Saturday, March 05, 2005

Linebacker Woes

Prior to the beginning of the 2004 NFL season, Vikings' defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell stated that he would like the Vikings to play some 3-4 defense from time to time. Cottrell made that statement when he was still under the delusion that the Vikings were loaded at linebacker.

As the 2004 season unraveled, it became more than abundantly evident that not only were the Vikings not loaded at linebacker, they were downright awful throughout the linebacking corps. Initially, fans were left to gauge the true carnage through impression only. It appeared that the linebackers were having difficulty maintaining containment; it appeared that running backs were blowing holes through them on runs up the middle; it appeared that Vikings' linebackers were making few tackles; and it appeared that Vikings' linebackers were completely out of position on critical plays.

By season's end, we had confirmation of our season-long impressions. In 2004, the Vikings' linebacking corps tallied 1/3 fewer tackles than the league-leading Steelers. And while the Vikings get a discount for playing the 4-3 to the Steelers' 3-4 (in which we would expect a higher number of tackles by virtue of having one more potential tackler on every play), the disparity cannot be explained by numbers alone. Because, not only did the Vikings have fewer tackles from their linebacking corps than any other NFL team, they also made those tackles farther downfield. And that resulted from the fact that the Vikings simply lacked playmakers and playcallers at linebacker.

Frustration over the play of the Vikings' linebackers led Vikings' head coach Mike Tice to tinker early and often with his linebacking corps. It even compelled Tice to use still-gimpy Chris Claiborne instead of the healthy, though uncorralable Donterrious Thomas, at outside linebacker. By seasons' end, Tice admitted that the Vikings had to address their linebacker situation. And the implication was that they would do so through free agency, where they could find an experienced middle (MIKE) linebacker.

Free Agency Numskullery

As the free agency period got underway, the Vikings worked behind the scenes to recruit two potential defensive starters, Pat Williams (DT, Buffalo) and Antonio Pierce (LB, Washington). The Vikings had hooks on both players from the outset in three respects. First, the Vikings could pay both what they were seeking in the open market. Second, the Vikings could assure both players significant playing time at their preferred position. Both Williams and Pierce also looked forward to playing for Cottrell--Williams, because he had played for Cottrell in Buffalo, Pierce, because he respected the defensive coordinator's philosophy and handling of players.

Williams sought $13 million over three years with a commensurate signing bonus. It is unknown what Pierce requested in terms of a contract, but Vikings apparently were willing to meet his demand. Almost.

With the deal all but sealed on both players, the Vikings--still nearly twice as much under the cap as the next closest team--added an unusual request; the Vikings asked each player to relinquish rights to a signing bonus until May. This would have allowed Red to escape from any signing bonus obligations--prorated for cap reasons but paid at the time of signing--should the sale of the team to the Fowler group go through. It was yet another of Red's continuing efforts to disgorge any obligations that he has to run a business that he purports to run.

Williams reached terms with the Vikings, though it is not clear if he accepted Red's overture. Pierce immediately balked at the preposterous proposal and left the Vikings without what the Washington Redskins described as their "most intelligent player." That left the Vikings not only without an intelligent player at middle linebacker, but without their purported prime off-season free agent target.

In the end, the Vikings touted their signing of Williams. But Williams was the minor deal. The Vikings betrayed as much by stating that they would split time between Williams and Spencer Johnson, bringing in Johnson in passing situations. Given that teams will remain prone to passing against the Vikings until the Vikings figure out how to defend the pass, that says a mouth full.

3-4 Calling?

Which brings us to the critical issue. Cottrell envisioned the Vikings playing 3-4 defense last season not because he saw in the Vikings a stud linebacking corps, but because he hoped that the Vikings would be able to rise to the challenges presented by the changing division dynamics. Those dynamics saw the Lions moving to a West Coast/middle of the field passing game, the Bears claiming a similar move (despite not having the talent to meet that charge), and the Packers already playing a West Coast variation.

Under the West Coast system, quarterbacks release the ball quickly. So quickly, in fact, that the fastest defensive ends have difficulty putting pressure on the quarterback. That puts a premium on coverage. And, when faced with the West Coast offense, the premium is on linebacker coverage. That makes the 3-4 invaluable.

But the Vikings not only did not have four capable linebackers last season, they had zero linebackers (with the possible exception of Chris Claiborne) who were capable of playing middle linebacker and making proper reads. At no time was this more evident than in the playoff game against the Eagles when E.J. Henderson inexplicably retreated behind the goal line on a play from the 2-yard line. Henderson's retreat made a quick play over the middle possible. A more experienced middle linebacker--and one with more adept instinct--would have held his ground and forced the play over the top, into the arms of the waiting safeties.

The Vikings could not address the MIKE issue last season, but thought that they could in 2005 by adding Pierce, a player with four years of NFL experience. And since no team has ever won the Super Bowl with a MIKE with less than four years of experience (unless, as Tampa Bay did, they surrounded that player with several All-Pros), the change--potentially allowing Henderson to take his tackling ability to the outside--boded well for the Vikings.

But by making a ridiculous request that a highly sought free agent defer rights to a signing bonus--rights that, were something to happen to the player, might never materialize--the Vikings ensured that they would not get their number one off-season target. That doesn't mean that the Vikings are without options, but an upgrade at linebacker is increasingly in peril.

Vikings' Current Linebacker Situation

On Friday, Chris Claiborne bid adieu to the Vikings. That relieves the Vikings of the potential of signing Claiborne to a big contract only to see him miss time with injury yet again, but it also puts the Vikings in a bind in terms of experience. Without Claiborne, the Vikings' most experienced linebacker is Napoleon Harris. That won't cut it.

The Vikings could pursue Edgerton Hartwell of the Ravens. Hartwell has four years of experience and has some impressive numbers (see previous column), but he also will command a high salary. And the Vikings appear unwilling to scale that mountain at this juncture, despite having to spend at least $15 million or so more to reach the NFL's salary floor for 2005.

The Vikings' missed the opportunity to sign the guy they wanted in Pierce. Pierce would have brought intelligence and a measure of experience to a linebacking corps desperately in need of both. He also would have come at a lesser price than will some of the remaining quality linebackers. That means the Vikings likely will once again be sifting through the remains pile for any semblance of a linebacker.

This issue, if not miraculously resolved, will manifest itself in gruesome form throughout 2005. Not only will the Vikings have a bad linebacking corps (too young, too thin, too inexperienced, too undisciplined), they will be without Claiborne to boot. That sounds like a recipe for disaster, no matter how many "shut down" cornerbacks the Vikings are able to sign. Shut down corners don't shut down the West Coast, they merely slow it down. Linebackers are the key.

Up Next: Come out, come out whomever you are.

6 comments:

vikinghooper said...

Vikesgeek,

Your pessimism at linebacker seem too much.

Chris Claiborne doesn't have enough sense to stay inbounds to pick up a loose playoff fumble. Incomprehensibly stupid play, but par for the Viking course. I'm glad he's gone.

Can EJ, Dontarrious, and Raonall continue to get worse?

The Viking problems at this time are not specific; they are a system wide failure of an entity making money when it has no business making any.

Spending to the salary cap floor, trading Moss, not signing free agents, show that the management is making money while analytic fans like us try to make reason of madness and stupidity.

The Vikings will improve; it just won't happen any time soon, Pierce, Smoot, or any signing won't help.

Nihilism rules when confronted with this bunch of leaders.

Vikes Geek said...

Hooper,

I won't lose any sleep over the loss of Claiborne. I would be surprised were he to make it through next season without a major injury. Even when healthy, however, he is average at best.

But Claiborne's average abilities still make him better than Henderson, who makes absolutely critical mistakes in every game. Henderson may not get worse--he may even improve, but he is not ready to play MIKE in the NFL, not even for the Vikings.

I'll say it until I am blue in the face, teams don't win with an inexperienced middle linebacker unless that linebacker is surrounded by All-Pros. That's merely a statement of fact. The Vikings know this, which is why they attempted to sign Pierce. They still need to spend a bundle of cash to meet the salary floor, so there is hope that a guy like Hartwell will end up in Minnesota.

Thomas is far from ready to be a starter in the NFL. He rarely made plays last season and was frequently out of position. Does it matter how fast a guy is if he is always running to the wrong spot? The only reason anyone has any immediate hope for this guy is because Tice built him up so much in camp last year that some believed he must have at least a shred of ability. Thomas may indeed have a shred of ability, but, at present, not much more.

Smith looks like he is finally ready to start in the NFL--assuming he stays healthy. If Smith remains healthy and Harris proves serviceable, the Vikings suddenly would have a half-way decent linebacking corps--with Henderson spelling the outside linebackers and learning the defense--in spite of themselves.

There is little doubt that this is one of the most poorly run franchises in professional (oxymoron?) sports, with, perhaps, only the Chicago Blackhawks, LA Clippers, Atlanta Hawks, and San Francisco 49ers being more poorly managed. When the Cincinnati Bengals are more adeptly run, that says as much as we need to know.

And still, thanks primarily to the NFL salary floor and Red's need to put a team on the field that he can at least claim is playoff worthy, the Vikings are not that far away from having a pretty good team. A few new coaches, three or four more defensive players, a punter, a kicker, a return man, some front-office personnel, and the Vikings are set.

OK. That's still quite a bit.

VG

Ringmeister said...

vikinghooper: well stated, however, i believe VG understates the pessimism that we, perhaps all should feel. Not soley the woeful linebackers, but the perpetually BAD defense.
When will this franchise finally get it? With the exception of '98, this team ALWAYS underachieves with a poor defense. The exception of '98 being, in addition to the best offensive display of the 1990's, an average "d" that made an occasional key play.
This team, I'm convinced, will not return to the Super Bowl until the defense becomes at least very good, but more likely outright dominating. We see it year in and year out with the Super Bowl champs: great defense.
Having said that, the Vikes trade the best offensive threat in the league, then try to passify us with Williams from Buffalo, and Harris from the Raiders. Bullshit! Please people, back me up on this. We need our outrage to be heard! It's not unloading Moss that tears me, it's the continual questionable moves throughout this franchise that baffle me. I think, perhaps it is the franchise itself, that is cursed. Who else out there thought of the potential windfall of draft picks and/position players Moss would command with the pain of the Mike Lynn/Walker deal still lingering, and then getting Harris and a #7 pick? Really? I know, it's a different era, but why must this team, and subsequently the fans, always get screwed?
If you've read to this point, thanks for staying with me. Now my 2 cents on the defensive needs: We've got an all-pro interior lineman on defense. We need to acquire, trade for , draft, what have you--an all-pro DE. Fill the gaps with good enough players (an emerging and healthy Udeze, and perhaps Pat Williams) and the line's set. Linebackers: Smith is cut. He's had a couple years, he's been injured about two and a half. great when he's healthy, but never healthy. We need a proven and solid veteran in the middle. Pierce has been signed, so this spot is still up in the air. Thomas and Henderson: all I can do is sigh. I'm hoping against hope that experience fosters major improvement.
Corners and safety's: A healthy Irvin and Winfield, and perhaps add a Smoot and this secondary becomes great. Even with out a free-agent addition, Chavous and Russell,... ok maybe just Chavous is adequate provided the D-line is dominating (Is a f***ing sack on third and long too much to ask? Even just once in awhile? anyboby else frustrated???)
Yes VG, kicking, front office etc., etc. need an over-haul. Whew! thought I was over last season. Hell, I'm not over the 4 super Bowls ( YOU know which ones) the walker trade, the '75 hail mary, the '98 grand finale, yadda yadda..... Oh well, A terminal vikes fan, what can I say.

Rieux said...

Sorry for the pedantry, but it's spelled "tout," not "taut."

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