Friday, October 24, 2014

Dear Lovie Smith, please play Josh McCown on Sunday against the Vikings

What follows is a statement I don't know to be true, but I'm 99.9999999999999999999999999999999 sure that it is: Lovie Smith does not read this blog.

But if he did, I'd suggest to him he's kind of nuts to even be considering starting Josh McCown against the Vikings on Sunday. Smith's been a bit coy about the issue this week (NFL head coaches are like that), but it does look like second-year quarterback Mike Glennon will get the start.

I wish Smith would decide otherwise, however, and go back to the guy he handpicked to be his starter in Tampa Bay - McCown.

Lookit, McCown stinks, which is why I want Smith to start him against a Vikings team that needs all the breaks it can get. In two games-and-a-bit this season before he hurt his thumb, McCown never threw for more than 183 yards and tossed four interceptions to go with just two touchdown passes. Oh, and he was sacked on 6.8 per cent of his dropbacks as well. 

His replacement, Glennon, has thrown for over 300 yards in two of his three starts and managed seven touchdown passes while being intercepted three times and sacked on 6 per cent of his dropbacks.The only area where McCown has been better than Glennon is completion percentage, where McCown has completed 63.2 per cent of his passes compared to Glennon's completion percentage of 57 per cent.

The Bucs scored 27 and 31 points, respectively, in Glennon's first two starts (the wheels fell off badly against Baltimore, however. The Bucs only managed 17 points in that drubbing). In McCown's three starts, Tampa Bay scored 14 points twice and 17 once. They lost all 3 games.

Glennon is not Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers or Drew Brees - QBs the Vikings have also faced this year. But he appears to be significantly better than McCown. And with the Vikings struggling to score points themselves these days, and having last won in Tampa Bay in 1997, it sure would be nice if McCown was behind center on Sunday, getting sacked and intercepted with regularity.

I'm worried Glennon might be able to put up enough points to beat a Vikings team that's 1-10-1 in its last 12 road games. And if he plays well enough that the Bucs score like they did in their win against Pittsburgh (27 points) and their close loss to the Saints (31 points), Minnesota's 30th ranked scoring offense has no shot of keeping up. 

Call me a pessimist if you like. I think this organization has earned it from me of late.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

National Friday League: Week 8

Vikings-Buccaneers Preview
'14 Vikings
'14 Buccaneers

A really high number of disappointing Viking games have come against the Buccaneers. Over the years, going back to when they were in the NFC Central with us, it seems frequent that when expectations were raised and the Vikes seemed poised to take a major step, they could be counted on to stumble against a seemingly far inferior Tampa team. Sometimes that disappointing loss was just the first indication the Vikings weren't as good as we thought or hoped. In 1994, what were the 7-4 Vikes doing losing to the 2-9 Bucs at home? In 2012, how'd the 5-2 Vikes get run off their own field by the 2-4 Bucs? Do you remember in '99 when the Vikes had won five straight games with Jeff George at quarterback and seemed poised to claim the division again before losing to the eventual division winner Buccaneers? Weren't the '05 Vikes supposed to have some sort of Super Bowl aspirations before they lost their home opener to the Bucs? Did you forget where the Vikes lost their only regular season game in '98? I hate seeing the Buccaneers play against the Vikings almost as much as I hate seeing the Vikings play at Soldier Field.

So there's your proverbial silver lining from last week's defeat which featured giving up a 4th and 20 conversion (Chad Greenway wasn't ready when the play started!) and a last second touchdown. Had the Vikings won, they'd be 3-4, and we'd be thinking about beating the lowly one-win Bucs to get to .500 and set ourselves up for a playoff run. And then the Vikings would zombie walk their way around the field and we'd be pissed off.

Teddy Bridgewater's flaws
Teddy Bridgewater has shown a tendency to throw short passes pretty hard, and a tendency to put air under some sideline throws that appear to require more zip. The first problem is probably a matter of experience: Bridgewater will learn to put touch on some of those throws to running backs so they can adjust to a ball that's not in the air long and the play can develop. The second problem is more troubling: is it a sign of limited arm strength? Can he throw the ball hard from the pocket to the sideline? That's a pretty essential skill for a pro quarterback. We'll see. Obviously great quarterbacks can find ways to make plays even with such limitations, and it may not in fact be a limitation.

Other Interesting Games
Week 8 Games

Chargers-Broncos.

Eagles-Cardinals.

Colts-Steelers.

Intent
A couple of NFL stories illustrate the way people judge themselves, and expect to be judged, not by their actions or the consequences of their actions, but by their intent.

Daniel Snyder and defenders of Washington's team nickname insist that they are not trying to be offensive. It does not matter that you show evidence that their name is an historical racist slur. It does not matter how many Native Americans insist that they are offended by the name, that they find it personally hurtful. To Snyder, he doesn't intend to give offense, so how can anybody take offense? He feels his support for the name is pure of heart: he (and the name's defenders) talk frequently of "honor' and "respect." Since their intent isn't to be offensive, it is practically impossible to convince them that the effect is offensive.

And so, too, does Adrian Peterson rely on his intent when insisting he is not a child abuser. He admits what he did. There has really been no dispute about Peterson's actions. Furthermore, the consequences of his actions are visible, and there does not seem to be any dispute about those consequences. But since he didn't intend to abuse a child, he does not seem to see that he did abuse a child. Peterson can't see himself as an abuser of children (who can?), and so to him his actions and their consequences cannot possibly be child abuse.

This seems to be a general psychological truth: individuals tend to judge themselves based on their intent (and are willing to see their intentions in the best possible light), and to judge others based on their actions (and can be capable of assuming the worst of others' intent). Consider your attitude while driving. Let me assume that you occasionally make a mistake while driving. When you do, though, you know what you were seeing and what you were trying to do. You might think "Oh, sorry, I just had to get over there" or "Oh, I was attentive to the cars around me and didn't notice that sign" or "I've never driven here before and I'm a little lost and trying to figure out where I'm going, sorry everybody" or even "Oops, I'm doing my best and trying my best but I just messed up there." Now, let me ask: is that your attitude when another driver screws up? Do you calmly assume, "Oh, that guy must have have really needed to get into this lane quickly" or "Oh, I guess I was in her blind spot, at least I saw her" or "Oh, he probably got stressed because he doesn't know where he was going"? Or do you think, "Jackass!" Do you holler, from inside your car, "Schmohawk!" Do you ever mutter "Get off the road, you stupid ass" or "What in the hell are you doing?" or "Oh God, why would you do that? Are you a moron?"?

Some people think who you are when nobody is watching is who you really are. I don't. I'm a lapsed existentialist, but I can't forget that Jean-Paul Sartre would insist that you are defined by your actions. Existence precedes essence: what you do takes precedence over what you think of yourself inside, or even why you do what you do.

A really good idea
On his recent B.S. Report podcast, Bill Simmons came up with a remarkably simple way to assess NFL teams. He said there are essentially three kinds of games: legitimate wins, legitimate losses, and games that could go either way. He tallies each team's record according to those categories.

This strikes me as simple and effective. Team efficiency ratings like Football Outsiders exclude wins and losses and adjust for opponents. Simmons' system accounts only for performance at winning, losing, or playing close, and excludes attention to opponents, but I suspect it tells us something about the teams.

The Vikings' record, then: 2 legit wins, 4 legit losses, and 1 either way game. Right now the Vikes pretty clearly are what their record says they are. I'm still optimistic about the trajectory of the defense, though: the rest of the season could go a lot of different ways.

Fantasy Box (or, Narcissism and Me)
1. To extend what I wrote about last week, let me articulate my fantasy philosophy for the midpoint of the season:

Prepare yourself to get lucky.

That's not contradictory. You may have to get lucky to win a championship, but you can put yourself in a position to benefit from luck. And that means as we approach the midpoint of the season, having flier running backs on your bench is even more crucial than drafting flier running backs. Every year there are running backs who break out during the second half of the season, and running back is still a high-injury position. I say do what you can to muddle through byes, and then clutter your entire bench with anybody who, if things break just right, could be fantasy breakouts.

And here too paying attention counts. I listen to ESPN's Fantasy Focus and Fantasy Underground podcast while I'm doing various household tasks, and Matthew Berry reminded me that Tampa Bay running back Charles Sims is returning from IR very soon. I picked him up in two leagues. Will he become start-worthy? Probably not. But there is opportunity there, and stashing him on my bench leaves me prepared to get lucky if he does break out. And if Charles Sims helps me this season, it will be because I was listening to a podcast while cooking my family supper. If he doesn't, who cares?

2. Because masochism and fantasy football are synonymous, I'm once again streaming defenses in my auction league. This has become a detestable task: examining stats like sacks and points allowed for a mostly random position, trying to guess which offenses are bad enough to chase matchups, and Oh God I'm already sick of this.

But why am I doing this work? I'm a working father with fulfilling hobbies. For whatever reason, all the rankers at ESPN and Yahoo! have the Dallas Cowboys ranked as this week's #7 defense or higher. I don't understand it. I don't trust it. But why am I going to put on a horsehair shirt trying to decide whether to start the Viking defense against the Bucs? Thanks for doing the work, fellows!

Well, the Cowboy D is on my roster, anyway, along with the Viking D. I've switched the starter about seven times already, and expect to change them seven times seventy times before Sunday. Fantasy masochism is a hard habit to break.

3. Demaryius Thomas is my Lex Luthor. He always seems to be on the roster of a team I'm competing hard against, and I never ever have him on my roster. And of course I always have other Broncos on my team that I'd rather see score. Whenever I watch the Broncos it seems like Thomas is always uncovered and can just skip all around the open field. Goddamit, Manning, throw the ball to somebody else. Hand the ball to Ronnie freaking Hillman when you get inside the five, maybe.

Weekend
I'm working on watching 10-13 Netflix horror movies during October (if it's not on Netflix streaming, it doesn't exist). I've seen scary movies, terrible movies, some that were both, even an offensive movie. I'm starting to feel really jittery in the dark, but if I start getting scared of day ghosts, my time spent running trails in the woods is going to get really creepy. "Fear cuts deeper than swords" is my new mantra.

Have a good weekend everybody. Watch Saturday Night Live: it's fun to watch. And play something for fun.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

A numbers-filled look at the 2014 Minnesota Vikings

Jason Winter, who pops up at Kick Ass Blog now and again as a guest contributor (his last post was about freaking Matt Asiata!), has sent in another column. Today, Jason has a numbers-filled Vikings post for you. Take it away, Jason.

By Jason Winter

About that offense...

Yeah, being 2-5 sucks. Yeah, the offense has usually looked bad. Yeah, Teddy Bridgewater doesn't look like a whole lot better than, say, Christian Ponder.

I'm not here to make excuses, but I am here to provide a little context. I present to you the following stats, with little to no explanation. Draw your own conclusions.

=====

Last year, Vikings running backs averaged 107 rushing yards per game. Adrian Peterson started 14 games.

This year, Vikings running backs are averaging 94 rushing yards per game. Adrian Peterson started one game.

If this holds, it means that Adrian Peterson was worth about 13 extra rushing yards per game, and we were paying him about $14 million per season to provide those yards. Is that really worth it? Should any running back be paid $14 million in today's NFL? Should the Vikings trade him if they can get any value whatsoever?

=====

Here are the Vikings' opponents' defenses by points scored/game rank, and the points the Vikings scored against them:

St. Louis: 31st, 34
New England: 12th, 7
New Orleans: 28th, 9
* Atlanta: 30th, 41
Green Bay: 9th, 10
* Detroit: 2nd, 3
* Buffalo: 8th, 16

Obviously, some of a team's defensive rank has to do with how the Vikings did against them, but after six or seven games played per team, the effects of one team are minimal.

Games marked with a * are the ones Teddy Bridgewater started. In other words, he and the offense looked great against a bad defense and lousy against two good defenses. Overall the team has faced three top-10 defenses in its last three games and looked bad against all three. In fact, the New Orleans game aside, every game has played to type considering the defense being faced.

Here's the rest of the Vikings' schedule and their opponents' points allowed ranks:

Tampa Bay: 32nd
Washington: 24th
Chicago: 22nd
Green Bay: 9th
Carolina: 29th
NY Jets: 26th
Detroit: 2nd
Miami: 15th
Chicago: 22nd

Don't be surprised if the offense suddenly “figures it out” the rest of the season.

=====

That said... Teddy Bridgewater's TD pass to Cordarrelle Patterson on Sunday was the Vikings' first TD pass since the Matt Cassel-Matt Asiata connection in the first quarter of the New England game. The Vikings went 21 quarters, or more than five full games, without a TD pass.

The Vikings have 4 TD passes on the season, through seven games. There have been 10 instances of a quarterback throwing 4 TDs or more in a single game this season.

=====

And, just for fun, in the wake of the Percy Harvin trade ...

If we treat the “former Vikings going to the Seahawks” trend as starting with Steve Hutchinson's “poison pill” contract, here's the Approximate Value (a Pro-Football-Reference metric that lets you compare players of all positions) of Hutchinson as a Viking and every other significant Viking who since went to Seattle:

Hutchinson: 67
TOTAL: 67

Nate Burleson: 17
Sidney Rice: 15
Heath Farwell: 4
Tarvaris Jackson: 10*
Percy Harvin: 0*
Kevin Williams: 0*
Ryan Longwell: 0
Antoine Winfield: 0
TOTAL: 46

* PFR hasn't computed AVs for players in 2014. That said, it would be hard to imagine Harvin/Williams/Jackson being worth more than a couple points total this season.

Also, counting the playoffs, Harvin played in 8 games for the Seahawks in 2013-14 and accumulated 860 total all-purpose yards, 107.5 per game. Over that same time frame, Cordarrelle Patterson played in 23 games for the Vikings and managed 2,724 AP yards, 118.4 per game.

Yeah, yeah, Seattle has a ring and all. But let's not get jealous the next time Seattle signs one of our “stars.”

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Is Jerick McKinnon the real deal at running back?

What was your favorite positive development from the Vikings 17-16 loss to the Buffalo Bills last weekend?

Was it Everson Griffen's three sacks? Anthony Barr's generally overall standout play? Ted Bridgewater bouncing back from a horrible start to throw his first NFL touchdown pass? That Greg Jennings finally showed a pulse?

My favourite development was realizing the Vikings might have a running back teams must fear and account for whose name isn't Adrian Peterson. That running back, of course, is rookie Jerick McKinnon

When the Vikings drafted McKinnon in the third round of the 2014 NFL draft, I was non-plussed by the selection. I didn't like the fact general manager Rick Spielman chose a guy that early in the draft that the team probably wouldn't use much for a season or two when it had other pressing needs. Also, I didn't know anything about McKinnon other than he was an option quarterback in college who was crazy athletic. It's great to be crazy athletic, but that doesn't mean McKinnon would develop into a quality NFL running back.

But it's beginning to look like it will work. The sample size is small, yet in the three games where McKinnon has been given significant touches (Atlanta game, Detroit game and Bills game), he's rushed for 135 yards, 103 yards and was the only offensive threat the Vikes had against the Lions - totaling 82 combined yards (40 rushing yards on 11 carries, 42 receiving yards on 6 catches.) He's shown elusiveness, good hands, a surprising ability to gain yards after contact, and, yes, he's pretty fast, too.

Like a lot of fans, I viewed McKinnon as a guy who would never be the teams featured running back but more of a third-down supporting player. I (We?) may have underestimated McKinnon. In Football Outsiders weekly "Quick Reads" feature, McKinnon was the judged as the NFL's most valuable "rushing" running back last week, and writer Vince Verhei heaps all kinds of praise on McKinnon. It's the kind of analysis that makes a Vikings fan feel better about the immediate, and long-term, prospects for the Vikings running game.

Losing Peterson was a devastating blow to the Vikings offense and one they probably will not recover from in 2014. But if McKinnon can keep playing at this level - and we have to remember he's still getting the hang of this running back thing - the Vikes running game should be in good shape in 2015 (I'm convinced Peterson will never play another down of football for Minnesota.)

A couple of other thoughts on McKinnon.

- Listed at 5'9 and 209 pounds, its hard to envision McKinnon being an effective runner between the tackles like Peterson has been. But watching McKinnon play lately, his size seems to work in his favor. Peterson is a big back - 6'1 and 220 pounds - who can flatten you as easily as he can run by you. But big backs make for big targets and Peterson isn't able to hide behind his blockers in the trenches. However, McKinnon can, and he's frequently been able to emerge from big logjams of humanity at the line of scrimmage and pop through them for positive gains. It's an extremely valuable skill he should only get better at as he learns how to read blocks and be patient at the pro level.

- When Peterson was put on leave by the Vikings, it was assumed the team would be in the market for acquiring a top running back this offseason either in free agency (DeMarco Murray is in the final year of his rookie deal) or the draft. McKinnon's emergence makes running back less of a need - if he continues to play well. I still think it would be a good idea for the Vikings to get another running back who has the chops to be a featured back in an NFL offense (that ain't Matt Asiata.) But they don't have to sign a big money guy in free agency or draft somebody like Todd Gurley in the first or second round of next year's draft if McKinnon shows he's legit. That will allow the Vikings to be more flexible in how they attack other roster needs (Left tackle? Middle linebacker? Wide receiver? Safety?), and bad teams like the Vikings usually have a lot of them.     

Monday, October 20, 2014

Revisiting the Vikings signing of Greg Jennings

So after doing his "Invisible Man" impersonation the previous two weeks, Vikings wide receiver Greg Jennings finally made an impact in the team's passing game against Buffalo, catching six passes for 77 yards, including a tough 38-yarder down the middle of the field that set up the Vikes one and only touchdown of the day.

It's the kind of day Viking fans were hoping would be common place when Jennings signed a five-year deal with the team in March of 2013 for $47.5 million - including $18 million in guaranteed money.

It hasn't turned out that way, and as the Vikes passing offense continues to look as hopeless as ever, signing Jennings appears to be a dumb move along the lines of the 2008 Bernard Berrian signing.

It's too early to make that call, however. I actually thought the production of Jennings in 2013 (68 catches, 804 yards and 4 touchdowns) was pretty good considering the Vikings three-headed quarterback situation. I've never considered Jennings to be a guy who can elevate a passing game all by himself. He's a great #2 receiver who thrives with a strong supporting cast, which he had in Green Bay.

The plan with signing Jennings wasn't that he'd transform the Vikings offense all by himself. But adding an established WR like him to a core that also featured Adrian Peterson, Kyle Rudolph and a dynamic but raw player like Cordarrelle Patterson would give Christian Ponder the diverse set of offensive weapons he needed to allow him to elevate his game, and the Vikes offense.

Obviously, the plan didn't work in 2013. And as the team breaks in another young QB in Ted Bridgewater, tries to find a running game using Matt Asiata and Jerick McKinnon and waits for someone to emerge opposite of Jennings as a consistent pass catching threat, the plan isn't working in 2014, either.

But that doesn't mean signing Jennings was the wrong move - or that it won't work out.

During the 2013 offseason, Jennings was considered the second-best free agent WR on the market behind Mike Wallace. If Wallace's dad is to be believed, the Vikings were willing to pay the ex-Steeler a lot more than they ended up paying Jennings. Miami would sign Wallace for more than Jennings got as well, and so far they've received only marginally better production from Wallace in return for their investment.

Jennings certainly needs to play and produce better. But when we're assessing a wide receiver's play, we have to take into account that their production is largely dependent on who is throwing them the ball. If Bridgewater can find his footing after a couple of choppy starts, he could be the man to bring out the production the Vikings sorely need from Jennings.      

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Coming off the Ledge: Bills 17, Vikings 16

There was the thrill of a close, competitive football game: the fluttery stomach, the pumping heart. There was the thrill of every play being intense and meaningful. And that is something.

And there's the fall down disappointment of being at the wrong end of that thrill. Part of what makes a game like this so thrilling is that you really care about the outcome. And when it ends like this...you really care about the outcome.

You spend somewhere around 57 minutes watching defensive players constantly making a play when the team needed it: Xavier Floyd, Sharrif Floyd, Everson Griffen, Robert Blanton, Anthony Barr, all of these players were notably good for most of the game. And the running game was notably successful against a strong run defense as the offense played a justifiably conservative game (they did take their shots, but were often punished for any pass play that took time to develop). And then you watch a 4th and 20 conversion and the opponent score with one goddam second left.

This one stings: 3-4 would put the Vikings in a one-game-at-a-time projection to compete. 2-5 puts them in a one-game-at-a-time projection just because there's no other way to handle being three games under .500.

The Vikings are building a defense that is fun to watch. But right now the Vikings lost a breathtakingly close game that's going to take some time to get over.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Revisiting previous posts at KAB regarding the Vikings trading Percy Harvin

With the shocking trade of Percy Harvin on Friday, I thought I'd dredge up a couple of Kick Ass Blog posts regarding Harvin from 2012-2013 when his relationship with the Vikings was going sour.

This post, written by me in December of 2012 before the Vikes traded Harvin to Seattle, hoped the team would find a way to kiss and make up with Harvin.

This post, written by Pacifist Viking, detailed the holes in Harvin's game and why he wasn't terribly worried about Harvin leaving the team.

Knowing what we know now, I was dead wrong, while Pacifist Viking was right. This is a shining example of why I'm a idiot.

And look what general manager Rick Spielman got for a guy who had put a gun to the Vikings head and basically forced a trade where Spielman had no leverage - a first round pick (Xavier Rhodes) and a seventh round pick (offensive tackle Travis Bond, who didn't make the team) in 2013, plus a third round pick in 2014 (Jerick McKinnon). Rhodes looks like he will be the Vikings starting right cornerback for the next decade. McKinnon looks like he'll be a valuable third down back at the worst, and Adrian Peterson's successor at best. That's a pretty nice return on the trade.

Perhaps I'm reading to much into this, but it's also possible the Harvin trade gave Spielman the ammunition to pull the trigger on the Ted Bridgewater trade at the 2014 NFL draft.

I think Spielman still would have done this deal even if the Vikings didn't have the extra third rounder (#96 overall) they got from Seattle in the Harvin trade. But the fact that they would still have four picks in the top 100 of the 2014 draft should have made Spielman feel even more comfortable trading a high second rounder (#45 overall) and a high fourth rounder (#108 overall) to move back into the first round to get Bridgewater.

If Bridgewater turns outs to be the franchise quarterback we hope he will be and Rhodes and McKinnon continue to be assets to the Vikings in the long term, maybe we should all send Harvin thank you cards for being such a dick.