Saturday, August 30, 2008

McKinnie suspended

In what should really have come as no surprise, the NFL hit LT Bryant McKinnie with a four-game suspension as punishment for his skirmish and arrest outside a night club in Miami in February.

It's hardly McKinnie's first brush with the law. He was perhaps the most incriminated member of the team in the "Love Boat" scandal, along with then-Vikings Fred Smoot and Moe Williams. He got away from that with just a $1,000 fine and community service, but the Miami incident includes four charges, including felony battery, and he will go to trial next month. Now, being a famous pro athlete, and considering that nobody was seriously hurt, McKinnie probably won't face any serious repurcussions, off the field. But in the meantime, he'll sit on the sidelines for the first quarter of the season while his team tries to replace him.

Artis Hicks will probably get the first chance to replace McKinnie on the left side of the line, and it'll be up to him to protect Tarvaris Jackson's blind side against the likes of Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila, Dwight Freeney, and Julius Peppers, all of whom will line up against the Vikings in the first month of the season. Hicks has started 49 of his 66 games at guard in his NFL career, including the last two preseason games, so it's not as if the team's throwing an inexperienced rookie out there. Still, with roster cuts coming later today, don't be surprised if the Vikings make a play for a veteran left tackle, to at least provide an insurance policy should Hicks' play prove inadequate.

Whether he's replaced by Hicks or another player, what will be the impact of losing McKinnie for four games? The Vikings play Green Bay, Indianapolis, Carolina, and Tennessee in those first four games, probably one of the toughest stretches in their 2008 schedule. Those four teams were a combined 43-21 in 2007, and while using last year's records to predict this year's strength of schedule is dicey, two of those teams (Indy and Tennessee) are mostly unchanged, while one (Green Bay) lost its quarterback and another (Carolina) is essentially regaining its starting quarterback (Jake Delhomme). Truthfully, even with McKinnie and a healthy Madeiu Williams, who should miss all but the Tennessee game, I wouldn't have been surprised to see the Vikings start 2-2 out of the gate -- and I still think the team will win around 11 games on the season. But with the high hopes some fans have for the team, if they start 2-2 -- or even 1-3 -- will the lack of McKinnie (and, to an extent, Williams) be seen as the reason for the "slow" start? Possibly, but I'll try to remain optimistic, even if September is a little bleak.

A post on Vikings Ragnarok from a few months ago also gave me optimism for the possibility of McKinnie's looming suspension. Make sure to read the article he links to, which seems to indicate that a team losing a top offensive lineman doesn't lose much in terms of rushing offense or pass protection -- the two things linemen are most reponsible for -- the next season. And that study is over a full season; losing McKinnie for a quarter of a season should be less of an impact.

And, truthfully, while McKinnie is definitely above average, you can question whether he's truly "elite" and whether the drop-off from him to Hicks is as great as the drop-off Baltimore will experience when trying to replace Jonathan Ogden. The Vikings' o-line is probably due to come down a bit after last year's stellar performance, and judging by the running game's poor performance in the preseason, it might happen whether McKinnie's on the field or not. In the end, he's one starter out of 22, with an experienced and somewhat capable backup behind him. The Vikings can survive four games without him, though they'll be glad to have him back.

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