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 Bears

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: Looking for progress, not playoffs

Posted by: Bo Mitchell Updated: September 13, 2012 - 10:30 AM

I suspect a small percentage of the more unreasonable Vikings fans eagerly lap up the team's company line about 2012 not being a rebuilding season. Reasonable fans, who comprise the vast majority of the jaded Vikings nation, know better. One year after going 3-13 is not the time to be thinking playoffs – even in today's "worst-to-first" NFL.

 
Sure, the last nine seasons have produced at least one first-place team that finished last in its division the year before. In 2011, six teams made the playoffs that were not in the postseason in 2010. In fact, the last 16 straight seasons have produced at least five such teams that have gone from non-playoff to playoff teams in the next year.
 
So go ahead, Vikings fans, dare to dream.
 
It's a nice goal to have for those imbibing heavily on the Purple Kool Aid. But even if the Vikings go to Indianapolis on Sunday and defeat the Colts, it's an unrealistic no matter what Leslie Frazier or any of the players might say.
 
"Progress, not perfection" is a saying my wife uses frequently, and the idea fits the Vikings' situation. Only it might be better stated as "Progress, not playoffs." For progress is the real goal of the Vikings this season; and let's be honest, there's not much room for regression after last season.
 
We saw some definite signs of progress in Week 1, but the Jaguars are a team the Vikings had to beat at home. You don't lose a game like that – as the Vikings came about 20 seconds away from doing – and expect to make a serious run at the postseason. Similarly, this Sunday's game in Indianapolis is of the "must win" variety whether you envision a Vikings postseason game this season or are willing to settle for progress.
 
While Sunday's game against Andrew Luck and the Colts feels like a game the Vikings really should win if they want anyone to take them seriously, it's far from a slam dunk. The Colts have won their last two home games – in Weeks 15 and 16 last year. And remember, that team didn't have Luck under center. Moreover, the Vikings have never beaten the Colts on the road. Yes, you read that correctly. The Vikings are 0-10 in franchise history outside of the state of Minnesota against the Colts (0-2 in Indianapolis and 0-8 in Baltimore).
 
No, a win on Sunday in Indy cannot be taken for granted. The Vikings have not been particularly good on the road for the past decade. As this SportsData infographic shows, 21 teams have won more road games than the Vikings over the last 10 seasons. Thus, be satisfied if the Vikings pull one out against the Colts on Sunday. Road wins, even against a team like the Colts, have not been easy for the Vikings to come by.
 
But that's all it will be: one win in September against a team that they should beat. The schedule gets much tougher after this Sunday for the Vikings, starting with next week's game against the 49ers – a game that could feature two first-place teams.
 
Think about that for a second: a very real scenario exists in which the Vikings are in first place by 11 p.m. on Sunday.
 
All it would take is a Packers win over the Bears tonight (which seems like a pretty safe bet) coupled with the 49ers beating the Lions in San Francisco Sunday night (which seems quite certain) and the Vikings beating a team that has won just two of their last 17 games.
 
Don't get out over your skies, purple faithful. Even if they are a first-place team after two games, Vikings fans should be content with progress rather than playoffs in 2012.
 
Beat the Colts and then beat the Niners… then we'll talk about playoffs.
 
 
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: Jumping to conclusions

Posted by: Updated: September 10, 2012 - 3:30 PM

It’s just one week, but everyone still wants to jump to conclusions about, well, just about everything we saw during the Vikings’ scintillating Week 1 win over the Jaguars. Let’s run down a handful of conclusions one might reach after Sunday, and discuss whether they’re more trend or mirage.

Blair Walsh has ice water in his veins.

Or “intestinal fortitude,” as head coach Leslie Frazier told the media after the game. For a 22-year-old rookie kicking in his first career game, Walsh could not have been more clutch. He calmly knocked down the 55-yarder to force overtime like it was just another routine extra point, then booted the 38-yarder in overtime for the (eventual) win.

Verdict: Trend. Walsh destroyed all doubts about whether the Vikings “wasted” a sixth-round pick on him, and vindicated General Manager Rick Spielman, who put his faith in Walsh by cutting expensive veteran Ryan Longwell in the offseason. We knew Walsh had a big leg, but after his clutch performance on Sunday it appears he’s got the guts to go along with it.
 
Adrian Peterson is not human.
 
Without playing a single preseason snap and a mere eight months removed from a knee injury that usually takes at least a year or more to completely heal from, Peterson didn’t miss a beat. After looking a bit tentative early in the game, Peterson settled down after scoring his first touchdown before looking like vintage AP on a couple of long runs (of ten and 20 yards) in overtime.
 
Verdict: Trend. He’s superman. Nobody will ever underestimate him again.
 
The secondary still stinks.
 
Sophomore Blaine Gabbert completed only 51 percent of his passes as a rookie and threw for almost as many interceptions (11) as he did touchdowns (12). On Sunday, what was supposed to be an improved Vikings secondary let him complete 23-of-39 (59 percent) for 260 yards and two touchdowns.
 
Verdict: Trend. Here we go again. Despite the return of cornerbacks Chris Cook and Antoine Winfield and the infusion of some young talent (safety Harrison Smith and nickel corner Josh Robinson), the Vikings had few answers for what was one of the worst passing offenses in the NFL a year ago. They managed to hold highly touted rookie wideout Justin Blackmon in check, but there were frequent breakdowns that led on numerous times to wide open receivers converting big plays for the Jaguars. Winfield has lost at least a step, Cook looked rusty, and the safety tandem of Smith and Mistral Raymond was far too inconsistent. In particular, on the fateful last-minute touchdown catch by the Jaguars’ Cecil Shorts, Raymond barely moved from where he had lined up. He was inexplicably frozen right after the snap, appearing, for some reason, to be shadowing Gabbert in the pocket while one receiver ran right past him and leaving Cook on an island against Shorts. How do you not ensure that there’s adequate coverage deep on that play?
 
Christian Ponder has arrived.
 
Ponder got off to a rocky start, but he engineered five scoring drives after halftime, including the game-tying one with 20 seconds on the clock and a methodical overtime drive. Most importantly, he didn’t commit a turnover.
 
Verdict: Mirage. Outside of Peterson looking healthy, Ponder was easily the most promising takeaway from this game. He completed nearly 75 percent of his passes and got in a groove once he got Percy Harvin involved. Harvin and tight end Kyle Rudolph are starting to emerge as legitimate go-to guys for Ponder, and if Peterson is this effective in the running game Ponder should continue to have opportunities to grow. But let’s not confuse a home opener against a bad Jaguars defense that was missing its’ top cornerback for the Bears or Packers on the road in late November. Sunday was a positive step in nearly every way for Ponder, but there will be more bumps in the road.
 
The play calling remains dubious.
 
The Vikings gained a total of two first downs on their first four drives of the game, all of which resulted in punts. Other than a reverse to Percy Harvin on the third play of the game, Harvin was completely invisible in the offense until the fifth drive. Later, they stalled out several times inside the red zone and had to settle for field goals when a touchdown would have put the game out of reach.
 
Verdict: Trend. The entire offense looked out of sync early on. Perhaps it was because nobody knew what to expect while breaking Peterson in, or perhaps the team was just sluggish coming off an equally sluggish preseason. Whatever the case, there shouldn’t be any excuse for excluding Harvin from the game plan for almost an entire half. Things finally got moving on the fifth drive, when Ponder threw it to Harvin three straight times to open a drive that began with just over two minutes left in the half. That ultimately resulted in the first of Peterson’s two touchdowns, and things were generally much improved for the remainder of the game. But why did it take nearly an entire half to get the ball into Harvin’s hands? Later, a nice Ponder-to-Rudolph connection gave the Vikings a first-and-goal from the three-yard line. Instead of just jamming Peterson down the Jaguars’ throats for a third time, the Vikings got cute; first running Harvin straight up the gut out of the backfield, then throwing a pass to third-string running back Matt Asiata before a broken play resulted in an incomplete pass to little-used tight end John Carlson on third down. Matt Asiata? Really? By not punching the ball into the end zone after three straight bizarre play calls, the Vikes left the door open for the late Jaguars’ comeback. The Vikings game plan should be pretty obvious and simple: Get the ball to Peterson and Harvin. End of story. Bill Musgrave seems to be doing a decent job with Christian Ponder’s development, but there continue to be a handful of head-scratching moments in just about every game.
 
Jared Allen was invisible.
 
Other than a sack on the second Jaguars offensive play that was reversed because of a questionable offside call on Allen himself, we saw little from last year’s NFL sacks leader. He was essentially stifled by Jaguars left tackle Eugene Monroe, and the Vikings inability to generate a pass rush was part of the reason Gabbert was able to dissect the secondary.
 
Verdict: Mirage. It was uncharacteristic and disappointing that he didn’t show up at home in the season opener – he failed to register a sack in just three games all of last year – but Allen will get his. Call it an off day and expect to see him terrorize Colts rookie QB Andrew Luck next week. If Allen and Brian Robison can generate a better pass rush next week and beyond, it will make the inexperienced secondary look a lot better.
 
Winning cures all ills.
 
It was ugly at times and you’d expect the Vikings to win a home game against one of last year’s worst AFC teams, but a win is a win is a win.
 
Verdict: TBD. The Vikings will take wins any way they can. Coming off the worst season in franchise history, they’re not in a position to be worried about who they beat or how pretty or ugly it is. Take last year, for example, when they easily could have been 3-0 after the first three games but turned that into 0-3 with a series of incredible second-half collapses. If the team wins a couple of those games early last season, there’s a school of thought that says the remainder of the year could have been totally different. One thing is very clear: if they’d lost on Sunday in the waning moments on a Blaine Gabbert-to-Cecil Shorts miracle, it could have sent them spiraling the wrong way before the season was even two weeks old. The impressive comeback should do wonders for this team’s confidence, and with an early-season schedule that’s littered with winnable games (Colts, Titans, Redskins, Cardinals, Bucs all within the next seven weeks), that confidence could lead to some more W’s.

Christian Peterson is the Director of Operations at LeagueSafe.com and Managing Editor of LeagueSafe Post. He has been a contributor to Vikings.com and is a co-host of the Fantasy Football Weekly radio show on FM 100.3 KFAN on Saturday mornings during the football season. Follow him on Twitter: @CP_ChristianP

VikesCentric: Vikings secondary can only get better

Posted by: Bo Mitchell Updated: June 19, 2012 - 8:31 AM

The Vikings are holding their three-day mandatory mini-camp this week at Winter Park and one of the most mandatory things they need to figure out between now and their Week 1 game against the Jacksonville Jaguars is how to improve their secondary.

Actually, it shouldn't be too difficult to improve given how low the bar was set last year. The Vikings' secondary was bad -- historically bad -- in 2011.

Their Quarterback Rating allowed (107.6) was the second-worst mark in the history of keeping track of such things. Their eight interceptions were tied for the lowest in the league despite the fact they also tied for the NFL lead with 50 sacks. There was a lot of pressure from Jared Allen and company, but little to show for it. They couldn't cover or produce turnovers.

That's a bad combination.

Getting Antoine Winfield back from last year's broken collarbone will obviously help a lot. So too will getting some kind of return on investment from 2010 second-round pick Chris Cook. Cook's off-field issues coupled with the sudden retirement a few weeks ago of 2009 third-round pick Asher Allen underscores the Vikings' biggest problem in the secondary: they haven't drafted particularly well.

Actually, that's being kind. Their drafting of defensive backs over the last 12 years (starting with the 2000 NFL Draft) has been nothing short of catastrophic.

Consider the following: from 2000 to 2011 the Vikings drafted a total of 18 cornerbacks and safeties. Those 18 defensive backs have played a grand total of 38 seasons in the NFL – or slightly more than two seasons per player – and have combined for just 35 interceptions. Do the math. That's less than two career interceptions per defensive back that the Vikings have drafted since the turn of the century. It's also less than one interception per season. That's not good.

Are interceptions the only way to measure the value of a cornerback or safety? Absolutely not, but it's a very good metric. And when you consider that more than half of the interceptions (20) from those 18 players came from two just players -- Cedric Griffin and Brian Williams -- it's even more unsettling.

Compounding the problem, the Vikings have shown a particular penchant of swinging and missing on defensive backs as high as the second and third rounds, including the aforementioned Allen and Cook. Tyrell Johnson (2008 second round) left this offseason with two pickoffs to his credit in four seasons. Remember Marcus McCauley (2007 third round), Dustin Fox (2005 third round), Willie Offord (2002 third round) and Eric Kelly (2001 third round)? The four of them combined for five career interceptions.

But many of those players were selected under previous player personnel regimes, some during the "triangle of authority" years.

Recently-anointed general manager Rick Spielman is undoubtedly ready to turn the page, starting with this past April's draft. You can bet Spielman is counting heavily on this year's third-round selection, lightning-fast corner Josh Robinson out of UCF, to buck the unfortunate Vikings' draft trend of early-round misfires in the secondary.

The very early reports on Robinson are exactly what you'd expect of a guy who ran the fastest 40 at the combine: he's a blur. The Vikings also appear to have struck gold with their second first-rounder from this year's draft, safety Harrison Smith. If the two of them can contribute right away – and Smith definitely should since he's penciled in as a starter – and other offseason additions such as former Bears corner Zack Bowman and former Ravens corner Chris Carr are even serviceable, the Vikings secondary will be better in 2012.

It's far too early to tell just how much better they'll be, but let's face it: they can't be worse. I'm boldly predicting an improvement to mediocrity and a return to double-digit interceptions.

Hey, it's a start.

VikesCentric: Marion Barber, Enemy of the State

Posted by: Patrick Donnelly Updated: December 18, 2011 - 1:28 AM

 

Before we wrap up Week 14 in a bow (or a "Te-bow" if you're a member of the national media who thinks mentioning the Broncos quarterback every 13 seconds is crucial to your ratings), let me offer Season's Greetings to one of Minnesota's favorite sons, Marion Barber III, running back, Chicago Bears.

 

"Bah, Humbug!"

 

Last Sunday in Denver, Barber screwed up twice in spectacular fashion, allowing the Broncos to pull yet another victory out from under their tails and further cementing 2011 as the Year of Tebow Unless You Live in Wisconsin and if You Do Boo-Hoo Enjoy Your Perfect Season While the Rest of the World Focuses its Attention on a Fundamentally Inept Quarterback Who Specializes in Amazing Comeback Victories.

 

Only one of Barber's screw-ups irked me, however. And not the one you're probably thinking of. Yes, he committed the unforgivable sin of Robert Smithing himself out of bounds while the Bears were trying to run out the clock against the timeout-bereft Broncs.

 

But that mistake merely gave the Tebows an extra 40 seconds and allowed them to tie the game. What really got under my skin is when Barber committed a crime against humanity, fumbling in overtime when he could have changed the future of the NFL as we know it.

 

Overstatement? Perhaps, but bear with me.

 

My biggest pet peeve as an NFL fan – bigger than 15-yard penalties for stupid end-zone celebrations, bigger than punt returners who catch the ball inside the 5-yard line (hello, Marcus Sherels, we're looking at you), bigger than Jon Gruden – is the regular-season overtime rule. It's always bugged me that a team can lose a game in overtime without touching the ball on offense.

 

Most Viking fans will recall the 2009 NFC Championship Game, unless you paid for expensive electroshock therapy to erase that memory, and my health plan at the time didn't cover elective brain realignment and yours probably didn't either. After 12 men in the huddle, and after a certain aging gunslinger ignored a wide-open Bernard Berrian and committed the cardinal sin of throwing across his body over the middle, the Saints won the coin flip, got a couple of first downs and kicked the game-winning field goal without the Vikings offense ever taking the field.

 

Now, I'll concede that between Adrian "Butterfingers" Peterson, Brad "Sideline Chaos" Childress and the good ol' gunslinger, the Vikings probably would have found a way to screw it up in overtime. But they at least should have had that chance.

 

My stridency toward this rule dates back to Sept. 17, 1995, when the Vikings lost a Sunday night game at the Metrodome against the Dallas Cowboys. Warren Moon led a late comeback that culminated in an 8-yard touchdown pass to Cris Carter in the waning moments of regulation, tying the score at 17. But Dallas won the coin toss, and everybody in the house knew that it was over the moment that silver dollar settled onto the Metrodome turf.

 

Both teams' defenses were absolutely spent. It was an unseasonably warm day, and a brutal slugfest left both squads gassed after 60 minutes. The overtime period played out as expected – the Cowboys methodically marched into field-goal position before Emmitt Smith broke free for a 31-yard touchdown run, and the Vikings lost without ever running a play in overtime.

 

The "purists" love to point out that defense and special teams are part of the game too, and thus both teams have an equal chance to win. "You don't like it? Stop 'em," they sneer while dreaming of a day when Dick Butkus decapitated running backs and Alan Page head-slapped his way to the Hall of Fame.

 

However, if that theory were pertinent to overtime, why does the team that wins the coin toss always elect to receive the kickoff? They know that playing offense is a distinct advantage, even more so these days with seemingly every rule designed to protect the quarterback and receivers at the expense of the defense.

 

Sure enough, those 2009 Vikings lost the flip, the Saints ran the kickoff back to their 39 and Cedric Griffin blew out an ACL on the play, putting a tired defense another man short. Eventually linebacker Ben Leber was called for a shady pass interference penalty that helped get New Orleans into field goal position, and the rest, as they say, is history.

 

Of course, that game helped the NFL realize that perhaps something as important as a trip to the Super Bowl shouldn't be so heavily influenced by the flip of a coin, so it instituted new rules for overtime playoff games – if the team that receives the overtime kickoff converts a field goal on its first possession, it must kick off and give the opposing offense a possession.

 

That change doesn't go as far as I would like – I'd prefer to see both teams get the ball regardless of the outcome of the first possession, meaning even those 1995 Cowboys would have had to stop the Vikings on that hot September night in the Metrodome.

 

But it's a start. The next step is to implement that change in the regular season as well, because in a 16-game season, one game is often the difference between a playoff berth and a January staycation.

 

Which brings us to Marion Barber.

 

When Barber coughed up that fumble, he cost Robbie Gould a chance at a game-winning field goal on the first possession in overtime. More important, he cost the world a chance at seeing Tim Tebow and the Denver Tebows defeated without giving Tebow an opportunity to pull off more of that great Tebow magic that has captivated the nation for the past two months.

 

Can you imagine the hue and cry, the gnashing of teeth and rending of garments, had Tebow been denied the chance to touch the ball in overtime? God, it would have been glorious. ESPN would have gone wall-to-wall on every platform with indignant outrage over the injustice of the overtime rules. Skip Bayless might have had an aneurysm on live TV. The sun would have fallen from the sky, the rivers would have turned red with blood, the four horsemen of the apocalypse would have run roughshod over the 24-hour news cycle.

 

And, lo, the overtime rules would have changed for the 2012 regular season.

 

But no, Barber had to fumble, giving Tebow his chance to do that thing that he does, and we're still no closer to justice for the coin-flip losers.

 

And that's why Marion Barber is Public Enemy No. 1. For today, at least.

 

Patrick Donnelly is a Senior Editor at SportsData, contributor to the Maple Street Press Vikings 2011 Annual, and has covered the Vikings for FOXSportsNorth.com, Viking Update and the Associated Press.

 

 

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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