Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Killing Time: Tomlin v. Childress, the 3-4, Daunte Clones and Assistants

  • Grant's Tomb compares the approach Mike Tomlin and Brad Childress took when starting as head coach. Guess which one he liked better? (Here's a hint--it's not the one who won Football Outsiders' Keep Chopping Wood award for Head Coaches.)
  • The Green Bay Packers are going to be running a 3-4 defense next year. This is both a good thing and a bad. It's a good thing because the Packers don't really have the personnel to run the defense, as Acme Packing Company explains. That will exacerbate the weakness of the defense, and de-emphasize the strengths (both of which the Acme post explains). Then again, if Tarvaris Jackson is going to be playing quarterback next year, seeing the 3-4 will cause problems, because it will require him to recognize where the blitz is coming from and adjust accordingly. I'm sorry, but I just don't think he'll be able to do that.
  • Draft Countdown's most recent mock draft has the Purple taking Josh Freeman, a junior quarterback out of Kansas St. At 6'6", 250lbs, Freeman's a Daunte clone, and I mean that in a good way. Would he be the best choice? Maybe, maybe not, but make sure you check back because I'm going to breaking down the draft again like I have the past two years.
  • Leslie Frazier isn't going anywhere, but Special Teams Coordinator Paul Ferraro might be. Come on Spags! Hire him! Ignore the performance of the Vikings' Special Teams. He's your best friend! You've got to offer him a job!

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Killing Time: Quarterbacks, HOF and Statistics

  • Randball has a list of all the possible quarterback acquisitions the Vikings could make, while Defensive Indifference has a defense of Tarvaris Jackson (Seriously). I actually think he makes some good points, and I'm not opposed to the Vikings opening training camp with Tarvaris Jackson as a possible starting quarterback, providing they also acquire a real veteran quarterback to challenge him (say, Matt Hasselbeck or Jeff Garcia, instead of Gus Frerotte or Kelly Holcombe). I actually think Hasselbeck might be the best option available to the Vikings, if he's available for a 2nd rounder, even though he had his worst season this year. I think a lot of that had to do with his injury and the injuries suffered by his offense.
  • Three former Vikings were named Hall of Fame finalists: Chris Carter, Randel McDaniel and John Randle. I have to say, I don't think any of them deserve to go into the Hall of Fame this year. I'm not sure Randle's career is quite at the level necessary for the Hall, and Carter and McDaniel deserved to go in last year (or, really, any year since they've become eligible.
  • Advanced NFL Stats on the difficulties of measuring and modeling football statistically. I'm not a big enough statistics guy to work on this stuff on my own, but I do understand it enough to use them (and understand whether they're worth using). I think they're important because the stats that are currently used are so obviously flawed (measuring defenses by yards per game, or quarterbacks by yards per completion, or yards per attempts without counting sacks as attempts, for example). Over the past season, more statistical sites have emerged, outside of Cold, Hard, Football Facts (which really isn't an advanced statistical site as much as an alternative statistical site) and Football Outsiders. I thinks that great, because it means there's more people providing me information on football and the Vikings, but it's also important that everyone understand how hard it is figure out the NFL statistically.
  • Pacifist Viking defends the Purple's defensive performance the last three years. And the man is right--the Vikings were a good defense in 2006, above average in 2007 and an elite unit in 2008, depending on how good they were at defending the pass. They were 15th in DVOA against the pass in 2006, 23rd in 2007 and 5th in 2008. The interesting thing is that the secondary may have been at it's best in 2006, because the Vikings pass rush was at its worst in 2006, when it was 31st in the NFL in adjusted sack rate. The pass rush has gotten better the past two years, going up to 28th in 2007 (but the secondary wasn't as good) and becoming elite this year, finishing 2nd in ASR.
  • A clear message has been sent about the Vikings' 2006 draft, by the Vikings themselves (as Grant's Tomb points out). They don't think they did that good of a job with their picks.
  • Finally, Adrian Peterson has been named a finalist for the 2008 FedEx Air & Ground NFL Players of the Year Award. The winner is determined by fan vote, and if Peterson wins, the Safe Kids Coalition in Minneapolis gets $25,000, so its definitely worth the 30 seconds it takes to vote.

The Failure of the Return Game

One of the problems with Brad Childress’ plan to win with defense, field position, the running game and the occasional big play was he forgot one of the most important components of field position: special teams. And I’m not just talking about the punt coverage. The Vikings had one of the worst return games in the NFL, barely presenting any threat to break a big play on a punt or kick return. It was pretty clear which team had put some thought into improving their return game last off season on Sunday, with DeSean Jackson racking up 109 punt return yards, including a 62 and 30 yard return, to the Vikings 1 return yard.

The stats for the season are equally bleak. The Vikings had only three kick returns longer than 40 yards, with their longest return being a 49 yarder by Darius Reynaud against Chicago in the Metrodome (he also had one of the other returns longer than 40 yards the next week against Detroit). They were one of only six NFL teams without a return of 50 yards or more. Their punt return game was equally bad. They led the NFL in fair catches, with 23. That means, of the 57 times a Vikings’ player caught a punt, they called for a fair catch 40% of the time. If you’re looking for a reason why the Purple only had four punt returns of more than 20 yards, and only one of more than 40 (Bernard Berrian’s 82 yard return for a touchdown), that’s probably the most likely.

There were a myriad of reasons for the Vikings’ futility. The first was Aundrae Allison’s failure to repeat his 2007 performance as a kick returner. In the first two games, he averaged 17.3 yards on three returns, with his longest return being 22 yards. At that point, the Vikings tried Chester Taylor, but he wasn’t much better. They tried Charles Gordon, who, while explosive (he had a return of 42 yards), got hurt. Then they tried veteran returner Maurice Hicks, who also wasn’t much better, but since he had no other role and he was a veteran, he stuck as the primary returner, returning 29 kicks. And he was bad. He averaged 23.8 yards per return, with only 7 returns of more than 30 yards. Basically what I expected. Darius Reynaud looked like he might turn into a quality returner, but he got hurt, which lead to more Hicks and even more poor kick off returns.

The Vikings' basically had the same problem at punt returner. They tried Aundrae Allison, but he was about as bad returning punts as kickoffs. They tried Charles Gordon, who, prior to getting hurt, averaged 4.4 yards per return while calling for 11 fair catches on 26 punts. They tried Bobby Wade and Bernard Berrian, neither of whom they wanted returning punts, since they're the Vikings' top two receivers. The two of them at least averaged more than ten yards per return, but Wade called for a fair catch on 50% of his punts, and while Berrian returned a punt 82 yards for a touchdown, he called for a fair catch on 42% of the punts he received.

Field position matters, especially when you have an offense built on running and short passes, like the Vikings. And the Vikings inability to find anything but mediocre punt and kick returners means that they had to go even further on each drive, something their offense just isn't equipped to do. The Purple averaged 29 yards per drive this year (according to Football Outsiders), which means that the difference between a fair catch at their own 30 yard line and a ten yard punt return to the 40 yard line was the difference between a punt and a field goal. And if that happened just once, it'd be the difference between the Vikings' being 12th in points per game and 3rd. With the Purple's defense, three points is a lot. And starting out with good field position may have been the difference in the playoffs, something we'll never know, since the Purple's return men never provided them with that luxury.

[I'm going to be out of town until Tuesday, so don't expect too many posts until then. I'll try and get something up, but my plans for what I'm going to do when traveling and what actually happens rarely seems to match up]

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Killing Time: Damning Quotes, New QBs and Offseason Moves

Two things were clear to all who watched the Vikings' playoff game--Tarvaris Jackson is not the answer at quarterback next year and Brad Childress is not going to be out coaching any of the NFL's quality coaches. According to Michael Silver of Yahoo Sports, it was clear to the Vikings' players as well. Nothing I can write can be more damning about Tarvaris and Childress than the quotes from the Vikings' players, who described Tarvaris as having a “deer-in-headlights” look and complained that the Vikings' "sideline was in total disarray” and "one play behind all day". That being said, Gus Frerotte should probably look in the mirror and remember who he is before he starts whining about not playing. Somehow, I doubt a quarterback that was sacked 29 times (11th most in the NFL) and threw 15 interceptions (4th most in the NFL) despite only making 309 pass attempts (28th in the NFL) and playing in only 11 games would have been the answer against the Philly blitz.

Just because Frerotte wouldn't have saved the season (and honestly, anyone who says he would have because he was 8-3 this year should stop, think about what exactly that means about his play when compared to the above statistics and then take it back before they look too stupid) doesn't mean that something needs to be done to improve the position this off season. Grant's Tomb has a pessimistic view of the Vikings' chances of finding an upgrade, while Pro Football Talk provides some hope that the best quarterback at the Dome might be available. And in case you're wondering, I lay the blame for the Vikings' failure to find a competent quarterback at the feet of Brad Childress. Since he took over, he's had the opportunity to acquire Matt Schaub, Jeff Garcia and Chad Pennington [Edit: Not to mention AP Offensive Player of the Year Drew Brees] via free agency or Sage Rosenfels and Derek Anderson in a trade, as well as draft Brian Brohm, Brady Quinn, Chad Henne, Kellen Clemens and Brodie Croyle, as well as hold onto Tyler Thigpen. While all of those players might not have been any better than Tarvaris, there are quite a few quarterbacks in that list that would have given the Purple a much better chance at winning that playoff game and making a run to the Super Bowl.

Quarterback isn't the only position the Purple need to pursue upgrades at either. Sean Jenkins of the Pioneer Press has a good overview of what moves the Vikings might make. Personally, I'd like to see the Vikings upgrade their secondary (Cedric Griffin is an above average nickle back and a below average starter) and offensive line first, while hopefully bringing in some more talent at wide receiver. There are quite a few players available at those positions in free agency and the draft, so the Purple should be able to bring in upgrades (Nnamdi Asomugha!) to go along with the upgrade at linebacker that will occur when they replace Napolean Harris with E.J. Henderson for the second time.

Monday, January 05, 2009

5 Quick Thoughts on The End

I'll have a lot more on the game in the next few days, but I wanted to get in a few quick thoughts (five, to be exact) on the Vikings' playoff loss and what it means for the team going into the off season.

  • There's nothing more frustrating than watching Eric Beinami quiz Adrian Peterson on protection schemes on the side line when the Vikings are facing 3rd and short (or really, any passing down). I don't know if Childress pulls Peterson because he doesn't know how to block, because Peterson doesn't want to block, because he doesn't trust him to catch the ball or because he's being stubborn and trying to prove something. Whatever the reason, it's frustrating watching the Purple's best weapon watch on 3rd down instead of being on the field. At the very least, Childress should keep him out there WITH Chester Taylor every once in a while. Line him up in the slot. Put Taylor and Peterson in the backfield with Tarvaris. Doesn't really matter--just make sure that defenses have to worry about him on 3rd down.
  • I know a lot of folks are clamoring for Leslie Frazier to replace Brad Childress. I'm not sure I'm on board with that. I'm definitely on board with Childress being replaced (though I doubt it will happen), as I think we just saw the Vikings' hit their ceiling under Childress, but settling on the in house choice isn't necessarily the right thing to do. I think Frazier's the easy choice because he has a lot of similarities to Mike Tomlin and Tony Dungy, but that doesn't make him the right choice to succeed Childress. It doesn't make him the wrong choice either--I'd just hope that if (when) Childress is fired, that Zygi does a very, very, very thorough search for a replacement. By all accounts, he failed to do that when he chose Childress, and look where that got us. So maybe Frazier's the right choice. Maybe he's not (Umm...Leslie? You might want to adjust your coverage so that the 10 yard hook over the middle isn't open every single play). I just want Zygi to consider all the options before he hires a new coach.
  • Speaking of coaching, you may have noticed that the Vikings played well in the first half (aside from the pick six) and poorly in the second half. Guess which team made the proper adjustments and which one didn't? (And what, exactly, was going on during the Vikings last drive of the half? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?)
  • The Vikings had a very productive off season last year. They seriously upgraded their talent level. First off, Jared Allen is a beast. A beast. Bernard Berrian is also a very good wide receiver, and was clearly the best on the team. And Madieu Williams was a very solid safety. He wasn't a huge play maker, but he also wasn't getting toasted every other play like his predecessor (I'm still not sure how, exactly, Dwight Smith fell for that double move by Devin Hester. Somethings might never be explained). If they can be as successful bringing in a new quarterback and some secondary and offensive line help this year, they're going to be very, very good next year.
  • Three quick, bitter thoughts: Hey Brian Dawkins--way to lead with your head. Classy. Donovan? Please don't dance. And DeSean Jackson? You don't get to talk trash to the opposing coach immediately after stepping out of bounds to avoid getting hit by the punter.