Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Clash of egos

Last post of 2009 for me and probably the last post for a while in 2010. Don't worry, I'm not quitting blogging (no matter how bad the Vikings play). Instead, after 4 1/2 years in NASCAR-land (Charlotte), I'm moving to Cowboy-land. Yes, I'm about to become even more "displaced" of a Vikings fan that I was when I started this blog, with a move to Dallas to start my new job with Beckett Media, not to write about sports but to write about entertainment titles and video games. So it'll probably be a week or more before I get settled in and am good to go for a resumption of blogging -- try not to jump off the cliff without me!

I was heartily amused by the picture gracing the top of Greg Easterbrook's TMQ column this week. While I don't agree that the reason for the Vikings struggles is Brett Favre's diva-ness, I still can't understand how anyone would think he wasn't running the show -- or at least thought he was running the show -- from day one.

"Brett, we have a deadline for you to sign by."

"No thanks."

"OK, well how about this deadline?"

"No, that doesn't work for me either?"

"Will this deadline do, Brett?"

"Yeah, maybe. You know, forget about it, I'm not coming back."


"How about now? Please?"

"Well, since you asked so nicely..."

By Easterbrook's reckoning, Favre has "sabotaged" his recent teams by disagreeing with his head coaches over playcalling and possibly other aspects of the game. But look at who he's disagreed with. Eric Mangini and Brad Childress aren't exactly Bill Walsh and Bill Parcells. Given the choice between Favre calling the shots and Childress, I have to say at this point I have more confidence in Favre, as evidenced by that goal-line sequence in Monday night's game.

Easterbrook mentions a similar concept in last week's TMQ in reference to Peyton Manning's playcalling for the Colts:

But here, TMQ thinks, is the real reason the Indianapolis attack is so hard to stop, generating 23 victories in its last 24 games: Manning is the sole NFL quarterback who calls his own plays. [Offensive coordinator] Tom Moore says he radios in "suggestions" to Manning, and he's not being cute. Many plays drawn up by Moore and Manning have multiple options -- any one of several things can happen, depending on the defense. When Manning comes to the line, he chooses which variation to use. Most of the time, Manning simply calls whatever he wants to call. Often several of the receivers are running "sight adjustments." They don't have a specific pattern called at the line -- rather, they run what seems likely to be open given the defensive set.

Having Manning call his own plays is extremely effective. Obviously, many quarterbacks lack his level of ability. But TMQ thinks the real reason more NFL quarterbacks don't call their own plays is coaching bureaucracy. The coaches want to be in control, and maintain their illusion of possessing super-ultra-secret insider knowledge. No mere player could call a down-and-out -- only coaches have that kind of skill! By not letting quarterbacks call their own plays, NFL teams concede an advantage to the Colts. Which, needless to say, is fine with the Colts.

There should be absolutely zero questions that Brad Childress thinks himself a god among coaching and openly bristles at the notion that a mere player -- even one was experienced as Brett Favre -- could possibly call a game even remotely as well as he could. I don't think that Favre should call everything, but in key situations, he should be given more control than Childress is almost certainly willing to give.

Whatever the reason for the Vikings' troubles of late, I don't believe it has anything to do with Brett Favre's ego or lack of ability (but don't tell that to ESPN, which on Tuesday morning applied the headline "Fading with Favre" to the highlights of the Monday night game). As crazy as it seems, Favre probably isn't the biggest egomaniac on the Vikings' sideline, and that's a little scary to think.

(Oh, and congratulations to the Vikings' eight Pro Bowlers. The Pro Bowl -- now with extra meaninglessness!)

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

A tale of two halves

I was thinking about the Tennessee Titans last night.

The phrase people used to describe the Titans during their second-half resurgence this season was that they'd "dug a hole" so deep at the start of the season by going 0-6 that even their remarkable 7-2 run since wouldn't be enough to get them into the playoffs.

By that same measure, the Minnesota Vikings dug themselves into a hole in the first half Monday night by playing the worst half of football I'd seen them play all year. Offense, defense, special teams -- absolutely nothing worked for the entire half, in which the team could only manage about 100 yards on offense while allowing the Bears to march up and down the field. At that point I was already thinking of making plans for the third weekend in January, since I knew I wouldn't be watching the Vikings in the playoffs' second week.

Then came the second half. Somehow, the team that had sleepwalked through the last month or so was replaced with the team that we'd seen during the seasons first three months. That team featured Adrian Peterson running free, Brett Favre zinging passes downfield, and Sidney Rice catching everything. That team scored 30 points in the half. That team looked like a playoff-caliber team. That team looked unstoppable, at least on offense.

The special teams, unfortunately, looked also like a throwback -- a throwback to the 2008 unit. A missed extra point and poor kick coverage allowed the Bears to get back into the game but, oddly, when the Vikings got the ball back with five minutes left to go and needing a touchdown to tie the game, I felt something I hadn't felt in a long time: confidence. Of course Brett Favre was going to lead the team down for a game-tying touchdown. It's what he does. And waiting until fourth down with 16 seconds left to go to do it? Brilliant.

Then came the final stanza. Would we see the first-half Vikings or the second-half Vikings? I didn't know if I should be confident or pessimistic. I figured there was an equal chance of both and, unfortunately, we got the latter. The Bears were in field goal range immediately and it only took a miracle for them not to score on their opening drive. Then, just when I thought a healthy dose of Adrian Peterson would be just what the doctor ordered in OT, it was pass, sack, sack, punt. The next time, the Vikings got the ball to AP for the first time in the extra period, only to have him cough it up yet again and hand the Bears the win.

Certainly, there's more blame to go around to just lump it all on Peterson. The special teams, as mentioned, were horrible. (A bobbled snap and a 15-yard punt? Really, Chris Kluwe?) The announcing team mentioned that Antoine Winfield could be beat one-on-one downfield, which the Bears took full advantage of on the game's last play. And, other than one good tackle, Jaspar Brinkley again looked like a poor replacement for EJ Henderson. And then there was that offensive line that played in the first half, which was definitely not the same five guys who played in the second. I refuse to believe it.

Yet strangely, despite the loss and the fact that the Vikings now need help from Dallas to get a first-round bye, I feel strangely confident. That second half showed me that the team can actually look and play like a good team again, something I didn't think possible after the last few weeks. Yes, they're still fading down the stretch, but they showed at least a little something to give me hope. Maybe it's a false hope, as often is the case with Minnesota Vikings teams, but I'll cling to it for a little while longer. It's all I've got right now.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Random pregame thought

I hope Brett Favre throws for 6 touchdowns tonight. Not just because I want the Vikings to win or that I particularly like the guy but, man, the media's pounced on this whole Favre-vs.-Brad Childress "storyline" like a mother bear pouncing on a hunter endangering her cubs. Only I think the bear-mauling would be less painful (and over much quicker).

Vikings get late Christmas present

With the Saints improbably losing to the Bucs on Sunday, the Vikings are suddenly alive for the #1 seed in the NFC again. On the even brighter side, if the Bucs could travel to the Superdome and beat the Saints, I don't feel too bad about the Vikings' chances to do the same, so a #2 seed would also be a nice consolation prize. In any case, if the Vikings can nail down that #2 seed (or better), it guarantees that the only outdoor game they might be playing January will be in Miami for the Super Bowl. Now if only Denver could have come through and beaten the Eagles, our weekend would have been complete...

Oh right, except for that pesky detail of beating the Bears tonight.

The down side to the wacky weekend? It guarantees that Brett Favre will get no rest, as both the Vikings' remaining regular-season games will have impact for the team. To which I say: fine. Every game is expected to be meaningful, and a quarterback is expected to play all 16 games in a season. If the quarterback can't play a full season, then that's a negative that needs to addressed. In a sense, I've found it a trifle odd that everyone was so concerned about Favre's durability this year. I mean, the guy's only probably the most durable player ever. But if part of his playing well was supposed to entail him getting rest at the end of the season, well, most teams don't have the luxury of resting their starters at the end of the year; in fact, apart from the Colts, the only teams that can do that now are making vacation plans for January. Favre's been excellent, but if we only rented a three-month quarterback, then maybe we should have made other plans. At least he'll (probably) get a week off before his first postseason game in purple.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

About that Viking who always fades in December

No, not Brett Favre. Here are Adrian Peterson's yards per carry by month:


I think that a part of AP's issues might come from his oversized offensive line being out of shape by the end of the season. And it is only a three-year trend, so maybe it doesn't mean anything (and he was still pretty good in December of '08, even though his 4.8 YPC was the second-lowest in any month that season). But it's been brought up a few times that AP's "violent" running style might shorten his career -- could be that it shortens the period that he's useful in any given season.

* Next, I'll talk about the Vikings' head coach. And I'll also bring up Brad Childress.

How anyone could be surprised that Brett Favre is running the show, or at least thinks he's running the show, is beyond me. Over the Vikings' months-long courtship of Favre, several "deadlines" were set and just as many were missed. Hint: A deadline doesn't mean anything if you don't enforce it. Favre was able to come in when he wanted and how he wanted, which likely bore only passing resemblance to when and how the Vikings wanted him. He set his own deadlines and made the decisions that best suited him, not the team. This notion of Favre being his own boss was fine so long as the team was winning, but now that there's a rough patch, suddenly everyone is shocked and amazed that there's a "power struggle" behind the scenes. As far as I'm concerned, there is no "struggle"; Brett Favre's been in control since day one, and that's unlikely to change.

All of which brings up the question of whether this is a good thing or a bad thing. On the one hand, you have the self-serving "diva" of a quarterback; on the other, it's the smug and arrogant head coach who's accomplished very little but has been richly rewarded. I'm not sure who I want to be on top of that pyramid.

But in the end, winning cures all ills. If the Vikings finish strong and have a strong playoff run, then all this talk of a "power struggle" will go away. If the team loses to the Bears and/or Giants and then gets bounced out of the playoffs in the first round, then things will get even uglier.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Theory #287 why the Vikings can't run the ball

Our offensive linemen are too big.

You'll hear it at least once per broadcast, the announcers' open astonishment at the mammoth sizes of Minnesota's tackles. Bryant McKinnie is 6'8", 335 lbs. Phil Loadholt is 6'8", 343 lbs. Toss in Steve Hutchinson (6'5", 313), John Sullivan (6'4", 301), and Anthony Herrera (6'2", 315) and that's an average of 6'5 1/2" and 321 pounds per lineman -- and that' s not taking Artis Hicks' 6'4", 335 lbs. into account. Guys this big should be able to move mountains or, failing that, defensive lineman.

But they're not. And it took this video for me to figure out why.

Chris Johnson is having a spectacular year. Talent-wise, you'd have to think Adrian Peterson is at least on par with him -- perhaps a little slower, but also a little stronger. But where Peterson is struggling, Johnson is thriving. Watch the play that starts at the 0:58 mark. Johnson takes a screen pass and starts running downfield with the ball. Admittedly, he doesn't turn on the jets right away (as he shouldn't), but even so, two of his lineman run downfield with him for about 30 yards! For the record, that's #54 Eugene Amano (6'3", 310 lbs.) and #68 Kevin Mawae (6'4", 289 lbs.) running with him.

Now, name any of the Vikings' linemen -- much less two -- who could even remotely run downfield with Adrian Peterson. (Maybe this is why we don't call may screen passes.) Granted, Kevin Mawae's a future Hall-of-Famer, but, along with Amano (LG) and Mawae (C), the Titans starters include LT Michael Roos (315 lbs.), RG Jake Scott (295 lbs.), and RT David Stewart (318 lbs.). That's an average of 305 lbs. per lineman, or about 16 pounds lighter per player than the Vikings' line. And not only is Chris Johnson on his way to 2,000 yards, but Titans quarterbacks have only been sacked 14 times this year (and only 12 times last year), fewer than half of the 31 sacks Brett Favre has endured in 2009. All this with a line whose heaviest member (Stewart) would be about two missed meals away from being the second-lightest member of the Vikings' line.

I'm no offensive line coach, but I'm thinking it's true that bigger isn't always better. Clearly, there have been some huge lineman, tackles in particular, who have had very long and productive careers (Johnathan Ogden comes to mind), but once you tip the scales over 330 or so, you might be treading a fine line between power and agility. And even the biggest offensive lineman needs agility to react to blitzing linebackers and to move the pile downfield.

Or at least not to get completely owned by Julius Peppers for 60 minutes.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Mauled by Panthers

It's probably just as well that I didn't go to see the Vikings game last night.

In a game riddled with mistakes, misplays, and poor decisions all around, the Vikings played probably their worst game of the season in a 26-7 loss to the Carolina Panthers. It's no longer a fluke, either: The Vikings officially cannot run the football, and while there are many theories, I think it still starts with the offensive line play. Compare the "holes" Adrian Peterson had to run through last night against an injury-depleted Carolina defensive line to the wide gaps Jonathan Stewart had against the vaunted, all-Pro-studded defense of the Vikings. "Run the ball and stop the run" is a tired old adage, but if it has any value, it's clear that the Vikings can no longer do either, which leaves them one-dimensional on offense and vulnerable on defense.

That one dimension on offense is still pretty good, at least when Brett Favre can find time to throw the ball. Other teams (minus the Packers) have figured out that they need to double-team Jared Allen on every play, but the Vikings were seemingly unable to come to the same conclusion regarding Julius Peppers. Peppers was usually matched up against the rookie Phil Loadholt or, even worse, against Artis Hicks, with little to no help from a guard or running back, and the results were predictable. Even so, Favre and the Vikings can't win by passing every down, but unless they solve what's wrong with the running game, they'll have to.

Then there's the defense, which is no longer the stout run-defense unit that we're used to seeing, giving up 100+ yards on the ground each of the last three games. Jaspar Brinkley has shown that he can read the play and shoot the gap. Now, if he could only wrap up and make the tackle, he might actually be a good player, but in the meantime, the team will continue to miss EJ Henderson. Also, while it may seem shocking to some, a fat 37-year-old defensive tackle isn't playing so great. Or, as I say a year ago:

As for Pat Williams, he ideally only plays on "35 to 40" plays per game, or about half the team's defensive snaps. 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.

Apparently, the Vikings believe in "keeping a guy one year too late" instead of getting rid of him "one year too soon." Oh, and I hate Steve Smith.

The #1 seed, briefly dangled in front of our eyes, is now just a distant dream that relies on a confluence of miracles to achieve. The #2 seed, once ours for the taking, is now dangerously close to being yanked away from us. And any hopes of resting Brett Favre are all but dashed unless the Eagles misstep next week against Denver.

And just to top off the crappy weekend, I got bounced out of the playoffs of one of my fantasy leagues last week and out of my other league's this week. Great time to have your worst game of the season, Drew Brees!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

A distinct lack of Flair

I am such a wimp.

The forecast for Sunday in Charlotte is low of 25 and high of 42. Now, being the good, hardy Minnesota boy that I am, 25 degrees above zero doesn't frighten me. Heck, 25 degrees below zero doesn't frighten me either -- I've gone out in that and worse than that.

But here's the deal. I could go to the Panthers game on Sunday. I know a season ticket holder who's willing to sell me his. So, I could go and watch the Vikings in person, which would entail:

1) A good deal of money spent on the tickets
2) A good deal of money spent on parking and potentially food
3) Sitting on my butt in near- or below-freezing weather for 3-4 hours at night (As everyone knows, the way to deal with cold weather is to keep moving; I was fine walking to school in subzero temps as a teenager but the 15 seconds I had to stop for traffic were excruciating.)
4) Dealing with downtown Charlotte traffic
5) Rooting for my team in a hostile environment; and
6) Probably not getting home until around midnight

All that is weighted against sitting at home and watching a game in the comfort of my own home on national TV. It's really not that hard a decision once you get right down to it. If this game were an afternoon game in October or something, I'd probably be all over it. (I might have been able to get out to the game the last time the Vikings played in Charlotte, in which case, I could have witnessed this infamous game, in which Chris Gamble effectively ended Daunte Culpepper's career and Steve Smith effectively ended Fred Smoot's relevance.)

So, I think I'll go ahead and enjoy this one at home, even if it means missing out on the Ric Flair safety video I saw the last time I went to a Panthers game (a preseason Panthers/Steelers game in 2006); I couldn't find it online, so you'll have to settle with a fan's video of the Nature Boy celebrating a Carolina Panthers goal.


Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Thank you, 49ers

The 49ers gave the Vikings a nice holiday gift this year, in the form of a 24-9 whipping of the Arizona Cardinals. To be fair, the Cards beat themselves, making seven turnovers and making me more confident that, apart from New Orleans and maybe Philadelphia (which just frightens me based on last year), I don't think there's an NFC team the Vikings can't handle, and handle fairly easily at home once the playoffs start. (More on the Vikings' playoff potential seeding at the end of this post.)

Around this time of year, once teams start clinching home-field advantage and other playoff positioning, the inevitably tired conversations pop up about whether teams should rest their players or keep playing hard. This year, with two 13-0 teams, the talk is even more spirited. There are, in effect, four possible outcomes, and three of them are bad:

Team rests its starters:
A) They then win their first playoff game -- Good call, coach, they needed the rest!
B) They lose their first playoff game -- Coach, you were too soft on them!

Team doesn't rest its starters:
A) There's a crucial injury in a "meaningless" game -- What were you thinking playing that guy?
B) There are no injuries -- Whew, we got away with that one!

Remember when the Patriots were 15-0 a few years ago and played all-out in that Saturday game against the Giants? What if Tom Brady or Randy Moss would have been injured during that game? It would have gone down at Bill Belichick's second-worst decision ever (after the 4th and 2 this year, of course).

There are simply so many variables that can happen during a game or games that any talk ascribing any particular meaning or consequences to whether guys play or not during their "meaningless" games is just that -- talk. No matter how it's approached, if something bad happens, it will be because the coach played guys he shouldn't have or didn't give them enough rest.

I especially "love" the argument that guys need to keep playing to stay sharp and if they lose in the first round (result B from above), it was because they got too much rest at the end of the season. Consider this: Suppose that Peyton Manning was hurt in, say, week 8. We'll assume it's a type of injury that wouldn't be expected to linger or otherwise affect his football performance when he comes back, say a poke in the eye or a concussion (which I realize is bad, but once you recover from it, it doesn't generally hamper you like, say, a dislocated shoulder or broken leg). When he comes back in, say, week 12, everybody expects him to be at full strength and to play like he always did. Even Peyton himself, who's been able to work out this entire time and still do pretty much everything expected of him except get out on the field, would think that he'll be perfectly fine when he comes back. And he probably will. If he's a little off or has a bad game, hardly anyone would attribute it to rust or other consequences of missing three weeks.

Ah, but now it's week 15 of the regular season. If Peyton misses the next three games -- strictly on a voluntary basis -- and the Colts lay an egg in their playoff game, it'll be because they "took those three games off," and that will be the beginning and the end of the discussion as to why the team lost. Never mind that most teams that do rest their starters do so because they're good teams that have secured a high seed and have the ability to rest them and usually progress far in the playoffs. It's only the failures that we notice and that we try to ascribe some higher meaning to, other than, "The other team was better."

All of which brings us back to the Vikings. If they can beat Carolina next week and if Philadelphia loses either of its next two games, and the Saints can somehow find a way past Dallas and Tampa Bay at home, then, by the time the Vikings take the field against Chicago on Monday night in 13 days, the NFC standings would look like this:

1) New Orleans: 15-0
2) Minnesota: 12-2
3) Philadelphia: 10-5

No other team in the conference could be better than 10-5 except the Packers, who could be 11-4, but the Vikings would still hold tiebreak over them in the division. Thus, the Vikings would be locked into the #2 seed, with two games left to play, thus allowing them to give vital rest to Brett Favre -- who will probably play enough to keep his streak going -- Adrian Peterson, and other vital members of the team. And if that makes the team go 12-4 and keeps everyone fresh for the playoffs, I'm all for it.

If the Saints lose two of their next three games, the Vikings could run the table and tie them at 14-2 and own a better conference record, thus winning the tiebreaker and securing the #1 seed. There's about zero chance the Saints lose to the Bucs at home in two weeks, so that would require them losing to Dallas at home and one the road against Carolina, an unlikely proposition.

But hey, it doesn't hurt to dream.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Vikes bounce back, bounce Bengals

That's how a team with championship aspirations bounces back from a tough loss against a playoff-caliber team at home!

(Can I just say, too, that I always appreciate the color combination when teams play each other. Dallas blue/silver versus Philadelphia green/white is nice. Green Bay green/gold versus Chicago blue/white is nice. Vikings purple/gold versus Cincinnati orange/black is hideous. I don't know why it bothered me so much.)

I know the Bengals' passing game isn't what it used to be, but limited Carson Palmer to 94 yards passing is sweet.

Adrian Peterson wasn't exactly explosive, and still only managed 3.7 yards per carry, but I'll definitely take it over last week's debacle.

The Vikings' 210 total net yards allowed was their second-lowest total this year, only exceeded by the Chicago game (169).

The last time the Vikings whupped the Bengals this badly in the Metrodome, Vikings' running backs coach Eric Bieniemy was in the building, but as a member of the opposition. As a side note, this was the only game of the 1998 season that I missed, as I was working that weekend. Somehow, I wasn't worried.

I'm still debating whether I want to go to the Panthers game next week. I probably have the chance to get a friend's season tickets, and the stadium is just a few miles down the road. But I'm weighing against it the fact that I'll be sitting at night in 40-ish degree weather for three-plus hours (I know, I know, I've become soft) when I could be sitting at home in relative comfort for a lot less money. If this game were in the afternoon in October, I'd go in a heartbeat. As it is, I'm iffy. Any suggestions?

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Around the Internet on Thursday

In keeping with a tradition on this blog of regurgitating other people's hard work and creativity on a Thursday (going back one whole week!), here's some of what I've been reading this week:

First, the professionals:

* ESPN's Greg Easterbrook had an interesting observation with regards to teams extending mediocre head coaches part of the way through their "breakout" season:

Halfway through his first season as Notre Dame coach, Charlie Weis had a 5-2 record and immediately was offered a 10-year contract extension containing guaranteed payments that the school and its athletic donors now regret. Less than halfway through the 2008 NFL season, Dick "Cheerio, Chaps" Jauron had a 5-1 record and immediately was offered a three-year contract extension containing guaranteed payments that Bills owner Ralph Wilson now regrets. What's going on here? Why grant coaches extensions when they are already under contract, only to fire them later and be stuck with paying off the rest of the deal?

What's going on is that the general manager or athletic director, by offering an extension when the team is winning, essentially says to the world, "I am a genius for picking this guy." Later, when the same coach becomes a flop, the same front office spins things as, "We gave him everything he wanted and he still failed -- this guy is a failure." The extensions are all about the athletic director's, or general manager's, ego.

He doesn't mention Brad Childress in the piece, but I'm sure every Viking fan who read it was thinking of him...

* Joe Posnanski tells us that Brett Favre can actually be honest, when he wants to. I'm still not sure that I'm buying it.

* ESPN's Kevin Seifert thinks the Vikings shouldn't panic after their loss to Arizona. I, for one, am trying to maintain an even keel. A loss at home to the Bengals, though, might send me over the edge...

And now, the talented amateurs:

* Earlier this week, I was thinking that it might behoove the Vikings to spend a little extra coin -- say, $3 million or so -- on a good nickel corner in the offseason. Vikings Gab then reminded me that, in a way, we're already doing that.

* PJD has some ideas for Chad Ochocinco's touchdown celebrations (which we hope he won't have a chance to use) this week.

* And Joe Fischer tells us that the Vikings should both panic (Arizona could beat us out for the #2 seed) and not panic (Super Bowl teams have often absorbed crushing defeats). That's just the kind of schizophrenic "Our team's good but we'll do our best find a way to be bad" thinking I expect from a fellow Vikings fan!

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

What's wrong with Adrian Peterson?

First, the caveats: I am not a running back, offensive lineman, coach, or even a waterboy, nor have I ever been. What follows are nothing more than observations from a somewhat informed and moderately intelligent (maybe) fan. But it doesn't take much intelligence to realize something has gone terribly wrong with the Vikings' running game for the past month and a half and that the Vikings' star running back has looked more like Adrian Murrell than Adrian Peterson over that span.

First, the numbers: In his first six games, AP accumulated 683 yards at 5.1 yards per carry. In his last six, he's managed just 485 yards and 3.9 per carry -- which doesn't sound too bad until you realize that 133 of those yards came in one game against Detroit (which actually has a surprisingly decent rushing defense this year). Take that one game out and AP has just 352 yards on 105 carries, a 3.4-yard average. That's a far cry from the 5.0 or so a carry we're used to seeing from him and has turned the Vikings into a badly one-dimensional team, which may have finally caught up with them in Arizona.

(Though I again doubt the "wisdom" that says Brett Favre had a bad game because the Cardinals were stopping the run and forcing him to pass a lot. If the Cards are playing eight in the box and stuffing the run, shouldn't that make it easier to pass? Again, the whole "good rushing game helps the passing game and vice versa" argument fails to pass the logic test. The lack of a running game may have forced the team into too many 3rd-and-longs, which would certainly have contributed to a poor passing performance, but that wouldn't explain how the team did on first and most second downs.)

Having watched the Vikings and their suddenly anemic running game over those six games, here are my (likely misguided) on what's wrong with the team and with Peterson himself:

The offensive line isn't opening up holes. Seems obvious enough, but why? How can a team with two road-graders at the tackle position and an all-world left guard suddenly not be able to block? Are John Sullivan and Anthony Herrera (or Artis Hicks) that bad?

I wouldn't say so, because no matter where the team is running, left, right, or center, the blocking is subpar. There's no push up the middle (When's the last time you say the Vikings' O-line move the line of scrimmage two or three yards downfield?) and outside runs are usually stopped before they can get started. Meanwhile, watch any big Chris Johnson run this year, and you'll see either a hole open up for him or a seal on the outside that allows him to turn the corner and run to daylight. Remember when we had an offensive line that could do that?

I don't know what the solution is, but this is one that's hard to pin on AP, at least. Or is it?

AP's slowing down. At least half a dozen times a game, it seems like AP gets just enough of a crease, starts striding downfield -- and then a tackler emerges from out of nowhere to get a piece of his leg or knock him down and he's limited to a three-yard gain. Again, maybe this is just my feeble observations or my expectation that he could do better, but these kind of plays seem to happen with frustrating regularity these days. If AP just had a little more juice or just could make a slight adjustment to his trajectory, he could avoid that tackler and rip off a big run. Clearly, at this stage of the season, every player is playing hurt, running backs especially, but maybe AP's got a little bit more of a hitch in his get-up than he'd like everyone to know and it's hurting his ability to make those sudden moves when he does have a hole to run through, however small. He's also getting caught from behind more times than I'd like to see. It's neat that he can run over William Gay, but is his physical running style costing him speed?

Cut the cutbacks. His TD run against the Lions notwithstanding, the cutback just hasn't been there for AP, but he keeps trying it anyway. It's a simple premise, really: If you stop running, the defense can catch up to you easier. I know that the line isn't opening up lanes for him to run through, but stopping and then trying to run in another direction where there isn't any room doesn't solve anything. I'd rather see AP run straight ahead into the line and hope that he can squirt through the other side or run over someone than cut back into another defender. And speaking of running straight ahead...

Stop running sideways. Going all the way back to the Steelers game, I was lamenting the stretch play every time it was run. The Vikings have stuck with it, though, to their detriment. It has all the potential of a pass to Naufahu Tahi, and usually can't even match the guaranteed three yards that play gets. In fact, I think this play has lost yardage more often than it's gained any. AP's lack of acceleration and the offensive line's inability to get out and throw blocks -- this isn't Matt Birk pulling from center any more -- have relegated his play to an automatic loss of down.

The next time the Tennessee Titans are on TV, watch how Chris Johnson runs and how his line blocks for him. It's amazing to see someone get that much open space, and I wonder how we can get back to that kind of rushing attack. I hope it happens over the next month or so, or else the Vikings will be in for yet another early preseason exit.

Monday, December 7, 2009


Well, that was ugly, on several levels.

* The Vikings' secondary without Antoine Winfield (and, arguably, with him) isn't good enough to shut down opposing passing games without a pass rush. Last night, Kurt Warner barely got a finger laid on him and the results were predictable. Nearly 300 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions, no sacks, and 8.9 yards per attempt. Toss in 4.5 yards per carry on 25 rushing attempts, and it's a wonder Arizona only put up 30 points. The announcers hyped the Minnesota defensive line, but it was the Arizona offensive line that clearly won the battle in the trenches.

* Meanwhile, Minnesota's offensive line continues to disappoint, again failing to open up any holes for Adrian Peterson, who was held to a season-low 19 yards on 13 carries. It seems like Peterson's good for one of these awful games every season (here's 2008's and 2007's), so hopefully he's got it out of his system, though I'm skeptical. I'll be writing more on AP's sudden collapse later this week.

* E.J. Henderson. Ouch, ouch, ouch. I watched the play where he sustained the injury but didn't see what happened to him. When they replayed it in slow motion, I had to turn away. This makes two season-ending injuries for E.J. in the last two years, and while we can always hope he'll come back next year and regain his form, he was a step down from his usual dominant self for most of the year, and it might be asking too much for him to come back from another devastating injury. The Vikings should definitely be thinking linebacker in the early rounds of the 2010 draft.

* Finally, Brett Favre had that kind of game we all thought he would have. Admittedly, it's hard to fault the guy when the team is so one-dimensional offensively and he has to air it out 45 times because the score is so lopsided. Still, he could have easily doubled his interception total, if Adrian Wilson had held on to a few more ill-advised attempts. Last week, I mused that Favre's low interception total wasn't just the result of luck and that he'd had only three or four of those "oh shit" kind of throws that should have been intercepted all season; he just about matched that total last night.

On the bright side, Dallas losing keeps the Vikings two games up in the fight for a #2 seed and first round bye, though we'll have to outpace Arizona, who now holds the tiebreak edge. New Orleans is virtually out of reach at this point, though they've shown vulnerability the last few weeks. Here's hoping Cincinnati isn't as good as their record indicates and that the 'dome crowd can help the Vikings get back on a winning track next week.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Visual stimulus

Why should I use all those big and complex words when I can entertain you with pictures -- some moving, some not?

From the college ranks: At least this guy didn't get called for a false start.

I know I've ragged on Pro-Football-Reference lately for their overabundance of advertising, but check out the Fantasy Minute video in the lower right of their home page. Bonus points if you can keep your eyes on the upper half of the video. HBWHOF, take note.

Purple Jesus Diaries
includes some lolVikes pictures at the end of this post. My contribution:

And finally, for old times' sake, the best call ever in the NFL.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Plusses and minuses of alternative stats

Warning: Shameless plug for a guy who says he likes my blog -- see, I can be bought for just a few kind words (dollars don't hurt, though)!

Looking over Luis's new QB rating system, as well as his article on the NY Times' Fifth Down, I like it and I get what it's saying but I find it -- I don't know, not confusing, per se, but complex. Which is, naturally, how any system to rank a quarterback is probably going to be, including both traditional passer rating and my system. But I tend to think of it as relatively simple. Is that because I made it myself and I'm intimately familiar with it? Without trying to sound boastful, I naturally think of my system is good, and not just because I spent hours coming up with it and think it's some sort of statistical masterpiece.

I feel that any new statistical measure, if it's going to achieve resonance with the masses, should be both 1) something the masses can compute with minimal effort and 2) something where they can get a concept of what the value means. By "something they can compute," I mean that it should be something the average fan could figure out, like third-down conversion rate in football or WHIP in baseball. My second point means that the value should have meaning; the fan should understand what they're looking at. Third-down conversion rate is just that, and needs no additional definition. So is WHIP; it's essentially how many baserunners a pitcher gives up in an average inning. Something like OPS is a little more squirrely, but if you know the component parts of it (OBP and SLG), you can say someone has a .900 OPS and get an idea that he probably has around a .400 OBP and .500 SLG, and you know what those mean.

Most quarterback rating systems fail the first test. Unless the formula is mind-bogglingly simple and involves very few variables, it's relatively indecipherable to the common fan. The second aspect -- comprehension of what the number means -- can be a little easier to wrangle. Traditional passer rating at least lets you think that a "100" is good, and people like round numbers. A lot of alternate QB systems (mine included) use some form of yards per attempt (including or not including sacks, interceptions, fumbles, TDs, and so on in some way) as their result and that, too, is something most people can grasp. (Passer rating has, I think, become mainstream simply because it was the first attempt to quantify the many aspects of a QB's stats.)

The other thing I tend to dislike about alternate statistical systems is any "imaginary" aspect, simply because, to me, it seems like mostly blind guesswork and highly subjective. Usually, these comes in the form of strength-of-schedule adjustments or, in the case of certain baseball stats like xFIP, what stats the player or team "would have" accumulated if he'd played with a league-average defense (or pitching staff or running game or whatever). Those are, IMHO, fun to look at, but are ultimately unreliable as definitive measures. I understand that Brett Favre's great numbers this season are due, in part, to his playing against a relatively weak schedule, but how good would he be against a league-average schedule? 95% as good? 80% as good? 71.6% as good. Nobody knows. It's just speculation, and I prefer to use "real" stats in my arguments, not guesses. If I can't tell where the numbers are coming from, the average fan probably can't either, and that's going to hurt the acceptance of any new stat. Any "imaginary" stat almost certainly fails point 1) (easy to compute) and 2) (understandability) -- and don't get me started on "intangibles."

This brings me to the subject of this post and something I almost always dislike seeing in any statistical system: negative numbers. They usually crop up in stats that try to say a player or team is better or worse than average and, in the process, fail both of my criteria for a stat that's "acceptable" to the masses:

1) Something the masses can compute. This may come as a surprise to us statheads, but, as someone who's comfortable with math and has had to work with people who aren't, the average joe has trouble working with negative numbers.

2) Something people can understand what it means. With very few exceptions (negative yardage comes to mind), all stats accumulate in the positive. What will someone understand better: that Adrian Peterson averages 4.7 yards per carry or that he averages +0.6 yards above average per carry? Both are true, but one is what actually happens in the game (he gains yardage) and one is just a stat (he gains more than the average back).

I might be wrong in all of this. Maybe the issues I have with "new" stats is just my issue and not something that most people have. The thing "we" -- meaning those of us who try to innovate with new stats and can understand how complex stats are computed -- sometimes get lost in our own heads and can't see how others wouldn't understand our glorious ideas. I'm not bashing anyone's stats, and I know my own ideas need refinement; rather, I'm typing all this because I think these are issues we'll all need to address if we want "our" stats to achieve widespread use. Maybe in a hundred years, passer rating, obtuse as it is, will fall out of vogue with football fans and some other system will supplant it as the standard by which quarterbacks are rated (wins notwithstanding). But it'll have to be something that's palatable not to statheads like us, but to Joe Six-pack.