Thursday, June 28, 2012

National Friday League: Fantasy Football Season Begins

On Thursday of last week, my main thoughts about fantasy football were what food I’ll bring to the draft. On Friday, I was immediately in fantasy preparation mode; it was my unofficial start to the fantasy football season. The flip was switched just like that. All I did was start listening to fantasy podcasts again, and now it’s fantasy football time.

Fantasy football isn't just about a draft, and it isn't just about how you watch football during a season.  Fantasy football is summer. It's about looking forward to the draft, talking with people about players and strategies, reading magazines and websites, emailing your league, debating minor rules, and everything else that makes a person a fantasy junkie. That's why the fantasy football season starts sometime in summer when you decide it does.

Fantasy Podcasts 
If you're a fantasy football junkie, and you've got activities that allow you to listen to something (working out, driving, whatever), you want to listen to fantasy podcasts (hell, you can even listen while shaving, if you are shaving. Any hygienic activities, really, which are boring anyway, and could use getting spruced up with a fantasy podcast). When I run, people in my ear talk about things like how they value quarterbacks this year, what they think of Marshawn Lynch's value, and various other things that distract a fantasy junkie from pain or exhaustion.


I highly recommend the CBSSports.com Fantasy Football Podcast. It is not, in my view, very systematic — and that’s fine. The experts--Jamey Eisenberg and Dave Richard, with Adam Aizer hosting -- talk about recent mock drafts they’ve done, answer email questions (usually about keepers), comment on recent football news, but also give their rankings and go through the divisions. While listening, you just get saturated in the season’s fantasy football views. You get a lot of player to player comparisons and justification and exploration of player value. And that’s all you really need. You’re not creating your own systematic draft plan while listening to a podcast in June or July (though you’re getting ideas), and if you’re prepping for an auction league, the focus on snake drafts means it is precisely those player evaluations that matter to you. These guys do a good job of discussing a lot of angles.

The ESPN Fantasy Focus Football Podcast is also very good, but has a very different tone than the CBS podcast. The CBS experts talk like people willing to discuss and consider just about any perspective on players, draft strategy, etc. (and that's a strength). Matthew Berry has made himself a "fantasy personality" (I suppose in the current parlance people would say he has made a "brand" of himself, being "The Talented Mr. Roto" and all, but I resist the language that makes a human being a "brand'), so it often comes off as Berry making a booming, provocative assertion that must be defended vociferously to Nate Ravitch. This, too, is a good thing: provocative assertions -- and how they are defended -- give you something to think about.

July and August are the prime times to be listening to these podcasts. Before you've drafted your team(s), discussion of any and every football player's fantasy value is worth your time. That won't be true in Autumn.

This summer’s gimmick 
If you’re a long-time reader of my old blog, you know that Hazelweirders (members of my oldest fantasy football league, prepping for our 11th draft this year) read my blog, so I don’t want to share my real fantasy thoughts until after the draft. It’s real cloak and dagger stuff. But deep summer is also a time to really devote time and thought to fantasy football discussion, so I’m going to write about it.

This summer, each week I’ll be providing you a Theme Team. The Theme Team is a realistic team you could try to build (in an auction draft, where you can budget money in diverse ways, probably not in a snake draft, where rankings, value, and the picks of others limit your team) based around a common theme. Some of these Theme Teams might end up actually being really good fantasy teams. Some may not. The point is, we get to talk about fantasy football, and those Hazelweirders can go screw themselves.


This may seem like a pointless gimmick, but I hope it is actually a way to think about and group the types of fantasy prospects there are this season.


Again, the point is to make a realistic team that would fill out your starting lineup. I’ll give you an optimum realistic lineup, but throw in some alternatives that might work as well. And then we can ask, is this a team you could win a fantasy title with?

The Return from Injury Team 
This team features players who have produced great fantasy numbers in the past, but missed a significant number of 2011 games with injuries. What is a “significant” number of games? Let’s say it is enough games that you were disappointed if you drafted this player last year not because of performance, but because of the missed games (but let’s say playing fewer than 12 games). Maybe drafting those players this year will be good value, as other people are scared off by those injuries—and maybe those injuries actually do mean a meaningful risk.

When players have an injury-plagued year, even their per game numbers don’t really help you evaluate their year. Sometimes the players get hurt early in a game before they even get a chance to put up numbers, depressing their per game average. And sometimes they are able to play through injuries, but the injuries affect their performance. Thus, when building the Return from Injury Team, you may as well give no stock to the players’ 2011 numbers. Look back to their production in the past, and hope they still have it in them. 

There are no 2011 rookies or 2011 breakout players who missed games on this team; these are all players who have established meaningful fantasy football production, even great fantasy football production, in years past.

QB: Peyton Manning  (also consider:  Matt Schaub, Jay Cutler)

RB: Darren McFadden, Jamaal Charles (also consider: Fred Jackson)   

WR: Miles Austin, Andre Johnson  (also consider: Kenny BrittSidney Rice)


TE: Dallas Clark 


Analysis: This team seems like a realistic auction team to me right now: after training camp and a few preseason games, it's possible a player like Jamaal Charles explodes in value, and it might not be as possible.


The strength of this team is at wide receiver, where Austin and Johnson have been elite studs in the past, and injuries significantly depressed their production last season, lowering their perceived value.  Injuries are, of course, unpredictable, but it is only past injury and not diminishing performance that you have to worry about with these players.


There is a ton of potential -- and risk -- at running back. I wouldn't be shocked if any of those three RBs listed are top-3 fantasy running backs this year, and I also wouldn't be shocked if McFadden plays only six games, or Charles isn't as explosive and still gets touchdown vultured.


Peyton Manning is one of the most intriguing fantasy players of 2012. He is, in my view, the best quarterback of all-time, has had amazingly consistent fantasy production, and has had numerous transcendent fantasy seasons. He is also aging, coming off a full year off, recovering from a serious injury, and switching teams after building his success partly on the familiarity and continuity of his teammates and offense.

Is this a team you'd be happy with? You might be nervous having a starting lineup full of people who have recent injury history, but injuries are really unpredictable, often a matter of luck than some weakness in the player. This team might give you a bunch of proven elite players who will be cheaper in a draft because of 2011 injuries that won't impact them in 2012.


Next Week: The Sophomore Stud Team

Kick Ass Links
Matthew Berry provides his Draft Day Manifesto (ESPN).

Could Everson Griffen help at linebacker (Vikings.com)?

Chris Kluwe gets political (Outsports.com, via Star Tribune).

John Carlson (Pioneer Press).

Phil Loadholt (Pioneer Press).

Monday, June 25, 2012

The Vikings (belated) weekly wrap: middle linebacker edition

I won't be writing about the Percy Harvin thing because TBird and Pacifist Viking already covered it here and here. I really have nothing more to add, and the controversy kinda sorta died down when Harvin returned to practise last Thursday and tweeted that he'd see his fans in Mankato.

So I'm going to be writing about the Vikings middle linebacker spot. The favorite to man the position is Jasper Brinkley. But no one – not even the Vikings coaching staff is sure he can handle the job – and last week Brinkley was unable to practise during mandatory OTAs because of either a groin issue (the Vikings explanation) or a hip issue (Brinkley's explanation).

The Vikings would appear to be in some deep shit if Brinkley can't go or his play is compromised because he's still bothered by the hip injury that kept him out all of last year. While middle linebackers don't seem to be as valued as they once were, in the Vikings Cover Two defensive scheme that position is still pretty important. So if Brinkley can't go, who plays that spot? Practice squad player Tyrone McKenzie? Seventh round draft pick Audie Cole? Special teamer Marvin Mitchell?

How about none of the above because a better solution is out there. His name is E.J. Henderson.

Look, I'm fine with giving Brinkley a chance to prove he can do the job (2012 will be a good time for such experiments), but if training camp arrives and he still isn't able to play, signing Henderson to a cheap one-year deal makes immense sense. The defense won't be new to him. He still has the ability to be a good downhill run stopper. Just don't have him playing three downs. Leave that to Chad Greenway and little bro' Erin Henderson.

And let's not pretend that if Brinkley can't make it back onto the field that signing E.J. and playing him will prevent the Vikings from finding out if some other young stud can do the job - there is no other young stud on the roster.

I've heard good things about Cole, yet it would be expecting a lot for a seventh-round draft pick to take over the middle linebacker starting role and do it competently. And McKenzie and Mitchell might not even make the team.

Everson Griffen
Griffen is a talented guy. However, he needs more snaps than he got last year (which was around 10-15 per game) to show that talent. As Judd Zulgad points out, the Vikings are trying to figure out how to do that with the third-year defensive end.

Griffen is sort of the defensive version of Joe Webb for the Vikes. He's a gifted athlete who can do a lot of things. But he plays a position where the Vikings are committed to other options. In Webb's case that other option is Christian Ponder. In Griffen's case that is Jared Allen and Brian Robison.

Griffen is actually in a similar situation to Robison when he was entering his third NFL season. Just as Robison flashed pass rushing ability in limited snaps and we all wondered what he could do with more, the same holds true for Griffen. The Vikings can make that happen by using him more than they did last year as a nickel rusher from the inside, by using him as an outside linebacker now and then, and by spelling Allen and Robison with Griffen to keep the starters fresher.

The Vikings also need to find out if Griffen can be a starting defensive end in this league. In 2013, Griffen will be entering the last year of his rookie contract and will be just 25. Robison will be entering the last year of his contract extension and will be 30. If Griffen is productive in a backup role, my guess is the Vikings will let Robison walk after the 2013 season ends and resign the younger (and likely cheaper) Griffen to take over Robison's starting left defensive end spot. But they can't do that if they don't give Griffen more playing time on Sundays.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

National Friday League: Percy Harvin gives us something to talk about

(City Pages, TBird41, Star Tribune, Pioneer Press, Yahoo!, Sports Illustrated, Bob Sansevere, Vikings.com, PFT)

How essential is Percy Harvin?
I've been half-joking that Percy Harvin is a glorified 3rd down back. Harvin is exactly the sort of x-factor player that can turn games for a good offense. In 2009, Brett Favre was an elite quarterback, Sidney Rice was an incredible down-field threat, Adrian Peterson and Chester Taylor were both making plays as running backs, and Visanthe Shiancoe was a useful cog especially in the red zone. That year, Harvin was able to make some pretty spectacular plays as a guy that catches short passes and runs well afterward. When he's a team's third option, he's an incredible game-changing third option.

But Harvin has yet to develop into any sort of deep threat; in fact his yards per reception have been declining. I don't think he's effective as a team's #1 WR. On the 2011 Vikings' very bad offense, Harvin was a very good football player as their top pass catching threat. But that offense was still very bad. He makes plays, but he's not a transformative wide receiver. And if the Vikings are going to be a bad offense, I think they're going to be a bad offense regardless of whether Percy Harvin is there or not. That's not to say that Harvin doesn't make the Viking offense better (he does, though as TBird noted, he only played on 58.5% of snaps last season), but that Harvin as a #1 WR option doesn't make the Viking offense better enough to matter.


Imagine there's no Harvin (it's easy if you try)
Let's just imagine that in some way, Percy Harvin doesn't play a down for the 2012 Vikings. What does the offense look like?

The early games might be a struggle, while Jerome Simpson sits out during a three-game suspension, and perhaps Adrian Peterson struggles or can't play as he recovers from ACL injury. But after that, the likely WRs still on the roster would be Simpson, Devin Aromashadu, Greg Childs, Michael Jenkins, and Jarius Wright. That doesn't look great -- but I'm not sure the Vikes couldn't make something work with that crew that would make the '12 wide receiver corp no worse than the '11 wide receiver corp. That would depend on Simpson and either Childs or Wright really stepping up and emerging, and it would depend on TEs Kyle Rudolph and John Carlson being productive. But the passing offensive approach -- the sorts of plays called and passes thrown--would be drastically different.

Harvin averaged only 11.1 yards per reception. Among players with 80+ catches, only a RB and two TEs ranked lower in yards per catch. Among players with 120+ targets, only one TE ranked lower in yards per catch. But Harvin caught a high percentage of his targets -- among the best in the league, at 73% -- so his productivity and efficiency is better than the yards per reception make it appear. What happens if you spread Harvin's 123 targets around the rest of the roster? It's extremely doubtful those 123 targets would still translate into 87 receptions, but they might still translate into 967 yards. Jerome Simpson caught only 48% of his targets last season: if he got 123 targets and caught only 59 of those passes, he'd have to average about 16.4 yards per catch to get 967 yards (if he matches his career average of 14.1, he'd end up with about 832 yards). He needs to do better than a 48% catch rate. And the Vikings would need to spread those passes to Kyle Rudoph and John Carlson in the short game, and again, really hope either Childs or Wright emerge as an efficient player downfield. The Vikes can't expect any other pass catcher to get a 73% catch rate, so to match or exceed their production without Harvin, they need better yards per reception. That means fewer of those short, high percentage passes, and more downfield completions to make up for the additional incompletions. But they'd need more downfield completions anyway, even with Harvin.


Of course the Vikes don't just want to match '11's passing game production: that would still be lousy. But not only have the Vikes made moves to improve the passing game (Jerome Simpson, John Carlson, Jarius Wright, Greg Childs, and maybe more importantly, Matt Kalil), that too doesn't really matter. If the Viking passing game improves, it will be because Christian Ponder has improved. If the Viking passing game becomes competent, it will be because Christian Ponder has become competent. And while Harvin might help Ponder's effectiveness/production in '12, I don't think Harvin has anything to do with Ponder's improvement or competence: Ponder's own development is somewhat independent here. I don't know whether Ponder is good, bad, or mediocre, but that's the real subject that determines whether the Vikes improve offensively, not a WR that averages 11.1 yards per catch.

But the Vikes might struggle in the run without Harvin, who was incredibly effective as a spot runner last year (52 rushes, 345 yards, 6.6 average -- no other WR is even close to Harvin in rushing, showing again he's more a unique WR/RB hybrid than a pure WR). If Adrian Peterson isn't ready to return (or isn't ready to return effectively), so much depends on the grinder Toby Gerhart. Any flash from the running game would have to come from the occasional end-around -- or creative use of Joe Webb.

I don't think the Vikings would be hurt that badly in the passing game without Harvin -- but I think they'd really be limited in the running game. But I don't think it will really matter...


And what to do about his trade request
If I were the Vikings, I would try to be conciliatory and mend/build a good relationship, but I would let Percy Harvin play out his contract. If he holds out, oh well: I'm not sure what sort of trade value he'd bring anyway when he's asking for a trade. But let him play for the next two seasons, and then see where everybody is at. A lot changes in two years (just look at the '09 and '11 Vikes!). Maybe by that point the Vikings will be a contender. Maybe by that point the Vikings will know they have another potentially elite WR on the roster. Maybe by then Harvin will be happier in Minnesota. Maybe by then there will be a new coach. Who knows?


The Vikings' advantage is that Percy Harvin has two years left on his contract. Just use that advantage, and make him play whether he's happy or not (a lot of unhappy employees still show up for work). There is no way to predict the state of the Vikings or Harvin's happiness in two years, and in football, no real reason to consider any player a guarantee to be on your roster in two years anyway. And if Harvin is still the #1 WR on the Vikings in 2013, I would guess that position is still a weak spot on the team they'll be working to fix anyway.


And let's add this
Man, I am happy we get to worry about this shit! If we didn't know the Vikings had decades more to spend in Minnesota, if indeed we suspected strongly the Vikes were moving after 2012, would you even muster up the interest to bother worrying about Percy Harvin's trade request? But we know the Vikes will be here in 2014 and beyond, so it's worth our time* to talk about a current player's future with the franchise. And if Harvin leaves, it's not like we missed a narrow window: there are decades more to find better wide receivers.


*well, sort of. In the relative sense.


And I suppose we'll add this
Despite one very good season from Sidney Rice, the Vikings have desperately struggled to fill the WR position since they traded Randy Moss in '05. Oh, they've done things to try (just about everything, actually, including drafting WRs in early and late rounds, signing expensive and cheap free agent WRs, and even trading for Moss!), but nobody has been more than a one year fix. After years of Cris Carter and Randy Moss, it's sort of annoying watching a team either struggle with no quality WRs ('05, '06, and '07 were, um, unpleasant*) or have a player emerge for one season (Bernard Berrian was actually productive in '08, Sidney Rice emerged in '09) without establishing themselves as a long-term franchise WR.


*I'll say once again that whatever Brad Childress' flaws as an offensive coach, the assessment that he misused offensive talent in his first couple of years was entirely unjustified. In '07 Bobby freaking Wade was the team's best WR by far!  Bobby Wade!


Moving on...


Is Ladainian Tomlinson the greatest fantasy player of all-time?
If you Ladainian Tomlinson was on your fantasy team in 2006, and you didn't win your league's championship, it might be time to take up fantasy basketball or something. You'd be fairly happy if your fantasy QB threw for 31 touchdowns; that year Tomlinson scored 31 touchdowns.


But it's more than that. In his six-year prime from '02-'07, Tomlinson averaged 2070 yards from scrimmage and 19.8 touchdowns per season. He could almost single-handedly keep a fantasy team contending for a title. A brief note on his fantasy value at The Fifth Down.


Kick Ass Links
Sports fandom and psychology of perception (The New Yorker).


Whatever gets you through the night; if players signing with a former team just to retire makes them happy, be happy, man. But Ladanian Tomlinson finished his career as a Jet (NY Times).


Russell Westbrook was practically the exclusive reason the Thunder were in Game 4; you could tell this just watching it happen.  Bill Simmons assesses  (Grantland).

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Percy's Trade Request

Well now. This is interesting--Percy Harvin would like to be traded. It's not that surprising, since Harvin has been making noise about wanting a contract extension, but it's not a good thing. There are a few things to consider:

  • Harvin is pretty much the only proven mismatch the Vikings' have in the passing game, aside from Jerome Simpson (and he's better than Simpson). This makes him really valuable to the Vikings. As Pro Football Focus pointed out on Twitter, the Vikings' quarterbacks combined for a QB rating of 97.2 on throws to Percy last year while sporting a 70.1 and 82.9 rating overall. Harvin also caught 71.9% of the passes thrown his way last year. He's obviously the kind of player you want when you are developing a young quarterback. He's also the kind of player you want when you are developing rookie wide receivers since he'll be the focus of defense's coverage schemes.
  • The Vikings only have Harvin under contract until 2013. If they handle this situation poorly, Harvin will leave when he is a free agent. That means that if they handle this situation poorly, Percy Harvin won't be a part of the next good Vikings' team. It would also mean that the next good Vikings' team is even further away because the Vikings' turned one of their assets into nothing. 
  • Another thing to consider is whether Harvin will even last more than two years. While he has only missed three games in the last three years, he is a small guy, listed at 5'11 and 184lbs. He also has migraine problems. This may have contributed to why he only played 58.5% of the Vikings' offensive snaps last year (the alternative explanation is that the Vikings' offensive coaching staff isn't creative enough to figure out how to use him more often, which is actually more worrisome than Harvin leaving the Vikings and *lalalalala I can't hear you*). It's very possible that the Vikings don't expect him to still be on the team in 2014, whether because he won't re-sign or because he's broken down physically. It would explain why they drafted a similar player, Jarius Wright, this year
Regardless of whether the Vikings' expect Harvin to be around after his contract expires, they need to find a way to smooth things over with him. The worst thing they can do is end up in a contract dispute with Harvin that leaves them with no option except trading him. Percy might not be a part of the next good Vikings' team, but letting him leave for nothing, or next to nothing, will only serve to prolong the time the Vikings' spend looking up at the rest of the teams in the NFC North. 

Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Vikings weekly wrap: The unemployed edition

Matchmaking
Looking at the list of Viking free agents who still are unsigned, I am surprised tight end Visanthe Shiancoe and linebacker E.J. Henderson are still unemployed.

The pair might want to sue NFL teams for ageism. Because they both can still play. But the problem is they are both 31 (and will be 32 when the regular season starts), and so the question on general manager's and coaches minds is how long can they play. No team wants to sign 30-something football players to contracts, especially if they've got young talent waiting in the wings.

But what if you don't have that talent? Here are a few potential landing spots for Shiancoe and Henderson – although the landing spots for Shiancoe seem more realistic than for Henderson.

Shiancoe 
  1. Giants: New York lost Jake Ballard on waivers. Travis Beckum is out for the year with a knee injury, and all the G-Men have is Martellus Bennett (not known for his pass catching skills) and rookie Adrien Robinson. Shiancoe was also a Giant draftee and thrived when last paired with an elite quarterback. It seems like he would be a low risk/high reward pickup for the G-Men, who don't have a lot of pass-catching talent at tight end currently for Eli Manning to throw to.
  2. Raiders: Oakland went 8-8 last year and look to be a team on the rise. Currently, they're set to roll with Brandon Myers, and his 16 catches in 2011, as their starting tight end. You have to figure Carson Palmer would appreciate someone with a more established resume to throw to besides Myers at the tight end position.   
  3. Rams: Sophomore tight end Lance Kendricks is the starter and showed promise as a rookie last seasons. But there isn't much behind him. Shiancoe would give Sam Bradford another target. But age is probably the deciding factor here. The rebuilding Rams don't want to bring on one-year stopgaps when they are so far from competing for a Super Bowl.
Henderson
  1. Giants (again): New York grabbed Chase Blackburn from the scrap heap and he played well at middle linebacker for the G-Men during their Super Bowl run. He's at the top of the depth chart again. But Henderson would be a nice insurance policy and he'd benefit playing behind that defensive line.
  2. Falcons: The competition for the starting middle linebacker job in Atlanta is between second-year Akeem Dent and Lofa Tatupu (remember him?), who didn't play in 2011. If the Falcons wanted Henderson, they probably would have brought him instead of Tatupu, but I've always thought Henderson was the better player. Maybe Ray Edwards can put in a good word for E.J., although after the year he had last year, he might not have much influence in Atlanta.
  3. Vikings: Look, I'll be thrilled if Jasper Brinkley pans out as Minnesota's new middle linebacker. But just like everybody else who cheers for this team, I'll believe it when I see it. I've written about this before – if Brinkley stinks or gets hurt again, Henderson could quickly find himself back with the Vikings, youth movement and all.
Ryan Longwell
Despite John Holler of Viking Update's pessimism, I'm confident Ryan Longwell will be kicking somewhere in the NFL next season. I just think it's going to happen after the season starts.

What will happen is some team's kicker will miss a few crucial field goals and that team will release him and look for a veteran who can make pressure kicks – even if his leg might not be the strongest. Does that sound like anybody you know?

Muzzled
One of the best things about writing a blog is I don't have to depend on getting quotes from Viking players to post stuff. And this article by Jack Bechta's illustrates why.

I barely watch press conferences with athletes and coaches anymore because all you get are canned answers. You rarely get these kinds of honest and uncensored opinions.

I can't say I blame the coaches or athletes, though. Once a guy shows a little bit of candor or humor, everyone takes it and runs with it and, eventually, hangs him for it. Charles Barkley seems to be the only guy who can get away with it. There is little to gain and much to lose for speaking honestly in the world of pro sports.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

National Friday League: Meditations on Being Clutch

Nobody can win the big game until they do
-- John Elway and Dan Marino frequently and memorably came through for their teams in clutch situations. Both were winners: they led their teams to a lot of wins, and they memorably led their teams on a lot of critical fourth quarter drives. They were both clutch.  John Elway had 35 fourth quarter comeback with 46 game winning drives. Dan Marino had 36 fourth quarter comebacks with 51 game winning drives. But, neither could win the big game. Until John Elway did. Was Elway suddenly a different player when the Broncos won the Super Bowl? I don't think so. Did the fact that team circumstances gave Elway a chance to finally win the Super Bowl late in his career, while Marino's did not, mean that Elway was a better quarterback than Marino? Please.

-- In Tom Brady's first five NFL seasons, he led the Patriots to three Super Bowl wins. But by any statistical measure, Brady has been a far, far superior QB from 2007 to 2011 than he was from 2000-2004. And from 2007-2011, he also won a bunch of games, also kept leading his team to the playoffs, also kept coming through in clutch situations, and also led his team to two AFC Championships. If you think Brady was a better QB in his first five seasons than he's been in his last five seasons, you are kind of being an idiot.* But imagine if Brady's '07-'11 seasons were his first five seasons, and his '00-'04 seasons were his last five.  Wouldn't there have been stories about how the flashy and stat-crushing QB couldn't actually come through when his team needed him most? Of course there would.

*I try not to call readers idiots too often. But really.

-- Lebron James has yet to win an NBA championship. He has come up memorably short, despite making the NBA Finals twice already before this season. But Lebron James is 27 years old, and he's already won three well-deserved MVP trophies (one could argue he's deserved more. Of course, that's a cheesy thing to say: one could argue absolutely anything!). If you don't think James is going to win multiple titles, I think you're sort of crazy. He's the best player in the league, and has been an unstoppable force through most of these playoffs. His legacy is going to change on the very night he wins his first championship -- but I'm doubtful James the player is suddenly different on that night than he already is.

-- Michael Jordan won the first of his six championships at age 27. Jordan's legacy as a champion, winner, and guy who constantly came through in the clutch is absolutely cemented.

-- Kevin Garnett toiled in Minnesota for 12 years, putting in a constant, intense, obsessed, focused effort, every game, every minute, on both sides of the court. His first year on a new team, he won a championship, and it didn't take long for the Wolves to bottom out.

-- Peyton Manning (who has 35 fourth quarter comebacks with 46 game-winning drives at this point, and it should be pretty clear to most how integral he was to Indianapolis's unprecedented seven straight 12+ win seasons) couldn't win the big game until he did. But just for the hell of it, imagine in '06 Manning missed the entire season to injury, but every other season of his career played out exactly as it did. Manning is essentially the same exact player, but a piece of bad luck would mean the one season where things worked out and the Colts came through never happened, and we'd think of him differently.

-- Jerry West earned the nickname Mr. Clutch before he ever won a championship. He had four times been the leading playoff scorer. He had been to the NBA Finals seven times. He kept doing things like this:

He did finally win a championship on that legendary 69 win '72 Laker team. If he hadn't, we would think differently of him. But he would still be Mr. Clutch.

-- Watch that video again, and see the clutch shot that Dave DeBusschere made that nobody bothers to talk about because it got overshadowed by the next play. How many times do you see a basketball player make such a shot with a couple seconds left, only for a player on the opposing team to make a buzzer beater? OK, but there are a lot of basketball games, and a lot of chances for clutch players to come through, and for fluky things to happen. But in football, with its 16-20 total games a season, with its much fewer team possessions per game (and with each possession meaning so much more), that stuff can turn careers. How many times do you see a QB lead a superb fourth quarter drive to tie or take a lead, but leave a few minutes on the clock so that the other team's QB can lead another drive to win the game?

-- Elgin Baylor once scored 61 points in an NBA Finals game. He never won a championship. He retired in 1971, right before the Lakers won their first L.A. championship.

-- The Minnesota Vikings have lost a playoff game to the eventual Super Bowl champion 12 times.

A thing about the NBA
Basketball is a sport where, if you judged only by player facial expressions and body language, nobody ever committed a foul, or went through the lane without getting fouled, or double-dribbled, or traveled, or was the last one to touch the ball before it went out of bounds. Probably this happens on every play in football too, but players are hiding not only behind masks but on a really big field with all sorts of players on it, and there are too many things going on for the camera to linger on these things after every call.

But you should be watching the NBA Finals
Maybe you don't like basketball, and you're irritated that I'm writing about basketball on a Vikings blog all the time (I can only say that is how I've always rolled and Pacifist Viking was never just a Viking blog, and after all it is June -- June!). But if you watch these NBA Finals and don't enjoy them, you'll know for certain basketball is not for you. These are supremely talented teams, supremely athletic teams, with versatile and unselfish players, with stunning superstars, that both look to run the floor a lot. The games are a blaze of speed and quickness, up and down, with great defense and offense and superstars making beautiful plays. I DVR the games and watch them when everybody else in my house is asleep, and can barely contain my gleeful screams. If there's any chance you like pro basketball, you will love this series.

Am I crazy, or is Kevin Durant's offensive game a lot like George Gervin's offensive game?
Kevin Durant is a better player than George Gervin (Durant combines effort, passion, selflessness, and defense that I'm not sure Gervin had, though Gervin's FG% is a lot better and he might have been a better pure scorer), but the smoothness of his offensive game -- a long, thin player that hits his jumpers and lays in finger rolls on fast breaks and drives through the lane -- reminds me of every highlight I ever saw of Gervin. There is a grace in the way these players score. Tell me if you see similarities.

Kick Ass Links
Kyle Rudolph (Pioneer Press, Star Tribune, Vikings.com). With questions still at wide receiver (and Jerome Simpson out for three games), the performances of TEs Rudolph and John Carlson are really critical for the Vikings' offensive prospects.


Sage Rosenfels on Christian Ponder (Star Tribune). I've been re-reading some of the books of Stephen King's Dark Tower series, a saga about parallel worlds and doorways between these worlds. And I'd still be curious to find the door to the alternate universe where Brett Favre stayed retired and Sage Rosenfels won the starting job in '09. What would Sage have done? What would the state of the Vikings be right now?

Considering the Vikings just drafted an anchor left tackle, you might be interested to explore whether left tackle is as valuable as it used to be (Yahoo!).

The Vikings ran a lot of play-action last year, but weren't notably good at it (Football Outsiders).

Joe Webb (Pioneer Press).

Erin Henderson (Pioneer Press).

Another offseason story staple: veteran is positive influence on younger players! Well, probably (Tampa Bay Times, via PFT).

Clutch and Lebron James (SI).

Don't forget the Seattle Supersonics (SI). I regret missing the collective hipster orgasm we could have witnessed (or been part of?) if Kevin Durant was leading the Sonics to the finals. Also read this article and feel relief that you won't be quoted in a future article about the Los Angeles Vikings making the Super Bowl.

(It is worth noting that relocation has a very long pro sports tradition, especially in basketball.  Just look at how many of the NBA's current teams started elsewhere than where they are now -- and how many moved multiple times. If you're not a Seattle sports fan, you don't need to get too hung up on these things and you can just appreciate the Thunder for what they are).

I love running, and this Slate article is really interesting, but its setup is kind of stupid (though I get the impression the writer knows that, and that’s it is a Slatey sort of provocative counter-intuitive thing, and I’d blame the Slate editors for the headline and subtitle more than the writer). David Stipp tells us that among animals, humankind’s only real physical advantage is distance running. For any other athletic feat — jumping, short distance speed, etc. — there are animal species that are better than us. Stipp suggests that it is somehow strange to play any sports that require athletic feats that an animal can do better. This is setup is flawed on at least two counts. First (and I say this as a vegan animal rights advocate), what the hell do animals have to do with it? If a sport is fun to play, and fun to watch, then what do animals’ abilities have to do with our human enjoyment of a sport? My surly, overweight cat actually has better jumping ability than Kevin Durant — but I’m still watching the NBA Finals. Modern humans invented the sports we play and watch without much regard to what evolutionary advantages we have over particular animals. And second, while the science of humankind’s inherent distance running ability (or potential) is interesting (at least to me, and probably other runners), that doesn’t seem to be the only physical advantage humans currently have over animals. Humans have at least one other physical advantage that makes us pretty unique: our hands. Basketball isn't just a jumping contest after all (that surly cat of mine can't do much of anything with a basketball). We have opposable thumbs, fine motor skills, ability to use tools, and a developed hand-eye coordination that just happen to be at the core of a lot of our sports, including basketball, baseball, and golf. Most sports aren't just about raw speed and strength, but about the ability to manipulate a ball in clever, exciting ways (and I won't even spend much time on the advanced intelligence to invent, create, and strategize, also inherent to the sports we play). So, while I enjoyed Stipp’s exploration of the origins and science of distance running, and he (or the Slate editors and headline writers, who don't really seem to grasp why one thing might be called "absurd" and another not) may have needed a provocative lead-in to get readers to care (and I suppose it worked, and I'm a sucker for arguing against it with logic), I found it more irritating than anything.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

The Vikings weekly wrap: Christian Ponder edition

Christian Ponder
Of the many things the Minnesota Vikings have to worry about: finding a deep threat at wide receiver; whether Adrian Peterson can return to his pre-knee injury form; finding safeties and cornerbacks who can play; finding a nose tackle who can do more than jump offside – improved play from Christian Ponder tops the list.

So expect to read lots of stories like this one,  with Ponder, his teammates and his coaches talking about him making progress in 2012.

Since Daunte Culpepper's monster 2004 season (69.2 completion percentage, 4,717 passing yards, 37 TDs and just 11 interceptions), fans have had to endure six of the last seven seasons where the quarterback play was poor to mediocre. The franchise managed to win two NFC North titles and go to an NFC Championship game anyway, but its record is also 54-58, and the inability to find a long-term answer at quarterback has not set up the team for long-term success.

So while we fret (and I have done so repeatedly) about whether Jerome Simpson, and Matt Kalil and Josh Robinson and Harrison Smith will pan out in 2012, it's Ponder who has to make the great leap forward for the Vikings to return to relevance and, more importantly, stay there.

Ben Leber
Leber, who played for the Vikings from 2006-2010, quietly retired this week. That seems fitting for a guy whose game was quietly effective. The Vikings starting linebacker corps from 2007-2010 of Leber, E.J. Henderson and Chad Greenway was a very good one. But Henderson and Greenway were the guys you noticed more.

Leber was more of a supporting actor, or like the bass player in a rock band. He was integral to the success of the linebackers and the Vikings defense, he just wasn't the frontman.

Toby Gerhart 
There is a distinct chance that Adrian Peterson will not be the same player – ever – when he comes back from his knee injury. That means Toby Gerhart could be the Vikings best running back in 2012 and beyond. 

That doesn't scare me as much as it would have a year ago. I was impressed with what I saw from Gerhart last season. He's not going to turn something into nothing like Peterson used to, but his sledgehammer running style can be almost as enjoyable to watch when he's bowling over linebackers, safeties and corners. Gerhart is a guy you don't want to be running into if he's got a full head of steam.

With the Vikings offensive line (hopefully) much improved in 2012, there should be more holes for Gerrhart to run through and I think he can do a great deal of damage with them.

OTAs 
Former NFL defensive lineman Seth Payne had an interesting piece this week about what OTAs can and can't tell you about NFL players. Payne's words should be kept in mind as we are regaled with tales of Jerome Simpson's pretty catches and other guys flashing during these minicamps. They don't mean a whole lot.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

National Friday League: It's June: we expect a "Good job, good effort!" for every attempt we make at writing about football.

Jerome Simpson
If you want to get excited about Jerome Simpson, check out this video at Vikings.com (more at Star Tribune).  Actually, don't watch that video too many times if you are worried about having fantasies of 10-6.  If you want to have fantasies of 10-6 watch that video like 300 times.

Hey, it's a great catch.  But there's something about seeing Christian Ponder chucking the ball downfield and then grinning that makes me feel everything is going to be alright.

Antoine Winfield
Antoine Winfield is still going to be important to the Vikings in 2012 (Pioneer Press).  Good: Winfield is one of my favorite Vikings of all-time, and I want to appreciate him for as long as possible.  Even if Winfield isn't as effective in coverage as he once was, a lot of the things he does that make him special at his position--tackling, blitzing, turning a game on a turnover--he should still be able to do.

Indeed, Winfield should still be able to make plays as a slot corner: tackling pass catchers to allow no yards after the catch, tackling on running plays, occasionally surprise-rushing a quarterback.  But it's also likely opponents will try to take advantage of Winfield by putting their speediest downfield receiver in the slot and forcing Winfield to cover him.  Winfield can be a really productive inside, underneath corner, if he's got safety help behind him.  In the Tampa 2, the safeties should be there to help--but safety is still a big question mark for the Vikes, as their safeties have been struggling for years and now they may be relying on two rookie starters.

So here's my guess: if those safeties are good, we're going to read stories about the rejuvenation of Antoine Winfield.  If those safeties suck, we're going to read stories about how Winfield is finished.  Neither story will have much to do with Winfield's actual strengths and limitations, but rather the context around those strengths and limitations.

Kevin Garnett
KG is ripping it up, and one reason Miami is down against Boston is how terribly they are defending him.  In Game 5, there were quite a few plays where nobody really bothered to cover Garnett without the ball in the lane (coming off a pick, running down in transition, Heat defenders seemed to get mixed up about who would cover him and/or got there late) and Rajon Rondo found him with a pin-point pass.

Zach Lowe with more.

I'd call that a clean symbolic transition
From '99 to '11, only three teams won the Western Conference: the Mavericks, the Lakers, and the Spurs.  To win the Western Conference this year, the Oklahoma City Thunder beat three teams: the Mavericks, the Lakers, and the Spurs.  Sports is like a thousand monkeys with typewriters coming up with Shakespeare: so much stuff is happening, a lot of it mundane, but every once in a while there's a poetic narrative beauty to what happens.

Kick Ass Links
If Christian Ponder and Matt Kalil play together for 10-15 years, that will mean everything has worked out just fine (PFT, Star Tribune).

At The New Yorker, Jonah Lehrer examines the science of choking in sports.

As soon as I saw it, I hoped this "Good job!  Good effort!" kid would become a meme (Grantland).
I hope right now a thousand internet people are putting that voice over to famous defeats or bad failures.  I haven't been disappointed with the meme (Sports Pickle, Deadspin).  Look, this is one of the things I like about modern life and the internet: you can't predict when a meme-worthy event is going to happen, but in all the stuff that is always happening, something surprising and amusing always does, and there are thousands of people ready to meme-ify it.

Jerry Seinfeld talks about the Mets (CBS New York, via New York).

I'm interested in how we create narratives out of the sometimes chaotic randomness of sports.  Jay Caspian King examines how we make stories for great basketball players (Grantland).

Sunday, June 3, 2012

The Vikings Weekly Wrap – Rookie Edition

Greg Childs and Jarius Wright
The Minnesota Vikings had to address its sorry wide receiver situation this offseason. The team did so – both by signing Jerome Simpson in free agency and in drafting Arkansas teammates Jarius Wright and Greg Childs in April's draft.

ESPN North blogger Kevin Seifert thinks Childs could be a key player for the Vikings in 2012, providing them with the downfield threat they didn't have in 2011 (or 2010).

I sure hope that turns out to be the case. But the reality is Childs, and Wright – who were both picked in the fourth round sixteen picks apart – will likely make a minimal contribution to the Vikings passing game this season.

The 2011 draft class is instructive in this matter. There were 29 wide receivers picked last year and it was a pretty good group, with five of those players players more than holding their own. A. J. Green made the Pro Bowl. Julio Jones averaged 17.8 yards per catch. Titus Young, Torrey Smith and Greg Little also had very good rookie seasons.

But all of those players were drafted in the first and second rounds. Of the 21 receivers drafted in rounds three through seven, only one made what could be called an impact – Oakland's Demarius Moore, (5th round, 148th overall), who caught 33 passes for 618 yards (a whopping 18.7 yards per catch average) and had five touchdown catches.

So despite all the promise Childs and Wright have, it's best to temper our enthusiasm. If even one of them catches 30 passes in 2012, that will be a good start. Which isn't to say Childs and Wright won't develop into a top flight wide receivers. If you look at last year's top 25 pass catchers, among the wide receivers on the list there are lots of first rounders, but there are also guys like Wes Welker and Victor Cruz (undrafted), Marques Colston and Stevie Johnson (7th round), Pierre Garcon and Antonio Brown (6th round), Steve Smith and Mike Wallace (3rd round), and Brandon Marshall and Mike Williams (4th round).

Childs and Wright could very well become stars in the NFL. But it probably won't happen in their rookie year.

Harrison Smith
The Vikings got the 29th overall pick in the 2012 draft signed this week. Everything I've read about Smith is that he should be a solid, but not outstanding, pro, which I don't think you want to hear about one of your favorite team's first round draft picks.

But Smith is good in run support and I wonder if the Vikings can play to his strengths (what a concept!). Smith is 6'2 and 220 pounds. He played linebacker at Notre Dame during part of his career. So I'm thinking when opponent's go with four or five wide receivers or employ two pass-catching tight ends, instead of having a linebacker like Chad Greenway or Erin Henderson cover a TE or running back coming out of the backfield, that would be Smith's assignment. He should be able to do a better job of that than a linebacker. And if team's decide to run when an extra linebacker isn't on the field, Smith is big enough to take on (and defeat) blockers.

I just wonder if a Cover Two team like the Vikings – that often plays their safeties so deep that you can't see them on your television screen – would use a safety in this way?  

Blair Walsh
This guy will be your placekicker – at least initially – for the 2012 season.

I don't question the guy's leg, but being successful as an NFL placekicker requires more than leg strength. It requires nerves of steel.

It's OK for quarterbacks to misfire on a pass now and then. It's OK for a running back to get stuffed for no gain or a loss on the odd carry. It's OK for wide receivers to drop a pass occasionally, or a defensive back to drop an interception, or a linebacker or defensive lineman to miss a tackle or a sack.

But the nature of the job for a placekicker is just about every time he runs onto the field (except for kickoffs), he's in a position to score points for the team. And so every miss of a single point or a field goal can be the difference between winning and losing, and fans remember those misses a lot more vividly than they remember a wayward pass from their favorite quarterback.

Walsh missed 14 field goals as a senior last year. I can't imagine his confidence is terribly high right now. The NFL is a tough place to regain it.
 
Matt Kalil   
I spent a lot of time writing about Matt Kalil prior to the NFL draft. But since the Vikes drafted him fourth overall in April, it seems we haven't heard much about the big left offensive tackle.

I hope we continue to not hear much about Kalil in 2012 – no holdouts (Kalil still hasn't been signed), no injuries, no defensive ends blowing by him and sacking Christian Ponder, no holding penalties or false start penalties that short circuit promising Viking scoring drives, and no off-the-field silliness. If we never hear Kalil's name once during the 2012 season that will probably mean he's having a pretty good rookie season and the Vikings left tackle issue has been resolved.