Saturday, August 30, 2008

McKinnie suspended

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 29, 2008

Preseason wrap-up

Perhaps overlooked in the titanic struggle of the third-string quarterbacks in last night's preseason finale was another piece of news slightly more important to Vikings fans. Team owner Zygi Wilf has apparently rejected a plan from a Los Angeles business developer to move the team out west.

Now, if we can just get a new stadium built (indoor or outdoor) -- hey, I live in North Carolina, won't be my tax dollars funding it!

As for the game itself, John David Booty performed well enough to beat out Brooks Bollinger for the #3 QB spot. He would probably have needed to throw about five interceptions to lose out (or Bollinger to throw five touchdowns), but nothing's guaranteed until cuts come on Saturday. Expect Bollinger to be among those released.

Other than that, there were battles for a number of backup positions during the game. Like the Vikings, the Cowboys rested most of their starters, and, for the first time, the running game showed signs of life. Running back Albert Young, whose 42 carries in the preseason are 18 more than the next-highest total, managed 4.9 yards per attempt on 14 carries, but he's still a question mark to make the team considering their impressive depth at the position. Martin Nance and Aundrae Allison had nine and eight catches, respectively, in the preseason, and were the only Viking receivers to top 100 yards; they'll probably be the #4 and #5 receivers, putting Robert Ferguson's job in jeopardy.

On the defensive side, coaches were impressed with linemen Brian Robison and Otis Grigsby, who can provide valuable depth on defensive front; rookie defensive tackle Letroy Guion also had a sack. Benny Sapp, with eight tackles last night, probably will stick as a dime back. And how can you not love Chris Kluwe, booming it all night to the tune of a 44.9 yard average on nine punts?

Then there's Tarvaris Jackson. He missed his second straight game with his MCL injury, but was apparently "putting tension and weight on that knee" during warmups and showed no signs of a limp. Clearly, Vikings fans (not to mention Brad Childress) were hoping he'd get more time in the preseason to sharpen his skills, but, even for a young and relatively inexperienced QB like Jackson, any improvement he might have gained in preseason would likely have been minimal. He would have sat out last night's game, along with the rest of the starters. So, in effect, he missed about 2 1/2 quarters of action in the Pittsburgh game. Weigh that against the 12 games he started in 2007 and I think the impact of missing that action, against whatever experience he gained in 2007, is very slight. It's more important that he's healthy when the Vikings travel to Green Bay on the first Monday night of the season.

Tomorrow or Sunday, I'll look at the cuts, both for the Vikings and around the league, to see if there are any interesting stories. Next week, I'll do my annual (hey, I did it last year!) 2008 Season Predictions (ugh, how did that get all bolded?) and Vikings Outlook, as well as another little thing I'll be doing called "Prediction Accountability." And this year, I promise not to make (too much) fun of Jason Cole.

Do you smell that? It's football, and it's almost here!

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Booty vs. Bollinger

I could have come up with some witty subhead for "Booty vs. Bollinger," like "The Epic Struggle" or "This Time It's Personal" or "Who's Number Three?" In the end, though, the real subhead should probably be "Let's Just Hope Neither of Them Actually Plays Any Serious Role in '08."

Brad Childress will be resting all his starters, as well as backup QB Gus Frerotte and starter Tarvaris Jackson, for the preseason finale against Dallas. In their place, both Brooks Bollinger and John David Booty will be getting about a half of action in Friday's preseason finale, and it's a safe bet to say that the "loser" of this particular contest won't be wearing purple at this time next week.

I've said pretty much nothing good about Bollinger since he came to the Vikings. His one start came against the Packers in that 34-0 shellacking last year and, while it's true he didn't play very well in that game, he wasn't awful either, going 16-26 for 176 yards and one interception. His career 75.2 passer rating is OK for a backup, and he runs well, so it might seem that he's not as bad as I've made him out to be.

Bollinger's big weakness is his awful propensity to take a sack. For a player with his mobility, his sack % is absolutely hideous. Bollinger's been sacked on 11.8% of his dropbacks as a pro, including one in six dropbacks since joining the Vikings. Non-Bollinger QBs have been sacked on 7.3% of their dropbacks during that span. That's also worse than the league average (about 6.4% over the last two years), but when you look at the Vikings' QBs the last two years, from the old and immoble (Brad Johnson and Kelly Holcomb) to the young and inexperienced (Tarvaris Jackson), it's not quite as bad as it could be.

All that being said, there's little doubt that Bollinger has outplayed rookie John David Booty so far this preseason. While both men's raw passing numbers -- 8-17 for 71 yards for Bollinger against 14-26 for 110 yards for Booty -- are unimpressive, it's the ancillary numbers that give Bollinger an edge. He hasn't been intercepted and has been sacked only once, while Booty has thrown two picks and been dumped for a loss five times. It's a small sample size, and Booty is a rookie, but there's probably a reason why he lasted until the fifth round.

Given the Vikings' shaky QB situation, a lot of people, myself included, were hopeful that Booty would stick with the team out of camp and might even, if Tarvaris Jackson and Gus Frerotte were injured/ineffective, be able to step in and, at the very least, keep the Viking ship afloat. Not that you could have expected much from a rookie fifth-round pick, but there was some thought that, if Jackson didn't work out after this year, that Booty might be the long-term answer for the position. Now it's looking like he'll have to fight just for a roster spot.

The ultimate nightmare? In my mind, it's that Jackson flames out, Booty never makes anything of himself and Gus Frerotte and Brooks Bollinger continue being Gus Frerotte and Brooks Bollinger. Then, over in Green Bay, Aaron Rodgers can't get it done and the Packers turn to Brian Brohm -- whom the Vikings could have drafted with their second-round pick this April -- who leads them to multiple division titles and wins over the Vikings. Maybe it's a little -- OK, maybe it's a lot pessimistic -- but until we solidify our QB situation for the long term, it'll always be gnawing away at my brain. In the meantime, let's hope JDB can turn in a solid performance this week and avoid the waiver wire.

After all, our team used to have a Moon (Warren) and a Johnson (Brad) at quarterback...why not some Booty?

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Tuesday Potpurri

Also known as "I'm too lazy to come up with an original topic, so I'll clear out some of the old stories I've had bookmarked for a while."

* Ah, Daunte Culpepper. You've been so much fun to read about, at least since you fired your agent back in 2006 and chose to represent yourself. Since that incredible 2004 season with the Vikings, you've had major knee surgery and thrown 13 touchdowns and 20 interceptions with three different teams (Vikings, Dolphins, and Raiders). Your greatest accomplishment in that time? Setting the high score in the Madden two-minute drill.

Meanwhile, this offseason, you received offers from both the Packers and Steelers to be a backup quarterback. Your response? "I just was not willing to take the vet minimum and no guaranteed roster spot."

Guess what? You don't have a roster spot, guaranteed or otherwise right now. You're 5-17 as a starter since 2004. (I know, I know, starting QBs' winning record and all that, but this is one case where I'd rather have Tarvaris Jackson and his awesome 8-4 record as a starter in 2007.) In 2006, the Dolphins might have thought you had enough left in the tank; in 2007, the Raiders might have thought you'd rekindle some of that 2004 magic.

It's 2008 now. Take what you can get.

* Speaking of Jackson, he might play this week against Dallas. Or he might not. *yawn* Someone wake me up when the real season starts.

(Don't miss the last line of that article: "Metrodome workers used a device to "aerate" the FieldTurf in an effort to make the surface softer or fluffier for the preseason game last Saturday."

"Fluffy"? Coming in 2008 to the Metrodome: PillowTurftm!)

* I think Matthew Berry,'s fantasy football "guru," is questionable in his expertise and likes to make wild predictions for little to no reason. So, I'm going to track his list in this column -- or at least the ones I can verify (i.e., not #17 or #22) -- and see how many he gets right at the end of the season. Sadly, I think #25 is one of his less "out there" notions.

* Robert Smith as the new head of the NFLPA? He's undoubtedly a smart guy, but I think the other options just have more experience in such matters, so he's probably a long shot.

* Maybe it's a little harder to say after he saved the last two games of a four-game series against the Twins, but Francisco Rodriguez is probably the most overrated player in the majors -- and most likely to get a bloated contract in the offseason that his new team will regret. Don't believe me? Read this, this, and especially this, which indicates that he's really no better than any other closer.

* Finally, if you're looking for more good blogs about Minnesota sports, look no further than this page, which compiles the best of the web -- and my site -- for Twins, Vikings, Wild, and Gophers talk. It also has a list of Timberwolves links, but can anything good really be said about them?

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Defense as expected...

...offense, not so much.

Last night's 12-10 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers was a mixed bag of both good and bad. The defense held the first-unit Steelers to just six points on two field goals through two+ quarters. Kevin Williams and Ray Edwards each had a sack and starting running back Willie Parker was held to just 18 yards on 10 carries, while backup Rashard Mendenhall lost a fumble and Ben Roethlisberger managed just 65 yards on 17 pass attempts. Even the backups played surprisingly well against a seemingly rejuvenated Byron Leftwich, before bending just enough to allow the game-winning drive and field goal.

Then there was the offense. Which, led by Gus Frerotte, looked decent in the passing game (one horrible interception notwithstanding), with Aundrae Allison looking very good -- though Bernard Berrian being a nonfactor for the second straight game is troubling. Overall, though, if this team performs that well with the backup quarterback in the game against (for most of the game) one of the league's better defenses, it might be enough to win the division, and then some.

That is, if the running game can get on track. Again, I know it's preseason, but at some point, you have to look at least like you're remotely playing at full speed, and the running game thus far hasn't done that. The two-headed monster of Adrian Peterson and Chester Taylor has yet to manifest itself, and while it's true that they're playing against some pretty good first-team defenses (Pittsburgh, Baltimore, and Seattle all ranked in the top half of the league in rushing defense in 2007), you'd hope that there might be an occasional burst or flash of greatness, even if the overall numbers aren't very good.

Last night's nationally televised game was the first one I saw in full this preseason, and the running game was bottled up completely by the Steeler defense. In total, the Vikings carried 22 times for 32 yards, an abysmal 1.45 yards per carry, and here are the yards per carry averages for the Vikings top four running backs this preseason:

Peterson: 2.55
Taylor: 2.5
Hicks: 2.75
Young: 2.29

I don't know if it's the offensive line coming back down to earth -- because last year's 5.3 yards per carry is almost unsustainable -- or if the backs are not as good as we thought they were, but if the Vikings don't come out with a strong rushing performance against Dallas in the final preseason game -- whether it's by backups or starters -- I think it should officially be labeled a cause for concern.

Then again, it's tough to establish any flow to your rushing game when you're being penalized on every other play. The Vikings' first drive, which saw them backed up deep in their own territory by an inexcusable three false-start penalties, set the tone for the evening. I can recall at least one more such penalty by the Vikings during the game, and maybe there was another. Both teams were undisciplined, with the Vikings "beating" the Steelers with 10 penalties to 8. (The Steelers would have had 9 if the Vikings hadn't refused an illegal substitution call on an unsuccessful fourth-down try.) A friend I was watching the game with hinted that there was going to be some yelling in both teams' meetings on Monday. I countered by saying that the Vikings didn't need to show their offensive linemen any game film; they just needed to drill them on how to count.

Again, considering the team had a backup quarterback and was facing probably one of the better teams in the league, the overall effort wasn't too awful. But there are still some serious issues to be addressed, and they involve some of what the Vikings thought would be their strong points entering 2008: the offensive line and the running game. They've got one more week to get things straightened out because right now the most effective and reliable facet of our offense appears to be the play of Tarvaris Jackson. And that's a little frightening.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Dome, Sweet Dome

Since the only other Vikings stories right now seem to be Tarvaris Jackson's knee and Bernard Berrian's toe, let me try introducing a more juicy topic, sure to inspire some well-thought, rational debate:

The Vikings are better off playing their home games in the Metrodome than they would be playing them outdoors.

Yeah, nobody will argue with that, will they?

Let's start with a few simple facts, namely the pre-Dome and post-Dome Vikings' regular season winning percentages:

Outdoor Vikings (1961-1981).568.616.520
Indoor Vikings (1982-2007).534.644.424

The fact, that the "Indoor" Vikings have a better home winning percentage than the "Outdoor" Vikings is not, in itself, an indicator that the Metrodome is a better home field than an outdoor stadium would be. If Team A goes 12-4 with a 6-2 home record and Team B goes 8-8 with a 5-3 home record, it doesn't necessarily mean Team A has a better home field advantage; they're probably a better team, period, and play better than Team B at home, on the road, on Mars, or wherever.

On the other hand, what if Team B had the extreme case of going 8-0 at home and 0-8 on the road? Does that mean they're an awesome home team, even better than Team A? Or does it mean they're an awful road team? It's difficult to say, though it's probably a little of both.

This is, in a way, is what we face when comparing the two eras of Vikings play. The Outdoor Vikings were better overall (.568 to .534 winning percentage). Despite that, however, they had a worse home record than the Indoor Vikings (.616 to .644). What can we interpret from that?

Suppose we know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Team A is better than Team B. Now, suppose Team B has a better home record than Team A. This automatically means Team A must have a better road record than Team B (since A is better overall). From that, I can infer one, or possibly both of these things:

1) Team B has a bigger home field advantage than Team A; and/or
2) Team A is better at playing on the road than Team B

If the inverse of point #1 were true -- that Team A is a better home team than Team B -- then we would expect Team A to have a better home record than Team B, since they're better overall and better at home. Point #2 is probably correct, because A > B overall and A > B on the road.

Now, replace "Team A" with "Outdoor Vikings" and "Team B" with "Indoor Vikings." If playing outdoors was such an advantage for the clearly better team, why do they have a worse home record than the inferior team? If the Outdoor Vikings were a bad team, I could see them having a worse home record and still being better at home than the Indoor Vikings. But that's not the case here.

If you've read this far, you probably disagree with me, or at least did at the start of the post. Football is played by men! Indoor football in Minnesota is a travesty! The Metrodome makes Bud Grant weep! And of course it would be a huge advantage for the Vikings to play outdoors instead of cowering under a roof like sissies!

Not so fast.

Consider this: The Metrodome is an "active" home field advantage eight times a year. Last I heard, it was pretty loud in there and is definitely a hostile place to play, for all opponents. How many times a year would an outdoor stadium be a home field advantage for the Vikings? I'd say that maybe the last six games of the year -- from late November to (possibly) early January -- are the ones that are most likely to feature inclement winter weather. Half of those games, on average, will be at home, so that gives us three potential advantages. Toss in that the weather might not be bad or that we might be playing a team that's not "afraid" of the cold, like Green Bay or Chicago, and you get, I'd say, maybe 2.5 home games per year where we would have a definite advantage due to weather.

2.5 < 8

What about the playoffs, which are always in January, when it's cold? It's a small sample size, and you again have the "better team" question, but the Outdoor Vikings were 7-3 in home playoff games, and the Indoor Vikings are 5-3. Not exactly indicative, one way or the other.

And how great, really, is the home field advantage for "cold" teams? I don't have any numbers, but if a quarterback from Mississippi can be considered the best cold weather quarterback in history, how much of an adjustment can it really be for, say, a team from San Diego to play a team in Buffalo when there's snow on the ground? Players come from all around the nation and it's just as cold for the visitors as it is for the home team. Sure, LaDainian Tomlinson's from Texas, but Trent Edwards probably didn't face too many snowstorms growing up in the Bay Area of California, either. See also: Green Bay's home playoff performances this decade.

Now, what about the road issues? "Better team" arguments aside, it's hard to argue with a .520 vs. .424 winning percentage, and I'll say, with some confidence, that the Outdoor Vikings were a better road team than the Indoor Vikings. Maybe that is the result of their cushy dome, artificial turf, and lack of wind and rain. Perhaps, overall, the Vikings would be a better team if they ditched the dome. But the notion that the Minnesota cold is an insurmountable obstacle for visiting opponents is probably just part of Vikings nostalgia that bears only passing resemblance to reality.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

What's the backup plan?

So it looks like Tarvaris Jackson's sprained MCL won't be serious enough to make him miss any regular-season time, and he's even considering playing this week against Pittsburgh. I'd be against it, personally and let him rest up and, if needed, tune up in the final preseason game. Few starting quarterbacks need the practice more than Jackson, and missing the "best" preseason game would be a setback, but I'd rather see him fully healthy and ready to go for the regular season.

If Jackson can't go, it'll be up to Gus Frerotte to lead the team into Pittsburgh, and, while I've been harsh on Gus in the past, he's looked decent in the preseason. Take away his one hideous game from last year, a five-interception disaster against the Ravens, and his overall 2007 numbers aren't too awful. Plus, in his last full season with the starters, with the Dolphins in 2005, he passed for just shy of 3,000 yards (2,996) and 18 touchdowns against 13 interceptions.

But Frerotte is 37 years old, and the other two QBs are a rookie fifth-rounder (John David Booty) and an unimpressive journeyman (Brooks Bollinger). Jackson hasn't shown great durability; he missed four starts and parts of two other games in 2007 with injuries, and if he really is 6'2", 232 pounds, then Pat Williams is 317 pounds. In short, even if Jackson turns out to be a good quarterback, it would be unwise to expect him to be especially durable, making the question of who's going to back him up paramount to the team.

The short- and long-term answers to the backup question are probably Frerotte (who, at 37, is probably not that durable himself) and Booty. But when rosters are trimmed down following the third preseason games, the Vikings would be wise to scan the list of cut players to see if there's a quarterback out there who might fit their needs or work a trade involving a low-round draft pick. Perhaps Tampa Bay will part with Chris Simms or, when Charlie Batch returns to the Steelers, Byron Leftwich might be available (and desirable, if he performs well). The three-headed quarterback monster in San Francisco consists of a former #1 pick (Alex Smith) and two former Vikings (J.T. O'Sullivan and Shaun Hill), none of which I'd want as my long-term starter, but any of which would be decent fill-ins.

Whatever the case, I fear that, even if his MCL heals, Tarvaris Jackson won't start 16 games this year. His lean body and running play style probably don't bode well for his long-term health. The Vikings have two starting-caliber running backs, but they'd be wise to have to starting-caliber quarterbacks, too.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Vikings win, but Jackson nicked

OK, so it's not exactly the same as Tom Brady missing a game tonight with a foot injury or Peyton Manning's knee surgery. But Tarvaris Jackson going down with a knee injury in the first quarter of last night's 23-15 win over Baltimore still isn't good news, especially when the depth chart behind him consists of Gus Frerotte, Brooks Bollinger, and John David Booty. Fortunately, it doesn't look like the injury is anything serious and coach Brad Childress said that Jackson probably could have stayed in the game if it had been important.

Now, it comes as no surprise that I'm no huge Tarvaris Jackson fan. But over the last few weeks, I've been mildly impressed by his performance in the preseason and, given the alternatives at the quarterback position, admit that he's the best option under center for the Vikings in 2008. Can he quarterback the team to a Super Bowl, as some (like Dr. Z) are saying? That still remains to be seen, but I'd still feel a whole lot better with him out there than a 37-year-old quarterback who threw 12 interceptions in 167 attempts last year.

(In fact, I've become so enamored, so to speak, with Jackson's performance that I'm not sure how to vote in the poll I've put up on the right side. I could see arguments to vote for all three men.)

If you missed the game, like me, you can see video highlights of it at Jackson's injury comes at about the 1:40 mark. It's not particularly gruesome and definitely looks like a relatively minor incident, but you never know how these things turn out. At most, it might keep him out of the next preseason game, and, by the looks of it, he's the Vikings QB who needs the least amount of tune-up work. Here are the numbers for Vikings QBs through the first two preseason games:


Jackson's passer rating through two games is an impressive 127.1, and while passer rating through two preseason games doesn't count for much, I'd rather have 127.1 than 27.1. Booty's definitely picking up the rear (ha!), and had a bad interception in last night's game that went the other way for six, but I'd still bet on him taking the #3 job away from Bollinger.

The defense also performed significantly better this week as compared to last, giving up 182 fewer yards (419 to 237) and notching five sacks and two interceptions, after scoring zero in both categories against Seattle. Jared Allen had two of the five Viking sacks, a nice sign even if it did come against the less-than-stellar Baltimore offense.

A cause for some concern, though, apart from Jackson's injury, is the relatively poor play of the running game. The Vikings "big two" of Adrian Peterson and Chester Taylor have managed just 60 yards on 18 carries through two games (a 3.3 average). I do worry that last year's great running game was fueled by a near-flukish performance by the offensive line and that the team could be in for a bit of a disappointment in that category this year. It won't get any easier next week against the typically tough Pittsburgh Steelers defense, but at least the game will be nationally televised on CBS, giving me (and the rest of you) no excuse not to watch.

Still, the regular season can't get here soon enough....

Friday, August 15, 2008

A baseball post

Because I haven't done one in a while and figured this would be the last chance I get for one until baseball is completely forgotten in the rush of football season.

Adam Dunn is undeniably a very good hitter, which is something people who can't look past batting average are unable to wrap their heads around. In lieu of his recent trade to the Diamondbacks and his impending free agency, many are saying he'll have to go to the AL to DH because of his fielding, which is oft described using terms that would make your mother blush.

But here's the thing: He's not that bad. In fact, he might actually be a good left fielder.

(Though I couldn't find any picture of him actually fielding or even wearing a glove. I like to think of the image to the right as having the caption, "Don't tell me another one of you idiots think I suck because I hit .247 for my career!")

Revized Zone Rating is a fielding stat that basically measures how often a fielder makes an out on a ball hit into his "zone." Make every play and you're a 1.000 fielder. Make 80% of them and you're .800. Seems simple and accurate enough; after all, it's a fielder's job to make outs. I believe it counts errors into its measure (as "non-outs") and a shortstop throwing to first for the out counts just the same as if he caught a line drive.

So, looking at qualifying left fielders in the majors this year, Dunn ranks fourth out of 12 players with a .899 rating. I think they're a little strict at determining the number of innings you need to qualify, but that's still pretty good. Expand it to all left fielders and Dunn would at least still be in the top half, if not top 10. Click on Dunn's name to pull up his player card and you'll see his LF RZRs the last three years are .878, .826, and .899. In other words, for the past three years, he's been no worse than an average left fielder, according to RZR.

Ah, but look at his earlier years: an abysmal .569 in 2004 and .595 in 2005. That'll get you a rep right quick for being an awful fielder. But if he's improved to being in the .800s now, why do people still think he's awful?

The answer is that nobody really knows how well anyone fields because there are no day-to-day statistical updates or easy, utterly impartial way to compute fielding aptitude. You can tell if a hitter went 1-4 or that he his hitting .325 for the season or has a 3.48 ERA. Those numbers are recorded, double-checked, and easily verified. But could you tell me a hitter's batting average if it wasn't computed for you and if you didn't keep records of it, except in your head? Even if you watched him every day, could you tell me how many home runs Adam Dunn has hit this year? 20? 30? 40? You'd never know.

Fielding is the same way, and, because of that, once we have a notion of how a player is in the field, we tend to think players' fielding aptitude never changes. Unlike virtually every other aspect of baseball -- hitting, pitching, baserunning, and so on -- players are stuck with the label of "bad fielder" or "good fielder" early in their career, and it sticks forever, except occasionally in the case of a good fielder who is very obviously not good any more (like Barry Bonds late in his career). That's why a lot of the same players win Gold Gloves every year. Does the same player win the MVP -- which is largely determined by hitting prowess -- every year? If not, why should the same player be considered the best fielder every season? Look at the bottom of the AL center field RZR ratings. Bet that guy will get some Gold Glove votes this year (and maybe win it outright)?

I'll grant you that fielding stats are an inexact science, but if you look at the objective numbers pretty much anywhere for Adam Dunn (take a look at his RF9 compared to league average RF9 here), you'll find that he's, at the very least, not an embarrassment to the position and a smart team wouldn't immediately try to shoe-horn him into a DH position.

Which, of course, means the Twins would. If they wanted to sign him. Which they, in all likelihood, won't because he hits OMG .247. Oh, and he probably lacks team leadership and is poor at fundamentals. Who wants 40 HR a year from a guy who can't lay down a bunt?

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Breaking news!

Brett Favre went to the bathroom in a Jets facility for the first time today. ESPN will have reactions from local sportswriters on the 11:00 p.m. edition of FavreCenter, as well as a roundtable discussion on what it means for the Jets if Brett went #2 instead of #1. Stay tuned for more on this exciting development!

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Vikings lose a Williams

More important, I think, than how a team actually plays in preseason is whether they can survive the four-game schedule without suffering any significant injuries. When news came through that reserves Jayme Mitchell and Heath Farwell would miss each miss the entire 2008 season with injuries, it was a blow, but not a terribly serious one. More of a concern now is the neck injury suffered by safety Madeiu Williams, signed to a big free-agent deal in the offseason. The Star-Tribune says that Williams will miss about six weeks with the injury, which would eliminate the rest of his preseason and the first three games of the regular season. Second-round draft pick Tyrell Johnson, who may have been the best safety available in the draft, will take his place and could play reasonably well, but it's definitely going to be a step down, especially considering the Vikings' early schedule.

The team opens with with a game at Green Bay on Monday night, followed by Indianapolis and Carolina at home. There's little doubt that the Packers will try to establish the pass early in their season, to show fans they made the right decision in sticking with Aaron Rodgers, and the Colts, I hear, can throw the ball pretty well. That's two pass-heavy offenses the Vikings will have to face without their starting free safety.

Carolina's tougher to judge, since most of their quarterbacking in 2007 was done by people other than Jake Delhomme, who figures to be healthy and slingin' it again in 2008. If that weren't enough, the Minnesota game will also mark Steve Smith's return to the lineup following his two-game suspension for starting a brawl in Panthers camp. Remember the last time the Vikings faced a team welcoming back its star player from a two-game suspension to start the season? Jared Allen sure does, and Kelly Holcomb would like to forget it.

Even with Williams in the lineup, I would have probably given the Vikings a 2-1 record during that span. Carolina should be a win, and I would have had us beating Green Bay and losing to Indy. Williams is only one man (though I did rank him at #10 in my list of Top 20 Vikings for 2008), but his loss could be profound, especially considering the team's early schedule. At the very least, we'll get a good look at what Tyrell Johnson can do out of the gate. Hopefully, the results will be good.

Monday, August 11, 2008

The 2008 NFL and the Favorite Toy

Many moons ago, baseball stat guru Bill James created the Favorite Toy, a simple method of computing a player's potential final career stats and his chances of reaching certain milestones, like 3,000 hits, 500 home runs, or 300 wins. To put it simply, it takes the last three years of a player's career, weighing the most recent season more heavily than the second-most recent, which is weighed more heavily than the third-most recent. It's not strictly scientific -- it's called a "Toy," after all -- but it's a fun way to estimate future performance and minimizes the effect of one flukishly good or bad season on those estimates.

It's tougher to use such methodology for football players, given the vast differences in playing time, play calling, and any individual player's reliance on the performance of the rest of his team. But maybe it can give us some insight into overall team performance. Specifically, maybe it can help us predict the number of wins a team will have in the next season.

The formula for figuring out next season's win total is simple:

[(3 * wins from last year) + (2 * wins from two years ago) + (wins from three years ago)] / 6

Thus, last year's win total is weighed most heavily, but previous years' totals are also significant, thus lessening the impact of an unusually good (or bad) season. To test the accuracy of this method, I computed each team's estimated 2007 win total, using their 2006, 2005, and 2004 seasons. Rather than bore you with the whole chart, I'll use this summary chart to show how accurate it was:


"WinDiff" is the difference in wins from 2006 to 2007. "TeamsLY" is the actual number of teams with that difference in wins from 2006 to 2007. "TeamsFT" is the number of teams with that difference in wins between their predicted wins by the Favorite Toy method and their actual 2007 wins.

In other words, only one team -- the Buffalo Bills -- had the same record in 2007 that it did in 2006, and thus was 0 wins off. If you had tried to pick every team's record in 2007 based solely on their performance in 2006 -- which a lot of people tend to do -- you would have gotten one pick correct. You would have been off by one win 4 times, by two wins 9 times, and so on. (That's Baltimore, BTW, which lost 8 wins from its 2006 season.)

On the other hand, if you'd used the Favorite Toy to try and guess teams' wins, you would have been right on target 6 times, off by one win another 6 times, and off by two wins 4 times. I consider anything within two wins to be "close enough," so that means you would have been "close" on 16 or 32 teams.

Granted, that ain't saying much; any method that is right half the time is not much better than a coin flip. However, the FT was, overall, more accurate than the "last year" method, at least for the 2007 season: On average, the FT missed by 2.56 wins, compared to the LY missing by 3.25. I haven't run this for multiple years, so I don't know if it's always more accurate, but it's a nice start.

Also, for many of the teams that badly missed their FT estimate, you can find extenuating circumstances that help explain why they were so far off. Some teams had notable off-seasons, such as the Patriots (off by 4) acquiring Randy Moss or Atlanta's (4) Michael Vick debacle. Others had in-season reasons to explain their inaccuracies, either due to injury or ineffective key players, primarily quarterbacks -- like Chicago (4), St. Louis (4), Baltimore (5), or Miami (6) -- or, in a few cases, unexpectedly great play from the QB position -- as was the case with Green Bay (6), Cleveland (5), Dallas (4), and Arizona (3). In fact, nearly every team that missed their expected number of wins by the FT method had significantly better or worse play at quarterback than expected. While I'm not of the opinion that a great quarterback is absolutely essential to a team's success (and I better not be, being a Vikings fan this year), it seems that a QB performing markedly different from his expectations, for either good or bad, can have a profound impact on his team's successes.

(On a similar note, I thought yesterday, "What if Tarvaris Jackson is really good this year? Say, along the lines of 3,500 passing yards and 25 TDs?" A lot of people think we'll do well with a mediocre QB, but what if we had a really good one?)

Injuries and variances in play are virtually impossible to predict. In terms of notable off-seasons, I think the Packers, Jets -- both teams even before last week's trade -- and the Vikings had the most eventful. Still the Favorite Toy can't take that into account, so we're left with just the raw numbers from the previous three seasons' worth of games. I'll close today with the 2008 NFL standings, as predicted by the Favorite Toy, using the 2005-2007 standings:

New England142
NY Jets610



San Diego124
Kansas City79

NY Giants106

Green Bay106

Tampa Bay88
New Orleans79

San Francisco610
St. Louis511

Comment at will.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

At least it's only preseason

The plan was that I'd go over to a friend's house Friday night, watch the Steelers (his team) vs. Eagles game on NFL Network followed by the Vikings/Seahawks game afterwards, which we thought would begin at 10:30 Eastern.

Well, Vikings/Seahawks didn't start up until some time afterwards, and this was after I saw both the score and highlights from the game. It was already getting late, and I didn't really think I'd want to stick around to see the team get hammered 34-17, so my analysis, such as it is, will be based on those few highlights I saw and the written description and box score of the game. The evening wasn't a complete waste, about those opening ceremonies?

With 2/3 of the defense's Williams -- Pat and Madeiu -- taking the night off, Seattle had little trouble with the Vikings defense. Matt Hasselbeck only missed once on eight passes, and the first-team Seahawk offense drove down the field and scored twice, a touchdown and a field goal. You don't want to read too much into the first game of pre-season, so I'm not too panicky about the result, but even without Pat Williams, it's disappointing to see Maurice Morris average over 10 yards per carry. I think one of the least-talked-about Viking losses of the offseason was interior lineman Spencer Johnson moving to Buffalo. He provided quality depth at defensive tackle but clearly wasn't going to get a chance to start, so it was probably good move for him to seek employment elsewhere, but the Vikings will need to address its depth concerns along the line, especially considering Pat Williams' age (36 in October), weight, and recent injury issues.

Adrian Peterson sat the game out and Chester Taylor had just four carries, so it was up to the passing game to carry the offense. Surprisingly, it did quite well. Most of the Vikings highlights I saw centered around Bernard Berrian, who looked impressive on his two catches, and Tarvaris Jackson showed some zing in getting him the ball. Vikings QBs as a whole finished with 22/38 passing for 246 yards, one TD (Jackson to Thomas Tapeh) and one interception (John David Booty). Brooks Bollinger only attempted two passes, though it looks like he might have lost playing time to two lost fumbles early in third-quarter drives. In any case, he still looks to be the odd man out in the quarterback carousel.

Overall, the Vikings fumbled five times, losing four, but that's not too great a concern, as only one starter -- the vastly overpaid Visanthe Shiancoe -- coughed it up. And after kicking Mewelde Moore out the door and picking up Maurice Hicks as his ostensible special teams replacement, five different Vikings returned a kick or punt in the game -- none of them by Hicks. You get the feeling that if this team had Deion Sanders and Devin Hester, they wouldn't use either of them on kick returns?

On the bright side, the team committed only three penalties, compared to Seattle's nine and Guitar Hero god Chris Kluwe averaged 53.3 yards per punt. It wasn't a great performance, but considering the personnel the team was missing on the field, I'm not too concerned. The team travels to Baltimore next Saturday and then everybody should get a chance to see the team, especially the first-team offensive and defensive units, hit the field in a nationally televised game against the Steelers on CBS on Saturday the 23rd. You can bet I'll be at my Steeler friend's house for that one.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Final thoughts on Favre

At last, our long national nightmare is over. Though some will still lament Brett Favre trading the green-and-gold for the green-and-white, and, even if he throws 30 interceptions this year, will still believe the Packers would have been better off with him than with Aaron Rodgers, this is really a deal that benefits all three teams -- yes, three -- involved.

First of all, the Packers can close the door, fully and completely (until there's talk of the Hall of Fame and Ring of Honor and the like, a few years down the road) on the short-lived Favre/Rodgers QB controversy. As I alluded to in my last post, had the Packers taken Favre back and given him the starting job, that would have guaranteed that Rodgers left as a free agent following the 2008 season. That would have left the Packers with a QB who's not committed to playing past next year (Favre) and two second-year men (Brian Brohm and Matt Flynn), neither of whom were likely to see any action in 2008. If Favre did leave -- for good -- that would have likely put Brohm in the starter's seat. Instead, they now have a much better (though not 100%, one would think) chance of retaining Rodgers. And, say what you will about the Rodgers/Favre comparison, and I do think Brohm will be a pretty good QB, but given the choice between four-year veteran Rodgers (with some playing time) and one-year veteran Brohm (with no playing time), I'd pick Rodgers.

For the New York Jets, Favre represents a serious upgrade over Chad Pennington (who, reports say, will be released shortly) and Kellen Clemens, neither of whom have any real long-term value, unlike Rodgers and Brohm (and perhaps Flynn). Clemens won't represent any real threat to Favre's starting job, and, if Favre just gets the team to the playoffs, it will only cost them a second-round draft pick. And I think you might see a slight uptick in NY Jets merchandise sales over the next few weeks...

Finally, there's the third team "involved" in the Favre negotiations, and that's the Minnesota Vikings. It's no surprise that I'm not the biggest Tarvaris Jackson fan around, but I'll admit the kid's got at least some potential. Acquiring Favre would have ruined that potential, sending a clear message to Jackson that the team doesn't believe in his ability to lead the team -- which, considering how tenderly he's been handled by the coaching staff and how often they've gone out of their way to prop him up, shouldn't take much. In exchange, the Vikings would have gotten a quarterback who might play for one more year, maybe -- and I do mean maybe -- two, whose "me-first" attitude would not be what was needed on a team that prides itself on its running game and defense.

And here's the kicker -- Favre may not be that good in 2008. I know, I know, he's Brett #&^$ Favre, and I'm just being a sore Vikings fan by suggesting. But think about it: two years ago, after throwing 29 interceptions, Favre was "washed up." Last year, after throwing 18 TDs to 18 interceptions, Favre was "mediocre." Now, after his fine 2007, he's [pick your favorite: reborn, revitalized, back on the right track, ready to lead a team to the Super Bowl]. Basically, you're looking at a guy who's had one good season out of his last three and turns 39 in October. Would I want to sacrifice the future of my team's QB position for that? The Jets had no future at the position, so it makes sense for them to take a shot at it. The Vikings and the Packers are a different story.

My prediction for Favre in the Meadowlands: something in the vicinity of 3,500 yards, 24 TDs and 18 interceptions. Pretty good, and far better than Chad Pennington or Kellen Clemens could have hoped for -- and, for that matter, better probably than Tarvaris Jackson will do in 2008 -- but I wouldn't bet that he'll throw for more touchdowns in 2009 than I will.

Now, can we please talk about something else? ESPN, I'm looking at you.

(PS: Don't you love the "poison pill" the Packers put in the trade? If the Jets trade Favre to the Vikings, the Jets give the Packers three first-round draft picks. It's similar to the provisions made by the Vikings for the players they dealt to the Cowboys in the Herschel Walker trade, a stipulation Dallas dodged by arranging a three-team deal with the Patriots that shipped one of the players from Dallas to New England and then to Green Bay. If Favre still demonstrates that he's a valid QB in 2008, and for some reason the Jets don't want him, and Jackson falls flat on his face...well, don't rule out seeing Favre in purple just yet...)

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Quote of the day

I'm a country boy myself, and I've grown a little wary of Brett. I don't see him as a good ol' boy anymore. When I saw him getting off that private jet (Sunday), I thought that maybe he's sipped too much champagne and liked the taste of it. His self love is overwhelming, and that could turn off a lot of guys now.
-- John Riggins

I know that I'm turned off by seeing another guy do self-loving.

Now here's the wacky potential endgame to the Favre saga. Aaron Rodgers has been classy, but there can be no doubt that he's feeling confused and a little betrayed -- and I wouldn't be surprised if he and Favre were about as friendly right now as Latrell Sprewell and PJ Carlesimo (hooray, old NBA reference!).

So what if the Vikings did obtain via trade a disgruntled Packer quarterback who would love nothing more that to get a shot at his old team -- but not the one they may or may not have been asking about before?

Rodgers' rookie contract expires after this year. After all that's transpired, it seems unthinkable that he would want to remain in Green Bay. And the Packers drafted two quarterbacks (including Brian Brohm) in April, so it's not like they'll be left without options when Brett Favre waffles about returning next year (which he will). And even if you have complete faith in Tarvaris Jackson, wouldn't you prefer Rodgers as a backup to Gus Frerotte?

(And then, when the Vikings fire Brad Childress after the '08 season and lure Bill Cowher from his TV job....hey, it could happen!)

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Sunday statistics

We all know the Vikings heavily favored the run over the pass in 2007. With 2,634 yards on the ground and 2,745 through the air (which includes negative sack yardage), the team almost achieved something nearly unheard of in the modern-day, pass-happy NFL: more team rushing yards than passing yards. It was, in fact, a very real possibility much of the season, until the second-to-last game against Washington, in which the team threw for 212 yards while rushing for just 87.

So how rare is it these days for a team to run for more yards than it throws? And where do the 2007 Vikings rank? Here are the "bottom" 10 teams in "pass yardage minus rush yardage" over the last 10 years; in other words, a team that passes for 3,700 and runs for 1,500 would have a "pass minus rush" of 2,200:

2006Atlanta Falcons23712939-568
2003Baltimore Ravens22552674-419
2000Cincinnati Bengals19462314-368
2004Atlanta Falcons24122672-260
2005Chicago Bears20022099-97
2001Dallas Cowboys2218218434
2007Minnesota Vikings27452634111
2005Atlanta Falcons26792546133
2005San Francisco 49ers18981689209
2004Baltimore Ravens23122063249

There you have it. Out of 315 teams over the span from 1998 to 2007, only five (1.6%) have rushed for more yards than they have passed; the 2007 Vikings come in 7th on the list. Atlanta's presence on the top 10 list three times is obviously due to the presence of Michael Vick. Baltimore makes it twice thanks to Jamal Lewis and a typically inept passing attack. And look at the yardage totals of those 2005 49ers.

In fact, with the possible exception of Vick, the quarterbacks who led these teams reads like a horror show: Kyle Boller, Akili Smith, Kyle Orton, Quincy Carter, and Alex Smith. Poor Anthony Wright was a backup with both the 2001 Cowboys and 2003 Ravens.

And oh yeah, there's Tarvaris Jackson. For what it's worth, though, the Vikings have the highest passing-yardage total on this list of infamy, and you have to go down to the #14 team, the 2001 Pittsburgh Steelers, to find a higher number in the passing column.

For completeness's sake, here are the top 11 (you'll know why in a minute) teams in pass minus rush since 1998:

2000St. Louis Rams523218433389
2005Arizona Cardinals443711383299
2007New England Patriots473118492882
2007New Orleans Saints431414662848
2004Indianapolis Colts462318522771
2002St. Louis Rams415414052749
1999Chicago Bears413613872749
2006New Orleans Saints450317612742
2007Green Bay Packers433415972737
2002Oakland Raiders447517622713
2004Minnesota Vikings451618232693

Had to squeeze Daunte Culpepper's 2004 Vikings on the list! And yes, Virginia, the Bears did throw for 4,136 yards one year, though it took nearly equal contributions from three quarterbacks (the immortal Shane Matthews, Cade McNown, and Jim Miller), who threw for 1,645, 1,465, and 1,242 yards, respectively.

See, isn't math fun?

Friday, August 1, 2008

Vikings are raiders in free agency

It's hardly news to say that the Minnesota Vikings have been active in free agency this offseason. With free agents Bernard Berrian, Madieu Williams, and Thomas Tapeh and trade acquisition Jared Allen all wearing purple this year, the Vikings have made a bold statement that they plan to win not just now, but for years to come.

It was a little surprising to me, though, to see just how active the Vikings were in free agency this spring and summer and how much they raided other teams' rosters for their free agents, compared to other teams. Using ESPN's free agency tracker, I found out how many players each team signed and how many of those players came from other organizations:

NY Jets066100%
Tampa Bay4101471%
San Francisco471164%
Kansas City34757%
St. Louis561155%
New England771450%
NY Giants43743%
New Orleans961540%
Green Bay21333%
San Diego31425%

As you can see, the Minnesota Vikings got 82% of their free agents -- the third-highest figure in the league -- from other teams. Their total of nine free agents gained from other teams ranks fourth, behind only Miami, Carolina, and Tampa Bay. Obviously, this chart doesn't take rookie free agents, draft picks, and trades into account, but it does seem to confirm that the Vikings took a head-first dive into free agency this offseason, picking the best (or so we hope) from other teams' rosters and making them their own. Toss in the Jared Allen deal, which, even with the Adam Jones and Jason Taylor deals and the looming possibility of a Brett Favre trade, looks to be the most impactful long-term deal of the 2008 offseason, and it's hard not to say that the Vikings made the most noise, by far, in the offseason.

Now the question remains, will all that activity lead to success on the field? The Vikings have been far from quiet in free agency over the last several years, with Antoine Winfield, Fred Smoot, Darren Sharper, and Steve Hutchinson all moving north in recent years in big-time free-agent deals. Despite the loose purse strings, the team hasn't fared better than 9-7 under its last two head coaches and has only one playoff berth this decade. Many fans -- myself among them -- seem to think that this offseason spending spree will lead to bigger things for the team in the upcoming season, but until that success comes, there will always be the niggling shadow of doubt in the minds of Vikings' fans, harking back to the team's many missed opportunities over the team's first 47 seasons.