Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Trailing Clouds of Heaven (Part 2): The Vikings Sustainability Question

To read Pacifist Viking's thoughts on Minnesota's 36-22 victory over the St. Louis Rams, click here.

Been a little under the weather the past few days, so sorry for the lack of blogging on my part. I think I'm coming out of it, though.

Anyway .... I hear the word "sustainable" used a lot these days. Everyone wants the good times to go on forever and that certainly holds true for sports teams. So with the Minnesota Vikings sporting a surprising 8-6 record this season after going 9-23 the previous two, I'd like to examine whether this success – modest as it is – is sustainable.

The 2012 version of the Vikings are a strange team. They've managed to fashion an 8-6 record despite being very average-to-terrible in some key areas. The rushing defense is just OK – giving up 113.3 yards per game. It's pass defense is less than OK, 23rd in the NFL and surrendering 244.4 yards per game. The pass offense is the NFL's worst – averaging only 168.1 yards per game. And in the takeaway-giveaway differential, the Vikes are -3, good for 20th in the league.

Those stats look like something from a 6-8 team, rather than a 8-6 team, but the Vikings are where they are because they piled up wins early in the season thanks to a favorable schedule, they've taken care of business at home (6-1 record), are getting brilliant play from rookie placekicker Blair Walsh – both on field goals and kickoffs – and because running back Adrian Peterson is having a season for the ages.

On the whole, that doesn't sound very sustainable to me. You can't depend on your running back to average 6.3 yards per carry or your placekicker to miss only three field goals every year. Still, the people who run the franchise have done some things that sets the Vikings for a sustainable (and successful) future. For example, the club's general manager Rick Spielman has put together a young offensive line that features one of the league's best centers (John Sullivan), is rock solid at the tackle position with Matt Kalil and Phil Loadholt, and has serviceable guards in Charlie Johnson and Brandon Fusco. And Johnson is the oldest of the bunch at 28. This is a young unit on the rise.

And even though the pass defense is currently ranked in the lower half of the league, it's also young (aside from Antoine Winfield) and improving. Chris Cook (25), Harrison Smith (23), Josh Robinson (21) and A.J. Jefferson (24) are a group of young defensive backs that could form the corps of a pretty good secondary in a year or two, which is critical in a league that is as pass happy as the NFL is.

In fact, the Vikings roster is stocked with all kinds of young talent, it's the fourth youngest in the NFL, which could potentially set the team up to be a championship contender for multiple seasons if the majority of that talent pans out.

But where the Vikings ability to sustain the success they've had this season breaks down in my view is with Christian Ponder. In last weeks' "National Friday League" post, Pacifist Viking wrote about the San Francisco 49ers and New England Patriots dynasties. From 1981-1998, the 49ers won fewer than 10 games just once – and that was during the wonky, strike-shortened 1982 season when they went 3-6. As for New England, since 2001 Pats "worst" season was a 9-7 finish in 2002.

And if you look at the constants of both of those teams during those two time periods, what they had was Joe Montana, Steve Young and Tom Brady – great quarterbacks. No matter what went wrong on defense or special teams or how much their rosters might have turned over each year, the 49ers and the Patriots success was sustainable because they were going to get great quarterbacking every season and were going to be able to put up enough points each game to win a lot more than they'd lose.

It does not seem very likely that Ponder is another Montana, Young or Brady. He's currently on pace to throw for just 2,888 yards over a 16 game season where he has taken virtually every snap for the team. That total would put Ponder in this company of QBs (hat tip to @ArifHasanDN for finding this info), which includes 43 seasons where an NFL quarterback passed for less than 3,000 yards despite starting all 16 games. There are a few big names in there (Terry Bradshaw, Drew Bledsoe, Joe Theisman), but overall it's an unimpressive group.

So is the success the Vikings have had in 2012 sustainable? I'd say it isn't – not with the quality of quarterbacking the team is getting right now. The Vikings have bucked the odds in 2012. They are in the playoff hunt without a modern-day passing attack and with a quarterback whose impact on the game the Vikings coaching staff is doing everything in their power to minimize.

It's a style of football that's worked out surprisingly well for the Vikings this season. But it's not one that sets up the Vikings for sustainable success for the next decade - unless Ponder (or somebody else) improves the level of play the team is getting from the quarterback position significantly in the not-too-distant future.


  1. Here comes a long comment!

    Your point on the QB position (and also those about AP's 6.3 YPC and Walshes conversion rate) is quite valid, and I don't disagree. That said, I'm a bit excited about what parts of Minnesota's success ARE sustainable. You alluded to it by referencing the young talent on the offensive line and in the secondary, but there's more worth clinging to for cautiously optimistic Vikings fans.

    The pass rush seems sustainable in the near term. Robison/Griffen would be a fine starting duo for most 4-3 teams in the league. Add Allen to that group, and they're in good shape.

    DT is a deep position in the upcoming draft, and with Kevin William's age, it would be wise for Minnesota to draft a tackle. That group may slip when KW's veteran presence leaves, but a 1st round tackle has good potential to bring the interior of the line to a respectable level relatively quickly.

    The LB corps isn't particularly strong, but Greenway is by far the best player in the group and he's young and in a lengthy contract. Audie Cole's development may improve the group.

    The WR corps is certainly NOT a strength, and has potential to get worse if Harvin departs from the team. The nice thing about the remaining receivers, however, is that it seems relatively likely that they will improve or be replaced with improvements. I imagine a draft pick and a FA pickup could improve the group significantly, but that didn't pan out this year... I wonder if Fitz is feeling the itch to move home to MN?

    Rudolph is not a concern for me. Neither is Ellison or Felton.

    In the end, it largely comes down to QB. This draft class doesn't seem that strong, and there won't be many free agents. Arif seems to like Matt Moore, but how much better could he do in his first year with the team than Ponder could do with his third? If Moore came and struggled, many would wonder whether Ponder, a first round investment, might not have developed further and given us a reason to hope.

    Because of the QB situation, next year's likely difficult schedule, and the weak WRs - I would not be surprised at all by a 6 win season. But the team could easily be building towards 40 wins in 4 season starting in 2014 if they can find a QB.

    Maybe Dallas will cut Romo. (sigh)

  2. Peter:

    The DE situation bears watching in the offseason. Allen will be 31 next season and will be looking for a new contract as the one he has now expires after 2013. Robison will be 30 and he's only signed for 2013 as well. And Griffen's rookie contract will be up in 2013 as well, I believe. So we're not all that young at DE, nor is any guy locked up long-term. I wouldn't be surprised if he saw Allen dealt for draft picks pre-draft. That would be a year too late as we coulda got more for him after his 22 sack season.

  3. Yeah, I was hoping for an Allen trade last off-season. oh well.

    I wasn't aware of Robinson's and Griffen's contract situations.

  4. Breaking news?

    Christian Ponder and Samantha Steele got married.

    Is that a big deal?

    I'm surprised. It happened quick! Maybe there's a Baby Ponder 8 months away or so?

  5. He's an adult and he can do what he wants of course. But I think this is another poor decision in a season full of them for Ponder. For someone who is supposed to be so smart he sure does some stupid things. You can't wait two weeks for this when you know people will talk about it being a distraction. He better have a good game.

  6. The Zulgad/Dubay morning show was all over that Wednesday, so as soon as I listened in via live stream (the Internet is a wonderful thing) I had the scoop. Odd timing but I could care less. I understand from an optics point of view it doesn't look great, but really how badly can it possibly affect his play? Maybe it will loosen him up a bit, cause he's got this out of the way and out of his mind.

  7. I'm more worried about the fact that we may be stuck with him again next year. A couple weeks ago he had played himself out of the position like you said, and we were almost guaranteed a competition in training camp. Now a couple of games where they ask him to do absolutely nothing makes it look like he's improving. It is just so depressing to know we will be watching this guy for another season I almost root against him, although the St. Louis game wasn't bad.