Thursday, January 22, 2015

National Friday League: Reflections on Packer fans and Viking fans, without insults

How Viking fans and Packer fans cannot understand each other

Viking fans can understand how it feels to watch your team lose an NFC championship game the way the Packers did on Sunday. We don't even have to imagine it! We've experienced it. Losing out on a trip to the Super Bowl in a game you could have had wrapped up but for allowing an onside kick recovery is not that different than losing out on a trip to the Super Bowl in a game you could have had wrapped up but for your kicker's first missed kick of the entire season. And we might also note that Viking fans and Packer fans know what it's like to lose out on a chance for the Super Bowl due in large part to a bad Brett Favre interception.

But you know what feelings I don't know, don't understand, and struggle to imagine? I don't know what it's like to see your team win the Super Bowl, then spend four straight seasons losing playoff games in disappointing ways. I don't know what it's like to have seen your favorite team win two Super Bowls, but then also see them keep failing in the playoffs when they were good enough to win the Super Bowl. I don't know what it's like to experience what Packer fans experienced on Sunday in the context of having already been to the promised land.

And Packer fans, of course, would struggle to imagine what we Viking fans feel. How would you feel if instead of growing up hearing stories of the glory years of Vince Lombardi, five championships, the first two Super Bowl wins, and the Ice Bowl, you grew up hearing stories of the glory years of Bud Grant, four Super Bowl losses, no championships, and the Drew Pearson pushoff? How would you feel rooting for a team that's never won a Super Bowl, never been to the promised land, but also has a history of breaking your heart in ways every bit as agonizing as Sunday's Packer loss was for you? How would you know what it is to have that long-time experience of futility, of desperately hoping for an achievement you've never actually seen and can't even read about having happened in the past? Can you grasp a fan experience like that?

I've devoted a lot of my life to faith in the power of imagination. I don't say that one can know another's experience, but that through the study of history, through the reading of literature, through engagement with art, one can come to understand another's experience. But I don't claim we can imagine our ways into each others' experience. Packer fans have experienced something I've literally dreamed of but never experienced, and it's hard for me to comprehend what it's like to watch football--and to be disappointed by football--after having that experience.

Packer fans are renowned for their devotion to their team, but it's worth observing that for many younger Packer fans, their entire, or nearly entire, experience of fandom has featured Brett Favre being succeeded by Aaron Rodgers, and making the playoffs in 17 of the last 22 seasons. Do those fans know what it is like to hope for the best with the likes of Tarvaris Jackson, or Christian Ponder, or Gus Frerotte? Would they still be renowned for their great devotion? And if Viking fans had experienced two consecutive Hall of Fame quarterbacks, consistent playoff appearances, and three trips to the Super Bowl with two Super Bowl victories, what would our collective attitude be? Or our collective reputation?

There are things Packer fans won't get. They might not get that at the Mall of America there's a certain cheese store that sells a t-shirt making fun of the Vikings' empty trophy case, and that anytime I go to the MOA I won't even walk by that store, even though it's right by a place that sometimes has vegan cupcakes that I always go to, and I walk awkwardly around to get to one and not the other. I mean, Packer fans, is there anything I could say about your team that would lead to this sort of behavior for you?

But after that game Sunday, I left my Packer fan friends alone.I don't think losing a soul-crushing game in devastating fashion can be quite so bad for fans who saw their team win a Super Bowl four years ago than it can be for us. But losing a soul-crushing game in devastating fashion is still losing a soul-crushing game in devastating fashion. I didn't want to rub it in and try to remind them of how terrible they feel about it ("What happened to you, PV?  You used to be cool."  "I was never cool."). I know how lousy I'd feel and how little I'd want to hear from Packer fans in that situation.

Have a good weekend, everybody.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Vikings Positional Outlook: The Quarterbacks

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. Now I'm turning to the quarterback position, which is looking much more settled in 2015 than it was at this time 12 months ago.

Who the Vikings have/had

Ted Bridgewater, Matt Cassel, Christian Ponder, Pat Devlin (practise squad)


As I've written before, this will be an odd offseason for the Vikings and their fans - there will be no questions about who the #1 guy will be in 2015. It's Bridgewater, folks, who played well enough in his rookie season (12 starts, 2,919 passing yards, 64.4 completion percentage, 14 TD passes, 12 interceptions) to at least give fans hope he's the solution to the team's decade-long QB woes. I can't wait to see how much he improves (and how much the Vikings offense improves because of his improvement) with a full NFL offseason under his belt.

Cassel will be a pricey backup at $4.75 million, but I expect he'll be back and I expect the Vikes will want him back. Ponder, of course, is a goner. Devlin is a practice squad guy. It's probably best to ignore him, (the Vikes had, by my count, 3 QBs on the practise squad last season - McLeod Bethel-Thompson, Chandler Harnish and Devlin), but I figured I'd mention him anyway.

What the Vikings should do 

The answer is not much. Bridgewater will start. The most important thing the Vikings can do between now and then is put in place an offensive line that can keep him upright in 2015. Bridgewater was sacked 39 times in the 13.5 games he played. That's way too much and dangerous to Bridgewater's health.


Pacifist Viking delved into Bridgewater and what his 2014 performance tells us about his future prospects. Having watched all his starts last season, I stand by what I wrote about him last March - at worst, he's going to be a good NFL QB. But when I consider some of the things he did last year with the personnel he was working with, I think he's capable of getting to reaching"very good" status. And as Arif Hasan pointed out in this recent post, the things he's good at (pocket management and throwing accurately under pressure) are hard to teach and the stuff he isn't good at seem correctable with good coaching and multiple reps. I can't imagine Bridgewater won't be a better player in 2015 than he was in 2014, and that's great news for the Vikings.

Despite his price tag, I think Cassel is as good a veteran backup as you're likely to get. Look at all the dogs on this QB free agent list. He's a guy who probably isn't going to fare very well against good defenses and good teams, but he can play well enough against bad defenses and teams. The Vikes don't want to find themselves in a situation where they've got a Ryan Lindley or some such as the backup - a guy who basically gives you no chance against any team if he's forced to start. If Cassel does have to start a few games, you can tread water with him and win a game or two. That's worth $4.75 million to me, especially if the Vikes find themselves in playoff contention. We don't want another "Joe Webb starts a playoff game" experience.

That's a pretty boring assessment of what the Vikes need to do at the QB position this offseason - stand pat. But one move I'd like to see the team make is pick a big, strong-armed development prospect (I don't think that's Pat Devlin) late in the draft and see if they can slowly groom him into a quality NFL QB. With Bridgewater as your starter and Cassel as your backup, you have the luxury to do this next season. The plus in going this route is that picking any player in the 5th-7th round range means the guy is a long shot to be a good player, so if he doesn't pan out, it's no biggie. But if he does, you've either got a guy who can challenge Bridgewater in two or three years if Bridgewater doesn't turn out to be "the guy" or you've got a player you can trade for extra draft picks if Bridgewater is the franchise QB.

But who might this prospect be? A commenter recently brought up an intriguing player - 6'4 Washington State QB Connor Halliday. (Is this kid Mike Glennon's doppleganger?) He broke his leg against USC in November, and might not even get drafted as a result. But his passing stats in his last two years were impressive (he had a 734-yard game against Cal!.) He's also got a strong arm.

Or how about this Brandon Bridge kid from South Alabama? He's 6'4, has a rocket for an arm and he's fast. He's even Canadian! I like him already.    

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Vikings Positional Outlook: The Specialists

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 good idea and b) there won't be much Vikings stuff to blog about otherwise.

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.

First up in this series is the Vikings specialists - kicker, punter, long snapper and kick-off and punt returner. 


Who the Vikings have/had
Blair Walsh - placekicker; Jeff Locke - punter; Cullen Loeffler - long snapper; Cordarrelle Patterson - kick-off returner; Marcus Sherels - punt returner


It was not a great year for the Vikings specialists. Walsh went through a late-season slump where he missed several makeable field goals. Locke was the frequent target of fans ire on Twitter for consistently failing to down punts inside the opponent's 20 yard line, and for generally being 'meh' when it came to kicking for distance and with the proper hangtime. Patterson couldn't come close to following up his standout rookie season returning kicks, but he still finished seventh in kick-off return average (25.6 yards per attempt). Still, he didn't take any returns to the house and didn't look right returning kick-offs much of the year - it appeared he didn't have the burst he had in 2013. Sherels had the best year of the lot. He was sixth in the league in punt return yards (297) and 7th in punt return average (11 yards per return) and was his usual sure handed self fielding punts.  

What the Vikings should do

I saw some tweets during Walsh's slump where fans felt he needs to be pushed for his job in 2015. It never hurts to bring in an extra kicker for training camp, but I find it ridiculous that any fan would think Walsh should be replaced. Last year was the worst season of his three-year career, he "only" made 74.3 % of his kicks. But he's young, he's still got a big leg and over three years in the NFL he's missed just 16 of the 107 field goals he's attempted - an 84.5 % success rate. Nothing to see here.

The same can't be said for Locke. If you glance at this chart of NFL punting statistics for 2014, you'll notice Locke was average to below average in just about every category. The Vikes can do better. But will they? Drafting Locke in 2013 was thought to be special teams coordinator Mike Priefer's idea, and I don't think Locke's been so horrible over his first two years that Priefer is going to give up on him. It also helps Locke that according to Pro Football Focus's free agent draft tracker, there are only three punters who are free agents right now, and one of those is restricted free agent Chris Jones from Dallas. There is not much to choose from here. That would force the Vikings to dip into the college ranks again if they are looking for a new punter. Here is one list of the top-rated draft eligible punters in college football. I don't know anything about any of these guys, and I don't expect the Vikings to draft a punter two years after drafting Locke. But I could see one of the 16 punters on that list being signed as an undrafted free agent. And if they outperform Locke in OTAs and training camp, Locke  could be gone. At the very least, competition should be encouraged at this position in 2015, and I think it will. If the Vikes are really stuck, Chris Kluwe is always available. (Rimshot!)

I don't see the Vikings replacing Patterson as the team's primary kick-off returner in 2015. I also don't think they should replace him. I don't think what he did in 2013 was flukey, it was just a little unsustainable in terms of yardage and touchdowns scored. The Vikes have two potential replacements for Patterson in Sherels and Adam Thielen. But can you honestly say either guy would be better in this role than Patterson? I can't. What also shouldn't be forgotten is opposing teams still feared kicking the ball to Patterson even though he wasn't all that dangerous in the role in 2014. How many pooch kicks did we see last season from opponent's as they tried to prevent Patterson from getting the ball? And how many times did that result in favorable field position for the Vikings offense? (The answer is plenty.) I still like Patterson in this role, but the Vikes have other in-house options if they want to replace him for some reason.

In the punt returner role, I'm good with Sherels keeping that job - he's shifty, sure-handed and he's been productive. What's not to like? Thielen had some nice punt returns during the 2014 pre-season and showed promise as a punt returner. If Sherels were to lose his roster spot in 2015, I'd feel comfortable with Thielen as the team's punt returner. I don't think the Vikes will be actively looking to replace Sherels. But if they find another young cornerback with more upside as a defender this offseason, that could be in play.

I think Loeffler's days as the Vikings long snapper are numbered. Take a look at the rankings Pro Football Focus has for the long snappers who are free agents, which includes Loeffler. His ranking is the worst of the 14 guys listed. The pity about having the long snapper's job is when you're good at your job, fans don't notice you. But when you don't do your job well - like the low snap during the Miami game that resulted in a blocked punt and safety that cost the Vikes the game - everybody notices. Loeffler's age and his play last season make him a candidate to be replaced in 2015. If you looked at PFF's list of free agent long snappers, you noticed none of them had positive grades. So signing another experienced long snapper might not be the best solution. There are some long snappers in college who might interest the Vikings.

Loeffler's been with the Vikings a long time - since 2004 - and it could be hard for management to let go of a trusted veteran. But I expect the team will bring in a college guy to either compete with Loeffler for the job (if they re-sign him) or they won't re-sign Loeffler and just give the rookie the job.

Of all the Vikings specialists, it's Loeffler who I don't expect back in 2015.          

Thursday, January 15, 2015

National Friday League: Championship Weekend

Green Bay v. Seattle
2014 Packers
2014 Seahawks

One of the most enjoyable parts of this game will be watching strength versus strength, as the great Packer passing offense plays against the great Seahawk passing defense. This year the Packers ranked #1 in points scored and #1 in net yards per pass attempt with 7.5; the Seahawks ranked #1 in points allowed (and yards allowed) and #3 in net yards per pass attempt allowed at 5.5. The Seahawks are also excellent against the run, ranking #2 in yards allowed and rushing yards allowed.  The Seahawks are one of the few defensive teams in the league that can contain, even stifle, the Packer offense. That doesn't mean they will--it's hard to cover every Packer WR and stop the run--but they can.

And encouraging for most readers of this blog, the Packers also line up a weakness against a strength: the Packers defense is distinctly average (13th in points allowed, 15th in yards allowed) and below average in rush defense (23rd in yards allowed, 20th in yards per attempt allowed). The Seahawks, meanwhile, ranked #1 in both rushing yards and rushing yards per attempt. Not only can Marshawn Lynch run like a monster over the Packers, but Russell Wilson can get outside and scramble for first downs (and more) when the team needs it. They don't have a dominating pass offense, but they do have a big play pass offense.

Alas, I'm pessimistic. I just expect Minnesota sports fandom to be a horror show at this point, and so I expect to see another Green Bay championship this year. I expect Aaron Rodgers to consistently get big plays on 3rd down, for the Seahawks to not quite stop all the big plays, and to offensively not quite be able to keep up with Green Bay. I hope I'm wrong and will cheer hard to be wrong. Alas, I'll comfort myself in Minnesota with our awesome art museums, great state park system (and awesome park system in general), superior state fair, and other marks of civilization to make us happy because our sports teams suck.

Indianapolis v. New England
2014 Colts
2014 Patriots

I expected to look closer and find the Patriots far better than the Colts, and while the Patriots are better, the edge isn't as high as I expected. The Patriots led the league in point differential (9.7), but the Colts were a solid 7th (5.6). The Colts are right with the Patriots offensively (the Colts rank 6th in points and 3rd in yards, the Patriots 4th in points and 10th in yards). The Patriots also aren't that much better than the Colts defensively, and it's worth noting the Colts have given up 23 points in two total playoff games, and the Patriots gave up 31 points in one.

The advantage in this game is that Rob Gronkowski is virtually uncoverable. If the Patriots consistently exploit that advantage, they should win. But dang, it looks like Andrew Luck is ready for this. Why not? I think the Colts can win.

If Seattle wins the first game, I'll root for the Colts for the excitement and novelty. If Green Bay wins, I'll root for the Patriots because I think the Pats have a better chance of beating the Packers in the Super Bowl than the Colts do.

Weekend
I'm going to say what needs to be said: Batman Forever and Batman and Robin are unfairly maligned movies! Why can't a comic book superhero movie be outrageous, outlandish, over-the-top, and silly? A guy is dressing up like a bat and using a utility belt of magic tools to fight crime: does that have to be a gritty, serious story? At least these films are unique and creative in their aesthetic, unlike so many paint-by-numbers superhero movies. Comics adaptations are fun when they have a sense of humor about themselves.

Have a good weekend, suckers.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Nightmare Super Bowl scenario still alive

I can't imagine a Super Bowl scenario more disgusting than a Green Bay - New England matchup. But after today's divisional round of the playoffs, it's still very much in play.

New England was a pretty nondescript NFL franchise until 2001. Since then the Patriots have been ridiculously successful - winning three Super Bowls and appearing in five. I don't want to see them in a Super Bowl for about another 50 years (I'd probably be dead by then anyway at 95, but maybe not, I live pretty clean), let alone win another. Uber successful NFL franchises who aren't the Vikings make me want to puke.

Speaking of puking, a 5th Packers Super Bowl before the Vikes have won one would probably induce that reaction from me. Aaron Rodgers is so good this will probably be an annual worry for Vikings fans until he retires. I have some faith the Seattle Seahawks can prevent this abomination from happening - a gimpy Rodgers against that Seahawks defense in Seattle doesn't sound like good times for the Packers. But if the Packers do make the Super Bowl and win it, it has a good chance of spoiling my 2015. It might even cause Pacifist Viking to quit blogging again (he admits he's a flake.)

I know some Vikings fans will disagree with me, but I'm warming to the idea of a Seattle repeat. The thought of Tarvaris Jackson wearing two Super Bowl rings has a "You can't make this up" feel to it. It would also be nice to see Kevin Williams, a great, great Viking who has become a valuable rotational guy on a deep Seahawks defensive line, get a ring.

Can't wait to see Adrian Peterson in Seahawk green in 2015. (Just kidding!)

Links

- You may have heard Cris Carter's son, Duron Carter, had a workout with the Vikings last week and enjoyed his visit. For what's it's worth, here is a clip of his highlights as a Canadian Football League player. There's some good stuff in here. I don't know how it will translate to the NFL. Or if it will translate.


- Perhaps this Adrian Peterson appeal thing will have a speedy resolution. I think the writing is on the wall though. Peterson won't be back with the Vikings in 2015.

- Pro Football Focus named its All-Pro special teams squad last week, and it provides an argument for keeping Adam Thielen even if the Vikings upgrade themselves at wide receiver - he's got great value as a special teams player. PFF has him rated as one of the best blockers on kick off returns. He also had several tackles on coverage units, and he did have that incredible blocked punt/recovery/touchdown return against Carolina. I also think Thielen can become a decent wide receiving threat in a year or two. Not a #1 or #2 guy, but possibly a guy who can get you 30-35 catches a year on a strong passing offense. The Vikes only kept five WRs last year. But why not keep six - with Thielen being one of them even if he's not playing a lot on offense? The Vikes kept two fullbacks last year even though one guy barely played in the games (Jerome Felton) and the other barely dressed for a game all season (Zach Line). There's got to be a roster spot for Thielen on the Vikings in 2015.    

Friday, January 9, 2015

Q & A: Four Notable Vikings Writers/Bloggers Answer Four Critical Questions Facing The Minnesota Vikings In 2015

Occasionally I like to pawn my blogging off on other writers/bloggers. This is one of those times. However, this isn't a case of me getting someone else to do my work for me. I decided it would be fun - and hopefully informative - to ask a few other notable people who write about and cover the Minnesota Vikings to anser what I consider are four of the most critical questions facing the franchise in 2015.

Lucky for me, I was able to convince Jim Souhan, Arif Hasan, Christopher Gates and Ben Goessling to provide their thoughts on those questions. I thank them profusely for making some time in their busy schedules to do so. What follows are their responses, which produced some thoughtful and interesting responses. (Spoiler alert: most of these guys think your Vikes are a playoff team in 2015.)

                                                    *     *     *

Jim Souhan (Star-Tribune columnist/ESPN 1500 radio personality)

1. Teddy Bridgewater - legit franchise QB or no?
"Bridgewater is legit. He was asked to run an offense with all kinds of problems before he was prepared to play in the NFL, and he actually got better as the season progressed. He's accurate, smart, studious and a leader. He'll get stronger, the offense will build around him and he'll be a top 10 NFL quarterback."


2. Adrian Peterson - a Viking in 2015 or no?
"I think the odds are against it. I think the Vikings want him back at the right price. I think Peterson will take offense at the suggestion of a pay cut and look to play elsewhere."

3. Playoffs or bust in 2015 - what will it be?
"I think the Vikings take a leap in the standings next year. Second year in Norv Turner's offense, Bridgewater prepared to take on the full responsibilities of a starting quarterback, Matt Cassel as an ideal backup, Kyle Rudolph healthy, an offensive line that has to be improved - I think the Vikings squeak into a wild-card game."

4. If you were Rick Spielman, who would you pick with the 11th pick of the 2015 NFL draft?
"Best player who isn't a quarterback, tight end or running back. Talent being close to equal, I'd like to see a dominant offensive lineman or big-play receiver."


Arif Hasan (Vikings Territory editor-in-chief/Vikings Journal blogger/Daily Norseman podcaster/general Vikings busybody)

1. Teddy Bridgewater - legit franchise QB or no?
"Absolutely. Numbers aside (and a very good rookie performance with all that we know), I think his play from a subjective standpoint is stellar. It's a cliché, but the things he's good at are hard to teach and things he's bad at are fixable. In a great departure from previous Vikings offense's, we have a quarterback who is phenomenal with regards to pocket management and pressure. He's quick to go through progressions (often) and understands the offense. Accurate and decisive. Obviously there's stuff to fix, but it didn't look like any of it is a red flag."

2. Adrian Peterson - a Viking in 2015 or no?
Normatively: No. The ethics of it aside (which I don't think are that prohibitive), I think the Vikings set themselves up well by planning for his absence. The next best step is to get as much as we can for him. I don't think if the Vikings win the Super Bowl soon it will be on the back of Adrian Peterson. Given that, finding the best possible price is the priority. Predictively: Yes. I think the Vikings think they need him. There's a good argument that they would have gone to the playoffs with him on the roster (although who knows? Cassel may not have been injured then.)"

3. Playoffs or bust in 2015 - what will it be?
"Playoffs. I think regression to the mean and return from injury helps the offensive line and that Rudolph figures out his weight and speed for this offense. I think Greg Jennings will probably regress due to age, but offseason acquisitions and the current receiver roster will make up for that, as it is mostly young. Teddy improves, and therefore the offense is at least a league average. And Mike Zimmer takes care of the defense. The Lions lose [defensive coordinator] Teryl Austin and suddenly the Vikings are the second best team in the division and have a Wild Card shot."

4. If you were Rick Spielman, who would you pick with the 11th pick of the 2015 NFL draft?
"Shaq Thompson. Instinctive and athletic? Sounds like Anthony Barr. He could replace Chad Greenway, and then you hold a Gerald Hodges/Audie Cole competition in the middle."
 
Ben Goessling (ESPN Minnesota Vikings blogger)

1. Teddy Bridgewater - legit franchise QB or no?
"It’s hard to answer that question after just one season, but I see more signs that make me think he is than ones that make me think he’s not. His command of the offense is well beyond his years – the only time I can remember him really getting crossed up by a defender was with Glover Quin in the first Detroit game. I like how he uses his mobility to extend plays, rather than to bail on them early, and he doesn’t seem rattled by the scope of the job. He studies hard, he wants to be great and players absolutely have bought into what he’s about. His arm strength is good enough to make the functional throws in a NFL offense – there just aren’t that many times where you’re throwing 60 yards downfield – and while he’s never going to be Joe Flacco or Aaron Rodgers in that regard, a lack of a huge arm hasn’t exactly stopped Peyton Manning. I’m not ready to give a definitive ‘yes,’ but I think we’re headed in that direction.
 
2. Adrian Peterson - a Viking in 2015 or no?
"I don’t see it. I put the odds at about 65-35 that he’s gone, and I’ve talked to plenty of people who put the number higher than that. I think the Vikings will try to bring him back on a restructured deal, and there are a number of ways they can go about that, but the question is whether the relationship between Peterson and the Vikings is strained enough that he’ll decline to restructure his deal and effectively dare them to move him. He likes Zimmer, believes in Bridgewater and appreciated the support he received from players and coaches this season, but those won’t be the people dealing with Peterson when money issues are raised this spring. Now, the Vikings could bring him back at his current cap number and all this is a moot point, but I don’t think that will happen, and in the end, I believe he’ll be elsewhere in 2015."

3. Playoffs or bust in 2015 - what will it be?
"Is there a third option? I’m going to keep refusing to answer these questions in black-and-white terms. :-) The Vikings have every reason to think they can be better in 2015 than they were this year. The defense should improve with another year under Mike Zimmer, Bridgewater should be better in Year 2 and the Vikings have an offseason to address issues on the offensive line, at receiver and in the back seven of the defense. So I think playoffs are a definite possibility. But the 2015 schedule includes a total of seven games against 2014 playoff teams (as well as San Francisco, San Diego and Kansas City), and it’s hard to predict what will happen between now and next September, especially with free agency and the draft still ahead of us. If I’m the Vikings’ brain trust, though, I don’t think I’d look at 2015 as a “playoffs or bust” year, anyway. If you keep seeing improvement from Bridgewater and growth on defense, you’ll get there sooner than later."

4. If you were Rick Spielman, who would you pick with the 11th pick of the 2015 NFL draft?
"I like the idea of putting Alabama’s Landon Collins at safety next to Harrison Smith. The Vikings need an upgrade at that position, and safeties just give you so much flexibility on defense in today’s NFL. Look at everything Seattle does with Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor; they’re able to stay in their base defense more often and remain strong against the run, because they trust Thomas (in particular) to cover receivers. As the game spreads out more and more, players who can make plays in space and hit people are more important. A Collins-Smith safety duo, with Xavier Rhodes playing behind Everson Griffen and Anthony Barr, is a really, really nice foundation for that defense for years to come."

Christopher Gates (Daily Norseman Grand Poobah) 

1. Teddy Bridgewater - Legit franchise quarterback or no

"Absolutely. There's a reason that Teddy Bridgewater spent so much of the 2013 college football season being hyped as a potential #1 overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, and he started to display some of those reasons as he got more playing time this past season. He already handles pressure at the NFL level like a seasoned veteran, as his accuracy percentage (per Pro Football Focus) in situations where he was under pressure and not under pressure were nearly identical. He showed an ability to make all the throws with a great deal of accuracy, and had the NFL's highest quarterback rating over the final five weeks of the 2014 season. Does he have the proverbial "big arm?" Maybe not, though I didn't see his arm strength being an issue towards the end of the season. Having a full offseason in an NFL-level strength and conditioning program, as well as having more time to work with Norv and Scott Turner, will likely help that as well.

I have a feeling that, in a few years, Vikings fans are going to look back at the 2014 NFL Draft as a true turning point in franchise history, and Teddy Bridgewater will be the reason why."

2. Adrian Peterson - a Viking in 2015 or no

"The more I think about this, the more I'm leaning towards "no." The biggest component of this entire thing is whether or not Adrian Peterson wants to be back, and that's something I don't think will be the case. Peterson said that an individual in the Vikings' hierarchy, later identified as Chief Counsel Kevin Warren, was actively working to keep him off of the field for this season. And while it's easy to look at someone further down the chain like Warren, you're not going to have one employee going rogue without, at the very least, a wink and a nod from the people in charge. So, if Peterson has been led to believe that he's not wanted, there's a chance that he could make things tougher on the Vikings by not renegotiating his deal (because I don't think there's any chance he comes back at his present $15 million cap number), and the Vikings will end up either trading or releasing him.

One of the things that will complicate that is the arbitrary April 15th date for potential reinstatement that the National Football League has set for Peterson. It is my understanding that the Vikings can't do anything with Peterson prior to that, such as rework his contract or anything else. Given that said date is a full month after the start of free agency and just two weeks ahead of the 2015 NFL Draft, it's going to make working a trade difficult. And if the Vikings release him at that point, yes, they'll have an extra $13 million in cap room, but many of the "top shelf" free agents are going to be gone by that time. The league has really put the Vikings in a difficult position with this whole situation, and it will be interesting to see how the team handles it. But if I had to bet one crisp Internet dollar on Adrian Peterson being a Minnesota Viking in 2015, I would have to lean towards "no."

4. Playoffs or Bust in 2015 - What will it be?

"I think this is a playoff team next season. The Packers will still be a tough out in this division, but the Bears are in "blow it up and start over" mode, and with Ndamukong Suh likely leaving Detroit, they'll probably be weakened as well. The Vikings have a tough schedule next year, drawing the AFC and NFC West as their non-divisional opponents, but I think this team is going to be even more improved in 2015. The offense is coming along nicely, and Bridgewater is going to be more comfortable. He'll also have the knowledge that the starting quarterback job is unquestionably his going into camp, which will help. Defensively, the Vikings are already much improved, and they're a piece or two away from having a truly elite unit. The defense took to Mike Zimmer's new scheme in 2014 much more quickly than anyone could have thought, and if Zimmer can just get those couple of additional pieces this off-season, the defense could be something special. So, yes, I think the Minnesota Vikings will be participating in the 2015 NFL playoffs."

4. If you were Rick Spielman, who would you pick with the 11th pick in the 2015 NFL Draft?

"There are a couple of directions that this team could go with the #11 pick. (I'd be surprised if that's where they actually wound up selecting, but we'll work with this for now.) On the defensive side, the team could look at either the linebacker corps or at the safety spot next to Harrison Smith. A guy that I've been banging the table for already is a guy that could, potentially, fill either spot in Washington linebacker Shaq Thompson. Thompson isn't the biggest guy at about 6'1" and 225-230 pounds, and he's been marked as a bit of a "tweener" at the NFL level. While "tweener" usually refers to a guy that could bounce between the linebacker corps and the defensive line, in Thompson's case it means he could be either a linebacker or a safety. Someone like Thompson would give Mike Zimmer even more flexibility on defense. . .and, hey, in a pinch Thompson could even step in at running back. (He does have two 100-yard rushing games this season to go along with all of his defensive numbers.)

If the team wants to lean offense, the weak spot is obviously the offensive line. I think the team is going to give Matt Kalil an opportunity to get back to his rookie form, so I don't think they'd necessarily go offensive tackle this early. However, if Iowa's Brandon Scherff were to fall into their laps at #11, they could be tempted to take him. Scherff would likely step in at left guard immediately, and if Kalil continued to fade, he has the flexibility and the skill set where he could move to left tackle for the Vikings as well. I'm sure the team would love for David Yankey to step up this season and compete for a spot, and I still think that Yankey has a solid future with this team, but the team could go with the Scherff thing instead. (What I did there. . .do you see it?)

The chic pick I've seen so far is for the Vikings to reunite Teddy Bridgewater with his favorite college target, Louisville receiver DeVante Parker. Parker has all the things you want to see in a potential #1 wide receiver, but I'm not sure if wide receiver is as dire a need as it might appear. We still don't know what the team is going to do with Greg Jennings and/or whether or not Cordarrelle Patterson can be fixed after a disappointing sophomore season. Jarius Wright and Charles Johnson both appeared to get better as they got more comfortable with Teddy Bridgewater, and the team is reportedly in the Duron Carter mix, too. Top all of that off with this being a pretty deep class at wide receiver, and I'm not sure if I could see the Vikings taking a receiver at #11 overall.

If I could narrow all of that down to one guy at the present time, a month before the Scouting Combine and all of that excitement, I think the guy I'd go with would be Shaq Thompson."

Thursday, January 8, 2015

National Friday League: A Super Long Post to Make Up for a Holiday Hiatus

Finding Context for Teddy Bridgewater's Rookie Season

Finding Comparisons
How do we put Teddy Bridgewater's rookie season into perspective? One way is to seek out other rookie QBs with comparable statistics.

Using pro-football-reference.com's awesome play finder search feature, I searched for rookie QBs who started 8 or more games and had yards per attempt of 7.0 or higher AND passer ratings of 80.0 or higher.

The list is impressive, but narrowing the focus to the players whose stats are closest to Bridgewater's is a little more sobering. Bridgewater's 7.3 yards per attempt and 85.2 rating compares most closely to Charlie Batch (7.2, 83.5), but he also compares nicely with Jim Kelly (7.5, 83.3). Bridgewater was younger than both of them during his rookie season though (Kelly was seasoned in the USFL too).

Also, Dieter Brock may be the most interesting player ever, and I'm not entirely convinced he really existed. That's just some dummy test profile built into the pfr search engine for some reason. Has to be. I'd look up more about him but I almost prefer leaving it to my imagination exactly how that career happened.

We should acknowledge that in his rookie year, Bridgewater suffered behind reprehensibly bad pass blocking and for most of the season was trying to throw to receivers who were not getting separation at all. But my hesitant take based on his rookie season is that Bridgewater shows all the signs of being a good to very good quarterback--I'd be very surprised if he turns out to be a bad NFL player for his career. But he also didn't show the signs of being a transcendent all-timer. And that's OK. You can win a Super Bowl with a good-but-not great quarterback, as the Ravens demonstrated with Joe Flacco and the Giants demonstrated with Eli Manning twice. You can build a team around a good quarterback. If you build a solid team, well-coached team, and can consistently make the playoffs, you've got a shot of getting hot and breaking through. And Bridgewater is still young and may show more than he showed as a rookie.

How much will Bridgewater's performance change next year?
Again using the search features of pro-football-reference.com, I found rookie QBs who started 8 or more games since 2008 (an arbitrary year: I basically wanted to include Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco). Again using yards per attempt and passer rating to gauge performance, here is how these players performed from year one to year two.

Joe Flacco
year one: 6.9, 80.3
year two: 7.2, 88.9

Matt Ryan
year one: 7,9, 87.7
year two: 6.5, 80.9

Josh Freeman
year one: 6.4, 59.8
year two: 7.3, 95.9

Mark Sanchez
year one: 6.7, 63.0
year two: 6.5, 75.3

Matthew Stafford
year one: 6.0, 61.0
year two: 5.6, 91.3

Jimmy Clausen
year one: 5.2, 58.4
year two: did not play

Colt McCoy
year one: 7.1, 74.5
year two: 5.9, 74.6

Sam Bradford
year one: 6.0, 76.5
year two: 6.1, 70.5

Blaine Gabbert
year one: 5.4, 65.4
year two: 6.0, 77.4

Christian Ponder
year one: 6.4, 70.1
year two: 6.1, 81.2

Andy Dalton
year one: 6.6, 80.4
year two: 6.9, 87.4

Cam Newton
year one: 7.8, 84.5
year two: 8.0, 86.2

Ryan Tannehill
year one: 6.8, 76.1
year two: 6.7, 81.7

Brandon Weeden
year one: 6.5, 72.6
year two: 6.5, 70.3

Robert Griffin III
year one: 8.1, 102.4
year two: 7.9, 86.9

Andrew Luck
year one: 7.0, 76.5
year two: 6.7, 87.0

EJ Manuel
year one: 6.4, 77.7
year two: 6.4, 80.3

Geno Smith
year one: 6.9, 66.5
year two: 6.9, 77.5

Mike Glennon
year one: 6.3, 83.9
year two: 7.0, 83.3

What do we see? Some players perform better, some perform worse, and some perform the same in their second seasons. Passer rating often goes up as the QB's interception rate goes down, but there's not much change in yards per attempt. The one thing you can know is that there's no guarantee of improvement between year one and year two. In fact giant leaps are rare (and not even a clear predictor of future success). I'll have to stand by what I've written before: if a rookie QB plays most of the season, by the end of the season he's shown us pretty much what he is. If he's good he'll improve on the things he's already good at (increasing completion percentage, lowering interception rates). But expect Teddy Bridgewater to be the player he is, just a better version, perhaps a slightly better and perhaps a much better version, of the player he is.

And now, for your crazy wild hopes
I noted in the past that at times this season Teddy Bridgewater looked like an early-career Tom Brady (plus mobility): running an offense featuring a lot of quick throws, wide receiver screens, requiring quick decisions, throwing to receivers who weren't standout playmakers. Brady didn't play as a rookie, but here's a comparison of Bridgewater's rookie season with Tom Brady's first season as starter (his second season).

Teddy Bridgewater 2014
64.4 cmp%, 3.5 TD%, 3.0 INT%, 7.3 ypa, 85.2 rating, 8.8 sack%

Tom Brady 2001
63.9 cmp%, 4.4 TD%, 2.9 INT%, 6.9 ypa, 86.5 rating, 9.0 sack%

Look, make of that what you will. Whatever gets you through the night.

A request for Division 1 football and basketball players
When a college athlete is interviewed by a member of the media, I would like that athlete to start the interview thus:

"Before I answer questions, may I ask, what is your salary?"

I wonder if that simple question would help illuminate something strange: that there are people who make a living covering, talking about, writing about, and commenting on the performances of unpaid athletes. Asking that question might make people wonder why those covering the sport deserve to make their livelihood from it, but those playing don't.

I don't pretend for a minute that those players' coaches wouldn't shut down that line of questioning (the coaches are often really making big money, after all). But it would be interesting. I don't find it that disturbing that a college or university profits from the athletes' play: a college or university asks its own students to contribute to the institution in all sorts of ways, a scholarship from the university is a way to balance what is being asked, and after all, in theory all the money made is put back into the college or university, for the betterment of the institution and all who are a part of it (I can be convinced I'm wrong about this). But it is weird that, say, employees for apparel and shoe companies, and employees for television networks and other media outlets, can profit tremendously from the athletes' play.

In my wild fantastical vision, if the players are truly student-athletes, the colleges and universities that they play for should tell television networks, "We're playing these games and if you want to televise them you can, but you can't show paid advertisements, though you can show advertisements for colleges and universities." And those colleges and universities would pay for the team's equipment, and make the same sorts of clothing apparel deals for the t-shirts and sweatshirts and hats that their fans can buy that any small college bookstore would make with an apparel company. And if they don't do that, if the NCAA makes deals for for-profit corporations to make profits from the play of these athletes' play, then they're not student-athletes but laborers who deserve a cut of those profits.

Playoffs!
Divisional Round Games

The thing to do on this, one of the greatest weekends for football of the entire year, a weekend featuring the best teams in football playing games that are often extremely memorable, enjoyable, and entertaining, is this: make it a game weekend. There are a lot of board games and card games you can play while also watching a football game. The Vikes aren't playing, so you don't need as much focus and you won't be consumed with the anxiety/fear/horror that would prevent you from enjoying anything else. I still remember sitting in my little dorm room playing card games with my future wife while watching the Patriots and Raiders play football in that snow. Watch every football game this weekend and spend quality time with family and friends.

I recommend Ticket to Ride or Ticket to Ride: Europe, and if you're playing the American map make sure to read the back story of the game where you're a Gilded Age Robber Baron having pointless adventures with your Robber Baron friends.

Ravens-Patriots. Now this is fun. When two very well-coached teams play--teams that on offense, defense, and special teams play fundamentally strong and generally strategically clean and clear games--you expect to see quality football.

Panthers-Seahawks. The best thing to do during this game is have some drinks.  It's a Saturday night and one team is way better than the other.  The best thing to do is get a local beer--for me that's any of Summit Brewing's line of excellent  beer--and insist to everybody who will listen (or won't) that you love "the hometown brew." I mean, don't shut up about it. I came home from a three-night trip to Chicago this summer, bought a six pack of Summit EPA, and smiled after every gulp while saying "I really missed the hometown brew," until everybody I was with wanted to slap me. I'd also recommend a superb Belgian beer like Chimay or Duvel. I've already told my auction fantasy league that for the next draft, if they hand me a cold 750 ml bottle of Duvel at the start of the draft, I'll finish it before round one is over. They think they're going to disrupt my drafting ability: I think I'm getting a bottle of Duvel.

Cowboys-Packers. This isn't fun. I don't think the Cowboys have the defense--especially in the secondary--to contain the Packers enough to win. In fact they might not be able to keep it close: they're playing against an amazing offense with a defense that performed average during the year (15th in points allowed, 19th in yards) but is talent-wise probably below-average. Watch the game, and if it's a blowout, go read a book during the second half while you wait to watch Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck. If the Packers go to the Super Bowl again I won't watch the game, which is sort of a bummer, and if they win the Super Bowl again...ugh, I don't want to think about going back to work in Wisconsin the next day again. I don't want to have to go back to work the day after the Packers win a Super Bowl again until after the Vikings win a Super Bowl, after which I should be able to tolerate anything sports-related. Maybe I should go into this semester and pretend I don't care about football? I'll just stash all my sports-related comparisons in lit class and find better ways to illuminate and relate to the text? If people are celebrating the Packers winning the Super Bowl, I'll just look a little blankly at them like they're talking about soccer or something? If it comes up at all I'll say the only sport I follow is running? Yeah...I have some good running-related comparisons for lit class to help illuminate and relate to the text. Anyway, my son was watching the ending of the Lions-Cowboys game last Sunday and he asked, as he asks anytime I'm watching a game without a Minnesota team playing, "Which team are you voting for?" I said the Cowboys, and he said "I'm voting for them too" then he got excited when they won. Now he wants them to beat the Packers and he says the Cowboys "are like the second Vikings," which means I guess we root for them in our house now when the Vikes aren't on? He also said it is weird that the Cowboys have a star on their helmet, and I said "Not really." Anyway, if you can, have a seven year old watch football with you and listen to him say and ask all sorts of things you would never think to think during a football game.

Colts-Broncos. You don't have to think for a minute about Peyton Manning playing his former team in the playoffs. Just think that with Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck, you're talking about 79 TDs and 31 INTs in 2014. Exciting plays are going to happen. At no point will a lead be big enough that you should give up on the game. No matter how the game goes, it will be entertaining and fascinating, proving great football and great story.

In which I say good things about the Timberwolves
We have a good mascot, and if you go to a game they do throw a lot of t-shirts out to the audience. I've never caught one of these t-shirts but every time I go to a game (I went Monday with tickets won from Union Depot) I think "This could be the day!" Someday. I know I could buy a Timberwolves t-shirt, but I want the shirt I earned by catching it at a game.

I still want them to get George R.R. Martin's permission and become the Minneapolis Direwolves.

Kick Ass Link for J-Rod
"Yeah, So, Andrew Wiggins is Getting Good" (Deadspin)

Weekend
It's a great football weekend, people. Enjoy it. Except Packer fans. I mean, enjoy your weekend and all, but I hope your team loses.