Thursday, November 20, 2014

National Friday League, Week 12

painting of Thomas Hardy by William Strang, in the public domain via Wikipedia
In place of a preview
This football season I really keep coming back to Thomas Hardy's poem "Hap." In the poem, Hardy says that if he knew there was a cosmic reason for his suffering, then he would brace himself and bear it. But that's not the case for Hardy: it's random chance that makes him miserable, and what's particularly galling is that happenstance could have just as easily made him happy instead (the will-less elements of chance "had as readily strown/ Blisses about my pilgrimage as pain").

When I teach this poem at essentially a Wisconsin-Minnesota border school (if you live in the metro you've probably seen our ads on buses and billboards), I bring up football. Many of my students are Packer fans, and that means that they get to root for a team that is always in playoff contention and sometimes wins the Super Bowl. Some of the other students and I root for the Vikings, and that means we root for a team that, when it isn't abjectly terrible and frustrating, regularly disappoints us when we get our hopes up (I point out they have never won the Super Bowl and haven't been there in my lifetime). And why? Are the Packer fans in the room somehow more deserving, more entitled to this?  Of course not: it's luck. They mostly root for the Packers because they were born on one side of a river to parents who root for the Packers, and I was born on the other side of that river to parents who root for the Vikings. As becomes clear in much of the other works we read (Jhumpa Lahiri The Namesake, for instance), you don't get any say at all in where you're born, what your parents name you, or any number of other factors that are really a matter of family and geography and chance.

As a Minnesota sports fan, I've recently thought about just giving up hope on sports. I root for the Timberwolves and Vikings, and if I could just accept that there's no championship joy to come, I could probably bear it. But alas, the Packers are right there, and plenty of my friends current and old root for that team, and I see Packer shirts and jerseys and hats from joyful people regularly. They get to be happy! They get joy out of sports! That's what's so galling: it's not that sports will only offer disappointment (as it has for me). For other people, right there (right over there!) sports are a joyful experience and they watch a team with a great quarterback regularly contending for the playoffs and sometimes winning the Super Bowl.

I've decided to give up reading Bill Simmons for a while. I just don't want to hear the football fan experience of a guy whose favorite team regularly wins 12+ games and regularly goes to the AFC Championship game and sometimes goes to the Super Bowl and sometimes wins it. And if you've read Simmons regularly, you know he's made it clear that he feels entitled to this success (a recent example: Simmons justifies identifying with the team as "we" "because I have loved this team since I was 4 years old and Randy Vataha and Mack Herron were scurrying around, so if you have a problem with that, I don’t care."). That's fine, whatever. Use "we." But I don't know why I want to subject myself to the joyful ravings of somebody whose sports fan experience over the past 14 years has been pretty close to the opposite of mine, and whose sports fan experience I would desperately love to have, and who obviously feels entitled to the experience he's having. The purblind Doomsters have strown blisses on Boston fans' pilgrimage over that time, and good for them, but I sure don't care to watch them celebrate it anymore.

And so I'm approaching yet another Viking-Packer game with cold dread. It's not the hot, pit in the stomach, emotionally disturbing dread; the Vikes have torn that out of me and if I'm lucky someday they'll be good enough to bring it back. It's the mental experience of dread without the physical effects, and where emotionally I'll still just go about my week and day. But man, I don't want to hear about it afterward. Just leave me to my ne'er-do-well football team and let me turn my attention to the other things in life that do regularly provide joy (art! running! Batman!).

Three Contradicting Thoughts on Adrian Peterson
Personally, I'm not ready to root for Adrian Peterson again, not yet anyway. I belong to a religion that puts forgiveness pretty close to its center, and so I'm inclined to do so. But from what has come public of Peterson's actions and words after the fact, he really does not seem to have taken responsibility for his actions. He's expressed regret about the consequences of his actions, but he's defended it as a matter of discipline, and doesn't seem to have taken the actions themselves seriously enough to show real repentance (and I'm not in the habit of assessing the sincerity of others' repentance either, for what that's worth). He beat a child with an object until that child was bloody and bruised. Does he think he did a legitimate thing that unfortunately, accidentally, unintentionally caused harm? Or does he realize that the thing he did was a thing to cause harm? I don't know, and as a matter of watching football on Sundays, it's easier for me to sit and watch games if he's not out there for me to think about these things.

Yet it's also disturbing at some point what sort of control we're willing to grant employers over employees. Peterson pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor, and for this his employer can suspend him without pay? For actions not at the workplace, but at home? I fret of a society that seems willing to grant corporations and businesses and moneyed interests more and more control over individuals' lives, that pushes peoples' personal lives into tighter and tighter corners, that makes of the market The Market to rule us all (side note on an article I'm teaching this week: according to Eric Schlosser in "Kid Kustomers," 1) marketers are specifically targeting children to get them to nag their parents to buy them things, 2) that marketers study, among other things, children's dreams to understand how to appeal to them, and 3) that young children are not developmentally capable of telling the difference between a commercial and other kinds of entertainment. Is it fair to call marketers, then, my adversaries, entities that I have to contend with that are trying to get me and my kids to buy unnecessary and perhaps unhealthy things, and I have to teach my kids how to successfully navigate the world of such adversaries? I think so. Is this even remotely relevant to the NFL suspending Adrian Peterson? I don't know). A man pleads guilty to a misdemeanor, and his employer appears to treat the crime with more seriousness than the state that charged him. It's...just a little worrisome. I never asked the NFL to be a moral arbiter of its players at-home behavior.

And yet, of course, Peterson works in the entertainment industry, for businesses (the Minnesota Vikings and the NFL) that make money by providing entertainment to a paying public. Those businesses rely on public goodwill, positive media relationships, and peoples' interest and money to thrive. Nike sure terminated the hell out of Peterson's contract when it was evident that he was no longer a good public endorser for a business's products. That's advertising, and frankly, for the entertainment industry, it's all sort of advertising--they're trying to get people to pay to watch something happen, after all. They've got to keep on and keep on and keep on selling that spectator experience. When there's something that damages that experience, the particular entertainment business has to measure how to fix that. Sometimes that means that one particular performer, for whatever reason, can no longer be counted on to get public goodwill or positive media relationships.

Other Interesting Games
Week 12 Games
Lions (7-3) v. Patriots (8-2)
Bengals (6-3-1) v. Texans (5-5)
Cardinals (9-1) v. Seahawks (6-4)
Dolphins (6-4) v. Broncos (7-3)

Kick-Ass Links
Indianapolis Colt Griff Whalen has a kick-ass name, and he's vegan (Indy Star). So is Oakland Raider David Carter, though he has a more conventional name (Ecorazzi).

"How the NFL Exploited a Child Abuser to Restore Its Brand" (Deadspin).

Weekend
Have a good one, suckers.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

So, you're telling me there's a chance the Vikings can beat the Packers on Sunday?

Nope.

But if you are looking for a ray of hope as your Minnesota Vikings face the Green Bay Packers and an offense that barely breaks a sweat scoring 50 points these days, take a gander at Pack's road record this year.

That record is 2-3. At home, it's a different story. The Packers are 5-0 with the following margins of victory: 7 points (31-24 against the Jets); 21 points (38-17 against the Panthers); 32 points (42-10 against your Vikes); 41 points (55-14 against the Bears); and 33 points (53-20 against the Eagles). That's some pretty impressive home cooking.

Let's take a quick statistical look at how the Packers have fared offensively and defensively at home and away after 10 games:

Home
Avg points scored p/g: 43.8
Avg points given up p/g: 17
Avg total yards p/g: 399.8
Avg passing yards p/g: 279.8
Avg rushing yards p/g: 122
Avg total yards given up p/g: 336.6
Avg passing yards given up p/g: 230.6
Avg rushing yards given up p/g: 106
Turnovers: 3
Turnovers forced: 12

Away
Avg points scored p/g: 22.5
Avg points given up p/g: 28
Avg total yards p/g:339
Avg passing yards p/g: 254.8
Avg rushing yards p/g: 84.4
Avg total yards given up p/g: 418
Avg passing yards given up p/g: 245.8
Avg rushing yards given up p/g: 172.4
Turnovers: 5
Turnovers forced: 10

Other than the turnover area, where Green Bay has been stingy giving them up and prolific in forcing them no matter where they are playing, the Packers are a much different team when they are playing away from Lambeau field. On the road, they score less. They pass for less yardage. They run for way less yardage. They give up more points. They give up a more passing yardage, and they've been gouged in the run game.

Why is that? I don't know. You don't know. It's possible the Packers players and coaching staff don't know, either (if they did, they would have fixed it by now.) But we have the numbers and the numbers have spoken. At home, the Packers are superhuman. On the road, they're merely a good team.   

However, I'm extremely doubtful this means the Vikings have a great chance to upset the Packers this Sunday at TCF Bank Stadium. Two of the Packers three road losses came in the season opener in Seattle at a venue that is very tough for visiting teams to win in, and two weeks later against Detroit, which has the league's best defense this season. The Vikings defense is vastly better than it was in 2013, but I don't think it's good enough to make up for an offense that's struggled to score all year. And unlike the past few years, the Packers have a solid defense this season.

What the Packers road woes - if you can call them that - mean is that instead of losing a 42-10 blowout, the Vikes might actually make a game of it this time. But I still expect them to lose.

I'll be ecstatic if they prove me wrong.

Ben Tate - welcome to Minnesota!

In case you haven't heard, the Vikings picked up running back Ben Tate off of waivers on Wednesday.

There's no harm in this signing - adding depth at any position in the NFL is a smart thing to do. But I don't want Tate stealing a bunch of carries from Jerick McKinnon. Tate's never been a featured back in his five NFL seasons. But he's played enough that we know he's not the explosive, home run threat McKinnon might be. In 527 carries, Tate has just 12 runs that are 20 yards or longer. Tate's going to be a bit dull to watch, and this Vikings offense is deadly dull already. More importantly, the Vikings should be taking a long look at McKinnon over the final six games to see if he can be a guy you can count on to hand the ball to 20 to 25 times a game. The more carries Tate gets, the less evidence the Vikings coaching staff and front office has to make this decision heading into the offseason.

I'm curious to see how the Vikings use Tate - or if they use him at all.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Life Without Adrian Peterson

I do not feel sorry for Adrian Peterson in light of the NFL handing down its suspension today (Tuesday), which the NFL Player's association will appeal.

When Peterson decided to beat (some say he "spanked." I say "beat") his four-year-old son with a tree branch in a way that resulted in the Texas legal system getting involved, he placed himself at the altar of Roger Goodell's constantly-evolving player misconduct disciplinary process - a process where any type of suspension can, and will, be handed down.

Today, Peterson and the Vikings organization learned how severe such a suspension can be.

As for what Peterson's suspension means for the Vikings on the field, what happened today is probably for the best for a couple of reasons:

1.  It allows the Vikings to continue to do what the team has been doing for the previous 9 games - figure out how to develop a successful NFL offense without Peterson. This hasn't been going so well. But with Ted Bridgewater in the fold and Peterson turning 30 in March, it was going to have to happen sooner rather than later. Only the most optimistic rube thinks the Vikings still have a chance of making the playoffs this year at 4-6, so what purpose would playing Peterson for another 5 or 6 games serve? It was always unlikely Bridgewater would have Peterson at his disposal in 2016 (and maybe even 2015.) This just quickens a process that had to happen anyway.

2. One of the fun developments for the 2014 Vikings has been Jerick McKinnon. He's been much better than I expected he would be this year. But is he a running back you can hand the ball to 20 times a game for an entire season? Does Minnesota have to find a companion back this offseason who can carry half the workload with McKinnon (that's probably a good idea.) We'll only know this the more McKinnon plays, and if Peterson had come back at this point, McKinnon plays less. Maybe a lot less. No Peterson in 2014 means the Vikings can better assess if running back is a personnel need they must address in free agency or early in the 2015 draft.

That might not be enough pros to bring a smile to the face of the fans who still love Peterson and want to see him play again this year. But that's all I've got for you.  

Monday, November 17, 2014

Coming Off The Ledge (Part Two): Mourning Soldier Field and the Vikings Lack of Big WRs

To read Pacifist Viking's take on yet another Minnesota loss in Chicago, click here.

Every year a Vikings trip to Soldier Field is sure to put me in a bad mood. Here are just a few examples of how the Vikes have managed to piss me off with their play in Chicago in the past:

  • Come to Chicago fighting for a divisional title with one of the league's best offenses and facing a Bears team using their 7th string QB - lose 24-14.
  • Come to Chicago with a rare juggernaut squad and fighting for home field advantage throughout the playoffs, fall way behind to a 5-9 Bears team, then mount a major comeback to tie it, only to lose in overtime 36-30 and get beat by Devin freaking Aromashodu.
  • Come to Chicago as a peripheral NFC playoff contender with a chance to go 5-5 against a Bears team that hasn't won at home all season and is giving up an average of 29 points per game (worst in the NFL) - lose 21-13 as the offense can't complete a pass longer than 2 yards until late in the 4th quarter.
As PV wrote in his post yesterday (linked above), the Vikings have been playing bad football in Chicago and at Soldier Field for a long time now. But it's hard to figure out why it keeps happening. The Vikings are 2-13 in Chicago since 2000, but it's not like the Bears have had drastically better teams during that period. Minnesota's poor record outdoors, on grass and in cold temperatures must be a factor, but how big is it?

The Vikings haven't always been so brutal at Soldier Field as a dome team (I realize they aren't playing home games indoors this season and next.) In the 10 seasons Dennis Green was the head coach, his Vikings went 8-2 at Soldier Field - although they always seemed to play the Bears in September or October during that period.

Anyway, winning at Soldier Field can be done and it has been done by the Vikings.

Maybe next year?????

If you can't beat 'em, join 'em

At some point last season I think I mused on here that the Vikings should follow former Packers general manager Ron Wolf's blueprint in Green Bay in 1999 and draft several big, physical corners to deal with all the big, physical wide receivers the Vikings play against regularly in the NFC North.

However, it occurs to me the Vikings might want to grab some big, physical WRs of their own that can abuse Packers, Bears and Lions defensive backs seeing as Cordarrelle Patterson is showing no signs yet (there's still time) he's that guy, and Greg Jennings and Jarius Wright are sub-six footers. Kevin White, anyone? Ted Bridgewater's old teammate Devante Parker? Or how about Michigan's huge (6'5, 230) Devin Funchess

The Vikings need some more big receivers for Bridgewater to throw to.

Charles Johnson - legit or no?

Do the Vikings have something here with Johnson? Probably not. But he's 6'2, Bridgewater clearly trusts him and likes to throw to him, and his production isn't too bad considering he's only played 11 per cent of the Vikes offensive snaps this season.

He needs to be on the field a bit more, and Jarius Wright's hamstring issue and Patterson's ineffectiveness as a starting WR could be just the combination to give Johnson increased playing time. At this point, I'm open to all options on how to create an actual NFL passing attack.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Coming off the Ledge: Bears 21, Vikings 13

Well, that will do it. Anytime you start to think maybe the Vikings are good or getting good, just send them to Soldier Field. That will set you straight.

Defensively, the Vikings left all sorts of space for the Bears to run around, and they took terrible angles and missed tackles when the Bears decided to run into that space. And the Vikes showed little ability to tackle a big WR when he caught the ball, and basically no ability to cover a big WR downfield.

Offensively, the Vikings made no effort to throw the ball downfield--it took a very long time for the Vikes to even bother throwing passes toward WRs. Teddy Bridgewater looked badly hesitant today, waiting a moment to make it obvious which RB he was planning to dump it off to, thereby ensuring that the RB was going to get hit immediately.

The Vikes aren't there yet. They play in a division full of big fast WRs and they have to find a way to cover them. And they must run a real pro passing game where they throw passes to WRs, or they may as well not show up for many of their games.

And they'll have to someday play well at Soldier Field. I don't know if or why that particular city is a cursed place for the Vikings, but it's been awful for years and isn't getting better.

See you on the ledge, Viking fans.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

National Friday League, Week 11

Soldier Field
Who's afraid of Soldier Field?
Soldier Field has been a nightmare for the Vikings for over a decade, but that was mostly a time period that featured the likes of Brian Urlacher at middle linebacker and Devin Hester on special teams and Charles Tillman doing Nemesis-y things as Charles Tillman will do. As we all know, Chicago is a Tough Guy Town.

But those days are gone.

The 2014 Bears rank 32nd in points allowed (that's last, math geeks), 26th in yards allowed, 20th in first downs allowed, 28th in pass yards allowed, 32nd in touchdown passes allowed (that's last, math geeks), and 30th in net yards per pass attempt allowed (at least they're a mediocre 17th in yards per attempt allowed). This defense sucks.

And offensively they rank 22nd in points per game scored.  They're not covering for their defense by scoring a ton of points.

The Vikings can win at Soldier Field. They probably won't (the Vikes rank 32nd in pass TDs and 31st in net pass yards per attempt, so they're not exactly stacked to exploit the Bears' weakness), but they can. This is a week to really see the passing game open up: Greg Jennings should be able to get open consistently against this defense.

The Vikings might lose, but I'm not terrified to see the Vikings play at Chicago. It's just a division game on the road in outdoor cold conditions--so it will probably go miserably, but not in any Chicago-specific way.

The cold (I haven't checked Chicago's weather, but it's not that far away from Minnesota, and it's f#@%ing freezing here already) will be a nice test for Teddy Bridgewater. He's a sharp player, but he hasn't wiped away concerns about arm strength or downfield accuracy. Let's see what he can do in a little bit of chill.

Who is the best Viking right now?
There is not an obvious answer to this question, but I would say the team's three best players are all on defense.

Everson Griffen. Griffen ranks 5th in the NFL with 9 sacks, and that's not an inflated number: he's been a disruptive force against the pass and run all season.  

Harrison Smith. Antoine Winfield used to be so good at so many things that he could make up for coverage weaknesses elsewhere with great tackling. He could cover deep and prevent completions, and he could play around the line of scrimmage stopping runs and short passes. Smith reminds me of that--obviously he's a different sort of player at a different position, but he's an essential force in holding the secondary together. Take him out and things might come apart fast.

Anthony Barr. Yes, already. Barr's stat line nicely shows what a versatile playmaker he has been: a team leading 47 tackles, 4 sacks, a force fumble, 3 fumble recoveries (one returned for a touchdown), 3 pass deflections. That's a stat line for a player who is doing a little of everything because his team is asking him to do a little of everything.

What's so encouraging is that the Vikings have a very good (and potentially elite) defensive player at all three levels: defensive line, linebacker, and secondary. These are very good performers who can hold their units together. This is a defensive core to build around.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Cordarrelle Patterson and his incredible shrinking kickoff returns

There's been a fair bit of attention paid to Cordarrelle Patterson's lack of production as a wide receiver this season.

Less attention has been paid to Patterson's lack of production as a kickoff returner.

In 2013, Patterson had one of the best years a kickoff returner has had in recent memory. He averaged 32.4 yards per return on 43 attempts. He scored two touchdowns on those returns - a 105-yarder at Chicago and a 109-yarder at home against Green Bay. He also had 10 returns of 40 yards or more and led the NFL in kickoff return average. Patterson consistently gave the Vikings offense good field position with his returns, had a return of 40 yards or more in 8 of the Vikings 16 games, and in some games he forced opponents to resort to pooch kickoffs so he wouldn't get the ball.

This season, Patterson is just another guy in this department. Among players who have at least 15 kickoff returns, he's eighth in the NFL with a 24.5 average on 22 returns. He hasn't taken one to the house yet, and he has just two returns of 40 yards or more.

Why has Patterson not been as dynamic as a kickoff returner this season? I can't answer that question, but I can throw out some theories. One is that Patterson's performance last season was likely not sustainable. His 32.4 average last season ranks as the 13th best seasonal average of all time. History shows having an average that high two years in a row - no matter how good you are at this job - doesn't happen too often. (Percy Harvin, however, managed it in 2011 and 2012).

A second theory is opposing special teams have developed better coverage and kicking schemes to combat Patterson. One thing I've noticed is several teams have chosen to angle their kickoffs to the corners of the end zone rather than boot it straight down the middle. The theory in doing this, I guess, is it hems Patterson in to one half of the field and gives him less room to operate. So far, that strategy has worked against Patterson.

One last theory I have is Patterson isn't completely healthy. He was dealing with a hip flexor strain that cropped up in week five. He hasn't missed any games, but he hasn't appeared to have that extra burst to pull away from tacklers that he seemed to have last year on kickoff returns. But that's strictly guess work on my end.

Patterson's lack of production on kickoff returns is an issue for this Vikings team. With the offense often struggling badly to score, it could really use the favorable field position Patterson's returns provided the 2013 offense. What's more, if that favorable field position helped the offense to put up a few extra points, the Vikes actually have a defense this year that can hold leads and not waste the offense's efforts.

The other thing is that with Patterson not doing much as a receiver, that he's also not doing much as a kick returner means he's having little positive impact on the team.

That's not the kind of performance you're looking for from the #29th overall pick in the 2013 draft.

If Patterson can't turn things around as a wide receiver, the least he can do is get his kickoff return mojo back.