Monday, October 30, 2006

Time Wasted

It is the rare individual who is able honestly to say that they have not felt cheated out of precious time at some point in their life. And while many things rank much higher on a scale of events that deprive one of livable moments, few things combine the robbing nature with voluntary participation the way my viewing of the Patriots' mauling of the Vikings on Monday night did.

Give me a bowl of sweet, crispy grapes and I'll eat them all even though I know that, right around the corner, there will be a hefty price to pay. I understand the trade-off and except it every time it confronts me. In its entirety, the transaction is a net gain for me--more positive than negative.

Unlike the bowl of grapes, however, watching the Vikings submit to the Patriots had all of the downside of a painful experience with none of the upside associated with voluntarily partaking in an activity with, at a minimum, a downside of time spent. And the three hours spent only further called into question my decision.

After spending yet another first half killing an early game deep drive and settling for no points while also ceding an improbable 17 points to a team intent on showing Mike Tomlin why sagging corners and slow safetys don't cut it as a recipe for a pass defense against a credible quarterback, the Vikings stormed out of the lockerroom for the second half only to do more of the same.

For the game, the Vikings amassed 284 yards--on par with their season performance to date. That was good for exactly zero points, however, as quarterback Brad Johnson had fans reminiscing about Daunte Culpepper's final season in Minnesota. With three picks, all of them brutal decisions, Johnson removed any prospect that Minnesota had of staying with the Patriots.

But as dubious as was Johnson's performance on Monday night, the Vikings' defense and special teams coverage were far more inept. Laurence Maroney averaged 45 yards on two punt returns--one with the game still theoretically in reach for the Vikings if the defense would only return two or three picks for TDs. Punt returner Kevin Faulk chipped in a 29-yard punt return for good measure.

Defensively, the Vikings were non-existant and looked as bad as at any time during last season's lopsided losses to Carolina, Cincinnati, and Atlanta. The Vikings gave up 25 first downs, 430 yards of offense, mostly in the first three quarters, 345 passing yards, and looked rudderless.

One of the most telling statistics from the game is one that ostensibly favored the Vikings. For the game, the Vikings had the ball 30 minutes and 15 seconds to the Patriots 29 mintes and 45 seconds. Yes, that's thirty minutes, nearly 300 yards of offense, and zero points.

One drive, in particular, summed up the Vikings' offensive performance. Starting at New England's 45-yard line, the Vikings ate up a healthy 6:38 of game time, but moved the ball a mere 40 yards in twelve plays culminating with interception number one. Astounding.

Worse yet is the fact that the Patriots required virtually no time to score, cutting through the Vikings' sagging, Gopherlike defense with abandon. No Patriot scoring drive took longer than 3:57, despite three drives of 74, 86, and 93 yards.

Overall, it would be a night to forget. But the Vikings' offense is looking less and less comptetent over time--even allowing for the outburst in Seattle. That's an issue that even a soft schedule will not mask.

Up Next: APBs on Bryant McKinnie, Marcus Johnson, Artis Hicks, Fred Smoot, and Dwight Smith.

Defense Wins Games, But Offense Still Necessary

Through six games this season, the Minnesota Vikings have allowed sixteen points per game. Couple that defensive showing with the Vikings' offenses of the late 1990s and we might be talking about a return to Super Bowl champion contention this season rather than merely wondering how far a solid defense can carry a club that has yet to live up to even the most pessimistic of expectations.

In week seven, the Viking showed glimpses of a capable offense, putting up 24 of the team's 31 points against a team that had been yielding an average of 22 points per game. That total was not only an improvement over the league mean against Seattle, but also an improvement over the Vikings' offensive output of 12 points per game. And it reversed Vikings' trends of scoring fewer points against their opponent than the league mean and scoring well below their expected output.

But one game does not a season make. And that's why many remain hesitant to annoint the Vikings a challenger even in the not-surprisingly sub-standard NFC. A victory tonight, particularly with a reasonable display of offensive aptitude, would go a long way toward eradicating any lingering skepticism, however.

New England

Despite continuing losses of key personnel on both sides of the ball, the New England Patriots manage to remain competitive. Part of that is due to the overwhelming mediocrity that is today's NFL. But much more of that success is attributable to the ability of head coach Bill Belichek to retain the right players and fill holes with talent found late in the draft.

After a slow start in 2006, the Patriots appear to have positioned themselves for yet another playoff run as their division rivals move ever further back into the pack. Through six games, the Patriots have scored 136 points and allowed a scant 80. They have also hit right on their expected scoring total (EST) of 23 points while holding opponents well below their EST of 21 points, allowing a mere 13 points per game.


Like the Patriots, the Vikings have held their opponents well below their EST, albeit to a slightly lesser extent of -4 per game. On offense, however, the Vikings have not been nearly as proficient as have the Patriots, averaging a -3 EST. That number looks even worse when adjusted for the numerous touchdowns that the Vikings' defense has tallied this season.

For the Vikings to win tonight, they will need to accomplish what few teams have been able to accomplish against the Patriots this season--they will need to move the ball on the ground. The Vikings' numbers from last week suggest improvement in this area with the team recording 175 rushing yards. Ninety-five of those yards came on one play, however. And while all plays count, some distort tendencies.

For the Vikings, the prevailing tendency remains one of a weak right side of the offensive line and an over-stacked left side. That's spelled difficulty for the Vikings' running game, making it difficult for the left side of the line to open holes for Chester Taylor. And, absent a strong game from Artis Hicks and Marcus Johnson, that trend will only reverse itself by employing the play-action and the mid- to deep-range passing game that will force New England to respect the pass.

The numbers suggest a tight New England victory in the neighborhood of 18-17. But numbers don't account for home team momentum. Despite what the numbers suggest, instinct suggests that the Vikings will build off of last week's offensive improvement, prevailing at home.

Prediction: Vikings 23 over New England 22.

Up Next: Post game.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Vikings in Enviable Position

Coming out of their bye week, the Minnesota Vikings faced an immediate hurdle in the Seattle Seahawks. Not only were the Seahawks a team that had been playing well at home, but they were also one of the many NFC teams that potentially stood between the Vikings and a return trip to the playoffs in 2006.

With their victory over the Seahawks, the Vikings not only improved to 4-2 overall, they improved to 4-1 against NFC competition. That, in and of itself, is significant even at the one-third point of the regular season. With a 4-1 record against the NFC, the Vikings are tied with the New Orleans Saints and the New York Giants with the second best Conference record in the NFC. That essentially places Minnesota at the top of potential wild-card teams--should that be Minnesota's lot in 2006--since the Giants and Saints currently lead their respective divisions.

Even more significant, however, is that Minnesota has a better Conference record than the teams most closely on their heals in the race for a wild card. And, whether on the basis of head to head record or multiple team tie-breakers, Minnesota is favored even more by the fact that they have already beaten two Conference foes currently fighting for a wild-card spot in Seattle and Carolina.

Beyond the games already in the books, there are the games yet to be played. And, as the Vikings' future competition currently is playing, the Vikings appear to have a fairly soft remaining schedule after Monday's game against the AFC's New England Patriots. After the game against the Patriots, the Vikings face five teams currently possessing a losing record (with two games against Green Bay for a total of six games against teams with losing records) and face only one reasonably certain playoff team in Chicago.

But that doesn't do justice to just how bad most of the Vikings' remaining competition will be after the New England game. The combined records of the Vikings' remaining opponents after the New England game is an unbelievably rancid 23-35. Subtract Chicago's perfect 6-0 record and that ratio is reduced to 17-35. Subtract the Jets' smoke and mirrors 4-3 record and St. Louis' begging 4-2 record and the Vikings play six games against teams with a combined record of 7-26.

It doesn't get much easier than that in the NFL. And that's why even a modestly competent Vikings' team has to be considered a virtual lock to win at least ten games this season and, with any measure of offensive consistency, arguably could run the table or win 13 games.

Does that mean that the Vikings are unbeatable. Far from it. It simply means that the Vikings have a very soft schedule after New England with only the Chicago game being any meaningful measurement game. If Minnesota had games remaining at San Diego, the Giants, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Indianapolis, and Denver, that would be a concern. But, through the quirks of the schedule, a weak division, and a weak AFC East--with no apologies to Buffalo--the Vikings are on course to return to the playoffs. And they may yet return as division champions.

Up Next: Can't Miss.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Left Prevails

Apparently in keeping with the national trend, Minnesota Vikings' head coach Brad Childress loosened up his playbook on Sunday in Seattle, allowing his quarterback to throw beyond five yards. For good measure, the running back was given a shot as well. The result was a significant Vikings' victory and a crushing Seahawk loss. All tidied up with a cautionary bow for the Vikings.

The Game

Not everything went well for the Vikings on Sunday. Their usually dependable kicker missed a makeable field goal attempt, the right side of their offensive line continued to take utterly senseless penalties, and the head coach again made a questionable, albeit successful, challenge. Each had the potential to undermine the Vikings' efforts. And early on, it looked as though they might.

In the end, however, much more went right for the Vikings against the suddenly endangered Seahawks. The Vikings' defense continued to demonstrate why it must be considered in the top three of NFL rush defenses, the linebackers continued to make plays, and the offensive line finally provided a reasonable measure of pass protection and run blocking. The result was a late-coming, though convincing, 31-13 road victory over a team suddenly in dire straights.

The Vikings' predicament might have been other that it was were it not for a critical play in the third quarter. Tied at ten, a Seattle misfortune, the loss of quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, opened the flood gates. What ensued were numerous Seahawk errors and, ultimately, a Vikings' victory.

Post Hasselbeck

Minnesota scored a touchdown on its first possession following Hasselbeck's injury. But even with a touchdown lead, momentum and the outcome of the game remained in doubt. And, when the Vikings failed to convert an interception into points following Ryan Longwell's missed 46-yard field-goal attempt, even the Vikings' playcallers saw ominous signs.

But Hasselbeck's replacement, former Iowa State Cyclone Seneca Wallace, followed his first interception of the game with two fumbles--one of which he recovered, the other which the Vikings recovered for a touchdown--and another interception. And that was that.

And though the Vikings left Seattle with the object of the weekend secured, they received notice of one potential trouble-spot for a team currently on the rise. That potential trouble-spot is that, like Seattle, the Vikings are only one well-placed injury away from having what could be a successful season turn into a lost season.

Without Hasselbeck, and already missing two key offensive linemen and last year's MVP running back, Seattle suddenly looks a lot less like the 2005 Seahawks and much more like a team that will struggle to win games. Wallace is a nice backup, but that's what he is at this point in his career--a guy who spells the starter for a few games. And that's what Brad Johnson's backup, Brooks Bollinger, is at this point in his career. If the Vikings liked what Wallace did when he entered the game on Sunday, then they might want to consider shopping for a veteran backup to complement Bollinger.

Up Next: Inside the numbers. Plus, NFC News and New Debuts on

Friday, October 20, 2006

Right Versus Left

The Minnesota Vikings begin their post-bye week season this Sunday when the travel to the Shaun Alexander-less Seattle Seahawks to play in a stadium recently given the Department of Homeland Security's equivalent of a clean bill of health. Despite the 'Hawks' reliance on Alexander to keep the offense humming last year and Alexander's expected de-activation on Sunday, Seattle remains the favorite to put the Vikings a full three games behind the NFC North division-leading Chicago Bears.

Seattle's Numbers

The Seahawks are averaging 22 points on 306 yards of offense this season--right where they should be. What's most impressive about the numbers, however, is that the Seahawks have reached their totals largely without the assistance of running back Shaun Alexander and tight end Jerramy Stevens, and despite the absurdly high-priced addition of mediocre-at-best, non-producing, already replaced wide-receiver Nate Burleson.

Defense has proven to be the Hawks' achilles heal, however, with Seattle allowing 22 points per game on 315 yards of offense per game. The 22 points allowed is one less than the EPA/game yield, but still only good enough to be the median NFL defense in yards allowed and in the bottom third of the league in points allowed per game.

Minnesota's Numbers

The Vikings, meanwhile, have allowed an average of 16 points per game and 275 yards of offense per game. The 16 points is approximately two points below the Viking defense's EPA/game and ranks the Vikings fourth in the NFL on defense.

While the defense is proving as intractable as any in the league, the Vikings' offense is proving as futile as any in the league. In five games, the Vikings' defense and special teams have scored as many touchdowns as has the offense, with both tallying four TDs. For the defense, that's a nice per game ratio, not so for the offense.

Counting the points that the defense has put on the board, the Vikings are averaging 18 points per game this season on 325 yards of offense per game. That's approximately five points below the Vikings' offense's EP/game total. Even more disconcerting, however, is that reducing the Vikings' average points per game by the number of points contributed by the defense would leave the Vikings with a scoring average between 12 and 13 points per game, better than only the horrendous Oakland Raiders at 10 points per game.

No matter what one thinks of Vikings' quarterback Brad Johnson, he is not so incapable as to be producing a touchdown and two field goals per game. That's particularly true when the Vikings are averaging 325 yards of offense per game--twelfth best in the NFL. We've seen it early in the game and we've seen it late in the game. When Childress takes the handcuffs off, the Vikings' offense is capable of producing points. Most of the time, however, it appears that the cuffs are on and on tight.

One Brain, Two Halves

Childress undoubtedly is of two minds heading to Seattle. The left side of his brain--the creative though mostly dormant side--argues for an aggressive offense against a Seahawks' defense that has shown vulnerability this season, particularly given that Seattle has also shown an ability to put up numbers at home this season. Coming off of a bye week with plenty of time to wrench the rusty cuffs off of his quarterback, to take the shackles off of his receivers, and to creek open the playbook beyond page one, Childress would appear to be primed to give the offense a go this week.

The right side of Childress' brain, however, has proven stubborn this season. Unwilling to take his chances in a "wide-open" game (read "game in the 20's" in the Childress football lexicon), Childress has refused to attack vulnerable defenses in Buffalo and Detroit and preferred to play Denny-ball against Chicago's stout run defense rather than attack the short-yardage seems that the Bears' defense routinely allows.

In a perfect world, Childress already will have learned his lesson about playing too close to the vest against beatable opposition. Alas, this world is not a perfect one--particularly in Vikingland. And that means that, rather than learning the virtues of non-risk, risk-taking, Childress probably took from the Detroit game the lesson that the Vikings can continue to win by playing tight, conservative, sometimes inexplicably called offense.

That won't do against Seattle on the road.


The Vikings' defense has asserted its will so far, holding opposing offenses to its YPG and PPG range. The Seahawks, meanwhile, have been all over the map on both offense and defense, looking suspect on the road and good enough to win at home. If the Vikings go the brass route this weekend, Minnesota wins by a touchdown. Despite a post-Detroit mea culpa and pledges to the contrary, however, Childress appears just stubborn enough to believe that the Vikings' offense doesn't really need fixing yet. That will cost the Vikings a winnable game. Seattle 20 over Minnesota 16.

Up Next: Post Game

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Gophers Do Themselves a Solid in Letting Badgers Paste Them

While this site is dedicated to writings about the Minnesota Vikings, the Vikings' bye week offers more than ample time and space for reflections on Minnesota's other purported state football team, the Minnesota Gophers. And after the obligatory pasting at the hands of the Wisconsin Badgers, this year to the tune of 48-12, the timing couldn't be better for such reflection.

For those who continue to apologize for the short-comings of the Minnesota football program, the refrain has become routine. Darryl Thompson, former Golden Gopher turned WCCO broadcaster now auditioning for homer of the week, attempted to explain the Gophers' loss this way: "The Gophers came into Camp Randall Stadium, always a tough place to play, but especially tough this weekend. This was homecoming weekend in Wisconsin, the crowd was really into the game and that made it tough for the Gophers from the beginning. Then the Gophers, after moving the ball very well during the opening drive, had a turnover returned for a touchdown and it made it that much more difficult for Minnesota."

Thompson was attempting to excuse the Gophers' horrible play against Wisconsin by arguing the snowball effect--one bad thing leads to another which leads to another until the effect is irreversible. But, while the snowball effect certainly is appropriate, Thompson misidentified the catalyst.

The catalyst for the snowball that ate up the Gophers on Saturday was not that Wisconsin plays outdoors (something that the Gophers' broadcasters seem to believe will change the Gophers' fortunes in 2010). Nor was it the fact that Wisconsin scheduled the patsy Gophers for homecoming or that Wisconsin fans cheered the home team.

What the catalyst was today, was the Gophers lack of preparation prior to the game for a game against a good, not great, opponent. That combined with poor personnel decisions by the coaching staff--both in the form of recruitment of players and use of the players--began the Gophers' Saturday slide well before Saturday's game.

Sunny Side Up

But while most Gopher loyalists are bemoaning the Gophers' latest loss, albeit privately so as not to let on that they don't support a program going nowhere, they should actually be rejoicing the Gophers' latest accomplishment. Because the Gophers' latest defeat ensures that yet another Big Ten will look good to pollsters the day after playing Minnesota and yet another Big Ten team will move closer to playing in a big bowl game a day after playing Minnesota.

For the Gophers, making other teams look good, helping other teams qualify for bowl games and get closer to bowl games that pay big, that's what "big time" football is all about. Because, for the Gophers, playing in the black is only possible these days by not spoiling the cash cow that is their opponents.

Up Next: Vikings' Stuff.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Vikings Need Push After Bye

At 3-2 the Minnesota Vikings enter their 2006 bye week two wins better off then they were at the same point last season. And while the Vikings' offensive dysfunction has been a concern, the play of the defense and the team's ability to stay in games against every team that they have played this season gives reason for optimism for the rest of the season--assuming Vikings' head coach Brad Childress is able to reintroduce offense into the Vikings' game plans for the remainder of the season.

What's Left

With five games in the books, the Vikings stand a better than even chance of making the post-season this year. But to qualify for the playoffs, the Vikings probably will need to do better than their current eighteen-points-per-game average. Of the Vikings' ten remaining opponents (two games are against Green Bay), all but two have put up thirty points at least once this season. And all but one appears yet or again capable of doing so, even against a much improved Minnesota defense.

While the 3-2 record suggests that Minnesota is finding its way, how one views that record--and the Vikings' chances from here foreward--depends on what one cares to emphasize. On the positive side of the ledger, the Vikings' two losses were both close and came against teams with a combined 7-3 record. Missed opportunities littered both of the Vikings' losses.

On the negative side of the ledger, the Vikings lost to a 2-3 Buffalo team that was manhandled by the Bears last week. And the Vikings' loss to the Bears at home--combined with the Bears' very soft remaining schedule--makes winning the division very difficult for Minnesota. Add to that the fact that Minnesota's three wins came against teams with a combined record of 5-10 and there is still a concern about how Minnesota will fair against division leaders in consecutive weeks after the break and later in the season.

What's Left to Do

To make the playoffs in 2006, the Vikings probably will need to win ten games. Chicago merely has to play at its current level to win the division outright and the wild card is going to be tough to get with only nine wins--perhaps even requiring a tie-breaker to get in with ten victories.

That means that the Vikings need to be sharp when they return from their bye week as they open with a potentially crucial game at Seattle. Last season, the NFC wild-card entrants went 10-6 and 11-5. With parity reigning supreme in the NFC again this year, it probably will take at least ten wins to earn a wild-card berth from the NFC this year and conference games might determine which ten-game winner advances.

From where will those wins come for the Vikings? Even with the team's offensive struggles, there are several games remaining that should be considered near-certainties for the Vikings. Those games are home game against the Green Bay Packers (1-4), at Miami (1-4), against Arizona (1-4), and at Detroit (0-5). Those four wins against teams with a combined 3-17 record would put the Vikings within reach of the wild card, likely needing only three wins from their remaining seven games to advance to the playoffs.

The next tier of games are those games that the Vikings ought to win given the circumstances. Those games include games at Seattle (3-1), against New England (4-1), at San Francisco (2-3), against the Jets (2-3), and against St. Louis (4-1). Seattle either will be without running back Shaun Alexander or with a recently returned Alexander. Either way, unless Alexander's rushing difficulties this season have been attributable to his injury rather than the loss of two stellar linemen, the Vikings should be able to force Seattle into a passing game--something the Vikings have shown they can handle. And with a somewhat shoddy defense this season, Seattle should be vulnerable in week seven.

New England, New York, and St. Louis have all played reasonably well this year and should be good competition for Minnesota. But the Vikings get each of these opponents at home and, in what now appear to be three games destined to be close, that should make the difference between Minnesota winning and losing. San Francisco, meanwhile, is still a rung below mediocre by most measures and, though they are improving and get Minnesota at home, are a team that any credible playoff team must beat.

Victories over three of these five teams should suffice to propel the Vikings into the playoffs. And if that doesnt' do it, the Vikings simply will need to find a way to either beat a tough Chicago team at Soldier Field or what what could be a much improved Green Bay team at Lambeau Field in December.

A betting person would be best served not bettting. But if one must bet on something as fickle as an NFL season, betting on Minnesota to make the playoffs as a wild-card entrant would be a pretty solid bet. And betting on them having to do so without counting on wins at Soldier Field and Lambeau Field would be nearly as solid. In addition to playing the bulk of the tough part of their remaining schedule at home, the Vikings will face some severely flawed competition in the last eleven weeks. Even with games remaining against division leaders Chicago, St. Louis, and New England, the Vikings' remaining opponents have a meager combined record of 24-30. It might be early, but that's still dreadful and begging for at least seven more Minnesota victories.

Up Next: Where the Grass Isn't Greener.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Defense Saves the Day

With a head coach purportedly adept at offensive play-calling and working with quarterbacks, the highest paid offensive line in the NFL, and a defense that finally has begun making opposing offenses look only as good as they actually are, one would suspect that the Minnesota Vikings had all their ducks in a row this season. But one would be wrong in so thinking.

Through five games, the Vikings stand at 3-2 and in second place in the NFC North, two games and a tie-breaker behind the Chicago Bears. Making that gap seem even larger is that, on Sunday, the Bears absolutely throttled the Buffalo Bills, a team that the Vikings lost to as a consequence of a dismal offensive performance, while the Vikings were scraping by the dismal Lions.

The Vikings' final 26-17 victory over the Lions doesn't do justice to just how close this game was to being the Lions' first victory of the season. Entering the fourth quarter, the Vikings trailed the Lions 17-3. And, despite moving the ball reasonably well for stretches, the Vikings were still without a touchdown, thanks, in large part, to another red-zone penalty, conservative and questionable offensive play-calling, dismal pass-blocking by the offensive line, and some horribly inept play by quarterback Brad Johnson.

For the fifth time this season, the Vikings had a game in which an offensive penalty derailed a drive inside the opponents' red zone. This time, Bryant McKinnie was the culprit. On the first drive of the game, with the Vikings having the ball 2nd and 9 from the Lions' 10-yard line, McKinnie was called for holding setting the Vikings back to the Lions' 20-yard line. Minnesota got seventeen of those yards back but settled for a chip shot field goal on fourth and two.

Not until the fourth quarter did the Vikings really attempt to move the ball again, settling for numerous pass plays behind the line of scrimmage that averaged approximately zero yards and appeared to have no value as a mechanism for setting up other, less suspect offensive plays.

Even when the Vikings attempted to move the ball in spite of Childress' inclination to settle for two yards per play, the offense had to overcome the ineptitude that continues to be the Vikings' offensive line--a line that opened some holes through which Chester Taylor was able to run on Sunday but which, more often than not, failed to live up to its now clearly fraudulent pre-season billing, particularly with its shoddy pass protection. Against a ragged, injury-ravaged Lions' defense, Johnson was consistently hurried and forced to rush his throws.

And when Johnson did have time to pass, one almost wished he had been sacked to save the pain of watching another horrible pass. In what can best be described as the reincarnation of Kurt Warner at the Metrodome, Johnson did his best to take Minnesota into the bye week a game under .500. Hesitancy passing, settling for pass plays with no prospect of picking up the very makeable first down on third down and short, throwing passes to the opposing team, and tossing yet another pick, Johnson was the reason that the Vikings almost lost today rather than the reason that they won.

But Johnson and the offensive line could not have accomplished all of their dubious feats without the inexplicable assistance of Childress. One series in particular lowlights Childress' implausible accomplishment of turning a mediocre offense run by former, offensively challenged head coach Mike Tice into one of the worst offenses in the NFL.

One sequence, in particular, sums up Childress' approach to calling plays. Facing a third and one from the Lions' 34-yard line, the Vikings opted for a bomb--a la Mike Tice playcalling. That play might have made sense had the receiver not been in double- or triple-coverage and if the Vikings had intended to go for the first down failing a conversion on third down. But neither was the case. Instead, the Vikings opted to line up for a fifty-one yard field goal by a kicker who had just had an extra point attempt blocked.

The long field goal attempt--disastrous if blocked--would have made sense if, in attempting the kick, Childress had reasoned that his defense would be able to stop the Lions if the kick failed. But, rather than attempt the field goal, Childress called for a pooch punt. And that made no sense whatsoever.

Despite the Vikings' futility covering kicks throughout the day, there is absolutely no reason to favor a high risk pooch punt off of a fake field goal attempt over a conventional punt. The fake field goal attempt runs the risk of a bad snap and confusion on the line that could lead to a turnover and there is no discernible added advantage to the ploy over the conventional punt out of bounds.

Moreover, the pooch punt signaled that Childress had confidence in his defense to hold the Lions. And if that was the case all along, why not actually attempt the long field goal? Or, better yet, why not try to convert a fourth and one from the Lions' 34-yard line? And if none of that made sense to Childress, then why not run a high percentage play on third and one rather than a high risk bomb? Maybe Childress was trying to show that a similar unwarranted and unsuccessful risk that he took against Chicago really does work. Or maybe Childress isn't quite the offensive guru that he purports to be.

Should the Vikings fail to reach the playoffs this season, Childress' offensive playcalling and his work with the offensive line will head the list of failures. And that might start a din within the Metrodome, sooner rather than later, of calls for yet another new head coach--defensive coordinator Mike Tomlin.

Up Next: Numbers and more numb-ers.

EPT Spells WIN for Vikings

The Minnesota Vikings continue to hold their opponents to fewer points than expected per yardage allowed and the offense continues to put up impressive yardage statistics for what can most positively be referred to as a conservative offense.

What Minnesota has not done well, however, is what matters most. In each of the team's games this season, the Vikings have been held to less than their expected point total (EPT). In weeks one through three the trend was understandable as the Vikings were facing three of the NFL's better defenses.

In week four, however, the Vikings faced a Buffalo Bill's team that had allowed 28 points in a home loss to the New York Jets in week three. What's most maddening is that the Jets exceeded their EPT against Buffalo by 10 points. The Vikings, meanwhile, were able to convert 330 yards of offense into a mere 12 points--nearly half of their EPT.

Purple and Blue Sunday

To date, the Vikings' defense has been four points better than its EPT would suggest, allowing 16 points per game for every 290 yards of offense it has allowed. Unfortunately, the Vikings' offense has squandered the defense's efforts, scoring a meager 16 points for every 325 yards of offense.

On Sunday, the Vikings face a Detroit Lions' team that has averaged 18 points per 325 yards of offense--four points less than their EPT. The Lions' defense has yielded 29 points per every 370 yards of offense--three points more than the EPT.

With safety Kenoy Kennedy officially out for Sunday's game, this should be an opporutnity for the Vikings' receivers to rediscover the catch. And that would, could, and should help the Vikings' running game, which, in turn should help the passing game...

With the Vikings' scoring four below their EPT and the Lions yielding three above the EPT for their defense, Minnesota should expect to score within one of their EPT. Detroit is getting crushed through the air, but has been tight against the run. If Minnesota can exploit Detroit's secondary weaknesses, they should be able to put up 350 yards of offense. The combined EPTs of Minnesota's offense and Detroit's defense would thus yield 23 points for the Vikings.

The Vikings have been pretty tough against both the run and the pass, though more susceptible to the pass, particularly when the pass is thrown the way of Fred Smoot. Still, the Lions are having similar problems to the Vikings' on offense. With a minus four EPT and 325 yards of offense per game, the Lions EPT against Minnesota on Sunday is 19.

Prediction: Minnesota 23 over Lions 19.

Up Next: Post Game.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Other Team's Malcontents Could Become Vikings'. . . .

It's no secret that the Minnesota Vikings are in the market for a quality wide receiver who can spread the field. Nor is it a secret that such a commodity is in scarce supply in the NFL.

But the latter doesn't necessarily mean that the Vikings' search cannot bare fruit. It just depends on what kind of fruit and with what types of bruises the Vikings are willing to accept the few receivers that are or could become available at this time of year.

Yesterday, the Vikings shared in glimpsing what could become one of the most remarkable transformations of a team's in-season receiving fortunes when Oakland Raider Randy Moss expressed his dissatisfaction with the leadership of the Raiders and intimated his desire to be traded. That, combined with Jerry Porter's weekly status as inactive, and the trade of Doug Gabriel to New England, officially signals the end of a Raiders' receiving corps that looked as deep as any in the league entering the season.

And that could work to the Vikings' advantage--or disadvantage--if the Vikings elect to jump into what is certain to be modest bidding for two receivers that have fallen out of favor in the Bay area--Moss and Porter.

When reports first surfaced that the Raiders were shopping Porter, the 2006 season had not yet begun, Porter was still a functioning member of the team, and Oakland was looking for a first-round pick and a starter for Porter. Wisely, there were no buyers.

After de-activating Porter for each of the Raiders' games this season, the Raiders reportedly have modified their asking price for their former star wide-out. That means that the Raiders are now virtually willing to pay a team to take Porter and whatever remains of his current contract off their hands. Surely, the asking price can be no higher than a third- or fourth-round pick at this point, and a fifth-round swap would seem fair.

Because Moss remains on the active roster and starts as the only capable wide receiver on a team without a running back or a quarterback and with a coach stuck on Ground Hog's day, the Raiders would like to think that Moss would fetch a higher price than would Porter. But Moss' history of being a malcontent in the face of adversity, his disrespect for his coaches, and his high contract terms greatly reduce Moss' market value--no matter his continued physical ability.

Enter Minnesota. With the Vikings struggling to stretch the field, the fans restless for a semblance of an offense, many other fans unwilling to attend games featuring a battle of field-goal kickers and missed opportunities with no hope of burning the opponent, the Vikings' front office faces a quandry. Does it draw a new, perhaps different kind of line in the sand regarding team morals and make a play for both Porter and Moss or does it resign itself to what it has now--a bunch of receivers who cannot catch the ball?

Porter and Moss no doubt would provide some fireworks on the field and reintroduce the catch to the Vikings' football lexicon. But are the fireworks behind the scenes, on the sidelines, and off the field worth the return? That depends on what the Vikings expect on the field this year and at the box office.

Up Next: Meow Redux. Plus, lying numbers.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

The Value of Focus

When the Minnesota Vikings relieved former head coach Mike Tice of his duties and brought in former Philadelphia Eagles' offensive coordinator Brad Childress as his replacement, one of the primary justifications was that Tice had failed in disciplining his players. Childress was believed to be a task master and disciplinarian for whom players nevertheless enjoyed playing.

In 2005, the Vikings were among the most penalized teams in the NFL for the third straight season. With the addition of veterans Steve Hutchinson and Artis Hicks on the offensive line, the return of center Matt Birk, and the addition of Childress, the Vikings believed that, at a minimum, they had resolved the bulk of the on-field discipline problems that had plagued the Vikings for the past three season.

After four games, the evidence suggests that the job is more challenging than either the Vikings or Childress believed it to be, as the Vikings have averaged nearly ten penalties per game. And while some of the penalty calls have seemed outright absurd, the vast majority have been warranted even in slow motion and have cost the Vikings dearly in terms of field position, scoring opportunities, and/or defensive stop opportunities.

While it is possible to trace the probable effects of some of the Vikings' penalties by pointing to specific penalties and the subsequent drive outcomes, more beneficial for understanding the effects of penalties is a look at how penalties correlate with scoring and wins and losses.

Four games into the 2006 season, the Vikings' lead the NFL with thirty-eight penalties. That's four more than second-place Washington, fourteen more than the NFL median of 24, nineteen more in one more game than usual league penalty leader Oakland, and, if you want to see disciplined, thirty-two more than Pittsburgh, which has a mere six penalties in three games this season.

What have those penalties cost the Vikings this season? In yardage, the Vikings have been penalized a total of 275 yards. While that yardage doesn't include plays that were lost as a result of a penalty, it still tells plenty about a team that has had its games decided by an average of 3.5 points. For 275 yards of penalties equals an expected net return of eighteen points. With twelve more penalties last Sunday, the Vikings arguably have their own lack of focus to thank for not pulling out at least a close victory over Buffalo.

Up Next: Around the NFL. Plus, where goeth the offensive guru?

Sunday, October 01, 2006


Before Sunday afternoon's game against the Buffalo Bills, the Minnesota Vikings believed that they were on the cusp of a break-through. After three consecutive weeks playing some of the league's top defensive teams, the Vikings thought that they were catching at least a bit of a break against the good, but not uber good Bills' defense.

Either the Vikings misassessed the Bills' defense or they grossly overestimated the ability of their own offense. And, unless my eyes are deceiving me, it is the latter to which the Vikings primarily can point for their loss on Sunday.

The Problems

Throughout the off-season, the Vikings attempted to persuade their fans that their receiving corps had the possession receiver it needed in Travis Taylor, a red-zone threat in Marcus Robinson, and a deep threat in Troy Williamson. So far, only Robinson even remotely resembles the bill of fare promised fans in a receiving corps that looks less and less capable each week.

The problems for the receivers begin with an inability to catch the ball. Against Buffalo, Troy Williamson contributed two drops on well thrown balls to two receptions, Robinson contributed several catches and a touchdown but also one glaring drop that could have meant the difference between an ugly win and an uglier loss, and Taylor seemed more bystander than contributor, with the exception of his ill-timed pass interference penalty, catching four passes for a pedestrian 28 yards.

If the Vikings hope to have a legitimate offense sometime this season, they will need to have much more of a contribution from the receiving corps. That starts with having a possession receiver who can get open in crunch time, a red zone threat who holds onto the critical pass at the critical time, and a deep threat who actually is a deep threat.

Most alarming for the Vikings' receiving corps, though not the least bit surprising, is the poor play of last year's number seven pick in the draft, Troy Williamson. Williamson not only continues to drop passes that NFL receivers routinely catch, he also seems utterly incapable of gaining separation from the defender. As was the case last week against Chicago, the Buffalo Bills found Williamson eminently coverable by man defense.

Williamsons' persistent dropsies and inability to stretch the field have created a predicament for the Vikings who put all of the eggs in the Williamson basket once Koren Robinson properly was dismissed from the squad. At present, there is but one option on the market. And that option is only palatable from the perspective of the Vikings' absolute need for a deep threat. That option is current Oakland Raider Jerry Porter, currently residing on the inactive list.

Porter's tendency to spout off about coaching moves, his seeming me-first attitude, and his complete obliviousness as to how to resolve his differences with the Raiders make trading for Porter a questionable proposition for the Vikings. At this point, however, it's a toss up whether a trade for Porter is any more dubious than would be sticking with Williamson as the deep threat.

If only the Vikings' offensive problems could be laid entirely at the the feet of the sub-par receiving corps. Unfortunately, the Vikings' offense has at least three other significant issues with which the coaching staff must soon deal. All three were on display on Sunday.

A contributing factor to the poor showing of the Vikings' receiving corps the past two weeks has been the less than stellar play of Vikings' quarterback Brad Johnson. On Sunday, Johnson threw for 267 yards, but he had to throw the ball 44 times to reach that mark. And of those 44 passes, two were picked--and both picks were entirely on Johnson. Presumably, that's not the kind of play that Vikings' head coach Brad Childress had in mind when he dubbed Johnson his "protect the ball and make smart plays" quarterback.

Johnson can be forgiven some of his poor play, however, given his lackluster receiving corps and his apparently well-overpaid offensive line. Against Buffalo, the Vikings tallied a meager 63 yards rushing despite the Vikings' offensive linemen having a sizeable advantage over the smaller Buffalo defensive linemen. No matter for Buffalo, however, as the Bills simply pushed their way through the Vikings' linemen on both sides of the line.

Adding to the poor play of specific individuals and units was the continuing and alarming escalation of penalties owing to nothing other than sheer stupidity. Rashad Baker nearly stole the show with two difficult to fathom plays for which the Vikings were penalized--one for interfering with the kick returner's right to field the ball on a fair catch play, the other for running into the punter. The latter play was truly remarkable as Baker had no opportunity to block the punt given his maneuver, but a near certainty of sliding into the punter, which he did. Nice work.

But Rashad's brilliant play was outdone by the Vikings' defensive line, specifically Kenechi Udeze and Kevin Williams. Udeze was flagged for two offsides calls, the latter on a critical play late in the game that gave Buffalo a first down and helped prolong a clock-draining drive. Not to be outdone, Williams again demonstrated geographic comprehension issues, lining up in the neutral zone two more times this week.

We could discuss the possibility that the Vikings' nearly non-existent running game is attributable to the team's reliance on three yards and a cloud of dust Chester Taylor, but that would shift far too much blame to players who have been called upon to do what few backs could do--run through non-existent holes. If and when the Vikings' offensive line begins to earn its keep will an assessment of the running backs be worthwhile.

What It Means

The Vikings are saddled with one of the lesser offenses in the NFL, an offense that, against Buffalo, had only one drive of more than ten plays, with ten "drives" of six plays or less, five three and outs including four straight three and outs, and no sense of urgency between the opening scoring drive and the mad dash at the end of the game. Even with a poorly performing wide-receiver corps, a mostly ineffective offensive line, a non-existent running game, and a quarterback who suddenly cannot protect the ball, however, the Vikings should have beaten Buffalo. But they did not. And if the Vikings continue to lead the league in penalties and persist in failing to take advantage of scoring opportunities, a season that looked headed in the right direction could go south quickly.

Up Next: Around the league. Plus, numbers.