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.