Sunday, August 28, 2011

What if Joe Webb Were White?

Last week, ESPN ran an article that seemed as intent on regurgitating the Michael Vick dog-fighting issues as adding anything meaningful to the discussion on race in sports. More significant in the current climate, and a question facing the Minnesota Vikings, is the role of race in defining not a player's position on the field as much as the player's role within that position and how teams view their needs based on how they view their players.

Near the end of a disastrous 2010 season, the Minnesota Vikings lost starting quarterback Brett Favre to injury. Rather than relying on Tarvaris Jackson, a player the team knew it was not bringing back in 2011, the Vikings turned to rookie Joe Webb. Webb had his ups and downs in two starts at the end of last season--rallying the Vikings to an improbable victory at Philadelphia and falling to the Detroit Lions. Overall, however, he showed the type of promise that one would expect of a quarterback-in-training.

In the 2011 NFL college entry draft, however, the Vikings used their twelfth overall pick to select former Florida State quarterback Christian Ponder. At the time, the Vikings made clear that Ponder was their quarterback of the future, immediately declaring him the front-runner for starting quarterback and going so far as to provide him with new offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave's playbook--a respect not accorded Webb.

When the Vikings picked up Donovan McNabb in free agency, the Vikings slid Ponder to second-string and suggested that Webb's future with the team would be in some hybrid role. Ponder, meanwhile, was considered sufficiently ready to slide into the starter's role as early as sometime during the 2011 season, despite, unlike Webb, having shown nothing yet at the pro level.

As the 2011 pre-season has progressed, however, McNabb has established himself as head and shoulders above both Ponder and Webb. In last night's narrow loss to the Dallas Cowboys, McNabb showed poise in the pocket and a rifle arm both on the run and in the pocket. Through three pre-season games, but particularly in last night's game in which starters from both teams played well into the second half, the still relatively young McNabb established himself not only as the best quarterback option on the Vikings' roster, but also as a legitimate starter for the foreseeable future.

McNabb's apparent resurgence in Minnesota, albeit limited to exhibition games, has left the Vikings with a far less critical but still significant question of whether Webb or Ponder merits the number two position. Based strictly on pre-season performance, there is little question but that Webb is the number two quarterback. That's no slight to Ponder, who, until last night, playing with the third-stringers against the third-stringers, had looked like he was making progress toward becoming a starter in the NFL. Rather, it is a testament to Webb's continuing improvement and overall ability.

Unfortunately for Webb, the lesson many have taken away from his play this pre-season is that he is ideally suited for some role in a "wild cat" offense.

We know, of course, that "wild cat" is a euphemism for finding a role other than starting quarterback for a black quarterback who can run and pass but still needs some polish in the pocket. Ponder, too, can run, though not as well as Webb, and can pass when outside the pocket, but nobody is even considering him as a wild-cat option. Nor would they. That's because Ponder is considered a starting quarterback in waiting. And, despite having many of the same assets as Webb--the ability to scramble, run, and pass out of the pocket--and deficiencies--weakness in the pocket, Ponder does not meet one of the requirements of the cliched wild-cat quarterback. He is not black.

While it is conceivable that the Vikings' fixation on Webb as a wild-cat option is predicated on the team's view that Webb needs to be involved in the offense and that team understands that, for this to happen, he must do so in a role other than starting quarterback as long as McNabb is in the fold. But that does not explain why the team began making such suggestions even at the end of last season, well before the team even envisioned bringing in McNabb, or why that suggestion continued to permeate after the Vikings drafted Ponder, a player less ready to start in the NFL than is Webb.

The irony is that the Vikings and many NFL commentators and analysts have all the information in the world to suggest that Webb is a legitimate NFL quarterback who can build on his current assets to establish himself as a long-term starter in the league. Not only did Webb show his abilities last season, but everyone now has evidence, in Michael Vick, that a strong-armed, blazing fast player can be a good pocket quarterback, as well; speed and pocket presence, in other words, are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

The gnawing sense in the case of the Vikings' view of Webb, made all the more ironic by the fact that the Vikings have a black head coach and a black starting quarterback who once was known as much for his legs as for his arm, is that the Vikings have fallen back on the tired cliche that a speedy black quarterback is best suited to an esoteric offense. That logic, intentional or not, could cost the Vikings a quarterback, if not a player, who clearly has the skills necessary to be a very good NFL quarterback. Again, that's no knock against Ponder, who might also develop the necessary, though different skills. But it is an interesting question for the Vikings to consider as they handle what should be a good problem for the team and not one made of cliched views of players.

An objective assessment of current abilities would suggest that McNabb is the Vikings' best option at starting quarterback right now, that Webb ought to be involved in the Vikings' offense this season, and that Webb ought also to be the number two quarterback, rather than Ponder. The difference not only in how the team views this is monumental in terms of how the team treats Webb going forward. If Webb is groomed as the quarterback-in-waiting, he could become a very good starter. If he is treated as the "wild-cat option" only, however, he, unfortunately, will be relegated to a far less generous career. And the Vikings might be cheated out the young starting quarterback that they so greatly covet.

Up Next: Vikings Showing Promise.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Trading Peterson Best Move for Vikings' Long-Term Prospects

Assuming Minnesota Vikings' Pro Personnel Executive, Rick Spielman, can avoid the reverse-Midas touch frequently exhibited by his local pro baseball team counterpart, there is no better time than the present for the Vikings to part ways with Adrian Peterson.

In the final year of his contract, Peterson likely will command a contract in the neighborhood of $40 million over four years with $26 million in guaranteed money. Despite continuing reports to the contrary, the Vikings currently sit approximately $12 million (not $320,000) under the salary cap. With limited creativity, the Vikings could sign Peterson to a long-term deal this year, halving their long-term obligation by bringing forward $12 million to this year's cap--more if the Vikings sign Chad Greenway to a long-term deal that includes less than $10 million in guaranteed money.

The issue facing the Vikings regarding Peterson, then, is not primarily one of long-term costs. Rather, the problem is that signing Peterson to a long-term deal means that the Vikings will be on the hook for several million dollars even as Peterson begins to decline in productivity. Given how many times the Vikings will need to get Peterson the ball in 2011 to be even remotely competitive, that decline is only likely to accelerate.

The Vikings can turn a dilemma into a bonanza, at least on the field, if, rather than signing Peterson, they put him on the trading block. That's a particularly difficult pill for the Vikings' front office to swallow, given that Peterson is the team's primary draw on and off the field and represents one of two clear strong draft selections in the Spielman era.

Whether to trade a star player near the peak of his career is a dilemma that most professional sports teams face at some point. Retaining Peterson would give the Vikings some hope of competing this year while trading him almost certainly would sour the locker room and demoralize an already fragile team. But if the best that the team can hope for in retaining Peterson is to have him oversee what likely will be a 2-3 year rebuilding process, then trading Peterson certainly could make sense.

What is Peterson, a good teammate, an upstanding member of the community, and one of the top players in the league likely to garner in a trade? Rather than looking at what other star players returned in a trade, a difficult proposition given the baggage that virtually all previously traded stars carried with them to their new teams, a better approach is to consider what a lesser player recently received as compensation.

The Carolina Panthers this week signed 28-year-old running back DeAngelo Williams to a five-year extension worth up to $43 million with $21 million in guaranteed money. By signing Williams to such an extension, Carolina essentially is acknowledging that Williams is worth more to them than a first-round pick and, likely, worth more to them than would be two first-round picks. Otherwise, Carolina either would have let Williams go in free agency and drafted a running back in what is likely to be a top-ten pick or traded Williams for a first-round pick--the minimum going rate for a bona fide starting running back. In the latter scenario, Carolina likely would have its choice of the best and the second best running back in the league.

Williams has not played a full season since 2008, when he rushed for over 1,500 yards and 18 touchdowns. In 2009, Williams' production fell to 1,100 yards and seven touchdowns in 13 games. Last year, in just six games, Williams finished with just 361 yards and a single touchdown.

Peterson, meanwhile, has proven far more consistent and far more durable. In each of his four seasons in the NFL, he has played at least 15 games, rushed for at least 1,200 yards, and scored double-digit touchdowns. All of this, despite playing in a system clearly demonstrated not to take the greatest advantage of Peterson's assets, either as a running back or as a receiver.
And, at 26, Peterson is two years younger than Williams.

In just four seasons, Peterson has become the most recognizable and revered of all Vikings' running backs, save, perhaps, for Chuck Foreman. That makes parting with him difficult, at best. More difficult will be the financial hit that losing Peterson likely would mean to the team in the short run, both in terms of ticket and merchandise sales. This probably makes a trade of Peterson unlikely, even in a year in which the Vikings, with holes on both sides of the ball, seem improbable suspects for making a run to the Super Bowl, or even the playoffs.

If the Vikings are willing to admit to themselves, their aging veterans, and their fans that this season is a gap year (euphemism), they ought, as well, acknowledge that trading Peterson, if done properly, can reap a return that positions the Vikings well for the long-term, rather than leaving the team with holes for the remainder of what would be Peterson's extension.

If Williams essentially is worth two first-round picks, the younger, far more productive Peterson ought to be worth at least that as well as some starting talent.

Who would be willing to trade with the Vikings at this level? Probably numerous NFL teams, including all three division rivals who would love to win at the Vikings' expense and who all have long-standing holes at running. But virtually any team in the league would covet Peterson. The question is which team is willing to part with draft picks and players for Peterson's services. That's Spielman's job to figure out and it should be an easy task.

Up Next: Personnel Moves That Ought to be Made.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Jackson and Bevell Remind Vikings of 2010

While it is difficult to assess a pre-season performance against a team as bad as Seattle, the Minnesota Vikings can be secure in knowing that the game revealed both weaknesses and strengths of this year's team.

The bad included the play of the offensive line--particularly the starting left tackle, Charlie Johnson. One series after Jared Allen inexplicably failed to rap up the much slighter Tarvaris Jackson on a broken play that left the Vikings' defensive end alone against the Seattle quarterback, Seattle's Raheem Brock made good on a similar opportunity when Johnson failed to pick up Brock--or even acknowledge his existence.

The bad also included an offense that still more closely resembles a Childress offense, but without any semblance of a deep threat. For the game, the Vikings did amass 142 rushing yards, include a nice 35-yard touchdown run by rookie Tristan Davis. But the Vikings' first team compiled a mere 16 yards of that 142 yards in nearly one half of play and failed to finish an otherwise good drive from deep in their own end, using one play in the final set of downs to run Peterson up the middle when Seattle had shown weakness on both edges in the drive.

And the bad included an offense that mustered a mere six points in the first half and thirteen for the game against a Seattle defense that was among the worst in the NFL last season. The Vikings and their cheerleaders can continue to insist that the Vikings are waiting until the regular season to unwrap the offense, but what's to unwrap. This is a short-passing, quick-hit offense without a deep-threat to make the short-game the threat that it could be. Absent the deep threat, and with continued issues on the left side of the offensive line, this offense will continue to struggle, particularly in the red zone.

While some significant issues linger for the Vikings, some other sources of concern abated, albeit in the face of woeful competition. Against Jackson, for whom it should now be clear that the NFL is not long, the Vikings were able to apply significant pressure and turn a pick into six. Jackson was scrambling most of his time in the game and that pressure made the Viking's secondary look fairly good.

The secondary looked even better, even accounting for the quarterback and the pressure up front, when former Gopher Marcus Sherels was in the game. It has been some time since the Vikings had a corner with Sherels' speed. Sherels displayed this speed on his pick for a touchdown, but, equally impressive, showed an ability to hold onto an easy pick and a penchant for being in on the play--all attributes that most Vikings' cornerbacks have been lacking since at least the Denny Green era.

McNabb also looked better this week, still missing on some open plays, but showing less rust than last week and moving the Vikings down field from their own one-yard-line. McNabb was not spectacular, but if he continues to show progress into the regular season the Vikings will be vindicated, if they have not already been, in picking up the hard-to-believe-he-is-only-34 veteran.

Along with the bad and the good, there were some mixed signs on Saturday. Those included a run defense that allowed 150 yards against a weak Seattle offensive line and running game, but which ceded only 23 yards in the first half, when both teams had their starting units in the game, and which stuffed Seattle on four attempts inside the five-yard-line--albeit with the significant assistance of Darrell Bevell's familiar play-calling.

There also was the play of Christian Ponder who, at times, looked awful--as when he attempted to pitch the ball into a sea of players or when he struggled to throw with the pocket collapsing--but who also appeared to be on track to being a legitimate NFL quarterback when he rolled out of the pocket and found receivers in stride, when his reportedly "weak" arm rifled a pass across the field, and when his reportedly "average" speed beat a corner to the sideline for a good--and safe--gain.

Although it is difficult to assess certain aspects of a pre-season game against a weak opponent, it is safe to say that, at the mid-way point of the pre-season, the Vikings have strong concerns at left offensive tackle, at defensive tackle, and at wide-receiver. Whether the lack of a pressing concern at cornerback and safety is the consequence of young players showing promise or the opposition being minimal likely will be answered next week against the Dallas Cowboys in a game in which both teams probably will play their starters for at least three quarters.

Up Next: Moves to Make and Not Make

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Adrian Peterson a Wasted Luxury on This Vikings' Squad

While it is unwise to put too much stock in a pre-season game, particularly the first game after a long layoff, Saturday night's Minnesota Vikings' game against the Tennessee Titans offered a glimpse of both the long- and short-term prospects for the Vikings. The conclusion is that the short-term will be bumpy and predictable. Unfortunately, that also suggests that Adrian Peterson's and the Vikings' future might be better served with Peterson finishing his career elsewhere.

With little time to show their wares, Vikings' starters complied with conventional wisdom against the Titans, showing little. Donovan McNabb looked like a rustier version of the average to above average quarterback that he has been for much of his NFL career, Peterson carried one time for the proverbial cloud of dust, and nobody really stood out in limited minutes and limited exposure.

What did stand out for Minnesota was a mix of discouraging and encouraging. On the discouraging front were the expected suspects. Bill Musgrave's offense, a work-in-progress for who knows how long, showed its limitations whenever it was necessary to gain more than three or four yards; the Vikings' deep-threat, presumably the province of the player that Brett Favre snubbed the past two seasons, was non-existent; the Vikings' defense had one sack and zero turnovers; and the Vikings' secondary was beaten both between the zones of the Tampa 2 and over the top.

Offensively, the Vikings look woeful. Bill Musgrave's system looks like a rip-off of the Brad Childress scheme with only a very heavy dose of Peterson receiving, Percy Harvin in the slot and a double-tight-end set of Kyle Rudolph and Visanthe Shiancoe remotely suggesting the potential for "explosiveness," writ small.

The more reserved and patient of Vikings' fans will note that: (1) it is very early in the pre-season; (2) the starters played sparingly; and (3) Musgrave's system will take some time to implement. All points are, of course, true. But they are readily countered with additional truisms: (1) As early as it is in the pre-season, the regular season is nearly upon us; (2) the starters at key positions are not significantly better, if at all, than the reserves who did nothing--see, particularly, deep receiver and safety; and (3) When in place, Musgrave's system will look very much like it looked last night--conservative and tight, but with no deep threat to keep the defense honest.

More striking in last night's game was that the Vikings did nothing at all against a defense that, at times last year, looked like little more than a paper tiger. The Vikings' three points paled in comparison to the points put up by numerous other offenses this week--27 by Cleveland, 33 by St. Louis, 47 by New England, 24 by Seattle, 24 by Dallas, 23 by Denver, 28 by Miami, 24 by Arizona, 34 by Detroit, 24 by New Orleans, and 25 by Tampa Bay, all of which played their starters roughly the same amount of time as did the Vikings. The Vikings' company? Cincinnati (3), Buffalo (3), San Francisco (3), and Kansas City (0).

Given how many teams already appear to have their offense in sync--many paired with respectable defenses--the Vikings, to say the least, have a very long way to go to be ready for the regular season. Which, of course, raises the inevitable question of why the Vikings bother to retain, rather than trade, Peterson. In the final year of his contract, Peterson also is nearing the expected shelf-life of an NFL running back. And though he has not been abused during his run in Minnesota, he almost certainly will be pummeled in Musgrave's short-yardage scheme. For a first round pick, an offensive lineman, running back, safety, and receiver, it probably would be worth parting with Peterson this year, even if it means that the trading partner is Green Bay and even if it results in Green Bay running away with the title.

Despite the negatives to last night's exhibition, the Vikings did show some signs of promise for the future in the form of Joe Webb, Christian Ponder, and Rudolph. Webb threw a bad pass resulting in an interception, but he also looked good escaping pressure and running, seemingly effortlessly, for 33 yards on five carries. Ponder also mostly appeared poised in avoiding the rush, one time making a Fran Tarkenton-like escape to complete a pass for a first down. But for a phantom call, the play might have led to something for the Vikings. And Rudolph showed the hands that Bernard Berrian claims to have.

For Jared Allen, Antoine Winfield, Jim Kleinsasser, Steve Hutchinson, Adrian Peterson, Donovan McNabb, and Kevin Willliams, today is the present and the future. For the Vikings, however, today appears to represent a future that remains in the future. How distant that future is likely will be told before the 2011 regular season even begins.

Up Next: Prepping McNabb for Backup Duty?

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

From the "You Get the Government You Deserve" Files

Earlier this year, Ramsey County Commissioners Tony Bennett and Rafael Ortega provided a glimpse of dysfunctional, obtuse government at its finest, promising the Minnesota Vikings the moon and the stars if only the team would deign to accept hundreds of millions of dollars from Ramsey County to take over a large tract of land that nobody else least nobody that would have to clean the former munitions site with their own finances.

Listening to Bennett and Ortega discuss their meeting and "agreement" with the Vikings to build a new Vikings' stadium in Arden Hills was akin to listening to an Onion skit. Slightly unfortunately for the residents of Minnesota, and wholly unfortunately for the residents of Ramsey County, the Bennett-Ortega (BO) lovefest with Vikings' officials was all too real.

The Vikings left their stadium-announcing press conference with BO certain that they had found their huckleberries in the Midwest. BO did nothing to alter that impression.

From the Vikings' perspective, the Arden Hills maneuver played out perfectly--at least up to the near present. The deal hinged on Ramsey County footing most of the bill for the new stadium through bonding measures and taxation. The team would pay approximately one-quarter, fixed, of the approximate remaining cost of building the stadium and Ramsey County would go into full-court press to convince the State to contribute approximately $300 million, plus undisclosed clean-up costs and infrastructure overrides.

Vikings' stadium spokesperson for life, Lester Bagley, immediately began spinning Governor Mark Dayton's "commitment" of a firm $300 million for the stadium, with a specified amount for infrastructure, contending that the State was not properly factoring into the equation the necessary infrastructure upgrades absent a stadium. "That number has to be higher," Bagley scoffed, feeling, for some reason, that he and the Vikings had the leverage in the matter.

Then things began to turn sour for the Vikings.

First, some in the media had the audacity to question whether the Vikings were actually playing the local yokals of Ramsey County, a la the team's maneuverings in Anoka County, in the team's bid to secure its true, coveted stadium site in Minneapolis--a place where the team already owns other real estate in slightly less contaminated, already market established grounds. "No way," Bagley shot back, slapping Tony Bennett on the back and sliding a two-dollar bill into Rafael Ortega's pocket. "This is where we want to be. This is where we will be." As an aside, Bagley assured the nearly always pliable gathering of local media that there was no truth to the rumor--not started by the Vikings, he also insisted--that the Vikings had any interest in moving to LA.

Second, the Mayor of St. Paul, Chris Coleman, blanched at doling out money, largely from St. Paul, to finance the Vikings' new stadium. Coleman countered with a proposal so ridiculous that it had no chance of adoption. That proposal also made clear St. Paul's utter disinterest in the commitment that the St. Paul Commissioners resolved to undertake.

Third, the wise leaders of the State elected to embark on a budget impasse during which they made clear to all that they neither understood the purpose of government--to lead in making difficult decisions for the benefit of the citizens--nor could be counted upon to support any measure, good or bad, for anybody other than the person who shouted loudest at the baby-kissing contest that thrust them into office.

The Vikings groaned.

Then, LA County approved "the framework" of a new stadium in LA County. Why the Wilfs cannot be any meaningful part of an LA stadium plan has been covered at length on this site. Suffice it to say, the Wilfs gain nothing from selling to an LA agent that they don't already make in Minnesota and the NFL does not want an existing team in LA, a result that would cost the NFL over $1 billion in franchise fees.

But the Wilf's seized on the news--no, they insist, neither they nor the NFL helped generate the information to push Governor Dayton into a hasty decision--hoping to secure their Minneapolis location or so sweeten the Arden Hills option that even playing in Arden Hills made some sense.

Unfortunately for the Vikings, Lester Bagley did not count on some sly reporting from a Minneapolis Tribune writer handpicked by the team to report on an absurdly staged discussion of how the Vikings have no interest in moving to LA, during training camp in Mankato.

One of the folks that the good people of Ramsey County elected to represent them, the aforementioned Mr. Bennett, was on hand for the "impromptu" Bagley announcement and was eager to meet rookie quarterback Christian Ponder. The star-struck Bennett, no doubt donning his personal coaching fatigues, assured Ponder that he would soon be the starting quarterback. Almost certainly relieved to be receiving confirmation of his impending stardom from such an elite mind, Ponder replied, "I hope so."

Not to be outdone, fellow Ramsey County Commissioner Rafael Ortega gushed upon meeting Vikings' head coach Leslie Frazier and thanked the coach for "calling my daughter to wish her a happy birthday."

As the gathering began to break, Vikings' wide-receiver Percy Harvin approached the Commissioners, Bagley, and the reporters and shook hands with the Commissioners. Eyeing the cameras, Harvin turned to Bagley--not the Vikings' PR people--and asked whether he was to do interviews too. A funny question, to be sure, of an impromptu gathering. Bagley quietly replied, "No."

For Minnesotans uncertain of whether there is a snake in the grass at Winter Park, there ought no longer be any doubt. For those in Ramsey County heartened enough to vote into office the likes of Bennett and Ortega, however, no amount of wall writing likely will suffice to make clear that you are being had. And like many others across the country, you will receive no sympathy for having elected such clueless officials.

Up Next: Any Fingers Left?

Friday, August 05, 2011

Is Bill Musgrave Vikings' Answer to Tim Brewster?

New Minnesota Vikings' offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave has not exactly lit the NFL world on fire with his offensive scheming. For nine of his fourteen-year coaching career, he has served as a quarterbacks coach, a position only slightly more glamorous than the tight-end coaching position so long held by former University of Minnesota head football coach Tim Brewster. For two more seasons, he served as an offensive coordinator at the University of Virginia. Other than the stint in the college ranks, Musgrave has but two years and a handful of games serving as an offensive coordinator at the NFL level, and the results have been anything but impressive.

How rough has it been for Musgrave in the NFL? Consider that his nine years coaching quarterbacks have come with five different teams, the most recent being Atlanta, and that his first four stints as quarterback coach resulted in one and dones with Musgrave leaving his position for the same position with another NFL team. Consider, as well, that, after joining Atlanta as the quarterbacks coach in 2006, Musgrave remained entrenched in a position regarded as a stepping stone position until his departure for Minnesota in 2011.

If the anecdotal does not suffice to chill the cockels of Vikings' fans, consider the performances of Musgraves' offenses.

Musgrave began his coaching career in 1997 as quarterbacks coach for the Oakland Raiders. That season, under the quarterbacking guidance of Jeff George, led to a seventeenth-place offensive finish for the Raiders. The Raiders finished 4-12.

One year later, relieved of his duties in Oakland, Musgrave moved on to the Philadelphia Eagles to serve as quarterbacks coach. With Bobby Hoying, Koy Detmer, and Rodney Peete sharing quarterbacking duties, the Eagles finished 3-13 and 30th in the league in offense.

One year later, relieved of his duties in Philadelphia, Musgrave accepted the quarterbacks coaching position with the Carolina Panthers. Led by Steve Beuerlein, the Panthers finished fourth in the NFL in offense with an 8-8 record. Musgrave's performance, and head coach George Seifert's growing unease with offensive coordinator Gil Haskell's seemingly uneven performances, led Seifert to sack Haskell and promote Musgrave to offensive coordinator in 2000.

Musgrave's promotion in Carolina was short lived, however, as Seifert sacked him a mere four games into the 2000 season. That dismissal came only after Seifert called Musgrave to the floor and chastised his play-calling in front of the team.

After his dismissal from Carolina, Musgrave moved on to the University of Virginia where he served as Al Groh's offensive coordinator for two seasons, with mixed results, despite having Matt Schaub as his starting quarterback.

Subsequent coaching positions in Jacksonville, Washington, and Atlanta, led to similar results, with his final season in Atlanta proving his most resume-worthy, mentoring quarterback Matt Ryan to continued improvement.

In all, Musgrave left only one position on his own accord--that of five-year quarterbacks coach in Atlanta. In that final position, he had one of the better young quarterbacks in the league and was able to bring that player along. With lesser talent, Musgrave clearly has struggled in a role far subordinate to the position he now holds in Minnesota. All of which might explain why his exits from every stop prior to Atlanta were met with relief by the relevant fan bases.

For Vikings' fans searching for hope in Musgrave's hiring and promotion to offensive coordinator, there are at least two indications of promise. The first is that Musgrave has had some success working with veteran quarterbacks. McNabb certainly fits that bill. Although Musgrave did take a good Carolina offense with a veteran quarterback and make it awful under the same quarterback, as quarterbacks coach, he did what he was to have done. If he can get that to translate to similar results as an offensive coordinator in the NFL, the Vikings have reason for optimism.

A second reason for optimism, however muted, is that Musgrave has committed to using the running back in more than the staid, Childress formations, promising to use Adrian Peterson in the slot and get the ball in Peterson's hands through the air--two things that Childress stubbornly refused to do. That still does not address how Musgrave sees the field on a play-by-play basis, but it does offer hope that the imagination to see the field differently than Childress exists within his soul.

On the whole, however, while it is difficult to fathom a less creative offense than that offered by Childress and Darrell Bevell, it is equally difficult to imagine that Musgrave suddenly has become a savant at offensive coordinator. Rather, what Musgrave's track record suggests is that his greatest level of competence is that of quarterbacks coach and that he might not even be much above average in that role. Perhaps having Adrian Peterson, Percy Harvin, Visanthe Shiancoe, and Donovan McNabb will help paper over some of Musgrave's heretofore shortcomings. Perhaps not.

Up Next: More Moves?

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Debunking Myths

Two assertions are making the rounds of those covering the Minnesota Vikings and the NFL. One, extant since anyone began giving thought to this year's possible salary cap numbers, is that the Vikings are over the salary cap. The other, current since Tuesday but picking up steam, is that former Viking offensive tackle Bryant McKinnie was a solid player on whom the team could count, week after week. Neither assertion is supported either by the numbers or logic.

Salary Cap

Prior to any free-agent signings, the Vikings were committed to approximately $95 million in base salary in 2011. The only two additional payouts that could increase that figure are pro-rated portions of signing bonuses and unattained "likely-to-be-achieved" incentive bonuses. Incentive bonuses count against the cap for the year in which they are offered and are only meaningful salary cap surprises if the NFL deems that unattained LTAs were unattainable, whereby the NFL attributes the unattained salary to the subsequent year's salary cap.

Under the Wilfs' ownership, the Vikings, as has been noted in this column on previous occasion, have relied on front-loaded roster bonuses. As an aside, and to allay another myth, this strategy actually makes Rob Brzezinski's job one of the easiest in the NFL as he is not asked to make any tough balancing decisions between how much to pay now and how much to pay later. As a non-aside, this reliance on roster bonuses makes the Vikings' salary cap situation more transparent than it is for most other teams as there is limited to no calculation required for pro-rated elements of players' contracts.

What all this means is that even after signing Donovan McNabb, Charlie Johnson, Hussain Abdullah, and Ryan Longwell, the Vikings remain well below the salary cap ceiling of $120 million for 2011. And that would have been true even if the Vikings had not cut Bryant McKinnie or restructured Bernard Berrian's contract--both of which the team did. That means that the Vikings do, in fact, have money to spend on several more free agents, even if the team opts not to reach a long-term agreement with linebacker Chad Greenway (a move the team will make in the very near future) and even if the Vikings rely on roster bonuses in any restructuring or free-agent deals.

The question for Minnesota thus is not whether they have the cap space to sign more free agents but whether they will sign more free agents. Given the team's need to maintain a heightened fan base interest to spur the on-going stadium drive (one of the greatest arguments for limited public funding of NFL stadiums), it is a near certainty that the Vikings will yet add two or three more veterans--particularly players able to fill holes on the offensive line and at defensive end, nose tackle, and/or wide-receiver.

McKinnie Myth

Dove-tailing with the claim that the Vikings are over the salary cap ceiling is the absurd contention that former left offensive tackle Bryant McKinnie was even remotely dependable. Rarely has a Viking player been less dependable than McKinnie. Despite all the benefits of a huge frame and purportedly agile feet, McKinnie was a disinterested sloth who routinely lost ground to on-coming defensive linemen.

The eye test is really all that is necessary to assess McKinnie's production in the NFL. In ten NFL seasons, McKinnie had one season that any objective eye test would find worthy of a Pro Bowl. Two years later, as is tradition in the NFL, McKinnie was rewarded for that one season, in the midst of a truly putrid season.

Whether taking a lead pipe to someone's head, failing to be in shape for games, or declining to assist his quarterback off the turf, McKinnie certainly could be counted on during his time in Minnesota. Unfortunately for his teammates and the fans, what he could be counted on was to be little better than a disinterested replacement-level player. He will not be missed either on the field or in the stands, unless one misses seeing the Vikings' quarterback lit up from the blind side.

Up Next: Possible Signings and Goings.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

He Gone

Early Tuesday, the Minnesota Vikings did themselves a much belated favor, cutting ties with disinterested left offensive tackle Bryant McKinnie. The move saves the team approximately $6 million and saves Vikings' fans from what has to have been one of the more horrific two-year runs of blind-side cover in recent NFL history.

The Vikings' cutting of McKinnie comes one day after the team signed former Indianapolis Colts' left offensive tackle Charlie Johnson to a free-agent contract and one day after the team placed McKinnie on the Non-Football-Injury reserve list. At the time of Johnson's signing, the Vikings stated that McKinnie's status was still in flux. McKinnie, himself, suggested that he intended to play for the Vikings in 2011. But whatever the Vikings' intentions yesterday, the team made its determination today that McKinnie will no longer be a part of the Vikings' future. For that, McKinnie has only himself to blame and fans, at long last, have McKinnie to thank.

Serving as a turnstile for much of his tenure in Minnesota, McKinnie was better known for poor footwork, laziness on and off the field, and a penchant for South Beach partying than for providing any semblance of a dedication to football. That McKinnie would allow himself to become so slovenly that the Vikings were forced to cut ties with him when they otherwise were perfectly willing to overpay him merely for his potential, pretty much tells McKinnie's story with the team and suggests an almost certain decline for McKinnie outside of the NFL.

When Brad Childress and Zygi Wilf first entered the picture in Minnesota, they pledged to clean house of all players of suspect character. That mantra rang true, but only to the extent that it applied to players that not only were suspect of character but also suspect in their play. Though McKinnie was not bashful about hitting someone upside the head with a metal bar, Childress found his play worthy of excusing such hijinks. Hence, McKinnie was labeled a "veteran leader," a label that suggested character.

Now that McKinnie's physical disrepair is too apparent to shield from the eyes no matter the mask, McKinnie's run in Minnesota is done. And with more money in the shed, the Vikings ought now be in a better position to reassess other areas of need.

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