Monday, December 22, 2014

The Minnesota Vikings Passing Game Through The Years

Occasionally I get the yen to go down the statistical rabbit hole with the Vikings.

As I've been thinking about the team's prospects for 2015, and how this team can turn itself into a playoff team with reasonable Super Bowl aspirations, I've thought a lot about the Vikings passing offense and how bad it's been for a long time and how much I think it's held this team back in this pass-first era of football.

To my recollection, the Vikings passing game died when Randy Moss was traded in the 2005 offseason and Daunte Culpepper shredded his knee during the 2005 regular season (although Minnesota's offense was struggling badly even before Culpepper got hurt that year.) But how bad has it really been?

Let's take a look at some basic passing statistics for the Vikings from the 2005 season to the present. League rankings for each seasons will be in parentheses - except for completion percentage, as Pro Football Reference (where I got the numbers from) didn't provide the Vikings league rank for that category. By the way, asterisks, donate a season where the Vikings made the playoffs. However, I'm sure you remember them all as they have been quit rare.

Anyway, here are the numbers:

2005 (9-7 record)
63.3 % (completion %); 3,146 passing yards (20th); 18 TDs (20th); 16 INTs (17th); 5.6 net yards per attempt (22nd)

2006 (6-10 record)
61.5 %; 3,123 passing yards (18th); 13 TDs (30th); 20 INTs (25th); 5.4 net yards per attempt (26th)

2007 (8-8 record)
57.6 %; 2,745 passing yards (28th); 12 TDs (29th); 14 INTs (6th); 5.8 net yards per attempt (19th)

* 2008 (10-6 record)
59 %; 2,956 passing yards (25th); 22 TDs (11th); 17 INTs (23rd); 6 net yards per attempt (19th)

* 2009 (12-4 record)
68.1 %; 4,156 passing yards (8th); 34 TDs (1st); 7 INTs (1st); 7.1 net yards per attempt (7th)

2010 (6-10 record)
60.3 %; 3,097 passing yards (26th); 14 TDs (28th); 26 INTs (32nd); 5.7 net yards per attempt (28th)

2011 (3-13)
56 %; 2,957 passing yards (28th); 20 TDs (18th); 17 INTs (21st); 5.3 net yards per attempt (27th)

* 2012 (10-6)
62.1 %; 2,751 passing yards (31st); 18 TDs (25th); 12 INTs (8th); 5.3 net yards per attempt (30th)

2013 (5-10-1)
59.5 %; 3,427 passing yards (23rd); 18 TDs (27th); 19 INTs (20th); 5.8 net yards per attempt (21st)

2014 (6-9)
61.9 %; 3,054 (27th); 16 TDs (29th); 17 INTs (28th); 5.7 net yards per attempt (28th) (through 15 games)

Wow. That's a lot of suckage. In an era when QBs throw for 3,000 yards with ease, the Vikings have failed to throw for 3,000 yards in four of the past 10 seasons, and barely edged over the 3,000 barrier three other times. The club's passing attack also consistently ranked in the mid-to-high 20s (that's not good, folks as there are 32 NFL teams) in passing yardage, TDs INTs and net yards per pass attempt.

During this period the Vikings often had a strong, dominant running game and a strong, dominant run defense (admittedly, the pass defense has been frequently hideous.) The only year the Vikings were a legitimate Super Bowl contender was 2009, when the Vikings passing game played at an elite level. Looking at these numbers and knowing the Vikes are 75-83-1 during this stretch, it's hard not to draw a conclusion that Minnesota desperately needs to get really good at throwing the ball again before they'll be real good again.

With that in mind, the Vikings 2014 passing numbers - most of it with rookie Ted Bridgewater under center - are not very encouraging. The Vikes rank among the league dregs in passing yardage, TDs, INTs and net yards per attempt.

But look at the way Bridgewater has performed in his last 4 games. The decision-making appears to be better. The passing TDs are up. The INTs are down. And the Vikings offense is looking crisper and scoring more points. Meanwhile, Bridgewater's offensive line still blows. His starting running back is still Matt Asiata, and his top receiver is 57th in the league in catches and 56th in receiving yards.

The Vikings need to keep adding pieces to their offense to give Bridgewater a better chance to succeed. But as the season has progressed, he's played his best football. He's already succeeding with the limited assets he has. Imagine what he'll do when (if?) he starts getting some help.

After a decade in the stone age, there is finally real hope the Vikings passing game is ready to enter the modern age. 

I can't wait for that day to arrive. 

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Coming off the Ledge: Dolphins 37,Vikings 35 (Part Two)

For Darren's take on the game, click here.

In the last two weeks, the Vikings have lost close road games to quality opponents where the final outcome was greatly influenced by a late blocked kick/punt. Those plays were bad plays by the Vikes and good plays by the opponents, but they were also fluky, and rare. Well, sort of. If your only knowledge of NFL football is based in the 2014 Viking season, you'll probably think that blocked kicks and punts are pretty common things. But really they are not.

If the Vikings were in the playoff hunt, this would be too much to take. As it is, we can try to look a little dispassionately at these outcomes. The Vikings are not a good football team, but I think they are becoming a good football team.

Harrison Smith is a great football player. His most notable plays today were a dropped interception, and then an amazing deflection and interception coming off a blitz. But watch for #22 and you'll see great plays on the regular. On one play, he came in on a blitz but got stopped; noting he was getting stopped and that the quarterback was throwing the ball, he paused and quickly dropped backward. Smith--a player going in on the blitz--was the player who immediately made the tackle on the dump-off receiver so that the receiver couldn't gain as many yards. I don't know how much of Smith's play there was design of the defense or just the perception of a great football player, but it was impressive. And that's what you regularly see from Smith.

Captain Munnerlyn played poorly today; Xavier Rhodes played solid. The Vikings miss Anthony Barr when he's not there--the remaining linebackers are basic. 

Teddy Bridgewater made some incredibly impressive throws, displaying accuracy and touch. But he's still playing behind an offensive line that forces him to earn absolutely everything he gets. But he keeps having games with high completion percentage, and it wasn't all on short throws today. It's starting to be really fun to watch him play: I'm going to miss it after Week 17, and I'm looking forward to what he can bring in 2015.

The Vikes are playing competitive football this season, but losing more games than they are winning (and let's not forget three of their wins come from the NFC South). They're not good. But they're giving more signs of hope than they have in a long time.

Getting Off The Ledge: Dolphins 37 - Vikings 35

Miami - Minnesota box score

Your Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer postgame analysis of a wild, wild loss in Miami.

1. Vikings defense - bad

2. Teddy Bridgewater - good

3. "Your Honor, I'm just a caveman. One hundred thousand years ago, while I was out hunting on the plains, I slipped and fell into a crevasse, where I was frozen solid. In 1988, I was discovered by scientists and thawed out. Your modern world often frightens and confuses me. But, there is thing I DO know. If you frequently play games where you and your opponent are within a touchdown of each other late in the game, you will lose about 50 per cent of those games (the Minnesota Vikings are 3-5 in games decided by seven points or less in 2014.) As an aside your Honor - I also know if you frequently leave Mr. Mike Harris on an island blocking Mr. Cameron Wake, the result will often be bad for the quarterback Mr. Harris is playing with.

Thank you, your Honor. I rest my case."

Thursday, December 18, 2014

National Friday League, Week 16

Vikings-Dolphins Preview
Have the Dolphins been the most boring team in the league for years? They play in the division that only one team ever wins and they've never really pushed that team for contention for anything. They haven't had a really meaningful fantasy player since...Ricky Williams? They're neither bad nor good enough to be interesting, with few interesting players or personalities at all. "Cameron Wake is good" is probably the most meaningful thing to say about the Dolphins in total, because...

Oh yeah. That Richie Incognito thing.

They're still a boring team on the field, but that may be entirely fantasy-focused. I can't recall the last time a Dolphin player was a meaningful performer. Brandon Marshall even managed to sandwich a relatively modest Dolphin career in between elite fantasy production in other cities.

This year's Dolphins are still suitably boring, going 7-7, ranking 12th in points scored and 15th in points allowed.

Teddy Bridgewater
Teddy Bridgewater's improvement is showing up in the numbers. His efficiency statistics have been steadily rising (he's now at 63.5% and 7.0 yards per attempt, solid rookie numbers), and despite some bad throws, his interception rate is still not startling at all (2.8%). He's completed 70+% of his passes in his last three games.

This is getting exciting.

On calling your favorite team "we"
Roughly 240 years ago, a group of Englishmen fought a war against other Englishmen to not be Englishmen anymore. It's pretty easy for me to say "we" fought this war, but why? I clearly wasn't born yet, and in fact those Englishmen aren't even my ancestors (my ancestors were Germans and Scandinavians who came here in the 19th century). How in the hell is there a "we" that includes those Englishmen who fought that war and made that government and me?

The answer is stories: we tell ourselves a story that involves being a unified group with those people. In fact any group of people has a story it tells in order to be that group, in order to feel that the individual parts of that group have some shared history, shared purpose, shared identity. The stories may be true, but the point is there are certain stories a group picks to tell who they are. And the story of that shared history might be necessary to keep that group together, and to make society function.

And now because of that war fought by Englishmen against other Englishmen, I go to the YMCA to vote. I have not yet voted in an election that was decided by one vote. Not a single candidate, not a single issue, was voted in or voted out because I showed up at the YMCA. And yet I always feel good about voting, and I will continue to always vote. Why? Because voting is a ritual that shows us and proves to us what sort of society we have, that we have a stake in this society, and that we have a say in this society. It is a necessary part of the story that makes society function, that makes us know and feel our position in this society.

By its nature in membership of any group or community, you involve yourself in a "we" or an "our" that involves actions, for good or ill, that you didn't directly contribute to or participate in. This might involve pride or shame about things you didn't do. This is how an American might say "We landed on the moon." This is why a current church might bother to make statements of apology or renunciation the beliefs, statements, sins, and crimes of its founders, or earlier members. This is why an organized body feels some responsibility for its past actions, practices, and beliefs, that it must be accountable to and for them.

So is it worth our time to study these stories? These stories that can give people meaning, that bind a group together, even that makes a society function the way it does (for good or ill)? I would say so. It is worth it to keep telling stories, and it is worth it in various ways to keep examining and understanding these stories and how they function.

The key thing required to assert membership in a group, to use "we," is shared history, shared values, a shared mission, and a shared future. We have to have a story we tell about ourselves.

Are Minnesota Viking fans, then, part of the Minnesota Vikings?

A professional franchise does not really have "values." A professional franchise's duel mission--to win games and to make money (not in that order)--is its primary value, and supersedes any other values it would claim. That is not what we share. It is also difficult to talk of a shared mission between the team and its fans. While we desire for the team to succeed, we have either a nonexistent or tiny, minimal role in the team succeeding.

But what we most certainly share is a history and a future.

Like many of you, I've been cheering for the Vikings for longer than any current Viking player has been on the team. We've experienced this team's history: we were there for the highs and lows, and we felt the deep emotions of those highs and lows. For better or worse, we really have been a part of it. Some or a lot of the team's history might predate your fandom or even your birth. But so what? Think of any group you've been a part of--from a family to a nation--and the part you think of as "our" probably predates you.

And if I'm lucky, like many of you, I'll be cheering for the Vikings after every current player is no longer on the team. That gives us a shared future. Sure, citizens of Minnesota can make a further claim here because it is our democratically elected government which facilitated the building of a stadium that will keep the team here for 40+ years. But I don't think it requires that either (hey, Canadian fan!). We're going to be rooting for this team for years: in some ways, we've made a commitment to the future.

So unless you think it's incorrect to say "we" about things your country, or your religious group, or your community, or your family, or the institution you work for, did before you joined that group or before you were born (and maybe that is weird to do), then it seems fair to say "we" when talking about your favorite team. Asserting a group identity does not always mean your actions created that group identity.

Fantasy Box
It's quite a thing to be picking up free agents off waivers to immediately start in a fantasy football championship game. But really, it's probably a good reflection of what it takes to succeed in fantasy football. The team you take to a championship game may not reflect the team that brought you to the championship game, because in fantasy football, you usually need to make all sorts of moves on the fly to succeed. Because you deal with disappointing performances, injuries, bye weeks, and suspensions, you have to constantly be ready to pick up and sub in. So picking up free agents and immediately starting them is just a matter of playing fantasy football.

Good luck with your fantasy playoff games this weekend, people. Except for Little Brother and Star Man: you guys can #%&@ yourself.

Ugly Christmas Sweaters are OVER.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Adrian Peterson and knowing when to say when

I've gotten pretty tired of the Adrian Peterson saga, but I thought this post by ESPN reporter and legal analyst Lester Munson was worth commenting on.

In a nutshell, Munson says legal precedent shows the NFL Player's Association appeal of the NFL's discipline handed out to Peterson has a snowball's chance in hell of being successful.

I'm pretty sure the NFLPA's lawyers know this. I'll assume they've informed Peterson that these appeals almost never work. So given this reality, why is Peterson going ahead with this?

Obviously, he doesn't think he's been treated justly in this case. Did the NFL have all its ducks in a row as it dealt with Peterson after his child abuse charges hit the public arena? No. Does the league look two-faced in its dealings with Peterson - having Troy Vincent promise Peterson things he had no authority to promise? Yes. Is Roger Goodell some kind of dictatorial prick, handing out suspensions based on what comes up during nightly sessions on his Ouija board at home? Probably. (But an important counterpoint - could Peterson have avoided all of this if he hadn't decided to make a horrible parenting choice and beat his four-year-old son bloody with a tree branch? Absolutely.)

Anyway, no matter how badly Peterson and his legal team feel he's been wronged, they must also realize that it looks like they are fighting a losing battle here. Since the NFL suspended Peterson for the rest of the season on Nov. 18, he's gone to arbitration, lost, and now the NFLPA is appealing that decision in a U.S. District Court in Minneapolis, which it also looks like it will lose. 

And as the off-the-field stuff drags on, it has the potential to delay Peterson's return to the field in 2015 - whether that's with the Vikings or some other NFL team. Peterson's missed all but one game of the 2014 season. He turns 30 in March. What if his legal battle to reverse the NFL's imposed discipline causes him to miss most (or all) of the 2015 season? Will he even be able to get an NFL job at 31 - an age where a lot of running backs are considered washed up? (My guess: probably, but for a much reduced salary than he'd get if he plays in 2015.)

Peterson is facing the possibility of losing two of his final seasons where he'd be realistically viewed around the league as an "elite" running back, and all for a cause that appears to have an extremely slim chance of succeeding.

Hey, Adrian - we get it. You think the NFL did you wrong and you want to fight it. But sometimes you've got to know when to fold 'em and cut your losses.

This looks like one of those times.  

Monday, December 15, 2014

Coming Off The Ledge: The Happy Bridgewater Thoughts Edition

To eyeball Pacifist Viking's take on Sunday's Vikings loss, click here.

Here is a question for you, Vikings fans. Would you have been happier if the Vikings had beat the Lions but Ted Bridgewater had gone something like 12-for-18 for 140 yards, no interceptions, no touchdown passes, and wasn't asked to do much other than stay out of the way - sort of a Christian Ponder 2012 special?

The Vikings were eliminated from the playoffs on Thursday night, so it's all about development now for this team. And no player's development is more important to its future than Bridgewater.

So, yeah, Bridgewater's back-to-back interceptions late in the first half were not very good throws - although the first INT was partly the result of Charles Johnson tripping - and they played a huge role in this loss. The Vikes were rolling up until that point and Detroit was doing fuck all. I highly doubt the Lions beat the Vikings in this game if Bridgewater doesn't throw those INTs. The turnovers got Detroit back in the game.

However, on the road, against an extremely tough defense that no one can run against, the Vikings were going to have to pass the ball effectively to have a chance to win this game. That necessitated that Bridgewater would not just have to "manage" the contest, but win it with his right arm. He almost did it, too. The Vikings haven't asked their starting QB to win a game with his arm since they had Brett Favre. That says something to me - in a good way - about Bridgewater. (Note: ESPN's Kevin Seifert, not a guy to throw around faint praise, thought this performance was a turning point for the rookie as well.)

The loss was annoying, almost infuriating in the way it happened (why didn't Matt Asiata run out of bounds on the last drive?) But in a season where nothing is at stake anymore, I'll take a performance like this from Bridgewater over one where the Vikings win but he doesn't really contribute to the win.

Other things

- Offensive coordinator Norv Turner has taken some heat for how his unit has performed in 2014, but I loved his gameplan against the Lions. Run just enough to remind Detroit you won't abandon it. Spread out Detroit's defense with three receiver sets and a running back lined up wide as well. Then get the ball out of Bridgewater's hands quickly to his pass catchers with some room to run. And Bridgewater was able to execute it effectively (except for the two INTs.) Norv Turner called a good game.

- Blair Walsh has now failed to make 6 of his last 7 field goal attempts (although one was blocked  and asking him to hit a 68-yarder is a bit much.) On Twitter after the game I saw some tweeters writing "Blair Walsh sucks!" and commenting that he needs to compete for his job in 2015. This seems ridiculous to me. It's a rough patch and the first bit of adversity Walsh has faced as a pro kicker. I guess it's possible he could completely lose his confidence and need to be replaced in 2015. But I really doubt it. Remember how badly Green Bay's Mason Crosby struggled in 2012? Yet the Packers stuck with him because he had an established track record as a very good kicker. And that's what he's continued to be since 2012. I expect Blair Walsh to do the same thing. Save me the rubish overreactions, people.

- They weren't flawless, but I thought a makeshift Vikings offensive line protected Bridgewater about as well as I could have expected today against Detroit's great pass rush. I've shit on the unit a lot this season (especially left tackle Matt Kalil), but credit where credit is due. The offensive line ...  played ... struggling to spit this out ... passably. There - I got that out.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Coming off the Ledge: Lions 16, Vikings 14

First, the consolations.

A Viking win today would have helped the Packers, possibly more than it would help the Vikings since we aren't going to the playoffs anyway.

This late in a season with no playoff hopes, the wins still feel sort of good, while the losses feel, well, like nothing. I wanted the Vikes to win out and go 9-7, but ultimately it won't matter to this team's eventual destiny whether they go, say, either 7-9 or 8-8 this season.

Early in the game, Teddy Bridgewater was playing like an early-career Tom Brady, plus mobility. If you remember Brady's early years, it was a lot of quick passes, WR screens, short stuff in the middle, etc. It took a few years for Brady to become the master who could make any throw at any part of the field (and for his team to build around that possibility). Bridgewater looked like that to me, with quick, short passes requiring quick, correct reads. That fell apart, though. That fell apart.

The defense can play. There's that.

And consider, if the Vikings were in playoff contention, how utterly angry, furious, disappointed, distraught, disconsolate, and devastated you would be by that blocked kick? If it hadn't been blocked, the Lions might have still won: they would have been more aggressive generally on that drive, and they'd certainly go for it on fourth down rather than kick a field goal. But I'd be out on a walk right now in the damp dark night, picturing that block and trying not to picture that block. Instead, it's just a thing that happened.

And now, the bad.


You know what, screw it. It's not my job to rehash the disappointments of a loss in a season when the Vikes aren't making the playoffs anyway. We're coming off the ledge here, not staying there, and not jumping off.

Let us come off the ledge, watch some more football, and keep on rooting and hoping for the Vikings.

Coming up in National Friday League this week: an argument in favor of using "we" to talk about your favorite team.