Sunday, September 21, 2014

Will Vikings Take Path Less Traveled?

In last week's 30-7 loss to the New England Patriots, Minnesota quarterback Matt Cassel threw for 202 yards and a touchdown.  Those results were Ponder-like in Ponder's better games and might have been enough for a victory, but for the fact that the team did not have Adrian Peterson to otherwise carry the load and the additional fact that Cassel contributed four picks to the effort.

We have seen this type of performance from Cassel in the past and we have seen Cassel rebound to the relatively mediocre quarterback that he typically is.  Whether Cassel avoids the picks going forward is not the Vikings' immediate or long-term concern.  Rather, those concerns are whether they have on the roster a quarterback capable of consistently playing above replacement level.

In addition to throwing picks on Sunday, Cassel seemed incapable of the deep pass.  In the few instances in which he attempted to go deep, his passes fluttered short of the target and seemed to be Cassel's best effort.  That's disturbing in a pass-happy league that is becoming more of a vertical game and less of a control and possession game.  Neither Cassel nor Christian Ponder appears capable of providing the deep or even long option.  That leaves only Teddy Bridgewater.

Almost certainly, Bridgewater is not prepared to step in as an NFL starter.  But, if the alternatives show the limited potential that the Vikings' other two quarterbacks heretofore have shown, it behooves the Vikings to determine sooner, rather than later, whether Bridgewater has the ability to start in the NFL.

The Vikings can accomplish a transition to Bridgewater in one of two ways.  One way is to throw Bridgewater into the game as a starter.  That's unlikely to happen over the next several weeks when the Vikings play, in succession, New Orleans, Atlanta, Green Bay, and Detroit--all high-scoring teams against whom the Vikings will need to score to have a chance to win.  And, given that reality, the Vikings would be committing to Cassel for nearly half the season, leaving Bridgewater a brief window to measure Bridgewater.

It is unclear what timeline is required to measure a quarterback's NFL potential in the world of Rick Spielman.  For Ponder, the timeline was ever-shifting, reflecting the GM's hope that his draft-day reach would somehow pan out.  For Josh Freeman, the timeline was one game.  That leaves a whole lot of ground between.

None of this would be all that significant for the Vikings, particularly without the added concern of attempting to win before the Peterson era in Minnesota ended, but for the fact that there happens to be a reasonably promising quarterback on the board in next year's NFL draft, in the form of Marcus Mariota.  Spielman presumably took Bridgewater late in round one, rather than Manziel earlier, in part, at least, to allow himself the opportunity to concede that Bridgewater is not the franchise quarterback, should Bridgewater turn out not to be what Spielman thinks he is.  But taking advantage of that opt-out option is really only possible if Bridgewater plays this year.

The second option for introducing Bridgewater is to incorporate him into the game at various times--certainly if any of the upcoming games become one-sided.  That would make sense not only from a performance review perspective, but also from a PR perspective as it would demonstrate that the team is moving on from the glacially slow assessments that led to numerous suspect decisions over the past four seasons.  And, if Bridgewater performs to the level that Spielman anticipates, the Vikings might find that they can spend a first-round pick on something other than a quarterback.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Changing Tide in Society Portends Changing Tide in NFL

When the Minnesota Vikings began lobbying for a new stadium, the sentiment among the largest swath of the fan base appeared to be one of excitement.  New and shiny, no matter the public cost, was acceptable--as long as the Vikings continued to play in Minnesota.

There was, of course, some push-back.  That came from those who saw the push for a new stadium for what it truly was--a money grab by the team--and from those who had a difficult time reconciling separate and new facilities for the University of Minnesota and the Vikings.

Despite these concerns, however, the proverbial writing on the wall soon became clear.  The Vikings were going to get their new stadium, no matter the cost.  The only real question was how the reality of the public footing the largest chunk of the upfront cost of building the stadium was going to be massaged for public presentation and public consumption.

The Vikings adopted a two-pronged approach.  The first was to convince the public that the state portion of the cost of building the stadium would be covered by e-pull tabs.  There were several flaws with this concept, of course, many of them immediately raised.  Chief among these were the concerns about the viability of e-pull tabs and their ability to raise any meaningful money.  Governor Dayton assured the public that the plan had been carefully vetted.

Another concern with funding the "Peoples' Stadium" with gambling money was the stake that the state had in encouraging gambling.  No matter how the numbers were sliced and diced, for the Governor's e-tab proposal to work, either many more needed to gamble in Minnesota or many who already gambled in Minnesota needed to gamble, and lose, much more often.

Using gambling to fund the Vikings' stadium seemed flatly at odds with any sensible government funding policy, encouraging, as it does, an addictive habit that has a tendency to create more substantial problems for the state.  To that concern, the Governor and his many Republican and DFL supporters in the state legislature, seemingly turned a blind eye.

Despite the Governor's pledges across the state that the state's general fund would not be the source of state funds for the new stadium, however, it is now clear that that is the only place from which such funds can derive, save for a last-ditch effort by the Governor and state legislature to raid the Legacy Fund.

The e-pull tab proposal was disgraceful at all levels and the type of thing for which leaders in less forgiving states certainly would lose their jobs and probably even go to jail.  In Minnesota, crony-like foregiveness unfortunately appeared to prevail.

Having fleeced the public on the stadium funding mechanism, the Vikings still had other concerns to cover.  The lynch-pin for covering these concerns was creating a new stadium authority and ensuring that it was stacked with "yes" people.  That mission was readily accomplished and, in that respect, flourishes today.  If the commission ever was inclined to question any Vikings' request, such inclination seemed quickly quelled.

Among the commission's chief accomplishments are the following:

  • The Vikings' stadium will be built with the Vikings providing zero up-front money;
  • The Vikings will retain 100% of discretionary revenue streams (tough negotiating likely led to this result);
  • The head of the commission received a raise and a commendation from the Governor for "her hard work and strong leadership."
These results were enough to make a passive-aggressive's head blow up, but not enough to make anyone in the local media make much of a fuss.  That could save for after all the deals were finalized and nothing could be done to amend any terms without the state incurring even larger costs for default and damages.

The pendulum began swinging the other way five weeks ago, however, when former Minnesota Governor Arnie Carlson, long a champion of local sports, lambasted the stadium deal and the stadium commission.  That column, in and of itself, would have meant little to the Vikings or to the NFL.  When coupled with the events of the past week, however, they spell looming problems for the league--all of the league's own making.

For much of its post-merger existence, the NFL has built its empire on the strength of two principles.  The first was ensuring that the on-field product is physical enough to satiate and grow the fan base.  The second was that teams have non-gate means for improving their bottom line.

The NFL addressed the first issue by ignoring rampant player drug use and turning a blind eye to violence perpetrated by players on and off the field.  Jack Tatum attempts to decapitate Darryl Stingley?  No problem--that's part of the game.  And it was, at the time.  But the NFL not only looked the other way, it highlighted the hit in promotions.  It made stars of players like Conrad Dobler and Bill Romanowski, both of whom acknowledged attempting to maim fellow players to "gain an edge."  And the money poured in because the vocal part of the fan base expressed approval.

The NFL addressed the issue of team revenues by encouraging, promoting, and participating in hostage taking, forever holding out the threat of teams leaving should a new stadium not be built.  Vikings' fans recall the non-threat, threat of two stadiums in Los Angeles--neither of which, though all but built several years ago, is even in the planning stages at this date.

For its chicanery, deceit, and reliance on conduct that would be criminal were it committed outside of a stadium to build its brand, the tide now appears to be turning against the NFL.  This is happening for several reasons.  The first, and most obvious, is that some of the league's stars are engaging in conduct for which they are being criminally indicted and for which there is an increasing amount of publicly available documentation.

A second reason for the backlash against the NFL--probably far more disconcerting to the NFL Commissioner--is that much of what was done behind closed doors in the past now is brought into public view through various outlets.  No longer can someone say that they "did not know" about an event if they did know about an event, because someone will have an e-mail, phone recording, or media post controverting the claim.  

The concern by NFL teams--an increasing NFL concern--was evidenced by Minnesota Vikings' GM Rick Spielman during Monday's press conference, during which Spielman defended the team's decision to start Adrian Peterson "until the legal process plays out."  Spielman began the press conference by stating that the Vikings were "not aware of formal charges until Friday."  Even the most bumbling of sleuths immediately deciphered that as code for "we knew about the issue at the center of the formal charges much earlier."  Though Spielman attempted to leave it at that, a horde of reporters, clearly chastened for not further investigating the Ray Rice incident, pounced.  Spielman was doomed.

Much as Spielman was doomed in yesterday's press conference, the NFL, as resilient as it has been, appears headed for a heavy fall.  Already facing payouts for concussions and other long-term effects of playing football, the NFL now is confronted with having to deal with an off-field problem that almost certainly is more wide-spread in a league devoted to physical play.  Either the NFL transforms to a far less physical league, potentially decimating its perceived fan base, or it succumbs to what made it what it is.  As with the inevitable paper trail on the league's stadium shenanigans, neither is very appealing for the NFL.

Up Next:  A Cassel Without a Moat or Arms.