NFL Team Report – Minnesota Vikings – INSIDE SLANT
Not everyone can keep his job or be promoted following one of the worst seasons in the 51-year history of the Vikings.
So a week after announcing coach Leslie Frazier’s return and Rick Spielman’s promotion from vice president of football operations to general manager, the Vikings fired defensive line coach Karl Dunbar and were in the process of making defensive coordinator Fred Pagac the primary fall guy for the fiasco that was 2011.
He’s not a bad target, either. After all, the defense did establish some new depths for ineptitude during a 3-13 season.
Pagac hasn’t been fired, but he is most certainly halfway out the door. The Vikings already have interviewed fired Buccaneers coach Raheem Morris for the job and have also targeted fired Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo, Jaguars defensive coordinator Mel Tucker and Vikings linebackers coach Mike Singletary as candidates for the job.
Pagac’s problems began from Day 1 when the Vikings became the first team in NFL history to open a season by blowing three consecutive double-digit halftime leads, including a 20-0 advantage at home against the Lions in Week 3. Even defensive end Jared Allen, a staunch supporter of Pagac, spoke about how different the season might have been had the Vikings been able to protect comfortable leads.
“We win those first three that we blew leads in maybe it’s a different season because now you’ve got confidence,” Allen said. “As much as winning is contagious, losing’s the same way.”
The Vikings fell to 0-4 before winning their first game. But things only got worse as the secondary was destroyed by injuries and cornerback Chris Cook’s banishment following felony charges of domestic abuse. By the end of the season, the Vikings had started 11 different defensive backs, including seven corners.
The offense wasn’t without blame in the Vikings’ historically poor start. The inability of quarterback Donovan McNabb and the offense to convert third downs and stay on the field is partly responsible for the defensive collapses in the second half of the first three games.
But offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave began the season with a built-in excuse. Pagac had served as interim defensive coordinator last season and was directing the same system with many of the same players.
Musgrave, on the other hand, was new to the team and was given the assignment of installing a new system with a new quarterback at a point when the NFL lockout robbed him of the offseason to get it done.
Dunbar’s firing was somewhat of a surprise and a sign that other defensive position coaches are sure to follow him out the door. Dunbar’s unit, after all, was the best on the team in 2011. The linemen accounted for 40 1/2 of the league-leading 50 sacks, including Allen’s franchise-record 22. Left end Brian Robison also had a career-high eight sacks in his first year as a starter. The defense also ranked 11th against the run, but that’s a bit deceptive because the tackles were often gashed at inopportune times when the Vikings needed to make a stop late in games.
Secondary coach Joe Woods definitely is in trouble. The Vikings surrendered a league-high 34 touchdown passes and posted the second-worst defensive passer rating (107.6) in NFL history. The team also gave up 449 points — 35 shy of the team record — and went nine consecutive weeks without an interception, a record since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger.
Vikings owner Zygi Wilf said Spielman’s promotion was done in part to bring the Vikings in line with the front office structure that works on some of the league’s most successful franchises. Spielman will have final say on all personnel moves, but will still give Frazier a significant voice in the process. Ownership will retain the power to hire and fire the head coach. And the head coach has the power to hire assistants and implement offensive and defensive systems.
Although the structure now resembles those in Green Bay, Pittsburgh and elsewhere, it remains to be seen how much of a difference this will make in Minnesota. After all, the title may have changed, but the primary decision-makers are the same ones that were in place as the team crashed into a 3-13 heap this season.
“3-13 is not good enough,” Spielman said. “3-13 is not acceptable for our fans of the Minnesota Vikings. It’s not acceptable for our ownership. It’s not acceptable for this organization. I’ll take my share of responsibility in that 3-13 record.
“Moving forward, what I believe we have to do is look at the things that we’ve done from the positive, but also look at the things we’ve done negatively. Where the mistakes were made, why were they made. We have to have open, frank, objective discussions moving forward. And then come up with a plan of action to (not make) those mistakes again.”
Frazier, an optimist by nature, believes the Vikings will turn around quickly. He better believe that, because he won’t survive another season like 2011.
“There were enough things I saw this season to tell me that that’s a real possibility, that we will be able to turn this around quickly,” Frazier said. “It’s the first year for me and our staff together and I am optimistic about 2012 and beyond. I really am.”
NFL Team Report – Minnesota Vikings – NOTES, QUOTES
–As the Vikings packed up and left their disastrous 3-13 season behind, they were asked for their thoughts on the playoffs that they never came within a whiff of contending for. For the record, the Vikings were 0-7 against this year’s playoff field.
CB Antoine Winfield picked the Saints to win it all. When asked why, he said, “Two words: Drew Brees.” Winfield said he’d pick Brees as the MVP over the Packers’ Aaron Rodgers.
DT Kevin Williams climbed out on a limb for his dark horse pick.
“If you’re looking for a dark horse, I’d have to say Denver,” Williams said. “Watch out for (Tim) Tebow. He’s got something crazy going on.”
–For the most part, the Vikings are happy with how they kept fighting despite a season that went nowhere in a hurry. But not everybody in the locker room was happy with everyone else.
“I think for the most part, we had guys in this locker room that no matter what the situation was, we were going to fight,” defensive end Brian Robison said of not giving up. “And hopefully we can sit here and look inside every person and say that nobody ran from the situation, nobody gave up. But in every locker room, I guess you have to say there were a couple of guys who didn’t.
“I don’t know who those guys are. But I know me, personally, I fought every game as hard as I could. I know I can say that for probably 98 percent of the guys in this locker room. It’s just a matter of finding those few guys that maybe didn’t do what we needed them to do and get them off the team and bring in some guys who are going to fight with us.”
–Backup QB Joe Webb often looks like a giant Fran Tarkenton the way he twists, turns, dodges and somehow escapes defenders behind the line of scrimmage.
He hasn’t ceased to amaze teammates with that ability.
“I mean, a lot of people don’t know it, but I’ve been doing that all my life,” Webb said. “A lot of people, I come to the sideline and it’s ‘Hey, how you do that?’ I’m like, ‘Do what?’ I really don’t see that, I guess, because I can do that. I’ve been doing those types of things since high school. It ain’t nothing new to me.”
QUOTE TO NOTE: “When people look at 3-13, it’s a disaster. But I really believe internally, everybody knows there are a lot of positive things going on and it may not have shown this year.” — GM Rick Spielman, when asked what’s the No. 1 priority heading into the offseason.
NFL Team Report – Minnesota Vikings – STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
The list of candidates being lined up to take over the Vikings’ defensive coordinator duties suggest the team isn’t interested in switching to the more popular 3-4 defense.
Fired Buccaneers coach Raheem Morris is well-schooled in the same 4-3 Tampa 2-based defense favored by the Vikings since 2006. Jaguars defensive coordinator/interim coach Mel Tucker and fired Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo also come from teams that run 4-3 schemes. The only candidate that might favor a 3-4 is linebackers coach Mike Singletary, who ran that style in San Francisco before joining the Vikings before the 2011 season.
Coach Leslie Frazier favors the 4-3 and his best player, defensive end Jared Allen, wants absolutely no part of playing outside linebacker in a 3-4. And the team would be skewered if it traded Allen, a local cult hero who just came within half a sack of the NFL’s single-season record.
So perhaps it’s time to stop speculating that the team is seriously considering a switch to a 3-4.
What the Vikings need to do to make their defense work doesn’t lie in schematics. It lies in the ability to acquire enough quality players to completely overhaul the worst secondary in the league.
QUARTERBACKS: Starter — Christian Ponder. Backups — Joe Webb, Sage Rosenfels.
Ponder remains the team’s quarterback of the future, despite his regression throughout his 10 starts to close the season. Ponder has a lot to learn and will benefit from staying in town and getting the offseason tutelage that he missed because of last year’s NFL lockout. Ponder tends to hold the ball too long, focus on one receiver and try to force balls into windows that close quickly in the NFL. He’s got the personality, work ethic and intelligence to make significant strides with a better supporting cast in Year 2.
Webb is one of the best athletes on the team and will factor into the offense in some fashion. He’s an electric scrambler with speed and a strong arm. He outplayed Ponder down the stretch in 2011, but won’t become the starter. The fact he will play in some capacity as the team expands on its “Blazer” package means the Vikings will need a veteran No. 3 guy who can move quickly to No. 2 if Webb is injured. This makes Rosenfels an attractive option to re-sign. Rosenfels, who was signed late in the season, would know the offense from Day 1 in camp.
RUNNING BACKS: Starters — RB Toby Gerhart, FB Ryan D’Imperio. Backups — Lorenzo Booker, Caleb King. Injured reserve — Adrian Peterson.
Obviously, Gerhart is the starter only if Peterson can’t make it back from major knee surgery in time for the regular season opener. The team says eight months is a realistic goal for Peterson’s return from surgery to repair a torn ACL and MCL in his left knee. Gerhart, meanwhile, damaged his MCL in a much more minor injury during the season finale against the Bears.
Gerhart is no Peterson, but he did show much promise as a dependable backup when Peterson was out with a high ankle sprain and the knee injury late in the season. Gerhart averaged 4.9 yards on 109 carries and proved to be a nice target out of the backfield with 23 catches, three of them for touchdowns. Peterson was stopped short of 1,000 yards (970) for the first time in his career. But he was having another All-Pro-caliber season before injuries took him down. He’ll attack his rehab like he attacks defenders, but an injury of this magnitude is reason for concern as to whether he’ll be as good as he was before. Booker, a restricted free agent, has fallen out of favor after showing promise in 2010. He fumbles too much and carried the ball only 13 times this season. King was promoted from the practice squad for the final game, but did not play.
He’s a raw rookie who likely will end up back on the practice squad next year. D’Imperio was a college linebacker selected in the seventh round in 2010. So he’s still far from being a polished blocker. He’s average, at best, but he is a hard worker and a good locker room presence.
TIGHT ENDS: Starter — Visanthe Shiancoe. Backups — Jim Kleinsasser, Kyle Rudolph, Mickey Shuler.
Shiancoe is an unrestricted free agent who isn’t expected to be re-signed. Kleinsasser has retired after 13 seasons. Rudolph, the team’s second-round draft pick in 2011, had a promising rookie season and is ready to become the primary receiving tight end on the roster. He has the size (6-6, 258), speed and big, soft hands to present matchup problems for defenders. He’ll more than double his 26 catches he had this season. Shiancoe can still play, but he’ll be 32 next season. That’s too old for a rebuilding team with holes throughout the roster.
Kleinsasser will be sorely missed. He’s still one of the best blocking tight ends in the league, if not the best. He could still seal the edge and provide push at the point of attack. Rudolph and Shuler aren’t blocking tight ends. Neither is Allen Reisner, a rookie who bounced between the active roster and the practice squad in 2011. Shuler was active for only one game, the season finale, but didn’t play because he sprained an ankle in practice.
WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters — Percy Harvin, Devin Aromashodu. Backups — Greg Camarillo, Emmanuel Arceneaux. Injured reserve — Michael Jenkins, Stephen Burton.
Harvin was the only legitimate starting-caliber receiver left on the 53-man roster when the season ended. And he’s a small but tough slot receiver who’s more suited as a No. 2- or No. 3-type threat. He caught a career-high 87 passes for 967 yards and six touchdowns. No one else on the receiver-depleted roster had more than 38 catches. The team desperately needs to find a legitimate No. 1 receiver that can play outside and create mismatches down the field. Jenkins is a big receiver, but doesn’t have the speed or ball skills to be that mismatch. Because of a knee injury, he played only 11 games. Yet he still finished second on the team in catches with 38. He can help the team in 2012, but only as a No. 2 or No. 3 receiver.
Aromashodu is an unrestricted free agent and isn’t a priority for a team that needs a major upgrade in talent at the position. Camarillo, an aging slot receiver, also is a free agent and won’t be brought back. Emmanuel Arceneaux, a former CFL star, doesn’t stand out and will be a long shot to make the team. Burton, a rookie who played in three games, did nothing to distinguish himself. Other than Harvin and Jenkins, the team could dump the entire position and start over.
OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters — LT Charlie Johnson, LG Joe Berger, C John Sullivan, RG Anthony Herrera, RT Phil Loadholt. Backups — T Pat Brown, G/C Brandon Fusco, T/G DeMarcus Love. Injured reserve — LG Steve Hutchinson. T Scott Kooistra.
Hutchinson is the starter at left guard, but a concussion sidelined him for the last two games. He turns 35 and will undoubtedly have to take a pay cut from the $6.95 million that he’s due in the final year of his contract. Add that all up and it casts some doubt over whether he’ll be back in 2012. Berger is a reliable interior backup, but he’s a better center than guard, and he’s more of a backup than a 16-game starter at left guard.
Johnson was a last-minute stopgap when Bryant McKinnie was released on Day 2 of training camp. Johnson gives everything he has, but he’s built more like a guard and is often overmatched at left tackle. Sullivan is still on the small side, but has improved enough that the team signed him to a four-year contract extension during the season. Herrera is a classic overachiever who never forgets that he was undrafted way back in 2004. He’s a fiery competitor, but there are legitimate concerns about whether he can stay healthy after two injury-plagued seasons. Loadholt is the best physical specimen, but he’s also the most inconsistent player up front, relative to his talent level. He gets at least one more year to live up to his second-round selection from 2009. Brown is a decent backup the team can live with considering its many needs. Fusco, a center at the Division II level, showed as a rookie that he can also play guard. The gem of these backups might be the guy who basically red-shirted this season.
Love was inactive for all 16 games, but coaches are excited about his ability to become a starter at left tackle or left guard. Kooistra was a journeyman who fracted a bone in his neck during a preseason game. He’s not expected to return.
DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters — DLE Brian Robison, NT Remi Ayodele, UT Kevin Williams, DRE Jared Allen. Backups — DL Christian Ballard, NT Fred Evans, UT Letroy Guion, DE Everson Griffen, DE D’Aundre Reed.
With a team-record 22 sacks, Allen came within 1/2 a sack of the NFL record set by Michael Strahan in 2001. Allen turns 30 before next season, but he’s got a few more All-Pro caliber seasons left in him. On the other side, Robison had a career-high eight sacks in his first season as a starter.
He has proven he can be an every-down end in the NFL. Williams looked old at times at the under tackle position. He’ll be 32 next season and his All-Pro days are behind him. But he still has at least one more year left in him. He ended up with five sacks and some impressive games despite battling foot and knee problems all season. Nose tackle was a major weakness as Ayodele never panned out after leaving New Orleans for Minnesota via free agency. Ballard, a rookie, is big and strong enough to possibly start at nose tackle. He also can play under tackle and the left end position. Evans doesn’t stand out. Guion has promise as Williams’ eventual replacement, but might leave via free agency. Griffen can play either end position and either tackle or as a linebacker in passing situations. He’s one of the most athletic and physical defenders on the team and needs to be given a consistent role somewhere. Reed, a rookie seventh-round draft pick, was inactive for all 16 games. He showed natural pass rushing skills in the preseason.
LINEBACKERS: Starters — WLB Erin Henderson, MLB E.J. Henderson, SLB Chad Greenway. Backups — WLB Kenny Onatolu, MLB Xavier Adibi, SLB Larry Dean.
The Henderson brothers are unrestricted free agents. The team is expected to pursue a deal with the younger Erin, but let long-time starter E.J. leave because he’ll be 32 next season. Greenway, the team’s leading tackler the past four seasons, made very few splash plays this season. He is athletic and fast enough to be given a role that’s more conducive to making big plays. That will be a priority for the defensive coaches as they try to bounce back from a disastrous season. Adibi played in only four games, mostly as a special teamer. Onatolu and Dean, a rookie from Division II Valdosta State, are only special teamers. The Vikings could be looking at overhauling this position with two new starters and possibly a new backup to replace Onatolu.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters — LCB Asher Allen, RCB Cedric Griffin, FS Mistral Raymond, SS Jamarca Sanford. Backups — CB Benny Sapp, CB Marcus Sherels, CB Brandon Burton, CB Chris Cook, S Eric Frampton, S Jarrad Page, S Andrew Sendejo. Injured reserve — LCB Antoine Winfield, S Tyrell Johnson, FS Husain Abdullah.
This was, by far, the weakest unit on the team. Injuries and an overall lack of playmakers doomed the defense to the second-worst passer rating allowed (107.6) in NFL history. The team went a whopping nine games without an interception despite leading the league in sacks. The final tally of eight picks tied a franchise record for fewest in a season. By the end of the season, Allen was the best defensive back.
Under normal conditions, he’d be a dime back, at best.
Griffin isn’t expected back after a dismal season that saw him unable to return to form after tearing the ACL in both knees the past two seasons. Raymond, a rookie sixth-round draft pick, showed just how raw he is in five starts. Sanford is the only Day 1 starter that stayed healthy or didn’t lose his job because of performance. But he proved to be a terrible tackler that also lacks the instincts to play the position at a starting level. Sapp, a late-season stopgap, is a free agent who won’t be re-signed. Page and Sendejo also have no future with the team. Sherels, a second-year pro who made the team as a returner, might make a good nickel back some day. He’s got good instincts and above average hands.
Burton, a rookie, is raw and did nothing to gain the confidence of the coaching staff as injuries mounted around him. Cook, a big corner drafted in the second round in 2010, is the most talented DB on the roster, but his future with the team is uncertain because he faces felony domestic assault charges. His trial is expected to start in March.
Frampton is one of the best special teams players, but doesn’t get a whiff at safety. Winfield will be 35 next season, but he should return as a starter. He missed all but five games this season, but the good news is his injuries (neck, clavicle) weren’t to his legs. Johnson, an unrestricted free agent, was a major bust as the team’s top pick (in the second round) in 2008. He’s coming off surgery to repair a detached hamstring. He’ll get a fresh start somewhere else. Abdullah is an unrestricted free agent who is contemplating retirement at age 26. He’s had four concussions the past two seasons, including two in 2011. The former undrafted free agent has built himself into an OK player, but he’s far from a priority. The team needs to find playmakers at safety and corner.
SPECIAL TEAMS: K Ryan Longwell, P Chris Kluwe, KOR Percy Harvin, KOR Lorenzo Booker, KOR Marcus Sherels, PR Sherels, LS Matt Katula, H Kluwe. Injured reserve — LS Cullen Loeffler.
Longwell had his worst season in his six years with the Vikings. He missed 6 of 28 field goal attempts, but some of them came after Loeffler was placed on IR because of a fractured bone in his lower back. When Loeffler returns, the place-kicking should be back in good hands with three men (Loeffler, Kluwe and Longwell) who have been together since 2006. Harvin is one of the most dangerous kickoff returners in the league. He averaged 32.5 yards with one touchdown on 16 attempts this season. The team limits his number of returns, so Booker (19) and Sherels (16) combined to return 35 kickoffs. Neither is nearly as dangerous as Harvin, but Sherels did average 27.8 yards per return. Sherels started off as an excellent punt returner, but lost some confidence and became hesitant after making some poor decisions near his own goal line. He finished with an 8.4-yard average.