Now that the Vikings’ pitiful season is finally dead, let’s grab our analytical scalpel and slice through the layers of failure that obscure the reasons for the team’s return to crappiness. Only by examining each organ of the Vikes’ football system can we determine what the most critical factors were that sent our favorite team to an early grave during the 2013 NFL season.
Here are my top 5 reasons why the Vikings’ season is now “in a better place”, and I also offer my predictions/suggestions as to how the problem can be fixed going into next season.
5. Linebackers: Going into the season, the Vikings were bullish on their linebacking crew which figured to be Chad Greenway, Desmond Bishop, and Erin Henderson. Bishop was lost for the season due to injury about six seconds after he was finally healthy enough to take the field; Henderson was painfully mediocre all season until a thoroughly idiotic DUI charge sent him to the bench; even standout Greenway had a nauseating year, as he missed tackles and seemingly forgot how to make plays. The emergence of Audie Cole as an instinctive playmaker was the only thing that kept the collection of sad sacks known as the linebacking crew from being a total failure.
Going into next season, the Vikings can take heart that they have two good starters in Greenway and Cole. Greenway should return to his Pro Bowl self and Cole will have a chance to pick up where he left off before he was injured late in the season. The Vikings also did invest two picks last year for LB prospects Mike Mauti and Gerald Hodges, so if one of those two can develop into a starter, then this unit will be markedly improved. Regardless, the team will need to address this position via free agency or the draft in order to build some depth or possibly land a high caliber starter.
4. Defensive secondary: First the good news. Harrison Smith and Xavier Rhodes appear to both be top notch young players who can anchor this secondary for the next decade. Now for the bad news. There is no one else on this team capable of starting for a top ten NFL defense.
Smith had already proven himself as a top safety before turf toe robbed him of his season, and once Rhodes got some experience under his belt, he was looking like an excellent cover corner that could compete with the league’s best receivers. Chris Cook was his usual horrible self, Jamarca Sanford continued to unimpress, and Josh Robinson was somehow always a few steps behind his receiver despite being the fastest player in the draft two years ago. At least Marcus Sherels was competitive, but he should be no higher than a dime back on this team.
Going in to next season, Smith and Rhodes will be anchors, Robinson will be given another shot because of his high end physical skills, and Sherels will make the team because of his special teams contributions and adequate coverage abilities. This means that the Vikings need to find upgrades at the other safety position and at the #2 and #3 cornerback spots. Fortunately, experts are saying this offseason will be deep with available cornerbacks, thus the Vikes are likely to use a sizeable chunk of their ample salary cap space to sign a top name or two. In addition, the team will also use at least one pick in the first three rounds to bolster the secondary. Help is on the way.
3. Quarterback: I can already hear the gasps from all of my highly intelligent readers as they wonder how this position isn’t the clear cut #1 on this list. To you astute, perspicacious beacons of reason, I offer the following justification.
The Vikings put up plenty of offense this season as a whole, as they were 8th in the NFC in yards, 9th in points scored, and 23rd in the league in passing yards. Are these numbers great? Hell no, but they could be good enough for a team who had a defense that didn’t totally suck. Don’t get me wrong, the QB position was a major problem, but it certainly wasn’t the biggest problem.
Combined, the Vikes’ QBs had 18 TDs and 18 interceptions, which is the very definition of crappy. Ponder and Cassel were usually able to move the ball, but they would intersperse their successes with horrible passes that were picked off and sometimes returned for touchdowns. Ponder put the final nail in his Vikings career coffin while Cassel did just enough to warrant being brought back next year. And Josh Freeman isn’t worth the eighteen words of this sentence telling you he was a total disaster.
Going into next season, I am fine with the Vikings bringing Cassel back as either a temporary starter or backup. Cassel has an option on his contract, so he may not come back, but I saw enough that tells me he can at least be competent if he is given the job. But the Vikings absolutely need to draft a QB. Whether they can get a top guy at the #8 pick they currently have, trade up to get a higher pick, or else draft defense first and then grab a QB in rounds 2-4 and develop him, something must be done.
Good QB are available almost every year in rounds 2-4 (sometimes even in rounds 5-6), and if the purple can’t get a top guy early, they simply can’t reach again like they did for Ponder. Take the best player available at #8, and then get a QB later and hope he will be another Russell Wilson, Andy Dalton, Colin Kaepernick, or Tom Brady, all players drafted after round one. Let Cassel run the team until the young guy is ready to take over, whether that be Week 8 of next season or Week 1 of 2015.
QB may not have been the #1 reason the Vikings blew goats this season, but it is absolutely the #1 position that needs to get moving in the right direction during the offseason.
2. Coaching and or GM decisions: Much of this one depends on who you believe made the decisions as to which players saw the field the most this season. Was it Leslie Frazier that kept running Ponder out there every week when Cassel was clearly a better option, or did GM Rick Spielman send orders down that his former #1 draft pick needed to be given chance-after-excruciating chance? Given Frazier’s high level of loyalty and consistently conservative actions, I tend to give him more of the blame.
Either way, it was Frazier that failed to make sure guys like Cordarrelle Patterson and Audie Cole were on the field more often, as his perplexing loyalty to Erin Henderson and inexplicably conservative approach to using Patterson on offense cost this team. It was Frazier that hired the unimaginative Bill Musgrave for offensive coordinator along with the overmatched and publicly-called-out-by-his-players Alan Williams at defensive coordinator. And it was also Frazier that insisted on continuing to use the outdated Tampa 2 scheme despite opposing teams knowing exactly how to dissect it with ease.
Going into next season, the Vikings need to find a coach that will make moves that are best for the team even if it means said moves will anger players and/or coaches. Top NFL coaches such as Jim Harbaugh, Pete Carroll, and Bill Belichick have all shown that they will bench solid veterans in favor of youngsters that clearly have a higher ceiling. These bold moves do cause friction in locker rooms at first, but when the results show, teams only respect these coaches more.
Don’t feel bad for Frazier, he had his chance, and he will get paid next season even if he doesn’t take another job. He will always be in demand as a defensive coordinator and perhaps some other team will give him a shot in the future. It’s time for the Vikings to move on and find an upgrade at the coaching position.
1. Defensive line: So here it is, the number one reason the Vikes’ season died a slow, painful death. Jared Allen had an average season at best; certainly not anywhere within light years of the $17 million dollars the team paid him. That kind of money calls for him to be dominant. Brian Robison had the best year of his career, getting a solid number of sacks while also batting down a ton of passes and being stout against the run. Everson Griffen was essentially non-existent. Kevin Williams was barely mediocre at defensive tackle, and also came nowhere close to earning the $5 million he was paid.
Despite most of these players having subpar seasons, the biggest reason the Vikings’ defense sucked like an 80 lb. lamprey was the complete, total, and utter lack of anything positive from their nose tackles. Letroy Guion and Fred Evans are towering monuments to ineptitude. These two tubby buffet masters combined for a paltry one sack, one fumble recovery, and four passes defensed. Instead of stuffing the run and providing pressure up the gut to force opposing QBs into the hands of Allen and Robison, Guion and Evans were being pushed around with ease and committing penalties at an alarming rate. These two are terrible and the $5 million used to pay them can be put to infinitely better use next season.
Going into next season, the Vikings have a chance to upgrade this group in a hurry. I don’t see any way the Vikings keep Allen unless they franchise him, which would really piss him off and may cause his performance to sink further. But, the Vikes will bring back Robison and I believe they will also re-sign Griffen, who I believe can be a good player if he is given a chance to play every down. He is athletic as hell and has shown flashes, so give him the job and let him run with it.
In the interior of the line, the Vikes have Sharrif Floyd, a 1st rounder last year that really started to show some promise towards the end of the season. I have no reservations installing him at defensive tackle next year and predict he will flourish. This leaves us with nose tackle. Fortunately, the answer has been wearing purple for over a decade: Kevin Williams. When he was forced to play NT vs Cleveland, Williams had a monster game and looked like his old dominating self. If the Vikings can convince Williams to play NT at a reasonable price, that will go a long way in improving the defense as a whole.
So, I would love to see a d-line next season consisting of Robison, Floyd, Williams, and Griffen. And through the draft and free agency, the team can also pick up another DE and NT as insurance against Griffen not getting it and to rotate with the elder Williams, respectively. This group can be solid next season without making too many changes.
As you can see, defense is a recurring theme on the Vikings’ pathology report. They came four points away from setting a new team record for most points surrendered during a season, finished 31st in the league in pass yards given up, and had major issues holding on to leads in the last two minutes of games.
How will they resuscitate this lifeless defense? I think the Vikes will draft a LB, S, DT, and will use their cap space to sign two established CBs. (On offense I think they will draft a QB and a G.) They will also have money to add another mid-level defensive player or two to add depth where needed. Spielman has his work cut out for him.
There you have it, the dissected corpse of this failed season all laid out on the cold stainless steel table of an NFL morgue with all of the fatal shortcomings clearly visible. This Vikings season may have died, but fortunately for us fans, hope never does.