For me, the 2010 football season featured less fun and joy than any season since, gosh, maybe ever. The Vikings disappointed grandly. My wife quit watching the games with me when the Vikings cut Randy Moss. My fantasy teams sucked (my Hazelweird team appears to have peaked in Week 17, just in time to avoid last place). The season featured many things against my rooting interests (the Packers are in the playoffs, the Patriots are dominant again), and even the snowy collapse of Thunderdome. The only things to consider now is where to go from here.
Joe Webb. Sure, maybe this game was a buzzkill, but we still know what we knew: Webb has a lot of work to do to be a quality starter, but the potential is there. The Vikings should not, in my opinion, draft a QB in the first round of the draft. This is partly because there are glaring needs elsewhere (the Vikes need 2-4 new starting defensive backs, depending on how things go, and also need offensive line improvement), but mostly that it would be pointless to have two young, inexperienced, talented QBs on the roster competing for the chance to start. Webb certainly deserves a spot on the roster, and far better to bring in a veteran QB for him to play behind or to compete against for the job. A veteran QB (by which I mean an experienced QB around the middle of his career, not a Childress-special end-of-career-stopgap solution, which would be somebody like Donovan McNabb or Matt Hasselbeck) available in an offseason is going to have baggage. It might be somebody in the range of Kevin Kolb-Rex Grossman-Sage Rosenfels-Kyle Orton-Carson Palmer-Matt Leinart-Jason Campbell. If you don't like those names, tell me a better realistic possibility (and some of those guys aren't even going to be available).
Leslie Frazier. I think keeping Frazier is a good thing. As I've said, when you hire a new coach, you try to project based on his resume and personality whether he will be a successful coach in your particular situation. Zygi Wilf had a chance to actually see what Frazier could do in this situation, and I think it would have been difficult for Frazier, in these circumstances, to do a better job than he has done. Now he has a tough job, I think: telling current assistant coaches--a few weeks ago his colleagues--that the team needs to go in a different direction offensively.
New offensive approach. There is a load of skill position talent on the roster, and the Vikings need to utilize it better than they have been. The Vikings have unique talents like Adrian Peterson (still a potential all-timer, whose potential has yet to be fulfilled) and Percy Harvin (a versatile player that can be moved all over the field and asked to do all sorts of things with the ball). Can they find a creative, adaptive offensive coordinator who can find ways to utilize their talents? I hope they don't keep the same offensive coaching staff and scheme.
Aging veterans. The Vikings should keep Antoine Winfield on the roster until it's clear he can't do anything anymore--he's too savvy a player not to be useful. But the Vikes might be cutting ties with some other starters.
The year long weaknesses: secondary and offensive line. Because the Vikings need to add multiple quality starters in these areas, this is no quick fix.
Who can they keep? Chad Greenway? Ray Edwards? Sidney Rice? Will they be Vikings next year? I hope so.
But I won't be here to blog about it anymore. No drama: I'm just wore out from five season of writing about this team, and my time and energies are more and more devoted to other important things. I just want to follow and watch the team, not think of what to say about it (frankly, I've scrambled for time this year, and feel my writing has frequently been pretty incomplete and scattered). I leave you as I started with A.E. Housman's poem "Loveliest of trees, the cherry now." With each of my allotted years that goes by, one chance to see the Vikings win the Super Bowl passes by unfulfilled. Maybe next year. Always, eternally, forever, maybe next year.
Leslie Frazier. A win Sunday, and it would be wildly unfair if Leslie Frazier is not hired as the Viking head coach for 2011.
Joe Webb. Another strong performance, and he might convince the Vikings he's the QB they can develop, starting soon (compete for the job in training camp?). A poor performance, and he looks more like a long-term project, and the Vikings try fill the position elsewhere next year.
My dream: an NFL pregame show with no former players or coaches.
Why would I prefer an NFL pregame show without former players and former coaches?
They have friends in the league. Some of these guys make efforts to defend their friends, won't criticize their friends, and quite obviously have their commentary influenced by their friendships.
They have their own legacies to protect. This comes out subtly in some of their evaluations, but it's there.
They often don't bring much insight. My guess is that most of these former players and coaches made their millions, and for them this is a comfortable job. They're not spending hours studying film, not spending hours studying stats, and not spending hours chasing down sources for meaningful inside knowledge. Quite frequently the things these guys say are no more meaningful than what any other observer of the sport could provide.
Obviously a former player or coach can be very good on TV: Ron Jaworski, Chris Collinsworth, and John Madden come to mind. But a lot of the former players and coaches are either irritating or dull.
My other dream: no more "production meetings" with broadcasters and players
I think the broadcasters, after having friendly conversations with players, are less likely to harshly criticize those players. It's not always a conscious decision: in fact I think it's usually an unconscious, human feeling not to be critically harsh--even when justified--to people they have had personal conversations with, and who have generally been nice to them. But it's there: the friendly conversation they had influences their objectivity and willingness to honestly critique. Furthermore I'm not sure how much meaningful insight they get from these meetings that they couldn't get from other sources (some, I'm sure, but I'm not sure it's enough to counterbalance the soft treatment they give the subjects).
Leslie Frazier has earned this job.
When a team is hiring a new coach, there are all sorts of things to consider in the prospect's resume and personality to evaluate whether he will be an effective coach for the team's particular situation. When a coach is given a chance to audition for the job on an interim basis, it is usually under difficult circumstances, but it is a chance to actually prove what he can do "on the field."
Since Leslie Frazier became head coach, the Vikings have won their first two road games of the season (both outdoors, one against a 10 win team). The Vikings have won three games with three different QBs (Favre against Washington, Jackson against Buffalo [Favre went out on the first series], Webb against Philadelphia). The team has endured some pretty unique circumstances, and even though the Vikes are eliminated from playoff contention, the team has still been playing extremely hard. The game plans have been good (the coaching job against the Eagles was masterly), and on multiple occasions they've made difficult adjustments to new situations (Peterson getting hurt against Washington, Favre getting hurt against Buffalo, preparing a third-string, rookie sixth round pick QB).
What else can Leslie Frazier do to prove he deserves, in fact has earned with his performance, the chance to prepare a team through an offseason and coach a team through a season? In my mind he's already proven it: a win against Detroit to finish the year 4-2--including three road victories--should absolutely convince Zygi Wilf that Leslie Frazier is the man to run this football team.
I wasn't convinced when Frazier took over on an interim basis that he should be the head coach next year. I am now. I don't know who the Vikings can find that they could know will do a better job than Frazier, and I think Frazier has proven what he can do.
Basketball is an extraordinarily fun sport to watch live, if you're watching a well played, competitive game. I went to the Wolves' game against the Hornets Monday, and it was a treat. Wesley Johnson hit six three pointers from what I'm pretty sure was the exact same spot on the court (New Orleans would have had a better defensive strategy just to make a center stand there with his arms up, no matter what else was happening), and Michael Beasley was scoring every which way he could. Really a delightful game to watch. I'm really hoping they can bring in some better talent to support Beasley and Kevin Love, who are a good core of players that could take the Wolves to the playoffs with a little better guard play (and a lot better center play).
Rams-Seahawks. Either another 8-8 team wins a division and goes to the playoffs (while teams with winning records in the same conference don't), and we go on with life as before, or a 7-9 team wins a division and the league either reforms or busts up the current system. Which would you prefer?
No matter if the Vikings aren't making it to the playoffs, it is really, really fun to watch your favorite team go on the road to play against a playoff team and beat them smoothly. That was the most fun watching the Vikings I've had all season. The Vikes showed they do have the talent, that they do have a core of players to keep together, that they have something to build on.
Great credit goes to the entire defense for this effort. Michael Vick is incredible: if I was choosing a QB for my team, I'd quibble between the Manning/Brady/Brees triumvirate, but few QBs right now are more terrifying to go against than Vick. He is a game plan destroyer with his elusiveness. But the Viking coaching staff put together an aggressive game plan: they played a team with tremendous speed and big play ability, and they didn't play afraid. They blitzed a lot. The defensive line got good penetration, and the front seven made an admirable effort chasing down and trying to contain Vick. The secondary, despite several dropped interceptions, played an outstanding game: the DBs stuck with their receivers well, they deflected passes, they tackled well.
Antoine Winfield blessed us with another Antoine Winfield special: sack, forced fumble, fumble recovery, touchdown return all on one beautiful play that turned the game right before halftime.
Joe Webb gave us something to hope for, playing a game with poise, intelligence, mobility, and accuracy. Kudos to the coaching staff for both giving him plays that allowed him to be successful, and for not sitting on their hands avoiding using him at all.
Adrian Peterson quite frequently looked like the best player on the field, and Percy Harvin played better than any other WR tonight.
Leslie Frazier made his best audition to keep the Viking head coaching job. The road win against Washington and the blowout win against the Bills was very good. But after two blowout losses, after weather forced them into a Monday Night "home" game in Detroit, then a Monday night home game at TCF Stadium, and then a Tuesday Night game at NFC powerhouse Philadelphia, after the team was down to its third QB, a rookie sixth round pick, this team could have easily given up. But the team did not: this team has played hard for Frazier, and tonight they had a great game plan that they utilized almost to perfection.
That was joyous. I can't recall ever watching the Vikings beat the Eagles (I probably have watched it, but it's been a long time, and I don't remember it). I've seen the Vikings lose to the Eagles at home, in the playoffs, and live (once all of those things at once). Today they did it. It was a well-played game, featuring great effort, great game planning, and great performances from some great players. Football is still fun.
This is a game I would say will be the biggest blowout the Vikings endure this season: they've got no answer for Michael Vick or DeSean Jackson, and they'll be starting their third or fourth quarterback of the season. But considering the Vikings have already lost games this year by scores like 31-3 and 40-14, really, where is the blowout range going to be worse than what we've already seen?
This Viking season feels like 2001: a disappointing season with a lot of dreadful losses, an offense that suddenly goes from explosive to inept, the coach is eventually ousted in rather ugly fashion, and by the end of the year the team is on a third quarterback and it seems almost hopeless that they can even score a touchdown. I barely had the stomach to watch those games (OK, I often didn't). Watching games this season feels like a burdensome chore, like it's something I have to do when I'd rather be doing something else, and I'm just hoping the team does something in the offseason to give some hope (at quarterback, at coach, somewhere important) so that games next year can be fun to watch again. I haven't had fun watching a Viking game in a really long time.
Panthers-Steelers. Can Carolina pull off a Festivus miracle?
Jets-Bears. There's not an NFC playoff team that I can't see beating the Bears, and there's not an NFC playoff team that I can't see the Bears beating. They're playing for a bloody two seed.
Colts-Raiders. Peyton Manning has a reason to play through all 16 games for the first time in a very long time.
Giants-Packers. Finish those suckers off now.
Saints-Falcons. All season long, I sort of rooted for the Falcons because they seemed like one of the better contenders to stop the Packers from getting to the Super Bowl (they're killer at home). Now that fear of the Packers in the Super Bowl is significantly weakened (but not dead), I still kinda sorta root for this Falcon team anyway.
I was in a waiting room the other day, waiting, when somebody started chatting with me. This fellow asked me if I played "fantasy football."
"What's that?" I said. "Does that have something to do with those football games on TV?"
"Well, yeah, sort of."
"Hmm. I've seen those football games. What is 'fantasy' football?"
"Well, you pick your own team of players, like a quarterback, running backs, etc., and then your team does well when those players do well."
"So you make up a team?"
"I guess. You draft them."
"'Draft'? Like that thing they do in April?"
"Yeah, just with the members of your league. You draft a team from all the players in the NFL."
"Sounds interesting." I then returned to my magazine and continued waiting, going back to a life with no such thing as fantasy football. It sounds like the sort of thing that will take up way too much of your energy and time and can only leave you feeling miserable.
Airing of Grievances ("I've got a lot of problems with you people!")
If there were a Bizarro Pro Bowl, where players make it by being actively bad, Madieu Williams would be the starting safety. No other defensive back excels so highly in two key areas: being wildly out of position in pass coverage, and being wildly out of position when attempting to tackle. If an opposing wide receiver made a big play this season, look around: #20 was probably somewhere nearby. This year's airing of grievances is reserved for none other than Madieu Williams.
The 2010 Vikings are either going to finish 5-11, 6-10, 7-9, or 8-8 (assuming no ties, I guess). I can't find myself caring where they actually end up on that spectrum: it just doesn't really matter. If this were a young team, we could hope for a strong finish to build for something next year. But this is an old team that is going to have to make some big changes next year regardless of the next three weeks (the dread rebuilding, but with a solid core of elite-level players to rebuild with so it could turn quickly, with savvy and luck).
Yet on the other side, the Bears are one game in front of the Packers for the division. I have no animosity for the Bears outside of Viking-Bear matchups, and intense animosity for the Packers. And that can, ultimately, matter: seeing the Packers in the Super Bowl would crush my spirit.
Am I saying I'm rooting for the Bears to beat the Vikings? I would never say that. And I would never feel that.
Randall Cunningham and Brett Favre
Randall Cunningham and Brett Favre each quarterbacked the Vikings to a spectacular, memorable season that ended with an overtime defeat in the NFC Championship Game. Here were their comparable numbers during those seasons:
Outside of those magical years, neither QB shined. In 2010, the Vikes started 5-7 with Favre as starter, and he threw 18 interceptions and added six fumbles. In 1999, the Vikings started 2-4 with Cunningham as starter, as his rating fell down to 79.1. Cunningham also finished the 1997 season, when he was the starter in a week 17 win to make the playoffs, as well as their first playoff win of the '90s.
Who did more for the Vikings? When I see Randall Cunningham Viking jerseys, I just feel empty. I don't know how I'll feel when I see Favre Viking jerseys in ten years. That depends, I suppose, on whether the Vikings win a Super Bowl before then...and whether the "Minnesota Vikings" exist at all.
There are different ways to create stories and meaning from sports. Some may view through a Hero Myth, where the story is the heroism of the great individual player or the great team, whose on-field successes and failures are all part of the story of the hero's greatness (and tragedy). Or you can see sports as a Quest Myth, where the team or individual strives and struggles and takes forward and backward steps on the mission to achieve an idealized end, to cross into the Promised Land, to find that Holy Grail, to return home from Troy.
Readers know how I watch the Vikings. And during the latter parts of a season during which the Vikings will not make the playoffs, I feel like I'm stuck on some crazy half-god's island just waiting for a boat to come by so maybe, maybe I can get back on that journey home. At least then, no matter how far I am from Ithaca, I'd at least be on the water moving, quite possibly even in the right direction.
A nice slate of games matching up teams with winning records.
Eagles-Giants. How I got my wife to give me a disgusted look Monday night: "You know how I've said if the Vikings relocate I'll become a Bears fan? Well, when Peyton Manning retires I'll need a new favorite non-Viking player. Football is way more fun for me when I have a favorite non-Viking to root for. So I was thinking, when Peyton retires, how about little brother?"
Jaguars-Colts. If the Jaguars win, they win the division and the Colts miss the playoffs for the first time since 2001. If the Colts win, they haven't clinched anything, but they're in very good shape to do so. The Vikings make me shake my head sadly; any football nerves I have now are reserved for Packer games and Colt games.
Remember Spurgeon Wynn?
Horrors. Just remembering.
Readers know my antipathy to head-to-head fantasy standings, and the absurd unfairness of fantasy playoffs (why not just pick a week at random and say the highest score from that week wins the championship?).
But I do now see the excitement of a playoff. When you're on the bubble just to get into the playoffs, it's exciting because you still have a shot at winning a fantasy football champion. And then if you get into the playoffs, even as the lowest seed, you need one good week against the top seed and you can still claim that champion. I get it.
Of course the week-to-week, every-game excitement of Cross Country standings overcomes the focused excitement of a playoff matchup. Still, this is fun.