Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Busy Wolves and Twins Make Quiet Vikings Look Relatively Competent

As the Minnesota Vikings begin year two on the Wilf Calendar--six years into a failed three-year McCombs' plan, two years into Wilf's failed one-year plan, and one year into Wilf's new three- to four-year plan--the Vikings' local sports enterprise brethren are making the dysfunction that has been the Minnesota Vikings look downright promising.

Yesterday, as the Vikings introduced newly inked, first-round running back Adrian Peterson to the fans at the Vikings' training camp in Mankato, the Twins' front office was doing its best to keep pace with the woefully inept Timberwolves' front office. And, when Tuesday morning arrives and Minnesota sports fans have had a chance to wipe away the bad taste left by moves made off of the field, there will be no doubt which of the three Minnesota teams playing in Minneapolis will be left the least tarnished.

Welcome back to the top Minnesota Vikings!

How did it happen so quickly? It wasn't easy. Or, it was easy, just not easy for most fans to conceive. The Timberwolves started the day off by letting leak the news that they were on the verge of trading their lone asset on the court, veteran forward Kevin Garnett--a player who preferred to stay in Minnesota and who had played his entire career with the Wolves--to the Boston Celtics for one promising, young player and some moldy beans.

Prior to the NBA entry draft, the Wolves had been in discussions with several teams about trading Garnett. At the time, Boston, home of McHale's only friend on the planet, former co-lousy GM of the year Danny Ainge, was said to be dangling the number five pick in the draft along with everyone that the Wolves are now purporting to be getting in the draft. Boston was also said to be resigned to taking off of the Wolves' hands either Marko Jaric or Troy Hudson.

That was then. This is now.

The new trade proposal is said to include two of Boston's future first-round selections along with virtually every player on the Celtics' roster not named Pierce. That leaves Minnesota with approximately 87 players heading into the season, out of which two are purported to be scorers, one is purported to be a "shut down" defender, and one is said to be an inside presence--when healthy. The rest are purported to be very wealthy and very happy onlookers.

One would think that with all the Boston garbage that the Wolves have agreed to take--said to be enough to patch any current and future holes in the Big Dig--the Celtics would be willing to take at least one piece of our garbage. Apparently, however, that is not the case. Where the Celtics were once willing to take The Stress of Both Worlds, they now are willing to accept only Garnett.

The kicker, of course, in addition to those to the gut already mentioned above, is that Boston's number five pick this year, the one that Boston once was offering but, of course, no longer has, was probably worth considerably more than will be two of Boston's future first-round selections, given what projects to be, at worst, a top-15 team in Boston for the next few seasons, with Garnett joining Ray Allen and Paul Pierce.

Thus, as Boston prepares for a much more promising season with two quality people and two quality players arriving to join Pierce, the Wolves will be looking forward to a season with no notable team leader, no face to the organization, little reason for optimism, and little of significance gained from the trade of their most important player in team history, other than the possibility of some cap relief in 2008. And even that limited relief from what probably will be judged as a primarily one-sided trade in the Celtics' favor, assumes Trader McHale opts not to trade away the rights to salary cap baby Theo Ratliffe at the 11th hour, as he is known to do if the right (read "wrong") offer comes along.

All that and the Wolves still have, in Ricky Davis, Troy Hudson, and Jaric, the three guys on their roster that they most desperately hoped to jettison after last season, with no respect intended the departed Mike James.

That's pretty depressing stuff for the handful of remaining Wolves' fans.

The Twins had no chance to top the Wolves on Monday, but Terry Ryan, who, until Monday, had never been one to wave the white flag before all the votes were tabulated, gave his best effort. By trading a decent lead-off player in Luis Castillo to the Mets for a bag of beans that might transform into a Denny Hocking-like player in the future, the Twins took a giant dump on their fan base on Monday.

As manager Ron Gardenhire attempted to hide his sense of betrayal, others on the team were less generous in their assessment of the deal with the generally cerebral Joe Nathan mincing no words in criticizing the deal, joined, not surprisingly by Torii Hunter, a player never fond of dealing a Twin.

What Gardenhire implied through his words and gestures to reporters and Nathan and Hunter outright stated, even the most loyal Twins' fan can not now escape feeling. The Twins dumped Castillo to save $2 million in salary.

Ryan suggested that the Twins made the move to free up space and or money to make other moves. But Twins' fans have heard this song and dance before. And, usually, the Twins fail to add the piece for which they purportedly had worked so hard to create a position. Expect the same this year, not because the Twins will get bested in their bid for a player, but because this move was all along intended as a salary dump.

The best case scenario out of the Twins' move on Monday is that one or both of the low-level players that Ryan picked up in the trade will make it to the majors or provide some other equally valuable return to the Twins somewhere down the road. But it is difficult to see how that can help the Twins this year or next year, particularly when the Twins have removed from their everyday roster a player with a respectable OPS and batting average and a player that plays as part of the team. No chance Alexi Casilla--who has already failed in one appearance this season--is ready to assume that role yet for the Twins. Nor, clearly, is Nick Punto.

The Twins didn't outshine the Wolves in this day of suspect trades in Minnesota sports, but they did place their footprint on the stench map. And, on a day when "everyone went at it real good" down in Mankato, that was more than enought to propel the Vikings back to most-favored-son status in Minneapolis.

At least for one day.

Up Next: Training Camp News. Plus, around the NFC North.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Carpetbagger To Minnesotans: "Read My Lips"

After purchasing the Minnesota Vikings in 2005, current Vikings' owner Zygi Wilf made two pledges during virtually every one of his many stuccato-like speeches linking family values to putting together an NFL team. The first was that he would return the Vikings to championship contention in short order. The second was that he would keep the Vikings in Minnesota.

Zygi already has renegged on his first pledge, contending now that building a championship is a process and one that will take "a few more years" in Minnesota. He now is doing his best to reneg on the second pledge, implicitly threatening to move the Vikings if the Minnesota Legislature does not soon fund a new stadium.

Most fans who have heard similar songs and dances regarding ownership commitment to the community have not been surprised by Zygi's increasingly aggressive comments since 2005. Initially, Zygi's overtures amounted to back door pleas with Minnesota State legislators to commit to funding a new football stadium. Now, they have become full frontal statements with fans left to hear, once again, the laments of a wealthy local sports team owner about not being able to make many more millions on a sports venture in the state without the public's agreement to build a new palace for the owner's team.

Yesterday, Zygi went so far as to compare his current plight to that of the Minnesota North Stars under then owner Norm Green. To say the least, the comparison is disengenuous, save, perhaps, for a comparison of the true commitment levels of the two owners to Minnesota.

Despite reaching the Stanley Cup Finals in the year before Green unceremoniously moved the Stars down South (where he lost his shirt after declaring that only "an idiot" would have trouble making money on hockey in Dallas), the Stars had trouble drawing fans and had no significant revenue streams to cover their arrears in this regard.

The Vikings, meanwhile, stand to profit somewhere between $30 and $60 million in 2007, regardless of whether they even win a game or draw a single fan. And, despite signs that fans remain unwilling to pay exorbitant ticket prices for a product that probably will not live up to those prices, fan support is neither a problem for the Vikings nor critical for team profitability at the current margins.

What works in Zygi's favor as he now panders for a new stadium, promising, "along with the NFL" (read, "NFL"), to contribute $250 million to complete the team's currently proposed $1 billion stadium project is that, as poorly as the team has performed on the field in recent years, the team still enjoys a substantial fan base. This large fan base can only help Zygi in his push for a new stadium.

What does not help Zygi in his push for a new stadium, however, is his lack of understanding of the Minnesotans on whom he is requesting assistance to secure stadium funding. Minnesotans are not fond of being told that they made a mistake in the past, particularly if they still do not believe that they have made a mistake. That's particularly true when the party casting aspersions is an uninformed carpetbagger like Zygi.

While Zygi continues to put pressure on the Minnesota Legislature to fund, not only a stadium but also a megaplex that Zygi can rent out, reap tax benefits from, and make a whole bunch of money for what, in the end, amounts to nothing more than lobbying costs, fans can take solace in the fact that, although the Vikings, in all likelihood, will obtain funding for a new stadium sometime before their current lease in the Metrodome expires in 2011, it need not be on Wilf's terms. For, despite not-so-veiled threats to move the team if the Minnesota Legislature does not act quickly on his request for a new stadium, Zygi has no place to move the Vikings, as there currently exists no available market for a relocating NFL team.

If the members of the Minnesota Legislature determine that it is in the best interests of Minnesotans to provide public funding for a new Vikings' stadium, it, thus, will have the benefit of dictating the terms of such a deal rather than having the terms dictated to them. And, when dealing with an out-of-state carpetbagger, that undoubtedly is what sits best with Minnesotans.

The irony of Zygi's comparison of his predicament to that of Norm Green is that Zygi has asked Minnesotans to "learn from the mistake" of letting the Stars leave Minnesota. In retrospect, the decision was not at all a mistake. Although the Stars' departure meant that Minnesota was without NHL hockey for a decade, it also meant that Minnesota was without Norm Green and an NHL ownership entity that had zero real commitment to the community. It is no mistake to end such a relationship, as painful as that might be to the fan base in the short term. In that respect, it would serve Zygi to learn the lesson of the Stars' departure from Minnesota.

Up Next: Chilly Wouldn't Change A Thing.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Vikings in a Box or Just Unable to See the Forest for the Trees?

Several weeks ago, when the option still remained, I suggested that the Minnesota Vikings give serious consideration to trading for former Kansas City starting quarterback Trent Green. Considered expendable by a Kansas City organization that believes it has two promising young quarterbacks, Green, who is coming off of yet another serious head injury in 2006, was a risk from a health perspective but certainly not from a performance perspective, when healthy.

Despite an asking price of merely a fourth- or fifth-round draft choice for an established and proficient, veteran quarterback, the Vikings never seriously considered Green. Instead, the Vikings passed on Green, claiming that they were content with their stable of relatively inexperienced quarterbacks.

Last week, there was a change of heart at Winter Park, as Vikings' head coach Brad Childress announced, somewhat surprisingly for the usually pucker-lipped coach, that the Vikings were on the market for a veteran quarterback. Unfortunately, the few even remotely quality-caliber veteran quarterbacks are now off the market, though Childress ill-advisedly appears to consider Kelly Holcumb a quarterback in that mold.

For solace, the Vikings can point to the quarterback situations of their NFC rivals and argue, albeit somewhat foolishly, that their division rivals also lack quarterback depth. The catch, of course, is that two of the division rivals have experienced and capable starting quarterbacks, while the third, Chicago, at least has a starter with some experience and a backup with more.

If the Packers lose Favre, they will be forced to turn to former first-round pick Aaron Rodgers. But the Packers never lose Favre and resorting to Rodgers would be akin to the Vikings resorting to Tarvaris Jackson--if not better.

If, as is more likely but still not suggested by recent history, the Lions lose Kitna, they can turn to Dan Orlovsky--probably no better a quarterback than Tavaris Jackson but also not the current starter and arguably no worse than Jackson were he to be named starter for the Lions.

The Bears, meanwhile, might be one of the few teams that clearly would benefit by having their starting quarterback go down. With an average at best starter in Rex Grossman, Chicago probably would benefit by giving Brian Griese an opportunity.

All of which appears to leave the Vikings where they were at the end of last season--forced to rely on an inexperienced quarterback to get the ball to inexperienced/bad receivers, behind an offensive line that last season had one dominant player, two acceptable players, and two miserable players, while chasing rivals who seem better stocked at the most important position on the field and without some of the glaring holes that the Vikings have at key, offensive positions--not a good recipe for breaking in an already very raw rookie quarterback.

While the Vikings have finally realized their quarterback dilemma, albeit probably far too late, there is a solution to their quarterback problem that appears not to have occurred to the team's personnel people or head coach as of yet. That solution is to take some of the gold currently in the vault and turn it into players.

By adding a quality receiver, right guard, and right tackle, the quarterback problem suddenly would become less glaring. Moreover, unlike the quarterback that the Vikings now seek, there are likely to be offensive guards, offensive tackles, and wide receivers cut by other teams in pre-season who would fit the Vikings' needs.

Of course, the Vikings would have to recognize their needs at the appropriate juncture and possibly spend in excess of the NFL salary floor to sign those players. And that might be asking far too much of this team.

Up Next: Does Detroit Have the Goods to Deliver on Kitna's Promise?

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Vikings' Searching for Veteran Quarterback

If the 2007 NFL season were to begin today, the Minnesota Vikings would begin the season with a quarterback depth chart that included Tarvaris Jackson as the starter, Brooks Bollinger as the backup, and Tyler Thigpen of Coastal Carolina fighting off Drew Henson for the number three spot. Suddenly cognizant of the lack of veteran experience among this trio of quarterbacks, the Vikings are said to be in search of a just such a player.

The hitch for the Vikings, of course, is that while the free agent, veteran quarterback pool at one time included capable starters such as Trent Green, Jeff Garcia, and Josh McCown, that pool now includes only much less appealing options such as the player that the Vikings are said to be targeting, current Philadelphia Eagle backup, Kelly Holcumb.

The Vikings' decision to seek an experienced quarterback to ease the team's transition to a new, permanent quarterback would be a good one were it not a decision that: (1) came too late to include one of the two or three viable veterans available, (2) included yet another Philadelphia Eagle that the Eagles arguably signed only to use as trade bait with Eagle-enamored Vikings' head coach Brad Childress, and (3) included a never-was quarterback such as Holcumb.

How bad is Holcumb? In describing Holcumb's addition to the Eagles' squad, sporting news skipped over an analysis of whatever it might be that Holcumb brought to the team, other than age and time on the bench in the NFL, and cut right to the chase arguing that Holcumb should not be on an NFL roster. That's got to be appealing to Vikings' fans.

In what can only be described as an embarrassment for the NFL, Holcumb somehow has managed to cling to an NFL job for an astounding eleven seasons. In that time, he has started just 21 games for three different teams, topping out at eight starts in two different seasons. In his best season of 2005--the season the Vikings no doubt cling to when assessing Holcumb's prospective value as a veteran presence--Holcumb started eight games for Buffalo, a team with a solid receiving corps, played in ten, and finished the season with ten touchdown passes, eight interceptions, and 1,500 yards passing.

Holcumb did not throw a single pass in 2006.

In yet another sign that Childress' arrogance comes before sound decision-making, the Vikings are near the start to what promises to be yet another season without a championship in Minnesota--forty-two straight Super Bowl-era seasons for those counting, with their position of greatest weakness and concern the starting quarterback position. Unfortunately, despite $25-30 million in remaining cap space, the Vikings opted to forego signing a viable, free agent, veteran quarterback in favor of pursuing the likes of Holcumb or, worse yet, perhaps nobody.

Up Next: Stacking Up Against the NFC North.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Bringing O-Line Back to the Future

With between $25-30 million in cap space still available under the NFL salary cap guidelines, and a need to spend between $9-14 million to reach the NFL salary cap floor, the Minnesota Vikings are left with two options. The first is to sign free agents that meet pressing needs. The second is to spend forward. Of the two options, the Vikings appear headed for the second.

Free Agents Wanted

The Vikings still have pressing needs on the offensive line and at wide receiver, cornerback, and quarterback and could be waiting for veterans on other teams to receive their walking papers before moving in.

Along the offensive line, the Vikings have as many questions as they appear to have answers. The most obvious concerns are at right guard and right tackle where the Vikings will enter the season with Artis Hicks and Ryan Cook as starters. Hicks, a veteran, played like a rookie last season and appears ill-suited to playing guard in the NFL. Cook, a rookie last season, played like a rookie. Without measurable improvement from Hicks and Cook, the Vikings will continue to be a left-favoring team and that will continue to put pressure on a team that now must rely on a rookie quarterback to do what an immobile veteran could not do last season.

In addition to the concerns on the right side of the offensive line, the Vikings will continue to hold their breath that center Matt Birk does not suffer a reoccurence of his groin injuries and that Bryant McKinnie matures into the left tackle that the team believes he currently is.

During the off-season, the Vikings made an attempt to rectify their wide-receiver issues by signing underwhelming journeyman Bobby Wade and selecting several wide-receivers in the draft, at least two of which are considered likely to stick in the NFL. The team also sent 2005 draft pick Troy Williamson to Beaverton, Oregon to work with Nike experts on hand-eye coordination.

Even if the Williamson efforts pan out, the Vikings remain a team loaded with inexperienced and journeyman-caliber talent at wide-receiver. With the decision to release Marcus Robinson at the end of last season and not to bring back Travis Taylor or Jermainne Wiggins this year, Wade becomes the most experienced receiver on the Vikings' squad. If the rookies deliver, the Vikings will breath a sigh of relief. If not, look for more of the same from the Vikings' offense in 2007 with the lone hope being that Adrian Peterson's presence will off-set short-comings elsewhere.

At quarterback, the Vikings are still without an experienced quarterback at one, two, or three. It's one thing to begin the season with a rookie quarterback at the helm. It's quite another to do the same without an experienced veterant to spell the rookie if things go too far south too quickly. Relying on Bollinger, Thigpen, or Henson to step in to fill the role of experienced veteran probably is asking more than any team should ask.

On the defensive side of the ball, the Vikings are relatively set. Counting on their defensive ends simply to perform better than they have in the past, the Vikings clearly could use help at end, but the market for defensive ends virtually begins and ends with the draft. At this point in the season, therefore, the Vikings probably will have to make do with what they have at end.

Other than needing backups in the middle of the defensive line, the rest of the defense appears ready at every position except nickel and dime corner. And that could be a critical short-coming for a Vikings' defense that looks to use more secondary blitz packages under new defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier in a league in which defenses must typically line up in nickel and dime packages to match three-wide-reciever sets.
This is a position that the Vikings must address before the season begins and there should be some relatively inexpensive options from among the pre-season cuts.

Future Spending Today

Given the unlikelihood of finding among the pre-season cuts more than one of the players that the team needs to fill its most pressing needs, and with cap to spend, the Vikings might be best served simply setting the team up for next season by bringing salary forward and relieving the team of cap burden in 2008 and beyond.

The two most evident ways to bring salary forward are to sign young players this year under contracts that include front-loaded roster bonuses rather than signing bonuses and to re-write existing contracts to bring onerous bonuses forward. Given the Vikings' current contracts, the latter appears the more logical and appealing approach.

With two players receiving nearly $30 million in guaranteed salary over the next six seasons, the Vikings are in position to add $5 million in cap space each of the next six seasons simply by converting Bryant McKinnie's and Steve Hutchinson's salary bonuses to roster bonuses in 2007. That money could contribute immensely to the team's future pursuit of a player or two to fill the large holes that the Vikings, very shortly, will need to fill at defensive tackle, center, and defensive end.

With 2007 looking less like a contending year and more like the re-building season that Vikings' owner Zygi Wilf has called it, bring cap forward makes considerable sense for the Vikings.

Up Next: Caponomics Issues. Plus, around the NFC North.