Monday, November 30, 2009

Bears Taste Like Chicken

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Beware the Pitchman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Up Next: A Season of Washington Generals?

Friday, November 20, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Vikings' Brass Convinced That Caretaker Coach Will Suffice Going Forward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 16, 2009

Imagine All The Offense, Imagine If You Can

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Up Next: Dregs of the League.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Childress No Longer On Permanent Hot Seat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Up Next: Garbage time.

Monday, November 09, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Time To Bury Berrian?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 02, 2009

Favre Further Demonstrates Dunderheadedness of Jackson Ploy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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