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.