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Saturday, October 31, 2009
NFC North weekend mailbag

By Kevin Seifert
ESPN.com

Posted by ESPN.com’s Kevin Seifert

We encourage interaction here at ESPN.com. Sometimes it’s a bit one-sided, but I do my best. You spew bile and/or make comments through the mailbag, over on Facebook or on Twitter. For an adrenaline rush, click here. For something on the lighter side, check this out. (And don’t you dare skip the intro.)

Let’s get to it….

Pat of Milwaukee writes: Something I haven't heard much detail about from you is special teams. Thought it was interesting that in Football Outsiders' special teams rankings the Vikings are second in the NFL. Remember how they were HORRIBLE on special teams last year? Looks like another reason for their success this year, besides the obvious AP/Favre combo.

Kevin Seifert: I haven’t devoted an entire post to it, Pat, but I agree. There is no doubt the Vikings have made dramatic improvements in their coverage -- at least since Week 1, when Cleveland’s Josh Cribbs returned a punt 63 yards for a touchdown. New special teams coordinator Brian Murphy deserves some credit, as does an influx of cover men from Kenny Onatolu (12 tackles) to Jasper Brinkley (eight) to Karl Paymah (seven). The return of special teams ace Heath Farwell (10) has also helped.

When you look at Football Outsiders’ rankings, it’s interesting to note the Vikings are not the only high-rated NFC North special teams group. Here’s where the four NFC North teams rank:

2. Minnesota
3. Chicago
23. Green Bay
29. Detroit

FO’s methodology is pretty complex. In essence, it takes five elements of special teams -- field goals/extra points, kickoffs, kick returns, punts, punt returns -- and assigns a performance statistic based on the yard line achieved in each endeavor. Those figures are then compared to the league average, adjusted based on weather/altitude and compiled into a ranking. A fuller explanation is here.

If you’re a regular reader, you know that I’m a big fan of FO’s work. But even if you don’t buy into their method for evaluation, you can at least accept that in this case, each team was considered using the same criteria. So each team’s ranking is relative to the others, giving you at least one fair version of how everyone compares to each other.

That’s a long way of saying that Vikings’ and Bears’ special teams have been performing at a high level this season relative to the rest of the league. The Packers’ and the Lions’ have not.




Mat of Seattle writes: Correction to the Challenge Tracker: You list Jim Schwartz's percentage as "--", as though it is not computable. In fact, his success rate is 0%. Total failure can be easily expressed as a percentage. For example, one has no problem understanding that the Vikings have won 100% of their games against the Packers this year, while the Packers have won 0% of those games. See?

Kevin Seifert: Thanks for correcting the terminology. I suppose 0-for-2 is 0 percent, but I maintain that 0-for-0 would still be “--.“ For example, one has no problem understanding that math majors get “--“ percent of the girls. (Goes for history majors, too.)




Ben of Chicago writes: Is Jarron Gilbert going to get a chance to play this year? Do the Bears even have a position for him? (Three technique? ... DE?) I understand that rookies often need a year or two to adjust to the NFL, but with the lesson Bears fans took away from Michael Haynes -- the team never said a word, he just never played and then got released -- I am a bit worried. I guess what I really want to know is: Do the Bears think Gilbert is part of their future, or are they just holding onto him to save face and because of his draft status?

Kevin Seifert: First of all, I wouldn’t compare Gilbert to Haynes in terms of their draft status. Gilbert was a third-round pick. Haynes was taken in the first round. If Gilbert never contributes, it would hardly qualify as the flop that Haynes was.

Gilbert mostly was used at the three-technique during training camp, and I’ve wondered if he would somehow surface during this latest run of uncertainty for defensive tackle Tommie Harris. Israel Idonije filled in for Harris last week, a reasonable move. But if Harris really is in his final season with the Bears, as some are suggesting, it might be nice to get Gilbert on the field at some point to give coaches a baseline for evaluating him next offseason.


Gary of Woodbridge, Calif., writes: I've watched replays of the final two minutes of the Steeler-Viking game and for the life of me I cannot find a logical reason for why Adrian Peterson is standing on the sideline watching Chester Taylor mess up an easy pass reception leading to a Steeler defensive touchdown. This was two plays after Peterson literally ran over William Gay. With less than two minutes to go and the game on the line WHY doesn't the Viking coaching staff have the best player in NFL on the field?

Kevin Seifert: This is a common refrain from fans and media and one that I’ve tried to draw a distinction on in the past. Chester Taylor is the Vikings’ third-down back, and I have no problem with it. Peterson can’t play every down, and Taylor has made himself into an excellent receiver. Trust me, I’ve seen Peterson drop his share of passes as well.

But I think there should be a difference between the third-down back and the hurry-up/2-minute drill back. The former is a passing down. The latter is a drive that needs to end in points quickly with the game in the balance. Even if Taylor were a better pure receiver and pass blocker, you have to find a way to get Peterson on the field.

If there were any question about that, you can answer it by re-watching the William Gay play.




Richard of Austin, Texas, writes: I know Lovie Smith is becoming the focus of a number of Bears fans' frustrations, but how much of that frustration does Jerry Angelo deserve? Perhaps I'm exaggerating his actual role or involvement, but I assume the decisions regarding the draft, trades and player contracts, are the responsibility of the GM? While a number of the decisions (or lack there of) over the past few seasons have looked good on paper and/or may have provide some short term successes, they seem to me to have weakened the foundation of the team and it's more immediate future. Your thoughts?

Kevin Seifert: I was pretty down on the Bears’ offseason and Angelo’s performance until the Jay Cutler trade. I know Cutler has had his ups and downs, but I’ve seen enough to think he has a chance to be the best quarterback in several generations of Bears teams. It’s tough to get far with an unsettled quarterback position.

I will say I remain unsettled by two decisions: Pairing Cutler with such an inexperienced receiving corps and mostly standing pat on defense.

On the receiving issue, I’m well aware that Earl Bennett and Johnny Knox have been pleasant surprises this season. But there’s no way that Angelo or anyone else could have known Knox would perform the way he has. They took a tremendous risk and are fortunate that it’s paid off. Regardless, I still maintain that tight end Greg Olsen’s slow six-game start is at least partially tied to the Bears’ receivers. They don’t have anyone who requires special attention from opposing defenses.

As for the Bears’ defense, Angelo put his faith in some players who as of yet haven’t returned the favor. Harris’ lack of production has been well-documented. Cornerback Nathan Vasher seems to have lost his playmaking edge. Safety Kevin Payne is now a part-timer. Improvement is a two-way street between coaching and personnel, and to this point, it doesn’t appear that Angelo did anything this offseason to improve his defense.