Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Tim Hasselbeck talks smack about Ted Bridgewater. Is he right?

Let's forget for a few minutes that Tim Hasselbeck is married to this lady.

Instead, let's remember that Hasselbeck played 4 seasons in the NFL as a backup quarterback and threw 177 passes in his short career. It's true he wasn't much of a player. But he was good enough to draw a paycheck from 4 teams in the best football league in the world. And he would have been tutored by some of the best QB coaches in the world during his time in the NFL and at Boston College. I expect he knows a thing or two about what it takes to be a great QB in the NFL - even if he wasn't one himself.

So Hasselbeck was on ESPN Radio recently and he said some not-so-flattering things about Ted Bridgewater (the Teddy talk starts around the 6:45 mark of the segment.) Hasselbeck said things like "I don't believe he is a starter in the NFL", and Bridgewater "doesn't have the arm strength" to make it as a starter. If you're hoping Bridgewater is finally the franchise QB the Vikings need, this is worrying stuff.

As I mentioned in yesterday's post, I'm mildly concerned about some of things I'm consistently seeing from Bridgewater. But, and this is a football layperson's perspective, the longer I watch the NFL the more it seems to me that a QB's success is more dependent on their mental gifts than their physical gifts. QBs that can stay calm in the pocket and not allow their mechanics to go to hell amid the chaos, process information quickly and make smart decisions do pretty well. It's great if those QBs also have a bazooka for an arm, too. But arm strength isn't everything. If it was, guys like Byron Leftwich would be first ballot Hall of Famers.

So it's interesting to hear Hasselbeck cite a physical limitation as the reason he believes Bridgewater is not NFL starter material. From what I've seen - and I realize I'm just a rube with an obscure blog - Bridgewater has the mental traits you want in a QB (although his mechanics seem to be breaking down lately when his pass protection fails him, which has been often.) It's why I still hold out a lot of hope that Bridgewater will be a very good QB someday. (If you're interested, Arif Hasan at Vikings Journal has a reasoned take on Bridgewater's struggles here.)

I also think the Christian Ponder Experience may be why some Vikings fans are giving up on Bridgewater after just seven starts. I know it's been hard for me to stop making comparisons. I remember Ponder having some bright moments during his rookie season that were coupled with plenty of badness - just like we've seen from Bridgewater. Yet I don't remember being terribly worried that Ponder would be a bust after his rookie season was over.

What I remember is I viewed him as a rookie enduring the typical struggles of playing for a bad team with a bad offensive line and with nobody other than Percy Harvin to throw to. I had reason to believe he'd get better as the supporting cast around him improved. And the supporting cast did improve. Yet Ponder might be a worse player now than he was in 2011. He never got better. So it seems Vikings fans are seeing Bridgewater go through similar struggles and are expecting the same Ponder-like result in a year or two. But these are two different players with two different personalities. I don't see their Vikings careers ending the same way.

Maybe Bridgewater is destined to be just a backup, like Hasselbeck suggests. Right now, I see some Chad Pennington in him. Before you start moaning, check out Pennington's career stats and recognize that Pennington suffered multiple shoulder injuries to his throwing arm that really affected the pace he could put on a ball. Bridgewater's arm strength right now looks like a Dan Marino fastball in comparison to how hard Pennington could throw it late in his career. (And Bridgewater is also much more mobile than Pennington ever was, an added plus.)
     
And yet, Pennington was a tremendously accurate and productive passer when he was healthy despite not being able to do the things Tim Hasselbeck says are necessary to be an effective starting QB in the NFL. How did he pull it off? By staying calm in the pocket and not allowing his mechanics to go to hell amid the chaos, by processing information quickly and by making smart decisions.

If Bridgewater turns out to be as good as Pennington - minus the injury issues - I won't complain. 

Monday, November 24, 2014

There's always next year - the 2014 Minnesota Vikings

As I mentioned in my post yesterday, Vikings fans should be in full "looking to 2015" mode now.

At 4-7, the Vikings aren't going anywhere in 2014. The only intrigue left is what draft position they will end up with.

For me, that means worrying less about the outcomes of the Vikings remaining 5 games - although I still want them to win all 5 - and worrying more about the play of specific players and the way positional units are performing. It's the players who will largely determine how much better the Vikings are in 2015 and whom management will bring in through the draft and free agency to augment what is already in place.

So here we go with some observations based on what I saw against Green Bay.

* Sunday's game confirmed what's been apparent for several games now - the Vikings defense is in good hands under Mike Zimmer. It's well-coached and improving as players get more comfortable with what Zimmer and defensive coordinator George Edwards want from them. The run defense still isn't where I'd like it to be, and Eddie Lacey made that apparent on Sunday. But this unit is no longer in danger of getting torched by opposing passers game-after-game. That is major progress compared to what we've witnessed since 2010.

What really excites me about the Vikes defense is its age. The majority of the contributors on this unit are young guys who are either good players hitting their primes or emerging players who could grow into very good-to-great players in a couple of seasons. Everson Griffen is 27. Linval Joseph and Captain Munnerlyn are 26. Harrison Smith and Robert Blanton are 25. Xavier Rhodes is 24. Josh Robinson is 23. Anthony Barr and Sharrif Floyd are 22. Most of these players are under the Vikings control for the next two-to-three years (or longer.) This defense is good right now. It could be very good - perhaps even dominant - in a year or two.

* Ted Bridgewater has made a habit of playing well late in games and late in the first half, leading the Vikings on scoring drives during pressure-packed moments during games. But he's also made a habit of starting off extremely slow - creating the circumstances for pressure-packed late game situations.  He also continues to miss wide open receivers at a rate I'm not comfortable with. It doesn't help that his offensive line can't be trusted to hold a block for more than one second on pass plays (a situation that is not helped by Phil Loadholt's season-ending pectoral injury.) Are these the typical ups and downs we can expect from a rookie QB playing for a bad team? Yes they are. However, I'm still mildly concerned by the shortcomings I'm seeing in Bridgewater's game on a weekly basis.

* I'm well past being mildly concerned with Matt Kalil's shortcomings. The team will have to suck it up and play him for the rest of this season though. Austin Wentworth is not the salve to apply to this puss-filled sore. Are the problems more mental than physical? Either way, it's hard for me to believe that Kalil, who played poorly last year and has been even worse this year, will return to his 2012 All-Pro form. He's become a bad player and the Vikings will need to replace him before the 2015 seasons starts. It's time for us to start paying close attention to left tackle prospects in the upcoming draft.

* Now we know why Charles Johnson is playing for his third team in two seasons - it's his hands. Johnson had two costly drops against Green Bay. Still, he was open on those plays, and others, in a way we haven't seen a Vikings wide receiver get open in several years around here. It sounds like Johnson has taken the starting WR spot opposite Greg Jennings away from Cordarrelle Patterson. If Johnson can cut down on the drops, the Vikings may have an important piece that will help them elevate their passing game in 2015. 

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Staying On The Ledge: Packers 24 - Vikings 21

Packers - Vikings box score

The Vikings-Packers divisional rivalry isn't a rivalry anymore.

I think for a rivalry to be legitimate, it requires that both teams are evenly matched and they play close, hotly contested games where each team generally split the games they play.

That doesn't apply here. Since 2006, the Vikings are 4-13-1 against the Packers and suffered some embarrassing beatdowns at the hands of Green Bay.

And it appears all the losing is starting to have an effect on me.

Today was strange game for me. It was close the entire way, but I was pretty calm and wasn't the least bit upset by the close loss. That's not how I've felt in past years if the Vikes had lost to Green Bay by such a narrow margin (especially at home, which is the only place the Vikings seem to have a chance to beat them these days.) I would have been irate and in a bad mood all night. Instead, it almost feels like the Vikings didn't play at all today.

I think I know why. Because the Vikings aren't a playoff contender, and because Aaron Rodgers vs. Ted Bridgewater is such a mismatch at the game's most important position right now, and because the game went like I expected it too (defense plays well enough to keep it close at home/offense plays well enough to lose), I had this game chalked up as a loss before it was even played. Such is life as a Minnesota Vikings fan when they are playing the Packers these days.

I really hate this, and I hate that a game that used to be a toss up not so long ago is now met with resignation that the Vikings will lose and it's probably going to be like this for a while.

I'll have more to say about the game tomorrow (we are officially in "what did we learn today that could be useful in building the Vikings 2015 roster" territory now.)

For now, I'm going to continue feeling very little emotion about the loss.

That doesn't seem right, but it's where I am mentally with this franchise right now.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Can Jerick McKinnon be the Vikings feature back?

A few weeks ago I wrote a post asking whether McKinnon was the real deal as a running back.

This week as the NFL dropped the disciplinary hammer on Adrian Peterson, and the Vikes signed Ben Tate, McKinnon was top of mind among some Vikings fans.

Since the Vikings drafted McKinnon last May, the assumption has been he's a third-down, change-of-pace running back who will never be a guy capable of carrying the ball 20-to-25 times per game. That point of view was expressed again by one commenter in response to a post I wrote Wednesday, and some more on my Twitter feed after Tate was signed.

However, I've yet to read any good arguments that explain why McKinnon can't be a "feature" running back in the NFL (and for argument's sake, I consider a "feature" back to be a guy who is getting the majority of the carries for his team). But one argument is that McKinnon is too small to take the pounding that comes with being a team's #1 running back.

McKinnon is listed as standing 5'9 and weighing 208 pounds. I decided to look at the depth charts of the other 31 NFL teams and see how many featured backs on those squads weighed as much or less than McKinnon (I also included their listed heights below.) It turns out the list is fairly long.

1. Reggie Bush (Detroit): 6'0, 205 pounds
2. Tre Mason (St. Louis): 5'8, 207 pounds
3. Andre Ellington (Arizona): 5'9, 199 pounds
4. LeSean McCoy (Philadelphia): 5'11, 208 pounds
5. Brandon Oliver (San Diego): 5'8, 208 pounds
6. Jamaal Charles (Kansas City): 5'11, 199 pounds
7. Ronnie Hillman (Denver) 5'10, 195 pounds
8. Bishop Sankey (Tennessee) 5'10, 209 pounds
9. Denard Robinson (Jacksonville): 6'0, 197 pounds
10. Gio Bernard, (Cincinnati) 5'9, 208 pounds
11. Justin Forsett (Baltimore) 5'8, 197 pounds

As you can see, we've got 11 running backs in the NFL getting significant work for their respective teams (or were getting significant work before getting injured) who weigh the same or less than McKinnon. If being short and weighing 208 pounds or less meant it was impossible to be a feature back in the NFL, I'd think this list would be a whole lot shorter than it is. The list doesn't even include guys like Marshawn Lynch (215 pounds), Frank Gore (217 pounds), Mark Ingram (215 pounds) and DeAngelo Williams (215 pounds) who are all listed as weighing less than 10 pounds more than McKinnon and who are all - or have been - #1 running backs for the teams they play for.

It's also worth mentioning that McKinnon led all running backs in bench press reps at the NFL scouting combine, and has shown during his rookie syear that he can gain lots of yards after contact. This does not appear to be a fragile little guy who needs to have his workload managed because he can't take pounding in the NFL.

I guess what I'm saying is that if McKinnon can't cut it as a #1 running back in the NFL, it will be because he's not good enough, rather than because he's not big enough.

I hope the Vikings coaching staff has come to the same realization.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

National Friday League, Week 12

painting of Thomas Hardy by William Strang, in the public domain via Wikipedia
In place of a preview
This football season I really keep coming back to Thomas Hardy's poem "Hap." In the poem, Hardy says that if he knew there was a cosmic reason for his suffering, then he would brace himself and bear it. But that's not the case for Hardy: it's random chance that makes him miserable, and what's particularly galling is that happenstance could have just as easily made him happy instead (the will-less elements of chance "had as readily strown/ Blisses about my pilgrimage as pain").

When I teach this poem at essentially a Wisconsin-Minnesota border school (if you live in the metro you've probably seen our ads on buses and billboards), I bring up football. Many of my students are Packer fans, and that means that they get to root for a team that is always in playoff contention and sometimes wins the Super Bowl. Some of the other students and I root for the Vikings, and that means we root for a team that, when it isn't abjectly terrible and frustrating, regularly disappoints us when we get our hopes up (I point out they have never won the Super Bowl and haven't been there in my lifetime). And why? Are the Packer fans in the room somehow more deserving, more entitled to this?  Of course not: it's luck. They mostly root for the Packers because they were born on one side of a river to parents who root for the Packers, and I was born on the other side of that river to parents who root for the Vikings. As becomes clear in much of the other works we read (Jhumpa Lahiri The Namesake, for instance), you don't get any say at all in where you're born, what your parents name you, or any number of other factors that are really a matter of family and geography and chance.

As a Minnesota sports fan, I've recently thought about just giving up hope on sports. I root for the Timberwolves and Vikings, and if I could just accept that there's no championship joy to come, I could probably bear it. But alas, the Packers are right there, and plenty of my friends current and old root for that team, and I see Packer shirts and jerseys and hats from joyful people regularly. They get to be happy! They get joy out of sports! That's what's so galling: it's not that sports will only offer disappointment (as it has for me). For other people, right there (right over there!) sports are a joyful experience and they watch a team with a great quarterback regularly contending for the playoffs and sometimes winning the Super Bowl.

I've decided to give up reading Bill Simmons for a while. I just don't want to hear the football fan experience of a guy whose favorite team regularly wins 12+ games and regularly goes to the AFC Championship game and sometimes goes to the Super Bowl and sometimes wins it. And if you've read Simmons regularly, you know he's made it clear that he feels entitled to this success (a recent example: Simmons justifies identifying with the team as "we" "because I have loved this team since I was 4 years old and Randy Vataha and Mack Herron were scurrying around, so if you have a problem with that, I don’t care."). That's fine, whatever. Use "we." But I don't know why I want to subject myself to the joyful ravings of somebody whose sports fan experience over the past 14 years has been pretty close to the opposite of mine, and whose sports fan experience I would desperately love to have, and who obviously feels entitled to the experience he's having. The purblind Doomsters have strown blisses on Boston fans' pilgrimage over that time, and good for them, but I sure don't care to watch them celebrate it anymore.

And so I'm approaching yet another Viking-Packer game with cold dread. It's not the hot, pit in the stomach, emotionally disturbing dread; the Vikes have torn that out of me and if I'm lucky someday they'll be good enough to bring it back. It's the mental experience of dread without the physical effects, and where emotionally I'll still just go about my week and day. But man, I don't want to hear about it afterward. Just leave me to my ne'er-do-well football team and let me turn my attention to the other things in life that do regularly provide joy (art! running! Batman!).

Three Contradicting Thoughts on Adrian Peterson
Personally, I'm not ready to root for Adrian Peterson again, not yet anyway. I belong to a religion that puts forgiveness pretty close to its center, and so I'm inclined to do so. But from what has come public of Peterson's actions and words after the fact, he really does not seem to have taken responsibility for his actions. He's expressed regret about the consequences of his actions, but he's defended it as a matter of discipline, and doesn't seem to have taken the actions themselves seriously enough to show real repentance (and I'm not in the habit of assessing the sincerity of others' repentance either, for what that's worth). He beat a child with an object until that child was bloody and bruised. Does he think he did a legitimate thing that unfortunately, accidentally, unintentionally caused harm? Or does he realize that the thing he did was a thing to cause harm? I don't know, and as a matter of watching football on Sundays, it's easier for me to sit and watch games if he's not out there for me to think about these things.

Yet it's also disturbing at some point what sort of control we're willing to grant employers over employees. Peterson pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor, and for this his employer can suspend him without pay? For actions not at the workplace, but at home? I fret of a society that seems willing to grant corporations and businesses and moneyed interests more and more control over individuals' lives, that pushes peoples' personal lives into tighter and tighter corners, that makes of the market The Market to rule us all (side note on an article I'm teaching this week: according to Eric Schlosser in "Kid Kustomers," 1) marketers are specifically targeting children to get them to nag their parents to buy them things, 2) that marketers study, among other things, children's dreams to understand how to appeal to them, and 3) that young children are not developmentally capable of telling the difference between a commercial and other kinds of entertainment. Is it fair to call marketers, then, my adversaries, entities that I have to contend with that are trying to get me and my kids to buy unnecessary and perhaps unhealthy things, and I have to teach my kids how to successfully navigate the world of such adversaries? I think so. Is this even remotely relevant to the NFL suspending Adrian Peterson? I don't know). A man pleads guilty to a misdemeanor, and his employer appears to treat the crime with more seriousness than the state that charged him. It's...just a little worrisome. I never asked the NFL to be a moral arbiter of its players at-home behavior.

And yet, of course, Peterson works in the entertainment industry, for businesses (the Minnesota Vikings and the NFL) that make money by providing entertainment to a paying public. Those businesses rely on public goodwill, positive media relationships, and peoples' interest and money to thrive. Nike sure terminated the hell out of Peterson's contract when it was evident that he was no longer a good public endorser for a business's products. That's advertising, and frankly, for the entertainment industry, it's all sort of advertising--they're trying to get people to pay to watch something happen, after all. They've got to keep on and keep on and keep on selling that spectator experience. When there's something that damages that experience, the particular entertainment business has to measure how to fix that. Sometimes that means that one particular performer, for whatever reason, can no longer be counted on to get public goodwill or positive media relationships.

Other Interesting Games
Week 12 Games
Lions (7-3) v. Patriots (8-2)
Bengals (6-3-1) v. Texans (5-5)
Cardinals (9-1) v. Seahawks (6-4)
Dolphins (6-4) v. Broncos (7-3)

Kick-Ass Links
Indianapolis Colt Griff Whalen has a kick-ass name, and he's vegan (Indy Star). So is Oakland Raider David Carter, though he has a more conventional name (Ecorazzi).

"How the NFL Exploited a Child Abuser to Restore Its Brand" (Deadspin).

Weekend
Have a good one, suckers.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

So, you're telling me there's a chance the Vikings can beat the Packers on Sunday?

Nope.

But if you are looking for a ray of hope as your Minnesota Vikings face the Green Bay Packers and an offense that barely breaks a sweat scoring 50 points these days, take a gander at Pack's road record this year.

That record is 2-3. At home, it's a different story. The Packers are 5-0 with the following margins of victory: 7 points (31-24 against the Jets); 21 points (38-17 against the Panthers); 32 points (42-10 against your Vikes); 41 points (55-14 against the Bears); and 33 points (53-20 against the Eagles). That's some pretty impressive home cooking.

Let's take a quick statistical look at how the Packers have fared offensively and defensively at home and away after 10 games:

Home
Avg points scored p/g: 43.8
Avg points given up p/g: 17
Avg total yards p/g: 399.8
Avg passing yards p/g: 279.8
Avg rushing yards p/g: 122
Avg total yards given up p/g: 336.6
Avg passing yards given up p/g: 230.6
Avg rushing yards given up p/g: 106
Turnovers: 3
Turnovers forced: 12

Away
Avg points scored p/g: 22.5
Avg points given up p/g: 28
Avg total yards p/g:339
Avg passing yards p/g: 254.8
Avg rushing yards p/g: 84.4
Avg total yards given up p/g: 418
Avg passing yards given up p/g: 245.8
Avg rushing yards given up p/g: 172.4
Turnovers: 5
Turnovers forced: 10

Other than the turnover area, where Green Bay has been stingy giving them up and prolific in forcing them no matter where they are playing, the Packers are a much different team when they are playing away from Lambeau field. On the road, they score less. They pass for less yardage. They run for way less yardage. They give up more points. They give up a more passing yardage, and they've been gouged in the run game.

Why is that? I don't know. You don't know. It's possible the Packers players and coaching staff don't know, either (if they did, they would have fixed it by now.) But we have the numbers and the numbers have spoken. At home, the Packers are superhuman. On the road, they're merely a good team.   

However, I'm extremely doubtful this means the Vikings have a great chance to upset the Packers this Sunday at TCF Bank Stadium. Two of the Packers three road losses came in the season opener in Seattle at a venue that is very tough for visiting teams to win in, and two weeks later against Detroit, which has the league's best defense this season. The Vikings defense is vastly better than it was in 2013, but I don't think it's good enough to make up for an offense that's struggled to score all year. And unlike the past few years, the Packers have a solid defense this season.

What the Packers road woes - if you can call them that - mean is that instead of losing a 42-10 blowout, the Vikes might actually make a game of it this time. But I still expect them to lose.

I'll be ecstatic if they prove me wrong.

Ben Tate - welcome to Minnesota!

In case you haven't heard, the Vikings picked up running back Ben Tate off of waivers on Wednesday.

There's no harm in this signing - adding depth at any position in the NFL is a smart thing to do. But I don't want Tate stealing a bunch of carries from Jerick McKinnon. Tate's never been a featured back in his five NFL seasons. But he's played enough that we know he's not the explosive, home run threat McKinnon might be. In 527 carries, Tate has just 12 runs that are 20 yards or longer. Tate's going to be a bit dull to watch, and this Vikings offense is deadly dull already. More importantly, the Vikings should be taking a long look at McKinnon over the final six games to see if he can be a guy you can count on to hand the ball to 20 to 25 times a game. The more carries Tate gets, the less evidence the Vikings coaching staff and front office has to make this decision heading into the offseason.

I'm curious to see how the Vikings use Tate - or if they use him at all.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Life Without Adrian Peterson

I do not feel sorry for Adrian Peterson in light of the NFL handing down its suspension today (Tuesday), which the NFL Player's association will appeal.

When Peterson decided to beat (some say he "spanked." I say "beat") his four-year-old son with a tree branch in a way that resulted in the Texas legal system getting involved, he placed himself at the altar of Roger Goodell's constantly-evolving player misconduct disciplinary process - a process where any type of suspension can, and will, be handed down.

Today, Peterson and the Vikings organization learned how severe such a suspension can be.

As for what Peterson's suspension means for the Vikings on the field, what happened today is probably for the best for a couple of reasons:

1.  It allows the Vikings to continue to do what the team has been doing for the previous 9 games - figure out how to develop a successful NFL offense without Peterson. This hasn't been going so well. But with Ted Bridgewater in the fold and Peterson turning 30 in March, it was going to have to happen sooner rather than later. Only the most optimistic rube thinks the Vikings still have a chance of making the playoffs this year at 4-6, so what purpose would playing Peterson for another 5 or 6 games serve? It was always unlikely Bridgewater would have Peterson at his disposal in 2016 (and maybe even 2015.) This just quickens a process that had to happen anyway.

2. One of the fun developments for the 2014 Vikings has been Jerick McKinnon. He's been much better than I expected he would be this year. But is he a running back you can hand the ball to 20 times a game for an entire season? Does Minnesota have to find a companion back this offseason who can carry half the workload with McKinnon (that's probably a good idea.) We'll only know this the more McKinnon plays, and if Peterson had come back at this point, McKinnon plays less. Maybe a lot less. No Peterson in 2014 means the Vikings can better assess if running back is a personnel need they must address in free agency or early in the 2015 draft.

That might not be enough pros to bring a smile to the face of the fans who still love Peterson and want to see him play again this year. But that's all I've got for you.