Friday, December 14, 2007
National Friday League, week fifteen
Building a Team to Win
The successful franchises in the NFL build teams capable of competing over a period of several years. They build squads capable of competing for a championship each season over a period of time, and hope that at some point, they get the right breaks, and have what it takes, to win a championship.
The NFL's best this decade is the New England Patriots: from 2001-2007, they've had winning records every year, and in 2007 won their fifth straight division title. Obviously they are the best, but the other very good to great teams of this decade also built for a long run of competition.
The Indianapolis Colts have made the playoffs every year since 2002; this year, they're likely to win their fifth straight division title and finish with 12 wins or better for the fifth straight season. In 2003, 2004, and 2005, they lost to the eventual Super Bowl champions in the playoffs; in 2006, they were finally able to win a championship. By building a team to compete every year, eventually they were able to break through.
The Pittsburgh Steelers played in three AFC championship games between 2001 and 2005; in 2005, they finally broke through to win a title. Under Bill Cowher, they were frequently in a position to compete for a title, and finally they made it over.
The Philadelphia Eagles made the playoffs six times in seven seasons from 2000 to 2006; they played in four NFC Championship games one one Super Bowl. They, too, have been built to compete, and just haven't broken though to win a title (yet?).
The Seattle Seahawks are often forgotten as one of the successful teams of this decade, but they've just clinched their fifth straight playoff birth and fourth straight division title. In the past five years, they've won and lost some memorably close playoff games. In 2005, they got to the Super Bowl, and were competing to win the game: in the fourth quarter, down by four, Matt Hasselbeck completed a pass to give the Seahawks first and goal inside the five; however, an official called a holding penalty that, as much as I stared at the TV, I could not see, Hasselbeck threw an INT shortly thereafter, and Pittsburgh drove for the clinching score. But they built to compete year in and year out, and got a chance to really compete for a title (and I'm one of the few people who won't be surprised if they go to the Super Bowl this season).
Even the last NFC team to win a Super Bowl, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, made the playoffs in 1997, 1999, 2000, and 2001 before winning a title in 2002.
Pundits that like to talk about parity focus on the teams that make quick turnarounds and seemingly come out of nowhere to get deep into the playoffs. But this decade has been characterized by--and dominated by--teams that sustained a high level of competition over a period of time. Titles have been won not by teams that put all their chips into one season, but by teams that put themselves into position to compete in many seasons. If you make the playoffs five seasons in a row, that means you have five chances to win a championship. You have to hope that you're very good and that chance favors you, but obviously you have a better chance of winning a championship if you give yourself several opportunities to win one.
Clearly I'm making some obvious points. Good teams win championships, and you have to build your team to be good. If you build a team to be good over the long haul you have more opportunities to win a championship. OK, that' s all obvious. How do you build a team for long-term success? That's not such an easy question to answer.
I bring all this up because I believe Zygi Wilf and the Vikings have been building to have a long-term run at competing for a championship.
After the Vikings finished 9-7 in 2005, the Vikings could have either let Mike Tice (9-7, 9-9, 9-7 in his previous three seasons) continue coaching, or they could have brought in an experienced head coach to try maintain the just-above-mediocrity level of the 2005 team. Instead, Wilf hired a first-year head coach, a coordinator from one of those long-term successful franchises, to put in a system. Then the team quietly and proactively went about signing their key players (such as Bryant McKinnie, E. J. Henderson, Pat Williams) to long-term contract extentions. They've drafted well in the past two seasons--they've gotten contributions from both first-round picks and later-round picks. In 2006 they signed Steve Hutchinson, but in 2007 they didn't really sign any major free agents, preferring to build through the draft and their own squad's development. They didn't try to sign a short-term (and potentially mediocre) fix at starting QB for 2007; instead, they focused on developing their own young quarterback.
Some people have looked at the moves they've made and wondered if they really want to win. I think it's quite obvious they do. But they don't merely want to win now; they want to build a competitive team that can win now and for several years. At 7-6, and with very winnable games coming up, we already may be seeing the results.
(Heck, Peter King, who in the summer ranked the Vikes 31st in his Power Rankings, is now already predicting they win a playoff game this season. So you know they're good).
Houston beats Denver, 31-13
In the words of Martin Luther, "What does this mean for us?"
First, it's further proof that Denver is a mediocre (or worse) football team. Second, it means that Denver is not likely to be playing for anything at the end of the season.
Since the Vikings close the season at Denver, both those nuggets are good news. Though if the Vikings do what they should do, and beat Chicago and Washington at home, it might not even matter.
Upcoming night games and this blog
I usually write about each Viking game fairly shortly after the game. But for the next two games (both night games at home), that might be more difficult. I'll still try to write about each game, but it may come a bit later in the week than usual.
Well, that should be mildly un-fun.
My watching options on Sunday: at 3:00, just Philadelphia and Dallas, and of course at 7:15, New York and Washington. I guess I get to watch a lot of NFC East football.
Vikings-Bears on Monday Night
Division rival Chicago Bears? Vikings over .500 and fighting for a playoff spot? Monday freaking Night?
Thunderdome should be booming. This is what having season tickets is all about. This season I've witnessed records broken for a career (Favre's TD record), a game (Peterson's yardage record), and a play (Cromartie's return record). Now Holy Hitter comes with me to watch the Vikes play the Bears in a meaningful December Monday Night game. I'm pretty much bursting with excitement.
At Epic Carnival
What was that bang? asks, "Is December in the NFL a Month of Garbage Time"? Um, yes. It sort of is.
Sean Jensen writes about the importance and quality of Viking wide receivers' downfield blocking.
Getting excited for the upgrades at Pro-Football-Reference.com; the best football reference site is getting better.
In an interview with Jason Cole, Colt WR Anthony Gonzalez reveals he recently read The Brothers Karamozov, arguably the greatest novel ever written (via Fanhouse). Well done, Mr. Gonzalez. The next book I'm reading is The Idiot. Now, in between all this fascinating reading, Mr. Gonzalez, please go out and dominate on the field; my Hazelweird fantasy team needs you.
Among other things, Dr. Z writes about pro coaches skipping out early to go coach at college.
Cold, Hard Football Facts talks a lot about the Vikings when debunking the myth that in pro football, you need to run the ball and stop the run to win. When I predicted a competitive season for the Vikings in 2007, my general argument was that a team so successful at running and stopping the run should at least be competitive. I predicted 9-7 with a lot of close games that could go either way. That doesn't mean, however, that I disagree with CHFF's assessment. You have to do a lot of things successfully in football to win, not just run and stop the run, and while the Vikings have been competitive all season (only two losses by more than one score), it was their incompetence in the passing game that often meant close defeat early in the season and competence in the passing game that has led to impressive victories late in the season. Running and stopping the run should make you competitive week to week, but it takes a good passing game to win consistently and/or dominantly. In pro football, the passing game is critical (as Cold, Hard Football Facts also points out, the top four teams in the league are also the top four leaders in yards per attempt).
If Peyton Manning throws 3 TD passes against the Raiders, it will be his fourth season with 30+ TDs, tying Dan Marino. Brett Favre has done it eight times, and needs 6 TD passes over the last 3 games to do it a ninth time.
Fantasy Narcissism: my wacky fantasy teams
In the Ghosts of Wayne Fontes League, I somehow advanced to the second round of the playoffs with DeShaun Foster and DeAngelo Williams starting at RB. Ridiculous. Now I match up with Empty the Bench, who starts Adrian Peterson and Reggie Wayne, two players I must root for (both are on my Hazelweird team, and Peterson is a Viking).
In the Hazelweird League, I'm in the running for a title, and this week I'm starting two wide receivers from the same team (Anthony Gonzalez and Reggie Wayne) and two running backs from the same team (Adrian Peterson and Chester Taylor). Sure, it's limiting my points opportunites, but this is actually a fairly reasonable lineup. Since I traded for Chester Taylor, he's had 502 yards from scrimmage and 6 TDs in 4 games, and none of the bums I traded have done squat. He's a split-carry, #2 option for the Vikings, but Chester Taylor has secretly (and not-so-secretely) been a productive fantasy running back as of late.
I've got nothing else; grading papers is grading papers is grading papers. Enjoy the weekend everybody (except Packer fans). Make up some chili.