Sunday, September 30, 2012

Recipe for Success in Detroit No Secret for Vikings

For the Minnesota Vikings to prevail in Detroit today, they must continue to do what they did well last week.  That means using Adrian Peterson, Percy Harvin, and Kyle Rudolph until the Lions show they can stop the three, permitting--even requiring--Christian Ponder to threaten the Lions with his legs, and showing intensity on defense.  If the Vikings follow this brief recipe, they should stay with the Lions and perhaps win.

Defensively, the Vikings do not yet know which quarterback they will face.  But be it Shaun Hill or Matthew Stafford, the only real concern will be the person to whom that quarterback will be passing.  Since E.J. Henderson went down with concussion symptoms, the Vikings have covered better against the tight end.  That's an n of 1, but in a season of sixteen games, it is worth noting.  At the back end, the Vikings have yet to show that they can cover an elite wide receiver receiving passes from a competent quarterback.  They will have to accomplish this task today, or risk falling behind in quick spurts.

Starting the game with a kick-off return for a touchdown would be nice, as well.

Up Next:  Post Game.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Vikings' Victory Bigger Than One Win

Despite an officiating error that threatened to determine the outcome of the game, the Minnesota Vikings rose to the challenge and defeated the favored San Francisco 49ers on Sunday.  The victory means far more to Minnesota than a lone win, however.

Among the things revealed in Sunday's win were that:

  • Quarterback Christian Ponder can be very effective if permitted to use his legs as well as his arm
  • Leslie Frazier can have his team prepared to play in the first half
  • Bill Musgrave does recognize the weapons he has in Percy Harvin and Kyle Rudolph
  • The Vikings, if determined, can pass down the field without Jerome Simpson in the line-up
  • The Vikings can beat the best teams in the NFL if they play with passion on both sides of the ball and make good calls--particularly on offense

Up Next:  More Post-Game.  Plus, how one victory can change a 3-13 team into a playoff contender.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Minnesota Vikings' Rebuilding Lacks Understanding of Modern NFL Realities

In 2011, the Minnesota Vikings finished 3-13.  Minnesota's front office assured fans that 2012 would be different and pointed to close losses in 2011, a high draft pick in the college entry draft, and ambitions to pick up high-end free agents.

Two games into the 2012 season, despite a well-used high pick, the Vikings arguably are worse than they were last year.  Quarterback Christian Ponder has done a better job avoiding picks, but some of that appears to be good fortune and most of it appears to be the result of a passing attack so short in design that it threatens to reintroduce the underhanded passing game for teams more concerned with quarterback rating than fielding a quarterback that can read defenses.  Adrian Peterson is back after suffering a knew injury at the end of last season in a meaningless game, but he looks like any other back coming out of the backfield.  And Percy Harvin has avoided migraines, but he remains the Vikings' only target--either by design or oversight.

Offensively, 2012 thus has the same feel for the Vikings as did 2011, except now the Vikings are not even pretending to go downfield (i.e., beyond the line scrimmage).  Defensively, of course, the team looks horrid.

The result has been a 1-1 record in two close games against opponents currently without any reasonable claim to being good.

That's not a surprise, given that the Vikings spent their first off-season since securing a new stadium shedding salary and signing perhaps one meaningful player in free-agency (a player who has yet to contribute).  What is a surprise, however, is that the Vikings' front office believes that it is operating in a window of rebuilding that could take as many as three years.

Given free-agency, player contract lengths, and short careers, three years is an eternity in the NFL.  Given the Vikings' odd mix of veterans and rookies--with the big money going to players currently in their prime or at the end of their prime years in the league--three years might as well be ten.

Even assuming dramatic improvement this year, the Vikings are unlikely to finish any better than 5-11 or 6-10.  Assuming another high draft choice that fills a glaring need--wide receiver, offensive lineman, linebacker, cornerback--and another off-season of ignoring prime free-agent talent, the Vikings likely will enter next season favored to finish the season no better than 8-8.

All of this assumes continuing improvement, of course.  And it assumes, equally as important, that the Vikings not only add front-end talent in the next off-seaon, but that the team does not have additional holes to fill. That's a highly fanciful proposition.

This year is almost certainly Antoine Winfield's final season with the Vikings, Kevin Williams and Jared Allen might each have another year left in them after this year, Chris Cook was done before he ever started his career in Minnesota, Charlie Johnson is merely a place-holder, no matter how the Vikings' front office attempts to doll him up, and Phil Loadholt might not be far behind.  Each of these players represents a player currently holding a position that the Vikings consider filled.  Clearly, that's an optimistic thought process, even in the short term.

The Vikings appear reasonably well set at slot receiver, left tackle, center, right tackle, receiving tight end, and, hopefully, one of two safety positions, for any period beyond the next two years.  That leaves an awful lot of question marks, not the least of which is the starting quarterback position.

Even if the Vikings fill some holes next year and the year after and manage a normal trajectory of improvement over the two years, they are not assured of maturing beyond mediocre in three years if they do not find more than two starters in the draft and do not add at least two quality free agents each year.  This year, the team added two starters and a kicker in the draft but nobody picked up in free-agency has yet had an impact.  If that holds through 2012, the Vikings will need to add even more talent in 2013 to compensate for this year's shortfall and still will need to meet the demands of 2013.  All the while, the clock ticks on the team's purported cornerstones.

The short of it is that the Vikings, like all NFL teams that aspire to win a championship, must dream in two-year sequences.  Planning rosters any further out ultimately results in major short-comings in all but the rarest of circumstances--an unlikelihood for a Vikings' team so presently constructed.

Up Next:  Selling High--or at Least not Low.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Lack of Urgency and Short-Comings Doom Vikings

In one of the few remaining games in which the Minnesota Vikings likely will be favorites, the Vikings did their best to confirm the predictions of those anointing them likely cellar dwellers in 2012.

Falling 23-20 to the Indianapolis Colts, the Vikings had over 100 yards in penalties, lost a fumble by their quarterback for the second straight game, had zero sacks from their All-Pro defensive end despite playing against an injury- and talent-depleted Colts' offensive line, made little use of tight end Kyle Rudolph, and played so close to the vest on offense that the vest appeared veiled by the team's proverbial skin.

If the Vikings continue to plod through the first three and one-half quarters of the game as if there is no reason to respond, remove Rudolph from the game plan, devote entire series to Toby Gerhart, and fail to cover anyone in the secondary, this season will be much longer than last year, if just as short.

On the day, one player earned his keep on the team--Percy Harvin.  Everyone else was simply participating or watching.

Up Next:  Frazier Watch Begins.

Vikings' Game Plan: KISS

Last week, the Minnesota Vikings opened their game against the Jacksonville Jaguars with a quick hit to Kyle Rudolph for fifteen yards.  They did not go back to Rudolph until there were under five minutes remaining in the first half.  At that point, Ponder threw to his big tight end on successive plays for 17 yards.  Ponder had but one attempt to Rudolph between Rudolph's third reception and the end of the third quarter, when the quarterback connected with his big tight end for 29 yards.

In the lengthy interval between second- and third-quarter completions to Rudolph, the Vikings conducted drives during which the ball went almost exclusively to running backs Adrian Peterson and Toby Gerhart or wide-receiver Percy Harvin.  Rudolph had one more reception in the game--a six-yard catch that put the Vikings in position to make a game-tying field goal.

On the Vikings' first two forays inside the Jaguars' five-yard-line, they gave the ball to Peterson.  Peterson rewarded this confidence with two rushing touchdowns.  On the Vikings' next trip inside the Jaguars' five-yard-line, Peterson, inexplicably relegated to decoy duty, did not touch the ball.  The Vikings settled for a field goal.

The offensive lessons from week one should be apparent.  The first is that, when inside the five-yard-line, the Vikings ought to feed Peterson.  Then feed Peterson again until a touchdown results.

The second lesson is that, when not inside the five-yard-line, a steady, consistent, rotated diet of Peterson, Harvin, and Rudolph is in order.  These are the Vikings' three playmakers and all pose difficulties for opposing defenses.  Gerhart has shown an ability to pick up yards and Michael Jenkins is the most dependable third-down, sideline receiver that the team has had since Cris Carter wore purple, but these two, and all other offensive players currently on the squad, are ancillary pieces and not primary targets.

Against a Colts' team that is arguably more challenged on defense than the Jaguars, the Vikings can and must rely on their big three.  If they do not--if they eschew the simple for a combination of the mundane and absurd (Gerhart on successive plays to start the second drive of the game after a four and out on the first drive)--the Vikings can hope for no better than a tight game against a fellow challenged team.  If they force the Colts to defend Peterson, Harvin, and Rudolph every down of every series, however, the Colts could be in the rear-view mirror by the end of the third quarter.

Up Next:  Post Game.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Lessons from Vikings' Victory over Jaguars

Entering Sunday's game against the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Vikings were 2.5 point favorites at home. Defeating the Jaguars in overtime, the Vikings met expectations, however slightly.

There were many questions for both teams entering this game.  Jacksonville was not certain what it had in quarterback Blaine Gabbert, running back Maurice Jones-Drew, or anyone on the defensive line.  Minnesota was not certain what it had in quarterback Christian Ponder, running back Adrian Peterson, or anyone on defense not named Jared Allan.

Both teams also had things about which they felt reasonably comfortable, as much as that is possible for  teams with a combined 2011 record of 8-24 and with only one high-profile addition each in the off-season.

The Jaguars believed that their running game would be good if Maurice Jones-Drew played, that Gabbert would improve, and that rookie wide-receiver Justin Blackmon would star.  The Vikings believed that their running game would be good if Adrian Peterson played, that their tight end tandem of John Carlson and Kyle Rudolph would terrorize opposing linebackers, and that Christian Ponder would improve.

After the game, some questions have been answered and some presumed certainties affirmed or debunked.  Against Minnesota, Jones-Drew carried the ball 19 times for 77 yards and had three receptions for 18 yards.  Blaine Gabbert was 23 of 39 for 260 yards and two touchdowns.  Justin Blackmon had three receptions on six targets for 24 yards and was open for an easy touchdown, but for an errant throw by Gabbert.

For Minnesota, Ponder was 20-27 for 270 yards.  Peterson ran the ball 17 times for 84 yards and two touchdowns and had one reception on one target for three yards.  Rudolph had five receptions on seven targets for 67 yards and Carlson had no receptions on one target.

The certainties thus seemed to play out for each team, at least to an extent.  Gabbert and Ponder were both better in this game than they had been at the end of last season, Jones-Drew and Peterson both turned otherwise lesser running games into good running games, Blackmon showed his ability, and Rudolph showed his.

Both teams also affirmed what they do not have, particularly on defense.  Outside of Allen, neither team can currently argue that it has a player requiring any special attention from the opponent.  For Minnesota, that's a concern, because there is virtually zero depth anywhere on the defensive side of the ball.  Antoine Winfield is not the player he once was, Chad Greenway is not a strong-side linebacker, Jasper Brinkley looks confused at times and ordinary, at best, at other times, Chris Cook is only as good as he is wise, and the secondary again seems to be little more than a muddled mess.

For the Vikings to have any measure of success in 2012, they clearly must lean on the offense.  This requires significant changes.  It requires, first and foremost, that Percy Harvin be involved in the offense from the beginning to the end of the game.  As Harvin goes, so goes the offense.  Without Harvin, the Vikings can beat few if any NFL teams.

In addition to involving Harvin from the outset, the Vikings must commit to passing to Rudolph until opposing teams demonstrate that they cannot stop him.  Against a Jacksonville team that seemed to have no answer for Rudolph, the Vikings acquiesced.  Against Tennessee, the Patriots threw to tight end Rob Gronkowski six times--he caught all six passes.  For most teams, that would suggested a heavier dose of Gronkowski, except that for New England, there was no opponent and the Patriots have another stout tight end in Aaron Hernandez--who also had six receptions.

The Patriots' 13 passes to tight ends should be the minimum goal for a Vikings' team with less talent at wide-receiver and less certain hands under center.  The more Ponder goes to Rudolph, the more comfortable will he be in the pocket and the more confident will he be also identifying other options.

Finally, the Vikings need to make use of Ponder outside of the pocket, particularly rolling right.  It is utter nonsense to force a quarterback to be nothing other than a pocket passer, unless that is what that quarterback is.  Ponder's greatest strength is his ability to roll out of the pocket.  Even in a system that prioritizes pocket passing, the system must be flexible enough to take advantage of its quarterback's greatest strength.  Forcing Ponder to remain in the pocket is not such a system.

These changes to the offense--two of which the Vikings insist are part of the system--would boost the Vikings' 2012 prospects and set the foundation for future years by establishing a system and comfort level for players within that system.

Up Next:  Webb All But Gone.  Plus, is the front office keeping pace with the NFL?

Saturday, September 01, 2012

Quarterback Decision Only Sensible One for Vikings

The prevailing wisdom entering the Minnesota Vikings' final pre-season game against Houston was that either McLeod Bethel-Thompson (MBT) or Joe Webb would be among Friday's cuts. Instead, it was veteran quarterback Sage Rosenfels who got his walking papers.

Rosenfels' predicament had nothing to do with his play in pre-season.  In limited action, he showed the most poise and the greatest ability of any of the Vikings' quarterback, particularly at making the easy and the necessary plays.  Rather, Rosenfels was entirely the victim of the Vikings' concession that they have no shot at anything meaningful this season.

By cutting Rosenfels, the Vikings are committing to Ponder as the starter, Webb as the backup and a rookie as the emergency quarterback.  All that Rosenfels would have provided the Vikings was an alternative to Webb and there was really no point in that unless the Vikings believed that there would be meaningful, tight games that required certainty at the quarterback position.

With Ponder gifted the starting role, there also was little reason to pay millions to Rosenfels when, in terms of replacement value to a team going nowhere, Webb and MBT are both younger and cheaper.

None of this settles the role of Webb, a player that the Vikings appear intent on keeping on the roster merely for the sake of keeping on the roster.  Not only is Ponder apparently on an extremely long rope, but MBT also appears to be the Vikings' preferred quarterback in waiting.  Webb's sole function, therefore, appears to be that of occasional substitute and emergency starting quarterback in 2012.

Barring a turnover next year in either the Vikings' coaching staff or the front office, this, thus, would appear to be Webb's final season in Minnesota.  Presumably, MBT will be polished enough to serve as the backup quarterback in 2013 and Webb, as third-string quarterback, will become even less relevant than he already is.

If the Vikings had some decision-making fortitude, they would put Ponder on notice that he will be expected to perform from the outset this year.   If he does, he keeps his job.  If he does not, Webb gets a shot and Ponder picks up the clipboard.  Alas, the Vikings appear committed to a different direction and that likely means that, no matter the on-field results, the Vikings will continue to turn to Ponder and refuse to employ the system of position competition that makes the successful teams successful.

Up Next:  Rosenfels Move Saves Vikings Even More Money--Will the Newly Stadiumed Team Spend Any?