Tuesday, January 13, 2009

2008 Vikings predictions revisited

Sports predictions are silly. (I could also make the point that pretty much any predictions -- politics, economy, whatever -- are silly, especially the farther out and more specific they tend to be. Where's that $7/gallon gas I was supposed to be buying?) Nonetheless, that doesn't stop people from making them, especially at the start of a season. The "experts" -- read, the guys who get paid to write about sports, whether on TV, in print, or on the web -- don't typically fare any better than anyone else.

That's why I don't go week to week with things like "I think the Vikings will win a close one, 23-17, thanks to a big day from Adrian Peterson and key plays by the defense." It's just a waste of time thought energy, IMHO (but I bet it generates a lot hits). Of course, when the experts screw up, you never hear about it again, but boy, I bet everyone who picked Arizona to go to the Super Bowl (for the fifth year in a row, probably) might be coming out of the woodwork in a week and saying, "I told you so!"

That's why I only make two posts with NFL predictions every year: my yearly NFL picks and my more narrow predictions about the Vikings for the coming year. As with probably everyone else out there, my NFL predictions were a bad joke; I picked just one of eight division winners correctly, but at least it was the one I cared about. My Viking predictions were a little closer to being on target, and I won't shy away from the mistakes I made.


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

Tarvaris Jackson: 1,056 passing yards, 9 TDs, 2 Int., 139 rushing yards, 0 rushing TDs
Gus Frerotte: 2,157 passing yards, 12 TDs, 15 Int., 7 rushing yards, 1 rushing TD
Total: 3,213 passing yards, 21 TDs, 17 Int., 146 rushing yards, 1 rushing TD

Jackson's TD numbers were inflated by a couple of gaudy outings late in the season, including a 4-TD game against Arizona. And, while I did think he would miss some time with injury, his benching obviously cut into his net totals.

As a whole, though, taking Gus Frerotte into account, the passing numbers aren't too terribly far off from my Jackson predictions. I estimated a 77.9 passer rating for Jackson's predicted numbers and the Jackson/Frerotte combo managed a combined 80.9.

Running Backs

Adrian Peterson: 1,400 rushing yards, 350 receiving yards, 14 TDs
Chester Taylor: 500 rushing yards, 150 receiving yards, 4 TDs
Total: 1,900 rushing yards, 500 receiving yards, 18 TDs

Adrian Peterson: 1,760 rushing yards, 125 receiving yards, 10 TDs
Chester Taylor: 399 rushing yards, 399 receiving yards, 6 TDs
Total: 2,159 rushing yards, 524 receiving yards, 16 TDs

Here's another case where I can make myself look good with a little additive math. I underestimated both Peterson's durability and Brad Childress's willingness to use him, though I apparently overestimated his role in the passing game. His total of 1,885 yards from scrimmage is fairly close to my prediction of 1,750, while Taylor winds up with 798 yards from scrimmage, thanks to his prominance in the passing game.

Again, adding up my predictions for the two primary runners for the team gets me pretty close to their actual totals, if a bit low on the rushing total. I still feel confident that I nailed one part of the analysis right, when I said "releasing Mewelde Moore and signing [Maurice] Hicks was a questionable move at best." Moore had a nice year with the Steelers, filling in at RB and piling up 908 yards from scrimmage. Hicks, meanwhile never had a carry or catch as a RB and was a non-factor on kickoff returns, averaging just 23.8 per return.


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

Bernard Berrian: 48 catches, 964 yards, 7 TDs
Sidney Rice: 15 catches, 141 yards, 4 TDs
Bobby Wade: 53 catches, 645 yards, 2 TDs
Visanthe Shiancoe: 42 catches, 596 yards, 7 TD

There's some talk about how inconsistent Adrian Peterson looks and how he can disappear from games, but Berrian took the disappearing act to new levels in 2008. He had four games of 100 or more receiving yards -- 104, 110, 122, 131 -- that accounted for 467 of his 964 yards on the season, or 48.4%. The other 12 games? He managed just 497 yards, or 41.4 yards per game, and was held to under 50 yards in eight of those games, including two games without a single catch. Wide receivers are inconsistent, but Berrian took that inconsistency to a whole new level in 2008.

I considered his probably inconsistency when I made my prediction, saying, "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." That's why I was guardedly optimistic in my prediction, thinking that he would fall within 50 yards of 1,000 on the season, and I was right -- just in the wrong direction.

As for the Vikings' #2 wideout, if I could swap my Sidney Rice prediction with Bobby Wade's actual numbers, I'd look like a genius. And who could have predicted Visanthe Shiancoe coming on like he did late in the season?

Offensive Line

I rated the line as an A- unit, and, on some levels, they were pretty good. The team averaged 4.5 yards per carry, 6th in the league, though, like Peterson, seemed to run out of gas late in the season. On pass protection, though, the team suffered. Vikings QBs were sacked on 8.7% of their dropbacks, and you can't blame that on the aging and immobile Gus Frerotte -- he was sacked 8.8% of the time and Tarvaris Jackson 8.6%. By comparison, Jackson went down 6.1% of the time the previous season.

Losing Bryant McKinnie for the first four games didn't help matters any and the right side of the line was unsettled as ever. Worse, Matt Birk finally showed his age near the end of the season and may be done as a Viking. The team has only drafted three offensive linemen in the first three rounds of the draft so far this decade (Ryan Cook, Marcus Johnson, and McKinnie); expect that number to go up before the decade's last draft in April.

Defensive Line

Here's where the Vikings were expected to be strongest in 2008 and, for the most part, they were. I guessed that Jared Allen would have "somewhere around a dozen sacks for the year," and he exceeded that number by 2.5. I also said that his presence would "see Kevin Williams get back to double-digit sacks for the first time since 2004," and he finished with 8.5, his highest total in four years. The Ray Edwards/Brian Robison combination notched another 7.5 sacks, Ellis Wyms 2.5, and Pat Williams chipped in with 1, giving the line a total of 34 sacks, which by itself would rank as the #11 sacking defense in the league. Overall, opposing QBs were sacked on 7.8% of their dropbacks, compared to a league average of 5.9%. The constant pressure from the front four definitely played a part in improving the shaky Vikings pass defense from 32nd in 2007 to 15th in 2008.

And all this was accomplished while remaining the #1 team against the run. For the third year in a row, no team allowed fewer rushing yards than the Vikings, though the Steelers just barely edged them out in yards per attempt allowed (3.29 to 3.33). With Pat Williams being the only "old man" on the defensive front -- and probably the most easily replaceable -- there's no reason to think the front four won't be wreaking havoc in opposing backfields for years to come.


What a difference one man can make.

While Chad Greenway had a breakout season, and Ben Leber had his usual solid season, the early loss of EJ Henderson was a sore point all year long. I noted that "the linebackers lack depth," and it was evident all season as David Herron, Erin Henderson, and Napoleon Harris either got hurt or were ineffective in his spot. Granted, replacing Henderson would have been a tall order for anyone, but the coaching didn't help any. Why, on obvious passing downs, was it Leber and not Harris -- essentially our sixth choice at linebacker -- who was replaced for a nickel corner? Mystifying.

Defensive Backs

I said that "An improved pass rush should help," and this unit definitely benefited from the improved pass rush up front but also generally played well in its own right, especially as the year went on. For the first half of the season, Madieu Williams was hurt and Cedric Griffin was regularly beat, especially on short routes, as teams avoided Antoine Winfield and picked on Williams's replacement, rookie Tyrell Johnson.

Later, with Williams back in the lineup, Griffin improving and even Benny Sapp occasionally looking good, the defensive backfield tightened up and might have almost been considered "elite" if not for the continual decline of Darren Sharper, who looks to be just about at the end of the road.

When all was said and done, only one team in 17 games (Houston in week 9) amassed 300 or more passing yards against the Vikings and 8 were held to under 200 passing yards. By comparison, 6 teams beat the Vikings for 300 or more yards in 2007 and only 3 times were opponents held to under 200. True, this Viking defense faced 109 fewer pass attempts + sacks than in 2007, but that grades out to just seven per game. That's a definite improvement.

Special Teams

Going into 2008, I said that Ryan Longwell "hasn't missed a kick from 40 yards or closer since joining the team" and while he did misfire twice at that distance in 2008, he more than made up for it by booming a perfect 6-of-6 field goals from 50 yards or beyond. I also said, "A little more distance on kickoffs would be nice," and the Vikings apparently agree, having signed Taylor Mehlhaff to potentially take over those duties next season.

As for my favorite Viking, Chris Kluwe, he had a great year or an awful year depending on how you look at it. His 47.6-yard average per punt was, by far, the best of his four-year career, but his 35.5 net was the worst, as was his 17.8% touchback percentage. But how much of the blame can be put on him alone for those numbers? By all accounts, the punt coverage squads were terrible, allowing four punt returns for a touchdown and a bad snap led to a blocked kick that was also returned for six. And it seemed like every week there was a punt that bounced at the one and a Viking coverage man just barely stepped into the endzone before touching it, forcing a touchback. So, was Kluwe good or bad this year? As PFR notes, punting stats are incredibly difficult to evaluate (and most people don't care about them anyway), but for my money, he's not the worst of the 11 guys on the field during a punt, by far.

I mentioned Maurice Hicks and the return game above. The less said about him, the better. Darius Reynaud showed a little spark as a kick returner late in the year until he got hurt. And when your top two wide receivers (Berrian and Wade) are your top two punt returners, something's mixed up. I hate to wish ill on anyone, but here's hoping Paul Ferraro, the special teams coach, has a new address in 2009.

And could we please stop sending Adrian Peterson back to return punts and kicks?


As Denny Green would say, "The Vikings are who we thought they were." A very good defense that was held back far too often by a mediocre offense that often featured poor play from the quarterbacking position. I said, "This year, I'd say that the team possesses an average, maybe slightly above average offense," and I was just barely wrong, as the Vikings were 17th in the league in yards. I thought the defense could be the league's best and, with a healthy EJ Henderson all year, they might have approached that mark. Even so, they were 6th in yards allowed and allowed only 15 touchdown passes, seven off their 2007 mark. And you have to love a defense that can force the most humorous play in the 2008 season.

My final prediction for the Vikings was an 11-5 record, 1st in the NFC North. I missed that total by just one game and, if I'm going to be smug about it, I can point out that I picked the 2007 Vikings to be 8-8, making me just one game off in two years combined.

Oh, and about my prediction that they'd make the Super Bowl. Uhh...yeah, about that. Silly me, having hope...

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