Friday, March 30, 2012

Minnesota Vikings Confirm Plans to Field NFL Team in 2012

After passing on the first-, second-, and third-tier free agents in the 2012 free-agent pool, Minnesota Vikings' officials this week insisted that a plan is in place and that, despite rumors to the contrary, the team would compete in the NFL in 2012.

"We're looking at all angles--narrow, wide, obtuse, more specifically--and really kind of mapping the future course of this team in regards to where we want to be and where we plan to be going," head coach Leslie Frazier cryptically stated.

Frazier more clearly added, without prompting, that the Vikings will have enough players to meet NFL requirements. "We have lots of picks in the draft and we plan to use them," he sagaciously intoned, leaving no doubt whatsoever about the Vikings' make-use-of-draft-picks intentions.

Newly minted General Manager Rick Spielman reminded those concerned about the Vikings' lack of involvement in the free-agent market that the Vikings have been very active in free-agency. "We kind of got a jump on everyone in that respect. That's what everyone seems to forget. We got AP, CG, and JS early in the process and still have great plans for BS."

Spielman added that "there are still a lot of very promising twenty-somethings out there. Our job--my job--is to kind of sift through the resumes and determine who has the potential to play in the NFL. If that means throwing some passes to a guy who has never put on pads but thinks he's got what it takes, I'm ready to roll up my sleeves.

Spielman insisted that the Vikings' off-season inactivity was not about storing cash. "Of course not," he offered. "If there is a player or person, or even an animal, that meets our needs, we will pull the trigger. My job is to pull the right trigger at the right time."

Asked what that meant, Spielman offered what it did not mean. "It does not mean that we are going to sign a great football player at a position of need just for the sake of signing a great football player at a position of need. People--fans--forget that that does not always work."

Rallying to his General Manager's aid, Frazier offered that the Vikings were looking for a very particular person. "We don't want someone on the wrong side of 26, or the wrong side of 25, or someone with too high of a football IQ. Those players create problems because they force other players to adjust and they force, maybe, coaches to adjust. And that's not what we are looking for, even if it helps us immediately and down the road. We want the right player--the right person--for our system," he added, greeting cornerback Chris Cook as he passed through the interview area. "Vikings' football is not about wins and losses, it is about history, tradition, and doing things the Vikings' way. That's what this off-season symbolizes."

Up Next: All the Right Moves. Plus, shocking news out of LA!

Thursday, March 15, 2012

In Attempt Not to "Spend to Spend," Vikings Seemingly Already Spending to Spend

With the ever-expanding base of fantasy football fans, there certainly is no lack of fans able to recite every significant player statistic from the most recent NFL season. When it comes to other figures pertaining to the NFL, however, that number dwindles dramatically.

This fan myopia greatly benefits the Minnesota Vikings in 2012, for it permits the team's front office to trot out such ridiculous phrases as "we are not going to spend merely to spend" and "we are not merely a player or two away from contending." Both are seemingly odd contentions for a team looking to secure public funding for a new stadium and also raising ticket prices, but not when one considers the roll-over mentality of the vast majority of Vikings' fans, known far and wide for accepting, as meritorious, the "give them a few years [under this new set of circumstances, however much they resemble the old]" and the always classic "they must know what they are doing, it's their job" lines.

New Vikings' General Manager Rick Spieman has enlisted the aid of both of these ridiculous stand-bys this week, claiming that the Vikings have not bid on any of the high-end free agents in this year's free-agent pool because they are over-priced and the Vikings need more than one or two players to contend this year; ergo, the logic presumably follows, signing one or two high-end players is meaningless.

Spielman offered that the Vikings will look to a "deep draft" to fill many holes and suggested that there were still some very good players left on the free-agent market whom the Vikings would be bringing in for interviews. As with his claim of not spending merely to spend, here, again, Spielman is relying on the verifiable docility of Vikings' fans in the face of clear evidence either of a team's fundamentally idiotic approach to free-agency or the team's parsimony (or both).

For Vikings' fans, it is unclear whether it is worse to have a General Manager who does not understand that, even being more than one or two players away from being a contender ought not limit a team's ambitions in free-agency as a means of building for the future or to have a General Manager/ownership group that does not understand that the NFL does not reward parsimony and has even legislated against it to such a degree that parsimonious teams ultimately end up spending merely to spend.

This week, the Vikings deferred to 2013 the additional cap space that they received courtesy Washington's and Dallas' circumvention of league spending mandates in the uncapped 2010 season. That was the first sign that the Vikings were not interested in bidding for high-end talent this year.

Yesterday, the team signed once-upon-a-time pass-catching tight end John Carlson in what can best be described as a hopeful signing of a local. Coming off of a season missed due to injury, Carlson would give the Vikings another tight end pass-catching threat--one of the holes that the team did not have entering free agency--assuming he returns to health. As interesting as are Carlson's injury history and the redundancy of the signing, however, is that the Vikings signed Carlson to a five-year deal with $11 million in guaranteed money and $25 million over the term of the contract. That's nearly what the Saints paid to sign a young offensive guard--a position of dire need for the Vikings--in Carl Grubbs.

Assuming Carlson returns to the form of his best NFL season (2009), when he caught 51 passes and had seven touchdowns, the Vikings would have a nice tight end receiving duo in 2012. That assumes, as well, of course, that there is even time for a check down to the tight end, with the hordes passing through the sieve that has been the Vikings' offensive line for at least two years running.

Signing Grubbs would have made a player like a healthy Carlson more relevant and made a true number one at wide-out somewhat less necessary. Instead, in a season in which the Vikings vowed not to spend merely to spend, the team has spent $11 million in guaranteed money for a player who probably otherwise would have garnered something more along the lines of $3 million in guaranteed money. Why the overpayment? The best guess it that it ensures the team of meeting the salary cap floor--approximately $108 million in 2012. That, or Spielman truly does not know what he is doing. Either option is on the table and neither bodes particularly well for the locals.

Up Next: Why Free-Agency Matters--Or What Rick Spielman did not Learn in Kindergarten.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Vikings Clear Cap Room By Cutting Injury-Plagued Players

Last week, the Minnesota Vikings cleared the cap space necessary to target key free agents by releasing starting left guard Steve Hutchinson, right guard Anthony Herrera, and cornerback Cedric Griffin. All three players had their moments with the Vikings, but all three also experienced significant injuries in the past two years--injuries that plagued them in 2011 and portended more of the same in 2012.

At 35, Hutchinson ought still to have some years left in him in the league. A switch to the right side of the line likely would extend his run, as would a full recuperation from lingering shoulder ailments that forced him to miss seven games, and struggle in others, over the past two years. But with a need for certainty somewhere on the offensive line, Hutchinson was no longer a good fit in Minnesota, particularly as Minnesota is in position to draft at least one near-certain starter on the offensive line and likely will bring in two or three more offensive linemen to challenge for starting positions.

Should the Vikings select Matt Kalil in the first round of the draft, Kalil would take over for Charley Johnson at left tackle, bumping Johnson to left guard. That would leave the right side of the line still in limbo with Herrera's spot likely up for grabs to either a free-agent or Joe Berger, and Phil Loadholt likely forced to prove that the Vikings did not waste yet another high draft pick.

Like Hutchinson and Herrera, who missed 12 games over the past three years, cornerback Cedric Griffin's career in Minnesota was derailed by injuries. After suffering ACL injuries to both knees, Griffin attempted to return to the field last year but was merely a shell of the player he was prior to the injuries--a player that was average in coverage in the best of times. Releasing Hererra and Griffin saved the Vikings an additional $6 million.

In the wake of these cuts, the Vikings have three holes to fill. But those holes essentially have existed for the past two seasons as the Vikings have been unable to count on the health and productiveness of any of the three players for at least that long. The cuts thus represent not a rebuilding movement, but, more appropriately, an acknowledgment of a need to replace unproductive players. This recognition comes with the added benefit of freeing up substantial salary cap space, giving the Vikings an opportunity not only to fill the three holes left by the cuts, but possibly other holes, as well.

Up Next: Free-Agent Maneuverings. Plus, replacing Kleinsasser?

Friday, March 09, 2012

Vikings' Off-Season Hinges on Team's Commitment to Signing Bonus

Since Zygi Wilf purchased the Minnesota Vikings seven years ago, the team has favored roster over signing bonuses when signing free agents. Unlike signing bonuses, which count against a team's salary cap in pro-rated fashion over each year of the player's contract, accelerating only if a player is released prior to the end of the contract, a roster bonus counts fully against a team's salary cap in year one of the contract.

The benefit of the roster bonus is that, although it accumulates salary cap in year one much quicker than would using a signing bonus, it assures a team of more fixed costs in subsequent years. From a cynical perspective, the roster bonus also permits teams to appear as though they are matching their peers in spending when their peers, in many instances, are far more extended simply because they have made commitments not only in year one but over the next five years or more.

If ever there was a year in which the Vikings needed to alter their philosophy and switch to signing bonuses, this would be the year. Without a stadium deal and with many holes to fill, the Vikings need to improve quickly. And that cannot happen by bringing forward all costs to this year.

After clearing some dead wood from the roster and re-working some bloated contracts, the Vikings look to be $20-24 million under the salary cap for 2012. In a traditional season for the team, that space would permit two decent signings. Using signing bonuses rather than roster bonuses, however, that same amount of money could well be used to sign as many as five quality free agents. With pressing needs at wide-receiver, cornerback, safety, linebacker, and on the offensive line, making use of signing bonuses thus appears the logical, even necessary route for the team to go in this year's free agency.

Even assuming that the asking price moves well north for quality free agents willing to sign with a team that finished 2011 with a 3-13 record, Vikings' fans should expect nothing less than three quality free-agent signings this season.

Among the Vikings' free-agent targets should be Vincent Jackson, Steve Johnson, and Mike Wallace (despite being a restricted free-agent with a first-round pick price tag), at wide-receiver, Carlos Rogers, Cortland Finnegan, and Brandon Carr, at cornerback, Curtis Lofton and Stephen Tulloch, at linebacker, and offensive guard Carl Nicks.

To get the proper group of players, the Vikings not only will need to rely on signing bonuses, but also longer-term contracts to help spread out the bonuses. That could leave the team in a precarious position should more than one of the signings prove a bust in the short term. But with some big contracts coming off the books in the next two years, the team should be able to absorb anything short of a full, large class of bad free-agent signings.

Up Next: Hitting It. Plus, (past) time to cut ties with Cook.

Monday, March 05, 2012

To Save Itself, NFL Must Gut Saints

Last week, the NFL released the findings of its investigation of claims that the New Orleans Saints and defensive coordinator Greg Williams had issued bounties on the heads of opposing players during the Saints' 2009 championship season. In its statement, the league found that Williams and defensive leaders issued such bounties, made payments on such issues, and that head coach, Sean Payton, new about, but did not counter, such bounties, despite a league edict that he do so.

The timing of the league's announcement is foreboding for the Saints. In the wake of the filing of a civil suit against the league by former NFL player Dave Duerson's survivors, the league has little option but to take seriously its findings in the Saints' case. This is true not only because the league already has legal and image problems pertaining to the health issues increasingly correlated with excessive contact in the game, but also because the league has a zero tolerance policy specifically banning bounties.

Williams, Payton, and Saints players, if not also the organization, flaunted not only league edict, but any sense of boundaries between football as a sport and football as a criminal endeavor. Rewarding illegal hits that cause intentional physical harm to a player is as unconscionable an act as can be perpetrated in the modern NFL. Despite NFL spokesperson Greg Aiello's interest in keeping the matter a league matter, there is no question that the acts also merit criminal investigation--not something at which the NFL can look askance.

In assessing the proper penalty to impose upon the Saints in this matter, league commissioner Roger Goodell must, therefore, not only concern himself with the league's policies and real issues already confronting the league owing to its disregard for and manipulation of player concerns over concussions and other injuries, but also with deterrence.

In 2007, the league fined Patriots head coach Bill Belichek $500,000 and the Patriots $250,000 for spying on the New York Jets' practice. The league also took away a first-round draft pick from the Patriots.

Spy-gate was a violation of league policy and embarrassing for the Patriots and the league, but it, unlike the affairs in New Orleans, was not a criminal offense and did not damage on-going league efforts to confront meritorious civil claims.

The Saints should expect no less than a multi-million dollar fine. Peyton and any players participating in the scheme should expect a league suspension and Williams should be banned from the NFL. But that still would not fully address the wrongs committed by the Saints in 2009-2010, and probably earlier, nor would it put the league in the position it needs to be in when confronting its other lawsuits. To even approach this latter position, the league needs to send a far stronger message, one that deters not just players, a coordinator, and head coach from so acting, but one that makes clear that the consequences will be harsh. That means stripping the Saints of their next three first-round picks and of their Super Bowl championship. Anything less would contradict the league's claim that it takes seriously player safety.

Up Next: Sunken Costs?