Wednesday, December 30, 2009

NFL Issues Purple Alert

Following the national trend of using color-coded alerts to address matters of urgency, the NFL, yesterday, issued its own color alert. On the heals of yet another befuddling Minnesota Vikings' loss to one of the league's junior varsity components, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell promptly unveiled what he termed a "Purple Alert."

Goodell did not mince words when conveying the rationale behind the alert. "Clearly, something is amiss in Minnesota," Goodell gravely intoned, brushing the Dunkin Donut crumbs off of his rumpled, multi-colored, striped tie. "We've done what we can to promote that situation up there, to assist that ownership group in its efforts to assist itself and the rest of the league--and, of course, the great fans up there--but the rest of the league can only do so much. If we cannot figure out what's going on with that franchise, then, at some point, we simply will have to leave it to them to figure out."

Dabbing tears from his eyes with a well-worn thousand dollar bill, Goodell stated that the Purple Alert was the league's final effort to assess how it could be that a team with eight pro bowl players, the league's second softest schedule, and a league orchestrated delivery of Brett Favre from his one-year hiatus with the New York Jets to the Minnesota Vikings, could be foundering so profoundly.

"I don't have any answers," Goodell said, exhaling heavily. "This thing was set...They had everything in place--or so we all thought. We wanted...They wanted to show well for the fan base to win support for a publicly...for the team. It was all coming together."

Goodell choked back more tears, pulling his gold-leafed handkerchief from his vest pocket and blowing his powdered nose.

Regaining his composure, Goodell noted that "the League has done everything to assist the Vikings in this joint venture to build the Viking brand in a manner that allows the NFL to expand its own brand. This is important enough for us to ask for the assistance of every caring NFL fan in deducing how the Vikings' ship can be righted."

Asked what he thought might be the problem, Goodell shrugged and looked down at his podium as though the answer to the question would appear there before him. "I don't know," he admitted, slowly shaking his head. "Honestly, I just do not know. We gave them Jared. We gave them Brett. We gave them Adrian. We gave them Big Hutch. We gave the Percy. We gave them Pat. We gave them Kevin. At some point, it's up to them to put those guys together and win. It seemed a lock. All they had to do was take advantage of the situation. Why they haven't done so is anyone's guess--that's what we are all trying to figure out."

Goodell initially was less responsive when asked if he had any suspicions of his own regarding the Vikings' difficulties. "I can't comment on that at this point," he demurred. When asked the root of the problem, Goodell allowed, however, that "the Vikings have the players. By any measure, they have the players--far more than do most other teams in the League. I think our Pro Bowl announcements reflect that. But it's the piecing-together of those talents--using the players, moving players around to help those learning or less talented, exploiting an opponent's weaknesses, calling...." He stopped short.

"Let me just say," Goodell concluded, "that this is about figuring out something that many of us thought was already figured out. This is important for the League and for the Vikings--and for the Vikings' fans, too. And that's why we are issuing this Purple Alert at this time."

Up Next: Finding the Haystack Surrounding the Needle.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Straw Men Guide Vikings to Another Road Loss

In the wake of last week's road drubbing at the hands of the Carolina Panthers, Minnesota Vikings' head coach Brad Childress lamented the fact that he failed to provide his highly paid left tackle with help blocking his man. Instead, Childress stopped the bleeding that was Bryant McKinnie by pulling him in favor of a player that never plays the position. The far-less-player modestly outperformed the starter.

McKinnie acknowledged his awful performance last week stating that he did not blame the coach for pulling him. "I wasn't doing my job," McKinnie admitted. McKinnie laid the blame not on his coach--at least not directly--but on a problem he acknowledged two weeks earlier. "I'm so focused on getting my feet in the right position on every play that it's taking all of my attention--there's too much to think about," McKinnie confided.

In the wake of the NFL's revelation that it would be looking to examine the brains of deceased NFL players for concussion damage, McKinnie's comment was either telling or highly ironic. In the wake of last night's overtime loss to the Chicago Bears, it will be interesting to see if the NFL considers expanding its review to deceased head coaches.

Despite his acknowledgment of the blocking problems last week--problems that, in truth, have existed for the better part of Childress' run in Minnesota--the Vikings opened Monday night's contest with cover for their offensive tackle, but not the left tackle. Instead, the Vikings provided cover for right tackle Phil Loadholt. That still left McKinnie to defend his man straight up on most plays, a task McKinnie decidedly was not up to.

The Vikings continued this theme throughout much of the first half and into the second, favoring cover for Loadholt in the hope that that would help suddenly leaky right guard Anthony Herrera. It did not. Instead, it merely highlighted the Vikings' serious offensive line woes.

At the end of last season, the Vikings had three primary concerns. The most glaring was who would play quarterback. Brett Favre entered the picture and has played well beyond the Vikings' wildest expectations. But that has not been sufficient to overcome either the weaknesses along the offensive line or the in-the-face-of-difficulty decision-making of the Vikings' coaching staff. Add to that the team's persistent problems at safety and the now glaring hole at middle linebacker and the Vikings actually look more in need of retooling now than they did at the end of last season.

The offensive line issues continue because the Vikings are attempting to make do with one high-level offensive lineman in Steve Hutchinson, two average to below average linemen in McKinnie and Herrera, and two often overwhelmed rookies in center John Sullivan and Loadholt. But the problems are exacerbated by the coaching staff's inexplicable inability to adjust to game situations, even when presented a repeating pattern of results.

By the fourth quarter last night, Vikings' coaches finally hit on a successful blocking technique. Rather than merely covering one tackle, they either covered both with a tight end on one end or on both ends, or a tight end on one end and a late-releasing back out of the backfield, or they covered one tackle and pulled the running back to pick up the all-but-certain free roam of the defensive end on the opposite side of the line of scrimmage. It was an intelligent move. Alas, the Vikings only employed it long enough to catch the Bears. With the game on the line, the Vikings reverted to their tactics of the first three quarters, leaving Favre open to slaughter.

Clearly, the Vikings have identified at least one effective method for blocking mediocre defensive lines. If they stick with that method for an entire game, they should be able to forge their way through a horrendously weak NFC. I'd suggest where they go from there, but, right now, it is fanciful to consider the Vikings moving beyond even the first round of the playoffs.

That's because, in addition to the offensive line problems, the Vikings now essentially are playing with eight defensive players. Jasper Brinkley is a mess at linebacker and the safeties are invisible.

Brinkley played a role in virtually every Chicago scoring drive on Monday, save, perhaps, for the final dagger. He misread plays, misdirected teammates, and demonstrated zero ability to cover the tight end--a short-coming which he frequently exhibited against the Bears. Playing the nickel the entire game would be preferable to employing the anguish that is Brinkley.

While Brinkley was mostly awful, he at least made an effort. The same cannot be said for either of the Vikings' safeties, neither of whom even appeared on-screen on any of the Bears' passing plays. Had the Vikings played without their safeties, likely nobody would have noticed.

The problem with the Vikings' safeties is not entirely a personnel problem, however. Rather, as was evidenced by the poor performances of both Cedric Griffin and Antoine Winfield, the Vikings' secondary is not reading and reacting to plays. Instead, they appear to be stuck to assigned spots on the field. This might help ensure that no offensive threat is ever left uncovered, but it also ensures that no offensive threat is ever fully covered. It's one thing to give up the yards in front when you have safeties behind and a stout linebacker in the middle. It's quite another when you employ at those three positions the players that the Vikings currently employ.

In his parting shot at the Vikings, New Orleans Saints' safety Darren Sharper lamented the fact that he was not allowed to roam. This year's Vikings' secondary suggests the short-comings of not allowing the secondary sufficient read-and-react discretion. With players not making plays anyway, there is little reason not to introduce such flexibility into the system post haste.

Falling behind by 17 to a Bears' team that had done nothing on offense for almost one month and was playing without several defensive starters is not a good harbinger for a team intent on making a playoff run. With the talent on the Vikings' team, however, there still remains zero excuse for not making a playoff push. That push, of course, requires effort by all involved--not the least of those being the Vikings' coaching staff.

Up Next: Forgetting the Small Things.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Childress Still Turning Coal Into Diamonds

The well-reported dispute involving Minnesota Vikings' head coach Brad Childress and quarterback Brett Favre on Sunday took on a slightly different hue on Wednesday when reports surfaced regarding the focal point of the dispute. While Childress had discussed pulling Favre from the Carolina game, ostensibly to protect his highly paid quarterback from handling Bryant McKinnie's and Phil Loadholt's missed assignments, what truly appears to have piqued Childress was not the loathsome play of his tubby tackles, but Favre's continuing desire to check out of dump-offs to Nafahu Tahi.

"Calling six audibles is going overboard," Childress sternly chided. "He [Favre] might think he looks at the game film closely, but I can assure you he does not look at that film closer than the coaches."

Leaving aside the questions of whether Favre needs to review game films to believe what his eyes tell him he is up against on the field and whether Favre's experience enables him to read and process game film more quickly and efficiently than either a head coach with no NFL playing experience, in his first head-coaching gig or an offensive coordinator with no NFL playing experience in his first NFL coordinator gig, the greater concern is the message that Childress is sending.

There is no question but that Childress' message in publicly chastising his quarterback for changing plays is that the head coach knows better than the quarterback what plays to call. And that applies, in Childress' mind, not only to the vast majority of plays, but, really, to all but the exceptional few.

What's mind-boggling is that Childress cannot see what even the casual fan knows to be true. Namely, what is called from the sideline very often does not match what the opposition offers in terms of scheme. Why stick with a play call that calls for a timing route when the opposition is blitzing or stick with a run up the middle when the opposition brings all of its players up to the line? The answer, in Minnesota, is because coach said so.

It's surely the stuff of childhood playground shenanigans. One kid brings the ball and, when things start going against him, proclaims that he's taking his ball and going home. That's Childress. Only, in this situation, he has the power to take the ball and give it to someone else.

Unfortunately for Vikings' fans, Vikings' owner Zygi Wilf repeated his earlier mistake of signing Childress to a long-term deal when he had proven nothing in the NFL by signing Childress to a long-term extension on the strength of beating a slew of sub-.500 teams. And, while Childress, with the extensive help of the Vikings' PR corps and outside interventionists, had taken on a far more likable public persona from the one that he donned upon first arriving in Minnesota, his recent brush with Favre only confirms that he may never understand that asphyxiation can be self-administered.

That's not only Childress' misfortune, but, sadly, also likely the misfortune of an otherwise talented Minnesota team and yet another blow to long-teased Minnesota fans.

Up Next: New Vikings' Stadium Would Mean Big Bucks to NFL.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Curing the Vikings' Woes

At 11-3, the Minnesota Vikings face three possible playoff scenarios. Two more wins and two New Orleans' losses and the Vikings finish with the top seed in the NFC and home-field advantage for as long as they can remain alive in the playoffs. Two more losses and two Philadelphia Eagles' wins and the Vikings finish with the third seed in the playoffs and homefield for the first round, but a road trip in round two. Any other scenario and the Vikings likely finish with the second seed in the NFC and a first round bye but with no guarantee of home field through the NFC playoffs.

For any of the Vikings' playoff scenarios to be relevant, however, the Vikings must become relevant. Until the their listless performance in Arizona, the Vikings looked as good as, or better than, any team in the NFL. The running game wasn't functioning at a high level, the offensive line was missing blocks and failing to block in the running game too often, and the secondary was inconsistent, but, overall, the team had shown better than had most any other NFL team.

The Arizona game exposed the Vikings' flaws, however, as the Cardinals' defensive ends blew past the Vikings' sloth-footed tackles, the Cardinals' receivers exploited the Vikings' nearly invisible safeties, and the Vikings failed to offer any semblance of a balanced offensive attack even before the game turned into a route.

Two games later, one a sound victory over the Cincinnati Bengals, the other a blowout loss to the woeful Carolina Panthers, and the Arizona performance seems more a trend than was the recovery against the Bengals.

There is hope for the Vikings, however, assuming the Vikings' coaching staff figures out quickly what time it is--time to start thinking out of the box, or at least outside of head coach Brad Childress' box.

With the Vikings leading 7-6 on Sunday night, Childress made an unusual proposal offer to his starting quarterback, suggesting that Brett Favre sit for the rest of the night to avoid the pummeling he had been taking courtesy the windmills otherwise known as Phil Loadholt and Bryant McKinnie. Favre would hear none of it, insisting that the call to bring in Tarvaris Jackson to save him from injury was absurd. After a brief sideline back and forth, Childress relented.

The irony of the story is that Childress would have made the right call in pulling Favre. With zero protection, Favre could do nothing in the pocket and, with Shiancoe and Berrian opting not to play and Harvin mostly on the sidelines, the game had been reduced to an ineffective running game and an occasional attempt to pass to Sidney Rice in double coverage. Unfortunately, Childress caved to Favre's obstinance.

The result was predictable. Favre got pummeled some more and soon began making awful to bizarre passes. The Vikings' fate was sealed.

It's not as though Jackson would have resurrected the Vikings' fortunes on Sunday night. Given the poor performances by virtually all members of the team, there was little that could be expected of a backup quarterback. But at least Jackson would have been able to run for his life and avoid most of the blitzing defenders that sieved into the Vikings' backfield.

Replacing Favre with Jackson would have been a wise though entirely precautionary move. It also would have been a concession that the Vikings' coaching staff did not properly prepare the team to play on Sunday.

Bolder moves are required to resurrect the Vikings' suddenly moribund offense, however. A good starting point is to use a two tight-end set to cover the two tackles. The Vikings can then either go with an empty backfield or a three-receiver set that includes Percy Harvin.

Adding a running back to the backfield in the two tight-end set reduces the Vikings' options for receivers, but gives the team balancing options for running and passing. The tight ends should help stabilize blocking and provide a particular advantage for running around the ends.

The Vikings also have the option of using two backs out of the backfield with the two tight-end set and using one wide receiver. Clearly, such a formation favors the short game. But that should suit the Vikings well as they look to re-establish what should have been the core of their offensive system this year.

In goalline situations, there remains no reason not to overload one side of the offensive line with two tight ends and to use a fullback along with a running back in the backfield.

Clearly, these are not standard out of the box suggestions. Rather, they are primary in-the-box maneuvers for most NFL teams. For whatever reason, however, the Vikings seem insistent on eschewing the tried and true in favor of going down the path that has proven most vulnerable--keying on the passing game and forgetting about the running game. If changing that mindset means thinking outside of the box, then that is what the Vikings need to do to resurrect their playoff hopes.

Up Next: NFL's Interest in the Vikings.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Vikings' Second Dismal Performance in Three Weeks on Coach's Shoulders

Twenty-nine, five, fourteen, twenty-six, two, and three.

These are the numbers that sum up the Vikings' 26-7 Sunday night loss to the previously 5-8 Carolina Panthers and suggest more trouble on the horizon for the team from Minnesota.

Twenty-nine is the number representing the NFL running backs that outgained Minnesota's Adrian Peterson on Sunday. Among those backs, for those seeking to correlate Peterson's abysmal production with the Vikings admittedly collegiate-level offensive line, were Jerome Harrison of the Cleveland Browns (286), Jamaal Charles of Kansas City (154), Maurice Morris of the Detroit Lions (126), Michael Bush of the Oakland Raiders (133), and Jonathan Stewart of the Carolina Panthers (109).'

Clearly, one of Sunday's themes was running backs playing for weak teams, behind weak to awful offensive lines, posting big numbers. Some, as in the case of Morris, Bush, and Stewart, accomplished considerable success against some of the league's best defensive lines. Others, such as Harrison and Charles, approached team and/or league records in rushing yardage against teams inviting the rush.

Against one of the league's least resistant run defenses, Minnesota's Adrian Peterson came in 30th in rushing on Sunday with a paltry 35 yards. That was fewer yards not only than 29 other running backs that played on Sunday had but also fewer yards than five backup running backs had on Sunday and marked the second time in three weeks that Peterson has been a virtual non-factor out of the backfield.

To what do the Vikings owe Peterson's transformation from one of the league's greatest running threats to that of a mere after-thought? Certainly, it is tempting to point the finger at an offensive line that gets worse as each week passes. Whether Bryant McKinnie is being shoved back ten yards or Phil Loadholt is being exploited to such a degree that the Vikings must consistently keep a tight end and wide receiver in to block on running plays, there is ample blame to assign this suddenly putrid unit.

But, as suggested above, other purported lesser backs made far greater hay out of much less inviting circumstances on Sunday, running behind equally challenged offensive linemen.

A far more compelling take is that the Vikings lack a sufficient enough will to get a handle on what they have at their disposal on offense. How else does one explain a seven point performance against a 5-8 team that ranks 26th in the league against the run, when the Vikings have the best running back tandem in the NFL? How else to explain 27 passing plays and 14 running plays in a game that was not decided until late in the fourth quarter?

It might just be coincidence or it might be the football Gods' way of making a statement, but the Vikings' troubles all began roughly three weeks ago when head coach Brad Childress, in the midst of a nice run against some of the lousiest competition any team he will ever coach will ever face, inked a nice, fat contract extension despite never really proving himself. Since that time, the Vikings have lost two of three, with the two losses virtually effortless performances.

At approximately the same time that Childress signed his extension, the head coach announced that it was "time to start working Bernard [Berrian] into the mix." No sooner did that edict come down than did Favre begin his attempt to follow orders, forcing bad pass after bad pass to the undeserving receiver. Those attempts far too often resulted in a bad play for the Vikings, leaving the team either with an offensive pass interference, an interception, or a disappointing effort by the receiver leading to second or third and long. And, not at all coincidentally, they meant fewer passes to Sidney Rice, Visanthe Shiancoe, Peterson, and Percy Harvin, and fewer running plays for Peterson.

With the Arizona game still fresh in the rear-view mirror, Sunday's debacle at Carolina cannot be viewed with the same optimistic "one off" attitude with which many in Vikingland viewed the game against the Cardinals. Rather, it should be viewed in light of the season-long difficulties establishing Peterson's running game, the near season-long struggles of the offensive line, and the reality that Berrian is simply a distraction rather than a compliment to the smooth functioning of the Vikings' offense.

There are numerous solutions to the Vikings' current predicament, many of which have been suggested on this site throughout the season. Those solutions include doing a better job of disguising run and pass plays by using Chester Taylor and Peterson in the same backfield, using Peterson more on screens, using Percy Harvin out of the backfield, and getting Peterson more than 12-16 carries a game. Those suggestions now include scouring the waiver wire for an offensive tackle that knows how to play and is willing to put up an effort at the NFL level.

Whatever the suggestions here or elsewhere, however, it is up to the head coach to make adjustments. And Childress' lack of attention to the offensive line and the running game this season, and his lack of awareness that the offense has lost its fluidity with the inane attempt to impose Berrian into the mix, has made a team that just three weeks ago seemed an odds-on favorite to reach the Super Bowl, one that now could very well find itself on the same losing end of a first-round playoff game that it found itself on last season.

Only this season, nobody will be required to prove anything the following year--a particularly ominous cloud given the potential of an uncapped 2010 season.

Up Next: Getting Outside the Box.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

NFL Unlikely to Concede Williamses' Case

This Fall, the NFL petitioned the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit requesting a full bench hearing on its appeal of a U.S. District Court decision finding that Minnesota labor and employment laws pertaining to drug testing govern the NFL's case against Minnesota Vikings' defensive tackles Kevin and Pat Williams.

What the NFL sought, and the Eighth Circuit rejected, was a finding of federal preemption for drug-testing procedures derived through collective bargaining agreements in national businesses such as the NFL. The issue is highly significant to the NFL, because, even if it wins its case against the Williamses in the Minnesota court next Spring, the Eighth Circuit has now established precedent for every other NFL player accused by the league of violating the NFL's drug-testing policy to challenge the league's ruling in state court.

Not only are most state courts far friendlier toward employees than the federal courts serving the relevant state, but, given the nature of the NFL--where players play and live and where the league operates--it is quite conceivable that players will be afforded ample opportunity to forum shop, picking a state with which they have a sufficient connection, and that has lenient drug-testing laws, in which to file their appeal of the league's attempted suspension of them.

Even if the NFL is able to control forum shopping, they have little to no chance of halting what is certain to be a constant theme of sympathetic state court judges finding in favor of the local team's star player(s)--a symptom particularly likely in states, like Minnesota, where state court judges stand for re-election.

The NFL is not yet out of options, as they still could elect to appeal the Eighth Circuit's ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court. Given the involvement of a CBA covering a league comprised mostly of players with limited ties to the states in which they play and the close rulings that the current Supreme Court has had on commerce cases, there is a glimmer of hope, yet, for the NFL. But that glimmer is faint.

Ultimately, the NFL is only moderately interested in the disposition of the Williamses' case for the sake of the Williamses, and far more concerned about the outcome of the case given what it will mean for the NFL as the overseer of a cogent and uniform drug policy for each of its constituent teams. That might mean that, as much as the NFL might wish that the Williamses' case never arose, they will do whatever they can do to see every avenue of litigation through to the end. And that could mean no resolution of the case even beyond the 2010 season.

Up Next: Is It Time to Reduce AP's Playing Time on Merit?

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Another Costly Tell for the Vikings?

Last week, game analysts for the Minnesota Vikings' game against the Arizona Cardinals noted that Vikings' left tackle Bryant McKinnie was providing opposing defenses a crippling "tell" by lining up one way for pass plays and a different and distinct way for running plays. McKinnie acknowledged not only the gaffe, but his awareness of the gaffe, lamely lamenting that he "didn't think the defense would pick up on it."

While it is not surprising that a guy who settled a barroom dispute by taking a metal pipe to someone's head might be lazy enough not to correct a tell, it is difficult to fathom how McKinnie could believe that defensive coaches paid specifically to scour the oppositions' nuances to find such tells might overlook what those in the play-by-play booth were able to spot.

Against that backdrop, it appears the Vikings might have yet another problematic tell with which to deal--one that ought to be far more apparent to every member of the defense because it requires little other than knowing what just happened. That tell is what the Vikings do on offense following an offensive penalty.

Over the past six games, the Vikings have committed 24 offensive penalties that the opponent has elected to have enforced against Minnesota. On subsequent plays, the Vikings have given the ball to Adrian Peterson 10 times. That, alone, is a high enough percentage to allow teams to gamble that, following an offensive penalty, the Vikings will give the ball to Peterson.

Even if opponents want to play a bit more conservative and hedge against a play other than one to Peterson following a Vikings' offensive penalty, however, they still have plenty of room for hedging. For, on that subsequent play, the Vikings have passed to Sidney Rice five times. That puts the odds at nearly 63% over the past six games of the Vikings going to one of just two players following an offensive penalty. Harvin was the target on four of those post-offensive penalty plays, putting the odds of a Peterson, Harvin, or Rice play following an offensive penalty over that span of games at 79%.

The latter high statistic makes some sense, given that Peterson, Rice, and Harvin are the Vikings' three best offensive options and likely ought to be called upon in some fashion to pull the team out of the hole that is created by an offensive penalty. But the Vikings have compounded the probability of giving a tell on post-offensive penalty plays by running Peterson up the middle on every carry that he has had in such a situation. This allows teams debating between focusing on Peterson and focusing on a pass either to Rice or Harvin to sell out against the interior run and still get to the quarterback. Clearly, this allows opponents to overplay on defense in such situations.

What are the alternatives? The most obvious is to rotate plays and who gets the ball on a given play following an offensive penalty in a fashion that keeps the opposition guessing more than the opposition likely has had to guess over the past six games.

Does this mean passing to Bernard Berrian more? Hopefully not. But it could and should mean employing more screen plays and, presuming Hell already has frozen over, even using some combination of Taylor, Peterson, and Harvin out of the backfield.

In short, there are myriad possibilities for running offensive plays, and there is no reason to show such strong favoritism for a Peterson run up the middle or even a pass to Rice or Harvin following an offensive penalty. Should those options be removed from consideration under such circumstances? Of course not. But they should be buttressed with far more variation far more often.

Of course, if Phil Loadholt stopped getting offensive penalties...

Up Next: Lion in the Jungle.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Paisley Park


In the immediate aftermath of clearly the worst Vikings' effort since their home, playoff defeat at the hands of the underdog Philadelphia Eagles, there is no other equally appropriate initial response.

From the 9:47 mark of the first quarter when head coach Brad Childress successfully challenged a call of no touchdown, the Vikings did virtually nothing right in their first game against a winning team since they faced, and lost to, the now .500 and falling Pittsburgh Steelers.

The Vikings’ awful performance played out so slowly, so methodically from the Cardinals’ point of view, that vomiting was never implicated. Some nausea, yes, but no vomiting. Vomiting is reserved for games like the loss at Washington in Tice’s next-to-last season, the losses at Chicago and Arizona the year before that, and, of course, the 1998 loss to the Falcons.

Sunday’s loss to the Cardinals seemed too much like a replay of several games last season to support a sudden vomitous sensation. But the duration nearly qualified it anyway.

How bad was the game? The Vikings were favored by five and one-half points, lost by 13, and were saved from a more serious beating only by Arizona's late-game indifference.

The Vikings entered the week with the league's seventh-best rushing attack and faced the league's twelfth-best run defense. Against that opposition, an opposition that had yielded 104 rushing yards a game despite playing in the NFC West, the Vikings, with purportedly the best running back tandem in the NFL and the heir-apparent to Jim Brown, Gale Sayers, Emmitt Smith, Chuck Foreman, John Riggins, Earl Campbell, Barry Sanders, and Marshall Faulk, all rolled into one, mustered a mere 62-yards rushing and three rushing first downs.

Though tempting to excuse the Vikings' poor rushing totals as the function of the Cardinals large lead over Minnesota, the numbers suggest the culprit is more diverse--falling at the feet of Adrian Peterson's Greg Jennings/Vincent Jackson impersonation, the offensive line's increasing inability to open holes, and play-calling that, when bad, truly is gut-wrenching to watch.

Some in the Vikings' organization predicted that this nonsense was all behind the team--the Vikings would play hard on the road, execute sound game plans, read and react to the defense more in play-calling, and demonstrate both ability and patience along and behind the line of scrimmage. At a minimum, Vikings' fans had come to expect, those bad tendencies--the tendencies that led to the Vikings' ouster from the playoffs in the first round last year--would be stayed until the departure of quarterback Brett Favre.

We now have confirmation that that is not the case. When Favre is off, the Vikings are a mess on offense. McKinney's inability to move laterally is magnified, Sullivan's inability to open a hole is magnified, Cook's inability to play at the NFL level is magnified, injuries are magnified, Peterson's stunning regression is magnified, and the staff's inability to marshall the troops when things turn south is magnified. These are not the qualities that winning teams--Super Bowl aspiring teams--want to have magnified.

Where do the corrections begin? Clearly, they begin with returning Peterson to the role of dominate rusher that he was last season. But that appears increasingly more problematic.

While other running backs such as Chris Johnson, Cedric Benson, and DeAngelo Williams are on the upswing--despite playing for inferior teams with far fewer offensive options--Peterson looks broken down and incapable of doing the thing that most matters to his livelihood, holding on to the ball.

Last season, Peterson rushed for 1760 yards. This season, Peterson has 1103 yards through 12 games. And nobody outside of the Vikings' organization justifiably believes that Peterson will approach last season's mark even if the Vikings make an effort to given Peterson the ball more often.

If something's not wrong with Peterson, the Vikings might want to reconsider the guarded-approach they have to considering whether to re-sign Chester Taylor this off-season. And they may want to consider how number 11 looks coming out of the backfield.

Up Next: When It Rains...

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Kick-Ass, Favre-Driven, or Oppositional-Futility-Derived Offense?

In 2008, the Minnesota Vikings amassed 5,288 yards of offense and tallied 379 points, with 37 offensive touchdowns. Those totals placed the Vikings approximately in the middle of NFL teams in overall offense.

Through 11 games this season, the Vikings have accumulated 4,290 yards of offense and 342 points, with 38 offensive touchdowns. Over 16 games, the numbers project to 6,240 yards of offense, 498 points, and 55 touchdowns.

The natural question is whether this year's nearly 50% improvement over last season's numbers are the product of (a) Brad Childress' kick-ass offense, (b) vastly improved quarterback play, or (c) woeful opposition.

While the Vikings' ownership group clearly considers (a) the correct answer, looking upon the offense's success as justification for extending Childress even though the head coach had one year remaining on his initial contract, there is little evidence that the offensive schemes are any different than they were last season.

The bulk of the Vikings' scripted plays this season appear to be the same plays that the Vikings have been calling since Childress arrived in Minnesota, with a heavy dose of short passing plays and runs up the gut. That script has led to the usual results--mostly short yardage or even loss-of-yard plays.

Where the play-calling has differed, however, has been at the line of scrimmage. More frequently than not, Favre is in audible mode. And, more often than not, Favre's audibles have led to large gains through the air--a modus operandi anathema to Childress' heretofore, self-proclaimed preference for ball-control, caretaker quarterbacking that stuck to script.

Favre's success--25 touchdown passes against three interceptions--bolsters the theory that Favre, not Childress or offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell, is responsible for the improvement of the Vikings' offense this season. This conclusion is buttressed by the strong seasons that Visanthe Shiancoe, Sidney Rice, an Percy Harvin are having, all in spite of Adrian Peterson's transcendence to that of mere star running back.

This raises the proverbial chicken and egg question of whether the Vikings' offensive weapons make Favre better or Favre makes the offensive weapons better? The answer clearly is that the two are symbiotic. But, as Favre did for years in Green Bay and for a season with the Jets, he is now doing in Minnesota by extracting more from receivers than anyone else was able to do and making stars out of players previously living on the brink of dismissal.

Though Favre's presence appears far more likely to be the catalyst spurring the surge in the Vikings' 2009 offense than is the inertia of Childress' offensive system, all of the Vikings' success in 2009 comes with one highly substantial caveat, that of strength of schedule.

In 2008, the Vikings had a strength of schedule of 1.2 versus a league average of 0, and an offensive ranking of 1.1 versus the same league average.

This season, the Vikings have a strength of schedule of -3.5 and an offensive ranking of 8.0 versus the league average of 0.

If one accepts the algorithms from which these statistics were derived, there is a clear, positive correlation between the Vikings' weak 2009 schedule and their vastly improved offense output. That correlation, however, does not explain the full extent of the offensive improvement from 2008 to 2009, leaving other factors, such as better average starting field position and other new players, to offer an explanation. Yet, given the correlation between quarterback play, the play of other players, and average starting field position, if one believes that Childress' offense really is no different this year than last year, the inescapable conclusion is that Favre is the primary reason for the Vikings' improvement from 2008 to this year.

Without pondering a future reverting back to a less capable quarterback, that ought to be a digestible conclusion for Vikings' fans.

Up Next: AP's On-Field Woes.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Bears Taste Like Chicken

As the Packers, Lions, and others, recently have demonstrated, having a new or newly refurbished stadium assures little except that I team has a new or newly refurbished stadium. On Sunday, the Bears offered but the latest example that stadium renovations and building do not, in and of themselves, equate to victories.

Six years removed from a $660 million renovation of their home field, the Chicago Bears look nearly as lost and hopeless as their new-stadium brethren Detroit Lions--perhaps more so, given the play of each team's respective quarterbacks. Whether as helpless as, or more hapless than, the Lions, the Bears certainly are no competition for the Minnesota Vikings.

On Sunday, the Vikings proved that to be just the case, rolling up 537 yards and scoring 36 points against the Cubbies cross-town cohorts and giving Chicago fans reason to believe that yet another of their teams could be joining the ignominious and tight circle of teams left, just north of mid-season, to play for next season.

The Bears were awful in virtually every aspect of yesterday's game at the Metrodome, ceding not only gobs of yardage but also folding like cheap tents in a light breeze on offense. If not for two called back touchdowns (one on a drive that saw a touchdown to Visanthe Shiancoe negated by a Viking penalty only to conclude in a touchdown to Shiancoe but that also took time off of the game clock), numerous Vikings' penalties, and merciful offensive playcalling by the Vikings for much of the fourth quarter, the Bears' margin of defeat would have surpassed humbling and jetted straight to historically embarrassing, a la the '77 Bucs.

For the Vikings, it was yet another patsy in what has been a nice run of patsies. And given the performances of their remaining regular season opponents, it is reasonable to expect that Vikings' fans are in for more of the same, at least through the first round of the playoffs--a round into which the Vikings are all but assured of passing. With five games remaining, there are several teams with a mathematical chance of catching the Vikings in the standings, but, barring an injury to Brett Favre, none of them have any realistic hope of so doing.

On the Vikings' remaining schedule are home games against the New York Giants, losers of five of their past six games--including an embarrassing 26-6 blowout loss at Denver this week, a road game at Arizona, losers at the lowly Tennessee Titans this week, a home game against a Cincinnati Bengals team that lost 20-17 at the Raiders last week and squeaked by the Cleveland Browns this week, the 4-7 Carolina Panthers, 17-6 losers to the 5-6 New York Jets on Sunday, and the same lowly Bears that they faced this week.

In short, what the Vikings have ahead of them on their schedule looks prodigiously like what they already have faced for much of the season--a slew of teams that look, feel, and taste a lot like chicken.

Up Next: Do the Vikings Have a Kick-Ass Offense? Plus, are the football Gods finally smiling on the Vikings or merely baiting fans?

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Beware the Pitchman

In their quest for a new, publicly funded stadium, the Minnesota Vikings are in the midst of a full-court press of the Minnesota State Legislature and an assault on the public's collective sensibilities. Given how willing Minnesotans were to support a constitutional amendment to require funding for cultural and outdoors activities and events, it's highly probable that the Vikings ultimately will prevail in this endeavor.

The pertinent issue is not whether the Vikings ought to have a new stadium nor even whether that stadium should come wrapped in a public bow. Rather, the issue is whether the Vikings and the many media members who are beholden to the team are accurately portraying the pertinent financial data that the Vikings argue ought to be considered in discussions regarding the funding of a new stadium.

A fact that ought not be lost in the entire debate about if, when, and how to fund a new Vikings' stadium is that, despite owner Zygi Wilf's increasing lament, the Vikings are not without recourse or ability to circumvent the state funding process entirely. As the Patriots, Cowboys, and others did before them, the Vikings are perfectly free to build their own stadium. To that end, they can spend one trillion dollars or $250 million, or any other figure above, below, or between. In short, the decision is entirely theirs for the making.

That, of course, is not the Vikings' preference. What they want is a $1 billion, mostly publicly funded, retractable roof stadium; they contend that they are fine without the retractable roof, but that's merely a ploy to have any would-be public-funding entity weigh for itself the costs and benefits of paying $250 million less for a facility that will have far more limited use than the Metrodome currently offers.

In framing the conversation, the Vikings have either directly, or through their media surrogates, floated the following themes: (1) the Vikings are cash strapped as the result of playing in the Metrodome; (2) the Vikings' ownership group has committed to the team despite being cash-strapped, spending far more than most to put together a championship-caliber team; and (3) the Vikings have options should local, public entities not support the team's stadium-building efforts.

To a large extent, each of these contentions is largely exaggerated, true only to the extent that one views them in highly relative terms and relative only to the wealthiest of the wealthy.

I've discussed, before, the Vikings' cash situation. Because of revenue-sharing, a league-mandated salary cap, and the most lucrative television contract in all of professional sports, the Vikings are flush with cash. The Vikings, of course, paint a different picture.

The Vikings note that they are 31st in the league in revenues and contend that this is the result of playing in the Metrodome. Of course, that largely misdirects the relevant conversation, which, one suspects, is precisely the Vikings' intent.

In 2008, the Vikings were 31st in the league in team revenue with $209 million generated. Only the Detroit Lions, playing in their nearly new stadium, generated less team revenue, with $208 million. The Vikings also were 30th in the league in operating income, with $8.2 million. Only Seattle and Oakland had lower operating incomes, with Dallas within one million of Minnesota.

A review of team operating incomes reflects several things. Most significant, however, is that team operating income factors in team obligations or debt. For the Cowboys, that debt includes self-funding of a new $1 billion stadium. For the Raiders, it factors in Al Davis. For the Vikings, it factors in the recent purchase price of the team.

What Minnesotans ought to be asking in this discussion, at least at a preliminary level, is what effect playing in the Metrodome has had on the Vikings' bottom line.

Although the Vikings are 31st in team revenue at $209 million, they are within $30 million per year of being in the top ten each year in team revenue. Viewed in this context, the Vikings' "financial woes" seem less onerous.

The team's reported financial difficulties are even less convincing, however, when one considers why the Vikings appear near the bottom of the league in operating revenue. The primary reason is not that the Vikings play in an old stadium, but that the Wilfs opted to leverage their purchase of the Vikings. While numerous other teams in the league have been owned by the same ownership group for decades or were purchased with substantial cash out of pocket, the Wilfs financed their purchase largely through loans. Hence, they owe more for the Vikings than most other ownership groups owe for their teams and, as a consequence, they have lower operating revenue than do most other teams.

That's not the fault of the Minnesota public. Rather, it is the consequence of a business decision made by the Wilfs that, despite its purported downside, has numerous tax advantages and still returns a healthy profit.

The Vikings have now gone beyond insinuating that the Minnesota public owes them for buying the Vikings with debt, arguing that they are the vanguard of a Minnesota cultural icon. To this end, they have allowed the notion to circulate that they are spending to the salary cap limit to put the best team on the field.

Although the Vikings have spent above the salary cap floor since the Wilfs arrived, this spending has been done almost entirely in current-year cap dollars. Even bringing forward payments to the current season in this fashion, the Vikings rank 22nd in cap dollars spent in 2009. That's not Cleveland-like, but neither is it what the Vikings' have led the public to believe.

These are just some of the financial realities that ought to be weighed in determining whether and to what extent the public ought to provide funding for a new Vikings' stadium. And they are realities that suggest a much different picture than that offered by the Vikings' ownership and their numerous, paid minions.

If the goal is to ensure the Vikings prosper in Minnesota, a cogent argument can be made that the Vikings already are among the most prosperous of NFL teams and that that goal has been met. If the goal simply is to ensure that the Vikings are even more prosperous, however, there are surer and far less expensive ways to do so than to fund a new stadium.

One way, of course, is simply to gift the Vikings $30 million or so per year. That would allow the Vikings to maintain their currently high debt level and still place the team in the top ten, or higher, of league operating revenues. Another option, in addition to giving the team free rent, as the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission, and, thereby, the taxpayer, currently does to the tune of $4 million per year, or to gift the Vikings naming rights to the Metrodome, is to allow the Vikings to sell seat licenses at the dome.

All of this presumes, of course, that the Vikings' true goal is to get a return on their investment rather than a return on the public's investment. That assumption, however, almost assuredly misses the mark.

While the Vikings plead poverty as a result of playing in the Metrodome, what they really mean is that, they could be filthy rich, with limited investment, if they had the equity of a new stadium. It is not just, or, likely, even primarily, the revenue streams of a new stadium that the Vikings seek--revenue streams that could be made available or otherwise accounted for by lesser public investment on an annual basis--but the equity that derives from a new, publicly funded stadium.

Assuming a league contribution of $250 million (the Vikings' commitment to the proposed new stadium), a $1 billion stadium would increase the Vikings' net value by a minimum of $750 million. That not only buys a lot of credit on the market, but credit on very good terms. It also greatly enhances the resale value of the team, placing the Vikings behind only Dallas in team value. That's a far better return for the owners than the peanuts that they are leading the public to believe only a new, publicly funded stadium can confer.

Up Next: A Season of Washington Generals?

Friday, November 20, 2009

Fitzgerald Claims Race at Heart of Legislature's Refusal to Fund Vikings' Stadium

When all else fails, there's always the race card. That, anyway, seems to be the angle of local personality, Larry Fitzgerald Sr., who, during a radio cast on WCCO, explained the Vikings' inability to get a publicly funded stadium as a legislative decision predicated on racism. Those are my words. Mr. Fitzgerald's were far more tortured, but meant precisely the same thing.

Fitzgerald's argument was premised on the fact that the Minnesota Wild, a mostly "White" hockey team, and the Minnesota Twins, a mostly "White" baseball team, received public funding for their stadium ventures. "Then you have the Minnesota Vikings," Fitzgerald halted. "Mostly black players. . . And it's difficult not to wonder if there's some connection."

Wow. There's asinine, and there's this--leagues beyond asinine.

There's little question that the Wild are comprised of mostly "White" players. Yet, other than that fact, Fitzgerald offers no support that the Wild received special consideration owing to the Minnesota Legislature's or St. Paul City Council's perception of the team's "Whiteness." Never mind that the Wild did not yet exist at the time that funding was approved for Excel Energy Center.

The Twins offer an even more difficult front to Fitzgerald's sound reasoning skills. For while the Wild ultimately included a sole "non-Whitey" in Korean Richard Park--strongly suggesting, of course, Fitzgerald's suggestion that the Minnesota Legislature and St. Paul City Council cut a deal with the Wild ownership group to ensure that the team would be "almost entirely White"--the Twins had far fewer "Whites" at the time that the Minnesota Legislature approved funding for the new Twins' stadium in 2006.

On the Twins' roster at some point during that legislatively decisive 2006 season were no fewer than fifteen "non-Whites." That would seem to contradict Fitzgerald's argument, but why let facts get in the way of a good racism rant?

Team composition aside, Fitzgerald's argument is more than galling, it is infantile in its complete neglect of the object of the benefit of stadium-funding. One could make a plausible argument that fans benefit from a new stadium. And clearly ownership benefits from a new stadium. Had the Wild and Twins been owned by "Whites" and the Vikings by "non-Whites," Fitzgerald would have had his soapbox. Unfortunately for Fitzgerald, the Vikings are owned by "Whities." So Fitzgerald had to make the most singularly implausible argument that a new stadium most benefits the players.

What is intriguing about Fitzgerald's comments are not the mangled expression that Fitzgerald gave them, but the forum in which he was allowed to make such unsubstantiated and readily controvertible charges--WCCO radio. Presumably still bitter over its divorce from the Vikings, 'CCO, a long-standing ownership fleshlight, not only aired Fitzgerald's remarks but did so with the host of the show offering seeming approbation.

It's no secret that the Vikings have played on the willingness of certain local media entities to don knee pads in assisting the Vikings' drive for a publicly funded stadium. It is, however, highly unfortunate that the standards in local sports journalism have sunk so low that the race card can actually be raised as an explanation for why the Vikings' White ownership group is unable to secure state funding for a new stadium.

Up Next: Some Revenue Numbers that the Vikings are Not Sharing. Plus, another cream puff in waiting?

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Vikings' Brass Convinced That Caretaker Coach Will Suffice Going Forward

No matter the impressions of Minnesota Vikings' head coach Brad Childress, he has demonstrated an ability to take a talent-laden team and lead it to victory over a witless schedule. Whether that ability will prevail in the face of fiercer competition or when Childress is forced to make-do with any one of his hand-selected Tarvaris Jacksons, is a different matter--and a bridge that Vikings' ownership apparently is content to wait to cross.

On Thursday, with no real reason to do so, the Vikings extended Childress' contract through the 2013 season. The extension adds four years to Childress' current deal and increases the payout from Childress' $2 million/year average to $4-5 million per year.

In support of the Vikings' decision is the gradual evolution of Childress' public persona to that of a normally functioning individual, his ability to pluck capable to very good players from others' rosters, his willingness to concede that Brett Favre was a better option than Tarvaris Jackson or Sage Rosenfels, his improving in-game management, and his largely professional demeanor.

In short, where once the Vikings could hardly do worse, now, at a minimum, it can be said that the Vikings could do far worse. The Bills did far worse in hiring Dick Jauron. Washington did far worse in hiring the affable but completely unqualified Jim Zorn. The Chargers continue to demonstrate what life on the margins is like under the tutelage of a good coordinator, but poorly matched head coach in Norv Turner. And numerous other teams, including the Green Bay Packers, have suffered for their failure to identify a solid head coach.

Childress' name will not soon be favorably compared with the likes of Bill Bellicheck, Tony Dungy, Jim Caldwell, Sean Peyton, or even Mike Tomlin, but neither will be compared to the likes of Eric Mangini or Tom Cable.

What the Vikings assured themselves in signing Childress to an extension was a continuation of a system that works very well when great players are on the field and that offers much less when lesser players are on the field. Vikings' fans can only hope that Childress can either locate the fountain of youth to ensure that Favre remains with the team through 2014, or that Childress and Company are able to locate a quarterback near as good as Favre to replace the former Packer when he finally hangs it up.

Should Favre depart after one season, leaving the Vikings with no better a choice than selecting between Rosenfels and Jackson, there will be considerable head-scratching going on in Minnesota about a decision made before its time.

Up Next: Vikings Pull Out Race Card in Quest for Publicly Funded Stadium.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Imagine All The Offense, Imagine If You Can

During the 2005 off-season, the Minnesota Vikings engaged in the second-greatest give-away in team history when they traded Randy Moss to the Oakland Raiders for disgruntled linebacker Napoleon Harris and the Raiders' first-round draft choice in the 2005 NFL draft.

The Vikings parlayed the Moss deal into one middle-linebacker bust and purported wide-receiver Troy Williamson, the number seven overall pick in the 2005 NFL draft. Had the Vikings selected Marcus Ware, Shawn Merriman, Aaron Rodgers, Roddy White, Logan Mankins, Vincent Jackson, or Frank Gore in the draft, that trade might not now look like the money dump that it was--freeing former Vikings' owner Red McCombs of 2005 obligations and putting them on the incoming ownership group in the form of a signing bonus for Williamson.

Instead, not only did the Vikings compound their gifting of Moss with the selection of Williamson, they proceeded to select an injured and well-reputed sloth in Erasmus James a slow-footed guard in Marcus Johnson, and a seventh-round reach in the third round in safety Dustin Fox.

Two years after the Vikings traded Moss for what amounted to nothing, the Raiders traded Moss to the Patriots for a fourth-round pick that became University of Cincinnati cornerback John Bowie. It's yet unclear whether the Vikings or Raiders came out further behind in their exchanges involving Moss.

What is clear, however, is that, despite local commentary to the contrary, the Vikings could have returned Moss to the Minnesota fold in the Spring of 2009 for a song. Only the wide-receiver-desperate Patriots were willing to offer anything for Moss and the Raiders, as wont as ever to disengage talent before driving it out, were only to happy to rid themselves of a receiver they believed to be on the decline at the age of 30. For their part, the Vikings expressed zero interest in Moss.

And so, Moss' career in New England began. In his first season playing with a real quarterback since leaving Minnesota, Moss had 98 receptions for 1,493 yards and 23 touchdowns--twenty more than he had in his final season in Oakland and six more than in his best season in Minnesota.

This season, Moss has 58 receptions for 898 yards and seven touchdowns. Over the past two games, he has accelerated his receiving pace, accumulating 326 yards and three touchdowns.

In Minnesota, meanwhile, Moss' counterpart, Bernard Berrian, has spent the better part of the 2009 season appearing disinterested, unprepared, and lobbying for his way off of a team that he ought to want to be a part of. On the season, Berrian has 30 receptions for 321 yards and three touchdowns. And while Moss trends upward, Berrian is heading in the opposite direction. In his last three games, Berrian has just eight receptions for 81 yards and a lone touchdown, including just three receptions for 22 yards against a Lions' team that conceded 340 passing yards to the Vikings--all despite being targeted no less than 12 times.

Conversely, in the number two spot for the Vikings stands Sidney Rice, a player nearly cut in pre-season for failing to blossom under Tarvaris Jackson. In addition to giving the Vikings yet another reason not to prolong Jackson's career, Rice has provided the Vikings everything that the team expected it was getting when signing Berrian to a six-year, $42 million deal with $16 million in guaranteed money in 2008. That same year, Moss, an unrestricted free agent, re-signed with the Patriots for three years and $27 million, with $12 million guaranteed.

Following yet another strong performance by Sidney Rice against the woeful Lions--Rice's third 100+ receiving game in his last four games and his first 200+ receiving game, it is tantalizing to ponder what the Vikings' offense might have been capable of were Adrian Peterson, Chester Taylor, Brett, Favre, Percy Harvin, and Randy Moss all on the field together.

If the Vikings can keep Favre healthy and coax two more seasons out of him, they might yet have an opportunity to find out.

Up Next: Dregs of the League.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Childress No Longer On Permanent Hot Seat

Starting a season 6-0 normally would disqualify an NFL head coach from residency on the proverbial hot seat. Not so Minnesota Vikings' head coach Brad Childress. With a loss at Pittsburgh suggesting that the Vikings still had some room from improvement against the handful of competitive teams remaining in the NFL, Childress found himself in another proverbial spot--limbo.

The Vikings' victory at Lambeau Field prior to their recent bye week softened concerns about Childress' ability to guide a talent-laden team, but did nothing to convince Vikings' ownership that Childress' contract, with one year yet remaining on an initial five-year deal, merited rewriting. Still, where Childress is today versus where he stood last year at this time, has to be comforting--at least to Childress.

Whether Childress deserves an extension is a question best reserved for next season. A sensible argument can be made that the Vikings' current head coach fits more the mold of caretaker coach than guiding force. That's fine, as long as the caretaker is surrounded by talent, as Childress is this season.

Few other teams, if any, can boast a top-three running back, top-five quarterback, and top-three defensive end, along with an offensive rookie of the year candidate, and at least five Pro Bowl players and several more All-Pros. Those benefits, along with solid special teams players, one of the league's best defensive lines, a strong linebacking corps, and consistency in the kicking game, are a coach's wet dream. In this year's Vikings' team, Childress has just such talent.

Given the high level of talent at every critical position on the roster--save starting center, and the putrid level of competition in the NFC this year, the Vikings' front office ought to expect nothing less than a 14-2 record at this point. And, if the Giants continue to falter, 15-1 should be within reach.

The Vikings' regular season record against a litany of scrub teams is irrelevant, however, if they fail to beat the better teams that they will not face until the playoffs. In the NFC, gaining any better perspective on whether Childress has risen above the role of caretaker coach might well require that the Vikings face the Saints at some point, as most of the rest of the league's talent appears currently to reside in the AFC. And that all but requires that the Vikings make it to the NFC Championship game.

In some respects, 2009 thus is a no-win situation for Childress. The Vikings have put together a team so relatively strong that even a replacement-level coach ought to be able to guide it to a highly successful season, with the only meaningful test being competition against teams that have every bit as much claim of ability to beat the Vikings as the Vikings have to beating them. With perhaps only one or two such opponents remaining on their pre-Super Bowl schedule, that gives Childress little window to prove his wares.

But at least he's not on the hot seat.

Up Next: Coaches Certain to be Gone by Season's End.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Do Vikings Have Reason to Worry About Peterson's Production?

Eight games into the 2009 NFL season, Minnesota Vikings' running back Adrian Peterson sits where he usually does at this time of year--at or near the top of the league in several meaningful rushing categories. For the Vikings current purposes--making the playoffs and securing home-field advantage--that's simply icing on the cake. Peterson's numbers raise some concern, however, that, should the Vikings find their way to the Super Bowl, they will face a team capable of shutting down the star back and capable, thus, of once again crushing the hopes of Vikings' fans.

In 2008, Peterson amassed 1,760 yards rushing with 10 touchdowns. His numbers in 2009--784 rushing yards and 9 touchdowns--put him on pace to match or eclipse those numbers. But the numbers nevertheless remain somewhat bothersome.

Through two games this season, Peterson had rushed for 272 yards and four touchdowns. Since then, however, against mostly ghastly run defenses, Peterson has tallied a far less impressive 85 yards and .83 touchdowns per game. Those numbers would place Peterson 14th in league in rushing.

More disconcerting, though, is where Peterson's full numbers place him on the whole. With a 4.8 average-yards-per-carry total, Peterson ranks tied for 28th in the league. That, and his consistent problems breaking through the offensive line and finding his way into the endzone in short-yardage situations, suggest at least modest cause for concern should the Vikings ever end their run of games against sub-par defenses.

Clearly, some of Peterson's 2009 statistics are a reflection of the Vikings' willingness and ability to pass more this season than in previous seasons, when operating under the care-taker system of quarterbacking. Last season, Vikings' quarterbacks passed for 2,956 yards and 22 touchdowns. This season, Brett Favre has already thrown for 1,925 yards and 16 touchdowns. With numerous patsies remaining on the team's schedule, it is reasonable to expect Favre's pace to accelerate. But even at his current pace, he would finish the regular season with 3,850 yards passing and 32 touchdown passes. Those numbers bode exceedingly well for the Vikings but take some of the focus, and luster, off of Peterson.

Favres' success helps explain Peterson's plateauing this season. But the running back's problems along the line are more difficult to explain. Peterson frequently fails to find openings--a difficulty particularly evident in goal-line situations. Running behind two first-year starters does not help, but even behind a sometimes suspect offensive line, Peterson ought to find his way into the endzone more than the handful of times that he has in redzone situations this year. That he has not suggests that Peterson either has a lingering injury--which does not appear to be the case--or that he simply is not hitting the hole.

If you're a fantasy player who bet heavily on Peterson this year, you likely overspent. That, however, is not the Vikings' concern. Where the Vikings ought to be concerned, however, is with Peterson's leveling-off in recent weeks against mostly weak opposition. If that trend continues, the Vikings might find themselves up against it should they face a stiffer pass defense in the playoffs that forces Peterson to show that he can do what Vikings' fans have come to expect him to do.

Up Next: Garbage time.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Packers' Loss to Bucs Seals 2009 Fate and Helps Crystalize NFC Playoff Picture

With half of the 2009 NFL season yet to play, it might appear a bit premature to pronounce the playoff slate in the NFC etched in stone, but the Conference is clearly evidencing signs of supporting such a call. And, with yesterday's ten-point defeat at the lowly Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Green Bay Packers strongly hinted that they are not part of that playoff conversation.

With their loss to Tampa Bay, the Packers fell to 4-4 on the season and essentially four games out of the lead in the NFC North; not even the mysticism of a three-way tie-breaker would save the Packers in their pursuit of the division title.

Outside the division, things appear equally grim for the Pack. Although, contrary to the programmed responses of FOX commentators, the Packers have one of the easiest remaining schedules in the NFL, their opponents are not exactly cowering in fear at the prospect of facing the Packers--a lack of respect that rightfully stems from the Packers' atrocious offensive line, poor coaching, and paper defense.

Through eight games, the Packers have surrendered an astounding 37 sacks--seven more than the second worst tally of 30 by Kansas City and 30 more than Indianapolis. That figure includes six by the Bucs, who, heading into the game, had 11 sacks for the entire season. That's atrocious, but not nearly as atrocious as the Packers' 3-4 defense.

On the season, the Packers' defense has recorded a paltry 13 sacks, compared to 31 for league-leading Minnesota. That lack of pressure has allowed opponents to score 16 touchdowns--good for third-most in the league.

Add to the Packers' own woes, the quickly evolving cleavage of haves and have nots in the NFC, and it is difficult to see much reason for optimism for the Packers in 2009. With the Vikings all but sewing up the NFC North, the Packers are left to battle for a wild-card spot with teams that appear far better suited for prevailing in such a battle. With their four wins coming against Cleveland, Detroit, St. Louis, and Chicago--teams with a combined 7-25 record and losses to the only teams that they have faced with winning records--the Packers appear better equipped to play against the second-division of the NFL this season than than to compete with the first-division. Unfortunately for the Packers, their primary wild-card rivals--Atlanta, New York, Dallas, and Philadelphia--have shown far more promise.

Up Next: Some Coaches Already Packing Their Bags. Plus, should Vikings' fans expect AP to dominate in 2009?

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Time To Bury Berrian?

In 2007, Bernard Berrian caught 71 passes for 951 and five touchdowns for the Chicago Bears. The numbers were not mind-blowing, but they did represent a solid upward trend for a young receiver playing in a run-first offense. For a Vikings' team in desperate need of papering over the Troy Williamson mistake, Berrian thus appeared a solid addition heading into the 2008 season.

The 2008 Vikings had offensive problems of their own, of course. Weighed down by the burden of an oppressive short-game scheme and lacking a quarterback capable of leading the team even to a first down, the Vikings' offense both begged for a deep-play threat and stood certain to frustrate such a threat. The result for Berrian was a respectable 48 receptions for 974 yards and seven touchdowns.

Remarkable in Berrian's first season in Minnesota was that, despite lingering hamstring issues and a modest catch total, he managed to improve on his 2007 yardage and touchdown figures, with some receptions perfectly demonstrating the break-away speed that the Vikings had hoped to gain when acquiring him.

With the addition of quarterback Brett Favre, things looked positively rosy for Berrian in 2009. Yet, through the first half of the season, the sixth-year wide receiver, who should be entering the prime of his career, has managed a mere 27 receptions for 299 yards and three touchdowns--slightly off of last year's pace, good for 45th in the league, and behind the pace of numerous rookies and second-year players playing in far less favorable circumstances.

Berrian's defenders have pointed to nagging injuries and a lack of timing with Favre as reasons for Berrian's slight 2009 numbers. But those justifications fall short in explaining how a receiver, seemingly equally injured last season, has failed to meet even the numbers posted by rookie counterpart, Percy Harvin.

Despite being listed as the third receiver on the team, suffering from his own injury issues, and having to adjust not only to a new quarterback, but also a new league, Harvin has managed 28 receptions for 369 yards and three touchdowns this season. For good measure, he has contributed 860 yards in kickoff returns with a 30.7 yards-per-return average and two touchdowns--the first Viking in team history to accomplish the latter feat.

Far more glaring than the line-by-line comparison between Harvin and Berrian is Harvin's upward trend and Berrian's apparent regression and disinterest. Against the Packers at Lambeau field, Harvin had 260 total yards and a touchdown. Though Berrian did find the endzone, his numbers--three receptions for forty-seven yards--resembled, more, those of a mid-tier tight end than of a high-end, highly paid speed receiver.

More disconcerting than Berrian's numbers, however, has been his poor execution on the field. Whether due to lack of preparation or some other malady, it is clear that Berrian is not playing with the same degree of commitment as are others on the team. And when, for the twentieth or so time this season, Berrian gave up on a deep route, despite single-man coverage, or turned in when he should have turned out, one has to wonder whether it is not time to replace Berrian with any other breathing receiver on the team and to make certain that, in two-receiver sets, Harvin and Rice, rather than Berrian and Rice, are the duo on the field.

At least some of Berrian's issues presumably are related to his hamstring problems rather than to his inability to make the adjustments to playing with Favre that every other receiver on the team appeared able to make in game one of the season. But, if injuries are the culprit, given that Berrian has been plagued by the same injury his entire career--one of Chicago's primary considerations in allowing their only tested receiver to walk in 2008--it might be time for Minnesota to begin considering their future at wide receiver.

Barring injury or an uncapped season, Rice and Harvin will be part of the Vikings' wide-receiver equation for several years to come. But with Rice a sideline target of less-than-blazing speed and Harvin a better fit in the slot and out of the backfield, the Vikings need a dependable deep threat. If that's not going to be Berrian, the Vikings will have numerous alternatives in the 2010 free-agent market--perhaps the best ever for wide receivers.

Assuming that no team is foolish enough to apply the franchise tag to a wide-receiver, Antonio Bryant, Lee Evans, Vincent Jackson, Michael Jenkins, and Hines Ward will be available as unrestricted free agents in 2010. All but Ward fit the Vikings' need for a burner with hands and, despite his age and lesser speed, even Ward seems, somehow, to measure up with his speedier brethren. Should Favre return in 2010, the offensive possibilities for the Vikings would be absolutely salivating.

Up Next: Coaches on the Way Out. Plus, is this the AP that we should expect for the remainder of the season?

Monday, November 02, 2009

Favre Further Demonstrates Dunderheadedness of Jackson Ploy

At end of last season, Vikings' fans calling for the Vikings to give Tarvaris Jackson the staring quarterback position in 2009 nearly equaled those threatening a march on Winter Park should Childress and Company enter the season under such terms of folly. What's disturbing is not the division, but that a significant percentage of Vikings' fans had come to accept the party line that Jackson was the quarterback to lead the team to the Super Bowl.

After eight weeks of Brett Favre at the helm, not only is it clear that Brad Childress needs a quarterback like Favre to run his system, but also that Jackson is so woefully behind where Favre is today that it is virtually impossible to imagine him ever even being a shadow of Favre's 40-year-old incarnation.

Every time Favre steps up in the pocket in the face of pressure, an image of Jackson taking a sack conjures in the imagination. Every time Favre throws a bullet to a receiver, in stride, an image of Jackson throwing low or behind the receiver comes to mind. Every time Favre hits a deep pass, images of Jackson either hitting the Dome roof with a high arc or throwing a laser into the back of the defender's helmet races to the fore. And every time Favre calmly collects the offense and marches them down the field with little regard for missed blocks by his linemen or time ticking off of the game clock, one envisions Jackson totally unraveling.

It is, of course, a tale of two quarterbacks at opposite ends of the experience spectrum. In that sense, it's a tough comparison for Jackson. But that's the stuff out of which NFL comparisons properly are made. In the NFL, years on the clock don't matter. What matters are production and ability. Favre has both on the resume and the ability to continue to pad that resume. Jackson has neither the resume nor many of the attributes necessary to compose such a resume.

Thus, while it is a pleasure to see a competent quarterback make a receiver out of Sidney Rice, demonstrate, with his use of Percy Harvin, that receivers don't need to work in a system or with a quarterback for two years to produce on the field, and make clear that the only things holding Adrian Peterson back in the screen game are the Vikings' coaches and care-taker quarterbacks, it is more than a bit unsettling to think how close the Vikings came to using Jackson as the starting quarterback this season.

Through eight games and a 7-1 start, it is clear that Favre not only has brought maturity to the quarterback position in Minnesota, disabused the notion that care-taker quarterbacks should be counted on to lead teams to the Super Bowl, and forced Childress and offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell to re-consider everything from how to use Peterson and Harvin to how to make use of the hurry-up offense and quick snaps, he also has been primarily responsible for at least five of the Vikings' victories this season--a feat that his counterparts on the Vikings' bench almost certainly would have failed to match, in full.

Despite the warts in the secondary, with Favre at quarterback, the Vikings can now dream about something that has never happened in team history. How fortunate that is for Vikings' fans, given how close the Vikings came to going a completely different route in 2009.

Up Next: Time to Sit Berrian? Plus, Lions Stink More than Rams.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Time for Some Vikings' Defensive Starters to Step Up

The 2009 season has started pretty well for the Minnesota Vikings. With a 6-1 record, they have an opportunity on Sunday to all but wrap up the NFC North. A win over the Green Bay Packers would give the Vikings a 2.5 game lead over their nearest division rival with the head to head tie-breaker in hand.

Add to the overall record, the play of quarterback Brett Favre, the relatively good play of rookie right tackle Phil Loadholt, the emergence of Adrian Peterson as the screen threat most fans have always thought he actually was and of Percy Harvin and Sidney Rice as legitimate receiving options, and several of last year's season-ending concerns suddenly appear less disconcerting.

But as the NFL goes, nearly every sunny day has its storm clouds. And for the Vikings, those clouds are appearing in areas not long ago considered strong suits.

In 2008, the Vikings allowed 216 passing yards per game to rank 18th in the league in team passing defense. That statistic, it was contended in some quarters, was the consequence of teams passing more and running less against Minnesota's stalwart defensive line--the catalyst behind the team's third consecutive top-ranked rushing defense at 76.9 yards/game.

In 2009, the Vikings have allowed 235 passing yards per game against three competent offenses and four fairly awful offenses. And this year, they cannot claim that other teams are passing on them to avoid their run defense, as they have allowed an average of 95 rushing yards per game--good for tenth in the league. That's not bad, but it's not nearly as dominant as it was the past three seasons.

The point is not, however, that the Vikings' run defense is in decline, but, rather, that the team's pass defense is looking awfully suspect for a contending team--and this despite relatively strong performances by Carl Paymuh and Benny Sapp against the Pittsburgh Steelers in week seven.

Notwithstanding some inexplicably poor routes to the ball and huge cushions committed and allowed by Cedric Griffin, the Vikings' cornerbacks have been solid much of the season. What has not been so good in pass defense, however, has been the play of the safeties and of middle linebacker EJ Henderson.

Through the first seven games, Tyrell Johnson and Madieu Williams have combined for one interception. Forty-two individual players have more interceptions than the Vikings' starting safeties, combined. And one wide-receiver, Randy Moss, has as many. The tackles for Johnson and Williams are not high--58 combined--but they are in line with decent tackle numbers for modestly active safeties. But what those numbers do not tell, and what the lack of interceptions betrays, is the inability of either to jump routes or even provide help on tight plays.

Nowhere was the lack of safety help more evident for the Vikings this season than in last week's game against Pittsburgh. Whether watching receiver Mike Wallace haul one in and split the seam with no safety in sight or lamenting Ben Leber having to cover a receiver across the middle and down the sideline with no safety in sight, the routine was becoming eerily repetitive--nine defenders pursuing, safeties elsewhere.

If the Vikings hope to make a drive for a championship this season, the safeties will have to show up to play. That means not only making the tackles once the receiver finds them behind the corners and linebackers, but also initiating contact, reading plays, and jumping routes on occasion.

While the struggles of the Vikings' starting safeties is not a new phenomenon in Leslie Frazier's system, the lack of pass-defense production by middle linebacker EJ Henderson is. After a solid debut to the season, Henderson lately appears slow to the ball and not his earlier rambunctious self. That's led opposing receivers to tread less fearfully across the middle and recalled images of Sam Cowart attempting in vain to cover opposing tight ends. As with the play of the Vikings' safeties, Henderson's play in the passing game must, too, improve.

The Vikings' pass defense flaws are not fatal, but they do put more pressure on the offense to produce, thereby making Adrian Peterson less of a factor--unless the Vikings decide to make better use of Peterson in that facet of their offense. The flaws also mean that, despite less time-consuming drives by opponents resorting to the passing attack, the Vikings' defense is actually on the field longer owing to the Vikings' own need to pass more often. And that begins to take its toll on the run defense.

This week would be a good week to begin addressing some of these issues by seeing what the safeties have at their wherewithal. Is it a matter of timidity or simply a purposeful design aimed at protecting weaker players? Sunday's game ought to provide insight.

Up Next: Favre's Success Causing Problems on Offense.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Vikings Feel Pain of Past Opponents

In week three, the Minnesota Vikings defeated the San Francisco 49ers on the strength of a last-second bullet from Brett Favre to little-used wide-receiver, Greg Lewis. Three weeks later, the Vikings benefited from a last-second failure--that of Baltimore placekicker Steven Hauschka--to escape the Metrodome with a two-point victory over the relentless Ravens.

Yesterday, it was the Vikings' turn to feel the sting of losing a game that they should have won, with penalties, unexpected failures, turnovers, and some odd, last-minute playcalling conspiring to derail what was otherwise a superior performance by Minnesota.

With 11 penalties for 78 yards, the correctable mistakes certainly left limited room for errors in other quarters on Sunday. That margin shrank considerably when one of those penalties--on tight end, Jeff Dugan--was logged on a play that otherwise would have resulted in a touchdown for the Vikings.

While the penalties clearly hurt the Vikings, other on-field miscues even more greatly compromised the Vikings' prospects of beating the Steelers. Most notable among these mistakes were a fumble by Favre inside the Steelers' 10-yard-line with the Vikings trailing by three late in the game and a catch-turned-interception off of the hands of the usually sure-handed Chester Taylor. Taylor's unfortunate miscue turned a drive that appeared destined to at least tie the score into a defensive touchdown for Pittsburgh--their second such score in the span of six minutes in the fourth quarter.

Adding to the Vikings' problems were Adrian Peterson's inability to punch the ball over the goal line from the Steelers' one-yard-line in the third quarter--a disappointing trend for the Vikings--and some curious game management on the team's final drive of the game.

The Vikings opened their final drive with a quick hit to Sidney Rice for eleven yards. That catch came with 48 seconds remaining on the clock. With two timeouts to burn and needing two scores to tie, however, the Vikings elected not to take a timeout and, instead, to run the next play. That play, an incomplete pass to Percy Harvin, ran the clock down to 26 seconds. Following a sixteen-yard pass to Rice and a seventeen-yard screen-play to Peterson, five seconds remained on the game clock. Then, and only then, did Vikings' head coach Brad Childress come screaming down the sidelines to demand a time-out. Why not earlier, when the game was still at least arguably in reach? The answer to that question is anyone's guess. But if one is to be adamant about a timeout with five seconds remaining in the game, one surely ought to be adamant about a timeout with forty-six seconds left in the game, particularly when one has two timeouts to give.

This was the Vikings' first meaningful opponent of the season and the team responded accordingly. There were moments of dullness--the entire first quarter, moments of intelligent play--portions of the remaining three quarters, and moments of futility and self-destruction--particularly the latter half of the fourth quarter. In short, the Vikings looked and played like they were in their first meaningful game. In the long run, their uneven response could pay dividends. In the short term, it simply feels like a missed opportunity to solidify a home playoff spot.

Up Next: How Many Rams Does it Take to Screw in a Light Bulb? Answer: Washington.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Stadium Subterfuge

If you wanted full-court press, you now have it. For the past several years, Vikings' ownership groups, the NFL, and those in the local media beholden to the Vikings and/or the NFL have pressed their agenda in pursuit of a publicly funded NFL stadium for the team.

The rationale, we are led to believe, is four-fold: (1) the Vikings are short on cash; (2) the Vikings are short on cash because they play in a stadium that does not offer the team revenue streams that many other NFL teams reportedly enjoy; (3) Minnesotans owe it to the team--and to themselves--to finance a new stadium for the Vikings; and (4) without a new stadium, the Vikings will move to Los Angeles.

The tactic being employed by the Vikings' front office is one of submission. Using their on-air employees to hammer home, between virtually every other word, the Vikings' "need" for a new stadium, the Vikings clearly hope to instill this premise in the minds of all who listen to their games. Even those not paid by the Vikings, but who nevertheless have substantial ties to the team and to the NFL, have lamented the team's purported woes on behalf of the team, such as when Michelle Tafoya blatantly ignored reality in claiming that "the Vikings cannot compete in the Metrodome." Factual misstatements aside, I suspect she intended to say in "Mall of America Stadium."

Not far behind Vikings' employees and the local supporting cast in calling for a publicly funded stadium for the Vikings are those working for the NFL. Not a week goes by without a NFL broadcasting crew noting how nice new stadium X is compared to the HHH Dome and how deprived the Vikings are for having to operate in the Dome. There is no question but that those points are well-orchestrated and handed down from the NFL Commissioner and the NFL's stadium-drive committee.

If one can get past the NFL's and Vikings' thinly veiled attempts at influencing public opinion, the larger question becomes whether any of these agents of the Vikings and the NFL is making any good faith attempt to influence public opinion on the basis of all of the germane facts. The answer to that question, to date, is "no."

I have written in the past of fallacious claims that the Vikings either are cash-strapped or receiving a paltry return on their investment. In short, the Vikings are flush with cash and equity and the team's returns dwarf those of most any other business on the planet.

Of course, the Vikings' owners would like to make more money and be considerably wealthier than they already are. There's no problem with that, except that the team's owners have posited their goals in the context of need rather than desire--a theme that their employees, certain local media members, and the NFL have fostered and promoted.

To the end of promoting that theme, the Vikings have long insinuated, largely through back-door channels since the Wilfs arrived in Minnesota, that the team might have to consider moving if a stadium deal cannot be resolved prior 2011, when their current stadium lease expires. The prime relocation site, the story-line goes, is the finely named City of Industry, just outside of Los Angeles.

On the surface, the NFL has been more than happy to feed the Vikings-to-Los Angeles story to help the Vikings obtain public funding for a new stadium. Behind closed doors, however, the NFL has been adamant that no current NFL team will be permitted to relocate to the Los Angeles area.

That latter position makes eminent sense for the NFL. For why would the league allow a current team to move to the most lucrative market rather than retain the rights to that market and reap the benefits of selling expansion rights in the area?

League position notwithstanding, the Vikings offer a particularly poor candidate for relocation to the proposed stadium in Industry. The developer of that site, Ed Roski, reportedly has committed to spending mostly his own money to build a new stadium. Estimates of costs are between $800 million and $1 billion, with the City of Industry floating $150 million in bonds for infrastructure surrounding the stadium.

What Roski seeks in return on his investment is not a tenant for his expensive stadium, but a team of his own. Were the Wilfs to sell to Roski, they would be selling the team to a prospective owner who owes a considerable debt on the new stadium--a factor that necessarily would reduce the sale price of the team. More disconcerting for the Wilfs, however, would be the fact that they would be selling the team at a far lesser premium than if they sold the team to a local purchaser without any stadium deal in place and at a much greater discount than if they had a stadium deal in place (even one that they financed entirely). A Vikings' move to Industrial, under the current dynamics, thus makes absolutely no financial sense for the Wilfs.

That fact won't keep the local wags from spouting their rehearsed rhetoric regarding the Vikings' "need," not just for a new stadium, but for one largely funded by the public, but it might dampen the prospects that Vikings' fans will take the bait.

I've said it before and I am certain that I will be compelled to say it again. If the Vikings want a new, publicly financed stadium, they need to work with the public rather than threatening the public and they need to be willing to share in revenues to the extent that the team receives public funding. If that is not appealing to the team's ownership, it remains free to build its own stadium; a route other NFL owners have taken with great success.

Up Next: Time to Run.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Favre Provides New Vikings' Metric

Following Sunday's unnecessarily harrowing victory over the visiting Baltimore Ravens, the Minnesota Vikings stand 6-0 and atop the NFC North, the NFC, and the NFL. And more evident than the suddenly suspect play of the Minnesota defense and the inability of Adrian Peterson to put together both scoring and yardage numbers, has been the ability of quarterback Brett Favre to lead the Vikings to victory.

After two games, those fans still bewilderingly calling for Tarvaris Jackson to start, at least had reason to wonder whether all of the drama and the lack of cohesiveness between Favre and his teammates was worth the signing. In those first two games--both against awful competition--Favre put up some fairly pedestrian numbers, accounting for 265 passing yards and three touchdowns. Not bad, but probably something either Sage Rosenfels or Tarvaris Jackson could have done.

Over the Vikings' last four games, however, the tide has turned noticeably against those questioning the Vikings' acquisition of Favre. In those four games, Favre has amassed 1,082 passing yards and nine touchdown passes. And those numbers likely would be gaudier had there been a need for Favre to stay in the St. Louis game until the end.

Add to the numbers, Favre's persistent ability to step up in the pocket in the face of pressure and his new-found willingness to eat the ball when all options truly are covered, and there is little to dislike about Favre's 2009 performance, except that, at age 40, it is unlikely that there will be too many encores.

With Favre in the lineup this season, the Vikings are undefeated. Without him in the lineup, it is conceivable that the team would be as bad as 2-4, with certain losses to Baltimore, San Francisco, and Green Bay, and possibly even a loss at Detroit, if faced with a similar 10-0 deficit at halftime.

That makes the Vikings a plus 3.5 with Favre or a minus 3.5 with any other quarterback on their roster.

While Favre has begun to thrive, he has done so despite the relative malaise in Adrian Peterson's game. After opening the season at Cleveland with 180 yards rushing and three touchdowns, Peterson has produced just 88 yards per game and four touchdowns over the past five games. Those numbers would be fine for Chester Taylor, but not for Peterson.

Despite his relatively modest performances prior to yesterday's 143-yard showing, Peterson remains number one in the league in rushing and first among running backs in first downs obtained. But the numbers could and ought to be better. And, if they were, the Vikings might be less concerned about the minutes that their defense is on the field and wondering less about how they got into position to have to hold on at the end against Baltimore.

The answer for Peterson appears obvious. He needs more touches and more consistency in those touches.

Against Cleveland, Peterson carried the ball 25 times. Against Detroit, San Francisco, and St. Louis, however, he carried the ball 15, 19, and 15 times, respectively. Yesterday, he carried the ball 22 times and, on the twentieth carry, broke a play for 57 yards. That's the cumulative effect that Peterson has on defenses, an effect that he cannot have if he does not accumulate carries.

But Peterson's numbers take a back seat to the effect that his carry totals portend for the team. In games in which Peterson has rushed 22 or more times, the Vikings have held strong time of possession advantages over their opponents. In two of the three games that Peterson has rushed less than 20 times, the Vikings have had a time of possession disadvantage--an important distinction given the Vikings' current defensive struggles.

Up Next: Zorn on His Way Out in D.C.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Disconcerting Numbers for the Vikings?

In 2008, the Minnesota Vikings finished 5th in the NFL in rushing offense, averaging 184 rushing yards per game. Conversely, the team finished 25th in the league in passing with a paltry 145-yard-per-game average. Those feats led the Vikings to twelfth in the league in points--14th after adjusting for defensive points contributed.

The Vikings' 2008 numbers sufficed to win the NFC North and give the team a first-round playoff game against the Philadelphia Eagles. The resulting loss evidenced a team strong in the rushing game and weak in the passing attack.

Five games into the 2009 NFL season, the Vikings are averaging 31 points per game--good for third in the league. And while that number is far superior to the 24 point average that the Vikings had in 2008, there are reasons for concern.

The Vikings established their 2008 numbers against teams with a combined record of 135 and 137--a nearly .500 winning percentage.

One-third of the way through the 2009 season, the Vikings have amassed their numbers against teams with a combined 7-17 record--a winning percentage of .292. And there is every reason to believe that the Vikings' first five opponents in 2009 will continue at this collective dismal pace.

If the quality of the opposition helps define a team's success, and it most assuredly does in the NFL, some perspective needs to be gained regarding the Vikings' early season offensive success. For the Vikings to reach the level of oppositional ineptitude last year that they have faced so far this year, they would have had to play the Detroit Lions an additional twenty times. That's twenty more games against a team that won zero games last season.

That's where the alarm bells start to go off somewhat. Though the Vikings have added quarterback Brett Favre, they have also added two rookies to their offensive line. Through five games, the problems have been muted by victory. But through those same five games, the Vikings, though third in the league in points scored, are not nearly as strong in underlying offensive categories.

In 2009, the Vikings have dropped to 11th in the league in rushing offense and nineteenth overall in yards gained from scrimmage. Favre's presence has contributed to a gain in passing yards, pushing the team from 25th overall to 20th overall, with a 13-yard-per-game increase.

But even the passing success of this year's team must be viewed in light of the opponents' .292 winning percentage.

All of which brings the question back to one upon which the Vikings' 2009 fortunes likely will turn--will the Vikings be able sufficiently to rectify their running-game issues to defeat stronger competition? The answer might well reveal itself today when the Vikings face the Baltimore Ravens--but even that might prove a bit of a canard.

The Ravens enter today's game with the league's fifth-rated offense and twelfth-rated defense in points scored. Against the run, the Ravens are number one in yards allowed. Against the pass, however, the Ravens are 20th.

The Ravens' numbers, too, are skewed by their less-than-stellar competition--teams with a combined winning percentage of .416. Given that their defensive weakness appears to be against the pass, and there is every reason to believe that the Vikings will attempt to exploit the Ravens' pass defense and settle for yet another week of sub-par rushing.

And that might leave until next week, when the Vikings face the Steelers, or until week sixteen against the New York Giants, a determination of where the Vikings stand this season.

Up Next: Post game.