Matt Vensel is in his first year at the Star Tribune after covering the Ravens for the Baltimore Sun for six years. He is a Pittsburgh native and a Penn State grad. Follow him at @mattvensel.
Mark Craig has covered the NFL for 23 years, and the Vikings since 2003 for the Star Tribune. He is one of 44 Pro Football Hall of Fame selectors. Follow him at @markcraignfl.
Master Tesfatsion is the Star Tribune’s digital Vikings writer. He is a 2013 graduate of Arizona State and worked for mlb.com before arriving in Minneapolis. Follow him at @masterstrib.
The announcement to the announcement we’ve all been waiting for finally happened on Tuesday.
The NFL regular season schedule will be released on Wednesday at 7 p.m. CT on ESPN and NFL Network.
It was expected the schedule would be released sometime this week. The announcement of course is worthy of primetime television because, hey, it’s the NFL.
As a refresher, here’s the preseason schedule and regular season teams the Vikings will play:
Week 1: vs. Oakland Raiders (Aug. 8 at 7 p.m.)
Week 2: vs. Arizona Cardinals (Aug. 16 at 7:30 p.m.)
Week 3: at Kansas City Chiefs (Aug. 23 at 7 p.m.)
Week 4: at Tennessee Titans (Aug. 28 at 7 p.m.)
NFC North (Bears, Lions, Packers)
New England Patriots
New York Jets
NFC North (Bears, Lions, Packers)
New Orleans Saints
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
St. Louis Rams
Your author has never been known to run around flapping his arms in giddy anticipation of the NFL releasing its schedule. Your author has often wondered, "Hmm, these people already know who and where their teams are playing. And chances are they're not sports writers praying for a MSP-to-MIA flight in DEC. So what gives? Other than the inherent irrational behavior defined in the term fan, why are these people so impatient over and excited about WHEN these games will be played?"
The NFL apparently will make its grand announcement at some point this week. So time is running out for your author to find a reason for his heart to skip a beat while anticipating the schedule release.
Desperate for an angle, he thought of a personal worst-case scenario: Vikings at Miami in September. Talk about, "Noooooooo!"
Plus, if you're a Vikings fan, you don't want the Purple heading to South Beach to bake in the September heat, do you?
Well, upon further review, we discovered the Dolphins' once-dominant home-field advantage in that September heat melted away eight years ago.
The media in South Florida claim it started to fade when then-coach Nick Saban had a climate-controlld practice bubble built in 2006. Don Shula getting older and retiring might deserve some recognition up high somewhere.
Anyway, BB -- Before the Bubble -- the Dolphins were 44-9 at home in September from 1970 to 2006. AB -- After the Bubble -- they are 2-8 (although they were 1-0 last September). This 10-game flop at home in favorable elements includes:
. An 18-point loss to the Raiders.
. A loss to Brett Favre and the Jets during the 11-5 2008 season.
. A home-opening loss in 2010 after a 2-0 start on the road.
. A loss to the Patriots, who rolled up 622 yards in a prime-time blowout. Cornerback Benny Sapp was so bad in that game, he was released the next day. Weeks later, he ended up back in Minnesota for his second stint with the Vikings.
So maybe it really doesn't matter when the Vikings play the Dolphins. Uh, oh. Now what? Anybody know Tampa Bay's home record in September?
The Vikings have until May 3 to decide whether to exercise their fifth-year option on Christian Ponder, and while the team’s 2011 top pick has not met expectations and could see the Vikings draft a new quarterback of the future next month, the decision could be tougher than you think.
By picking up Ponder’s option for 2015, the only risk they would be taking is that Ponder could get hurt, as his fifth-year salary would only be guaranteed if he suffered a major injury that lingered into the 2015 league year, which starts in March.
If Ponder is healthy at the end of 2014, they can sever ties without paying him a dime in 2015.
“If he continues to [play below expectations], all you do is after the Super Bowl and before the league year begins, just release him and you’re not on the hook for anything, assuming he is healthy,” said Joel Corry, a former agent who now analyzes the business of football for National Football Post. “It’s low risk from their standpoint. Some teams may not want to take the risk [in that situation], but I don’t think you’re exposing yourself that much if you exercise the option.”
It would be difficult -- at least one would think -- for Ponder to suffer a devastating injury if he was relegated to clipboard duty on Sundays. And if he plays well enough to legitimately take back the starting job, that could be a good thing, right?
The fifth-year options for first-round picks were a compromise between the owners and union when the current collective bargaining agreement was negotiated in 2011. Corry said they are team-friendly in that they are only guaranteed for injury, “so it gives you a window to figure out if you want to keep the guy around if it’s someone you’re not sure about.” Several teams have already exercised options on 2011 first-rounders such as Cam Newton, Patrick Peterson and A.J. Green.
“For there not to be a fifth year, you didn’t play well or you are someone who has gotten into a bunch of off-the-field problems like Aldon Smith, whose option may not be picked up,” Corry said.
Corry said there will be a “feeling-out process” by NFL teams this year, as this is the first time the fifth-year options have come into play. The majority of them will be picked up. However, Ponder’s status appears to be one of the few option decisions that aren’t obvious slam dunks.
In three seasons, Ponder has thrown for 6,436 career yards with 38 touchdowns and 34 interceptions. The Vikings made the playoffs with him under center in 2012 but last season they finished in last place in the division after Ponder faltered and threw more picks than touchdowns. Durability has also been an issue for Ponder, who has been injured in each of his NFL seasons.
Deciding to roll the dice on Ponder staying healthy will be a ten-million-dollar decision -- well, $9.686 million to be exact. Under the new CBA, players like Ponder who were selected between the 11th and 32nd overall picks would carry a fifth-year option equal to the average of the third through 25th highest-paid players at their position (in this case, in 2014). Quarterback is obviously the NFL’s most lucrative position. For comparison sake, All-Pro defensive end J.J. Watt’s fifth-year option for 2015 will cost just under $7 million.
But general manager Rick Spielman recently suggested that the Vikings haven’t made their minds up, and that makes sense because Ponder will get an opportunity to make a favorable impression on head coach Mike Zimmer and offensive coordinator Norv Turner at the team’s voluntary veteran minicamp next week. A strong week could help convince them to keep him around.
The Vikings have re-signed Matt Cassel and he is penciled in as the starter for now. The team also plans to select a quarterback at some point next month, perhaps even in the first round.
Corry said the best-case scenario is that Ponder rewards them for their faith by winning the starting job and finally becoming the quarterback they thought he would become, just like what Drew Brees did in San Diego a decade ago. The worst-case scenario, he said, would be Ponder emerging like that after the Vikings declined to pick up his option by May 3.
“They really don’t have a whole lot to lose,” Corry said. “Granted, anything can happen. Obviously it’s a violent sport and injuries occur. But the risk for injury really isn’t that great. That being said, if they didn’t exercise the option, I don’t think the fan base is going to be critical because his play hasn’t really warranted that type of salary for the option year.”
The first thing that new Vikings offensive coordinator Norv Turner did after taking the job, according to general manager Rick Spielman, was “put in 10 plays for” second-year wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson as he “was putting the X’s and O’s part of it together.”
But it will be interesting to see just how much Turner’s X’s and O’s will differ from when Bill Musgrave was scribbling the plays on a whiteboard. It’s convenient to say that Patterson will become the next Josh Gordon, but Patterson and Gordon were used much differently in 2013.
Despite a shaky quarterback situation that was not dissimilar to the one here, Gordon in his second NFL season exploded with 87 catches for a NFL-best 1,646 yards -- in 14 games, no less -- and nine touchdowns with Turner calling the plays for the Cleveland Browns. Only seven wide-outs were targeted more often.
Meanwhile, Patterson, who impressed in limited reps as a rookie, was targeted 72 times, according to Pro Football Focus, and caught 45 passes for 469 yards and four touchdowns.
Nearly two-thirds of Patterson’s targets came within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage, and a whopping 22 of them came on passes behind the line. Patterson caught 19 of those for 248 yards and a touchdown. He had 16 catches for 102 yards on 24 targets that were less than 10 yards from the line of scrimmage. Only one of his touchdowns was caught beyond 10 yards.
Quarterback play was perhaps as big of a factor as offensive scheme. Christian Ponder had enough arm strength to make deep throws but not often the poise and the clean pocket needed to complete them, and Matt Cassel doesn’t exactly have a cannon either.
Regardless, good things happened when the Vikings got Patterson the ball as quickly as possible and let him do his thing, as I witnessed firsthand while covering the Ravens last December.
Patterson broke 10 tackles as a receiver, according to Pro Football Focus, with 286 yards after the catch. His 6.4 YAC average ranked seventh in the NFL. Gordon, by the way, was sixth.
But Gordon did most of his damage downfield in Norv Turner’s vertical passing attack. More than 55 percent of his targets came when he was 10 yards or more past the line of scrimmage, and only Torrey Smith and A.J. Green were targeted beyond 20 yards more often. With just two targets behind the line of scrimmage, Gordon was rarely utilized in the screen game.
So while both receivers liked up at the “X” receiver or “split end” position -- here’s a helpful guide on the different receiver positions -- in their respective offenses, they played much different roles (well, once Patterson started to be utilized in Musgrave’s offense, that is).
Patterson has the size and speeded needed to thrive in a vertical passing attack, so it’s going to be fun to watch him attempt to develop into an all-around receiver like Gordon. It will be also interesting to see how often Turner tries to take advantage of what Patterson already can do.
In case you didn’t pick up Sunday’s newspaper or read it on some newfangled electronic device, we went all in on the quarterback position (something the Vikings could do in a couple of weeks).
Master Tesfatsion put his Kiper wig on and ranked his top 10 quarterback prospects. Mark Craig talked to one defensive coach who had to game-plan for Blake Bortles and Teddy Bridgewater in back-to-back weeks. And I took a look at the draft’s most polarizing player, Johnny Football.
As I mentioned in the story, Manziel’s performance in Texas A&M’s upset victory at Alabama in 2012 was the game that made him a household name. But for some, it was his play the next time that Texas A&M played Alabama that solidified Manziel as a first-round prospect.
Someone I sought out for the story was Phil Savage, the former Cleveland Browns general manager who is now the executive director of the Senior Bowl. He also does color commentary on the Crimson Tide’s radio broadcasts, so he had a bird’s eye view for both of those games. During our phone conversation, Savage was surprised by how much Manziel grew from the first time he played Alabama to the second, a game that Texas A&M lost.
“I spent a good amount of time in advance of the rematch game studying him,” Savage said. “I would say that a year ago, I was very much a downer in terms of his future NFL prospects. But after watching the vast majority of his tape and seeing what he did against Alabama in the rematch game, it was actually one of the few times when a quarterback actually exceeded the first time around against a Nick Saban-coached defense.”
Savage said the last time he could remember that happening was Drew Brees, when he was the quarterback at Purdue and Saban was the head coach at Michigan State. In 1998, Brees tossed two fourth-quarter touchdowns as Purdue rallied to beat Michigan State by a point. A year later, Brees exploded for 509 passing yards and five touchdowns in another win.
Manziel's experience versus Saban’s defense was similar. He threw for 253 yards and two touchdowns and ran for another 92 yards while beating Bama in Tuscaloosa as a redshirt freshman. In the rematch, Manziel threw for 464 yards and five touchdowns and rushed for 98 yards. His 562 total yards were the second-most in SEC history.
That performance in College Station also wowed NFL Network draft guru Mike Mayock.
“The first tape I put in was Alabama and I put the tape down about two hours later and I said, ‘Wow, that was awesome, that was really fun to watch,’” Mayock said on a recent conference call. “The kid makes throws, he allows his other players to make plays. He gives Mike Evans a chance to make plays, he extends plays. He was like a combination of Fran Tarkenton and Doug Flutie.”
After that game, Saban, who Greg Bedard of MMQB.com said looked “as if he had just spent 12 rounds chasing Floyd Mayweather around a boxing ring,” talked about Manziel’s pro prospects.
“I think Johnny’s a unique player,” he said. “Many people have said about these guys, like [Robert Griffin III], that they’re not really NFL-style quarterbacks. But yet they’re all doing pretty well in the NFL. … I think when somebody’s as instinctive as [Manziel] is, and as fast as he is, and as athletic as he is, and he’s developing into a pretty good passer -- I mean last year he really developed as a passer -- I do think he has an NFL future.”
Savage agreed with that assessment, but he cautioned that that Manziel won’t be for everyone.
“I do think there will be a team out there with an offensive coordinator that sees what he brings to the table and will try to shape an offense around him,” Savage said. “And I think he can have success at the pro level given the right circumstances.”
Do the Vikings view Manziel in that light? We might have to wait until May 8 to find out.
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