Friday, May 30, 2008

Window in 2008?

With last week's release, and the subsequent trade of defensive end Erasmus James, the Minnesota Vikings have made partially clear that the organization expects significant progress on the field in 2008.

The Vikings' trade of the chronically injured, former first-round draft choice in the wake of the off-season signings of safety Madieu Williams, wide-receiver Bernard Berrian, and defensive end Jared Allen--a combination of moves that leaves the Vikings slightly above the NFL's salary cap floor for 2008--suggest that the organization either finally understands NFL dynamics and is paying heed or that the organization understands that support for a new stadium will be conditioned on the show-me rule. Either way, the Vikings should be improved in 2008.

The moves to sign three young starters in Williams, Berrian, and Allen is consistent with two realities in the present NFL environment. One is that, unlike major league baseball, money is not a commodity to be horded for the future. Not only must NFL teams spend to meet the cap floor, they also accrue no benefit by saving money in year one for years two and beyond. That fan-friendly element of the current collective bargaining agreement could change if the NFL opts out of a similar agreement for 2010, but, for now, it is an impetus to change for the better and one that the Vikings had no choice but to embrace in 2008. Fortunately for Vikings' fans, the Vikings opted to embrace this need by signing some of the better free agents on the market rather than simply re-writing contracts lavished with LBTEs.

Whether the Vikings realize it, the team's off-season signings and the subsequent release/trade of James offer another more ominous or promising signal for forward-looking fans--depending on what moves the team is able to make next year and in 2010.

Even a cursory review of the Vikings' current roster suggests the urgency of winning this year for the Minnesota franchise. With limited depth at cornerback, inexperience in the two-deep at safety, an aging bull anchoring the defensive line, and age and injury anchoring the offensive line, the Vikings are one of the older young teams in the NFL.

Though Pat Williams should be counted on to finish out the season, given their recent track records, the same cannot be said for Antoine Winfield, Darren Sharper, or Matt Birk. Injuries to anyone of these three veterans would be difficult for the Vikings to overcome in 2008. And the prospect of injuries or retirment for any in this trio after 2008 only heightens the concern that the Vikings might be operating within a so-called window of opportunity in 2008.

That the Vikings might be in a window season is promising for a fan base that has been without much post-season hope in recent years. But it is also daunting given the likely challenges of having to replace cornerstone players in the next two years. That puts a premium not only on looking ahead to which players will be available in the 2008-2009 off-season, but, more significantly, on winning in 2008--a message the Vikings organization reinforced by releasing James, despite James' youth and Washington's team doctor's assessment that James is nearing recovery from his injuries. Clearly, close will not cut it for this year's Viking team.

Up Next: Around the NFL. Plus, the cost of doing business today, rather than tomorrow.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Signal Signings?

During the 2008 NFL off-season, the Minnesota Vikings have gone where they have seldom gone over the past decade--to the brink of the NFL salary cap. That shift, largely the result of the signings of prospective marquee players such as safety Madieu Williams, defensive end Jared Allen, and wide receiver Bernard Berrian, has been met with raised eyebrows in many quarters. But those raising their brows are less than unanimous in their opinions on what the signings signal for Minnesota.

Most observers of the Vikings' off-season moves have adopted the general consensus of the Vikings' fan base that the Vikings' off-season moves ought to propel the team from a non-playoff team to a contender for the NFC North title, see generally,;

Others have suggested that the price that the Vikings paid for Berrian, see and Allen, see, outweighs the return.

On the money issue, the Vikings have few concerns with any of their 2008 signings as the team appropriately agreed to contract terms with Williams, Allen, and Berrian that shift the weight of the team's cap burden to 2008, where the Vikings had considerable cap room to spare, and leaving for the latter years of each player's contract the far less onerous non-guaranteed portions of each player's contract. Of the three contracts, only Allen's carrys any substantial cap hit after 2008 and that at a position at which most teams carry significant cap weight.

Some observers have read more ominous signals into the Vikings' off-season moves than the hit that the signings portend for the Vikings' immediate salary cap flexibility, arguing that the Vikings' moves are a sign that the Vikings' organization will have a short leash on head coach Brad Childress. The Vikings' off-season moves, it is suggested, are a sign that the Vikings expect results in 2008--lest Childress be searching for a new job in 2009. See,CST-SPT-nfcn27.article;

For the outside observer, the Vikings' off-season moves might well appear to be a shot across Childress' softening bow, but the take ignores both Wilf's hope that Childress can make things work in Minnesota--after a near implosion mid-2007--and Wilf's far greater reason for spending money in 2008 in the hopes of building a contender in Minnesota.

With the Vikings' stadium lease set to expire in 2011, no clear alternative and more lucrative venue to which to move the team, and a desire to sell Minnesota legislatures on his integrity as a Minnesota sports franchise owner, Wilf has used the 2008 off-season not primarily as a vetting point for Childress, but as a demonstration of his commitment to building a contender in Minnesota. If his modest gamble pays off, Wilf unquestionably believes, the ownership group will be able to parlay a relatively modest investment in 2008 into largesse by 2012.

Up Next: What the Numbers Mean Looking Ahead.