Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Vikings Should Have Their Next Thirty Days Scripted: Day One

A day after firing third-year head coach Leslie Frazier, the Minnesota Vikings, and General Manager Rick Spielman, in particular, are in deflection mode, passing the buck on the season to Frazier and promising great changes ahead.  While several changes are needed over the next thirty days, the most pressing change required is the one that appears unlikely to be made--that of General Manager.

For the most part, Spielman has done well in the first round of the NFL draft, not over-thinking whether to take good players that have fallen into his lap.  In 2013, he parlayed the Percy Harvin trade to Seattle, along with the Vikings' own first-round pick, into Sharif Floyd, Cordarrelle Patterson, and Xavier Rhodes.  The latter two have already contributed enough to make themselves worthy of their 2013 draft spots, with Patterson worthy of a much higher selection; Floyd, too, has shown promise.

In some NFL cities, finding a General Manager able to identify the obvious would be grounds for celebration and Spielman would be canonized for his 2013 first-round picks.  In more demanding markets--particularly those in which the ownership group has recently fleeced a willing political base and is now attempting to position for the sale of expensive seat licenses in an of-the-people-by-the-people-but-not-for-the-people stadium--Spielman has done only what a trained monkey would have done in a similar situation.

When pressed, Spielman has been far less spectacular.  In 2011, after taking the reigns as the sole decision maker from the Vikings' previous triangle of authority, Spielman reached mightily with the twelfth overall pick for Florida State quarterback Christian Ponder.  Optimistic scouting reports had Ponder going in the second round of the draft.  More pessimistic reviews had him falling much later in the draft.

The predictions on Ponder's draft status were based on perceptions of Ponder's strengths and weaknesses.  Among the reviews of Ponder were the positives that he can scramble and make accurate short throws.  These assessments mostly were validated during Ponder's tenure in Minnesota, though they reflect such low expectations of any college quarterback, let alone one that Spielman designated the "most NFL-ready in the draft," that meeting them is essentially meaningless.

Analyses of Ponder's play included, as well, those attributes regarded as negatives, such as the inability to throw deep with accuracy, the inability to look off the primary receiver, difficulty reading complex defenses, jitteriness in the pocket, poor decision-making under pressure, and the inability to stay healthy.  These traits, too, have translated to the NFL game for Ponder.

In short, the book was available on Ponder prior to the 2011 NFL draft.  What fans saw in year one was what scouts had suggested Ponder was.  Spielman, however, saw something different.  What that was, we may never know.  But he saw a far more polished and far more capable specimen than met either scouts' analysis or the naked eye test.

Spielman's whiff on Ponder would not, in and of itself, be grounds for Spielman's dismissal.  His persistent refusal to acknowledge the mistake and move on, however, is.

At the outset, Spielman contended that the test of a quarterback's ability to start in the NFL is how that quarterback is playing after a full NFL season.  When Ponder was still shaky at the end of season one, Spielman changed the timeline to 18 games and argued that Ponder's 2-9 record in 2011 was a reflection of limited reps early in the season and the NFL lockout.

At the 18-game mark of his career, Ponder had improved his record as a starter to 7-11 and Spielman crowed that Ponder was evolving.  As evidence, Spielman pointed almost exclusively to Ponder's record, conveniently ignoring Adrian Peterson's presence as the primary force in the Vikings' offense and Ponder's relatively weak overall numbers.  Spielman could barely keep from shouting that he had told everyone that Ponder would be a star, but it was clear that he believed it was happening.

When Ponder subsequently oversaw four losses in five games, Spielman offered that "it's a long process for NFL quarterbacks" and that, despite the eye test and the numbers, Ponder was "continuing to make progress."  Spielman again changed the timeline for assessing whether Ponder was a legitimate NFL starter, dividing 1000 by 100, multiplying by 20 and subtracting 170, and divining that 30 games was the magic number.

In the final four games of 2012, the Vikings went 4-0.  Spielman pointed to Ponder's leadership as the key to the Vikings' run to end the regular season and emphasized Ponder's "strong and improving play" in the four-game stretch.  He had some locals buying this notion, despite the fact that Ponder's four-game stretch yielded three games with a combined one touchdown pass and absent even a 200-yard passing game and one notable performance against Green Bay that was notable not because it was spectacular by NFL standards but because it was competent by those standards.

Again, Spielman puffed out his chest, offering that the best was yet to come.  If true, we have yet to see it.  In 2013, Ponder did what he has done throughout his well-coddled NFL existence.  He made a few decent plays, but mostly played like a bottom rung NFL starter.  And, more significantly, he played to the expectations of the 2011 NFL scouts.

After a dismal start to the 2013 NFL season, Spielman and Frazier began playing games, still intent on protecting Ponder and, more importantly for Spielman, providing the General Manager with some measure of deniability if and when things went south.  What started as a reach had become a quest not to concede the reach.  The cycle of embarrassment was only beginning.

When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers released Josh Freeman for poor performance and poor attitude, Spielman signed the quarterback to a one-year, $2 million deal. Spielman's sophomoric and moronic on-mic coaching of Freeman during Freeman's first meeting with the Minnesota press served notice as to who was and has been pulling the quarterback strings in Minnesota.  Immediately, Freeman was inserted into the starters role where he turned in the single worst quarterbacking performance by a non-strike era Minnesota Viking.

Freeman's failure led to Matt Cassel's promotion--a promotion that lasted all of two games, one strong, one lousy.  Ponder returned until he proved too awful to sell to the public and Cassel resumed his role as starter.  Not even a horrific performance by Cassel could bring back Ponder, nor provide another opportunity to Freeman.

Apparently, as with the scouts' assessment of Ponder, the Bucs were accurate in their assessment of Freeman.  Again, Spielman thought that he knew better.  Again, at the most important position, Spielman was wrong.

After Sunday's meaningless victory over Detroit, Spielman announced that, for the Vikings to move forward, it had become necessary to relieve Frazier of his duties.  Given Frazier's decisions on the field and press conferences off, it is hard to argue otherwise.  But the root of the Vikings' problems in 2011 and 2013--and even in their 2012 playoff season--was not primarily Frazier, but Spielman's failure to find a bona fide starting quarterback.

Now, Spielman and the Vikings are looking toward the draft to select a player that likely will need time to develop.  Regardless of the merit of that thought process for a team so reliant on Adrian Peterson, there can and should be absolutely no doubt that Spielman is precisely the wrong person to make the decision regarding the Vikings' long-term answer at quarterback.  And it should be absolutely horrifying to Vikings' fans if he is allowed not only to make that decision but also to make the decision regarding who will decide which player, from among the players that Spielman offers, is most equipped to be the team's quarterback of the future.

The Vikings began their post-2013 off-season by jettisoning Frazier.  The next move should be relieving Spielman of his duties.

Up Next:  Day Two.

Monday, December 09, 2013

Leslie Frazier's Dilemma: You Can Never Put Too Much Water in the Reactor

When Brad Childress was dismissed as head coach by the Minnesota Vikings, he took with him an abrupt public disposition, limited offense, and robotic mantra that he required players and those covering him to repeat:  "You can never get too high or too low."

Brad Childress' replacement, former Vikings' defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier, had shown a slightly different public disposition than his predecessor, being affable.  He, too, however, has put together a limited offense, paired that with an awful defense, and offered the same monotone mantra:  "You can never get too high or too low."

Childress' players repeated his mantra.  Frazier's players repeat the same.  Local media, when interviewing Childress and Frazier, repeat the mantra as if it is a badge of courage or even a truism.  It is neither.  Instead, it is debilitating and it could cost Frazier his job, regardless of how hard the team plays  in garbage time.

While it is true that it is not good for players to get too high or too low based on a single play, series of plays, or even the outcome of games, what is critically undefined in this mantra is what it means to be "too high" or "too low."

Is it too high for a player or coach to mandate a defensive stand early in a game or commit to striking offensive fear in an opponent other than in desperation time?  It seems to be for this Vikings' team, whether under Childress or Frazier.  And because Frazier has been unable to define an appropriate standard for how emotional a player ought to be in the normal course of a game, the Vikings regularly appear wanting for any meaningful sense of urgency.  In the NFL, that sense of urgency is not something that needs to be present only at the twelfth hour.  Rather, it needs to be present the entire game.

That seems to be lost on Frazier, however, not only with respect to game management, but also with respect to management of players.  During his Monday press conference, he was asked whether the Vikings had taken too conservative of an approach with Cordarrelle Patterson.  As expected, Frazier replied in the negative.  "I don't think we would have seen big plays out of Cordarrelle in September and October if we did not handle him the way that we did."

Nobody bothered to remind Frazier that we did not see big plays out of Cordarrelle in September and October or that we could not have because the Vikings did not use Patterson in September or October.  That, unfortunately, seemed like a lost cause to attempt to explain to Leslie.  Even more disconcerting, however, was that Frazier's approach with Patterson, like his approach with Sharif Floyd and Xavier Rhodes, has been to not do "too much too early."  Again, a mantra with key terms left undefined.

A similar "not too much too early" approach is identifiable in Frazier's grossly late decisions to move on from Ponder (if he has done so) and to move from a predominantly zone defense to a predominantly man-cover defense.  In Frazier's world, the transitions were appropriately measured.  In the NFL world,  as with the Vikings' game day sense of urgency and Frazier's personnel decisions, Frazier moves too slow in attempting not to be too high, too low, or overreactive.

After watching the Vikings under Frazier for three plus seasons, it does not appear the Frazier has a feel for timing or that his measure of timing is improving.  Affability aside, that makes him little better than his predecessor.

Up Next:  Why The Vikings Should Not Draft a Quarterback in the First Round of the 2014 NFL Draft.