Saturday, January 31, 2009

Cris Carter misses out on the Hall of Fame


And it's got nothing to do with his team accomplishments (or lack thereof), because Randall McDaniel made it.

Congrats to #64, but a hearty "meh" to the voters who think the guy who's #3 all time in receptions, #4 in receiving TDs, and #7 in receiving yards doesn't deserve a hall spot.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Flagging myself

"The best laid plans of mice and men oft go awry."
-- Robert Burns

Please excuse the pseudo-intellectual literary opening, but I've had this blog post rattling around in my head for a few weeks, ever since I came upon a startling discovery -- or so I thought.

I've been having fun with correlations lately. In a nutshell, when you try to correlate two sets of statistics -- say, offensive yardage and wins -- you come up with a number between -1 and 1. If your number's close to -1, you'd say there's a negative correlation between the two -- in my example, that would mean that the lower your offensive yards, the more wins your team will get (which we'd all agree to be false). If the number is close to 1, you'd have a positive correlation. In this case, we'd say that high offensive yardage totals tend to produce teams with more wins (which we'd figure to be true). If the result is near zero, then there's minimal or no correlation between the two stats.

You can have all sorts of fun with correlations and, thankfully, Excel makes them easy to compute. You might remember these two posts from last summer, where I tried to figure the correlation between rushing average and raw passing yards, along with passing average and raw rushing yards. My results were inconclusive and, the CORREL() function in Excel bears that out. Over the sample size that I used, passing yards correlates to rushing average at -0.096 and rushing yards correlate to passing average at 0.129. Both are essentially insignificant.

So, awash with glee at the new toy I found, I decided to see if I could find any other statistical connections that everyone "knows" that I could disprove. I immediately went to penalties. After years of watching John Randle (and now Kevin Williams) jump offsides seemingly every defensive series, I wanted to see how badly penalties hurt a team. In theory, if penalty yards significantly hurt a team, then we should see a high negative correlation between penalty yards and wins.

The early results: not so much. Here are what I got when I tried to find the correlation between penalty yards and wins over the last three seasons:

2008: 0.021
2007: -0.067
2006: -0.081
06-08: -0.043

That's not so damning, then, is it? The correlation between penalty yards and wins from 2006 to 2008 is virtually nil. Obviously, big penalties at crucial times, like that late pass interference call, or a defensive hold on the game-winning drive that lets a team convert a third-down, are huge, but, in the grand scheme of things, maybe being 1st-and-20 after an offensive holding call early in the second quarter isn't such a big deal. Take a look at the penalties stats page on and you'll see some of 2008's best teams -- like Dallas, Tennessee, and the NY Giants -- near the top of the list in penalty yardage, while some of the worst -- like Cincinnati and Seattle -- near the bottom. There's definitely no clear correlation, at least for 2008.

So here I was, all ready to come out with a bunch of theories as to why this was so, as to why penalties really had little effect on a team's performance. First, though, I thought I'd expand my research and take it back three more years, from 2003-2005, just to have a bigger sample size. Here's what I got:

2005: -0.266
2004: -0.259
2003: -0.280
03-05: -0.262


A correlation of -0.262 is still not huge, but it's a good deal larger than -0.043, and could be considered at least mildly significant. By comparison, another pair of stats you'd expect to have a significant negative correlation -- offensive turnovers and wins -- clocks in at -0.435 for 2008.

That pretty much sunk my post and all the ideas I had regarding the minimal impact of penalties. Still, I think the data shows that penalties are not quite as catastrophic as most people would have you think (especially over the last three years) and some of my original theories still probably hold.

Especially in the John Randle/Kevin Williams examples, good defensive lineman try to anticipate the snap count. Sometimes this results in offsides, other times it results in great jumps that disrupt the offense. Similarly, as they say, "offensive holding occurs on every play," and it might be that the good O-linemen have figured out how to hold without getting caught, while the bad ones don't even attempt it and thus are flagged less often (while also being bad). And, not that they ever call offensive pass interference except about once a month, but every "good, physical" receiver pushes off at least a few times a game. Now the "dumb" penalties -- personal fouls, 12 men on the field, and so on -- have nothing to do with gaining an advantage or are the result of canny play and should clearly be avoided. But the rest might not be quite so bad.

Finally, I think that penalties have less of an impact on a game than people tend to give them credit for. In 2008, the typical team had 89.6 penalties called against it, or about 5.6 per game. Each team was involved in an average of 123.75 plays per game (not counting special teams), so that means a penalty was called on a team on less than 4.5% of its plays -- and maybe less than 4% if you include special teams in the mix. Yes, it sucks to have that bad penalty at a crucial time, but is 1st and 15 after a false start really that horrible? If you convert the first down anyway, the penalty was essentially meaningless. If anything, maybe coaches should save those timeouts for delay of game more often. And maybe fans shouldn't get quite as riled up about their players making a penalty that gives the other team free yards.

Doesn't mean I won't shout at the TV the next time Kevin Williams jumps offsides.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009


With the football season nearly over, I decided to decompress a little and take a break from blogging. Too many numbers running through my head and not enough brainpower to try and work through all of them, I guess, so I figured you'd be better off not reading anything from me than my trying to string together coherent thoughts linking a running back's skill to where his name comes in the alphabet (Adrian and Emmitt concur, though Walter disagrees) or about how penalties have little to no effect on how much a team wins.

Wait, that one's actually true. But I'll get into it tomorrow.

What I'd rather talk about right now, with the Super Bowl media frenzy in full force, is how little I care about said media frenzy these days. Apart from an occasional glance at Awful Announcing, I haven't paid any attention to the interviews, quotes, or special interest stories regarding the players and teams in Super Bowl XLIII. Hey, did you know Ken Whisenhunt used to be an assistant coach for the Steelers or that Kurt Warner used to stock grocery shelves? If you didn't, you've only had 8,671 chances to pick up on that information the last week and a half. It reminds me of the Chicago/Indianapolis Super Bowl a few years ago where we heard so many times that two black head coaches were in the Super Bowl that I half-wished Tony Dungy and Lovie Smith would have quit the week before the game and given way to white assistants.

On a broader note, though, it occurs to me that I've watched (and read) very little pre-game media coverage at all this year, and somewhat less post-game, as well. There was a time, back in high school and college, where I'd sit my butt down in front of the TV at 10 or 11 a.m. on Sunday (this was Central time) and not move for at least 10 hours, devouring ESPN's and the other networks' coverage of upcoming matchups, the games themselves, and the post-game shows. I'd plan my schedule around NFL 2Night (I didn't have much of a life; actually, that hasn't really changed) and would watch the full hour of SportsCenter just to catch whatever NFL-related tidbits it was pumping out, even if it meant suffering through NBA highlights in the offseason. I even used to watch upwards of three to four hours of pre-game stuff leading up to the Super Bowl.

This year, I was lucky if I caught 15 minutes of any pre-game show any week. I still like watching post-game highlights, but all the talk about why a team won or why a team lost (especially when it devolves into mindless claptrap about one team just "wanting it more") from the commentators bores me. As for the Super Bowl pre-game, I'll probably be playing video games and stuffing my face -- oh wait, I always did that second part on Super Bowl Sunday. No change there!

ESPN's fall from grace as a "catch-all" for sports information is well documented (as is SportsCenter's fall from grace as anything remotely watchable). But even if the quality was unchanged, I don't think I'd watch it as much any more because, quite simply, pre-game shows rarely tell me anything I don't already know. The Sunday morning shows just rehash news that I've either been reading about on the Internet all week or even have seen on other TV shows. Running Back X has an ankle injury and might not play? I've heard about that from PTI, NFL 2Night, Inside the NFL, ESPN's morning shows, and at least half a dozen web sites all week long. Player Y is unhappy with his contract? So what? Even when a halfway intelligent commentator wants to get up on his soapbox and foster halfway intelligent discussion about a topic, he'll either be drowned out by the other idiots on the show (who think all a team needs to do to win is "run the ball and stop the run") or will echo what the other 46 talking heads have been saying all week.

The Internet, of course, is partially to blame for this information devaulation, but it's not the only culprit. In their haste to duplicate the success of Pardon the Interruption -- which has been only barely watchable since Tony Kornheiser became self-aware a couple years ago -- ESPN launched Rome is Burning and Around the Horn to fill the timeslots immediately preceding PTI on weekdays, giving us three half-hour talk shows, all in a row, that usually cover the exact same topics. How can that be a good programming decision? I don't watch RIB and ATH except in extremely small doses, and I can't imagine anyone could watch all three without wanting to commit hari-kiri. And no, that's not the former Cubs broadcaster. Sports opinion shows are the reality TV of the sporting world, with PTI as its Survivor. They're cheap, get good ratings, and the cast is essentially replaceable. What's not to love, from a network's point of view?

So you can take your Media Day, your 13.5 hours of pre-game coverage (no idea if that's the actual amount, but it seems like it), and your endless stream of uninteresting (and frequently uninformed) opinions and stuff them where the sun don't shine -- a difficult task in Tampa, admittedly. I'll save my emotion and interest for, you know, the actual game. Or at least the commercials.

Monday, January 19, 2009

2008 QBs rated by TYA

You might recall that, last year, I came up with a new method of rating quarterbacks (detailed here, here, and here). I feel even more confident in the system now than I did back then, and I'll get into the reasons for my confidence in a later. For now, here are the leaders in Total Yards per Attempt (TYA) for 2008, among QBs with at least 260 attempts:

RankQuarterbackTYAPR Rank
1Philip Rivers6.601
2Drew Brees6.524
3Chad Pennington6.392
4Peyton Manning6.195
5Jake Delhomme5.8618
6Kurt Warner5.823
7Matt Ryan5.8011
8Jay Cutler5.8016
9Jeff Garcia5.559
10Aaron Rodgers5.516
11Matt Schaub5.497
12Donovan McNabb5.4614
13Tony Romo5.238
14Matt Cassel5.1910
15Kerry Collins5.1823
16Seneca Wallace5.1113
17Eli Manning5.1015
18Jason Campbell4.9019
19Trent Edwards4.8317
20Shaun Hill4.7612
21David Garrard4.6620
22Tyler Thigpen4.5727
23Kyle Orton4.5625
24Dan Orlovsky4.2830
25JaMarcus Russell4.2326
26Joe Flacco4.1722
27Ben Roethlisberger4.0324
28Brett Favre3.9121
29Gus Frerotte3.8328
30Marc Bulger3.8131
31Derek Anderson3.2433
32JT O'Sullivan3.1229
33Ryan Fitzpatrick2.9432

"PR Rank" is the quarterback's ranking in passer rating, among the 33 quarterbacks listed.

Remember that TYA is

(Passing Yards + Rushing Yards - Sack Yards + 10*TD passes + 10*Rushing TDs - 45*Interceptions - 30*Fumbles)

divided by

(Pass Attempts + Rush Attempts + Sacks)

In effect, it's (QB yards)/(QB attempts), assigning 10 points per touchdown, -45 per interception, and -30 per fumble. I know the PFR guys like giving out 20 yards for a TD pass, and I've heard somewhere that a lost fumble should be worth -50 yards, making my 2/3 guess closer to -33 than -30, but for now, I'll stick with what I've got.

If you want the rationale for why I assign all these yardages to quarterbacks (and especially if you want to argue with it), I suggest you read the other posts, linked to above. What it boils down to is, if we want to fully credit a quarterback with a 50-yard TD pass, when it's obvious the receiver and blockers had something to do with it, too, why should we be hesitant to fully assign him the blame for a sack, too?

For these 33 quarterbacks, the average TYA is 5.04, making the Eli Manning/Jason Campbell area the cutoff for above or below average. As seems to be a trend, quarterbacks with bad rushing numbers and high fumble totals (Kurt Warner is the poster boy) are hurt more by this system than QBs with good rushing numbers are helped. Again, I'll go more into that on a later date.

A notable big riser in this listing is Jake Delhomme, who vaults up from the #18 spot in passer rating to #5 in TYA. That's no doubt helped by his high raw yards per attempt (7.9, fourth in the league) and no egregiously bad "negative" numbers (12 interceptions, 20 sacks, and 5 fumbles). Also, note how close the 5-8 guys are lumped together. One more pick for Jake and he would drop to a 5.76, or 8th place. Also, other than Warner, who had 18 carries, everyone in the 7-15 spots (yes, even Kerry Collins) had more carries than Jake, and that'll bring down your rating.

The biggest drops from passer rating to TYA belong to Tony Romo -- whose 13 fumbles did him no favors -- and Brett Favre, who led the league in interceptions, had double-digit fumbles (10), and averaged a mere 6.7 raw yards per pass attempt, 22th in the league. My advice: Stay retired.

Then there are the three quarterbacks the Vikings employed this season, only one of which met the minimum requirements for these rankings. "Three?" you say. Well, that's how I see it:

* Tarvaris Jackson (I): 3.74
* Gus Frerotte: 3.83
* Tarvaris Jackson (II): 5.88

"Late-season" Tarvaris Jackson seemed to be a very different player from "early-season" Tarvaris Jackson. Overall, for the season, Jackson had a TYA of 5.02, right around the league average. Perhaps it makes sense that he finished the year with a TYA right next to that of Eli Manning, who was actually worse against the Eagles defense in the playoffs than Jackson was (and nearly a full yard worse than Kurt Warner, who was, shall we say, a tad better against that defense). Gus Frerotte, meanwhile, is still Gus Frerotte.

A few other notable non-qualifying passers and their TYAs:

* Daunte Culpepper: 2.45
* Brady Quinn: 4.84
* Sage Rosenfels: 4.64
* Matt Hasselbeck: 3.08; I've heard a few people say we should go after Matty H. He'll be 34, he's coming off an injury-plagued season, and as for the injuries to his wide receiver corps bringing down his numbers, check out Seneca Wallace, above.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Vote him off Fantasy Island

With all due respect to the late Ricardo Montalban...

Keeping with the theme of looking over last season's NFL predictions, we have the inimitable Matthew Berry of ESPN. Dubbing himself "The Talented Mr. Roto," Berry is more of a "throw the dart and pray" kind of guy when it comes to making predictions about the upcoming season from a fantasy football perspective. I (sorta) hate to rip on a guy just making wild predictions about stats, especially in this year's NFL, but man, how can I get paid for that kind of job? (Yes, I'm insanely jealous. Now, somebody hire me.)

Witness this page, posted back on August 21, where Berry lays out 50 predictions about the upcoming season. He admits that:

It all depends on the way you play. I'm the type who constantly goes for it. I don't care what others say or think. I've fallen flat on my face many times and will do so again in the future, but generally speaking, it has served me very well, both in fantasy sports and in life. I play to win. And winning isn't being happy with third, it's being angry about it. If I don't win, I don't care if I finish fourth or dead last. As the saying goes, no one remembers second place.

On the surface, this seems to make sense. (Then again, do you really want as your web site's fantasy guru, a guy who says he's often "fallen flat on my face many times and will do so again in the future"?) Obviously, you have to take risks, especially in fantasy football, where there's "first place" and "everyone else."

But sometimes you can get just a little silly. Like that fantasy football magazine I picked up two years ago that listed as its top running back (and cover boy) not LaDainian Tomlinson or Larry Johnson or Shaun Alexander -- but Willis McGahee. Predicting breakout seasons or having a few wild picks are fine. But it's better if they're based somewhat on reality or are held somewhat in check. McGahee as a top five back in 2006? Sure, I might have believed that. As the #1 overall? Nuh-uh. Needless to say, I won't be buying a magazine from them again. After reviewing his predictions for 2008, I'll consider Berry just about as reliable.

Most pre-season predictions are made and, if inaccurate, never brought up again. But here at Defensive Indifference, we like to see some accountability. And, if you're going to be as in-your-face as Berry is ("You heard me."), you'd better have a pretty good track record.

Here are the results. For any case where he rates someone as "a top X fantasy back/receiver/QB," I'm using the rankings on pro-football-reference:

31, 38, 46

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 13, 14, 16, 18, 19, 20, 21, 23, 24, 25, 27, 28, 29, 30, 32, 33, 36, 37, 39, 40, 41, 43, 44, 45, 47, 48, 50

12, 15, 17, 22, 26, 34, 35, 42, 49

A few notes:
1. Anquan Boldin probably would have made the numbers Berry quotes if not for missing four games, but I debate that he wouldn't have been better than Larry Fitzgerald.

10. Brady Quinn started in week 10. Close, but not quite.

14. Calvin Johnson was spectacular; Jon Kitna, not so much. Sorry, but if you put an "and" statement in your pick, they both have to come true.

27. I almost want to give him a pass on this one, because nobody could have predicted what actually happened, and I really thought Tom Brady would have thrown 40 TDs. But I'm going to be harsh.

28. If not for Pierre Thomas rushing for 625 yards, this one would be true.

29. There's a little subjectivity here; Eli Manning did throw for only 21 TDs, but I don't think anyone would rate his second half as "disappointing."

34. Still could happen (the last part). Wouldn't surprise me.

35. Still could happen. Wouldn't surprise me.

43. Frank Gore scored only 8 TDs, but was the #14 RB (according to PFR), and had 1,413 combined yards. Close!

46. Probably the best prediction in the bunch, and one I would have flatly denied at the start of the season. Kudos, Matt, that's a home run.

So, that's a total of three correct predictions out of (removing the meaningless ones) 41. Berry says

The idea is not that I nail every prediction...Hey, if you swing for the fences, sometimes you'll strike out. Or maybe you'll hit a double. It doesn't mean it wasn't worth trying.

I don't care what league you're in, if you go 3-for-41 (0.073), you'll get sent down to the minors.

Really, he gets paid to do this?

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

2008 Vikings predictions revisited

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Running Backs

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

I considered his probably inconsistency when I made my prediction, saying, "You could certainly blame Berrian's flashes-of-brilliance-but-not-consistently-good-numbers career on his quarterbacking partners during his time in Chicago. Moving to Minnesota, however, won't greatly improve that situation and, with the running game as it is, the team won't likely rely on Berrian as the lynchpin to its offense." That's why I was guardedly optimistic in my prediction, thinking that he would fall within 50 yards of 1,000 on the season, and I was right -- just in the wrong direction.

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

Offensive Line

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

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

Defensive Line

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

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


What a difference one man can make.

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

Defensive Backs

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

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

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

Special Teams

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Monday, January 12, 2009

Delay of posting

I'll get into my 2008 retrospective a little later this week, but I did want to comment on something that happened in the Tennessee/Baltimore playoff game. It's something that's always bugged me for years and should be fixed. No, I'm not talking about the overtime rules, which come into play maybe once a week and are the popular whipping dog these days. (Oh, wait, were no games decided in overtime this week? All right, then we'll pull it off our talk-show schedule until it happens again.)

Rather, I'd like to ask a simple question? Why isn't a delay of game called when the play clock reaches zero? Like, automatically?

Jeff Fisher sure would like to know. In the play in question, Baltimore had a third down and two. The play clock, shown in the bottom corner of the screen, clearly hit zero and the ball was snapped perhaps a full second later, with no penalty called. The resulting play was good for 23 yards and a first down and, on the drive, Baltimore would kick the winning field goal.

We've all seen it, usually several times a game. The play clock hits zero and, a quarter of a second later, the ball is snapped. Most of the time, we're fine with it, realizing that our team will milk the clock for that extra split second as much as the other team. Only when there's an extra-long beat (as was the case in the Baltimore/Tennessee game) will people (coaches in particular) get upset about it.

So, why is this the case? Why are teams actually on a 40.25-second clock instead of a 40-second clock? I've heard the "natural" argument before, and it's laid out in the article I linked to:

After the game, referee Terry McAulay said there was a "natural delay" when the back judge looks from the play clock to the center to see if the ball is snapped. The play clock at LP Field is located on the Jumbotron scoreboard, not at field level.

On Sunday, NFL spokesman Greg Aiello told The Tennessean: "There's always a delay, the back judge looks at the clock and when it hits zero he looks at the ball and if the ball is in the process of being snapped there is no penalty, so the back judge has to make a determination."

Only problem is, I don't buy it. Have you ever seen a game where the clock is ticking down to signal the end of a quarter and a team gets a play off after the clock shows 0:00? I can't remember that happening. If the officials can make that call with near-100% accuracy, why can't they do this one right?

Even if we do go with the "natural delay" argument, isn't there a way we can fix this? You would think so. In the NBA, a horn sounds when the shot clock hits zero. In the NHL, a light comes on when the game clock reaches zero. I'm not a fan of introducing more noise to the game, but it's at least possible. The problem comes when a team snaps the ball with a fraction of a second left; the resulting loud sound would probably affect the outcome of the play. (And I definitely don't like the idea of making delay of game a reviewable play.)

Instead, here's my solution. The referee already wears a vibrating buzzer (or somesuch) to signal him when the replay booth wants to review a play within the final two minutes of a half. Why can't the back judge wear a similar device that's linked to the play clock? When it hits zero, it buzzes, and, if the ball isn't snapped at the point, you get a whistle and a flag. That eliminates the "natural delay" of having to look from the play clock to the center and, being silent, doesn't disrupt the play. Even if it were impossible to link the play clock to such a device, you could have an official upstairs whose job it was to look at the play clock and nothing but the play clock. Soon as it hits zero, he pushes the button to signal the back judge. Sure, there would still be some delay, but if you're looking at a countdown from 3, 2, 1, 0, you can probably nail it right on the zero.

Makes too much sense, doesn't it?

Fisher is co-chairman of the NFL's Competition Committee

Here's hoping Fisher and the other members of the committee will give it some thought in the off-season.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Words from other people

Time for my annual "Take it easy in the week or so following the end of the Vikings' season" break, but if I'm slacking off, the least I can do is point you toward some other people who aren't.

* One note regarding this blog, the start of the year, I posted a poll with the question "Who will have the best passer rating in 2008?" The choices were Tarvaris Jackson (13 votes), Brett Favre (6 votes), and Aaron Rodgers (1 vote). I thought that smacked way too much of homer-ism and the deathly fear most people have of the unknown -- and I was half right.

Jackson: 95.4
Rodgers: 93.8
Favre: 81.0

Really, through the first 3/4 of the season, did anyone think T-Jack would win that "competition"?

* I was going to write an article or two about the Minnesota Vikings' off-season needs in the coming weeks, but Cobra312004 beat me to it. He nailed pretty much ever major point I was going to make, even calling for the removal of Matt Birk and pleading for a real fullback. The only thing I would add is to get a single good return man, so Brad Childress isn't tempted to use Maurice Hicks or (gah) Adrian Peterson on returns any more.

* Daily Norseman is optimistic about next year's Viking squad. I'll need a little while before I feel truly optimistic, but there's one thing you can't deny about his post:

We saw Visanthe Shiancoe develop this season into a weapon at the tight end spot.

Frankly, I think we saw way more of Visanthe Shiancoe than we wanted to this year.

* Gus Frerotte lives in his own world and wants to stay there next year.

* 'Tis the time of year for anti-BCS sentiments, including good ones by Bill James and Rick Reilly. One wonders, though, how much Reilly will be able to keep that mindset once ESPN starts broadcasting the BCS bowl games.

* Speaking of guys who shouldn't write for (or anywhere else), here's Stephen A. Smith comparing Charles Barkley to Rosa Parks. Because, you know, being an outspoken rich black guy who thinks the NCAA should have more black head coaches (which is probably true, but there is room for debate) is the same as being a poor black woman who got herself arrested for wanting to sit anywhere she pleased on a bus.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

A case of one-game-itis

Last year about this time, you couldn't hear enough good things, not just from the Vikings coaching staff, but from Vikings fans, about how Tarvaris Jackson might have turned things around and would be a good for the Vikings at the quarterback position in 2008. Most of the optimism centered around his "stellar" 8-4 record as a starter in 2007, but a portion of fans (whom I argued with frequently) pointed at his comeback against Denver in the last game of the season.

Trailing 19-3 in the fourth quarter, Jackson led the team on two late TD drives, each with a two-point conversion, to tie the game at 19 and send it into overtime. To hear some people talk about it, that very good half a quarter nullified the mediocre to bad other 11 7/8 games he'd started, showcasing his "intangibles," his "leadership," and other claptrap and ensuring he'd have a great 2008. After a solid (but short) preseason, the consensus was strong again that he'd turn in a good season and lead the Vikings to the promised land.

We all know how that went. He wasn't altogether horrific in his first two starts of the season, but was bad enough to (rightfully) be benched in favor of Gus Frerotte, who led the team as far as he could before getting injured and giving way to the seemingly new and improved Tarvaris Jackson, who played three and a half games of excellent football to close out the regular season and secure a division title and playoff spot for the Vikings.

Now, after what happened last year -- that is to say, that Jackson was bad mostly all year, showed a very brief spurt of excellence near the end that led people to believe he was good and to trust in him, only to have him revert to form at the start of the next season -- you'd think that, regardless of how he played against Philadelphia in the playoff opener, that fans would remember his good final month of the season and be behind him -- at least partially -- going into 2009.


Most of what I'm seeing out there is the same kind of talk I heard after week two -- namely that, unequivably, Jackson must go. Forget those good games he played at the end of the year. Forget his 95.6 passer rating over his last five games (which includes the Philly game). Forget his 8-2 TD/Int. ratio. His last game was awful. Therefore, he's no good.

Really, have we learned nothing?

First and foremost, fans need to understand that Tarvaris Jackson's play wasn't the only reason the Vikings lost. For the second week in a row, Adrian Peterson had one and only one good carry -- his 40-yard touchdown run, to go with his 67-yarder against the Giants. 12 of his 20 carries against the Eagles went for two yards or less. Combined, Peterson and Chester Taylor ran for just 89 yards on 31 carries -- a 2.9 average -- if you take out the 40-yard run, and, in the second half, when the Vikings were shut out, the two running backs managed just 24 yards on 10 carries.

That's not the fault of the quarterback, people, though it may not have been the fault of the running backs, either. The offensive line routinely allowed multiple defenders into the backfield, making it difficult for any runner to gain yardage. Jackson was only sacked once, but he rarely had time to comfortably look downfield and pick out receivers, and do we need to talk about Matt Birk's bad snap that essentially ended the game for the Vikings?

All this came against the #4 scoring defense in the league, so it's understandable that any team would struggle on offense against them. And, given the horrific state of the Vikings' special teams, it's a tribute to the defense that they were even in the game at all in the final quarter. But Tarvaris Jackson shouldn't necessarily receive the brunt of the criticism for this loss, just as he should never have received the lion's share of the praise for the team's record in his starts in 2007.

Now, I'm not saying that Tarvaris Jackson should be a stone-cold lock to start for the Vikings in 2009. Ideally, I'd like to see Gus Frerotte replaced with a slightly less fossilized quarterback who can compete with Jackson in training camp while John David Booty bides his time on the bench and, in perfect world, develops to the point that he can compete for the starting job. In any case, if you thought Tarvaris Jackson was a halfway decent quarterback a week ago, there's no reason for you to think otherwise after a game where the entire offense -- quarterback and the other 10 guys -- fell flat.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Time to pause

Despite making the playoffs for the first time since 2004 and capturing its first division title since 2000, the 2008 Minnesota Vikings will probably be remembered as little different from previous recent incarnations of the team: as an above-average squad that ultimately failed to live up to its expectations and perceived talent level.

I'm not going to go into great depth about how or why the Vikings lost on Sunday or their general performance throughout the season. I've always felt that, at the end of a season, you take a little time off to decompress and not jump all over whatever flaws or other negative thoughts about the team. After all, you've got nearly eight months to get into all that.

I will say that, while I did think the Vikings had a chance Sunday, if I had been picking completely objectively, I would have been hard pressed not to pick the Eagles to win the game. And, even though the game remained a two-point affair until Brian Westbrook's 71-yard catch-and-run gave Philly a nine-point edge in the fourth, you could just tell that the Vikings had nothing left in the tank offensively and that just one mistake on defense would spell their immediate doom. In a sense, by the middle of the fourth quarter, it was already looking dire, even though the team just trailed 16-14, and the Westbrook play almost came with a sigh of relief, like seeing someone pass away after a long illness and knowing there was no real chance of recovery.

I'll call my mother later today, and she'll probably give me her usual line this time of year: "I'm glad the Vikings are done because now I can actually enjoy football." I know the feeling. With sky-high expectations coming into the year, the Vikings turned in one of their better "just good enough to give you hope but not good enough to really accomplish anything" performances, culminating in a first-round playoff exit. 2009 might be better...and it might not. For better or worse, it doesn't look like Brad Childress and Tarvaris Jackson are going anywhere, but I'll get into the implications of that later. For now, like my mom, I'll just enjoy football for a little while. At least, after the networks are finished showing the recaps of Sunday's game.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Pat Williams to play? I say no.

Pat Williams intends to play this Sunday when the Vikings face the Eagles in their opening-round playoff game, even though there's some concern that he could injure his broken shoulder even worse by playing instead of giving it further rest. Should he play and risk further injury? The answer, I feel, is "no."

Now, I've been critical of Williams in the past, not because he isn't a good player, but because he's one-dimensional (probably). He stops the run, but is a (probably) non-factor against the pass. (It could be argued that, even though he's not much of a pass rusher, he occupies bodies up front and allows the other Viking pass rushers to take shots at the opposing quarterback.) Also, I think that results matter far more than perception, and the "result" of missing Williams for two games was 3.76 yards per carry by the opposing Atlanta Falcons and New York Giants. That's not as phenomenal a run-stuffing as the Vikings are used to, but it's far from porous and would have ranked 7th overall in the league in 2008. And those two games came the #1 and #8 teams in the league in yards per carry, teams that combined for a 4.67 YPC average in 2008. So, even without Pat Williams, the Vikings allowed nearly a yard less per carry than what the Falcons and the Giants were used to! Granted, it's a small sample size of two games, and the Giants regulars took a good part of the afternoon off, but it's still worth noting that without Williams our run defense only drops from "stifling" to "very good."

Next up, the Vikings face a team that isn't quite the pass-happy team the media makes it out to be (especially the Philadelphia media), but it still definitely prefers the pass. The Eagles were 17th in the league in rushing attempts and 4th in passing attempts, while also ranking 24th in YPC, at 3.97 yards per rush. Some of those runs were called pass plays that Donovan McNabb turned into positive rushing yards, but still, this is not the kind of team you need Pat Williams against. I have no idea if Fred Evans is better at rushing the passer, but if he is, just a little bit, then what's the harm in his playing on Sunday and Williams getting another game of rest? If the Vikings win, they play Carolina and then potentially the Giants (or even Atlanta) for their next two playoff games. Guess who the #1 and #2 teams in yards per carry were in 2008? New York and Carolina, respectively.

I'm still of the mind that Pat Williams should be on the trading block in the offseason. His perceived value, thanks to his mirthful girth (317 pounds!) and highlight-reel stuffs (which count the same as any other tackle) is as high as it ever will be, he makes (I think) $7 million/year, and he'll turn 37 years old next season. If losing him means we drop from the #1 rushing defense to the #7 rushing defense but gives us another piece (either a player or a draft pick) that improves the team in another area, why not make the deal? Losing Williams for nothing, as is the case right now while he's injured, is perhaps a minor downgrade to our defense. Losing him and gaining something in return seems like a no-brainer.