NFC North: Donovan McNabb

MINNEAPOLIS -- Since he was introduced as the head coach of the Minnesota Vikings on Jan. 17, Mike Zimmer has preached open competition as one of his core beliefs, and he should. It's a way for the new coach to keep his players honing their games to a fine edge, at least in theory.

If the Vikings hadn't gone into their coaching search with an open mind, Zimmer might not have landed his first head-coaching job at age 57, to the delight of people around the league who believed the longtime defensive coordinator had to wait too long for his shot. So when Zimmer -- who turned 58 earlier this month -- talks about an open battle at the quarterback position, adding that the Vikings won't be afraid to play rookie Teddy Bridgewater if he's good enough to win the job, there's every reason to believe the coach. There's also every reason for Zimmer to make sure Bridgewater has to clear a high threshold if he wants to line up as the Vikings' starter in St. Louis on Sept. 7.

Zimmer needs only to look at the situation that played a large part in his job becoming available last winter. In April 2011, four months after the Vikings removed the interim tag from coach Leslie Frazier's title, the team took Christian Ponder with the 12th overall pick. Ponder had no offseason to learn the Vikings' playbook and no time to work with his new coaches because of a lockout that stretched until August. But after six mediocre performances from a 34-year-old Donovan McNabb (in what turned out to be the final six games of his career), the Vikings handed the job to Ponder and never looked back, putting two young quarterbacks behind him in 2012 and using several solid games during a playoff push at the end of that season -- a year in which Adrian Peterson ran for 2,097 yards -- as justification to declare Ponder the uncontested starter before 2013, despite the presence of Matt Cassel on the roster.

Would things have turned out differently if Ponder had been given more time to develop? Possibly not. But by putting him in the lineup as soon as they did, the Vikings were, in effect, making a statement that Ponder was ready to take the job for good and locking themselves into a long stretch with him. They didn't have to make that pronouncement as soon as they did, but if they'd waffled on it shortly thereafter, they would have invited scrutiny for their lack of direction at quarterback (as they did with their Ponder/Cassel/Josh Freeman carousel in 2013). Quarterback instability ultimately doomed Frazier, and in effect, it doomed his predecessor, Brad Childress. After feuding with Daunte Culpepper shortly after taking the job, Childress pushed for the Vikings to select Tarvaris Jackson in the second round of the 2006 draft and vacillated on Jackson until the team signed Brett Favre, whose stormy relationship with Childress ended with the coach's ouster 10 months after the Vikings nearly reached the Super Bowl.

The bet here is that Zimmer won't make a rash decision with Bridgewater, not when the Vikings are set up so well to avoid one. In Cassel, who's signed for the next two seasons, they've got the perfect custodian for Bridgewater: a veteran who's solid enough to handle the job in the short term, but not entrenched enough to step aside without a fuss. And even Ponder, who will be a free agent after the season, has some usefulness in 2014, as an emergency option in case Cassel gets hurt (or struggles early) and Bridgewater isn't ready. The Vikings have done everything they can to construct a healthy atmosphere for Bridgewater's growth. The key to the whole thing, though, is a coach who's patient enough to let it work. Zimmer might get only one shot as a head coach, and he's got something of a cushion this season, with the Vikings moving into a temporary home while trying to remodel their defense. One poor season won't cost the coach his job, but mismanagement of the quarterback situation ultimately could. Especially with offensive coordinator Norv Turner at his side, Zimmer should have the good sense to avoid the potholes his predecessors hit.

So how does this all play out? The 2012 Seattle Seahawks might provide a good blueprint. They signed Matt Flynn to a three-year deal worth just $9 million guaranteed, giving themselves a quarterback they could play if Russell Wilson wasn't ready to start. When Wilson ultimately won the competition, the Seahawks were free to trade Flynn a year later. Only time will tell if Bridgewater turns out to be as good as Wilson has been -- the Vikings QB has looked sharp to this point, albeit only against defenses prohibited from hitting him -- but if he can take advantage of the situation, Minnesota has the mechanisms in place to make it work, just as the Seahawks did.

For Bridgewater to get on the field in September, he should have to prove he's unequivocally the best man for the job. Otherwise, with the Vikings facing a nasty early schedule, a tie should go to the veteran. It's a good, sensible construct for the rookie coach and quarterback, and with so many recent cautionary tales about the costs of quarterback foul-ups, the Vikings would be wise to take advantage of it.
Josh FreemanAP Photo/Bill KostrounJosh Freeman completed fewer than half his passes and had a 6.1 QBR in his Minnesota debut.
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- From the moment the Minnesota Vikings signed Josh Freeman to a one-year contract Oct. 7 -- effectively signaling the end of whatever commitment they had to Christian Ponder as their starting quarterback -- it seemed inevitable that the team was going to get the former Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback on the field soon. But this fast? In time for a Monday night game against the New York Giants after Freeman had just two weeks to learn the offense?

When coach Leslie Frazier announced last Wednesday that was the Vikings' course of action, the immediate line of questioning from Twin Cities reporters was whether he'd made that decision in a vacuum, or whether he'd had involvement from his bosses -- either the approval of ownership and general manager Rick Spielman, or an outright demand that Freeman be put on the field as soon as possible.

Frazier said the decision was up to his coaching staff and him, adding that he would have been able to go another route than naming Freeman the starter for Monday's game. But then he admitted he went to Spielman and the Wilf family, telling them what he planned to do and asking for their input. And then Frazier said something that might synthesize the underlying truth behind the Vikings' quarterback mess.

"When you’re talking about the quarterback position, which affects your entire franchise, this is not a decision that you make alone," Frazier said. "I informed them what I was thinking and why I thinking this and why I wanted to do it, and they signed off on it. But no, you don’t make these kind of decisions on an island."

The Vikings are certainly on some kind of island after a 1-5 start to their 2013 season. Their ferry off of it and back to relevance officially disappeared over the horizon Monday night, as Freeman went 20-of-53 for 190 yards and the Vikings lost 23-7 to the previously winless Giants. Their best chance to get through the rest of the season without turning on each other is to get behind Freeman, hoping he can deliver something closer to efficient quarterback play as he learns the offense and provides some shred of hope heading into 2014. Otherwise, some of the Vikings' decision-makers could be paying with their jobs for a quarterback situation that has gone very, very badly.

It started in 2011, when Spielman -- then running the draft, though not with the same complete authority over personnel he now enjoys as general manager -- picked Ponder 12th overall. The Vikings seemed unsure of how to develop Ponder from the beginning, first bringing in Donovan McNabb to start the 2011 season, then handing the job over to the rookie once the McNabb experiment turned sour six games into the season. From then until this season, Ponder had complete control of the starting job, free from any challengers even as his play fluctuated between respectable and reprehensible.

But what the Vikings did at quarterback heading into this season might have been even less coherent. They signed Matt Cassel to a two-year deal in March, giving themselves a veteran quarterback they unequivocally said was not there to challenge Ponder for the starting job. Ponder went through training camp as the unquestioned starter, staying in that spot through three sloppy performances in the first three games (all losses) until a rib injury gave the Vikings political cover to look at Cassel. They said Ponder still would be the starter if he were healthy, then watched Cassel lead them to a win over the Pittsburgh Steelers in London. They came back from their bye week saying that Ponder had been cleared to play but Cassel was the starter and added Freeman in a week where they already had uncertainty bubbling up at quarterback. Then they made Freeman the starter and Ponder the backup, putting Cassel, who'd started their past two games, on the inactive list.

Clear, concise answers are hard to find from the Vikings about their quarterback situation these days, but what has been clear for years is how uneasy the team appears to be about fully committing to a rebuilding process. They threw their support behind Tarvaris Jackson as the starting quarterback in 2007 only to take the job away from him several times and eventually sign Brett Favre for what amounted to a one-time title shot with a roster in its prime. The Vikings paid for having an aging roster in 2010 and began to build through the draft in 2011, but here they are, barely two full seasons later, ready to start over at quarterback again.

They've had three, maybe four, Hall of Fame-caliber players (Adrian Peterson, Kevin Williams, Jared Allen and Antoine Winfield) in their primes over the past few years, which makes it hard to think solely about the future, but then why attempt to go young at the quarterback position at all? The Vikings, it seems, have been caught between what they know they will eventually have to do and what they'd like to do for immediate success. Freeman is the least familiar quarterback with the Vikings' scheme, but he might also be the most talented and the most capable of delivering a quick fix. He could allow Spielman to reclaim some credit as a quarterback evaluator after the Ponder pick, and he might deliver Frazier enough wins to keep his job. But the Vikings also are trying to get Freeman to that point in short order, and the NFL has a funny way of thwarting teams who try to piece things together on the fly.

At 1-5, the Vikings can no longer be caught between the future and the present. They've started their Freeman experiment, and they've made it clear in the past two weeks -- by sitting Cassel and refusing to put Ponder in two games where the offense has struggled -- that they don't see either of those two quarterbacks as their ultimate solution. The best way for the Vikings to attach some significance to this season is to ride with Freeman, as awful as he looked Monday night, see if he can play and decide either to move forward with him (to the tune of a long-term contract) or dip back into what's expected to be a talented quarterback draft next spring. It's entirely possible Frazier could lose his job if the experiment leads to an 11-, 12- or 13-loss season, and it's even feasible that Spielman could suffer consequences for missing on the Ponder pick.

But the Vikings have pursued a disjointed strategy at quarterback for too long, and as painful as it might be, they need to spend the rest of this year seeing what Freeman can offer them. Their only way off the island is to set a course for the future, with a plan to solve their quarterback quandary and a commitment from all parties involved to press forward through the squalls that could come.

NFC North weekend mailbag

April, 14, 2012
Even a quiet week by NFC North standards leaves us with some loose ends to tie up over the weekend. I see many of your blog comments and Facebook responses, all of your mailbag submissions and every one of your @replies on Twitter. Proceed accordingly.

Several readers think Minnesota Vikings coach Leslie Frazier had more to do with this "unfortunate timing" than I debited him for in Tuesday's post about his future. Randal of Cambridge wrote: He is mostly to blame for the 2011 lost year. They could have been one or two steps further into rebuilding. He pushed for the Donovan McNabb trade but even more damaging was when the season was lost in late October; Frazier did not see what he had in his young players. It was inexcusable to play Jared Allen and Brian Robison as much as they did. He should have given the following players more playing time: DE D'Aundre Reed, DE Everson Griffen, G Brandon Fusco and T DeMarcus Love. And signing Benny Sapp was a mistake. There must have been some practice squad CB from another team who could have been given a chance.

Kevin Seifert: I'm torn on how much blame Frazier should get in that regard. If given the choice, few if any coaches are going to take the long-term road. The Vikings made it to the NFC Championship Game in 2009 and were torn apart by internal strife in 2010. Frazier thought they could be competitive in 2011 with a decrease in tension, especially if he could find a veteran quarterback to replace Brett Favre.

In truth, the Vikings would have had a much better record in 2011 if McNabb fit the bill, but his shortcomings have been well-discussed. What Frazier really needed last season was a general manager to tell him that a quick fix lasts only as long as the next one. Frazier needed a general manager to reassure him that he would be evaluated based on what he did with the tools he was given, rather than allowing him to influence the choice of tools themselves.

Rick Spielman's promotion has created that type of structure, and we now see the Vikings taking the longer-term approach that Frazier understandably eschewed when given a choice in 2011.

As far as playing untested youngsters to evaluate them for future years, I've always considered that idea on a case-by-case basis. Only players that have demonstrated in practice that they're ready for such a chance should play. It's reasonable to wish Griffen would have gotten a few more snaps from Robison, but I'm not going to hold it against Frazier for limiting his rookie offensive linemen last season. The Vikings' top priority at the time was to develop quarterback Christian Ponder, and Frazier was obligated to use the best offensive linemen he had -- regardless of their futures -- to facilitate that.

Wil of Minneapolis wonders if Spielman and owner Zygi Wilf will evaluate Frazier on a curve as a result of the roster overhaul: Do you think that Rick, Zygi, and Frazier had a goal and expectations meeting about the 2012 season? Although no one wants to tell the public we expect a 6-10 or 4-12 record, this youth movement and historical records from other teams would probably indicate that. I think it's only fair to have reasonable expectations of Frazier and the football product. After all, the Vikings can easily go 0-6 in the NFC North alone!!!

Kevin Seifert: That's the unfortunate part of the timing, in my view. It's reasonable to have non-tangible expectations and goals in the first year of a coach's tenure, but generally teams want to see progress in the second year.

The Vikings finished 3-13 last season and are competing in a division that features two 2011 playoff teams along with a much-improved Chicago Bears team. Say the Vikings finish 4-12 or 5-11. That would give Frazier a 10-28 or 11-27 record in two-plus seasons. Most coaches deserve three years to make an impact, but at the very least, it wouldn't be an easy decision to bring back a coach with that kind of record.

Rick of Moorhead, Minn., notes the list of players invited to the NFL draft and writes: Shea McClellin invited to NYC for the draft? Doesn't that indicate he will go the first night? I thought he was more like mid second round. Green Bay might be the team to take a shot, but it seems like a reach at 28.

Kevin Seifert: McClellin is a Boise State defensive end who would probably project as a linebacker in the Packers' 3-4 scheme. He has been a so-called quick riser in the draft, but whether he is a first-round pick remains to be seen.

Regardless, the NFL invites a cross-section of players so they can have at least some live interviews on site during the first two nights of the draft, which includes the first three rounds. Don't forget that receiver Randall Cobb was in New York when the Packers made him the final pick of the second round last season.

Facebook friend Steve asked if the new deal Lance Briggs received from the Chicago Bears has a "no more whining about contracts" clause.

Kevin Seifert: Ouch. At the very least, it bought the Bears two more years of relative peace. At that point, Briggs will be approaching his 34th birthday and, like most players at that age and his position, will probably be thrilled to have a job.

As several reports have noted, Briggs will earn $6.25 million this season and $5.75 million in 2013. He'll also be in position to earn $5.275 million in 2014.

In the end, Briggs got less than $2 million in "new money" with this renegotiation. But it just shows that teams don't always have to break the bank to make a player happy. They just need to show a gesture of love, and in this case that's all it took for Briggs.

It's time for our semiannual reminder about "balance." Mitch of Green Bay writes: At the rate you are discussing the Packers, it'll take you all of next season to "even things out" after how much Bears talk is going on the past few days. Anonymously, another reader added: Five of the last six blog posts have Bear headlines. There are three other teams in the NFC North. You should be a little more balanced in your reporting.

Kevin Seifert: I realize that readers filter in and out of the blog network, so it bears repeating: News doesn't occur in neat and equal 25 percent increments between our four teams. I have no interest in manufacturing posts to maintain daily balance when experience shows that everyone will get their turn over time. If you're taking a three-day, three-week or even a three-month snapshot, you'll almost certainly find an unequal proportion of posts relative to our four teams.

There were interesting things to write about the Bears this week, including the Briggs extension, and that's where I focused my time. Where will we look next week? Only The Shadow knows what evil lurks in the heart of all men.
PALM BEACH, Fla. -- During his hour with reporters Wednesday morning, Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy offered a mildly surprising insight: Left tackle Chad Clifton and receiver Donald Driver are on firmer ground with the organization than once believed and aren't likely to be released anytime soon.

For different reasons, both Clifton and Driver appeared to be candidates for departure as the Packers move younger players into their roles. Clifton missed much of 2011 because of hamstring and back issues, and he'll turn 36 in August. There are two possible replacements on the roster, Marshall Newhouse and Derek Sherrod. But asked if Clifton will be on the roster when training camp begins, McCarthy said: "There's definitely a possibility. We haven't taken him off, so he's someone we'll continue to talk about and get the reports."

The Packers have limited Clifton's practice repetitions for years to preserve his health, and ultimately, McCarthy said, his future is "a medical decision."

Meanwhile, Driver is busy this month participating in ABC's "Dancing With the Stars." His contract calls for him to earn about $5 million in 2012, but he said earlier this offseason he would be willing to restructure if that kept him with the Packers. If so, there wouldn't be any risk in bringing him to training camp.

"Donald's still on our roster," McCarthy said. "I thought Donald, the second half of the season, he played very well. His role, as far as opportunities, was not as high as it's been in the past, but I thought Donald was very consistent down the stretch. I thought he played well in the playoff game."

Things change quickly in the NFL, but for the moment, McCarthy appeared to indicate that neither player will be leaving the franchise in the near future.
Just for the fun of it, I thought I would throw an addendum onto our annual All-NFC North team. Coaches, front office executives and others all deserve recognition for the work they do. So in rapid-fire fashion, let's roll through a final take on the 2011 season:

Best head coach: Mike McCarthy, Green Bay Packers
Evaluating coaches is easier than most people make it. Nothing matters more than winning, and McCarthy went 15-2 in 2011.

Best assistant: Scott Linehan, Detroit Lions
Although his primary role is offensive coordinator, Linehan's development of quarterback Matthew Stafford merits recognition alone. After three years with Linehan and quarterbacks coach Todd Downing, Stafford became the youngest 5,000-yard passer in NFL history. I'll repeat what I wrote the moment Linehan arrived in Detroit. You can say what you want about his tenure as the St. Louis Rams' coach, but he remains one of the NFL's top offensive coordinators. The Lions are fortunate to have him.

Best executive: Martin Mayhew, Lions general manager
Mayhew has made some inspired moves during his tenure and few, if any, mistakes. That's how you go from 0-16 to 10-6 in a hurry. His roster is a mix of every possible avenue of player acquisition: draft, trades, veteran free agency and undrafted rookies. Packers general manager Ted Thompson deserves mention, but his inability to replace the pass rush of departed defensive end Cullen Jenkins hurt the Packers in 2011.

Best rookie: Titus Young, Lions receiver
Comment: Young played 63 percent of the Lions' offensive snaps as their third receiver, catching 48 passes for 607 yards and six touchdowns. He got more opportunities than the Packers' Randall Cobb, but we don't hold that against him.

Most intriguing rookie: D.J. Smith, Packers linebacker
In 3 1/2 games as an injury replacement, Smith collected 33 tackles and an interception. I'm not sure how Smith could fit into the Packers' 2012 plans, if at all, but he certainly proved a reliable and instinctive short-term asset.

Most disappointing rookie: Christian Ponder, Minnesota Vikings quarterback
Comment: Ponder was considered perhaps the most pro-ready quarterback available in the draft, but his late-season decision-making called that into question. He threw seven interceptions in his final 122 passes. For context, consider that rate would lead to 29 interceptions over a typical 500-pass season.

Biggest mistake: Donovan McNabb, Vikings quarterback
The rushed acquisition of McNabb didn't make sense at the time, and the situation deteriorated rapidly. Waiving your starting quarterback during the season is an embarrassing admission.

Biggest mistake II: Roy Williams, Bears receiver
Williams' shaky hands and questionable effort made the Bears' preseason hopes for him laughable. At least one of his drops, near the end zone against the Kansas City Chiefs, played a big role in a huge defeat.

Any other thoughts? By all means, leave them in the comment section below. Otherwise, it's onward and upward toward the 2012 season. ...

Vikings regular-season wrap-up

January, 4, 2012
NFC Wrap-ups: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Arrow indicates direction team is trending.

Final Power Ranking: 30
Preseason Power Ranking: 20

[+] EnlargeAdrian Peterson
Geoff Burke/US PresswireAdrian Peterson's uncertain future hangs over the entire franchise.
Biggest surprise: It has never been clear why anyone thought acquiring Donovan McNabb as a stopgap starting quarterback was a good idea. All indications were that McNabb had taken a significant step back since his heyday as an annual Pro Bowler, and in truth, he had no more familiarity with the Vikings' new offense than did rookie quarterback Christian Ponder. He threw for an embarrassing 39 yards in a Week 1 loss at the San Diego Chargers, was benched after six starts and waived with five games remaining. I'm not sure the Vikings would have won more games with Ponder or Joe Webb as their Week 1 starter, but the entire episode was a failure waiting to happen. Why wasn't that obvious to everyone?

Biggest disappointment: Tailback Adrian Peterson's shredded left knee will cast a shadow over the organization for months. The Vikings have said they hope to have Peterson back on the field when the season begins, but the truth is no one can know for sure how a running back will come back from two torn knee ligaments and other assorted damage. Newly-promoted general manager Rick Spielman will have a difficult decision to make: Can the team continue to build its offense around Peterson? Does it necessitate the acquisition of a replacement or a philosophical shift? Of all their positions, running back represented the least of the Vikings' concerns at midseason. Now it's among their first priorities.

Biggest need: On a roster full of holes, no positions are more needy than defensive back and offensive line. The Vikings finished the season with Week 1 backups playing both cornerback and one safety positions, and the only incumbent who should have a decent chance to start in 2012 is veteran cornerback Antoine Winfield. Although they led the NFL with 50 sacks, the Vikings' coverage was so poor that opposing quarterbacks still compiled a 107.1 passer rating, the second-highest mark in NFL history. Meanwhile, the Vikings must find a long-term replacement for deposed left tackle Bryant McKinnie and might have to find a new left guard if Steve Hutchinson retires. The future of right guard Anthony Herrera is also up for debate.

Team MVP: Defensive end Jared Allen finished a half-sack shy of tying Michael Strahan's record for sacks in a season (22.5), along the way setting an example of how to continue playing hard despite the weight of a lost season. Runner up goes to Percy Harvin, who shed his migraine issues to become the kind of all-purpose receiver/running back the Vikings envisioned when they drafted him in 2009. He caught a team-high 87 passes and also took 52 carries, combining for 1,312 total yards and eight touchdowns.

Questionable call: Cornerback Chris Cook was arrested in October and eventually charged with strangulation and domestic abuse. In the end, the Vikings took the highly unusual path of dismissing him for the season while keeping him on the active roster and paying him game checks for the final eight games of the season. Coach Leslie Frazier said the organization wanted to give Cook a chance to get is life in order, but Frazier admitted this week that it's unclear what progress he has made. Unless he is incarcerated as a result of his upcoming trial, Cook seems likely to return to the team in training camp.
Titus YoungTim Fuller/US PresswireThe Vikings have struggled in pass coverage this season, giving up huge plays including a 56-yard touchdown to Lions receiver Titus Young last Sunday.
After taking permanent control of the Minnesota Vikings' coaching job, Leslie Frazier laid out a traditional and conventional vision for winning football games. His teams would run the ball and stop the run, a time-honored approach that sounds good in the locker room but is as outdated as the single wing.

If there were ever a season that could crush that theory, it's the one the Vikings are enduring in 2011. They rank among the NFL's top 10 in rushing yards and rush defense, but their punchless passing attack and tattered pass defense has driven the worst 13-game start in franchise history. At 2-11, the Vikings are obviously and glaringly swimming upstream in the pass-happy NFL.

Speaking generally last week, Frazier said he has reminded himself that this season is "a journey" and "part of what we have to go through to get to where we want eventually." He said he doesn't "foresee us forever being in this situation" and added: "I really believe that we will look back on it in time and say, 'OK, this is what happened in 2011 and this is why we are better in 2012, because of what happened in 2011.'"

Quite frankly, that will take some adjustment in vision.

Frazier built his hopes on offense around tailback Adrian Peterson, who averaged 94 yards and more than one touchdown per game before suffering an ankle injury in Week 11. Development from quarterback Christian Ponder would lead to a more balanced offense over time, but the Vikings' 2011 plan was either deeply flawed or a gross example of misplaced priorities. Both the quarterback (Donovan McNabb) and No. 1 receiver (Bernard Berrian) they opened the season with have already been waived. Neither has signed with a new team.

Their failures, and other reasons, have left Vikings quarterbacks with a combined 77.0 passer rating this season, ranking them in the bottom third of the NFL.

Peterson's presence, not to mention a $100 million contract extension, demands a strong commitment to the running game. So I don't think the Vikings need, say, the Packers' passing offense to be championship contenders. But there is no reasonable explanation to justify how the Vikings organized and executed a pass defense that is on pace to produce one of the worst seasons in NFL history.

Defensive end Jared Allen leads the NFL with 17.5 sacks, but even with his presence, the Vikings have allowed opponents to compile a 107.1 passer rating this season. As the first chart shows, that puts them on pace for one of the five-worst pass defenses -- based on opponent's passer rating -- since at least the 1970 merger. As the second chart shows, the Vikings have allowed more touchdown passes, intercepted the fewest passes and allowed the second-highest completion percentage in the NFL this season. Last Sunday, the Vikings did limit the yardage piled up by Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford. But even though he threw for a modest 229 yards, Stafford still completed 69 percent of his passes for two touchdowns and didn't have a turnover.

Their inability to slow down opposing pass offenses has all but negated a relatively strong run defense that ranks No. 9 overall in total yards allowed. And it's not as if teams aren't trying to run against the Vikings. Opponents have 352 rushing attempts against them, good for No. 17 in the NFL.

As with their pass offense, the Vikings didn't appear to make their pass defense a high priority entering the season. Their only starting-level addition was nose tackle Remi Ayodele, a run-stopper. And it's possible that none of the defensive backs considered starters in Week 1 will return in 2012.

Frazier has already admitted that cornerback Cedric Griffin wouldn't be playing if he had any better options. Fellow cornerback Antoine Winfield will be 35 in 2012, just had a playing-time clause reduce his salary by more than 50 percent and might not be a full-time player anymore. The careers of cornerback Chris Cook (off-field) and free safety Husain Abdullah (concussion) are in doubt, and a season-long rotation of strong safeties Jamarca Sanford and Tyrell Johnson revealed neither is up for the job.

Did the Vikings think they could cover themselves with their run defense? I hope not. These days, the best gauge for measuring the top teams is the differential between their passer rating (or QBR) and the passer rating (or QBR) allowed by their defenses.

Here are the teams with the top five QBR differentials through 13 games, according to ESPN Stats & Information:

  1. Green Bay Packers (13-0)
  2. New Orleans Saints (10-3)
  3. Pittsburgh Steelers (10-3)
  4. Baltimore Ravens (10-3)
  5. Houston Texans (10-3)

And here are the teams with the five worst differentials:

  1. Indianapolis Colts (0-13)
  2. Jacksonville Jaguars (4-9)
  3. St. Louis Rams (2-11)
  4. Vikings (2-11)
  5. Arizona Cardinals (6-7)

It would be fine if the Vikings continue running the ball well and can stop the run. But that can't be it. They won't compete in the NFC North, much less this league, until they rebuild their pass offense and reassemble a competent secondary. Until the NFL veers away from its love affair with the passing game, the Vikings have no choice but to shift their vision.

On Donovan McNabb and Sage Rosenfels

December, 2, 2011
Friday's waiver wire brought some interesting news to the NFC North. Former Minnesota Vikings quarterback Donovan McNabb went unclaimed amid reports that the Chicago Bears have no interest in him at this point. But veteran Sage Rosenfels will be returning to Minnesota after the Vikings claimed him off waivers from the Dolphins.

First, on McNabb and the Bears: We noted Thursday that McNabb grew up in Chicago and might be a better option in an emergency than current third-stringer Josh McCown. But the Bears did not place a claim on him, and ESPN's Chris Mortensen reported they do not plan to pursue him via free agency, either. Regardless, the Vikings are now on the hook for what remains of McNabb's $5.05 million base salary.

The Vikings, however, busily spent Friday attempting to replenish their quarterback depth. They tried to sign second-year player John Parker Wilson off the Atlanta Falcons' practice squad, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, but Wilson chose the Falcons' offer to join their 53-man roster instead. Then, they claimed Rosenfels to resume a long-running relationship with Vikings vice president of player personnel Rick Spielman.

Spielman acquired Rosenfels in 2002 for the Miami Dolphins and again in 2009 for the Vikings. Former Vikings coach Brad Childress never wanted Rosenfels on the roster, however, and won an internal battle in 2010 to make Tarvaris Jackson the backup to Brett Favre.

Rosenfels, 33, has been ill for most of this season because of complications from strep throat, prompting first his release from the New York Giants and later the Dolphins. He presumably is healthy now and will spend the remainder of the season as a backup to rookie Christian Ponder, while also providing roster flexibility if the Vikings want to use second-year quarterback Joe Webb as a receiver.

Rosenfels' contract will expire after the season, but I'm sure he will return as the Vikings' 2012 backup if it's up to Spielman. In truth, they could do a lot worse.

1500ESPN: Vikings had demoted McNabb

December, 2, 2011
We'll know at about 4 p.m. ET whether the Chicago Bears have claimed veteran quarterback Donovan McNabb on waivers. For those who think McNabb could help the Bears or another playoff-caliber team down the stretch, it's worth checking out Tom Pelissero's report over on

According to Pelissero, the Vikings demoted McNabb to No. 3 on the depth chart earlier this week behind rookie Christian Ponder and second-year player Joe Webb. When told the arrangement was permanent, McNabb asked the team to place him on waivers.

It makes sense for a 2-9 team to move younger players up the depth chart as they play out the string, and obviously McNabb had no future with the Vikings. But it's telling that the Vikings promoted Webb even as they were planning to experiment with him more often as a wide receiver.

Ideally, McNabb would have remained the No. 2 quarterback so that Webb could focus on those duties. Apparently, the Vikings didn't feel comfortable doing so.

BBAO: Giants vow to hit Aaron Rodgers

December, 2, 2011
We're Black and Blue All Over:

I probably didn't pay enough attention Thursday to some aggressive words that came from New York Giants defensive coordinator Perry Fewell, especially considering how closely some members of the Green Bay Packers follow what it said and written about them. Here's how Fewell said his team will defend Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers this Sunday, via NFC East colleague Dan Graziano:
"We have to be very disciplined in our rush lanes. But more so than disciplined, we got to get after his [expletive]. If we do that and he scrambles, then that is the price he is going to have to pay because we are going to hit him. We are going to hit him."

Fewell was obviously upset about the way his defense played in a disastrous loss Monday to the New Orleans Saints, and part of his tirade was no doubt meant as motivation for his team. But he also threw down the gauntlet at Rodgers and the Packers' pass protection as well. We'll see how it works out for him.

Continuing around the NFC North:

Video: Donovan McNabb interview

December, 1, 2011
Donovan McNabb talks about being waived by the Vikings and his future.

NFC North at night

December, 1, 2011
Let's get to Thursday's newsbits in the NFC North, including an eye-opening quote from the defensive coordinator of the next team that will try to knock the Green Bay Packers off their undefeated perch:

Chicago Bears: Cornerback Charles Tillman (knee) and Zack Bowman (groin) were back to full participants in practice. Defensive lineman Anthony Adams (back) did not practice. Receiver/kick returner Devin Hester missed practice for personal reasons.

Detroit Lions: Running back Kevin Smith (ankle) returned to practice on a limited basis, spurring hopes he could play Thursday against the New Orleans Saints. Safety Louis Delmas (knee), cornerback Chris Houston (knee) and cornerback Brandon McDonald (thigh) all missed practice again.

Green Bay Packers: Linebackers A.J. Hawk (calf) and Desmond Bishop (calf) both sat out a second consecutive day of practice. Coach Mike McCarthy said the Packers have given Brad Jones some practice snaps at inside linebacker for depth purposes if Hawk and/or Bishop can't play Sunday against the New York Giants. Meanwhile, Giants defensive coordinator Perry Fewell told reporters in New York that his players will get after Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers on Sunday. Fewell, via Mike Garafalo of the Newark Star-Ledger: "[W]e just have to get after his [butt], okay? And if we do that and he scrambles then that's the price he's going to have to pay because we're going to hit him. We're going to hit him."

Minnesota Vikings: Joe Webb will move up to No. 2 quarterback in the wake of Donovan McNabb's departure, a move that will change plans to use Webb more as a receiver over the final five games. Running back Adrian Peterson (ankle) and linebacker E.J. Henderson (shoulder) again missed practice. Peterson told reporters that he hasn't given up hope for playing Sunday against the Denver Broncos. Meanwhile, the Minnesota state government announced it has an unexpected $876 million budget surplus over the next two years. But for those who hope that money could go toward a new Vikings stadium, be advised that the state is legally obligated to use the entire amount to replenish emergency reserve accounts.

Bears: Donovan McNabb or Josh McCown?

December, 1, 2011

Three teams placed waiver claims last week on former Denver Broncos quarterback Kyle Orton. He was awarded to the Kansas City Chiefs, so it's at least fair to speculate that the Minnesota Vikings' reported decision Thursday to waive quarterback Donovan McNabb is based on a hope that he would be claimed as well in a time of high injury rates for quarterbacks around the league.

McNabb hasn't taken a snap since the Vikings benched him late in their Oct. 16 game at the Chicago Bears. Rookie Christian Ponder has started the past five games, and at 2-9, there is no competitive reason for the Vikings to maintain a veteran option at quarterback. If Ponder is injured, third-string quarterback Joe Webb could reprise his 2010 role and play out the proverbial string.

Speculation has immediately turned toward the two teams that missed on Orton -- the Chicago Bears and Dallas Cowboys -- as well as the Houston Texans, who signed veteran Jake Delhomme off the street this week to serve as rookie T.J. Yates' backup.

I'm sure McNabb would love the Bears to claim him. He grew up in Chicago and starred at Mt. Carmel High School. It's not yet clear if the feeling is mutual. The Bears had a long and favorable history with Orton, and the only thing they know about McNabb is what the rest of us have seen over the past two years: A precipitous decline in play for a five-time Pro Bowler.

Perhaps McNabb would be an upgrade in an emergency over Josh McCown, whom the Bears signed after Orton was awarded to the Chiefs. But it's probably too ambitious to think McNabb can learn their offense and make an impact on their playoff push.

In reality, there isn't much to this move beyond the surprising news itself. McNabb wasn't going to get back on the field for the Vikings, wasn't going to re-sign next season and has already been paid the majority of his $5.05 million contract -- including this week's game check. If he were to end up in Chicago, his arrival would be a one-day story before the Bears returned to the primary question of their playoff push. It's up to starter Caleb Hanie, not McCown or rookie Nathan Enderle or McNabb or anyone else, to get it done.
Monday night's embarrassment at Lambeau Field has changed the conversation surrounding the Minnesota Vikings. Whereas they once seemed a team in transition from one quarterback era to another, it's now fair to question whether they have deeper and more difficult problems to solve.

Nowhere is that more evident, at least to me, than in the Vikings' counterintuitive turnover numbers. As the chart shows, no team has committed fewer turnovers than the Vikings this season. They are one of four teams with less than 10, but the Vikings are 2-7 while the other three teams are a combined 24-4.

Turnovers don't always have a direct correlation to winning and losing, but it's worth noting that the Philadelphia Eagles, Washington Redskins and San Diego Chargers have all committed an NFL-high 21 turnovers. Their combined record is 10-17.

Generally speaking, we can say the Vikings haven't handed their opponents many extra opportunities to beat them. Quarterbacks Donovan McNabb and Christian Ponder have combined for five interceptions in 267 attempts, tied for the third-fewest in the NFL. Tailback Adrian Peterson, meanwhile, hasn't lost a fumble in 196 touches.

It would be much easier to dissect the Vikings' 2-7 record this season, and install a fix, if they could attribute it to something as straightforward as turnovers and/or mistakes. Absent that, you simply have to wonder if their team -- its collection of talent and the structure upon which it sits -- is good enough to forge a consistent winner.

[+] EnlargeChristian Ponder
Rob Grabowski/US PresswireChristian Ponder, 7, and Donovan McNabb have combined to throw five interceptions in 267 attempts this season.
The Vikings have hardly played mistake-free this season. They had 10 penalties accepted against them Monday night, and their 66 accepted penalties this season is the eighth-highest total in the NFL. Monday, coach Leslie Frazier said: "It's hard to overcome when you play a good team and then you do some things like we did in crucial situations with penalties that really set you back, and that’s something that we’ll have to address."

Some of those penalties were particularly harmful, most notably a false start on Fred Evans that tacked an extra five yards onto a Ryan Longwell field goal attempt in the first quarter. Longwell was short from 52 yards. But 10 penalties can't account for a 38-point loss, and I don't think anyone who has watched the Vikings this season would suggest that 66 penalties accounts for a 2-7 record.

Instead, over the final seven games of the season, the Vikings will need to make an honest assessment of what they do and do not have. If their hope was to manage the transition from the Brett Favre Era to the Ponder Era while continuing to compete for a playoff spot, they have failed.

I suggested Tuesday that the Vikings might be more in need of a rebuild than the remodel they were hoping to achieve. If you're not giving away the games you lose, there is only one alternative explanation: You're just not as good, from the top of the organization to the 53rd man on the roster. There is plenty of season left to change that perception, but that's where the Vikings are as they head into Week 11.

Audio: Vikings' Adrian Peterson

November, 8, 2011
Appearing on the "Scott Van Pelt Show" on ESPN Radio, Minnesota Vikings tailback Adrian Peterson previews a video game matchup against Green Bay Packers nose tackle B.J. Raji. You won't want to miss that discussion, nor Peterson's revelation that most players assumed rookie Christian Ponder would be the Vikings' starter from the first day of training camp before veteran Donovan McNabb "came into the picture."