Sunday, December 30, 2012

Trailing Clouds of Playoff Heaven: Vikings 37, Packers 34

Playoffs. 10-6. A win against the Green Bay Packers.  

Christian Ponder made some of the best throws he's made all season in this game. He's erratic even at his best, but some of his late throws--the bomb to Jarius Wright, the 3rd down pass to Michael Jenkins on the last drive--were beautiful. He showed poise, sound decision making, and generally good passing. You're crazy if you aren't terrified of Ponder making a road playoff start next week--but today Ponder gave the team quality play with his mobility and his throwing.

Aaron Rodgers torched the Vikes for 365 yards and 4 TDs--but it would have been even worse if not for the Viking pass rush. The Vikings had five sacks (three from Everson Griffen, who has been a monstrous force of late), but harassed Rodgers even more. The defense mostly wilted against the Packers, but the defensive line came through just enough.

But this is Adrian Peterson's team. Nobody would ever accuse me of saying anything against Peyton Manning--in my opinion he's the greatest QB ever and a worthy MVP candidate. But this was Adrian Peterson's season, and this was Adrian Peterson's game. Once again, an opposing defense had reason to focus its defense around stopping Peterson. Once again, he repeatedly bounced around at a crowded line of scrimmage and found open field. Once again he cut and juked and powered and sprinted his way to big gains and first downs and generally dragged the Vikings around the field. The Vikes scored 37 points today because Christian Ponder gave competent support to Peterson's superhuman efforts--which today were little different than they've been in any other game over the past 10 weeks. Peterson rushed for 2,000 yards, led a team to 10 wins, and led a team to four straight wins to close the season and make it into the playoffs. Want to guess which Vikings have over 500 yards of offense this season? It's Percy Harvin--who has missed the last eight games--and Peterson. That's it. Peterson has had an old-school rushing season in a league that's built for the pass for a team that can't really pass. He's the best Viking running back of all-time, and before his career is out we'll discuss whether he's the best Viking of all-time and the best running back of all-time.  This was his signature season. And this was his signature game: a must-win game against a good team, and Peterson willed his team to victory with 199 rushing yards, including a run to set up the game-winning field goal.

The 2012 Vikings have four wins against teams with 10+ wins (a measure of quality I've always liked): San Francisco, Chicago, Houston, and Green Bay. We can fret about how they can win in the playoffs tomorrow (or the next day, or the day after that). Today we can celebrate.

We've been through a lot as fans in recent years: that game that ended the 2009 season, combined 9-23 in the next two years, and regular anxiety over Adrian Peterson's health, that status of the stadium and whether the Vikings would move, and a whole lot of terrible, terrible quarterback play. Today we can stop and recognize for a moment that we root for a 10 win playoff team that just beat its biggest rival for the first time since 2009.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Vikings-Packers - this week and next?

Back in 2007 when I foolishly started the Grant's Tomb blog, there were a few Vikings sites I visited regularly because I liked what their bloggers had to say. Some of those blogs are no longer active and Defensive Indifference, which was written by Jason Winter, is one of them. Jason has shifted to blogging about gaming at Wintry Mix, but he's been kind enough to write a guest post for KAB now and then. You can read his first two posts here: one about a potentially historic season for Percy Harvin, and another about a potential solution to the Christian Ponder situation.  

If you can't get enough Vikings/Packers, you might be in luck.

The most likely path for Minnesota to the postseason is by winning this week against Green Bay. They can still make it in with a loss, but it would require losses by Dallas, New York, and Chicago, which seems highly unlikely. So, if the Vikings win this weekend, they'll be 10-6 and the Packers 11-5. The Vikings will be the #6 seed, with the Seattle Seahawks finishing no worse than 10-6 (and holding the tiebreaker edge due to a victory over the Vikings) and the San Francisco 49ers finishing no worse than 10-5-1.

The #6 seed plays the #3 seed. The NFC East winner is guaranteed the #4 seed, while Atlanta's locked up the #1 seed. So the #3 seed will be either Green Bay or the NFC West winner: Seattle or San Francisco.

Both NFC West teams play at home – San Fran against Arizona and Seattle against St. Louis. A win by both is highly likely, which would give San Fran the division at 11-4-1 and make them the #2 seed. If Seattle wins and San Fran loses, Seattle wins the West with a record of 11-5, which due to a “win” over Green Bay, in the infamous replacement ref Monday Night game, would give them the edge over the Packers and make them the #2 seed.

The only way Green Bay can secure a first-round bye and the #2 seed – assuming they lose to the Vikings on Sunday – is if both San Francisco and Seattle lose. Given their opponents and their home field advantages, that seems extremely unlikely. About as unlikely as the Vikings making the playoffs by losing this weekend. And no, I'm not taking ties into account. They'd make my head hurt even more.

So, to recap, if the Vikings win this weekend, they'll be the #6 seed and Green Bay will almost certainly be the #3 seed, which means it will be Minnesota at Green Bay for a rematch in the opening round of the playoffs. And before you go all “January playoff game in Lambeau Field, waaaaaah!” consider this: After starting on a 13-0 run, since 2002, the Packers are 1-4 in home playoff games, including this gem after the 2004 season. (Fortunately, there's no audio of Joe Buck's “disgusting act,” leaving the best exchange from that clip at the 2:48 mark. “Taken down at the 22 yard line, it's Ralph Brown!” “Who?” “RALPH BROWN!” “Come on!”)

In fact, since the Vikings are the #6 seed, it's easy to predict their opponents for the next two weeks: Green Bay and Atlanta. This assumes the team makes the postseason in the first place (and wins its first-round game)... but hey, if I'm going to dream, why not dream big?

Friday, December 28, 2012

The Vikings will go as far as Christian Ponder will take them (and how scary is that?)

I think we can all agree Adrian Peterson is an amazing player having an amazing season. And the common narrative going into Sunday's game against the Green Bay Packers is that the Minnesota Vikings are going to have to lean on Peterson hard, and get a superhuman effort from him, to win this game.

I don't think that's accurate. It certainly is going to help the Vikings chances of winning if Peterson rips off another 150-to-200 yard game at the Metrodome as opposed to producing some 20 carry, 50-60 yard stat line. But for the Vikings to beat the Packers, and do anything in the NFC playoffs, they need quarterback Christian Ponder to play at a standard that is somewhere between efficiently mediocre to solid.

Yes. You read the above sentence correctly. As goes Ponder, so goes the Minnesota Vikings. Peterson is an NFL MVP candidate. But as ESPN NFC North blogger Kevin Seifert wrote in this post a few weeks ago, the Vikings success doesn't really hinge on Peterson. The Vikes have lost four games during a torrid nine-game stretch where Peterson rushed for 123 yards (Tampa Bay), 182 (Seattle), 108 (Chicago) and 210 (Green Bay).

What's notable is that in those four losses, Ponder's average QB rating was 53.1, he's completed just 51 per cent of his passes and he threw five interceptions compared to three touchdown passes. Brutal numbers.

In the Vikings five wins during this same nine-game period, Peterson has been no less dominant - save for last week's win over the Houston Texans. He's run for 153 yards (Arizona), 171 (Detroit), 154 (Chicago), 212 (St. Louis) and 86 (Houston). But Ponder has also been far less brutal in four of those five wins (he was brutal against the Cardinals, but it didn't matter because the Vikings were playing the Cardinals). His QB rating has been 73.8, he's completed 64.9 per cent of his passes and he's thrown four TD passes and been intercepted three times - two of those coming in the win over Arizona.

Ponder's stats in the five wins don't represent great quarterbacking. But they are noticeably better than what he did in the four Vikings losses. And his play in the wins against Detroit, St. Louis and Houston was good enough that the Vikings offense wasn't completely one-dimensional. Ponder was able to produce first downs with his arm and his feet instead of depending on Peterson to do all the heavy lifting.

In fact, Ponder's game against the Texan is the template for how he will have to play against Green Bay (and beyond) for the Vikings to keep on winning. There is no point in hoping Ponder has an outlier game or two where he's throwing for 250-300 yards and three TD passes. He's not capable of that right now, nor does he have the receivers who can help him get there. But the quarterback we saw against Houston played winning football. He was as decisive in his reads and in his throws as we've seen in about two months. He made good decisions and was accurate. He even converted on some important third situations that kept drives alive and led to points for the Vikings.

And if Ponder can keep playing like this (and maybe even a bit better), the Vikings have a great chance to beat Green Bay and be competitive no matter who they face in the playoffs, even in Peterson doesn't go apeshit and run for 250-plus yards.

I know. It's scary realizing the Vikings playoff hopes really rest in Ponder's arm (and head) rather than Peterson's legs. Ponder is a guy who's confidence seems to wane from game-to-game, quarter-to-quarter, even play-to-play. That's not the guy who should be trusted to play well enough in a pressure-filled game against a good opponent in a contest with playoff implications. And that isn't a guy we should believe can lead the Vikings on a playoff run if they get there.

Yet that is what we must do, Vikings fans. It's a sobering thought and one that make every purple homer think twice that Minnesota will not only make the playoffs, but could do some damage if they get there.

In Christian we trust? Not likely. But we have little choice in 2012.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

National Friday League, Week 17

What else is there to say? This weekend is Armageddon for the 2012 season.

If the Vikings beat the hated Packers, they've earned their 10 win season, and they've earned their playoff berth. That is a huge sign of progress for a rebuilding organization, a clear step, a clear signal that the team is being built and is recovering from the '10-'11 doldrums that could not in any conceivable football way have gone worse.

If the Vikings beat the hated Packers, they're entered into the Anything-Can-Happen-Slugfest that is the contemporary NFL playoffs. Get into the playoffs, in whatever way and whatever seed, and you have a chance. We've seen teams, 9-7, #6 seeds, whatever, go on a holy tear through the playoffs, picking off teams with better records that were better in September and October than they are right now. The Vikings can win their way into that mess. I'm not reading any elegiac poetry yet: the Vikings are still in Super Bowl contention, however unlikely that seems or is.

If the Vikings win, Adrian Peterson may become the third Minnesota Viking to claim the NFL MVP Trophy. This award is otherwise known as "The Award for Best QB or RB on a Playoff Team," and in recent weeks many pundits are openly admitting that the last part is necessary to win the award. Everybody respects Peterson. Everybody recognizes he is carrying the Viking offense to competitiveness. Everybody recognizes his historical greatness. But he needs his team to win one more game to claim that MVP.

(and maybe you got some Viking gear--t-shirts or hats or jackets or jerseys--over the holidays. This will be your game day debut of said gear. If the Vikings beat the Packers to make the playoffs, you'll always, always have a good feeling about those t-shirts or hats or jackets or jerseys).

And if the Vikings lose to the hated Packers, all of that is probably gone. Those hated Packers that we haven't beaten since 2009 would have thwarted us right before our eyes in the Metrodome. Those hated Packers, who since the last time the Vikings beat them have won a Super Bowl and had a 15-1 season, would proudly and gleefully stomp on our hopes that are already quite sullied and broken from all the times they've been stomped on before without ever realizing their full consummation. Those hated Packers would laugh and celebrate as they take away our 10 win season, probably take away our playoff berth, remind us that they are still our betters and we've got a long way to go before beating them.

If the Vikings lose to the Packers, it is another long offseason in the wilderness wondering what the team needs to do to become real contenders. A surprisingly competitive and enjoyable season will be given a capstone of a devastating loss to the biggest rival that probably keeps us out of the playoffs. The Packers will once again walk off victorious--their sixth straight win against the Vikes, their seemingly billionth win in the last three years--and the Vikes will once again be an also-ran, not quite a lousy team, but not a contender either.

Root hard, friends. Root hard.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Trailing Clouds of Heaven (Part Two): Coaching Kudos at Christmas Time

To read Pacifist Viking's take on the Minnesota Viking's glorious beatdown of the Houston Texans, click here.

It's difficult for me to remember a Vikings road win where the team was as dominant as they were in beating a quality opponent like the Texans last Sunday. The 41-17 victory in 2007 over the New York Giants and the 35-14 pelting of the Arizona Cardinals both come to mind. Whatever. The victory in Houston was a road win and it came when the Vikings needed to have it – something this franchise hasn't been able to pull off much the past decade or so.

The Vikings players, of course, deserve full marks for that win. However, this was also the fourth game in a row where the Vikings have looked like the better prepared and better coached team. If not for Christian Ponder's two brutal interceptions in the Green Bay red zone at Lambeau a month ago, the Vikings could be playing for an NFC North title this Sunday instead of a Wild Card berth.

Two coaches that deserve a round of applause for the win against the Texans include defensive coordinator Alan Williams and offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave.

Let's start with some praise for Williams. Against Houston, and against the Rams the previous week, Williams recognized he was facing a stationary QB who was not comfortable throwing under duress. I've watched every minute of every Vikings game this year. This is not a team that likes to blitz, nor is it very good at it. But Williams sent his linebackers, and occasionally his cornerbacks and safeties, at Houston's Matt Schaub – usually on second-and-third-and-long situations.

Williams didn't blitz liberally. He picked his spots. But when he did pick them, the blitzes got home quite often and forced Schaub to throw earlier than he wanted to or from a spot on the field he didn't want to. This tactic is not something the Texans would have had a lot of film on from the Vikings D. But Williams wasn't content to sit back in the Cover Two and rush four all game. He knew that besides Andre Johnson and tight end Owen Daniels, the Texans don't have any pass catchers who can hurt you. Facing a team that doesn't have a variety of targets you must focus on makes blitzing a not-very-mobile QB a much sounder strategy for the Vikings (and something they probably won't do against Aaron Rodgers and the Packers this Sunday).

Musgrave also called a nice game against a tough Houston defense. He continued to be committed to running the ball, even when it wasn't working all that well. But Musgrave wasn't stubborn about it. Ponder did end up throwing the ball 30 times. And many of those throws came on first and second downs when you thought the Vikings were better off handing it to #28 – Adrian Peterson.

Musgrave seems to have figured out – after almost two years running the Vikings offense – what his players can and cannot do. And let's be honest here, there is a lot they can't do. But he knows the bootleg plays with Ponder rolling out and throwing to a tight end or back in the flat works as long as the Vikings don't run them too much. That's the effect Peterson is having on defenses right now. Musgrave also knows there is no point throwing anything deep to Michael Jenkins or Jerome Simpson. The can't get separation from defenders. So when the Vikings do take a deep shot lately, it's mostly been to rookie Jarius Wright or Devin Aromashodu (OK, I don't understand that one, either). Musgrave is also designing pass plays that have Ponder getting rid of the ball quickly, so the second-year QB doesn't have to think too much, can make one or two reads and if the throw isn't there, he takes off and runs or throws it (hopefully) away. It's a limited offensive gameplan. But it's the only one the Vikings can run with the WRs the have have and the QB they have. And they've been running it so much that they are getting pretty good at it, even when the opposing defenses know what is coming.

This coaching competence goes beyond Musgrave and Williams, too. From quarterback coach Craig Johnson, to special teams coordinator Mike Priefer, to linebackers coach Fred Pagac, it's difficult to finger a positional unit against Houston that was not on its game last Sunday. Credit for that has to go to the Vikings coaching staff.

I don't know what gameplans the head coach Leslie Frazier, Williams, Musgrave and the rest of the coaching staff will cook up with a playoff berth at stake against the Packers on Sunday. But I do feel pretty confident that the gameplans they do develop will be sound ones, that they will make the best use of the talent the Vikings have in place, and that the players trust the coaching staff enough that they will buy into it and believe the gameplans will put them in a position to succeed against a good Green Bay team.

It's been a while since I felt that way about a Vikings coaching staff. Right now, I have that feeling.    

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Trailing Clouds of Heaven: Vikings 23, Texans 6

Vikings-Texans Box Score (Yahoo!)

Today was the Vikings' biggest road win since at least the '09 win at Lambeau Field (the '10 win at Philadelphia was terrific, but the Vikes were already out of it). If the Vikings had beaten the Texans so handily in Thunderdome, we might not have been shocked: this team plays well at home, even against good competition (we beat the 49ers this year, after all). But today a competitive, contending, playoff-chasing Viking team went on the road and utterly shut down a 12 win opponent that had something to play for. In fact, they held a team that was averaging 28.1 points per game to 187 total offensive yards and no touchdowns. In fact, they held that team to 1-11 on 3rd down.  In fact, the Vikings won consecutive road games by double-digits.

And the Vikings are 9-6! Whatever else happens, the 2012 Vikings will have a winning record, and Leslie Frazier, despite being completely wrong about the quarterback position during his tenure, has earned the right to return to coach this team next year, in my view (let's hope they don't talk themselves into another year of Christian Ponder without an immediately viable backup, though). This is progress.  This is competitive, well-played football. This is a prepared football team.

I'll leave it to others to analyze the details and assign individual credit. I'm just walking away with ecstasy. When you are rooting for a sports team, you want to see them able to win games like that: on the road, against a good opponent, in dominant fashion. You hope that the people running your favorite team are building the team to be able to do just the sort of thing that the Vikings did today. The 2012 Vikings will have a winning record, and they have signature victories against 10+ win opponents early in the season and late in the season. I think we're in a good place right now.

Skol, friends.

Friday, December 21, 2012

College defensive tackles to pay attention to during the holidays

As I blogged previously a couple of weeks ago, I don't like to write about the Vikings and the NFL draft when the team is fighting for a playoff berth. But my post on draft-eligible college wide receivers generated enough discussion and interest that I've decided to do another one – this time focusing on defensive tackles.

I don't think DT is as pressing a need as funding a split end in the next college draft, but it's a very close second. Kevin Williams will be 33 when the 2013 starts and his play has slipped from All-Pro level to OK level. He's also due big bucks next season (his salary cap hit will be $8 million). The Vikings probably don't want him back at that price. And at his advanced football age, they may not want him back at any price.

To Williams left on the interior is Letroy Guion, who signed a three-year contract extension in the offseason but so far has done little to justify it. His backup, Fred Evans, has actually played better than Guion. He has knack for blowing up running plays at the line of scrimmage, but he's inconsistent and not someone you want to be playing 50-60 snaps a game. The other DT on the roster is second-year player Christian Ballard, who in his two seasons with the Vikings has looked just like he is auditioning for the role of the Invisible Man. (But he is coming off the two best games of his career the past two weeks.)

Simply put, the Vikes need a talent infusion at this position. The run defense – long a strength in Minnesota – has gradually slipped. This year the Vikings are giving up 113 yards per game (13th in the league) and the team could use a bit more pass rushing juice from the DTs than they are currently getting. The good news is this year's draft is pretty deep in DTs. What follows is a few players who could interest the Vikings as they get into draft preparations after this season concludes. Some will quibble with the tiers I have the players in, but that's OK. The commentary and "rankings" aren't based on my scouting prowess (I've only seen one of the guys I mention – Johnathan Hankins – play). I'm getting my intel from reading scouting reports online and culling stats, and stats don't do the impact DTs have on a game justice in some cases. What I can say is that the names mentioned below have popped up in various mock drafts and draft boards I have read. So it's clear somebody thinks they can play. Maybe Vikings general manager Rick Spielman does as well.

* Denotes a junior who has declared he will enter the 2013 NFL draft.

The Studs
Star Lotulelei (Senior – Utah) 6'4, 320 pounds
2012 stats: 42 tackles, 11 tackles for a loss, 5 sacks, 4 fumble recoveries
Lotulelei is probably the most recognizable name of this bunch. A massive guy, scouting reports rave about his brute strength and quickness, which allow him to get consistent penetration on both pass and run plays. I read opposing views on his effort and hustle. Some lauded his "high octane motor", but one report claimed Lotulelei didn't bring his A-game on every snap. Hmmm. No matter, Lotulelei is still considered the best DT in the draft and would fit in nicely on the Vikings defensive tackle rotation in 2013. One problem – the Vikings don't have a pick in the top three in 2013 like they did in 2012 and Lotulelei is a top three pick in this quarterback poor draft.

* Sheldon Richardson (Junior – Missouri) 6'4, 295 pounds
2012 stats: 75 tackles, 10.5 tackles for a loss, 4 sacks, 7 QB hurries
Some November mock drafts had Richardson going to the Vikings. He's rated highly after a standout season in the SEC. But it was only one season and there's concern Richardson will be less motivated to play hard once he signs a big NFL contract. However, his positives are hard to ignore: big frame, quick off the snap, good short area burst and the better the opponent he faced in 2012, the better he played. He has pass rush ability, too.

* Johnathan Hankins (Junior – Ohio State) 6'3, 322
2012 stats: 55 tackles, 5 tackles for a loss, 1 sack
This season might be considered a letdown after he posted 67 tackles, 11 tackles for a loss and 3 sacks in 2011. Still, Hankins is a load, yet rangy for his size. He's tough against the run and scouts highlight his strong hands that allow him to secure tackles and finish plays once he gets his mitts on you. He also eats up multiple blockers on the line, allowing teammates to make plays. On the downside, it's said he took dumb penalties at Ohio State and is known for blatantly taking plays off. Seems like a better fit at nose tackle for a 3-4 team, which the Vikings aren't right now, and the Spielman regime hasn't drafted character concern players until the fourth round or so. There's no chance Hankins slips that far.

Kawaan Short (Senior – Purdue) 6'3, 315
2012 stats: 42 tackles, 14.5 for a loss, 6 sacks, 4 blocked kicks
If you follow Big Ten football (and most Vikings fans living in the American Midwest do), then you are probably familiar with Mr. Short's work. I am not. But he has the wingspan of a condor, which allowed him to not only block four kicks this season but also to bat down 11 passes, which is J.J. Watt-esque. Scouts say he can be an immovable object in the middle and he obviously has pass rush ability. The debits on Short's ledger are – wait for it – streaky effort during games. I've also read reports calling out Short for lacking a mean streak and being too passive. Short sounds like an immense talent, but also a guy who could break a team's heart if his effort in the pros doesn't match his physical ability.

Sylvester Williams (Senior – North Carolina) 6'3, 305
2012 stats: 42 tackles, 13.5 tackles for a loss, 6 sacks, 6 QB hurries
Williams is a guy who has set himself up to make a lot of money in April with the 2012 season he had for the Tar Heels. He barely played football in high school, went to junior college and then moved on to UNC in 2011. Scouting reports like his "violent" handwork in the trenches as well as his quickness off the snap and his burst in short areas. And he showed an ability to get after the quarterback and there were no issues (that I read anyway) about this effort. ESPN college draft talking head Todd McShay's recent mock draft has the Vikings taking Williams ahead of Richardson. (I know. I know. There's a long way to go here.)

Johnathan Jenkins (Senior – Georgia) 6'3, 351
2012 stats: 50 tackles, 2 tackles for a loss, 1 sack, 15 QB hurries 
At 350-plus pounds, it will not shock you to hear that Jenkins is impossible to move off his spot without using a double-team on him. And for a nose tackle type DT, standing your ground and occupying multiple blockers is a big part of the job description. Jenkins does it well. Pass rushing is another matter. Other than an average bull rush, one scouting report claims Jenkins doesn't have any other go-to moves. Oh well. Guys with Jenkins' size, athleticism and effort don't come around very often. He'll go early.

The Second Tier
Jesse Williams (Senior – Alabama) 6'4, 320
2012 stats: 22 tackles, 4 tackles for a loss, 3 QB hurries
Some mock drafts have Williams going in the first round. That's quite possible, but Williams seems like a one-dimensional guy to me. Granted, his one dimension – clogging the middle – is a valued one in the NFL. Williams is the anchor of an Alabama defense that's given up just 75 yards rushing per game in 2012. Incredibly strong (he has a bench press of 600 pounds), he's learned how to use his hands to shed blocks despite being from Australia and only taking up the sport at 15. He's also known for his hustle. However, he doesn't seem like a good fit for a 4-3 team like the Vikings. He's shown no pass rush ability and doesn't do a good job getting his hands in passing lanes. But the same things could be said about former Vike Pat Williams.

Sharrif Floyd (Junior – Florida) 6'3, 303
2012 stats: 41 tackles, 11 tackles for a loss, 1 sack, 1 blocked field goal
Athletic enough that the Gators had him play DE in 2011 before moving him back to DT in 2012. Floyd's known for having a quick burst off the snap, good hand use and good power off the line of scrimmage. Expect to read about Floyd being a "character" concern is he declares for the draft, though. He was suspended by the NCAA for 2 games in 2011 for receiving impermissible benefits from a booster – who then adopted Floyd in 2012. Funny how that works.

* Akeem Spence (Junior – Illinois) 6'1, 305
2012 stats: 72 tackles, 7 tackles for a loss, 1.5 sacks, 1 QB hurry 
Another big fella Minnesota Gopher fans and Big Ten followers will recognize. Spence is a tackling machine on the interior, racking up 141 of them the past two seasons. Spence is strong, quick off the snap and plays through the whistle, which helps explain his tackle totals. What Spence didn't show at Illinois was much promise as a pass rusher and one scouting report mentioned he takes himself out of plays. His height might be an issue for the Vikings as well. Minnesota doesn't have a DT on its roster listed under 6'4. Spielman seems to like his DTs tall and thick. Where have you gone John Randle, Jerry Ball and Tony Williams?

Jordan Hill (Senior – Penn State) 6'1, 292
2012 stats: 64 tackles, 8.5 tackles for a loss, 4.5 sacks
Another draft-eligible DT from the Big Ten. Extremely active and relentless player in the interior, whose lateral quickness and burst allowed him to be productive despite not having the size you'd normally want from a DT. I've read that size is why he can't bully or overpower blockers at the point of the attack. NFL teams will hold that against him come draft weekend. He doesn't seem to have the size the Vikings have been looking for from their DTs of late. But he'll play somewhere.
Other interesting behemoths
Daniel McCullers (Junior - Tennessee) 6'8, 360
2012 stats: 39 tackles, 5.5 tackles for a loss, 1 sack, 2 QB hurries
Huge kid. Just huge. But he's only played one year of Division 1 football and hasn't declared for the draft yet. However, his stats were strong enough in his one year that with his Paul Bunyan body, if he does enter the draft, he will get snatched up early.

Brandon Williams (Senior – Missouri-Southern) 6'3, 325
2012 stats: 68 tackles, 16.5 tackles for a loss, 8.5 sacks, 5 forced fumbles
Here is an intriguing DT prospect. Played in Division 2, but talk about productive. Is the school's all-time sack leader with 27, which is impressive for a DT even if you are playing in Division 2. Williams is someone who could be a steal in the 4-6 round range. But if his pre-draft workouts are impressive, he could shoot up draft boards like Dontari Poe did in 2012, and Poe was nowhere near as productive in college as Williams has been.

Montori Hughes (Senior – Tennessee-Martin) 6'4, 330
2012 stats: 42 tackles, 8.5 tackles for a loss, 4 sacks, 13 QB hurries
Hughes was kicked off the Tennessee Volunteers team in 2011 and scouts have always questioned his drive and motivation. And along with the character questions, you wonder if Hughes' strong stat line in 2012 was a product of playing inferior competition all the time. But he does have the size NFL teams covet in a DT.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

National Friday League, Week 16

Vikings-Texans Preview

The 12-2 Texans are beatable. Very beatable.  I'd like to share with you the Texans' point differential over the last six games, and talk about their potential weaknesses. Unfortunately, the Vikings are not the sort of team that can best compete with them. In fact I think the Vikes match up pretty terribly with Houston.

Good passing teams have been able to exploit the Texan secondary--unfortunately, well, you know.  And let's add that Percy Harvin, who has played in 9 of 14 games this season, has 27 more receptions than any other Viking WR right now. There is no Viking who can beat the Texans deep, so it will be on Adrian Peterson for another heroic effort to make the offense work.

And the Vikings' big weakness--stopping big, athletic WRs--is likely to get exploited by Andre Johnson, who could destroy us Sunday (though twice this year the Vikes were torched by a similar WR and still won).

The Texans are a team that can sit on the lead, with a deep running game and dominating defensive  pass rush. The Vikes will need to compete early if they are going to compete at all. The Texans actually rank in the top seven in offensive points and yards and defensive points and yards, while the Vikings don't rank higher than 14 in any of those categories.

All this means that AP is once again called on to carry the Vikings. But that's no occasional event: at this point, that's a reasonable possibility any week. The defense barely matters this season: Adrian Peterson is running crazy on everybody, and the only thing that holds him back is whether the rest of the Vikings are keeping the team in the game.

May Adrian Peterson never have another season like this again.
I'll be happy if Adrian Peterson averages 6.3 yards per carry for the rest of his career, but if he's also rushing for this many yards, it probably means the Vikings are not very good at passing, and that probably means the Vikings aren't very good. I'll be happy if this season is Adrian Peterson's career high in rushing yards (it's also good that in this career, record-threatening year, he's actually not approaching a dangerously high number of carries), and that in the future his running prowess is complimented by an effective passing game.

The Commercial Life
Evidently Arby's thinks it is critically important that a sandwich shop slice its meat in-store. It's some sort of atrocity that robots would slice the meat in a different location then ship it to Subway. What, does Arby's want Subway to slaughter the animals right there in its little stores too? Somewhere, somebody is chopping hunks of meat off of an animal and sending it somewhere else. But evidently Arby's is superior because somebody chops off that hunk of meat, then sends it to Arby's where an employee (in an industry with high turnover, this employee may be young, inexperienced, and low-paid) puts it through a slicer to chop it up even more. That's apparently...what, safer? Healthier?  Tastier? I've got no f*#%ing idea, and neither do you, because Arby's doesn't have shit to say about why it's better to have a chunk of meat sent to Arby's to be sliced up further rather than to have a chunk of meat sent to a factory to be sliced before being sent to Subway where the low-paid worker only has to lay it on the bread. I'll admit the vagaries of meat preparation are, um, not my area of knowledge or concern, but are these commercials repulsively stupid, or is it just me?

Have a safe and happy time, everybody.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Should the Vikings try to trade Jared Allen during the 2013 offseason?

He made it look so easy and effortless.

I'm talking about Everson Griffen's 29-yard interception return for a touchdown in the Minnesota Vikings 36-22 win over the St. Louis Rams on Dec. 15. On the play, the 6'3, 270 pound backup defensive end dropped into the shallow middle of the field, read St. Louis Rams QB Sam Bradford's eyes, drifted to his right to snare the pass, then accelerated past his opponents down the right sideline, stiff-arming Rams wide receiver Chris Givens for good measure, as he trotted into the end zone to give the Vikings a commanding 24-7 lead.

It was the kind of athleticism you don't see very often from a big defensive end. But as I mentioned above, Griffen looked so natural doing it, it made you wonder what he could accomplish for the Vikings if he were playing full time.

Well. we may very well find out what Griffen can do as a starter as early as 2013. But for that to happen, Griffen would have to replace one of Minnesota's current starting DEs – Jared Allen or Brian Robison. And the only way that's going to happen is if either Allen or Robison sustain 1) a season-ending injury (which would suck) or 2) one of the two is moved. As the title of my blog post has already tipped off, Vikings management might want to seriously consider the latter option.

Age and economics is putting the Vikings and Allen on this course, I think. Allen turns 31 on April 3rd and it so happens that 2013 is the final year of the six-year contract extension he signed with the Vikings in 2008. His base salary in 2013 will be $14.3 million, but his cap hit is scheduled to be $17.8 million if you take in various bonuses. Being as Allen has said nothing about retiring at the end of the 2013 season, and he'd only be 32 going into the 2014 campaign, he will be looking for one last big contract by then. And if the Vikings don't give it to him, some other team in need of a pass rusher will.

This is what makes the decision so difficult for the Vikings. There's no doubt Allen's been everything they could have hoped for when they traded three high draft picks (a 1st rounder and two 3rd rounders) to get Allen from the Kansas City Chiefs in 2008. His first four seasons with the Vikings have seen him notch 14.5, 14.5, 11 and 22 sacks, respectively. This year he has nine in 14 games.

But the Vikings are a team that seems to be following the Ted Thompson blueprint to success in the NFL, which is to stay young, don't tie up big money on veteran players on the wrong side of 30 and build through the draft. A quick glance at the career stats of the DEs on this list of the NFL career sack leaders (Allen is currently #16 on the list) shows that 31 is not the end of the line for pass rushers – as far as sacks go anyway. But how many elite years does Allen have left beyond 2013? Is it one year? Two? Three? The Vikings may not want to pay what Allen wants to retain him in 2014 when his "eliteness" could fall off rather quickly.

Of course, you don't want to give up an asset for nothing, either. And this is why exploring Allen's trade value during this offseason might be worthwhile for general manager Rick Spielman. Allen is still a big name. He is still productive. He would surely garner some interest from other teams if the Vikings were to let the league know he was available. You're not going to get a 1st rounder and two 3rd rounders for him like Minnesota had to fork over in 2008, but if you can get a 1st rounder or an early 2nd round pick in this year's draft, maybe that is good enough to do the deed.

This situation is made even trickier by the contract status of Robison and Griffen. Both of their deals also expire in 2013. Robison, surprisingly, will be 31 when the 2014 season starts. But he's outperformed the modest three-year, $14 million contract extension he signed after the 2010 season and could be resigned for much less coin than Allen.

Meanwhile, Griffen will only be 26 when the 2014 season rolls around and the Vikings will probably want to keep him around – but again resigning Griffen will cost them a lot less than extending Allen and the Vikes can use that money to address other issues.

As starting defensive ends, it's quite likely Robison and Griffen will never be as productive as Allen, who seems headed to the Hall of Fame. But by 2013 and 2014, Allen might not be as productive as he once was, either.

What to do with Jared Allen will surely weigh on Spielman's mind throughout the offseason.       

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.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Trailing Clouds of Heaven: Vikings 36, Rams 22

The 2012 Viking season continues to remind me of the 2007 Viking season. After a disappointing previous season, few people had many expectations for the Vikings to win many games. They seemed to have a general lack of talent, were in the process of rebuilding, and were being led by an inexperienced, mobile QB who had shown some deficiencies throwing the ball.

But the Vikes came out better than anybody thought. Partly that was because the defense was better than expected: good against the run, but also opportunistic at forcing turnovers and scoring or putting the team in great field position. But also it was because of Adrian Peterson. In '07 and in '12, nobody was quite sure what we had in Peterson, but we were hopeful. And both years, he tore into the league with reckless, powerful, motivated talent.

Adrian Peterson is obviously giving us his signature season, the one that shows once and for all that he belongs in conversations with Jim Brown, Walter Payton, Emmitt Smith, Barry Sanders, and the elite like. Today's game was his ninth 100 yard game of the season (and eighth straight), his sixth with 150 yards, and his second 200 yard game. He moves to 1,812 rushing yards for the season. He currently has a yards per carry number (6.27) that we haven't seen from a workhorse running back in a very long time. This is Jim Brown 1963, Barry Sanders 1997 level stuff. And he's doing it every which way: make-you-jump-up-and-scream long runs mixed with consistent grinding runs. It could not be more fun to watch. This is the season that, if for some wild reason Adrian Peterson retired this offseason, already pushes him into the Hall of Fame, in my opinion. And if the Vikings do make the playoffs, it will be a season worthy of an MVP trophy.

As in '07, the Vikings just moved to 8-6.  It's not easy from here, as the Vikings go to Houston and host the Packers in the final weeks. And they'll have to beat those teams without a professional passing attack.

But as always, enjoy the Ws when they come, because sometimes they don't come.


Thursday, December 13, 2012

National Friday League, Week 15

Vikings-Rams Preview

There are things to like about this matchup for Viking fans. It's in a Dome. St. Louis doesn't have the WR talent to consistently exploit the Viking weaknesses in pass defense (the way physical, athletic WRs have been able to). Adrian Peterson is going against NFL Defense X (it doesn't really seem to matter what NFL Defense X is).

But the Rams are a sneaky good team, with pass rushers (17 sacks between Robert Quinn and Chris Long), good talent all over the defense, and typical Jeff Fisher things.

We used to be treated to good passing games.
Let's be absolutely clear about one thing: the Vikings are trying to win football games without a professional passing offense. The Vikings aren't just 32nd in passing yards, 27th in passing TDs, 30th in net pass yards per attempt: those numbers include the early part of the season when Ponder occasionally looked decent and at any rate the Vikings had Percy Harvin doing things. In November and December, Christian Ponder is 80/139 (58%), 653 yards, and four touchdowns. In the last five games then, Ponder is averaging 130.6 passing yards per game--and even that is exaggerated by games when the Vikes were incapable of passing while the game was competitive but had to attempt passes when down by multiple scores. It's hard to overstate just how nonproductive this is.

And as I look at the Viking WRs and see Michael Jenkins, Devin Aromashadu, and Jerome Simpson, hopelessness sets in. Was Travis Taylor, Troy Williamson, and Marcus Robinson a better trio? Were Bobby Wade and Robert Ferguson more useful? It's been bad for a while. The franchise of Gene Washington, John Gilliam, Sammy White, Ahmad Rashad, Anthony Carter, Cris Carter, Jake Reed, and Randy Moss has suffered through its longest stretch of terrible WR play probably ever. From 1993-2004, the Vikes had at least one receiver with 1,000 yards in each of 12 seasons. From 1994-2000, the Vikes had two 1,000 yard receivers in seven straight seasons. From 2005-2012, we've seen precisely one 1,000 yard receiving season (Sidney Rice's 2009). If Jake Reed in his prime walked into the Dome today, we'd say "Look at that Adonis on the football field: who knew an NFL player could do such things!?"

The Chosen and the Blessed
Steve Marsh's essay on his trip to Lambeau Field and his appreciation for Adrian Peterson at Grantland makes me think about why fans of historically good teams, with deep-rooted traditions in their sport, can sometimes annoy the rest of us.

Think not just of the Green Bay Packers, but of, say, Notre Dame football, or Duke basketball. Their current fans did not build those traditions. Certainly they participate in them, in the same sense that I participated in American democracy by voting in November, which felt meaningful and important though nothing I voted on won by a single vote and so the tradition of American democracy would have gone on just the same without me. If you're a member of a fortunate group, but you know that you personally didn't make that group what it is (even if in a small way you help continue what it is), you can consider your group membership in one of two ways (allow me to borrow some religious language).

One way is to consider yourself the chosen. The chosen are special. The real spiritual meaning of being the chosen is beyond you, out of control, but it can give your group a certain sort of pride. If we're the elect, that means God chose us for that, so we must be pretty neat. There's a sense of entitlement in being the elect.

Another way to consider yourself is the blessed. The blessed are lucky. The blessed know they aren't responsible for their fortune and have done nothing to deserve it. They are thankful and appreciative of the grace they've been given.

I'm not going for generalizations or stereotypes, so I won't even use the plural here. But if you've ever been irritated by a Packer fan, or a Duke fan, or a Notre Dame fan, or maybe a Boston Celtic fan, or a New York Yankee fan, it might have been when that fan was acting like the chosen: entitled and superior, rather than the blessed, a lot luckier than you that they root for a winner and you don't.

And then of course there are the cursed, fans of teams that treat us to long droughts of little success and/or oh-so-close historic heartbreaks, so that we come to wallow in our misery as if it is unique and we are especially tormented because of it. I'm guessing that as a fanbase, we could have a tendency to annoy with that sort of attitude, too.

Other Interesting Games
Week 15 Schedule

There a six matchups between teams with winning records this week.

Colts-Texans. The Texans' loss to the Patriots meant one and only one important thing: Houston may not be able to rest its fantasy stars this season! This is terrific news.

Packers-Bears. There's nothing like hate-watching a football game.

Broncos-Ravens. Losing Willis McGahee was a big deal: he did a lot of things to keep the Bronco offense moving the ball down the field.

Giants-Falcons. Falcon players got you pretty far in your fantasy season--but is the show over? Can they get you farther?

Steelers-Cowboys. At 7-6, both teams really need this. And Ben Roethlisberger has restored the joy that is Mike Wallace. It should be fun.

49ers-Patriots. The 49ers of 1981-1998 and Patriots from 2001-present are similar awesome dynasties. The 49ers went to 10 of 18 conference title games; the Patriots went to 6 of 11. Both teams went to five Super Bowls during their stretch (the 49ers winning all five, the Patriots winning three). The 49ers had six 13+ win seasons, the Patriots five. The 49ers made the playoffs in 16 of 18 seasons, the Patriots in 9 of 11. The 49ers were under .500 once during those 18 seasons, the Patriots have been over .500 now in 12 straight seasons. The 49ers had 10+ wins in 17 of those 18 seasons (the one off was the strike-shorted '82 season), the Patriots had 10+ wins in now 11 of 12 seasons. In those 18 years the 49ers led the league in point differential seven times; the Patriots led in this category three times, and are currently leading this season.

Fantasy Box: what is fantasy football for if not hating your friends and family?
I started listening to fantasy football podcasts in late June. I got a magazine in early July. Now it is December and I am going to try contend for a fantasy championship starting (wait for it) Bilal Powell and Kenny Britt.

In my Hazelweird fantasy league with cross country scoring (where every team plays every other team each week), my brother and I sit at #1 and #2 in the standings (he's ahead of me by one game, and there are other contenders). In another league with a playoff, my first-round playoff game is against, yes, my brother. This may be why he sent in the mail (disguised as an early Christmas present I was told to open early) the karmic curse: a DVD called Vikings Stars of Tomorrow: Collegiate Highlights of the 2005-2006 Draft featuring Troy Williamson, Erasmus James, Marcus Johnson, Ciatrick Fason, Dustin Fox, and Adrian Ward. I've never seen this film: I heard if you watch it seven days later Troy Williamson crawls out of your TV and drops footballs on you. But it has become Hazelweird's curse: a last place trophy that the loser often "forgets" at the draft host's house, and now evidently it is a weapon to be wielded competitively. The Spirit of Fantasy Football frowns on your attempt at karmic victory, brother. For shame.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Some Tuesday thoughts on individual Vikings players

The Minnesota Vikings have played 13 games now, and if you've watched all 13 (and I have), you've probably formed plenty of opinions about the guys who have suited up for them in 2012. In this post, I bring you some of mine.

A.J. Jefferson
Jefferson is a funny player. I've never seen a guy in position to make so many plays – and then not make any. Perhaps this is how a prospect who has the size (6'1, 190) everyone is looking for in a corner these days, and who runs pretty well (4.51 in the 40), goes undrafted. Still, a nice in-season trade made by Vikings GM Rick Spielman to get him considering Marcus Sherels was the alternative as the fourth corner.

Phil Loadholt
Sunday's Bears game was exhibit A as to why Loadholt drives some Vikings fans nuts – committing three false start penalties (at home), which are killers for an offense that can't afford to get off schedule on down and distance. But read this and the starting right tackle's value becomes more apparent. The free agent-to-be has become a solid run and pass blocker and he's durable – having only missed one game in four seasons. I like Phil Loadholt. There, I said it.

Harrison Smith
I thought Smith might have hit the mythical "rookie wall" a few weeks back. I was seeing too many shoulder tackles and too much tentativeness in playing the ball. But the past two games the Smith I had come to know and love has returned – he's wrapping up with two arms on his tackles and he has two interceptions the past two weeks. And I feel good knowing Smith is in the game, because not only does he know were he needs to be on the field but he'll make something happen when he gets there (unlike Mr. Jefferson).

Stephen Burton
Offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave seems to value Burton's blocking, because the Vikings keep dressing him on Sundays. Yet the guy has only two catches this season and has dropped the last three passes thrown his way. If the Vikings are going to keep him around, then just tell him to gain some weight in the offseason and turn him into a blocking tight end. He's already listed at 224 pounds. What's another 25-to-30?

Jasper Brinkley
I was going to write that Brinkley is the defensive version of Christian Ponder – started out strong and has regressed ever since. That wouldn't be fair, however. Brinkley's highs early in the season probably weren't as high as Ponder's (many will argue that Ponder's "highs" weren't terribly high, either). But his lows have been nowhere near as low. And he had a pretty good game against Bears: 13 tackles, six solos and a pass breakup. I'm still lukewarm on Brinkley. He's kind of the king of tackling a ball carrier four or five yards beyond the line of scrimmage. I rarely see him make those tackles right at the line or in the backfield that E.J. Henderson did in his 2006-2009 prime. Of course, Brinkley is no E.J.

Jerome Felton
Well, here is one Spielman free agent signing that's worked out, although I think Geoff Schwartz would be working out if they would just play him instead of Brandon Fusco at right guard. Adrian Peterson is having his best season ever and it's often the bruising Felton leading AD to daylight. I see a two-year contract in Felton's future – whether it's with the Vikings or some other team in need of a battering ram to block for a star running back.

Josh Robinson
I think Robinson is currently in the "Cedric Griffin circa 2006-2007" stage of his young career. You know the drill – give the opposing wide receiver an eight-yard cushion, watch him catch the ball in front of you, tackle him, don't get beat for touchdown passes, repeat. Except against Chicago, Robinson was beat for touchdown passes – two of them. I still like Robinson's game and I think he's got a future with the Vikings (any comparison of Robinson to another Vikings third round draft pick of recent vintage, Marcus McCauley, is way off base). But he must step up his game over the final three contests, especially if Jefferson can't play against St. Louis because of the concussion.

Jarius Wright 
I know the stats are modest after four games (although not as modest as the stats of Burton, Jerome Simpson or Devin Aromashodu), still I think we've got something here in Wright. He's extremely quick, and while his hands have been a bit of an issue, he can get open and gain yards after the catch. Yes, he's small. But I'm aware of no rule in the NFL that says you can't put two sub-six foot WRs on the field at the same time. I think he can be a 50-60 catch guy. So keep developing Wright, keep Percy Harvin in the fold, find a legit split end and a legit QB and – presto! – the Vikings have a modern-day NFL passing game. In 2014.  

Monday, December 10, 2012

Trailing Clouds of Heaven (Part 2): Christian Ponder is doing us a frickin' service

To read Pacifist Viking's take on Sunday's glorious 21-14 win over the Chicago Bears, click here.

Like Will Ferrell's Robert Goulet character recording the Coconut Banger's Ball – It's a Rap (see video above), Christian Ponder is actually doing the fans and the Minnesota Vikings franchise a frickin' service by playing so brutally over the past seven games.

In those seven games, he's failed to throw for over 100 yards three times – and two other times he did it happened when the Vikings were way behind and defenses were playing soft coverage. He's only had one game that can be classified as solid-to-good (a month ago against Detroit, which hardly counts), and he's looked only slightly better than Arizona's John Skelton and Ryan Lindley. In the past two weeks it's been clear what Minnesota offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave's gameplan has been – do everything you can to minimize, even eliminate, Ponder's impact on the game. They are asking him to do little other than hand off to Adrian Peterson and not throw interceptions. And even with so little being asked of him, Ponder has barely been up to the task.

But as I thought about Ponder's play on Sunday in between cursing it, I got to thinking this isn't such a bad thing.

My line of thinking goes this way. If Ponder was playing serviceable, or even mediocre-level football as the Vikings fashioned a surprising 7-6 record, I think the coaches and general manager Rick Spielman could hope, and try to sell to the fan base, that Ponder was still progressing. They could trick themselves into thinking that with another year or two of experience, and with some newer, better receivers to throw to, he'd develop into the kind of quarterback who could win games for the Vikings. There would still be enough doubt in the minds of the Vikings front office that Ponder really wasn't a mistake. So fans would get one, two, maybe even three more seasons of that kind of play from Ponder and the Vikings would be right where they are now. An Ok team, but no Super Bowl contender.

However, my feeling is Ponder's play of late has removed all doubt that he will go down as a first round bust. I hate that I've come to that conclusion because I really like him personally and I want him to succeed. But experienced football minds like what the Vikes supposedly have on staff must be able to see what I'm seeing with Ponder. They must know very few NFL quarterbacks have been so bad during their first few years in the league and then turned out to be so good. (Hat tip to @ArifHasanDN for finding that link).

In short, while we may be stuck with Ponder in 2012, I think his play will force the Vikings to ensure we aren't stuck with him – at the least – as the only starting QB option in 2013.

And in Vikings Country, we call that progress.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Trailing Clouds of Heaven: Vikings 21, Bears 14

Vikings-Bears Box Score (Yahoo!)

What is with the Vikings and the Metrodome?
The Vikes move to 6-1 at home and 1-5 on the road. This is an old story for the Vikings, who have frequently stunk on the road but defended the Dome well.

Despite how great the Vikes have played in Thunderdome, it may be a good thing that we'll be leaving it behind. The Vikes can't keep having such a wide discrepancy between their home and road performances. I don't see how the Metrodome causes this discrepancy (does the homefield advantage overrate the quality of the team, masking serious core problems so that the team doesn't try to fix those core problems?  Does the team get so comfortable at home that they are extra-uncomfortable on the road?  I'd answer both those questions in the negative, but I'll ask them anyway). But it's there, and it has been there a really long time.

The Vikes still can't pass.
The Viking offense reminds of an old wishbone team that hardly ever passes. Every pass completion for a first down, however routine it may be for other teams--a simple slant pass, for example--seems like an extraordinary accomplishment, something fans are expected to cheer extra hard for. Consider this: the Vikings had two interceptions for 100 return yards and a touchdown, and they had 11 completions for 91 yards, including just seven completions to wide receivers.

Overall, the pass defense won.
The Bears' passing game is interesting. The offensive line is bad, forcing them to a lot more scramble-around-then-chuck-it improvisational passing, and they lean hard on those gigantic, athletic wide receivers like Brandon Marshall. How do you defend Marshall on those underthrown/comeback/jump ball plays? It's difficult, and Marshall burned the Vikes often.

But...the Vikings forced 25 incompletions. The team had six pass deflections and two interceptions. Jay Cutler was sacked twice and harassed plenty. One interception return gave the Vikes first and goal at the five, the second gave them seven points.

The Bears aren't the same without Brian Urlacher.
This shouldn't be an excuse--the Vikes, after all, have only two skill position players that belong in NFL starting lineups, and one of them is out for the year--but Brian Urlacher makes that defense terrifying. Without him, it's hard to see how far they get.

The Vikes haven't beat the Bears since their first meeting of 2009 which, considering the course of the franchise since that time, was approximately seven millions years ago. And the Vikings are over .500 in December, also something to try and appreciate for what it is (I think 9-7 is within range).

So enjoy the week, fans: your Minnesota Vikings just beat the Bears to move to a winning record.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Numbers that only Vikings fans care about

This is the Vikings record against NFC North "rivals" the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers since 2006. They've also lost seven straight against the two clubs. This is the worst seven-year stretch the Vikes have had against Chicago and Green Bay since 1961-67, when Minnesota was a wee little expansion franchise – a situation where you'd expect to struggle against two of the NFL's oldest franchises.

Friday morning during a segment of Judd Zulgad's morning radio show on ESPN 1500 with ESPN's NFC North blogger Kevin Seifert, the pair talked briefly about the Vikings struggles with the Bears and Packers. Seifert made the comment that it's been an overall talent issue – the Vikings have been the poorer team, talent-wise, than Green Bay and Chicago and that's why they've lost so many games against them since 2006. I disagree with Seifert on that point. Minnesota's woeful record mostly comes down to one thing – Chicago and Green Bay have had far better quarterbacking than the Vikings have had during that period (that's particularly the case with the Packers). The Packers have had Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers as their QBs during this period. The Bears have had Jay Cutler under center since 2009. On the other hand, the Vikings have had Brad Johnson, Tarvaris Jackson, Kelly Holcomb, Brooks Bollinger, Gus Frerotte, Favre, Joe Webb and now Christian Ponder all play at different times against Chicago and Green Bay since 2006. Is it any wonder the Vikings can't beats these teams?

By the way, if head coach Leslie Frazier is fired at the end of this season – something I know would cause many Vikings fans to have one of the best orgasms of their lives – Minnesota's record under his watch against the Bears and Packers will be a big reason why. His teams have yet to beat Chicago or Green Bay ( 0-5 against them, and three of the losses were blowouts), and a head coach isn't going to keep his job if he keeps going 0-2 against divisional opponents. So not only is Sunday's game against Chicago a big one for the Vikings and their playoff hopes, it is a big one for Frazier's head coaching career. If he gets fired in Minnesota, he might never get another chance to be a head coach in the NFL.

That's the Vikings odds of making the playoffs right now, according to Football Outsiders. Quite a fall from those heady days in early October when the Vikes were 3-1 and 4-1 and FO had their odds at making the playoffs at 52.6 per cent. They also released those odds before anybody knew that wide receiver Percy Harvin's season was going to end. Without Harvin over the final four games of the 2012 campaign, the Vikings odds of making the playoffs are probably more like 0.33 per cent.

The number of yards running back Adrian Peterson needs to beat Eric Dickerson's single-season rushing record of 2,105 yards. That record has stood for nearly 28 years. For Peterson to get the record he'll have to be on fire even more than he has been of late – 660 yards over four games averages out to 165 yards per game. But if we've learned anything about Peterson this year, it's that it's a mistake to doubt him.

As Peterson chases Dickerson's record one year after tearing the ACL and MCL in his left knee – an injury that's ended many other athletes' careers, I got to thinking yesterday about what he's achieved this season. We've become accustomed to learning – or at least heavily suspecting – that athletes who have done miraculous things (Lance Armstrong, Barry Bonds, and in a Canadian context, Ben Johnson) did so through illegitimate means. I hope Peterson's remarkable comeback is simply a case of new advances in surgical methods and knee rehab, an unreal work ethic and Krypton DNA.

That's the number of catches Vikings wide receivers other than Harvin have caught in 2012 – a pitiful number. The not-so-fearsome fivesome of Michael Jenkins, Devin Aromashodu, Jerome Simpson, Jarius Wright and Stephen Burton have also totaled 813 receiving yards and caught three touchdown passes. And now the Vikes must conjure up a passing game without Harvin.

I thought this was really bad until I looked up the Bears receiving statistics besides Brandon Marshall. Earl Bennett (who won't play Sunday because of a concussion), Devin Hester, Alshon Jeffrey, Eric Weems and Dane Sanzenbacher have between them 60 catches for 690 yards and four touchdowns. The problem, of course, is that Marshall and his 91 catches will play against the Vikings on Sunday. But if they can somehow contain him at the Metrodome (they didn't two weeks ago at Soldier Field), who else is Cutler going to throw to?

Thursday, December 6, 2012

National Friday League, Week 14

Viking-Bears Preview
The Vikings' bad loss at Soldier Field a few weeks ago has little to no bearing on this game: the Vikes usually play well against the Bears at home: hanging with them when the Bears are good and the Vikes are bad, beating them soundly when they should.

This is the last Viking-Bear game to ever be played in Thunderdome: maybe the Vikes could invite Mike Ditka to watch from the sidelines?  They could show highlights of this? I guess it's nice that Jim Harbaugh got to lose his last game in the Metrodome.

Oh, and one more thing: free Joe Webb! If the Vikings struggle with the passing game as they have been, my god, Leslie Frazier, give the team a chance to win. Christian Ponder has been bad in the sense that he has been totally and utterly unproductive. Consider his first half splits through 12 games of the season: he is averaging 9.5 completions, 87.3 yards, 5.76 yards per attempt, and .42 touchdowns in the first halves of games. He's actually not been much better in the second half, but often his completely nonexistent passing production gets slightly massaged away by passing attempts late in losing efforts. He's just doing nothing in the air to help the team move the ball. If Frazier had the guts to take Ponder out of that Green Bay game, maybe the Vikes would have won. If we have to watch the Vikes lose a winnable game because Frazier again leaves Ponder out there in his futility, the loss is as much on Frazier as it is on Ponder. If a man keeps taking a dump in my living room whenever I invite him over to visit, eventually, if I keep inviting him over, we're both responsible for that steamer on the floor.

Adrian Peterson and the Bad Passer Paradox
In 2007, the Viking quarterbacks were Tarvaris Jackson, Kelly Holcomb, and Brooks Bollinger. Adrian Peterson averaged 5.6 yards per carry. From '08-'11, Peterson's average dropped below five yards per carry (though never lower than 4.4). In 2012, the Viking passing game is at least as inept as it was that season. Peterson is averaging 6.2 yards per carry. What is going on? Here's my combination of observation and speculation.

When teams do not fear an offense's passing game, they stack the line of scrimmage, and there are fewer defensive backs lingering around behind those linebackers. So if a running back is good enough to get through that tough front (and the offensive line can open the holes), that RB has a decent chance for a very long run. Once he gets past the eight or nine man front, there's all sorts of open space, and a lot of players who are not up to the task of tackling a great RB running around back there.

In '07 and '12, there have been defensive fronts even on 1st and 10 that I've cringed at. Teams were all over the line of scrimmage ready to stop the run. Yet quite often the Viking offensive line played terrific, and Adrian Peterson displayed his skill at not being tackled, and he was able to break int the next level, where he could display his profound skill in the open field.

Barry Sanders
Barry Sanders was the RB for the Detroit Lions from 1989-1998. He is often pointed to as the great running back who languished on a bad team, but this isn't entirely right. The Lions made the playoffs four times in Sanders' 10 seasons, and he did have some offensive help in the underrated Herman Moore, who was superb in the middle of the '90s. He never had good quarterbacks, certainly, and during some stretches of his career it might be fair to say his QBs were no better than Tarvaris Jackson or Christian Ponder. But with the exception of '09, I think Adrian Peterson has had as little offensive help at QB and skill positions than Sanders ever had.

Evidence please

At Slate, Justin Peters writes about "the NFL's serious domestic violence problem," and includes a paragraph so bad I wouldn’t expect to see it in one of my freshman composition papers.

"There are approximately 1700 active players in the NFL, and by my count, about 2 percent of them have faced abuse or violence charges. I’m not sure how this compares to the general population, though I’d be interested to find out. I do know that, according to a very recent report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the overall national rate of intimate partner violence declined by 64 percent from 1994 to 2010. I would be very, very surprised if the NFL is matching this trend." (emphasis mine)

Oh, you aren't sure? You'd be interested to know? Perhaps you could find out? It may require more than an internet search engine, but it would be useful information to inquire about before publishing.  And while I’m fascinated by your hypothetical surprise, your speculation does not, in fact, constitute evidence. If you actually want to make a point, you will have to offer data for evidence: what you're interested to find out, and what you'd be surprised to learn, does not constitute real support for an argument.

I in no way minimize the serious problem of domestic violence to expect writers on the subject to offer better support.

Other Interesting Games

Week 14 Games



Texans-Patriots. You might call this game a Monday Night Football game: I call it Fantasy Football Armageddon. It is late in the season, when peoples' seasons are really counting on it.  And here we have a game with Arian Foster, Andre Johnson, Tom Brady, Stevan Ridley, Wes Welker, defenses, kickers, various decisions at wide receiver and tight end. Fantasy titles are going to be decided Monday night.

Kick Ass Links

"The Sports Tax That Everybody Pays" (Mother Jones)

Bench Christian Ponder (Jim Souhan, Paul Charchian)

Chad Greenway says to drink up (PFT).


I'm unable to go, but I'm way more excited about the opening of Union Depot than makes any rational or emotional sense. 

Have a good weekend everybody. Except Bear fans.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The Percy Harvin problem

On Wednesday, when Minnesota Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier wouldn't give a straight answer to several straightforward questions regarding the health of star wide receiver Percy Harvin, you knew something was up. And it was. By early evening, the Vikes had announced Harvin was being put on the injured reserve – ending his 2012 season.

Losing Harvin sure deals the Vikings another punch to the gut (they've taken several lately), and their chances of making the playoffs seem more far-fetched than ever. But this Harvin business is about more than just 2012, it's about what future he might have as a Viking in 2013 and beyond.

I really hope he has a future in Minnesota. The awkward way Frazier and the Vikings handled this on Wednesday – and really ever since he sprained his ankle against Seattle on Nov. 4 – had Vikings beat writers (check out this video with ESPN 1500's Tom Pelissero and Judd Zulgad) concocting all sorts of theories as to what was really going on. And Zulgad wrote an article after the video detailing why the Vikings must weigh the risk in signing Harvin to the lucrative extension he's seeking before the 2013 season begins.

Recognizing Harvin is no Boy Scout, the Vikings have been down this road before with another supremely talented, but mercurial, wide receiver. And how that was handled, and the fallout from its handling, should be instructive in how the Vikings go about dealing with Harvin – if indeed there are more hard feelings surfacing between #12 and the Minnesota coaching staff and front office.

Of course, I'm talking about the Vikings decision in the winter of 2005 to trade Randy Moss to the Oakland Raiders . At the time, the franchise decided Moss' off-the-field issues outweighed his on-field contributions. They were wrong. As we approach the eight-year anniversary of this deal, the Vikings are still looking for a replacement for Moss.

I would put Harvin in almost the same company as Moss. He's an awesome talent. There really is no one else like him in the NFL. Can he be a handful for the Vikings coaches and management to deal with? Apparently so. However, he will be just 25 years old when the 2013 season begins. He plays a punishing style of football, but he is also very strong and keeps himself in great shape. There is every reason to believe his best football is still ahead of him, and the best of Percy Harvin figures to be pretty damn good. If the Vikings somehow allow him to become an ex-Viking in the next 12-24 months, they will regret it.

When Harvin had a brief meltdown in June and demanded a trade, Vikings general manager Rick Spielman made it quite clear Harvin wasn't going anywhere. Harvin's made no such demand this time (he actually hasn't said anything at all), but I'm hopeful Spielman still feels the same way.

The Vikings have had a surprisingly good season so far, but this is still a rebuilding team. And that rebuilding will go a lot quicker and smoother if Harvin remains a Viking.    

Improvement in Vikings passing game could take some time

I'll have a fresh post up here at KAB at some point today, but while you're waiting for that (and I know you're waiting) I will pass along my latest guest post at The Viking Age site, which has gone live.

It's a little ditty about improving the Vikings passing game by drafting a wide receiver next April, and how the returns on that investment probably won't be as quick as fans would like.

You can read the post by clicking here.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Coming off the ledge: Is Christian Ponder the next Tarvaris Jackson?

To read Pacifist Viking's take on Minnesota's 23-14 loss to the Packers, click here.

My follow-up posts to PV's analysis usually try to provide a different take on a Vikings win (or loss). But I can't in good conscience do that this week. Let me explain ...

Do the Vikings wide receivers – besides Percy Harvin – blow? Absofuckinglutely.

Were the Vikings jobbed by a questionable call by the refs, who seemingly fell prey to the Lambeau Field mystique? That's the only thing that can explain Ed Hoculi's brutal roughing the passer call on Everson Griffen that wiped out a Jared Allen interception late in the second quarter deep in Packers territory, a potential game-changing turnover.

And did the Minnesota defense allow Aaron Rodgers to convert third downs almost at will in the second half – failing to get off the field and get those critical stops the Vikings needed to preserve their slim lead? Yes they did.

But responsibility for this loss lies solely with second-year quarterback Christian Ponder. And looking anywhere else is chasing ghosts. After the loss, I was monitoring my Twitter feed (@KickassblogVike) when a frustrated Viking fan calling for Ponder's head tweeted something to the effect of "Tarvaris Jackson was crucified for less" (not his exact tweet).

That got me to thinking about our old friend, Tarvaris, who is now Ryan Fitzpatrick's caddie in Buffalo. Jackson was Ponder's predecessor as the Vikings "QB of the future" and he started 20 games during his five seasons with the Vikings. And while there were flashes of competence here and there, what became clear to Vikings fans who watched the team closely was TJack had some significant holes in his game that couldn't be wallpapered over.

Hole #1: He threw a horrible deep ball.

Hole #2: His accuracy on passes in the middle of the field and beyond 10 yards of the line of scrimmage was atrocious.

Hole #3: He had poor pocket awareness and tended to lock on to one receiver.

The Vikings head coach at the time, Brad Childress, rolled with Jackson for most of 2007 and parts of 2008 (when the Vikes won the NFC North). But after a putrid performance against Philly in the playoffs at home, Chilly made the decision to trade for Sage Rosenfels to compete with Jackson for the starting job, and then hauled Lord Brett Favre out of retirement (twice!). After 2009, The Tarvaris Jackson Experience was over.

I know people like to preach patience with quarterbacks, and I consider myself a patient guy. But Ponder is roughly at the same stage in his career as Jackson was in 2009 – with 22 starts under his belt. And while there's been flashes of comptence here and there, it's become clear to Vikings fans who watch the team closely that Ponder has some significant holes in his game that can't be wallpapered over.

Hole #1: He throws a horrible deep ball.

Hole #2: His accuracy on passes in the middle of the field and beyond 10 yards of the line of scrimmage is atrocious.

Hole #3: He has poor pocket awareness and tended to lock on to one receiver.

But don't take my word for it. The Daily Norseman's Ted Glover even saved me the trouble of compiling Jackson and Ponder's passing stats in this post. Those stats are strikingly similar. In 20 starts for the Vikes, TJack passed for 3,984 yards, 24 touchdowns, was intercepted 22 times, completed 58.7 % of his passes and had a QB rating of 76.7. In Ponder's 22 starts for the Vikes, he's thrown for 4,086 yards, 26 touchdowns, been intercepted 22 times, completed 59.4 % of his passes and posted a QB rating of 76.7.

Perhaps Ponder can pull an Eli Manning and dramatically improve his play in year three or four of his young career. But during this six-game stretch where Adrian Peterson has run for more yards (947) than Ponder has passed for (871) and the Vikings have gone 2-4, Ponder has looked incapable of playing in the Arena League.

The Vikings management has said they are going to keep rolling with Ponder, so we're stuck with him for the rest of 2012 barring some injury. But at this point, not only am I convinced Ponder is no better than TJack, I think he might even be worse than Jackson with the way his play has regressed of late.

Even Brad Childress knew when to say when with Jackson. When will Vikings general manager Rick Spielman do the same with Ponder?