Thursday, November 02, 2006

Too Many Olesons for Vikings' Liking

In one of the many episodes of Little House on the Prairie, Charles Ingalls, the hard-working, bad-luck, father extraordinaire, endures yet another financial downturn as the result of someone else's incompetence. Though crushed and in dire financial straits, Charles refuses to admit defeat.

With Charles digging ditches, Mrs. Ingalls strapped to the horses in the dusty, wind-blown fields, and the couple's three children providing what assistance they can provide at their age, the Ingalls are able to scrape together just enough money to pay off their debts and buy some sugar, tea, and coffee. Quite a payoff for weeks of back-breaking work. As Charles leaves the Oleson's store, Nels Oleson comments that his family has been lucky to always have money but that Charles truly was the luckier of the two men.

Nels' comment to Charles was a juxtaposition contrasting wealth and Charles' fortune of having a good family. And that was the moral of the episode--good family trumps wealthy, rotten family every day. Good show, but fairly silly insinuation that wealth necessarily begets unhappiness while poverty begets happiness.

The real lesson of that Little House episode for the modern era is that, too often, those who work hard get little to nothing for their efforts while others fall into money working less than others or working hard but without a clue.

This is a lesson that applies, at least in part, to certain members of the Minnesota Vikings--players who either play as though they have no clue or who simply have decided that, since they've hit the jackpot, it's no longer necessary to put in the effort.

Several Vikings' qualify for this ignominious designation in 2006, explaining both why the Vikings' offense continues to sputter and why the Vikings' defense can founder as it did against the New England Patriots.

Among those deserving of the aforementioned distinction are left tackle Bryant McKinnie, wide receiver Troy Williamson, tight end Jimmy Kleinsasser, cornerback Fred Smoot, and safety Dwight Smith. With every passing game, these guys look more and more like Nels Oleson, with apologies to Nels Oleson, and less and less like players intent on showing that their respective pay days were worth the gamble for the Vikings.

The Book

Bryant McKinnie came to the Vikings as a first-round draft choice with the label of being unbeatable. Prior to playing in the NFL, McKinnie purportedly had never allowed a sack. Apparently, he is now looking to make up for lost time as he wallows under the weight of a hefty new contract extension.

Despite looking serviceable compared to the frightening likes of Mike Rosenthal, Adam Haayer, Adam Goldberg, and Chris Liewinski in recent years, and despite consistently receiving Pro Bowl consideration, McKinnie has been anything but a rock at left tackle.

In pass protection, McKinnie is soundly beaten at least a handful of times a game--astounding given the limited number of downfield plays that the Vikings have run in recent memory. And on running plays, McKinnie cannot be bothered to get downfield--no chance he ever gets confused with the likes of Orlando Pace.

And it appears only to be getting worse for McKinnie, thus earning him top dog honors on this year's unimpressive offensive line. Honorable mention goes to Artis Hicks and to Marcus Johnson for their consistent penalties in the red zone and their otherwise inept blocking.

Lurking not far behind McKinnie in the race for least bang for the offensive buck are two members of the Vikings' purported receiving corps--Troy Williamson and Jim Kleinsasser. With virtually no pass-catching ability on deep routes and no demonstrated ability to gain separation in man coverage despite his purported speed, Williamson might trail McKinnie as most disappointing offensive performer for the buck, but he clearly heads the list of offensive players with one foot already out the door in 2007. One more TD drop might even seal the decision this season.

Despite leading the team in receptions, Williamson has foundered as the Vikings' top deep threat and continues to look more like a mediocre college receiver than a bona fide NFL receiver. No matter what becomes of Williamson, two years dedicated to nurturing a top ten pick officially qualifies as a wasted pick. With proven receivers available every year in free agency, taking a project as high as the Vikings selected Williamson ranks right up there with taking Demetrius Underwood in the first round.

Not to be outdone, tight end Jim Kleinsasser is quietly turning in yet another wasted season for a tight end being paid the big bucks. When the Vikings selected Kleinsasser, they gushed over his ability both to catch the ball and to line up in the backfield. Now, he does neither.

In seven games this season, Kleinsasser has a mere six receptions for 33 yards. That easily ranks him near the bottom of the league among active tight ends. And the fact that Kleinsasser has averaged 5.5 yards per reception tells you all you need to know about this $3 million-per-year player.

With the addition of Tony Richardson, the presence of Jermaine Wiggins, and the existence on the roster of other blocking tight ends with a seeming touch of agility, Kleinsasser's production was bound to be limited this season. But with the struggles of the offensive line, Kleinsasser has been kept in to block on virtually every play on which he participates. And that's only made his presence less evident and his value as a multi-million dollar blocking tight end that much more questionable.

Some thought 2005 would be Kleinsasser's final season in Minnesota. That wasn't the case. but it almost certainly is the end of the line for Kleinsasser in Minnesota in 2006.

Offensive Defense

While at least three high-paid offensive players continue to perform below their salaries, at least two base defensive players humble their offensive underachieving counterparts in spades. Leading the list of Vikings' sub-par performers in 2006--in a run-away--is cornerback Fred Smoot.

Smoot has tallied 36 tackles in 2006, good for third among Vikings' defenders behind Antoine Winfield and E.J. Henderson. While tackling has been an issue for Smoot at times, however, it is not what has most betrayed him this season. Rather, what makes Smoot's performance so miserable this season is his utter lack of meaningful plays.

In part, Smoot's zero interceptions on the season help explain his relatively solid tackle total. For Smoot has a high tackle total for the same reason that he has no interceptions--he gives a 10- to 15-yard cushion on virtually every passing play. That equates to easy catches and solid gains for opposing receivers, and plenty of room for Smoot to size up the object of his tackle. Ultimately, the ploy does little to stop the opposing offense and makes Smoot's $12 million salary in 2006 a bit hard to swallow. Bye-bye Smoot in 2007.

Smoot is joined in heisting salary on the defensive side of the ball by new addition Dwight Smith. Smith, like Smoot, has a respectable tackle total with 34 for the season in one less game. And Smith even has contributed an interception with a nice return. But what pairs Smith with Smoot by way of heisting payroll is Smith's utter lack of presence when it matters most--particularly against credible oppositon.

It's teams like New England--teams with solid quarterback and receiver play--that compel safeties to prove their mettle. Smith failed against New England. And, more telling, he failed to impress even against the likes of the much less talented J.P. Losman and Jon Kitna. That might be fine were Smith a rookie or receiving the league minimum. But for a safety earning nearly $5 million in 2006, that's not nearly enough.


With no useful free agents waiting in the wings and the trade deadline passed, the Vikings have no choice but to try to get through the season with what they have. Already, the team is feeling the pinch at corner, having to use an unprepared Ronyell whitaker in the nickle package and having to eschew the dime altogether. New England adeptly showed the consequences of such a predicament.

One solution is to put Smoot into the nickle package and to promote the steadily improving Cedric Griffin to starting right corner. The Vikings could also promote Greg Blue to starting safety and demote Smith to nickle and dime packages as an extra corner.

On offense, the Vikings remain short on options. The organization clearly sees upside in McKinnie as it recently signed him to a mammoth extension. But the reality is that, even without the show of confidence, there is little alternative to McKinnie with the lack of depth along the offensive line. Ditto the deep threat, though newcomer Bethel Johnson might be worth a try.

What's most frustrating to most Vikings' fans regarding the performances of McKinnie, Williamson, Kleinsasser, Smoot, and Smith, is that each of these players is hauling in a good chunk of the team's salary cap. That makes decisions on how to resolve the continuing problems at the respective positions that much more problematic and might force team capologist Rob Brzezinski not only to account for budgeting in these cases but also to prove that he is what he has always let others claim he is--a solid cap manager.

Up Next: From Somewhat Unimportant to Absolutely Necessary.

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