Thursday, August 28, 2008
The six-game preseason schedule was short-lived for two primary reasons. First and foremost, it was too long for players who accrued no games played under the NFLPA pension fund system for preseason games despite the increased risk of injury from playing additional minutes.
The six-game preseason was also far too long for increasingly anxious fans who were forced to endure the agony not only of watching sub-par players battle for jobs during much of the preseason but also of watching the money slowly drain from their pocket books. For, as owners looked to improve already generous revenue flows, they increasingly turned to the preseason to pad this cash flow, forcing fans to pay for preseason games as part of their season ticket packages--all with the NFL's blessing.
After several rounds of negotiation with the NFLPA, the NFL agreed to reduce the preseason schedule back to the theretofore established standard of four preseason games in exchange for what ultimately became the current seventeen-week format.
The NFL has long endeavored to make the NFL season longer to cash in on what has been a league-wide cash cow--game day revenue generated from ticket sales, concessions, parking, and, of course, the additional money that the league can ask in television and radio rights for additional weeks of play.
Everything has worked well for NFL owners and players, if less so for the players. For the owners, the money continues to pour in. Likewise for the players, though at the cost of playing games, while simultaneously enduring shorter rosters.
While owners and players make out, however, fans continue to be left in the lurch. Though fans truly have only themselves to blame for continuing to pony up for season tickets, thereby being forced to pay for preseason games for which most fans have little to no interest, the pilfering of fans on this front is not even the greatest of the larceny charges against the NFL regarding the preseason.
NFL patrons have the most right to feel aggrieved not for being required to pay for four meaningless games as part of their season-ticket package, but for having to pay for games that NFL teams have made even more irrelevant by refusing to play their starters for most of the game in any of the games. The final indignity is that most NFL teams now routinely use the final preseason game to play the fourth- and fifth-string players, resting the starters for the entire game.
That final indignity presumption assumes, of course, that there are no further indignities, which there are. In Minnesota, the further indignity includes having a head coach holding out all of his team's starters in the final preseason game under the guise of keeping to his vest his regular season plays.
The problem for the Minnesota Vikings, a problem evident in each of head coach Brad Childress' first two season in Minnesota, is not that opponents know the Vikings' best kept plays prior to the regular season, but that the Vikings' opponents have the book on a predictable offense. This year, the Vikings can add to that difficulty the fact that their offense is wholly out of sync in the preseason.
Old dogs, it is said, cannot be taught new tricks. As an old dog, the NFL has adapted reasonably well to a changing environment, often leading the change rather than being led by change. For all of its success, however, the NFL, like most institutions, needs an occasional face lift. For its part, the NFL usually recognizes its warts and takes action either to remove or hide the warts. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of all of the NFL's constituent parts.
Up Next: AP and TJ.
Monday, August 25, 2008
So irritated was Vikings' head coach Brad Childress with the play of his offense in the first half on Saturday that, despite every inclination in his sun-hat covered pate to the contrary, he marched the starters back onto the field to start the second half. If the intent was to wake up the zombie-like unit, the maneuver failed. After a poor first half, the Vikings' offense continued with its poor play in the second half, regardless of which unit they or the Steelers had on the field.
Entering the pre-season, Childress offered the cliche that the team's two goals were to improve every week so that the team was ready to "come out on all cylinders on opening week" and to avoid serious injuries. The latter objective has become one of degree, the former far from a reality. While injuries to Farwell and Jackson clearly matter, so, too, does the poor play by the offense.
It could be argued that, had Jackson played, his mobility would have allowed him to avoid some of the pressure that a strong Pittsburgh defensive front put on backup quarterback Gus Frerotte. But even with his scrambling abilities, Jackson sooner or later would have had to throw the ball or tuck and run. And there appeared to be little help in meeting either objective with any degree of success. Moreover, as bad as Frerotte sometimes looked on Saturday, his numbers were not markedly different from Jackson's against Seattle.
Adding to the Vikings' offensive frustrations was the team's utter inability to open holes for the running game or for Adrian Peterson to create his own openings. The result was as predictable as Childress' playcalling at times can be. Peterson finished the game with 12 carries for 21 yards. Chester Taylor chipped in four carries for five yards.
When the Vikings' offensive front was not committing a penalty or being pancaked off the snap, it seemed to be more full of holes than ever before. Where left tackle Bryant McKinnie looked awful at times last season, presumed suspension fill-in Artis Hicks predictably looked far worse. And, as poorly as he played last season, right tackle Ryan Cook was merely a shell of that husk on Saturday. Even the Vikings' hope on the right side, second-year starter Anthony Herrera, apeared lost.
When the Vikings' offensive line did provide protection for the quarterback or blocking for the run, the Vikings responded by running the same mundane plays for which Childress has become known, and reviled, his first two seasons in Minnesota and making the worst of those plays. Whether Frerotte was throwing an out short of the sticks to a receiver who broke up the field or the team was setting up the long third down with two first-down runs, the offense never got things going on Saturday and looked miserable even trying to do so.
Some of the Vikings' poor showing undoubtedly is on the play of Frerotte. Some of it is on the absence of the guy who has been getting the reps as the starting quarterback all season. Some of it is on the fact that the Vikings "don't want to reveal all of their secrets in the pre-season." And some of it is on the solid defensive play of the Steelers. But the first drive pretty much summed up the overall performance--false start on Herrera, sack of Frerotte, Peterson to the left for three yards, false start Birk, false start Shiancoe, four-yard pass on third and twenty-three, punt.
If this sounds like a repeat of the last two pre-seasons, that's because it is. For each of the first two seasons in Childress' run as Vikings' head coach, the team has stumbled on offense and ridden the defense in pre-season. Fans were chided for criticizing the obvious short-comings, admonished by the team and resident media cheerleaders alike that the "full offensive package" would not come out until the start of the regular season, even if the full defensive package already was being unveiled. Two years ago, the "full package" never emerged. And last year, save for Peterson's spectacular performance through the middle part of the season, the offense again failed to reveal itself in all of its purported glory.
In week one of the pre-season, against what has become a challenged Seattle Seahawks defense, the Vikings trotted out the passing game for the first time ever under Childress, with considerable success. The inclination was to believe that, by incorporating then absent running back Adrian Peterson, the Vikings finally would have an offense capable of operating on all cylinders--as long as the cylinders were allowed fully to fire.
Following weeks two and three of the pre-season, however, the Vikings appear to be regressing. And it cannot all be attributed to penalties or Jackson's absence. Clearly, the Vikings need to commit fewer penalties on offense, but penalties and inability tend to go hand in hand in the NFL. And for an offensive line consisting of a minimum of two suspect NFL players, not only should one expect penalties but also penalties against veterans working to cover the short-comings of the weaker players on the line. Whether Jackson, Frerotte, or JD Booty is under center, the play of the offensive line simply needs to improve by leaps and bounds.
The Vikings can look at the final tally from Saturday and argue that they played a tight game against one of the AFC's better teams. That's true. It is not true, however, that tight means solid. For, while the defense appeared ready for the challenge in most instances, the offense remained AWOL. If the Vikings want to compete in the NFC, let alone the NFL, that has to change, change dramatically, and change this week.
Up Next: Considering Adrian Peterson's Role.
Friday, August 22, 2008
The Cincinnati Bengals surely lead the league in organizationally saying one thing and doing another. Already saddled with a history of bringing in players of questionable character and promising fans a change, the Bengals nevertheless selected West Virginia wide receiver, Chris Henry, in the third round of the 2005 NFL draft. Henry's drop to the third round was telling for a player that produced 22 touchdowns in 23 collegiate games, but that did not dampen the Bengals' enthusiasm.
Almost immediately, Henry rewarded the Bengals' astute insighting, finding himself on the wrong side of the law in numerous alcohol, driving, and assault offenses. On March 31st of this year, after repeated warnings by the Bengals that he was on his final probation with the team, Henry again defied the organization, pummeling a University of Cincinnati student.
The response from Bengals' President, Mike Brown, ever the apologist for his mentally challenged wide receiver, was uncharacteristically swift and pointed. "Chris Henry has forfeited his opportunity to pursue a career with the Bengals," Brown tersely stated to the media. "His conduct can no longer be tolerated." The Bengals immediately released Henry.
Until this week, Henry remained unemployed--another telling sign in a league of "second chances" for players capable of playing. Then Chad Johnson became injured and the Browns suddenly saw things in a different light, bringing back the guy who "had run out of chances with the Bengals." Brown defended his decision to re-sign Henry as one borne out of his role as a "redeemer." Lewis was less nauseating in his defense of Henry's signing, but only slightly so, calling Henry "humbled" by his inability to latch on with another team.
How humbled is Henry? That all depends on how hard you squint and how well you screen out what Henry says. Responding to a local radio analyst's inquiry regarding what he had learned by being brought up on charges for the fifth time in three years, Henry replied in typically addled fashion. "I learned a lot, man," he coherently offered. "This little incident that happened a couple months ago, it really was out of my hands. I'm just going to keep doing the same things that I've been doing since coming back from my suspension last season."
Henry's statement truly speaks for itself. But, as if to put a fine point on the discussion, Henry offered this when asked to discuss his regrets. "It's been tough, man. It's been a long three months, not being on a ball club and just being in the house [under house arrest]. I've just got to try to put it all behind me and hopefully it'll all come together here soon and I'll be able to move on with my life."
For Henry, the regret is not having done numerous things that he should not have done. Rather, his regret is that he was forced to sit in his house for but the latest of those transgressions. Clearly, Henry understands things perfectly now. And, so too clearly, does Mike Brown.
To be certain, the Browns are far from the only team in the NFL that has opted to turn a blind eye toward the transgressions of certain players. Despite announcing a "culture of accountability" upon taking over the Minnesota Vikings, Vikings' owner Ziggy Wilf is "allowing the legal process to play out" before deciding how to respond to left tackle Bryant McKinnie's beating of a Miami bouncer with a metal pipe; in Miami, the Dolphins have welcomed back Ricky Williams after cutting ties with a player who, two years ago, professed that he would rather get high than play in the NFL; and the Chicago Bears retained the services of Ricky Manning Jr. after the Bears' defensive back attacked a UCLA student in a Denny's restaurant after mocking the student for working on a laptop computer.
While coaches and front offices continue to talk about ridding their teams of "bad character" guys, it is evident that there are only two "bad character traits" that would lead most NFL teams to release a player, one being a lengthy prison sentence, the other demonstrated inability to perform on the field. If Chris Henry can get another, will it be long before we see Ray Carruth back in the league or the Juice running the show?
But if, like most NFL fans, you've simply come to accept that this, despite league attempts to provide window dressing to the contrary, is how things work in the NFL, will you have the same fortitude when John Madden starts talking up "great story" about how one of these ding dongs "turned his life around?"
Up Next: Pre-Season.
Sunday, August 17, 2008
While Frerotte was returning to his pre-head thrashing form on the field, however, the Vikings received word that Jackson was not nearly as banged up as his actions first suggested. And as the Vikings' future again came back into focus, so too did the question that has haunted many coaches across the NFL for decades, this time; this time, the question regarded the Minnesota Vikings' starting quarterback. Because with yet another injury--and yet another injury that others have played through but through which Jackson could not--the question suddenly is not whether Jackson will be healthy enough to start the regular season, but whether the Vikings ought to establish a serious contingency plan for the next time Jackson gets hammered in a game.
Increasingly, the concern about Jackson is not whether he ever will evolve as a legitimate NFL starter, but how long it will be before his diminutive body and apparently normal threshold for pain will force him to miss significant playing time. And, with that question hanging in the air around Winter Park, the emphasis appears to be not on if but when Jackson has such a debilitating injury.
The question is not an inconsequential one to a Vikings' team that has yet to announce its presumed three-man quarterbacking corps for the 2008 season. With Jackson likely to play few if any minutes in the third pre-season game, and possibly in the fourth pre-season game, those Vikings' fans who can stomach the nonsense that is pre-season NFL football will be privy to a heavy dose of Frerotte and equally heavy doses of John Booty and Brooks Bollinger.
When pre-season began, it appeared Bollinger would be the odd-man out in competition for the third-string quarterbacking position with the Vikings. Jackson was the presumptive starter, Frerotte the willing, wily backup, and Booty the guy the Vikings dared not try to sneak through waivers onto the practice squad. That left Bollinger, with more experience than Booty, but with marginal upside from the Vikings' perspective, on the outside looking in.
With Jackson's injury issues already raising concerns for the Vikings, and with the team's most able veteran backup carrying his own lengthy injury history, the Vikings' view of their third-string quarterback suddenly has shifted from one favoring a rookie with upside to someone with experience who can stay healthy. That gives Bollinger the inside track over curious fan-favorite Booty.
If the Vikings needed a push in the direction of Bollinger, they may well have received it last night. Facing mostly second- and third-string players, Bollinger completed seven of fifteen passes for 63 yards, zero touchdowns, and zero picks. That's certainly not spectacular, but it bested by leaps and bounds the performance of Booty who completed two of three passes against even lesser opposition with one of the two completions made to Baltimore's Derrick Martin, who returned the pick for a touchdown.
While the Vikings clearly are not enamored with Bollinger, he could well turn out to be just the player that the team needs as the number three quarterback in 2008. That might mean cutting ties with Booty, but that might be more damaging in the starry-eyed gaze of an affected segment of the Vikings' fan base than in reality.
Up Next: Needs and Nots.
Sunday, August 10, 2008
Nowhere were concerns about the Vikings' quickly encroaching future more laid bare in the first quarter Friday night than at defensive tackle. With Williams sitting out the first pre-season game, the Vikings offered virtually no resistance to the Seattle Seahawks' running game. That lack of push against the rush neutralized the Vikings' pass rush and made the Vikings' defense look well below average.
Williams' return likely will shore up the Vikings' rushing issues and give added credence to the Vikings' pass rush. But, if Friday's display was any indication, the Vikings not only have to fear the imminent retirement of Williams, but also an injury to their huge run stuffer.
While Williams' return should allay concerns about opposing offensives running rough shod over the Vikings' defense, a similar adjustment does not appear available at cornerback. With Marcus McCauley still struggling and Cedric Griffin looking lost much of last season, the Vikings might be forced to convert 2008 second-round pick Tyrell Johnson to cornerback until either McCauley or Griffin get up to speed or the team is able to find another corner. And that would only resolve a glaring issue in 2008, assuming Johnson is up to the task. When Winfield goes, as he, too, is likely to do in the next two years, the Vikings will have another cornerback position to fill.
Though the Vikings showed some holes against the Seahawks, they also showed some promise for the long-term. Recently signed fifth-year receiver Bernard Berrian had two receptions for 43 yards and an 11-yard reception nullified by a holding penalty. That's already a better showing than former Viking "receiver" Troy Williamson had for the Jaguars on Saturday as head coach Jack Del Rio withheld Williamson from competition for unspecified reasons. And it's far more promising than any thing that the Vikings have put on the field in the guise of a number one receiver for the past three seasons.
Berrian was able to produce in limited time on the field because of the improved play of Vikings' quarterback Tarvaris Jackson. Though still pushing the ball through too far on the release on some passes, thereby forcing the ball down, Jackson did complete 8 of 11 passes, including a nice touch pass for a touchdown to fullback Thomas Tapeh.
Unlike the oft-injured, aging Tony Richardson, Tapeh gives the Vikings a rugged, hard-hitting backfield option that should prove particularly useful in goal line situations--an area in which the Vikings struggled in 2007. And, as Tapeh demonstrated both as a Minnesota Gopher and in his first quarter as a Viking, he has the soft hands and skill necessary to do what Visanthe Shiancoe apparently is unable to do. That could mean more touches for Tapeh out of the backfield and far fewer for Shiancoe.
The Seahawks spent the post-game congratulating themselves on dismantling the Vikings' defense en route to a 34-17 pre-season victory. Lost in the team's self-review, however, was the fact that Williams did not play and that the Seahawks' first-team defense, playing at full strength, looked equally as ordinary against an offense starting a second-year quarterback and for which the Vikings' coaching staff declined to make use of last year's rookie of the year running back.
With Favre's departure to New York, the Bears' lack of any semblance of a quarterback and significant question marks at running back and wide receiver, and the Lions' perpetual floundering, the Vikings already appear the odds on favorite to win the NFC North. Whether that translates into being competitive in the NFC overall, will depend on the health of players such Winfield, Williams, Birk, and Sharper, and, of course, the continuing improvement of Jackson.
Up Next: Wire Talk.
Friday, August 08, 2008
On Tuesday, Favre left the Packers' training camp after several long discussions with Packers' head coach Mike McCarthy. McCarthy emerged from the meetings stating that Aaron Rodgers would be the Packers' starting quarterback in 2008. Favre left stating that it was time to move on.
Following the meetings with McCarthy, Favre clearly had the Packers in a corner. Unwilling to return Favre to the starter's role in 2008, the Packers desperately hoped that Favre would not again take the field in Green Bay, rightfully fearing that he would be a divisive distraction from their intended plan of starting Rodgers and riding out the rough spots with their untested former first-round draft choice.
Green Bay's panic, evident in every move made and word uttered by team officials in the past three weeks, seemed fully evident to Favre prior to Wednesday. It seemed that Favre understood, by his own words and actions, that, by merely showing for practice, he eventually could have forced Green Bay to deal him to a team of his choice rather than to one of their own choosing.
Apparently, that assessment of Favre was incorrect. Or Favre wilted.
After several days of insisting that he would not accept a trade to the cap-tight Jets--a trade that required restructuring of Favre's contract--Favre relented. The deal sent him to New York for conditional future considerations tied to the Jets' performance in 2008. In common language, that means "probably not much."
For the Packers to obtain any compensation for Favre is a small coup, given their utter lack of leverage in the situation. But that compensation pales in comparison to the public relations hit that the organization has taken for its amateurish handling of the affair and the backlash that the organization will face if Rodgers fails as a starter this year.
Favre, meanwhile, ends up improbably worse off than the Packers, playing for a team for which he had no desire to play just three days ago, in a market nowhere near his beloved home, and probably without any shot ever to play against his former team. If starting for a mediocre team with no hope of winning its own Conference was Favre's objective in returning to the NFL, he fooled many people in the last few weeks in finally obtaining this goal. If starting for a Super Bowl contender was his ambition, that ambition has been shot down--by his own hand.
Outside of Favre and Green Bay, the biggest loser in this sorry saga could well be the Minnesota Vikings. Though the Vikings now will be forced to determine what they have in Tarvaris Jackson, they will need results in the short term, rather than in the long term, to mesh with some of the veteran talent that likely will be gone within the next three years. That means that the Vikings' quarterback will have to produce in 2008. And while that's possible, it seemed much more probable with Favre at the helm.
Having to stay with Jackson is the good news for the Vikings in the wake of Favre's acquiescence to be traded to the Jets, however. The horrible news would be if the Vikings showed a weakness for yet another veteran quarterback by signing the recently released Jet, Chad Pennington. The last thing the Vikings need is a weak-armed quarterback that cannot stretch the field. Even for Vikings' fans who myopically considered Jackson a better option than Favre, there should be no doubt that Pennington is no better than a poor-man's Brooks Bollinger.
Up Next: Pre-Season.
Monday, August 04, 2008
In a move that has flown far too low under the national radar, however, the Packers offered one even larger hint at their intentions for Favre when they brought in former White House spokesperson, Ari Fleischer.
Fleischer's penchant for spin, his long suit in representing the Bush Administration during the Administration's halcyon days leading up to the invasion of Iraq, presumably was his card in calling when the Packers signed him to a one-month contract to deal with the Favre saga.
That the Packers suddenly shifted courses after bringing in Fleischer is zero surprise. What's surprising is that virtually no outlets outside of Green Bay have reported on the Packers' move.
For skeptics of the Packers' purportedly honest intentions, Fleischer's short-term hiring offers more ammunition. For hopeful Packer fans, it should breed only contempt for an organization that now has moved beyond the pale in addressing the situation.
Up Next: Resolution?
Sunday, August 03, 2008
By giving Green Bay an extra day to work things out, Goodell ensured that the Packers did not have to deal with the circus that Favre would have created by reporting to camp last week. Clearly, the thought process for the Commissioner and the Packers' brain trust, such as it is, was that something could be done to avoid disrupting Aaron Rodgers' first camp as the Packers' presumptive starting quarterback.
Between Goodell's announcement and Sunday morning, either the Packers had a complete change of heart, or, realizing that no other team was yet willing to bet that they would have to pay anything to pry Favre away from the Packers, the Packers decided to stall, with the team announcing that it would allow Favre into to camp. Either way, Goodell was no longer willing to withhold Favre's reinstatement and, as of midnight central time Sunday, Favre is scheduled to appear at Packers' training camp on Monday.
That's not to suggest that things won't change again. Or that they probably won't change again. In fact, it is a near certainty that Green Bay's official position will again change, and in the very near future. But it's still hard to fathom the imbecility that has emanated from the Packers' organization over the Favre situation.
I've dedicated previous columns to laying out the Packers options at various stages of this ordeal, noting the Packers' best options and, as has consistently been the case, the Packers' far inferior decision. Today's decision--announcing that Favre is welcome back to the Packers to compete for the starting quarterback position--is the first move that the Packers' organization has made regarding Favre's attempt to come back that makes any sense for the Packers. And even this move is encumbered by Packer President Mark Murphy's adolescent public statement in which he stated that
Notwithstanding Murphy's statement, the team's announcement that it will allow Favre to compete at least sends the signal that the Packers might be willing to keep Favre in 2008 and that, to obtain him, another team will need to offer something of value. That's a marked change not only of the Packers' position of just three days ago, but also a change that offers a possible return, as opposed to what the Packers' previous stance offered.
Sixteen years after Brett Favre came to the Packers, he is returning for a 17th season. He has had a great career with our organization and although we built this year around the assumption that Brett meant what he said about retiring, Brett is coming back. We will welcome him back and turn this situation to our advantage.Frankly, Brett's change of mind put us in a very difficult spot. We now will revise many actions and assumptions about our long-term future, all predicated on Brett's decision last March to retire. As a result of his decision, we invested considerably in a new and different future without Brett and we were obviously moving in that direction. That's why this wasn't easy. Having crossed the Rubicon once when Brett decided to retire, it's very difficult to reorient our plans and cross it again in the opposite direction -- but we'll put this to our advantage. Brett will be in camp tomorrow. Although there has been uncertainty regarding Brett's return, Ted Thompson and Coach McCarthy had previously discussed this and have had a plan in place. Coach McCarthy will talk to the team and the quarterbacks about the plan moving forward, and after he has done that we will share it publicly. No matter what, I look forward to another successful season for the Packers and our fans. This has been a tough situation, but the Packers will make the most of it.
The question, of course, is whether the latest Packers' move is simply a variant on the previous game that the organization has been playing--an attempt to buy some additional time to trade Favre. Murphy's statement, and the rarity of teams reversing themselves so suddenly on a firmly entrenched organizational decision into which most of the team's players already seem to have bought, suggests it is.
The Packers have twenty-four hours from the time of Goodell's announcement on Sunday morning either to add Favre to their roster or release him. The only difference between releasing Favre and adding him to the team's roster is that, if the team does the latter, it must find something for Favre to do in practice and it must do so without causing a disruption to practice and team chemistry. If the Packers are intent on allowing Favre to compete for the starting quarterback position, that proposition raises no difficulties--unless, of course, Favre loses the battle. If, however, the team is merely playing more games for minimal trade value, the Packers truly have taken this entire affair to depths few other NFL teams have ever gone for such little gain.
Given Murphy's public dressing down of Favre in what, ostensibly, was a public statement of conciliation, the Packers' firm position just three days ago in not wanting Favre back and even attempting to buy him out of coming back, and head coach Mike McCarthy's statement on Sunday that Favre would be relegated to individual drills in camp if and when he came to camp--hardly the precursor to a legitimate position battle--it seems as likely as ever that Favre will end up in the one place that he wants to play and where Green Bay does not want him to play in 2008, in Minnesota.
Up Next: Resolution?