Saturday, December 24, 2011

Shocking Ineptitude Puts Vikings in Hole Following Peterson's Injury

An MRI confirmed that Minnesota Vikings' running back Adrian Peterson tore both his ACL and MCL against Washington on Saturday afternoon. The injuries likely will keep Peterson sidelined for at least nine months and could jeopardize his career in the NFL.

Though likely difficult for Peterson to accept, he does at least have the comfort of tens of millions in guaranteed money courtesy the long-term contract that he inked with the Vikings this season. While that should provide solace to AP, it should all but ensure the explosion of Zygi Wilf's head.

If the thought had not yet crossed Zygi's mind that he is surrounded by general incompetence, it ought to soon. How else to explain Rob Brzezinski and Rick Spielman coordinating a deal that hamstrings the Vikings' salary cap maneuverings for at least the next three years, Peterson's presence in a meaningless game, or the continuing on-slaught of bad decision after bad decision on the field? At some point, somebody has to put someone somewhere on notice that incompetence cannot become the norm and that professionalism is not only an aspiration but an expectation. Commence breath holding.

Up Next: Candies and Nuts.

In Victory, Webb Confirms Ability, Ponder Sputters, and Gerhart Shows Peterson's Expendability

In a league in which the have nots tend to live in the past and the haves innovate and set or at least adopt trends, the Minnesota Vikings stand at the juncture defining the two roads. One path permits the Vikings to put their quarterbacking fortunes in a late-round pick over an early round draft choice and signals the end of the high-paid running back era. Along this path are quarterback Joe Webb and running back Toby Gerhart.

The other path, the path onto which Minnesota consistently insists on stepping its toes, is that of the standard ploy--playing high picks over lower picks in the hopes that what one's eyes saw in the draft eventually will materialize with the high pick playing up to expectations and the low pick down to expectations and entrusting a high percentage of the team's salary cap to a player who, though talented, plays a position proven to have a short NFL shelf life.

Last week's use of Adrian Peterson was inexplicable on every front. In a meaningless game, the Vikings had still to verify what they had in Gerhart and had every reason not to put into the game a player to whom they had just paid nearly $100 million dollars. The Vikings verified as much in the game, giving the ball to Peterson a mere 10 times--too little to make a difference, more than enough to risk serious injury.

This week, the Vikings again pressed their luck with Peterson, playing him in yet another meaningless game despite the team's insistence that Peterson is not 100%. Clearly, there was no point to this gamble and the Vikings finally were burned when Peterson went down with what is being described as a "serious knee injury." Now, Peterson not only is lost for the remainder of this meaningless season, he might well be lost for a significant portion of next season and may never be the same again, depending on the extent of his injury. All of this for a possible return of nothing.

Adding to the damage to the team and the team's payroll should Peterson be out or not tradable is the skid of poor play by this year's first-round pick Christian Ponder. Ponder started the season seemingly on par with Joe Webb, if a step slower and possessed of a slightly weaker arm. Despite having the playbook to study over the Summer--a luxury not afforded Webb--and placed one notch above Webb on the depth chart, Ponder clearly has regressed while Webb continues to impress whenever called upon, Blazer package excepted.

After Ponder left the Washington game with a concussion, Webb entered to toss two touchdown passes--two more than Ponder--and run for another. That should put to rest the nauseating commentary promoted by those covering the Vikings who want to show that they are in the team's corner that Webb cannot throw the ball. Yes, Webb can pass. Yes, Webb can be every bit the pocket passer that the Vikings want Ponder to be. And, yes, Webb has great instinct for escaping from and stepping up in the pocket. But for his late-round status, and Ponder's early round selection, Webb would be the starter in Minnesota. And that would be a meritorious decision.

Peterson's exit again confirmed that, as special as Peterson might be, his presence is absolutely wasted when it comes at the price tag that the Vikings paid to keep him. Peterson rarely puts up multiple touchdown games, rarely breaks 100 yards and is completely uninvolved in the passing game, often found on the sidelines in the red zone. Gerhart, meanwhile, broke 100 yards rushing on limited carries, stays in the game on passing downs, is a capable receiver, and is almost always in the game in the red zone. In short, everything that the Vikings ask of Peterson, Gerhart does, to no apparent detriment to the rest of the offense. Either the Vikings need to figure out how better to use Peterson or they need to admit that Peterson is the Ferrari that is great in limited situations but virtually unusable in most and worth the high price only to those for whom price does not matter. In a salary-capped NFL, price matters to every team.

The Vikings need to figure things out in a hurry if they want to return to being a competitive team. The decisions of the past two weeks, in particular, unfortunately suggest that they do not understand their personnel, how personnel fit together in the NFL, what the trends are in the NFL, what leads to success in the NFL, or what is in the team's best interests.

Up Next: What 2012 Ought to Look Like.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Despite Vote of Confidence, Frazier Still More Likely Than Not to Be Fired

If there is any take-away from the Minnesota Vikings' 2011 NFL season it is that there is no telling what the team will do next--a reality that ought to be construed in the worst possible light. For a team with an atavistic offensive philosophy, seemingly no defensive philosophy, unless the team's front office is playing the over each week, substantial breakdowns on special teams, poor or non-existant play by last year's top two picks, and losses week after week, this recipe is further evidence that current head coach Leslie Frazier is not a good fit as head coach--at least not of a team that does not have all of the pieces in place.

There were numerous signs of coaching short-comings evidenced in yesterday's games. Chief among those was the Vikings' utter inability to make any sort of adjustment whatsoever to stop Drew Brees. At this point, nothing should be considered too extreme or too far-fetched. That certainly includes throwing out a Tampa-2 defense that depends on having very good corners, smart safeties, and a terrific middle linebacker--none of which the Vikings have.

Yesterday, the Vikings were gashed for nearly 600 yards of offense and five touchdown passes. The pass defense was so woeful that, despite carrying two legitimate goal-line backs, the Saints twice went to the pass on first and goal from the one yard line. Both times, of course, the Saints converted. Only when the outcome was secured five times over did the Saints show an sympathy, handing off to Pierre Thomas in a similar situation, leading, of course, to a similar result.

The Vikings' quip this season, too often aided by those covering the team, is that the team simply is bereft of talent in the secondary. While it certainly is true that the Vikings, owing to poor drafting and poor assessment of talent, are short on good corners and safeties, that should not be read to mean that good coaching cannot at least compensate somewhat for these shortcomings. What the Vikings are currently doing is nothing short of simply acquiescing to the passing game--no fight, no adjustments, no consideration of alternatives, nothing. It is and embarrassment traceable both to execution and design.

Switching out of the Tampa 2 requires switching to something. A read-and-react secondary philosophy is one option. It is difficult to imagine that this could produce a worse result than the present disastrous scheme--a scheme that has been highly unsuccessful during Leslie Frazier's entire run in Minnesota. It is also a scheme that is now favored in the NFL, particularly for teams that do not have an elite middle linebacker.

Switching to the 3-4 defense also would help this team, allowing the Vikings to move Kevin Williams to the middle and drop another player into coverage in the base package. That would require identifying another linebacker. The Vikings have that player, but on offense--fullback Ryan D'Imperio, a former linebacker with decent speed. That would give the Vikings four average linebackers. While reducing the pressure up front, that loss presumably would be marginal given the Vikings' penchant for all or nothing front line play.

Offensively, the Vikings need to join the rest of the league in employing the forward pass. Christian Ponder had his second straight awful game and, if overseen by this current staff, is likely to see many more such days. Ponder's check-down appears to be the primary play and is almost always a short dump off play in the flat. Understanding this, opponents routinely jump the flat and, too often, blow up the play.

The Vikings seem finally to have acknowledged that Ponder will have to learn the pocket game by being allowed to roll out. Unfortunately, the coaching staff has deemed it necessary to force Ponder to roll left. In one particularly embarrassing moment yesterday, the Vikings called a left-side rollout on third and two for the right-handed Ponder. Not surprisingly, the Vikings did not convert. If the game is about putting players in a position to succeed, that play epitomizes the Vikings' coaching decisions this season, more often seeming experimental--without purpose--than thoughtfully designed.

Frazier and offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave also appear convinced that Joe Webb is a great athlete, yet they continue to jerk him around, putting both Webb and the offense in the worst possible situation when Webb is in the game. That, of course, was again true yesterday with the Vikings' continued and unwarranted use of the Blazer package.

The Vikings' use of the Blazer has no apparent upside but carries with it significant downside--both usually indications of a scheme that ought to be discarded but which the Vikings' coaches continue to trot out on the field, particularly when Ponder is struggling.

When the Blazer package is in the game, opponents know that either Webb is going to run the ball or try to get it to Percy Harvin. Of course, Ponder could accomplish either, making the Blazer unnecessary. Thus, bringing in Webb to run the Blazer merely puts the defense on notice that one of two plays is coming and offers no upside. If the Vikings want to get Webb in the game, the purported upside of the Blazer, they ought to find him a position that does not exist only in the Blazer package.

In addition to the clear and continuous coaching gaffes pertaining to defensive scheme, offensive philosophy, and use of personnel, there is the exasperating issue of non-use of personnel. At the beginning of the season, Musgrave touted his two-headed tight end attack, employing Visanthe Shianco and second-round pick Kyle Rudolph. Not only do the Vikings not have a two-headed tight-end attack, they do not have even a one-headed attack. The reason for this is anyone's guess. Shianco and Rudolph have proven their abilities as receivers--a seeming asset for a team with offensive line challenges. That would suggest greater use of the tight ends. This year, the Vikings are on pace to pass to the tight end less than any time since prior to Shianco's arrival. That flies in the face not only of the Vikings' needs but also of the direction in which the better managed teams in the league have moved. Whether Musgrave's or Frazier's decision, the decision ultimately ought to be Frazier's.

Frazier's assets as a head coach appear to be his pleasant personality and the occasional ability to jettison a cancer. Those can be useful traits in the NFL. But significantly more important is an ability to manipulate the talent on the team and oversee the minions. Frazier appears to do neither of these things remotely well. Combined with what is likely to be the Vikings' worst season ever in virtually every respect and there is little reason to believe that merely bringing in better talent will do more than make the Vikings an average team in the league under Frazier, as the Vikings have both personnel and scheme issues in all phases of the game.

Firing Frazier is not the proper first step toward rectifying the Vikings' current situation, however. That proper first step is for the owner to recognize that he does not have a firm enough understanding of the NFL to make personnel decisions and to hire someone who does. Rick Spielman has made some good moves--bringing in Jared Allen and drafting Percy Harvin and Adrian Peterson--but those were obvious good moves. Spielman has been far less successful when the move has been less obvious, with the only significant addition in this category being Toby Gerhart, who has emerged from the garbage heap to become a decent power back.

Should the Vikings part with Frazier--a near necessity after yesterday's demolition--the sense is that they would lean toward hiring a coach in whom they also would invest GM responsibilities. That's almost always a mistake in the NFL. For an ownership group seemingly forever intent on learning the hard way and fighting precedent, that is, therefore, also almost a certainty.

Up Next: In a Season of No Rhyme or Reason, What Should Vikings' Fans Expect?

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Detroit Loss Highlights Flaws in Vikings' Philosophy

To the extent that the Minnesota Vikings have a team philosophy--something governing both front office and on-field maneuvers--Sunday's loss at Detroit highlights the flaws in that philosophy and suggests that the Vikings are well-behind the curve in football acumen in this era of the NFL.

For a team generally low on "explosive" plays, there were an inordinate number of such plays--on and off the field--on Sunday. On the field, Christian Ponder, last season's number one pick, was having an off game, looking more like a late-round pick than a first-day selection. Ponder began the day fumbling into his own end zone for a Detroit touchdown. He ended the day with his third pick--all earned and all well-advertised in advance--at the start of the third quarter.

Ponder's implosion should not be read to suggest that the rookie is incapable of becoming an established, bona fide starter in the league. But it should be read in the context of what happened next. Namely, Joe Webb entered the game and did everything that Ponder did not do.

With the Vikings trailing 31-14, Webb replaced Ponder and immediately began moving the team. Where the Vikings stalled under Ponder when the pass was not open, Webb took to his feet, dashing for a Vikings' quarterback rushing record of 109 yards on seven carries behind the same offensive line that had produced just three 100+ yard running back games all season. Webb also chipped in 84 passing yards, nearly equaling Ponder's passing statistics, with three fewer interceptions.

The lesson for the Vikings' front office, whomever that might be, is that the team had a player capable of being molded into the quarterback of the future prior to last year's draft. Presumably, the reason that the Vikings selected Ponder was because the team was less-equipped on the evaluation side than it is on the fear side--fear of resting the team's fortunes on a late round draft pick. Because of that fear, the Vikings opted for Ponder with the rationale that if Ponder fails the team can always fall back on the claim that it took the dip into drafting a quarterback high and it just did not work out. Had Webb failed, conversely, and had the team passed on Ponder, the team would have been left, in its collective mind, having to explain having passed on Ponder (or someone equivalent).

On Sunday, Webb demonstrated that he is at least the equal of Ponder at this point and there remains little reason to doubt his ability to develop--except that that development probably will never be pursued in Minnesota.

The selection of Ponder highlights a more fundamental flaw with the Vikings' organization, that of living in the past. The Vikings selected Ponder not just because of the fear of fan reprisal should a late round pick fail to become a star quarterback in the NFL, but also because of the team's continuing insistence that a starting NFL quarterback must be a pure pocket quarterback. The sample size guiding this rationale is small, at least prior to this year, with the Vikings unquestionably looking at the stunted careers of both Donovan McNabb and Michael Vick in support of the impression that quarterbacks that run do not survive or thrive in the NFL.

The latter part of that assumption has proven wrong, of course, even before this season. When healthy, both McNabb and Vick had spectacular success using their legs, and that allowed them to work on their passing games. The flaw in the theory that NFL quarterbacks must learn in the pocket is instructed, however, by the careers of McNabb and Vick, who both refused the opportunities to learn to become pocket passers during the height of their success running the ball. Webb shows no such disinclination, already evidencing a better arm than at the end of last season, despite rarely playing this season.

More fundamentally, however, the Vikings are assuming that a team ought to be built around pure pocket passers. The value of pocket passers is that they live longer in the NFL, sometimes as long as offensive linemen. But that does not mean that other styles ought to be eschewed, particularly if they are successful.

Webb is neither a pure pocket passer nor a scrambling quarterback. Rather, what Webb is, and what suggests that Webb's style can work in the NFL even if not modified too greatly, is a good passer who picks his running opportunities, protects the ball during the run, and mostly avoids contact. That means that Webb is productive and safe--the latter missing from the rushing ploys of McNabb, Vick, and Rodgers, who all often attacked a defense up the middle, lowered their helmets to gain extra yards, and took hits on virtually every running play. Webb's hybrid of the running-passing quarterback means that he is a threat not only to pass and run, but also to survive in the NFL. That, and ever-evolving rules that protect not only quarterbacks but also all players from hits, means that NFL GMs need to rethink their view of the "proper" quarterback. Right now, Webb ought to fit the conception, even if in Minnesota the front office cannot get its head around that fact.

Toby Gerhart arguably made a similar point on Sunday, if in even more dramatic fashion. Though I have been less than praising of Gerhart's heretofore plodding play--a well-deserved description until the second half of week 13's game--Gerhart did everything on Sunday that the Vikings have come to expect of Adrian Peterson, and more.

Not only did Gerhart rush for 90 yards, he also caught three passes for 19 yards and a touchdown, the latter something that the Vikings rarely expect of Peterson and the former slightly above Peterson's season average and more than adequate to do the job expected of an NFL running back.

Gerhart's performance, and Peterson's presence on the sidelines, highlight the folly of investing in a running back $17 million per season for any length of time, unless that running back is also a highly targeted receiver, such as Marshall Faulk. Clearly, Peterson is not highly targeted, making him a one-dimensional back. Either the Vikings need to figure out how to make Peterson multi-dimensional or, probably more prudently, the Vikings ought to trade Peterson for players and picks that allow the team to rebuild in a short period of time. There certainly would be many takers, even at a high asking price, despite all evidence pointing to the inherent flaw in making a one-dimensional running back the highest paid player in a passing league.

In addition to demonstrating the value of Webb and the absurdity of the team's extensive investment in Peterson, Sunday's game further highlighted the need for capable players at all positions. Either the Vikings have no such players in the secondary and at linebacker, or the coaching is abysmal. Given the low bar required for showing capability, the strong sense is that coaching is a problem with this team.

Two weeks ago, the Vikings' secondary was lit up when the safety failed to cover for an always overmatched Cedric Griffin. This week, with Griffin out, that problem abated somewhat, but the Vikings still failed to produce in the secondary the way one would expect of a team putting significant pressure on the quarterback.

Continuing a theme from Leslie Frazier coordinated defenses, Minnesota has a paltry six interceptions this season. That statistic ties Minnesota for dead last with the Indianapolis Colts who, so frustrated with the play of their secondary, earlier in the season fired their defensive coordinator. Green Bay leads the league with 27 picks. Three players have more interceptions than the entire Minnesota defense.

That's bad scheme as much as it is bad players as even bad players can be put in position to make plays. This team too often simply has players clearly out of position, and that's been a standard in the secondary for the past several years. That's not only on the secondary and defensive coordinator, but also on former defensive coordinator and current head coach, Leslie Frazier.

The secondary issue is exacerbated by the poor play of the linebackers, all of whom have looked terrible for much of the season. That shortcoming was no more evident than on tight end Brandon Pettigrew's touchdown on Sunday when the Vikings utterly failed to cover the lumbering end, possibly signaling the final nail in linebacker coach Mike Singletary's run in Minnesota.

Finally, there is the issue of wide-receiver. After force-feeding fans and teammates awful doses of Bernard Berrian, Greg Camarillo, and walk-ons for the first half of the season, the Vikings have decided that Percy Harvin can and ought to be part of the passing game, other than as a wild-card. The Vikings' coaching staff is to be applauded for this discovery, even if it only stumbled upon the revelation due to Peterson's injury. Harvin and anyone else out of the backfield is a scary proposition, unless Harvin is never used.

Some of these ills fall at the doorstep of the front office, some are on the hands of a coaching staff that appears consistently to arrive late for games or leave early, accept poor play too long, fail to innovate preferring staid, safe, if losing approaches, and take risk only when risk absolutely should not be taken. Whomever the culprit, the Vikings clearly have made their own bed out of outdated approaches to the game on both sides of the ball and outmoded methods of putting together a team. If the Vikings hope to have success in the future, they need to change these philosophies immediately, before the next round of changes in the league pass up the team's acceptance of the current successful approaches.

Some teams lead in innovation, others adapt, others, still, follow behind the curve. At present, the Vikings are miles behind the curve in many departments.

Up Next: Is Frazier Part of the Solution, Part of the Problem, or Both?

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Second Drive a Microcosm of Vikings' 2011 Dysfunction

The Vikings opened their game against the Denver Broncos on Sunday with something that Vikings' fans have not seen all year--sensible use of Joe Webb, Lorenzo Booker, and Visanthe Shiancoe. Unfortunately for Minnesota, execution did not meet design and the Vikings were forced to punt after five plays from scrimmage.

The ensuing punt hit the one-quarter-foot line where, thanks to the intelligent play of Jamarca Sanford, the Vikings were able to down the ball just short of the endzone. That downing led directly to a safety on the Bronco's first play from scrimmage.

After receiving the resulting free kick, the Vikings immediately went to work on one of the few weaknesses in Denver's defense, attacking with both Shiancoe and Kyle Rudolph, moving Percy Harvin inside, outside, and in the backfield, and even using Webb at quarterback. The result was a quick drive inside the Bronco's ten-yard-line.

That's when Bill Musgrave reverted to form, calling a mind-boggling sequence of plays culminating in Christian Ponder's fumble on a rushing attempt. Rather than using either Booker or Harvin in the backfield, Musgrave sent in uber-plodder Toby Gerhart. On first down, Minnesota ran a pitch play up the middle to Gerhart--a play destined to go nowhere the moment it was drawn up. The sloth-footed Gerhart obliged predictions losing one yard on the play; a quicker Harvin or Booker might have split whatever seam the Broncos were allowing on the play, but such a lineup would be antithetical to Musgrave Ball.

On second down, the Vikings attempted a swing play to Gerhart on the right side of the line. Gerhart predictably picked up two yards and the Vikings were faced with third and nine. Clearly, this was the place for a quarterback keeper up the middle--at least in this Vikings' World.

Up Next: Post Denver TD Interception.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Toby Gerhart Demonstrates Peterson's Potential and Vikings' Draft Failures

Absent injured starting running back Adrian Peterson, the Minnesota Vikings turned to slow-footed Toby Gerhart, a short tight-end in fullback's clothing, to carry the ball on Sunday. For the season, Peterson had averaged 87 yards on 18 carries per game with just over one touchdown per game rushing. On 17 carries yesterday, Gerhart mustered 44 rushing yards. He was also stopped for a two-yard loss on a 4th and goal attempt.

Gerhart's numbers on Sunday were consistent with his career numbers of 484 yards on 122 carries. Peterson's are 10 yards per game below his career average but two carries below his career average, as well.

Gerhart's numbers, both Sunday and over his career, support the general impression of Gerhart as half the back--or less--than Peterson. That's not necessarily a bad place to be in the scheme of things and does not necessarily make Gerhart unworthy of an NFL roster spot on some team, but it does make clear that Gerhart is neither the number two, or even the number three back on the Vikings' roster--those roles rightly belonging to Percy Harvin, no matter his roster designation, and Lorenzo Booker. And it demonstrates, yet again, the Vikings' poor recent draft approach, obvious picks of Adrian Peterson and Percy Harvin aside.

Gerhart, through no fault of his own, sits directly in the middle of one of the Vikings' most quickly discernible draft-day debacles, the 2010 NFL college entry draft. In that draft, the Vikings traded out of the first round to select Chris Cook early in the second round and then ceded a second-and a third-round pick to move up in round two to select running back Toby Gerhart. Both moves proved poor in all respects.

Trading down to the second round, the Vikings passed on two players that would have greatly improved their roster--running back Jahvid Best and offensive tackle Rodger Saffold. Both Best and Saffold were projected as middle to late first-round picks, with some mocks having each player going off the draft board in the first third of the draft. In short, there was no mystery surrounding either Saffold or Best with both regarded across the league as strong prospects.

Passing on Best was somewhat understandable as the Vikings already had a starting running back in Peterson, but Best was the change-of-pace back that the Vikings sorely needed given the loss of Chester Taylor. Moreover, the Vikings demonstrated their own belief in the need to identify Taylor's replacement by trading up to take Gerhart in round two.

Far more discouraging than the Vikings' decision to pass on Best, however, was the team's decision to pass on Saffold, a player that the Vikings expected the Rams to take one pick before them in round two. Saffold became an immediate starter for St. Louis and was named to the NFL's All-Rookie team.

The Vikings' decision to pass on Best and Saffold was magnified by the team's subsequent decision to select cornerback Chris Cook. Cook had demonstrated physical ability at the University of Virginia, but he also demonstrated his significant short-comings in the mental realm, having been suspended not only for the Cavalier's 2007 Gator Bowl, but also the entire 2008 season, as a result of failing grades. For a team purportedly all about talent combined with good character, Cook seemed to fall short in at least one regard. Nearly unintelligible interviews ought to have tipped the Vikings' off that Cook was not second-round worthy, at the least; two arrests since arriving in Minnesota, however, still have not cemented that notion.

Compounding their problems, the Vikings traded up to take Gerhart in the hope that Gerhart would more resemble John Riggins than Gino Torretta. Unfortunately, but predictably, Gerhart looks far more like a college player than he does an NFL back. Worse yet, however, is the fact that the Vikings utterly blundered in any respect in taking Gerhart. Though the team needed a change of pace back, Rick Spielman and company viewed Peterson as a speed back and Gerhart as the change of pace brute back. Clearly, Peterson is not a speed back. Rather, he is a very strong back with very good, not great speed. Gerhart merely represents an utter downgrade of a similar style back.

In trading up to take Gerhart, the Vikings essentially passed on all players taken from 52 to 99 in the 2010 NFL draft. That's a failure of epic proportions when the team's first two picks of the draft are Cook and Gerhart. That failure is magnified when the entire draft produced zero starters for the 2011 team, and the likelihood of zero starters in 2012, and the additional very real possibility that none of the Vikings' 2010 draft picks ever starts a game for a team again after this season. In contrast, the Green Bay Packers drafted four starters in the 2010 draft, Bryan Bulaga (OT), Morgan Burnett (S), Marhall Newhouse (OT) and James Starks (RB).

And if the Vikings' 2010 draft is not deflating enough, consider that since Rick Spielman became the Vikings Vice President of Player Personnel five years ago, the Vikings have drafted an average of one starter per season--Harvin, Peterson, Brian Robison, Phil Loadholt, and Christian Ponder--with Kyle Rudolph a notable non-starter. After this season, there very well could be zero draft picks from the 2008 and 2010 draft classes, combined, left on the roster. In a league with team turnover of nearly twenty percent per year and a constant need to address starting positions, clearly the Vikings' current draft scheme is untenable and destined to decimate a team that is unable to land free agents. With declining play, that latter issue will more greatly affect the former.

Up Next: Defense.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

"Tweaking" the Offense

The Minnesota Vikings began the year suggesting that there was a new sheriff in town and that things would be run differently. For Vikings' fans who have lived through this sort of mess in the past--see circa Les Steckel, Denny Green, Mike Tice, Brad Childress--the promise seemed more hortatory than certain. But with so many holes to fill and so little pressure on the team to make the playoffs, there was at least a measure of promise that things would not be run to rote.

Things did change for the Vikings in 2011, just not in any of the ways that Vikings' fans had hoped.

In place of Bryant McKinnie at left tackle was a lesser version of Bryant McKinnie, in the form of Charlie Johnson; in place of an injured, undersized, and ineffective John Sullivan at center, was a healthy, undersized, and ineffective John Sullivan; in place of a very slowly improving Phil Loadholt at right tackle was Phil Loadholt, easily underperforming McKinnie's least productive days on his most productive days. The play of Johnson, Sullivan, and Loadholt overshadowed the general ineffectiveness of Steve Hutchinson, for whom the best days are clearly behind, and veteran guard Joe Berger.

At wide-receiver, the Vikings stuck with Bernard Berrian two years and five games longer than they should have, finally releasing the purported receiver after the number one wide-out on the team had hauled in seven receptions for ninety-one yards--at the time placing him outside of the top 100 receivers in the league, regardless of salary.

Ousting Berrian left the Vikings with "possession" receiver Greg Camarillo (4 receptions for 62 yards), receiver Michael Jenkins (36 receptions for 441 yards), Devin Aromashodu (8 receptions for 195 yards), and the poorly utilized, sometimes injured Percy Harvin (43 receptions for 459 yards). Camarillo, Jenkins, Aromashodu, and Harvin have combined for five receiving touchdowns this season. Twenty-five individual NFL receivers have at least as many. New England tight end, Rob Gronkowski, has double the number of receiving touchdowns and nearly the same yardage, as the entire Vikings' receiving corps.

At running back, things are humming along just as well as ever, if by "humming" one means that Adrian Peterson is given the ball on most first-down and short-yardage plays, is stuffed or held to a short gain by an anticipating defense, and finishes the game with about 87 yards rushing on 18 carries--good for seventh in the league and $11, 494 per yard. Peterson has added eleven rushing touchdowns. Most of these have been gratuitous short-yardage touchdowns, however, the type that Green Bay's John Kuhn, at 1/32 the cost, routinely chips in for the the Packers.

The Vikings would be delighted if these were the only personnel issues on the team and if the personnel issues did not extend so clearly to the coaching staff. Predictable play-calling, underuse of some players, overuse of others, and inclusion of awful players make clear, however, that the Vikings' coaching staff is, at best, in its infancy. Certainly, head coach Leslie Frazier and offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave would look infinitely better surrounded by more talent, but there is every reason to believe that talent is not the primary issue for either Frazier or Musgrave.

For a team with Adrian Peterson, Percy Harvin, Kyle Rudolph, Visanthe Shiancoe, and Joe Webb, much more should be expected than what the Vikings' have produced in 2011. Numerous examples highlight the dysfunction that has been this offense in 2011. The team is among the league leaders in sacks allowed, quarterback hits, and missed blocks and, with the introduction of Christian Ponder at quarterback, is slowly inching up the board on interceptions ceded, despite employing what Vikings' coaches term a "controlled" passing attack.

The good news is that there are fixes for the Vikings' ills. The bad news is that this staff might not make them out.

The most pressing problem clearly is along the offensive line. The Vikings are several starters away from solid play along the line. The best bet for the team is to move Hutchinson to right guard, Loadholt to left guard, draft two tackles in the first two rounds of the 2012 draft and find a center in free-agency. Given where the Vikings likely will finish and the ample cash that the team will have on hand, that ought not be too difficult a task.

Nor should it be difficult to identify one or two free-agent receivers that produce more than the Vikings 2-4 receivers. Justin Blackmon would be a nice receiver to have in any offense, but the Vikings do not have the luxury of drafting an outside speed demon as the offensive line will undermine the passing game until it is rectified. That means that it would behoove the Vikings to decide whether Webb is, in fact, the receiver that the coaches claim him to be--rather than the quarterback that some of us maintain he ought to be.

At running back, the Vikings' have long had the wrong approach. Peterson needs more touches in the flat and over the middle and needs to be part of a oft-used two-back system, teamed, not with Toby Gerhart, but with Percy Harvin. Putting Peterson and Harvin in the same backfield would be a logistical nightmare for opposing defenses and give the Vikings the flexibility of running virtually any play on any down. That flexibility would give the Vikings the opportunity to use the wide-outs more effectively, regardless of speed, and should permit the team to make use of Rudolph.

Up Next: "Tweaking" the Defense.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Fantasy Fans Only

In less than one-half hour, the Minnesota Vikings will take the field inside the frozen tundra materializing outside yesterday to take on the Oakland Raiders. At 2-7, the Vikings are only mathematically alive in this year's playoff race. At 5-4, the Raiders stand atop the AFC West. Combined, the two teams account for a negative 90 scoring differential.

Unfortunately for Vikings' fans, the only meaningful reason to tune into this game is for the stat lines. Running back Adrian Peterson is held in 100% of most fantasy football leagues and Jared Allen might be good for a sack or two. On the other side of the ball, Sebastian Janikowski, the early season point leader in fantasy football on the strength of numerous fifty-yard plus field goals, has come back to the pack following a groin injury that has limited his range and participation.

So it is in Minnesota, where the local team's marketing gurus are left with not even the common stand-by cliche of welcoming fans out to watch "tomorrow's stars." There are no clear future stars on this Vikings' team and the current stars--Adrian Peterson and Jared Allen--appear destined to receive little in return for their play, outside monstrous paychecks.

For the Vikings, this is now familiar territory following last year's debacle. For the front office, however, this is relatively new terrain. Last year, the Vikings were showcasing rookie Joe Webb, an athletic, intelligent player who appeared on the verge of making something happen at the quarterback position in spite of playing behind a broken-down and otherwise inept offensive line.

In the 2011 off-season, the Vikings committed to drafting quarterback Christian Ponder, a slightly slower, shorter version of Webb with comparable arm strength in the short game and less strength downfield. The jury remains out on Ponder who appears to have relatively good pocket presence for a rookie and who can move out of the pocket and around the end at this level.

What Webb brought to Minnesota that Ponder heretofore has not, however, is a penchant for an exciting play or two. Where Ponder wisely throws the ball away or takes a sack when the blitz comes through Phil Loadholt's slot, Webb steps up in the pocket and takes off, alternately challenging would-be tacklers, and winning, and bursting downfield for the endzone. It is a trait that is likely to get Webb killed sooner than Ponder, should the Vikings continue to employ a no-blocking offensive line scheme. It is also a trait that adds an element of excitement to the Vikings' offense that Ponder, so far, has delivered but once--that on his first pass from the line of scrimmage.

I have made no secret of favoring Webb over either any of last year's options at quarterback that the Vikings had any prospect of drafting and over Ponder after the Vikings' settled on Ponder. Despite the value of using a high draft pick on an offensive lineman or cornerback, the rationale was that the Vikings had, in Webb, not only the quarterback around whom the team could build for the future, but also a player that the team could market as an attraction in and of himself. Having Webb on the field today would make the game interesting, despite the Vikings' predicament in the standings. Having Ponder on the field merely makes the game one in which the Vikings spend another weekend assessing the quarterback position with the end game apparently already determined.

Wake me when the game is over.

Up Next: Five Linemen and a Secondary.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Poorly Conceptualized Plan Leaves Vikings in Worst State Since Inception

If a veteran NFL General Manager were asked how to construct the prototypical unsuccessful NFL team, he undoubtedly would suggest that one must draft poorly, mismanage personnel, coach poorly, employ a run-first philosophy in a pass-first league, employ a run-stop defense in a pass-happy league, and give little regard to rules of play. Of those criteria, this year's Minnesota Vikings have attained all.

Establishing an awful NFL team in an era of mediocre play league-wide is a daunting challenge, but the Vikings appear more than up to the task. The work, of course, begins at the top, with horrendous decision-making in the NFL draft.

Since arriving in Minnesota after being released in previous stints with Chicago and Miami, Minnesota Vice-President of Player Personnel, Rick Spielman, has used high draft picks on Tyrell Johnson (2d), Toby Gerhart (2d), Phil Loadholt (2d), and Chris Cook (2d). He has also thrown away a third-round pick in the Randy Moss deal and traded out of the first round to take Gerhart.

Last year, Spielman used the Vikings' first and second round picks to select Christian Ponder, despite already having a taller, stronger, faster, more experienced Ponder in the ranks in Joe Webb, and Kyle Rudolph (2d). Rudolph looks every bit the talented receiver that the Vikings proclaimed him to be coming out of Notre Dame, but it hardly matters if the team virtually never calls his number, a hallmark of this Vikings' team when it comes to making use of talent.

Spielman has had the benefit of picking up passed over players like Adrian Peterson and Percy Harvin, and he made a sagacious move in dealing a first-round pick for Jared Allen, but two gimmies and one bold move hardly make up for the disaster that has otherwise been the Vikings' draft under Spielman. Not only has Spielman not selected very many legitimate starters in the draft, he has had a grave tendency to reach where others have leapt back--see Johnson, Jackson, Cook, Cook, and Gerhart--and his draft picks seemingly have had little in congruence with the plan of the head coaches to incorporate players into the game plan.

Selecting players not fit to start in the NFL and/or drafting players rounds ahead of where they otherwise would have gone, sometimes even trading away picks for the right to make such a mistake, is a good enough start to putting together a worse-than-Les-Steckel type of team. Adding a head coach that appears utterly incapable of managing the team helps, however.

Determinations of who will coach the Vikings has fallen squarely on the ownership group and demonstrates how little that group understand the league. After firing Mike Tice, Zygi Wilf locked in Brad Childress, famously quipping that he wanted to make sure Green Bay did not get a crack at Childress. That decision clearly backfired in every conceivable way. Childress, known as quarterback guru despite never really doing anything to merit that or any other NFL accolades, was abrupt off the field, disingenuous on the field, and easily the worst coach in team history not named Les Steckel.

When Wilf and Company had seen what others saw of Childress before Childress even was hired, they settled on Leslie Frazier as Childress' replacement. Frazier, a defensive coordinator who had not shown an ability to stop opposing offenses and had demonstrated a particularly alarming ineptitude, having been a former cornerback and safety, at shoring up the secondary, has surpassed Childress--and Steckel--in ineptitude. A nice guy whom everyone wants to succeed, Frazier simply does not appear anywhere near up to the task of organizing an NFL team.

Among Frazier's major gaffes this season were his decision to stick with Donovan McNabb five games after it was clear that McNabb had nothing to give the team, failing to utilize Rudolph despite scheming for Rudolph in the shortened pre-season, sticking with Bernard Berrian into the regular season, failing to establish any semblance of a solution along the offensive line, at wide-receiver, or in the secondary, and, perhaps most egregious, making a mockery of a very talented Webb by inserting Webb into the game for one or two plays a game, at the most inopportune/inexplicable moments, for zero return.

There is very little, if any, evidence that Frazier has improved the team since taking over for the challenged Childress and substantial evidence to suggest that Frazier has accomplished the nearly unfathomable feat of making the team worse. Showing so little progress given such a tremendously low bar is more than embarrassing it is also one of the hallmark features of a decrepit NFL team.

All of Frazier's flaws could be forgiven if the team consistently came into games prepared to compete, Frazier made good use of his talent, the Vikings did not have Adrian Peterson, Percy Harvin, Visanthe "Who" Shiancoe, Kyle Rudolph, Jared Allen, Kevin Williams, and Chad Greenway, and team did not forever emerge from losses dumbfounded about what hit them.

Alas, the Vikings increasingly appear unprepared for the competition, unable to adjust to opponents' game plans, unable to make use of the talent that they have, incapable of abiding by simple rules such as the off-sides rule, and increasingly incapable of even competing. Some of that is on the talent pool, but even the talent on the team is woefully underutilized and bad players continue to get run using the same bad schemes--how does one explain, for example, cover two defense routinely failing to cover on deep plays and corners failing to face the quarterback on corner-of-endzone routes?

Add to all these woes the team's seeming denial of its current status and the Vikings meet several of the criteria for achieving wretched status in a league in which wretched status is nearly impossible to attain.

Up Next: Fixing the Mess.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Soft League Might Tempt Vikings' Trade

Depending on the outcome of tonight's game at Lambeau Field, the Minnesota Vikings could find themselves caught betwixt and between--betwixt and between good teams and bad, rather than merely drifting aimlessly among the bad. For, with a victory over the Packers tonight, the Vikings would move from 14th place in the NFC to 10th place in the Conference. Though the leap would still leave the Vikings three games out of a playoff spot, that the teams ahead of the Vikings that will be competing for a playoff spot play many games against each other would at least keep hope alive in the Great White North.

Even should the Vikings fall to Green Bay tonight--the oddsmakers and Packer fans have set the odds at Packers -13--and should the Vikings subsequently fail to make the playoffs, the weakness inherent in the NFC for several years now gives the Vikings reason to believe that stabilization of the quarterback position and the addition of a few players could turn the team's fortunes.

Chief among the Vikings' weaknesses, in addition to offensive line, safety, and cornerback, is wide receiver. The Vikings' current leader in receptions is Percy Harvin, with thirty-one receptions. That's good for sixty-fifth in the NFL. The League leader, Wes Welker, has seventy-two receptions.

More glaring are the Vikings' deficiencies in receiving yards. The Vikings' leading receiver in yards gained is Michael Jenkins with 362 yards. That's good for seventy-first in the NFL. The League leader, Wes Welker, has 1006 receiving yards. That represents a gap of approximately seven outstanding receiving games between the Vikings' best receiver and the League's best.

As soft as the NFC and the NFL have been this year, two or three more victories and the Vikings could be drafting near the twentieth pick in the draft--only slightly ahead of the playoff teams. That means banking on next year's draft to fortify the team's weak spots might be more of a gamble than it seemed when the Vikings were rolling out Donovan McNabb to take a knee in the endzone.

All of which means that the Vikings ought at least to be investigating what their options are with respect to next year's draft. And now might be a good time to begin prospecting.

If the Vikings fall outside the top five in the draft, they might miss out on two of the draft's best receivers--Justin Blackmon of Oklahoma State and Robert Woods of USC. That's not necessarily a bad thing, given that, were the Vikings in position to draft Blackmon or Woods and were the team to select either receiver, the team would be using yet another high draft pick on a wide-receiver. Failure would be unacceptable both to the fan base and team ownership.

A more certain route, though one that could cost the Vikings a high draft pick in next year's draft, would be to trade for a proven receiver. As it happens, there is a receiver currently in the NFL who fits the Vikings' needs. Better yet, that receiver plays for a team that the Vikings already know to be willing to part with premium talent for market to below market price.

The team is Kansas City. The player is Dwayne Bowe.

Bowe, in his fifth season out of LSU, has 41 receptions this season for 667 yards and four touchdowns. That, despite playing with a quarterback that appears competent to bench-worthy in most of his starts and without a legitimate running back on the roster. When paired last season with premium running back Jamaal Charles, out this year with an injury, Bowe hauled in 72 passes for 1172 yards and fifteen touchdowns. The Vikings' receivers combined this season likely will not touch those numbers. Imagine, however, what Bowe would do in a system employing a quarterback at least as competent as Matt Cassel, with a running back such as Adrian Peterson and a slot receiver such as Percy Harvin.

The Vikings almost certainly could have Bowe for a first-round pick in next year's draft. But there is reason to believe that they could obtain Bowe for far less, right now, and on terms most favorable to Minnesota. That's because Bowe becomes an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season and the receiver has already intimated that he is not interested in returning to a Kansas City team that Bowe believes failed to deal with him in good faith.

That could mean that the Vikings could swing a deal for Bowe for as little as a third-round pick and, perhaps, some cash. That would appease Kansas City's always frugal front office and net the team some return on a player that the team is unlikely to resign should he reach free agency. For a third-round pick in the middle of the draft board, that's not a bad move for Minnesota--presuming the Vikings can negotiate a pre-trade contract extension for Bowe.

Up Next: Addressing the Offensive Line.

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Vikings and Their Cohorts Continue to Pitch Half-Truths and Pandering Logic in Stadium "Debate"

The drum beat goes on from the NFL, local media, and NFL-orchestrated call for a publicly funded stadium for the Minnesota Vikings. Those whose jobs and/or high salaries depend on the Vikings remaining in Minnesota--virtually everyone working at the Vikings' flagship station, those with high paying sports commentator salaries, those working local news, and those with connections to the team--are, of course, among the most vociferous proponents of a publicly funded stadium, with the "what me worry" segment of the fan base, a small, but vocal group, a close second.

As the Vikings amp up their contributions to the coffers of those willing to play henchman and inform Minnesotans that the Vikings will leave if a new deal is not soon completed, thereby leaving the Wilf's the claim that they "have never threatened a move," the team has prevailed upon its many minions to trot out the same tired lines. Many of the lines, of course, would be readily diminished, if not otherwise debunked, by anyone inclined toward objectivity. Among these cliches:

1. "The stadium will create jobs." True, constructing a stadium will create jobs. So, too, however, would the construction of a stadium without use of public dollars. But if one is really interested in using public funds to build a stadium, then one certainly ought to be aware that public funds can be used for a whole host of things that would generate jobs.

2. "Keeping the Vikings means tax revenue for Minnesota." True, again. The Vikings certainly generate tax revenue--on ticket and merchandise sales and on employee and player salaries, at least the portion that stays in state. Again, however, so do all jobs. The question is how does the public get the best--or even a sound--return on its investment? The Vikings are selling the stadium deal as a panacea for the state's job ills. A more likely panacea would be taking all of the money that the Vikings are requesting from the public and funding public projects in numerous areas--particularly infrastructure. That would create tax-revenue creating jobs, provide tax-revenue creating services, and reduce the need for additional taxes in other areas, all well into the future. And it would do so without relying on the magnanimity of a single professional sports entity that almost assuredly will be back at the door with at least one hand out in five-year's time.

3. "I didn't support the Shubert, now it's my turn to get something others do not support." In addition to epitomizing the decline of civilization and the rise of the tit-for-tatters-no-matter-the-consequences, such rants miss the mark. That mark is that foolish spending in one area does not support foolish spending in another area. It also, of course, grossly exaggerates a purported parallel. The Shubert Theater, one of the most expensive renovation efforts ever in the world of dance venues, cost the state approximately $16 million, with the bulk of the $60 million or so needed to complete the job raised from private donations. That's about 25% public funding. It's also about $16 million in arguably mostly unwarranted public spending. That certainly does not justify engaging in even more egregious public expenditures by providing 67% (and up) of the funding for a grossly over-priced facility. With the nearly $700 million that the Vikings are demanding from the public to build them a new stadium that will return the team an estimated $225 million per year in revenue, the State of Minnesota could fund nearly 45 Shuberts. And that's before accounting for the fact that bonding $700 million will cost the public more than $2 billion when it is all paid off--this in a state that only recently auctioned off its future income from the tobacco settlement to bridge a far more modest budget gap today. Criminal.

4. "It's like $200 per person per year--get over it." Yes, it is like that. Like $200 a year for every affected resident for the next 30 years. It is just like that. And that means that it is just like taking $6,000 from every resident--adult, child, fan, non-fan, attending fan, non-attending fan over thirty years, or $24,000 over that thirty-year period for a family of four. For some--namely those willing and able to plop down the seat-licensing fee, $100/game ticket fee, and other costs of going to a game--that's chump change. But to the vast majority of Minnesotans, that at least causes pause. And if that does not cause pause, what should is that that cost comes with an opportunity cost--diminished flexibility for the relevant municipality to address some future crisis with a bonding measure. At some point, a society simply can no longer accept paying $6,000/person for every project. Ask the people of Minneapolis who already are paying for a Twins' stadium, and the Shubert, and the Guthrie, and the Walker, and a poorly managed Police pension fund, and a school board that appears to have run amok, all on top of already high property taxes. And pity the outlying areas if Minneapolis ever turns the tables on them and goes to Court to stop paying into the LGA fund from which it receives less and less return each year. In short, despite what to some appears to be a small amount of pain for those not interested in participating on this venture, the pain is actually far greater. If this is the Vikings' strongest selling point, they need to rethink their strategy.

There are many, many more such contentions, but none more ardently pressed by those who believe that these are the winning arguments. But all such contentions take a back seat in the panoply of this debate to the strategy of attempting to win the debate by making the same contentions over, and over, and over again, and making them louder. If you have not tuned into the Vikings' flagship station recently, that is all that you have missed. Under the guise of "just being sensible," the flagship folks have opted for full sell-out. Their jobs are at stake, they are under orders, but, they also, most assuredly, have discarded all semblance of personal pride.

I've stated it before and one would think that it was obvious, but apparently it is not. A publicly funded stadium for the Vikings can make complete sense if those bargaining the deal for the state understand the game. The Vikings can be a revenue asset for the state--and that is the only manner in which anyone in state government ought to view discussions over a new stadium--if the deal is a partnership that returns to the state revenues in proportion to the state's percentage of investment. If it does not, it's not a good deal for the state and the state ought to let the Vikings leave for wherever it is that the Wilfs think the NFL will let them go. If that's LA, that means the Vikings will have saved at least four other cities from being held hostage by an entity not worth being held hostage by, and permitted the residents of Minnesota the opportunity to more effectively invest their tax revenue.

Up Next: In Awful NFC, Vikings Not Yet Eliminated.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Astute Reading of League Rules Secures Vikings' Victory

Adrian Peterson was fumbling along in his attempt to gain traction against one of the worst rush defenses in the NFL, mustering a paltry fourteen yards on six carries with half of his carries going for zero or negative yardage. That's when the Minnesota Vikings' coaching brain trust decided to consider the alternatives.

Option one was to continue banging their collective head into the proverbial cement wall. Reflecting on the stunted head-coaching careers of former Vikings' coaches Mike Tice and Brad Childress--both of whom employed said tactic, current head coach, Leslie Frazier, and offensive coordinator, Bill Musgrave, opted against this option. Former Vikings' quarterback, Gus Frerotte, silently nodded his approval.

Option two was to stop running the ball and stop using Adrian Peterson. Frazier and Musgrave gave this option considerable thought, before recalling that they had tried this approach through much of the season without success. The Vikings' front office, which only recently inked Peterson to a contract extension worth $36 million in guaranteed money and as much as $100 million through the end of the deal, provisionally agreed, anxiously awaiting the alternative of which nobody had yet thought.

Flummoxed, Frazier suggested that there ought, indeed, be a third option. But what could it be?

Checking his rule book to confirm a sudden suspicion, Frazier got a gleam in his eye. Slapping his offensive coordinator on the back, Frazier doubled-over, half in tears, half laughing. "Mus!" Frazier quietly guffawed, if that is possible, "that's it! We can do it--at least until they tell us we can't."

Hesitant, at first, Musgrave for a quarter before finally relenting, agreeing that Frazier's take on the NFL rule book was at least plausibly sound. They would try it, the two coaches agreed, and, if they got flagged, well, they got flagged.

Thus was born the play that helped salvage a Vikings' victory in Carolina, a play that could revolutionize how the Minnesota Vikings, in the modern era, approach the game. Thus was born the forward pass to Adrian Peterson. Word is that, failing a league ruling that the team misread the rules, the Vikings might just try to make use of Peterson in similar fashion in coming weeks. That's not yet etched in stone, but, as Frazier suggested after the game, in his usual effusive manner, "it's possible."

Stay tuned.

Up Next: In a Weak NFC, Vikings Can Still Dream.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Last to Know

For anyone close to a situation, there is nothing worse than being the last to know about a development. In the World of the Minnesota Vikings, being the last to know has become common place this season, with three additions to that list just this week.

On Monday, Minnesota Vikings' head coach, Leslie Frazier, announced that the Vikings had to sit down with erstwhile wide-receiver, Bernard Berrian, "to make sure everyone is on the same page." Berrian took that to mean yet another opportunity to solidify his role as the most overpaid player in Viking history.

Frazier had something else in mind. Namely, he wanted to make clear that all were on the same page regarding the Vikings' rationale for what would become Tuesday's release of Berrian. Berrian, as has been true of his much coddled association with the Vikings over the past two years, was, of course, the last to know, claiming until the end that he wanted to remain with the team--an odd contention for someone who has not been with the team for at least the past two years.

Berrian joins Donovan McNabb in the current edition of "last to know," having expressed dismay at his demotion in favor of rookie Christian Ponder. That dismay would not be surprising were it a reflection of McNabb's uncertainty over why he was merely demoted rather than cut outright. Alas, McNabb was merely expressing the confusion that he generally has exhibited on the field.

In his first game, Ponder passed for one-third the yards and half the touchdowns that McNabb managed in six full games as a starter this season. Adrian Peterson also had his most productive game of the season, rushing for 175 yards--fifty-two more than his previous season high and nearly double his season average. Ponder's ability to roll out of the pocket and make completions down-field and to receivers in stride demonstrated why the change to Ponder or Joe Webb should have been made several weeks ago--a fact that Frazier, himself, appeared to be the last to know.

Then there is the unfolding saga of state budgets, revenue streams, and ill-advised constitutional amendments. In 2008, Minnesota voters unwisely amended the state constitution to require sales tax contributions to a fund known as the "Legacy Fund." The amendment was pitched as one intended to ensure clean water and environment in Minnesota for generations to come. Unquestionably, the fund is used to achieve these purposes--much as legislation previously accomplished such goals.

Not surprisingly, however, at least to some, the Legacy Fund has become a welcome wagon for anyone with a notion remotely tied to claims of state heritage and/or culture, along with other problems.

This week, the Minnesota Historical Society, one of the large recipients of Legacy funds, has expressed outrage over Governor Dayton's attempt to raid the Legacy Fund endowment to pay for a new Vikings' stadium. Clearly, MHS and others were not paying attention to the wording of the Legacy amendment, an amendment that so generally defines Minnesota's cultural heritage as to permit funding of virtually anything in the state with Legacy funds. It's unfortunate for state residents that MHS and others failed to heed this generous wording--or simply preferred to look the other way on a referendum pitched as a clean air and water referendum that MHS and others knew also would amply fund their own non-water/air designs--but the language clearly permits, and practice clearly supports, the funding Dayton now, however disingenuously, proposes.

The ultimate irony, of course, is that the Vikings are now suggesting raiding a fund created through a referendum as a means of circumventing a referendum on stadium voting. If you love conniving politics, dunderheaded agencies, complicit legislators, mayors, and commissioners, there is nothing like the confluence of public funding of a Vikings' stadium achieved through expropriation of funds constitutionally mandated by virtue of a vote taken on a measure sold as an environmental stand. Classic.

Up Next: Who Will Be Next?

Monday, October 17, 2011

86 or 84?

In 1984, the Minnesota Vikings finished 3-13. That was the year that Les Steckel and his no-nonsense boot camp received a tryout in the NFL. That tryout lasted but that one year, never again to return to the league.

2011 is shaping up to be every bit as uninspiring and demoralizing as was that 1984 debacle, only this version of 1984 comes courtesy of a soft-spoken, eminently likable individual in Leslie Frazier who appears utterly incompetent as a head coach. Where Childress stood by the likes of Bryant McKinnie and Bernard Berrian, Frazier stands by the likes of Donovan McNabb and Bernard Berrian--the former shows Frazier can be every bit as stubborn as his predecessor, the latter shows he has an even flatter learning curve.

But while Steckel at least left the Vikings with a roster including some young talent such as Steve Jordan, Wade Wilson, Joey Browner, Carl Lee, Tim Irwin, and Darrin Nelson, Frazier presides over a team with the bulk of the talent residing in the "veteran" category. Only the rarely used Kyle Rudolph, Percy Harvin, and possibly Joe Webb and/or Christian Ponder can be said to represent the up and coming youth of this Vikings' team. With veterans Kevin Williams, Chad Greenway, Jared Allen, Antoine Winfield, Adrian Peterson, Steve Hutchinson, and Jim Kleinsasser, Frazier and the Vikings have proven that veteran talent cannot compensate for a lack of a plan. And this Vikings' team, unlike that 1984 disaster, bent on being more conditioned than the opposition, has no plan of which to speak.

Among the numerous confounding coaching decisions in last night's game were the decision to pull McNabb for Webb after McNabb had connected on one of his few completions. The first play called for Webb was bizarre, still not completely computing. The second appeared to be one for which the Vikings' coaching staff told Webb that he must refuse to run no matter the circumstances and that he must make the worst pass of the game to take some heat off of McNabb. Webb followed the plan to a "t" and McNabb re-entered on third down, only to throw a pass behind his intended receiver (the announcers, so accustomed to McNabb's utter inability to throw the ball, gushed over the pass, blaming the receiver for the incompletion).

That fiasco paled, however, in contrast with the debacle that was the two-minute warning timeout turned missed field goal attempt turned loss of timeout when the team could have used it. Returning from the television timeout for the two-minute warning--a lengthy timeout befitting Sunday night football--Frazier sent his kicking team onto the field to attempt a field goal on 4th and 3 then immediately called a timeout.

There can be no good explanation for Frazier's timeout immediately following a timeout--though that did not stop the ever implausible Greg Coleman from making the effort. "Cat and mouse," Coleman lauded. "Leslie's just playing his chess pieces."

Not even the heretofore ultimate homer, Paul Allen, was buying Coleman's pollyanna puke on this night, however, as PA turned to his broadcast partner, Pete Bercich, stating "I don't get it." Neither did the Vikings, as the timeout was followed by a false start and a failed field goal attempt--all a microcosm of everything that the Vikings have represented under Frazier.

In a season in which the Vikings are paying a running back $14-16 million to play behind a putrid offensive line, with an awful quarterback, non-existent wide-receiving corps that includes, as its best receiver, a player ranked 86th in the NFL in yards receiving, for an offensive coordinator with no sense of a game plan and a head coach apparently willing to just soak it all in, there is no doubt that this Vikings' team is far worse than the '84 disaster. What's not clear is whether anyone in this organization has the sense to make the proper adjustments.

Up Next: Berrian Still Being Frozen Out.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Vikings' "Public Aid for Jobs" Pitch a Loser

Much like most of what emotes from the mouths of the Minnesota Vikings' inner circle of stadium building drum beaters these days, the Vikings' contention that building a stadium on the public dime is critical to local job building is an outright loser of a platform. For, while stadium construction certainly would create jobs, it would do so with an opportunity cost of not creating other jobs that likely would be more enduring and local.

By the Vikings' estimate, construction of a new stadium would mean approximately 1,400 jobs over four years. That, the Vikings' argue, would be a boon for the local economy.

The Vikings' number assumes, however, that all jobs would be for the entire course of the project, that the project would require four years to conclude, and that the jobs would go to local workers. The team's conclusion regarding the result for the local economy is more dubious than these assumptions, as a boost of 1,400 jobs would be a drop in the proverbial bucket even in the State's employment picture.

The goal of any publicly funded job program is to create jobs that are sufficiently sustainable to make a difference both to the local economy and to the overall job picture moving forward. Construction of a new stadium does little in the latter regard and arguably nothing in the former, particularly when taking into consideration the alternative job programs that the State could employ to foster job growth--assuming that's on the mind of those making policy these days.

The Vikings are requesting $300 million (and more) from the State and another $360 million (and more) from Ramsey County to construct a stadium and amenities in Arden Hills. Never mind that the stadium construction itself should cost no more than $360 million, with retractable roof.

With $300 million dollars, the State could employ 10,000 people at $30,000 a year to complete any number of public works projects that currently are not being completed. Both the $300 million and 10,000 figure rely on assumptions, of course. One is that all workers are paid $30,000/year, the other is that the State's pool of money is $300 million.

Neither assumption, of course, is correct. Many individuals would accept less than $30,000 a year for the opportunity to work at a meaningful job that would permit them to fill both a void on their resumes and a depleted bank account. More important, however, is the fact that that $300 million that the State is suggesting that it will contribute to the pot is more like $1.1 billion. That's because to pay the $300 million, the State will need to bond or engage in some other mortgaging type of arrangement. That means paying interest on a loan. And that means that the State ultimately will pay somewhere in the neighborhood of $1.1 billion--not $300 million--to construct a new stadium.

With $1.1 billion dollars, the State could hire those same 10,000 workers at $30,000 per year for nearly four years. That's more than seven times the number of jobs that the Vikings contend the stadium will create, but full time jobs for the full four years of the same window. And none of this takes into account the additional $360 million (or more) that Ramsey County must bond or the cost overrides that the Vikings want the State to pay. Putting Ramsey County's money into play means another 10,000 jobs at $30,000 per year for closer to five or six years. That's 20,000 jobs for four to six years, or more than 14 times the number of jobs that the Vikings contend the stadium construction job will create in the State.

None of these figures factor in that each worker will be paying local tax revenue rather than receiving unemployment benefits, that each worker will be establishing working credentials making themselves viable if and when the market does return, or that the significant addition of workers to the ranks of those paying taxes will actually help fuel a local recovery. And, of course, none of this factors the benefit to a far larger population than would be afforded by a commercial stadium that is a stand-alone entity providing value to a limited pool of consumers eight days of the year.

Are there job benefits, many probably even local, to constructing anything? Of course. But those benefits must be weighed against the opportunity cost of not having public money dedicated to said construction to put towards other projects. And if job creation is part of the Vikings' sales pitch, it is a clear loser in contrast with what can be done with the public money that the Vikings are soliciting to build their giant revenue stream.

Up Next: Will Frazier's Intransigence Cost Vikings' an Opportunity to Gain on Weak Field?

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Rest of the Story...or How the Vikings Intend to Shaft the Public

In his long-running radio show, widely syndicated radio personality, Paul Harvey, would offer some surprising information without disclosing the subject or some mundane information about a subject without disclosing the surprising information until later. What came next was what Harvey referred to as "the rest of the story."

For some time now, the Minnesota Vikings have been attempting to channel Paul Harvey, only without disclosing the rest of the story. The opening to the story is that the Vikings want a new stadium. And they want the public to pay for "part" of it. And they want the public to agree to pay for "part" of it without being afforded the opportunity to agree (or not). And they want it now. And they want more concessions down the road. Oh, that's part of the rest of the rest of the story.

For now, we can settle for the rest of the story. The rest of the story is what the Vikings are not telling anyone who will be footing the bill. The rest of the story goes something like this--the Vikings want desperately to build a new stadium in downtown Minneapolis. They want a retractable roof on that new stadium. They want a stadium that can be used for other events. They want all of the revenue streams associated with the new stadium. They want all of the tax deductions associated with "owning" a new stadium. They want additional state and county tax concessions.

And, they really want the public to foot most if not all of the bill.

How's that?

Yes, the Vikings are looking to the public to foot the bulk of the cost of a new stadium--perhaps all of the cost.

But don't take my word for it, just look at the math.

Between 2000 and 2002, the City of Seattle built the Seattle Seahawks a new football stadium. Nobody has anything bad to say about Seattle's still relatively new facility, that comes with a partial roof and 111 luxury suites. The cost of constructing the stadium was $360 million.

There are several interesting points about the Seattle stadium. One is that the cost was borne during a hyper-active period for construction. Adjusted for the downturn in the economy and in the construction business, in particular, a similar stadium should cost even less to construct today. Logically, that should mean that constructing a new stadium in Minneapolis should cost less than $360 million, not the $1.1 billion dollars that the Vikings have pulled out of the sky to make it appear that the $360 million is but a small portion of the total construction cost.

Another interesting point regarding the Seattle stadium is that it was constructed as a public-private partnership with the public cost fixed at $360 million (not surprisingly the cost of actual construction of the stadium) and only after a state-wide referendum--yes, the very type of referendum which, according to Minnesota Vikings' officials, "the public always rejects." As the State of Washington has demonstrated, the public does not always reject such public-private ventures, but it certainly is more likely to do so when there is little sense that the venture will mean anything to the public other than a handful of football games.

In Seattle, the City, King County, and the State share in an annual $850,000 payment from the Seahawks. The team keeps everything else--somewhere in the neighborhood of $65,000,000. That's a great deal for the Seahawks, and far better than they deserve given the State's level of contribution to the team. And still, it is much less than the Vikings appear intent on taking from the residents of Minnesota.

If the Vikings want a stadium in Minnesota, they have three options. The first is to build their own stadium with their own money and recoup that money by putting a quality product on the field and charging fans what the market bears--that tends to be the option of the non-entitlement, open market crowd, at least when the issue is not a new stadium for them. The second option is to partner with the State and relevant municipality in a profit-sharing arrangement. That puts the sense back into a public deal. The Vikings don't seem to want that, however, because they prefer option three. That option is to make demands, effuse a sense of entitlement, insist that the public--on whom the team relies for the petty cash (truly)--not have any say save for the say of their corrupted representatives (see, e.g., Ramsey County Commissioners), and have a stadium built for them to the tune of $660 million in public funding, with the team contributing "the rest" of what will not be required to build the stadium.

As long as the Vikings stick with option three, and locals like Lester Bagley essentially tell the public to pay up AND lump it, there should be no tears shed if the Vikings ever finagle a move to LA--a remote option in any event. And if local "leaders" actually cave to this sophomoric charade, we surely will have confirmation as to who butters their bread.

Up Next: Wasting Webb in Favor of McNabb?

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Storm Brewing in Minnesota

Following the Minnesota Vikings' loss to previously winless Kansas City, a team without two of its three top safeties and without its dynamic running back, Vikings' owner Zygi Wilf let it be known that he was tremendously displeased with the team's results and that he expected far better going forward. Wilf strongly suggested that, given McNabb's performance at critical junctures against KC (if not also throughout the entire season), he expected Vikings' head coach Leslie Frazier to make the proper adjustments.

There is no denying that Wilf's implication was that it was time to make a move at quarterback--a decision that could have meant imposing either Christian Ponder or Joe Webb at quarterback.

Rather than acquiesce, Frazier dug in his heals and insisted that McNabb was not the problem. If the stubborn approach in the face of sound logic to the contrary sounds familiar, it should. It was, after all, the very same approach embraced by Dennis Green, Mike Tice, and Brad Childress. And it likely could lead Frazier to the same fate realized by his three predecessors--and justifiably so.

Through four games, McNabb ranks thirtieth in the league in passing. He ranks far lower--a quite difficult feat--in passing statistics in the second half and, more significantly for a team that has played four close games, in the fourth quarter. There is no denying that McNabb's primary problems are that he cannot put the ball where he needs to put it and that he shrinks in the face of a challenge when the game is on the line. These traits are not unique to McNabb, but they are unique among quarterbacks playing for teams with purported playoff aspirations.

Aside from Frazier's apparent inability or unwillingness to acknowledge that McNabb is not his best option at quarterback--that title now belonging to Webb, followed by Ponder--Frazier is utterly delusional about the Vikings' prospects this year. The only hope that the Vikings' have of making the playoffs this year is to start Webb, a quarterback who can escape the pocket, make plays with his legs, and throw at least as accurately as McNabb has this season.

At 0-4, the Vikings likely would need to finish the season 10-2 to make the playoffs. Frazier still views the 0-4 start as a 4-0 start, however, failing to recognize that most NFL games are decided by what teams are able to do in the fourth quarter. Given that McNabb has done nothing in the fourth quarter, other than look absolutely horrible, the decision to stick with McNabb can only be explained as one of myopia induced by Frazier's initial guarantee to ownership that he could do with McNabb what Philadelphia and Washington could not.

Barring an immediate and overwhelming turn-around, the likes of which is against all odds with the Vikings having not yet faced the Packers or Bears and with two teams in their own division already four games ahead of them, Frazier is committing to a quarterback who not only offers the team little hope for recovery this season, but also little understanding of where the team is headed in 2012. Playing McNabb will ensure that the Vikings know nothing about Ponder after this season and cement the fate of a promising quarterback in Webb--all for nothing.

Frazier's decision to stick with McNabb, already at odds with the his owner's inclination and collective wisdom, not only will jeopardize the Vikings' season but also will jeopardize Frazier's tenure in Minnesota.

Up Next: Kingdom for a Receiver.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

McNabb Done as Vikings' Quarterback

With a fourth straight loss in the books to start the 2011 NFL season, the Minnesota Vikings are expected to bench starting quarterback Donovan McNabb in favor of either Joe Webb or Christian Ponder next week. The decision comes more from the Vikings' ownership than from a coaching staff that, offensively, appears oblivious to the on-the-field product.

McNabb again was awful when it most mattered on Sunday, thrice making horrendous passes to nobody in particular during the team's final drive with the Vikings trailing by five. McNabb's erratic performance once again made Adrian Peterson virtually irrelevant and an ownership group that has invested heavily in Peterson, irate.

With McNabb moving to the sidelines--and quite possibly to the waiver wire--the Vikings are left to decide whether to go into full blown rebuilding mode or to try to be respectable this year. Taking a cue from the Carolina Panthers, however, the Vikings almost certainly will opt for a heavy dose of roll-out quarterback packages, something woefully lacking in this year's offense.

Entering the season, the Vikings sold their fan base on a short-passing game predicated on getting the ball to their two dynamic tight ends, Visanthe Shiancoe and Kyle Rudolph, and Percy Harvin and running Adrian Peterson. After four games, the Vikings have used Randolph and Shiancoe only on a limited basis and highly sporadically and, despite obtaining positive results every time Harvin touches the ball, have shied away from Harvin, as well. The only commitment that the Vikings have kept is to get Peterson the ball, but that commitment generally has waned in the second half of games, making Peterson the "highest paid decoy in the game."

As McNabb heads to the bench, scrutiny will only increase of a coaching staff that has not obtained results this season. Of particular concern is the play-calling and personnel management of first-year offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave, whose decision not to have Shiancoe on the field on 4th and 10 on the Vikings' final drive against KC--a decision saved only by KC's decision to call a time-out--brings to mind the play-calling that led to Musgrave's dismissal as Carolina's offensive coordinator only two games into his tenure.

Up Next: Change in Quarterbacks Will Buy Frazier Some Time.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Ownership Disgruntlement Could Spell End to McNabb Era in Minnesota

The word out of Winter Park is that, not surprisingly, the Minnesota Vikings' ownership group is substantially disgruntled with the Vikings' 0-3 start and, more specifically, how the Vikings' first three games have played out. In order of displeasure, Zygi Wilf and company are dismayed by the poor play of quarterback Donovan McNabb, the offensive playcalling, and the overall handling of the club.

The Wilfs' displeasure with the Vikings' poor start to the 2011 season appears already to have set change in motion with the Vikings contemplating a move at starting quarterback to either Joe Webb or Christian Ponder. At 0-3, a move to Webb would signal that the team still believes it can be competitive this year. A move to Ponder would more likely suggest that the team already has surrendered.

Replacing the starting quarterback will not alleviate the need for much more astute playcalling, better management of the team, or, more problematic, a lack of personnel at key positions. It will, however, address the question of whether the quarterback, poor play notwithstanding, is the primary source of an anemic offense that has produced nary a touchdown in six second-half quarters this season.

Replacing McNabb with Ponder will help mask the coaching staff's deficiencies, allowing coaches to blame poor performance on growing pains. It will also put under a microscope the Vikings' decision to select Ponder, rather than a cornerback, lineman, or receiver, in the first round of this year's draft. Both realities, in addition to experience and present ability, argue for Webb replacing McNabb--or at least for such a move to have the imprimatur of the Vikings' ownership group.

What is clear is that the Vikings already are setting the table for McNabb's departure, with head coach Leslie Frazier absurdly stating after last week's debacle that the team was going to "work on McNabb's footwork and throwing mechanics." That statement says as much about why there already are some questions about this coaching staff as it does about McNabb's present ability. But it also permits the Vikings to fall back on Mike Shanahan's excuse--that Donovan did not want to work on the little things--for parting with a quarterback that has been with the team for less than two months.

Also clear is that whatever the decision at quarterback, once that decision has been made, the magnifying glass will be shifting to offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave. That will shield Leslie Frazier from scrutiny, but only for the moment. For an ownership group looking to build equity to secure a publicly funded stadium, there is little patience. And waiting on Frazier to remember that he has Adrian Peterson on his team or to acknowledge the end of the Brad Childress era is not something that this ownership group signed onto when removing Childress from his throne.

Up Next: If KC is Willing, Vikings Should Deal.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Vikings' Institutional Blinders Threaten Monumental Franchise Blunder

It's troubling enough that the Minnesota Vikings have blown three seventeen point or greater first-half leads in three games this season. It's even more troubling that those leads have turned to losses. But most troubling of all is that the process that has led to the Vikings' come-from-ahead losses this season has been both the same in each game and indicative of a seminal concern, the failure of which to recognize could lead the Vikings to make one of the greatest blunders in franchise history.

As an organization, the Vikings have not escaped the imperfection that is assessing talent and properly aligning personnel. But with another season with a team mixed with quality veterans and youth about to go down the drain, the Vikings find themselves in the crosshairs of a potentially franchise-altering decision--a decision to which the organization appears utterly oblivious.

As in weeks one and two, the Vikings' difficulties in the second half of week three can be directly traced to the team's focus on keeping their own quarterback in the pocket. Pocket quarterbacks thrive when they have solid offensive lines and a deep threat. The Vikings have an improving line that requires fortification by two, sometimes three tight ends. This makes the probability of a deep threat less likely. Add to the equation the fact that the Vikings' sole downfield receiver is Bernard Berrian and there is a nearly zero probability of a deep threat for Minnesota.

Given the Vikings' shortcomings along the offensive line and at wide receiver, the most sensible offensive philosophy to employ is one that makes liberal use of the quarterback outside of the pocket. If the Vikings could depend on Donovan McNabb to roll and avoid injury, and if McNabb could deliver the pass, McNabb would be the most logical answer at quarterback in such a scheme.

But McNabb clearly no longer has the legs to be a consistent roll quarterback and his accuracy this season--particularly in the second half of games--has been nothing less than putrid. Sailing passes miles over receivers' heads, behind sloth-footed tight ends, and to areas of the field where nary a player on either team can be seen makes clear that, as McNabb no longer can be relied upon consistently to roll out of the pocket, neither can he be depended upon to pass in or out of the pocket.

On Sunday, Vikings' backup quarterback Joe Webb, a player who can roll and who now appears to be at least as accurate of a passer as McNabb, played exactly one down. Following this strategy of using Webb, the Vikings appear intent on sticking with McNabb, using Webb as an ineffective gimmick player who doesn't really even factor into the gimmick play, and ensuring that Webb's career in Minnesota amounts to nothing. For, if this is how the Vikings use Webb when his abilities are clearly better used as a rolling, starting quarterback, whatever could the team have in mind for Webb as the backup quarterback to Ponder in 2012?

It makes one wonder. It makes one vomit. And, most sadly, it suggests that the Vikings are in the process of making a colossal personnel decision by sticking with McNabb and relegating Webb to the long-term role of little- and improperly used backup--a waste not only for the future, but also in a season that can still be salvaged.

In short, if the Vikings want to fix their second-half problems, largely created by a failure of the offense to stay on the field, they need to convert to a system that rolls the quarterback out of the pocket on a regular basis. McNabb cannot be that quarterback. Either Webb or Christian Ponder could be that quarterback. Webb is infinitely faster than Ponder and has a stronger and more accurate arm and, therefore, deserves the nod.

It's not so difficult to see, unless, as the Vikings did in hiring then extending former head coach Brad Childress, you opt to put on your institutional blinders because what you would see does not conform to what you expected and therefore wished to see.

Up Next: B Factor.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Failure to Roll Dooms Vikings in Second Half

In the first half of the Minnesota Vikings 24-20 come-from-ahead home loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Vikings mixed their offense nearly to perfection, lacking only a deep pass in the team's arsenal. Included in that mix were tight end passes, passes to Adrian Peterson and Percy Harvin, and runs by Adrian Peterson and the surprisingly capable Toby Gerhart. More importantly, however, that mix included a blend of pocket and out-of-pocket passes by Donovan McNabb--with a heavy emphasis on rolling McNabb.

The second half of Sunday's second consecutive second-half disaster offered little of what the Vikings had to offer in the first half in building a 17-0 lead. That's largely the consequence of a complacency that led the Vikings to hold to pocket passing. This allowed Tampa Bay to focus its defensive efforts and made the Vikings' offense, clearly absent the deep-threat that makes the pocket pass so valuable, one and one-half dimensional, with only the run and short pass available.

Not surprisingly, the Vikings failed too often to move the ball in the second half. And Tampa Bay took advantage, dominating both time of possession and yardage total in the second half. The result was an exhausted Vikings' defense, most aptly epitomized by Cedric Griffin's non-play on Tampa Bay's final passing touchdown.

If the Vikings hope to overcome their second-half malaise, they must acknowledge two things--that they lack any meaningful downfield threat (leaving aside, for the moment, whether Donovan McNabb has the accuracy to hit such a target) and the offensive line is unable to maintain a consistent pocket. To win, the Vikings need either a quarterback who can roll out of the pocket on a regular basis for an entire game....or they need a much larger half-time lead. The first half of Sunday's loss suggested that McNabb is at least willing to roll. If he is not, or if he is unable, it would behoove the Vikings to move to a plan that permits them to dodge their greatest deficiency.

Up Next: Stadium Numbers.

Answer is Using Peterson More Intelligently

Around the water cooler this past week, broad discussion has been had of the need for the Minnesota Vikings to give Adrian Peterson more rushing attempts this week and beyond. The thinking, presumably, is that more carries equates to more yards and a greater likelihood of Peterson breaking a large gain or two--all of which, presumably, will bolster the Vikings' offense.

There is no question but that giving Peterson the ball more times will equate to Peterson gaining more yards on the ground and increase the probability that he breaks a big play. And this all could help the Vikings' win games.

The bigger, and more appropriate concern, however, is not giving Peterson more rushing attempts each game but making certain that he is more wisely utilized. When Bill Musgrave joined the Vikings as offensive coordinator after yet another long stint as a quarterbacks coach, he emphasized the need to make better use of Peterson. Such use, Musgrave made clear, required that the Vikings more effectively utilize their best offensive weapon in the passing attack--something that former Vikings' head coach Brad Childress all but refused to do.

Musgrave's purported philosophy was hardly on display last week, despite the fact that the Vikings were facing a team absent one of its primary linebackers--a situation that should have opened up opportunities both in the middle and in the flat. That the Vikings did not utilize Peterson in the passing attack thus says more about Musgrave's unconvincing offensive philosophy and fear of losing than, unfortunately, it says about a particular scheme for a particular game. It also says something about the current coaching staff's short-sightedness, albeit in limited showing, regarding the use and preservation of a player to whom the team just committed no less than $44 million.

Getting Peterson the ball should be one of the Vikings' primary goals. But that goal should not come at the highest cost to Peterson. The most certain way to injure a running back or shorten that back's career in the NFL is to run that back up the gut on play after play. That was the Vikings' recipe against the Chargers and it appears that the team's greatest lament in the wake of a narrow loss to San Diego was that Peterson was not given more opportunities to run up the gut behind a loathsome offensive line.

The real concern for Minnesota, regardless of the opposition, should be balancing Peterson's rushing and receiving totals. Though, as Brian Westbrook certainly would attest, that is no recipe for running back health, it was the recipe for a long career for another great back, Marshall Faulk. Moreover, while one method of using a running back no more guarantees a long career for that back than another, the fewer hits any player takes, the greater the likelihood of longevity. Reducing hits by defensive linemen would go a long way towards ensuring that Peterson is both more productive and more productive through the life of his seven-year deal. And getting Peterson the ball in the flat would help ensure not only fewer hits for Peterson on a given play, but would also ensure the Vikings more long drives and increased scoring odds--a welcome possibility in the wake of a thirty-nine yard, one-touchdown opening week performance.

Up Next: Is Bernard Berrian Again Being Shut Out?

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

For McNabb's Sake, Time for Vikings to Install Webb at Quarterback

In Sunday's loss to the San Diego Chargers, Minnesota Vikings' quarterback Donovan McNabb went 7 for 15 for 39 yards with one touchdown and an interception. The woeful numbers speak volumes on their own, ranking McNabb dead last by a wide margin in any meaningful quarterback statistic.

Although it has only been one game, one game in the NFL is akin to ten games in MLB at 1/16th of the season. One more game like Sunday's and fans will be left pondering whether the Vikings can climb out of their 0-2 hole and finish strong over the final 7/8ths of their schedule. In short, while one game does not a season make, there is little time to remedy a poor start when the season is as short as is the NFL's.

While McNabb's performance was poor on Sunday, a great deal of his struggles were other than self-inflicted. In addition to playing on a team that confoundingly continues to view Bernard Berrian as a legitimate deep threat, McNabb finds himself mired in a system that requires nimbleness in the pocket and elusiveness for escaping the ever collapsing pocket. And all of those problems are dwarfed by the threat that is the reinvention of the Childress Coast Offense to an impossibly more offensive degree.

Given that the Vikings' offensive line is terrible and the offensive play-calling is fathoms below NFL grade, there already appears to be no point in retaining McNabb as the starting quarterback. Despite having the strongest arm on the team, McNabb is too slow to escape trouble, too errant on his throws, and too late on some of his reads to any longer support the claim that he is the Vikings' best quarterback under the circumstances.

Were McNabb playing behind the Dallas Cowboys' offensive line of the late 80s and early 90s, he would have the luxury of surveying the field and waiting for receivers to get open. This Vikings' offensive scheme, mired in the notion that a ten-yard play is an "explosive" one, and fixated on encouraging opposing defenses to stuff the box, thus creating more readily disguised blitz schemes, works against everything that ever made McNabb a success early in his career--particularly when McNabb appears to be in late-in-his-career running condition.

Both Joe Webb and rookie Christian Ponder offer greater elusiveness than McNabb and both appear to make good reads and have good releases out of the pocket. The great irony, in fact, is that both Ponder and Webb need to improve their pocket play. Given that the Vikings rarely have a pocket in which to play, Ponder's and Webb's greatest and similar weakness is essentially irrelevant and their abilities outside the pocket become all the more meaningful.

If the Vikings insist on playing Musgrave Coast Offense (MCO), there simply is no point and no value to having McNabb in the game getting pummeled and making bad plays. The wiser option would be to insert either Webb or Ponder. And given that Webb has more experience than Ponder and is more elusive, Webb is the better choice.

Switching to Webb not only would allow the Vikings to spread the defense horizontally, it should free up the middle of the field for one of the team's three tight ends as the middle linebacker would have to stay home to cover Webb.

Although it is early in the season, there is reason to worry about where this Vikings' team is going, both this year and beyond. Bill Musgrave appears to be about the same guy that was relegated to career quarterbacks coach before the Vikings--in another move wreaking of misguided ownership support--came to the rescue, Leslie Frazier appears unaware of the magnitude of the situation, and the Vikings' $100 million signee is stuck in a system that leads to him finishing in the middle of the pack or worse, week after week. It's beginning to resemble a house of cards at Winter Park with the builders having failed to recognize the need to establish a proper foundation. Only a dramatic change in philosophy now can salvage this season and give hope for the future.

Up Next: Musgrave Showing to Form.