Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Requiem for the 2013 Minnesota Vikings

I've been blogging about the Minnesota Vikings since 2007. I think this was the most difficult year to write about them. Worse than 2010. Worse than 2011.

It's not that I came into this season with high hopes. I had plenty of doubts that Christian Ponder would be able to play well enough to keep the Vikings in the NFC playoff hunt. What I didn't anticipate was that the defense would be so bad. And so with Ponder playing about how I expected (poorly), and the defense playing much worse than I expected, the losses mounted. Because there was never any hope the core issues that led to those losses - poor secondary play, poor quarterbacking from Ponder, poor linebacker play, poor tackling overall - would be fixed this season, Pacifist Viking and I had to continually write about next season. After the Vikings went 0-3 to start the season it was evident that 2013 would have no meaning.

Now it's over. The Vikings are looking for a new head coach, probably a new quarterback and are in rebuilding mode for the 2nd time in 3 offseasons. Beware Vikings fans. We are a mediocre franchise and have been for over a decade. Just 4 playoff appearances in 12 seasons since Dennis Green resigned before the 2001 season ended. The team's cumulative record since 2002 is 92-99-1, even though the franchise has employed some of the NFL's all-time great talents at their respective positions - Randy Moss, Adrian Peterson, Jared Allen.

Are we about to enter a new golden age or are we going to continue to muddle along? This offseason will be an important one in determining which way the Vikings go. 

Now some thoughts on the season that was ...

Leslie Frazier - a justified firing?
I think PV is going to delve into this in his regular Thursday post (only here at Kick Ass Blog!), so I won't step on his toes too much. But no matter how great a guy his players thought Frazier was, I think the firing was justified. One reason - personnel decisions.

I think Frazier may have been too nice a human being for his own good as an NFL head coach. He seemed reluctant to replace veterans with talented but untested young players. No matter how badly a starter played this season, he rarely seemed to lose his job. Frazier only went to other options when injuries or suspensions forced his hand. Of course, how the QB situation was handled this season often made no sense. But there were plenty of other poor personnel decisions. Cordarrelle Patterson only became a starter when Jerome Simpson was demoted because of a drunk driving arrest - and then he never gave it up. Xavier Rhodes only became a full-time starter when Josh Robinson broke his sternum in the Seattle loss - and then proved he was the team's best corner by far. And if Kevin Williams was your best nose tackle, why did he only play 1 game there, and only then because Letroy Guion and Fred Evans were out due to injury?

If certain personnel changes had been made earlier this season - replacing Ponder with Matt Cassel at QB, making Patterson a starting WR, making Rhodes a starting corner and playing Williams more at nose tackle, the Vikings might have won more games, made the playoffs and Frazier would still be Minnesota's head coach. But he didn't make those changes. Now he's unemployed.

Key developments
- Obviously Patterson. He's a dynamic talent that the Vikings can, and should, use in many ways. He still needs work to become a top-flight WR, though.

- Obviously Rhodes. Big and physical enough to lock up with guys like Brandon Marshall, Calvin Johnson, Jordy Nelson and James Jones, Rhodes also showed a knack for breaking up passes (but not intercepting them) as the season progressed. Too bad he had a bit of the injury bug this year.

- Not so obviously, Brandon Fusco. The third-year guard might have been the Vikings best offensive lineman in 2013. That's great news for Fusco, but it also shows that the unit's 4 other starters - Matt Kalil, Charlie Johnson, John Sullivan and Phil Loadholt - often did not play at an unacceptable standard. That has to change, and if it does, the Vikes have the makings of a pretty solid offensive line, with only Johnson needing to be replaced.

- Yes, we do have wide receivers! I think we have to consider Greg Jennings 1st season in purple a success. 68 catches and 804 yards with this QB situation? Patterson I've already covered above. I felt Jerome Simpson had a nice season, but he's a free agent and may not be back. If he isn't, that just means Jarius Wright will get more opportunities to show what he can do in a more prominent role. His 16.7 yards-per-catch average led the team and 20 of his 26 receptions went for 1st downs. Give this crew good QB play and good health and watch the Vikings passing game soar in 2014.

Key disappointments
- Obviously, Chris Cook and Robinson. I'm less concerned that Cook hasn't picked off a pass in 4 NFL seasons  and more concerned that he couldn't stay healthy, couldn't tackle and showed absolutely no ball skills. Robinson never showed an aptitude for playing the slot corner position that's so important in today's NFL. Minnesota's pass defense would have been much better if these 2 guys had played better. But they didn't and their shortcomings will likely force the Vikings to address cornerback both in free agency and in the draft at a time when they have lots of other positions that must be addressed.

- Obviously, Kalil. The left tackle took a big step back this season. Run and pass blocking were issues throughout the year. What happened? One theory is Kalil got buffer and leaner last offseason and wasn't used to his new physique, which produced some technical flaws in his game. He needs to bounce back in 2014 in order for this offensive line to shine.

- Obviously, linebackers. We have some young linebackers - Erin Henderson, Audie Cole, Mike Mauti, Gerald Hodges. But are any of them any good? The Vikings need some playmakers here, guys who can make plays they shouldn't make rather than simply making the plays they are expected to make.

Again with the quarterback questions
I almost put Ponder in the 'Key disappointments' section. Almost. But I expected Ponder to play poorly. The Vikings are in another pickle with the QB position. Ponder is under contract for 2014, but you can't start him again in Minnesota. Matt Cassel would be a fine backup option who could keep things from falling apart if the starter gets injured for a spell. However, over 16 games his shortcomings would be apparent to all. The free agent QB market currently consists of Jay Cutler and Mike Vick. Spielman will surely draft one this spring, but in what round? This is not an easy fix and I have no idea how the position will be addressed this offseason.

On drafting #8 overall
Bad news, Viking fans. The club's draft position might not be early enough to warrant using the #8 pick on a QB. Look at the draft order - Houston (#1), Jacksonville (#3), Cleveland (#4), Oakland (#5) (and maybe even Tampa Bay (#7)). They all need QBs. Will any QB be worth selecting at #8 after Teddy Bridgewater, Blake Bortles, Derek Carr and Johnny Manziel (who played out of his mind against Duke Tuesday night in the Chicken Fastfood Restaurant Bowl) are gone? The Vikings might have to go defense at #8 and pick a lesser prospect in round 2 - or even later. You know what? That probably isn't a bad thing. Remember what PV wrote a few weeks back? Beware of QB panic.
   
Jared Allen and Kevin Williams - future Hall of Famers or just very good players?  
Jared Allen and Kevin Williams have been fabulous players for the Vikings, but they will not be back in 2014. Are they future Hall of Famers? Let's consider Allen first. He's currently 12th all-time in sacks and with another 10 he'd inch into the top 7. Of the 8 players in the top 7 - John Randle and Richard Dent share 7th place - 5 of them are in the Hall of Fame and 2 of the 5, Jason Taylor and Michael Strahan, aren't yet eligible for the Hall of Fame voting (the other guy is Kevin Greene, who is 3rd overall in career sacks but somehow hasn't made the Hall of Fame yet. But he's the Packers outside linebackers coach, so fuck him). By the time Allen is done, he could be top 5 in career sacks. He's also a quotable guy who is well-liked and well-known by the media. And he's generally considered one of the finest pass rushing defensive ends of his era. I think he'll get into the Hall of Fame easily.

Kevin Williams might have a much harder time. He doesn't have the gaudy sack totals that made John Randle such a compelling Hall of Fame choice as a defensive tackle. Will the football writers who vote on Hall of Fame candidates recognize the other aspects of Williams' game that made him so great? If your standards for electing someone to a Hall of Fame is they had to be the best at their position for a long period of time, Williams fits. He was a 6 time Pro Bowler - 5 times a 1st team All Pro. However, he played a position, defensive tackle, that isn't conducive to high sack totals (although 60 career sacks and counting is pretty darn good) and he didn't play for a Super Bowl winner or even a team that was any good much of his career. Name recognition, Super Bowl rings and eye-popping sacks totals matter for defensive lineman when the time comes for Hall of Fame reckoning. I'm not sure Williams will have enough of it when his career ends.

Anyway, Happy New Year, readers. The Vikings 2013 kinda stunk. But as a twitter follower of mine, Tim Burge, tweeted last night, the Vikings are undefeated so far in 2014! Things could go much better this year. They also might go much worse. Either way, Kick Ass Blog will be around to write about it - whether you like it or not. 

7 comments:

  1. Fusco is a nice surprise. I remember being annoyed about Schwartz not starting so often in favor of Fusco and then Schwartz was eventually let go. I am glad the powers that be were right about that one.

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  2. Thanks for an entertaining season of coverage, even if the season itself was such a depressing journey.

    I was also in the bench Fusco camp. Good to see they know what they're doing sometimes. How many other young guys do we have that can play but never got a shot under Frazier? It is going to be awfully hard to replace Allen and K Williams. Hope it doesn't take as long to find his replacement as it has for Big Pat's. Heard rumors of a desire to switch to the 3-4???

    ETR

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    1. The line of thinking has been Spielman preferred 3-4 from his Miami days, but they have interest in Quinn and Zimmer who are 4-3 guys, plus Bowles who ran a 3-4 in Arizona. I dunno. Anything is in play now.

      And how about that Chris Kluwe, huh?

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    2. The fact that Kluwe would say these things about his former employees and that Frazier will not tells us a lot about the differences between the two.

      Kluwe's performance was unsatisfactory, he was let go, and he's accusing his former employers of being biased against him.

      Frazier's performance was unsatisfactory, he was let go, and he's not accusing his former employers of being biased against him.

      Both have taken strong moral stands on issues publically enough to get noticed. Why is one considered a brave pioneer and the other narrow minded? Because those doing the considering tend to favor those with whom they agree.

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    3. Peter:

      Who is calling Frazier out on this other than Kluwe? I haven't read anything, but I haven't been checking closely, either.

      I believe Kluwe was released because he had been an average punter, who was a bit expensive for a punter and the Vikings thought they had found a younger, cheaper and better option. The fact that Preifer and he didn't see eye-to-eye on politics was just icing on the cake for Preifer.

      It doesn't mean Priefer didn't say some shit though. But we'll never know exactly.

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    4. I don't know if anyone else is calling out Frazier yet. It's not quite apples to apples, but I still find it telling that Frazier's response will likely be entirely different from Kluwe's.

      Have you read the statements from other Vikings players defending Priefer? Or Priefer's statement? It's all quite interesting. I am sure both Kluwe and Priefer could've taken higher roads than they did, but the two are painting very different pictures in the aftermath.

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  3. Peter:

    I did read them. Even the player tweets looked like they had been penned by the Vikings PR staff, and no mention by any of the tweeters that about Kluwe's claim that Priefer used the "nuke the gays" comment was a bunch of bull.

    Anyway, I'm already tired of all of this. Let's get back to football and hiring coaches and assessing college players, etc.

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