Sunday, September 30, 2007

Beating the Packers

For the past week, anyone even remotely interested in the Green Bay-Minnesota game today at the Metrodome has focused on what could be the two most important elements in determining the outcome of the game--the Packers' passing game and the Vikings' pass defense. Given Packers' quaterback Brett Favre's resurgence this year and the Vikings' continuing difficulties shutting down the pass, that's understandable.

Of course, a failure to shut down the pass has not precluded the Vikings from staying in the game against the arguably more offensively formidable Detroit Lions'--a team the Vikings would have beaten on the road but for a late missed field goal attempt.

All of which begs the question of whether too much is being assumed by those who consider today's game Green Bay's game for the taking?

For all the talk about Favre and the potent Green Bay offense, few have bothered to break-down that offense. Though ranked sixth in the league in passing with 817 passing yards, the Packers have nearly 200 fewer passing yards than do the Lions. Moreover, despite the team's lofty status among the passing leaders of the league, the Packers rank much lower in overal offense--18th in the league to be precise--thanks to an abysmal rushing attack that has contributed a league-worst 57 yards rushing per game. That's the kind of imbalance that makes even an uneven defense look better against the pass.

Packer backers will note that, in spite of the low rushing totals, the Pack remain among the league leaders in scoring--the measure, they will correctly note, that tends to matter more than rushing yards gained for determining the outcome of a game. Through three games, the packers have scored 82 points, good for a 27.3 average and tying Green Bay for sixth best in the league, just ahead of the Lions.

There are at least two misnomers in that line of reasoning, however. The first is that marrying a productive passing attack and limited running-attack that can score points equates to victory in the long run. While the Packers currently stand undefeated, their extant formula for success is doomed to failure against teams that have a better balance on offense as well as a respectable defense. When offenses tied so exclusively to the pass falter, there is no recourse but the three-and-out. And that plays particularly well into the hands of a strong defensive team like Minnesota, regardless of its pass-defense warts.

The second misnomer is that the Packers' offense has been the key to its success this season. That's not necessarily the case.

Although the Packers have averaged 27.3 points per game, they still face outlier issues going forward. Is the 16 point result against the Eagles an abberration or the norm? What of the 35 points against the Giants and the 31 points against the Chargers? While the Eagles rank a modest thirteenth in the league in points allowed, the Chargers are a less respectable 23rd and the Giants are an abysmal 30th.

There is also the fact that, of the Packers' 82 points scored on the season, the offense has produced 66. The result is a less-gaudy points-per-game average of 22 versus 27.3.

The maxim in the NFL is that teams not named the Colts require a modicum of success running the ball to win on the road, particularly indoors. That seems to disfavor the Packers at the Metrodome today.

Of course, the other maxim is that to win, a team must outscore its opponent. If the Vikings' continue to run an offense that caters to the throwback desires of their head coach rather than conforming to the dictates of the modern game and, more important, to the game being played, it won't matter if some of what the Packers have achieved this season has been a consequence of who they played and when they played them rather than simply the transformation of the Packers into a legitimate contender.

Up Next: Post-game.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Whistling as the Wind Blows

Our favorite local columnist is at it again. While recently admitting at least moderate concern about the direction of another local football team that has realized increasing problems since last year's change in the coaching staff, the local bard cannot decide where on the fence he prefers to be regarding the Minnesota Vikings--at the base of the rah-rah side or deeper.

This week, our local columnist informed us that, had Minnesota Vikings' owner Zygi Wilf known of the trade of former Vikings' wide-receiver Randy Moss to Oakland prior to the full transfer of ownership to his ownership group, he never would have followed through with the purchase of the team.

Although there are some problems with the local writer's attribution--namely, that Wilf, himself, has never publicly echoed the writer's imputed statement, that Wilf ostensibly had the right to veto trades during the time between the agreement between his ownership group and Red McCombs to transfer ownership of the team to Wilf's group, and that, as some purportedly close to Wilf have contended, Wilf actually supported the trade--there is more reason to question the context of the local columnist's attribution of this statement.

It is not as if our local columnist has not mentioned Wilf's disenchantment with the Moss trade in the past. He has. That moment came shortly after Wilf finalized his purchase of the Vikings.

The problem, therefore, would not appear to be one of consistency--but for one salient additional bit of information. Last year, while Randy Moss was struggling in Oakland, the same columnist praised the Vikings' organization for parting with Moss at the right time and picking up Napoleon Harris and a high pick in the NFL entry draft that became purported wide-receiver Troy Williamson. No mention was made at that time of Wilf's displeasure with the trade and, in fact, the columnist insinuated that the Wilf's supported the deal, thereby making the Wilf's look good, given Moss' struggles and the purported promise of Harris and Williamson.

Clearly, our local columnist is once again attempting to paint current ownership in a positive light, willing to throw under the bus the previous ownership to which he is no longer beholden. No doubt, the impetus for this most recent recitation of Wilf's now purported displeasure with the Moss trade is the fact that Moss is having another career season in New England, while Harris is gone from Minnesota and Williamson resides on the inactive roster.

By casting doubt on the Moss trade, and making it appear as if that doubt has long-standing roots among the current ownership group, our local columnist is attempting to cozy up to yet another local sports entity. In doing so, he no doubt also is attempting to make himself out to be the wise man for seeing clearly, where others apparently failed, to see the folly in trading Moss. Unfortunately for our local, current technology makes hiding from his past contrary statements more difficult.

The reason the local columnist's dramatic change of positions from last year to this year is newsworthy is not because it is unexpected. Rather, it is newsworthy because he continues to command a wide readership and he continues to be an apologist for the local teams' management and coaching blunders and quick to strike against those with whom he disagrees. That's the kind of sway that helps sedate a local fan base that, sometimes in spite of itself, really deserves better.

Maybe he'll pen a column this week lambasting himself.

Up Next: Post Game.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Tice Returns to Vikings

Actually, it only seemed like Mike Tice had re-taken the reigns of the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday afternoon in Kansas City as the Vikings managed their way to another low-scoring defeat. Or perhaps thats a bit too caustic of a remark--with respect to Tice.

Prior to 2006, it seemed inconceivable that any Vikings' head coach would ever surpass in stubborn commitment to a clearly wrong-headed way of coaching the level of stubborness more often than not exhibited by former Vikings' head coach Mike Tice. In just over one season as head coach of the Vikings, however, Childress has shattered all standards for measuring stubborness in a state that, heretofore, held itself forth as the standard-bearer on stubborness.

Enter the interloper.

After yet another game in which the offense proved incapable of moving the ball in the second half, converting on a meager 4 of 15 third down plays for the game, Childress again banged the drum of missed opportunities. In part, he was right. If only Kelly Holcomb had not played like the journeyman that he is in missing the speedless Robert Ferguson who was inexplicably open in the end zone, the Vikings might have eked this one out. But that sentiment misses the larger point.

More telling were Childress' post-game comments regarding how things work in the NFL. "You know it's always going to come down in this league generally to the last two minutes," Childress said, serious and ponderous as ever, "and some way, you have to will yourself to win."

One can forgive Chilly if he missed Sunday's scores given the return of his obsession with burying his face in his play card only to make horrible offensive decisions in the face of adversity. Had he seen the scoreboard, he surely would have realized the foolishness of his statement. Of the fifteen games played on Sunday, eight even arguably came down to the last two minutes. Seven, meanwhile, were decided well before the fourth quarter, with many of those games essentially decided in the first half.

The point, of course, is that, assuming a solid defense, which the Vikings currently have, and an offense drafted to do no more than not lose the battle of field position, the result, more often than not, will be close games. But that means, absent incredibly good fortune, that one is playing for a .500 record against most teams while conceding defeat against the teams that have not only a good defense but a good offense--teams like Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, New England, Green Bay, and Dallas, to name a few.

While the top teams are holding opponents under twenty points a game and scoring near thirty points per game, Chilly continues to live in his own world where the will to win matters more than having a modern philosophy on how to win--one that matches that put forth by contending teams. Currently on pace to tie last season's average offensive output of ten points per game, Chilly's offense shows no signs of getting better or even aspiring to get better. His post-game remarks suggest as much.

But if Chilly's words do not put a chill in hopeful Vikings' fans, consider Bobby Wade's post-game remarks. When asked about the state of the Vikings' offense, Wade replied that he did not accept the current state and added a gem. "I think our offense can score," Wade stated.

Up Next: Meaningful numbers. Plus, around the NFC.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Looking for a Distraction

The Minnesota Vikings travel to Arrowhead Stadium on Sunday to take on Kansas City in what many Vikings' fans are viewing as a get-healthy opportunity. Apparently, bettors have a similar view of the game, but in favor of Kansas City. The current line on the game is Kansas City by 3 with Kansas City and Minnesota sharing the lowest under/over on this week's big board at 34. Not even the Cardinals and Ravens best that pick.

If the over/under is off, it's probably will be either because the Vikings' defense stifled Kansas City or because Kansas City took a play out of the Lions' playbook and passed up and down the field against the Vikings. That suggests that this game will either be close or the Chiefs will win big. Neither presents a very appealing viewing opportunity for Vikings' fans.

But, if you're interested in putting a good face on how things are going with this year's Vikings' team, it's worth revisiting one of the disasters that put the Vikings in the predicament in which they currently reside. That disaster is the 2005 draft.

Despite having two first-round picks and eight picks overall, the Vikings can now officially lay claim to having one of the single worst overall drafts in modern NFL history. To date, the Vikings two first-round draft picks--Troy Williamson and Erasmus James--have contributed little if anything to the team and appear one more bad play or injury from being released.

The Vikings' second-round pick in 2005, Marcus Johnson, has been so unimpressive on the field that he cannot even unseat the current incumbent at right tackle, Ryan Cook, despite the fact that Cook easily ranks among the worst starting right tackles in the game. The Vikings selected Johnson after their preferred option, Mike Nugent, went to the Jets, who traded up one pick in front of the Vikings to take Nugent after then head-coach Mike Tice revealed the Vikings' intentions for their number two selection on national television.

At least Williamson, James, and Johnson have seen the field, even if only because they each were high picks and had to be played. Two of the remaining four picks never even played--Dustin Fox and Adrian Ward--while Vikings' fans undoubtedly have already forgotten the limited contributions of the remaining two picks in the team's 2005 draft--Ciatrik Fason, for whom the Vikings traded a fourth-round pick to move up to take, and C.J. Mosely, whom the Vikings traded to the Jets for current backup quarterback Brooks Bollinger.

No matter what happens in Kansas City on Sunday, it cannot get any uglier than that.

Up Next: Around the NFC.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Assuming the Best Leaves the Vikings Stuck

In Mike Tice's final season as head coach in 2005, the Vikings finished 9-7 fielding an offense that started Brad Johnson at quarterback, Moe Williams, Mewelde Moore, and Michael Bennett at running back, Jim Kleinsasser and Jermaine Wiggins at tight end, Mike Rosenthal, Bryant McKinnie, Adam Goldberg, Corey Withrow, and a host of other offensive, offensive linemen, and Nate Burleson, Marcus Robinson, Travis Taylor, and Troy Williamson at wide-receiver. The offense finished tied for 19th in the league in scoring, accumlating 28 touchdowns on just under 5,000 yards of offense.

Enter current head coach Brad Childress, who rode into town promising discipline and an improvement over prior years. Fans took Childress' words to mean that the Vikings would make fewer penalties on the field, the Vikings' coaching staff would have the team prepared to face the competition on the field on any given day, and the Vikings would win more games than they did under Tice.

Instead, in year two of the Childress regime, the Vikings, though improved defensively, appear to be treading water or regressing in other areas, particularly on offense. Despite signing arguably the top left offensive guard in the game, getting center Matt Birk back from a string of injuries that kept him out in 2005, trading up to take current right tackle Ryan Cook in the mid-second round of the 2006 draft, trading for former Eagles' offensive guard Artis Hicks, signing running back Chester Taylor, trading up to obtain quarterback Tarvaris Jackson, and revamping the wide-receiving corps, the Vikings' offense is more dysfunctional in 2007 than it ever was under Tice.

In 2006, the Vikings slipped to 26th in the league in points scored, accumulating 25 touchdowns despite posting 200 more yards of offense than did the 2005 team. While the rest of the league was taking advantage of new, offensive-friendly rules, the Vikings were busy learning an offense best suited for the pre-1980s rules that rewarded tough defense and a limited offenses.

That education has, it appears, continued into 2007, with the Vikings ranking in the bottom four teams of the NFL in points scored by the offense and Tarvaris Jackson ranking dead last in the NFL with a 40 quarterback rating--more than 15 points behind the next lowest-rated quarterback, Rex Grossman.

Those who defend the current head coach's system make two points when clamoring for patience with the West Coast offense strain that Childress has introduced in Minnesota. First and foremost, they contend, the system must be allowed time to take hold; talent needs time to gel and players need time to learn the system, proponents chide.

Second, though not nearly as often articulated, Childress' offense should be viewed for its holistic approach, proponents admonish. While the offense might seem to plod at times, that plodding helps milk the clock, keep the defense off the field, allow the defense to stay fresh, and virtually ensures tight games, giving the Vikings the opportunity to win any game on their schedule.

There are, of course, some flaws in the logic of those who support what is currently happening on the field under Childress' offensive system. Among those is the fact that the offense, though plodding, has not been milking the clock, going three and out well-ahead of the league average and having the ball less than the opposition in each of the first two games. Also disconcerting is the fact that, while the offense has had opportunities to win the team's first two games this year simply by doing the bare minimum, it has managed to do less than the bare minimum, accounting for twenty points in two games.

Defenders of the system contend, however, that the critical element is time. Give the system time, they bellow, and good results will follow. The question remains, however, for whom the good results will flow?

Assuming the Best

Last year, in a fit of pique, Childress responded to criticism of his offensive system by pointing out that his system would yield "a kick-ass offense" that would give the Vikings the opportunity to win every game. There is no reason to believe Childress thinks any differently of his system today.

Giving Childress every conceivable benefit of the doubt, the question remains where that leaves the Vikings going forward? Assuming that the Vikings rectify their offensive line issues, that Jackson begins throwing more to his teammates and less to the opponents, that the wide receivers become relevant for more than just their run-blocking ability, and that the tight ends become a functioning part of the offense--asssuming all of that--what changes?

Childress has made no secret of the fact that his offense is intended to yield the bulk of the yards after the catch in the passing game and that the passing game is set up by the running game. For the sake of argument, assuming that the Vikings at least occasionally run to their strength using Adrian Peterson behind the clearly stronger side of their offensive line, the Childress system could be very effective at limiting the amount of time that the opposing offenses have on the field and giving the Vikings a chance to win most any game.

For less accommodating fans, the salient point regarding Childress' offensive system, however, is that the offense merely keeps the Vikings in almost every game. Clearly, against superior offensive teams paired with strong defenses, the current system is futile. The current offense is intended to win games in the teens. With a strong defense, that's a possibility. But even a strong defense is unlikely to make consistent runs through the playoffs without the benefit of something more than a clock- and life-sucking offense that scores the occasional touchdown.

To be sure, other teams have ridden variations of Childress' system to Super Bowl victory. But while the Ravens and Bucs won championships running similar offensive systems, they did so not as a matter of choice but out of necessity. And they were fortunate to each have the top defense in the league in the years that they respectively won championships.

The Vikings' current defense is good, among the best in the NFL against the run and improving somewhat against the pass. But this defense is nowhere near as stifling as the Bucs' or Ravens' Super Bowl defenses, while the offense fails to meet even that low bar set by those two championship teams.

More informative than comparisons to similarly situated teams, however, is the contrast that the Vikings pose compared to other Super Bowl teams of the modern era. The teams that have had the greatest longevity among the upper echelons of modern-era NFL teams have been teams that have reversed Childress' formula, fielding good if not great defenses and great offenses. Whether one is discussing the Montana-Young 49ers, the Smith-Aikman-Irvin Cowboys, the Elway Broncos, the Manning-Harrison Colts, or the Warner-Faulk-Bruce Rams, modern era teams, playing under the pro-offense rules that the NFL has adopted, have stood the test of time while plodding offensive teams that have had occasional success have failed to repeat.

For Childress, the end appears clear. He might win the argument only to lose the battle. For, in today's NFL, teams that build time-sucking offenses predicated on keeping the games close, do so firm in the knowledge that those close games tend to fall on both sides over time. And while there will be blips favoring the home team at times, possibly long enough to result in a Bucs'- or Ravens'-type run to the Super Bowl, longevity is not the trademark of such offenses.

Up Next: Around the NFC.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Vikings Short on Alternatives in 2007

In losing to the Detroit Lions in overtime Sunday, it became evident to even the most ardent pollyannas among those self-identifying as Vikings' fans that the Vikings' 2006 question marks remain the Vikings' 2007 question marks. After two games, there are signs that quarterback Tarvaris Jackson is not yet ready to play for a team such as the Vikings, few indications that the Vikings' receiving corps actually exists, and far too many indications that the right side of the Vikings' offensive line should be jettisoned.

Add to these problems the re-emergence of last year's difficulties stopping the pass, and it adds up not only to a loss in week two but also a difficult road ahead for a team that could well start the season 1-8. After next week's game at Kansas City, the Vikings return home to face what has become a very competitive Green Bay team, before playing five straight games in which they undoubtedly will be the dog. After their five-game gauntlet, the Vikings have what right now appears to be a four-game soft-spell in their schedule, before they finish the season with two of their final three games against likely contenders. That suggests a final record somewhere between 5-11 and 7-9.

What's more disconcerting than their probable sub-.500 win-loss record this season, however, is how the Vikings fared in their first game this season against an NFL offense. Unlike Atlanta, which proved this week that it truly has one of the more inept offenses in recent NFL history, the Detroit Lions have one of the more explosive offenses in the league.

On Sunday, the Lions racked up 415 yards of offense, with 359 yards coming through the air. That might sound respectable given the Lions' array of offensive options and offensive coordinator Mike Martz's philosophy of going to the air early and often, but the final numbers only tell part of the story.

Prior to leaving the game early in the second quarter with an injury, Lions' starting quarterback Jon Kitna had amassed 167 yards passing with one touchdown pass and another deep drive thwarted by a spectacular interception by Vikings' safety Darren Sharper. If not for an injury that forced him to leave the game in favor of J.T. O'Sullivan with 11 minutes remaining in the second quarter, the Lions' passing numbers likely would have been significantly higher and the score probably not as tight.

With that said, the game was close because Kitna went down with an injury and the Vikings' defense made some big plays when O'Sullivan entered the game. The problem, however, is that the Vikings' offense did not join in the party. Instead, Jackson threw four interceptions and finished with a dismal quarterback rating befitting his play.

To be fair to Jackson--no matter that he might wish to take all the blame upon himself--the Vikings' offensive line was mostly awful against the Lions. Ryan Cook's play again raised the question of why the Vikings traded up in the draft to acquire him and Bryant McKinnie again failed to use his girth to do what those with big girths and purported mobility are supposed to be able to do when playing along the offensive line in the NFL.

Just as the stats in Sundays game do not, in an of themselves, offer reason for alarm about the Vikings' near-term prospects, however, neither should the play of two or three players. Alas, the Vikings have painted themselves into a corner at the positions where they are realizing their greatest problems. Because, whether out of conviction, pride, ego, hubris, or some combination thereof, the Vikings opted not to bring in a veteran quarterback in 2007 and found no alternatives to what they currently throw on the field to serve as the right side of the offensive line.

In the short run, these off-season failures will continue to hurt the Vikings. The question remains, however, whether the long-run offers any promise of a reversal.

In a previous column, I noted the free-agent largesse that the Vikings could realize as a result of their significant cap space in 2008. Unfortunately, the one position for which the current coaching staff is unlikely to be looking for a viable starter for 2008 is quarterback. The problem with that, of course, is that that would leave the Vikings with the same quarterback situation that they have this year. Even if you think 2008 will be Jackson's year, that's a precarious situation in which to leave one's team. And if you don't think 2008 will be Jackson's year, then it's obviously even a worse predicament for the team.

One local scribe who generally is wont to view the Vikings through rose-colored glasses but who has suddenly soured on them, suggested after today's game that another poor performance by Jackson might cause Childress to consider benching the rookie quarterback. That would be an appealing alternative to sticking with a struggling rookie, much like benching Hicks, Bryant, and Cook would be appealing options, if only someone on the team were any better than the current incumbent.

Up Next: Inside the numbers. Plus, around the NFC.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Lions Pose Test for Vikings' Offensive System

This Sunday, the Minnesota Vikings will face the first challenge of the season to their offensive philosophy. That philosophy, which head coach Brad Childress describes as predicated on the run with a catch-and-run passing game, could well be called upon to score more than one touchdown against a Detroit offense that favors spread options and deep routes.

What the Vikings' offense is required to do, of course, will be determined by what the Vikings' defense is able to control. Last week, the Vikings' defense held the listless Atlanta Falcons' offense to a meager three points, including 199 yards passing. That performance was aided by the presence on the field of Joey Harrington, Roddy White, Michael Jenkins, and Joe Horn.

This week, the Vikings' defense will face a much greater challenge to its new-look pass-defense as it travels to Detroit. Led by quarterback Jon Kitna, the 2007 Detroit offense already looks leagues better than its 2006 predecessor, both on paper and on the field. In addition to Kitna, the Lions boast a receiving corps of three potential 100-plus reception receivers in Roy Williams, Mike Furrey, and rookie Calvin Johnson. With an upgraded offensive line and the addition of former Bronco running back Tatum Bell, the Lions ran off 36 points and 392 yards of offense against an Oakland Raiders' defense that was among the league leaders in 2006.

Absent another week of multiple defensive touchdowns, merely slowing down Detroit's improved offense probably will be insufficient if the Vikings do not also find a way to score more than one offensive touchdown. If the Vikings' defense does not reproduce last weekend's performance, however, and the Vikings' offense is called upon to perform, we will have our first indication of whether the Vikings' offense is capable of playing to win rather than merely not to lose.

As good as the Lions' offense has the potential to be, its defense is loathsome. If ever there was a week for the Vikings to take the shackles of off its offense, this would appear to be it. If the Vikings can move the ball on first down and those calling the plays opt to take some shots into the endzone if and when the Vikings find their way into the red zone, this could be a very good week for the Vikings' offense. If not, it could be a very long week looking up at the Lions in the NFC North standings.

The keys for the Vikings on defense will be to put pressure on Kitna and to bump the tall and strong Detroit receivers off of the line. How difficult that will be is demonstrated by the fact that the Lions last week had three receivers with at least five receptions and fifty yards receiving, Williams failing to make that a foursome.

By contrast, the Vikings had no receiver with more than two recepitons and only one receiver with over twenty yards receiving. While Detroit's top three wide receivers were accumulating 212 receiving yards, Minnesota's top three--Bobby Wade, Troy Williamson, and Sidney Rice--were accounting for fifty-seven yards on five receptions. Though Adrian Peterson is a nice option that helps take pressure off of the quarterback and the receivers, if the Vikings don't take advantage of this relief valve, teams will soon take it, and the Vikings' entire offense, away.

Up Next: Postgame. Plus, around the NFC.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Williams' Deal Suggests Vikings Are Looking Ahead to 2008 Free Agency

Late Tuesday, word began circulating that not only had the Minnesota Vikings front-loaded their contract extension with defensive tackle Pat Williams, they also added LBTEs to the deal that, because they are virtually impossible for Williams to obtain, essentially will create additional cap space for the Vikings in 2008.

Under the current CBA between the NFL and the NFLPA, teams are not only barred from spending beyond a set cap, they are also required to meet a floor on spending. For 2007, the cap is $109 million with a floor just below $93 million.

Prior to extending Williams' contract, the Vikings were still below the league mandated salary floor of $93 million by $4-$7 million. While bringing Williams' guaranteed money forward to 2007 in the form of a roster bonus, the Vikings were able to meet the league salary floor. Had the Vikings failed to meet the floor, the difference between the team's salary for 2007 and the league floor would have been dispersed to the players on the team.

What's interesting about Williams' contract is that the Vikings have included an additional $4 million in LTBEs that the CBA allows but that everyone, including Williams and his agent, realizes Williams cannot possibly attain. The consequence of this decision for the Vikings is that the team will realize an additional $4 million in cap space in 2008.

In 2008, the salary cap is projected to increase to $116 million with a floor of $100 million. Assuming only Williams' LTBE, the Vikings essentially will have a cap floor of just under $104 million. But they will also be able to spend up to $120 million.

The Vikings could use the money in 2008 to re-sign players and re-structure contracts. Or they could take advantage of what could be a good year in free agency to fill positions where the team most needs help--on the offensive line and at wide receiver.

One of the difficulties of sky-rocketing salary caps is that teams consistently find the space to sign the one or two key free agents on their rosters. Only the truly outstanding teams, such as Indianapolis in 2006-2007, have more talent than they are able to re-sign or franchise. The result is that, despite what the free-agent market suggests in September of 2007, the free-agent well could be considerably drier come February of 2008.

With that caveat, there are several highly appealing players currently slated to become unrestricted free agents in 2008. Among those players are five-time, All-Pro offensive guard Alan Faneca of the Steelers, offensive guard Ryan Lilja of the Colts, offensive tackle Max Starks of the Steelers, offensive guard Floyd Womack of the Seahawks, wide receiver Bernard Berrian of the Bears, Washington tight end Chris Cooley, tight end L.J. Smith of the Eagles, and wide receiver Bryant Johnson of the Cardinals. Terrell Suggs of the Ravens and Justin Smith of the Bengals should also be of interest to a Vikings' team forever in need of pass-rushing help. In short, should the Vikings opt to do so, they could fill significant needs in the 2008 free-agency period.

And, of course, Rex Grossman will be available for the big spenders.

Up Next: Around the NFC.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Vikings Pound Harrington and Falcons, Childress Grouchy

The news out of Winter Park last week that made but a minor splash was the Vikings' contention that the collapse of the I-35 bridge over the Mississippi River was behind sluggish ticket sales. Responding to inquiries about a possible blackout, misappointed Vikings PR Director, Lester Bagley, contended that the collapse of the I-35 bridge had caused Vikings' fans to reconsider their plans to attend games this season and had imperiled the televising of today's game against the Atlanta Falcons.

Apparently, Bagley was not privy to either the Vikings' recent uninspiring play or the Viking organizations' arrogant attempt to cajole fans wishing to see the Minnesota-Green Bay game into purchasing tickets for the far-less-appealing matchup against the Joey Harrington-led Atlanta Falcons. Had Bagley had either bit of information, surely, as a well-paid PR director, he would have put better words to his explanation of the Vikings' lackluster ticket sales, perhaps offering a bit of institutional humility rather than yet another complaint from the Vikings' front office about the harm that the I-35 bridge collapse had wrought upon the Vikings.

Not to be outdone in the category of churlish comments was Brad Childress, responding to Vikings' sideline reporter Greg Coleman's patented softball questions. After Coleman essentially offered to get a room with Childress as a reward for Childress being "the first on to the field to congratulate Kenechi Udeze" for Udeze's late-game sack of Harrington, Childress' whining could be heard across the country. "At least we can put that question to rest now," Childress bitched, referring to questions about when we should expect Udeze to make the type of meaningful production one might expect from a first-round defensive end.

Never mind that Udeze still has only one sack in the past two years--one less than rookie backup defensive end Brian Robison had in his Vikings' debut against the Falcons--and that Udeze has zero sacks in the past two years at a meaningful juncture in a game. What is more interesting is the hint in Childress' boorish reply to Coleman that Childress was not all that pleased with today's outcome. The win, to be certain, was nice. But, for Childress, it appears, wins are far better when they come on his terms.

What went wrong for Childress today? Two things in particular. First, and most obvious, was that the Vikings once again won a game almost entirely on the strength of their defense. Unfortunately, that's not Childress' realm as the oversight of that unit belongs entirely to newly hired, soon-to-be-on-the-job-market Leslie Frazier. In fact, if not for the eternal hopelessness that is Joey Harrington, one might be tempted to argue that the Frazier-led Vikings' defense is already substantially better than the Mike Tomlin defense that propelled Tomlin to the head-coaching ranks after last season.

Alas, despite solid play from Robison and relatively good play from the Vikings' linebacking corps--two areas of concern against the pass last season--we will have to wait until at least next week to better assess the Vikings' defense. What we do know for certain, however, is that today's game could not have been won without a significant contribution from the defense, with the Vikings' offense contributing next to nothing yet again.

The other issue likely sticking in Childress' craw is the play of Adrian Peterson. While Childress undoubtedly is pleased that a player that he helped select high in this year's entry draft is already playing well, Childress seemed disappointed that the offense operated better with Peterson in the backfield than it did during Chester Taylor's brief stint in the game. An offense that operates equally under any running back would validate, at least in Chilly's mind, the offensive system that Chilly has put in place. That's not how things played out today, however, as Peterson clearly was the best offensive player on the field and the only player that made a difference in a Vikings' offense that continues to move with shackles draped over it.

In the end, the Vikings' won a game that they should have won and they did so with an impressive defensive showing and, all things considered, a marginally acceptable offensive showing. Now if only Chilly would speed up his evolution toward acknowledging that playing not to lose rather than to win is the formula for success in today's NFL, the Vikings might actually make a difference this year.

Up Next: Around the NFC.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Williams' Signing Necessary in More Ways Than One

On Thursday, the Minnesota Vikings agreed to terms with defensive tackle Pat Williams to extend Williams' contract through the 2010 season. A run-stuffing plug, Williams would have been eligible for free agency this coming off-season had the Vikings not signed him to the extension.

The Vikings' signing of Williams underscores the difficulty that teams have in finding someone of Williams' ability and health to man the middle of the defensive line. With a contract purported to include $9.5 million in guaranteed money, the Vikings' signing of Williams relieves the team of at least one primary concern heading into the 2007-2008 off-season.

Williams' signing does raise two other interesting issues, however. While team owner Zygi Wilf has expressed his belief that the Vikings remain two to three years away from competing for a championship, Williams' signing seems to indicate that a contrary sentiment prevails at Winter Park as Williams' current contract, and, presumably, his ability to perform in the NFL, will expire just when the Vikings would be getting good. A changing perspective at Winter Park could put added pressure on head coach Brad Childress to produce this season.

A second issue revolves around how the Vikings structured the guaranteed portion of Williams' contract. With $25 million or more left in cap space and a need to spend at least $9-10 million more just to reach the NFL's salary floor, Williams' signing was as required as it should be beneficial to the team. The question Vikings' fans undoubtedly will wait to see addressed is how much of Williams' money the team guaranteed in 2007. A roster bonus would guarantee all of the money and push the Vikings to the salary floor. Anything less would require the Vikings to bring additional money forward in 2007 or forfeit the money to the players.

If Wilf and his cohorts are serious about putting together a contender, the Williams move is merely the first step in that process. Given cap rules, the Vikings were all but required to sign Williams and to guarantee a significant amount of money this year. But that still leaves a sizeable chunk of money for this year--money that is wasted if not brought forward by restructuring existing contracts.

Up Next: Disgraceful Comments.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Thigpen Decision An Unfortunate One

On Saturday, the Minnesota Vikings pared their roster to meet the opening day limit of a 53 players. While most of the Vikings' cuts came as no surprise, one stood out as particularly unfortunate.

With a solid starting running-back tandem in Adrian Peterson and Chester Taylor likely to receive ninety-five percent of the team's workload in 2007 and Mewelde Moore holding onto the third spot on the Vikings' depth chart, running backs Ciatrick Fason and Artose Pinner were easy decisions to be among the Vikings' final cuts this season. Recognizing the writing on the wall for his client, Pinner's agent welcomed the news of his client's release. Fason, meanwhile, appears headed into former NFL-player oblivion.

Also relatively easy cuts were little-used wide-receivers Jason Carter, Cortez Hankton, Billy McMullen, Martin Nance, and Chandler Williams, tight ends Richard Owens and Stephen Spach, centers Kyle Cook and Norm Katnik, tackle Jimmy Martin, defensive end Khreem Smith, safety Patrick Body, cornerback Chad Johnson, and linebackers George Hall and David Herron. McMullen clearly sealed his fate with a silly personal foul against the Cowboys while the other receivers simply showed nothing on the field. Desperate for receivers, however, the Vikings nevertheless signed Martin Nance to their practice squad.

Among the more difficult cuts were the release of defensive tackles Conrad Bolston and Howard Green and safety Greg Blue. Bolston and Green looked promising while playing against mostly second and third stringers in the pre-season, but with question marks at defensive end, the impressive play of Brian Robison, and the overload that the Vikings already had on the defensive line, the team simply could not afford to allocate another roster spot to a defensive player.

The decision to release Green and Bolston could come back to haunt the Vikings if Pat Williams departs after this season, as many suspect that he will. As a hedge against Williams' departure, the Vikings have signed Bolston to the team's practice squad. But with practice squad players free to sign to any other team's active or inactive roster, that hedge is tenuous at best.

Of all the Vikings' cuts, however, two, in particular, stand out above all the rest--the release of rookie quarterback Tyler Thigpen and third-year cornerback Dovonte Edwards. Though Edwards would have had difficulty cracking the nickel rotation at cornerback this season, with Marcus McCauley winning the nickel role, it is difficult to fathom how Edwards could have fallen behind Ronyell Whitaker on the depth chart. He did, however, and the New York Giants nabbed him shortly after the Vikings released him.

Though Edwards' demise in Minnesota seems peculiar, more unfortunate is the team's decision to release seventh-round draft pick, Tyler Thigpen. Thigpen showed a strong arm and decent poise in the pre-season, despite playing exclusively with third- and fourth-stringers.

Thigpen's promise, alone, merited a spot on the Vikings' roster. Adding to the merit argument, however, is the fact that Thigpen's release was necessitated by the Vikings' peculiar decision to retain both Brooks Bollinger and Kelly Holcomb, neither of whom necessarily looked any better as veterans than did Thigpen.

Given Bollinger's poor outing against the New York Jets, the Vikings moved swiftly in the final week of pre-season to sign journeyman quarterback Kelly Holcomb, ostensibly to replace the soon-to-be-cut Bollinger. After Bollinger turned in a more encouraging performance against the Dallas Cowboys, however, the Vikings apparently had a change of heart regarding Bollinger. That left the team committed to what is essentially a rookie starter in Tarvaris Jackson, backed up either by Bollinger, who looked serviceable against Dallas and woeful the rest of the pre-season, Holcomb, who has not played yet this season, and Thigpen.

While NFL teams tend to retain three quarterbacks, the added tendency is to retain a clear starter, a veteran backup, and a young player with promise. The Vikings, however, have elected to retain a rookie starter and two backups with limited potential.

Though Thigpen was redundant from the point of view that Jackson is nearly the same age, Bollinger and Holcomb are redundant with respect to expected upside. Because the Vikings made a move for Holcomb so late in pre-season, however, the team left itself with no time to evaluate Holcomb, thus compelling the team either to retain both Holcomb and Bollinger or to make a decision between Holcomb and Bollinger without first seeing Holcomb play. The Vikings chose the former option, essentially forcing the team to jettison a player in Thigpen who has far more upside than either Holcomb or Bollinger, but who would not have been ready to play this year if called upon.

Thigpen's release makes sense given the Vikings' current quarterback predicament, but that predicament--one in which the Vikings are uncertain whether Bollinger or Holcomb is the solution as a veteran back-up to Jackson--was one of the Vikings' own making. Now, instead of having Jackson, a veteran backup, and a young player poised to push Jackson, the Vikings have Jackson and two career backups--a situation at odds with the team's stated goal of building for the long-term.

Up Next: Additions. Plus, opening-game preview.