2011 Vikings Review: Going halfway in rebuilding plan yielded changes
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If it were up to the Minnesota Vikings' personnel department, journeyman Tyler Thigpen would have been their starting quarterback from Week 1 until whenever rookie Christian Ponder was ready.
That was far from the only disagreement that arose about the roster between the end of the NFL lockout in July and the Vikings' 3-13 finish, matching the worst in the franchise's 51-year history.
Sure, those disagreements usually were more cordial than most involving former coach Brad Childress in recent years. But the end result was the same, prompting ownership to restructure the personnel hierarchy with Rick Spielman on top as general manager.
Only time will tell if the problems run too deep to fix from the inside. At least going forward accountability for the roster will stop at one desk.
The following are individual grades for the four specialists who finished the season on the Vikings' 53-man roster or injured reserve as well as grades for the coaching staff and personnel department. Grades are based on observations of games and practice, weekly tape studies and interviews with NFL coaches and scouts throughout the season. The scale designates "A" for elite performance, "B" for above-average performance, "C" for average performance, "D" for below-average performance and "F" for failure to perform at an NFL level.
Chris Kluwe (C+): Coming off his best season, Kluwe elevated his gross average to 45.7 yards (14th in the NFL among players with at least 25 punts) but dropped out of the top 10 in several more important categories. Finished 12th in fair catches (19) and 19th in punts downed inside the 20-yard line (22). Plummeted from 10th to 25th in net average (38.0 yards per punt), which says something about the coverage, too. Had decent hang time (4.3 seconds) and distance (52 yards) on the punt Randall Cobb returned 80 yards for a score at Green Bay. Made two solo tackles. Missed one on a 33-yard return at Kansas City. Spun a punt downed at the 1 to set up a safety against Denver. Had three touchbacks. Played through a strained hamstring against Arizona. Ran into more trouble than usual as a holder. Dropped the ball on what would have been a 49-yard field goal against Oakland to spark a comedy of errors late in the first half. Barely got one bad snap down and couldn't save another in the finale against Chicago. With two years left on his contract at age 30, it would be a surprise if Kluwe doesn't return next season.
Cullen Loeffler (C+): Re-signed to a three-year contract extension on Oct. 7, Loeffler was his usual, steady self until Kerry Meier's crackback block ended his season on Nov. 27 Atlanta. Had four off-target snaps in 11 games but none that ruined a play. Snapped through a sore rotator cuff against Oakland and was OK. Credited with three tackles (one solo). Expected to recover from surgery on his lower-back fracture in plenty of time to open next season.
Ryan Longwell (C): Re-signed to a four-year, $12 million contract extension as the NFL's most accurate place-kicker over the past two seasons, Longwell went through a rough patch at midseason and never fully recovered as the rest of the operation fell apart. Made his first eight field-goal attempts, then missed six of his last 20 to finish with his lowest conversion rate (78.6%) since 2005. Missed wide left three times in a four-game stretch against Arizona (from 43 yards), at Chicago (38) and at Carolina (45) before coaches made an adjustment to the holds. Drilled a 31-yard winner down the middle against the Panthers. Didn't miss again from inside the 40-yard line (14-of-15, 93.3%). Finished 8-of-13 (61.5%) from 40 yards and beyond. Hit from 53 against Arizona and 52 against Green Bay. Missed short into the wind from 52 at Green Bay after a false start wiped away a 47-yard attempt. Another penalty led to a miss short and right from 49 yards in his worst game at Washington, where he also chunked an extra point and bounced a kickoff out of bounds. Otherwise kicked off OK, though it remains a weakness. Posted a career-high 18 touchbacks and averaged 64.8 yards per kickoff (best since 1997) in large part because the NFL's new kickoff rules gave coaches more confidence to let him kick away. Made his other 38 extra-point attempts. Had a 48-yard field goal blocked after a bad snap in the finale against Chicago and got crushed when he picked up another snap that got loose in the same game. Made four tackles (three solo), including two against Denver. At age 37, there's no question Longwell is nearing the end, but the sense is this dip was an anomaly.
Matt Katula (F): Signed on Nov. 29 to replace Loeffler, Katula quickly came unglued. Had two iffy snaps against Denver with little impact. Performed better after coaches made an adjustment, then was off-target on four snaps against New Orleans. Uncorked at least two more wild snaps at Washington. Saved his worst for last, snapping wide on the 48-yard field goal attempt the Bears blocked, then high and inside on the 41-yard attempt that turned into a doomed scramble play late. Has been nothing but a stopgap since his five-year run with Baltimore ended and will be lucky to collect another NFL paycheck.
Piecing things together on the fly from the moment the NFL lockout ended, Frazier and his staff took a team scouts expected to win around seven games and ended up winning only three. The offense was doomed by relying on McNabb (demoted Oct. 16, waived Dec. 1) and WR Bernard Berrian (waived Oct. 25), who both got a couple more chances than they deserved. OC Bill Musgrave's clever scheme never got a head of steam. Fourth-down handoffs to HB Toby Gerhart in losses to Detroit and Atlanta were memorable flops. Limited playing time for WR Percy Harvin and TE Kyle Rudolph, particularly in the red zone, remained head-scratchers even though both were nicked up. The decision to start QB Christian Ponder on a bad hip at Detroit was compounded by the decision to bench him after four turnovers -- a senseless sequence of events that crippled the rookie's confidence. Playing HB Adrian Peterson on a high ankle sprain exposed him to a major knee injury, but benching him would have sent a dangerous message in the locker room. C John Sullivan made huge strides under Jeff Davidson, the revered OL coach. The defense was doomed by the promotion of DC Fred Pagac, whose philosophy clashed with Frazier's and failed to command confidence in an increasingly shorthanded secondary. Getting outscored 132-61 in the third quarter -- including 70-16 in the first four games, all losses -- raised red flags early about the staff's ability to counter-adjust once opponents figured them out. Defensive backs either refused or failed to play base calls correctly at various points all season. Refusing to try younger players until injuries forced coaches' hand also became a concern. Riding the likes of RE Jared Allen (94.5% of snaps) and LE Brian Robison (82.7%) in a lost season was careless for their longevity. OLB Chad Greenway topped the list of veterans who seemed to regress. Only 10 men made it on the field a handful of times, including twice in a four-play span against Arizona. Special teams took a step back statistically, but only so much of that can be blamed on adjusting to intense Mike Priefer's scheme. Kicking away to Devin Hester after a momentum change at Chicago was a huge mistake. Penalties that proved costly in multiple early losses contributed to the NFL's 11th-highest total (109 for 908 yards). Frazier was 5-for-7 on replay challenges. Procedure for challenging plays had to be reviewed after no one told Frazier to throw a flag on third-and-goal at Atlanta, though. At times, players seemed frustrated with apparent indecision. The most positive thing that can be said is players didn't quit, at least not on game day. But defeats and dysfunction ultimately cost three defensive coaches their positions -- Pagac (demoted to linebackers coach), line coach Karl Dunbar (fired) and assistant secondary coach Matt Sheldon (contract not renewed) -- and has the rest of the staff facing a critical second season.
In essence, the Vikings went halfway in commencing their rebuilding operation. Acquiring McNabb cost them $5.05 million and at least one sixth-round draft pick. Signing NT Remi Ayodele for three years and $9 million doesn't look good at this point either. The rest of the Vikings' veteran acquisitions served their purpose. WRs Michael Jenkins and Devin Aromashodu came cheap once the Vikings wisely passed on matching the $18.5 million in guarantees Seattle gave WR Sidney Rice. LT Charlie Johnson wasn't the right fit on the blindside, but he was the best they could do after LT Bryant McKinnie reported overweight and figures as a player on the interior in the future. OL Scott Kooistra might have started if he hadn't broken his neck. Re-signing Robison for three years and $14.1 million looks like a steal compared to the five years and $30 million Atlanta gave Ray Edwards. Giving WLB Erin Henderson a chance instead of bringing back Ben Leber was the right move, too. Longwell's deal isn't bad if he rebounds. Handing Peterson and Greenway extensions before the season was the right move, too, although both enter 2012 with much to prove. Cutting OL Ryan Cook a month after giving him a $125,000 bonus was just strange. OL Joe Berger was a good find off the street. The jury remains out on Ponder, the 12th overall draft pick, but Spielman has seen enough in 10 starts to believe he can be special. Rudolph, the second-rounder, had a handful of spectacular catches but still must show he can get consistent separation. FS Mistral Raymond, a sixth-round pick, started five games down the stretch and figures to compete for a job next season. Four picks -- fourth-round DL Christian Ballard, fifth-round CB Brandon Burton, sixth-round OL Brandon Fusco and seventh-round WR Stephen Burton -- were bit players as rookies. Sixth-round OL DeMarcus Love and seventh-round DE D'Aundre Reed spent the entire season on the inactive list. Only sixth-round LB Ross Homan didn't spend any time on the 53-man roster. LB Larry Dean appeared in all 16 games after making the team as an undrafted free agent. WR Andre Holmes ($14,000) and CB Devon Torrence ($9,000) got the largest bonuses of those who didn't. WR Emmanuel Arceneaux got a $75,000 signing bonus out of the CFL and had little impact. The Vikings must deal with delayed cap hits in 2012 from the releases of McKinnie, FS Madieu Williams and others, but they're on course to enter the league year around the middle of the pack in cap space. They expect to have 10 picks in April's draft, too. Their list of needs is a long and relatively obvious one: a left tackle, one or two outside receivers, a third-down back, a blocking tight end, an alternative at nose tackle, a middle linebacker, an outside cornerback and at least one safety.