Monday, February 1, 2016

Happy February, Skoldiers!

Hello, dear readers.

Did you miss me?

I see it's been several days - 19 to be exact - since I last posted on here. Don't worry. Pacifist Viking and I will be back for another year of Vikings blogging. But I thought I'd take this time to roughly map out what form that blogging will take.

First of all, don't expect to see much from PV on here until training camp gets going in late July. Even then his posts won't be that frequent until the 2016 season starts. You don't like that. I don't like that. But those are his terms. He's got a family to attend to and other interests to fill his time besides typing at his computer about football stuff when, you know, there is no football being played. We'll survive.

As for me, I have always tried to blog about the Vikings regularly year-round because, frankly, this is a very small site in a universe filled with billions of blogs about billions of subjects. I don't want whatever readership we have here to forget about us, so subject to unforeseen circumstances, I'll try to slap up 10-to-15 posts on here from now until June. In June and July, I will go on summer vacation, and will post less frequently, until I pick up the pace again in August once the exhibition games begin.

I have some ideas for future posts, but I admit I don't have a lot of them right now. The reason for that is that successful teams - and the 11-5 Vikings were a successful team in 2015 - don't leave me with a lot to bitch about. Yes, I have some concerns about the roster, but those concerns are the same ones most Viking fans have (fixing the offensive line, fixing the passing game.) I don't want to give you material you can already get everywhere else.

So, here is my request to my readers, if you've got an idea for a blog post you would like me to explore, write it down in the comments section of this post - any time between now and when the season starts. I promise I'll do my best to write about your suggestions.

Until then, I'll be daydreaming that Rick Spielman snookered the Jaguars into trading us Allen Robinson for our 3rd round pick in the 2016 draft and he and Teddy Bridgewater connect on about 15 50-yard touchdown passes next season.

It could happen, couldn't it?

Thursday, January 21, 2016

National Friday League: Context of Disappointment

After the Vikings lost to Seattle (which even George R.R. Martin himself said was "agonizing!), we had some discussion in the comments about our individual levels of devastation (or not) after the Vikings lost the playoff game the way they did. As we are talking about individual feelings, the response to that loss is going to be personal and idiosyncratic. I thought about writing a post trying to "rank" this loss in with the other crushingly close season-ending Viking losses. Then I got depressed remembering there are so many such losses, but I also realized how futile that ranking would be. First, we'd be subject to the bias that the most recent thing is more extreme than it probably is, and second, we Viking fans were at various periods of our lives (or not-alive-yetness) for the other crushingly close season-ending Viking losses, and so our personal responses are all going to be different (at which point did you most care?). But there's a bigger problem, that these losses aren't isolated. They are a part of a connected history. Each new crushingly close season-ending Viking loss is compounded by all the others.

After the 2009 NFC Championship game, I responded with a months-long emotionally unhealthy spiral that I coped with in many strange ways. Was it just that loss that caused such a reaction? Of course not. It was the long shadow of the '98 NFC Championship game, and starting every season since hoping that this was finally the year. And it was the long shadow of four Super Bowl losses (that happened before I was born), and rooting for so long for a team that had never won a championship. It was the shadow of 1975, 1987, 2000, and 2003 too. It was the hope that the franchise's history would be redeemed.

Sunday's 10-9 loss (that in an parallel universe was a 12-9 win, and in that world we also have hover boards that actually hover and the Thanksgiving centerpiece is a family size donut) was a heart puncher (What did you do?  I was standing up and feeling like I didn't want to look, then I collapsed to a nearby piece of furniture in silence and felt my hearth throbbing. Then I went into the kitchen and silently began cleaning cupboards). But it wasn't just that we got punched in the heart--it's that we're the same people who have been punched in the heart so many times and have so repeatedly got back up in hope that this time, THIS TIME!!!!, it will all be different. Where does 2015 rank with everything else? That doesn't matter, because 2015 got piled on top of everything else. Our various reactions to 2015 are impacted by all of that, making this, in many ways, worse.  Each one will be the worst one yet.

Could the Vikes have won the Super Bowl this year? Probably not--but getting down to the only eight teams with a chance would give the Vikings...a chance. A team can go far on the strength of one excellent unit (the healthy Viking defense is an excellent unit) and another unit that gets hot at the right time while facing opponents that get cold at the right time. We've seen other teams that didn't seem good enough win or nearly win the Super Bowl (the '07 and '11 Giants, '08 Cardinals, '12 Ravens). Could the Viking defense have put enough pressure on Carson Palmer to force some turnovers that lead to scores? Could they pull it out? After all, the Packers--a team that by the end of the year did not look impressive--were in a close game with the Cardinals the whole game, and it's conceivable that could have been us, or even that we'd do better. And could that happen again, and again? Probably not. But playoff opportunities are certainly not guaranteed. They were in the playoffs with a shot. They weren't a game away from the Super Bowl, but they were in the wild one-and-done tournament for a Super Bowl championship. They could have taken another step with another shot. They'd have to play excellent and things would have to break right, but after 55 years of not winning it all, getting those shots matters. In the playoffs, on the strength of one excellent unit and another unit that gets hot at the right time.... Well. Such things happen. But not this year.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

That was quick - Vikings hire Tony Sparano (apparently) as offensive line coach

It's not official yet (update: it became official on Thursday), but it looks like former Miami Dolphins head coach Tony Sparano - the man who brought you the "Wildcat" offense - will replace Jeff Davidson as the team's offensive line coach.

I wrote yesterday that Davidson's dismissal was a good first step in fixing the Vikings offensive line issues. Is hiring Sparano a good second step?

One thing I will say is that head coach Mike Zimmer continues to build a coaching staff that's experienced. From Sparano to Norv Turner to George Edwards to receivers coach George Stewart, defensive backs coach Mel Gray, and special teams coordinator Mike Priefer, Zimmer's staff is littered with guys who have been there and done that. I like that.

Another thing I will say is that considering what Zimmer's accomplished during his two years in Minnesota, if he thinks Sparano is the right guy for the job, I can't think of any reason to doubt him.

As for Sparano's coaching record, his willingness to run the (at the time) novel concept of the Wildcat offense when he was head coach in Miami shows he's not afraid to be innovative and try new things. But what Viking fans are most concerned about is whether Sparano can turn Minnesota's O-line into a competent pass blocking unit.

I'd say the jury is out on that. If you look at the amount of sacks given up by the teams Sparano was an offensive line coach for - Dallas and Oakland - the results have been mixed. As the offensive line/running game coordinator in Dallas from 2005-2006, the Cowboys gave up 50 sacks in 2005, then 37 in 2006 and finally 25 in 2007 with Tony Romo playing his first season as a full-time starter. As offensive line coach and assistant head coach for the Raiders in 2013, the team's QB were sacked 44 times. But in 2014, with rookie Derek Carr taking over as the starter, that number was reduced to 28.

Those sack numbers don't scream that Sparano is a miracle worker when it comes to transforming his offensive line's into solid pass blocking units. Which is too bad, because this offensive line might need a miracle or two to save it. 

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Vikings offensive line makeover begins with firing Jeff Davidson

The Minnesota Vikings fired offensive line coach Jeff Davidson on Tuesday, and if you watched the team regularly in 2015, you can't say it's without just cause.

Davidson was certainly dealt a difficult hand when starting right tackle Phil Loadholt and starting center John Sullivan were lost for the season before the season even started. But a coach is ultimately responsible for the play of his unit, and the Vikings O-line was frequently a train wreck in 2015.

One number that stands out most about Davidson's tenure in Minnesota is 221 - that's the number of sacks the Vikings gave up during the five seasons he was the offensive line coach. That's a fucking lot, an average of 44.2 sacks per season. More alarmingly, starting quarterback Teddy Bridgewater has taken a beating in his two seasons with the team. He's been sacked 86 times in 29 games, and was pressured more often than any passer in the NFL, according to ESPN's in-house statistics. 

Regardless of the talent the Vikings have along the O-line, improvement is required and change is needed. Getting rid of Davidson is a good start.

The team can't stop there, however. No offensive lineman currently employed by the team should feel safe and everything should be in play - switching guys to different positions (Brandon Fusco should be moved back to right guard after failing at left guard in 2015), drafting some blue chip talent early in the 2016 NFL draft (something the Vikes have rarely done lately), and even signing a big-name free agent or two.

The Vikings have made great strides during head coach Mike Zimmer's two seasons with this team. But if they don't fix the problems along the O-line, the franchise could plateau or even regress. That would be a shame.

Monday, January 11, 2016

So long, TCF Bank Stadium, it's been nice knowing you

That's it. After two years playing outdoors for its home games, the Minnesota Vikings will move back indoors at U.S. Bank Stadium in time for the 2016 season.

However, Sunday's playoff game showed perfectly what will be lost when the Vikes move to a climate controlled environment again. A month ago in much less harsh conditions, Minnesota got smoked by the Seattle Seahawks. They were dominated just about every way you could be by an opponent.

Not so on January 10th as they hosted a playoff game in freezing cold weather. Yes, the Vikings defense was much healthier than it was during the first meeting between these two clubs, but the weather did really seem to affect the Seahawks, especially its offense, which had been rolling. Passes hung up in the air too long, snaps got botched, throws were dropped. If this game had been played in warmer conditions or indoors, I think Seattle's offense would have been much more effective and this game might not have been as close.

The Vikings 11-5 record at its temporary home, TCF Bank Stadium, wasn't unbelievably good. But the potential for it to be a real advantage for Minnesota as the team improved was there. Late in the year, in December and January as the weather gets colder in the American Midwest, outdoor games are difficult for teams not used to playing in them. The Vikings were getting used to it.

I also think playing outdoors helped make this year's Vikings a tougher team, a better road team and a better team playing on grass - even though TCF doesn't have a grass field. Will the Vikings get softer and lose the ability to win on the road, and outdoors, when they move indoors next season? A hard ass head coach like Mike Zimmer will do everything in his power to prevent it. But the fact is the Vikings were a horrible road team and a horrible outdoor team in the last couple of decades at the Metrodome. Don't forget divisional rivals Chicago and Green Bay play outdoors with natural grass fields, and the Vikings finally won at both places this year after over a decade of futility in both places. Coincidence or the result of being more comfortable playing outdoors after two years playing at TCF?

Maybe U.S. Bank Stadium has some features that will make it a tough place for opponent's to play in. The Metrodome, when the Vikings were playing well, could be extremely loud and it could be an intimidating place to play. But opponent's didn't have to deal with Old Man Winter there.  They won't have to deal with it in the new place, either.

By going back indoors again, the Vikings may have given up the best home field advantage it's had in over 30 years. I'm going to miss TCF Bank Stadium. The Vikings might miss it, too.   

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Jumping off the Ledge

There's no silver lining. If you want some sort of solace to prevent you from taking a nap in the snow, you'll have to turn to something other than football right now. There's no "At least we were in the playoffs." We had them. We were ready to win. And we didn't.

This is one more memorably devastating loss to add to a franchise tally full of devastating losses. A hard-fought, defense-oriented, tightly played game that ends in a short badly missed field goal (I guess any missed short field goal attempt is bad). There's no comfort. There's no bright spot. In the words of the legendary Dennis Green, we let them off the hook.

These opportunities don't come around that often. There's no "Maybe next year" to feel right now. There might not be a playoff game to win or lose next year: this was the opportunity. This was it: a chance to win a playoff game and move closer to the Super Bowl. And we blew it.

A.E. Housman "Loveliest of Trees, the Cherry Now"

Of whatever score of years you're allotted, whatever age you are will not come again. And that means one less opportunity to see the Vikings win the Super Bowl.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

National Friday League: Wild Card Weekend

Vikings Playoff Preview
Vikings (16th in scoring, 5th in points allowed)
Seahawks (4th in scoring, 1st in points allowed)

If the Vikes are going to make any sort of playoff run, it looks like it will be the defense that leads them through it. This week an Adrian Peterson-averages-seven-to-eight-yards-per-rush-and-over-150-yards game would sure be welcome, but the offense does not look like a competitive unit going into the playoffs. But behind a pass rush that is strong in every spot on the defensive line, with players who make open field stops, with a secondary that has been performing strongly, the Vikes have a shot. When the Viking defense is fully healthy, where is the weakness to exploit? Teams can't run easily when Linval Joseph, Sharrif Floyd, and Tom Johnson are getting interior penetration and Eric Kendricks, Chad Greenway, and Anthony Barr are finishing off plays. Teams can't get a lot of catch-and-run plays when the Vikings have done such a good job tackling in the open field all season, regularly stopping guys where they catch it. The secondary, with Xavier Rhodes, Harrison Smith, Terrence Newman, and Captain Munnerlyn have been strong. The one thing opponents might be able to do is complete deep passes, and so it is important that Everson Griffen and company are constantly forcing QBs to move, hurry passes, and throw while getting hit so those long plays don't develop.

If you're looking for encouragement, consider this. Bill Simmons pointed out on his podcast this week that while people are talking up how scary the Seahawks are right now, they lost in Week 16 to the St. Louis Rams 23-17. If you're looking for discouragement, consider this: that was the only game in the second half of the season when the Seahawks scored fewer than 29 points.

If you want more hope, consider this: Sunday in Minneapolis has a forecast high of ZERO, with 10-15 mile per hour winds. It is going to be very, very cold during this game. When the weather is weird, maybe it will benefit a) the lesser team, b) the home team, or c) the team that wants to play hard-hitting defense, wants to run, can't really throw, and plays soundly on special teams. It's a Minnesota football game, and probably the only outdoor pro playoff game we'll have for another 40-50 years. Everybody is going to be freaking cold. I'm not sure how advantageous that is (plenty of Vikings grew up in Texas or Florida or played college football in California or whatever), but I'd rather face Seattle in bitter conditions than climate-controlled conditions. I'm a winter runner, and in most winter temps, the cold only hurts for the first mile or so. In some very low temps, and in some very harsh winds, though, the cold keeps its bite for the whole run. But if you care about running, and love running, you can gut it out and finish the run fine. I'm guessing that is probably fairly true for all athletes playing in extreme weather. They're going to hurt, but they have enough focus, desire, work ethic, whatever, to do their jobs the best they can despite it.

When I envision the Vikings winning this game, it's by a score like 12-9. If they can grind and get stops and hold off big plays and play great red zone defense, and they can avoid any turnovers, it will be left to win the game with special teams, field position, and a few key big offensive plays. If Russell Wilson is able to complete passes downfield, though, the game will get scary.

Green Bay-Washington
Green Bay (15th in scoring, 12th in points allowed)
Washington (10th in scoring, 17th in points allowed)
This is a little weird: I did not watch Washington play a single game this season. I don't even know what Kirk Cousins looks like.

When I look at playoff matchups, I like to look at the teams' rankings in points scored and points allowed. When a team has a single-digit ranking in a category, you can point to that and say there, that's the thing this team does well. and when a team doesn't have a single-digit ranking, it suggests a solid team but without an excellent unit. This game features two such teams, with the Packers' best unit being a 12th ranked defense and Washington's best unit a 10th ranked offense. And neither team has a 1,000 yard rusher or receiver. If we didn't care about the outcome, this would appear to be a boring game (honestly, if the Vikes lose first, I'm not watching this anyway--I'll avoid football for the rest of the day and go read or something).

AFC Games...
Who cares? I don't care who wins either game. I'm not sure I would anyway, but when the Vikes are in the playoffs, I'll only care about the winner of the AFC if we're in the NFC Championship game.

Fantasy Box: What Did We Learn This Season?
This was a good season for advocates against spending big draft resources on RBs, as very few preseason top-10 RBs stayed healthy and performed well, and plenty of afterthought draft picks had very strong fantasy seasons. Perhaps this is a consequence of the continuing NFL trend toward more pass attempts, but it also may be a blip: sometimes these things tend to bounce back in the following year and we could see monster years from early-pick RBs.

But if you don't spend on RB, who do you spend on? Certainly not QB, where some mid-range picks were inconsistent or terrible, some afterthought undrafted QBs performed strong, and there are still plenty of QBs to find and plug and play (true story: I won a league starting seven different QBs: before the playoffs I picked up Ryan Fitzpatrick and started him in the first round and Kirk Cousins and started him in the championship game). You can pay for Cam Newton, but you can also just pick up next year's Kirk Cousins.

TE will be interesting, as there are several productive TEs, but only enough to give about half of a fantasy league productive TEs. The problem is that some of this year's productive TEs were, again, draft-day afterthoughts (Tyler Eifert, Jordan Reed).

Based on 2015, the place to spend draft resources is at WR--but you have to pick the right WRs. If you drafted Antonio Brown and Julio Jones, you should have won your league (the winner of my auction league did that: TWO 136 catch, 1,800 yard WRs in a PPR league!). If you drafted Calvin Johnson and DeMaryius Thomas, you're wondering what the hell happened (that's what I did in that same league!). If you get young but proven WRs who have competent volume-QBs (they don't have to be elite QBs, just QBs who have proven they can put up volume stats) you're in good shape. Go get Brown, Jones, Odell Beckham and the like. Be warier of aging WRs and WRs with shaky QBs, though sometimes even that can be overcome (DeAndre Hopkins!). But that's high-end WRs--WR2s and WR3s are as unreliable picks as anything else (did you draft Charles Johnson expecting a starter?).

But while you may draft your 2016 team based on what happened in 2015, you won't win your 2016 league based on what happened in 2015. This might be a weird year, and next year stud RBs will carry the day. But still, the overall trend is for pass catchers to be more important and more reliable fantasy producers, and I think we'll continue to see that.

Enjoy it, suckers.