Friday, January 15, 2016

Vikings' Loss Might Be Necessary Evil For Team

Mike Zimmer said it.  Blair Walsh agreed.  A twenty-seven-yard field goal simply must be made.  And in the NFL, they are, at a rate just shy of 100% of the time.  Unfortunately, Walsh's kick now helps comprise the "just shy of" portion of that percentage rate.  And that means that, for what seems like more than just once too often, the Vikings will be exiting the playoffs following a game that they should have won.

There are many fan bases around the NFL that will have little compassion for the Vikings' players or fans, and for good reason.  Despite never winning a Superbowl, the Vikings have been a relative mainstay in the playoffs for the better part of the franchise's career.  Since 1961, the team's first year of existence, the Vikings have made the playoffs twenty-seven times.  In that same time-frame, the Green Bay Packers have made the playoffs three fewer times, the Chicago Bears twelve fewer times, and the Detroit Lions sixteen fewer times.  Only the Dallas Cowboys have made the playoffs a greater percentage of the years in existence than have the Vikings.

That they have had relative success as a franchise, is unlikely to mollify either the Vikings or their fan base in the wake of a loss that, had it turned out differently, could have had Vikings' fans rightfully anticipating favorable match-ups throughout the remainder of the playoffs.  But a win last week might have papered over adjustments that the Vikings need to and can make this off-season--adjustments that could make the Vikings long-term championship contenders, rather than one-year wonders.  As such, Sunday's loss, as painful as it was, might be in the team's long-term interest.

The clear "villain" in Sunday's loss was the kicker who could not connect on a chip shot.  Lost in that myopia, however, is the fact that the game even came down to that play.  Long before that, the Vikings had opportunities to put the game away.  That they did not merely highlighted the near season-long offensive struggles.  Those struggles were the result of several factors, as they normally are, but the chief factors, as they also normally are, were the play of the quarterback and offensive line and offensive play-calling--in that order.

While Teddy Bridgewater showed some flashes of strong play in 2015, on the whole, the season can be regarded little more than a plateau period for him, particularly after what most observers regarded as a relatively strong finish to last season.  If the Vikings want to be a consistent championship contender, they need quarterback play that is consistently average, at worst.  That's not what they received from Bridgewater in 2015 and not what Bridgewater offered in the Vikings' two most important games to conclude the season.  Rather, in those two games, the Vikings relied on defense and hoped that the offense did not give the game away.  That, with a strong defense, is a recipe for making the playoffs, but also one prone to losing any given playoff game.

Too often this season, including several times Sunday, the Vikings entered the opposing team's red zone or close thereto, only to come away with a field goal.  On Sunday, the most glaring such failure came on the Vikings' second possession of the game.  With a first-and-goal from the seven, the Vikings failed to convert, running twice up the middle, before Bridgewater threw an ill-advised pass that was nearly picked.  That sequence cannot happen on a regular basis for a championship-contending team.  It did for the Vikings this year.  And that four-point differential on Sunday was the difference in the game.

To be certain, the offensive line played its own dastardly role in that second drive--and others throughout the game and season.  Had the line had better push or leveraged better, Peterson might have scored and there might have been more play-call options from the seven.  They did not, however, and the onus was placed on Bridgewater to convert.  As was too often the case this year, Bridgewater did not make the play.

Bridgewater might make strides next year, behind what the Vikings expect to be an improved offensive line.  The team has already signaled its concern over the offensive line's performance, jettisoning offensive line coach Jeff Davidson in favor of Tony Sparano.  Given the play of Joe Berger and the cap-friendly number of the improving T.J. Clemmings, the Vikings might be looking at their offensive line for 2016 and hoping that Sparano can line them up properly.  Vikings' fans know that an effective offensive line can be constructed of lesser material--see Mike Tice--and know, as well, that, to get a full read on Bridgewater, the team must address this area.  The loss to Seattle prompted a quick move that might not have been made had the Vikings advanced further into the playoffs.

Finally, the Vikings need to acknowledge that their offensive play-calling has substantial holes.  Unless Bridgewater is simply woeful, it is inexcusable not to better incorporate the wide-receivers into the offense.  Minnesota ranked 31st, 31st, and 32nd in the league in touchdown passes, passing yards, and passing attempts, respectively.  The team ranked 4th in the league in all comparable rushing categories. That shows both a distrust of Bridgewater and the offensive line's pass-blocking capabilities, but also an immensely conservative approach to play-calling.  That approach appears to be instilled in Bridgewater, who, too often, appears to make the cautious play, when a slightly less conservative play is available further down field.  Expecting more of Bridgewater in the offensive play-calling should, therefore, result in Bridgewater looking for opportunities down field, rather than deferring to the dump off.

If this sounds like deja vu' for Vikings' fans, it, of course, is.  From Tarvaris Jackson, to Christian Ponder, to Bridgewater, the Vikings have run conservative offenses, featuring the run, and asking the quarterback not to lose the game.  Jackson was out of his league in the NFL and Ponder showed some flashes but never became consistent.  Like Ponder, Bridgewater has been undermined by his own short-comings, but also by the low expectations of the offensive coordinator.  Those low expectations have reaped the expected return--a conservative quarterback who is timid until the game is absolutely on the line.  That likely will only change if the offensive coordinator raises the expectation level.  And that might be the second shoe--save for free-agency--that falls as a result of the Vikings' offensive woes against Seattle.

Friday, January 08, 2016

Rams Offer Vikings Blueprint for Beating Seahawks

Two weeks ago from this coming Sunday, the St. Louis Rams improved their record to 7-8 by beating the Seattle Seahawks, in Seattle.  The game should be instructive for the Vikings for several reasons and serve as a guide for beating the Seahawks this weekend, even if Seattle does what it always does and Minnesota does what it can be expected to do.


Yes, even if Seattle does what it is expected to do and Minnesota does what it can be expected to do, the Vikings can win on Sunday.

Do tell.

The Seahawks entered the game game against the Rams two weeks ago as 14-point favorites, a monstrous line in the NFL, with simulated games having Seattle winning 38-7.  Sound familiar?  The final score of the game was St. Louis 23, Seattle 17.

The final score of the Rams-Seahawks tilt at the end of December was the least interesting part of the game, however.  Far more intriguing were the game's statistics.  The Rams did what everyone expected them to do on offense, which is to say, virtually nothing.  On the day, quarterback Casey Keenum was 14 of 23 for a woeful 104 passing yards.  Keenum did have one passing touchdown, however, and had no interceptions.

The Rams also had limited success on the ground.  Rookie running back Todd Gurley tallied 83 yards on 19 carries with one touchdown.  The rest of the Rams' rushers gained 19 yards on 11 carries.

As suggested by these statistics, outside of failing to intercept a pass, the Seahawks' defense also did what everyone expected it to do.  It held the Rams to 205 total yards of offense, sacked Keenum four times, forced two fumbles, controlled the time of possession, and limited first downs and third-down conversions.

If you read only these statistics from that game, you would guess that the Seahawks won. Seattle's offensive statistics would only reinforce that impression, with Russell Wilson passed for 289 and two touchdowns and took no sacks.  Wilson also rushed for 38 yards.

Despite all of the numbers in favor of the Seahawks in the game against the Rams, however, there were even more important numbers that operated against them and that resulted in the number that mattered most in the end, a losing final score.  Despite moving the ball well, the Seahawks were the victim of strong defense and offensive mistakes, turning the ball over three times and taking 10 penalties for 83 yards.  The surprisingly relatively disciplined Rams, meanwhile, took five penalties for 60 yards.  And, despite two fumbles, the Rams did not lose either fumble.

The +3 statistic on turnovers is substantial.  Generally speaking--without factoring relative team strengths--teams win 75% of the time when they have one fewer turnover than the other team.  The percentage increases to approximately 88%, when the turnover margin is +2.  Given a +3 turnover margin, the rate of victory is nearly 100%.

That the Rams defeated the Seahawks by less than a touchdown suggests that they probably needed every bit of the +3 turnover differential that they obtained in the game.  Given the expectations entering the game, however, it is reasonable to view the Rams' differential against the Seahawks as essentially resulting in a 20-point swing versus the odds.

That should be of note to the Vikings, who enter Sunday's game against Seattle as a decidedly narrower underdog.  The current line has the Vikings at +5.  But 53% of the money currently is being bet on the Vikings.  If a lesser team in the Rams can parlay a +3 in turnover differential into a 20-point swing from the game's opening line, the Vikings ought to be able to win Sunday's game by being on the positive side of the turnover differential.  The only question is how far they need be on the positive side.

Confounding the analysis are the possible the possible return of Marshawn Lynch and the possible absence of Linval Joseph.  Seattle had no rushing attack against the Rams, totaling a meager 59 yards on the ground.  Lynch's presence should bolster that total, even with Joseph in the lineup, by forcing the Vikings to respect the run and, thereby, creating more opportunities for Wilson to both pass and run.  If Joseph does not play, those possibilities only increase.  And, if those possibilities become reality, the Vikings likely will need not only to have a positive turnover differential, but also to have a differential greater than +1 and possibly, as the Rams did, convert a turnover directly into a touchdown.

The odds are still against Minnesota this weekend, but the odds are merely predictive.  The Vikings have the benefit of getting to actually play the game and decide the outcome based on performance.  And if the Rams--a team that subsequently lost to the 49ers--can defeat the Seahawks with virtually no offensive output, surely the Vikings, a much more well-rounded team, can at least duplicate that feat.