Tuesday, July 28, 2009

All But In Is Now All But Out

Three weeks ago, Minnesota Vikings' head coach Brad Childress was nearly consumed with glee at the prospect of former Green Bay Packers' quarterback Brett Favre joining the beloved Purple. At the time, all signs supported that optimism, as Favre was speaking positively about the performance of his surgically repaired arm and he and the Vikings were in agreement about the terms of a contract--even though no contract had yet been signed.

Today, all that optimism faded as Childress informed the local media that, in a call with Favre, the quarterback had made clear his intention to remain retired.

For the Vikings, the situation could not have played out much worse. Still needing to sell tickets--and having withheld single-game tickets to the Packers game in anticipation of Favre's signing--and having made clear that they were not fully comfortable with either Sage Rosenfels or Tarvaris Jackson starting at quarterback in 2009, the Vikings suddenly are left with extra tickets that should already have been sold and having to resort to plan B at quarterback.

All of which means that Childress is more on the hot seat than ever, having cast his lot with Jackson too early and for too long, only to fail twice in wooing Favre to Minnesota to supplant Jackson, and now being faced with having to win with either Jackson or Rosenfels. If Zygi had his doubts in 2007 and 2008, there certainly should be little room for error for Childress in 2009.

Childress' predicament notwithstanding, the Vikings suddenly look less unbeatable than they appeared destined to be with Favre at the helm. Even with Rosenfels at quarterback, the Vikings' offense likely will be considered third-best in the NFC North. And with Green Bay and Chicago both sporting improving defenses, that could mean some tremendous consternation at Winter Park in 2009 and more than the usual angst among the Vikings' fan base.

C'est la vie.

Up Next: More Favre Fallout.

Friday, July 10, 2009

NFL's Catch-22 Could Mean Boon For Vikings in Williams' Case

On Thursday, Minnesota District Court Judge, Gary Larson, published a preliminary ruling in the case involving Minnesota Vikings Pat and Kevin Williams' challenge of their NFL suspensions. In that ruling, Judge Larson reasserted the Williams' right to play in the NFL, free of suspension, until their case has been fully decided. Judge Larson's ruling means that the Williamses could be available to play for the Vikings part, all, or none of the 2009 season.

At the heart of Judge Larson's decision is the appeal that the NFL has initiated in the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, contending that Judge Magnuson erred in finding that the NFL's collective bargaining agreement (CBA) with the NFL players' union is subject to Minnesota employment laws. Since a ruling against the Williamses in the Eighth Circuit would eviscerate the Williams' State claim, Judge Larson appears willing to allow the Eighth Circuit to complete its review of the NFL's appeal before commencing the State proceeding.

The obvious question in this case is whether the NFL would be better suited simply to drop its appeal in federal court, thereby permitting the case to proceed in state court, where, as has been discussed on this site in the past, the NFL is almost certain to prevail. In the short run, that's a good option for the NFL. In the long run, however, it only exacerbates the issue.

If the NFL fails to prevail in its appeal of Judge Magnuson's determination that the NFL CBA is governed by state employment laws, the league almost certainly will face similar state-based challenges to its drug-testing policy in the future. That means not only more headache for the NFL in enforcing its drug policy, but also significant legal fees.

Of course, the NFL could attempt to modify its drug policy to account for all relevant state laws, but that's far easier said than done, particularly if there are state employment laws that do not allow for strict liability in testing or that require numerous failed tests before suspension is allowed. And even if the NFL changed its policies to account for the most lenient of state drug-testing policies, the league still would be required to appear in state courts, before team-friendly judges, to defend against player challenges--a worst-case scenario for the NFL.

Clearly, the NFL has an incentive to have Judge Magnuson's decision in the Williams' case reversed as it pertains to state claims. But that could take an eternity. If the Eighth Circuit upholds Judge Magnuson's determination on the state issue, the Williamses could appeal to the full Eighth Circuit bench and, if necessary, to the U.S. Supreme Court. The entire process could take years, even if the Supreme Court elects not to hear the appeal.

That could mean that the Williamses not only are permitted to play in the NFL at the beginning of the 2009 season, but throughout the entire season and into seasons beyond. That likely would span the remainder of Pat Williams' career and allow the Vikings more time to find a suitable four-game substitute for Kevin Williams--assuming even he is still playing when this entire affair finally plays out.

The Williamses are not necessarily in the clear for 2009, however. It is possible, though not likely, that the Eighth Circuit will act quickly both in its ruling on the NFL's appeal and on any subsequent appeal by either party. And it is possible that, thereafter, Judge Larson will begin proceedings on the state issue, if necessary, and find against the Williamses.

At this point, however, it appears increasingly likely that the NFL will bite the bullet, accept their Pyrrhic victory over the Williamses, and feverishly work to ensure that, in the future, the CBA is subject to federal law, rather than to state laws.

Up Next: Favre's Arrival.

Friday, July 03, 2009

How to Perceive Harvin

During the 2005 off-season, just before wide-receiver Randy Moss was due a roster bonus in excess of $7 million, then Vikings' owner Red McCombs cut a deal with the Oakland Raiders to trade Moss for disgruntled linebacker Napoleon Harris and the seventh pick in the 2005 NFL entry draft. The Vikings parlayed Harris' abilities into a largely forgettable stint with the team and the seventh pick in the draft into purported wide-receiver Troy Williamson.

The Vikings insisted that their selection of Williamson was not intended to off-set the loss of Moss, but then Vikings' head coach Mike Tice could not help but effuse over Williamson's speed and prospects as a game-breaking receiver, with the coach infamously quipping that the team fell in love with Williamson's work-out. That gushing seemed to overwhelm the far more muted words of the head coach urging fans to be patient in their expectations of the rookie receiver.

After three seasons, during which, in spite of catching "thousands of passes" in practice and training with Nike's hand-eye coordination people, Williamson produced 79 receptions, three touchdowns, and several hundred dropped passes, the Brad Childress-led Vikings opted to cut their losses, trading Williamson to the Jacksonville Jaguars. The only surprise in the deal was that the Jaguars were willing to concede a draft choice--rather than request one--for removing the burden of Williamson from the Vikings' payroll.

The Williamson fiasco could be viewed as an aberration--the culmination of a poorly run organization attempting to find a diamond in the rough to draft high and pay below the normal level for the seventh overall pick. Clearly, that view holds.

It could also be viewed in more general terms, however, as a cautionary tale on having too high of expectations for a rookie receiver in the NFL draft. That, too, makes sense, and should provide Vikings' fans with at least a semblance of pause as they fantasize over the contribution that first-round draft pick Percy Harvin is likely to make to this year's Vikings' team.

As a junior at the University of Florida, Harvin caught 40 passes for 644 and seven touchdowns--slightly lesser numbers than those posted by Williamson in his second, and final season at the University of South Carolina. That's cautionary tale number one.

While it is true that Harvin adds another dimension to the Vikings in that he, unlike Williamson, demonstrated an ability to produce out of the backfield in college, having amassed 659 yards and 10 touchdowns on 70 rushing attempts during his junior season, there are two issues that likely will curtail Harvin's rushing production with the Vikings--at least in 2009. The first is that the Vikings already have a stellar running back in Adrian Peterson and a very good back-up in Chester Taylor. The second is that Childress is highly unlikely to line up Harvin in the backfield too often, having early and oft noted his concern about the abilities of young backs to block in his system (whatever that system is). That's cautionary tale number two.

While the performance of other receivers in similarly non-prolific offenses should temper expectations about Harvin's immediate impact with the Vikings, the performances of even more high-profile rookie receivers in their first years in the NFL should only enhance that sentiment.

Despite being the most heralded wide-receiver to enter the NFL since Randy Moss, Detroit wide-receiver Calvin Johnson managed just 48 receptions for 756 yards and four touchdowns in his rookie season in the NFL. While acceptable, the numbers certainly are not mind-blowing and suggest that, even the best prospects take some time to adjust to the NFL. To show that Johnson's adjustment, rather than the Lions' coaching staff or player personnel, was the issue in Johnson's first year in the NFL, Johnson proceeded to post 78 receptions, 1,331 yards, and 12 touchdowns for a 2008 Lions' team that had no quarterback, running back or secondary option at wide receiver.

If Johnson's experience in a pass-happy offense is not persuasive, consider the rookie experience of the greatest receiver in NFL history, Jerry Rice. Despite playing in all 16 games for the well-healed San Francisco 49ers in 1985, Rice managed a relatively paltry 49 receptions for 927 yards and three touchdowns. In his sophomore season, Rice caught 86 passes for 1570 yards and 15 touchdowns.

Vikings' fans, as they have become conditioned to do, no doubt will note that Randy Moss caught 69 passes for 1,313 yards and 17 touchdowns in his rookie season in 1998. The 17 touchdowns were, of course, a rookie record and came under the tutelage of a pass-happy, offense-first head coach in Dennis Green. Harvin clearly does not enjoy the benefit of a similar coaching perspective. That's cautionary tale number three.

What does all of this suggest for Percy Harvin as a Minnesota Viking in 2009? That depends. . . .

Up Next: The Favre Factor.