Friday, November 28, 2008

Missing Quarterback Has Vikings Left Wanting More Than Thankful

There are many things for which the Minnesota Vikings have to be thankful, including that they are not the Detroit Lions, Cincinnati Bengals, Seattle Seahawks, San Francisco 49ers, Saint Louis Rams, Oakland Raiders, Cleveland Browns, or Kansas City Chiefs. They also should be thankful that, despite numerous coaching and some front-office blunders, they have made better use of their talent than have teams such as San Diego, Jacksonville, and Philadelphia.

But while there are things within the NFL for which the Vikings should be thankful, there are other things that they can only look upon with envy, including the Tennessee Titans' use of a similar system and arguably lesser talent to compile a far-superior record against comparable overall competition, the Dallas Cowboys' superior record despite having to rely on Brad Johnson at quarterback for one month of the season, Tampa Bay's and Carolina's superior records despite inferior overall teams, Arizona's receiving corps and the quarterback play of someone old enough to fall within Vikings' head coach Brad Childress' untouchables group of players, the New York Jets' rise to the top of the AFC East on the strength of the play of a modest running back and a veteran quarterback that the Vikings probably could have landed in the off-season, but for an agreement between the league, the Vikings, and Green Bay resulting from alleged tampering charges, the Steelers' continued good play under former Vikings' defensive coordinator Mike Tomlin, and the New England Patriots' solid play behind first-year starting quarterback Matt Cassel--a guy who had not started at quarterback since high school.

It thus appears that, while the Vikings have some things for which they should be grateful, they have just as many things for which they can be envious, and the set of things about which they can be envious includes far too many things the Vikings were supposed to be good at this year--running opponents into submission, passing teams out of the eight- and nine-men-in-the-box defensive sets, and improved coaching.

Though coaching remains status quo, the running game has failed to rile opposing defenses as it did at points last year namely because opposing teams still refuse to believe that the Vikings can beat them through the air. And through the first 11 games of the 2008 season, it is clear why this is the case.

In two starts for the team this season, quarterback Tarvaris Jackson failed to eclipse the 200-yard-passing mark. Gus Frerotte has been a significant upgrade in that respect, having eclipsed the 200-yard-passing mark in five of nine starts, but has failed to eclipse the 300-yard mark even once this season and has failed to break the 200-yard mark in four straight games, despite playing against suspect passing defenses in three of those four contests.

Frerotte's struggles are not limited to his yardage totals, however. After taking over for Jackson in week three, Frerotte has thrown 12 interceptions. Of those interceptions, five have come in the Vikings' last four games. The high interception total might be more tolerable were it paired with a superior touchdown value. Unfortunately, that has not been the case as Frerotte has tallied a mere 11 touchdown passes.

The value of having Frerotte in the game over Jackson was to have been that, as the beneficiary of 15 years in the NFL, Frerotte would make intelligent plays, knowing when to throw the ball away. While Frerotte has thrown away his share of balls, too often he has done so into the waiting arms of opposing defenders or far closer to those arms than to the arms of Vikings' receivers, and too often, 26 times, he has taken a sack.

Frerotte has several built-in excuses for his play, of course. Those excuses include the facts that his offensive line, until last week, was allowing far too much pressure, his receiving corps has been playing one up on the depth chart all season, two up in some instances, and the playcalling continues to allow teams to defend against all but one or two passes a game by playing close to the line as the Vikings virtually refuse to acknowledge what fans watching outside the Minnesota region readily recognize as an intermediate passing zone.

Despite the ready excuses, however, Frerotte's recent poor play has as much to do with his own poor decision-making as it does with any other factor or factors facing the quarterback. How bad has it been? Overall, almost as bad as it was under Jackson and, in instances, far worse.

For the season, Frerotte ranks 25th out of NFL starting quarterbacks, behind five rookies. Only Brett Favre (13) has thrown more interceptions than Frerotte's 12, and Favre did so over 11 games and against 20 touchdowns. In overall statistics, Frerotte compares grimly with J.T. O'Sullivan and Marc Bulger.

From holding the ball too long too often to scrambling on non-scrambler's legs, to simply throwing horrible passes too often, Frerotte has not done what one would expect from what Childress routinely terms a savvy veteran. What Frerotte needs to do is make better decisions. For while his play remains marginally above anything that could be expected of Jackson at this point, if his play does not improve beginning this week, there will be little reason for the Vikings to continue playing him over one of their less-experienced quarterbacks. And that will be a bad sign for all involved.

Up next: Bears Gimping In.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Childress Has Glen Mason Smiling

The Minnesota Vikings traveled to Jacksonville, Florida on Sunday in need of a victory to keep pace with their competition in the NFC North. Facing a 4-6 Jacksonville team that had lost three of its previous four games and that had only one home victory on the season, the Vikings were not exactly facing the toughest of tasks. Still, with a 1-4 road record of their own, the Vikings at least suggested a possible cure for the Jaguars' home ills.

Less than one minute into the game, however, the Vikings were the beneficiaries of two turnovers which they converted into immediate touchdowns. With a 14-0 lead and a solid rushing attack, even another horrible performance by quarterback Gus Frerotte could not stop the Vikings from keeping the Jaguars down.

While the victory over the Jaguars in a sometimes sloppy, sometimes boring, sometimes going-through-the-motions performance ensured that the Vikings would remain at least tied for the NFC North division lead heading into next weekend's games, it is difficult to view this game as necessarily portending a turning point in the Vikings' season. The Vikings still had difficulty covering kicks and punts, the coaching staff made at least two decisions that suggested, yet again, that it is collectively uncomfortable making decisions in game situations, the pass defense remained troublesome since the loss of E.J. Henderson, and the quarterback play continued its downward slide, approaching the territory once occupied solely by Tarvaris Jackson.

In sum, the Vikings won, despite exhibiting some of the same tendencies that have undermined the team since the beginning of the season. To take away from the victory any solid conviction that the Vikings have turned the corner, therefore, would be to put far too much weight on the quality of the Vikings' victory on Sunday.

With Sunday's victory, the Vikings are 6-5. Of the six victories, only one, pending the outcome of tonight's Green Bay-New Orleans game, came against a team with a winning record with the Vikings' opponents in those six games going 26-38 for a .406 winning percentage. Of the Vikings' five losses, none, again pending the results of Monday night's game, have come against a team with a losing record with those five opponents going 36-18 for a .667 winning percentage.

More telling than Sunday's result and the Vikings' record against winning and losing teams, however, is the team's overall scoring differential. With 253 points scored and 246 allowed, the Vikings are what they have been coached to be. They are a team that will play mostly close games, winning more against weaker teams and less against better teams. And all of the stats bear this out.

For Vikings' fans at least partially familiar with the Minnesota Gophers' tenure of Glen Mason, what came before and what has come after the Mason era, there certainly is plentiful evidence that things could be far worse than a coach who wins winnable games and loses losable games. But rarely are those who finish in the middle of the pack crowned with glory.

Up Next: Tice. Plus, What's up Gus?

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Childress' Low Expectations Equate to Low Returns

When Minnesota Vikings' head coach Brad Childress arrived in Minnesota, he did so fortified with the strong belief that he brought with him an unbeatable brand of the West Coast offense. That brand, Childress noted at the time, was the very brand that had propelled the Philadelphia Eagles to the Super Bowl and was the one that would carry the Vikings to similar fortunes, and beyond.

Three years into the Childress regime, Minnesota Vikings' fans are still waiting.

Luke-warm advocates of Childress--because there are few if any true advocates of the much-maligned coach-turned-wiseman--will point to games against Chicago, Houston, and Green Bay as evidence that the Vikings' offense is beginning to turn the corner. Others will note games such as the most recent loss to Tampa Bay, in which the Vikings were able to muster only 13 points as evidence that, at best, Childress is overseeing an offense capable of good or bad results against any opponent on any given week.

That Childress' close-to-the-vest offense is capable of wildly swinging moods should come as no surprise, as everything that the Vikings do on offense is predicated on keeping things close. That means that if everything goes according to plan, the Vikings' offense can look good. Not great, but good.

But when things start to fall apart, as things have done on several occasions in 2008, things look bad. Sometimes very bad.

Quasi-apologists will point to the Vikings' lack of depth at wide receiver and limitations at quarterback--arguments that teams such as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who also have limitations along the offensive line and in the backfield, have made of themselves--as reasons for the Vikings' offensive mood swings.

While there is little doubt that the Vikings are without a number one receiver, using Bernard Berrian in that role when he is more suited to the number two role, are without a number two receiver when Berrian lines up as the number one receiver, using Bobby Wade as the number two when he is more suited to the number three or four role, and lack consistently good play at quarterback, these issues fall squarely on ownership and coaching.

For his part, Vikings' owner Zygi Wilf passed on an opportunity to pick up Randy Moss after making comments to the local media that he "never would have signed off on the trade of Moss" had he had had full control of the Vikings when the Moss trade was inked.

And for his part, Childress moved a capable number three receiver in Hank Baskett for a player no longer on the team, went with his "gut" in starting Tarvaris Jackson for nearly two seasons when Jackson was nowhere near ready to play in the NFL, made an amateurish move attempting to sneak a more capable rookie quarterback, Tyler Thigpen, onto the practice squad to preserve a roster spot for a player in whom he had virtually no confidence, Brooks Bollinger, and eschewed the opportunity to sign a capable Jeff Garcia.

But of all the errors that Childress has made in his time in Minnesota, none has been more glaring and more persistent than his refusal or inability to adjust to the realities of the modern NFL. For a coach who harps on offense and considers himself a great offensive mind, there is little evidence in the record to suggest that Childress understands what it takes to put a consistently capable offense on the field. For Vikings' fans who see numerous adjustments that could be made to effect the offense positively, consternation is only increasing.

As evidence of the Vikings' primary offensive shortcoming, the failure to move opposing teams' defenses off of the line of scrimmage, one need look only at one of Childress' oft-cited statistics, explosive plays--plays gaining 20 yards or more. The play of the Vikings' and Arizona Cardinals' offenses against one of the better defenses in the NFL, the Carolina Panthers', highlights the discrepancy between the Vikings' modest and the Cardinals' robust offense.

Excluding plays on which there was a sack, penalty, or turnover, the Vikings ran 49 offensive plays against the Panthers. Of those 49 plays, 22 gained less than five yards, 24 gained five yards or more but less than 20 yards, and 3 gained 20 yards or more. The numbers are consistent with a Vikings' game plan that routinely attempts two to three deep plays a game and occasionally picks up a long run from Adrian Peterson.

Against the same defense, running an identical 49 plays, the Cardinals had 13 plays of less than five yards (two for touchdowns), 30 plays over 5 yards but under 20 yards, and six plays of 20 yards or greater.

At first blush, the numbers might appear close. But as a percentage of the whole, they suggest a wildly divergent offensive approach. The numbers reveal that Arizona picked up 5 or more yards on 61% of the team's plays as opposed to 49% for Minnesota and that Arizona had explosive plays on 12% of its plays compared to 6% for Minnesota. Equally, if not more telling is that 45% of Minnesota's plays went for less than five yards while only 26% of Arizona's did so.

While it is undeniable that Arizona has far superior receivers and a superior quarterback, it is also true that Minnesota has far better offensive linemen, warts and all, superior running backs, and superior tight ends. That the distance between Minnesota and Arizona, against identical and solid defensive opposition is so wide, is not the function of who is playing as much as it is a function of the offensive system.

Minnesota's offense produces less because Childress expects it to produce less. The team takes as few offensive risks as any in the NFL, preferring not only low-risk plays to the higher risk ones but also the extremely low-risk plays to the merely low-risk ones. That, and Childress' general risk-averse, status-quo nature are sound recipes for a .500 season.

Up Next: Tice versus Childress.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Nothing Out of the Ordinary

In the aftermath of yet another Vikings' loss in Tampa Bay, Minnesota Vikings' head coach Brad Childress was asked why it was that, on critical drives in the fourth quarter, the Vikings' most valuable offensive weapon, Adrian Peterson, was on the sidelines rather than in the game.

"I don't even know that he was," Childress almost assuredly lied. "I don't know how many offensive plays we ran in the entire fourth quarter--four, maybe five," the coach guessed. "My guess is that whatever we did was nothing out of the ordinary."

For the record, the Vikings ran eight offensive plays in the fourth quarter with Peterson on the field for two and carrying the ball on one. On the final two drives, with the game on the line, Peterson stood on the sidelines next to running back's coach Eric Bieniemy appearing quite animated and perturbed about not being in the game.

What Peterson apparently did not realize was that it was the fourth quarter and the game was on the line. Where else ought he have expected to be? A player that made Green Bay's defense look hopeless over seventy yards of a game-winning drive one week earlier surely was no match for a Buccaneers' defense that had allowed him to gallop for seventy yards in the first half of Sunday's game.

Some might argue that Peterson and his 4.5-yards-per-rush was a better option at running back at any time in the fourth quarter than was Chester Taylor, the man in the backfield for all eight feeble offensive plays in the fourth quarter. But that would require overlooking the fact that the Vikings were in passing mode for much of the fourth quarter and that Taylor had 2 receptions for 15 yards to Peterson's 1 for -3 yards on Sunday. Clearly, on the basis of this sample alone, Taylor was the more logical choice.

Others, willing to concede Taylor's superiority to Peterson in the backfield with the game on the line, might note that Peterson could have been used as a second running back rather than as a lone back. But, as coach Childress has informed us on several occasions, "A.P. doesn't like another guy back there with him." That would be that, of course, as a head coach certainly is not allowed to substitute his judgment for that of a player's. But there is the added issue that using two running backs would have meant using only one receiver as the Vikings were in a two-tight end set for most of the fourth quarter.

Some might also argue that, rather than line Peterson up in the backfield beside Taylor, the Vikings could have made use of Peterson as a slot receiver. This, of course, is the most infantile of all claims. On Sunday, such a move would have meant pushing to the bench Bobby Wade and his two receptions--double Peterson's receptions on Sunday. The "chart" said to use Wade. Common sense suggested forcing Tampa Bay to defend against Peterson.

On Sunday, Childress once again consulted his chart. That left Peterson on the sidelines when the Vikings' offense most needed him.

But that's nothing out of the ordinary.

Up Next: More Ordinary Results.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Vikings Dodge Several Bullets

Several years ago, following an edict from the NFL that the Minnesota Vikings winnow their ownership group to include a majority owner, several well-healed names lined up to purchase the team. Among those interested were Red McCombs, author Tom Clancy, and Timberwolves' owner Glen Taylor. As most Vikings' fans are well aware, McCombs won the bidding, taking control of the Vikings and turning the team into a legitimate Super Bowl contender in spite of his penny-pinching ways.

Realizing that he was not going to win legislative support for a publicly financed football stadium, however, McCombs cut the Vikings' budget to the bone--a move that included jettisoning wide-receiver Randy Moss to the Oakland Raiders for linebacker Napolean Harris and what turned out to be purported wide-receiver Troy Williamson. After slashing the payroll and eschewing heating, allowing the Vikings' Norsemen ship to fall into disrepair, and foregoing necessary repairs on the Vikings' headquarters at Winter Park in Eden Prairie, McCombs put the team on the block.

With visions of a new stadium dancing in their heads, prospective purchasers again queued for what seemed like a guaranteed doubling of their investment dollar in a span of but four or five years. In addition to adding several hundred million dollars to the market value of the team, a new stadium offered even greater revenue streams by virtue of parking and naming rights, suite rentals, increased ticket prices, better concession deals, seat licensing, and the unencumberance of the Mike Lynn Metrodome deal.

The giddy prospective purchasers initially included Reggie Fowler, Glen Taylor, and Denny Hecker. Despite fan interest in having a local purchaser, the list of prospective purchasers quickly whittled to one--the little known Fowler. When it became clear that Fowler did not have anywhere near the resources to purchase the team, let alone an Arena Football team, Zygi Wilf and family, with prodding from the NFL, stepped into the mix, absorbing Fowler as a minority, minority owner.

In both instances of change of ownership, Vikings fans overwhelmingly favored the local Taylor as the new owner. Second among fan preferences in the former transfer of team ownership was Clancy. Second among fan preferences in the latter transfer was Hecker.

With Taylor's misguided vision for the aimless Timberwolves on full display for the few who any longer care to take notice, Vikings' fans undoubtedly now are grateful that Taylor backed out of both opportunities to purchase the Vikings (imagine Matt Millen permanently entrenched as Vikings' general manager, despite trading away Adrian Peterson for JaMarcus Russell), citing the low prospect of a return on the team as a primary reason in both instances (Editor's note: McCombs walked away with a $400 million profit and Wilf has already seen an upward adjustment of $200 million in the value of his purchase, without a stadium deal).

If Taylor's penchant for assessing the value of the Vikings going forward and his stewardship of the Wolves are any indication of how well he would have run the Vikings--and they most certainly are--Vikings' fans dodged bullets twice in having Taylor withdraw his bids for the team.

Taylor's decision not to pursue ownership of the Vikings on both occasions were but two strokes of good fortune for Vikings' fans, no matter fan disposition toward McCombs and the Wilfs. Following his near-successful bid to purchase the Vikings, Clancy revealed dire financial straits only partially tied to his pending divorce. And now, with Hecker on the verge of declaring bankruptcy, it appears that Vikings' fans have yet another dodged-bullet for which they should be grateful.

Since taking over the Vikings, Zygi Wilf has made numerous preposterous and cliched statements about the team, seemingly without really knowing much about the team or understanding much about the history of the franchise in Minnesota. Some of the verbiage is par for the course with any new owner of any franchise, and in any professional sports league, some clearly beyond the pale.

Even without consideration of what likely would have been disastrous ownership changes, however, the Vikings and their fans have had, in Zygi and his cohorts, the benefit of an ownership group that has at least attempted to put a good face on the organization, rejuvenating the team's facilities and spending nearly to the salary cap ceiling in year four of their ownership of the team. To be certain, Wilf miscalculated the market's enthusiasm for yet another publicly financed stadium in a bear market and woefully over-valued his own acumen in making the most important personnel decisions that his team initially faced. But, for Vikings' fans, there is at least solace in the knowledge that things quite easily could have been much, much worse.

Up Next: Tampa Bay, Tampa Bay.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Offering a Professional Offensive Scheme Pays Dividends for Vikings and Childress

After a 1-3 start to the 2008 NFL season, the Minnesota Vikings looked rudderless, armed with only two constants, a strong defense and an impotent offense. Worse yet, the team seemed to be mirroring, in play and in results, the performance of previous Brad Childress-coached Vikings' teams, holding on defense, genuflecting on offense, and losing in streaks.

With victories in 4 of their last five games, however, the Vikings have moved to 5-4, tied atop the NFC North with the Chicago Bears. Pessimists will look at the current winning streak and point to a similar streak last season after a similarly woeful start. The difference between this year and last year, however, is the difference between night and day.

In 2007, after beginning the season1-3 then 3-6, the Vikings temporary righted their record, winning five successive games to forge ahead to an 8-6 record. The 2007 winning streak was built on the back of solid, sometimes absurd defense, mostly suspect opposition, and the running of Adrian Peterson. Ultimately, it collapsed under the weight of its own expectations.

This year, the Vikings have rebounded from another miserable start on the strength not only of the team's defense, but also on the strength of offensive players other than Peterson. Nowhere was this more evident than in the first half of Sunday's 28-27 victory over the Green Bay Packers. In a game in which the defense stifled the Packers' offense, the Vikings countered the Packers in the first half by incorporating Bobby Wade, Visanthe Shiancoe, Jim Kleinsasser, Chester Taylor, and Gus Frerotte into the offense.

While the Vikings reverted to a conservative, predictable offense for portions of the second half, their first-half use of players paid dividends in the game-winning drive. That drive, a drive that road the success of Peterson roughing up the Packers' secondary, was made possible by the Vikings' first-half display of a professional offense. Without that display, the Packers would have committed to stopping Peterson and Frerotte might have thrown the fourth interception of what clearly was his worst day at the helm of the Vikings' offense.

Instead, the Packers respected the pass and hoped to match up against the run. The Vikings did their best to keep the Packers honest on the final drive, using Peterson in a manner that Childress repeatedly has contended the back is not suited to be used, as a receiver across the middle. The Vikings' plan worked, the Packers' failed.

The Vikings' victory on Sunday showed two things. It demonstrated that, despite the loss of a key defensive player, an offensive line that continues to play without a right tackle, and a special teams unit that cannot play an entire game, the team has sufficient talent to play with some of the better teams in the league. It also demonstrated that the Vikings can play some offense and that they can do so by incorporating all of their offensive players in a fashion that highlights the team's most talented offensive player.

The revelations might not only suffice to make the Vikings competitive in a weak NFC North, but might also make them competitive in the NFL in a season in which there are no dominant teams. That might not only make this a good season for the Vikings, but also a good one for a heretofore justifiably beleaguered head coach who is adding some on-field performance to his off-field effort to ingratiate himself to the fan base.

Up Next: Some Numbers. Plus, More on the Minnesota Amendment.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Passage of Amendment Paves Way for Public Financing of Vikings' Stadium

On Tuesday, Minnesota voters passed a ballot initiative amending the Minnesota Constitution to include a provision whereby three-eighths of a cent will be imposed on in-state transactions subject to the Minnesota sales tax. The amendment was sold as a model for ensuring Minnesotans clean drinking water, sustainable wildlife, and a legacy of hunting and fishing for generations to come. And it offered a provision that allowed a portion of the revenue generated from the tax to be invested in Minnesota's "cultural heritage."

While far too little attention was paid to the ramifications of using a state constitution to secure tax revenue--the consequences of which residents of California now are having to come to terms with after several years of using their constitution in similar, though far broader measure--virtually no attention, if any, has been given to the language of the Amendment and what that language portends for a possible Vikings' stadium funded by taxpayer dollars.

As a word of caution, if you are among the growing numbers of sports fans who look to the numerous privately funded sports stadiums around the United States and abroad as a model for building new stadiums, stop reading here lest you risk having your head explode. Others should giddily read on.

As noted, the new Amendment to the Minnesota Constitution allows use of a portion of the revenue raised under the Amendment to fund things associated with Minnesota's "cultural heritage." Nowhere in the Amendment is "cultural heritage" defined, however, leaving for state legislators the authority to define the term.

Under the Amendment, Minnesota legislators will be permitted to fund a corn dog stand on Nicollet Mall, an ice-sculpture contest in Baudette, a lutefisk plant in Sleepy Eye, or a wild rice quilting club in Detroit Lakes, if they so choose. And if the revenue generated from the newest Minnesota Amendment can be used to fund those enterprises, it surely can be used to fund the construction of a new football stadium for the Minnesota Vikings with the simple logic, used by other professional sports teams to keep team names and paraphernalia in state when a team has bolted for greener pastures, that the local teams has become part of the cultural fabric of the state.

The Vikings' most recent stadium proposal calls for the construction of a $1 billion stadium, with $750 million in public contributions. The tax generated under the new Minnesota Amendment is expected to be nearly $300 million per year. Of that amount, 19.75% will be available to spend on "arts and cultural heritage" projects--approximately $60 million per year. That's more than enough to fund even the Vikings' grandiose stadium plan. A fact that, along with the dearth of other public revenue streams for such an undertaking, makes the revenue generated from the new Amendment a highly likely source for stadium funding.

If you're a "build a stadium without reserve" fan, this Amendment looks like the one solid lead for gaining public funding for a new Vikings' stadium in the next few years. If you prefer legislative formalities for debating public expenditures on such ventures, well, you were warned to stop reading long ago.

Up Next: Must Win Time for Vikings.