VikesCentric is written by Twin Cities football writers Bo Mitchell of SportsData, Arif Hasan of Vikings Territory, Aj Mansour, who hosts Minnesota Vikings Overtime on KFAN, and Joe Oberle a long-time Minnesota based writer. The VikesCentric crew crunches numbers, watches video and isn't shy about saying what's on their minds.
Unfortunately, Minnesota sports fans suffering from a lack of enough actual victories have become all too accustomed to moral victories the last couple years. I loathe moral victories as much as the next guy. Legitimate contenders for anything played with a ball or puck should never be satisfied with moral victories and you will never get any Vikings player or coach to admit that some kind of moral victory is ever good enough.
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.
First, allow myself to explain… myself. This list is not intended to be a list of the 10 best players on the Minnesota Vikings. Everyone knows that Jared Allen is really good, and that he’s going to sack the opposing quarterback roughly once per game. We all understand how good Adrian Peterson is, and that the Vikings offense is infinitely more effective and dynamic when he’s on the field. We know that Antoine Winfield is still one of the best all-around cornerbacks in the NFL when he’s healthy. Obviously, the season will head South in a hurry if Allen stinks, AP isn’t 100%, Winfield gets injured, Matt Kalil goes bust, and Percy Harvin misses time with migraines. So, you won’t see those names on this list. Instead, what you’ll see are the names of the ten players I believe will make or break the Vikings in 2012.
By “make,” let’s assume that the best-case scenario is a playoff berth this year. Barring the unlikely event that every player on this list instantly turns into a Hall of Fame caliber player, the Vikings are a long shot to even make the playoffs, let alone do something crazy like advance to the Super Bowl. So, the playoffs are the upside. “Break” would essentially be the worst-case scenario (i.e. last season). If the Vikings are to make the playoffs, they’ll need their stars to be healthy and productive, and they’ll need huge contributions from the majority of these players. We’ll start with five today in Part I, with the rest to come in Part II.
CB Chris Cook – Cook has more to prove in 2011 than any other Viking, and it’s not an exaggeration to suggest that his ability to stay on the field and out of trouble might be the single most important determinant of the team’s success in 2012. It’s obviously too soon to anoint him as anything other than a talented player with potential, but he was undeniably the team’s best cover corner early last year (this highly recommended article by ESPN’s Kevin Seifert shows how dramatically the team’s pass defense collapsed after Cook left the lineup after Week 6). There were other factors (and other injured players) that contributed to the catastrophic 2011 pass defense, but Cook had already stacked up favorably in man-to-man coverage with Calvin Johnson against the Lions in Week 3 and was starting to develop into the shutdown force the Vikings envisioned when they grabbed him with the second pick of the second round of the 2010 draft. If Cook proves capable of covering the Johnsons, Nelsons, and Marshalls of the NFC North, it will allow the Vikings to more easily compensate for other weaknesses in the secondary.
S Harrison Smith – You don’t need me to tell you how awful the Vikings secondary was last year. The focus fell mainly on a rag-tag bunch of cornerbacks that failed miserably to plug the gaping holes left by an injured Antoine Winfield and a suspended Chris Cook, but the team’s safeties were atrocious. Hussain Abdullah was at least somewhere near average, which is extremely high praise in comparison to Mistral Raymond, Tyrell Johnson, and Jamarca Sanford (the latter of which graded out as literally the worst safety in all of football, according to Pro Football Focus). Smith was brought in to start on Day 1, and his ability to provide some sort of presence in the middle of the field – both as a ball-hawk in the secondary and as a run-stuffer in the box – will help dictate how the Vikings stack up against the high-powered passing attacks of the NFC North.
LB Erin Henderson – If Henderson plays with a bit of a chip on his shoulder this year, it won’t be hard to determine why. Coming off a breakout season in 2011 that saw him become an NFL starter for the first time and one of the best outside linebackers in the league (according to Pro Football Focus, Henderson graded out as the fourth-best OLB, third-best against the run), Henderson found himself in the awkward position of not being wanted. He made headlines with a public rant about his belief that the Vikings weren’t offering him what he felt he deserved prior to free agency, but when the Vikes called his bluff and then no other teams stepped up to the plate, he signed a team-friendly one-year deal worth “only” $2 million. It’s a prove-it contract for a young player the league obviously doesn’t quite believe in just yet, and you can bet Henderson is out to prove his 2011 wasn’t a fluke. With his brother E.J. no longer part of the equation, Henderson will be asked to continue his improvement in 2012. With the unproven Jasper Brinkley expected to take over at middle linebacker, it’ll be on Henderson and Chad Greenway to lead this linebacking corps. The team undoubtedly wants Henderson to prove he’s deserving of a more lucrative long-term contract; if he does, the middle of the field will be in good hands.
K Blair Walsh – Let’s be honest; you want Blair Walsh to fail. Yes, you. You hated that the Vikes “wasted” a 6th-round draft pick on a kicker, and you couldn’t believe it when they kicked fan and locker room favorite Ryan Longwell to the curb in favor of a stupid kicker who couldn’t even kick field goals very well during his senior year of college. You’re just waiting for him to miss his first game-losing three-ball as time expires, at which point you’ll take to the message boards to vilify General Manager Rick Spielman for his inability to build an NFL franchise and sing to the heavens that the Vikings would have won that game if Longwell was still their kicker. But what if Walsh doesn’t fail? What if he makes the kicks he’s supposed to? What if he nails a few from 50-plus yards? What if he actually can kick the ball into the end zone and pin the opponents back at their own 20-yard line? What if a defense that can use all the help it can get benefits greatly from an opponent having to drive 80 yards every time instead of 70? What if Spielman was right about Walsh? What if lopping Longwell’s millions off the books allows the Vikings to pursue a higher profile free agent next offseason? What if Spielman’s youth movement starts to pay immediate dividends? Simply because the situation is so intriguing – both on the field and in the front office – Walsh is a key player for the 2012 Vikings.
WR Jerome Simpson – The offseason reports on Simpson have been equal parts meaningless and glowing. Vikings coaches would have us believe they found the steal of the century in Simpson, another young player who seemingly fits perfectly into the offense as a deep threat the team so sorely lacked last season. And, frankly, he does. His career arc would suggest that the 2008 second-round draft pick is ready to turn into a serious threat for 70 catches, 1,000 yards, and six-to-eight touchdowns. But that’s what Bernard Berrian’s pre-Vikings career arc might have suggested too, and Berrian didn’t come shackled with a three-game suspension for having violated the NFL’s substance abuse policy. If Simpson can stay on the field and effectively stretch the defense, everyone from Christian Ponder to Percy Harvin to Kyle Rudolph to Adrian Peterson will have more room to operate. If not, the team will need a huge contribution from a batch of mediocre veterans (Devin Aromashodu) and mid-round draft picks (Greg Childs, Jarius Wright) to step up in a big way.
Christian Peterson is the Operations Manager at LeagueSafe.com and the Managing Editor of LeagueSafe Post, a new fantasy football content site. He has written for Vikings.com and is a co-host of the Fantasy Football Weekly radio show on 100.3 FM KFAN. Follow him on Twitter: @CP_ChristianP
There seems to be conflicting news lately regarding Adrian Peterson’s ability to suit up for the first game of the 2012 regular season. Peterson himself believes he’ll be in the lineup, and head coach Leslie Frazier hasn’t ruled it out. Other published reports, however, suggest that opening the season on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list is a realistic possibility. There are some technical details related to the different types of PUP lists that I won’t get into here (basically, if Peterson is placed on the preseason, or active, PUP list, all it means is that he can't practice with the team, and it leaves open the possibility that he could ultimately wind up on the regular season PUP list, which would mean he'd have to miss a minimum of six games).
LeagueSafe’s Paul Charchian, while appearing on the Paul Allen show on KFAN 100.3 FM a few weeks back, raised the idea that putting Peterson on the PUP list could possibly be the best option the Vikings have. By doing so, the team would effectively be protecting Peterson from himself. By all accounts, AP is a freak of nature, and he’s ahead of schedule in his recovery from the torn ACL he suffered late last year. He’s such a fierce competitor, it wouldn’t shock anyone to see him suit up in Week 1. But what if he’s not fully healed? What if he can’t cut like he’s used to, and as a result he re-injures himself? And, if he’s truly not 100 percent healthy (by team doctor standards, not his own), why would the Vikings risk putting him on the field?
It’s a sticky situation, for the sole reason that doing what’s best for the organization in the long haul (i.e. giving Peterson a mandatory 6-game vacation at the beginning of the season) would be an admission that the team doesn’t have realistic intentions of fielding a competitive team in 2012. You and I both know it’s a rebuilding year, but the Vikings would never admit that – not before the season has even begun. And you can bet Leslie Frazier, with his job on the line, isn’t going to admit that (which is another concern, really… if Peterson says he’s healthy, Frazier has every motivation to believe him and put him on the field immediately).
For the sake of argument, let’s look at the first six games of the 2012 schedule and analyze what kind of impact not having their best offensive player on the field might have on the team’s win-loss record.
Week 1 (vs. Jaguars): The Jaguars stunk last year. They were 1-7 on the road. They’ll enter 2012 with a second-year quarterback (Blaine Gabbert) who was even less impressive than the Vikings’ own second-year guy. If you’re looking for a strength, though, it’s probably their defense. Jacksonville finished 11th in total defense, and ninth against the run. Only three teams allowed less than the 3.8 yards per carry (YPC) surrendered by the Jaguars in 2011. A healthy Peterson would give the Vikings offense a huge boost against a solid Jags front seven, but this is still a home game the Vikings should win even if the capable Toby Gerhart is forced to carry the load.
Week 2 (at Colts): The NFL schedule-makers did the Vikings another favor with a Week 2 matchup against the rebuilding Colts. Indianapolis was easily the worst team in the NFL last year, and this will be the second career start for rookie quarterback Andrew Luck. Jared Allen might kill the kid, and the Colts spent the offseason surrounding Luck with offensive weapons while completely ignoring a defense that allowed nearly 27 points per game. Only two teams allowed more than the 144 rushing yards allowed per game by the Colts in 2011. For the second week in a row, it’s a defense Toby Gerhart is perfectly capable of exploiting, and it seems fair to say that if the Vikings lose, it won’t be because they couldn’t get their ground game going.
Week 3 (vs. 49ers): This is a loss either way. The 49ers are good. Their defense is even better. Opposing running backs scored just two touchdowns on the Niners last year, and only one back ran for more than 76 yards against them. It’s the kind of game a rare talent like Peterson can have a huge impact on, but if you think the 2012 Vikings can realistically beat a team that was a couple of botched kick returns away from the Super Bowl last year, I’ve got some land in Arden Hills I can sell you.
Week 4 (at Lions): Peterson destroys the Lions. In his career, he’s averaged 99 rushing yards per game and scored eight times in nine matchups. Ideally, against a high-powered Lions offense the Vikings game plan would focus on grinding out yards on the ground and keeping Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson off the field. A full-strength Peterson would obviously be ideal in this scenario, but the Vikes employed the same strategy successfully with Gerhart late last year. During a wild 34-28 loss that ended on the infamous and controversial Joe Webb non-facemask penalty in the waning seconds, Gerhart gained 90 yards on a healthy 4.7 YPC. That’s not to say Peterson wouldn’t have gone for 150 yards on the same 19 carries, but the Vikings were obviously able to move the ball on the ground despite not having AP at their disposal. Plus, like the 49ers game in Week 3, a road game against a 2011 playoff team isn’t a game you’re expecting to win anyways.
Week 5 (vs. Titans): This is where it starts to get tricky. The Titans weren’t a playoff team last year, but they went 9-7 and had a top-10 defense in terms of points scored against (a shade under 20 per game). But their run defense was mediocre, at best – they gave up nearly 130 rushing yards per game at a clip of 4.5 YPC. For a non-playoff team like the Vikings, a home game against a slightly above average team is the type of game you absolutely must win to begin to turn things around. Dynamically talented players like Peterson are the types of players that tip the scales in a game like this. Without him, I feel much less confident of a Purple victory.
Week 6 (at Redskins): Well, isn’t this fitting? The final game Peterson would miss if placed on the regular season PUP list would be a rematch with the team that injured him in the first place, in the same building. If Peterson were in uniform, you can bet the revenge factor would be high, and he’d be very motivated to exorcise the injury demons in a big way. The Redskins are also in re-building mode, however, and they weren’t very good last year. You probably remember that the Vikings somehow beat the Redskins on Christmas Eve last year, without Peterson and without Ponder, both of whom left the game early with injuries. Gerhart gained over 100 yards on just 11 carries, and Joe Webb tossed two touchdown passes to lead the improbable win. Like the Week 5 win over Tennessee, a road tilt against a non-playoff team breaking in a rookie quarterback seems winnable on paper, and again it’s the type of game where a healthy Peterson might very well mean the difference between a win and a loss.
By my count, the first four games of the season should result in two wins and two losses, no matter if Peterson plays or not. The difficulty is that Weeks 5 and 6 both seem like winnable games, but perhaps not if the team is missing its most explosive player.
That assumes Peterson is 100% healthy, though, and even if he is ready for Week 1 it’s highly unlikely he’ll be his usual, explosive self. Most running backs aren’t back to their previous level of play until the second season after their injury, and some are never the same.
I don’t envy the Vikings front office on this one. If their star player, who they’re paying $8 million this year, declares himself healthy in training camp, it will be nearly impossible to keep him off the field. While going the PUP route would erase the temptation to put him in game action before he’s truly ready, it feels like an unrealistic scenario. The best course of action would probably be to carry him on the active roster, but don’t suit him up until Week 5. If he’s even 90 percent of his old self, having him on the field in Weeks 5 and 6 might be the difference between a 4-2 start and a 2-4 start.
Christian Peterson is the Director of Operations at LeagueSafe. He is a contributing writer for Vikings.com and a co-host of the Fantasy Football Weekly radio show on KFAN 100.3 FM. Follow Christian on Twitter: @CP_ChristianP
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.
There is absolutely no guarantee that Chris Cook or Antoine Winfield would have made a lick of difference against the shockingly efficient Aaron Rodgers on Sunday, but the absence of the Vikings’ top two defensive backs exposed just how painfully weak the Vikings’ secondary really is.
Cornerback Cedric Griffin is a mere shell of the player he was prior to blowing out his knee (the first time) in the 2009 NFC Championship game. He’s lost at least one step per ACL surgery (two in total), appears to be completely devoid of confidence, and should no longer be considered a starting-caliber player. Problem is, the Vikings don’t have anybody better.
I can’t think of (or find evidence of) anything that Asher Allen does that’s better than your average street free agent. Safety Husain Abdullah has been the culprit on two separate back-breaking touchdown bombs in the last two weeks alone. The other Week 7 starting safety, Tyrell Johnson, was, until Sunday, playing behind a former seventh-round draft pick who isn’t very good either (Jamarca Sanford).
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the porous secondary is that the Vikings have attempted to address the situation via the NFL Draft repeatedly. They just haven’t done a very good job.
Dating back to 2006 (Griffin in Round 2), the Vikings have burned five picks within the first three rounds on defensive backs.
Tough to blame anything but bad luck on Griffin, who was developing into both a sound tackler and an excellent cover corner just before the fateful overtime kickoff in the 2009 title game on which he blew out his knee for the first time.
But after that, it gets ugly. Third-rounder Marcus McCauley (2007) started nine games in his rookie season before being benched and then released after the 2008 season, then playing in one game for the Lions in 2009 before his brief career came to a merciful end.
In 2008, Tyrell Johnson was chosen in Round 2. Johnson started seven games in his rookie season and 15 games in 2009 before being benched in favor of mega-bust Madieu Williams and the undrafted Abdullah in 2010 and losing a training camp battle to Sanford this year. For the record, Pro Football Focus (PFF) grades Abdullah as the 74th-“best” safety in the NFL (out of 90 that have earned a grade by PFF’s game charters) this year in terms of pass coverage. Sanford (82nd) and Johnson (85th) are even worse.
Allen, a third-rounder in 2009, was burned repeatedly when forced into action in the place of an incarcerated Cook on Sunday. According to PFF, Rodgers threw Allen’s way 10 times, completing nine of them for 108 yards. Of the 98 cornerbacks that have been ranked by PFF this season, only five have graded out worse than Allen in pass coverage.
Which brings us to Cook, the 2010 second-rounder (after trading out of Round 1) who has garnered attention far more for his off-the-field antics than anything he’s done on it. In fairness to Cook, he’s actually been playing very well this season. He’s been used to shadow elite receivers from Vincent Jackson to Calvin Johnson and held up remarkably well. According to Pro Football Focus, Cook has allowed 60% of the passes thrown in his direction to be completed, but he’s done a very good job limiting the damage to just 187 total yards and one touchdown in just over four games.
Then again, judging character is just as important as judging skill, and the early returns indicate that the team may not be able to depend on Cook, no matter how well he plays when he's in uniform, in the short or long-term.
The absence of Winfield really can’t be overstated here. He’s been PFF’s No. 1-ranked cornerback twice in the last four years (and hasn’t dropped out of the top 12 in the same span), and despite getting older and becoming increasingly injury-prone, the secondary is completely different when he’s not on the field.
With a healthy Winfield and an unjailed Cook, things wouldn’t look quite so dire, but the safety situation is nothing short of disastrous, and both the unbearable lack of talent at safety and the lack of depth at cornerback is directly traceable to the inability of the front office to land NFL-caliber starters in the draft, despite using high picks in an attempt to do so.
Christian Peterson is the Operations Manager at LeagueSafe.com and is a contributor to Vikings.com, the 2011 Maple Street Press Vikings Annual, and the Fantasy Football Weekly radio show on Saturday Mornings on KFAN 100.3 FM.
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