Sunday, May 15, 2011

Vikings' 2011 Fortunes Tied to Free Agency

If and when the NFL and NFL Players' Association reach an agreement on a new collective bargaining agreement, one of the more anticipated resolutions will be which players will be free agents and under what terms. The closer to the beginning of the scheduled season the negotiations become, the greater the likelihood that any agreement will greatly curtail what otherwise would have been the mother load of all NFL free-agency periods.

Assuming that all those eligible for free-agency reach the free-agent market in 2011, however, virtually any team with holes to fill will have the opportunity to do so--if they are willing to pay the cost. For Minnesota Vikings' fans, that's the most encouraging news since Bud Grant retook the reins from Les Steckel.

With gaping holes along the offensive line, at wide receiver, in the backfield, along the defensive line, and in the secondary, the Vikings could not have asked for a better time for such riches in free agency. And given the team's determination under the Wilf ownership to minimize future expenses by relying on roster, rather than pro-rated signing bonuses, the Vikings will have as much cap space as almost any team in the league, assuming the new CBA has cap stipulations.

There should be numerous high-quality players available for the Vikings to consider along both the offensive and defensive lines in this year's free-agency period. On offense, tackles Tyson Clabo (ATL) and Adam Goldberg (STL) and guards Logan Mankins (NE) and Carl Nicks (NO) should be available. Goldberg is probably best suited to play right guard, but can fill in at right tackle and left guard, if necessary. He, thus, would give the Vikings some flexibility, if not also a starter, that they have not had since he last donned purple and gold.

Clabo, too, is best suited to play on the right side, but is good enough to play any of the non-center spots along the line and certainly an upgrade at left tackle over Bryant McKinnie. Signing Clabo would give the Vikings one of the best offensive linemen in the league and give the team considerable flexibility in using its other current linemen, offering the option of moving McKinnie to the right side and pairing him in some combination with Phil Loadholt.

McKinnie also could become expendable if the Vikings make either of the above moves on exterior linemen and also sign an interior lineman. Two of the more compelling options in the interior are Mankins and Nicks. Either player would be an upgrade over either Anthony Herrera or the persistently ailing Steve Hutchinson.

Solidifying the offensive line, a unit the decline of which became increasingly noticeable when Mike Tice's departure exposed the smoke and mirrors with which Tice was forced to operate, would greatly enhance the prospects of any quarterback starting in the Vikings' backfield and ought to have the corollary effect of improving both the running and passing games.

The running and passing games would benefit, too, from an infusion of a "change-of-pace" back and a deep threat at wide-receiver. At running back, the Vikings could have numerous free-agent options, including Ahmad Bradshaw (NYG), Jerious Norwood (ATL), Joseph Addai (IND), and, on the lower end, Mewelde Moore (PIT). Bradshaw clearly is the cream of this crop, offering both a brutish and quick runner and a pass-catching threat, while Norwood, Addai, and Moore would offer a speedier, pass-catching option out of the backfield. Any of these signings at running back would make Toby Gerhart expendable--a win-win for all but Gerhart.

Pairing the addition of a speedy, pass-catching back with a speedy, strong, downfield threat would round out the Vikings' offense quite nicely, assuming that the Vikings' offensive scheme and quarterback play out as the team hopes. While there are numerous downfield threat options likely to be available in this year's free-agency, among the best are Santonio Holmes (NYJ), Malcolm Floyd (SD), and Steve Breaston (ARI). Holmes might not fit the image that the Vikings have pretended to admire under the Wilfs' ownership, Floyd might be too mercurial, and Breaston might be an injury risk, but, if any of these players plays up to their average ability, the Vikings would have a significant upgrade at the downfield threat position over even the 2009 version of Sidney Rice.

Solidifying an offense with its most substantial question mark at the most critical position will take some considerable effort by the Minnesota Vikings' front office, if and when free-agency arrives. If the team takes advantage of what should be a sizable advantage in cap space and what likely will be one of the greatest free-agency periods in NFL history, however, the Vikings could still pull off the improbable and compete with the haves of the 2011 NFL, rather than lamenting a long rebuilding cycle.

Up Next: Reshaping the Defense.

Friday, May 13, 2011

A Tribute to Killebrew

On Friday, May 13, former Minnesota Twins' slugger, Harmon Killebrew, announced that his battle with esophageal cancer was nearing its end. As always, Harmon's statement, focused on the Twins, his wife, and his acceptance of his fate, reflected the class and dignity that Harmon forever has exuded.

Throughout the 1960s and into the 70s, Harmon was as ferocious a hitter as ever played the game of baseball. His 11 all-star appearances and MVP season were more than matched, however, by his unwavering following among Twins' fans. Among those adoring fans was my grandmother, who went to Twins games not so much because she liked the game of baseball, but more because she was enamored with Harmon--his skill, his style, and his genuineness on and off the field.

Nearly a decade ago, my grandfather, a die-hard Twin and Viking fan, passed away. My grandmother was despondent. Knowing of her eternal fondness for Harmon Killebrew, I sent an e-mail to Twins' President Dave St. Peter inquiring whether it was possible to obtain a photo of Harmon for my grandmother.

Mr. St. Peter asked for my grandmother's address. I sent it, never expecting to hear back.

Two weeks later, I received a call from my father informing me that my grandmother had received a photograph of Harmon depicting him in his playing days. Accompanying the photo was a personalized message from Harmon.

When my grandmother passed away two years ago, she had lived long enough to distribute most of her possessions to her children and grandchildren. Among those items she passed along were numerous photographs.

Among the very few items that my grandmother retained until her death, however, was the personalized photograph of Harmon. However silly to some, the photograph and accompanying expression of sympathy and encouragement were invaluable to my grandmother, helping her make it through a very difficult time in her life.

Though Harmon's run here appears to be nearing an end, hopefully he will leave knowing that, like my grandmother, those who even had a passing affair with him cherished the experience. If there is something after this life, surely Harmon will make that something better for those around him.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Mondale Joins Self-Serving in Pitching Vikings' Stadium Deal on Vikings' Terms

When the Minnesota Vikings first appeared on the Minnesota landscape fifty years ago, the team was comprises almost exclusively of individuals who played football as a second career, working in Minneapolis and the limited surrounding areas as their day job. That environment was closely analogous to the life of current Division I college football players who benefit from the love of the local fans to spot jobs and other opportunities in the off-season and reap other benefits throughout the year.

In those olden days, Vikings players routinely lived in Minnesota throughout the year, made friends, and stayed in the community after their playing days had come to an end. That connection was highlighted by the enduring community influence of players such as Alan Page, Bill Brown, Chuck Foreman, and Joe Sensor, among many, many other former Vikings' greats, and the tragic life arc of beloved Viking Karl Kassulke, who, three years ago, succumbed to the lingering damage resulting from a motorcycle accident just before training camp was to open in 1973.

The old days are mostly gone in Vikingland, however, with most players keeping their official residences far from Minnesota and the ownership group setting up shop, and registering their umbrella business entities, outside the State of Minnesota.

While the environment of professional sports has changed greatly since the 1960s, one thing that has not changed in Minnesota is the incestuousness of the local sports marketing network, a network that is now pulling out all of the stops to ensure that, even if those only staying the night are pitching something the benefits of which are so dramatically skewed in their favor, there ought be no reason why the heirs to the established families of Minnesota should not at least benefit from their presence.

In 1998, the DFL put forth four candidates for the post of Governor. Those four candidates were current Governor and heir to the Dayton's fortune, Mark Dayton, son of former U.S. Vice President Hubert Humphrey, Skip Humphrey, son of former Minnesota Governor Orville Freeman, Mike Freeman, and son of former U.S. Vice President Walter Mondale, Ted Mondale. All, of course, failed in their bid for the post. But all have maintained the ties that have offered them opportunities that most people without their connections ever are so gifted.

It was of little surprise, then, to see Ted Mondale make a career for himself carried in his father's footsteps. In 2011, needing another gig, Mondale prevailed upon his fellow silver-spooned-birther, Mark Dayton, for the post of Commissioner of the Metropolitan Sports Facility.

Since assuming the role of MSF Commissioner, Mondale's aim has been clear, if also singular. That aim has been the building of a new Vikings' football stadium. Despite Mondale's claims to the contrary, that aim includes no meaningful concern about the cost of that stadium to the public or whether the vast majority of even the current season-ticket-holding fan base will be able to afford attending Vikings' games in a new stadium.

Mondale's self-serving stadium pitch is far more transparent than Mondale likely believes it to be. Two weeks ago, he echoed Hennepin County Commissioner Mike Opat's contention that any new stadium in Minneapolis/Hennepin County would require at least a fifty percent contribution from the team. Opat seemed resolute that that number be at least fifty, perhaps much higher, and that the terms would require considerable negotiation with respect to various possible revenue streams and which party would profit from which revenue streams. Mondale seemed less resolute.

This week, Mondale showed his true colors, the type of colors, contending that the Vikings better be ready to pony up forty percent of the cost of the stadium--"maybe even high forties."

Mondale's current position would be disingenuous if retention of his post were based on merit or if he even needed to retain his post. Instead, his current position is merely condescending to all Minnesotans. That's because Mondale's current position is really no different from the Vikings' initial offering many years ago for a stadium constructed without a roof and for a stadium for which all of the revenue streams flow to the team. In short, what Mondale is attempting to do is pass off as a substantial gain for Minnesotans and taxpayers a plan that varies not one iota from what the Vikings pitched from the beginning--a plan that will make the Vikings a fortune and return to the State and governing municipality a pittance of what that entity would recover were someone truly representing the State/municipality's interests negotiating a deal with the team.

I've written numerous times on the potential value of a stadium deal to the governing municipality when such a deal fully takes into account all future revenue streams for a new stadium--parking, signage, naming rights, concessions, seat licensing, ticket sales, merchandise, other uses, etc. With his most recent attempt to create a false midnight in which Hennepin and Ramsey County purportedly are bidding against each other, Mondale has demonstrated both his disdain for Minnesotans and his priority of enriching yet another son of wealth in exchange for favors down the road. If the new stadium bears the name of "Mondale" we'll know for certain.

The path to a new Vikings stadium remains one of diligent negotiation that pairs benefits with public cost on a sliding scale. The more money the public commits, the more revenue the public receives. Somewhere along this continuum there is a point of equilibrium at which the Vikings and the public can be satisfied. Even without additional information, adopting the Vikings' original low-ball offer as the starting point for the public side of the negotiations is both a disservice to the public and a clear benefit only to the person negotiating.

Up Next: Will the Courts Order a Return to Business?

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

It's Not Thanksgiving, But Vikings Still Grateful for Twins

Nothing smooths over off-season mistakes in the NFL quite like the misfortunes and bumblings of the local MLB team. When that team is the Minnesota Twins, even a questionable draft at one of the more critical junctures in the NFL team's history, seems acceptable.

For many years, this site has attempted to hold the Vikings organization accountable for its on- and off-the-field exploits, suggested moves and changes, critiqued moves, and applauded the relatively sparse moments due such credit. The rationale for this approach is simple--most, if not all, of the local media covering the Vikings are too heavily invested in the enterprise to do anything other than cheerlead. Even when the Vikings stand as one of the few, if not only, teams to select a bona fide starter at a position of need for 2011, the vast majority of those covering the Vikings have fallen back on the tired cliche, lifted this year from the mouth of Vikings' Director of Pro Personnel, Rick Spielman, that "we need to wait 3-4 years to assess this draft." That's a convenient excuse for all who produce suspect results and not very comforting either for fans or team veterans who do not have 3-4 years to wait.

Similar unquestioning coverage allows the Minnesota Twins to hide behind a thin veneer masking the teams annual problems. This year, with the team facing non-division rivals right out of the gate and much-improved division rivals shortly thereafter, the Twins have struggled. They have struggled to pitch, hit, field, run bases, and, yes, to coach and assess talent.

The current wisdom by the paid media, allowed only after the Twins stopped contending that "if this were an NFL season we'd still be in the first half of game one," is that the players on the field--read, the players with small contracts--are the problem. To be certain, Alexi Casilla and any relief pitcher previously considered only for a mop-up role in other MLB stops, are a tremendous part of the problem. But so, too, have been virtually all other players on the team.

Whether Morneau is making the Bad News Bears look professional in a botched run-down play, Denard Span is being picked off of first yet again, Michael Cuddyer is overthrowing the cut-off and launching one over the catcher's head, Sal Butera is creating a new Butera-zone (.100 BA), Francisco Liriano cannot find the strike zone, yet again, or players are routinely injured to the point that they are unable to play for long stretches at a time, the players on the current version of the Twins certainly bear much of the burden for the team's awful play.

That awful play, however, is really only different in marginal kind to the type of play long exhibited by the Twins. Since Ron Gardenhire took over for Tom Kelly, the Twins have "prided" themselves on playing Twins' baseball. Ostensibly, that meant moving the runners into scoring position, making efficient use of the hit and run, driving in runners from second and third with less than two out, working the opposing pitcher, leading the league in fielding (factoring in chances), hitting the cut-off, reading pitchers and pitch counts, and being accountable or being gone.

Under Gardenhire's watch the slide immediately began. Although the Twins have qualified for several post-seasons under Gardenhire, they have done so almost exclusively due to the weakness of the remainder of the division. With Kansas City, Detroit, and Cleveland re-joining the ranks of major league teams, the Twins no longer can pad a .400 non-division record with a .700 division record and make it into the playoffs.

The reason the Twins are in this predicament is not just because the current players cannot get the job done, however, but also because the current manager either does not preach or does not properly teach the fundamentals of baseball, and the current over-his-head General Manager, Billy Smith, does not know how to assess talent.

Despite the highest payroll in team history, the Twins are on pace to finish the season last of all MLB teams. Without an injection of speed at all outfield spots, MLB capable players up the middle (catcher, short, second, pitcher), a semblance of a starting pitching staff that includes at least one true number one starter and one true number two, better base running, and, generally, vastly improved fundamentals, the Twins face their current predicament not only for the remainder of this season, but also for the next several seasons.

What needs to go? That's the easy question. The Twins need a center fielder who can hit and cover ground, freeing up Denard Span to move to a corner position--preferably to Cuddyer's after-trade position. They also need a shortstop and second-baseman who have range, can field, and can hit above .225 with at least one of the two having some slugging power; the team had this last season, but felt they could improve on what they had by offering what they did this season. Clearly, along with the trades of Johan Santana, Wilson Ramos, and Jose Morales, and the permitted departures of Matt Guerrier and Jesse Crain, the decision represents yet another coup for Smith.

This suggests that, in addition to several players that they are likely to obtain only in off-season free-agency, the Twins need also consider hiring a competent front office person to allow Smith to devote more time to mastering the art of proper tie-tying and suit-sizing. And maybe it's time to recall Tom Kelly or check on the status of Phil Roof, or anyone whose mind-set is not characterized by the philosophy that the number two spot in the lineup is the place to hide a weak bat.

Though the Vikings are coming off a 6-10 season with the strong possibility, absent some substantial free-agent acquisitions, of failing to return to the playoffs in 2011, they can at least lay claim, however faint the title may be, to being the best run "professional" sports franchise in the market. At least they have that going for them. For that, they owe a strong debt of gratitude to the Twins being who we thought they were.

Up Next: Assuming Free-Agency...

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Candies and Nuts for Eternal Optimists

When a team leaves a draft with its most ardent supporters--i.e., its Director of Pro Personnel and head coach--mustering little more than the usual self-congratulations, qualified with the statement that "we won't know until 3-4 years from now how this draft pans out," there is little reason for jubilation among the fan base. Nor is there much reason for excitement, even granting the Vikings' most optimistic self(serving)-evaluations of their draft, given what the Vikings did not accomplish in the draft.

For the record, with the number twelve pick in the draft, the Vikings, needing four to five offensive linemen, a defensive end, an interior defensive lineman, a cornerback, a safety, a legitimate number two running back, a safety, and possibly a wide-receiver, selected a rookie quarterback whom head coach Leslie Frazier contends will compete with Joe Webb for the starting quarterback spot in 2011.

I've noted before the absurdity of this contention. There is zero point to selecting Christian Ponder at twelve if he is not regarded as an immediate starter or at least better than what is essentially a seasoned rookie in Webb. If Webb, at nearly the same point in his career as Ponder, truly enters camp on equal footing with Ponder, as a viable candidate for starting quarterback, there was no reason to draft Ponder.

Most alarming, however, is the signal that Ponder's selection sends to the numerous quality veterans on the Vikings' current roster. Drafting Ponder means that the Vikings either are willing to embark on the process of breaking an unseasoned rookie quarterback at the expense of the remainder of the careers of such players as Antoine Winfield, Jared Allen, Adrian Peterson, Kevin Williams, and, possibly, Pat Williams, or that the Vikings intend to pick up a veteran quarterback to start at quarterback in 2011. If the answer is the former, the Vikings may as well trade off as many valuable pieces as they can and truly begin the "rebuilding process."

If the answer is the latter, then, of course, drafting Ponder was an utter waste of a high, first-round draft pick, as, by the Vikings' own admission, they do not yet know what they have in Ponder and it really doesn't matter anyway.

Even if Ponder succeeds as the franchise quarterback that the Vikings must believe him to be taking him with the number twelve pick in the draft and committing to him number twelve pick dollars on his first contract, and even if Ponder is able to start this season, the pick makes no sense not just because the Vikings already had Joe Webb as the quarterback to groom, but, more significantly, because the Vikings failed to shore up their most glaring weakness, the five positions along the offensive line--the positions that protect the quarterback.

Although Minnesota selected offensive linemen late in the draft, there is no reason to believe that any of those linemen will be any better this year than what the Vikings put on the field in 2010. That means that, even if the newly drafted, late-round linemen succeed in wresting away a starting spot from Bryant McKinnie, Steve Hutchinson, John Sullivan, Anthony Herrera, or Phil Loadholt, the result probably will be no better than similar to last year's pathetic performance by the line. For a rookie quarterback, that's a recipe for a short career--either as a result of injury or as a consequence of shock, the kind that ended Joey Harrington's starting career.

There is some hope in this draft, however. At least if one is an eternal optimist. That hope rests in the fact that the Vikings have at least settled on a quarterback, added another blocking tight end who can also catch the ball, and found some bigger bodies ostensibly to compete for positions on the offensive line. And the team drafted yet another late-round safety, either confirming their own assessment of Madieu Williams and Tyrell Johnson or offering yet another excuse for an outdated defensive scheme.

If the Vikings found even one starter for the offensive line, found a capable starter in Ponder, can move Webb to receiver where he immediately flourishes, have a replacement for Pat Williams, found someone who can put pressure on the (opposing) quarterback, and identified a safety (or scheme) that results in improvements over last year's secondary, the Vikings might be able to compete with the much improved Detroit Lions, the already talented, yet also improved, Green Bay Packers, and the also improved Bears.

But as other teams in the NFC North and NFC clearly upgraded their talent in this year's draft, the Vikings were content, even intent, on selecting a group of players with only one even remotely "sure thing." And that player, former Notre Dame tight end Kyle Rudolph, plays a position where the Vikings arguably already had their greatest depth.

Asked to explain Rudolph's selection, Rick Spielman stated that the team was drafting the "best available player" at that point in the draft and that Rudolph fit that characterization. Why the Vikings were not selecting the best available player early in the first round of the draft, when there were at least five players that arguably fit that bill and fit a critical team need, even ahead of quarterback, was neither asked nor answered.

Up Next: Vikings Need to Make Big Moves in Free Agency, Assuming There is Any Meaningful Free Agency.