Saturday, March 28, 2009

Twelfth-Hour Decision Nets Vikings Critical Offensive Weapon

The Minnesota Vikings pulled the trigger on what arguably is their most significant off-season move, matching the Cincinnati Bengals' tender to restricted free-agent fullback Naufahu Tahi. The move keeps intact a Vikings' offensive backfield that last year accounted for 82 of the team's 267 completed passes, with Tahi accounting for 16 of those receptions for 37 yards. Those numbers reflect an astounding 1,600% increase in receptions and 528% increase in yards receiving over Tahi's 2007 statistics with the Vikings, almost assuredly giving Tahi the league lead in both statistical increases last year.

While impressive, Tahi's receiving numbers, alone, do not reveal the significance of the fullback to the Vikings' offensive system. Despite accounting for zero yards on zero carries in 16 games played in 2008, Tahi remains the Vikings primary weapon on third down and generally can be relied upon to haul in both laterals and one-yard passes--attributes that Vikings' head coach Brad Childress reportedly weighed heavily in lobbying for Tahi's return. And, as Tahi proved in 2007, when given the rock, he can dazzle, scampering for an eye-popping 15 yards on six attempts, good for a 2.5 yard-per-carry average. What's not to love about this soft-handed giant?

The only question in Vikingland is what took the Vikings so long to decide to match the Bengals' offer to Tahi? Hinting, earlier in the week, at the Vikings' inclination to resign Tahi, Childress stated that it would probably come down to the very last minute, which it in fact did. "Particularly in these tough economic times," the coach monotoned, "every last little penny matters. So, I suspect that that decision will occur at a time that allows us to save as much money as possible from the perspective of time."

Well said, coach. And well done, indeed. The pundits can say what they will about the Vikings' short-comings along the offensive line, at quarterback, at receiver--and, for those who don't yet get his genius, at head coach--but Tahi's signing should win some converts for this Gerald McRaney look-alike. And it should send a strong message to the rest of the league that this Viking team means business.

Up Next: Is There Another Cherry in the Vikings' Pocket, So To Speak?

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Childress His Own Worst Enemy

For weeks, rumors have circulated that Minnesota Vikings' quarterback Tarvaris Jackson hooked up with newly minted Seattle Seahawk wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh on the Sunday prior to Houshmandzadeh's decision to sign with the Seahawks over the Vikings. The rumor seemed far too incredible even for mere speculation, of course, as it implied that the Vikings were attempting to bait Houshmandzadeh with the lure of playing with Jackson.

But if the rumor sounded too dumb to be true, reality truly is dumber.

In a press conference at the league's Winter meetings, Childress opened a vein on the matter. Why he did is anyone's guess. That he did only demonstrates how out of touch he is with the Vikings' fan base and common sense, more generally.

During his press conference, Childress confirmed that Jackson had spoken with Houshmandzadeh by phone in an attempt to encourage the wide receiver to sign with the Vikings. Childress stated that the idea not only his brainchild, but that he even dialed the phone for Tarvaris and held the phone up to Tarvaris ear and mouth--an act of coddling Childress implied was necessary because it was early in the morning on Sunday and Jackson was "a bit groggy."

Asked what the two players discussed in their conversation and what Houshmandzadeh took from the discussion, Childress said the two talked about T.J. being a member of the Vikings. The coach suggested that T.J. might have been thrown by Jackson's excessive grogginess.

After the conversation, T.J., who had left Minnesota the night before after reportedly being on the cusp of signing with the Vikings and asking for one more night in Minnesota to sleep on the decision, signed with the Seahawks.

It is difficult to know what is more incomprehensible about this situation. Is it that Childress believed that having Jackson, a quarterback rated below several backups in the league, could encourage one of the league's top receivers to come to Minnesota? Is it that Childress used Jackson to solicit T.J. when the Vikings ostensibly had traded for their new starting quarterback? Is it that Childress publicly signaled his preference for Jackson over Rosenfels by acknowledging his use of Jackson to pander to T.J. when all of his previous public statements were that, at a minimum, Jackson would have to compete with Rosenfels for the starting quarterback position?

Or was it the general impression that Childress left for Vikings' fans of his two main competitors for next year's starting quarterback position, one being groggy the other "error prone," as Childress seemed to lament of his most significant off-season offensive addition?

No matter the answer, it cannot but reflect poorly on the thought process of the man currently charged with leading a Vikings' team begging for clear thinking at the top.

Up Next: The Griffin Deal Deconstructed.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Bengals Threaten to Derail Childress' Offense

If you're a fan of Minnesota Vikings' head coach Brad Childress, you're likely sitting on pins and needles right now awaiting the Vikings' decision regarding whether to match the Cincinnati Bengals' offer sheet to starting fullback Naufahu Tahi. After a scintillating career year in 2008, in which he amassed 37 receiving yards on 16 receptions and had numerous other laterals received for several inches after the catch, Tahi understandably is in high demand. The question is whether the Vikings are willing to pay the price to retain the next offensive Vinny Ciurciu.

After bowing out at home to the Philadelphia Eagles, the Vikings tendered Tahi at $1 million. Cincinnati has countered with a $1.4 million offer. The Vikings have seven days to match the Bengals' offer or lose Tahi without compensation.

The cynic might argue that $37,838 per yard is too high of a price to pay for a 28-year-old fullback with 26 career games to his name. That cynic, however, would be greatly underestimating the value of a replacement-level cog in the Childress system.

Odds of Vikings Matching Bengals' Offer Sheet to Tahi: 1 in 1.

Rationale: With no Eagles' fullbacks currently available in free agency, Childress has no place to turn should Tahi depart. Tahi was his number one weapon in crunch time in 2008. And although Tahi rarely, if ever, produced, he's still number one on the Vikings' depth chart with a tight end listed at number two. Adding Childress' desire to frustrate running back Adrian Peterson's desire to run without a fullback in front of him makes Tahi's retention a no-brainer.

Griffin Signing Suggests End to Vikings' Free Agency

2009 likely will not go down in the annals of Minnesota Vikings' off-season history as one of the more glamorous for franchise free-agent signings. With all but Darren Sharper returning as starters on defense, such glamour arguably was unnecessary. But with several holes on the offensive line and significant questions remaining at quarterback and wide receiver, a little bit of glamour would have gone a long way, at least on the offensive side of the ball.

That the Vikings failed to make a splash in free agency is not entirely the fault of the Vikings' organization. After a strong pitch to former Cincinnati Bengals' wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh, the Vikings lost Houshmandzadeh to the Seattle Seahawks. Houshmandzadeh suggested that his decision had a great deal to do with the opportunity to play with Matt Hasselbeck in a more vertical version of the West Coast Offense. But, clearly, at least as much of his determination had to do with the extra dollars that the Seahawks were offering. With age no longer an ally, the Vikings can be forgiven for passing on an opportunity to over-spend on Houshmandzadeh.

Missing out on Houshmandzadeh, however, left the Vikings beneath the NFL's salary floor in a year in which solid free agents were few and far between. Re-signing tight end Jim Kleinsasser, linebacker Heath Farwell, tackle Jimmy Kennedy and purported safety Benny Sapp, helped bridge the $16 million gap that the Vikings had to make up, as did renegotiating Sage Rosenfels' contract. Still, the Vikings remained approximately $8-10 million under the league salary floor. Matt Birk's departure to Baltimore made meeting that gap without bringing salary forward highly improbable.

Though the Vikings have yet to release the terms of their contract extension with cornerback Cedric Griffin, it is a good bet that the team front-loaded Griffin's contract with a roster bonus somewhere in the neighborhood of $8 million. That's a lot of cash for a player who, at times, makes Waswa Serwanga seem like a viable option at corner, but it's in keeping with the Vikings' protection of players selected on day one of the 2006 NFL draft.

Griffin's signing, and the likelihood that the terms of his contract push the Vikings above the salary cap floor, probably means that the Vikings will not sign any additional free agents and that the team will fill the void left by 's departure and Ryan Cook's continuing absence internally and through the draft. With John Sullivan already being anointed the starter at center, the Vikings likely will select an offensive tackle in round one of this year's draft.

For Vikings' fans hoping for a big move in the off-season, there thus appears to be little probability of such an outcome. If Rosenfels and Jackson perform at their career-to-date levels, Sullivan plays like a rookie, the right tackle position is not substantially upgraded, and head coach Brad Childress continues to cordon his hand-selected few while defending his loathsome offensive system, the 2009 Vikings will look an awful lot like the 2008 Vikings.

Up Next: Is Anybody Out There? Plus, hitting the high road.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Viking Speak, the Short Course

Following center Matt Birk's signing with the Baltimore Ravens, the Minnesota Vikings journeyed into spin control. Among those participating in this venture were head coach Brad Childress, who, predictably, referred to Birk as a "complete professional," and Vikings' player personnel executive, Rick Spielman, who, also predictably, repeated Childress' words of praise for Birk.

While referring to a recently departed player as a "complete" or "consummate professional" is the norm throughout the world of professional sports and is widely understood as a euphemism used to describe a departed player, the Vikings, and Spielman in particular, offered several other euphemisms, and some cryptic or flowery language in an attempt to explain the team's failure to re-sign Birk despite the team's lack of legitimate alternatives at center. The following represent but a few of the many phrases employed by Spielman should be used to understand what Spielman was attempting to say:

"Matt Birk the person as a person"--Matt Birk.

"Minnesota Vikings' organization as an organization"--Minnesota Vikings.

"Ziggy Wilf, Mark Wilf, and the Wilf family"--the Wilfs.

"Great person as a person"--great person.

"Great person"--ex-Viking who we did not come to terms with.

"The Vikings' family"--the Vikings

"Great character"--capable of starting for the Vikings. See, alt., ex-Viking with whom we failed to reach contract terms.

"We let free agents know that we don't want players who don't want to be here"--Birk and T.J. Houshmandzadeh took better offers.

"We have great fans"--we are desperate to maintain a critical fan base willing to shell out $8 for stadium beers and $100 for a team jersey after paying for their pre-season and regular-season tickets and lobbying their legislators for a publicly financed stadium.

"It takes time to develop wide receivers, look at Randy Moss"--it takes time to develop suspect receivers into respectable receivers, see Randy Moss as a counter-example.

"One rarely finds centers early in the draft, look at Matt Birk and Jeff Christy, so, yes, we think John Sullivan is ready to start at center"--Matt Birk and Jeff Christy are as much the exception to the rule as was Joe Montana. We'd feel pretty fortunate if Sullivan evolved into half the player that either Birk or Christy became and even more fortunate if he did so within five years. We're crossing our fingers that we don't need to use him at center this year.

"Sullivan was great in practice"--See, "one rarely finds centers early in the draft."

"Anthony Herrera could slide right into the center position; he's already played some center"--We don't really have any options at center if Sullivan doesn't play over his head this year.

"The thing most fans don't know about Anthony Herrera is that he played hurt last season, and he deserves a lot of credit for that"--There's not much to say about Herrera as a center, so I'll do my best to evade questions about his ability as a center.

"Most of the time when you do a deal that doesn't get done it ends up being the best deal you did"--we overplayed our position in negotiating with Birk.

While understanding what Spielman meant is critical to understanding what he said about the Birk deal, it is equally useful information for understanding what Spielman and the Vikings mean on any number of topics, as evidenced by the related topics quoted above. And it should be particularly useful going forward, should the Vikings find themselves in need of some double-speak to extricate themselves from the team's current commitments, whatever those commitments might be.

Up next: More free-agency. Plus, stadium issues.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

The Childress Way

On Wednesday, former Minnesota Vikings' center Matt Birk announced that he was accepting a free-agent tender from the Baltimore Ravens. The deal is worth $12 million over three years with half the money guaranteed and $9 million due the first two years of the contract.

With $32 million banked in his past seven years playing for the Vikings, Birk had the luxury of looking beyond the dollar figure that the Ravens' deal offered. And, as he made clear after signing with the Ravens, despite his close ties to Minnesota, Baltimore simply was a more sensible fit for him at this point in his career, particularly given where he felt the Ravens were in relation to the Vikings.

Birk's decision speaks volumes not only about his soured relationship with Vikings' head coach Brad Childress, but also about Birk's impression of where the Vikings are headed in year four of the Childress-regime. It also speaks volumes about Childress' continuing inability to adapt.

Without giving too much credit to a center who, at best performed slightly above the league average last season and suffered through two related injuries over the past three years that caused him to miss significant playing time, Birk's absence will be felt in Minnesota if for no other reason than that the Vikings currently have no experienced player to replace him. Given Childress' oft-used crutch that the problems with the Vikings' offense in his time at Minnesota have been attributable to the "lack of cohesiveness along the offensive line," there is little reason to believe that the Vikings' offensive line will do anything other than struggle next season, barring a surprise veteran addition.

The Vikings even seemed to acknowledge their likely predicament in the absence of Birk, reportedly offering the center a nearly identical contract to that offered by the Ravens. That, of course, would have been a salary cut for Birk and, despite his age and recent issues, yet another example to Birk of the Vikings being run the Childress way rather than the rational way.

The Childress way is to form an opinion, wed oneself to it despite abundant support for a contrary view and approach, and make certain that alternatives are suffocated.

Vikings' fans have seen countless instances of the Childress way playing out on special teams and on offense. Childress' refusal to see the short-comings of his team's special teams' play has haunted the Vikings under this tenure, as has his weddedness to a rotating scheme of backup quarterbacks. Now, Childress will attempt to show that the Vikings can win the Super Bowl with a journeyman quarterback, playing behind a rookie center and a non-entity at right tackle.

Not all of the blame for Birk's departure or the Vikings' lack of an experienced backup center in a window year rests at the feet of Childress, of course. For whatever reason, the Vikings' front office elected neither to make a bona fide offer to center Jason Brown, who accepted a deal to play with the basement-dwelling St. Louis Rams, or to make a stronger offer to Birk. Perhaps, despite $32 million in salary cap space in 2009, more in 2010, and need still to spend $10-12 million just to reach the salary cap floor, that's by design.

Perhaps the Vikings' front office has knowledge of a player that is or will be available this off-season that will fill Birk's role. Or perhaps it was a move based on Childress' assessment of the team's current options, with Childress recently suggesting that Anthony Herrera could slide to center or that John Sullivan, who has yet to play in the NFL, is ready to start for a team with a quickly closing window of opportunity. Whatever the case, the Vikings' loss of Birk, like the Vikings' failure to develop or identify a starting quarterback or right tackle, leave an otherwise talented Vikings' team with questions at three of the most important positions on the team entering 2009.

It wasn't supposed to be this way. Nor need it have been.

In any professional sport, the consistently good teams not only sign the right free agents and draft well, they also make proper and timely assessments of the players on their roster. The Vikings' current predicament was avoidable had the Vikings properly assessed the landscape and come to terms with Birk prior to last season. That they did not is understandable given Birk's injury history and age. To not have a reasonable backup plan is inexcusable, however.

Across the river, the Minnesota Wild have made a habit of selling low, buying high, and skirting the line between playoff and non-playoff team. Barring the emergence of a heretofore unknown center, the Vikings' loss of Birk, along with other non-moves and moves, inches the Vikings ever closer to their NHL counterpart.

Up Next: Is Free Agency Over for the Vikings? Plus, stadium issues.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Vikings Need to Focus on Offensive Line

On Monday, former Cincinnati Bengals' wide-receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh announced his decision to sign with the Seattle Seahawks. That decision left the Vikings on the outside looking in but perhaps in a better situation than they would have been had they signed the sure-handed receiver.

What the Vikings lose out on in Houshmandzadeh is a player who caught 92 passes last season for a team featuring now-departed, former back-up Ryan Fitzpatrick. The 92 receptions were 39 better than former All-Pro Chad Johnson's figures for the season, 61 better than the next best reception total, and comprised roughly 33% of the Bengals' receptions for the season.

Houshmandzadeh's 2008 numbers speak well not only of his receiving abilities but also of his determination, albeit in what was likely his final big contract season, to attain lofty goals in spite of a limited surrounding cast.

Minnesota could have used a Houshmandzadeh last year. In 2008, the Vikings had 267 completed passes, good for 26th in the NFL and 146 fewer than the league-leading Saints. Only Baltimore, Tennessee, Cincinnati, Seattle, Oakland, and Cleveland had fewer completed passes.

Of the 267 pass completions, only one Viking player, Bobby Wade (53) had more than 50 receptions. Bernard Berrian, the Vikings' number one receiver, had a mere 48 receptions in 2008, 27 more than Adrian Peterson and 32 more than Naufahu Tahi.

But while the Vikings clearly could use a receiver capable of producing at high levels under adverse conditions, the Vikings' 2008 numbers suggest that wide receiver nevertheless is an afterthought in Brad Childress' offense--how else can one explain the narrow margin between Berrian's numbers and those of Tahi? Clearly there is little need to spend significant cap space on a player that will only be incorporated into the offensive scheme at the margins--particularly if the team already has invested in one such player in Berrian.

While it might have been interesting to see how opposing teams dealt with a backfield of Chester Taylor and Adrian Peterson with Visanthe Shiancoe, Bernard Berrian, and T.J. Houshmandzadeh running routes, what might have been never would have been anyway. Almost assuredly, Childress' game plan would have continued to eschew the use of a two-back set and just as assuredly Childress would have opted to pass to Tahi over Houshmandzadeh, if and when Tahi found himself open behind the line of scrimmage. The Vikings thus are probably better off spending their cap money where it will make a difference.

With Houshmandzadeh out of the picture, the Vikings ought to turn their focus to what matters most for a team that relishes the lateral pass and up-the-gut running game and that is the offensive line. Even with the left side of the line intact in 2009, the Vikings have few certainties entering next season. Bryant McKinnie continued his sloppy play of 2007 last season and the Vikings still are without established players at right guard and right tackle. Only left guard Steve Hutchinson appears worth his current salary, and even that's relative.

All of which begs for the return of center Matt Birk. Birk's return will require Childress to swallow his pride, but there is little alternative at this point. Failing to re-sign Birk almost certainly will mean even more of an offensive disaster in 2009 than what was on display against the Eagles in the final game of last season. That, too, rightfully would fall on Childress' shoulders.

Up Next: Offensive line. Plus, stadium issues.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Vikings Close to Signing Houshmandzadeh?

From the Seattle Post-Intelligencer at 10 am on March 1:

"Hawks: T.J. still in Viking-Land

T.J. Houshmandzadeh remains in Minnesota. He was just seen arriving at the Vikings headquarters in a limo, according to the Star Tribune.

The free-agent wide receiver from the Bengals was taken to dinner in Minneapolis last night. He is schedule to tour their facility this morning, while club officials talk money with his agent.

T.J. visited the Seahawks on Friday and also was at their headquarters in Renton yesterday before flying to Minneapolis."

With money that must be spent or lost to the league, the Vikings likely will look to spend that cap money on a free agent who can generate interest among the team's growingly impatient fan base. Though Houshmandzadeh hardly answers the Vikings' most pressing needs of consistent play from the offensive line and quarterback, he represents a significant upgrade at a position that can alleviate pressure in both areas.

Vikings and Patriots Blink, Minnesota Must Blink Again

In the opening days of the NFL's 2009 free-agency period, the Minnesota Vikings and the New England Patriots both did what they had attempted to persuade themselves they would not do. And neither of the teams' decisions comes as much of a surprise.

Vikings Ink Kleinsasser

The Vikings opened free-agency by doing something that they were unable to do in the days leading up to free-agency, signing blocking tight end Jim Kleinsasser. A ten-year veteran, Kleinsasser hauled in a relatively nice $9 million, three-year deal from Minnesota. The move is important to the Vikings in several respects, as it shores up the right side of the Vikings' suspect offensive line for the foreseeable future while also putting a salary cap on the position at least through the potentially uncapped 2011 season.

Move Suggests Birk's Value

With no free-agent signings as yet along the offensive line, Kleinsasser's retention is worth far more than the $9 million ($3.5 million guaranteed) that the Vikings inked him for and suggests what the Vikings might need to pay to retain center Matt Birk. If Kleinsasser is worth $3 million a season to Minnesota, the equal of his 2008 salary, Birk probably is worth at least what he earned in 2008, $6 million. With most teams set at center and age and injury issues creeping in to the picture, a $5 million-per-year deal over two years would not be unexpected.

Unless the Vikings are completely sold on second-year center John Sullivan, however, they are quickly finding themselves in an untenable position that should provide leverage to Birk if he wants to take advantage of it. Jason Brown's signing with St. Louis leaves the Vikings with two options at center for 2009, assuming that they act quickly. Either they can pony up for Birk or they can move to the Sullivan era during what most presume to be their closing window of opportunity to reach the Super Bowl with their current corps of players.

If head coach Brad Childress had complete control over this situation, there is little question that Birk would not return in 2009. Childress remains rankled by Birk's well-reasoned, subtle questioning of some of the unproven coach's tactics during his three-year run as head coach. Birk's unwillingness to pledge absolute fealty to the unclothed emperor is what has created this situation for the Vikings. And Childress' certain desire to prove that he can coach up a player like Sullivan in a critical year for the team only would add to Childress' desire to see Birk gone.

Fortunately for Vikings' fans, Childress will not be the sole decision-maker on Birk's role with the team in 2009. And it appears, after both sides have had an opportunity to feel out free agency, that Birk and the Vikings will come to terms on a deal that would keep Birk in Minnesota for two more seasons. That should mean a good deal for both sides--and a critical one for the Vikings.

Patriots Get What They Can for Cassel

While the Vikings deliberate whether to blink on Birk, the Patriots did what many thought they never would, but which logic dictated they would have no other option than to do, trading back-up quarterback Matt Cassel to the Kansas City Chiefs for a portion of a second-round pick. Facing a dearth of interested parties, the Patriots got what they could for a player that they simply could not afford to have ride their bench in 2009 at a franchise-level quarterback salary.

The primary value to Kansas City of the Cassel trade is not in adding Cassel (21 TDs, 11 INTs, 3,600 yards, Bill Belichick) as a starter but in providing competition to incumbent quarterback Tyler Thigpen (18 TDs, 12 INTs, 2600 yards, Herm Edwards) and climbing up to the league's salary cap floor. With nearly $40 million in cap room for 2009, no top-flight players interested in signing with the team, and a need to spend approximately $25 million to reach the league salary cap floor, the Chiefs need Cassel's $14 million dollar salary just to spend what they are required to spend in 2009. That they accomplished a significant portion of their salary goal by trading part of a second-round pick--the other part going for the acquisition of Mike Vrabel--is the cake with frosting. Cassel's potential upside is merely the cherry atop that cake.

Houshmandzadeh in the Mix?

While the Vikings consider their move on Birk, the team remains approximately $14 million below its salary cap floor for 2009. That portends not only the signing of Birk, but also the addition of a high-end free agent. With Brown now off of the free-agent market, the Vikings should be in prime position to add Cincinnati Bengal wide-receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh and still leave the team with sufficient cap room to sign a right guard, such as San Diego Charger Mike Goff. That would leave for the draft the unearthing of an offensive lineman--a clear first-round need.

Given Houshmandzadeh's revelation of having narrowed his list of suitors to Minnesota, Seattle, and Cincinnati, the prospects look reasonably good that Houshmandzadeh will be wearing purple in 2009.

Barring the addition of Houshmandzadeh, Minnesota will be faced with having to spend a boatload of money to meet league cap rules. The Vikings could reach the salary cap floor either by signing the only other high-end free agent that meets their immediate needs, quarterback Kurt Warner, or by bringing forward payroll for players already under contract--a move better reserved for next season with the uncapped season of 2011 looming. Even with the addition of Houshmandzadeh, however, the Vikings would be in a position to add Warner and bring player payroll forward in 2010, if they elect to spend additional cap salary in 2009.

Up Next: More Free Agency. Plus, the Sensible Stadium Solution the Vikings Never Will Offer.