Thursday, November 20, 2014

This Isn't the Soviet Union, Is It?

With Minnesota Vikings' running back Adrian Peterson still awaiting a hearing on his appeal of his full-season suspension, debates over whether the NFL's punishment of Peterson was too severe or not severe enough continue.  Were this merely a matter of a punishment for a player, those debates could be relegated to the circular file.

Peterson's situation is about more than Peterson, however.  It is, more substantially, about whether a major sports league,  afforded significant anti-trust exemptions by Congress, should have the authority to levy penalties against players without meaningful due process.

Those who believe that the NFL has acted justly in Peterson's case are willing to accept the NFL's one-year banishment of Peterson as within the bounds of the NFL's discretion under the current CBA.  Given that the NFL's self-stated, non-negotiated policy on first-offense domestic abuse conduct subjects a player to a six-game suspension, with the possibility of upward revision given aggravating circumstances, it is difficult to accept that a minimum fifteen week suspension, some without pay, is not excessive--unless one believes that aggravating circumstances were present in this case and that those circumstances merited a near tripling, if not more, of the league's baseline punishment.

Those in this latter group, a group that persists in reminding everyone that Peterson was paid for the eight games that he missed prior to the league's decision to ban him for the year, appear willing to turn a blind eye to meaningful due process.  One suspects that these same people would hope for due process in all of their own affairs, but, for whatever reason, in Peterson's case, it's not only fair but obligatory that the Peterson not be accorded such rights.

What those who celebrate the NFL's purported tough stance against child abuse and even call for stronger sanctions against Peterson do not offer is a rationale for their position.  It is not enough to argue that what Peterson did was a bad thing.  Most agree it was.  The question is what the appropriate league punishment should be, given that he did a bad thing.  To argue that Peterson rested at home and received a paycheck while on the NFL Commissioner's special exemption list is not a thoughtful response to the the suggestion that the NFL could simply retroactively fine Peterson.  Moreover, if suspending Peterson with pay was not a punishment and retroactively fining him is not punishment, it does not follow that suspending him for the remainder of the season could constitute punishment.

Punishment is defined with respect to the means that the relevant arbiter wields.  In the criminal court system, there are many means for imposing punishment--fine, jail time, prison time, community service, restitution, counseling, etc.  The Texas court system imposed on Peterson a fine, community service, and counseling requirements.

The NFL has only two meaningful means at its avail for punishing players--suspending and taking pay from the player.  For those looking for the NFL to do more, that's not possible.  As such, for those who argue that retroactive fines for games which Peterson already sat out are meaningless because Peterson was not previously suspended without pay, the argument is unintelligible.

Nearly everyone agrees that the NFL could have handled this situation much more deftly from the very beginning.  What few agree on is how that could have been done.  Here is one suggestion that might work as a template in the future:

At the outset, notify the player that they are suspended immediately, without pay, for a minimum of six games, subject to additional games should aggravating circumstances come to light at any time.  Offer a definition of aggravating circumstances.  Commit one-half of the pay taken from the player to a credible non-profit that deals with the abuse that occurred.  Put the remainder of the pay in a trust fund for the victim.  Then, hire an outside arbitrator to hear any appeal.  Finally, work out a mutually agreeable code of conduct with the NFLPA, before the present CBA expires, and take advantage of the NFLPA's current exposure and the  need for the NFL to repair its due process neglecting fence.

Had the NFL given anywhere near as much initial thought to how to handle either the Ray Rice or Adrian Peterson situations, it could have avoided the circus that it has now created by making decisions from the seat of its proverbial pants without respect to normal notions of due process and with an eye squarely and exclusively on the league's image.  Rather than rebuild its tarnished image, the NFL's current course has only generated greater animosity toward the league from virtually every corner.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Vikings Add Ben Tate to Roster

Earlier today, the Minnesota Vikings added recently released ex-Cleveland Brown, ex-Houston Texan running back, Ben Tate, to the roster.  The addition is significant for several reasons.  First, it suggests that the Vikingsare not comfortable with the play of their current running backs, are concerned about recent injuries to each, or both.  Second, it underscores the Vikings' sense that Adrian Peterson will not prevail on his appeal of his league suspension.  Finally, and perhaps most significantly, it suggests the Vikings are preparing to part with Peterson after this season.

Not particularly productive in a Browns' backfield begging for production, Tate's addition should probably be viewed as one that will give the Vikings a player capable of staying on the field in third-down situations, while also contributing, less modestly than Matt Asiata, on first and second downs.  That's particularly important for disguising play calls and giving quarterback Teddy Bridgewater every possibility to demonstrate that, with a semblance of a running game, he can deliver.

If nothing else, Tate's addition suggests that the Vikings are still interested in competing this year.  Given the team's remaining schedule, that will be a challenge, but it should be slightly less of a challenge than it had been before Tate's arrival. 

Monday, November 17, 2014

Bad Signs for Vikings' Starting Quarterback

The Minnesota Vikings have spent the bulk of this season making excuses for the generally underwhelming play of their rookie quarterback, Teddy Bridgewater. Among the leading weekly excuses are that Bridgewater has nobody to throw to, no time to throw the ball, and no running game to take pressure off of the passing game.  The decibel level on these excuses has only been further amped up in the wake of yet another woefully awful offensive performance against the previously moribund Chicago defense.

In his weekly, day-after press conference, Minnesota Vikings' head coach Mike Zimmer upped the ante, however, on making excuses for the quarterback.  In response to questions regarding the malfunctioning field clock, Zimmer stated that the time clock only really made a difference on the Vikings' final drive.

Zimmer contended that, with the clocks inoperable, Bridgewater did not know how much time was left in the game.  Unquestionably, that matters, and Zimmer could have left it at that.  But he could not help following with one of the more improbable statements of the year, contending that Bridgewater put up a desperation pass on the game-ending pick, because "he thought he was short on time."

Asked to clarify his statement, Zimmer said that "Teddy said he thought he was running out of time."  The implication, seemingly supported by Zimmer, was that Bridgewater would have made a better decision and pass, but for the malfunctioning game clock.

For the record, when Bridgewater made his ill-fated pass, there were approximately 45 seconds remaining in the game.  Bridgewater would have known this, as an official was reporting the time remaining before each play.  And even if Bridgewater did not know precisely how much time was remaining at the snap of the ball, he ought to have had a sufficient internal clock at least to know that he was not in the position--on second down--to have to heave a hail mary pass into double-coverage.

It is bad enough that the Vikings have resorted to the same antics that they employed when defending the dismal play of Tarvaris Jackson and Christian Ponder, when defending Bridgewater.  It is worse when the coach offers an excuse that cannot be true.  It is far worse when the excuse offered initially came from the player who made a poor decision and showed, yet again, difficulty with a pass down field.  And it is exponentially worse when the excuse suggests either Bridgewater's unwillingness to take responsibility for a bad decision or an utter lack of awareness that would have been required for Bridgewater to believe what the coach claims Bridgewater said about the play.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Peterson Has Law on His Side, But Does He Have the Arbitrator?

The appointment of Shyam Das as arbitrator in Adrian Peterson's grievance filing with the NFL comes with mixed news for Peterson and those who hope for Peterson to return to the field this season.  Das, a former Major League Arbitrator, is regarded as a defender of individual rights and stickler for procedure.  That could be good or bad for Peterson.

As MLB arbitrator in 2012, Das overturned MLB's suspension of Milwaukee Brewer outfielder, Ryan Braun, as a result of MLB's failure to abide by the league's collectively bargained chain-of-custody protocol for handling urine samples designated for drug testing.  Das ruled that MLB's failure strictly to abide by its chain-of-custody protocol required negation of Braun's suspension.  Braun was delighted. MLB was furious.  Das was dismissed from his post.

Das has also handled arbitration for the NFL, recently upholding NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell's punishment of the New Orleans Saints players involved in Bountygate.  Das' Bountygate decision can be read one of two ways.  The first is that Das felt compelled by the evidence to support Goodell's suspension.  Given the mostly circumstantial evidence, this is probably not the full story--particularly for someone who undoubtedly found himself needing to get back into the good graces of at least one golden goose.  The second possibility is that Das considered the evidence and weighed that along with the interests of players purportedly hurt by those accused of Bountygate and erred on the side of protection.

Neither rationale is a particularly good omen for Peterson.  The first suggests Das has decided that his interests are now best met by acquiescing to the league for whom he works.  He did not do that at the end of his run with MLB and that cost him.  The second suggests that Das will punish those who do harm to others.  That might suggest that Das will defer to the NFL's request that it deliberate longer on Peterson's return.

What weighs most strongly in favor of Das ruling for a quicker return for Peterson, however, is the fact that Das has shown a penchant for upholding law.  Of particular interest in the Peterson case is Das' concern that MLB failed to follow protocol in the Braun case and that that technicality was sufficient justification to overturn Braun's suspension.

Though different in kind, Peterson's argument is similar in form to that raised by Braun.  Like Braun, Peterson is arguing that his league is not adhering to clear commitments that it made under the CBA.  Peterson has additional ammunition in that the NFL appears to want all of the benefits of a face-saving deal to which Peterson acquiesced, without having to live up to its apparent deal to return Peterson to active status upon conclusion of his legal case in Texas.

Given his track record--and failing the revelation of prior offenses in Peterson's substance-abuse history with the league, it appears likely that Das will rule in favor of Peterson's immediate reinstatement, likely leaving the door open for the league to assess a fine, without the right further to suspend for his offense.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Why the NFLPA is Right on Peterson

The NFL Players' Association (NFLPA) has sent written demand to the NFL requesting the immediate reinstatement of Minnesota Vikings' running back Adrian Peterson.  Although the NFLPA has a mixed history when it comes to defending the rights of players--at times, as during the Gene Upshaw years, turning a blind eye toward players and at other times, as with recent CBA negotiations pertaining to drug testing and personal conduct, rallying against NFL sanctions that appear warranted--the NFLPA is spot on in its demand for Peterson's immediate reinstatement.

Through week 10 of the NFL season, Adrian Peterson has been on the NFL's exempt list, a status that the NFL conferred upon Peterson to save face for the league and the Vikings and to permit Peterson to collect pay, during his absence from all league events.  Peterson and his counsel agreed to this arrangement, with the stipulation--also in writing--that Peterson be reinstated upon completion of his legal case.

When Peterson's legal affair for the whipping of his son began, the NFL's arrangement looked to provide the league and the Vikings cover for at least one year, with Peterson's attorney contending that Peterson planned to plead not guilty and a trial unlikely until at least the Spring of 2015.   That would have saved the NFL and the Vikings' much PR headache.

Two weeks ago, however, the NFL and the Vikings received an unwelcome surprise from Peterson's counsel, when they were informed that Peterson intended to plead no contest to a lesser misdemeanor charge.  The resulting plea, approved by the judge, required Peterson to pay $4,000, perform 80 hours of community service, and take parenting classes.  Should he fail to perform these obligations, the penalty may be revisited.

In the modern era of U.S. criminal law, the focus has shifted dramatically away from penalties for the sake of punishment and toward penalties that rehabilitate.  This is particularly true where it appears that rehabilitation might be successful.  There is also a growing belief in criminal jurisprudence that criminal penalties represent the sum of what society should expect criminals to pay for their offenses.

Few people who have seen the images of the child that Peterson struck believe anything other than that Peterson should be disciplined for his conduct and that his relationship with his children should be monitored.  Were Peterson not the perpetrator--were the perpetrator of the offense a random individual in our society--most people probably would also agree that the Texas penalty fit the crime, while aiming to correct the issue.

Of the penalties that Peterson must pay, the most significant in terms of moving forward and ensuring that this does not happen with Peterson again is most assuredly the parenting class requirement.  After being booked for his offense, Peterson acknowledged his conduct but seemed dismayed that anyone found it unlawful.  Peterson came off as a naive parent who needed guidance, rather than as a malicious, testosterone driven warrior with an inner, uncontrollable rage.

Peterson's personal composition is important under criminal law,  even in cases in which there is no intent requirement for finding guilt.  In sentencing, criminal courts routinely weigh all factors of a criminal's conduct.  Such considerations should also be important to the NFL and to the Vikings, as they weigh how to deal with Peterson's return.

PR issues notwithstanding, the NFL has legal obligations under its code of conduct and, with specific respect to Peterson, pursuant to the terms of the deal that it reached with Peterson prior to his paid suspension nine weeks ago.  Under the NFL's code of conduct, sanctions for Peterson's offense may not exceed a six-game, unpaid suspension.  The league could quibble that the eight-game paid suspension permits it to enforce a six-game, unpaid suspension starting next week.  That would be disingenuous in its own right.  It is even more disingenuous given that the league reached an understanding with Peterson that permits him to return to the Vikings when his case is resolved. And, it is utterly without rationale with respect to penalizing Peterson, aiming, as it does, entirely at relieving the league and the Vikings of a PR headache.   Given that Peterson's reinstatement would be consistent with both NFL policy and the progressive, rehabilitative nature of our criminal justice system, it is, thus, unfortunate and unjust for the NFL to act otherwise.

As the NFL incredibly broaches on making Peterson a martyr, executives within the Vikings' organization are debating the PR fall-out of Peterson's return to the team.  That's not surprising for a team that seems not to understand that side of the equation.

For the NFL, the answer is simple.  Peterson must be immediately reinstated.  For the Vikings, the only issue is whether to activate or cut Peterson.  If the Vikings are truly committed to justice, they will either activate Peterson, acknowledge his faults, and otherwise respect his right to move on with his life and pay what penance he must for his conduct or they will release him and let other teams decide whether Peterson's transgression requires barring from the NFL.  Hiding behind PR concerns, however, is both amateurish and cowardly.

As long the United States has a criminal justice system, there will be debates between those who favor stiffer penalties and those who favor more focus on rehabilitation.  There will also always be a court of public opinion--a portion of which will forever lobby for a return to the adornment of scarlet letters.  If the NFL and the Vikings want to be on the side of justice on the Peterson matter, they need to eschew this sentiment.  That means not only abiding by league policy, but also having the conviction and principles not cave to the whim of those for whom no penalty is stern enough.  That's not good governance and, in this case, not consistent with league policy.

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Peterson Poised for Return to Vikings?

Reports are indicating that Adrian Peterson has submitted a plea offer to resolve his criminal case in Texas.  The offer would have Peterson submit a plea of "no contest."  In exchange, prosecutors would recommend a $4,000 fine, a two-year stay, and community service and would remove from any final order any language related to abuse of a child.

As it would pertain strictly to Peterson's eligibility to return to the NFL, the deal, if recommended by prosecutors and accepted by the judge, would permit Peterson to play as soon as the Vikings' next game.  There are other considerations, of course.

From the NFL's perspective, Peterson would be pleading to an offense that is different in form, if not in kind, and, perhaps, substantially enough so to give the NFL PR cover.  The NFL will also recognize that Peterson has sat out eight games already and may view Peterson's transgression of harming a child in the process of attempting to discipline as a less egregious offense than Ray Rice's knocking out of his girlfriend.

If the NFL considers Peterson's transgression to be less malicious than Rice's, it is conceivable that the league will permit Peterson to return to play, subject to the terms of his plea deal in Texas.  The league almost certainly would retroactively suspend Peterson without pay, however, thereby assessing an additional one-half year of pay as penalty for Peterson's conduct.

In addition to the PR issue that the league and the Vikings must weigh in determining whether to permit Peterson to return to the team, Peterson has given the league an additional issue to consider.  After being charged in Texas, Peterson acknowledged to authorities that he had recently "smoked a bit of weed."  That was honest.  It might also have created another problem for Peterson.  If Peterson has already been booked by the league for drug use, he will already have been on probation.  If so, he might face an additional mandatory ban by the league.

If the NFL views Peterson's behavior, on the whole, as detrimental to the image of the league--beyond what his mistreatment of a child does to the league's image--Peterson might be facing not only league suspension for the eight games that he has already missed, but an additional suspension through the end of the season.  If the NFL believes that Peterson has served an appropriate penalty, outside of what he must also serve by way of community service in Texas, the league might consider the matter closed, recover one-half year of pay from Peterson, and permit Peterson to move on with his career.

Answers to all questions likely will be revealed by the end of this week.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Bridgewater's Start Harkens Back to Ponder's

In Christian Ponder's first start for the Minnesota Viking, the player who now serves as the Vikings' back-up quarterback only by virtue of Matt Cassel's injury, offered some encouraging signs for Vikings' fans.  In the 33-27 loss to the Green Bay Packers (in a game in which Greg Jennings scored on a 79-yard touchdown pass from Aaron Rodgers), Ponder was 13 of 32 for 219 yards and two touchdowns, including a late game pass to Michael Jenkins that offered the Vikings a glimmer of hope.  Ponder added 31 yards rushing on four attempts.

In the aftermath of Ponder's first start, those who wanted so desperately to believe that Ponder was the Vikings' franchise quarterback overlooked the 19 incompletions and two interceptions.  "He will only get better," they admonished those who dared to suggest that Ponder had a long way to go.

Things generally got worse for Ponder after that first start.  Some of that was attributable to the insistence of the coaching staff that he stay in the pocket and not ever scramble--regardless of whether that was a strength of Ponder's.  But, for the most part, Ponder's decline was his own doing--or, at a minimum, the product of his limited abilities.

Like Ponder, Teddy Bridgewater showed some encouraging signs in his first start for the Vikings, making quick reads, releasing the ball quickly, and throwing with accuracy on short passes.  Even generally staid analysts such as Pete Bercich and Ben Lieber, apparently beaten down by the Ponder years, gushed at Bridgewater's "promise."

With a few more starts now under his belt, the bloom is off the rose for some, but not for all, with respect to Bridgewater's promise.  While Lieber now expresses some concerns about certain aspects of Bridgewater's game--mostly the passing part, which tends to be a large part of what being a quarterback in the NFL is all about, others, such as KFAN's Paul Allen are gung-ho on Bridgewater, excited even to have the opportunity to walk in the same corridors with the rookie, and even more excited about "the possibilities." Allen makes clear that Teddy is doing what we should expect of a franchise quarterback early in his career.

Of course, what Bridgewater is doing is looking less and less like a franchise quarterback and more and more like Christian Ponder redux.  After showing well against a putrid Atlanta defense, Bridgewater has done little to suggest that he is a bona fide franchise quarterback.  He lacks the ability to throw the deep ball, holds the ball far too long in the pocket, locks in on receivers, throws to his blind side as if there will be no defender in the vicinity, and seems overly casual where urgency seems requisite.  That's at least the objective view.

Bridgewater finished Sunday's game 24 of 42 for 241 yards, one touchdown, and no picks.  Those numbers are not bad, but they came against a team yielding 286 passing yards per game and ceding 31 points a game.  Moreover, the 13 points that Bridgewater orchestrated in the game were no fluke--the Vikings' offense deserved no more than 13 based on what the quarterback was able to do.

For the entire season, Bridgewater has had every conceivable benefit of the doubt.  His proponents have noted that he is playing behind an offensive line with injuries, started earlier in his career than was hoped--due to Cassel's injury, played without Adrian Peterson, and had to manage without effective receivers.

The excuses paper over several realities, however.  On Sunday, Bridgewater had ample time to pass, had the benefit of a reasonably good running game, and had receivers get wide open and make an impossible catch or two.  Still, Bridgewater struggled.  He struggled because he did things that he probably can learn not to do--stay in the pocket too long when afforded a running lane, hold the ball too long, telegraph the pass, and lack urgency with the clock dwindling.

But Bridgewater continued to evidence short-comings that Ponder showed and that crippled Ponder in the pocket-style game that the Vikings insist from their quarterbacks.  He checked down more often than not.  He failed to spot wide open receivers, despite ample time.  He failed to get the ball down the field when he tried.  And he appeared to have little pocket presence--something that he seemed to have in his first game but now seems to have utterly lost.

As those who want to believe and refuse to be objective admonish the rest of the NFL-watching world to trust that Bridgewater will evolve, it is worth recalling that the most ardent Ponder supporters offered the same admonishments and the same excuses whenever Ponder fell short of expectations.  Unfortunately, the latter helped perpetuate three seasons of excuses and under-performance at the quarterback position.  Given that the Vikings have invested yet another first-round pick in a quarterback whom they have already anointed as the franchise quarterback, it is likely, particularly given the early and increasing use of the excuse machine by the team's cheerleading squad, that Vikings' fans are in for another three-year prove it period.

As they say in the business, "cheerleaders gonna cheer."  That's certainly true of most members of the  media covering the Vikings.  At some point, however, sensibility must overcome myopia and hope.  If, at the end of the season, Bridgewater is still averaging less than half a touchdown passing per game, less than 7 yards per pass attempted, and less than 65% pass completion rate despite the low passing-yards-per-attempt figure, then the Vikings need to accelerate the analysis of Bridgewater and determine if there is a better option on the market.  Three more years of watching something that is virtually unwatchable won't cut it.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Time for the Vikings to Revert to The Musgrave

At 2-4 and looking up at three better teams in their own division, the Minnesota Vikings would have to put together a string of performances unlike anything that they have done this year to contend not only for a final wild-card spot, but also to improve on last season's dismal 5-10-1 record.  Given the issues at seemingly every position on offense and some persisting concerns on defense, this is unlikely.  That notwithstanding, the games will be played and the Vikings might as well attempt to learn what they can from each contest.

What the Vikings need at Buffalo is a semblance of a pulse on offense and continued improvement on defense.  The latter should happen, given the return of Chad Greenway, and the former has a chance--but Vikings' fans almost certainly will not like the formula.

Defensively, the Vikings have had three primary challenge this season--cohesion, inexperience and talent, probably in that order.  In the base defense, the Vikings are starting only two players at the same position that they started at last year with the team and two other players playing the same position that they started at for any other team in the league last year.  That, by itself, is sufficient to create gaffes.  Issues attributable to cohesion should eventually diminish, however, if only by definition.

The Vikings also are giving five defensive players their most meaningful minutes of their careers and asking them to hold their own without much depth.  If those players can perform up to their draft levels and contracts, the inexperience concern will gradually become a non-issue.  If they cannot, the inexperience concern will become a talent and/or coaching concern.

Then there is the issue of talent.  There are weeks when the Vikings' defense holds its own in the face of difficult odds--such as last week, when the offense was awful.  There are also weeks when the defense looks like a sieve--see the Green Bay and Atlanta games.  The most obvious difference between the strong and weak defensive performances appears to be the opposition.  When the Vikings have faced a talented passing attack, the defense has played poorly.  When the Vikings have played a team with a weak passing attack--or a team with a key player, such as Calvin Johnson, missing from that attack--the defense looks better.  The remainder of the season will tell whether the issues are ones of cohesion and inexperience or more a matter of talent.

More alarming than the performance of the team's defense at this point is the total shambles that the offense has become.  When he wasn't getting sacked last week, Teddy Bridgewater was either under siege or throwing the ball to the defense.  But for more sacks and fewer short-yardage completions and last week's version of the Vikings' offense looked every bit as bad as any non-Adrian Peterson led offense of last season.

The Vikings' problems on offense start on the offensive line.  Despite the presence of a group that has played together for long enough to figure things out, the Vikings' offensive linemen are getting beat in every conceivable way--straight up, in a four-man front, in a three-man front, and certainly against the blitz.  Only Pittsburgh and Detroit have permitted more sacks than Minnesota's front five and, with a mere three passing touchdowns on the season--only two more than Cincinnati wide-receiver Mohamed Sanu, no team has shown anywhere near the futility scoring through the air that the Vikings have shown.  Add to that a league-leading nine picks, and the passing protection and passing attack have conspired to undermine the team's below-average rushing attack.

In the running game, it says a mouthful that fullback cum running back, Matt Asiata, leads the team with a 37.7 yards-per-game average.  That's roughly seven yards fewer per game than Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson averages.

It's all a recipe for disaster and a sign that, against a respectable defense in Buffalo, the Vikings either will need fortune to smile or an epiphany on offense.  That epiphany might be a reversion to something that no Vikings' fan would wish upon even their most reviled opponent, but something that is probably necessary to get the offense moving in the right direction--a reversion to the Musgrave.

Under former offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave, the Vikings led the league in dump-offs, behind-the-line-of-scrimmage passes, rushes up the gut, and third-down passes short of the stick.  That seemed a dramatic misuse of the best running back in the league.  However, now that the Vikings are without Peterson and, if you believe head coach Mike Zimmer, without receivers who can gain separation at the line, the Vikings must resort to some form of the Musgrave, if only to keep Bridgewater upright and breathing.

For offensive coordinator Norv Turner, today's offense must be quick-rhythm, short pass, and whatever the team can get from the running game, including having Bridgewater leave the pocket.  That's not how the Vikings wanted to operate things under Turner or with Bridgewater, but it's the best response to an awful offensive line and a marginal receiving corps that has accounted for a league-low two touchdowns and 217 yards receiving per game.

As always, the Musgrave approach is highly susceptible to defeat, but it does offer the benefit of permitting an offense to pull itself up to a level just slightly below mediocrity and--if the stars and moon properly align--an occasional blip or two above that.  In the wake of two straight offensive offensive performances, that arguably would be a step in the right direction.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

A Second Start and An Even Better Scenario for Teddy Bridgewater

Things could not have gone worse for Christian Ponder last week.  Nor could they have gone better for Teddy Bridgewater.  After Bridgewater led the Vikings to a victory over the Atlanta Falcons, Ponder was called upon to replace his injured teammate against Green Bay.

In addition to being asked to provide Bridgewater's encore, Ponder was asked to do so on a short week.  For any quarterback, that's likely to lead to sub-standard results.  When your standard results are already sub-standard, however, that's a recipe for disaster.  And for Ponder, disaster followed.

When it mattered against Green Bay, Ponder was awful.  His passes were off target, into the wrong hands, and late to receivers.  And those were the high points.  After the game, it was evident probably even to Rick Spielman that Ponder's career in Minnesota, and possibly the NFL, was over, but for the final paperwork.

Prior to the Atlanta game, everything had set up perfectly for Bridgewater to get his first start.  After Ponder's performance against Green Bay, everything is once again setting up beautifully for Bridgewater.  Not even Mr. Spielman would have had the audacity to attempt to script this.

The expectations for Bridgewater against Detroit are tempered by numerous factors.  Bridgewater is still purportedly limited by his injury against Atlanta; the Vikings were awful in all phases against Green Bay; nobody stood out in the Green Bay game and, as a result, nobody looks to be a standout against a far tougher Detroit defense; and Detroit is the favorite, despite playing on the road.

If Bridgewater merely stands his ground, picks up some yards, and keeps the game close, most Vikings' fans will consider the game a stepping stone in Bridgewater's maturation process.  If he does anything more than that, he will be viewed as the next coming of Fran Tarkenton.

The encouraging thing for Vikings' fans in a season that might otherwise have been a disaster, is that Bridgewater not only has shown promise with a quick read and release, evasiveness and awareness in the pocket, and decent arm strength at least up to mid-range passing, but he also seems to be charmed.  For Vikings' fans accustomed to the opposite, that's a welcome change and one that they will take with no apologies.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Best Case Scenario for Bridgewater

Teddy Bridgewater will get his first NFL start today when the Minnesota Vikings take on the Atlanta Falcons.  The situation is perfect for Bridgewater.

The ideal scenario for any NFL quarterback to make their NFL debut is to do so in friendly environment where the expectations are low.  That's what Bridgewater faces today.  At home, against an Atlanta team that crushed Tampa Bay last week, Bridgewater will be forgiven several mistakes with few fans expecting much other than a demonstration of pocket awareness when attempting to elude the rush from the blind side, some arm strength--on target or not, and a semblance of calm in the eye of the storm.

If Bridgewater accomplishes the above, even in a loss, Vikings' fans likely will shrug and return to see what happens in the next game.

In addition to relatively low expectations and an environment of patience, Bridgewater has two additional advantages.  The first is that Atlanta's defense is not very good.  That's small consolation to a team without a running game and with a struggling offensive line, but it is something.  Despite thrashing Tampa Bay last week, Atlanta's defense has still allowed 387 yards of offense per game.  That's tied for 25th in the NFL.

The second advantage is that, because of the Vikings' offensive line woes, Bridgewater likely will need to demonstrate all of the traits that the team hopes it has in him.  He will need to run, likely often, and he will need to make quick decisions.  Fans will understand that these are the requirement of a quarterback put in a difficult spot and will forgive an occasional lapse committed in an effort to adjust to competition at the NFL level.

In addition to all of the advantages, Bridgewater faces a daunting task today.  But even that comes wrapped in near certain fan patience.  Unlike Christian Ponder, Bridgewater does not have a nookie blanket in Adrian Peterson.  Bridgewater will have to be his own savior.  That will serve him well in the long run.  Should he prevail in any measure, Bridgewater will receive credit.  Should he fail, fans will point to the lack of support.  As with other elements of this match-up, it's a win-win for Bridgewater.

No matter the outcome, the one certainty is that--barring an injury or a four-turnover performance not directly attributable to the offensive line--Bridgewater will leave Sunday's game looking like a player somewhere between a project and a find.  That will be enough to keep him ahead of Christian Ponder and likely ahead of a healthy Matt Cassel on the depth chart.  And that would be a victory of sorts for the organization, as it will allow the team proper time to assess Bridgewater and to determine what needs ought to be addressed in the 2015 off-season.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Will Vikings Take Path Less Traveled?

In last week's 30-7 loss to the New England Patriots, Minnesota quarterback Matt Cassel threw for 202 yards and a touchdown.  Those results were Ponder-like in Ponder's better games and might have been enough for a victory, but for the fact that the team did not have Adrian Peterson to otherwise carry the load and the additional fact that Cassel contributed four picks to the effort.

We have seen this type of performance from Cassel in the past and we have seen Cassel rebound to the relatively mediocre quarterback that he typically is.  Whether Cassel avoids the picks going forward is not the Vikings' immediate or long-term concern.  Rather, those concerns are whether they have on the roster a quarterback capable of consistently playing above replacement level.

In addition to throwing picks on Sunday, Cassel seemed incapable of the deep pass.  In the few instances in which he attempted to go deep, his passes fluttered short of the target and seemed to be Cassel's best effort.  That's disturbing in a pass-happy league that is becoming more of a vertical game and less of a control and possession game.  Neither Cassel nor Christian Ponder appears capable of providing the deep or even long option.  That leaves only Teddy Bridgewater.

Almost certainly, Bridgewater is not prepared to step in as an NFL starter.  But, if the alternatives show the limited potential that the Vikings' other two quarterbacks heretofore have shown, it behooves the Vikings to determine sooner, rather than later, whether Bridgewater has the ability to start in the NFL.

The Vikings can accomplish a transition to Bridgewater in one of two ways.  One way is to throw Bridgewater into the game as a starter.  That's unlikely to happen over the next several weeks when the Vikings play, in succession, New Orleans, Atlanta, Green Bay, and Detroit--all high-scoring teams against whom the Vikings will need to score to have a chance to win.  And, given that reality, the Vikings would be committing to Cassel for nearly half the season, leaving Bridgewater a brief window to measure Bridgewater.

It is unclear what timeline is required to measure a quarterback's NFL potential in the world of Rick Spielman.  For Ponder, the timeline was ever-shifting, reflecting the GM's hope that his draft-day reach would somehow pan out.  For Josh Freeman, the timeline was one game.  That leaves a whole lot of ground between.

None of this would be all that significant for the Vikings, particularly without the added concern of attempting to win before the Peterson era in Minnesota ended, but for the fact that there happens to be a reasonably promising quarterback on the board in next year's NFL draft, in the form of Marcus Mariota.  Spielman presumably took Bridgewater late in round one, rather than Manziel earlier, in part, at least, to allow himself the opportunity to concede that Bridgewater is not the franchise quarterback, should Bridgewater turn out not to be what Spielman thinks he is.  But taking advantage of that opt-out option is really only possible if Bridgewater plays this year.

The second option for introducing Bridgewater is to incorporate him into the game at various times--certainly if any of the upcoming games become one-sided.  That would make sense not only from a performance review perspective, but also from a PR perspective as it would demonstrate that the team is moving on from the glacially slow assessments that led to numerous suspect decisions over the past four seasons.  And, if Bridgewater performs to the level that Spielman anticipates, the Vikings might find that they can spend a first-round pick on something other than a quarterback.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Changing Tide in Society Portends Changing Tide in NFL

When the Minnesota Vikings began lobbying for a new stadium, the sentiment among the largest swath of the fan base appeared to be one of excitement.  New and shiny, no matter the public cost, was acceptable--as long as the Vikings continued to play in Minnesota.

There was, of course, some push-back.  That came from those who saw the push for a new stadium for what it truly was--a money grab by the team--and from those who had a difficult time reconciling separate and new facilities for the University of Minnesota and the Vikings.

Despite these concerns, however, the proverbial writing on the wall soon became clear.  The Vikings were going to get their new stadium, no matter the cost.  The only real question was how the reality of the public footing the largest chunk of the upfront cost of building the stadium was going to be massaged for public presentation and public consumption.

The Vikings adopted a two-pronged approach.  The first was to convince the public that the state portion of the cost of building the stadium would be covered by e-pull tabs.  There were several flaws with this concept, of course, many of them immediately raised.  Chief among these were the concerns about the viability of e-pull tabs and their ability to raise any meaningful money.  Governor Dayton assured the public that the plan had been carefully vetted.

Another concern with funding the "Peoples' Stadium" with gambling money was the stake that the state had in encouraging gambling.  No matter how the numbers were sliced and diced, for the Governor's e-tab proposal to work, either many more needed to gamble in Minnesota or many who already gambled in Minnesota needed to gamble, and lose, much more often.

Using gambling to fund the Vikings' stadium seemed flatly at odds with any sensible government funding policy, encouraging, as it does, an addictive habit that has a tendency to create more substantial problems for the state.  To that concern, the Governor and his many Republican and DFL supporters in the state legislature, seemingly turned a blind eye.

Despite the Governor's pledges across the state that the state's general fund would not be the source of state funds for the new stadium, however, it is now clear that that is the only place from which such funds can derive, save for a last-ditch effort by the Governor and state legislature to raid the Legacy Fund.

The e-pull tab proposal was disgraceful at all levels and the type of thing for which leaders in less forgiving states certainly would lose their jobs and probably even go to jail.  In Minnesota, crony-like foregiveness unfortunately appeared to prevail.

Having fleeced the public on the stadium funding mechanism, the Vikings still had other concerns to cover.  The lynch-pin for covering these concerns was creating a new stadium authority and ensuring that it was stacked with "yes" people.  That mission was readily accomplished and, in that respect, flourishes today.  If the commission ever was inclined to question any Vikings' request, such inclination seemed quickly quelled.

Among the commission's chief accomplishments are the following:

  • The Vikings' stadium will be built with the Vikings providing zero up-front money;
  • The Vikings will retain 100% of discretionary revenue streams (tough negotiating likely led to this result);
  • The head of the commission received a raise and a commendation from the Governor for "her hard work and strong leadership."
These results were enough to make a passive-aggressive's head blow up, but not enough to make anyone in the local media make much of a fuss.  That could save for after all the deals were finalized and nothing could be done to amend any terms without the state incurring even larger costs for default and damages.

The pendulum began swinging the other way five weeks ago, however, when former Minnesota Governor Arnie Carlson, long a champion of local sports, lambasted the stadium deal and the stadium commission.  That column, in and of itself, would have meant little to the Vikings or to the NFL.  When coupled with the events of the past week, however, they spell looming problems for the league--all of the league's own making.

For much of its post-merger existence, the NFL has built its empire on the strength of two principles.  The first was ensuring that the on-field product is physical enough to satiate and grow the fan base.  The second was that teams have non-gate means for improving their bottom line.

The NFL addressed the first issue by ignoring rampant player drug use and turning a blind eye to violence perpetrated by players on and off the field.  Jack Tatum attempts to decapitate Darryl Stingley?  No problem--that's part of the game.  And it was, at the time.  But the NFL not only looked the other way, it highlighted the hit in promotions.  It made stars of players like Conrad Dobler and Bill Romanowski, both of whom acknowledged attempting to maim fellow players to "gain an edge."  And the money poured in because the vocal part of the fan base expressed approval.

The NFL addressed the issue of team revenues by encouraging, promoting, and participating in hostage taking, forever holding out the threat of teams leaving should a new stadium not be built.  Vikings' fans recall the non-threat, threat of two stadiums in Los Angeles--neither of which, though all but built several years ago, is even in the planning stages at this date.

For its chicanery, deceit, and reliance on conduct that would be criminal were it committed outside of a stadium to build its brand, the tide now appears to be turning against the NFL.  This is happening for several reasons.  The first, and most obvious, is that some of the league's stars are engaging in conduct for which they are being criminally indicted and for which there is an increasing amount of publicly available documentation.

A second reason for the backlash against the NFL--probably far more disconcerting to the NFL Commissioner--is that much of what was done behind closed doors in the past now is brought into public view through various outlets.  No longer can someone say that they "did not know" about an event if they did know about an event, because someone will have an e-mail, phone recording, or media post controverting the claim.  

The concern by NFL teams--an increasing NFL concern--was evidenced by Minnesota Vikings' GM Rick Spielman during Monday's press conference, during which Spielman defended the team's decision to start Adrian Peterson "until the legal process plays out."  Spielman began the press conference by stating that the Vikings were "not aware of formal charges until Friday."  Even the most bumbling of sleuths immediately deciphered that as code for "we knew about the issue at the center of the formal charges much earlier."  Though Spielman attempted to leave it at that, a horde of reporters, clearly chastened for not further investigating the Ray Rice incident, pounced.  Spielman was doomed.

Much as Spielman was doomed in yesterday's press conference, the NFL, as resilient as it has been, appears headed for a heavy fall.  Already facing payouts for concussions and other long-term effects of playing football, the NFL now is confronted with having to deal with an off-field problem that almost certainly is more wide-spread in a league devoted to physical play.  Either the NFL transforms to a far less physical league, potentially decimating its perceived fan base, or it succumbs to what made it what it is.  As with the inevitable paper trail on the league's stadium shenanigans, neither is very appealing for the NFL.

Up Next:  A Cassel Without a Moat or Arms.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Peterson's Absence Will Have Cascade Effect for Vikings

For years, the Minnesota Vikings have pondered their future after Adrian Peterson.  Today, and perhaps for a very long time, the Vikings will have the opportunity to assess that future.  With the Vikings removing an otherwise available Peterson from today's lineup and signing running back Joe Baynard from the practice squad, the team is signaling that it expects to be without Peterson not only today, but also, and at least, into the near future.

Without Peterson in the line-up, the Vikings' offense will have a much more ordinary feel.  On first blush, that's a bit terrifying for a team that has been entirely about Peterson for at least the past four seasons.  After the initial shock, however, the team might benefit from being forced to see what it can do without its nookie blanket.

Under Leslie Frazier, the Vikings turned to Peterson whenever the score was tight, the team needed a quick score, the team needed to milk the clock, or the pass was not working.  Under new offensive coordinator Norv Turner, the expectation was that the Vikings would divert some of the workload to the quarterback and experiment with the new NFL sensation--the forward pass.

The Vikings did pass some against St. Louis in week one, but most of the pass attempts were short and the team's best plays continued to be running plays.  Although Peterson finished the day with just seventy-five yards rushing, he continued to compel the opposing defense to load up the box.

Not needing to stop Peterson, the New England Patriots and others are likely to step back off of the line and take no chances with Cordarrelle Patterson cutting across the middle.  That should open up the running game, but for the less threatening combo of Matt Asiata, Jerick McKinnon, and, possibly, Baynard.

Though the entire affair is disheartening on many levels, Peterson's absence should have the beneficial effect of compelling the Vikings to focus on all facets of the offense equally, rather than regarding the passing attack as "what we do when Adrian is unable to control the game."  In truth, the Vikings have essentially been in this predicament for the past two years.  They just have not yet acknowledged the fact.  Today ought to exemplify the beginning of that recognition process.  If so, we ought to see more downfield plays, expanded use of Patterson out of the backfield, more of Rudolph over the middle, and probably fewer check-downs than in any Vikings' game over the past four years.

Despite Peterson's absence, the Vikings have sufficient offensive skill to overcome what appears to be a relatively modest New England team--at least by Patriot standards.  Questions will persist in the secondary, until the Vikings can demonstrate an ability to shut down a legitimate quarterback, but, already, things look more promising than they ever did under Frazier.  How well the Vikings adjust to Peterson's absence and Brady's presence will suggest what we can expect for the remainder of the season.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

What to Expect from the Minnesota Vikings in 2014 Season

For the past several seasons, Minnesota Vikings' fans have entered the season confident of three things.  The first was that the team had some talented playmakers.  The second was that that talent almost certainly would be improperly utilized.  The third was that the team was committed to a quarterback and a style of play not suited to that quarterback--no matter the consequences.

In 2014, the knowns about the Vikings have shifted.  The team now has greater question marks at some positions, with less certainty on the defensive line and in the linebacking corps.  Those uncertainties likely will be off-set, to a degree, by a far more pedigreed coaching staff that has already made clear, at least at the quarterback position, that it will favor production over promise (at least for now).

In Cincinnati, new Vikings' head coach Mike Zimmer led one of the more productive defensive units in the NFL.  In his short time in Minnesota, Zimmer has already made clear that he prefers a defense that mixes schemes and presses the opponent--both critical to defending in the current NFL and both anathema during Leslie Frazier's run in Minnesota.

On offense, Vikings' fans should expect tight ends to contribute over the middle and in the red zone, running backs to contribute as receivers, and receivers to extend the field.  These, of course, were all foreign concepts under offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave, as Vikings' fans watched Kyle Rudolph, Greg Jennings, Adrian Peterson, and Cordarrelle Patterson, among others, used as decoys and short options as much as anything.

What transpires for this year's Vikings' team will depend greatly on how quickly the defensive line and linebacking corps learn the defense, how well the Vikings' secondary plays with new players, new starters, and a new system, how well the offensive line plays, and whether Matt Cassel can be ordinary to better most of the time.  In short, the season has many unknowns.  What appears evident so far, however, is that the team at least has a better handle on the fact that change was imperative and more competent leadership capable of making positive, progressive, and incremental change a reality.

Saturday, June 07, 2014

The Other Futbal on Sister Blog

For the next few weeks, Vikesgeek will defer to the soccer blog linked to on  On that blog, you will find coverage of this year's World Cup.  Although the United States is not even favored to advance out of its group, fans of the red, white, and blue might be interested in the author's take that the United States could advance as far as the semi-final round.

As the World Cup wraps up, training camp will be underway in Mankato and Vikesgeek will again be covering the purple with a tip on how to make money in Vegas when betting the Purple.

Friday, May 09, 2014

Did Vikings' General Manager Rick Spielman Read Too Many of His Own Press Clippings?

Entering the 2014 NFL draft, Minnesota Vikings' General Manager Rick Spielman had made a short reputation for himself as someone able to identify when a marquee player had fallen into his lap.  Last year, Spielman jumped on three such players, selecting Xavier Rhodes, Cordarrelle Patterson, and Sharrif Floyd in the first round, after trading up to take Patterson.  In 2012, the Vikings drafted Matt Kalil and traded up into the bottom of the first round to take Harrison Smith.

Over the past two drafts, the early returns are favorable.  Kalil has had his ups and downs, but mostly has been the dependable left tackle that the Vikings needed.  Smith has been solid when not injured.  Rhodes showed promise as a rookie.  And Patterson was brilliant, when finally allowed to play.  Only Floyd has yet to live up to his promise, and that might be coming this year.

Spielman's recent success in the first round has over-shadowed his wretched 2011 draft and his inability to identify the less evident talent in later rounds.  Of the Vikings' eight non-first-round selections in 2012, only Blair Walsh and Audie Cole have panned out and the rest look to be not long for the NFL.  Of the team's six non-first-round selections in 2013, none appear long for the NFL.

The goal in any NFL draft is to identify two immediate starters and two players who will develop into starters.  Because he took the obvious players in 2012 and 2013, Spielman likely will come close to meeting this objective for those two seasons.  The same almost certainly will not be said of the 2014 draft, however.

Championship teams in the NFL are built from the front back, with special consideration due the quarterback position.  In 2012 and 2013, the Vikings strengthened their lines and supplemented with secondary help.  The Vikings did that despite also having needs elsewhere--at wide receiver and linebacker in particular.

Entering the 2014 draft, the Vikings had several holes to fill for a team that finished 2013 with a 5-10-1 record.  Barring a miraculous run through the remainder of the draft, the team will not fill those holes in 2014.  Nor, despite having two first-round picks, did Spielman come away with any player that can be regarded as either the best player on the board or even the best player at a position of need for the Vikings.  That's unfortunate.

Minnesota began the draft well enough, trading down one spot and picking up a largely ceremonial fifth-round pick--the kind that Spielman tends positively to make use of only when he deals it to move up.  At nine, the Vikings had three apparent options.  One was to take the best player on the board--the player that fell into their laps--in Aaron Donald.  The Vikings can argue that they did not need Donald because they had Floyd.  That's nonsense, however, if Donald is the player that everyone believes him to be.  If that makes Floyd expendable or diminishes his already limited role, so be it.  Unlike last year and the year before, Spielman missed this clear gift.

The second option at number nine was to take Johnny Manziel.  Passing on Manziel will save the Vikings some near certain headaches in off-the-field drama and Manziel is no sure thing.  But, drafting Manziel would have sold tickets and he would have made things interesting.

The interesting thing about the Vikings' decision to pass on Manziel is not that Manziel was an obvious pick, it is that the Vikings appear to believe that he was their guy but that he would be available for the taking later in the round.  According to some reports, the Vikings attempted to trade up to the 22nd pick in the first round to take Manziel, only to be bested in their offer for Philadelphia's pick by Cleveland--which then took Manziel.  Spielman did not deny the report, which all but confirms its validity.

If the report of the Vikings' attempt to trade up to take Manziel are accurate, the Vikings look foolish.  If Manziel was their guy, given the team's frustrations at quarterback for several years--frustrations almost entirely at Spielman's feet--the Vikings should have taken Manziel with the ninth pick or traded down a bit more and taken him in the middle of the first round, assuming a trading partner.

The guess here is that Spielman wanted cover for taking another quarterback and taking Manziel at eight or nine would have put him squarely on the clock for showing Manziel's immediate value.  Spielman did not want that kind of heat, so he backed down.  In doing so, he fumbled the ball and was left with an even worse predicament.

The third option at number nine was to trade down, take a trenches player and use the largesse from the trade to fill holes elsewhere, using a second-rounder on Jimmy Garoppolo.

Instead, the Vikings stayed at nine and selected a raw linebacker in Anthony Barr.  The upside to Barr is that he is big, strong, and fast.  The downside is that he is a project with limited experience playing linebacker.  At a position for which identifying NFL starters from college production is difficult for players with stellar and long college careers, projecting Barr's NFL trajectory is perilous, at best.  That would be fine, if Barr were the Vikings' second first-round pick or if the Vikings had a certainty in their other first-rounder.  Neither is the case, however.

After failing to land Manziel, the Vikings traded back into the bottom of the first round to select Teddy Bridgewater.  There appear to be two reasons for this move.  The first is that taking Bridgewater in round one gives the team an option for a fifth year.  Of course, if Bridgewater is awful early, that option is meaningless.  The second is that by taking Bridewater in the first round, Spielman buys more time to "evaluate" his pick as a first rounder--assuming Spielman retains that duty over the long term.  We saw this play out with Christian Ponder and now, it appears, the Vikings have positioned themselves to see it play out that way with Bridgewater, as well.

The upside to Bridgewater appears to be that many once viewed him as a top-five pick.  That he slid down the draft board has been explained by some to be the function of a poor pro day.  That's probably part of it.  The other part, however, is that he has some work to do.  Bridgewater's greatest asset in college was his ability to play against bad teams on a regular basis.  Against good competition, Bridgewater generally looked like a decent, if unspectacular quarterback.  Add to that the fact that Bridgewater has a three-quarters arm slot on his deep pass release and that his sense of himself is matched only by Manziel's sense of himself and you have a recipe for disaster that easily could have been avoided at lesser cost.

The right pick for the Vikings in this year's draft would have been Donald into Garoppolo/guard/receiver/corner/running back.  Instead, the team went with two projects.  If they both pan out, brilliant.  But Spielman's own track record suggests that when he reaches for a project, the odds are against success.  For all the kudos that Spielman deserved for making the right choices in last year's draft, this draft has the makings of quite the opposite.  Time, of course, will tell.

Thursday, May 08, 2014

Minnesota Vikings' Quest to Break 53-Year NFL Championship Drought Begins Today

In 1976, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Seattle Seahawks entered the NFL.  At the time, it seemed it would be an eternity before either won an NFL Championship.  At the time, conversely, it appeared that the Minnesota Vikings were destined for many championships--certainly at least one before either of the new expansion teams accomplished the feat.

As the Vikings aged, they redefined themselves.  Rather than the Purple People Eaters, they became the best of a very bad NFC Central Division.  Then Chicago improved.  And Green Bay improved.  Even Detroit--pre-Matt Millen--showed some flashes.  And the Vikings went from clear kings of the hill to just another team attempting to compete.

When Randy Moss fell into the Vikings' lap in 1998, the team was relatively reborn, making two trips to the Conference Championship game and another to the playoffs in Moss' first three seasons in Minnesota.  After that, the wheels fell off, with poor ownership and coaching conspiring to relegate Minnesota to the lesser half of the league more often than not.

Since 2000, the Vikings have made the playoffs a mere four times--gaudy for some teams, but far below the expectations of long-invested Minnesota fans.  In that span, both Tampa Bay and Seattle have won the Super Bowl.  Adding to the insult, in the Vikings' most meaningful threat to ending years of championship elusiveness, the New Orleans Saints, a team with a 317-405-5 all-time record, stole the NFC Championship from the Vikings and went on to win the Super Bowl.

While Vikings' fans, to be sure, have had far more highs than fans of most other NFL teams, they have also had far more crushing, seemingly cruel, lows.  Four times, the Vikings have gone to the Super Bowl.  Four times, they have lost in convincing fashion, scoring a combined 34 points.  Four times since 1987, the Vikings have gone to the NFC Championship game.  Three times, they were favored to win.  Four times, they lost.  All four losses were agonizing, with three coming down to a final play that could have been made but was not and one, in which the Vikings were a road favorite at New York, ending in the infamous 41-0 loss.

Today, the Vikings look to turn the page on this history.  Despite finishing last season 5-10-1, there are several reasons to believe that Minnesota has at least a fighting chance this year.  Among these are the fact that the two best teams in the league are in the same division and that that division is not the NFC North.  The second is that the Vikings are but a handful of players away from being a bona fide contender.  The third is that Minnesota has positioned itself well to take the best player available in this year's draft, regardless of round.

All of which brings us to this year's draft.  Although the Vikings, like most teams, would love to be sitting atop a draft board with a clear for-the-ages quarterback on the board, that's not this year's draft.  But this year's draft is otherwise ideally suited for a team like Minnesota which can take any one of several players at number eight or trade down in the first round and pick up an early second or an earlier 2015 pick--a year in which the Vikings' quarterback of the future might truly be on the board.

With hours to go before the commencement of this year's draft, the Vikings appear to have one clear target at number eight--quarterback Johnny Manziel.  The knowns on Manziel are that he is competitive and productive on the field.  He also has a history off the field, however, that might discourage a team from using a high draft pick on him.  Despite the off-the-field concerns, the Vikings appear intent on taking Manziel, should he be available, and appear willing to move up to take him, even if it means ceding their own first and a third-rounder in this year's draft.

Drafting Manziel would mean several things for the Vikings.  First, it would mean that Rick Spielman was willing to stake his career in Minnesota on Manziel's performance.  Despite the good that he has done in Minnesota--namely, noticing when a star has fallen into his lap--Spielman has had several bad misses at the quarterback position, including selecting Christian Ponder in the first-round of the 2011 draft.  Another miss at the position early in the draft not only will signal years of frustration and missed opportunity for Vikings' fans, but, almost certainly, the end of Spielman's tenure in Minnesota.

Concerns notwithstanding, selecting Manziel almost certainly would energize the fan base and push to the background never-ending revelations of sweetheart deals for Vikings' ownership, relating to the "People's Stadium."  Manziel's antics, on the field and of the mouth, will offer a welcome distraction for a team generally intently focused on controlling the message.

Finally, drafting Manziel will cause the Vikings to cater their offense to a running and passing quarterback, rather, as was the case with Ponder and Joe Webb, attempting to convert a running quarterback into a pro-style quarterback.  That, in and of itself, would be welcome relief in the land of purple.

If Manziel is off the board when Minnesota selects tonight, the Vikings appear to favor moving down in the draft, even if it means passing on a legitimate deep receiving threat.  Though the Vikings have talked about taking a linebacker if they move down, the better option would be an offensive or defensive lineman.  The  draft has four grade-A offensive linemen, including one from Spielman's favored Notre Dame.  Selecting a guard would go a long way toward solidifying what good general managers understand to be one of two units around which all else revolves.

In an ideal world, this year's draft would be next year's draft.  That it is not leaves the Vikings hoping either that Manziel falls to them at eight--something that seems to work for Spielman in each year's draft--or hoping that somebody is willing to trade up and give the Vikings a second second-round pick--something else, pick aside, that seems to work out for Spielman each year.  If the Vikings have but one first- and one second-round pick this year, a successful first-day draft will be one in which the Vikings get either Manziel and a starter on the offensive line or a starter on the offensive line and a starter at linebacker.  If the former, the Vikings will need to draft a slew of linebackers after round two to improve the prospects of finding at least one capable of playing the position.

Up Next:  Who They Took.

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Quarterback Not the Vikings' Best Option at Eight

The Minnesota Vikings have resolved their head coaching vacancy.  They have, we believe, resolved their offensive coordinator opening.  They also presumably have resolved their defensive coordinator opening.  Assuming the announcements of these latter two resolutions are forthcoming, the Vikings still have a considerable amount to do this off-season.  And, if they do all that they need to do, they can become factors in 2014.

Notwithstanding a resolution of Mike Priefer's role with the team in 2014, the Vikings' most pressing issue is how to use the number eight pick in this year's draft.  Most Vikings' fans have assumed that the Vikings will use the pick to select a quarterback.  Rick Spielman has also hinted that that option still appeals to the Vikings, at least on some level.  Using the number eight pick on a quarterback in this year's draft almost certainly would be a mistake, however.

Of the quarterbacks in this year's draft, only one, Johnny Manziel, stands out as worthy of a first-round gamble.  But Manziel is everything that the Vikings fear right now.  He is head strong.  He is volatile off the field.  He has a relatively diminutive stature and plays a style that may or may not translate against stronger, bigger, faster NFL competition.  Manziel, who is likely to be off the board at eight, also appears to be the most certain bet, from an overall talent perspective, to make it in the NFL as a long-term starting quarterback.

That says a mouthful about this year's quarterback crop, often referred to as "abundant" by draft analysts.  What this year's quarterback draft crop is abundant in is not high-end talent, however, but several players who might become NFL starters and numerous players who have enough talent to be considered somewhere in the draft.  Unlike years past in which Cam Newton, Robert Griffin III, and Andrew Luck were clear top-of-the-draft choices, this year's crop of draft-eligible quarterbacks has no such highly regarded quarterback.  For the Vikings, that should be determinative.

Rather than taking a first-round gamble on a rookie quarterback that will take at least two years to mold into an NFL starter, the Vikings ought to focus their attention on far more certain commodities and players who will be able to make an immediate impact.  Given the team's needs, that means selecting a defensive lineman.

In this regard, the Vikings have two options--both of which are right in Spielman's wheelhouse.  The first is to use the number eight pick on the defensive lineman of their choice.  The best option would be another likely Spielman target, Notre Dame nose tackle Louis Nix.  Spielman loves Notre Dame players and recognizes obvious value when it smacks him in the face.  Nix would be a no-brainer at eight, immediately moving into the starter's role at nose tackle and immediately, therefore, paying dividends--the type of dividend that is required from a number eight pick.

The second option would be to trade down a few spots and pick up a mid second-round pick.  Trading down six or seven spots probably would still allow the Vikings to select Nix and would give the team the opportunity to package two seconds to trade back into the middle of the first and draft a linebacker or another defensive player of substance, a player like RaShede Hageman.

Getting both Nix and Hageman would be a coup for the Vikings and further solidify Spielman's claim to making solid, non-quarterback moves in round one.  And its effect would be diametrically opposite, both on and off the field, to that which drafting David Carr at number eight would be.

Up Next:  Trade Partners.  Plus, free agency.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Turner Brings Experience to Vikings While Hinting at Quarterback Addition

Late Friday, word leaked that the Vikings had added former Cleveland Brown offensive coordinator Norv Turner as the team's new offensive coordinator.  The move should bring to an end the micro-short  running/passing system introduced by Bill Musgrave and suggests that the Vikings are in the market for a down-field passer with some experience.  That probably means that addition of veteran Josh McCown of the Bears.

More on this move shortly.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Vikings Tab Zimmer As New Coach: Will Zimmer Ride Spielman's First-Round Charm?

On Wednesday, the Minnesota Vikings did the expected, naming former Cincinnati Bengal defensive coordinator, Mike Zimmer, their head coach.  Despite having no NFL head coaching experience, the 57-year-old Zimmer has much to commend him as the ninth head coach in Vikings' history.

Among Zimmer's attributes are the fact that he consistently coaches solid defensive units, has adapted to both the 4-3 and the 3-4 systems, has a long history of solid performances, and appears not to settle for substandard effort or results.  If sideline bellicosity is any indication, Zimmer insists on changes on the fly and does not shy away from necessary confrontation.

For Vikings' fans, the announcement of Zimmer's hiring is both expected and probably welcomed.  The Vikings have been a disaster on defense each of the past three seasons and not much above average for long before that, save for the run defense in the Pat Williams era.  If Zimmer truly is a coach who will insist on and make changes as soon as they are required, that will be a welcome change from the Childress and Frazier eras of "staying the course" and "not making changes on the spur of the moment."

In addition to Zimmer's positive attributes, there is the fact that he was widely viewed as a viable head coaching candidate, with only age and lack of head coaching experience apparently impeding his prospects this year.  This is the area in which, whether through luck or simply sufficient common sense, Vikings' General Manager Rick Spielman has thrived.  When the odds say something will work and Spielman has made the move, he generally been correct.  Only when he ventures into the unknown--or the cautioned against--does Spielman seem inevitably to falter.  As such, attaching Spielman's name to Zimmer's hire likely is a good omen for the Vikings.

The only knocks on Zimmer are his lack of head coaching experience and the fact that he appears to be willing to confront and speak his mind.  The former is a hurdle for all first-time head coaches, though Zimmer is probably seasoned enough, having worked for several head coaches, including Bill Parcells, to have learned the main lessons.  The latter, however, could cause problems in an organization with a heavy top down organizational structure that loathes the free spirit.  That concern might be off-set somewhat, however, by the fact that Vikings' owner Zygi Wilf personally vetted the hire.

Zimmer is reportedly interested in bringing Norv Turner to Minnesota as the new offensive coordinator.  That, in and of itself, would be worth the Zimmer hire.

Up Next:  What Zimmer's Hire Portends for the Vikings' Quarterback Position.  Plus, coordinator matters.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Given Team's Objectives, A Few Leading Vikings' Coaching Candidates Appear Clear, Some Who Should Be Not Yet on Team's Radar: Day Three

Throw in every current NFL, college, and high school football coach and you have a near complete list of coaches in whom the Minnesota Vikings have expressed an interest as their next head coach.  The list takes into consideration General Manger Rick Spielman's self-created "thirteen types" of coaches.  Cutting through the chaff, however, it seems evident that the Vikings true list is far smaller and that, from that short list, there must be one or two leaders.

After three consecutive disastrous seasons on defense, it is almost impossible to believe that Spielman would be permitted to hire a head coach who does not have significant experience working with an exceptional defense.  That, in and of itself, almost certainly whittles the Vikings' true pool of coaching candidates to former NFL head coaches, current college coaches, and NFL defensive coordinators.

Of the former NFL coaches with significant experience coaching strong defenses, three stand out as worthy of consideration.  Those three are Jon Gruden, Bill Cowher, and Tony Dungy.  All three have made clear that they are not interested in returning to the NFL.

At the college level, nobody clearly stands out as a defensive mind, but one head coach has had continued success both overall and with his defense, despite facing certain recruiting disadvantages.  That coach is David Shaw of the Stanford Cardinal.  Since taking over as the Cardinal head coach following Jim Harbaugh's departure to the NFL, Shaw has amassed a 23-4 record.  What stands out more than the record, however, is that Stanford has won employing a steady diet of competency on both offense and defense, increasingly so on defense.

In an article in the San Francisco Gate earlier this month, Shaw was applauded for his general coaching acumen, but was also taken to task for being a bit thin-skinned and too wedded to the game plan and "what got us here" and too indifferent, at last in this year's Rose Bowl game, to what Michigan State presented and how that should have affected game-day decisions.

At Stanford, the consensus is that Shaw desires a return to the NFL, preferably as a head coach, and that he is destined to make that move at some point in the near future.  For historians of the game, Shaw's experience and demeanor offer a comparison of sorts to another familiar face in Minnesota, Denny Green.  Both oversaw good offenses, put together good teams in a challenging recruiting environment, and bristle at criticism.  Shaw, however, also suggests attention to defense and has NFL coaching experience.

Within the NFL ranks, the Vikings are almost certainly focusing on coaches who can work with others, mentor younger players, and deal with veterans, while ensuring a return of a semblance of defense in Minnesota.  Not surprisingly, the Vikings have focused their early attentions on Cincinnati Bengals' defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer.  Zimmer's defensives have proven relatively stout, albeit in a division relatively bereft of offensive talent.

While Zimmer has had some success in Cincinnati, he is a very vocal leader and does not mince words.  That likely will unsettle Spielman in his never-ending quest for thought control and might exclude Zimmer.  If Spielman's unease with Zimmer does not disqualify Zimmer--and the Vikings have reportedly set up a second round of interviews with the coordinator--other options might.

Among those options are Seattle defensive coordinator Dan Quinn and Carolina defensive coordinator Sean McDermott.  Both Quinn and McDermott have put together fantastic defenses.  What arguably gives McDermott the leg up on Quinn, however, is that McDermott built the Carolina defense, while Quinn inherited his.  It also helps McDermott that he has built the Carolina defense with arguably less talent than Quinn has had to work with in Seattle.  Without suggesting anything bad about Quinn's system, that at least suggests that McDermott's system can work with lesser talent--a promise that the Vikings desperately need to hold on to.

The Vikings apparently are also interested in San Francisco offensive coordinator Greg Roman.  Roman has done a decent job with what is regarded as a new-style quarterback and that might appeal to the Vikings if they are interested in taking Johnny Manziel in this year's draft, rejuvenating the career of Joe Webb as a starting quarterback, or making sure that they have not missed something in Christian Ponder.

Right now, the Vikings appear to have their preferences ordered Zimmer, then Roman, with the rest only modestly mentioned, if at all.  Based on who has done the most with what they have, however, a more suitable pecking order probably would have Shaw or McDermott in the top spot, with Quinn and Zimmer in the next tier.

Up Next:  Next Year's Minnesota Viking Starting Quarterback.  Plus, managing the cap.

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Vikings Hint at New Coach: Day Two

Day two of the Vikings' off-season plan is far more complex than was day one and is clouded by the Vikings' decision to retain Rick Spielman as General Manager.  Spielman is driven by two forces.  The first is to prove that he can make the right choice at quarterback.  The second, and probably less imperative to Spielman, is to show that he can make the right choice at head coach.

The Vikings' retention of Spielman will only feed Spielman's sense that he is a guy who mostly gets things right and reinforce his investment in his own decision-making.  This likely means two things--that Spielman is intent on hiring someone to whom he will concede zero personnel authority and that Spielman will continue to search for a quarterback.

The latter would mean that the Vikings have already answered a day two or day three question--whether they should draft a quarterback in this year's draft.  The answer to that question almost certainly is "yes."  What is left unknown, however, is whether that pick will be in round one or two.  The answer to that question will be determined by who the Vikings select as their next head coach.

Earlier this week, Spielman gave a hint as to the direction that the Vikings currently are leaning in the draft, when he noted that the Vikings will have "a lot of cap space" this year.  That means several things.  First, it means that Jared Allen and Kevin Williams almost certainly are gone.  Second, it means that, given the loss of Allen, the Vikings either will sign an expensive end or consider a shift to a 3-4 defense.  Third, and depending on the previous, it means that the Vikings are leaning toward hiring a defensive specialist, possibly with experience running the 3-4 defense, as head coach.  Finally, it means that the Vikings probably will rely on a short-term measure at quarterback in 2014 and draft a "diamond-in-the-rough" in the second round of this year's draft, focusing on defense in round one.

So many uncertainties as the clock winds down.

The most certain of these uncertainties, however, is that Allen is gone.  The Vikings can do far more with $17 million than hire a single-digit-sack specialist.  With Allen's $17 million, the team could find two starting linebackers and retain Toby Gerhart.  Throw in Williams' 2013 salary and the team could retain Everson Griffin, as well.

Likely to join Allen and Williams as former Vikings in 2014 are Chris Cook, Fred Evans, Desmond Bishop, and, quite possibly, Erin Henderson.  The exodus of these players still would leave only one glaring unfilled hole--that at defensive end--with Audie Cole likely tabbed to succeed Henderson.  But the transformation of the Vikings' defense would be an opportune time for someone with experience shaping a defense to enter the picture.  That would not require a defensive-minded head coach, but the Vikings are likely to view defense as a priority and lean in that direction with the head coach.

Up Next:  The Vikings' Coaching Candidates--and Those Who Make Sense.