Tuesday, September 30, 2008

It's not just the offense

So maybe a 1-3 record after four games isn't the end of the world, especially when you consider that the Vikings are only one game behind 2-2 Green Bay and Chicago for the division lead in the NFC North. In general, people are pointing to two reasons for the Vikings' slow start: a lackluster offense (accompanied by some of the worst play calling in the league) and the rough opening schedule: road games at Green Bay and undefeated Tennessee and home against Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts. Next week, the team plays at New Orleans, where Drew Brees figures to throw for at least 350 yards.

But here's another theory: Apart from a dismantling of the Carolina Panthers, the defense, pumped up by high-priced free-agent acquisitions, has looked mediocre at best, forcing very few turnovers, rarely hassling the opposing quarterback and, in general, looking just like the defense of the past few years: solid against the run, porous against the pass, and unable to make a stop or make the big play when it needs to. So, just how has the defense looked the first four games?

Here are some of the key defensive stats from Minnesota's first four games:

Green Bay3170024


Now, here are the offensive stats for those four teams over the 11 games they've played (three for each except Indianapolis) against non-Vikings teams and their per-game averages:

Green Bay9629285


Looking at that, you'd say, for the most part, that the Vikings defense has performed well, doing better than average in yards, turnovers, and points allowed, while only being a smidge off the sack rate.

However, as you can see from the first table, much of the Vikings' statistical defensive success comes from a thrashing of Carolina in week 3, when they established or tied their highs in yards allowed, sacks, turnovers, and fewest points allowed. Let's take out Carolina's stats -- the team's only win -- from each chart. I'll abbreviate the charts by just presenting the Vikings' average defensive stats and the average per-game stats of their three opponents in the eight other games they've played:

Minnesota actual (Avg vs. non-Car)

GB/Ind/Tenn (Avg vs. non-Min)




So, what can we say about this comparison? The first thing is that it is a small sample size -- only, in effect, 11 games total, so any analysis has to come with a grain of salt.

That said, it's clear that the Vikings defense has, at best, performed at an average level against the three teams it lost to so far this year, at least from this limited data. Yards, turnovers, and points are nearly equal, and the sack totals are way off. The Vikings managed just two sacks in three games against Green Bay, Indianapolis, and Tennessee, while other defenses have sacked those teams' QBs 14 times in eight games. And this is with the Vikings boasting what's supposed to be the best defensive front (if not front seven) in the league.

It's too early to give up on the season (and we do still have two games against Detroit, always a plus), but it's also a bit of a fallacy to blame the Vikings' early struggles entirely on the offense or on a tough schedule. Other teams have played the same teams we've played and, in general, done the same or better defensively than the Vikings. The Vikings' defense wasn't supposed to be league-average, and its pass rush certainly wasn't supposed to be below average. But that's what they are right now, and it's a big reason the team is 1-3.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Meet the new coach, same as the old coach

Maybe Tennessee really is a good team, after all. But it certainly didn't hurt them that the Vikings made one mistake after another to practically hand them the victory. Oh, and the stellar play-calling from Brad Childress, who once again decided to ignore the running game for long stretches, didn't help matters any.

Let's start with the turnovers. The Vikings coughed the ball up three times in their own territory, each resulting in a Tennessee touchdown. The final turnover, a Gus Frerotte interception, came as the quarterback got drilled and desperately tried to launch a pass out of his own end zone on third down -- not the worst result, really. More distressing were the three fumbles, two of them occurring at the Minnesota 33 and 15. I'm not going to launch into useless platitudes of "they just need to protect the ball more," because it's not like you (usually) have a choice when you're running as to whether or not you want to take a risk and increase your chances of fumbling (unlike throwing an interception, which often is a risk-reward situation). But man, it's frustrating.

Then there were the penalties. Someday, when I have the time and can find the resources, I want to do an analysis of penalties in the NFL over the last few years because, for whatever reason, the Vikings always seem to be among the worst teams in the league at being penalized, and they always (anecdotally, I know) seem to wipe out a positive play. They were flagged seven times for 50 yards Sunday, far oustripping the Titans' four for 18 yards. The most grievous were probably the two five-yarders on the team's opening drive of the second half, which prevented any sort of positive gain coming out of the locker room down by just 10 points.

And you know what else prevented the team from doing well at the start of the second half? Brad Childress' continued unwillingness to rely on the running game. OK, so we replaced Tarvaris Jackson with Gus Frerotte and can actually throw a bit now. I get that, and it's great. But why on earth do you drop back to throw on your first six snaps of the second half? Again, penalties pushed the team back some, but here were the Vikings' down-and-distance for those six snaps (after taking penalties into account):

1st and 15
2nd and 14
3rd and 8
1st and 15
2nd and 9
3rd and 1

I only consider two of those -- the 2nd and 14 and 3rd and 8 -- as obvious passing downs. With the running game the Vikings have, you can run on 1st and anything and 2nd and long, a concept Childress is simply incapable of thinking. After years of passing all the time in Philadelphia, he wants to pass on every down more than I want to see Scarlett Johansson naked, and that's saying a lot. In all, Vikings QBs dropped back 48 times in the game, while handing off just 19 times, despite never being down by more than two scores. Even with four minutes left in the game and the ball at their own two-yard line and down by just six points, Childress called three straight pass plays, including the final turnover which essentially ended the competitive portion of the game.

Or did it? Facing a 4th and 13 from their own 18 with just two minutes left and down 30-17 (and, I believe, no timeouts), the Vikings punted. What on earth was that? Yes, the chances of winning at that point are miniscule, but there's still a reasonable amount of time left (even if Tarvaris Jackson just got sacked on the last two plays). Why not go for it, maybe heave up a prayer, and hope for something good to happen? Nothing bad can happen at that point. A man can go insane trying to figure out what goes through Brad Childress' mind during a game and I, for one, am going to stop trying.

Even with all that the offense does wrong, though, the defense can't be held entirely blameless.
Seems difficult to believe, what with Kerry Collins quarterbacking the team and all, but it was the running game, led by rookie Chris Johnson, that fueled the Titans' attack (along with the three Vikings turnovers). Johnson only had 61 yards on 17 carries, a 3.6 average, and his long gain was nine yards, but after watching the Minnesota defense completely swallow up running backs for two-plus seasons, it was alarming to see Johnson dance through the line and, more often than not, gain positive yardage. Meanwhile, Kerry Collins didn't even have to wash his jersey after the game, usually having plenty of time to complete his passes and not being sacked once. The only defensive turnover came on a botched snap -- hardly the result of skilled defensive pressure.

For one week, Brad Childress looked like a man who knew what to do with the talent he was given on his team. Long drives, short passes, a heavy dose of the run. But as soon as the team fell behind in Tennessee, he virtually abandoned the running game and went all pass-happy for most of the second half. It's beyond hope to think he'll change at this points. He desperately wants to pass on every single down, so I think the Vikings should give him that chance. There's got to be a college team out that wants to adopt the spread offense. I think Childress should be given the opportunity to find that team and preach his gospel there. Who's with me?

Friday, September 26, 2008

Favre's so good, he's bad (and other notes)

That crashing sound you heard while watching Monday Night Football this week (and on pretty much all the talk shows Tuesday morning) was the announcers falling over themselves to explain that Brett Favre's early-season struggles with the Jets were the result of him "still learning" the playbook, terminology, and other associated knowledge after 16 years in the Packers' system.

In truth, Favre hasn't played too poorly: He's completed 70% of his passes, has twice as many TDs as picks (6 to 3) and has a 98.7 passer rating. But he's still doing the things he has, for reasons unknown, gotten away with for over a decade and a half: throwing off his back foot, heaving the ball into double- and triple-coverage, and those have nothing to do with "knowing the system." The reason he's "struggling," of course, is because his team is 1-2, with those two losses coming against the AFC's best team last year (New England) and, despite its 1-2 record, what might be its best team this year (San Diego). So you've got the worst of both worlds: Poor Bretty is being coddled for not being smart enough to figure out his offense and sports pundits are blaming him for his team's allowing 27 points per game.

Yes, I'm sure it's tough to come into a new system and take over as quarterback. But Favre's getting a lot of the same "free passes" he did from the national media that he did over his last so-so decade with the Packers, and it's still annoying. Has anyone got some good New York headlines that get on Favre for his "complete inability" to lead the team to victory?

(Because as we all know, wins and losses are completely the result of the quarterback's play. That's why Tarvaris Jackson is so good, because the Vikings were 8-4 in his starts last year. He's a winner.)

* Mildly unsettling stat: The Vikings' top two receivers are Chester Taylor (7 receptions) and any of Bobby Wade, Bernard Berrian, and Visanthe Shiancoe (6 receptions), for a total of 13 catches through three weeks. 27 players have 14 or more receptions, individually, and Brandon Marshall had 18 in one game.

None of them, however, play for this weekend's opponent, Tennessee, whose team leader is tight end Bo Scaife, with 10 catches. Justin Gage and Chris Johnson have 7 seach.

* Meanwhile, even with Ryan Grant's 54-yard run against the Vikings in week one, the team is still third in the league, allowing only 70.3 yards on the ground per game and fourth in yards per carry, with 3.2.

Of course, a big reason for the Vikings continued dominance against the run is Pat Williams, who's picking up over $7 million a year to jam up the middle. Last year, I floated the notion that the Vikings should seek to trade Williams in the offseason (not knowing that he had signed that big contract earlier in the year) to either shore up the pass defense or, perhaps, to see if he could be included to pry away one of Cleveland's quarterbacks, either Brady Quinn or Derek Anderson.

Well, Cleveland saw the wisdom in the idea, but instead of trading for Williams, they traded Leigh Bodden to Detroit for Shaun Rogers, who's "improved" their rushing defense to the point where they "only" allow 145 yards per game. They allowed 129.5 yards per game last year. Meanwhile, Anderson signed a multi-year deal in the offseason and is about one bad game away from being replaced by Quinn, which means that neither player will be going anywhere soon.

As for Pat Williams, he ideally only plays on "35 to 40" plays per game, or about half the team's defensive stats. Hey, I love watching the guy swallow up a running back as much as the next guy, but should we be paying $7 million a year for a part-time player, even if he is a Pro Bowler? That sounds like the epitome of "sell high" to me. I'm not saying we could have gotten Quinn (or Anderson) for him, but there must have been some other need we could have filled, even if it dropped our rushing defense to, say, 90 yards per game and a 3.6 per-carry average.

I'm just sayin'...

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Power Rankings Compilation, Week 3

After an impressive victory against Carolina, I'd put the 1-2 Vikings around #17 on my personal power rankings -- good enough to be a highly ranked 1-2 team, but not quite enough to crack the top half. A victory this week against Tennessee, which is ranked in the top 5 in most polls, could be enough to vault the Vikings all the way into the top 10.

Not surprisingly, it's all about Gus Frerotte in this week's polls. ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert says:

19. Gus Frerotte is an improvement at quarterback. Now the Vikings have to keep him upright for 14 games.

Fox Sports' Adrian Hasenmayer says:

15. I Gus Frerotte can simply play the part of an NFL QB, this team can hope again. The Vikes won't have to adjust the offense very much with Frerotte, but just having a dependable deep ball should open up lanes for RBs Adrian Peterson and Chester Taylor.

Yahoo.com's Michael Silver says:

15. In Gus they trust?

For now, yes.

SportingNews.com's Vinnie Iyer themed his week 4 polls around each team's "old guys," so it's not surprising that he would invoke the name of Gus as well:

19. They have many 10-plus year vets in key roles, including Ryan Longwell, Darren Sharper and Pat Williams. But the spotlight is on the 37-year-old under center, Gus Frerotte, to guide the team into the playoffs.

Because I want to add an eighth poll to my list, here's Ryan Stetson of Covers.com:

18. Next up on Minnesota's shopping list: A legit wide receiver.

We already (supposedly) got one of those. And we just (momentarily) figured out our quarterback situation. One glaring weakness at a time.

And here's the splash of cold water in your face, courtesy of SportsLine's Pete Prisco:

23. The move to Gus Frerotte paid off against Carolina. But let's see how he does against that nasty Tennessee defense.

Pete ranked the Vikings at #22 last week -- they won a game, in commanding fashion, and went down in his rankings. Remember, this is the same guy who thought the Vikings were the 24th best team in the league back in June. And this after we finally got a quarterback, Quarterback, QUARTERBACK to actually contribute to the team.

And here's the unnamed USAToday.com power rankings:

20. Back in the win column as the Gus Frerotte era has begun -- again.

#18 last week. #20 this week. A win ain't what it used to be.

SI.com's Dr. Z says:

18. They beat Carolina by 10 and looka here, seven places lower. Is this fair? [Carolina's #11] Is this just? Now you look! Indy beat the Vikes. Chicago beat Indy. Carolina beat Chicago. In the old days I'd solve this ring around the rosie by setting up ties in the standings, but copouts are not favored by the new administration, which comes armed with cuffs and billy clubs.

Just traversing this argument makes my head hurt. Yes, it makes sense that if Team A beats Team B, Team B beats Team C, and Team C beats Team A, someone has to be ranked lower than a team they beat. I get it.

But seriously...Carolina at #11?

My "WTF of the week" also goes to Dr. Z for ranking the Patriots at #6. He says "Let's not write them off after one weirdie, OK?" and that' s fine. But after barely beating the Chiefs and Jets -- teams that the '07 Patriots would have thrashed by at least 20 points each, they got slammed by the Dolphins. New England's far from the worst team in the league, but they're only borderline top 10 material, and certainly not on the edge of the top five.

The overall Viking average is 18.375 for these eight polls, a little lower than what I'd predicted. Take out Pete "I hate the Vikings" Prisco, and it goes up to 17.7. Not bad, and about what they deserve.

Now, here's hoping Philly loses and Washington beats Dallas so the sportswriters and pollsters can stop wetting themselves over how great the NFC East is.

Monday, September 22, 2008

All aboard the Gus Bus

It was about midway through the third quarter of yesterday's Vikings game that I noticed something. Gus Frerotte dropped back and my heart did not instantly leap up into my throat. For the first time in two years, I was not deathly afraid of something awful happening when a Vikings quarterback dropped back to pass. Oh sure, it wasn't all because of Frerotte that the team won its first game of the season, nor was it entirely Tarvaris Jackson's fault that they lose their first two. And Frerotte is a short-term band-aid, at best. But for one week at least -- and hopefully a few more to come -- the passing game wasn't a weakness of a team with one of the best running games and defenses in the league.

The mantra at the start of the season, quoted by coaches, media, and fans was that the Vikings didn't need much from the quarterback position. They just needed a "game manager" (one of my least favorite terms, as it's synonymous with "quarterback who's not good enough to actually win games"). But through his first two starts, Jackson was flinging the ball all around the field, trying to force the ball deep when short passes would have sufficed and seemingly never finding the open receiver -- and when he did, often firing above him, behind him, or at his feet. And coach Brad Childress was going to have to call plays that adhered to this philosophy, running often and throwing safe, short passes to keep the clock moving and meticulously drive the ball down the field.

After the Vikings' first two drives, where they passed the ball six times (with the only running play being called back by a penalty), and ending with Frerotte whizzing a high bullet through Bernard Berrian's hands and into Chris Gamble's, I thought we were in for more of the same. Then came the 14-play, eight-minute second-quarter drive where Frerotte marched the team down the field with a mix of runs and easy passes that was a delight to watch.

As good as that drive was, the Vikings had an even better drive in the late third/early fourth quarter, an 18-play behemoth that consumed over 11 1/2 minutes. Even though each drive only netted a field goal, and I'm usually not a huge fan of ball-control, dink-and-dunk offenses (since it prevents your offense from running more plays just as much as it does the opponents') but these couple of drives were just what this team needed to show that it could run an efficient offense with its new quarterback, who showed the willingness to simply move the chains instead of trying to go for a play beyond his talent level.

The defense did its fair share, as well. It seemed like it took Antoine Winfield -- not the world's fastest cornerback -- about 10 minutes to get to Jake Delhomme on that second-quarter sack/fumble/touchdown. Delhomme was harassed all day, sacked five times, and the running game was, as usual, stuffed to the tune of 47 yards on 20 carries. Thanks to the pressure up front, Delhomme was only able to find the returning Steve Smith four times to the tune of 70 yards. The strong defensive showing, combined with the revitalized passing game led to an oddity on recent Vikings teams: Discounting sacks, the Vikings had more raw passing yards (204) than the Panthers (191) yesterday. That happened exactly once last year, in the second Chicago game, and you'd have to go back to December 3, 2006 -- another Chicago game -- for the last time before that.

To be certain, the game wasn't perfect. Too many penalties stunted drives, though the Panthers were just as complicit and were actually penalized more times (12 to 9) than the Vikings, though for less total yardage (67 to 100). The officials were a little flag-happy, though, and some of the flags seemed nitpicky, so maybe it wasn't entirely the team's fault. Still, it's always nicer to have a win than a loss and Brad Childress is already feeling the love, up to 32% in this week's poll. Next up is a Tennessee team looking very much like our own: a tough defense, good two-headed running game, and a veteran quarterback who took over for a young scrambler. Should be an interesting matchup, even if the over/under on total points is about 20.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Power Rankings Compilation, Week 2

My pick for the Vikings: #22. And that was even before Adrian Peterson missed a couple practices and was listed as "questionable" for Sunday's game against the Panthers. *sigh*

(And another thing...why is it so hard to find the NFL weekly injury report? With all the fantasy football players out there, not to mention people just plain interested in how hurt their favorite team's players are, it should be part of the main nav bar on any NFL page. I shouldn't have to dig for it. Is Bill Belichick behind this?)

ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert says:

21. It's already apparent that Tarvaris Jackson isn't the quarterback they should have entrusted with a playoff-caliber team.

SportingNews.com's Vinnie Iyer says:

22. Who can turn the world on with a smile, a juke, a stiff arm and then a 50-yard run? Adrian Peterson, of course. Now he needs his quarterback, Tarvaris Jackson, to show more "spunk."

FoxSports.com's Adrian Hasenmayer says:

19. Give the Vikes a legitimate NFL quarterback, and I give you a Top 5 team. Otherwise with the very raw Tarvaris Jackson, they will lead the league in "almosts" and "near misses." Message to Brad Childress: Stop reading our rankings right now and trade for Jeff Garcia.

CBS SportsLine's Pete Prisco says:

22. Brad Childress hitched his coaching wagon to Tarvaris Jackson. Now it might cost him his job. The Vikings are 0-2. Wow.

Or, in other words (as Pete said last week): quarterback, Quarterback, QUARTERBACK! And you know what? He might be right.

5. (Tennessee) The defense has given up 17 points in two games. If they continue that, does it really matter who plays quarterback?

Well, maybe. Then again, how nice would it be if we'd gotten to play Cincinnati?

USAToday.com writes:

18. QB questions are swirling. Will they stick with Tarvaris Jackson?

USA TODAY's NFL power rankings update on Tuesday evenings every week:

'Nuff said.

Yahoo.com's Michael Silver says:

19. Minnesota Vikings: How can a team with Adrian Peterson fail to reach the end zone against an undersized, Cover 2 defense?

First of all: Congrats, Michael, on not going the obvious "It's the quarterback's fault" in your analysis. My Steeler-loving friend says he can't understand why the Vikings use a zone-blocking scheme -- which relies on quick linemen -- when we have 300+ pound maulers like Steve Hutchinson, Matt Birk, and (usually) Bryant McKinnie. Just another in the brilliant coaching moves of Brad "Holding at 6%" Childress, I suppose.

Then again, maybe it's just the quarterback's fault.

And, the rare positive comment comes from Viking-backer Dr. Z of SI.com:

20. Well hidden star performance in Colts game was turned in by linebacker Chad Greenway, first round draft choice of two years ago. I know, plenty of more serious stuff is happening out there, but I just wanted to get this to you while the memory is fresh.

Chad has looked good in his 18 NFL games. Now, can he throw?

Overall, that's an average of 20.1, better than I would have expected for an 0-2 team with bad quarterbacking, even one that lost two games (to pretty good teams) by a total of 8 points. It could be worse, though; we could be San Diego, which lost its two games by a total of 3 points, and both on the last play of the game, counting the two-point conversion in the Denver game, which San Diego actually won. Sort of.

Meanwhile, the "Huh?" of the week goes to Michael Silver, who rates the Packers at #1 for the second week in a row. Now, I never thought the Packers would collapse when Aaron Rodgers took over for Brett Favre, and they have looked good. That said, I think the Cowboys (my pick for the #1 team in the league) will beat them soundly this week. If not, then by all means, put the Packers at #1, and I'll have some of what Silver's drinking.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Red Sea parts

Things I didn't think I'd see in the first two weeks of the 2008 NFL season:

1) Tom Brady is lost for the year due to injury.

2) Brett Favre is seen in a non-Green Bay Packers uniform.

3) The undefeated Arizona Cardinals.

4) Brad Childress loses confidence in Tarvaris Jackson.

Next thing you know, Ed Hochuli will blow a call. Oh wait...

Yes, the unthinkable finally happened. After two years of unremitting man-love for his undertalented, overdrafted Division I-AA quarterback, Brad Childress finally pulled the plug on T-Jack, announcing today that Gus Frerotte would take over the quarterbacking duties for the Vikings, starting with this week's home game against Carolina.

Jackson was off to a mediocre start this season with the team, completing just over half of his passes, with one touchdown and one interception, for a 64.8 passer rating. Unfortunately, he displayed his usual "deer in headlights" look most of the time, and the Vikings stalled repeatedly on third downs, especially in the Colts game, where they were forced to settle for five field goals. Despite the luxury of having the fourth-best rushing attack in the league, Jackson led the team to just two touchdowns on 22 drives so far in 2008.

Not all the blame for an offense can go on a quarterback, of course. The receiving corps looks as bad as ever and the offensive playcalling has been atrocious. But there was little reason to assume Jackson would improve following a lackluster 2008 season (wait -- he did go 8-4 as a starter in 2007 -- that must mean he's good!), despite the fondest wishes of some misguided fans. Regardless of playcalling and receiver talent, when you miss open receivers, throw to guys' feet, and make one bad decision after another, you're not a very good quarterback. And after watching Jackson make 16 lackluster starts and only look good in a handful of them, the coaching staff apparently decided enough is enough.

Which leaves us with Gus Frerotte. I pointed out that, if you could remove his one stinker of a start against Baltimore in 2007, his overall numbers aren't that bad, and in his last full season as a starter (2004, with Miami), he threw for 2,996 yards, 18 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions, numbers that would probably be just fine for the 2008 Vikings. Granted, that was four years ago -- Daunte Culpepper was pretty good in 2004, and look how that turned out.

All that said, I wasn't calling for Jackson's ousting just yet. Last year, I secretly rooted for Kelly Holcomb to take over the quarterbacking reins, and when Jackson was hurt in week two and Brooks Bollinger fumbled away the ball in an eventual overtime loss, Holcomb got his shot -- and promptly stunk up the joint, getting sacked 12 times in just 95 dropbacks. Sacks probably won't be a huge issue with Frerotte; he's got a career 6.0% sack percentage, close to the league average, and even in his last three seasons, at ages 34 to 36, he's only been dropped 5.3% of the time. At the very least, it's hard to imagine him playing worse than Jackson, and John David Booty clearly isn't ready for the job yet, given his performance in preseason, so I can't really argue with the call. Most likely, Gus will provide a temporary spark for his first few weeks in the lineup and I wouldn't be surprised for the team to rally behind him and win its next few games. Long-term, though, he's not the answer, and the team could find itself completely reworking it's quarterback depth chart at the end of the season -- if not sooner.

Also, if Frerotte gets injured -- a very real possibility -- the team will most likely turn back to Jackson over Booty. Given the apparent china-doll nature of T-Jack's ego these last few years, and with Brad Childress refusing to be even remotely critical of his young quarterback, a benching like this could destroy what little confidence -- and value -- he has left. Indeed, according to the article I linked to above, "Jackson was unavailable for comment during the time the locker room was open to reporters." He's upset, understandably, but he's also a 25-yard-old man. If he can't take this setback in stride and use it to improve in the event that he is called on again, what little value he has left as an NFL player will be completely gone.

And then it might just be time for the Booty call.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The Viking non-Viking post

Random NFL stuff today, since I don't feel too much like talking serious about the Vikings, except to encourage everyone to vote in this poll, for which you-know-who has (as of this writing) received the most votes and has a 6% approval rating, which is too high, IMHO.

* Despite what everyone will tell you, Mike Shanahan did not take an incredible risk in going for two at the end of the game Sunday, instead of kicking the extra point. Consider: A team has a roughly 50% chance of winning in overtime, right? Historically, two-point conversions are successful about 50% of the time. Thus, going for two to win it gives you the same chance of winning as taking the game to overtime. The only risk was that, if they missed it, Shanahan wouldn't have received a 92% approval rating.

(Then again, maybe the Broncos didn't want to take it to overtime for fear that Ed Hochuli and crew might give San Diego a makeup call for that awful non-fumble call.)

(And, at about the same time I write this, TMQ agrees. I swear, we don't share notes.)

* If Brad Childress does get fired, he'll need to have a rant on his way out, so he can maintain a steady stream of income in his post-football career, just like Dennis Green.

* I'm too lazy to add it to my side nav, but if you live away from your favorite team, don't have DirecTV, and don't want to shlep out to a sports bar every weekend, you can still find out what games you'll get on TV, thanks to this site.

* Adding insult to injury, I had Adam Vinatieri in my fantasy league last week. He got me a field goal and an extra point. My opponent's kicker? Ryan Longwell. I lost by 3 points.

* It's a sad thing that even I, when I see a QB complete a pass with his left hand (like Eli Manning did Sunday) or scramble out of the pocket and flip a ball out to a receiver (like Donovan McNabb did last night), my first thought is "Gee, that reminded me of Brett Favre." It's so drilled into my head that it's going to take years for it all to leak out. Maybe I can sue the NFL for brain damage.

(The difference between Favre and those two players is that the announcers didn't wet themselves about how amazing a play it was. You can expect to Favre hear that at least a Favre dozen times Favre next week when the Favres play the Chargers on Monday Night Favreball. Favre.)

Sunday, September 14, 2008

How to fix the Vikings

The solution can be largely summed up in three words:

Fire. Brad. Childress.

Today's game had to be the worst example of offensive play-calling I've seen in years. Before or after nearly every play in the second half (and many in the first), my friend or I were asking "Why are they doing this?" To wit:

* Adrian Peterson was clearly out of gas by the third quarter. After racking up 118 yards in the first half, he managed just 42 yards in the second half on 15 carries. "They really need to put Chester Taylor in there for a series or two," we said. Taylor had one carry in the second half and caught one pass (for a loss of two). Meanwhile, the winded Peterson managed a paltry 2.8 yards per carry and, when the team needed him the most, he was unable to keep the chains moving and keep the ball out of Peyton Manning's hands.

* Taylor's one carry in the second half was a mystifying 3rd-and-5 call at the midway point of the fourth quarter, with the ball on the Colts' 31. Yes, Ryan Longwell was five-for-five on field goals and another one there probably ices the game (making it 18-7), but in what world is a 47-yard field goal, even in a dome, automatic? There's nothing "safe" about that call, and after five missed opportunities to score a touchdown, shouldn't you be trying to actually get it in the end zone and run more time off the clock by holding on to the ball?

* And speaking of third-down plays, the calls on third down were horrible throughout. What on earth are you doing going for long passes on third and short? Three or four times, Tarvaris Jackson heaved the ball deep instead of looking for the short receiver. Some of this blame needs to go on Jackson and his receivers, to be certain, though the coaching staff should know by now how spotty Jackson's long-range accuracy is and be calling short, safe, move-the-sticks kinds of plays on third down. A few of those times, it looked like he did have a short man at or beyond the first-down mark, wide open, but he instead flung it deep and never connected.

(And besides, isn't the oft-stated goal of most teams playing against Peyton Manning to keep him off the field. You don't need to go deep! Keep the ball and take your yardage in small chunks.)

* Finally, there still don't seem to be any passing plays in the playbook that don't require Jackson to a) throw it two yards downfield; or b) throw it 30 yards downfield. Where are the intermediate routes? Where are the 5 to 15-yard plays that are the bread-and-butter of a supposed West Coast offense? When Jackson had a couple of those plays at the end of the first half, he connected and moved the team down the field quickly to set up Longwell's third field goal. Apart from those two plays, Jackson had 85 yards on 22 passes, less than four yards per attempt. Why weren't there more passing plays like that?

All this doesn't mean the players are blameless, though.

* Last week on MNF, it was mentioned that Tarvaris Jackson has a passer rating of 24 -- not 124 -- when he rolls out of the pocket. That's utterly inexcusable for a mobile quarterback. His accuracy is bad enough as it is. I'm willing, however, to give him a slight pass, considering the awful play calling by Childress and his staff, and it's not as if the team has any better options at the position, but if the team doesn't have a win by October, it'll be time to see what Gus Frerotte or even John David Booty can do.

And is there any quarterback poorer at sensing the backside rush than Jackson? At this point, if a defender has any kind of remotely clear shot at his back or his passing arm, it's an automatic sack and fumble.

* After getting burned by Greg Jennings last week, Tyrell Johnson was again in the picture -- but only barely -- on Anthony Gonzalez catch-and-pitch to Reggie Wayne that set up the Colts' first touchdown. Madeiu Williams, please come back, quickly.

* It's only two games, sure, but Bernard Berrian looks like the free-agent bust of the year. I tihnk I saw him on the field, but it doesn't look like it matters if he was or not, as he had no catches.

All of that adds up to a dissapointing, frustrating, 0-2 start, and both of the games were completely winnable. Losing two games to good teams by a total of eight points isn't the end of the world, and the Vikings' schedule looks to be a little easier moving forward, but if this team doesn't show some kind of innovation or intelligence, especially on the offensive side of the ball, the blame should fall on Childress for his inability to assess game-time information and coach his players to handle those situations properly.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Power Rankings Compilation, Week 1

I wasn't going to bring this feature back this year because it was really meaningless in the last few weeks of the season. By the middle point of the season or so, everyone has a pretty good handle on how good every team really is and it's harder to make fun of the dimwits. And what good is this if I can't make fun of people? Still, it's fun for the first few weeks or so and, considering that the Vikings a) were highly touted before the season; and b) laid a major egg in week one, it might still be good for a few chuckles (and angry fist-waving) for at least a month or so. If it becomes staid after that, I might start making fun of the positions of other, non-Viking teams as best I can. Hey, it's a living (figuratively speaking, that is).

I will also, before looking at my various sites and averaging out their rankings for the Vikings, try to give what I think should be the team's ranking this week. Following week one, I'd put the team about at #15 -- still top half and maybe a little higher than they deserve, but losing by five on the road isn't that bad, regardless of how they looked. Put up a similar stinkfest against Indy, though, and I'll change my tune...

Yahoo.com's Michael Silver writes:

12. Minnesota Vikings: Can this built-to-win-now team afford to wait for Tarvaris Jackson to grow into the job?

ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert writes:

16. They have to get more consistency from QB Tarvaris Jackson. (KS)

SportingNews.com's Vinnie Iyer writes:

18. Minnesota Vikings (0-1), down 6. All eyes are on Tarvaris Jackson to deliver for a talented team, but if the same passing struggles continue, should Gus Frerotte be considered? The Vikings still have some work to do to dethrone the Pack.

Not surprisingly, a lot of the entries this week concentrate on the play of Tarvaris Jackson, and rightfully so. I don't think, however, that the team is "waiting for" Jackson to grow into his role -- he should be there already.

And Gus Frerotte is not the answer. Then again, what is?

The Vikings' biggest backer before the season began was SI.com's Dr. Z. In dropping the Vikings all the way from #4 to #18 in his rankings, he says:

18. I never should have fallen for that stuff I read a few months ago about how they were going to the Super Bowl and all that. They can tell me all they want about Tarvaris Jackson's miraculous improvement, but, to me, he still has that deer in the headlights look.

Just before the season, I allowed myself a brief moment of optimism about Jackson after an entire offseason dismissing the guy. I thought maybe his decent (though limited) preseason showing meant something. And maybe, like Dr. Z, I fell into the trap of his so-called "miraculous improvement," but I should have remembered one thing:

Troy Williamson looks good every off-season, too. He had two catches for 11 yards in his Jaguars debut last week.

Fox Sports' Adrian Hasenmayer writes:

16. Yes, watching Tarvaris Jackson at QB during portions of the Packers game was difficult at times. Despite his up-and-down game, the Vikings were one critical third-quarter punt return touchdown allowed away from pulling off the upset against the hated Packers.

That's a salient point, but it's both good and bad. Yes, Jackson played poorly, but so did the special teams and the defense. Despite all of it, though, we still had a chance to win at the end. I'm still debating whether I'm pleased about that whole situation or not.

USAToday.com writes:

13. Colts squad in need of win will invade Metrodome to face 0-1 Vikings.

Er, OK. Care to write about the team you're actually ranking next time?

Finally, that brings us to Pete Prisco of CBS SportsLine.com. Back in June, Prisco ranked the Vikings at #24 and his comments on pretty much every team from #20 down were along the lines of "This team has quarterback issues." Which may have been true, but the other 21 players on the team have some effect, too. So it should be no surprise as to what his comment is for this week:

19. Quarterback, quarterback, quarterback. It's all about how Tarvaris Jackson progresses for the Vikings. He looked good at times Monday, but looked really bad at others against the Packers.

He then goes on to rank teams currently led by Kerry Collins and Kyle Orton at #7 and #8, respectively. Quarterback, quarterback, QUARTERBACK! Also, his "last week" rankings had the Vikings at #13, so they apparently somehow jumped up 11 points in his mind without playing a single game over two months. We may have the new Jason Cole (who doesn't appear to be doing rankings this year, *snif*), people.

All of that evens out to a #16 overall ranking, with very little divergence. Frankly, I'm surprised, and also a little disappointed that I don't have too much to poke fun at. So my "What the hell are you thinking?" category features ESPN.com, which lists San Diego at #3. Yeah, I know they lost on the last play and they probably are still a pretty good team (even without Shawne Merriman). But you can't lose your first game and still be considered a top-three team, can you?

The big question is, if Minnesota beats Indy this week, how many people will still rank the Colts ahead of the Vikings? About half, I'll guess. Quarterback, quarterback, QUARTERBACK!

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Coping with morning sickness

After a day or two to fully digest and excrete Monday's game (and it certainly did resemble a pile of...well, you know), I'm nudging back from the ledge a few steps and taking a broader, and hopefully saner, view of the game. I'll start with the positives.

When he can display some accuracy, Tarvaris Jackson does have a heck of an arm. I'm still trying to figure if him rarely finding open receivers is the receivers not getting open or him not finding them. Neither are great, but I'm willing to cut him some slack if it's the receivers' fault they're hardly ever open (though the routes selected and overall playcalling by the coaches probably also bears a large share of the blame).

Yes, Jackson was forced to scramble nine times, but he was only sacked once. Overall, the O-line held up reasonably well, considering the absence of Bryant McKinnie, and the running backs averaged better than five yards a carry against what looks to be a pretty good Packer defense.

I'm not a huge fan of ball-control stats unless you can do it consistently, but there's something to be said for limiting the Packers to just 49 offensive snaps while having 69 of your own. Granted, two of the Packers' snaps netted them 113 yards. Viewed differently, that means that, apart from those two semi-flukish plays, they netted just 4.3 yards per snap.

Aaron Rodgers is actually good, and he's in his fourth year in the NFL. Let's get this whole "How did we lose to a guy making his first career start?" business out of the way. Or maybe you'd rather be the Bengals or Lions, who lost to two rookie QBs making their first start (Joe Flacco and Matt Ryan).

Yeah, it was the Packers, and that hurts. But if we'd lost to Indy by five points in the opener instead, would it have been so bad?

So, when it comes down to it, maybe I'm grasping at straws a bit. Then again, what if Bernard Berrian had stayed on his feet on that one pass in the third quarter? Then the team gets a TD instead of a FG on that drive, goes for one instead of failing on the two-point try, and...

Sure, both teams probably would have played different the rest of the way. But anytime you wind up so close to the other team, you were only one play away from winning. Yeah, there are still some things to fix, particularly in the play calling (I absolutely guarantee you that there will be some trickery -- a fake field goal, reverse pass, surprise onside kick, whatever -- in next week's game), but I'll at least go into next week's game thinking the team can still pull it out.

And hey -- Monday's game was still better than the team's last trip to Green Bay.

Monday, September 8, 2008

A disappointing debut

The Vikings were hoping their revamped defense would spark lots of big, game-changing plays in 2008. They were right.

Unfortunately, the big plays that came while the defense was on the field all came from the opposing offense Monday night.

Discounting a punt-return touchdown, the defense gave up a tolerable 17 points on the night. But the Packers' two touchdowns came after big plays by the offense: a 56-yard Greg Jennings catch in the second quarter and a 57-yard Ryan Grant run in the fourth quarter that put Green Bay up by 12 and virtually sealed the win for the Packers. Toss in the 76-yard punt return by Will Blackmon and you have three big plays that doomed the Vikings. The defense allowed over 300 yards, forced zero turnovers, and sacked Aaron Rodgers zero times.

Oh, and the offense didn't play particularly well, either.

Adrian Peterson was his usual brilliant self, rushing for 103 yards on 19 carries for a 5.4 average. And Tarvaris Jackson deserves some credit for making the score as close as it was, with a pair of nice-looking touchdown drives in the fourth quarter. But where Rodgers hit his players in the chest with his passes most of the time, Jackson was typically firing at players' knees or above them or out of bounds or, as I told a friend, "He hit his receivers right to the left of the numbers." The final offensive play may have been an incorrect route run by Visanthe Shiancoe, leading to the interception that ended it -- and an offense that relies on a Jackson-Shiancoe connection has more than a few problems anyway -- but, in the end, Jackson did little to convince me that he's any different from the quarterback who suited up for the team last year: scattershot, unreliable, and unable to make the difficult play when called upon.

But it would be unfair to blame Jackson solely for the night's loss. Had Bernard Berrian been able to stay on his feet on a pass play early in the third quarter, he would have gone for 6 (points) instead of 24 (yards). Aaron Rodgers was rarely challenged by the defense, only being hit (by my rough count) a half-dozen or so times while completing 18 of 22 passes, usually to wide-open receivers. And, as frustratingly usual, that "Lambeau magic" manifested itself on a first-quarter fumble by Brandon Jackson that bounced away from four Vikings and was scooped up by Greg Jennings, who took it for a first down.

While the Vikings were certainly not the most disciplined they could be, their nine penalties only totaled 42 yards. Meanwhile, the Packers were flagged a dozen times for 118 yards, giving the Vikings chance after chance to take control of the game, which they never managed to do. It was frustrating to watch the team be handed one opportunity after another, only to squander them with field-goal attempts and a few late (and ultimately meaningless) touchdowns. I don't know what was more uninspiring: the play-calling or the execution of those plays. Maybe this team missed Bryant McKinnie more than they thought they would.

As bad as they looked last night, maybe we can catch the Indianapolis Colts with their proverbial pants down next week in the Metrodome. When all is said and done, a five-point loss on the road in one of the tougher stadiums in the league for a visitor isn't half bad (and it's a hell of a lot better than the result the last time the Vikings visited Lambeau). But the nature of that loss and the way the defense was routinely carved up by a quarterback making his first start in the NFL, has to be some kind of concern. Personally, I think Aaron Rodgers will do just fine in the NFL, but next week's opponent, Peyton Manning, is probably a little better. It's only one game, and I'm not going to throw in the towel just yet, but it's going to take a much better effort, in all phases of the game, to make this team look better next week.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Farewell, Daunte

After a nine-year NFL career, three Pro Bowls, over 20,000 passing yards and 175 combined rushing/receiving touchdowns, former Vikings QB Daunte Culpepper called it quits yesterday at the age of 31. Citing that he was "not given a fair chance to come in and compete for a job" (more on that later), Culpepper closed the book on an up-and-down career that brought him within breathing distance of the NFL's ultimate goal but also laid him low on more than one occasion.

Following the Vikings' stupendous 1998 15-1 season, team officials opted to trade quarterback Brad Johnson to the Washington Redskins, choosing to rely on Randall Cunningham to lead the team in 1999. The Redskins, having lost Trent Green to free agency and cut loose current Vikings QB Gus Frerotte, were happy to trade a number of draft picks, including their first-rounder, to the Vikings. With that pick, the #11 selection overall, the Vikings drafted Culpepper out of Central Florida college, a move regarded as curious considering the team had both Cunningham and the recently signed Jeff George at the position.

Cunningham got off to a slow start in 1999 and was replaced by George in week six. The rookie Culpepper saw only three snaps his first season, rushing for six yards on three carries and not throwing a pass. Despite his good season, the team elected to let George leave via free agency (to the Redskins, where he would back up Johnson) and went with the unpolished but talented Culpepper as their starting quarterback in 2000. With an offensive cast that included Randy Moss, Cris Carter, Robert Smith, and star offensive linemen Matt Birk, Todd Steussie, and Korey Stringer, Culpepper was set up to succeed from day one.

And succeed he did. Culpepper accounted for all three Vikings touchdowns -- all via the rush -- in the team's 30-27 opening-day win over the Chicago Bears. His first TD pass (to Randy Moss, naturally) came next week in a 13-7 win over the Dolphins. By the end of the season, Culpepper had been firmly established as the Vikings' starter, erasing any doubts with 40 touchdowns (33 passing, 7 rushing), 3,937 passing and 470 rushing yards, and a 98.0 passer rating. After an 11-2 start, however, the team lost its last three regular-season games and, after winning its playoff opener against New Orleans, was crushed in the NFC Championship Game, a 41-0 drubbing by the New York Giants.

Still, hopes were high for Culpepper and the Vikings going into 2001, but the successes of 2000 were not to be repeated. Culpepper was hurt in the 11th game of the season and didn't play again that year, amassing only 14 passing TDs versus 13 interceptions as the team stumbled to a 5-11 record that spelled the end of Green's 10-year coaching tenure with the team. The next season was almost as bad, with Culpepper throwing 23 interceptions versus only 18 touchdown passes and even being benched during a game against the New York Giants in favor of the unremarkable Todd Bouman. The team went 6-10 in head coach Mike Tice's first season.

2003 was a resurgent year for Culpepper and, to some extent, the Vikings. Despite missing two games with injuries, Culpepper rebounded with 25 TDs against 11 interceptions, leading the team to a 9-7 record and putting them within seconds of making the playoffs before this happened. (Video link has been removed, but here's a heart-wrenchingly close enough version.)

Then came the 2004 season. In what still must go down as one of the best seasons ever by a quarterback, Culpepper put up numbers that looked like he was playing a video game. 4,717 and 39 TDs passing. 69.2% completion percentage. Nearly 300 yards per game. 406 yards and 2 TDs rushing. Culpepper's combined 5,123 passing/rushing yards are still an NFL single-season record, and his passer rating of 110.9 ranks fifth all time on the single-season list.

Despite that success, there were three things amiss with the 2004 season. First, Culpepper's amazing season was overshadowed by Peyton Manning's 2004 season that saw throw 49 TD passes, breaking Dan Marino's single-season record (surpassed in 2007 by Tom Brady). Second, the Vikings' defense in 2004 was among the worst in the league, and the team managed only an 8-8 record, just barely squeezing into the playoffs and being knocked out in the second round by the Philadelphia Eagles.

Third, and perhaps the most troubling long-term problem with the season was the seeming decline of Randy Moss. Culpepper's running buddy since taking over the reigns as Vikings' QB in 2000, Moss missed several games with an injury in 2004 and was used only as a decoy in others, limiting him to a career-worst (at the time) 49 catches for 767 yards, despite hauling in 13 touchdowns. His attitude, never great, was called into question even more when he left the field with two seconds remaining in the Vikings' regular-season finale against the Redskins and when he offended Joe Buck's sensitivities by faux-mooning the Green Bay Packers' fans during the playoffs. As a result, the Vikings shipped Moss off the Raiders in the off-season, breaking up the best QB/WR tandem in team history.

Still, Culpepper had looked reasonably well in the games Moss missed in 2004, so fans were hopeful he could continue his free-slinging ways in 2005. To the heartbreak of every fantasy football fan who picked him in the first round of drafts in 2005, Culpepper completely bombed, heaving 12 interceptions (versus 6 touchdowns) in the first seven games of the season. In a game against Carolina (which I had actually been debating attending, since the Panthers' stadium is about 15 miles from my home and my employer at the time made NFL merchandise, thus giving me an avenue into the occasional home Panthers game), cornerback Chris Gamble tackled Culpepper low on a run at the end of the first quarter. The hit damaged three of the four ligaments -- the ACL, PCL, and MCL -- in Culpepper's knee and he missed the remainder of the season while recuperating from surgery.

Then things got weird. Before the injury, Culpepper was fingered in the Love Boat scandal, though it was generally accepted that he was not guilty of any wrongdoing. In the offseason, he fired his agent, choosing to represent himself and became known for firing off random e-mails to the media and asking for his release or trade. New head coach Brad Childress likened his limited experience with Culpepper to his dealings with Terrell Owens while both were in Philadelphia in that all conversations revolved around what the player could get from the team and not what the player could do for the team.

With Brad Johnson back in purple and Culpepper both coming off an awful year and a serious knee injury and apparently unwilling to play without a renegotiated contract, the team shipped him off to Miami for a second-round draft pick. He began the season as the Dolphins' starter but, four games in, it was decided that his knee wasn't fully healed from his 2005 injury and he was shelved in favor of Joey Harrington. In 2007, he resurfaced with the Oakland Raiders and, in probably his best post-Vikings game, accounted for all five of the Raiders' touchdowns (three rushing, two passing) in a 35-17 win over his former team, the Dolphins. On Nov. 18, he got the start against his original franchise and almost rallied the Raiders to a win in the Metrodome against the Vikings before falling 29-22. He started one more game for the Raiders, a 20-17 win over Kansas City, in what now stands as his final NFL action.

Since his spectacular 2004 season, Culpepper has thrown 536 NFL passes, about the equivalent of a full season. Those passes have yielded 3,824 yards, 13 touchdowns and 20 interceptions. In addition, Culpepper has rushed for 207 yards on 54 carries (3.8 average) and his passer rating is a mediocre 75.3. But the most troublesome statistic has to be his sack rate during those three years. Culpepper had been dropped an amazing 73 times in those three years, almost exactly 12.0% of the time. And you can't just blame that on a poor offensive line; his quarterback teammates during those three years have significantly lower sack rates. Likewise, while his knee injury certainly damaged his mobility and may have contributed some to his sack totals, realize that about 40% of his dropbacks over that span came with the Vikings in 2005 -- in other words, before he suffered his knee injury. he had a 12.6% sack rate in that season.

In his letter announcing his retirement, Culpepper that, despite the preseason's usual quarterback injuries, he was not given a "fair chance" to compete for a job, despite the fact that he was offered short-term deals from both the Packers and the Steelers. It seems clear, both from his letter and his actions of the past few months that Culpepper didn't just want a job, but a starting job. And, based on his amazing 2004 season -- now four years' distant -- he believed himself fully qualified for such a job and scoffed at lesser offers.

Unfortunately, reality never sunk in for Culpepper, even if it did for the general managers of the 32 teams in the league. He stated in his letter that "the league did not share any of the optimism about me as an unrestricted free agent that I expected" and that "there seemed to be a unified message from teams that I was not welcome to compete for one of the many jobs that were available at the quarterback position," despite his receiving the two job offers mentioned above. A quarterback who, over his last three seasons, has been sacked about once every eight times he drops back and who has posted passer ratings of 72, 77, and 78, isn't going to be the premier job offers, but this never seemed to occur to Culpepper.

What I think it comes down to is that Culpepper never wanted an opportunity to play; he wanted an opportunity to start, and (rightfully) no team was willing to give him that opportunity. He still believed himself to be a starting quarterback in the NFL and, while every player should have that goal, sometimes you have to accept the reality of your situation and take what's offered. He goes on in his letter to talk about how, since becoming his own agent, he's "seen" that the NFL is more a business than a passion for most people, which should be news to nobody but him. Perhaps he felt that, because he was such a great guy, teams should rush out to sign him, regardless of his actual ability to compete on the field. Yes, Daunte, the NFL is about having power and controlling that power. If Tom Brady told the Patriots he wanted a yacht for Christmas, they'd get him a yacht because he has bargaining power. You, on the other hand, have none. Pity you could never come to grips with that. You were still fun to watch.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

2008 NFL Predictions

Back when I didn't take this blog seriously, I tossed out some predictions for the 2006 NFL season. My next post -- eight months later -- reviewed those predictions, which, like most NFL predictions, were extremely hit and miss. But hey, when everyone else is tossing out half-educated guesses, why shouldn't I join in and contribute to the noise (and bandwidth usage)? So, here are my 2008 NFL predictions, which I'll revisit in five months after the Super Bowl so you can all laugh at how crazy I was.

Remember: Each year, about four of the eight division winners fail to repeat. Any season prediction that says seven out of eight division winners will repeat is a) cowardly and b) probably wrong. Thus, I am contractually bound to name at least four new division winners on the season. Three were fairly easy for me. The fourth was a tough one and will probably be wrong, but nothing ventured...

y-Division Winner
x-Wild Card

AFC East
1. New England-y
2. Buffalo
3. NY Jets
4. Miami

Tough to go against the Patriots. They could lose four games off their 2007 win total and still finish win the best record in the AFC. The Bills and Jets will make some noise, but they're not ready for prime time just yet. The less said about the Dolphins, the better, though there is some hope for the future with the young players they're stockpiling.

AFC North
1. Cleveland-y
2. Pittsburgh
3. Cincinnati
4. Baltimore

I'm not enamored with Cleveland, especially their offense, but I'll go with them anyway because I think they have better line play (offensive and defensive) than Pittsburgh, a team in a bit of a transitional period as they try to rebuild their offensive line. Cincinnati will continue to be an enigma, looking great one week and lousy the next and probably finishing 7-9 or 8-8. Baltimore lost its HOF offensive tackle and will be starting either a rookie (Joe Flacco) or second-year fifth-round pick (Troy Smith) at QB. Not good.

AFC South
1. Indianapolis-y
2. Houston-x
3. Jacksonville
4. Tennessee

As with New England, I can't go against Indianapolis, though I think it's possible they only win 10-11 games this year. And here's my first big surprise. Houston goes to the playoffs, largely on the strength of their young defense, led by Mario Williams, DeMeco Ryans, and Amobi Okoye. Jacksonville is probably the most overrated team in football -- David Garrard is good, but nobody actually consistently throws fewer than 1% of their passes for interceptions. That's going to have to balance out. And speaking of QBs and interceptions, Vince Young is like Michael Vick without the passing skills, and that's not very good.

AFC West
1. Denver-y
2. San Diego-x
3. Kansas City
4. Oakland

Here's my "division winner I'm changing because I have to, not because I want to" pick. With all the injuries they've suffered, not the least of which is Shawne Merriman, I think the Chargers slip a little this year. Oakland and KC aren't ready to compete (though with their stellar draft, I think the Chiefs are closer than a lot of people thing), so I'll go with Denver, which is probably as crazy a choice as the Houston pick.

NFC East
1. Dallas-y
2. Philadelphia-x
3. NY Giants
4. Washington

I don't think Dallas is a 13-3 team, but the rest of the division doesn't do anything for me. I'll give Philly and Donovan McNabb one more chance at greatness in the playoffs, though. I think everyone agrees that the Giants were a bit of a fluke last year, and with their losses on the defensive line, they'll be lucky to break .500. Todd Collins somehow captured lightning in a bottle and got the Redskins to the playoffs. They'll be lucky to avoid double-digit losses this year.

NFC North
1. Minnesota-y
2. Green Bay-x
3. Detroit
4. Chicago

Minnesota was the busiest team in the offseason and, with the losses suffered by the rest of the division, could have the easiest road in their division of all the teams. I think Aaron Rodgers will be decent, and the Packers' running game and defense will keep them solidly in the mix all year and probably lead to 9 or 10 wins and a playoff spot. Detroit's got some nice weapons on offense (Calvin Johnson and Roy Williams), but they won't get to 10 wins (sorry, Jon Kitna). Chicago could be a trainwreck; they have Devin Hester and Brian Urlacher and...uh...anyone?

NFC South
1. New Orleans-y
2. Tampa Bay
3. Carolina
4. Atlanta

If Reggie Bush stays healthy, New Orleans could have the most potent offense in the league this side of New England. He's not an every-down back, but his receiving skills make him a dangerous weapon. I'll probably get ripped for this (again), but I just can't believe in Tampa Bay. How old is Jeff Garcia? 38? Truthfully, I think Carolina could be worse than Atlanta. Jake Delhomme started off nice last year before being lost for the season, but he's not a 111.8-rating kind of guy. If Julius Peppers doesn't rebound from his lousy 2007, it could be another long year for Panther fans. At least Atlanta knows they're rebuilding, though they'll be lucky to win five games.

NFC West
1. Seattle-y
2. Arizona
3. St. Louis
4. San Francisco

You don't know how badly I want to pick against Seattle. Can Julius Jones really be the answer at RB? And Bobby Engram and Nate Burleson are your top WRs? But I've given up trying to believe in Arizona until they definitively show me they can get it done. They might go 8-8, they might go 4-12, they might go 12-4. I think all are equally likely, but I'm just not going to jump on their train. A full year of Steven Jackson will do much to cure the Rams' ills. JT O'Sullivan will probably put up nice numbers in San Francisco, now that he's got Mike Martz running the offense, but ask Jon Kitna how that worked in Detroit.

And now we come to the final part: my predictions for conference champions and the Super Bowl winner. More than a few pundits are picking you-know-who to win the NFC and even the Super Bowl; ESPN's Mike Greenberg picked a Minnesota/Jacksonville Super Bowl, with Minnesota proving triumphant (though, you know, that would be a rather boring game, with probably about 75% running plays and no passes deeper than 15 yards).

Me? I just have trouble doing it. I know I put $10 on the Vikings to win the Super Bowl. And maybe this news, on the eve of the new season's start, is some kind of omen. But...but...if I make that prediction, and they fall short, I'll feel disappointed (and feel like a homer). The pressure, the pressure....

AFC Champion: New England
NFC Champion: Minnesota

Super Bowl Winner: New England

There. I feel better now. Or maybe worse. I'll let you know in February.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

2008 Minnesota Vikings preview

With one of the busiest offseasons in recent memory, the Vikings have a lot of people talking about their potential for 2008. With several football pundits predicting the Vikings to make the playoffs, win the division, and, in at least one case, to win it all, expectations are high. Soon, it will be time to leave the paper team of the offseason behind and see if the real team can live up to the overwhelming hype. The Vikings have as good a shot as just about anyone in the NFC of making it to the big game in February, if they can play to their strengths and overcome their few weaknesses.

Like last year, I'll be posting a position-by-position breakdown of the team, along with my predicted stats for each significant player. And, whenever the Vikings' season ends (hopefully very, very late), I'll do a recap to see how far off I was (last year: not bad). Yes, I know that predicting exact yardage totals and the like are very silly, but I think I'm allowed one silly predictive post like this a year.

Tarvaris Jackson: 2,700 passing yards, 16 TDs, 15 Int., 400 rushing yards, 3 rushing TDs

The one weakness most people are focusing on for the 2008 Vikings is at quarterback, where third-year man Tarvaris Jackson gets one more shot to prove that he can lead his team. Skeptics abound, and with good reason; at times in 2007, Jackson looked to be playing way out of his league and, despite a month of good showings in November, the team finished the season with two losses and wound up out of the playoff picture.

Among his backers are those who point out the team went 8-4 with him as the starting quarterback, even though his efforts were largely irrelevant in the face of Adrian Peterson rushing for 296 yards or the defense forcing a handful of turnovers. And, despite the dearest wishes of Vikings fans, there simply is no reason why a second-year quarterback must automatically improve in his third year. I'd say he has about an equal chance of falling apart as he does of putting up a great season.

To its credit, the team did what it could to help out its young quarterback, signing wide receiver Bernard Berrian away from the Chicago Bears in the offseason. The offensive line is solid, even if Bryant McKinnie won't play until October, and ditching Troy Williamson should be good for at least a few more completions a season. Truthfully, with all the help he's got, Jackson probably should improve in 2008, but it's not a guarantee. And he'll still have to stay healthy, which is some concern; he was taken out of two games in 2007 with injuries and missed four starts and didn't appear in the final two preseason games after suffering a knee injury against Baltimore.

As such, my prediction here is rather middle-of-the-road, if not quietly optimistic. Assuming 240/400 completions/attempts (60%) season, it computes out to a 77.9 passer rating -- adequate, but not overly impressive. While I will agree that he looked good at times last year, there were also far too many instances of his throwing a ball into coverage and, during the second Chicago game, just lobbing it up into the air while being sacked, an easy interception for the defense. Every quarterback (not just the Jets' quarterback, as the media would like you to believe) has a desire to complete every pass and make every play; but all of them have to realize when it's just not possible. If Jackson can learn that and provide just enough of a threat through the passing game so that teams can't key 100% on the run, the Vikings playoff run could be deep, indeed.

With Brooks Bollinger gone, the backup plan is the aging Gus Frerotte and rookie John David Booty. Considering Jackson's injury history, it's likely that at least Frerotte will see some time at the position this year, but Vikings fans hope it will be minimal. The team went with Booty over Brooks Bollinger as the #3 QB and, if Jackson stumbles, he could be the long-term solution at the position...just hopefully not in 2008.

Position Grade: C+

Running back:
Adrian Peterson: 1,400 rushing yards, 350 receiving yards, 14 TDs
Chester Taylor: 500 rushing yards, 150 receiving yards, 4 TDs

The numbers above might seem a bit low for most Adrian Peterson predictions, but I'm trying to keep in mind both his potential for injury and his poor showing in the latter part of last season. Also, keep in mind that Peterson rushed for over 500 yards in two of his games last year...while it would be nice, predicting two 200+ yard games for a back in a season is something I just can't do. And I'd rather be wrong in the low direction than wrong in the high direction.

Nonetheless, the team will continue to rely on its running game in 2008, and the two-headed Peterson/Taylor monster should be in full force, running wild in opposing defensive backfields. Taylor, however, will turn 29 in September, and while he's only had one season as a full-time starter (2006), he's getting to be of the age where backs can decline precipitously.

But if he falters, at least we've got Maurice Hicks to back him up, right? I'll get into this more when we get down to the "Special Teams" part of things, but releasing Mewelde Moore and signing Hicks was a questionable move at best. Hopefully, Hicks won't see the field except in a few blowout games.

Position grade: A

Wide Receiver/Tight End:
Bernard Berrian: 65 catches, 1,050 yards, 7 TDs
Sidney Rice: 45 catches, 650 yards, 3 TDs
Bobby Wade: 25 catches, 325 yards, 2 TDs
Visanthe Shiancoe: 20 catches, 250 yards, 1 TD

After employing the likes of Travis Taylor, Bobby Wade, and Nate Burleson as #1 receivers the past few years (or "A.R." meaning "After Randy"), the Vikings finally went out and got themselves a #1 receiver in Bernard Berrian -- or so they hope. In a somewhat controversial move, the team signed Berrian away from division rival Chicago for 6 years and a potential $42 million. All this for a guy who doesn't even have a 1,000 yard season as a pro and might not this year, either.

You could certainly blame Berrian's flashes-of-brilliance-but-not-consistently-good-numbers career on his quarterbacking partners during his time in Chicago. Moving to Minnesota, however, won't greatly improve that situation and, with the running game as it is, the team won't likely rely on Berrian as the lynchpin to its offense. Some have said that he has poor hands, but that's likely untrue. At the very least, he's a threat, and him running downfield should help open up lanes for the running game. And if he can occasionally haul in a deep ball from Jackson, all the better.

Sidney Rice looks to be an up-and-coming...well, maybe not star, but at least solid #2 wide receiver. His opportunities will be limited in the Vikings' offense, though. Now the #3 receiver, Bobby Wade could do some good things working out of the slot. Robert Ferguson is old and nursing a calf injury, while second-year man Aundrae Allison is best suited for kick-return duties. Overall, it's not a great bunch, but they don't have to be.

Position grade: B-

Offensive line:

The line performed way above expectations last year, helping the team to a league-high 5.3 yards per rush attempt and allowing Tarvaris Jackson to be sacked a fairly average 6.1% of the time. The loss of Bryant McKinnie for the first four games will be noticed, but hopefully not too much. The real question is, can the line continue to open up holes for the running game like it did in 2007 and keep Tarvaris Jackson upright enough to allow him to mature as a passer?

I'll say tentatively, "yes." While I think the unit will come down some -- another reason for my fairly conservative Adrian Peterson rushing total -- I think Matt Birk, at 32, still has enough in the tank for one more good season, Steve Hutchinson will continue his solid play, and the right side of Anthony Herrera and Ryan Cook deserve at least some of the credit for last year's good line play -- after all, the team couldn't run to the left every down. Artis Hicks should do a decent job of holding down the fort until McKinnie's return.

Position Grade: A-

Defensive Line:

I've been drooling over writing this entry since April, when the team acquired Jared Allen from the Chiefs while I was sitting in a Vegas casino. That had to be some sort of omen, right? While I'm even more loathe to give predictions about defensive statistics than I am about offensive statistics, I'm going to guess that Allen will have somewhere around a dozen sacks for the year, which is probably about in line for what a player of his age and history should have.

However, his presence should lead to more opportunities for the rest of the defensive line to wreak havoc in opposing backfields. It wouldn't suprise me in the least to see Kevin Williams get back to double-digit sacks for the first time since 2004, and opposite end Ray Edwards could also approach double digits (though he won't be anywhere near Michael Strahan's record). Only Pat Williams shouldn't be a factor in what could be the league's best pass rush, but he doesn't have to be. At 35 (soon to be 36) years of age and 317 (hee) pounds, his concern should be on staying fresh and healthy throughout the season, because for all the talent they have on the first string, the Vikings lack quality depth along the line.

Brian Robison is virtually interchangable with Edwards at the end spot, but the team essentially lost three defensive linemen in the offseason: Erasmus James (Washington), Spencer Johnson (Buffalo), and Kenichi Udeze (leukemia), leaving Otis Grigsby, Ellis Wyms, and Fred Evans as the team's primary backups along the line. That's not a greatly comforting thought, but if this unit can stay healthy, it could evoke memories of the Purple People Eaters of old.

Position Grade: A


A steadily improving unit, the Vikings' linebacking corps looks to be at its best in years. EJ Henderson mans the middle and logged 119 tackles a year ago. Ben Leber and former first-rounder Chad Greenway play the edges, allowing the unit to return all three of its starters from a year ago. Greenway in particular, played very well last year, ranging all around the field and picking off two balls, including one returned for a touchdown. The defensive line is elite, but this unit isn't too far behind.

As with the line, though, the linebackers lack depth. Backup and special teamer Heath Farwell was lost in the preseason and the team cut last year's sixth-round pick, Rufus Alexander. Of the team's three backups, only Vinny Ciurciu has had any significant playing time, and most of that coming on special teams. David Herron and Erin Henderson, EJ's brother, will need to step up if their number is called.

Position Grade: A-

Defensive Backs:

Here's the only defensive unit that would not rate as "very good" in anyone's book, though the Vikings' seeming weakness against the pass in recent years is largely attributable to teams being unwilling to run on them. An improved pass rush should help, as should the addition of safety Madieu Williams, lured away from the Bengals in free agency. Williams will miss the first part of the season with a neck injury, however. As a result, the team's top draft pick from 2008, second-rounder Tyrell Johnson, will step into his place. If nothing else, it'll be a good chance for the team to see what Johnson's got and get some idea as to whether he can replace Darren Sharper when his contract expires at the end of the season.

Antoine Winfield and Cedric Griffin man the corner positions; Winfield needs to stay healthy and Griffin needs to step up his play so as not to be pressured for the starting job by Marcus McCauley, who'll be the team's primary nickel back. Unlike the other defensive positions, this unit has decent depth, though the loss of Michael Boulware for the season takes away a potential contributor. Overall, it will probably be the same situation as in previous years, in that teams reluctant to run on the Vikings will go to the pass more and more, and, even with the improved pass rush from Jared Allen and the rest of the line, there are times when the Vikings defensive backfield will get torched -- but hey, at least it won't be by Brett Favre any more!

Position Grade: B

Special Teams:

Ryan Longwell returns for his third year in purple, and Vikings fans have little to complain about regarding his performance. Of his four misses in 2007, three came from beyond 50 yards, and he hasn't missed a kick from 40 yards or closer since joining the team. A little more distance on kickoffs would be nice, but I think most fans are happy with the total package.

And then there's the man, the myth, the legend, the Guitar Hero, Chris Kluwe. Appearing to be fully recovered from the sprained ankle he suffered near the end of the 2005 season, Kluwe averaged a career-best 44.7 yards per punt in 2007, while downing 42% of his punts inside the opponents' 20, third-best in the league. His contributions will be even more evident in 2008 -- after all, who wants to try and drive 90 yards against this defense?

That brings us to the return game. Despite a mediocre 22.9 yards per kick return and no touchdowns for his career, the Vikings somehow thought Maurice Hicks would be a good choice as the team's kickoff-return specialist, despite having Aundrae Allison, who averaged 28.7 on returns including a touchdown, in his rookie season. Allison's currently penciled into the punt-return slot, despite never having returned one in his pro career. Perhaps the Vikings should swap those two positions, letting Allison return kicks and letting Hicks, with his running back moves, take a shot at returning punts? Better yet, let's beg the Steelers to give us back Mewelde Moore.

Position Grade: B


Last year, I said the Vikings were "a team split right down the middle -- plus defense, minus offense." Astoundingly, the team looks to have improved both sides of the ball in the offseason, and my assessment last year didn't take Adrian Peterson's rise to stardom into account. The niggling problem of aging players is always a concern -- nobody expects a good player to actually decline, though they always do -- but the team is generally young enough, except in a few spots, that age shouldn't be a major concern.

This year, I'd say that the team possesses an average, maybe slightly above average offense. And the defense. Remember 1993? When Jim McMahon and Roger Craig started the season as the team's quarterback and running back? When John Randle and Chris Doleman and Jack Del Rio were all playing for the defense? Back then, I remember being more interested in watching the defense play than the offense because having the defense on the field, I thought, gave us a better chance to score. That team rated first in the league in yards allowed that season and snuck into the playoffs despite a 17th-ranked offense.

I think this year's Vikings have a much better offense than the 1993 version, but the defense might be so much better as to make the defense:offense ratio similar to the 1993 team. I know, I know, it's still all "on paper," but this defense has the potential to be the league's best unit in 2008, and that can make for a lot of fun viewing. Sure, I'll still like to watch Adrian Peterson (and I'll still cringe every time T-Jack drops back), but the real fun will be in watching Jared Allen harass opposing QBs and EJ Henderson take down running backs. The offense should be good enough to win a few games, but this is the rare team that will look to its defense to dominate and put games out of reach. I'm not quite ready to jump on Dr. Z's bandwagon and I'm notoriously pessimistic, but this team should go far -- maybe even as far as a team can go.

My Prediction: 11-5, 1st in the NFC North

Position Grade: