The Minnesota Vikings' offense has fallen, and it can't get up. In fact, I say it won't get up at all this season.
The heady days of spraying the ball around with a Brett Favre-led pass attack are gone, and they aren't coming back. If the Vikings are going to come close to approximating their success from a year ago, it's got to be AP All Day. There isn't any other way. Watching the Vikings plod and stumble and dink and dunk down the field against the hapless Lions on Sunday confirmed all I need to know.
Sure, it's still early. And yes, Favre and the passing game looked rough last September, as well. But I'm convinced that 2010 will lack the same degree of recovery.
A rebirth of Favre-to-Rice and Favre-to-Shiancoe and, for one glorious instant against the 49ers, Favre-to-Lewis, looks thoroughly improbable right now. This isn't the same team, and Favre isn't the same quarterback (Favre's left ankle surely isn't the same left ankle), and Sidney Rice won't even be playing for at least another month or so, and now Visanthe Shiancoe is nursing a leg injury. Percy Harvin, meanwhile, has an ailing hip and persistent migraine problems.
Most importantly, the Vikings' offensive line in 2010 is looking exponentially older, more error-prone and more beat up than a year ago at a time when Favre needs airtight protection more than ever.
The interpersonal politics are certainly not the same, either, with Favre concerned about the play of some of those charged with protecting him, as well the lack of options to replace Rice.
As vital as Sunday's win over Detroit was -- an 0-3 start for this outfit might have doomed the season -- no one in a cramped Vikings' locker room claimed this passing game was even close to being back. It remained slow and imprecise and lacking any vertical intent. Favre continued to get sacked and hurried and tossed around far too much for his soon to be 41-year-old frame to withstand over a 16-game season.
"First and foremost, we have to keep Brett on his feet," said Harvin, who latched on to one of Favre's rare downfield throws Sunday for a touchdown. "We have to keep Brett on his feet for us to be able to do what we want to do."
Scouts and opposing defensive coordinators paint a fairly bleak portrait of the state of the offensive line, however. The Vikings were forced to reach down to their third-string center Sunday, while Pro Bowl guard Steve Hutchinson, who missed the offseason due to shoulder surgery, "is definitely not totally back, and seems to be declining," according to a coach who has studied the Vikings heavily.
Right guard Anthony Herrera has struggled, and issues about the dedication and doggedness of left tackle Bryant McKinnie came to light again early in Week 1. His waning production remains a point of trepidation.
Losing trusted third-down back Chester Taylor has been a blow as well, with Taylor their best pass-protecting back ("when they have to fan out their protection now on third down, they've got problems," one scout said).
According to league sources, Favre has confided in friends around the league that he fears being able to get through a 16-game season given the state of the offensive line and the protection issues in general. "He's told other players that he's not comfortable with the offensive line," one source said.
Then, there's the ankle. Coaches and scouts I've spoken to believe it is playing on Favre's mind and also throwing off his mechanics. Here's how one opposing defensive coach summarized it:
"He seems very hyper in the pocket. His feet are always buzzing and moving in the pocket now. You can tell he doesn't want anyone to roll up or fall on that ankle, and he seems paranoid about it. There's like a pitter-patter there even after he releases the ball, where's he's making sure his feet are on the ground and no one is under him. His feet aren't quiet anymore...
"And you don't see as much follow through, either. His weight-transfer is way back, and he's not staying into his throws. That comes from the ankle, and that's probably why he's been sailing some throws."
The personnel isn't the same, either. Rice was Favre's go-to target, a dominant performer on third down and in the red zone. Favre had an innate confidence that he could throw up a jump ball, and most likely Rice was going to come up with it. And if he didn't, then he'd do whatever it took to keep the defensive back from hauling it in.
"(Rice's) loss is really showing up in the red zone," the scout said. "(Favre) seems frustrated with (Bernard) Berrian, because he doesn't fight for the ball the way Rice does. It's not even close. So that turns all the focus to Shiancoe in the red zone, and you double him and see what anyone else can do."
Rice was also the Vikings' deep threat, a guy who could beat double-coverage and still make an explosive play. Harvin is great in space, but still is limited in the type of routes he is asked to run. Favre has already thrown five interceptions at home, after throwing just two in nine games at the Metrodome all of last season -- including the playoffs.
Only five teams have completed fewer passes of at least 20 yards than the Vikings. Favre's passer rating on attempts of 21 yards or greater is a woeful 53.6 (23rd in the NFL), with him being rushed or hit or getting balls knocked down at the line of scrimmage. The Vikings aren't stretching anyone now. Favre's average of 6.15 yards per attempt ranks tied for 24th in the NFL, behind guys like Shaun Hill and Matt Moore. His rating of 60.4 puts him near the bottom of all starters as well.
The team looks sluggish coming out of the huddle, with the tempo generally expected of a West Coast team not present. It's simply not like 2009 at all, and I have a hard time seeing that truly change. The lack of timing and rhythm that comes from a full offseason is glaring at times.
"We're not there yet," Shiancoe said. "Some of it is penalties. Some of it is protection. It's been a little bit of everything."
In the meantime, Adrian Peterson has become the unquestioned fulcrum of this offense. Peterson has carried the ball 70 times already -- third-most in the NFL -- and has 83 touches, one behind Titans running back Chris Johnson for most in the NFL. Peterson has now become the third-down back, as well, and is a focal point catching balls out of the backfield.
The run game is carrying Minnesota, and I suspect it will have to do so all season. It makes life easier for the aging/depleted line. It makes life easier on Favre. Getting back to the balance they had in all aspects of offense a year ago -- deep pass to short pass; run to pass; multitude of targets -- seems far-fetched to me. This is Peterson's team again. Favre's ankle isn't going to start feeling better as the hits mount. Things have changed.
In the locker room after Sunday's win, however, there were flickers of 2009. Favre, mouth filled with pizza, gathered around a small television watching the ending of the Saints-Falcons game, cheering loudly when Garrett Hartley missed a field goal, and even louder when Matt Bryant won the game for Atlanta in overtime.
The Vikings' budding rivalry with the Saints -- born of the physical clash they lost in the NFC Championship Game last season and renewed in a Week 1 defeat at the Superdome -- is clearly still on their minds. Getting back to such lofty heights, however, and clashing again with New Orleans in the postseason, will take a very different tact this year. And with what we've seen so far, it could well prove out of reach.
What is he thinking?
Of all the misguided holdouts in NFL history, Marcus McNeill's might be the strangest. Returning to the team over the weekend was truly baffling, and this is another situation in which the Chargers are the winner (though perhaps neither side will really win; more on that later).
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If you're going to sit out until late September, you'd best be prepared to sit out the entire season, especially if you're a restricted free agent left tackle sitting on a $600,000 contract tender. Caving in now is odd, considering McNeill passed on a $3.2 million contract tender back in July. That's $2.5 million he might never see again. Sorry, you need to have this thing thoroughly planned out before you go to war with general manager A.J. Smith.
McNeill still has no assurances for his future, and he's going to try to start playing a few weeks without training camp under his belt -- ask Darrelle Revis about how easy it is to pick up an ailment when you do that -- and he risks incurring serious injuries. Plus, he missed out three paychecks already and then has to serve out a three-game roster-exempt suspension the Chargers placed on him. While everyone else gets 17 checks, he'll get 11 and miss out on another few hundred thousand dollars.
By coming back he could believe the Chargers are more inclined to give him a long-term deal; I contend if he caved now, he'll cave again when it comes to negotiations. Hard to develop leverage that way and, again, playing now under less-than-ideal conditions makes it difficult to improve your stock. Smith won't be bullied into anything -- certainly not a long-term deal -- and the Chargers obviously had reservations about entering into that kind of deal with him already.
»Michael Vick is obviously the runaway favorite for Comeback Player of the Year right now, and for good reason. He has a passer rating of 100 or better in his three appearances this season (a first for him in his 89-game career).
Consider this: Vick has made 70 starts in his career, and this is just the second time he has posted back-to-back starts with a rating of 100 or higher in each game.
» If Leon Washington can keep up his incredible return from blowing out his knee, he and Wes Welker will be right there in terms of redemptive stories as well. Washington single-handedly won that game for Seattle over San Diego, and you can't convince me the Jets really prefer Joe McKnight to him. That deal could turn out to be an absolute steal for Seattle.
» I may have missed on a few teams in the offseason. I didn't think the Chiefs and Bears would do much, but both are undefeated. Kansas City restoring its home-field advantage at the new and improved Arrowhead Stadium is one of the under-reported stories of the first month of the season. They have beaten two preseason division favorites in the process.
» The Cleveland Browns have scored just seven second-half points thus far -- not good for a team that figures to be trailing its fair share of games.
The picks are in
Bounced back to go 10-6 last week (special teams gaffes cost me at least another two or three games). And, worse yet, I lost my first lock of the week, playing a hunch on the 49ers and getting crushed by the revenge of Arrowhead. Not good.
Anyway, I'm 29-19 on the year (2-1 on locks). This week, give me the Bills, Bengals, Ravens, Titans, Packers, Falcons, Saints, Rams, Colts, Texans, Eagles, Chargers, Giants, and Patriots. Give me the Packers as my you-can-only-take-them-once-lock-of-the-week (joining the Dolphins, Falcons and 49ers). I'm not getting cute with that anymore.