Thursday, February 26, 2015

Adrian Peterson and guilty pleasures

I think something significant happened today regarding Adrian Peterson, but it's hard to know for sure.

To my untrained eyes, all that happened today was that Peterson was moved from one football limbo (suspended) to another (commissioner's exemption list.) Now that the NFL is appealing the decision by Judge David Doty to overturn his suspension, the legal battle continues and who knows when it will end and when Peterson will be able to resume his football career.

As Vikings Territory's Arif Hasan points out in the linked article, this new development - even though it doesn't result in Peterson being reinstated - is significant in one respect. The Vikings can actually talk to Peterson now. This means they can work on mending fences with Peterson and attempt to get him on board with being a Minnesota Viking whenever he is reinstated- if that's what they want to do. They can also release him if they choose to (unlikely, given what Vikings management and coaches have said about him recently), or they can work on trading him to another team.

But how much serious interest is there going to be from other teams in putting the time and effort into trying to work out a deal for a player who is still in purgatory and whose return to the football field is still uncertain? I think given Peterson's current status, the market won't be very robust and it's going to be tough to find a trading partner.   

But let's think about the other possibility, that Peterson and the Vikings patch things up and work together again. How do you feel about that scenario?

I don't mean this from a competitive standpoint - a fresh Peterson is going to be good for the Vikings.

I'm looking at this more from a moral standpoint. I'll admit to having some queasiness about seeing Peterson in a Vikings uniform again. He beat his four-year-old son bloody, and doesn't seem to think there was anything wrong with that. I'm not sure he's a guy I can cheer for anymore. And if I can't cheer for him, what are Sunday's going to feel like if he's playing regularly for the Vikings in 2015? Will I feel guilt every time he makes a great play and contributes significantly to a Vikings win? Will the wins feel tainted somehow? And will that make the 2015 season less enjoyable?

I don't really know how I'll react if Peterson's a Viking in 2015. But if Peterson isn't wearing purple, I I won't have to worry about any of that. I can focus on Ted Bridgewater, Anthony Barr, Harrison Smith, Everson Griffen and plenty of other Viking players. I can focus on the team and its on-the-field results, not on what one star player did off the field several months ago.

I know many fans don't have these misgivings - they will welcome Peterson back without hesitation. But as for me, I'm struggling with it.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Vikings Positional Outlook: Running Backs

Last year around this time, I did a series of posts looking at the various positional units on the Vikings and what might be done to improve them (here's one on the running backs.) I'm going to do the same thing again this year because a) I think it's a decent idea and b) there won't be much Vikings stuff to blog about otherwise until March arrives.

As always, this is a fan's perspective - mine. It's not based on pouring over All-22 film or YouTube highlights of college studs. This will be based on what I saw watching the Vikings play on TV all year, plus a little reading here and there and using some (hopefully) common sense. In the end, I expect almost everything I write to be proven to be complete horseshit by June. But you get what you pay for around here.

In the first post of this series, I looked at the Vikings specialists. My second post was about the quarterbacks. Now I'm turning my attention to the running back position, a position that's likely to get a talent infusion - either from the team welcoming back  a tarnished superstar or through drafting his potential replacement. 

What the Vikings have/had
Adrian Peterson, Matt Asiata, Joe Banyard, Jerick McKinnon, Jerome Felton, Zach Line, Dominique Williams (practice squad)

Without Peterson for all but the season opening beatdown of St. Louis, the Vikings running game was definitely different. But losing Peterson didn't prevent the Vikes running game from being effective. In 2013, with Peterson playing 14 games, Minnesota rushed the ball 423 times, gained 2,081 yards, had 23 rushing TDs, averaged 4.9 yards per carry and generated 106 first downs. In 2014, Minnesota rushed the ball 413 times for 1,804 yards, 12 rushing TDs, averaged 4.4 yards per carry and generated 90 first downs. The numbers are down across the board, but not by as much as you would expect. Losing Peterson meant the home run threat mostly disappeared from the Vikes rushing attack (especially when Jerick McKinnon got hurt and Matt Asiata became the team's rushing bell cow), but it's not like the running game died with him. That fact will no doubt factor into management's decision-making as they debate what it should do with Peterson in 2015.


What the Vikings should do
That's likely being dictated by the recent actions of Peterson and his agent, Ben Dogra. Not too long ago, I wrote that the Vikings were executing a charm offensive towards Peterson to get him happy about being a Viking in 2015. Since then, Peterson's gone on record about being uneasy playing for Minnesota again, and Dogra allegedly got into an altercation with Rob Brzezinski at the NFL scouting combine. We've all seen examples of star players having spats with their teams at other franchises. They rarely end with that player staying with his team. My guess is that the events of the past two weeks have general manager Rick Spielman working on an exit strategy for the Vikings and Peterson, and how that strategy could net the Vikes some assets (i.e. draft picks.)

Fortunately, the Vikings do have McKinnon. He's coming off lower back surgery, but he did show the ability to be a featured back in the NFL. There are questions as to whether the 5'9, 200-plus pound McKinnon can handle the pounding on a regular basis. But as I've written before, McKinnon's not the smallest guy who played running back on a regular basis in 2014. If Peterson is playing elsewhere in 2015 (and I think he will be), expect McKinnon to be the #1 guy.

As for the rest of the depth chart, I'd expect Asiata to be back. He's got value as a special teams contributor and he showed a knack for punching it in the end zone on short yardage plays. You can also get away with him as a featured back for a game or two. But he averaged 3.5 yards per carry last season and didn't have a run longer than 19 yards. You need more than that from a running back if you're planning on playing him a lot. Banyard could also be back, but I doubt his role will get any bigger than it was last year. Felton won't be back. I also don't see where Line fits. The Vikings barely used a fullback last season and that doesn't figure to change with Norv Turner as offensive coordinator. Will they even carry a fullback in 2015, particularly when Rhett Ellison can be used in that role?

Assuming Peterson isn't wearing purple and gold next season, I think the Vikings will need to add another running back with starter potential. Head coach Mike Zimmer has already said the team won't pursue a running back in free agency, and because Zim's a straight shooter, I'll take him at his word. That leaves the NFL draft, where some of the top running backs did not impress at the combine (with Melvin Gordon, Duke Johnson, and Ameer Abdullah being the prime examples.) But that's a good thing for the Vikings. If top several running backs are being devalued because of their combine results, the Vikes could pick up a guy like Johnson who falls to the second or third day of the draft.

Many of us were left wondering what Ted Bridgewater could have accomplished last year if he had Peterson in the backfield to hand off to. The line of thought still holds true even if Peterson isn't around in 2015. An effective running game still matters in the NFL, and if the Vikes can find someone in this draft who has starter potential to team with McKinnon, they should give it serious consideration.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Vikings showing Adrian Peterson the love once more

Charm offensive: A campaign of flattery, friendliness and cajolement designed to achieve the support or agreement of others. 

As ESPN's Ben Goessling points out in this post, the senior leadership of the Minnesota Vikings - from general manager Rick Spielman, to new chief operating officer Kevin Warren, to co-owner and team president Mark Wilf - have all said some encouraging things about welcoming running back Adrian Peterson back into the fold in 2015. Goessling also notes that this is hardly a coincidence. The Vikes seem to be orchestrating a "charm offensive" towards Peterson and are trying to repair a relationship that appeared to be damaged as 2014 came to a close.

Because it's never been a question whether the Vikings players and coaches wanted Peterson back, we're left to wonder what Spielman, Warren and Zygi and Mark Wilf are up to with these recent public comments.

There are three obvious schools of thought on why the Vikes are doing this:

1. The coaching staff believe - even at his hefty $15.4 million salary cap hit in 2015 - that a fresh, happy and well-compensated Peterson would be Ted Bridgewater's best friend in his sophomore NFL season. There's certainly an argument to be made that with Peterson back in the lineup and commanding a lot of attention from opposing defenses, Bridgewater will get favorable looks in the passing game he can exploit and Peterson will make the offensive line look a lot better in run blocking and pass protection. If Peterson's presence can accomplish all of that, then he might be worth the $15.4 million.

2. You never want to devalue an asset, and by saying nice things about Peterson, the Vikings can extract maximum value out of any team looking to trade for him because no one can be sure Minnesota doesn't want him back in 2015.

3. The Vikes want him back, but at a different price point, and getting Peterson to agree to a paycut will be somewhat easier if the team's management is on good terms with Peterson and his agent. (That Peterson isn't currently eligible to be reinstated until April 15 helps the Vikings out if they are considering doing this, as other teams will have signed their big-name free agents and spent some cash by then and there shouldn't be as robust a market for Peterson's services in April as there would be in March.)   

It was only a couple of weeks ago I figured Peterson's chances of ever playing for the Vikings again was about zero. 

But with what people like Spielman and Mark Wilf have said recently, maybe the percentage is much higher than that now.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

National Friday League: Super Bowl Decompression


The Seahawks squandered the Super Bowl by wasting timeouts.
Super Bowl Play-by-Play (NFL.com)

One reason the Seahawks lost the Super Bowl is because on their final drive, they wasted timeouts for reason that had nothing to do with time management. The Seahawks started their drive with three valuable timeouts, and spent two because they weren't ready to run a play, not because they needed to stop the clock. Had they held even one extra timeout when they reached their infamous red zone play, they would have had total control to run whatever plays they wanted.

The Seahawks took their first timeout with 1:50 left on the clock at the Patriot 49, with the clock already stopped. They used the timeout because the play clock was running down and they didn't want to take a five yard penalty on 2nd and 10. But they should have been ready to run a play.

They took their second timeout with 1:06 left after Russell Wilson completed that bouncy pass to Jermaine Kearse. It was a surprising, startling play downfield, and apparently in the excitement the Seahawks were unable to get up to the line to run an actual play. Again, the clock was already stopped: they didn't need the timeout to stop the clock.

And so then after a first down run took the Seahawks to the one yard line, they called their notorious pass play. But imagine if the Seahawks were sitting in that position with not one timeout left, but two or three?

With timeouts, the Seahawks could have called whatever plays they wanted with the remaining three downs. They would have clearly been in position to run the ball all three plays if that was their desire, even while running the clock down to give the Patriots little time after a score. And if they got to the line and didn't like something about what the defense was showing them, they'd have the flexibility to use a timeout and regroup.

But they couldn't. All judgments of the Seahawks' play call address the situation the Seahawks found themselves in--at the one yard line with one timeout left. But not as many people have been pointing out they were in that more limited situation due to their own wasted timeouts. They could have been in the same situation with the power position of two or three timeouts and the total ability to run whatever play they wanted--including power running plays--three consecutive times.

Put it on Pete Carroll and Darrell Bevell, put it on Russell Wilson, put it on the entire offense if you want. But a team must be ready to run a play within the allotted time, especially in game-deciding situations. Those timeouts are valuable currency to stop the clock when you need to--they shouldn't have been used just because the team wasn't ready to run a play with the clock already stopped.

But...
One can only hope that the lesson NFL coaches take from the overwhelming condemnation of the Seahawks' play call is not that they must be as conservative as possible or they will be lampooned. The Seahawks should have run the ball because that is their strength; instead, they threw the ball, playing to a relative weakness. The Seahawks led the league in rushing yards, rushing yards per attempt, and rushing touchdowns, and in the last four years, Marshawn Lynch has rushed for 48 regular season rush TDs (leading the league in rushing TDs the last two seasons) and 8 postseason rushing TDs. Meanwhile, the Seahawks did not feature a strong passing game this season (only 20 passing TDs, 22nd in the league), and feature a lot of subpar wide receivers. There are a lot of teams that could absolutely justify throwing the ball in that situation with the season on the line: those teams feature dominant go-get-the-ball playmakers such as Calvin Johnson or Dez Bryant. The Seahawk WRs combined for seven--SEVEN!?!?!?!--regular season receiving touchdowns. Marshawn Lynch even led the team in receiving touchdowns!

That's what made the Seahawks' play call so egregious. It's not that running the ball is the only option: it's that with a championship on the line, instead of giving the ball to the best power running back of the last four seasons, they decided to rely on wide receivers that are simply not that good. Don't blame the WRs for what they are; blame the playcaller(s) who decided to pin the season on allowing those WRs--who totaled seven receiving touchdowns in the whole regular season, whose leading TD scorer caught three--to decide the season. Instead of playing to their strength, they played to their weakness. Instead of asking their best skill position player to make a play, they asked a poor skill position player to make a play.

It's not calling a pass in such a situation that is bad. It's trying to score in a way you're not actually good at instead of trying to score in the way you're the best at that is bad.

Life Lessons!
It is good to try things you aren't good at, and to try to improve yourself. But at some point, there's nothing at all wrong with figuring out what you're good at, and doing the hell out of it. There are many things in life that I either don't like, or that I'm not good at, or both. There are other things that I really like, or that I'm sort of good at, or both. I try to be the best I can at the things I like and am good at, and for many of the things I dislike or suck at, I devote almost no time, attention, or energy with them at all. Whatever. There's value in devoting yourself to your passions, and in recognizing your weaknesses and avoiding them.

And when there is pressure, or when things really matter, or when it's time to really decide something, or time to really act--that's the time to lean on your strengths, to dive deep into what you are passionate for and/or what you are excellent at.

In other words, follow your Marshawn Lynch, and don't go chasing your Ricardo Lockette.

Tom Brady
In Tom Brady's four Super Bowl wins, he played with precisely two great skill position players: Corey Dillon and Rob Gronkowski. Brady has benefited from playing with the greatest coach of this era and one of the greatest coaches of any era, and he's benefited from the continuity of having that same coach and team for his entire career. But the Patriots have often put players around him that don't look particularly special, and yet he's made them special. That's significant. Over the course of their entire runs winning four Super Bowls, Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw had better teammates around them. I wouldn't put Brady over Montana just for Brady's longevity--he plays in an era much more conducive to QB longevity than Montana did--but there's not much question Brady is in the Montana conversation. I mean, you can't really find a way to disparage this at this point. I don't like Brady, but he constantly makes plays, and constantly makes the right throw and the good throw.

Hey, what's that Teddy Bridgewater?

Things I learned during the Super Bowl
In order to be a better dad, I need to be able to afford a nicer car.

Weekend
Enjoy a weekend with no football, suckers. Time to grasp onto those other hobbies.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Arggggh! (or how Kevin Williams must feel right now)

If you're former Viking (and current Seattle) defensive tackle Kevin Williams, do you just walk over and punch current Seahawk offensive coordinator (and former Viking offensive coordinator) Darrell Bevell in the face after that goal line play call in the biggest (and possibly last) game of your Hall of Fame worthy 12-year career? What possibly made Bevell think that doing anything other than giving it to Marshawn Lynch right there was a better idea?

Kevin Williams did not deserve that kind of ending to his first Super Bowl appearance. But I'm sure it felt awfully familiar to him.

Lord have mercy.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Ted Bridgewater and rookie of the year awards

Ted Bridgewater was unable to win the hearts of football sportswriters voting on the Associated Press NFL's offensive rookie of the year award, after fans voted him as the Pepsi Rookie of the Year.

And that's OK. I don't see how Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. couldn't have won the award considering the season he had. (But Dallas offensive guard Zack Martin gets a first place vote? Come on.)

But at least Bridgewater is in these conversations, and you could make a case that he's as deserving of the offensive rookie of the year award as Beckham Jr. considering the position he plays and the hand he was dealt with this season.

I also find it comforting that there is no such offensive rookie of the year case to be made for the two quarterbacks that were picked ahead of Bridgewater - Blake Bortles and Johnny Manziel.

The future's looking bright in Minnesota, my friends.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

National Friday League: SUPER BOWL!

I hope Marshawn Lynch rushes for 300 yards and 8 touchdowns just so the self-righteous, self-important, self-centered, obtuse, narrow-minded, entitled, indignant members of the media who are mad he doesn't want to talk to them have to vote him Super Bowl MVP despite themselves.

The number of times I've thought "I wonder what Marshawn Lynch would say about this" stands at zero. And that includes on topics like football, the Seattle Seahawks, and Marshawn Lynch! I'm not saying Lynch couldn't possibly have interesting things to say; in fact his teammate Richard Sherman regularly has smart and interesting things to say, and I like to hear them (Sherman may be my favorite non-Viking right now). But if a football player doesn't want to step out and say things, I spend no time whatsoever wondering what he thinks while I'm enjoying watching him play football.

If you want to justify anger at Lynch for his unwillingness to answer media questions, you can do so right now. Off the top of your head, please provide a memorable quote from Jamaal Charles that has stuck in your head. Or Matt Forte. Or Frank Gore. Have these players, who as far as I know don't get fined for not answering reporters' questions, ever said anything worthwhile enough for you to remember it? And again, I'm not saying these are stupid or boring human beings who couldn't possibly have interesting things to say. I'm just saying the content you get from players answering reporters' questions is usually less than thrilling. If they want to talk, fine! By all means, some players in the NFL say funny, clever, insightful, weird, interesting, smart things all the time. But I don't assume they're going to, because most usually don't.

And if you criticized Richard Sherman for his honest emotional outpouring after last season's NFC Championship game, AND you're mad that Marshawn Lynch doesn't want to say things into a microphone, Get. A. Grip. Why you want athletes who entertain you with their performance to hit just the precise sweet spot where they tell you what you want to hear in conventional terms, but if they get too honest or emotional it's bad, and if they decide they want to hold back it's bad, is beyond me.

What we've really learned is the sense of self-significance on the part of members of the sports media. It's not just that they think they're entitled to Marshawn Lynch, that he owes them something. But do they really believe that they, the reporters, are the gateway between the players and the fans? That the players who entertain us on the field owe something to us as fans, and what they owe us is to offer quotes and soundbytes to reporters so we get to see them? Because they're not. For one thing, I care mostly about what players do on the field, and give very little attention to press conferences or quotes or soundbytes. But I also follow Teddy Bridgewater and Anthony Barr (and for that matter, the Minnesota Vikings) on Instagram, for heaven's sake. The players today are connecting to fans directly on social media, and the teams themselves do a solid job putting material out there for fans. Of course having independent outside reporters is valuable--as I've said, reporters should have adversarial relationships to their subjects, especially those subjects with power, or they don't actually serve any function that the teams and players can't handle themselves. But we as fans don't need reporters to be our surrogates or message boxes to get closer to the players we enjoy watching and following. Marshawn Lynch is not doing anything to disrespect fans by not saying "It's a team game, and we played to win the game, and we're just working hard and taking it one day at a time, and NOBODY BELIEVES IN US!"

In conclusion, Jonathan Moxon is only one man.

The Game
A very long time ago, I argued that the New England Patriots are a post-modern football team. They don't appear to give one iota of attention to establishing their "identity." They are willing to game plan to beat you in whatever way it is easiest to beat you. That's why they can have a player star one game and barely play the next, why they can sometimes look like a run-and-shoot team and sometimes look like a power running game. Bill Belichick finds the way to exploit the opponent and then does it in whatever way his team can.

And that's part of why the Patriots may win this game. The Patriot coaching staff rarely if ever gives an idea that they don't know what they're doing, and they're likely to find creative ways to exploit an opponent. But throughout the Carroll-Russell Seahawk years, despite all the success and what is clearly excellent coaching, Carroll's late game decision making has frequently been suspect. Late in games he doesn't always make the decisions that give his team the best chance to win. The Patriots may outcoach the Seahawks, especially if the game is close.

And yet, is there a team more suited to beat the Patriots than the Seahawks? The Seahawks have a dominating defense (#1 in yards and #1 in points allowed) that is particularly dominating against the pass (#1 in yards allowed, #2 in TDs allowed, and #3 in net yards per pass attempt allowed). I'm doubtful the Patriots have any wide receiver that can get open and contend for balls against the Seahawk secondary. Meanwhile they are a dominant rushing team, ranking #1 in rushing yards, #1 in rushing touchdowns, and #1 in rushing yards per attempt. The combination of Marshawn Lynch and Russell Wilson means the Seahawks should pick up first downs on the ground, in ways that are hard to stop.

The most interesting strategic part of the game may be how Seattle covers Rob Gronkowski, a virtually uncoverable weapon. They have the talent to contain him, but the Patriots really appear to need Gronkowski to beat the Seahawks.

My prediction? Marshawn Lynch rushes for 300 yards and 8 TDs and the Seahawks win 56-0, or Bill Belichick invents 19 plays nobody has every seen before and Pete Carroll chews gum while looking from scoreboard to video replay to field in confusion as the Patriots win.

Enjoy Sunday
The game starts so late that you can do virtually any non-football activity in the afternoon to ensure you have a full, fulfilling day no matter what. And then one more football game.

Enjoy your weekend, everybody.