Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
04 Apr 2011
Guest Column by Matt Scribbins
The Vikings know their best shot at a Lombardi Trophy was in 2009. They had a Hall of Fame quarterback in a career year and a star running back gashing the league. Their first-round pick, Percy Harvin, was a Pro Bowler. Sidney Rice, 23, had a better statistical season than Jerry Rice did at the same age. The Williams Wall led Minnesota to the second best ranking in Power situations, and the third best Stuffed percentage. Jared Allen recorded 14.5 sacks and led the defense to a fourth-place finish in Adjusted Sack Rate. It was all good in Zygi's Hood, until they fell victim to the Voodoo in the Bayou.
Fast forward to today, and there is no denying that Minnesota still has great pieces. Six-time Pro Bowler Kevin Williams is still playing at a high level at a position that lends itself to longevity. Antoine Winfield is among the best run-stopping cornerbacks in history, and Harvin is one of the league's most dynamic players. Chad Greenway played the last two seasons at a Pro Bowl level and Adrian Peterson is arguably the NFL's best running back.
Zygi Wilf has done everything in his power to bring a title to Minnesota. He slipped Seattle a poison pill and netted All-Pro left guard Steve Hutchinson. He brought in Bernard Berrian from Chicago and was rewarded with more than 20 yards per reception in his Berrian's first season. Allen came from Kansas City and changed the game immediately. Oh yeah, and he also shelled out $32 million to Brett Favre. The moves brought Wilf painfully close to a championship, but now they are a big part of Minnesota's problems.
Steve Hutchinson has declined and missed five games last year with injuries. Berrian should pick up Jim Fassel's Locomotives playbook if he ever returns to Las Vegas for his phone. Jared Allen didn't get going until mid-season, and the Vikings finished 26th in Adjusted Sack Rate after consecutive Top 5 finishes. Maybe most important, Brett Favre has finally retired and Aaron Rodgers isn't waiting in the wings this time.
It is tough to come to grips with the current state of affairs. A year ago, 12 men in the huddle kept the team from the Super Bowl. Now, the Vikings don't know where they will play home games and the depth chart is disastrous.
Winfield is the only employable defensive back on the roster after Cedric Griffin suffered two knee injuries in the 2010 calendar year. Drew Rosenhaus will bag a huge contract for Sidney Rice in a different city. The offensive line hasn't finished in the Top 10 in Adjusted Line Yards in years, and the pass protection is even worse. Pat Williams is leaving for greener pastures and Star Caps will finally sideline Kevin Williams. Ray Edwards made it clear for years he wanted to bolt, and now he will. His projected replacement, Everson Griffen, recently drew superstar comparisons, but Charlie Sheen comparisons in 2011 don't bode well for NFL careers. Obviously, there is a glaring weakness at quarterback as well.
Minnesota's roster might compete in the NFC West, but it won't in the NFC North. Green Bay just won the Super Bowl and actually appears headed for better days. Football Outsiders research indicates a team finishing one full victory below its Pythagorean projection will likely improve the next season. The Packers finished the 2010 regular season with 12.1 Pythagorean wins and a 10-6 record. Stunning. The Bears made a run to the NFC title game and had the most wins in the division last season. The perennial doormat Detroit Lions finished with a 6-10 record, but their 7.8 Pythagorean wins forecast a better 2011. Unfortunately, Minnesota was as bad as they looked and finished with six actual wins and six Pythagorean wins. In division games, contests expected to be competitive, the Vikings were outscored by 65 points.
The Vikings' bell curve needs speed bumps or it could get even uglier. Some of their best players are old and Juan Ponce De Leon isn't visiting Winter Park anytime soon. Look at the ages of the Vikings' best players (during 2011 season): Winfield (34), Hutchinson (34), Bryant McKinnie (32), Kevin Williams (31), and E.J. Henderson (31). Allen (29), Greenway (28), and Peterson (26) are close to their peaks. Thankfully, Percy Harvin (23) has many years left, migraines permitting.
It is conceivable the Vikings could ride AP to a Super Bowl soon. Among the last five Super Bowl Champions, three (Saints, Giants, and Colts) had running backs finish in the Top 5 of rushing DVOA. These same teams didn't have defenses that finished better than 14th in DVOA. The Vikings could certainly achieve both of those measures next year. On the other hand, neither Drew Brees nor the Manning brothers will play quarterback for Minnesota.
How can the Vikings contend again? Acquiring young and talented players is a good place to start. The Vikings have pressing needs at quarterback, defensive back, and along both lines.
Some franchises believe securing players to match up against division foes is a path to relevancy. The Texans drafted Mario Williams to pressure Peyton Manning. Rex Ryan invested in defensive backs to slow down the New England Patriots. Where does this lead Minnesota? The secondary. All three division teams pose problems for the Purple's defensive backs. The NFC North will have Calvin Johnson, Greg Jennings, and Mike Martz's pass happy offense for years to come. The Vikings ranked 16th in the league last year against No. 1 wide receivers, and that was the highlight. They were crushed by No. 2 receivers (25th) and beat even worse by "other" receivers (27th).
The Vikings, distrustful of Joe Webb, must address their quarterback situation soon. Recent reports indicate the team is interested in Missouri's Blaine Gabbert. Assuming they land a stellar quarterback in the draft, head coach Leslie Frazier and new offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave will still need time to establish their system. Maybe the Vikings will develop a legitimate quarterback by 2013. Remember the ages of the Vikings' top players? Add two years to each and coming seasons in the land of the ice and cold look dreary.
Adrian Peterson has had a great tenure in purple. He took the league by storm as a rookie and posted the seventh-best rushing DVOA among running backs. In years two and three, he fell to 22nd and 23rd, respectively. Last year, he rebounded and finished the season ranked seventh. However, Peterson recently turned 26, and Football Outsiders research has shown NFL running backs generally decline starting about age 28. Add to that Peterson's heat-seeking running style, and his decline could be precipitous. His best years will be behind him by the time Minnesota can develop a quarterback through the draft. The most important use of a running back is to solidify a win, but it's hard to imagine that Bill Musgrave will need No. 28 to bleed the clock in the near future with a new quarterback under center and a roster riddled with uncertainties.
Clearly, finances also come into play. Peterson will make $10.26 million this season and enter free agency in 2012. Is it prudent to pay a huge portion of the salary cap to a running back, no matter how great, on a middling team? Will Peterson want to spend the rest of his productive years in Minnesota? Mix in a more affordable pay scale for rookies, and this is leading to a fairly obvious conclusion.
Can you imagine the booty Peterson could bag? I'm not talking about the aftermath of six-figure drinking with Bryant McKinnie. I'm talking about Rick Speilman fielding trade offers for AP. Every NFL team wants a great running back, and Minnesota has one. New England and Indianapolis historically acquire picks, but they may spare some to land a star of Peterson's ilk for the end of their quarterback's careers. Bill Belichick wants someone to spread the field, and his first-round picks look mighty appealing. The Colts running game was a nightmare in 2010 and made the team ridiculously one-dimensional. A move for Peterson would propel Jim Irsay's tweets to unprecedented levels and help Indy play a Super Bowl at home. Hell, habitual acquirer Daniel Snyder might make Zygi Wilf an offer he can't refuse if Peterson develops a taste for wine. In Texas, one owner may like to see the local kid fill up the big screen every Sunday. Plenty of other NFL teams need a running back too, and some may make the move just to invigorate fans.
Trading AP would understandably create a hole at running back. However, NFL running backs aren't impossible to find. BenJarvus Green-Ellis, the second-ranked running back in 2010 DVOA, was an undrafted free agent after his Mississippi career. DVOA's fifth best running back, Arian Foster, also went undrafted after communicating like a pterodactyl at Tennessee.
Rick Spielman has nailed both of his first-round draft picks since he joined the Vikings. (Maybe part of the problem is they've had two first-round picks in the last four years?) His selections of Peterson in 2007 and Harvin in 2009 resulted in two Rookie of the Year awards and five Pro Bowl selections. A trade involving Peterson would certainly involve first round picks, and Spielman's record indicates he could work wonders with the opportunity. (Feel free to type "small sample size" in the comments.)
Trading a superstar in his prime is begging for a fan revolt, even if Minnesota fans are inured to it (Kevin Garnett, Johan Santana, and Randy Moss). Plus, Peterson is a great locker room guy. He isn't Brandon Marshall, Chad Ochocinco, or Terrell Owens. His teammates and coaches love him, and his opponents respect him. He corrected his biggest on field problem, fumbles, with tireless work in the offseason. His fantasy stats make him one of the most popular players in the league. He is active in the community (not in the Love Boat kind of way) and is a positive role model. A few speeding tickets and looking for a bathroom at McDonald's are the worst things he has done in Minnesota.
Realistically, Adrian Peterson's run in Minnesota will end fruitlessly. Leslie Frazier will coach a contender soon if the Vikings trade Peterson, but not if they keep him. Teams must capitalize when they have a shot at glory. The Vikings didn't. Now, they should turn their most valuable asset into several building blocks. Reversing the Herschel Walker trade is Minnesota's best opportunity to hoist its first Lombardi Trophy.
Matt Scribbins is a one-time safety for, and recent graduate of, Iowa State University. He also writes for Hoopdata and Magic Basketball, and is one of the FO game charters. If you have an idea for a Football Outsiders guest column, something that takes an unconventional angle on a subject related to college football or the NFL, please send your idea or a rough draft to mailbag-at-footballoutsiders.com.
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