Tuesday, December 30, 2008

More receiver talk (OMG Steve Smith!)

I knew something was bugging me about my receivers post from last week, and I think I may have figured it out.

I mentioned that play calling and offensive scheme would have a lot to do with a receiver's total yardage, and that makes sense. A receiver on a team that throws 600 times will have more opportunities for catches and yardage than one who plays on a team that throws 500 times. So I decided to add that wrinkle to my receiver rankings. What follows is the list of the top 25 receivers in the NFL in 2008, ranked by receiving yards divided by team pass plays (pass attempts + sacks):

1Steve Smith14214343.27
2Roddy White13824513.06
3Andre Johnson15755872.68
4Calvin Johnson13315612.37
5Greg Jennings12925752.25
6Derrick Mason10374662.23
7Vincent Jackson10985032.18
8Larry Fitzgerald14316582.17
9Muhsin Muhammad9234342.13
10Antonio Bryant12485942.10
11Wes Welker11655822.00
12Brandon Marshall12656322.00
13Lee Evans10175171.97
14Bernard Berrian9644951.95
15Reggie Wayne11455991.91
16Santana Moss10445481.91
17Hines Ward10435551.88
18Tony Gonzalez10585781.83
19Terrell Owens10525781.82
20Dwayne Bowe10225781.77
21Donald Driver10125751.76
22Randy Moss10085821.73
23Michael Jenkins7774511.72
24Braylon Edwards8735121.71
25Zach Miller7784601.69

What more needs to be said about Steve Smith? Playing on the team with the fewest pass plays in the league (434), Smith was #3 overall in yardage (10 behind #2 Larry Fitzgerald) and is only one of two receivers to top the 3.00 mark, just ahead of Atlanta's Roddy White, who played for the team with the second-fewest pass plays. The actual leader in yardage, Andre Johnson, comes in third. Meanwhile, the only 1,000-yard receivers to not make the list, Anquan Boldin and Steve Breaston, both played for the pass-happy Cardinals and barely broke the 1,000-yard barrier; in that offense, even Troy Williamson might have managed 500 yards.

This system's got its obvious flaws. It doesn't count QB scrambles that start out as pass plays, and no receiver is on the field for every pass play. Technically, the ranking should be receiving yards divided by team pass plays when the receiver was in the game. I don't have any way of finding out that data, though, and it especially hurts guys like Boldin, who missed time due to injury and, unbelieveably, Steve Smith(!), who was suspended for his team's first two games. Seeing that the Panthers called 66 pass plays in those games and subtracting those from the team's 434 pass attempts, you can credit Smith with an astonishing 3.86 yards/TPP, or a full yard-plus better than every other receiver in the league but one! And living in Charlotte and having watched a good number of Panthers games this year, I'll tell you that covering the man makes no difference.

The only other thing I considered was whether using team passing yardage instead of team pass plays would be a better denominator, but I decided against it partially because I wanted something that "looked" more like a running back's yards per carry stat and a little like a receiver's yards per reception. Nobody rates running backs based on their rushing yardage as compared to their team's rushing yardage.

So again, you can take or leave this stat which says that, this year at least, Randy Moss wasn't much better than Zach Miller. But if Zach Miller's team had thrown another 122 passes, to get them even with Moss's squad, their final numbers might have wound up a lot closer.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Vikings prep for Eagles

The playoffs are upon us! For the first time in four seasons, the Vikings will be playing January football, and they'll have a chance to avenge their last playoff loss, a 27-14 second round loss to the Eagles after the 2004 season. In fact, the Vikings have never beaten the Donovan McNabb-led Eagles in four attempts. The last win over Gang Green came in 1997, when Ty Detmer threw for nearly 300 yards, but Brad Johnson threw for 3 TDs and Robert Smith ran for 125 and a TD in the 28-19 win.

Of course, none of that has anything to do with the current state of the Eagles or the Vikings, for that matter. But you'll probably hear several times this week that the Vikings haven't beaten the Eagles in 11 years, so why not let me be the first you hear it from?

As I was watching the Eagles/Cowboys play-in game yesterday (before it became a laugher), I said to myself, "I really hate the Cowboys and want them to miss the playoffs so the networks have a conniption, but the Eagles give me nightmares. Little pass-catching backs like Brian Westbrook always seem to kill us." Westbrook only had 92 combined yards (46 each rushing and receiving) in last year's 23-16 Eagles victory, but he accounted for both Philadelphia touchdowns. As has been the case throughout McNabb's tenure with the team, the Eagles lack a real #1 receiver, with rookie DeSean Jackson leading the team with 60 catches for 866 yards, and no receiver had more than 3 touchdowns through the air (Westbrook had 5). So, defensively, stopping Westbrook is key, since it'll be difficult to get pressure on Donovan McNabb, sacked just 3.9% of the time this season.

On offense....well, who knows what to expect? Adrian Peterson had exactly one good play Sunday against the Giants, his 67-yard touchdown run. Other than that, he managed just 37 yards on 20 carries and, BTW, had another fumble, after which I was begging for Brad Childress to bench him, at least for a series or two, and bring in Chester Taylor. Of course, that seemed foolish when Peterson ripped off his big run, but when all was said and done, Peterson's other 20 carries could have just as easily been partially doled out to Taylor, who had just four carries (and one catch) on the day. Peterson finished the year with 363 carries, second only to Michael Turner. I pondered a couple months ago that Peterson might be getting too many carries, strange as it may have sounded, and I fear we might be seeing the results.

As for Tarvaris Jackson and the passing game, I give him a "meh" on this game, which is still light-years better than the marks I was giving him a year ago. A few nice deep balls (against a bungling Giants secondary comprised greatly of backup players) was offset by a "That's the T-Jack I know and loathe" interception in the end zone that killed a promising drive. I know my opinion shifts probably more often than it should on a weekly basis, but I think the Vikings need to at least bring in another, non-fossilized quarterback (i.e., no more Gus Frerottes) to compete with Jackson in training camp or at least to provide a decent alternative in case he turns back into a pumpkin.

And what was with the clock management on the final drive of the game? Really. What...the...hell...was...that?

On the bright side, who knew that Maurice Hicks could actually be a good kick returner, at least for one game?

The Eagles hold pretty much every statistical edge on the Vikings going into next Sunday's playoff game. They scored more points. They allowed fewer points. They had more yards. They allowed fewer yards. They have a better turnover differential. They have fewer penalties.

But there's one thing they don't have: Chris Kluwe.

They don't stand a chance.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Division champs!

Bring on them Iggelz!

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Vikings vs. Giants: Sunday

Friend of mine: "If Brett Favre could quarterback the Dallas Cowboys against the New York Yankees, ESPN would explode."

I think they'd have to add constant breaks in the action to discuss LeBron James' contract status for when he becomes a free agent in 2010 for actual combustion.

* Eli Manning has two games in his career with four interceptions. Guess who they were against.

* If the Vikings beat the Giants on Sunday, they'll have as good a chance of anyone in the NFC of going to the Super Bowl. Why? Because they'll have beaten the other three divisional champions (New York, Carolina, and Arizona). And if Tampa Bay and Atlanta both make the playoffs, the Vikings will have played every other NFC playoff team (in addition to two from the AFC). And at the start of the season, everyone said Pittsburgh had the tough schedule...

* Adrian Peterson now leads the league in fumbles by running backs (8).

* Prior to this season, Tarvaris Jackson averaged one interception per 23 pass attempts. This season, he has one interception in 123 pass attempts.

* Only four teams have fewer pass attempts and five teams have fewer completions than the Vikings. But the Vikings are one of only six teams with four or more players with 40+ receptions (Visanthe Shiancoe, Bobby Wade, Bernard Berrian, and Chester Taylor).

* And the season may not yet be over, but that hasn't stopped Bartolis from already putting together a rough mock draft. Now that's dedication.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Rambling about receivers

This is the point where I should probably talk about how Green Bay found a way to screw over Minnesota fans one last time this season by failing to beat the Bears on Monday night. I could go over the various playoff possibilities for the Vikings, but they're so straightforward that everyone should already know them (we win or Chicago lose = we're in). I could bring up that the Giants have nothing to play for this weekend and so might rest some of their starters this weekend against Minnesota. Or I could...

Well, I think that pretty much sums it up, Viking-wise. And based on what we, as Viking fans are used to getting from our team when they're expected to do well, I'm not really in the mood for speculation at this time. For all that Chicago Cubs fans moan (and White Sox and Red Sox fans used to moan), you have to admit that the Vikings could lay a claim to most cursed team in professional sports. At least the Cubs have won a World Series, even if it was back in 1908.

No, instead of all that, I'm going to propose a theory that's probably not correct, that's not backed by any real research, but is just wacky enough that it might just be (somewhat) correct. It's a long ride, and it does get a bit rambly, so strap yourself in.

A friend and I were talking a few weeks ago about what stats "really" determines how good a football player is. It's 2008, and we all "know" that something as simple as passing yards or passing TDs, or even passer rating, doesn't tell us everything about how good a quarterback is. Nor does raw rushing yards tell us everything about a running back -- at some point, you have to figure yards per carry and probably receiving stats into the mix. Similarly, the best defensive player isn't just the one who accumulates the most sacks or tackles or interceptions.

Then we came to wide receivers. Who's the "leading receiver" in the NFL? What is "the stat" that determines how good a wide receiver is? After thinking about this for a while, I came up with a so-simple-it-can't-be-true answer:

Receiving yards. That's it. End of story.

Now, I know it's probably wrong, but hear me out. First of all, I understand that receiving yards for a receiver are heavily dependent on the rest of his team, especially his quarterback and the team's play calling. A WR playing for New England is going to get more yards than one playing for Minnesota. Fine. And I'm not taking into account downfield blocking or other intangibles like leadership -- this is strictly a question of "What's the best stat to measure wide receivers." But, all other things being equal, a guy with 1,500 receiving yards is more valuable than one with 1,200, regardless of number of receptions, touchdowns or anything else like that.

Here's how I came to that realization. First, I looked at the other main ways we usually rate wide receivers:

Receptions. Bad because it doesn't take into account the length of the pass. It's easier to rack up lots of catches when you're only running five-yard routes. Do you really think Mike Furrey (98 catches, 1,086 yards) was a great receiver in 2006?

Yards per reception. Apart from being a rate stat (which is subject to variations based on sample size), this has a lot of the same problems as receptions, but on the other side; it's way too dependent on the length of passes being thrown your way.

Touchdowns. Extremely volatile and only more dependant on field position than anything.

Third-down conversions. Similar to touchdowns in situational basis and only a factor less than one-third of the time. Plus, really, does anyone think the guy who leads in third-down conversions is the best receiver in the league?

OK, so now I've cast some negative light on other typical stats, but why focus on raw receiving yardage? After all, I said above that the league's leading rusher, yards-wise, shouldn't automatically be considered the best running back in the league. The best example of this is the 1989 NFL. Christian Okoye led the league that year with 1,480 rushing yards. Barry Sanders was #2 with 1,470.

But here's the rub: Okoye accumulated his yards in 370 carries. Sanders had exactly 100 fewer carries, 270. Does anyone doubt that if Barry Sanders gets another 100 carries, he somehow manages an extra 11 yards to pass Okoye?

So, let's come up with a similar situation using wide receivers. Suppose Jerry Rice has 1,480 yards on 100 catches. In the same season, Don Hutson (remember, this is fictitious!) has 1,470 yards on 90 catches. I immediately declare Rice better.

"But wait!" you say. "If Hutson had 10 more catches, surely he'd make up those 10 yards on Rice!" And I say you're correct. But -- and here's the big difference between a wide receiver and a running back -- why didn't Don Hutson get those 10 catches?

Again, we can point to the different teams, different personnel, different philosophy...yes, those are all important. But again, we'll make the wild assumption that Rice and Hutson played under essentially the same conditions. If the difference between Hutson's and Rice's stats were completely dependent on their ability and their ability alone, why do I declare Rice to be better?

And the answer is simple. If Hutson would have racked up bigger numbers by hauling in 10 more passes, the only reason he didn't catch those 10 passes was because he failed to catch them. Why did he fail? Maybe he ran a bad route. Maybe he didn't get open. Maybe he dropped them. Maybe he was hurt and missed a game or two.

Now, go back to our Okoye/Sanders comparison. When Detroit or Kansas City called a running play that year, they knew who was going to get the ball: Okoye or Sanders. There was no choice involved. Yes, Detroit's play calling resulted in 100 fewer attempts for Sanders, but when the call was made, it was his play, 100%.

Now, consider when my fictional San Francisco or Green Bay team calls a pass. The play might be designed to go to Rice or Hutson, but sometimes that player won't get the reception, for any of a number of reasons, mentioned above. And just catching the pass isn't all you're supposed to do, most of the time. Accumulating yardage (before or after the catch) is just as important. Just before a handoff to Barry Sanders, Rodney Peete didn't just up and decide, "You know, I think I'm not going to hand it to him. There's no hole in the line, so I'll pass it instead. Or maybe run it myself." (Then again, maybe the current Detroit Lions could use some creative play-calling like that.)

The point of an offensive player is to score touchdowns, and the way to do that is to advance the ball down the field (ideally to the end zone on every play). While a running back will automatically get the ball on plays called to him and even a quarterback will accumulate some stats (even if just an incompletion) on every passing play, a receiver's stats are never guaranteed. His ability to gain yardage is dependent, yes, on his teammates and the offensive scheme, but also on his ability to accumulate those stats.

I said earlier that I really don't think my analysis is completely and factually correct, but it's an interesting way to think a little crossways at a traditional issue. And it's nearly Christmas, so I feel like I can be a little wacky juse once a year. If you don't agree, then "Bah, humbug" to you.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

More one-liners

My week's still looking pretty lousy, and watching the Vikings "play" this week didn't make things any better.

Seven fumbles? Really?

Adrian Peterson's practice schedule for the next week:

8 a.m. to 1 p.m.: Work on not fumbling
1 p.m. to 2 p.m.: Lunch
2 p.m. to 6 p.m.: Work on not fumbling

Tuesday through Saturday
Same as Monday

"Man, I love it when _________ has the ball in his hands, he can really make things happen, but, boy, am I afraid of a turnover when ________'s got it!"

In week one, you would have filled in those blanks with "Adrian Peterson" and "Tarvaris Jackson." In week 16, you still would, but...

Speaking of which, did anyone else pick Visanthe Shiancoe as the team's late-season MVP?

Uh...that was PI against Sidney Rice at the end. Really, it was, to anyone possessing eyes.

I won the office picks league last week. This week, I have three games right so far out of 14 (New England, Miami, and Oakland).

Go Packers!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

One-liners for Thursday

Having a bit of a stressful week, so I'm going to take it easy with a series of short but sweet links and a dash of smarm for each:

Tarvaris Jackson will start this Sunday for the Vikings against the Falcons. Gus Frerotte, meanwhile, has signed an endorsement contract with LifeAlert. ("I've fallen, and I can't get up!")

Advanced NFL Stats thinks the Vikings have an 84% chance of winning the NFC North and an 8% chance of earning a first-round bye. It also puts the odds at Mike Singletary "dropping trou" again in 2008 at 18%.

NFL Hall-of-Famer "Slingin'" Sammy Baugh passed away, at the age of 94. Which is a shame, because I think he figured into the Vikings' 2009 QB plans.

68%. I'm not sure I believe it. Hell, I'm not even sure I disagree with it.

A fascinating study of the role of luck in the outcome of an NFL season, done by the guys at pro-football-reference two years ago (that I just stumbled upon). He simulated 10,000 NFL seasons and...well, read the several posts yourself. In this one, he simulates 2005 10,000 times, and an obvious flaw in his system is revealed: Somehow, the Vikings win the Super Bowl (which we know is impossible) 36 times.

And one non-football link:

The coolest Christmas present ever? This GPS that features the voice of the guy who voiced KITT in the original Knight Rider! You can set it to use your name or (my preference), leave it on the default setting of "Michael." Only thing that would be better would be a Patrick Stewart-voice GPS that, after it gives you directions, says, "Engage."

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Pat Williams hurt; and, first-round bye?

The news regarding Pat Williams' shoulder injury is not as bad as it could be, but it's also not great. Big #94 is expected to miss two to six weeks with a broken right scapula (shoulder), with recovery time expected to be about four weeks. That could put him back on defense by the second week of the playoffs, which could be the Vikings' first or second postseason game (more on this below), depending on how things shake out. Fred Evans will take over at defensive tackle with Williams out, with Ellis Wyms also seeing time.

As I've frequently noted, while Pat Williams is a big part (literally) of the defense, and he's a whole lot of fun to watch, I also think he's a big overrated, as he's a near non-factor against the passing game (when he's in the game at all), which teams tend to use a lot against the Vikings, sometimes to the complete exclusion of the passing game.

Now, I certainly agree that part of the reason for opponents' playcalling is because of Williams' presence, but I would have no problem sacrificing some of the Vikings' ability against the run if it meant improving the pass defense. Granted, this year, the pass defense has been notably better than in years past, and the improved pass rush, led by Jared Allen, has had a lot to do with that. The Vikings' last two games are against the best two rushing teams in the league, Atlanta and New York, but Michael Turner and Jerious Norwood aren't exactly between-the-tackles kinds of guys, and the Giants' Brandon Jacobs has a gimpy knee. The Vikings still have Allen and Kevin Williams on the line, along with Chad Greenway (who could be a dark-horse Pro Bowl candidate) and Ben Leber on the next level, so I don't think the Vikings' run defense will suffer too greatly with Williams sidelined.

The question is, though, what will Williams come back to? He's certainly out for the rest of the two-week regular season but might be available when and if the Vikings make the playoffs. And figuring out exactly where the Vikings will land in the NFC playoff picture is an interesting question, indeed.

Right now, the 9-5 Vikings hold on to the #3 seed in the playoffs. The 11-3 Giants and 11-3 Panthers will play for the #1 seed this Sunday night. For the Vikings to work their way into a first-round by, they would have to win both their remaining games and have one of the Giants or Panthers lose their last two. Both teams would then be at 11-5 -- and the Vikings would automatically hold the tiebreaker.

Sound improbable? Well, hang on. Assume the Vikings beat the Falcons at home this weekend, to improve to 10-5. Since the Giants and Panthers play each other, the loser of that game would be 11-4. If the Giants lose, they then have a trip to Minnesota in the last week of the season. That game would then become extremely important to both teams, as the winner would be the #2 seed (the Vikings would hold the tiebreaker, thanks to their victory over the Giants) and get a first-round bye.

If the Panthers lose instead, the Vikings can still clinch the #2 seed if they beat the Giants (who, with home field wrapped up, might have little to play for and rest their starters) and if Carolina loses its final game of the season at New Orleans. Both teams would then finish 11-5 and, thanks to the Vikings' 20-10 win over Carolina in week three, the Vikings would take the #2 seed.

In either situation, as long as the Vikings win this week, they'll win their division and be in the running for the #2 seed -- and might even have a chance to control their own destiny in playoff seeding. Who would have thought that after the team's awful start? Heck, I'm even optimistic that Tarvaris Jackson's looking like he'll make his second straight start this Sunday.

And the full moon was four days ago.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Vikes win Card game

OK, who all started Tarvaris Jackson in their fantasy league? Yeah, that's what I thought.

Exiled to the sports bar, the Vikings/Cardinals game was on the same TV as the Kansas City/San Diego game, which ran forever. I tuned in just in time to see a 3rd and 14 play (great) and see T-Jack drop back (uh-oh), heave a ball down the right sideline (going to be in the third row), which floats down to Bernard Berrian (great coverage, he'll never get it), who hauled it in (he'll go out of bounds), who then took it in for the touchdown (uhhh....).

What the hell do I know?

The game went pretty much exactly as I called it on Thursday, and Arizona was good enough to comply with our plans. The Cardinals completely ignored the run (seven called runs) while the Vikings played the pass and pressuring Kurt Warner (who was sacked four times and knocked down about 20 times) while running the ball down Arizona's throat all day long, to the tune of 44(!) runs for 239 yards. Adrian Peterson and Chester Taylor combined for 231 yards and a 6.1 yard-per-carry average.

What I didn't expect was the good performance by Tarvaris Jackson. I'm not completely ga-ga over four TD passes -- the passes to Taylor and Sidney Rice were nondescript enough -- but the other two were beautiful. The two TD passes to Berrian and Bobby Wade couldn't have been thrown any better and while they required a nice play by each receiver to go for six, those are passes T-Jack simply doesn't make last year (or earlier this season). Again, 11 for 17 for 163 yards aren't eye-popping numbers, but T-Jack played basically error-free football, the kind he needs to play if he's going to be the Vikings quarterback going forward.

And you know, that might not be a bad thing. Not if he plays like he has the last game and a half and the Vikings commit to the run while playing good defense. That's a recipe for "Uh oh, NFC, watch out for the Vikings."

Now the Vikings are in the catbird's seat with regards to the NFC North. At 9-5, they still own a one-game lead over the 8-6 Bears, but they also own the tiebreaker with the Bears. That means they will win the division unless the Vikings go 0-2 down the stretch and the Vikings go 2-0. I can't believe I'm saying this, but...

Go Pack, go! Beat those Bears!

In the larger picture, the Vikings are in good position to secure the #3 seed in the NFC, now holding a one-game advantage over the 8-6 NFC West champion Cardinals, as well as the head-to-head tiebreaker. And, if things break incredibly well -- if the Vikings finish 2-0 (11-5) and the Carolina Panthers finish 0-2 (to also go 11-5), the Vikings would own tiebreaker over the Panthers, thanks to their victory over Carolina earlier in the season.

But that's all a ways off. Right now, let's just revel in the fact that the Vikings went into Arizona and emerged with their playoff dreams intact. Take that, Nate Poole.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Bulldogs win Div. II Championship!

Congratulations to my alma mater, the University of Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs, champions of Division II college football in 2008!

The Bulldogs bested the SW Missouri State Bearcats, 21-14, in today's championship game, but the game wasn't nearly as close as it might have appeared. I only watched the second half, but based on the commentary and highlights from the first half, the Bulldogs dominated the Bearcats defensively, forcing four turnovers and notching six sacks. One of SWMS's touchdowns came on an interception return, and the other on a late desperation drive. SWMS actually outgained the Bulldogs, 301 yards to 272, but you wouldn't have known it by watching the game.

In winning the championship, the Bulldogs capped off a perfect 15-0 season (and remember, those big, tough, BCS schools can't possibly have a playoff because 14 or 15 games would just be too hard on them!). Their smallest margin of victory in the regular season was 17 points, but it was a lot closer in the playoffs, with victories of 20-10, 19-13 (in OT), and today's 21-14 win (along with a 45-7 blowout). All this came after just a four-win season in 2007. Meanwhile, SW Missouri State becomes the Buffalo Bills of college football, losing their fourth straight Div II championship game.

For those who don't know, the University of Minnesota-Duluth (or "UMD," and that's not the University of Maryland!) is a nearly entirely enclosed campus, meaning that most of the dorms and buildings of the campus are connected by tunnels. You can see it on this map; the gray area in the middle is the bulk of the campus, and it's entirely interconnected, and, unless they've changed things in the 12 years since I was last there, those dorms to the left (just below J2) are connected as well.

That's a big help in a town where the average low temperature in January is 1 degree above zero -- and it's usually below average, with plentiful snow. My freshman year, we had about 40 inches of snow on Halloween. That was a Thursday. Classes were cancelled on Friday but picked up as usual next week. Except to grab a delivered pizza, I didn't go outside until the next weekend, and I didn't have to in order to eat in the dinner hall of go to classes.

I can also remember winter days with regular temps of -30 wind chills of -60 to -70. The heat went out in my apartment one night around midnight. I called the office because this definitely qualified as an "emergency." I went to bed as the workers arrived to fix the problem. I wore sweats, jeans, a sweatshirt, jacket, hat, and gloves, and an extra blanket. Not a good night.

Then there's the story about picking vomit out of someone's car at 1 a.m. in -20 weather. But I won't go into that one. You're probably already cold.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

No suspensions!

The Williams boys (and the rest of the players involved in the StarCaps case) are clear, at least for the rest of the season:

In his ruling Thursday, U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson asked both parties to propose a schedule by Dec. 22 for further proceedings that would lead to an eventual hearing on the merits of the case, a process that could take months. The regular season ends Dec. 28.

Oh, and Visanthe Shiancoe has an offer to do porn. Thought you'd want to know.

T-Jack back in the saddle

It's official...Gus Frerotte will miss at least two weeks with a fractured bone in his back (ouch). That means Tarvaris Jackson will take over as the team's starting quarterback and, as mentioned before, that's not the end of the world. And there's a chance, however slight, that 12 weeks on the bench have improved T-Jack to the point where he won't be the same inaccurate, error-prone quarterback we've come to know and not love in his time with the club.

Certainly, his half of football against Detroit was promising. And yes, it was "just" the Lions, but it was the same defense that picked off Gus Frerotte twice in the first half and limited that Frerotte-led offense to just three points. If head coach Brad Childress sticks with a run-first game plan that mixes in short, high-percentage passes, Jackson could be a moderately effective quarterback, or at least effective enough to let the defense and running game get the job done.

Regardless of who plays quarterback, however, the bigger challenge against the Cardinals might be in stopping their potent offense, which leads the league in points scored. The Cardinals play right into the Vikings' weaknesses on defense. No team has thrown more passes than the Arizona Cardinals, and they're the only team in the league with fewer than 1,000 yards rushing and one of two with fewer than 300 rushes. They'll pass first and pass often, mixing in just a few runs. Both last week against Detroit and two weeks ago against Chicago, the Vikings frequently used a nickel package on first and second down and, even after seeing what passes for Benny Sapp's defense, I'd still rather have him on the field than Napoleon Harris against a heavy passing team like the Cardinals.

Still, regardless of how the defense plays, most of the attention will be directed at Tarvaris Jackson and how he performs against a relatively soft (23rd in points allowed) Cardinals D. The Cards are only 10th in yards allowed, though, which might lead one to believe that the offense tends to turn it over fairly often and give up a short field. Sure enough, Kurt Warner has 12 interceptions and nine fumbles. With all his pass attempts, though, Warner's only been sacked 20 times on the season, a very good 3.8% clip.

The worst-case scenario for the Vikings would be falling behind early and having to rely on the passing game and Tarvaris Jackson to beat the Cards. Jared Allen and the rest of the Vikings' D will need to get pressure on Warner to prevent him from finding receivers downfield, which could lead to a long day for the Purple and Tarvaris Jackson.

John David Booty
, anyone?

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Class is in session

Head coach Brad Childress says Gus Frerotte will start next week against Arizona if his back injury permits. It's unsurprising how much Childress praised Tarvaris Jackson's play Sunday against Detroit. But the last paragraph of the article is very surprising, at least to me:

Interestingly, Jackson's heroics came three days after he and Childress met face-to-face for their first in-depth discussion since the QB was benched.

So it's been 11 weeks since you pulled your starting QB, the man you couldn't say enough good things about in the off-season and whose ego you stroked for the better part of six months, and you couldn't even be bothered to talk directly to him until now? I've been hearing more and more about how few head coaches have an open-door policy and how they don't often communicate directly with their players (instead using position coaches as go-betweens). But shouldn't you at least be man enough to talk to your quarterback at some point over three months, especially after you've spent six months telling the world how great he is? Classy.

Meanwhile, for those who think the team is doomed without Gus Frerotte in the starting lineup, his passer rating for the season (73.7) is now lower than Jackson's (77.1). Grant's Tomb makes the valid point that T-Jack having a good half against an awful Detroit defense is different from his playing well against a good defense that's ready for him, and I think Jackson's accuracy is horrible, especially on deep balls, but, to his credit, he hasn't turned the ball over like Frerotte, with just one pick in 70 pass attempts. Yes, it's a small sample size, and he should have had a ball picked off in the Detroit game, but maybe by putting in a QB with whom he has less confidence, Brad Childress will ease up on the passing game and call more "safe" passes to running backs and tight ends. Five of T-Jack's eight completions were to RBs and TEs, including the touchdown to Visanthe Shiancoe, as Childress definitely seemed to go predominantly with low-risk passes once Jackson entered the game. And a low-risk passing game is just what the Vikings need right now.

* Speaking of Shiancoe...it's old news by now, but here's the best story you'll read about his penis all year (and the inevitable apology from Fox). Best quote: "How'd it look?" from Shiancoe himself. Classy.

I just hope author "MJD" is female, or at least gay, because the grading of "little Visanthe" as "clean and well-groomed...seven out of 10" is very disturbing otherwise.

* I don't really follow the NBA -- being from Minnesota and ostensibly a Timberwolves fan makes that easy, especially now that Kevin Garnett is gone and winning championships elsewhere -- but here's a great article comparing the Timberwolves front office to that of the Detroit Lions. Seems an apt comparison. This anecdote really, really makes you wonder what kind of penny-anty organization Kevin McHale and Glen Taylor are running:

McHale is a deserving, easy target, but this kind of dysfunction always begins and ends with ownership. Over the summer, the Chicago Bulls wanted to hire Timberwolves assistant coach Bob Ociepka for Vinny Del Negro’s staff. Ociepka had been raised in Chicago, had been a successful high school coach and had family there. He wanted to take the Bulls job. For low-level assistants, this is a common transaction. Everyone expected the Wolves to give the blessing and let Ociepka go. It was common courtesy.

Well, the Wolves were willing, but there was one condition, two league sources said: Management wanted five airline tickets as compensation. This way, the Wolves could interview replacements. No one had ever heard of such a low-rent, cheap move, but whatever. This is how Minnesota runs its operation. At all the wrong times the Wolves drive tough bargains.


Monday, December 8, 2008

A win's a win


Even when you beat the league's worst team by four points?

Even when you sweep a historically bad team by a total of six points in two games?


Yes, the Vikings did beat the Lions, sending the Motor City Kitties tumbling down to 0-13 in the process. And the Vikings went to 8-5 on the season, keeping a one-game division lead on the Chicago Bears. And hey, with the Packers losing and dropping to 5-8, that pretty much eliminates them from the playoffs. So it's a good day all around, right?

Well, yeah. I guess I'm happy. Then why don't I feel like it?

Probably because, at least in terms of the "visible" coaching, frequent scapegoat Brad Childress was fine. Play calling was fine, with 30 runs to 22 passes (and two kneeldowns). The defense had four sacks and three fumbles and, apart from one play, held the Detroit offense in check.

No, if any blame has to be assigned for this week's not-as-dominant-as-we-would-have-liked victory, it has to rest squarely on the players' shoulders.

And you have to start with the main man himself, Adrian Peterson. Three fumbles? Really? And nearly a fourth? All this with a "meh" 4.4 yards per carry against the league's worst rushing defense (though some of that blame can also go on the offensive line). Is that really all you've got late in the season when you're team's fighting for the division title?

Speaking of running the ball, at one point, my friend turned to me and asked, "Are you sure they didn't suspend the Williams brothers?" Looking at the final numbers, I'm amazed to see that the Lions finished with just 76 rushing yards and a 2.8 average, because they sure seemed to be running well throughout the game.

Five offsides calls. Guys, there's this thing, see. It's called the line of scrimmage. You're supposed to line up behind it. Got that? Good.

Gus Frerotte. Yech. Now, didn't I say a couple weeks ago that if Tarvaris Jackson has to play, it won't actually be the worst thing in the world, as bad as Gus has looked over the past month? Sad as it sounds, I think the best QBs on the field yesterday were, in order, Daunte Culpepper, Tarvaris Jackson, and Gus Frerotte.

And then there was Benny "the sap" Sapp. Redeemed himself with a late interception last week against Chicago after a boneheaded personal foul gave the Bears a free first down. This week he again had an awful penalty (holding) that negated a third-down sack and gave the Lions new life, which they'd cash in on the very next play for a 70-yard touchdown pass to Calvin Johnson (running right past Cedric Griffin). He was also flagged for one of the offsides penalties above...really, how does a DB line up offsides? Come on.

The thing is, we can never know what amount of coaching leads to these mistakes. And really, to a large extent, you have to blame it on the players. A DB lining up offsides isn't the coach's fault. A running back (who's normally very sure-handed) fumbling three times isn't the coach's fault. A journeyman 37-year-old QB looking his age isn't the coach's fault. If the Vikings would have lost this game, it wouldn't have helped Brad Childress's case any, but I would have had a hard time pinning this one on the head coach.

But...in the end, the Vikings did win, and next week they head to Arizona in what is essentially a battle for the #3 seed in the NFC and a chance to avoid playing the Giants in the second round. Still, this has the look of a team that, if it has to play a good team on the road in the playoffs, will get beaten like a rented mule. But until then, we can hope for a division win, maybe a fluke upset of the Giants (either by us or by another team so that we can host another playoff game), and maybe, just maybe, if Gus can't go, we can hope for another solid outing by T-Jack in the desert next week.

Or is that asking too much?

Friday, December 5, 2008

So far, so good

NFL's drug suspension of 5 blocked by federal judge.

So the Williams Wall will be available for Sunday's game against Detroit. Which could be both good and bad news. Because if the suspensions stick, the Williamses will miss the next four games, no matter when they occur. Meaning that if they still are suspended next week, they'll miss the final three regular-season games and the first playoff game, should the Vikings advance to the postseason. A two-week delay would cost us two regular-season games and stretch into the playoffs or, potentially, next season. It's really an "all or nothing" gamble being undertaken by the Vikings, and it's possible the team could have still made the playoffs even without the Williams boys for the season's final four games. Taking the four-game suspension now could, quite possibly, have been the least harmful move. Now, though, they'll have to completely overturn the NFL's ruling to have any shot of keeping this from being a disaster.

* You know I don't like using this, but...the Vikings are 7-3 with Gus Frerotte in the lineup. Perhaps even more significant, after a 1-3 start without Bryant McKinnie, the team is 7-2 with him.

* Since taking over as the Lions' starter, Daunte Culpepper has been sacked 11 times in 102 dropbacks (a 10.6% rate) and thrown six interceptions in 91 pass attempts (6.6%). His passer rating is 53.6 and he's averaging 2.3 yards on eight rushes.

Really, why didn't this guy have a job earlier in the season? That's what every NFL pundit was asking throughout the season. I know Detroit's awful, but where are all the Daunte defenders now?

* Another note on how awful the Lions are: They've given up 38, 31, 38, and 47 points to low-watt offenses Jacksonville, Carolina, Tampa Bay, and Tennessee in their previous four games and their final four put them against the best running back in the league (Adrian Peterson), a guy who knows a thing or two about picking apart a bad defense (Peyton Manning), an MVP candidate (Drew Brees) and the #5 scoring offense in the league (Green Bay).

The NFL record for most points allowed in a season is 533 by the 1981 Baltimore Colts. That's 33.3 per game. The Lions have allowed a league-high 393 points this season, 32.8 per game. This could be a record-breaking defense, and for all the wrong reasons.

That is, of course, assuming the Vikings can score more than 12.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Told ya it wouldn't stick...

For the short term, at least.

Suspensions handed down on Williamses

After weeks of speculation and legal maneuvering, the inevitable happened yesterday when the NFL came down on Kevin Williams, Pat Williams, and four other NFL players, suspending them for four games apiece for taking a water pill that contained the banned substance Bumetanide. The season's not lost yet...the players are expected to file an injunction today that would permit them to continue playing for the time being, so we might still see the Williams boys suit up Sunday against Detroit.

Now, normally, I'm all for athletes getting properly punished for breaking the rules. The NFL has a very strict "You are responsible for what you put in your body" rule and I generally agree with it. And I hope I'm not letting homerism sneak in to my judgment. But there's a lot about this situation that's fishy.

* First, understand that Bumetanide itself is not a performance enhancer. It's used to mask the presence of steroids. So there's no proof that Kevin, Pat, or anyone else using the substance is using any kind of performance enhancer. That said, it's obviously on the banned substances list for that reason.

* Here's where it gets really tricky. The manufacturer of StarCaps, the OTC weight-loss pill that contains Bumetanide, does not list the substance as a component of the pill. Again, the NFL's "You are responsible for what you put in your body" rule is a good one, I believe, but when a banned substance isn't listed among the ingredients of a pill, what are you supposed to do? Take everything you ingest to a lab and have it tested?

In any event, StarCaps won't have the opportunity to repeat this "mistake," if it even was unintentional, as they're getting sued off their asses by the suspended players.

* And even trickier -- and here's the big one -- it seems the NFL was aware that StarCaps contained Bumetanide as early as 2006, but did not inform the players or the players' union. So you have a pill with a substance that you don't want your players using but you don't tell them that it contains that substance. Why not? And then you punish them for taking it when you could have just as easily sent out a memo at any point that said, "Don't take this?"

Again, I'm all for a tough drug policy, but it's hard not to side, at least a little bit, with the players on this one. They took something that the manufacturer told them was OK, that the league told them was OK (or at least didn't tell them it wasn't OK), and then they were suddenly told that it wasn't OK and they would be punished for it.

Suppose you like Pizza Hut pizza. You look over the ingredient list. Everything's fine. Then, after eating it for a couple of years, your boss tells you that it contains something that's against your company's drug policy. You're going to be suspended from your job for a month without pay. Now suppose that both Pizza Hut and your employer knew the pizza had the illegal drug in it and didn't tell you. Great, huh?

We haven't seen the end of this whole affair, not by a long shot. Lawsuits will be filed, both against StarCaps and, possibly against the NFL itself. My feeling is that the Vikings will still have the services of the Williams boys for the remainder of the season and that this whole thing won't be sorted out until the off-season. In the meantime, sorry Lions fans...you can't dislodge the Williams wall that easily.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Vikings 34, Bears 14

OK, so maybe I was a little premature in my consideration of Kyle Orton as future quarterback of the Vikings. The Vikings defense dominated Orton and the Bears for most of the game, forcing three interceptions and putting up an amazing goal-line stand in the 34-14 win. The three Bears turnovers resulted in 17 Vikings points, but it was the stop at the Vikings one that resulted in the most exciting play of the game -- if not of the season.

When the Vikings took over inside their own 1, I thought, "A pass might not be the worst thing in the world here." After being harassed much of the first quarter, Gus Frerotte had received decent protection the last few drives, so a safety wasn't much of a concern. When he launched the ball deep down the near sideline, my only thought was "Just complete it." When I saw Bernard Berrian running free, I thought, "Can he catch up with it?" When he caught it in stride and kept going, I leaped out of my chair and, if they were sleeping, I woke up the neighbors. 99 yards later, and the game had completely changed in just a few plays, and the Bears never recovered.

How big a turnaround was it? Before that play, the Bears had 171 yards of offense to the Vikings' 117. After that play, the Bears managed just 94 yards the rest of the game. The Vikings outdid that on the next play and amassed 268 total yards the rest of the game.

How did the Vikings stuff the Bears so completely in the second half, limiting them to just 6 yards on 7 plays in the fourth quarter? Would you believe by running the ball? Yes, Brad Childress finally appears to have figured out that it's good for the Vikings to run the ball, exclusively when they have the lead. The Vikings' play calls in the fourth quarter? Two passes against 16 runs, including 15 handoffs in a row to close out the game. Overall, in the second half, the Vikings ran 23 times while putting it up only 9 times, the perfect formula for sitting on a team's throat and throttling them, especially with the talent the Vikings have on offense.

The defense wasn't too shabby either, picking off Orton three times and limiting the Bears to just 228 yards of total offense. Nearly a third of that yardage came on one play, the quick slant that Devin Hester took 65 yards for a touchdown (which even John Madden called as being Darren Sharper's fault, further indicating that he's likely done with the Vikings after this season). Though Matt Forte ran the ball surprisingly well (22 carries for 96 yards), the goal-line stand will be what people remember from this game from the defense.

So, what does this leave for the Vikings now? The good news is they're at 7-5, a full game up on 6-6 Chicago and two up on 5-7 Green Bay. The bad news is that the Vikings clearly have the toughest schedule remaining of the three teams. After a visit to 0-12 Detroit, the Vikings travel to 7-5 Arizona, followed by home games against 8-4 Atlanta and 11-1 New York (which, hopefully, will have everything sewn up and can rest some of its starters). The Bears have three straight home games, and all of their opponents are under .500, while the Packers' only .500 or better opponent down the stretch is Chicago -- and they get to play Detroit again, too. Then there's the Kevin Williams/Pat Williams suspensions, which the league is expected to come to a decision on Tuesday, though it's said that the players could ask for an injunction against the suspension, allowing them to continue playing.

But that's all in the future. For now, let's just bask in the glow of another win over a division rival, a one-game lead in the division, and a league-record-tying 99-yard touchdown pass. It was about as complete a win as a Viking fan could hope for, so let's not spoil the moment.