It has already been a thrilling season. Goodness, think about it. The Vikings won a game on a 32 yard touchdown pass and catch with seconds remaining on the clock. They beat the Ravens 33-31 on a game of runs that ended with an opponent's missed field goal. And the Vikings have already beaten the Green Bay Packers once, meaning there's at least that satisfaction from 2009. There are 10 more games left, plus playoffs? The Vikings have already given me loads of visceral thrills.
The Pittsburgh Steelers
The Minnesota Vikings
I think this is the toughest game on the Vikings’ schedule. A team with serious Super Bowl aspirations shouldn’t consider any game unwinnable, but this is the game that even in the offseason I could most easily see the Vikings struggling in (am I so damaged I’ll never trust the Vikes in an outdoor road game?), and Antoine Winfield’s injury only makes it more difficult. But let’s think positive. What things can the Vikings do to defeat the Steelers?
Tackle Ben Roethlisberger
Roethlisberger has a career 9% sack rate, a very high rate. The Vikes have been rushing the passer well, so they could disrupt Steelers’ drives by sacking Roethlisberger. But just as Roethlisberger takes too many sacks because he holds onto the ball a long time, so to does he often hold the ball long enough for receivers to get open downfield. I’m fairly confident the Vikings’ defensive linemen will pressure Roethlisberger; however, it’s also highly possible that Roethlisberger will evade the rush and complete devastating passes downfield. They’ll need to make sure when they rush him, they’re able to corner him and tackle him. It would also help if they could strip the ball from him.
Protect Brett Favre
For three weeks, the Viking pass protection looked like a mess. For the last three weeks, it looked superb. I don’t know if that is the strength of the opponents, improving play of new OL starters John Sullivan and Phil Loadholt, or Favre’s comfort with the team making his reads better. The Steelers have some ferocious pass rushers and an aggressive defensive coordinator, so it won’t be easy. However, the Vikings have faced several 3-4ish defenses this season, so they should at least be in practice for how to face the Steelers' 3-4.
Make big plays on offense
I think it will be hard to sustain very many long, dink-and-dunk drives against the Steeler defense this week. However, the Vikings have playmakers in the passing game and running game to make 20+ yard plays, and those are the types of plays that can lead the Vikes to points against Pittsburgh.
It needs to be said: I love Brett Favre
When I think of my life as a sports fan, I now realize Favre has been the dominating presence. Always. I started watching football regularly around ’92 or ’93, when Favre first really emerged. I was watching football heavily when the Packers rose to the top of the league. When I went to college in Wisconsin, my Viking fandom got bolstered by hatred of the Packers. I think this all peaked around ’03 and ’04, when the Vikings and Packers were tightly competitive for a division title, and each year the Vikes lost the division in unmatchably dramatic fashion.
It seems this is the only way this could all end: watching Favre quarterback the Vikings, rooting for him, starting to love him. I really now see him as a Viking. The game winning drive against the 49ers made that happen; the excellent game against the Packers confirmed it. This is how reconciliation happens. And in my wildest fantasies, I hope this is how the Vikings will finally win a Super Bowl.
Favre gives me the faith that the Vikings won’t underachieve on the road against bad opponents. I watch the games slightly more relaxed than I used to: I feel the Vikes now have a little bigger margin of error.
For her birthday, I bought my wife a pink Brett Favre Vikings jersey. When my toddler plays with a toy telephone, I ask whom he is calling; “Brett Favre,” he says, and I do nothing to discourage this. I can now enjoy Favre highlights, can appreciate his statistics, and I even like Brett Favre football cards again.
I now bristle at the criticism against Favre, dismissing the critics, believing they don't quite get what he's doing or what makes him great or why he's going to make it all season long.
It's happened. Brett Favre is a Viking, and I embrace him as a Viking. I don't only root for him to do well, but I love watching him play.
And on the rational level
Most of my doubts about Favre have now been proven wrong. There were a lot of things I underestimated when considering how he’d perform as the Vikes’ QB—the main one being how fast he gets rid of the ball. He reads the defense extremely quickly, making a fast decision and throwing the ball with a very sharp release. The speed with which he acts after the snap sets him apart. He's been very good on third down, he's shown a lot of arm strength, he offers the Vikings a legitimate passing threat in the red zone to make sure they finish drives, and he's very effective in a two-minute offense when the team needs to move the ball quickly. He's been taking aggressive shots downfield, and in particular he's helped Sidney Rice elevate his game.
My bigger doubts, however, were about how his body would hold up in December, and whether he’d treat us to a disappointing performance in the playoffs. While those doubts haven’t been proven wrong yet, after seeing him play, I’m much less worried about those things than I was before.
My Viking Dreams
Me: Last night I dreamed that the Vikings won the NFC Championship game and I was jumping around like crazy celebrating.
My Wife: So even in your dreams, the Vikings don’t win the Super Bowl.
Me: Well, there was that dream when I was carried away to another plane of existence where time didn’t pass for me but it passed for everybody else, and I found out that while I was gone the Vikings won the Super Bowl.
Thinking End Game
Are you already following the NFC thinking playoffs? I’m looking at NFC teams to see who could be a threat in January (there are a handful of teams the Vikings are capable of defeating or losing to at that point), and I follow the standings hoping the Vikes can secure a first-round bye and get as many games as they can in Thunderdome.
And I feel a bit of desperation for this year's playoffs, since it certainly feels like if the Vikes are going to win the Super Bowl, it's this season they need to do it.
On Talking About Favre
As the all-time leader in both touchdown passes and interceptions, one could argue that Favre has made more positive plays than any quarterback in NFL history, and that Favre has made more negative plays than any quarterback in NFL history. His defenders, I think, often go too far to downplay, excuse, or ignore the negative plays. His detractors, I think, sometimes exaggerate the negative plays. And this occurs in a media environment where for years many in the (especially television) media heaped irrational gushing on Favre, so that a large and loud backlash against Favre and the media coverage of him developed (especially on the internet), with critics feeling justified in exaggerating the criticism because of all the irrational gushing, to the extent that today the criticism might be more overblown that the praise.
It’s extremely difficult to have a reasonable, objective discussion about Favre. There are statistical metrics that can try place Favre in his proper place, of course, but we also must decide how to interpret and use statistical facts. With Favre, it’s always going to be subjective, with the debaters focusing on (and finding) the available data they need to prove (mostly to themselves) the point they already believed before starting the debate. Discussions on Favre become subjective talk-past sessions, with the debaters using different standards and language and even worldviews to prove their points.
Players I’ve been enjoying
How thrilling is it to see Sidney Rice develop into a starting WR? He showed promise as a rookie and was slowed by injury in his second year. Now he’s versatile in the routes he can run, very athletic, a reliable playmaker. Whatever happens at quarterback in the future, it looks like we'll have a trio of Rice, Percy Harvin, and Bernard Berrian for a while, so that should be fun.
How lucky are we? Allen is one of the most dominant pass rushers in the league, just a terror when he gets on. He uses quickness, speed, strength, and technique to constantly harass quarterbacks. His burst off the line is so quick, and his ability to disrupt an offense requires offenses to scheme around him (with a lot of screen passes, with a lot of double teams). It’s interesting to watch how an offense game plans to avoid a dominant, disruptive player.
Winfield has been making giant defensive plays for the Vikes since 2004, and it becomes easy to take his brilliance for granted. Watching Karl Paymah against the Ravens reminds us not to do so.
Dominant force, and has been for years.
Just keep it up. Just keep everything up, right on through February.
I spent all summer excited about Steven Jackson, and he was my most expensive pick in the Hazelweird auction. However, it took me all of one week to realize it would be wise to accept a trade offer of Peyton Manning for Jackson (with a few other particulars). The Rams looked so bad that I thought even if I’m right about Jackson’s yards, he won’t have many TD opportunities; Drew Brees’ six touchdown day made me suspect that it will take an elite QB to contend for a fantasy title this season. Obviously I'm happy with this trade.
In the summer we are all privy to the same information and analysis, but your fantasy success can depend largely on in-season roster moves. Flexibility, insight, timing, luck, and a little bit of guts during the season might matter as much as your draft preparation.
By the way, in both my leagues I'm now starting the Indianapolis Colts Defense. If I'm going to be in leagues with other Viking fans, I won't be able to construct an all-Viking lineup; I'm compensating by saturating my rosters with as many Colts as is reasonable.
Michael Rosenberg of SI and Bill Simmons of ESPN offer sympathy for Packer fans for being forced to see their one-time icon lighting them up for the hated rival.
As somebody who has entirely changed his attitude toward Favre because of my own team loyalty, I do understand Packer fans that turn on Favre. However, Favre gave Packer fans a massive amount of pleasure over the years. He gave them so many big moments and so many wins, including two NFC championships and one Super Bowl victory. Do they really want to abandon all that because Favre is playing for the Vikings for one year? They got to see their favorite team win a championship in large part due to Favre. If you root for a sports team, what else can you possibly want other than to see that team win a championship? Isn't that the most wonderful thing you can experience? And wouldn't that, along with 16 years of effort and success, be enough credit to make up for the debit of going over to the rival?
I can assure you, if a quarterback ever leads the Vikings to a Super Bowl win, he'll have to do a lot more to the Vikings and Viking fans than Favre has done to the Packers and Packer fans to make me turn on him.
Is it just me, or do network cameras (particularly ESPN and CBS, who don't cover too many Viking games) show more camera shots of Viking fans than they do for most teams? I always enjoy seeing fans decked out in purple paint and all varieties of Viking horns. I always smirk. "We're an odd bunch," I think. And then I feel guilty for not donning horns and face paint when I'm sitting in my living room watching the game.
“Luck” and Competition
In reaction to the Vikings’ victory over the Ravens, some reaction has suggested the Vikings were “lucky.” After all, they won because the opponent missed a game winning field goal. But let’s explore this concept of luck.
The outcome of any competition features the positive plays made by the winner, and the negative plays made by the loser. The Vikings-Ravens game featured many positive plays from both teams, and many negative plays from both teams. When you assess the game from beginning to end, the result is a very close contest that could go either way. The Ravens made a mistake of execution at the end, which gave the victory to the Vikings. But any close game could go either way dependent on a few plays at any given time. Do the negative plays made by the losing team make any closely contested game a “lucky” win for the winner? I don’t think so.
One problem is that many football fans, I think, view the kicking game as peripheral, if not external, to actual football. We spend most of our time talking about offenses and defenses, and sure we acknowledge the importance of special teams. But we tend to think of the kickers as something else, not quite a part of our assessment of the team’s quality. But of course that’s ridiculous: kicking is an important part of the game. In the Vikings-Ravens game, the Viking kicking game was good. Ryan Longwell made four out of four field goal attempts; in other words, the Vikings made positive plays in the kicking game. Steven Hauschka missed a 44 yard field goal as time expired; in other words, the Ravens made a negative play in the kicking game. I’d compare it to basketball: we understand that free throws, while uncontested, are a natural, essential part of the game of basketball. Well aren’t field goal attempts (which actually are contested) a natural, essential part of the game of football?
If the Ravens miss a field goal in the first quarter, it doesn’t make the Vikings’ win appear lucky. If another Raven player—a running back, a quarterback, a linebacker, an offensive lineman, anyone—makes an error at the end, it might not make the Vikings’ win appear lucky. I mean, really, have you ever heard anybody say something like “The team was lucky to win because the opponent’s linebacker missed that tackle at the end”? The Raven kicker failed to execute an important kick at the end of the game. That is a reasonable event of a competition.
But did the Ravens make such an egregious, unlikely error that it taints the Vikings’ victory? Not necessarily. Thus far in 2009, NFL kickers are 68 for 97 on field goal attempts from 40-49 yards (scroll down), roughly 70%. That’s a high percentage, but it’s not a gimme. Certainly an NFL kicker should make that field goal, but it’s not an outlandish outcome for him to miss it.
And let’s spin it the other way. Do you consider the Ravens “unlucky” to have lost? When a team loses because its field goal kicker misses the game winner, I don’t usually consider that team unlucky. They had a weakness on their team, and it cost them the game. It’s a close loss, one that has to hurt, but it’s a loss based on their own failure of execution. I think we generally understand that the Raven defense struggled most of the game, and the Raven offense struggled until the fourth quarter (just as the Viking offense played well most of the game, and the defense played pretty well until the fourth quarter—and furthermore, if anything we could consider the Ravens lucky because Antoine Winfield and Benny Sapp were injured and they got to throw a bunch of passes Karl Paymah’s way).
So were the Vikings “lucky”? That depends on what you mean by luck. Certainly at the very end of the game, the outcome was determined not primarily by the Vikings, but by the opponent: if you rely on something outside yourself for your own success, you are lucky if you win. And if you consider beating the odds of probability “luck,” then the final field goal made the Vikings lucky: the probability of an NFL kicker missing that kick is approximately 30%. But if by “lucky” you mean “fluky,” or “undeserved,” or “unearned,” or “tainted,” I think you’d be wrong.
Luck is a part of competition, but so too is execution and failure of execution a part of competition.
During the last month, I whittled down my consistent football reading to a few key sites: Football Outsiders (the most extensive and detailed football analysis source, with a combination of detailed analysis and close observation of the games), Sports Illustrated NFL page (great football coverage, though some mediocre writers that continue to annoy me), Pro Football Talk Rumor Mill (I don't care for the commentary, but it's a quick place to check for any big news), pro-football-reference.com blog (good statistical analysis that offers historical perspective), the Star Tribune Viking page (the new format annoys me, but I still check it), and Bill Simmons' Friday picks column (guaranteed to irritate me at least once per column--is it just me or is he openly sexist?--but still an entertaining article I look forward to reading). There are other good sites that I would check periodically (being away from blogging about the team, I actually avoided reading Viking blogs, fearing getting sucked into spirited debates that I couldn't spare the energy for), but these are now the sites I consider my essential football reading.
I know where the wild things are: they live in the shadow of the end zone (PFT).
One thing academics do is what I call the hippo in the doorway. If you really need to get a hippo through the doorway but it doesn't quite fit, you can just jam it on in, even if things get distorted. Academics sometimes take the theories and methods of their particular field of expertise, attempt to apply those theories and methods to some aspect of society outside their field, and claim to have found insight through the process. Sometimes this process works and provides insights into both the subject of inquiry and the theories and methods applied. And sometimes, the process feels like jamming a hippo through a doorway. Kenny Smith's religious interpretation of football at Religion Dispatches sometimes feels like the hippo in the door--yet his analysis is based on specific, concrete fan behavior at games, and thus I think his interpretation offers insight. Certainly I feel something like emotional transcendence at various points throughout the football season.
My toddler has been housebound for a month in a cast that went from belly to toe. On his first weekend of liberation, we'll do our best to spend most of the weekend out and about. We'll make it back to the house by noon on Sunday, of course.
Have a good weekend, everybody. Except Steeler, Packer, Bear, and Saint fans. Yep, I've added Saint fans: they're not the only NFC competition, but they're the strongest.