Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Time for Zimmer to Dispel Another Notion--That Vikings Lack the Fortitude to Win as Favorites

Over the course of this NFL season, there are probably not two more comparably matched teams than the Minnesota Vikings and Green Bay Packers.  In addition to identical records, the teams have nearly identical points scored (345 and 355, respectively) and allowed (289 and 303, respectively).  That those numbers were achieved against nearly identical competition makes the comparison all the more apt.

Inspecting more recent trends suggests that Minnesota and Green Bay have similar prospects.  Over the past five games, both teams have had one game that they would like to forget about.  Minnesota's came in the form of a 38-7 pasting at the hands of the Seattle Seahawks, Green Bay's in the form of a 38-8 thrashing at Arizona.  Neither game was as close as the score might suggest.

In the remaining four games of their previous five-game stretches, both Minnesota and Green Bay went 3-1.  The lone additional loss by each team was by four points or less.

Given these statistics, both teams look to have similar prospects.  That usually bodes well for the home team, particularly when a division title is on the line, and particularly when that title game is being played at Lambeau Field.

But, over the past five games, and even more so over the past three games, some alarming trends have emerged in Green Bay that portend dire season consequences for the Green and Gold.  Conversely, Minnesota has realized some favorable trends over the past three games--trends that tend to bode well for teams looking to make long playoff runs.

In its past five games, Green Bay is plus one on turnovers.  That's not bad.  But the trend has been negative (+2, 0, +1, 0, -2).  Minnesota, meanwhile, has been +4 over the past five games, with the trend  positive (+2, 0, -3, +2, +3).  More significantly, in the game that Minnesota was a -3, the team lost 23-20 at Arizona.  Green Bay lost a game in which it was +2 and was destroyed in the game in which it was -2.  These numbers suggest that Green Bay's margin for error is not as great as Minnesota's.

For a Packer team coming off of its worst defeat of the season, that would be cause enough for concern this weekend.  More alarming, however, should be the fact that Minnesota's embarrassing loss to Seattle came in the absence of three defensive stalwarts and another cornerback.  Those players have now returned to their starting positions.  The results have been immediate, with the team a +3 in turnovers in last week's game.  Green Bay appears to have no such savior on the horizon.

And, if all of that were not cause enough for concern for Green Bay, consider that, while Minnesota's offense has remained in the mid- to upper-300-yard-output range for the past three games, Green Bay's output has dropped precipitously over the past three games from 435 to 293 to 178.  More alarming is that in last week's game, the team's fulcrum, Aaron Rodgers, passed for a nearly inconceivable 77 yards, despite Green Bay being in catch-up mode almost the entire game.

None of this means that it is imminent gloom and doom for the Packers this weekend.  It does suggest, however, that the Vikings ought to consider themselves the clear favorite heading into the game.  The question is whether Vikings' head coach Mike Zimmer will make it his mission this week to dispel the notion that the Vikings are not up to playing as the favorites.

Up Next:  The Zimmer Effect.  Plus, Kicking and Running.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Spielman's History Suggests That the Vikings Will Be Picking Twice in the First Round of This Year's Draft

Rick Spielman has served as the Minnesota Vikings' general manager since 2012.  In that time, Minnesota has made 29 selections in the NFL entry draft.  Of those selections, seven were first- or second-round selections.  Of those seven selections, five are currently starters with seemingly bright futures in the NFL, one is a rotational player on defense, and the seventh might be on the way out of Minnesota and possibly out of the league.

During Spielman's tenure in Minnesota, identifying the diamonds has not been a problem.  What has caused problems, however, has been identifying players who can develop into starters in the NFL.  That's a challenge for every NFL team, but, for Spielman, that has appeared to be particularly difficult.

Of the 22 selections that Minnesota has made after the second round during Spielman's tenure as Minnesota's general manager, 16 are still with the Minnesota Vikings.  At first blush, that's a terrific net.  On closer inspection, however, the results have been less than scintillating.  Of the 16, seven are from the 2014 draft and have the benefit of still being in the evaluation stage of their development.  None have shown starter promise, yet, with Jerick McKinnon being the closest to a starter that the Vikings have to offer from the bunch.  The remaining nine offer much of the same, only with a bit more tread, with Jarius Wright and Blair Walsh being the closest things to keepers from the lot.

With annual turn-over through free-agency alone, it is critical for NFL teams to identify a minimum of three position players in each year's draft who can develop into NFL starters in the short term.  Relying on the known, Spielman has come close to meeting this goal with his first- and second-round picks.  He has not helped himself much in the latter rounds, however.

For Spielman, the lesson must be to stick with known entities.  With the 11th pick in this year's draft, that means shoring up the offensive line.  The most obvious target would be Iowa lineman Brandon Scherff, a player capable of playing either guard or tackle.  With their release of Charlie Johnson, the Vikings have an opening along the offensive line.  If Scherff is available, he represents a logical replacement and a substantial upgrade over the sloth-footed Johnson.

Unfortunately, Scherff likely will be off the board at eleven.  But there are still at least two viable alternatives to Scherff in Stanford tackle Andrus Peat and Miami tackle Ereck Flowers.  Following the adage that it is easier to turn a tackle into a guard than a guard into a tackle, both Peat and Flowers offer some flexibility that Scherff might not, in the event that Matt Kalil continues to struggle at left tackle.  Following the adage that Miami players tend to have adjustment issues in the NFL, Peat is the preferable choice.

Solidifying the offensive line would be the safe approach for the Vikings in this year's draft.  There is a second, more tantalizing option, however, that would shore up the offensive line and give the Vikings considerable options at other position.

Spielman has suggested that he is interested in moving down in the draft, but that's not ever been his modus operandi and it doesn't seem particularly logical drafting at eleven--barring a one- or two-slot move.  Instead, it is far more likely that Spielman will trade some of the team's selections from the later rounds to move into the bottom half of the first round for a second first-round pick.

If Spielman lands a second pick in the first round, the Vikings almost certainly will either draft an offensive lineman-running back pair or an offensive-lineman-wide-receiver pair.  Either would help a team in need of help at lineman, receiver, and running back.  But selecting an offensive lineman and running back such as Melvin Gordon would give the Vikings full leverage in their dealings with Adrian Peterson, a player whom the team would prefer to trade under the proper terms.  Having Gordon in the fold likely would allow the team to trade Peterson for a second-round pick this year and a first in the future, without irritating the fan base or undermining the team's present.  And it would give Spielman an opportunity to select in the second round, rather than guessing later.

Up Next:  The Picks.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Vikings Almost Certainly Attempting to Trade Peterson

When the NFL decided to levy what amounted to a season-long ban on Minnesota Vikings' running back Adrian Peterson, most of the public took the action for what it was--an attempt to resurrect the league's tarnished image in the face of its darkly comical handling of Ray Rice's beating of his girlfriend.  Peterson's suspension raised some eyebrows, but the more vocal crowd included thos those who believed that all abuse is identical and all abuse requires the abuser to forever adorn a scarlet letter.

In its never-ending sense of entitlement, the NFL made the nearly unthinkable a reality, however, greatly shifting the discussion regarding Peterson's general predicament.  By essentially claiming the right to punish any player to any degree for almost any offense--and then imposing such a philosophy when suspending Peterson without pay for the remainder of the 2014 season and, possibly, into the 2015 season--the NFL made a sympathetic figure of the running back.  The league only broadened sympathy for Peterson by hiring a close personal friend of league commissioner, Roger Goodell, to review Goodell's punishment.  Not surprisingly, that friend, long beholden to the NFL for his livelihood, found the punishment warranted and permissible under the NFL's collective bargaining agreement.

Then real people entered the debate--specifically, Judge David Doty of the U.S. Federal Circuit.  In some quarters--particularly those frequented by entities that have contempt for the rights of others--Doty is viewed as a rubber stamp of player requests for relief.  In other quarters--particularly those frequented by those who accept governing principles of law--Doty is the voice of reason.  In response to Peterson's request for relief, Doty obliged, reasoning that the league clearly concocted a penalty for Peterson to meet PR pressures in the aftermath of the Ray Rice debacle.  Doty hammered the league for failing to abide by any measure of due process and remanded the case to the arbitrator to make determinations consistent with the Court's findings.

Through Doty's ruling, Peterson appeared to be vindicated--not for his treatment of his son, but for the NFL's handling of his offense.  Peterson expressed as much on the courthouse steps.  Had he left it there, the NFL's roughshod approach to dealing with PR nightmares would have remained the focus.

But if Adrian has shown anything throughout this entire process, it is that he is not a particularly insightful individual. Rather than accept his victory over the league, Peterson decided publicly to express his dissatisfaction with the way the Vikings responded to his situation.  In Peterson's mind, the Vikings were not squarely enough in his corner.  What that means is not exactly clear.  What Peterson is suggesting, however, is that the Vikings should have publicly approved of his switching of his son.  Needless to say, the Vikings did not do that.  Nor, for that matter, did the Vikings offer much in the way of public expression.  Nor, probably, would any other team in the NFL--outside, perhaps, Carolina and/or San Francisco.

Even with such infantile behavior, Peterson might still have emerged as a martyr in the eyes of an NFL public increasingly weary of many of the NFL's antics, but neither Peterson nor his agent appeared capable either of understanding or capitalizing on that possibility.  Instead, both through his agent and in public appearances, Peterson continues to maintain that the Vikings somehow have wronged him.  It's one thing to let others decide that you are the victim of unjust conduct.  It's quite another to attempt to lead the public perception on that front, particularly in the wake of child abuse.  Whatever was going to fly--because of the NFL's behavior and Peterson's celebrity status--now stands virtually no chance of prevailing.

That would be bad enough for Peterson, in Minnesota or in any other NFL city.  But Peterson and his agent are now perilously close to ensuring that Peterson turns from tenuously justified martyr to unequivocal pariah.  And the Vikings seem to be reading the writing on the wall.

The Vikings hold most of the chips in their dealings with Peterson.  They have him under contract through the 2017 season.  They have cap room to deal with his hefty cap hits in each of the next three seasons.  And, even after 2017, the Vikings can franchise Peterson, if they choose.  All of which means that, if they so chose, the Vikings could force Peterson to essentially finish his career in Minnesota.

Despite the leverage, however, the Vikings appear virtually certain to trade Peterson before the beginning of the NFL season, and possibly even before the NFL entry draft in April.  The Vikings' current position is an iteration of the above--that they hold the cards and look forward to Peterson's return in 2015.  The unofficial position, however, is that Peterson has become so toxic, that keeping him, no matter the returns on the field, are not worth the aggravation or cost.

Peterson's agent acknowledged as much yesterday, sending out public "confirmation" that the Vikings had "no plan to release Peterson."  Peterson's agent has been hard at work for over a month, attempting to work a trade of Peterson.  For that agent to publicly state that the Vikings have no interest in releasing Peterson only makes sense if the agent is attempting to convince a possible trading partner to pull the trigger on a deal, rather than wait for the Vikings to release Peterson.  And the comment itself would only make sense if the Vikings were in coordinated efforts with Peterson's agent to move Peterson.

Up Next:  Why The Vikings Will Improve With or Without Peterson.