Friday, October 26, 2007

Finding Hope

It turns out you can find a good chunk of 'hope' in 'hoops'. We're about to find out how powerful that that little literary coincidence is.

In this state, it's more potent than we might expect, or even want to admit. I'm not sure if there is any other region in the country that embraces youth movements in sports quite like Minnesota does. It's a bad habit. We want to think it's based on our natural optimism, but the truth is darker. We embrace the beginning because we've been so dissappointed watching our teams fail to successfully negotiate those last few steps at the end.

And so we yearn to rebuild. The Wild can state from their inception that they'll be relatively incompetent for a half dozen years while they wait for their minor league system to bear fruit. They still sell out. Watching a successful baseball team for a half dozen years is almost more than we can bear. We yearn to tear it down and restart, rather than face the possible torture of another short playoff appearance.

And now there are the Wolves. My family and I went to last night's preseason game and The Chatty Chatty Princess™ wore her Garnett jersey, "even though he's not on the team any more daddy." I hear you kid. And seemingly, so does the rest of the fan base. When talking with a sales rep tonight, I was informed that the season ticket package was the only way left to get tix to their most popular game this season - Friday, Febuary 8th versus the Celtics. It's gonna get a bit dusty in Target Center that night.

Until then, we have a lot of new guys to watch, and based on tonight's game, it'll be easy for this fan base to find some hope. Rashad McCants and Al Jefferson both look like real players, and Jefferson could end up an all-star. Craig Smith is still undersized vertically, but looked the part of the gritty backup power forward. Theo Ratliff looked competent.

But there will be growing pains. I want to get excited about Randy Foye, but he didn't play much, and didn't shine when he did. I made the mistake of watching first round pick Corey Brewer, and I wish I could get those images out of my head. Not that I don't think he won't eventually look good, but tonight he just looked lost, and I don't expect that will be the last time.

But the guy that made me rush to to look up his stats and history was Sebastian Telfair. He looked like a real point guard, delivering bounce passes in the lane, drawing the double team, attacking the basket. He's just 22 years old, and was drafted 13th overall out of high school in 2004.

His history is interesting. His one year with the Celtics was terrible - he fell from a promising first string guy to a troubled 3rd string guy - but he was playing for Doc Rivers. And just a year ago he was good enough that the Celtics, a rebuilding team, traded a #7 pick for him after he spent two years with Portland. And you have to love any guy who rotowire describes as "a New York City playground legend".

Listen, if he becomes as good at point guard as McCants looks like he'll be at small forward, that would allow Foye to become the sniper shooting guard that he seemingly needs to be. And suddenly the Wolves have four above-average players in their starting rotation, and they're all young and ....

Ah, you see, it got me too. It might be a bad habit, but bad habits come from somewhere, don't they? Like boredom. Or desperation.

Or hope.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

The Blame Game: Dysfunction

Dysfunction isn't simple. It's a layered beast. The problems build over time, and it makes it difficult to identify what the current problem is. We remember the problem that is three layers down, but maybe not the one we can deal with right now.

And I know this well, because I'm a Vikings fan.

And I can guarantee you by the end of today's game, I was nearly as dysfunctional as my favorite NFL team. I had become angrier and angrier as I watched the game, and as I drove home listening to KFAN, it was apparent that wasn't unique. But I wondered if we weren't being as dysfunctional as the offense, focusing on old problems instead of the immediate issue.

Yes, Adrian Peterson still doesn't touch the ball enough, but was that the biggest issue with why the Vikings offense stalled in nine straight drives? And so, through the magic of TIVO, I thought it might be kind of neat to recap them quickly, and play The Blame Game.

2nd drive. Starting at the Vikings 1 yard line - After a succesful first drive, the Vikings go three and out, but bad field position should get most of the blame. And I'll let Bobby Wade off the hook for that.
Blame: Nobody. Wade did what he was supposed to do and let a punted ball over his head go past him. It was just a bad bounce.

3rd drive. Starting at the Vikes 21 yard line - Well, the first two plays were runs by Peterson that made all of 1 yard. 3rd down was a pass to Ferguson that was off-target, caught, but bobbled out of bounds and found to be incomplete on replay.
Blame: Nobody. It was logical to run a couple of times, and they went to the right guy. I suppose it could be on Jackson for the bad pass, but two crummy runs set it up.

By the way, these are the only meaningful times the offense had the ball in the first half. Considering that the offense scored on one of their three possessions and began another on their own one yar line, that wasn't a bad half.

4th drive. Starting at the Vikes 16 yard line - Two runs gain seven yards, and the second could have gone farther if Peterson reads his block. But on 3rd and three, Peterson is on the sideline and the Vikes line up in the shotgun. The try to run a pick play on the left. It takes a long time to develop, the pass is on target, but the receiver is covered, and it's broken up.
Blame: Coaching, but not just for having Peterson on the sideline. Why, on third and three, do you commit to the pass with a shotgun? Why not play-action? Why allow the cornerbacks to jam the receivers? Why not keep the defense honest?

5th drive. Starting at the Vikes 7 yard line - Jackson almost earns a safety on the first play, when he intentionally grounds the ball from the one yard line. It was supposed to be a short pass in the flat to Kleinsasser, but the Cowboys left defensive end was up field and blocked the vision of Jackson. The second option seemed to be a the wide receiver on the other sideline who simply never moved - until Jackson started looking for him at which point he was gone. The next two plays were running plays, the first of which was a zero yard gain by Peterson.
Blame: Offensive Line This drive was doomed on the first play. At first, that looked like Jackson's fault, and he certainly could have been decisive earlier. But the line wins the blame for two reasons:
1) The right guard took several steps back immeiately after the snap, inviting the left end to clog up that lane. Either that's his mistake or it's a stupidly designed play.
2) With his first option removed, Jackson just didn't have time to identify a second option. Even on a three-step drop, he needs more time than he had.

6th drive. Starting at the Vikes 24 yard line - The Vikings move the ball on this drive. A big third down completion to Bobby Wade precedes a 12-yard scramble by Jackson and a fifteen-yard run by Peterson. At the Cowboys 31-yard line, the Vikes hand off to Taylor for no yards. Jackson misses Bobby Wade for a long completion on a well-excecuted play-action pass. And then Jackson feels the rush and throws a dump pass at the feet of Troy Williamson. Adrian Peterson is not on the field for any of those three plays.
Blame: Jackson Again, this changed from game time. At the time I was irate that Peterson wasn't on the field. I'm still baffled by him not being there, but that second play was set up to work perfectly, and the third play was makable and could've gotten the first down (or at least a closer field goal attempt.) Jackson threw a bad pass on second down and a made a decision way too late on third down.

7th drive. Starting on Vikes own 20 yard line - A promising start as Peterson runs for 12 yards, Taylor runs for 16 and then Jackson tucks the ball and runs for three more. Ryan Cook commits a false start penalty so the Vikes need twelve yards on two downs. Adrian Peterson drops a long pass. Jackson completes a dump pass to Taylor on third down, but the Vikes are four yards short and punt again at the Cowboys 47 yard line.
Blame: Offensive line. It's a tough call, because I don't love the idea of trying to throw 20 yards downfield to Peterson on a must-have play, and Peterson did drop the ball. Plus, the offensive line generally gave Jackson enough time. But that false start penalty changed that drive.

8th drive. Starting on Vikes own 9 yard line -
Blame: Peterson. He fumbles the ball and the Cowboys recover and kick a field goal.

9th drive. Starting on Vikes own 22 yard line - Yet another drive starts out well, with a short run by Taylor and a 21-yard pass to Troy Williamson. Peterson comes back into the game, and the Vikes fake him the ball on an end around but hand off to Taylor up the middle for no gain. On second down, Jackson takes a short drop and looks for one of three receivers all of which have stopped about seven yards out. His first option is covered and before he can throw the ball to the outside receiver he's hit by the defender that Peterson was blocking. On third down, the Cowboys send an extra rusher, Jackson is pressured and tries to dump it to Taylor, but it's incomplete.
Blame: Don't know When three plays in a row go nowhere, it's hard to say. I originally had thought this was play-calling, but Peterson was in the game, and the team was trying to use the play-action pass.

10th drive. Starting on Cowboys 45-yard line - The Vikes try three pass plays, and Peterson isn't on the field for any of them. First, they throw long down the sideline to Sydney Rice, and that's broken up. On second down, Jackson drills a 10-yard pass towards Bobby Wade, but it's way off target. On third down, Jackson is sacked, despite having time and two outlet options, at least one of which was wide open.
Blame: Jackson You must have Peterson on the field for these, even if he isn't the blocker Taylor is. But Jackson made an absolute mess of the last two plays and didn't give the Vikes a chance to attempt a fourth down.

So what did I learn? First, the offense was a little better than I thought, moving the ball on three of their second-half drives. But there was plenty of blame to go around for when it stalled, with the Vikings right side of the offensive line not getting it's fair share.

Second, while there are a few times that Vikings fans can legitimately gripe about Peterson's role, it's probably not more than a handful of plays. And it's also worth noting that when it comes to blame, Peterson's fumble, dropped pass and missed block led to three stalled drives. You could argue that he is a runner-up in The Blame Game.

But the "winner" is probably Tarvaris Jackson. Reviewing the game, he completed more passes than I remembered, though I'm sure we'll hear more about his longer off-target passes. But what really hurt him and the Vikings were several short dump passes that he threw a little too late, staying with primary and secondary receivers a little too long.

Not that this was the only problem. It appears there are indeed several layers of dysfunction to the Vikings offense. We may indeed be just scratching the surface.