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Chewing the Cud Week 6.5

This is beginning to taste bitter. On the discomfort scale,watching that game is somewhere in between an episode of HBO’s “Hello Ladies” and a colonoscopy. Few things can temper realistic optimism like the inability to stop the run. Sure the Panthers averaged less than 4 yards per carry, but just after Brandon LaFell’s backbreaking 79-yard touchdown a minute into the 3rd quarter, Carolina had already compiled 91 yards on 20 carries (excluding Cam Newton’s kneel to run out the 2nd quarter). The sheer volume for that point in the game is incredible.

My jaw hurts

My jaw hurts

Hardly As It Appears? Apparently, no yes

What really stands out to me, upon reflection, is the actual closeness first half. Based on Fox’s graphic and some numbers I crunched from Pro-Football-Reference.com, the Vikings and the Panthers averaged 4.7 and 4.8 yards per-play respectively with the Panthers having run five more plays(obviously discounting penalties and kneeldowns). If both offenses were roughly as productive, then who or what is to blame for a two score deficit that was one Josh Robinson/Xavier Rhodes brain fart*  away from an irreversible blowout?

Turnovers are an obvious place to look. Matt Cassel was looking like the epitome of efficiency in his second start of 2013. The game starts with him going 4/5 for 33 yards, with 3 of those completions creating first downs. What followed was one of the most errant throws I have ever seen**, and an interception. Thus, a 41 yard drive does not even yield beneficial field position for the Vikings.

While not inside the 20, Carolina still started inside its own 40. The average NFL team does not even muster a field goal from drives that start from this field position***, so Minnesota’s defense was not facing an impossible task in bailing out an offensive mistake. The defense even got a couple of errors out of Carolina (a pass that should have been an easy pick for Jamarca Sanford had he reacted a tad quicker, and a 10 yard illegal use of hands penalty on Ryan Kalil). The subsequent 1st and 20 and 3rd and 9 both indicate that the defense should have gotten off the field. A defensive holding call on the aforementioned 3rd down saved the Panthers’ bacon. Chad Greenway’s good work to get to Newton quickly and sack him was erased, and the tone set for a 9 minute touchdown march.

Cassel’s shudder-inducing pass was intercepted, while Newton’s was not. Ryan Kalil’s 10 yard penalty was irrelevant since Josh Robinson’s hold created an automatic first down (instead of a 3rd and 4). Lady luck is a floozy. Complaining about such things is pointless, especially when the Vikings enjoyed her company in the last game.****  Nevertheless, the fact remains that Carolina benefitted from luck i.e. randomness as much as their own prowess at this point in the game.

Another thing to look at is coaching decisions. On the Panther’s first drive, they went for it on 4th and 1 twice. The second of the two successful attempts came from Minnesota’s 2 yard line. The result was a Carolina touchdown. When Minnesota faced a similar situation, albeit from Carolina’s 4, they opted for the field goal. To be fair to Leslie Frazier, since the Minnesota drive was taking place at the end of the half the field-position benefits accruing to Minnesota had they failed to convert 4th down are immaterial. Conversely, going for the kick still left the Vikings behind two possessions as opposed to one in a game where the defense was looking overmatched.

I am blathering on. What I am trying to illustrate is that while, the seeds of a blowout appear to have been sowed in the first half, binary coaching decisions and a little bit of luck had a great deal to do with the two score disparity at the half. If you believe in momentum, it is easy to imagine that had the 3rd quarter began with a 3 point Minnesota deficit or even a tie (both conceivable given the above), a very different outcome for the game entire.

Outcomes Matter

Caution Vikes Tikes: Video contains coarse language

Matt Cassel played roughly as well as I expected. For the majority of the second half, the score meant the dynamics of the game had shifted against him. To wit, the untouched Carolina blitzers that repeatedly killed Vikings’ drives do not fall on him (completely). He demonstrated the ability to move the ball against a good defense, and the one turnover that occurred when the game was still competitive did not obliterate any chance of victory. On that last 1st half drive, Cassel also put the ball where it needed to be for Rudolph to make a play on it in the end zone on 3rd down. Not for the first time, Rudolph demonstrated neither the awareness to get his feet in bounds nor the savvy to draw a pass interference. Crucial four points left on the board.

While I may therefore sympathize with a guy who had a chance to breathe life into his career, and suffered from poor defensive support amongst other things, it is time to switch to Josh Freeman. Sure there are the bits of randomness I mentioned above, but the outcomes matter. Even if the second half easily could have been competitive or our favorite team could have easily won one or two more games, the 2013 Minnesota Vikings are 1-4. This is irrevocable.

The objectives are now two-fold: go at least 9-2 over the remaining 11 games (more on that later) and try to figure which of the multitude of players with expiring contracts should be brought back.

One move can easily go a long way to checking off two of those boxes: putting Josh Freeman in. Cassel might be playing well enough given a blank slate, but the only way the Vikings will get to 10-6 with him at the helm is something close to superhuman form from Adrian. Given Freeman’s past inconsistency and lack of preparation, he may turn out worse than Cassel. For me, Cassel has shown his limited upside. Compared to Ponder, he is more confident in the pocket and seems to read defenses more quickly. Both his accuracy and mobility, however, are not elite.

Josh Freeman is supposedly a deep ball Rembrandt who should theoretically exploit the Cover 1 we constantly see. His ability to not only stay calm, but improvise in a collapsing pocket looks more promising than the frantic Ponder and the statuesque Cassel. Statuesque may be a little harsh, but the argument remains.

One last point. Josh Freeman made a conscious decision to bet on himself. He knows the quality of performance will have a significant impact on the amount of snake feed he can buy. His ‘Greg Schiano is a lunatic nutbar who is out to get me’ lifeline is all used up. Whatever personal issue he may or may not have had, at least for 2013, there should be enough incentive to be the best professional he can be.

The consensus holds that that professional has a higher upside than Matt Cassel. At 1-4, upside is what’s needed to compensate for this team’s shortcomings, past and future. Sorry Matt, coffee is for closers.

Our Newest Model of Rose Tinted Glasses: The 9-2

The remainder of the schedule sees the Vikings go up against four teams that currently lead their divisions. Three of those are on the road – including a daunting trip to Seattle. Just to make things easier, there are also trips to Green Bay and Baltimore. Only 2 of the 11 games on the schedule are against teams that are currently below .500.

In other words, the Vikings will have to play as good as they did last December for a longer stretch. Basically double the amount of time. The defense will have to start getting pressure with four and/or stop blowing coverages. There is a bigger likelihood of the offense stepping up its game to lead that run. There is a joker up their sleeve, but the Colin Kaepernick-Trent Dilfer midseason QB switch game changer are the exceptions. The rule may look more like this.

I’ll take a couple of shots of hope down here. Skol!

 

*Truth be told, it is hard to assign blame for the busted coverage on LaFell’s TD without knowing the call, and the defense’s plan for adjusting – kind of like the last touchdown in the Bears game. Like that touchdown, it looks like a Cover 3 was called. It appears that Cook, Sanford, and Rhodes each have a deep 1/3, while the remaining four guys in coverage have the underneath bit. Hence, Robinson drifts (from the slot) outside mindlessly to the flat with LaFell going the same direction only to suddenly take his route vertical into the synthetic pastures of the Metrodome. The defense’s deep left looks to be Rhodes’ responsibility, but with Ginn going vertical from the snap, Rhodes sticks with him instead of LaFell. Further, Ginn angles his route infield to leave space for LaFell. Perhaps Robinson should have been quicker to abandon the flat and carry LaFell. Perhaps Rhodes should have shunted Ginn onto Sanford and taken on LaFell. Whatever the answer to that question, the play’s ultimate result is not in doubt. Also, to add some confusion for a football simpleton like meeself, pre-snap movement makes it look as if Minnesota’s DB are playing man, as Josh Robinson tracks Ginn across the formation; Robinson then lines up across LaFell in the slot, with Rhodes moving outside.

**It appears as if there may have been a tight window to get Jennings the ball for a big gain, but then the ball sailed. What’s hard to understand is how overthrown the pass was despite Cassel taking a blow – did he over-overcompensate?

***After the interception, Carolina’s Expected Points was a measly 1.47. Expected Points denotes the amount of points a team is expected to score on a drive given down, distance and game clock. For a discussion of ‘Expected Points’ check this out.

****Pittsburgh dropped two interceptions in London, and when Cassel was strip-sacked, the Vikings were actually able to net a first down on the recovery.


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