Friday, March 25, 2005

New Location!

Beginning this weekend, I will have a new site. And while you will have access to the same Vikes' information at the new site, the new site promises to be much improved. In addition to more interactive options, the new will have broader content and feature more posts from more people with the same interest--the Vikings. If you reach vikesgeek using the vikesgeek URL, your computer will automatically direct you to the new site and you will read this message only if you are leering over someone else's shoulder who does not enter this site using the vikesgeek URL. If you are one of the many who have painstakingly typed in the full URL of this will arrive here. Feel free to continue this pilgrimage, just don't expect to see any new posts here anytime soon. For your new Vikings content, you must access the new site at

It's still free, as it always will be. And you are still welcome to post any sensible comments regarding the Vikings. Feel free to stop on by. We'll leave the site on!


Thursday, March 24, 2005

Does the NFL Know Something That Vikings' Fans Do Not?

Last week, I discussed the possibility that Vikings' owner Red McCombs is acting under a different set of assumptions than most Vikings' fans hold regarding the sale of the Vikings. At the time, I suggested that Red's trade of Randy Moss, Red's attempt to save face when confronted with strong fan opposition to the Moss trade, Red's deferment of signing bonuses--at least one until June 2006, and Red's re-introduction of the roster bonus, all hinted that Red is hedging his bets in the event that the sale of the Vikings to Fowler does not go through. And I suggested that Red's hedges appeared to be growing into permanent structures since the trade of Moss was finalized. Each of these maneuvers, after all, would allow Red to continue to maintain that he held the interests of the Vikings near and dear, while also ensuring that Red need not spend more than absolutely required in 2005, should the Fowler deal fall through.

And so, it seemed, the idea that Red knew something that Vikings' fans did not--namely, that the NFL was on the verge of vetoing the sale of the Vikings to the Fowler group--had some merit.

Though the sale of the Vikings' remains in limbo, and while, as a consequence, we are not able to assess the aforementioned theory that Red is hedging his bets against the sale of the team to the Fowler group, there now appears the possibility of a more sinister scheme. This scheme involves not Red, but the Fowler group, and the rest of the NFL.

LA Bound?

Several years ago, the State of Louisianna and the City of New Orleans devised a plan whereby the state and city would pay the New Orleans Saints to remain in New Orleans. The plan was great for the team and great for the NFL.

For the team, the state and city payout essentially guaranteed the type of return for the Saints that Red McCombs annually receives in Minnesota courtesy of a sold out Metrodome. The beauty of the deal for the Saints and owner, used car salesman Tom Benson, is that there was no need to put a winning product on the field. Oh, Benson could make the effort and he did spend some money--more than the Vikings did in the same period, at least--but he never had to concern himself with the bottom line, because the state and city ensured that the Saints would operate well in the black. And that was sufficient ground for Benson to ensure the state and city that he would remain in New Orleans.

For the NFL, the Saints' arrangement with Louisianna and New Orleans was like mana from heaven. Not only was someone guaranteeing the bottom line for one of its own, but they were doing so in a manner that ensured that one of the league's most coveted of grails remained without a suitor. That grail is LA.

Since the Rams moved to St. Louis and the Raiders moved back to Oakland, Los Angeles has been without a professional football team. And the NFL desperately wants to fill that void in the second largest television market. But it cannot fill the void if the void is filled by another. Which is why the NFL loved the Saints' arrangement, because the arrangement meant that Benson would not leave New Orleans for LA.

Where the Vikings Fit In

Since he purchased the Vikings in 1998, Red has lobbied the Minnesota Legislature for a new, publicly financed, football-only stadium. Red's lone bargaining chip throughout the "negotiations" was the threat to move the Vikings to LA. Minnesotans called Red's bluff and Red appeared to back down.

Red's retreat was finalized when Reggie Fowler appeared from out of nowhere to make a bid for the team that nobody imagined, least of all Red. The money was too good to pass on and Red agreed to sell the team to the Fowler group for a mere $350 million profit, rather than attempting to garner a more substantial profit by moving to LA

But the sale of the Vikings to Reggie Fowler's group immediately raised some red flags. Why have we never heard of Reggie Fowler? Is he another Tom Clancy? Is he another carpetbagger?

Fowler immediately moved to allay our concerns by scheduling a press conference and issuing some background material. Both moves only made Vikings' fans more pensive aobut the impending sale of the Vikings to the Fowler group. Fowler refused to answer questions about his financial wherewithal and offered false claims about his own background--claims which, although relatively inconsequential as they regard the sale of the Vikings to the Fowler group, raised the concern that Fowler might be a blowhard in areas that really matter if he was willing to be in areas that matter not a whit.

Most disconcerting of all, however, was the fact that, even if we accepted all of Fowler's contentions about his net worth--much of which appears to be based on leveraged enterprises--he would still rank among the bottom of NFL managing partners with respect to wealth. And that meant--and might mean--that every penny counts with Fowler. Following in the footsteps of a team owner who was unable to make the numbers work despite a $30 million plus net profit in 2003, and more in 2004, Vikings' fans had every reason to be concerned about the wealth of the prospective new owner.

Where the NFL Fits In

But through Fowler and McCombs, Vikings' fans were assured that Fowler had the money to serve as managing partner of a new ownership group. Moreover, we were told, the real value of the Fowler group was not in Fowler's financial contribution to the group, but in the financial wherewithal of the other members of the group. Fowler, after all, was merely the managing partner--the party who would call the shots and stand for photo ops.

That seemed odd for someone with as high a debt to asset ratio and as much of an apparent disagreement with public exposure as has Fowler, but at least it sounded mildly plausible. And Fowler and Red, in the little bit of information regarding Fowler's co-investors that they were willing to divulge, offered that Fowler's partners were "wealthy businessmen from out East."

And that's where the suspicion began to seep in a bit--the suspicion that there was more to this deal than Red wanting to sell the team or Fowler looking to buy the team. The suspicion that something more nefarious was at hand. And the suspicion that the NFL was busy at work behind the scenes.

The Conspiracy Theory

While it is no secret that NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue would like to see a minority-owned franchise in the NFL before he retires, this deal did not look like the ideal fit. There are several wealthier African-Americans than Reggie Fowler who appear both able and willing to make a run at ownership of an NFL franchise. So what gives?

What gives, one suspects, is that Fowler was willing to put up his relatively modest wealth and tie his fortunes to the NFL front office. And that, undoubtedly, set him apart from other potential minority owners.

But what appears increasingly plausible, as well, is that the NFL is making an end-run around Vikings' fans. And it is doing so by fronting a minority candidate for Vikings' ownership that it believes Minnesotans will refuse to turn against for fear of being labled racist. In so doing, the NFL is hoping that Fowler is the key to engineering Minnesota's public funding of a new stadium.

But that is merely the NFL's short-term plan; a plan that even the NFL might consider fanciful. For if Minnesotans don't bite--if they inherit an ownership group that pleads poverty in a manner that would make even Red blush and call the bluff, the NFL has a fall-back plan. And that plan is possible because the NFL is, this theory goes, the actual money behind the remainder of the Fowler group.

The suspicion is that the NFL is using Fowler to try to get a new stadium for the Vikings in Minnesota. This would drive up the value of the Vikings and allow the NFL to seek a higher franchise fee for an LA-based team. And that would mean more money for the league and its owners. Moreover, just by virtue of the sale of the Vikings to the Fowler group, a move that the league undoubtedly believes would boost the team's odds of securing public funding for a new stadium, the league will ensure a steady increase in team valuations, as the Vikings, without a new stadium, saw their value more than double in six plus seasons.

But the crowning jewel for the league is the LA market. And if the league has a Minnesota ownership group in its pocket--something it did not have in Red--it can ensure that no Minnesota group leaves the Minnesota market without kicking something back to the league. Ergo, if the reason that we know so little about Fowler's partners is that nobody wants us to link those partners to the NFL--as in, the league is essentially financing the other partners--the NFL will ensure its goals no matter how the stadium situation plays out in Minnesota.

If Minnesota builds a new stadium for the Vikings, the Fowler group can sell for a nice profit. The league will get a cut of the sale and see its franchisee valuations increase. If, on the other hand, Minnesota does not build a new stadium for the Vikings, the Fowler group, at the behest of the NFL, will move to LA. The league will then sell the team somewhere down the road and reap the return on the move to LA and will work with Minnesotans--as it did with the people of Cleveland--to ensure the return of professional football to Minnesota, at an astronomical franchise fee greatly increased by the Vikings' move to LA.

And all the discussion about whether Fowler has the means is merely part of the set-up. If the league openly suggests that Fowler's funds are tight--as it repeatedly has done--Fowler has a built-in excuse for being even more tight-fisted than was Red. And that gives Fowler even that much more leverage in lobbying for a new, football-only stadium and for the "necessary" revenues that it is certain to generate.

Up Next: Changing Locations.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Finding a Return Man

Prior to the 2004 season, Vikings' head coach Mike Tice stated that the Vikings had made significant improvements in their special teams units. In particular, Tice believed that the Vikings would be "much improved" in the return game. To some extent, Tice was correct. The Vikings did improve their punt-rturn numbers from 2003, but the numbers dipped for kickoff returns.

In 2003, Keenan Howry was the Vikings' primary kick and punt return "specialist." Howrey's punt-return numbers were anemic, as he averaged 7.1 yards per punt return. On kickoff returns, Howry had a much more respectable 22.6 yard average, but never appeared to be a threat to bust one loose.

In 2004, with Howry on injured reserve, the Vikings turned to a trio of players to return punts and kickoffs. The primary carriers of these duties were Nate Burleson, Onterrio SOD Smith, and Mewelde Moore, with the veterans Burleson and SOD getting the bulk of the return opportunities. Burleson averaged 8.56 yards returning punts. SOD averaged 17.2 yards per kickoff return. In more limited action, Moore averaged 19.3 yards on kickoff returns.

While the Vikings' 2004 numbers represented an improvement in punt-return average, the numbers on kickoff returns fell dramatically. That puts the Vikings about where they were heading into the 2004 season, with questions in the return game. And the primary question remains whether the Vikings have a legitimate kickoff and punt return man on their squad.


Though Howry turned in respectable numbers on kickoff returns in 2003 and remains on the Vikings' roster in 2005, there is reason for the Vikings to cut him loose this off-season. And one need look no further for this reason than to the fact that Howry is still a one-trick pony. Despite the Vikings' efforts to make Howry a punt-return specialist, his numbers remain sufficiently below the league average and he is not a break-away threat. Add to this Howry's late-2003 performances and there is more reason for concern. In one particularly dreadful performance at the end of the 2003 season, Howry handled four punts. The result was two returns for -.5 yards, with a long of 1 yard, and two fair catches.

And what Howry gave the Vikings on kickoff returns the Vikings might be able to pick up from someone else. Although SOD's 2004 numbers were disappointing, he did finesse a 21.7 average on kickoff returns in 2003 and appears to have the ability to match those numbers in the future. While not dazzling, the numbers are equal to those posted by Howry in 2003 and thus make the erstwhile receiver--currently mired in the sixth or seventh slot in the Vikings' receiver rotation--eminently expendable.


While SOD and Burleson have demonstrated that they can meet modest expectations returning kickoffs and punts, respectively, there remains an alternative for the Vikings in free agency. And that alternative comes in the form of one of the NFL's leading kickoff and punt return specialists, Eddie Drummond.

In 2002, Drummond averaged 26 yards per kickoff return. That number dipped to 22.3 in an injury-riddled 2003, but climbed to 26.6 in 2004. For good measure, Drummond returned two kickoffs for touchdowns last season.

Drummond's punt return numbers are even more impressive than his kickoff-return numbers. In 2003, Drummond averaged 12.6 yards per return with one touchdown. Last year, Drummond averaged 13.2 yards per return with two touchdowns.

And while Drummond's numbers would represent a clear upgrade for the Vikings, Drummond's presence would be measurable in another equally significant way, as the mere threat of a touchdown return on kickoffs and punts would force teams to alter their kicking games. With Drummond returning kickoffs, teams likely would kickoff either high and short or do a squib kick. In either case, the Vikings would gain yards before even considering the yards that Drummond added returning the kick. And on punts, teams likely would either kick the ball into the endzone and concede the touchback or angle for the sideline--a lost art the attempt of which usually results in excellent field position for the return team.


As a restricted free agent, Drummond would not be cheap, but he may be exactly what the Vikings need. Should the Vikings sign Drummond, they would owe the Lions a first-round draft choice as compenstation. That might sound steep, but consider that the Vikings have two first-round selections in 2005 and that by signing Drummond--whom the Lions have tendered at $1.2 million--the Vikings fill a need with a premiere player at what should be a relatively low price. The Vikings also would save the money that they otherwise would have spent to sign a first-round selection. As an added bonus, if the Lions prefer to keep Drummond, they will need to increase their tender offer--a nice hit to a division rival's salary cap.

The final question for the Vikings will be, then, not whether having Drummond would significantly upgrade the Vikings' return game, but whether the Vikings wish to add a young but veteran return man at the risk of losing the 18th overall pick in the 2005 draft. This is one vote for making the offer.

Up Next: Other RFAs.

Friday, March 18, 2005

New Additions

Next week, I'll reprise conspiracy theories regarding the pending sale of the Vikings, but, for now, there is concrete news to address. And it is news that should be encouraging for those fans who believe that a large part of the Vikings' defensive problems last season stemmed from the woeful play of their linebacking corps, as well as for those fans who were concerned about the thinning receiving corps and the lack of a proven backup at quarterback.

Linebacking Adjustment

While the Vikings, as currently comprised, appear intent on giving Donterrious Thomas another shot at starting as an outside linebacker, it also appears that the team finally is willing to concede that E.J. Henderson is not the middle linebacker of the immediate future. That concencession is much easier to make, of course, when the team has a fall-back plan, as the Vikings now do.

On Friday morning, the New York Jets agreed to trade middle linebacker Sam Cowart to the Vikings in exchange for one of the Vikings' two seventh-round draft selections in the 2005 draft. While a seventh-round pick is about as valuable as a warm bucket of spit, Cowart's value to the Vikings--should he recover from injuries that pushed him out of the starter's role with the Jets last season--is significantly higher.

Just 30 years of age, Cowart should have several serviceable years left in the tank should he regain his health. But even a somewhat balky Cowart promises to be a significant upgrade over a fully healthy E.J. Henderson circa 2004. In his last full season as a starter, 2003, Cowart tallied 140 tackles, and most players and coaches around the league regard him as an ideal middle linebacker personality--clear on assignments and able to pick up the schemes. His past association with Vikings' defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell should also be a plus.

Experience Matters

As I have noted on several previous occassions, it is the rare NFL team that wins a championship employing a middle linebacker with less than four years of NFL experience. In fact, no time without several Pro Bowl defenders manning the remaining defensive positions has ever won the Super Bowl with a middle linebacker with less than four years of NFL experience.

And the reason for this is apparent. While college linebackers might enter the NFL with considerable physical attributes, it generally takes them some time to catch up with the speed of the NFL game and, more significantly, to learn to read offensive sets. The latter quality is increasingly imperative in a middle linebacker as league rule changes and heightened offensive sophistication have conspired against inexperienced linebackers, requiring them to learn the game from the outside position or on the bench. That's particularly true of middle linebackers who play in the 4-3 system that the Vikings employ.

Cowart's experience, and track record, suggest that he is an ideal fit for the Vikings. Cowart brings Pro Bowl-caliber experience to the Vikings, even if his play is no longer up to that lofty standard. If healthy, he should be a great addition.

Cowart's addition also means that E.J. Henderson will either move outside or to the bench. Some have speculated that the Vikings might employ a 3-4 defense with Cowart and Henderson in the middle, but that makes little sense given the other personnel currently at the Vikings' disposal. Despite the additon of Cowart, linebacker remains a weak spot for the 2005 Vikings. It is still unclear who will play the outside positions with Claiborne gone, but, even grangting one outside role to Napoleon Harris, the Vikings need to find a healthy, able player to fill the other outside spot. That could be Raonall Smith, Mike Nattiel, Donterrious Thomas or even E.J. Henderson. Or it could be someone who the Vikings add following the June 1st cuts or whom they add through the draft. But the host of question marks at starting positions makes a shift to the 3-4 unlikely.

But an even more compelling argument against a Vikings' shift to the 3-4 set is that the Vikings do not have two legitimate defensive ends on their current roster. Moreover, a move to a 3-4 defense would leave either Kevin or Patrick Williams without a position. Given that those two players apppear to be the most NFL-worthy along the current front four--assuming P. Williams is healthy and in shape--the change to a 3-4 doesn't appear to fit the Vikings' defensive line personnel. Given this issue, and the lack of viable linebackers, fans should expect to see a continuation of the 4-3 through 2005, even if it is less suited to stopping the West Coast offense than is the 3-4.

Building the Receiver Corps

The Vikings also made news earlier this week when they signed free agent Travis Taylor, formerly of the Baltimore Ravens. Taylor did not exactly set the world on fire as a receiver with the Ravens last season, but, then, what it means to set the world on fire is a matter of perspective. Had Taylor played with the Vikings last season, he would have ranked fifth among Vikings' receivers in catches and yardage. That would make him the fourth receiver for the 2004 Vikings.

This looks like a good pickup for the Vikings, however, particularly when one considers that Taylor put up his stats in a quarterback-challenged Ravens' offense. Playing for Baltimore, Taylor might have had better numbers had he been able to throw to himself, because the alternative was to have a Ravens quarterback--and I use that term loosely--throw to him. Without an option, Taylor was stuck, and his numbers, in that light, appear better than they would for some other number four receiver.

The Vikings will need to make an early determination on Taylor's role with the team in 2005 as the team assesses whether to take a wide receiver with the number seven overall pick in the draft. If the Vikings believe that Taylor is a legitimate number two receiver, the Vikings might go with defense with the number seven and the number eighteen picks.

With Taylor in the fold, the Vikings' wide receiver corps is beginning to have some shape, if not some depth. Nate Burleson stands as the current number one, with Marcus Robinson and Taylor battling for the number two role. With Robinson's injury history and fall-off in production at the end of last season, the tip of the hat in that race likely falls to Taylor. That still leaves Robinson as the number 3, assuming that the Vikings are convinced that Taylor is a slot receiver to Robinson's downfield threat--in which case, the two would flop.

Kelly Campbell also remains in the mix, despite his recent legal problems. Campbell will battle for the number four receiver spot along with a host of other heretofore non-starters. If Campbell stays clean from here on out and can demonstrate an ability to contribute on special teams--a big question mark--he will sew up the position. If not, he will probably be released.

Quarterback Redux

Welcome home Brad Johnson. The former ninth-round Vikings' draft choice has agreed to terms with the Vikings that should make Johnson the backup for a few years in Minnesota. There is little doubt that Johnson can fill the roll as backup and there is little question that he has resigned himself to that roll. That makes him a perfect fit behind Daunte Culpepper and relieves a source of angst for the Vikings' personnel people who were aware that Shaun Hill was not yet ready to serve such a role in the NFL.

*As a footnote to the Cowart deal, Vikings' capologist Rob Brzezinski released a statement on Friday in which he contended that the deal that brought Sam Cowart to the Vikings was made possible by the Vikings' trade of Randy Moss and the Vikings' subsequent receipt of a seventh-round pick. That pick, Brzezinski contended, gave the Vikings sufficient depth with the number of selections in this year's draft, to trade a seventh-round pick for Cowart. Never mind that the Jets, in all likelihood, would have released Cowart absent this deal (in which case one could make the argument that the Vikings overpaid for Cowart), it is clear that the Vikings' front office is now trying to justify the Moss trade by pointing to the benefits to the defense that the trade made possible. That's unfortunate.

Up Next: Back to the Draft and Free Agency.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Does Red Know Something We Do Not?

From the day that prospective Vikings' owner Reggie Fowler announced his intention to buy the Vikings, something has seemed amiss about the entire affair. Rather, several things have seemed amiss. Not least of which is Fowler's ability to pony up the thirty percent of the purchase price--roughly $200 million--that the NFL requires of managing partners.

On Wednesday, several media outlets--local and national--reported that Fowler has yet to complete the sale of a business interest--a sale that is critical to Fowler's prospects to serve as managing partner of the group that he has gathered to purchase the Vikings. With the media often the last to know of ill-fated purchase offers, does Red know something that we do not? If so, for how long has he known?

Paper Trail

Dating to the trade of Randy Moss to the Oakland Raiders, a trade that post-dates the agreement-in-principal between Red and Reggie to sell/purchase the Vikings, there have been ominous signs that Red is, at a minimum, hedging against a possible NFL rejection of the sale of the Vikings to the Fowler group. And, to relieve us of the need to speculate too much, Red has offered a tidy paper trail.

The trail begins with the Moss deal. I have written at lenght about the merits of, and the personnel involved in this deal, but have said little about the numbers. But the numbers in the deal might prove to be the most interesting element of the trade.

By trading Moss, the Vikings accelerated approximately $10 million of money that would have remained prorated over the remainder of Moss' contract, had Moss remained with the Vikings. That meant that the Vikings took a $10 million hit to their salary cap for 2005. After factoring in the loss of Moss' 2005 salary and the addition of Napoleon Harris' salary, the Vikings lost approximately $4 million in cap space as a result of the trade.

At first blush, one might be tempted to conjecture that the trade was about getting closer to the salary floor. While it pushed the Vikings in that direction, the team was so far under the NFL salary floor even with the trade that the trade barely put a dent in the chasm between the Vikings' 2005 team salary and the NFL salary floor. That fact created even more suspicion that there was much more going on with this trade with respect to finances than met the eye.

And if fans were not yet convinced that Red was at least hedging his bet that he might be stuck with the Vikings in 2005, Red provided additional ammunition when he essentially denounced the trade, even though he clearly had signed off on the deal. The only conclusion remaining was that Red was trying to throw off the scent.

But what would Red gain by the trade of Moss? Not much if the Fowler deal went through or if he retained possession of the Vikings over the long haul, but plenty if the Fowler deal fell through and Red still envisioned selling the team to another suitor, like Glen Taylor, within the next year or two.

Under a scenario in which the Fowler proposal falls through and Red is compelled to negotiate a sale to another group sometime in the next year or two, Moss' contract would prove weightier than necessary for Red. With season tickets already sold out for 2005, Red could weather the fan backlash for moving Moss for mere profit motive for at least one season, perhaps two.

And the profit motive is cognizable. By dumping Moss' contract now, the Vikings take a one-time hit to their salary cap. But in 2006, that one-time hit becomes, in essence, a credit. With Moss' contract no longer counting against their cap, the Vikings will shed approximately $14 million from their cap in 2006. That would make the team just as attractive to a prospective buyer next year, if not more attractive, than is the case today.

Moreover, while moving Moss means a one-time hit to the Vikings 2005 salary cap number, in real terms, it represents a significant savings to whomever owns the team in 2005 and for the life of Moss' contract. Rather than paying Moss' 2005 contract, the Vikings will be paying Napoleon Harris' 2005 contract. That's a significant discount to whomever owns the Vikings come paycheck time. Undoubtedly, that is not lost on Red. And it makes one wonder if Red suspects that he will be the beneficiary of such largesse in 2005.

More Paper, More Trails, Three Hands?

But Red's position has been difficult to gauge. On one hand, he was making a deal that would benefit whomever owned the Vikings in 2005. Given Red's "me-first" qualities, the suspicion was that that beneficiary would be Red.

On the other hand, Red was asking prospective free-agent signees to defer rights to signing bonuses until this summer, at which time, it was presumed, ownership of the Vikings would pass to the Fowler group. And that looked like Red, again in the "me-first" mode, sticking it to the new owner.

But then came the third hand. Under the terms of Jermaine Wiggins' deal with the Vikings, Wiggins will defer part of his signing bonus to June 2006. That means that Red is free of any obligation to pay that portion of the bonus if he does not own the team in June 2006. And that would save Red a bit more money.

Then came word that the Vikings recent signee, Darren Sharper, inked a deal that includes a friend from last season, a roster bonus. The roster bonus, which counts entirely against the 2005 cap and permits the Vikings to inch closer to the salary floor (I think I can, I think I can, I think I can...), relieves the Vikings of having to make additional offers that include additional bonuses. And that all saves Red money should the Fowler deal collapse.

The recent news out of the NFL offices makes the Fowler deal appear as shaky as ever. If the deal does not go through, there is a growing paper trail to suggest that Red all along was hedging his bet in the event that the Fowler bid collapsed. That will raise fan interest over the details of the Moss trade even more, and also will raise concerns about the leadership of this team under current ownership--something that will only elevate increasing fan resentment of Red.

Up Next: More Draft Talk. Plus, is there an undiscovered gem in free agency?

Sunday, March 13, 2005

Glad Handing

In the wake of the Vikings' most recent free-agent acquisition, former Green Bay Packer's safety Darren Sharper, Vikings' fans were inundated with another rousing rendition of how the Vikings have turned the corner. One local scribe went so far as to laud the recent signings as a clear indicator that the Vikings, particularly Vikings' owner Red McCombs, had discarded their parsimonious ways.

There really is minimal, if any support, for this notion, however. And there is mounting evidence that the Vikings recent foray into free agency is all about two things--reaching the NFL-mandated salary floor and selling the off-season as a success to the fan base.

It is hard to dislike the signing of Fred Smoot or Darren Sharper. Both players provide an immediate upgrade to the Vikings at their respective positions. Smoot adds a bit of brashness that the Vikings have lacked in recent years (at least from anyone qualified to be brash), while Sharper adds both ability and a degree of professionalism, a venerable combination the likes of which the Vikings desperately needed at the back of their secondary.

And although I have expressed concerns about Patrick Williams' fitness level, playmaking ability against the run, and the Vikings' commitment of resources to a player the Vikings hope to spell with Spencer Johnson on most passing downs and even on some running downs, Patrick Williams has to be an upgrade over Chris Hovan. That makes his addition at least positive, if not necessarily the highlight that the Vikings' front office would have us believe.

The re-signing of Jermaine Wiggins is the Vikings' lone off-season offensive move to date, but it is large. The move, as I have noted before, permits the Vikings to use two-tight-end sets in a manner essentially akin to using one tight end and a receiver. With Wiggins back, the Vikings will be able to keep Kleinsasser on the line more often, a move that could be particularly beneficial should the Vikings fail to shore up their offensive line this year.

Head Scratching

The free agency signings have led the Vikings' biggest chearleaders--their own front office--to engage in the type of glad handing not often seen in this part of the world. Between self-congratulatory praises and genuflecting moments of fealty to Red, it is a wonder the Vikings' front office has had time to sit down and draw up the relevant contracts.

But more curious than this absurd ritual is the response of the Vikings' front office to the trade of Randy Moss to Oakland. After the eye of the storm passed, and the personnel people had passed along their obligatory "it was in the best interests of the team" line to anyone who would listen, little was heard of or, apparently, spoken about the trade.

And that's odd. Particularly since the very little bit that we did hear--straight from the owner's mouth--suggested what many fans all along have speculated, that this was a poorly orchestrated trade in which the Vikings were fleeced. And, for no apparent reason, a deal in which the Vikings willingly were fleeced.

The Vikings have used the free agency period to persuade fans that the Moss deal was part of a larger agenda. The plan, the personnel folks have suggested, is to change the team's dynamics by changing the team's philosophy. That required, so goes the implication, that the Vikings part ways with their aerial maestro, Randy Moss. Only by parting with Moss, they have suggested, could the Vikings truly improve their defense. Sacrifices needed to be made.

Details Missing

What no member of the Vikings' front office has explained to anyone's satisfication, as yet, is why Moss' departure was necessary to improve the team. Nor has anyone explained why any sacrifice needed to be made of a young star in his athletic prime. At least not one that anyone--including the party who purportedly ordered the trade--is buying.

At first, fans were led to believe that Moss' antics had become too burdensome on teammates. Fans were told he was a distraction, a lockerroom cancer.

That story was plausible. After Moss left the Washington game rather than take the field for an on-side kick in an already lost game, several teammates and coaches openly expressed their disapproval. And, while Moss had every reason to be disgusted with his team's performance and the performance of the coaching staff in that game, it was impossible to excuse his actions. Matt Birk, for one, did not, and spoke of his frustration with Moss' antics. After the season, Daunte Culpepper was quoted as having said that "maybe it is time for a change."

The sound bites made it appear that Moss had worn out his stay in Minnesota, despite the fact that the receiver wanted to remain in Minnesota.

At least that's how things appeared to stand. Except most teammates even refused to support that theory. And, when questioned after the trade, Culpepper refused to stand by his earlier comments and was critical of people "putting words in my mouth." And Culpepper reiterated his position that, were Moss to remain a Viking, it would not be a problem.

That got fans second-guessing the trade, if receiving Napoleon Harris and the seventh pick in the 2005 draft were not enough to do so already. But fans surely wondered what was going on at Winter Park when Red revealed that: (1) he almost fired Tice in 2004 to "light a fire under Moss;" (2) he never wanted to trade Moss; (3) he believed that Moss was capable of achieving much more given the proper coaching; and (4) most incredibly, he did not believe that the Vikings received a proper return in the trade.

For a hands-on owner like Red, that's quite a telling indictment of the Moss trade.

Even more damning, however, is the fact that the Vikings have done nothing in the off-season to support the post-trade front office suggestion that moving Moss would pay dividends by allowing the team to shore up the defense. Even with Moss' salary, the Vikings could have signed Wiggins, Sharper, Williams, and Smoot. And they could have added Edgerton Hartwell, another linebacker, a placekicker, and signed all of their draft picks, and--without any capology hocus-pocus (such as when they gave Brian Russell a $7 million bonus incentive for an unattainable special team's performance)--they still could have found themselves teetering on the fringe of the NFL's salary floor.

So, while I laud the Vikings for making moves that they incidentally had to make to reach the salary floor, I cannot help but vomit at the suggestion that the Moss trade in any way made the recent free agent moves possible.

Red's post-trade comments suggest that Red wishes that he did not make the trade; that Red wishes that he had, instead, found a coach willing and able to coach Moss; that Red realizes that the Vikings would have been better off keeping Moss than trading him for what they did; and that Red is worried that the Vikings were bamboozled.

Whether this impression reflects Red's true impressions of the Moss trade is irrelevant. What is relevant, and what the Vikings' front office and the new owner should care about, is that that is the impression that the vast majority of Vikings' fans hold.

Up Next: What's Next?

Friday, March 11, 2005

A Packer Among Us?

While beating the Packers at Lambeau ranks among the leading on-field accomplishments for the Vikings, off the field there is nothing like having the Packers lose one of their star players to another team. Except when that star player leaves the Packers for the Vikings.

At 4pm on Thursday, the question regarding who will fill the hole as the Vikings' strong safety in 2005 may have met its answer. As the deadline struck for the Green Bay Packers to either release safety Darren Sharper or pay him a hefty roster bonus, the cap-strapped Packers were forced to release their long-standing defensive stalwart. And that could be great news for the Vikings.

Sharper, who played through injuries last year and still hauled in more INTs than any member of the Vikings' 2004 secondary, is in Minnesota today to discuss possible contract terms. Still well under the league salary floor, the Vikings should have no trouble reaching terms with Sharper (assuming Sharper is willing to defer his signing bonus). Sharper, scheduled to receive $8 million from the Packers this season, including a $2 million plus roster bonus, will likely be willing to sign for just over half that given the paucity of teams with cap space still in search of a safety.

The only question appears to be whether the Vikings truly are interested in Sharper, who has some lingering maladies from last season's injuries, or are merely using Sharper to gain leverage in their trade negotiations with the Jaguars for Darius.

Or perhaps the Vikings are interested in both. Although Sharper appears to be a logical fit at strong safety, he has shown adeptness at the free safety position and could take the place of Corey Chavous, who had a fairly forgettable 2004. That would leave the strong safety open for Darius.

Get It Right

Vikings' cap wiz Rob Brzezinski was at his butt-smooching best again this week when he praised Vikings' owner Red McCombs for "making it possible" for the Vikings to sign their newest stable of free agents. What a crock.

Even after the Vikings signed Fred Smoot and Jermaine Wiggins, they were so far under the NFL-mandated salary floor that a mad dash through the remainder of the free agency period might not get the Vikings where they need to be. Whether Red wants to or not the Vikings must spend money in free agency. That is the only chance they have to spend enough money to reach the salary floor. Unless, by some perverse logic, they prefer to give existing players upwardly re-structured contracts.

And if the fact that the Vikings remain well below the salary floor despite their recent free-agent signings is not enough to convince one that it is not upon Red--but league rules--that Vikings' fans ought to heap any measure of gratitude they might have for doing what other teams do in the course of a regular off-season, there is more. The Vikings have requested that every free agent with whom they have negotiated contract terms in 2005 defer their right to a signing bonus until after the presumed date of sale of the Vikings. Jermaine Wiggins even deferred part of his signing bonus until March 2006. All, of course, at Red's behest.

Notwithstanding the team's free-agent activity, the Vikings still have several glaring holes--most notably at linebacker, safety, wide receiver, and placekicker. If Red truly were enabling the Vikings to move forward, at least one of those holes already would have been filled. But when Red asked Antonio Pierce to defer his salary bonus, the middle-linebacker moved on.

That's the Red we know. Not the one the one about whom Brzezinski, unabashedly--and embarrassingly, continues to sing the praises. Ultimately, Vikings' fans don't expect Red to spend any more money than he is required to spend (thank you NFL for the salary floor). What we do expect, however, is for the Vikings' PR "machine" to cease with the adulatory canards.

Up Next: Who He?

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Two Deals Brewing, But Should Vikings Be Interested In Either?

While the Vikings undoubtedly remain in the market for players at several positions, two players stand out in recent Viking personnel discussions. One player, Donovin Darius, would fill the Vikings' need at strong safety. The other, Plaxico Burress, purportedly would fill the Vikings' vacancy at number one receiver. The jury is out on the latter proposition, while the value of both players remains in question.


Current Jacksonville Jaguar's strong safety Donovin Darius is enticing to the Vikings for one reason--the Vikings currently have no viable alternative. Were the Vikings to acquire Darius, they would resolve their remaining secondary concern--assuming one believes that Corey Chavous is a viable starter--and would free themselves to either release Brian Russell or move him into dime coverage.

Darius and his agent have added to the intrigue of a Darius-to-Minnesota deal by actively lobbying for the Vikings to acquire the safety. In a letter to the Star Tribune, Darius contended that he would prefer to play for the Vikings this season, above all other teams, and that any contract-extension demands that he would make would be reasonable.

Of course, Darius leaked a similar appeal to the Miami Herald, thus contradicting at least one of Darius' claims within his pleading and suggesting that there is at least reason to be suspicious of his other claim regarding possible contract-extension demands. That might give the Vikings pause as they consider whether they wish even to deal with Darius. Though the Vikings might decide to look a bit deeper before making such a decision.

The reason for Darius' desire to leave Jacksonville is well known. Darius is upset over being franchised for the third straight season. By being franchised, Darius is guaranteed to make the average of the top five players at his position in 2005. That means a decent payday for Darius. But, as Darius and others will attest, that guarantee undoubtedly fails to reflect Darius' market value as a player. And he is rightfully upset.

By franchising Darius, the Jaguars assure themselves of retaining a player who is not permitted to test his value in the free agent market. Understanding how this works, the Jaguars are assuming that they have reserved the franchise label for a player who is worth the average salary of the top 5 players at his position and who would receive a better offer on the open market. If the Jaguars were not operating under these two assumptions, they would simply allow Darius to test the free agent market and make a counter-offer.

For three years running, Darius has been subjected to this bizaare NFL Players' Association allowance to the ownership group. That means for three years running, Darius unquestionably has received less than market value for his services. And that pisses him off.

The Vikings could look at the Darius situation in one of two ways. First, they could view the situation as one involving a disgruntled player, eager and willing to take on management and to make himself a lockerroom distraction over his own contract negotiations. The Vikings need a player like that like they need Derek Ross to return to the team.

The other possibility is to look at Darius as someone who put up with a frustrating situation for two years before finally demanding justice. Justice suggests that Darius is worth more than what the traditionally lower paid strong safeties of the NFL receive and that he receive something more in line with the average salary of the top 5 corners of the league. From this perspective, the Vikings could convince themselves that Darius' current actions are reaonable and that his claim that he will seek only a "reasonable" contract extension is believable and palatable.

Whether the Vikings wish to pay the price to obtain Darius is another matter. In addition to appeasing Darius with a contract extension for more years and bigger money--his central demands in his dispute with the Jaguars--the Vikings will need to give up something for Darius since he remains under contract with Jacksonville. The Jaguars purportedly are seeking the Vikings' second first-round pick or the Vikings' second-round pick and a player. That type of interest has not materialized yet from any other team in the NFL. And it appears that if the Jaguars are to succeed in moving Darius via trade this off-season, the asking price might have to go lower.

The Vikings received a player and a number seven pick (and a garbage seventh-round pick that can only cost them some signing pennies) for Randy Moss, an elite player. Darius, though good, has nowhere near the profile of a player of Moss' stature. That alone lowers his trade value.

In terms of Darius' trade value, the Vikings would be wise to look at T.O.'s trade value in 2004. In the only year of a goofy, agent-messed-up contract, T.O. undoubtedly would have been surly throughout the season had the 49ers not traded him. That compelled the 49ers to offer a trade to a player under contract, much as Darius' situation and statements might compel the Jaguars to part with him.

Th 49ers received a second-round pick and a now-retired player for T.O. If T.O. is worth a second-round pick and a washed-up player, Darius is worth less. Possibly considerably less.

Of course, the Jaguars can retain the rights to Darius and hope that he does not pull a Mike McKenzie, feigning a hamstring injury that keeps him off the field. But if they can get something of value in a trade of Darius, that might be better for the organization in the short run and in the long run.

Or the Jaguars could just drop the franchise tag and meet any offer. If they did so, I'm sure Darius could find it in his heart to "love" Jacksonville once again.

It probably behooves the Vikings to wait this out a bit and see what transpires. That would allow them to gauge the market for Darius a bit more and to see what other safeties become available after June 1st.


Plaxico Burress presents a different issue for the Vikings. Burress is an unrestricted free agent who entered the market with much bravado. Certain he would land a long-term, high-end contract, Burress and his agent let it be known that only the wealthy (those with considerable cap room) needed to apply for his services.

That approach, and Burress' history of being less than a team player, appear to have backfired. Despite being in self-professed need of an upgrade at wide receiver, and despite being enamored with Burress' potential, the once-hotly-pursuing Giants today rescinded their multi-year, multi-million-dollar offer to Burress.

The reason for the Giants' sudden shift in interest in Burress appears to have everything to do with Burress' continuing insistance that he is worth more than the market is offering--a contradiction in terms--and with Burress apparent self-obsession. And Burress' agent, presumably hired to assist Burress in landing his payday, appears, instead, intent on destroying whatever shred of hope the receiver had of landing a sizeable contract offer in 2005, perhaps beyond.

Upset with the lack of interest shown his receiver--despite apparently having bought off one ESPN analyst who continues to tout Burress' "transformation" (sorry Len, it's not a transformation if you only change your stripes to look good in a contract year filled with injuries)--Burress' agent continues to stump for a big payout. Nobody's buying, however.

This has led Burress' agent to play the idiot card--the card that you pull out when you are in over your head but don't know it. To this end, Burress' agent has made it known that if no team offers what Burress thinks he is worth, Burress will sign a one-year deal to show what he is worth and use that as a launching pad to a big payday in next years' free agent market.

If there were any meaningful standard for NFL agents, that would be, at a minimum, malfeasance. As it is, the statement is just plain idiocy.

By stating that Burress will use 2005 to prove his value, Burress' agent is suggesting that Burress played with a different agenda in the past. There is no telling what Burress is likely to do should he snag a long-term deal. Might he return to his old ways? Might he be even worse? Is it worth the risk?

Apparently, the Giants did not like the sound of the agent's bluster and, accordingly, they withdrew their offer. Given Burress' history, his constant self-absorption, and his need to be the go-to guy without go-to numbers, that move appears wise.

That doesn't mean that the Vikings should have no interest in Burress, however. Indeed, the Vikings are courting Burress as I type.

But the best bet for the Vikings, if they insist on adding a head case that, by most accounts, is worse than Moss under the most trying of times (and with much less talent), is to sign Burress to a one-year deal. That would give Burress a chance to prove to the league that he has the ability, allow the Vikings to rely on that ability in a make-or-break season for Burress, and draft Burress' 2006 successor with the seventh overall pick.

All of which would allow the Vikings to patch the hole they created when they shipped Moss to Oakland and break in a new receiver who might one day approach Moss-like status.

Up Next: Who's Left?

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Another Impressive Signing

The Vikings are in a singing mood, and that's good news for Vikings' fans. Shortly after signing former Washington cornerback Fred Smoot to a long-term deal--including, not surprisingly, a deferred signing bonus--the Vikings re-signed one of their own when they agreed to terms with tight end Jermaine Wiggins. The terms of the deal are purported to be 5-years, for $7.3 million and a $1 million bonus.

The signing goes a long way toward cementing one of the Vikings' key off-season offensive concerns. In 14 games last season, Wiggins hauled in 71 receptions for 705 yards and four touchdowns. Only a mid-season hand injury, and a lack of commitment from the Vikings' coaching staff to the short- and mid-range passing game, kept those numbers from being even gaudier. Had the Vikings not re-signed Wiggins, they would have been forced to sign a lesser commodity at a position that the Vikings--particularly QB Daunte Culpepper--came to rely upon last season in the clutch.

Wiggins' signing ensures that the Vikings have one of the top receiving tight ends and the top blocking tight end next season. It also gives the Vikings the option of passing on any and all free agent wide receivers, permitting them to rely on a primary receiving corps of Nate Burleson, Wiggins, and Marcus Robinson, with Kleinsasser serving primarily as a blocking tight end and a release valve. That might not be as spectacular on any given play as the offense was with Moss as the number one receiving option, but it should provide offensive efficiency and consistenty by forcing the Vikings to be more pragmatic and systematic in their offensive game-planning.

Wiggins' signing is beneficial in another respect. Signing Wiggins for $7.3 million over five years with a $1 million signing bonus barely puts a dent in the Vikings' salary cap allowance. On its face, it appears that Wiggins' contract will count just over $1 million against this year's salary cap. That means that the Vikings still have plenty of cap room to sign a legitimate linebacker--Edgerton Hartwell?--a serviceable guard, and a safety.

Tice Tales

It appears there might be trouble in Ticeland. Yesterday SI broke the story that Vikings' head coach Mike Tice was being investigated for orchestrating a Super Bowl scalping operation, whereby Vikings' players would sell their Super Bowl duckets through Tice's broker in California--with Tice taking his cut. Tice is purported to have strongly encouraged players to use his services.

Tice initially denied all allegations--purportedly made by a former player--but has since backed away from that blanket denial. Today, one day after the news of the operation broke, Tice defended his actions. Tice stated that, although he did scalp Super Bowl tickets in contradiction of league rules, he "never did so as head coach of the Vikings." That denial, along with an admission of having participated in the scheme, might be enough to seal Tice's fate.

League rules prohibit players and coaches from scalping Super Bowl tickets "for a profit." The logic behind the rule is simple--the league wants a cut of any piece of the pie that increases revenue from the event. By scalping the tickets for a profit, players and coaches deprive the league of the additional revenue that the tickets would generate if sold by the league on the open market.

Because the league rule is clear, and because the league views most revenue-robbing schemes as the height of betrayal against the league, there is the potential that the league will ban or suspend Tice for his admission, even if the league is unable to substantiate whether Tice orchestrated such ticket scalping as head coach. That likelihood undoubtedly increases if the league determines--as has been alleged by the former Vikings' player--that Tice participated in the ticket-scalping scheme as head coach, and permitted those under his watch to violate clear league rules.

Conspiracy Theory

Although SI has refused to release the name of the former player who turned on Tice, the article does state that the former player played for the Vikings in 2003. The article does not say that the former did not play for the Vikings in 2004, however, leading one to believe that the former player is disgrunteld, former defensive tackle/end Chris Hovan.

While some have questioned Hovan's ability to create a pickle for anyone other than himself, there is the temptation to wonder whether a future owner, through a current owner, might have encouraged Hovan to come forward with the accusation. If the league suspends or bars Tice next season, the move obviously would jeopardize Tice's future as Minnesota's coach and might serve as a basis for voiding Tice's contract.

And that just might suit Fowler's group to a T as it would relieve them of the obligation of paying off a coach whom they may not have been thrilled to have inherited, allowing them to put that $1 million owed to Tice toward the salary of a new head coach for 2005.

Up Next: More signings? Plus, do the Vikings already have their future placekicker?

Tuesday, March 08, 2005


Even for this franchise, the news was inevitable. With the Vikings milleniums under the NFL's mandatory salary floor, and with several holes to fill, the Vikings finally made a move that they needed to make; a move that most personnel people within the organization wanted to make; and a move that justice dictated that the franchise make. Finally!

On Tuesday, just before the closing bell on the NY stock exchange, the Vikings made their most legitimate and sure-to-be most profitable free agent signing since they plucked Cris Carter off the waiver wire several years ago. This time, rather than signing a key offensive player, however, the Vikings signed a key defensive player in the form of former Washington Redskin's cornerback Fred Smoot.

By signing Smoot, the Vikings filled an absolute chasm at cornerback, and can now legitimately claim to have not only two quality corners--with one being as near to a shut down corner as there is in the NFL today--but also can claim some depth at the position. The 25-year-old Smoot contributed 61 tackles and 3 interceptions to the 'Skins' cause last season and is considered a top-flight NFL corner. Despite his youth, he immediately becomes the Vikings' top cornerback.

The Vikings' new-found secondary depth, sure to be supplemented with the signing of a reasonable fascimile of a safety, will give the Vikings a rare opportunity to move former starters to nickle and dime packages--or to the bench or highway. All those options are dazzling compared to the options the Vikings faced prior to Smoot's signing.

Although I have lamented the Vikings' failure to sign a legitimate middle linebacker, this was one of the best free agents on the market. I still prefer building from the front on defense, but if you are going to break the bank on a corner, this is one the few corners that merits such consideration. Moreover, there remain other linebackers on the free agent market. And with the Vikings signing Smoot to a 6-year, $30 million deal with a $10 million signing bonus, the team is still somewhere in the neighborhood of $25 million under the cap and must spend another $10 million or more to get to the league salary floor. Surely that will buy a respectable middle linebacker.

What Else the Smoot Signing Means

With Smoot's signing, the Vikings have all but ensured that their target with the number seven pick in this year's draft will be a wide receiver, assuming either Braylon Edwards or Mike Williams is available when they draft. The signing of a free agent linebacker would cement this assurance. Smoot's signing also virtually ensures that the Vikings can take the best available player with their second pick in the first round--assuming that they do not package that pick in a trade for Jacksonville safety Donovin Darius.

And, at least for one day, there is good news out of Winter Park.

Up Next: More Free Agency Discussion.

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.

Friday, March 04, 2005

Puzzling Move--Are More on the Way?

Late Wednesday, the Vikings added what is purported to be a run-stopping defensive tackle in former Buffalo Bill Pat Williams. The local papers jumped on board with this signing, tauting the signing as the addition of a run-stopper extraordinaire. Vikings' head coach Mike Tice even stated that Williams was one of the Vikings' primary off-season targets. Hmmm...

Without question, Williams is a large body. Without question, Williams matches the physical requirements for playing either nose guard or under tackle. But there is some question whether Williams' signing should be viewed with any significant delight in Minnesota.

First, there is the matter of need. In the same breath that Tice lauded Williams, he also suggested that Williams' addition might not be so necessary. "We really like how Spencer Johnson played next to Kevin Williams last year," the coach stated, "and we think we can get more out of [Johnson] this year."

For once, I agree not only with Tice's assessment, but also with what that assessment means. Johnson did play well last year, very well in most games in which he saw action. And there is every reason to believe that the young player will only improve this year as he becomes more comfortable with his role and as he gets more snaps (assuming that happens).

That, alone, would call into question the necessity of signing Williams. But there was more. Much more.

After suggesting that he liked the Vikings' added depth at defensive tackle as the result of the addition of Williams, Tice dropped a subtle bombshell (if that's possible). "We really like how Spencer came on last year and like the addition of Williams. You might see Williams giving Spencer a break now and then next season."


The Vikings just dropped $13 million on Williams. Some of that money comes in the form of a signing bonus--though it is not clear how much. Why spend this kind of money on a guy who is going to spell a younger player who has shown the ability to play? I'd like to offer a cap conspiracy theory but there isn't one. Nor, apparently, is there any other theory that explains away this odd use of resources.

Second, there is the question of value. The Buffalo Bills were forced to let Williams go because they could not afford his cap number. At least that's what they said in Buffalo.

But Williams is an old 32--300 plusers tend not to age well in the NFL. Then there is the question of Williams' actual play-making abilities. While local pundits appear pleased with Williams' run-stopping abilities--the only real value in a 330/340 pound under tackle--others are less enthusiastic. One national NFL writer noted that, while Williams still has the ability to be a difference-maker, he often takes himself out of plays by free-lancing too much. The same writer states that Williams' freelancing causes him to have difficulty against the run.

Just to be clear, then, the Vikings signed a Siragus-like defensive lineman to stop the run, but that lineman is just slim enough to be able to take some chances (i.e., take himself out of the play) so that he cannot do the one thing that his physical "talents" would otherwise permit him to do? Sounds good.

Finally, there is a question of priorities. Tice noted his confidence in Johnson. That confidence appears well-placed. Moreover, run stopping has not been an issue for the Vikings, at least not up the middle. So why the addition of another player at defensive tackle? Why prioritize the position in free agency?

Unfortunately, there is no good answer unless the Vikings are so convinced that they will shore up their linebacking and secondary problems that teams will be forced to run inside against them next year. And that's not happening. Which makes this signing a bit puzzling.

Up Next: Are the Vikings Exchanging a Difficult Player for a True Head Case?

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Edwards, Williams, Roth, and East. Sorry DJ.

At midnight tonight, the Minnesota Vikings will be free to finalize their trade of Randy Moss to the Oakland Raiders for Napoleon Harris and the Raiders' seventh overall pick and seventh-round pick. With Moss gone, the Vikings suddenly are in need of a playmaking wide receiver, a number one wide receiver. The 2005 NFL draft offers two such receivers--Braylon Edwards and Mike Williams.

In a previous column, I tauted the virtues of Braylon Edwards. Today, I cover Mike Williams. And, should the Vikings consider defensive players with the number seven pick, they will have a choice to make, whether to augment a lousy secondary or upgrade an improving front seven.

Mike Williams

Mike Williams is a horse of a player, standing 6'5" and tipping the scales at 228. When last we saw Williams, he was helping lead the USC Trojans to the 2003-2004 National Championship. That was before he left school early. Before he tested NFL draft rules. Before he lost a year of eligibility and was barred from playing in the NFL. And before he embarked on one full season without meaningful football competition. For these reasons, despite his more generous physical attributes, Williams comes in second, albeit a close second, to Braylon Edwards as the top receiving prospect in the 2005 draft.

Everything that makes Edwards remarkable as a receiver can be said of Williams. Both have speed, both are tall, both are strong, and both fared well against good comptetion. And if Williams had played in 2004-2005, he might very well be the top wide receiver in the draft.

The Vikings have stated that they are not pursuing any of the top receiver prospects in free agency. That means that they will not be pursuing Derrick Mason or Plaxico Burress. Though the thought of Burress in purple does little for me, Mason would have been a nice addition. The Vikings, perhaps wisely, are content to abstain from what is certain to be a bidding frenzy for Mason. This suggests that the Vikings, understanding that they currently have only one legitimate receiver (barring a resurgence by Marcus Robinson), are looking at the first round of this year's draft for a receiver who will have an immediate, positive impact.

There are two possible scenarios for the Vikings when they prepare to make their pick at number seven. The first possibility is that Edwards and Williams are both on the board. The second possibility is that one of the two are already off the board--probably Edwards, for the reasons cited above. Given who is drafting 1-6 and the needs of the teams with those selections, it is highly unlikely that both Edwards and Williams will be off the board.

If either of these scenarios plays out, the Vikings need to give strong consideration to taking a receiver at number seven. But there are other options. And defense might rule at number seven.

Derrick Johnson

One name that has received considerable attention lately as the Vikings' possible selection at number seven is University of Texas linebacker Derrick Johnson. Johnson had a solid senior season at Texas, recording several sacks and rating high on the tracking list, but he comes with a significant caveat for Vikings' fans. At 6'3" 233, Johnson looks very much like a host of players that the Vikings already have playing outside linebacker. Do the Vikings really need another young, outside linebacker in this mold?

Moreover, if the Vikings truly are looking for yet another smaller, quicker linebacker, they will have several options later in the draft. These include Kevin Burnett (Tennessee, 6'2", 236), Channing Crowder (Florida, 6'2", 241), Darryl Blackstock (Virginia, 6'4", 239), Odell Thurman (Georgia, 6'1", 231), and Lance Mitchell (Oklahoma, 6'2", 244). The highest rated of these linebackers, Burnett, is projected to be selected somewhere after the 20th pick.

If the Vikings are going to select a defensive player with the seventh pick, there are better options. And, as good as Antrel Rolle and Carlos Rogers might be at cornerback, the Vikings would be well-served by improving the front seven through the draft and looking for veteran corners in free agency.

Matt Roth

One such front seven player is Matt Roth of the University of Iowa. At one time, Roth was in everyone's top 20. Of late, he appears to have become a victim of his "small" build. That simply makes no sense, however.

At 6'3", 279 pounds, Roth gives two or three inches to fellow defensive linemen. But that height difference, invaluable to interior linemen for the ability it gives them to reach passes and throw down large, interior, offensive linemen, is less significant to a pass-rushing end--which Roth most certainly is. With 30 sacks in his final three seasons at Iowa, Roth has demonstrated a quickness that will serve him well against beefy, slow NFL offensive linemen.

And, if you like numbers, consider these. From 2002-2004, Roth totaled 148 tackles and 30 sacks. That tackle total is astounding for a defensive end, averaging out to nearly 50 a season for an 11-game season. The Vikings' top tackling defensive end in 2004 totaled 46 tackles in 14 (12 regular season games and 2 playoff games) last season. Think Roth might help?

While some "experts" have Roth going as late as the second round, there is virtually no chance that this will happen. The word is already out that Roth is an overachiever--an NFL coach's wet dream. OTC has Roth as the 13th best player in the draft and going at number 19 to the Rams. But Cleveland and Cincy fan boards already have numerous postings urging their teams to draft the defensive end.

The Vikings could do worse than drafting Roth at number seven, but only one or two picks could be better. If the Vikings elect to go with defense at number seven, Roth looks like a solid choice.

But if Roth is too much of a reach for the Vikings at seven, and the Vikings are intent on selecting a defensive player, they may want to look due East. And that, following a brief interlude to discuss the Raiders' trade for Moss, is the subject of the next (next) column.

Up Next: Raider State of Mind.

Why Fowler?

I know that I promised more draft analysis and more on the Moss trade, but there is another issue that begs for attention and which simply will not, and should not, go away. That issue is why Reggie Fowler would be named the lead man in the potential purchase of the Vikings.

Since Fowler agreed in principle to purchase the Vikings from Red McCombs, countless hordes have debated Fowler's ability to complete the transaction. The most optimistic figures suggest that Fowler has assets worth slightly more than $400 million. Whether this figure is accurate, I will leave for the NFL to decide.

More pressing among my concerns is why any group would put forth Fowler as the lead figure for a prospective ownership group. Let's assume that the $400 million figure is accurate. To serve as lead owner, Fowler must come up with one-third of the proposed sale price of the Vikings, or approximately $208 million and some big change. That looks like a tall order.

Fowler does not contest the $400 million or the evaluation of his net worth. He simply contends that he has the means to purchase the Vikings. But, in addressing the means issue, Fowler often lapses into references of "we"--as in, "we have the means." "We" is not Fowler. "We" is Fowler's investment group.

For Fowler to come up with the $208 million or so that he will need to come up with to purchase the Vikings, he must either sell at least half of his assets or borrow against those assets. Unfortunately, Fowler does not deny what the records appear to indicate. Namely, that Fowler has already borrowed heavily against his assets.

That means that, to come up with the $208 million or so, Fowler must sell much of his assets--maybe all of his assets given the extent to which they already are leveraged. That's fine if he can do so in short order. But, in the long run, it begs the question of how Fowler can make a go of owning the Vikings in the short term?

Fowler has already stated that the team is not viable without a new stadium. Given the dynamics of stadium construction, even if Fowler were to build the stadium on his own dime, there will be no new stadium until at least 2008. Which means that Fowler not only will have no new stadium revenue to finance the purchase of a team that Red found impossible to make a go of with debt on a much lower purchase price, but also that Fowler will be attempting to control the team minus approximately half of his current assets, and likely the assets that are most valuable given the need for him to make a quick sale of those assets to purchase the Vikings.

But, again, this is not about whether Fowler has the means to own the Vikings. In the end, he may have just enough to purchase the Vikings.

The larger and more puzzling issue, however, is why Fowler is the lead on this prospective deal? Why put someone at the fore who, even if they have the means to close on the sale of the Vikings, would only barely have the means?

Numerous people have suggested that this is all about race. That the NFL wants a minority owner. While it might be true that the NFL would welcome a minority owner, it is unclear why the NFL would champion a paper tiger. Moreover, this claim suggests that the NFL is brokering the entire deal. Yet, unless the NFL is actually funding the deal, there is no reason for the NFL to back this particular deal as it appears to leave the Vikings in a more precarious financial situation than the one under which they currently operate. What does the NFL gain from havign such a weak franchise in Minnesota?

What is interesting about this whole case is that Fowler remains tight-lipped about his investment partners. We have been told that his partners are billionaires, but, with the exception of tossing out the name of Landis, who purportedly is but one of the other investors, we have been told nothing. But if Fowler has billionaire partners, why is Fowler, a relative pauper as a multi-millionaire, put forth as the lead owner by that group? What is that group hoping to conceal about itself? About its own interests and designs as members of a Vikings' ownership group? What is there that we ought to know about this group that we cannot know at present?

And if the NFL is in on this deal, to whom are they selling what?

I'll have more on this later, but feel free to offer your thoughts as I dish out some more draft thoughts including from whence Matt Roth came onto page one of draft day.