Some regression would have been natural for the Minnesota Vikings after they surprised even themselves by finishing 10-6 last season. Alas, "some regression" was not supposed to devolve into using three starting quarterbacks during a 1-5 start to the 2013 season. But that's the Vikings' reality as they prepare for their Sunday night home game against the Green Bay Packersin Week 8.
However, all is not lost. The Vikings do have some building blocks in place for the future. But as ESPN.com's Matt Williamson and Mike Sando explain, the issues facing Minnesota could justify a coaching change, at the least.
In addition, Williamson and Sando discuss Adrian Peterson's future and why the Josh Freeman"experiment" could be doomed even if it succeeds. They also recommend an ideal coaching candidate if the team does move on from the current staff.
Williamson: I don't think I'd fire GM Rick Spielman, but I might not bring back coach Leslie Frazier. There were 4-5 teams that had exceptional 2012 draft classes and I felt like the Vikings were one of them. They got a good left tackle, a starting safety and even a great kicker. They also had three first-round draft picks this year. So, from those two draft classes, there is a nucleus and the front office is finding young talent. They have generally done a good job of drafting except for the Christian Ponder selection. However, there has been a knee-jerk move or two, like forcing the Greg Jennings signing out of desperation.
Sando: The Vikings need their GM and head coach working in unison when it comes to the quarterback position. That would be easier with an offensive-minded head coach in place. I'd be inclined to keep Spielman and opt for a coach with an offensive background, but that wouldn't necessarily be fair. Spielman was the one who saddled Frazier with Ponder, after all. But justice isn't the priority here; making the Vikings better is the goal. Minnesota ranks tied with Oakland for 27th in winning percentage (.368, 14-24) since Frazier became the full-time head coach in 2011. That's not good. Frazier is a former defensive back, but when we look at the Vikings, they might be at their worst in the secondary. That's not good. Spielman overdrafted a quarterback who hasn't succeeded despite the presence of a dynamic ground game. That is not good, either. We could justify starting over at GM and coach, really.
Williamson: Frazier's teams on both sides of the ball have been as vanilla and easy to prepare for as any in the league. They don't throw much at you. I'm not putting this all on Frazier, but the most amazing thing about the Vikings, to me, is just how horrible they are in the play-action game even though they have Peterson. There is more to play-action than a great back -- Peyton Manning could sell it with me in the backfield -- but it's just unbelievable.
Sando: Since 2011, Ponder ranks 26th out of 33 qualifying quarterbacks in Total QBR out of play-action. He's at 47.4 with 13 touchdowns, 10 interceptions and a 6.5-yard average per attempt. The league averages for qualifying quarterbacks are 70.1 in QBR with 12 touchdowns, six picks and an 8.7-yard average per attempt. But we already know Ponder is not the answer. Next question.
Williamson: I would look for a quarterback guru even if Freeman returns. Freeman's mechanics are so bad. Someone needs to break him down and start over. They should keep Ponder as a really good No. 2 or maybe as someone you trade for a mid-round pick to a team that has a top QB and needs insurance.
Sando: 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman comes to mind as an ideal candidate from my perspective. He's been the driving force behind the most dynamic rushing offense in the NFL. I'm not sure anyone uses motion and formations more effectively in the run game. Jim Harbaugh is the face of the 49ers, but he's quick to credit Roman, and rightfully so. Roman is, to a large degree, the brains of that offense. He's also worked with a young quarterback in Colin Kaepernick, with mostly positive results. The Vikings' offense isn't missing much. They've got the running back, obviously. They're fine at tight end. They've got better options at wide receiver than the 49ers recently have had.
Williamson: Roman would be great. There are some similarities between the Vikings and 49ers, too. The Vikings have a masher at right tackle in Phil Loadholt. Johnathan Sullivan is better than the 49ers' center, Jonathan Goodwin. Matt Kalil becomes your Joe Staley at left tackle. Peterson is better than Frank Gore. At tight end, Kyle Rudolph and John Carlson are not Vernon Davis andVance McDonald, but you could do a lot worse. Get a top-five overall pick at quarterback, add an offensive lineman in free agency and everyone else is pretty much in place.
Williamson: It would have to be a contending team on the other end, and I don't see that team. How many teams need a running back? Not many. The Giants aren't going to do it. It's not like the Vikings would get a Herschel Walker-type haul. You keep Peterson around and hand the ball to him a lot with a rookie quarterback and hopefully develop the play-action game. Unfortunately, this is going to be Peterson's role late in his career -- the guy the rookie QB leans on.
Sando: Sounds like the Steven Jackson-Sam Bradford alliance from 2010 to 2012. Peterson earned his contract, but I'm afraid the Vikings are stuck with it. First off, Spielman and Frazier aren't in position to tank the season. Neither appears assured of returning at this point. I also don't see teams lining up to assume Peterson's contract. The deal is scheduled to count more than $14 million against the Vikings' salary cap in 2014. That's approaching top QB money, which is OK if the Vikings draft a quarterback under the affordable rookie-wage scale. They'll probably wind up with a top-10 pick in the draft. They also have an additional third-round choice from Seattle thanks to the Percy Harvin deal.
Williamson: Peterson is still great, but the best year of his career is going to be 2012. You could ask Jim Brown or Barry Sanders to duplicate that without a good quarterback and a great supporting cast, and it's not going to happen.
Williamson: Freeman is going to be a free agent after the season. If he plays well, he'll have options elsewhere and there's no guarantee the Vikings will keep him. They certainly aren't going to franchise him. There will be six or eight teams interested in signing him if Freeman plays well.
Sando: It's tough to imagine Freeman playing well after watching him complete 37.7 percent of his passes against the Giants on Monday night. What Peterson does isn't going to matter much without better play at QB. The Vikings are 7-0 since the start of last season when their Total QBR score exceeds 60 (50 is average on the 100-point scale). They are 4-11 in the other games.
Williamson: Freeman had the most discouraging performance on Monday night. His mechanics are a mess. He shifts his weight terribly, never appears comfortable and gets happy feet without pressure. The timing is going to be off with a new quarterback. The anticipatory throws will be difficult. But at some point, throwing the football as a quarterback is a sandlot situation, too. It's the same with Tom Brady. When Kenbrell Thompkins is running free with two steps and you see it, now you are just a thrower of the football. Brady doesn't do that anymore. On Monday night, Freeman was the worst in this regard. There was a fourth-and-10 late in the game and he almost threw it in the stands. Inexcusable.
Williamson: They have to focus on the defense, where they need a little bit of everything. It's time to move on from Jared Allen and Chad Greenway. Everson Griffen can be a good pass-rusher and he'll get additional opportunities from the outside when Allen is out of there. They drafted Sharrif Floyd and he can be a good three-technique defensive tackle for them, but they need a big, bulky guy -- a Phil Taylor-type player. The linebackers have been very average. The entire secondary is horrible except for Harrison Smith, and even he was struggling before he got hurt.
Sando: The defense won't look so bad if there's a quarterback putting points on the scoreboard. Again, the Vikings are 7-0 since the start of last season when their Total QBR score is 60 or higher. They need to upgrade the defense, of course, and that needs to be the priority -- after they've drafted a QB.
After being down 21-10 in the first half on Sunday, the New York Jets never gave up and came back strong to defeat the New England Patriots 30-27 in overtime. New York is now 4-3 and just one game behind New England in the AFC East. With a lot of offseason turnover and starting a rookie quarterback in Geno Smith, many thought the Jets would contend for the first overall pick in the 2014 draft rather than be competing for the division. We saw on Sunday another example of how Rex Ryan and his coaching staff are doing an outstanding job of playing to their roster strengths.
Can the Jets make the playoffs this season?
The Jets' offense revolves around Smith and his decision-making, and although the rookie signal-caller and has had some very up-and-down moments so far this season (including struggling against the Steelers' complex defense one week ago), the game has never looked too big for him. He is a very comfortable player who can make all the throws, particularly deep downfield, where he has shined this year. Smith also is a dangerous runner with the ball in his hands and at times Sunday exploited the Patriots' defense when they turned their back on him in man coverage (New England's preferred coverage). But Smith is a passer first, which is exactly what you want to see from a young quarterback. Smith very well could be the long-term answer for the Jets at the game's most valuable position.
On Sunday, the Jets' offense exploited several of the Patriots' defensive shortcomings. New York was smart to stick with its power running game to eventually wear down the Patriots' interior defensive line, which was without Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly. The replacement defensive tackles held up very well for much of this game, but late in the game and especially in overtime, the Patriots' defense was gouged by the Jets' big, heavy offensive line. Chris Ivory and his fresh legs (returning from injury) ran with outstanding power and conviction for 104 yards on 34 carries. The Jets nearly doubled the Patriots in time of possession, and the running game paid off in a big way when it mattered most for New York.
In another showing of very good coaching, the Jets attacked New England's linebackers repeatedly in the passing game. Jerod Mayo is done for the season with a pectoral injury and has the best range of the Patriots' original starting linebackers. Mayo isn't great in coverage either, but Brandon Spikes and Donte Hightower are true liabilities in this regard. They are far better playing downhill and attacking the run game rather than playing in space. The Jets got Stephen Hill on a crossing pattern early in the game against Spikes, who had zero chance of keeping up, but with much more regularity, New York got Jeremy Kerley out of the slot and Jeff Cumberlandmatched up against the Patriots' second-level defenders. Again, New England's linebackers had little chance in this matchup and if it were not for a few dropped passes by Jets pass-catchers, this approach could have proven to be even more fruitful for New York.
On the defensive side of the ball, New York's outstanding defensive line was dominant once again, sacking Tom Brady four times while holding the Patriots to just 90 rushing yards in an overtime game. The very young trio of Muhammad Wilkerson, Sheldon Richardson and Damon Harrison has been utterly dominant all season. Wilkerson is having a borderline Defensive Player of the Year season. Richardson, in my opinion, is the best rookie in the entire NFL this season and Harrison is a true diamond in the rough as a prototypical nose tackle that just rarely moves backward. Ryan has stemmed everything he does on defense off these three -- and they haven't let him down.
The Jets are more active at the second level with the insertion of DeMario Davis at linebacker than they were a year ago and don't have a dominant edge pass-rusher. Their secondary also has been far from great in 2013 and guys like first-round pick Dee Milliner are very much a work-in-progress. However, because this defensive line is so talented, the Jets don't blitz nearly as much as most assume with Ryan calling the plays and that very much held true again Sunday. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Jets sent four or fewer pass-rushers on 88 percent of Brady's dropbacks. Brady was only 20-of-41 passing against that pressure with an interception and three sacks.
Not everything was roses for the Jets on Sunday, however, and there is still a lot they need to clean up. For starters, New York had a very difficult time containing Rob Gronkowski in his debut. Gronkowski finished with eight catches for 114 receiving yards on 17 targets. Both red-zone offense and red-zone defense have been problem areas for the youthful Jets thus far, as too many drives have stalled with field goals or red-zone turnovers. Penalties have also been a massive problem for this team, especially since several have been mental mistakes. This is a young team with a lot of new pieces from a year ago, so maybe they will improve in this area, but taking nine penalties as they did Sunday is a recipe for disaster -- because the Jets, due to their lack of offensive weapons, are never going to blow their opponents out.
Finally, Smith threw an awful interception Sunday that was easily returned for a touchdown. He is turning the ball over too much, and will make some "wow" throws followed by some head-scratchers. That being said, not only is Smith a rookie but he came from a true spread offense at West Virginia, so he will have a longer adjustment period.
To continue to progress this season, the Jets must win games like the one on Sunday by battling to the end and finding mismatches in their favor while being patient and limiting penalties and turnovers. I don't think this team has enough to make the playoffs this season, but they are a promising success story and are certainly further along the rebuilding road than most people thought at the beginning of the year.
SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- The San Francisco 49ers are set to get some much-needed relief at receiver.
Mario Manningham is expected to start practicing this week. The team will have three weeks to activate Manningham. He has been out all season with a knee injury he suffered last December.
The 49ers badly need more production from their receivers. Their only true passing-game weapons this season have been Anquan Boldin and tight end Vernon Davis. The team also hopes to get standout Michael Crabtree back from a torn Achilles, perhaps as early as Mid-November.
Manningham will get the first chance to help the 49ers. The 2012 free-agent addition had 42 catches for 449 yards in 12 games last season. Especially with Crabtree still out, expect Manningham to be a top option for the 49ers when he returns.
ESPN’s Matt Williamson said he doesn’t think Manningham is a top option, but he will give some life to this receiving crew when he returns.
“He is certainly an upgrade over what the Niners have been using as a No. 3 option in the passing game,” Williamson said. “He has big-play ability and at least some sort of pedigree of NFL success. He sure can’t hurt.”