Wednesday, January 30, 2008

If The NFL Were Like MLB

With the 2007-2008 NFL season drawing to a close this weekend, teams like the Minnesota Vikings long-ago began their off-season routines of drawing up their free-agent matrices and deciding upon which of their players to move should the right free agent fall to them. Two of the league's more successful personnel-analyzing and developing teams will soon join these teams in their off-season mode, making for that much more competition for the local team.

But while the Vikings face competition from 31 other teams for whatever talent it is that they will seek in free agency, Vikings' fans can at least take solace in the fact that the NFL has elected to operate under a far different system of free agency than that which encumbers MLB and has adopted a far more lucrative revenue-sharing model than has MLB.

If the NFL employed the same free-agency system and revenue-sharing model as MLB, rather than embarking on discussions of which free agents the Vikings were likely to sign this off-season, we might, instead, be talking about trades--the likes of which rarely occur in the NFL.

We might, for example, be discussing a Vikings' trade of Troy Williamson, a receiver who has shown an ability to run, but not to catch, Ryan Cook, an offensive line prospect with size who needs to learn technique and agility, Mike Doss, a player who once showed great promise but who has been beset with injuries that have diminished his upside, and two players off of the team's practice squad for Tom Brady.

Or, more realistically, we would be listening to Rob Brzyzinski attempt to put a positive spin on the Vikings' trade of E.J. Henderson, Kevin Williams, and Pat Williams for a rookie quarterback out of Chattanooga State, a safety with two broken legs, and six practice squad players.

"We love what E.J., Kevin, and Pat brought to the team, but we needed to shore up our quarterback and safety spots and we think we did just that. Plus, we added six more players giving us a net of five players in the deal. That meshes well with our organizational philosophy of grooming players to fit within our system. Given the youth of some of these players, this isn't a trade that one can judge fairly today. It's going to take a few years for some of these players to develop, but we think they are on track to do just that. We really like this trade."

Fortunately for Vikings' fans, the latter scenario is unlikely to play out anytime soon. And that's not because the ownership group of the local team is above claiming poverty--something we've already heard as Wilf has not-so-subtly suggested that the Vikings might have to move to make a go of it.

Instead, Vikings' fans can thank the modern NFL's forefathers, particularly the Mara brothers of the New York Giants, for a revenue-sharing system that distributes all meaningful league revenues. And, with a mandated salary structure that provides a spending cap as well as an even more significant salary floor, teams are required to spend rather than to horde.

The consequences of the NFL's progressive planning and astute, if collusional, collective bargaining agreement have been overwhelmingly positive for fans of the sport. Although the NFL system means that more teams will be competitive each year, thus making it difficult for any one team to dominate, it also means that more teams will be competitive each year. And that means that, while MLB fans in most cities watch star players depart as ownership groups line their pockets with their fans' money, NFL fans in virtually every city have reason to be optimistic that next year could be their year--all while NFL ownership groups reap far more revenue than their myopic MLB brethren.

Up Next: Vikings' Free-Agent Targets. Plus, who's out?

Friday, January 25, 2008

Salary Cap Spikes Could Frustrate Vikings' Free Agent Search

The Minnesota Vikings embark on the 2008 free-agency period with a range of needs. At the top of the team's wish list is right offensive tackle, followed closely by right offensive tackle and defensive end, and then wide receiver, safety and cornerback. The only positions at which the Vikings appear to be set for the 2008 season, in other words, are on special teams, and at running back, defensive tackle and guard, center, and linebacker.

Identifying the Vikings' needs is the easy part. Filling the needs through free agency could prove more than daunting.

Last season, the Vikings had approximately $34 million to work with in free agency. With a thin free-agency crop, the Vikings came up small, landing only two marginal starters in wide receiver Bobby Wade and tight end Visanthe Shiancoe, and some other near-role players.

Unfortunately for Vikings' fans, 2008 could well prove to be for Minnesota a repeat of the 2007 free-agency period, or worse. Despite having slightly over $20 million in cap money to spend this off-season, the Vikings probably will fall victim to the same two entities that most hurt their chances of landing talented free agents last year--the larger salary cap picture and the unwillingness of high-end free agents to sign with a team that failed to make the playoffs.

Two years ago, we noted the looming free agency dilemna facing teams not both flush with free-agent dollars and primed for a playoff push. That dilemna began following the implementation of the recent collective bargaining agreement and the subsequent spike in team salary caps. The considerable increase in salary caps over the past two seasons, and the expected increase to $116 million this season, has allowed teams already loaded with talent to resign that talent for at least another season, thus keeping several would-be free agents off of the free-agent market.

Free agents who do reach the open market this season will once again have the upper hand, being able to play teams off of one another to improve their individual asking price. That's bad news for a Vikings' team that currently has few advantages over its NFL brethren.

Complicating matters even further is the fact that, though the Vikings have a considerable amount of salary cap room and, in fact, will need to spend approximately $8 million to reach the salary cap floor, the Vikings are merely in the middle of the NFL pack with respect to cap space.

At the top of the list of teams with available cap space are the San Diego Chargers with a staggering $43 million in unspent cap dollars before unearned bonuses are even attributed. Twenty-three other teams, including every other member of the NFC North Division, can expect to have more cap space than the Vikings expect to have in 2008. Add to that the fact that New England and Indianapolis, two perennial favorites to reach the Super Bowl, are two of the eight teams with less cap space than the Vikings and the Vikings face a difficult free agency period, even if the players that they covet are available in the free-agency pool.

Up Next: Potential Free Agents that Might Fit the Vikings' Needs. Plus, should he stay or should he go--the Troy Williamson saga.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Premonition of Things to Come?

Last night, with my wife out of town, I trundled off to bed early with my two-year-old in tow. Shortly after nine p.m., after every child's book had been exhausted and Luna's magic glow no longer lit up the now dark bedroom, I fell fast asleep beside my son, who was wedged firmly against my side, snoring away.

After a mostly restless night of sleep--primarily the result of a restless child searching for the proper rib into which to stick his perpetually moving left elbow--REM finally kicked in for me. And it began quite nicely.

"Did you hear?" An unidentified voice called out to me from somewhere in the corner of my dream sequence.

"Hear what?" I asked, as I continued walking through a sunny field nowhere in particular.

"He's gone! The Emperor is gone! He's fired McHale!" The voice called back.

I couldn't believe my ears as I turned with a half-stunned expression in the direction of my Aunt, who was now walking with me as I made my way out of a parking lot. Where, precisely we were walking, I could not say, but I could make out a surprisingly colder environment with wind chills decidely tugging at me from all angles.

As my Aunt, a dyed-in-the-wool Gopher fan and never-left-Minnesota Minnesotan slowed her pace, a frown crossed her face.

"Young man!" I shouted out to the first person I saw in my dream other than my Aunt. "Young man!"

The boy, who was wearing a pair of snow boots as his winter cap flopped slightly atop his smiling head, had been running on the sidewalk outside the parking garage through which my Aunt and I were now emerging. He immediately stopped in his tracks upon hearing my call. "Yes sir?" He politely replied.

"Could you tell me what day it is?" I asked, reaching into my pocket.

"Why everyone knows what day it is today, sir!" The boy gleefully shouted. "It is the day that McHale was fired!"

"Thank you. Indeed it is, young man. Inded it is," I replied, too weak from delerium to do anything other than toss the boy the shiny Susan B. Anthony dollar coin that could have only found its way into my pocket in such a dream sequence. "Thank you!" I suddenly mustered up the energy to shout to everyone who could hear.

My Aunt was non-plussed, however.

"How can you rejoice on such a sad day?" She scowled. "A fine man and a fine basketball mind has just been fired and you rejoice? That's sad," she lamented. "Give the man a chance to put together his team and then have your say," she said.

I was nearly apoplectic. "Give the man a chance? Let him build his team?" I asked. "Are you insane? Where is the evidence...?" I began, before controlling my rant, realizing that I was speaking to part of the Minnesota-initiated that was programmed to apologize for the short-comings of local sports franchises and to forevever call for giving the leaders of any failing franchise time to get things right.

I just shook my head, hoping that someone else might someday find a way to break through the miasma that had taken hold over my Aunt.

As my Aunt disappeared from the dream, I found myself walking down a street lined with children--mostly children who looked like grown adults--who were playing in deep snow with several unused basketballs half-buried at their sides. As I looked in their direction, they waved to me. "Did you hear the good news?" They all seemed to ask in unison. "McHale's gone!"

It was a scene straight out of a Norman Rockwell winter painting. The children were frolicking in the snow, riding sleds, hurling fluffy snowballs at each other, and generally having a good time. "I never would have made that Garnett deal," one man-child called out to me. "Why couldn't we have had Ray Allen and Paul Pierce and given up all of our garbage?" Another carelessly let slip before realizing what day the day before today was in the dream sequence.

As I half-shook my head at the long run of mostly futility that the Wolves had suffered under McHale and half-rejoiced at at least the hope of a brighter future for the team, I felt a twinge in my side.

Sitting up in bed, I dislodged by son's leg from my torso and gently moved him to the center of the bed. Covering him with the down comforter, I made my way down the steps and to my office.

The time read three o'clock. I knew I had been dreaming, but it seemed so real. I had to check.

Turning on my desktop computer, I anxiously waited through the interminable and unnecessary bootup sequence of my PC before clicking my way to the internet. The cold weather sequences in my dream should have been ample foreboding of what was to come.

My initial instinct was to go to Surely, if it had occurred, McHale's firing would be reported on ESPN, I reasoned. ESPN had no report of a McHale firing.

I bolstered my spirits by telling myself that it was too early in the morning and too recent of a story for ESPN yet to have the story. I held out hope as I moved on to Alas, there was no "McHale Fired" story to be found there either.

I had lost hope and was more down in the dauber than I had been before going to bed, despite having long ago lost any meaningful hope of the Wolves ever again being even a potentially successful professional sports franchise.

Then, as I clicked off the computer and turned to flip off the light on my way back to bed, I caught a glimmer out of the corner of my eye. There, in the distance, but still visible, lay a shiny Susan B. Anthony dollar coin, just out of reach and half-way wedged under the quarter round that trimmed the office baseboard.

I don't know how that coin got there, I only knew it was there--I knew I was no longer dreaming. And I resolved to leave it there just to see if maybe my dream was more than a mere dream.

Up Next: More NFL Playoffs. Plus, free agency.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Packers' Loss Greater Evidence of Value of Quarterback Play

Following the Green Bay Packers' improbable home playoff loss to the New York Giants on Sunday night, Packers' quarterback Brett Favre was left to explain how his team had squandered what seemed to be a decisive home-playoff edge in the NFC Championship game. Favre's answer--"I didn't get it done."

Favre's answer was correct. He did not get it done. At least not for much of the game or when the game was most clearly on the line.

In the second half of Sunday's game against the Giants, Favre started out well enough, completing four of five passes on a drive culminating with a Packer touchdown. From there, his play mostly went south.

For the remainder of the game, Favre completed five of 17 passes for a handful of yards and two interceptions; the worst pass being a twenty-yard softball into the awaiting arms of Giants' cornerback Corey Webster. Favre's final pass of the game was so bad, his intended target, Donald Driver, did not even have time to respond to the pass nor to Webster's casual step into the path of the incoming lob.

For all of the high points that Favre's 2007 season had, Sunday surely was one of the low points. That does not diminish Favre's accomplishments on the season, but it does point to the absolute necessity of having high-quality play out of the quarterback position in the latter rounds of the NFL playoffs, where mistakes are amplified in a manner not generally the case during the regular season.

Prior to Sunday's game against the Giants, the Packers had ridden a nice streak of games on the strength of their passing and running game working in tandem, with each opening options for the other. On Sunday, the Giants both put the clamps on Packers' running back Ryan Grant, who finished the game with thirteen rushes for 29 yards and no touchdowns, and put pressure on Favre.

The pressure that the Giants exerted on Favre was of the sort that one ought to expect of a championship caliber defensive-line. The Packers responded by keeping one and, at times, two extra players in to block. That meant more double coverage of the Packers' wide-receivers and fewer and more difficult passes for Favre.

To Favre's credit, he solved some of the Giants' defensive puzzle. But if Favre had difficulty with what the Giants were offering on defense, imagine how a rookie quarterback like the Minnesota Vikings' Tarvaris Jackson would have responded had he been called upon to throw the ball 35 times, as Favre did on Sunday.

While there is something to be said for youthful speed and agility, there is ample evidence to support the contention that experience, combined with general ability is the de mimimis requirement for championship-level quarterback play in the NFL. On Sunday, Favre brought both to the championship game and his team still lost. And they lost because, in an era where the play of the quarterback is preeminent, his play did not live up to the current NFL championship standard.

Up Next: The Other Team; Manning Wins Out. Plus, Free-Agent News.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Difference a True Caretaker Makes

It's no news that, when the Minnesota Vikings were wining and dining current head coach, then Philadelphia Eagles' Coordinator, Brad Childress, the Green Bay Packers were patiently awaiting their turn to wine and dine Childress. The Packers, as the story is now told, never received even a courtesy visit from Childress, however, as the Vikings offered Childress a whopping five-year contract that Childress simply could not refuse.

The Vikings' loss was the Packers' gain, even if, at the time, some wondered whether both NFL franchises had taken a wrong turn. Rather than being led by Childress, the Packers settled for Mike McCarthy. While Childress has guided the Vikings to a two-season record of 14-18 and no playoff appearances, after what appears to have been a one-off, McCarthy has guided the Packers to the NFC Championship and what appears to be a likely trip to the Super Bowl.

Already, some of the local pollyannas have begun pointing to the Packers as an example of where the Vikings would have been this year, but for, in their minds, some misfortune. The obvious starting point for such a soliloquy is the Vikings' seven-point loss to Green Bay early in the 2007 season.

That's the starting point and, of course, the end point. For, in 2007, the separation between Minnesota and Green Bay mirrored much more closely the Vikings' 34-point loss at Lambeau Field than it did the seven-point home defeat to the Packers.

In September, the Vikings were at home facing a Packer team that had yet to identify either its go-to receiver, Greg Jennings, or its starting running back, Ryan Grant. Prior to that early Fall game against Minnesota, Jennings had four receptions for 82 yards and one touchdown. Since the Minnesota game, Jennings has added over 800 yards receiving and 11 touchdowns.

Grant was even more invisible for the Packers by week four of the regular season than was Jennings. And while Jennings had the excuse of having been recovering from an injury for the first two weeks of the season, Grant had an even better excuse--he wasn't even on the Packers' roster until late August when the Packers made the trade of the year for him with the New York Giants.

After primarily watching Vernand Morency and Brandon Jackson display their lack of rushing skills for the better part of half of the 2007 season, Grant was finally given a chance to start. The returns have been bountiful and are one of the primary reasons that the Packers now stand a realistic shot of knocking off the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl.

In his eleven games as a starter, including one playoff game and a cameo appearance in the regular-season finale against the Detroit Lions, Grant has rushed for 929 yards with 8 touchdowns on 182 carries. Vikings' fans think they can relate, but they cannot.

Vikings' rookie Adrian Peterson finished the season with 1,341 rushing yards on 238 carries with 12 rushing touchdowns. But while Peterson was spectacular at times, he was not the difference-maker for the Vikings that Grant became for the Packers. And that has more to do with who played quarterback for the respective teams and the philosophy that that engendered for each team.

While Childress preached the caretaker approach to quarterbacking, the Packers relied on Favre to open holes for the running game. And Favre responded, and continues to respond in a manner that Tarvaris Jackson simply cannot at this stage of his career.

With Favre at the helm, the Packers finished number two in total offense and number two in points per game. They also finished with nearly 1,700 more passing yards on the season than did Minnesota, greatly explaining how it could be that an offense with Adrian Peterson could fall apart in the midst of a playoff drive.

The Vikings openly have lamented several things about their 2007 season, but, what appeared to be true in August to even casual observers appears even more evident now. Namely, the Vikings relied on a model of play that only through the benefit of greater other parts has proven successful even rarely in the NFL. For in the modern NFL, Childress' understanding of what is required of a quarterback simply does not suffice.

The only definition of a caretaker quarterback that is relevant is one that begins with the qualification that the quarterback be the most valuable asset on the offense. That's what Favre is to the Packers' offense and what Brady is to the Patriots' offense. They take care of their offenses. And that's why they're on course to meet in the Super Bowl.

Up Next: Packers versus Patriots--What Could Not Have Been. Plus, Who's Coming, Who's Going?

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Where Money Is No Object

In the panoply that is the professional sports landscape in the United States, one league stands high above all others in creating revenue for team owners. That league, the NFL, is so adept at churning out money that even the have-nots of the league find themselves awash in money year after year.

So it is that the Minnesota Vikings enter the 2007-2008 NFL off-season with a wad of cash and the hope of using some of that cash to sign at least two or three relevant players--something that the team failed to do last off-season.

As Vikings' owner Zygi Wilf silently counts his largesse, while publicly bemoaning his impoverished plight, there are moves that the Vikings' front office can make to improve the team, shore up the fan base, and increase the bottom line. And each of these moves begins with the team's ownership demonstrating leadership rather than insisting that others come to the rescue of a fairly well-situated franchise.

This bold move begins with Wilf implementing plans to build and fund, on the team's dime, a new, retractable-roof stadium in downtown Minneapolis. The rest will follow naturally if the Vikings follow the proper course.

The "proper course" requires much attention to detail. And, if Wilf is serious about running a quality franchise that is also considerably more profitable than it already is, he and his cohorts will pay attention to these details.

Up Next: Line Resolutions. Plus, Childress' make or break season.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

If Money Were No Object

There are many things that one could do if only money were no object. Among those many, many things, somewhere far down on my list of things, though still on my list, would be an endeavor to resurrect the local sports franchises--if only out of pity's sake.

I'd begin with the Minnesota Timberwolves, one of the sorriest sports franchises ever to roam the modern era. Off to a franchise-worst 4-28 start, the Wolves appear rudderless and adrift at sea, with a view from the bottom looking no more promising than a view from the woeful top. Out would go Kevin McHale and whatever incriminating material he holds on former owner Glen Taylor; out would go Randy Wittman and whatever incriminating material he holds on Kevin McHale; and out would go a draft philosophy that continues to pay but lip service to foreign talent.

In place of McHale, I would install the chicken who makes the rounds of the various state fair grounds, pecking out X's to match visitors' O's. While the chicken would not be counted on to make any startling moves, it also would not be counted on to make any startling moves. Handing McHale's figurehead duties to the chicken--ninety-percent of McHale's apparent current function--would settle one front-office position, allowing me to turn my attention to more important matters.

My next move would be to trade for the entire San Antonio franchise, straight up. Their franchise for our franchise. Why would San Antonio buy into this offer? Simple. Money. In a final show of respect to the hopeless Glen Taylor, who, for all of his faults, had the consistent decency never to fall back on the lament that the Wolves were in a "small market" and incapable of playing with the big teams in the league when it came to spending money for quality talent, I would sign a secret pact as part of the trade with the Spurs, lavishing the Spurs' ownership with billions of dollars once the deal went through. I would just have the good sense not to reveal the deal to any third party.

If money were no object.

Up next: If Money Were No Object, Part II. Plus, NFL free agency.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Worst Case Scenario

The Minnesota Vikings finished the 2007 NFL season with the worst of all possible results. With an 8-8 record, the Vikings left themselves one win short of a playoff spot, but beneath all non-playoff teams in rank draft order. That means that not only will Minnesota not make the playoffs in year five of the previous three-year plan or in year one of the current three-year plan, but also that the team will draft as low as possible for a non-playoff team.

Last year, Vikings' head coach Brad Childress lamented the fact that he had unexpectedly lost the services of a franchise quarterback after signing on as the Vikings' head coach as one of the primary reasons for falling short of his stated 2006 goal of challenging immediately for an NFL championship.

After implanting rookie Tarvaris Jackson as the starting quarterback the final quarter of last season, Childress entered the 2007 season touting his young quarterback as the right quarterback to lead the Vikings. Childress commented that, though Jackson was bound to have some bumps along the road as he matured as a starting quarterback, he was more than comfortable relying on Jackson to "guide the team."

In addition to the props that he was tossing Jackson's way prior to the start of the currently completed season, Childress boasted that his receiving corps "would surprise people," pointing out that people doubted the team's linebacking corps in 2006--"I guess they were wrong, the doubters; I think they'll be wrong again this year about our receiving corps," Childress wryly added.

Childress was particularly excited about the purportedly improved play of Troy Williamson, proudly boasting that Williamson had caught 12,000 passes during the off-season (no report was made on how many passes Williamson dropped), the addition of Visanthe Shiancoe as a pass-catching tight end, the veteran leadership of Bobby Wade, and the addition of Audrae Allison and Sidney Rice.

Surely, neither Jackson nor anyone in the receiving corps met Childress' lofty pre-season expectations. Jackson missed too much playing time, at times with what seemed to be playable injuries, while the receivers either could not catch (Williamson, Allison, and Shiancoe), could not run after the catch in a self-proclaimed YAC offense (Wade and Robert Ferguson), or missed too much playing time through injury and coach's decisions (Rice and Allison). And all the receivers seemed, at times, the victims of bad schemes, poor execution, or both.

Clearly, the Vikings have some adjustments to make in the off-season. But to add woe to the current misery of a franchise once proud of its string of post-season berths, the Vikings might well be stuck with little better in 2008 than what they had this season, despite having hordes of cash that the team must spend just to reach the salary floor again in 2008.

While Jackson had several down moments in 2007, he played just well enough to merit returning as the top quarterback heading into camp in 2008 and has certainly provided the team more reason this off-season to eschew signing a short-term veteran than he had provided at the end of 2006. That means almost certainly no Donovan McNabb in Minnesota next season and probably more learning on the job for Jackson.

And while the Vikings had difficulty signing free agent wide-receivers in 2007, there's little reason to expect the conditions to improve in that regard in 2008. The number of bona fide free-agent wide receivers will be about the same as last year and, with the Vikings running a largely conservative offense, there is little reason to expect a wide receiver to opt for Minnesota over a more receiver-friendly system.

Holes on the right side of the offensive line--and one large one on the left side--too will probably have to wait another season, given the number of teams with comparable cap room and more enticing programs that will be competing with the Vikings for the few quality linemen that will be available in free agency.

In short, with the nineteenth overall pick in the 2008 NFL entry draft, the Vikings probably will be looking to fill several remaining holes. Yet, no player taken at 19 is likely to produce in year one of his NFL career at the level at which he will need to produce to be a difference maker for the Vikings next season. And that, along with the Vikings' essentially self-imposed constraints at critical positions, suggests a likely repeat of 2007 in 2008. And, as the saying goes, if you aren't getting ahead of the game, you're probably falling behind.

Up Next: Dollar Battles. Plus, free agency.