Thursday, February 26, 2009

Visions of Sugar Plums

On the eve of the NFL's 2009 free-agency period, football fans across the country either look forward to the additions that their favorite team will make or loathe yet another off-season of ownership pocket-lining and inactivity. Fortunately for Minnesota Vikings' fans, they can count themselves among those in the former category.

As midnight Eastern time approaches, the Vikings already appear poised to make two moves with the expected addition of Houston Texans' backup quarterback Sage Rosenfels and the presumed release of Gus Frerotte. Rosenfels' uneven play in eight seasons as a sometimes starter, combined with his relatively cheap price tag, suggests that the Vikings might not yet be done addressing their quarterback situation. If they are, however, there will be plenty remaining 2009 free-agent dollars yet to parcel out.

Cash liquidity is important for the Vikings this year, just as it has been the past three seasons. For, despite what has been suggested elsewhere, there is sufficient free-agent talent to fill the Vikings' needs this year. The question is whether the Vikings are willing to pay for it and, if so, how they plan to do so.

With over $32 million available to spend on free agents this year, the Vikings are well enough situated to allow them to add two high-end free agents and to re-sign key veterans. And that's without spending any significant money beyond this season.

As the Vikings have done the first three seasons that the Wilf's have presided over free agency, they likely will do again this season, bringing free-agent dollars forward by signing players to roster bonuses rather than the pro-rated signing bonuses that most teams use. The advantage of this approach to free-agent contracts is that it limits the Vikings' financial exposure after the year in which the players are signed, ensuring that the Vikings will have substantial cap room is succeeding years.

By using roster bonuses to sign free agents the past three seasons, the Vikings have consistently maintained substantial cap room in subsequent years while also retaining Pro Bowl-caliber talent at numerous positions. This year should be no different.

If the Vikings follow their pattern of the past three seasons, fans should expect the team to target at least one, probably two high-end free agents. Assuming that Rosenfels is being brought in to compete for the starting position with Jackson removes Kurt Warner, for better or worse, from consideration. That leaves two very good free agents on the market that would fit a need for the Vikings--wide-receiver TJ Houshmandzadeh and center Jason Brown.

2009 is a significant year for the Vikings. With Antoine Winfield and Pat Williams possibly playing their final seasons in Minnesota, there is a reasonable sense that this is the final window year of what, to date, has proven to be an unrequited opening. If the Vikings wish to take advantage of that opening, logic suggests that they re-sign Matt Birk, Jim Kleinsasser, and Heath Farwell and add a high-end receiver, offensive lineman, cornerback, and safety.

Birk's relationship with the team appears tenuous, though it ought not be. Familiar with the system and still capable of playing at a reasonable level, if not necessarily at his peak level, there is little reason to part with Birk this year in favor another aging center that probably won't fit seamlessly into the Vikings' system. This is particularly true now that Jeff Saturday has elected to remain with the Colts.

While Birk is valuable to the Vikings' offensive line, Kleinsasser might be even more so. Few tight ends block as well as does Kleinsasser, making him an invaluable bookend on a weak right side of the Vikings' offensive line. While Kleinsasser's days of five-yard receptions likely are in the past, he still blocks better than many linemen and earns his pay on that end. His loss would be as great to the Vikings as would be Birk's, though, ironically, the Vikings probably can retain Kleinsasser for the league minimum or slightly more.

Last season, Vikings' fans were inundated with the team's contention that they "did not appreciate the difference that Heath Farwell made on special teams" and how significant his loss was to what became one of the more putrid units in the NFL. Either the Vikings changed their collective mindset on Farwell or Farwell wasn't interested in being a special team's player for the rest of his career. Though the Vikings could still sign Farwell, it appears that he is headed elsewhere, leaving the Vikings either to come up with a replacement in free agency or to find one in the draft.

That leaves two pressing needs that cannot reasonably be expected to be filled through the draft--an offensive lineman and a number one receiver. Bernard Berrian did well last year what he was asked to do, namely, run down the sideline and haul in one or two deep passes a game. But TJ Houshmandzadeh not only can run down the sideline, he also can run across the field and through heavy traffic and can haul in the corner of the endzone pass. That puts his value higher than the combined values of Bobby Wade, Sidney Rice, and Aundrae Allison. And it makes him a great off-season target for the Vikings.

Catching passes from Ryan Fitzpatrick in 2008, Houshmandzadeh had a tough time picking up big yards in what became a short-passing offense without a running game. The result was a relatively modest 904-yard output for the season. That put Houshmandzadeh 60 yards behind Berrian in that category. But TJ showed his worth in other ways, most notably by hauling in 92 passes, good for fifth in the NFL and ahead of Berrian by 44 receptions. On a Cincinnati team on which many players quit, that's quite remarkable.

Signing Houshmandzadeh will be expensive, probably costing the team that signs him $12-16 million in bonus money and $6-$8 million per year in salary. That's steep and, generally speaking, too steep for a receiver. But Houshmandzadeh is one of the few receivers that might be worth that kind of money. And the Vikings can afford it--either by using a big chunk of this year's cap space or by spreading out the pain in the form of a signing bonus.

If the Vikings sign Houshmandzadeh, that likely will put to rest any notion of also signing Ravens' free-agent center Jason Brown, who is now seeking more money than most starting quarterbacks receive, increase the likelihood of re-signing Birk, and increase the likelihood of considering signing a veteran right offensive guard and making do for yet another season without a competent right offensive tackle. That, of course, would make Kleinsasser even more valuable--and probably somehow mean that Kleinsasser would be paid even less.

Up Next: Free Agency Arrives. Surprise Moves.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Is Addition of Rosenfels Vikings' Attempt at Subterfuge?

On Monday, the Houston Chronicle reported that the Houston Texans have reached an agreement with the Minnesota Vikings to trade back-up quarterback Sage Rosenfels to Minnesota for what is believed to be a fourth-round draft choice in this year's draft. The deal reportedly will be consummated at the opening of the free agency period on Friday.

While the announcement of Rosenfels' trade to Minnesota came as a surprise to some Vikings' writers, coming so quickly on the heels of head coach Brad Childress' statement last Friday that he wished to open the 2009 season with Gus Frerotte and Tarvaris Jackson competing for the starting quarterback position, it is consistent with the Vikings' need to do something about their quarterback situation.

That does not mean, however, that the pending move is without substantial questions. Among those questions are why Rosenfels is now available for less of an asking price than he was last year, whether Rosenfels is a significant enough upgrade to warrant trading any draft pick for, and whether the move to obtain Rosenfels is an attempt by the Vikings to disguise their real off-season quarterback target.

In Texas, the contention is that the Texans are willing to move Rosenfels now because he will become a free agent after next season and moving him for a draft pick allows the Texans to focus on a back-up in free-agency while gaining some additional flexibility in the draft. Although that explanation is plausible on the margins, it's highly suspect, not only because the the Texans are getting almost nothing for Rosenfels in this deal, but also because the deal contemplates moving a player familiar with a system in which he was called on to play numerous games last season for what would be a free-agent of limited durability and at a much higher cost or for an inexperienced free agent.

In short, despite his warts, Rosenfels would appear to be precisely what the Houston Texans could use at back-up quarterback behind a relatively young Matt Schaub. Unlikely to command significant money in free-agency, moreover, there is little reason for the Texans to concern themselves with Rosenfels' departure after the 2009 season and every reason for them to retain him as a backup.

That makes Rosenfels' availability for a fourth-round pick this year difficult to understand, particularly when the Texans refused to trade him to the Vikings last season when Minnesota was offering a second-round pick as compensation. Rather than the explanation offered by the Houston Chronicle, the real explanation as to the Texans' rock-bottom asking price for Rosenfels appears to be that Rosenfels simply isn't worth the roster spot. Rosenfels' numbers suggest why the Texans might have reached such a conclusion.

In 2008 Rosenfels started six games for the Texans. In those six games, he threw for 1,460 yards, 6 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions with a completion percentage of 66.7 and a 79 quarterback rating. Of Rosenfels' 1,460 passing yards and 6 touchdowns, 505 yards and 3 touchdowns went to Andre Johnson, one of the elite receivers in the NFL. As a parenthetical, in games not started by Rosenfels, Johnson had 1070 yards and five touchdowns or slightly lower statistics, on average, than he had catching passes from Rosenfels.

The relevant comparison for Vikings' fans, however, is not with Schaub, who, nevertheless, had 15 touchdowns to 10 interceptions with over 3,000 yards passing in 10 games, but with Minnesota's 2008 starters, Tarvaris Jackson and Gus Frerotte. Last season, the Vikings' quarterbacks combined to throw for 3,213 yards, 21 touchdowns, and 17 interceptions, all without the benefit of an offensive system conducive to the pass.

Adjusting Rosenfels' numbers over the course of a season puts him slightly ahead of the Vikings' duo in yards passed (3,600 to 3,213), but well-behind in touchdowns thrown (21 to 13), and far more dismal in interceptions (26 to 17). Perhaps Childress' short-, short-passing game will help eliminate some of Rosenfels' interceptions, but so, too, would it reduce Rosenfels' positive numbers, thus calling into question whether the addition of Rosenfels is even a sideways move for the Vikings.

There is another more hopeful explanation for the Vikings' presumed addition of Rosenfels, namely, that the Vikings are using the addition of Rosenfels to disguise their interest in other free-agent quarterbacks such as Kurt Warner and Jeff Garcia, or to drive down the trade value of New England Patriots' quarterback Matt Cassel and New York Jets' quarterback Brett Favre. By adding Rosenfels, the Vikings are at least signaling that they got the quarterback they want for 2009. Given Childress' resort to similarly uninspiring quarterbacks in his annual quarterback battles, the league certainly would be prone to accept such a sale.

While it is evident that Frerotte and Childress no longer are on the same page and that the Vikings need someone at least of Rosenfels' caliber heading into the 2009 season, it is not at all evident that a Rosenfels-Jackson combo would provide any better dividends for the Vikings in 2009 than did a Frerotte-Jackson duo in 2008. Unless the Vikings are counting on Jackson measurably to improve or on Rosenfels to flourish in a system in which no other quarterback has yet done so, the Vikings' addition of Rosenfels bodes for a repeat of every other season under Childress, with upgrades at other positions strengthening the team beyond what most NFL teams can boast but with the quarterback position continuing to weigh the team down.

Up Next: Free-Agent Shopping.

Monday, February 23, 2009

So, You're Saying We Have a Chance?

In the aftermath of the Super Bowl, Arizona Cardinals' quarterback Kurt Warner said he would rely on God in determining whether he would return to play in 2009. Apparently, God was listening--something he must not have been doing during the Super Bowl--and he wants Kurt to continue to play in the NFL. That should be good news for the Cardinals. Instead, it sounds like it might well be good news for some other team. Like the Minnesota Vikings.

After consulting with God, Warner made clear that his preference was to remain in Arizona. And he made it sound like he would take a discount to do so, contending that he hoped to retire as a Cardinal.

How quickly things change.

After the Cardinals reportedly made a typical Cardinal low-ball offer of $10 million for one year, Warner's agent began making the rounds suggesting that, while Warner would prefer to retire in a Cardinal uniform, he would "be foolish not to listen to other offers."

That's not just agent-speak, that's a genuine shot across the bow of the cheapest owner in the NFL--an owner who lucked out by assembling a Super Bowl caliber team with no money down.

The Cardinals' cheapness, and Warner's desire to sign for two more years, plays directly into the hands of Minnesota's needs. What once looked like a $20 million expenditure might now be available for far less--all thanks to the Cardinals and the limited options for Warner of going to a team on the cusp of a championship.

With money in the bank and the need only for two or three more players, one of them being quarterback, to make a run at the Super Bowl for the first time in over three decades, the Vikings ought to be salivating at the turn of events in the desert.

If the Vikings can add Warner for $15 million--once presumed to be the offer that the Cardinals would make to retain their starting quarterback and should-have-been NFL MVP--that would leave Minnesota with nearly as much free-agent money to sign an offensive lineman and a wide receiver, and to re-sign center Matt Birk and tight end Jim Kleinsasser.

Suddenly, an offense featuring Adrian Peterson, Chester Taylor, Bernard Berrian, TJ Houshmandzadeh, Jim Kleinsasser, and Kurt Warner, and an offensive line of Bryant McKinnie, Steve Hutchinson, Matt Birk, Mike Goff, and somebody to play right tackle, looks not only possible, but eminently feasible and very appealing.

History suggests that God does not care for the Vikings. If that is not the case, however, this year would be the year for him to prove otherwise, with a divine word spoken in the word of Warner a good starting point.

Up Next: Free Agency.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Cassel More of a Reach Than a Solution for Vikings

The Minnesota Vikings enter the 2008-2009 off-season with the team's most pressing issue from one year ago still unresolved. After another season of mediocre to poor play out of the quarterback position, the Vikings find themselves yet again in the market for a starting quarterback.

The Vikings face two primary questions regarding their quarterback situation for 2009. The first is whether they will attempt to add an experienced, quality quarterback in free agency. The second is what to do with the quarterbacks currently on the team's roster. The answer to the first question is almost certainly in the affirmative. The answer to the latter remains unclear.

Who will start for the Vikings at the outset of the 2009 season thus appears destined to be determined by how the Vikings approach free agency. With numerous quarterbacks available in some fashion and ample cap space, the Vikings would seem to be in good position to land a capable starter this off-season. But most of the "available" quarterbacks either come with far too many strings attached or at too great of a price to make them reasonable considerations, even for a team arguably only a quarterback away from contending for a championship.

Among the quarterbacks that the Vikings would have an interest in are Kurt Warner of the Arizona Cardinals, the as-yet-not-retired Brett Favre, who remains the property of the salary cap-addled New York Jets, and New England Patriots' backup Matt Cassel.

Despite protestations to the contrary, Warner probably would be happy to leave the warm climes of Arizona for a year or two in the frigid North, for the right price. After a near-MVP season, however, that right price could be prohibitive even for the cash flush Vikings. With nearly twice the cap space and an as-yet unproven backup quarterback, the Cardinals likely would prefer to keep Warner in the fold for at least one more season and probably will pay whatever it takes to do so.

If Warner is being honest about his desire to remain in Arizona, he might settle for less than the market otherwise would bear--and he might still command a signing bonus near $15 million, plus $8 million per season. Even that discounted level, a price likely south of what Warner would ask from Minnesota, would be too rich for a Minnesota team that needs to add a receiver, offensive lineman, and cornerback this off-season, in addition to re-signing Jim Kleinsasser and Matt Birk, and Heath Farwell.

From a cost perspective, Favre likely is thus a more appealing free-agent target for the Vikings, with two resounding caveats. The first is that Favre is not a free agent. The second is that he still would command significant money to play in Minnesota. Both issues are obstacles, but not insurmountable.

Favre currently resides on the Jets' retired list, but has yet to file for retirement with the league. That's a game that the former Packer's quarterback parlayed into a trade to the Jets last off-season and one that he might again use to leverage a trade to Minnesota this off-season.

With the Jets somehow facing serious cap issues, they can ill-afford a decision by Favre to return to the field to fulfill his two-year agreement with the green and white. Were Favre to opt to return, the Jets would be compelled to trade him and to trade him on the cheap just to remain below the league salary cap. The likely asking price would be a fifth- or sixth-round draft pick.

Getting Favre would be less costly to the Vikings than agreeing to terms. Realizing his significance to the Vikings, Favre would be in position to drive up his contract terms. Despite what is likely a strong desire to be the final piece to a career finishing championship run, Favre presumably still would request near or full market value for his services. That's likely to be $10 million in signing bonus and $6 million per season.

Even if Favre decides to return to the NFL for another season, and the Jets opt to deal their quarterback, there is a question about Favre's health. As his primary reason for "retiring" this year, Favre noted his ailing shoulder and sundry other nagging injuries. The bad shoulder clearly affected Favre's late-season performance in 2008.

Regardless of Favre's mood, if his shoulder does not operate any better than it did at the end of last season, the Vikings ought to pass on him. If the shoulder is in order, however, the Vikings could do, and have done, far worse at the quarterback position than an aging Favre.

After Warner and Favre, the most prominent free agent quarterback is non-free agent Matt Cassel. With purported concerns about Tom Brady's recovery progress, the Patriots slapped their franchise tag on the giddy Cassel. The move cost the Patriots $14.6 million for a player who, before 2008, had not started a sanctioned football game in seven years, and allotted over 20% of the Patriots' salary cap in 2009 to the quarterback position.

While it is possible that Brady's recovery might linger into the 2009 season, Brady is on record stating that his recovery is progressing fine. That comment likely irked Patriots' head coach Bill Belichick who has been working hard to parlay Cassel's strong 2008 into a trade coup for the team. So far, the effort appears to be flagging, though numerous Vikings' reporters insist that the Vikings have an interest in Cassel.

The interest in Cassel is spurred by the recognition that, despite not having started a sanctioned football game in seven years, Cassel to throw for 3,700 yards and 21 touchdowns at the highest level of competition. That, despite having virtually no running game of which to speak. Even in light of the second-year drop-off Cleveland Browns' quarterback Derek Anderson, that's fairly impressive.

What causes pause about Cassel, however, is that he attained his impressive statistics by throwing to one of the top deep threats in the game, Randy Moss, and to one of the speediest receivers in the game, Wes Welker. And despite the otherwise gaudy numbers, Cassel still only managed to put up a quarterback rating of 89.4, good for tenth in the league.

With Gus Frerotte finishing with a 73 quarterback rating and Tarvaris Jackson ending the season with a 45 rating against the Eagles, Cassel might be an upgrade over the Vikings' current options. And he might not be.

Despite the dismal quarterback ratings, Frerotte and Jackson finished the season with 12 and 9 touchdown passes, respectively, despite playing in the most conservative offense in the modern NFL era. For the season, that's one more touchdown pass than Cassel managed with far superior targets in a pass-happy system.

There is also the issue of elusiveness, or lack thereof, for Cassel. In 2008, playing behind a suspect offensive line, Frerotte and Jackson took a combined 44 sacks. Behind a superior offensive line, Cassel took 47 sacks. Imagine the carnage standing in the pocket behind Ryan Cook, Bryant McKinnie, and, should worse come to worse, Matt Birk's replacement--it could be epic.

If doubts about Cassel's limited track record cause pause, so too should the fact that the Patriots are hard-selling the interest in Cassel despite only recently arguing that they franchised Cassel not to trade him but as necessary insurance against Brady's slow recovery. To plant the rumor that the Chiefs are interested in trading for Cassel--reportedly with an asking price of at least two first round picks and/or a starting running back--shows the level of the Patriots' desperation to unload a player that they franchised for the clear solitary purpose of trading.

The planted Kansas City rumor is particularly disingenuous given how closely the Vikings have monitored the Kansas City quarterback situation in light of their own blunder that allowed Tyler Thigpen to escape to the Chiefs. In 2008, Thigpen passed for 18 touchdowns and nearly 2,700 yards despite starting only 12 games and playing for a head coach who, as an offensive schemer, made Brad Childress look brilliant.

Given the current asking price, the unlikelihood that Cassel would consent to a pay cut upon being traded, and Cassel's limited track record, as good as he looked at times in 2008, Cassel seems like at least as much of a risk for the Vikings going forward as does relying on Jackson to improve. There are better, more reasonable options.

Up Next: The Remaining Options. Plus, what to do with Booty, Frerotte, and Jackson.

Monday, February 16, 2009

LA Move Unlikely for Vikings

As frauds continue to fall in the U.S., there remains a shining beacon to all who worship at the throne of the fraud. That shining beacon is the NFL. For the past three decades, the NFL has pitted markets against each other in the lucrative game of selling fear to generate revenue for owners and the league.

For three decades, the NFL's fear-mongering has worked, convincing fans from across the country that their favorite team will move but for a new stadium built on the public dime. Now, it appears, the tide might be turning. Despite shiny new stadiums, teams like the Cincinnati Bengals, Jacksonville Jaguars, Detroit Lions, and Seattle Seahawks showed little on the field in 2008 to support the league's long-held contention that new stadiums are a panacea for the fans of the teams for whom new stadiums are built.

Enter the economic crisis of 2008-2009.

With an increasing number of workers waiting in unemployment lines, state and local revenue streams shrinking daily, and the country in the midst of its greatest act of deficit spending in its history, the NFL continues to foment stories about the possible move of various franchises to the long-NFL-dormant Los Angeles market. And it appears fewer people either are buying the propaganda this time or fewer people care.

Whatever the case might be, there is little reason to believe that the Minnesota Vikings are headed for Los Angeles any time in the near future. That is, unless the Vikings want to buy their way into the lucrative market.

Rumors of the Vikings' impending move to Los Angeles, the creation of a triumvirate of actors in the NFL offices, the Vikings' front office, and the Vikings' flagship radio station, are not new, stemming from the fact that the Vikings' lease at the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome expires in 2011. Despite annual net profits in the neighborhood of $100 million, the Vikings continue to plead poverty, pointing to the lack of revenue streams generated for team ownership by the Metrodome as opposed to those generated for team ownership in other cities.

Paying attention exclusively to the Minnesota market could lead one to the conclusion that the Vikings have both opportunity and reason to leave the state in favor of the lucrative climes of L.A. That view, of course, would ignore several pressing external factors, not the least of those being the dire economic climate.

With nearly $40 billion in state debt, California seems a highly unlikely place for a publicly financed stadium, other than one for which the city that finances the building receives a healthy cut of the revenue streams created by the new stadium. That makes L.A. a highly unattractive relocation venue for a owner such as Zygi Wilf who already has a good deal in Minnesota that will only get better, no matter what the stadium resolution in Minnesota, after 2011.

Even if Wilf wished to move to L.A. and the city already had a stadium in the works, there is the needling issue of priority. And the Vikings do not appear to have that either in or out of league offices.

There are currently at least three teams that are more of a threat to move to L.A. than are the Vikings. In order, those teams are the San Diego Chargers, the Jacksonville Jaguars, and the Buffalo Bills.

Beginning this year, the Chargers have an opt-out clause in their stadium lease with the City of San Diego. The clause provides the Chargers a three-month window, beginning Super Bowl Sunday, to opt out of the current arrangement, with the window re-opening each subsequent year of the agreement. The cost to the Chargers of opting out of its agreement with the City of San Diego would be $56 million.

For several years, the Chargers have threatened to employ the opt-out clause in their lease agreement in an attempt to put pressure on the City of San Diego to finance a new football stadium. To date, the City has balked at the Chargers' threats and, to date, the Chargers have failed to make good on the threat. That could change, however, if a new stadium becomes available in L.A., where the Chargers recently began spending significant money marketing the team.

Even if the Chargers remain in San Diego, however, the Vikings would have trouble overstepping the Jacksonville Jaguars for a place in southern California. Despite being one of the league's newer franchises and playing in one of the league's newer venues, the Jaguars continue to struggle at the gate. Those gate problems have factored heavily into Jaguar owner Wayne Weaver's attempts to find a buyer for his franchise. Though Weaver has expressed a preference to keep the Jaguars in Florida, a move to L.A. likely would not upset the NFL.

The Buffalo Bills are in a similar predicament to the Jaguars, though with stadium undertones added to the mix. In search of a new stadium to boost sagging attendance, the Bills have suggested that a move is not out of the question. The recent devaluation of the Canadian dollar and the NFL's general disinterest in operating on the other side of the border make the Bills' recent threats to move to Toronto less, and a move to the much larger L.A. market more credible for the Bills.

Even were L.A. to have an empty, NFL-ready stadium, the Wilf's to be inclined to share substantial revenue streams with an LA-area municipality, and the Chargers, Jaguars, Bills--among others--willing to step aside and allow the Vikings first shot at the market, there is little reason to believe that the NFL would want the Vikings in Los Angeles. And much reason to believe otherwise.

In addition to having more vulnerable markets at risk than the solid Minnesota market, the NFL is mindful of what it has in L.A.--a threat to other markets. Removing that threat not only creates less of an incentive for other cities to worry about the long-term commitment of their local team to the city, but also creates legal challenges for the league from neighboring teams, such as San Diego.

There is also the fact that, with the 12th largest market and a consistently solid fan base, the Vikings are one of the preeminent franchises in the NFL. Particularly with the current economic uncertainties, the NFL would be loathe to upset such a situation. Considering the lack of success that the Rams and Raiders had at the end of their respective runs in Los Angeles, the Vikings appear primed for a long stay in Minnesota, regardless of the league's public position and the rhetoric offered by the Vikings' front office and their flagship allies.

Up Next: The Case Against Cassel. Plus, Free Agency.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

If Healthy, Favre Remains a Good Bet to Land in Minnesota

The Minnesota Vikings enter the 2009 off-season in search of the three pieces necessary to allow them to contend for a Super Bowl title, regardless of who is steering the ship. The third piece would be a speedy, sure-handed wide-receiver and the second a sure-footed, foul-free, beast of a right offensive tackle. The first piece, clearly, is a quarterback.

With $22 million and change under the league's 2009 salary cap, the Vikings can afford to spend in 2009 and, in fact, will need to spend at least $9 million just to get above the NFL's salary floor. As the Vikings continue their push for a publicly bankrolled stadium, the odds are good that owner Zygi Wilf will continue his previous trend of spending not only up to the salary floor but also close to the cap ceiling.

Despite significant free-agency signings in each of Childress' first three seasons with the Vikings, the product on the field continues to look very similar to the product that Childress fielded in year one of his tenure--a strong defensive team with numerous talented players on offense. The primary missing ingredient, however, remains a steady hand at quarterback.

Last year, the Vikings rode the remaining vestiges of Gus Frerotte's professional football career to a playoff berth. Frerotte's late season fade, coupled with back issues, spelled the end for the veteran, however, and the reinsertion into the starting lineup of erstwhile starter Tarvaris Jackson.

Against the Philadelphia Eagles' vaunted defense, Jackson had moments that made him look every bit as capable as his counter-part on the Eagles. But, when the game was on the line and everyone knew that Jackson had to pass, Jackson faltered, and faltered horribly. It's been noted here before that not all of Jackson's playoff woes can be attributed to his inability to read defenses quickly enough or pick up the hot read--that some of the problem, if not a significant amount of the problem, rests with a staid offense that signals its coming in years, not moments.

But no matter how the blame is divided for last year's playoff short-comings, a significant part of the problem was the play of the quarterback. For the Vikings to improve in 2009, they either need much more consistent and improved play from Jackson or an upgrade at the quarterback position. As time goes by, it appears more and more likely that the Vikings will have left themselves little choice but to hope for the former.

As the 2008 season wound down, the Vikings looked at the free-agent quarterback possibilities with guarded optimism. Among the prospective free agents were Kurt Warner, Matt Cassel, Derek Anderson, and Jeff Garcia; the Viking viewed their free-agency value in similar order.

With free-agency looming, however, things have changed dramatically. Warner insists that he will remain in Arizona or retire, the former being a solid bet given that the Cardinals are a whopping $42 million under the league salary cap, and the Patriots have slapped the franchise tag on Cassel. Only Anderson and Garcia remain what they were mid-way through the 2008 season, two quarterbacks who have shown ability but about whom, for different reasons, teams ought to move with caution in 2009; Anderson looks like the weak-armed quarterback that he got away with being in 2007 and Garcia looks injury prone.

If the Vikings are intent on upgrading at quarterback in 2009, that seems to leave only one available veteran, Brett Favre. Favre insists that he is done, having suffered yet another rotator injury. Of course, we've seen this opera before and there is little reason to expect a different ending this time--at least not this early in the off-season.

Favre still remains an option to play in Minnesota in 2009 until he signs his retirement papers with the league. That's because, despite having one year left on his contract with the Jets, the Jets cannot afford to keep Favre and his salary. Already a nearly impossible $7 million over the NFL cap for 2009, the Jets need to shed salary and signaled this urgency by placing Favre on the injured/retired list. That clears some room off of the Jets' books, but only if Favre actually retires or otherwise departs the Jets.

As he did last year, Favre has suggested that he might reconsider his position should his health improve enough to permit him to play again, a proposition that the Jets simply could not afford.

Understanding the Jets' cap plight, Favre's likely short-term prospects, and Favre's likely desire to compete for a championship in what likely would be his final NFL season, few teams would offer much for Favre, with only Minnesota and Chicago having a need that meshes well with Favre's desires and career arc. The Bears are in similar salary-cap position to the Vikings with $19 million in cap space, but, as Favre made clear last off-season, all other things being equal, he'd rather be a Childress Viking than a Lovie Smith Bear.

Up Next: Just Say No.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Super Bowl Follows Familiar, Possibly Encouraging Script for Vikings' Fans

With fifteen seconds remaining in Sunday's Super Bowl match-up between the Arizona Cardinals and the Pittsburgh Steelers, Cardinals' quarterback Kurt Warner dropped back in the pocket looking for an open receiver in the hope of pulling out a last-second comeback. With his receivers covered deep and no time to throw short, Warner danced in and out of trouble in the pocket, running precious time off of the game clock. Then, with five seconds remaining, the Steelers dealt what would be the final blow to Arizona's improbable championship run, stripping the ball from Warner.

The Steelers recovered the subsequent fumble and hurried their offense out onto the field to run the final five seconds off of the game clock, thereby securing their sixth Super Bowl title, this time under a second-year head coach. Peeling back the thinnest of layers to this game, the manifestations of this game seemed all too fitting for Vikings' fans.

The most glaring connection for Vikings' fans to this game was the way in which the game ended. Despite what clearly appeared to be a "tuck" pass by Warner, the officials on the field ruled that Warner fumbled the Cardinals' final offensive play of the season. That would be fine--and consistent with the officials' suspect officiating at points throughout the game--but for the fact that the replay officials declined to review the play. That's inexplicable. And that's precisely the type of treatment that Vikings' fans would have expected for the Purple at such a moment.

Horrible replay decision aside, Vikings' fans had other reasons wistfully to watch this year's Super Bowl. Not lost on even the most casual of Vikings' fans is the fact that this Super Bowl pitted two second-year coaches against one another, one representing a franchise that never before had even made it to the Super Bowl and had barely even made the playoffs in its history, the other arriving in Pittsburgh after a season as Minnesota's defensive coordinator. All of which makes the continuing monologue out of Winter Park about having to "grow with the system over time" seem like the Vikings might just be following the conservative path to nowhere.

Contrary to what was on display in Minnesota in 2008, both the Cardinals and the Steelers showed why the systems they employ made a Super Bowl run possible for each team this year. Flailing like fish out of water near the end of the season, the Cardinals abruptly altered course, finding a defense that previously had not existed, and challenging opponents to stop their vaunted passing game.

In Minnesota, the Vikings routinely trot out the best running back duo in the NFL, along with a top five defense. That, Vikings' head coach Brad Childress is wont to say, is the recipe for success in the NFL. Unfortunately, it was not the recipe for success in Minnesota.

The Cardinals, meanwhile, showed that, despite neither of these luxuries, it is possible to succeed in the NFL. And, in so doing, they further demonstrated the canard that NFL teams cannot immediately succeed under new regimes.

At the end of the regular season, the Cardinals had arguably the worst rushing attack in the NFL and one of the worst defenses. That head coach Ken Whisenhunt was able to rectify the defensive problems speaks volumes of his ability to adapt. And, while the Cardinals' running game was mediocre at best in the playoffs--awful in the Super Bowl--the Cardinals still were able to exploit a strong Pittsburgh defense known for its ability to put pressure on the quarterback.

Mike Tomlin, too, showed his ability to adapt, relying less on a running game that seemed to have no traction in the Super Bowl and more on the arm of Ben Roethlisberger. The move paid obvious dividends as the Steelers won on the strength of their passing game.

The lesson, of course, is that teams can dramatically adapt in season and even in game. That the Vikings, under Childress have not been able to do either with any degree of success, absolutely calls into question the modus operandi of the Vikings' head coach. While the same can be said of numerous other NFL head coaches, most of those head coaches did not have the luxury of orchestrating the Vikings' defense or running game in 2008. Their faults, therefore, are slightly more excusable. For the Vikings, the question is not, then, necessarily who they will add in the off-season, but whether they can ever add enough pieces to win it all in spite of Childress.

What ought to be encouraging to Vikings' fans, however, is that the lesson is now front and center for all to see. No longer will the tired line calling for patience and time for the system to develop and take shape be acceptable. No longer will excuses by condoned. While this message might be arriving two or three years too late for most Vikings' fans, at least there is no longer any skirting the reality. If Childress cannot put the pieces together next year, surely there can be no more tomorrows for his stint in Minnesota.

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