VikesCentric is written by Twin Cities football writers Bo Mitchell of SportsData and Patrick Donnelly, who has written on a variety of Minnesota sports topics. Mitchell and Donnelly are Twin Cities-based Vikings and NFL experts who crunch numbers, watch video and tell you what's on their minds.

Posts about Quarterbacks

VikesCentric: Giving thanks to the Purple

Posted by: Updated: November 20, 2012 - 12:08 PM

The holiday week and the bye week have combined to make this a perfect time for Vikings fans to take a step back, consider the big-picture landscape, and think about what they are thankful for this year when it comes to the Purple.

Like most fans, I have plenty to quibble about when it comes to our home club – I’m still trying to get over the Bucs loss and still trying to comprehend the enigma that is Christian Ponder - but when I remember where this franchise sat on January 1, 2012, there are a ton of positives that lead me to believe Vikings fans should be pleased with this year’s progress.

I’m thankful for Adrian Peterson’s inspirational work ethic, alien DNA, newborn-baby knees, and love of the game. It’s an absolute joy to watch him play every week, and it’s mindboggling that he looks this good after tearing up his knee last December.

I’m thankful for the 6-4 record and meaningful games down the stretch. Even with a healthy dose of Purple Kool-Aid in my system, not even my wildest offseason hopes had us sniffing a playoff spot.

I’m thankful for Percy Harvin, who has been arguably the NFL’s most valuable non-quarterback since the middle of the 2011 season. And I’m thankful that Leslie Frazier and Bill Musgrave have found creative ways to get him 166 touches over his last 16 full games.

I’m thankful for the stadium bill.

I’m thankful for Jared Allen’s outspoken attitude and on-field fire. I wish we could bottle up his passion and put it in the home team’s water cooler at Target Field.

I’m thankful for a healthy Antoine Winfield. Watching No. 26 fearlessly take on offensive linemen, tangle with tight ends, and blow up running backs in the backfield brings me as much joy as any AP run or Percy kickoff return.

I’m thankful for Cam Newton, Blaine Gabbert, and Jake Locker for assuring us that life isn’t always easy for second-year quarterbacks. Ponder’s fellow 2011 first-round picks have completed 58.0 percent of their passes, own a 80.5 quarterback rating, and are on teams that are a combined 7-23.

I’m thankful for the Vikings 2012 rookie class. Matt Kalil, Harrison Smith, Josh Robinson, Blair Walsh, and Rhett Ellison have all made major contributions, and we saw a spark from Jarius Wright in Week 10. It’s still too early for final grades on this group, but it looks like Rick Spielman deserves something close to an “A”.

I’m thankful for Brian Robison, who continues to remind us that some players are late-bloomers.

I’m thankful that Ponder remembered that Kyle Rudolph is on this team. Rudolph only saw eight combined targets in the Cardinals, Bucs and Seahawks games. That’s unacceptable. Kyle caught seven of his nine targets for 64 yards and a score in Week 10.

I’m thankful to John Sullivan and Kevin Williams for quietly and efficiently anchoring the two lines.

And, finally, I’m thankful that I’m not a Lions fan. Who wants to ruin their Turkey Day meal by watching their team fall in defeat? The Lions have lost eight straight Thanksgiving Day games, and they host the 9-1 Texans this Thursday. Andre Johnson and J.J. Watt should bring their forks in preparation for a slice of post-game turducken.

So, my fellow Vikings fans, what are you thankful for?

Ted is a content strategy manager for TST Media and contributor to LeagueSafe Post.  You can follow Ted on Twitter at @tcarlson34.

VikesCentric: Time for the Wildcat?

Posted by: Patrick Donnelly Updated: October 26, 2012 - 12:56 AM

I have a confession: listening to the Vikings postgame show on KFAN is a guilty pleasure of mine. Whether it's a two-hour whine-line after another bitter defeat or a string of euphoric proclamations of Viking greatness after a hard-fought victory, I always get a kick out of the enthusiasm, passion and dedication on display from Vikings fans.

But I will never understand the mindset that drives some callers to propose tinkering with something that's not broken – or to propose repeatedly debunked theories as a solution to the Vikings' current woes. In this case, I'm referring to the weekly calls for Leslie Frazier and Bill Musgrave to find a way to get Joe Webb into the lineup via some version of the Wildcat formation. 

Those calls are perhaps to be expected when Christian Ponder lays a pterodactyl-sized egg on the Metrodome turf like he did against Arizona, when he was picked off twice for the third straight game, completed 8 of 17 passes for 58 yards, and possessed the pocket presence of kitten chasing a butterfly. Or even when he struggles toward competence, like he did Thursday night against Tampa Bay, when he wobbled his way through a 36-17 loss.

However, it also doesn't seem to matter whether in the preceding three hours Ponder has completed 77 percent of his passes (as he did against Indianapolis), thrown a pair of touchdown passes against zero interceptions for his second straight game (as he did against San Francisco) or amassed a season-high 352 passing yards (as he did against Washington). The calls still come, reliable as an October snowfall in the Twin Cities.

I get the fans' frustration with the offense when it's not running smoothly or effectively. And I understand the tease factor of Webb, who has put together a few nice games under center in the Frazier era.

But the Wildcat – or the Blazer package, as the Vikings have called it – is a gimmick. It doesn't work consistently enough. The Dolphins shook up the NFL in 2008 when they used Ronnie Brown in the Wildcat role and scored a few touchdowns. It worked for a few weeks, most teams tried to copy the blueprint, and the league's defensive coordinators adjusted. Now it's about as fresh as Tina Fey's Sarah Palin impersonation, which debuted that same autumn.

The only team that's running the Wildcat with any success this year is the 49ers, where Collin Kaepernick runs behind the NFL's best offensive line and the Niners are usually protecting a big lead built on the strength of a dominant defense and the efficiency of the team's base offense under Alex Smith.

On the other hand, the Vikings' history with the Wildcat is spotty, at best. Last season, Webb had six carries for a grand total of 9 yards in Blazer appearances. His success running the ball has come when he's taking snaps under center and scrambling in a broken field.

That only happens when he's the starting quarterback or called on to take over the offense due to injury. When Webb enters the game in the Blazer, the defense knows he's there to do one thing – run the ball. With the element of surprise gone, he's trying to run against nine men in the box, and the results have been predictably dismal.

Could Musgrave draw up some Blazer plays that give Webb the option to pass? Sure – but if they're going to pass the ball, the Vikings have shown that they clearly Ponder handling that duty. Pulling him out of the game for a series interrupts the flow of the offense and will only hamper Ponder's development, which – even given their 5-3 start – remains the No. 1 priority for the 2012 season.

Look, I understand fans' frustration with Ponder. We live in an instant gratification society, and when you see what other neophyte quarterbacks have done in recent years – think of what Joe Flacco, Matt Ryan, Andy Dalton and Cam Newton, among others, accomplished as rookies – it's natural to want more productivity out of Ponder.

But other teams have been rewarded for their patience with young quarterbacks. Eli Manning, Jay Cutler and Smith didn't win their first playoff games until their fourth year as a starters; Drew Brees was in his fifth season, and Peyton Manning his sixth. The younger Manning faced constant criticism before he finally broke through. Smith was benched a number of times. Cutler and Brees were traded before they blossomed as playoff winners.

Is Ponder in the same class as those quarterbacks? Clearly not … but the Vikings bet a first-round draft choice on the possibility that he will get there. They're not going to put up any roadblocks toward his development in the hope of short-term gains, especially when the Wildcat detour has been proven a road to nowhere.

In other words, fans can call for the Wildcat until they're purple in the face, but Frazier and Musgrave are committed to Ponder, for good or for ill.

Patrick Donnelly is a Senior Editor at SportsData, a contributor to the 2012 Vikings Yearbook, and has covered the Vikings for FOXSportsNorth.com, Viking Update and the Associated Press. Follow him on Twitter at @donnelly612.

VikesCentric: Why has the defense been so much better?

Posted by: Bo Mitchell Updated: October 9, 2012 - 1:38 PM

Just by watching the Vikings play this season you can see that their defense is executing better. The improvement has been apparent both on the field and on the scoreboard. Undoubtedly, Christian Ponder's game management, Percy Harvin's game-changing plays, and Blair Walsh's leg have all been major contributors to their 4-1 start. But more than any other factor, their strong defense has been responsible for their first-place standing.

 
Putting your finger on exactly why the Vikings are playing better defensively is harder to do. They aren't pressuring the quarterback quite as well as they did last season when they tied for the NFL lead in sacks and Jared Allen threatened the single-season sack record. They aren't returning turnovers for touchdowns a la the Chicago Bears, with whom they share the top spot in the NFC North. They are permitting opponents to convert on third downs at a 44.2 percent rate – the exact same rate at last season, ranking among the bottom third of defenses in that department.
 
Even so, they are definitely playing better. As head coach Leslie Frazier put it Monday during his press conference, "They’re playing with great energy, you can see the guys are playing with confidence, they’re in the spots they should be, and when they’re in those spots they’re able to make some plays for us."
 
In other words, they're not making highlight-reel plays, but they're doing what they are supposed to do. They are in their spots and making plays when they need to do so. They are executing. That alone is a significant step in the right direction.
 
Exactly how much better have the Vikings played through five games? It's admittedly a small sample size, but the first five games of this season compare quite favorably to 2011 across the board. The noted pigskin mavens at ProFootballFocus.com rank the Vikings as having the third-best defense in the NFL thus far this season, compared to 14th overall last year.
 
Here are a number of more specific areas that might make their improvement easier to understand:
 
Vikings defensive comparison
2011
NFL Rank
2012
NFL Rank
Points allowed per game
28.1
31
15.8
6
Yards allowed per game
358.2
21
304.2
7
Pass yards allowed per game
251.2
26
225.6
14
Rush yards allowed per game
107
11
78.6
6
QB rating allowed
107.6
32
84.6
12
Completion % allowed
68.2
31
61.8
14
Yards per rushing attempt
3.9
6
3.2
2
Passes defended
50
31
32
3
 
As you can see from the table above, they remain rock solid against the run, truly one of the five or 10-best run defenses in the league. They have not allowed any run longer than 15 yards this season. No other team in the league can make such a claim. However, their improvement against the pass (so far) has been the biggest differentiator. Look at the QB rating allowed stat. In 2011, their 107.6 mark was the second-highest allowed in the history of the NFL. It was like facing Tom Brady (105.6 rating in 2011) or Drew Brees (110.6) every week. They've got that number down into the realm of mere mortal quarterbacks this season – and in a passing league, that's pretty important.
 
Chad Greenway is playing like a Pro Bowler and ranks second in the NFL with 53 tackles thus far. If I had to pick a Vikings defensive MVP through five games, he'd be my choice. However, fellow veterans Kevin Williams and Antoine Winfield are looking more and more like they did three years ago. That definitely helps. As does the emergence of Jasper Brinkley at linebacker and the improved play of the secondary.
 
Oh the secondary -- so horrible last season and so pleasantly surprising this season! The stats tell the story. But the story has its new characters. Aside from foolishly putting his hands on an official this past Sunday and earning an ejection, rookie safety Harrison Smith has provided the secondary something it's lacked in, well, an awful long time: a hard-hitting intimidator. It also helps, as Frazier alluded to, he's been in the right place at the right time and he's making plays -- as evidenced by his six passes defensed. The same should be said for fellow rookie, cornerback Josh Robinson. He's probably been the most pleasant surprise. We knew he could run. We knew he had ball skills. His tackling has really stood out, though.
 
And maybe it's as simple as that. Be where you are supposed to be and tackle. The Vikings have done that so far this season, with rare exception.
 
 
Bo Mitchell is the VP of Content at SportsData and co-host of the Fantasy Football Weekly radio show on KFAN 100.3 FM.
 
You can follow Bo on Twitter at @Bo_Mitchell

VikesCentric: Ponder and Kalil or Gabbert and Blackmon?

Posted by: Bo Mitchell Updated: September 7, 2012 - 7:24 PM

With the Jacksonville Jaguars rolling into town to take on the Vikings at Mall of America Field on Sunday, it got me to thinking: would the Vikings be better off with Christian Ponder and Matt Kalil or Blaine Gabbert and Justin Blackmon?

 
So I decided to submit the question to the VikesCentric audience.
 
Which is it? The Vikings second-year quarterback and rookie left tackle or the Jaguars second-year quarterback and rookie wide receiver?
 
Are the Vikings better off with Ponder and Kalil in their huddle?

Are the Vikings better off with Ponder and Kalil in their huddle?

Clearly we don't know how good any of these guys are going to be since all four are just starting their careers. But pretend you're Vikings general manager Rick Spielman and do some projecting… which tandem would you rather have? We know what Spielman's answer would be because he's been the one in charge of the Vikings draft the last two seasons. What's your verdict?
 
The Jaguars selected Gabbert with the 10th overall pick in last year's draft, two spots ahead of where the Vikings selected Ponder. The Vikings selected Kalil fourth overall in this year's draft, one spot ahead of the Jaguars' selection of Blackmon. For the sake of this exercise forget that the Vikings would have needed to trade up three spots last year to make a Gabbert/Blackmon duo a possibility. Just wipe the slate clean and choose one of the two tandems.
 
The four players were drafted in such close proximity to each other I thought it might make for an interesting debate.
 
The answer isn't clear-cut in my mind.
 
Neither Gabbert nor Ponder overwhelmed last year. Gabbert played 15 games, completed 51 percent of his passes for 2,214 yards, 12 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions and had a quarterback rating of 65.4. Ponder appeared in 11 games, completing 54 percent of his passes for 1,853 yards, 13 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions and had a quarterback rating of 70.1. Gabbert (6-4, 235) is slightly bigger than Ponder (6-2, 229) and has a stronger arm. Ponder, 24, is a little older than Gabbert (23 in October) and considerably more mobile.
 
Gabbert was projected by many to have the higher ceiling coming out of college, but he didn't show enough last year to convince me he'll be considerably better than Ponder.
 
The Kalil and Blackmon comparison is harder to make because they play different positions, so for some of you it may just come down to a matter of philosophy. Do you want a big left tackle with Pro Bowl potential who could anchor your line for the next decade or so? Or would you prefer a big-play wide receiver who many projected as the best at his position in this year's draft class?
 
Most would agree wide receiver remains a position of need for the Vikings, but at the same time the Vikings don't have a wealth of depth on the offensive line and would have no answer at left tackle sans Kalil.
 
My verdict: I consider the two quarterbacks in question a push at this point and don't foresee a sizeable gap in their eventual NFL production. There are probably a lot of scouts who would scoff at that and would still lean heavily in favor of Gabbert. With the NFL being such a quarterback-driven league, that may be enough for many to choose the Gabbert/Blackmon tandem.
 
That said, I do think Kalil will be the best player of the four. He'll be a Pro Bowl player within two or three years. That's a heck of a nice asset to have.
 
Meanwhile, no scout will tell you that Blackmon has the look of an elite wide receiver. He's not the next Calvin Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald or Julio Jones, folks. Is he going to be pretty good? Yeah, I bet he will. He may even do some damage against the Vikings' spotty secondary on Sunday.
 
In the long run, however, Kalil looks like more of a sure thing. Thus, I'll give the slight edge to the two guys the Vikings currently have on roster over the two who will be opposing them on Kickoff Weekend.
 
Now it's your turn. Which pair would you rather see in purple and gold, Vikings fans?
 
Bo Mitchell is the VP of Content at SportsData and co-host of the Fantasy Football Weekly radio show on KFAN 100.3 FM.
 
You can follow Bo on Twitter at @Bo_Mitchell

VikesCentric: Advanced stats confirm Matt Kalil fills a glaring need

Posted by: Updated: April 26, 2012 - 9:04 PM

The Vikings finally got their guy. After much pre-draft speculation and one draft-day trade, Matt Kalil will be the team’s new starting left tackle. Without a doubt, Kalil fills a glaring area of need for the Vikings. His presence at left tackle will also help them fill their opening at left guard, as former tackle Charlie Johnson will now move inside next to Kalil. Just how bad did it get last year? Here’s a look at some advanced stats from two different websites that specialize in analyzing NFL games on a snap-by-snap basis, ProFootballFocus.com (PFF) and FootballOutsiders.com (FO).

According to PFF, Johnson was one of the most overmatched left tackles in the NFL last year. Only three other left tackles who played more than 10 games graded out worse than Johnson. Six other left tackles managed to allow more than the eight sacks attributed to Johnson by PFF, but only one (Arizona’s Levi Brown) allowed more than the combined total of 49 sacks, quarterback hits, and quarterback pressures surrendered by Johnson. (On a side note, for those of you still lamenting the loss of Bryant McKinnie to the Ravens last year, McKinnie graded out only two spots higher than Johnson. He was awful last year as well).

As you would expect, Johnson’s inability to keep pressure off of the Vikings’ quarterbacks affected their performance in a negative way. According to PFF, Christian Ponder was “under pressure” on 35% of his dropbacks. To put that into perspective, Matthew Stafford faced pressure on just 24% of his pass attempts.

In such pressure situations, Ponder struggled badly. While under pressure, Ponder completed just 35.4% of his passes, and had a quarterback rating of 36.4.  In non-pressure situations, he connected on 61.3% of his attempts and played to a quarterback rating of 82.7.

Football Outsiders, also using detailed game-charting data from every NFL play, also ranked the Vikings offensive line at or near the bottom of the NFL. According to FO, the Vikings ranked dead last in the NFL in pass protection. FO also graded the Vikings very poorly on runs to the left side – particularly runs over left end (i.e. to the outside of the left tackle). On such runs, the Vikings gained just 3.25 “adjusted line yards” per play, which ranked 28th in the league.

It remains to be seen whether Kalil can single-handedly fix all of thse problems, but there is absolutely no doubt that the Vikings needed him badly.

Christian Peterson is the Operations Manager at LeagueSafe.com. He is also a contributing writer at Vikings.com and a co-host of the Fantasy Football Weekly radio show on KFAN 100.3 FM.

Follow Christian on Twitter: @CP_ChristianP

 

How long does it take to rebuild?

Posted by: Updated: December 13, 2011 - 8:51 AM

With yet another snatch-defeat-from-the-jaws-of-victory game in the books, the Vikings will officially finish with, at most, four wins this season (yes, I've already assumed a loss against the Saints).

While pondering Joe Webb’s most recent attempt to sabotage the Vikings’ draft chances (when he inexplicably lead the Vikes to a win over the Eagles last year, it cost them a whopping five draft slots), I began wondering how long the inevitable upcoming rebuilding project might last. “Self,” I said to myself as I watched Webb’s neck being twisted in inhuman ways on an apparently legal tackle attempt on the final play of the game, “how long does it take for a team to rebuild after sinking this low?”

In an effort to answer that question, I did some digging. I pulled the win-loss records for every NFL team for the last decade, then filtered out all seasons in which a team won five games or more. What remained was a list of 51 teams that have finished 4-12 or worse since the 2000 regular season.  Then, I looked at the records of those 51 teams in the seasons after they won just four games or fewer to figure out how long it generally takes to return to the playoffs. 

On one hand, those who hold that parity reigns supreme in today’s NFL would be somewhat vilified by the fact that a surprisingly high number of teams managed to make the playoffs just one season removed from having lost at least three-fourths of their games the previous year. In total, eight teams went from 4-12 or worse to the playoffs in the subsequent season, the most impressive of which was the 2008 Dolphins, who engineered a 10-game turnaround in just one year, going from 1-15 in 2007 to 11-5 in 2008.  Only two other teams – the 2004 Chargers and the 2008 Falcons – managed to win more than 10 games the year after sinking to 4-12 or worse.

Generally speaking, however, the one-year rebuild is the exception, not the rule. A team that has finished 4-12 or worse in the last decade has won an average of just 6.5 games the next season. A whopping 84% of those teams didn’t make the playoffs the year after bottoming out. 

If you assume the Vikes will lose to the Saints and then lose to either Washington on the road or the Bears at home and will finish with no better than three wins, the outlook is even bleaker.

There have been 22 teams that have finished with three or fewer wins in the last decade. Of those 22, only the aforementioned Dolphins and the 2006 New Orleans Saints managed to make the playoffs the next season. Considering the Dolphins have gone 7-9, 7-9, and now 4-9 in the three seasons since mysteriously winning 11 games, let’s chalk up their 2008 playoff appearance as a fluke. As for the Saints, after finishing 3-13 in 2005, they brought in a coach named Sean Payton and a quarterback by the name of Drew Brees the next season and have been to the playoffs four times in the last seven years (including, of course, a Super Bowl title). Assuming there are no Hall of Fame quarterbacks lurking out there this offseason (cough! Peyton Manning! ahem!), I don’t see the Vikings righting this ship quite that quickly.

It’s not necessarily as bad as I would have thought for the bottom-feeding teams, however. Of the 22 aforementioned squads that finished with three or fewer wins, five of them made the playoffs within two seasons of their apocalyptic low point. If you exclude the eternally rebuilding Lions, Bills, Texans, and Raiders – none of whom have made the playoffs at all since 2002, and who account for eight entries on the under-three list – from the list, more than a third of the teams (five of 14) that won three games or less in one season were in the playoffs two years later. 

And as long as we’re suddenly looking at the Vikings glass as being half full, let’s explore another possible ray of optimism.

Including the narrow loss on Sunday, the Vikings have lost an awful lot of close games this season. Eight of their 11 losses have been by a touchdown or less. Two of those were by a field goal in overtime or on the last play of regulation. Last week came down to the final play, and in several other games the Vikes had the ball with a chance to win on the final possession. Which is to say, the Vikings aren’t as bad as their 2-11 record indicates. Mix in the slim margin of loss with the absurd number of games lost to injury, and it stands to reason that this team, even if it finishes 2-14 or 3-13, isn’t as bad as your typical two- or three-win team.

As it turns out, people a lot smarter than me have known this for years, and have developed a method to more accurately predict future performance than by simply using a team’s win-loss record from the previous season as their baseline.

The formula is generally referred to as Pythagorean Wins, mainly because the formula used to calculate it looks kind of similar to the Pythagorean Theory most of us learned in middle school, or whenever it is that one learns said theory. It could be that 3rd graders are being taught this stuff now-a-days. Considering my four-year-old is already taking computer classes, nothing would surprise me at this point. 

Originally introduced by the great baseball statistician Bill James in the 1980s, Pythagorean Wins assumes a team’s strengths (or lack thereof) are more accurately measured by the number of points they allow and the number of points they score, than by their win-loss record. 

To calculate a team’s Pythagorean W-L record, grab your calculator and do some math involving coefficients and division (the exact formula, according to pro-football-reference, is [(Points Scored ^ 2.37) / (Points Scored^2.37 + Points Allowed ^2.37)], and poof!, you have a more accurate representation of how good your favorite NFL team is.

Doing the math for the Vikings, we learn that, through Week 14, the Vikings have 4.4 Pythagorean Wins this year, as opposed to their two real-life wins. So, they’re twice as good as we thought they were! Or, only half as bad, depending on your point of view.

In fact, using the same formula on every other team this year, we learn that the Browns, Chiefs, and Buccaneers are all worse than the Vikings in terms of Pythagorean Wins, despite having won at least four games each (I’ll conveniently ignore the fact that the Vikes have lost to both the Chiefs and Bucs this season).

Point being, there’s some hope that the starting point for this team heading into the offseason isn’t necessarily 2-14 or 3-13. Perhaps the 2011 Vikings are really more like a five-win team. Five wins isn’t a lot, but the jump from 5-11 to the playoffs looks a lot less daunting than the jump from 2-14.

My conclusion: While it wouldn’t be unheard of to make the playoffs in 2012 after finishing with only three wins this year, it would be beating the curve by at least a year. And historically speaking, the odds unfortunately don’t favor the Vikings getting back into the playoffs again for at least two seasons, and would suggest that this team is due for mediocre six or seven-win season in 2012.

Christian Peterson is the Operations Manager at LeagueSafe.com and is a contributor to Vikings.com and the Fantasy Football Weekly radio show on Saturday Mornings on KFAN 100.3 FM.

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