the number of additional plays Harris missed not starting six of 16 games in 2004, and an even more significant disparity when juxtaposed with his 2004 numbers.

While most NFL scouts consider Harris an upgrade over the Vikings' current stable of linebackers, that says more about the Vikings' dearth of talent at linebacker than it does about Harris. But even more alarming is that Harris was actually less productive last season than the Vikings' much-maligned middle linebacker E.J. Henderson. Even with prorated figures, Harris cannot touch Henderson's 94 tackles in 2005. The only hope is that Harris is at least a better decision-maker and play caller.

Given his declining production, it appears that, at best, Harris gives the Vikings a dose of ability at linebacker, and a linebacker who can play in the middle. That helps, but it does not give the Vikings the type of impact player that they should have held out for in a trade for Moss.

The same likely will be said of whomever the Vikings select with the seventh overall pick in this draft. In a draft not considered particularly deep with high-end talent--a draft in which no real star stands out--the number seven pick is as likely to yield a player with several serviceable, if unremarkable years in the NFL, as it is to yield a star. In fact, when one considers that the Vikings likely will draft for need with the seventh pick (rather than taking the best available player) the prospect of the Vikings picking up a great talent at number seven is even less likely.

And if the draft is top light, imagine the crop at the bottom of the draft order, where the Vikings will be using their second pick from Oakland. Could there be another Brian Russell waiting in the wing? Ugh. The Vikings might find something here, but the odds are long.

How the Trade Can be Viewed as a Success

The Vikings can still put a reasonable face on this trade if several things happen. First, they must sign a high-end wide receiver in free agency. The two most notable free agent receivers this year are Derrick Mason and Plaxico Burress. Mason is a legitimate number one receiver and would fit nicely with Nate Burleson in the two-receiver set. Burress might emerge as a legitimate number one receiver, but right now he looks a lot like a Burleson. A combination of Burleson and Burress might be enough to complement the running game and produce some offense.

In addition to picking up a wide receiver in the draft the Vikings must use the money that they will save on Moss' contract and the money that they have stored in the cap kitty to sign more talent on defense. That will require the Vikings to sign at least two more linebackers, another cornerback, a safety, and a defensive end. The talent will be there in free agency, the question remains, however, whether Red or Reggie or someone else will bother to make the requisite offers.

If the Vikings take care of the defense, Moss' absence will be less remarkable, save for the fact that the Vikings may have few, if any, deep plays, and may find the sledding a bit tougher between the tackles when facing straight up defense. But even defensive changes will mean little if the Vikings do not find a starter with the number seven overall pick in this year's draft. Who that might be will be the subject of tomorrow's column.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

One Team Giveth, Another Taketh Away?

As the Vikings attempt to settle their ownership and stadium issues, even more pressing matters await them in the free agency market. And the Vikings remain on every team's free-agency radar this off-season because they not only can be wildly active participants in free agency, they also will be forced to be highly active.

As the 2005 free agency period nears, the Vikings are approximately $30 million under the NFL salary cap. Were the Vikings to spend all of that loot--an unlikely event should McCombs retain ownership of the Vikings through the free-agency period and should McCombs retain any concerns about the viability of the Fowler group as a purchasing entity--they could add everything that they need to make the team complete and still have change to spare; thirty million would not only get the Vikings a bona fide middle linebacker, a starting defensive end, a quality free safety, and a shut down corner, it would also probably get them a starting offensive lineman, a wide receiver, and a kicker.

Of course, whether Red retains ownership of the Vikings for 2005 or the Fowler group takes over, there are increasing indications that the team will not spend up to the salary cap. That's not to suggest that that would be a bad thing, just to note that Vikings' fans likely will not get all the goodies on this year's free agency wish list.

But no matter the ownership group, we also know that the Vikings will spend a significant chunk of their $30 million cap space on free agents. And we know this because the NFL requires that the Vikings do so.

Though we will not know until the league sets this year's cap, the guess, based on past caps, the expected increase in this year's cap, and the Vikings' salary commitments for 2005, is that the Vikings will need to spend between $15-18 million to reach the salary floor. And although that is significantly less than what the Vikings have to spend, it is still significantly more than most other teams have in their free-agency coffers and is substantial enough to garner the Vikings several bona fide free agents--assuming Vikings' ownership eschews the option of frontloading contracts yet again this year.

Teams around the NFL are already queuing to help the Vikings fill their vacancies. And more teams, looking to squeeze in under the cap where the Vikings have long resided with ease, will soon follow with salary-cap triggered player releases.

Tennessee Blues

The most notable purge of players by any one team to date in the 2005 off-season is in the offing in Tennessee, where the cap-strapped Titans are expected to part ways with Joe Nedney (K), Derrick Mason (receiver), and Samari Rolle (cornerback), among others. Recent fan speculation has opined that each of these players could provide immediate assistance to the Vikings.

Well, at least one of these three players looks like an upgrade to the current Vikings' roster, but the other two players look as though they have seen better days.

When healthy, Nedney is a reliable kicker with a strong leg. Only 31-years old--a relative pup by Vikings' kickers standards of recent years--Nedney nevertheless carries some ominous baggage. Over the past two seasons, Nedney has played only one regular-season game, missing the other 31 games with leg injuries. Last season, Nedney sat out the entire slate of games with a hamstring injury. The Vikings need a sure thing at kicker this season, and Nedney is no sure thing.

Samari Rolle at one time appeared to be the type of player that the Vikings need today--tough tackler with sure hands. In 1999, Rolle had 69 tackles and four picks. The following season, Rolle had only 39 tackles for a very good defense, but increased his pick total to seven. In 2001, playing for yet another solid defensive unit, Rolle improved his tackle total to 56, but dropped his pick total to three.

Then came the demise. For three straight seasons, Rolle's tackle totals have declined from 48 in 2002 to 28 in 2004. Only his six pick in 2003 stands out statistically over the past three seasons, suggesting that the end is near for Rolle as a cornerback.

And if the Vikings had visions of adding Rolle as a veteran capable of playing either strong or free safety, Rolle's recent arrest for spousal abuse likely will put an end to such conversations. Only 28-years old, Rolle appears on the verge of being on the outs in the NFL.

More intriguing than Nedney or Samari Rolle is Derrick Mason. Mason was the guy that the Titans took instead of Randy Moss, and a guy whom the Titans have since continued to insist was the better selection of the two. Today's expected move probably puts an end to that nonsense.

But even if Mason is not Randy Moss, he is still a legitimate number one receiver. In 2004, Mason caught 96 passes for 1168 yards and 7 touchdowns. That looks like a pretty good number two receiver in Minnesota, right behind Moss and directly ahead of the rapidly improving Burleson. Mason has also demonstrated the ability to be a standout punt returner. His addition thus would be a nice way to fill two of the Vikings' needs with one signing.

For Vikings' fans, what is occuring in Tennessee should send cheeks aglow as it is a sign of things to come around the league. With most teams tight against the cap, more purges can be expected. And for every purge, there is likely to be at least one more piece for the Vikings to add to their as yet incomplete puzzle.

Up Next: Taylor versus Fowler.

Friday, February 18, 2005

Whoa, Whoa, Whoa....

Earlier this week, some local media members took it upon themselves to check the resume of prospective Vikings' owner Reggie Fowler. On that resume, Fowler claimed, among other things, that he once played in the Little League World Series; had a five-year career with the Cincinnati Bengals; played in the CFL; and earned a business degree.

It turns out that Fowler fabricated each of these claims. Little League officials say that Fowler never played in the Little League World Series; the Bengals say that Fowler never played for their organization; the CFL says that Fowler never played in the CFL; and the Registrar's Office at the University of Wyoming, Fowler's collegiate institute, says that Fowler never received a business degree.

When pressed to explain the apparent errors of fact on his resume, Fowler expressed regret for any actual or perceived errors and scheduled a press conference to "clear the air" and to gain the support of Minnesotans. Fowler stated that he wanted to "win the hearts of Minnesotans."

With this promise in their pockets, many Vikings' fans (present company excluded) undoubtedly were willing to give Fowler another bite at the apple. For the promise of being upfront, many Vikings' fans were, thus, willing to see if Fowler is an apt owner of the Vikings.

Unfortunatley, Fowler failed to deliver on his pledge.

In a short press conference that ran from 2.15 pm CDT to 2.25 pm CDT--a press conference tighly controlled by Fowler's local PR arm, the Tunheim PR Agency--Fowler not only failed to come clean on the resume gaffes, he also managed to create even greater uncertaintly about his continuing obfuscatory demeanor. And, in so doing, Fowler has managed to create more of a Tom Clancy-like aura around this proposed sale of the Vikings than even Tom Clancy himself was able to do.

The Press Conference

Fowler began his brief press conference by assuring Minnesotans that he was sorry. Fowler was not sorry about lying on his resume, however. Instead, he was sorry that he "did not read his resume more carefully."


Who wrote the resume? Was it Reggie? Was it Tunheim? Either Fowler, as author, knew about the errors in his resume or, as the unwitting, non-participating subject of his own resume, Fowler let another party shape his image in a fashion that that party undoubtedly assured Fowler was sufficient to "win the hearts of Vikings' fans." No matter the scenario, Fowler clearly had put another dent in the PR armor.

And, if that was not enough to rouse the curiousity of even the most hopeful of Vikings' fans, Fowler continued with his explanation of the resume gaffes. Fowler explained that, although he had not played in the NFL or CFL, he had been in camp with teams in both leagues. Fowler did not explain how that came to manifest itself on his resume as having had a five-year NFL career and a CFL career, but at least he had an explanation.

Fowler also had explanations of sorts for the contentions on his resume that he had a business degree and that he had played in the Little League World Series.

Regarding the Little League World Series, Fowler contended that he had played in an all-city all-star game in Arizona and that he and the other participants referred to that event as the Little League World Series. "I guess that's where it came from," he opined.

Come on! What's more ridiculous, the claim that the participants of some city all-star game referred to their all-star game as the Little League World Series or that Fowler would suggest that he was not sure of the source of the contention but that his fallback story was actually credible?

Fowler also stated that he claimed to have a business degree on his resume because having a business degree sounded better than a degree in social work, Fowler's true degree field. The contention, Fowler stated, helped him establish his own business career.

Whether the Little League World Series claim got you going, you should really have a concern about this latter statement. While it is undoubtedly the case that an independent entrepreneur will find a wider circle of acceptance if the entrepreneur has a business versus a social degree, that Fowler felt compelled to lie about his credentials to get ahead certainly ought to raise eyebrows, particularly since we know less about Fowler than we once knew about Tom Clancy.


Fowler's failure to rectify the gaffes on his resume only add to the suspicion that something is amiss in the sale of the Vikings' to the "Fowler Group." It adds to the extant questions regarding who his fellow investors are, why Fowler is unwilling to answer even general questions about his finances, and why Fowler is unwilling to speak about his stadium plans, even though he admits to having a stadium solution. It is also curious that Fowler is so intent on convincing Vikings' fans that he wants to be a Minnesotan, as if he has been steadily couched to do so.

All of this perpetuates the nagging suspicion that Fowler is trying to hide something. At the press conference today, Fowler stated that "we . . . Reggie Fowler, has the means to make this happen." Fowler finished by referring to himself, but clearly began with an apparent slip-of-the-tongue reference to "we." That suggests that Fowler either does not have the means to make "this" happen or that "this" is something other than keeping the Vikings in Minnesota and making them legitimate championship contenders.

Red McCombs sold the Vikings because, despite being worth approximately $1.4 billion and netting $30 million plus the past two seasons as owner of the Vikings, "the Vikings were not profitable enough." At his opening press conference, Fowler echoed Red's sentiments and strongly indictated that the Vikings could not be a profitable venture without a new stadium. As a mandatory 30% owner of the Vikings, with a net worth of approximately $400 million, with considerably more debt than Red ever had as Vikings' owner, and with no new stadium on the horizon, how can Fowler make a go of it where Red could not?

From this angle, it appears that if the Emperor is wearing clothes, the clothing is both too revealing and not revealing enough.

Up Next: Stadium Issues.

Sunday, February 13, 2005

Old Sheriff in Town

Around noon CDT, Monday, the Vikings are expected to announce the sale of the team from Red McCombs to an investment group led by Arizona real estate magnate Reggie Fowler. But if the prospect of Red finally relinquishing the team causes you to stir with excitement, be prepared, instead, to stir with continuing doubts about the direction of this organization. Because, for all commotion surrounding this sale, only one thing is certain--the sale of the Vikings to Fowler's group looks more and more like the transfer of an investment to another carpet-bagging investment group.

The Kraft Model of Commitment

Several years ago, long-time Patriot fan Robert Kraft fulfilled an equally long-time ambition to purchase his hometown team. Immediately after purchasing the team, Kraft did what Patriots' fans hoped he would do, he began investing in the team. For Kraft, the investment philosophy was simple--continue to improve the on-field product to draw back the fans. But Kraft added a nice touch to this philosophy, a touch that, perhaps, only a fan would add, by building the franchise for the long haul.

In his endeavor to build a franchise for the the long-term, Kraft made several key moves. First, he hired an experienced head coach. Then he doled out contracts to several more than capable assistants. Several of those assistants have already moved on to higher positions, including NFL head-coaching positions. Next, Kraft used his allocated cap space to sign quality free agents.

Kraft also committed his own money to build a new stadium. Along with any inherent risk in funding a stadium without public support, Kraft, of course, accrued the benefits of owning the stadium outright. This included retaining stadium naming rights, seat licensing rights, concession revenue rights, parking revenue rights, and advertising rights. That adds up to a lot of cash. But it also requires an owner to make, and signals the making of, a long-term commitment to the team.

The Red and Soon-to-be-Reggie Model of Commitment

On the opposite end of the NFL franchise ownership spectrum stands Red McCombs. McCombs purchased the Vikings in 1998 and also immediately began to exhibit an interest in improving what was already a very competitive team. To this end, Red doled out extensions to what he deemed to be key veterans. Red also spoke loudly and often, in Texas-tongue fashion, about "Purple Pride."

The critical difference between Red and Kraft is that while Kraft was building a team for long-term success and making a commitment to that endeavor, Red was fixated on the short-term. And the short-term for Red meant ensuring sellouts, whether by fielding good teams or merely through pre-season promises that the Vikings would be "better than ever," as well as by ad nauseum cajoling of fans to take pride in the Vikings.

We should have seen the writing on the wall when Red brought in Rob Brzezinski to be the team's capologist. While many viewed the hiring as the first step in reigning in Red's prior contract extension gaffes, the more sagacious looked at the hiring with skepticism. Is this Red reigning in his own hasty tendicies, as he is leading us to believe, or is it Red, the used car/football team trader surreptitiously attempting to squeeze every last penny out of a franchise that he intends to dump in the near term?

It soon became evident that Red, unlike Kraft in New England, was all about creating a perception of quality football long enough to ensure a nice net return per season and an even nicer net return on the sale of the team after only a handful of seasons. Perception of the team, much like perception of a used car, is what seals the deal. And Red extolled at creating positive perceptions.

Out With the Old, In With the Old

The proposed sale of the Vikings to the Fowler group looks very much like a sale to an investment group more akin to adopting a profit-making approach set forth by McCombs than one set forth by Kraft. Fowler, already tight on funds by NFL ownership standards, is said to be about a 50-50 bet to pass the NFL's financial screening process. And Fowler's lacky, our own used car dealer, Denny Hecker, appears more interested in profiting from land speculation should a new stadium be built in Anoka County than in seeing that the Vikings are a competitive team.

All of which suggests that, rather than getting a Robert Kraft in the deal, as Vikings' fans desire and deserve, Vikings' fans are much more apt to get another Red McCombs ownership. And all that does is give Vikings' fans reason to look forward to the day when Glen Taylor finally does acquire the Vikings.

Up Next: The Verdict.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Despite Vikings' Willingness to Trade, Moss Likely Staying Put

In all of sports, there are perhaps only a handful of athletes whom are off-limits for trade purposes. No matter his age or declining skills, Brett Favre, for example, likely is untouchable in Green Bay, likewise, Peyton Manning in Indianapolis, Tim Duncan in San Antonio, and Lebron James in Cleveland. There likely are other untouchables, but you get the point--the set is not very large.

In Minnesota, the set of untouchable athletes is even smaller. One could make a case that the Twins currently consider Johan Santana and Joe Mauer untouchable, but we know that's not really the case. While the Twins covet Santana and Mauer's prospects, they would trade either for the right combination of players, picks, and salary relief.

Among Minnesota teams, then, only the Timberwolves sport a true untouchable in Kevin Garnett not only because he is the identity of the organization but because his escalating salary makes him virtually untradeable. After that, there are no untouchables among Minnesota athletes.

What?! No more untouchables among Minnesota athletes after Kevin Garnett? Heresy!

What about Randy Moss?!

Out of Dementia

For those who have only recently joined the ranks of Vikings' fans, here is a litte 411--the Vikings are ready to move Moss for the right combination of players and picks. Tice has identified this as the position of the organization by his very response to questions regarding Moss' trade eligibility. As Tice commonly does when confronted with a question, the answer to which he knows he cannot reveal, Tice responded to questions regarding whether Moss was on the trading block by avoiding the question. Instead of answering the question, Tice simply stated that he liked Moss.


Coach, the question was whether the Vikings are pursuing a trade of Moss. "I really like Moss" sounds a bit like Tice's answer when initially asked why Moss left the field early against Washington. Tice's response? "I really like Randy. He's a good kid." We later found out, of course, that what Tice meant was that Randy was a jackass for leaving the game early, regardless of how putrid the Vikings' performance and how dunderheaded the offensive playcalling was against Washington.

By responding to inquiries regarding the Vikings' interest in trading Moss with a similar apperation, Tice has told us all we need to know--the Vikings are interested in trading Moss. What Tice cannot betray by his signalling, however, is for what the Vikings are willing to trade Moss.

Why Randy is Probably Staying in Minnesota

Local media outlets had a field day on Thursday noting recent comments by Daunte Culpepper that purportedly suggested that Moss was a blight in the lockerroom and that the Vikings needed a change. In fact, those comments appear greatly distorted.

One comment began with Culpepper essentially stating that he hoped it would work out with Randy in Minnesota. The other, by a national sportswriter, implied that Culpepper was fed up with Moss as a teammate and that Culpepper was ready to move on without Moss.

What Culpepper was referring to in the latter comment was Moss' penchant for pouting when things don't go Moss' way. Culpepper simply stated that he was no longer interested in approaching Moss in such situations to soothe things over and Culpepper implied that it was time for Moss to grow up a bit. What Culpepper did not state, nor even imply by his comment--though the national writer suggested that Culpepper did--is that he is no longer interested in playing on the same team as Moss. That's simply ridiculous.

But even if Culpepper were disgruntled with Moss, Moss still carries more weight on the club than does Culpepper because Moss is a more valuable football commodity. Even more significant, with respect to whether Moss is likely to leave Minnesota via trade this off-season, is the fact that nobody appears terribly interested in giving the Vikings fair value for Moss at this point.

Undoubtedly, GMs around the league are waiting to see if Minnesota is looking to dump Moss or merely gauging genuine interest. At present, GMs appear to be betting on the former, a hedge that undoubtedly is fostered and perpetuated by reports such as the national writer's report on Culpepper's comments about Moss.

But the Vikings will not, and need not trade Moss for less than Moss' full value. And, as I have discussed in previous columns, that value to Minnesota is, at a minimum, two legitimate starters and a first-round pick or a legitimate starter and two first-round picks. That's the deal. Take it or leave it. The Vikings will do fine on the deal either way.

Local Nonsense

Some local commentators have suggested some sublimely ridiculous deals that would send Moss to other teams for virtually nothing. The two most prominent propositions have Moss going to Miami for cornerback Patrick Surtain and Miami's first-round pick. Essentially, that gives Minnesota Miami's first-round pick, number two overall, and a player that Miami is likely to cut loose for salary cap purposes. Clearly, this makes no sense for the Vikings.

The Vikings can wait on Surtain and pick him up if and when the Dolphins cut him loose. As for the second overall pick, the Vikings don't need it. What they need is a 10-12 pick--a pick at which the Vikings will be able to land a legitimate defensive starter at a much lower price tag than it would cost to sign even a too-highly drafted defensive player at number 2.

Prognosis: Bad trade. No deal.

The other suggested trade is one with Oakland for Charles Woodson and the Raiders' first-round pick. Again, why? The Raiders are ready to cut ties with Woodson and the Vikings can get him as a free agent. Moreover, if the Vikings are looking to dump Moss for personality reasons, why would they want to add the even more cancerous Woodson?

Prognosis: Very bad trade. No deal.

Several other idiotic trades have been raised by the rumor mongers--such as Moss to Cleveland for Lee Suggs and Cleveland's first-round pick, number three overall--and all make about as much sense as the Miami and Oakland propositions. Clearly, like GMs around the league, many local media members are undervaluing Moss' contribution to the Vikings. Looking at Moss as an immature player, which he very often is, has a tendency to create such cloudy perspectives.

I've said it before, I'm saying it now, and I likely will say it again. Moss is tradeable. But if the Vikings are going to trade Moss, they need to get substantial value for him. If that means waiting out the current disposition of GMs that the Vikings are so desperate to trade Moss to rid themselves of a malcontent, so be it. If it means keeping Moss and building the defense through free agency, that works too.

Up Next: Stadium Issues Re-Emerge. Is Glen thinking of going it alone?

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Back to Back to Back to Back

Entering the 2004 season, the Vikings were certain of two things regarding their running back situation. First, they knew that they had depth. With SOD returning from a promising finish to his rookie season, the ever-reliable Moe Williams returning as the featured blocking back and as a near-automatic first-down rusher/receiver, and Michael Bennett scheduled to return from a lengthy injury, the Vikings were brimming with confidence about their running-back stable, certain that SOD, Williams, and Bennett could and would carry the load during the 2004 season. That Mewelde Moore turned into a gem of a back only bolstered this confidence.

But the Vikings' confidence over their running backs' abilities was met by another conviction, the conviction that the Vikings had absolutely no idea how to use their rushing arsenal. That conviction lingered throughout camp, into the regular season, and right through the playoffs. And that conviction, as much as anything else, resulted in critical offensive failures this season and to a less-than-teary fairwell to former offensive coordinator Scott Linehan.

It did not need to be this way. The Vikings had several opportunities to settle on a featured back. But that did not happen. Bennett's late return from injury did nothing to settle the minds of the Vikings' staff on a pecking order for the running backs. Nor did SOD's four-game suspension for violation of the NFL's substance-abuse policy. Nor did Mewelde Moore's sparkling play. Nor did Moe Williams' ever-tremendous play and ability to block in passing situations. Nor did Bennett's awful play upon his return from injury. Nor did SOD's strong running upon his return from suspension. Nor did Moore's spectacular play following two "DNP Coach's Decision" games and limited repetitions in several other games. Nor did Bennett's sparkling performance at the end of the season.

In short, the Vikings' coaching staff, despite numerous opportunities to name any one of the Vikings' four running backs the primary back, opted, instead, to recognize the ability of each of the four running backs. In so doing, the Vikings gave each back so few carries that none had the opportunity to establish the type of rhythm the likes of which coaches and backs, alike, forever insist is necessary at the professional level.

That might explain why Linehan so frequently abandoned the running game in crunch time. When in doubt, coordinators tend to fall back on the familiar. And the familiar for the Vikings was the passing attack, and, unfortunately, for the Vikings, that meant resorting to the deep bomb to either nobody or to a crowd of four--three of whom were certain to be wearing the opponent's uniform. Without a routine at running back, Linehan undoubtedly eschewed the running attack just when the running attack was most vital.

That spelled doom for the balanced attack at critical moments in games and spelled trouble for the Vikings' offense. It is therefore no surprise that, as the season progressed and opponents realized the Vikings' tendency to abandon the running game--particularly when the game was tight (despite Linehan's contentions to the contrary)--the Vikings had little chance for offensive success.

What Needs to Be Done in 2005

Prior to the beginning of the 2005 season, the Vikings need to establish a clear pecking order for their running backs. In part, this decision will be predicated on what the Vikings elect to do in the free agency period.

Before his end-of-the-season mad dash, Bennett appeared to be the most logical candidate to be traded. With his initial return-from-injury performances, Vikings' fans were lamenting the Vikings' decision not to swap Bennett for Miami Dolphins' defensive end Adewale Ogunleye last Fall. While that trade still sounds pretty good, Bennett's end-of-the-season performance at least offers promise that the Vikings retained sound value in not making the deal.

With a burst at the end of the season, Bennett bolstered his case for remaining with the Vikings and perhaps even for being their featured back in 2005. His sudden strength running through openings in the offensive line were revealing and his blazing speed in the flat made him a terror for opposing defenders.

But, notwithstanding his tremendous potential, Bennett has a well-known downside. The greatest concern among Vikings' personnel people is Bennett's propensity to sustain injuries throughout his career. Given this history, and Bennett's diminutive size, future injuries appear likely. That makes Bennett a risk as a featured back.

Bennett's small frame also makes blocking a task for him. Under the Vikings' offensive scheme, as is the case with virtually every team in the NFL, the running back is called upon to block in passing situations. Bennett is a better blocker than SOD or Moore, but his size still portends injury should he be called upon to block frequently.

Some of this concern disappears if Mike Rosenthal and Jim Kleinsasser return to the Vikings' lineup next season in top shape. The return of the starting right tackle and the starting blocking tight end should reduce the need for a pass-blocking running back and free up a running back like Bennett to focus on rushing, thus permitting him to prolong his career by avoiding injury situations. And that would make Bennett a good candidate, as unlikely as it would have sounded just three months ago, to be the featured back for the Vikings in 2005.

The alternatives to Bennett as the featured back are SOD and Moore. Both are strong and quick. Both have demonstrated an ability to be the featured back. And both can play special teams, a tremendous plus on a team in as much need of extra bodies as the Vikings have been in recent seasons.

But being featured as a special teams player automatically puts one at risk of losing a starting offensive assignment. This is particularly true of SOD and Moore, who return kickoffs and punts, given their success at their respective special teams positions, the Vikings' previous woes at those positions, and the correlative heightened need to keep SOD and Moore healthy. The Vikings can afford to lose one starting running back. They can even, to a degree, afford to lose their starting kickoff or punt return specialist. But they certainly cannot afford to lose two of the three as a result of an injury to one player. And that suggests that, barring the signing of a legitimate return specialist, neither SOD nor Moore should be considered the front-runner for a featured back role.

But in the hierarchy of the remaining backs, SOD's experience temporarily gives him the slight nod over Moore, based on experience and previous production. SOD's status, however, ignores the fact that SOD comes with some pretty heavy baggage. Because SOD has already served one four-game suspension for violating the league's substance abuse policy--meaning that SOD has actually violated the NFL policy on two occasions--any future violations will cost SOD an entire season of play. SOD is good on the field, but not good enough to overcome such sanctions. And the risk of losing SOD for an entire season, a risk that appears high at this point, must give Vikings' brass pause as they ponder their running back options for 2005.

In addition to being a risk as a repeat substance abuser, SOD is also shoddy blocker. In fact, SOD is such a poor blocker that, on pass plays, the Vikings routinely bring in the dependable Williams, despite clearly understanding that by doing so they are tipping the play. If SOD does not improve on his pass protection, Moore will surpass him as an equally capable, tough running back with at least modest pass-blocking skills.

This leaves the Vikings with several considerations. Should they bring back each of the four running backs? Is one back more expendable than the others? Is there a good trading partner out there? All of which brings us squarely to the subject of tomorrow's discussion.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

When Losing Doesn't Matter

When word leaked out this week that yet another member of the Vikings is being sought after by other NFL teams, many throughout Vikingland immediately began the ritual of lamenting the loss of yet another member of the Purple family. First it was offensive coordinator Scott Linehan. Hardly a tremendous loss. Then it was wide-receiver coach Charlie Baggett, who, unless his work can be attributed to making Jermaine Wiggins a stand-out receiving tight end, has done about what should be expected of any wide-receiver coach who has the luxury of working with Randy Moss.

But after much initial consternation, Vikings' fans apparently have already forgotten about the loss of Linehan and Bagley and are already lamenting the possible loss of a third "key" member of the 2005 Vikings. Who is it? Why would he consider leaving? Why do good people always leave the Vikings? Why? Why? Why?

But lest we get too far ahead of ourselves in the grieving process, a bit of reflection is in order. Consider whom it is that is the source of concern. Are the Vikings about to lose a five-time Pro Bowl player in his prime? No. Is Red ready to let walk a highly regarded coach that has taken a team from the depths of despair to the Super Bowl? Not that either.

No, what is causing the fuss among Vikings' fans these days is the mere possibility that purported salary cap guru Rob Brzezinski might fly the coup. But should we even care if the Vikings lose this member of the purple entourage? In short, not really.

Brzezinski is widely credited with putting the Vikings' financial ship in order following the departure of Denny Green. Prior to Brzezinski's arrival, the Vikings were rudderless on the sea of salary cap navigation. The utter lack of salary cap acumen among Vikings' brass led the Vikings to make some stupendously ridiculous salary decisions, including giving Todd Steussie and Randall Cunningham large contract extensions and backloading a contract with Cris Carter. When Brzezinski arrived, those types of deals ceased and the Vikings became laudable managers of the salary cap.

But management of the NFL salary cap is not what now ails the Vikings. Rather, what ails the Vikings is manipulation of the salary cap to the benefit of ownership and to the detriment of signing quality players. While Brzezinski may be valuable in helping Vikings' owner Red McCombs determine how to circumvent the salary floor, such value is and ought to be entirely lost on Vikings' fans. After all, how valuable is Brzezinski to Vikings' fans when the fruits of his labor virtually ensure that the Vikings do not have the talent to compete at the highest level?

Brzezinski's loss should be of even less concern to Vikings' fans when one accepts that "losing" Brzezinski will only lead to the possibility of a successor who is less capable of handling the cap. That might mean that the Vikings spend less wisely, but that will only matter if one draws fine distinctions between teams that barely eke into the playoffs and teams that fail to make the playoffs because, without a change in ownership, there is no reason to expect the Vikings to run out of cap room.

Some Vikings' fans have suggested, however, that Brzezinski's loss would be critical if Red were to sell the team. The implication is that the new owners would have had one of the NFL's best and brightest at managing the salary cap, but for Red's refusal to retain Brzezinski prior to the sale.

One could conjure up some sympathy for this argument if there were something about Brzezinski that lent itself to such concern. Instead, there is a complete lack of such evidence. As a numbers guy, Brzezinski is not called upon to use his charisma to court players. He is not looked to for any specific leadership skills. He is not even called upon to perform a daunting task. Instead, he exists to crunch numbers using clear NFL salary cap guidelines. That might seem daunting for the mathematically challenged, but not to this scribe. And recent history suggests why Brzezinski is little more than a interchangeable part over whose departure Vikings' fans should lose zero sleep.

Consider what Brzezinski has done since his arrival in Minnesota. He has taken a payroll that was bloated and worked with personnel people to cut the fat. This has required the team to pair salaries that the team no longer found beneficial and to absorb one-time salary cap hits for theretofore prorated signing bonuses. This pairing, combined with parsimonious free agent spending, has put the Vikings approximately $30 million under the salary cap for 2005 and approximately $18 million under the salary floor.

Is that rocket science? Of course not. If Vikings' fans really want to lose some sleep over something related to the Vikings consider the possibility of having yet another carbetbagging ownership group, the apparently rudderless leadership of the current squad, or the on-going issues on defense, special teams, and with personnel decisions. But losing Brzezinski? That doesn't rate much concern, if any.

Up Next: Backfield Issues.