Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Goading Likely to Keep Vikings on Air

As of noon Tuesday, the Minnesota Vikings had an estimated 14,000 tickets still available for their home playoff game on Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles. That's down from 20,000 on Monday at noon and likely 14,000 higher than it will be by the NFL extended deadline of 3 p.m. Friday for avoiding a television blackout in the Minneapolis market.

There are a host of reasons why the Vikings have so many tickets remaining for their first playoff game under Brad Childress. The first, and most obvious, is the price. Although the Vikings boasted about the range of ticket prices--"from "$30 to $180"--the average ticket price of $120 is well above what even most Vikings' fans consider a reasonable allocation of discretionary funds for three hours of live football.

Then there is the brand of football being played at the Metrodome these days. The Vikings have cajoled a certain segment of the fan base to buy into the belief that "a win is a win." More discerning fans understand, however, that that's simply not the case. A sloppy win over a B-team, an uninspiring win over a winless team, and a robotic, through-the-motions win over any team is not the stuff of viewable football.

The NFL is about entertainment. Some teams understand that and hire their coaches accordingly. Other teams, like the Minnesota Vikings, believe that enough people can be convinced to attend games in which the home team routinely puts up offensive offensive numbers using the same calls week in and week out, despite having the assets to offer so much more.

For the most part, the Vikings' front office has been right this year, if only by the thinnest of margins. This week, they are working feverishly to play on the conviction of some rabid fans that fans owe the team the purchase of a playoff ticket.

The rallying cry from the buy a ticket club is pathetic in its own right. But it's particularly boorish given the condition of the economy and the plight of many of the fans who will make the decision to purchase ducats to Sunday's game.

Consider the fan who boasted of having purchased his four playoff tickets for $120 apiece despite earning $10 per hour at his job. Prior to taxes and other deductions, the fan earns approximately $20,800 per year. Assuming only FICA deductions (i.e., no deductions for medical benefits that likely do not exist, no child-support deductions, no income tax deductions, etc.), the fan takes home just under $19,500 per year.

Assuming the fan has no dependents, eats Ramen Noodles for every meal and skips one meal a day, and, further, that the fan lives in subsidized housing for which all utilities are paid by the landlord, the fan very generously has approximately $13,000 remaining after food and housing come out of the budget.

We know that the fan has his own transportation and that he must have car insurance in the state of Minnesota. We shall assume, however, that he does not have a loan on the vehicle and that he obtains the minimum insurance coverage. Liability-only coverage, gas for one year at 2008 mean prices, and highly rudimentary maintenance of the vehicle leaves the fan with approximately $10,000 in the bank.

Assuming the fan is never sick enough to visit the doctor and incur a hospital bill, buys no new or even used clothes, has no cell phone, cable, or internet fees, has no other expenses, no retirement savings plan, and, of course, no season-ticket package, the fan has $10,000 in discretionary funds at his avail in 2008.

Of that $10,000, the fan has decided to purchase his four, $120 tickets to the Vikings' game against the Eagles on Sunday. That investment is 5% of the fan's discretionary funds for the year.

Diehard fans no doubt can justify spending 5% of their discretionary income on a playoff game, even if that leads to spending an additional 5% of discretionary income on merchandise, food, and beverage at the same game. Other fans, however, simply see greater value in putting aside such a chunk of money for something that offers greater return. And, when it comes to the Vikings, one can hardly blame them.

Despite the last-second victory last weekend over the New York Giants' B-team, the feeling was absolutely inescapable that the Vikings had played the single most boring game in the team's history. There were two big plays on offense--one a run by Adrian Peterson for a touchdown, the other a pass to Bernard Berrian for a touchdown when the defender fell down. The rest of the game featured such highlights as Naufahu Tahi being tackled in the backfield for a loss and Jim Kleinsasser catching a swing pass for two yards. That was Childress being imaginative. That was Childress attempting to inject some life into the offense and into a bored crowd.

For Vikings' fans not to want to pay a king's ransom for tickets to a playoff game is thus quite understandable. And, until all Minnesotans start to receive a dividend check on the $60 million plus profit that the reportedly revenue-poor Wilfs pull in each year as owners of the Vikings, there certainly is no reason to apologize for not pulling out the wallet to further support a team that benefits greatly from fans merely watching the games at home.

Up Next: How to Beat the Eagles.

Monday, December 29, 2008

The System Works

In his third season as head coach of the Minnesota Vikings, Brad Childress finally has accomplished what his system engenders--a .500 coaching record. This year's 10-6 regular season finish has put the exclamation point on that system, leading not only to a playoff berth but also to the team's first ever NFC North banner.

The Vikings started the season losing three of four games to teams with a combined record of 43-21 (.672). They followed that with an 8-3 streak against teams with a combined record of 74-102 (.420).

During the team's 1-3 start, the Vikings were outscored by 11 points or just under 3 points per game. That was slightly better than the league average against the same opponents of being outscored by 4 points per game.

In the subsequent 8-3 streak, the Vikings outscored their opponents by 53 points or just under 5 points per game. That, too, was slightly better than the league average of outscoring these same opponents by just over two points per game.

All of which suggests that the Vikings finished right about where their on-field performance suggests that they should have finished--near the middle of the pack, not too far from the top but also not too far from the top-rung of the bottom third of the league.

Last year, such results would have been cause for concern for any team heading into the playoffs. For most 2008 playoff teams, the same cannot be said.

The Vikings, however, face a different predicament than do most 2008 NFL playoff teams. For, in the first round of the playoffs, the Vikings face the Philadelphia Eagles, the team with the fifth greatest positive scoring differential in the league, outscoring their opponents by more than one touchdown per game. That, despite playing teams with a combined record of 100-91-1 (.523).

For a Minnesota team intent on playing within the margins, the Eagles thus offer a stiff challenge--as well as a stern test of Childress' system.

Up Next: Trending.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Ultimate Trap Game

The Minnesota Vikings enter Sunday's regular season, home finale against the NFC East champion New York Giants a staggering seven point favorite. Vikings' fans know well to be wary of such games. For, in big games, particularly in games that the Vikings must win to make it to or advance in the playoffs, the Vikings have a spectacular way of disappointing.

The Giants enter Sunday's road game with little for which to play. Having already secured home-field advantage and a first-round bye in the playoffs, only the ever elusive momentum is of any meaning to the team. Giants' head coach Tom Coughlin already has made clear that that concern, alone, will not suffice to compel him to play all of his starters.

Likely to sit for all or most of Sunday's game against the Vikings are Giants' starting cornerback Aaron Ross, running back Brandon Jacobs, offensive tackle Kareem McKenzie, defensive tackle Barry Cofield, tight end Kevin Boss, and defensive end Justin Tuck. And the Giants are already without suspended wide-receiver Plaxico Burress.

Playing a Giants' team absent several of the players that make the Giants one of the more formidable teams in the NFL certainly is a promising advantage for the Vikings. But the reality of the situation is that the Vikings still face a near must-win situation against a team that has depth at virtually every position, save quarterback.

If Tuck and Cofied sit out, Renaldo Wynn and Jeremy Clark can fill in--that should be good enough to fill holes and allow a linebacking corps led by Antonio Pierce to exert pressure on Tarvaris Jackson. And if Brandon Jacobs is out, the even more brutish Derrick Ward moves up to number one and the equally talented Ahmad Bradshaw becomes the backup--Jacobs has nearly 1100 yards rushing this season, Ward has almost 1000--a nice complement to a Pro Bowl-caliber running back.

Even acknowledging the Giants' depth, however, the Vikings are favored in large part because they are at home, have everything for which to play, have talent at critical positions, and seemingly are aware of the trap before them.

But Vikings' fans have seen this far too many times before. In that game in the desert, the Vikings were all on notice that the game was a trap. Arizona was starting a never-was quarterback and was generally lousy in all phases of the game. The Vikings, conversely, had respectable talent. Only the fact that the Vikings were on the road was cause for alarm among bettors, but, presumably, the Vikings had taken that into account as well. And still, when it mattered most, the Vikings lost.

That should not happen today. But things that ought not to happen always seem to happen to the Vikings.

Up Next: Post-Game or Post-Season?

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Eighth Circuit Unlikely to Come to NFL's Immediate Rescue in Suit Against Vikings' Williamses

The NFL added a new wrinkle to its on-going battle with the NFLPA on Monday, filing an appeal with the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals on the very day that Federal District Court Judge Paul Magnuson had set as the deadline for scheduling further proceedings in the case of Pat and Kevin Williams, and three other NFL players, regarding the players' use of a banned substance.

Filing an interlocutory appeal is not an unusual tactic in federal court. There is, however, no certainty that the NFL will obtain the review that it is requesting and a much greater probability that the NFL's legal maneuver will serve only to further irritate Judge Magnuson and cast the NFL in a lesser light in the eyes of the Midwest-laden 8th Circuit judges.

Interlocutory appeals generally are granted only in the rare circumstance that the lower court, though having not yet completed deliberations on the case in issue, has completely misread the contested issue(s). Concerns for the fate of one party absent expeditious review of the claimed erroneous lower court review generally are required for the court of appeal to grant an interlocutory appeal.

The argument for not granting an interlocutory appeal is that it burdens the courts and undermines the process. By granting the interlocutory appeal, the court is essentially allowing a party to make the very case that that party likely plans to make should it lose its case in the lower court. That not only subverts the intended order of appeal but also substantially increases the likelihood of cases being brought to the court of appeals twice. That's not something that an already overburdened federal court judge will look upon lightly.

The NFL's primary argument in this case presumably is that Judge Magnuson erred by not identifying the plenary authority of the NFL to mete out punishment under the NFL-NFLPA Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA). Under the CBA, the NFL is the sole arbiter on matters pertaining to league drug policy, including issues related to player suspensions and fines.

The Williamses have argued that the NFL has failed to follow its own drug policy, thus calling into question the justness of the policy, as applied.

If the 8th Circuit grants the NFL a hearing on its appeal, it is a near certainty that it will be doing so because it agrees with the NFL. That would mean that the Vikings would lose Kevin and Pat Williams for the team's next four games, likely beginning with Sunday's game against the New York Giants for Kevin. Such a result seems highly unlikely, however.

As a general matter, the Federal Circuits have been split on the issue of granting interlocutory appeals. The Eighth Circuit has remained willing to consider such appeals but clearly favors not granting interlocutory appeals other than as a final resort.

Because there is no pressing urgency for the NFL to have its case heard, and because the issue that the NFL is raising on appeal is the very same issue that the NFL and the NFLPA already have before Judge Magnuson, there is little reason for the 8th Circuit to grant the NFL's interlocutory appeal.

The upshot for Vikings' fans is that Kevin Williams likely will be available to play for the remainder of the 2008 NFL season, as will be Pat Williams, should he recover from his injury in time.

Up Next: Dragging to the Line. Plus, more on the Williamses and the NFL CBA.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Pissed Away

For much of Sunday's Minnesota Vikings' game, it appeared that a victory just was not meant to be. After three quarters, the Vikings owned the yardage battle but trailed by a seemingly insurmountable 24-7 score, due, in large part, to numerous offensive turnovers and miscues.

The Vikings' woes were compounded by the fact that virtually everything that has humbled the team this season seemed to be operating in the team's favor this week. Tarvaris Jackson was throwing the ball with zip and into tight and open spaces alike, Visanthe Shiancoe was catching the ball and scoring, and the coaching staff seemed intent on ridding itself of the shackles of a conservative offense.

Then the Vikings drew to within striking distance and the Vikings' steamroller turned into a pumpkin. With the clock seemingly the greatest adversary, the Vikings resorted to long huddles, non-chalant movements to the line and back to the huddle, and even a timeout on a dead ball play--their final timeout.

Jackson and the coaching staff added to the Vikings' late-game misery by returning to conservative play-calling--frequently resorting to dump-off plays in the middle of the field despite the lack of timeouts, a running game clock, and a need for large chunks of yardage--and Jackson returned to the form that had him relegated to the bench after week two of the season, failing miserably on deep ball attempts, throwing off of his back foot, and failing to take command of the game.

It was a pitiful end to a game that the Falcons appeared equally intent on giving to Minnesota.

For the Vikings, the loss is not catastrophic. A win next week, or a Chicago loss either tomorrow night or next Sunday, and the Vikings still make the playoffs, albeit with no shot at homefield advantage beyond the first round.

But if a single loss can paint the tale of a franchise, it was Sunday's Vikings' loss to the Falcons. The Vikings' premier player, Adrian Peterson, fumbled three more times this week, giving him six fumbles in three weeks. After a brilliant start to the game, Jackson was lost when the game was on the line--at least when he stayed in the pocket. And, when it mattered most, when the Vikings had the chance to march down the field against a Falcons' defense that has yielded nearly 300 yards of offense per game this season to rank near the bottom of the NFL, Childress returned to conservative ball.

All of which makes one still wonder whether, when the chips are on the line, Childress and Jackson can do what Childress and Jackson need to do for the Vikings to make the playoffs and have a measure of success there this season. If Jackson can play as he did in the first half, the Vikings can be outstanding. If, however, he resorts to his passing antics late in the game--or, worse yet, is encumbered by the long-reach of Childress' smothering and choking offense in a tight game--the season might already be over.

Up Next: The Williams' Suit. Plus, More post-game.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Biggest Test Yet?

Over the past six quarters of football, Minnesota Vikings' erstwhile back-up quarterback Tarvaris Jackson has thrown five touchdown passes without an interception. Compared to his one touchdown and one pick from the first two games of the 2008 season, those numbers are both strong and promising.

Despite the impressive touchdown to interception ratio, however, there remain questions about just how much Jackson has improved during his time as resident clipboard holder. Around the league, and, more evidently, around the Twin Cities, the sentiment appears to be that Sunday's game against the Atlanta Falcons will provide the first meaningful barometer of Jackson's progress.

At 9-5 in the competitive NFC South, there certainly is a strong argument to be made that Atlanta will provide a much tougher challenge for Jackson and the Vikings than did either the Detroit Lions or the Arizona Cardinals. With victories over the Saints, Chargers, Panthers, and Buccaneers, the Falcons have accomplished what the Lions certainly have not and what even the Cardinals have strained to do this season, beating competitive teams and winning games both at home and on the road.

Still, there is reason to doubt the Falcons' legitimacy. Of their nine victories this season, only three have been against teams with winning records and all of those victories have been at home.

Offensively, the Falcons showcase three rising stars in wide-receiver Roddy White, running back Michael Turner, and quarterback Matt Ryan. For the better part of the season, Ryan has been better than anything that the Vikings have put on the field at quarterback and has steadily improved his play--something Vikings' fans have been assured is a virtual impossibility for a rookie (or second- or third-year) quarterback in the NFL.

The Vikings have been greatly improved against the pass this season with defensive end Jared Allen offering real pressure on the edge where not even a semblance of pressure existed last year, the Vikings' secondary playing much better in coverage and in tackling after the catch, and the Vikings' interior defensive linemen doing what they have done for each of the past three years--stuffing the run.

Without the injured Pat Williams, the Vikings should have a tougher test against Turner. If Turner is able to run and Ryan does what he has been doing to opposing teams, this game will be a good gauge of where the Vikings stand overall.

Rushing defense aside, the most anticipated issue for the Vikings will be Jackson's ability to read and react to Atlanta's defense. Last week, the Falcons flustered Buccaneer quarterback Brian Griese, recording four sacks and an interception.

Despite the pressure, however, the Falcons yielded 269 yards passing to a modestly mobile backup quarterback in a tight and low-scoring game. For a more agile quarterback such as Jackson, that should be a good sign, as well as a sign that Atlanta's defense is less to be feared this week than is the Falcons' offense.

Atlanta is yielding 343 yards of offense per game, near the league bottom, but only 20 points per game, near the league top. Minnesota is averaging 329 yards of offense per game and 24 points per game (roughly 20 points from the offense).

On offense, the Falcons are averaging 367 yards per game and 24 points per game (roughly 20 points from the offense). Minnesota is yielding 292 yards per game but only 20 points per game.

Statistically speaking, the Vikings and Falcons thus appear to be carbon copies of each other. The difference, however, is that, while the Falcons have accomplished their feats with the same key players on the field, the Vikings will be relying on two players who have not been part of most of the team's regular-season accomplishments. One of those players, Williams' backup, is certain to be a downgrade. The other, Jackson, must be viewed as an upgrade given his ability to move outside the pocket and avoid the Falcons' strong pass rush.

Barring jitters by an Atlanta team desperately in need of a victory to keep its playoff hopes alive, this game looks like it will come down to kickers and home-field advantage. It might not be the stern test that many are anticipating for Jackson, but it will be better than what either Detroit or Arizona offered.

Best Bet: Vikings 22 over Atlanta 20.

Up Next: More on the Vikings' Supplemental Drug Issues. Plus, post-game.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Miles to Go to Redemption

Following Minnesota's victory on Sunday over the Arizona Cardinals, our resident West-side scribe contended that Minnesota Vikings' head coach Brad Childress was due some apologies for his wisdom in drafting Tarvaris Jackson and for his coaching ability. Neither contention could be further from the truth.

Two weeks ago, the Vikings struggled mightily against arguably the worst NFL team in the Super Bowl era before amassing 17 second-half points en route to a four-point victory. On Sunday, the Vikings scored 28 points on offense against a team that has allowed nearly 26 points per game, nearly a league worst.

That the Vikings' stout defense, one of the best in the game with four players duly voted onto this year's Pro Bowl team, held the Cardinals' offense to 14 points is no mean feat. But therein lies the rub for those quick to rush to the sphincter of Vikings' head coach Brad Childress to express as many mea culpas as necessary to reingratiate themselves.

Despite the offensive output on Sunday, the Vikings once again won in Arizona primarily on the strength of their defense. That, as time suggests, is a function of very good players and quality coaching on the defensive side of the ball. It is, by no means, vindication either for Childress' suspect history with Minnesota or Childress' decision to trade up to take quarterback Tarvaris Jackson in the 2006 NFL draft.

The point has been made before that Childress has done little with a team which, upon being hired, he referred to as "loaded with talent" and ready to move beyond the 9-7 mark set by Mike Tice in his final season as head coach of the Vikings. For those who have forgotten and prefer the short version, it is that Childress has taken a 9-7 team with talent, added the best running back and left guard in the league, one of the best defensive ends, a starting running back as a sidekick to the top running back, and a speedy wide receiver and has improved the team to 9-5 in three seasons.

To now suggest, on the basis of a mere game and one-half of play the likes of which has done nothing more than bring the Vikings' offense nearly to the level of the league average, that that play somehow vindicates all, or even most of what Childress has done as a head coach with Minnesota is pure fantasy.

Nor, despite Jackson's solid quarterback rating and ability to avoid the turnover, is there yet reason to praise Childress' acumen either in trading up to take Jackson or in anointing the green quarterback the next coming despite ample evidence to the contrary that Jackson was not ready to start in the NFL. As noted here, that experiment, given the aging nature of the Vikings at key positions, not only was presumptuous, it also wasted what should have been a very good two years for the organization on the field.

For the game Sunday, Jackson was 11-17 for 163 yards. Four times, Jackson found receivers who then scored. That's good. But it's one game and very likely an anomaly given the Vikings' offensive approach and Jackson's own erratic play.

Sunday was not the first time that Jackson has done something impressive on the field. What has hurt Jackson has been his inability to be both consistent and timely. Maybe that will change. But maybe it won't. One game against Arizona's defense and one good stat line are not the stuff of statistical relevance.

The Vikings' brass love to trot out the line that it takes three years for a college quarterback to make the transition to the NFL. For those gushing over Jackson's solitary recent performance, the three-year line now has become prescient. It ought not be.

This year, six quarterbacks received starter designations for the first time in the NFL. One of those quarterbacks had not started a game since high school, yet has thrown three or more touchdowns in four games this season. Two are likely to pass for over 4,000 yards. And all six look like better prospects than Jackson.

Despite his highly lauded performance on Sunday, Jackson still finished Sunday's game with a meager 163 yards passing. As Childress is fond of saying, "it don't matter how you do it, as long as you do it." But it does matter how you do it against the teams that are well rounded, as few and far between as those teams might be this year, because against those teams you don't get it done if you don't do it well.

Of the starting quarterbacks in the NFL this week, Jackson was not even in the top twenty in passing yardage. One suspects that that's a statistic that will carry more weight if and when the Vikings face a defense interested in defending. Until then, it's still unclear what the Vikings have in Jackson.

And there's certainly no reason to offer mea culpas to Childress, either for getting his talent-laden team to 9-5 in a weak NFC or for tabbing Jackson as the heir apparent.

Up Next: Pat Williams' Decisions.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Ever the Contrarians Vikings Move to Within One Game of Playoffs

To be sure, the Arizona Cardinals were ripe for an upset. The Cardinals have no running game of which to speak, they frequently cede early leads, and they already had clinched their division with only home-field advantage left to play for. And there was the fact that the Cardinals were the favorites on Sunday.

Without even checking the history books, nearly every Vikings' fan knows when the Vikings are most poised for victory or defeat. The Vikings lose when they should win and win when they should lose. Today, the Vikings won when all signs pointed to a loss, albeit a close loss.

That the Vikings were starting a quarterback who had been demoted to backup without a clear future was only the first sign of foreboding to the uninitiated prior to Sunday's game in the desert. There was also the issue of who the Vikings were facing--the NFL's top-ranked quarterback and equally impressive receiving corps. Add to the mix the fact that the Vikings were on the road and all signs pointed to a closely managed loss.

But things did not go according to script on Sunday. Or they did.

Rather than cede a lead, the Vikings' special teams established an early lead on a long punt return by Bernard Berrian. The run continued with the Vikings and Jackson going to the air. Despite finishing the game with a mere 169 yards passing, Jackson connected for four touchdowns on only 11 completions.

It was good strategy for the Vikings, the kind that this team has lacked in all but the most precious of moments during head coach Brad Childress' tenure with the Vikings. Rather than rely exclusively on the run with Jackson in the game for an injured Gus Frerotte, the Vikings immediately went to the air. And, if it is possible to claim to have stayed with the passing game when the team passed only 17 times, the Vikings did just that, with Jackson identifying not one, not two, but three wide receivers on a team heretofore suspected of having a single wideout.

After building a lead in uncharacteristic passing fashion, Childress turned to Adrian Peterson to rip off chunks of yardage and run down the game clock. It looked competent, it looked competitive, it looked Giant-esque.

The question of many Vikings' fans--one offered in previous seasons after similar impressive victories--is where this game plan and result have been for the better part of three seasons. If the Vikings continue with this philosophy for the final two games of the regular season and into the playoffs, that question will die down. If not, those suspicious of Childress' approach to coaching will only have more ammunition for their critiques.

Up Next: The Williams' Challenge. Plus, playoff bound.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

When 8-5 Feels Like 6-6

On Sunday afternoon, the Minnesota Vikings traveled to Ford Field to take on the 0-12 Detroit Lions. There has been no trick to beating the hapless Lions this season. Show up and Detroit collapses.

That rule of thumb has held for every game this year, including Sunday's Vikings' victory that pushed the Lions to 0-13. To Vikings' head coach Brad Childress, that's all that matters. To paying customers who expect to receive a better return on their high-priced tickets and time spent watching the team, being one of two teams this year to allow the Lions to stay within a touchdown and the only team to do so twice makes this year's Vikings underwhelming, even at 8-5.

For the eternal optimists among the Vikings' faithful, there are several promising signs. At 8-5, the Vikings are in prime position to make the playoffs for the first time in the Childress era. Two more wins or one more win combined with a Chicago loss and the Vikings win the NFC North.

For optimists, the Vikings' edge in the race to make the playoffs only slightly bests the encouraging signs from erstwhile starting quarterback Tarvaris Jackson. After hitting several open receivers on Sunday and guiding the Vikings to two second-half touchdowns, Jackson did what Gus Frerotte was unable to do and did so while using a skill that long-ago abandoned Frerotte, the ability to scramble.

Pessimists will be quick to note, however, that, despite the 8-5 record, the Vikings could still finish with the third best record in the NFC North with losses in the team's remaining three games. With games left against Arizona, Atlanta, and the New York Giants, that's not beyond the realm of possibilities, particularly if U.S. District Court Judge Paul Magnuson upholds the NFL's suspension of Pat and Kevin Williams.

Even losses in two of the team's remaining three games, however, combined with Chicago victories in two of Chicago's remaining three games, likely would leave the Vikings out of the playoffs. With a far easier remaining schedule, the Bears well could run the table, forcing the Vikings to win at least two of three to clinch a playoff spot.

What complicates the Vikings' situation further, the pessimists will contend, is that the Vikings very likely will have to rely on the continuing uneven performance of third-year quarterback Tarvaris Jackson for some or all of the team's remaining games. On Sunday, Jackson hit open receivers. But he also continued to exhibit the weaknesses that made him easy for most teams to defend against and made him a liability as a starting quarterback.

It was no surprise to see the Vikings call on Jackson to hit the deep pass early in the second half of his first real action since week two of the season. Nor was it any real surprise to see Jackson wildly overthrow the intended receiver. That, after all, was one of Jackson's unfathomable weaknesses as a starter. For whatever reason, he simply seems to have no feel for the deep pass. In the rare instance that such a pass connects, it seems fortuitous rather than skilled. And for a team that only uses the deep pass once or twice a game, that's a significant short-coming for a starting quarterback to exhibit.

Nor does Jackson necessarily make up for his deep-ball short-coming by demonstrating poise in the pocket. Jackson was fortunate not to have a horribly thrown pass picked by any one of three defenders in the second half Sunday. A pick and the game would have been over. Only Detroit's penchant for missing on such plays seemed to save the day for the Vikings and Jackson. Similar fortune should not be expected against the Cardinals, Falcons, or Giants.

Finally, pessimists will note, the Vikings did to a far lesser extent on Sunday, what all other Lions' opponents have done this year. They threw less against the Lions, ran for less, and scored less. That recipe works against the Lions because the Lions are so magnificently deficient in each of these areas. Against better competition--the likes of which the Vikings will face the next three weeks and, should they move on, in the playoffs--the Vikings' best prospects thus appear still more hopeful than certain. That is is why some Vikings' fans remain unconvinced that this team is any different from Childress' previous two teams in Minnesota.

Up Next: The Pat and Kevin Williams Saga Continues.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Childress' Rhetoric Won't Fly in Michigan

The Minnesota Vikings travel to Ford Field today to take on the winless Detroit Lions. And, despite what Vikings' head coach Brad Childress would lead any who listen to believe, the Vikings ought to blow the Lions off the field.

Earlier in the week, it appeared that the Vikings might have to make do without either of their starting defensive tackles against a team with a modest rushing attack and a lesser passing game. We now know that both Pat and Kevin Williams will play against the Lions--a reality that should make the Lions' offense non-dimensional.

On the season, the Lions have scored 203 points. That's less than seventeen points per game, better only than Cincinnati, St. Louis, and Oakland and nearly 13 points fewer per game than the league-leading New York Giants.

Worse yet, the Lions have mustered a paltry 78 rushing yards per game, placing them ahead of only the running-back-less Bengals and Arizona Cardinals and giving them a mere 82 yards less per game than the league-leading Giants. Against the Titans, a team ranking ten slots below the Vikings in rushing yards allowed per game, the Lions gained only 23 yards rushing.

Unlike the Cardinals, the Lions have been unable to off-set their lack of a running game with any semblance of a passing attack, ranking near the bottom of the NFL in passing yards per game, ahead of only the usual suspects; the Lions' 182 passing yards per game leaves them just shy of the league-leading Saints' 316 passing yards per game.

On defense, the Vikings allow 73 rushing yards per game, good for second best in the league, and a respectable 219 passing yards per game. In short, the Vikings' defense should be too much for the Lions' woeful offense.

As ineffective and anemic as the Lions' offense has been in 2008, their defense has been far worse. While the Lions' passing yards allowed mirrors that of the Vikings, it merely masks the fact that no team has either the inclination or the need to bother passing against a truly terrible pass defense when they can run right through one of the worst run defenses ever assembled.

The Vikings rank just one spot ahead of the Lions in passing deficiency, averaging only 184 yards per game, but they rank fourth in the league in rushing offense with 143 yards per game. Tennessee, which follows in sixth place in league rushing, chewed up the Lions' defense for 292 rushing yards last week. Adrian Peterson and Chester Taylor ought to be able to approach, if not outright obliterate that figure, today.

Detroit has allowed an incredible 33 points game this season with an average margin of defeat of sixteen points. Only once this season have the Lions finished a game within a field goal of their opponent and only two other times have they finished within a touchdown. They truly are a team of historic ineptitude.

Despite the woes and, more particularly, the margins of defeat that the Lions have suffered in 2008, Childress continues to contend that the Lions are "dangerous" and that the Vikings should expect a close game today because "there are very few blowouts in the NFL."

If one defines a blowout as a two touchdown or greater victory--math surely even supported in Childress' conservative world of statistical analysis--then there are, in fact, numerous blowouts in the NFL. Last week alone, there were nine such scores with six games decided by three touchdowns or more.

We know why Childress continues to contend that "most games in the NFL are close." It is because most of the games that he coaches close and he sees everything through the prism of those games. That's his world. That's his box.

Against the Lions, however, there will be no excuse for losing. And there really won't be any excuse, though we know we would get one anyway (something along the lines of "a win is a win--we'll take 'em any way we can get 'em"), for the Vikings to fail to run up the score on the Lions. It is, after all, the default this year in the NFL.

In spite of Childress' pulling of the reins, the Vikings should roll and roll big.

Up Next: More on the Williams' Legal Issues. Plus, post-game.

Friday, December 05, 2008

NFL's Fumbles Are Williams' Gain

Late today, U.S. District Court Judge Paul Magnuson upheld a lower court grant of a temporary restraining order (TRO) that will allow Minnesota Vikings' players Pat and Kevin Williams to continue practicing and playing with the Vikings until the Court has had the opportunity to hear further arguments on the players' claims. The ruling likely means that the Williamses not only will be available for Sunday's game against the Detroit Lions, but also for the remainder of the 2008 season, including any playoff games that the Vikings play.

Evidence raised at the hearing suggests that, prior to requesting that the Court overturn the TRO, the NFL had done considerable damage to its own cause. As previously noted on this site, the most compelling argument for the players in this case is that despite having a policy of strict liability on drug use, the NFL has undermined the policy by providing occasional information on newly banned substances and substances about which the players "should be aware." Though arguably helpful to the players, these actions suggest that the NFL understood that a policy of strict liability was not feasible. This is a point about which Judge Magnuson clearly had some concerns.

The NFL further burdened its cause in this case by concealing from players the league doctor's discovery of a banned substance in StarCaps. Rather than directly informing the players of this discovery, the league opted to send a general warning about StarCaps to each team and to the NFLPA. That might have been excusable, except that the league, in explaining its thought process to Judge Magnuson, claimed that it did not directly inform the players of the discovery regarding StarCaps' ingredients because it did not want to create the impression that the league was deviating from a policy of strict liability.

Of course, the league had already deviated from the policy of strict liability. The additional revelation to the Court only served further to cloud the issue and call into question the professionalism of the league in administering its policy. And it all but required Judge Magnuson to let stand the TRO and proceed with players' claim.

And if issue of whether the players in this case received the benefit of the due process required under the league's collective bargaining agreement were not already clouded, the attorney for the Williamses argued that both Pat and Kevin had called the league's banned substances hotline to specifically inquire whether StarCaps is a banned substance. The Williams' attorney contends that the players' calls went unanswered. Though the claim is suspicious, given that it is being raised several weeks after Vikings' wide-receiver Bernard Berrian made a similar allegation and that the Williamses, heretofore, have not raised this defense--a near-winning defense that one would presume would have been the heart of the players' defense--that the NFL has acknowledged difficulties with its hotline does not bode well for the NFL.

Despite the NFL's miscues, Friday's ruling does not necessarily let the Williamses off the hook. Instead, it merely buys the two players additional time. The irony is that the NFL's request for a change of venue, presumably made to avoid having the case heard in front of a Viking friendly Hennepin County judge, will now, instead, be heard in front of a home-town judge in a federal system known for being at least as protective of workers' rights as would be a Hennepin County judge. Moreover, with the move to the federal court system, delays are far more likely, particularly since the party against whom delays would be a burden, the players, have prevailed in the initial hearing regarding the TRO.

With billions of dollars in annual revenue, it is astonishing that the NFL would mess up what ought to have been a fairly clear drug policy by not paying attention to details. That they have done so, however, has operated to the Williamses and the Vikings' advantage. Even if the Williamses ultimately are fined or suspended for circumventing the league's ban on use of diuretics to meet contractual weight-clause terms, the suspensions likely will not occur this year and certainly will be meted out only after the Court has lectured the league on its policies. That could lead to a lesser suspension and/or lesser fines.

Up Next: Misdirection--What Childress Said, But the Opposite.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

UnClean Hands Versus Assumption of Obligation Versus Lack of Jurisdiction

On Tuesday evening, the NFL Commissioner's Office announced that the NFL will be upholding the four-game suspensions that it had earlier handed down to Minnesota Vikings' defensive tackles Pat and Kevin Williams for use of a diuretic containing a substance banned by the NFL. The suspensions, set to begin with Sunday's game against the hapless Detroit Lions, would leave the Vikings thin at a position otherwise considered one of the team's strengths.

Already, Kevin Williams' agent has announced that Kevin will be filing an appeal in U.S. District Court. Presumably, Pat Williams will file an appeal as well.

Neither the grounds nor the jurisdiction of an outside court to hear an appeal are clear at this point. Because both Vikings' players were suspended under the NFL's collective bargaining agreement with the NFL Players' Union, it is arguable that the District Court does not have jurisdiction over the matter and that, should the players have a dispute with the decision, they would have only the NFL to which they could appeal. Given that the players already have exhausted their appeals under the collective bargaining agreement, however, they might well be stuck with the league's determination and be forced to sit out four games.

Should the players gain a hearing in federal court, they likely will be forced to argue against two separate charges--only one of which resulted in their initial penalty, that of using a banned substance. The second charge is that both players used a diuretic in direct contradiction of the collective bargaining agreement which disallows use of a diuretic for the purpose of meeting weight-based incentives.

Because the NFL's policy is one of strict liability, whether the players intended to use banned substances is not germane; all that matters is whether the players used banned substances. The case, thus, will hinge on whether the players used "banned substances," if it any longer hinges on anything at all.

The best argument that the players appear to have at their avail--and one that they presumably already have made at league offices--is that they received information on the specific diuretic that they were taking that contradicts the information that the NFL is now claiming to have sent to the NFLPA and each team in December of 2006. The players ought also to argue that they were not taking diuretics to meet weight-based incentives in their contracts but for some other reason, such as to regulate their weight on a year-round basis to promote overall good health--though it's difficult to imagine that any rational arbiter would conclude that the diuretics were used for any other reason than to meet weight-based incentives in the players' contracts.

The league appears to have a solid case against the Vikings' defensive tackles. The Williamses do not deny taking the diuretic; the league has a strict liability policy; and the Williams' best argument appears to be lack of a proper warning--an argument that flies in the face of strict liability.

Only one door appears to be open to the players for appeal. That door is the one opened by the league by its somewhat curious statement regarding its own policy.

In a press release, the league dismissed the Williams' chief point of appeal--that they did not receive adequate notice of the banned substance--on the ground of strict liability. The league went on to say, however, that, although neither the league nor the NFLPA ever even contemplated that it would be the duty of the league to tell players what products they could not use, leaving that for the players to determine based on the product's ingredients and the list of banned products kept and distributed to the players by the league, the league, nevertheless, sent out two memos regarding products produced and sold by the same company that made the Starcaps diuretic that the Williamses reportedly used.

While it is admirable for the NFL to go above and beyond its commitment under the collective bargaining agreement to keep players informed on products that run afoul of the league's banned substances list, it is also rather foolish from a legal perspective. For, by sending this information, the league arguably has assumed a duty to send a complete and accurate list. And if the Starcaps brand that the Williamses used was not strictly prohibited, the Williamses at least have an opening to argue that it ought to have been to justify the punishment that the league rendered for their use of the product.

The Williams' best argument is, thus, that the league assumed a duty that it failed to meet when it failed to notify them about a substance that the league knew or had reason to know ran afoul of the league's banned substances list.

The league has already established a counter to this charge by suggesting unclean hands on the part of the Williamses for using a diuretic to meet weight-based contract incentives.

It is likely that only a highly sympathetic judge would grant review of the case as the matter involved appears to fall clearly and fully within the purview of the NFL. Even if the court agrees to hear the case, however, the best that the Williamses likely can hope for is a slow process, rather than the expedited process that the NFL is likely to request if it fails to have the case dismissed. And that might mean that the two tackles are unavailable if and when the Vikings make the playoffs rather than in the period in which the Vikings need them to make the playoffs.

In short, Vikings' fans probably ought to warm to the prospect of trying to make the playoffs without the services of either Pat or Kevin Williams. And warm to the notion that the suspensions could buy head coach Brad Childress another year should the team fail to make the playoffs this season.

Up Next: Misdirection.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Contrary to Unpopular Wisdom

Popular belief has it that Adrian Peterson is the best running back in the NFL and ought to be given every opportunity to show it. On Sunday night, Minnesota Vikings' head coach Brad Childress spent the better part of the first half against the equally addled Chicago Bears, attempting to disprove popular wisdom. Fortunately for the Vikings and their fans, while Bears' head coach Lovie Smith opted for the Childress playbook, Childress broke ranks.

After spending one full quarter running the conventional Childress road-to-nowhere offense, the Vikings caught a break early in the second quarter on Sunday when Adrian Peterson ripped off a 59-yard-run to the Bears' 6-yard-line. The Vikings then called a Peterson run to the Vikings' weak side for one yard and followed with two poorly devised and even more poorly executed jump-ball passes to the left corner of the end zone, the first of which should have been and nearly was intercepted.

The obvious playcall so close to the Bears' endzone was to stack the left side of the line with two tight ends and to give Peterson the ball. Predictably, however, the obvious playcall was not even a possibility on third down as the Vikings removed Peterson--the one guy for whom the Bears had no answer. The equally predictable result was a fourth-down field-goal attempt that the Vikings converted to pull within four.

Without belaboring the point, it is evident that Childress has become fixated with proving to anyone watching and/or listening that he has no need for conventional wisdom or even subtle derivations there of. Rather than the no-brainer, what the Childress playbook generally calls for is a common-sense call thrice removed. On this set of downs, that meant using option four when the Bears had failed to show that they could shut down option one.

Not to be outdone--in fact, as an apparent point of one-upmanship pride--Lovie Smith followed Childress' playcalling with some equally inept playcalling of his own.

After rookie running back Matt Forte scorched the Vikings for a 26-yard run around the left end, and Ray Edwards and Benny Sapp chipped in drive-saving penalties, the Bears found themselves at the Vikings' one-yard-line.

The natural call would have been Forte around the left or right end or a play-action pass--two plays that the Vikings had shown an inability to defend. Smith called the proper play on first down, but went to the wrong side and too deep, calling a pass to tight end Greg Olsen in the right corner of the endzone.

The first down miss apparently emboldened Smith to resort to the least viable alternatives. Instead of using a variation of what should have been a successful play, Smith opted to run up the gut against Minnesota. And he did so not once, not twice, but three times, the second play during which Smith inserted previously unused, practice squad fullback Jason Davis for the fullback's only carry of the game and season.

Naturally, the Vikings' stone-walled the Bears, turning Lovie's team over on downs at the one. The Bears never recovered and Lovie was left to explain to an incredulous Chicago media contingent why running three straight times at Pat and Kevin Williams seemed like the best option from the one. In classic Childress fashion, Lovie replied that the Bears "thought they saw something that they could exploit." In common parlance, that translates to "I thought I was smarter than everyone else."

While Lovie and the Bears continued their head-scratching play--typified by their failure to play a safety deep on Bernard Berrian's side when Childress' playbook clearly calls for one of his team's two deep passes of the game to be thrown from the Vikings' one-yard-line, as it did on the very next play--Childress, after possibly taking a few well-placed knocks to the head during halftime, either conceded the long-standing error of his ways or made one last ditch effort to show why his way is better.

Following a Chester Taylor rush for no gain from the Bears' one-yard-line, Childress inserted Peterson into the game calling on 28 to run up the gut. The logic, it appeared, was to prove to all that Peterson simply cannot get it done in goal-line situations. Never mind what wisdom suggested, Childress would show the World that he was right. Only he was wrong and the Vikings benefited courtesy an AP waltz into the endzone.

The victory over the Bears on Sunday was important, even critical, for the Vikings who, with a loss, effectively would have stood two games behind the Bears in the standings with but a slim chance of making the playoffs. But, perhaps equally as important to the team as the victory is the fact that Peterson walked into the endzone from the one-yard-line. For that play showed what all but Childress already knew--that Peterson is a goal line back.

If only Peterson had caught a pass out of the slot in a third down situation.

Up Next: Misdirection.