Monday, September 28, 2009

Trends Continue for Vikings

The Minnesota Vikings defeated the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday in a manner justifying the Vikings' off-season courtship and pre-season signing of former Packers' quarterback, Brett Favre. Inside two minutes to play, and trailing by four without any timeouts, Favre led the Vikings methodically down the field, hitting little-used Greg Lewis on a 32-yard rope for the receiver's first reception of 2009.

Favre's touchdown pass to Lewis rallied the Vikings from what appeared to be a near-certain loss, propelling the club to 3-0 heading into next Monday night's game against Green Bay. The drama was made for FOX and the NFL, but that there was so much drama at the end of the game ought to have had many players, coaches, and fans, alike, shaking their heads in bewilderment.

Entering the game as a mere 1.5 point home favorite over the formerly woebegone 49ers, the Vikings took advantage of the early departure of San Francisco running back, Frank Gore, holding the 49ers to 11 first downs from the line of scrimmage and to 0-11 on third-down conversion attempts.

Normally, no matter the offensive endeavor, that's the kind of stifling defense that produces a lop-sided victory. Not for Minnesota on Sunday, however. And much of that has to do with the Vikings' two greatest issues entering the season. Those issues, concerns about offensive line play and offensive play-calling, at least partially abated in Vikings' week one and two victories.

The concerns were far more glaring against the more capable 49er's, however, and nearly cost the Vikings a victory. Throughout the game, Vikings' center, John Sullivan, struggled to control the pass rush or provide any semblance of blocking on running plays, Bryant McKinnie proved once again slow in his lateral movements, and Phil Loadholt, though generally good throughout the game, drew air in attempting to block his man on a Vikings' field-goal-attempt turned touchdown for the 49ers.

The problems along the offensive line have been a constant for the Vikings for years, pre-dating Brad Childress' arrival in Minnesota. That points to the difficulty in resurrecting a porous offensive line, but also highlights for the Vikings one of the team's short-comings.

Playing in a contract season in 2008, former Vikings' center, Matt Birk, was open about his desire to stay in Minnesota under the right circumstances. The Vikings opted to let the 2008 season play out, however, before making Birk an offer.

Throughout 2008, the tension between Childress and Birk was palpable. Birk frequently made public his frustrations over the Vikings' plodding offensive system, pleading for the head coach to move into the twenty-first century of offensive football. Childress declined the invitation, instead taking more than one opportunity to put his center in place.

By the end of last season, Birk and Childress were strictly on business terms and Birk shopped his wares. Childress was convinced that his bottom-line relationship with Birk would prove sufficient to bring the center back for one or two more seasons in Minnesota. Instead, despite a twelfth-hour slightly higher bid from the Vikings, Birk chose to move to Baltimore where he now is playing well for a strong Raven's offense.

Over-playing their hand with Birk left the Vikings with two rookies, two underwhelming veterans, and stalwart Steve Hutchinson along the offensive line this season. On Sunday, that meant numerous hits on Favre and little room for running between the tackles. Eventually, that has to catch up to the Vikings.

And if that happens later, rather than sooner, it might earlier be outdone in terms of damage to the offense by the Vikings' inexplicable use of the player that even Vikings' coaches term the most explosive offensive weapon in the NFL, Adrian Peterson.

Against the 49ers, Peterson had nineteen carries and two receptions. Chester Taylor and Percy Harvin--essentially the co-alternatives to Peterson--combined for 11 receptions and seven carries. That made twenty-one touches for Peterson, purportedly the most explosive offensive weapon in the NFL, and eighteen touches for two other guys who, though good, are not currently in Peterson's area code.

On numerous occasions on Sunday, Peterson could be seen on the sidelines watching Taylor man the backfield. On numerous occasions on Sunday, the Vikings, thus, opted for a lesser version of Peterson when the game was in the balance.

If the Vikings' ploy is to save Peterson, not only for later in the season, but also for later in his career, it could be argued that the ploy is paying off so far this season. The Vikings are 3-0 and have a healthy Peterson heading into a week four game against the Packers.

If, however, Peterson remains on the sidelines in favor of Taylor and loses touches to Harvin simply because Childress cannot acknowledge, in a season in which he already has acknowledged his mistake in foisting an unproven quarterback on the team, that Peterson is quite capable of turning short screens into long touchdowns and gassing a defense when given some second-half touches, then the Vikings really are back to square one with their intransigent helmsman.

On Sunday, no matter the reason, the Vikings' decision not to make better use of Peterson nearly cost the team a close-to-the-vest victory. Thanks to Favre's heroics, that did not come to pass. But next Monday now becomes the next proving ground for the Childress system and the next measure of whether 2009 will evidence a new Childress system or merely the same old Childress system with better personnel.

Up Next: Say It Isn't So, Jim.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Lagging But Winning

In week one of the 2009 NFL regular season, the Minnesota Vikings allowed the Cleveland Browns to gain a half-time lead prior to dispatching them in a second-half romp. The Vikings followed that design in week two at Detroit, allowing the Lions to build a 10-0 lead before imposing their will on them.

After two weeks, it appears reasonably clear what opponents can expect of the Browns and the Lions. Both teams will show moments of clarity, with some capable players on both offense and defense, but neither team will contend for a playoff spot this year.

Following losses to Minnesota and at Denver, the Browns rank 29th in the NFL in points allowed, having surrendered 30.5 points per game. Detroit is worse, ranking 32nd with 36 points allowed per game.

Though the sample is small, as all full-game samples are in the relatively short NFL regular season, through 1/8th of the season, some generalizations already can be formed regarding this year's Minnesota Vikings' offense. At the top of the list of generalizations is the claim that, while more productive than last year's offense, this year's installment of Chilly ball is, so far, largely a function of the opponents that the Vikings have played rather than a function of vast improvements in the offense.

Last week, the Vikings relied on Adrian Peterson in goal-line situations and, subsequently, had a good red zone success rate. The Vikings' reliance on Peterson against Cleveland compelled the Lions to key on Peterson in week two goal-line situations. That created the perfect--and arguably only--occasion that the Vikings should ever give the ball to fullback Naufahu Tahi. With Detroit pre-occupied with stopping Peterson, nobody bothered with Tahi who managed to roll just long enough to find his way into the endzone.

The Vikings' use of Peterson in week one to help set-up week two play-calling is, thus, commendable and a sign of Childress' and Bevell's maturation as a play-calling duo. But there remains significant work to be done.

Against Detroit, Vikings' quarterback Brett Favre was 23 of 27 for 155 yards--a nearly impossible line. The numbers work out to just under 7 yards per pass completed. By way of comparison, Drew Brees has averaged 13.12 yards per completed pass, Shaun Hill 9.5, and JaMarcus Russell 16.68. Vikings' fans expected a short passing game, but, so far, the numbers are absurd.

There are several components contributing to the Vikings' short-pass passing attack. One is that the offensive line continues to sieve. After two games, the Vikings already have surrendered seven sacks. McKinney continues to get beat inside and out, Loadholt, at times, looked like the rookie that he is, and Sullivan is still getting comfortable with his position. While it is reasonable to expect Loadholt and Sullivan to continue to improve, the same cannot be said of McKinney, whose play might necessitate a double-tight end-cover on his side.

Adding to the continuing offensive line challenges has been the lack of the materialization of a go-to receiver for the Vikings other than rookie Percy Harvin. In the present system, Harvin looks the role of the veteran, while all other Viking receivers seem content on muddling up the field four or five yards off the ball. It's a sight not worthy of beholding and makes one long for the days of Bobby Wade.

Add to these issues the Vikings' unwillingness to operate out of the shotgun and the Vikings' offense has issues that the better offenses in the league--and even some of the lesser offenses--do not face.

For now, the Vikings can revel in two victories over two bottom-feeder opponents. Next Sunday, however, the team faces what appears to be a far more worthy opponent in the San Francisco 49ers. That game ought to give Vikings' fans at least a little bit more insight into the Vikings' plans for their 2009 offense. Perhaps weeks one and two were merely a set-up for week three and beyond. Perhaps, however, they were part of a longer-standing close-to-the-vest trend.

Up Next: Clarifying Butter.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Where in the World is Carmen Diego?

As the Minnesota Vikings made their way Sunday to what eventually became a relatively easy victory over the Cleveland Browns, the rightful focus was on the play of Vikings' running back Adrian Peterson. After a lackluster opening half, during which he produced a meager 25 rushing yards, Peterson ran through the Browns' defenders in the second half, en route to 180 yards rushing. For good measure, he displayed his catch-passing abilities out of the backfield on a nice screen play.

Perhaps it is no coincidence that Peterson's second-half screen play came courtesy of a Brett Favre audible. For Vikings' head coach Brad Childress has long been of the mindset that the screen play and Peterson present a contradiction of terms. Watching Peterson everywhere else on the field, that logic has been difficult for Vikings' fans to accept. Now, there is evidence to bolster fan opinion.

In keeping with his normal modus operandi, Childress declined the opportunity to elaborate on his day-after comment that "number four called some things that weren't according to script and we just have to deal with that." As a result of Childress' silence, fans likely will never know whether that screen play was one of Favre's frustrating audibles. If it was, fans ought to hope for numerous Favre outbursts this season.

Even if Childress was fine with Favre's use of Peterson on that particular screen play, however, there are concerns that Childress and his offensive coordinator, Darrel Bevell, remain intent on playing far too close to the vest given the offensive personnel at their disposal.

All pre-season, Vikings' fans were told by the Vikings' coaching staff and on-air personalities that the Vikings were running vanilla in the pre-season but would unleash the offense in full force in the regular season. That line has been a common one during Childress' run in Minnesota. Unfortunately, it has also been the case that the vanilla offense of the pre-season has become the very same vanilla offense of the regular season.

Against the Browns, a sensible case could and has been made that it was unnecessary, perhaps even would have been foolhardy, to attempt the sublime when the ordinary was nearly as good and far less risky. By running the ball and not turning it over, the Vikings were able to throttle the Browns in a game that was enjoyable to watch and led to a victory. Those two components, necessary elements in today's NFL, were achieved without resorting to anything even remotely resembling a deep passing game.

That won't be the case against some of the NFL's better teams, however. And that fact begs the question whether Childress and Co. finally will open up the offense to that passing game and the further question of whether the Vikings have the means to do so.

Only one game into his NFL career, Percy Harvin already stands head and shoulders above his wide-receiver mates as the most dependable receiving target on the team and the player most likely to gain yards after the catch. Sidney Rice looks only marginally better than Troy Williamson at a similar point in both players' careers, Bernard Berrian seems to be hindered by his injuries, and no other receiver on the roster appears much better than replacement level. That is, at least as things currently are operating on offense.

Questions about talent aside, the larger question is whether the Vikings' system is hindering the passing game and, if so, to what extent. In past lives, Favre has made stars out of far lesser receivers than Berrian and Rice. Presumably, at least some of that success resulted from Favre's on-field recognition and audibles. Some, too, however, clearly derived from the offensive systems run in Green Bay and New York--two systems that emphasized the pass. Will it be enough for Favre to audible on occasion in Minnesota or will the Vikings need finally to concede the need for a deep and intermediate passing attack?

Against the Browns, the Vikings were able to do what they wished on the ground. That meant giving Peterson the ball on the goal line and on key third-down plays even when every defensive player knew that he was going to get the ball. That could be a nice way of putting the league on notice that the Vikings will go to Peterson in any situation, even down after down after down. And that would work to the Vikings' advantage should they decide to take advantage of the nine- and ten-men boxes that opposing defenses apparently will have to run to stop Peterson--but only if the Vikings take advantage of the opportunity.

Up Next: Better Than The Numbers.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Vikings, Childress Improving

In the 2007 NFL Entry Draft, the Minnesota Vikings had the glorious fortune of having Oklahoma running back Adrian Peterson fall to them with the seventh overall pick. To their credit, the Vikings took Peterson, thus cementing offensive opportunity for what should be the next several years.

One year before selecting Peterson, the Vikings made a change in coaches, going from the understaffed and seemingly over-matched Mike Tice, to an offensive coordinator from Philadelphia who did not call offensive plays while with the Eagles and who was best known for "molding" one of the best college quarterbacks ever into a good, if inconsistent pro.

Brad Childress' first game as Minnesota's head coach, a 19-16 victory at Washington, suggested that the Vikings had turned the corner and were moving toward greater coaching professionalism. But that first season, following a non-playoff 9-7 season, ended in a non-playoff 6-10 season and included numerous questionable moves by a coach seemingly intent on square-pegging round holes.

Peterson's arrival was to have marked the coming out party for Childress' otherwise staid offense. Instead, Peterson's presence gave Childress more reason to eschew the passing game and to put an improbably lower significance on the role of the quarterback.

Last season, the Vikings made the playoffs, earning a first-round, home match-up against the Philadelphia Eagles. That's when square-peg quarterback Tarvaris Jackson failed to fit Childress' round-hole offense and failed to do so to such alarming degree that the Vikings finally admitted the need to forestall the Jackson quarterback experiment.

The Vikings' search for a quarterback that would help sell tickets and lead the team past the first round of the playoffs led the team first to trade for Houston Texans' quarterback Sage Rosenfels and finally to coax former Green Bay Packer quarterback Brett Favre out of retirement. With Jackson staying as a backup, the Vikings seemed finally to have a competent and properly ordered corps of quarterbacks, one capable of making a playoff run, on their roster.

Yet unanswered, however, was whether Childress would remain an obstacle to his own design or accept the bounty at his doorstep, a basket of riches that includes an improved offensive line and a speedy slot receiver in Percy Harvin.

In yesterday's 34-20 victory at Cleveland, Childress answered this question--at least in part.

In previous seasons, Childress would have yanked Adrian Peterson in goal line situations and opted for a combination of Naufahu Tahi runs, corner fades to Sidney Rice, and a last-ditch hand-off to Chester Taylor in the face of a stacked defensive line. The result, as the Vikings' 28th-place ranking inside the red zone last season indicates, was a predictable field goal and a missed golden opportunity.

Against the Browns, Childress did what any sensible coach would do when facing first and goal. He gave the ball to Peterson. Then he gave it to Peterson again. And again. And again.

Peterson did not succeed on every carry, but he succeeded at a high enough rate to merit getting the ball in every first and goal situation going forward. And once teams start guessing Peterson and showing an actual ability to pair guessing with stopping Peterson, the Vikings have Favre and his ability to feather or bullet a pass to any number of receivers in the end zone.

In addition to giving Peterson the ball on the goal line, Childress inserted a screen to his gifted back and kept Peterson in the game when he ought to have been in the game. That, despite Peterson having to take IV fluids for dehydration at halftime.

When Childress was not making the single most important, albeit obvious, personnel decision, he was making astute challenges. Those challenges, one that, through no fault of Childress', cost the Vikings a third challenge, the other that changed the complexity of the game, represented substantial upgrades to the types of challenges that Childress too often made in the past, even as recently as last season.

While it is difficult fully to gauge the Vikings' and Childress' improvement from last season on the basis of one game played against one of the league's rebuilding teams, the performance of both team and coach on Sunday at least suggests that a corner now truly has been turned. Yes, we've seen this opening game bit before from Childress' Viking teams, but, yesterday felt more like a prelude to greater things than a window into more of the same, or even more of less.

Up Next: Charging Up the Depth Chart.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Vikings Make U-Turn on Jackson But Have One More Move to Make

The Minnesota Vikings cut their roster to the required 53 players on Saturday evening. Among the cuts were little-used tight end Garrett Mills and oft-used, frustrating cornerback Marcus McCauley. Of all the players released, however, none was more the center of media attention and team consideration this pre-season than was John David Booty.

In 2008, the Vikings traded up in the draft to take Booty in the fifth round. At the time, the Vikings thought that they had a steal, taking the record-setting former USC Trojan relatively late in the draft. "We were surprised to see him still on the board and jumped at the chance to trade for him," Vikings' head coach Brad Childress remarked at the time.

As it happens, Booty was available in the fifth round last year because his skills did not meet the skill set necessary to succeed in the NFL. At least not at this point in his young career. After an abysmal outing in the team's final pre-season game against Dallas on Friday, the Vikings thus made the only logical choice that they could make regarding their quarterback position. Rather than cutting loose a fourth-year project who finally was showing signs of adjusting to the NFL, the Vikings parted with a second-year project who appeared at least as far away from becoming NFL ready.

Ironically, retaining Jackson represents the single most sensible quarterback move that the Vikings have made under Childress. Favre's signing was nice, even necessary. But Jackson's retention was critical should the Vikings need to resort to a back-up this season. For, after failing nearly as badly as Booty in Friday's pre-season game, Sage Rosenfels looks every bit the role of the journeyman that he has been his entire NFL career. Despite his warts, Jackson is still a cut above that level, with promise of at least some additional upside.

While retaining Jackson was a wise decision for the Vikings, the value of keeping Jackson on the roster this season is greatly diminished if the team has no intention of extending his current deal. But, with an uncapped season currently on the horizon and the possibility, however slight, of the end to the team salary cap, Jackson might well prefer to gauge his market value after 2009. And that might make it more difficult for the Vikings to reach a reasonable extension with him.

A sensible deal for the Vikings would be a two-year extension worth just north of what the Vikings are paying Rosenfels--probably two years at $7 million with $4 million guaranteed. The commitment would ensure that the Vikings at least have a prospect in the wings when Favre's contract expires and that they have someone ready to go next season should Favre opt for a one and out experience in Minnesota. The value would also keep the Vikings' salary numbers in line with performance on the field.

Should the Vikings fail to extend Jackson this year, they likely would enter 2010 with Rosenfels as the only even near-NFL caliber quarterback on their roster. There are more frightening prospects in the NFL, but, for a team that otherwise has what many NFL observers believe to be a championship-contending core, it would be another lesson in frustration in Minnesota sporting circles.

Up Next: Finances and Weak Links. Plus, Paging the Browns.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Vikings Leaning Toward Wrong Decision on Jackson

Reports began circulating two weeks ago that the Minnesota Vikings were willing to concede that their 2006 draft-day trade for Tarvaris Jackson would not pan out as head coach Brad Childress once had planned. Given that Jackson will see significant playing time in tomorrow night's otherwise meaningless and final pre-season game, the reports have resurfaced with greater force in local media outlets.

That the Vikings would be seeking to avoid keeping four quarterbacks on their roster is not surprising. What is surprising is that, after two pre-season games in which Jackson has shown some improvement on at least two of his normally fatal flaws, directing screen passes to the receivers' hands rather than to their feet and moving away from rather than into pressure, the Vikings have seen all that they care to see of their third-year player.

With the Vikings' careers of capable players such as Sidney Rice, Bobby Wade, and Erin Henderson resting in the balance, the Vikings would prefer not to carry four quarterbacks in 2009, even if one of those three is a starter likely to be around only for one season. But moving any of the team's current stable of three back-ups means that the Vikings will have to admit a recent mistake and, possibly, that they will have to dispatch part of their future for the present.

That was always the risk that the Vikings faced when they signed Favre, but, at the time, the quarterback picture seemed clear. Rosenfels was the capable, journeyman backup and John David Booty was the young player to be molded into a future starter.

Then Jackson played better in pre-season than either Rosenfels or Booty and the Vikings began to reconsider their options. With one year remaining on Jackson's contract, and Rosenfels the likely backup should Favre go down this year, however, that meant but one alternative for the Vikings to either cutting Jackson outright or retaining four quarterbacks. That option, the club decided, was to shop for a suitor for Jackson. And the team has enlisted the services of several local media members in achieving this result.

To date, there appear to be no takers for Jackson. In part, that's because most teams already have settled on a starter. But it's also because every team in the league understands the Vikings' predicament and, with Jackson an unlikely starter for any team this season, no team is overly concerned about losing the race for Jackson if and when the Vikings do release him.

That's left the Vikings with a plan but without the means for implementing the plan.

There are two alternatives, of course. One is to carry four quarterbacks and cut an otherwise deserving player capable of contributing this year. But even that option makes no sense without engaging in the second alternative, that of signing Jackson to an extension.

It's possible that Jackson has no interest in re-signing with the Vikings and that he would rebuke efforts to extend him now. That would be foolish for a player who has yet to show that he can be a consistent starter in the NFL, but it would not be out of the norm for an NFL player.

If Jackson is amenable to signing an extension with the Vikings, however, the Vikings would be well-advised to get the deal done now while they hold virtually all of the leverage. For, as this season wanes, Favre gets closer to retirement, Booty remains an unknown, and Rosenfels reinforces his backup make-up, the Vikings will get ever closer to realizing the day when they have no better of a starting quarterback than they had in year one of the Childress experiment. All Vikings' fans know what to expect of that scenario and understand that Jackson likely is a better option, at least in the short term.

Up Next: Weakest Link and Ticket Issues. Plus, parting pre-season thoughts.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Is It Favre or Is It Memorex?

On Monday night, the Minnesota Vikings' first-team did a solid job against the Houston Texans' first team. The Vikings' defense was mostly stout and the offense moved the ball at times. The result was a 17-10 halftime lead for the purple.

Several performances stuck out in this game, some general, some more particular. Of these performances, none was more notable than Vikings' quarterback Brett Favre's ability to step up in the pocket in the face of pressure and deliver a pass on the money--a play he made on at least four occasions in the first half. That ability, something that the Vikings largely have lacked during Brad Childress' run as Vikings' head coach, is the difference between a fourth-quarter collapse in the play-offs and moving on. On Monday, Favre was able to deliver.

Favre's play seems also to have inspired backup cum after-thought, Tarvaris Jackson, to pay greater attention to detail. Against the Texans, Jackson again rolled away from, rather than into pressure, delivered the short pass in stride for the receiver, rather than at the receiver's feet, and appeared reasonably poised, albeit against the Texans' second-team defense. The performance made the Vikings' quarterback decision all the more difficult and raised the possibility of the Vikings working out an extension of Jackson's contract in the near term--a near implausibility just two weeks ago.

The Vikings' quarterback play, and the consistent play of Adrian Peterson and Chester Taylor in the backfield, was tarnished somewhat by numerous offensive penalties, including more penalties from left tackle Bryant McKinnie, Percy Harvin's failure in twice misreading his position on the field--once costing the Vikings a first down, the other time costing the team a touchdown after a perfectly thrown pass from Favre, and Ryan Longwell's short and low-hang-time kickoffs.

Perhaps standing out more than some of the correctable issues, however, was one of the persistent themes of the Childress era--the penchant to go short no matter the circumstances. And the crusade appears even to have affected Favre.

Of his 18 passes against Houston, only four of Favre's passes were for more than 10 yards. Of those four passes, only one was thrown beyond 15 yards.

Part of the problem for Minnesota was that, with Bernard Berrian still out, the team's only deep threat appears to be tight end Visanthe Shiancoe. Bobby Wade remains best relegated to that of a slot, possession, third receiver and Sidney Rice seems no longer even a red zone threat--if ever he has been one under Childress. That essentially leaves Percy Harvin to spread the field, something the rookie receiver has yet to do.

Some of the problem for the Vikings' intermediate- to long-range passing game thus rests with the receivers. But some, too, clearly rests with the play-calling. Favre can check down all day long, but with the personnel on the field best suited for short plays, it likely will not matter.

The result, in addition to the non-existent deep game, was a slew of short and ultra-short passing on Monday. In addition to the limited "deep" passes, Favre attempted 4 passes from 6-10 yards, 4 from 0-5 yards, and, in quintessential Childress/Bevell play-calling fashion, six passes behind the line of scrimmage. In other words, the Vikings' first-team offense attempted half of their passes from negative 5 yards to 5 yards from the line of scrimmage. That's highly conservative when the game matters, it's almost excruciatingly so in a pre-season game.

Putting the frosting on the tight play-calling was the Vikings' rendition of the wildcat offense. Twice, the Vikings ran the formation. Both times, the team ran. If that's going to be the constant for the Vikings out of this formation, its fairly pointless, particularly with Favre and Peterson otherwise in the backfield, even to run the set. The whole point of the wildcat offense is to keep opponents guessing. But there's no guessing required if run is ensured.

On the whole Monday, the Vikings showed that they can play well against reasonably good teams on the road. Of course, we already knew as much. What we have yet to find out is whether this team, under this coach, will let loose all the offensive talent the team reportedly has. One has the sense that this offense under a coach such as Denny Green would score 35 points per game and that the offense is being held back by Childress' tentative design.

Childress will argue, of course, that winning is more important than looking good. But there's nothing wrong with doing both--and giving the fans a reason to rise from their seats for more than a handful of Adrian Peterson runs a game.

Up Next: Who's In, Who's Out? Plus, Extending Jackson?