Friday, January 27, 2012

Scenarios Under Which Trading Down Could Make Sense for Vikings

In a previous post, I offered the rationale for the Minnesota Vikings both retaining their number three overall pick in this year's NFL entry draft and using that pick to select USC offensive tackle, Matt Kalil. Barring an injury or arrest, I stand by that analysis. But that analysis assumes that Kalil is still on the board when the Vikings draft.

The Indianapolis Colts are widely reported to have already determined that they will use the number one overall pick in the draft on Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck. Assuming that holds, there is but one selection between the Colts' and the Vikings'. And, as fortune would have it, the team currently picking in that slot, the St. Louis Rams, happen to have serious needs along the offensive line.

Should the Rams use the number two overall pick to select Kalil, a player almost universally regarded as the top offensive lineman in this draft, that would leave the Vikings one spot out of being able to take one of the two players that they would have considered a clear option so high in the draft, with Luck being the other. That possibility has given rise in some quarters to sentiments that the Vikings ought to trade up to ensure that they obtain Kalil. That's problematic for several reasons, however, two of which ought to suffice to quell consideration of such a move.

First and foremost, if the Rams are willing to trade out of the two spot to a team that they know covets Kalil, that, alone, suggests that the Rams are not committed to Kalil. Second, trading up will cost the Vikings dearly. Not only will it require the Vikings to concede their second-round pick--just a whisper outside of the first round--it also likely will require the concession of either a first- or second-round pick in next year's draft. That's a steep and foolish price for a team to pay for an unproven college player, particularly when that team needs quality players at so many positions.

If the Rams retain the second pick, they may well take Kalil, but, as of this moment, the grapevine is suggesting that St. Louis will move the second pick to either Washington or Cleveland, both of which covet Robert Griffin, and both of which draft far enough back in the draft to worry that a team ahead of them will take Griffin. If the draft plays out this way, the Vikings have an easy decision to make. Last year, that meant that they eschewed the obvious choice in favor of Christian Ponder. This year, one hopes, they stick with the obvious and take Kalil.

If the Rams draft Kalil--and only if Kalil is gone or otherwise fails a common sense standard for selection--the Vikings should strongly consider trading their pick and moving down the draft board with the caveat that they remain in the first round.

What could the Vikings get for the number three pick in the draft? That depends on with whom they trade. If the Vikings' trade partner is well down the draft board, the taking could be significant, particularly given that this trade has five players widely considered elite prospects, the remaining two being Justin Blackmon and Morris Claiborne.

If the Rams hold their pick, they almost certainly would do so to ensure that they get Kalil, realizing that the Vikings covet the tackle. That would leave the Vikings in the position of entertaining teams seeking an elite receiver, cornerback, or quarterback, i.e., virtually every team not yet having drafted.

If moving up one spot to ensure Kalil costs a minimum of two second-round picks, the bounty for granting a team such as Miami the choice of three players that they desperately need is probably worth a first-, two second-, and a third-round pick. The price could be even higher for a team such as the middle-round selecting Cardinals or Jets.

Trading down to the mid-teens would ensure the Vikings a solid return in draft picks, plus an opportunity to still pick a player that fills a need and is able to start immediately. Not long ago, Stanford tackle Jonathan Martin was being spoken of in the same lofty tones as currently is Kalil. Now, trading down even three spots almost certainly would still ensure the Vikings the option of taking Martin. There is virtually never a flaw in taking a solid offensive lineman from a school that merit screens its athletes. And if Martin is gone, Riley Reiff, the most recent among a string of Iowa-produced NFL-ready offensive linemen, should be available.

In fact, trading down to as low as the fourteenth slot in this year's draft would probably ensure the Vikings the right to choose between Stanford guard, David DeCastro, offensive tackle, Mike Adams, center, Peter Konz (for those not yet convinced that John Sullivan is the center of the future), middle linebacker, Dont'a Hightower (for those without an aversion to apostrophe- named players), and defensive tackle, Fletcher Cox, plus a bonus pick in the top half of round two.

Assuming the Colts select Luck, the only alternative for the Vikings to either selecting Kalil or trading down in the draft to somewhere later in the first round, is selecting Robert Griffin at three, assessing his ability in mini-camp and deciding whether to keep or trade Griffin and, then, what to do with Ponder and Joe Webb. And that route is fraught with peril not only because of the diminished value it establishes for both Webb and Ponder but also because, like a new car, Griffin loses significant value once off the board.

Whether selecting Kalil or trading down, this should be the most fool-proof of Vikings' drafts since taking Adrian Peterson. That almost certainly means, however, that the Vikings will neither select Kalil nor trade down to later in the first round.

Up Next: Preposterous Statement of the Week. Plus, Vikings the first to blink--thrice.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Vikings Left With Two Options in First Round of Draft

The success of the New York Giants, San Francisco 49ers, Baltimore Ravens, and New England Patriots in the 2012 playoffs demonstrates several points instructive for the Minnesota Vikings as they pare their 2012 draft board. Chief among these points is that successful teams are constructed by focusing on the offensive and defensive lines and that, while great receivers will boost teams, great receivers cannot overcome poor line play.

In addition to the winning teams, losing teams such as Atlanta, Detroit, Green Bay, and Cincinnati helped demonstrate the above points. Despite having elite receivers (or a purportedly unstoppable stable of receivers led by a purportedly near-elite receiver, such as Green Bay's), each of these teams failed in the playoffs either because their offensive lines failed to provide protection for the quarterback, the defensive line failed to put pressure on the quarterback and/or stop the run, or both.

Denver provided another insight particularly relevant for Minnesota, demonstrating that an athletically gifted quarterback must have the ability to consistently put the ball on the money. Tim Tebow made some very nice passes in the playoffs, several times putting the ball where only the receiver could get it and where the receiver did get it. He also, however, proved wildly erratic and utterly inconsistent.

The Vikings ought to take these messages to heart when drafting in 2012. Such heeding would not be knee-jerk but, rather, responsive to clear evidence pre-dating even this year's playoffs.

Should the Vikings heed the cautions afforded by the 2012 playoff contenders, they will focus on ensuring that, after the draft, the offensive and defensive lines are sound. Once that goal has been assured, the team can consider other positions of need.

Following this course would lead the Vikings to use their first-round pick on USC left offensive tackle, Matt Kalil. The 6'7" Kalil represents the surest bet of any player on the 2012 draft board and represents the best opportunity for the Vikings to fill a pressing need on the offensive line. Drafting Kalil also would permit the Vikings to move Charlie Johnson to right tackle and see whether Phil Loadhold can handle the right or left guard positions.

Securing the offensive line would give the Vikings a better idea of what Christian Ponder and/or Joe Webb can do when not required to flee the pocket or take a sack. It also should permit the Vikings to weather Adrian Peterson's injury.

The Vikings understandably are looking at several positions in the draft other than that of offensive line. Among those, with most logical selection in parentheses, are wide receiver (Justin Blackmon), cornerback (Morris Claiborne), defensive tackle (Michael Brockers), running back (Trent Richardson), and safety (Mark Barron).

In previous years, the Vikings would have had cause to weigh the costs and benefits of trading out of the three spot, strictly out of concern for salary cap issues. Under the new CBA, teams have no such incentive and no such defense for trading down. With the third pick in this year's draft, the Vikings will be able to sign a player to a four-year deal at less than half of what it would have cost to sign the same player in the same slot one year ago. That saves the team money, but, more significantly, it saves the team considerable cap space.

The Vikings' projected cap room savings in the draft ought to be put towards signing free agents at positions better filled by proven veterans than by mercurial and/or unproven college players. The Vikings will have an opportunity to woo free-agents such as wide-receivers Vincent Jackson, DeSean Jackson, and Dwayne Bowe, cornerbacks Brent Grimes, Carlos Rogers, and Tracy Porter, linebacker Anthony Spencer, defensive end Mario Williams, and running backs Ray Rice and Matt Forte. The Vikings also could look to bolster their offensive line with players such as Demetrius Bell, Carl Nicks, Ben Grubbs and even the aging Jeff Saturday, should the Vikings not be convinced that John Sullivan had the year he is reported to have had.

Between the draft and free-agency, the Vikings are thus left with several options for remaking the team that finished as the worst in team history, without losing years to "rebuilding." But that starts with focusing on players at the top of the board whom the team rightly can expect to be productive for at least a decade without a falloff in performance. And that means focusing on Kalil, rather than a shorter, lighter-weight version of Calvin Johnson.

Up Next: The One Reasonable Argument for the Vikings Trading Down.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

How the Vikings Can Put the Egg Back Together Again in 2012

The Minnesota Vikings face as many challenges as many of the 2011 non-playoff teams entering the 2011-2012 off-season. Those challenges are mitigated, however, by the fact that the Vikings have some high-caliber players at key positions. Those players make the team's prospects brighter than are those for teams such as the Colts, Cardinals, Browns, Jets, Bucs, or many of the other teams left out of this year's playoffs.

Turning around the Vikings in short order is a tall task. And it could well be that neither the Vikings' front office nor the team's coaching staff is anywhere near up to the challenge.

The challenge will require the Vikings not only to bring in the right personnel, but also to use players properly and employ useful schemes. Scheming has been a problem for Frazier, dating to his days as a defensive coordinator. Though the Vikings generally did well against the run under Frazier, they did so largely due to the presence of both Pat and Kevin Williams, as well as a healthy E.J. Henderson. The recently released Karl Dunbar and demoted Fred Pagac arguably did more impressive jobs against the run this year, however, fielding a squad missing Pat Williams and absent a healthy E.J. Henderson.

Defending the pass, however, has been the Vikings' achilles, dating back to Frazier's arrival in Minnesota. Even in good times, when Antoine Winfield and Darren Sharper both played on a consistent basis, the Vikings had their issues on pass defense, rarely faring much better than average in yards allowed. Sharper was the first to put public voice to concerns over the Vikings' Cover-2, suggesting in strong terms that the team would be better suited with a read-and-react approach. Sharper's criticism led, in part, to his departure from Minnesota. One year later, under the Saints' read-and-react scheme, Sharper turned in one of his best seasons in the league.

The challenge with employing the Cover-2 is that it requires a star middle linebacker who can cover tight ends and defend against the run, cornerbacks who can tackle for short gains, and safeties who can close gaps between the corner and safety, either making picks or minimizing yards after the reception.

For the past two seasons, if not longer, the Vikings have attempted to play Cover-2 with an aging, oft-injured, and under-sized cornerback in Winfield, a mentally challenged cornerback in Chris Cook, a gimpy cornerback in Cedric Griffin, safeties who clearly have not been indoctrinated in any fashion of coverage, any number of rookie and off-the-street cornerbacks and safeties, and a middle linebacker who cannot cover tight ends and has lost explosion along the line.

There is no logical reason to stick with the Cover-2 either in Minnesota or anywhere else in the league when the game has changed so much to favor the passing attack and receivers are increasingly bigger and stronger. In this era, Cover-2, at its best, merely delays touchdown drives, particularly absent a star middle linebacker anchoring the system. All of this suggests that some form of a read-and-react scheme is more appropriate generally speaking and particularly more appropriate in Minnesota, given Minnesota's current roster.

If the Vikings insist on playing Cover-2 next season, therefore, it will be for one of two reasons--either Frazier is simply being stubborn or he does not know any other way to play defense, such as it is.

Assuming that the Vikings are committed to the Cover-2, to be competitive next year on defense they will need to add to their roster a middle linebacker, two cornerbacks, and at least one safety. That suggests that the Vikings could be eyeing LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne, one year after the team passed on former Nebraska cornerback Prince Amukamara in favor of selecting quarterback Christian Ponder.

Ponder's selection was the Vikings' reaction to years of quarterback uncertainty in Minnesota. Given essentially the same decision-makers in Minnesota in 2012, albeit a modified chain-of-command, that likely means that 2012 will be the year that the Vikings, out of frustration with their secondary woes, select a presumed star cornerback in round one.

That decision, as would be the decision to address the long-standing short-coming at wide-out by selecting the speedy and athletic Justin Blackburn, would be a mistake.

Up Next: Beginning the Rebuilding on Offense.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Vikings' Hire Assures Similar Design in 2012

On Wednesday, the Minnesota Vikings announced the hiring of former Indianapolis Colts' defensive backs coach, Alan Williams. Willams' addition all but ensures that the Vikings will retain their 4-3 and Cover-2 schemes of 2011. More unsettling, continuing cronyism in hiring notwithstanding, are Williams' initial suggestions that personnel was not the problem for the Vikings' defense in 2011.

Williams' hire means that the worst possible scenario--the promotion of the lightly regarded Mike Singletary to defensive coordinator--did not transpire. Because of the manner in which the Vikings' dealt with their defensive coordinator search, however, the result is, at best, unclear.

Williams arrives in Minnesota after having served a decade as defensive backs coach for the Colts. Williams' resume thus raises two significant questions. The first is why he languished so long as a position coach? That's an important question in a State recently divorced of a significant mistaken hire of a long-time position coach.

The second and related issue is why Williams should be viewed as any more capable than Fred Pagac to coordinate the defense? Hopefully, the Vikings were relying on something more than the intuition that nobody could do worse in 2012--because somebody surely can do worse than what the Vikings did in 2011.

Who might do worse? Why not somebody associated with a team that actually yielded more yards in 2011 than did the Vikings or somebody who oversaw a secondary saved from being as putrid as the Vikings' secondary only through the grace of the Colts' even more susceptible rush "defense"? Against the pass in the 2011, the Colts ranked 15th in yards allowed and 20th in touchdowns. Those numbers appear better than the Vikings' 2011 comparables of 26 and 32, but, when factoring in opposing pass attempts, the numbers are very comparable on a pro-rated basis.

It's important to note, as well, that, although teams ran more against the Colts than they passed against them in 2011, they certainly did not eschew the pass out of fear of failure. Rather, what most opponents appeared to do against the Colts in 2011 was run until they got tired of running and then pass until they got tired of passing. Teams also passed on the pass late in games more often than they did so against the rest of the league because, by the third quarter, most Colts' games were already in the books as lopsided losses. As such, the Colts' 2011 opponents had great success with both the rush and the pass, just better success rushing because they rushed more often.

If you are prone to being skeptical about the current Vikings' organization's handling of personnel matters, Williams' hire certainly offers no reason to alter that disposition. In his first press conference following his hiring, Williams committed to the Cover-2 and "Leslie's vision." He also suggested that the players were not the primary problem, contending that an overhaul of the defense was not necessary. If by that, Williams meant that no overhaul of the defensive line is required, he probably is correct; anything more than that, however, suggests that Williams either is unfamiliar with what he is stepping into in Minnesota or that he does not have a grasp of despair when he sees it.

One of the hopes for the off-season was that the Vikings would take seriously their 2011 issues. Instead, the team elected to jettison their one bright spot on the coaching staff while taking steps to reinforce a vision on defense that, at least in terms of the passing game, has never been much better than average since Leslie Frazier's arrival. Average is certainly preferable to bottom of the league, but, at a time when the Vikings are transitioning anyway, there seems little meaningful reason to merely attempt to hold the fort when innovation is both called for and more appropriate.

Up Next: Following Childress' Path. Plus, Vikings tip their hand on the draft.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Decision to Sever the Body and Save the Heads Leaves Vikings in Dire Straits

The Minnesota Vikings are coming off of their worst season in team history, finishing 2011 with a 3-13 record. In the weeks since the season ended, the organization has determined that the solution to the team's 2011 woes is three-fold: promote one of the architects of the 2011 team to lead architect, retain the services of the coach responsible for the on-field performance, and fire anyone associated with a positions of strength on the team.

Following this modus operandi, the Vikings have moved Rick Spielman to General Manager, retained Leslie Frazier, discharged defensive line coach, Karl Dunbar, and offered a substantial demotion to former defensive coordinator, Fred Pagac. Pagac's new role, should he elect to stay with the team, would be that of linebacker coach, a position currently filled by the unpopular Mike Singletary, whom the Vikings are considering as Pagac's replacement.

It's difficult to assess Pagac's contributions to the Vikings in 2011. Taking over a unit led for most of 2010 by Frazier, Pagac inherited a defense that was solid along the line, good in the middle, and horrible in the secondary. As defensive coordinator, Pagac turned out a defense that was very good along the line, awful at linebacker, and awful in the secondary.

The suggestion regarding Pagac's performance is three-fold. First, either the Vikings' grasp of Cover 2 is weak or the Vikings do not have the personnel to run the scheme. Second, Pagac was a far better linebacker coach than was his replacement, Singletary. And third, Pagac, like Frazier, is not currently equipped to both oversee a larger unit and put his imprint on that unit where it is most needed. That the linebacking corps was so bad this year, thus, is both a complement to Pagac as a linebacker coach and an indictment on his defensive coordinator skills--or the team's inflexibility when it comes to allowing the defensive coordinator to make necessary changes.

Rather than attempt to determine whether Pagac was the problem or the problem rests with some combination of personnel moves and head coaching decisions, the Vikings decided that it was better simply to make the easiest decision and fire the defensive coordinator. The decision is far less difficult to comprehend than was the decision to dismiss Dunbar, but it is also far more difficult to understand than is the decision to retain a head coach who can lay claim to virtually no successes in 2011.

The Vikings' decision to offer Pagac the linebacking position makes sense, as, prior to becoming the Vikings' defensive coordinator, the former tight end was a career linebacker coach and had great success in that role. But the move, not announced until one week after the Vikings publicly began interviewing Pagac's successor, not only reflects poorly on an organization that continues to fail in the human and public relations departments, but also makes finding a viable successor to Pagac more difficult.

No currently employed coordinator or any coordinator with other options could conceivably view Minnesota as a stable situation. Those coordinators will go elsewhere, leaving Minnesota the likes of Singletary, who apparently is good enough to coordinate what he could not coach. And that almost assuredly will not be well-received either by the players or would-be ticketholders.

The Vikings' problem is much larger than merely finding a bona fide defensive coordinator, however. The lack of a credible defensive coordinator means that the Vikings will have more difficulty attracting defensive free agents in the off-season. That could make it difficult, as well, to attract any free agent, absent an overwhelming offer that unduly saps the Vikings' otherwise healthy free-agent budget.

And all of this plays greatly into what the Vikings will need to do in the draft. Clearly, the team needs cornerbacks, safeties, wide-receivers, and offensive linemen, to name a few of the team's needs. If free agents are willing to come to Minnesota, there is a possibility that the Vikings can fill most of their needs in free agency, leaving for the draft the selection of the best player available. Such a scenario would allow the Vikings to consider drafting Justin Blackmon over Matt Kalil or even trading down in the draft. Failure to fill needs through free agency could leave the Vikings without a player in the draft who they really want for the dollars committed and almost assuredly will result in the team having zero flexibility in the draft.

There are solutions to this problem. But, of course, the Vikings almost certainly will not entertain them.

Up Next: One Such Solution. Or, How The Vikings Can Succeed as Early as 2012.

Monday, January 09, 2012

Marty Does Not Go Far Enough in Denouncing Those Cooking the Books on Behalf of the Vikings

Minnesota Representative John Marty has finally come out with it, the realization that the Vikings have enlisted the aid of those purportedly working on behalf of the public to identify a public-private stadium venture for the Minnesota Vikings that benefits the public beyond merely having an edifice that it doesn't even own. Marty's criticism of Ted Mondale, the crony pick of Governor Mark Dayton to head the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission while receiving pay from a separate position created by the Governor just for him, is that Monday is cooking the books for the Vikings.

In support of his claim, Marty notes that, in presenting what was to have been a neutral evaluation of the Vikings' stadium options and whether public subsidies were appropriate in the construction of a new stadium, Mondale omitted facts damning to his conclusions that generous public subsidies are the norm in the NFL and that cities pay three times the cost of what the Vikings are asking the residents of Minnesota to pay for a new stadium, in attempts to regain NFL teams once teams have left a given market. Marty pointed to facts that directly countered both assertions.

Understandably, no matter how belatedly Marty has come to the realization, Marty is irate, as should be all Minnesotans, regardless of their position on subsidizing a Vikings' stadium.

But Marty is only clawing at the tip of the collusion iceberg on this matter. In addition to Mondale's apparent betrayal of the public trust, similar actors have perpetrated similar betrayals in Ramsey County, and the Vikings, themselves, continue to play the game, arguing that the "cost of a new stadium" is over one billion dollars, when the cost of constructing a shiny new stadium, with accoutrements and a retractable roof is easily less than half that figure.

Marty is justified in his outrage and that outrage should only gain momentum that either kills a Viking stadium deal or confirms for all that the state, not the Vikings, hold the cards in this game. If Marty is interested in moving that shift along, there's no reason to stop with his note of Mondale's misrepresentation of facts.

Up Next: Draft.

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Bucs' Move Shows How Desperate Things Have Become in Minnesota

Near the end of last season, with the team in disarray, the Minnesota Vikings finally acknowledged their mistake in hiring Brad Childress, firing the fifth-year coach. The move created a vacancy which the Vikings filled with defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier.

Rather than audition candidates for the head-coaching vacancy, the Vikings did what they essentially did when hiring Childress, signing the first "candidate" that they encountered. In part, the move was an acknowledgement that the team intended to pinch pennies on its new hire, still on the hook through 2013 for Childress' recently extended deal. Frazier's hire was also consistent with the team's continuing penchant for over-reaching to correct a past error.

Following Red McCombs' 2005 trade of Randy Moss to the Raiders, the Vikings used the number seven overall pick in the NFL draft to select the theretofore relative unknown, if speedy, wide-receiver, Troy Williamson. That move failed in spades.

Less than one year into his ownership cycle, Vikings' owner Zygi Wilf, addressing the perception that then head coach Mike Tice spoke too freely and was too cozy with players (in addition to other flaws), sought a disciplinarian with a commitment to a plan. For this role, Wilf hand picked Childress.

Childress was arrogant without cause, bringing with him the silly moniker of "quarterback guru" and "offensive genius" despite demonstrating virtually nothing in either regard as an offensive coordinator with assistant coordinator's duties in Philadelphia. But, Childress did make one particularly strong move, adding Mike Tomlin as his defensive coordinator.

One year into Childress' run in Minnesota, the fans already were cool to Chillyball and Chilly the man. But many fans identified Tomlin as a strong head coach in the making and clamored for the Vikings to replace Chilly with Tomlin.

Not willing to admit their mistake in so hastily hiring Childress, the Vikings committed to Childress, letting Tomlin leave for Pittsburgh. That the Steelers, a team long regarded as making good personnel decisions, passed on two hometown favorites in selecting Tomlin as their new head coach spoke volumes of Tomlin. That the Vikings allowed Tomlin to walk in favor of Childress, spoke volumes of the Vikings lesser decision-making.

The lesson that the Vikings learned from Tomlin's departure and Childress' subsequent failings as Vikings' head coach was, unfortunately, that Childress had an eye for defensive coordinators as coaches in training. That's why, in addition to wanting to save some money, the Vikings made Frazier the permanent head coach in 2011, without seriously entertaining any other candidates.

This off-season, the Vikings fired their one beacon of professionalism on the defensive side of the ball, defensive line coach Karl Dunbar. That move, almost certainly linked to some internal disagreement(s) between Dunbar and someone of higher authority, signaled the apparent rudderlessness of the Vikings' team. The team's subsequent move demonstrated, however, that, if the team does have a rudder, it is often woefully misdirected and almost consistently steering upstream.

Upon reporting Dunbar's dismissal, the Vikings also announced that they were bringing in recently fired Tampa Bay head coach Raheem Morris for consideration as defensive coordinator--the position still held by Fred Pagac. Morris' only other job interview to date was for that of cornerbacks coach for Washington.

On Sunday, Tampa Bay announced that it was interviewing Childress for its head coaching position. With all that has happened in Minnesota since Childress' arrival in the land of the North, the Bucs' announcement, too, speaks volumes of the Vikings, if also of the Bucs. By bringing in Childress, the Bucs are making three statements regarding the Vikings. The first is that the Vikings had a good coach in Childress. In Minnesota, we know that was not the case, but we'll let the Bucs discover that on their own.

The second statement that the Bucs are making by bringing in Childress is that there is too much talent on Minnesota's roster for the team to finish with three wins. That's a direct commentary on the Bucs' feelings about Frazier's job performance the past year. On that point, it is difficult to quibble.

Finally, the Bucs are signaling their belief that the guy who was fired in Minnesota is a better coach than the guy who replaced him and the guy who Minnesota is considering for the position of defensive coordinator. In short, the Bucs are saying that, were they able to go back in time two years and trade Morris for Childress, saddling Conference rival Minnesota with Morris' defensive coordinating, they would do so in a heart beat.

That's fitting commentary on the delusion that continues to permeate Winter Park.

Up Next: Some Real Candidates Enter the Picture.

Saturday, January 07, 2012

Consistent with On-Going Organizational Dementia, Vikings Fire Best Coach

On Friday, the Minnesota Vikings made it official--the organization truly is clueless. After agreeing to interview the former head coach of the disastrous Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Vikings showed the door to Kyle Dunbar, coach of the one consistently bright spot on their team. Asked whether he was getting a raw deal, Dunbar, playing the part of someone who knows he did get a raw deal but who also hopes to gain employment in the NFL in the near term, stated that the Vikings "did not kill my family. . . so, no, I did not get a raw deal."

Firing the quarterbacks coach, wide-receivers coach, linebackers coach, offensive line coach, secondary coach, special teams coach, offensive coordinator, defensive coordinator, or head coach all would have made some sense for Minnesota. But sense has not resided in Minnesota for some time now. So, perhaps thinking that the mantra that you cannot fire everyone ought to prevail under these circumstances, the Vikings opted to fire the one sign of competency on their current coaching staff.

Dunbar presided over a unit that consistently has been among the league's best at stopping the run. While some teams show strength agains the run due to a weakness against the pass, to the extent that teams passed well against the Vikings this season--and they surely did--it had little to do with the Vikings' inability to put pressure on the quarterback; in 2011, the Vikings' defensive line arguably performed its best in years. That, despite losing Pat Williams and left defensive end Ray Edwards in the off-season.

Under Dunbar, Jared Allen has been at least as productive as the Vikings had reason to hope when they traded a first-round pick to Kansas City for him, the left end has had success, no matter who has played the position, and the Vikings have survived the loss of a Pro Bowl nose tackle, with no heir apparent. Only Kevin Williams stands out as a player playing below his ability, and even Williams has played well enough to hold his position.

If the Vikings' defensive woes of 2011 and earlier had anything reasonably to do with Kyle Dunbar, World War II can be traced directly to Leslie Frazier. It's beyond absurd, but, so, too, has become this "storied" franchise.

Up Next: Probably Too Much to Hope for Draft Day and Free Agency Competence, But Here's Hoping Anyway.

Friday, January 06, 2012

What the #&*Z!! Exploding Head News

In the wake of the worst season in team history, the Minnesota Vikings' first major off-season move was to promote to general manager one of the architects of that disaster. That decision came despite the availability of such experienced NFL veterans as Bill Polian and Jeff Fisher, among dozens of other equally competent talent evaluators.

The decision to pass on Polian seemed logical in that Polian had had a particularly poor run in the draft in recent years and the Colts' fortunes appeared to be predicated entirely on the health and fitness of star quarterback Peyton Manning. The Vikings not only passed on Polian, however, they did not even bother to interview him before making the decision to promote Spielman. That decision already appears not to be paying dividends.

Today, in his first major pronouncement as team general manager, Spielman announced that the Vikings will be reworking their defensive coaching staff and noted that the team had already scheduled an interview with former Tampa Bay head coach Raheem Morris to fill a position currently held by Fred Pagac. The move, of course, is yet another example of the utter cluelessness of this organization.

In 2011, the Vikings were the victims of mistakes in all phases of the game. Chief among the issues, however, was the team's porous defense. Were it possible to inflame the dire defensive predicament, Morris would be just the candidate to do so as he presided over the only defense that in 2011 surrendered more points than did the Vikings' defense.

Notwithstanding the fact that the team has yet to remove Pagac from the role of defensive coordinator or the fact that Morris guided the absolute worst defense in the NFL in 2011, there is the matter that only the Vikings seem to consider Morris in anywhere near as high of a regard. At the same time that Vikings are preparing to interview Morris for the defensive coordinator position, a Washington organization that routinely overvalues the ability of its personnel was interviewing Morris for the position of defensive backs coach. That should be a red flag for Minnesota. Probably, however, it will not be.

The suspicion is that Vikings' head coach Leslie Frazier, apparently intent on continuing his string of suspect decision-making, favors Morris because Morris is wedded to the Tampa 2 coverage scheme that the Vikings so unflinchingly have failed to execute under Frazier. That suggests more of the same awful defense in 2012 and, unfortunately, a strong possibility that the Vikings are considering using their first round pick on a cornerback, rather than on an offensive lineman.

In Minnesota, the more things stay the same, the worse they get.

Up Next: Why Cornerback and Wide-Receiver Generally Are Wrong-Headed Picks Atop the Draft Board.

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Vikings' Promotion of Spielman Another Hasty Move

As player personnel executive in two previous posts, Chicago and Miami, Rick Spielman endured considerable criticism for player personnel moves. His decisions led to his dismissal from both posts and resulted in his taking a position with the Minnesota Vikings that clearly was at least a partial step down from his previous jobs.

Perhaps during his years as a personnel executive in the NFL, newly minted Minnesota Vikings' General Manager Rick Spielman has figured things out. As Vikings' Vice President of Player Personnel, Spielman contributed to identifying several players, however limited in base, now considered the heart of the team's current talent base--Adrian Peterson, Percy Harvin, John Sullivan, Kyle Rudolph, and Jared Allen. He also contributed to the decision-making that brought Brian Robison, Christian Ponder, Joe Webb, and Toby Gerhart to the team; though each of these players have shown promise, none have been consistent and all are still viewed as question marks in the league.

To the extent that Spielman receives credit for drafting Peterson and Harvin and bringing in Allen, he also deserves scrutiny for committing significant salary cap space to Peterson and Sullivan, with Peterson now on his second contract and probabilistically nearing the danger-zone of his running-back career and Sullivan having proven only that he is not as bad as those beside him; there is, subsequently, reason to be concerned that the team has over-committed in areas that it cannot afford to do so. There are also questions about Spielman's contributions to the team's apparent poor planning for the end of Steve Hutchinson's run at right guard, the possibility, now playing out, that Phil Loadholt is not a capable NFL tackle, how to replace Antoine Winfield at cornerback, and what to do about the secondary, in general.

Spielman also deserves scrutiny for putting together a team that focuses on the run but does not have the offensive line or the defense to make that a viable weekly system, envisioning a secondary that plays a scheme poorly suited for the Vikings' personnel, too often missing on players in the draft, and trading away picks to move up in the draft to take players that no other team appeared to have an interest in other than in much later rounds.

In Spielman's time in Minnesota, no single position is stronger, save for kicker. And, unfortunately, there appear to be few young players ready to step up. In fact, most disheartening of all in this lost season was that the Vikings failed to identify a single young player--outside of possibly Gerhart--who is prepared to play a meaningful role on next year's team but was not so identified going into the season. This, despite having nearly the entire season to audition talent.

When the Indianapolis Colts dismissed long-time General Manager Bill Polian, and his GM-in-waiting son, many assumed that the Vikings would at least test the waters, bringing in Polian, among others, to assess both interest and impressions of how to redirect the team. That the Vikings did not hire Polian is understandable. For all of his success in Indianapolis and Buffalo, much of it was the result of identifying great players early in the draft and working with those players through long careers. Polian had also made some poor decisions in recent drafts, however, most notably failing to identify a running back capable of carrying the load and failing to shore up the team's defense. That suggested that Polian was the polar opposite of Spielman and company, so wedded to the great quarterback system of the modern NFL that he too lightly regarded other areas; when Peyton Manning went down, the flaws inherent in such a perspective became both apparent and crippling.

Flaws notwithstanding, Polian had demonstrated an ability to put together an offensive line, draft the best offensive player available in later rounds of the draft, and identify a portion of what is necessary to succeed in the current NFL. That should have sufficed for the Vikings to at least bring Polian in for an interview, even if the team did not intend to hire him.

Instead, the Wilfs went with the easy, cost-effective, in-house move that suggests, in addition, that they think that the only problem with this year's team was that there were too many cooks in the kitchen. As if to signal that the less qualified cooks will remain in the kitchen, however, Zygi's brother, Mark, announced at the same press conference announcing Spielman's promotion, that he and Zygi were pleased to be keeping Spielman and head coach Leslie Frazier for another season. That sounds like the Vikings still have at least three cooks at the top, and it's not at all clear that any of the three either are up to the task of putting together a contemporary NFL team.

Up Next: Necessary and Wishful Moves.