Gonzo Discusses the Minnesota Vikings with Bill Barnwell of Football Outsiders

Happy Pre-Season Opener Day, everybody!!

Sorry for being a bit incognito the past couple of days. . .had a few things going on and a couple of irons in the fire, one of which I'm pulling out for all of you folks right now.

I've long extolled the virtues of Football Outsiders on this site, and this year will be no different.  The latest edition of the Football Outsiders Almanac is available to order in PDF form on their website, or you can get it from Amazon.com.

(Editor's note: I thought a hard copy version would be available in stores.  Mr. Barnwell has informed me that that's not the case.  My apologies for that error.)

We had the good fortune of talking with Bill Barnwell, one of the Football Outsiders, prior to the 2008 season, and now I've had the privilege of doing so again.  Last year, we got five questions, and this year we're doubling our pleasure with a ten-pack of queries for Mr. Barnwell to answer about the Beloved Purple  So, sit back and bask in the greatness of football stat geekery while we're all waiting for the game to kick off. . .only about twelve hours from now!  The questions I posed to Mr. Barnwell will be in bold.

1) The biggest story of the off-season for the Vikings was the entire Brett Favre circus, which ultimately ended in him deciding to stay retired.  So, now that the quarterback race is again down to Sage Rosenfels and Tarvaris Jackson, which of those two men do you think gives the Vikings a better chance to be successful and why?

Oh, how I wish I could choose none of the above.

Our 16-game projections for the two quarterbacks offers some insight. Tarvaris Jackson's projection is 271-460 for 3128 yards (58.8% completion percentage and 6.8 yards per attempt) with 21 touchdowns and 13 interceptions, while Rosenfels' projection is 303-469 for 2968 yards (64.6% completion percentage and 6.3 yards per attempt) with 19 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. Our projection system basically sees Rosenfels as significantly more accurate, but Jackson as offering a better threat downfield.

Truthfully, I think it's a push. In a vacuum, I'd go with Rosenfels -- the "step forward" Jackson showed at the end of last year is driven mostly by a fluky level of success on third down that is unsustainable considering both league-wide trends (quarterbacks that far surpass their first and second down performance on third down regress to the mean in the following season) and Jackson's career history (which doesn't show any evidence of him being a great passer on third down). A lot of that boils down to the Cardinals game, in which three of Jackson's four touchdown passes came on third down.

On the other hand, Jackson's younger and knows the system better than Rosenfels does. So I think, truthfully, it's about a push.

2) The other big story has been the situation with Pat and Kevin Williams.  Do the projections for the Vikings' defense in this year's Football Outsiders Almanac account for the Williams Wall missing the first four games of the season (or any four games)?  If so, how would the projection for the defense (and the Vikings as a whole) change if it turns out that the Irresistible Force and the Immovable Object play all 16 games?

Since we don't know whether the Williams Wall will miss time, our projections don't account for their absence.

As for the effects, I don't have a specific number (it would depend on a variety of factors), but the impact would be pretty remarkable if they were to miss any time. Obviously, as Vikings fans, you know that it's hard to underestimate the impact that the Williamses' have on this defense. Their ability to shut down the run on first down keeps opposing offenses in bad situations the rest of the way, prevents teams from focusing too much attention on Jared Allen, and in short-yardage situations, the Vikings are one of the best teams in football. That stops drives that might otherwise go for points against other teams.

3) Adrian Peterson is obviously the best fantasy football choice on the Vikings' roster, if not in the entire NFL, and we know the defense should be good fantasy-wise.  What sort of fantasy value would you put on some of the other components of the Vikings' offense, and are there any late round "sleepers" that you'd recommend taking a flier on?

Tarvaris Jackson is a perpetually underrated fantasy quarterback because of his running ability; people routinely forget to discuss it when considering his fantasy value, but running quarterbacks consistently offer value. Take that passing line from above, but consider that our projections call for Jackson to run the ball 70 times for 292 yards and four scores. That's 53 additional fantasy points. That's the same thing as an immobile quarterback adding 660 passing yards and five passing touchdowns to his totals. I'd say he's the guy that stands out as a sleeper. He just has to make it onto the field and stay there.

4) For the first time ever, the folks at Football Outsiders ranked the 32 NFL medical staffs.  Without giving anything away, you guys spoke very highly of Eric Sugarman and the Vikings' training staff.  What, exactly, went into those rankings, and what makes the Vikings' staff so good, in your opinion?

A note -- it was actually the second time. We track injury rates for each team from year-to-year, since teams that are really healthy or really injured tend to fall back to the league average in the following year, which can lead to a dramatic change in the win column. (Atlanta and Miami had the two biggest shifts in injuries from 2007 to 2008, for one.)

Some injuries are just uncontrollable, of course. You can't prevent E.J. Henderson from dislocating his toes. You can do a great job of keeping players who aren't hurt healthy, though, and the work of Sugarman's team in keeping Pat and Kevin Williams healthy for pretty much their entire Vikings careers is remarkable (last couple games of 2008 aside). They also did wonderful work with the injuries that their star players suffered, keeping Jared Allen and Adrian Peterson on the field for 31 of 32 games despite health issues that would've forced the pair to the sidelines for other teams.

5) A lot of talk has been made about the Vikings' potentially using the "Wildcat" formation that came into vogue in 2008.  With the personnel they have now, how effective do you think such a move could be for Minnesota?

I think that the "Wildcat" as a whole is less likely to be successful in 2009 since teams have a year of game film on it. With that being said, I think the Vikings have a great personnel grouping for it: A mobile quarterback, an elite tailback, and receivers with ideal downfield speed. I think that at the very least, the Vikings could occasionally employ it as a way to freeze the safeties and try and create an extra hole for Adrian Peterson to bounce through. The upside, though, is an added dimension to the Vikings offense that isn't there right now.

6) Brad Childress has been somewhat maligned by Viking fans for the past couple of seasons, largely because many people feel that his offense is dull and predictable, despite the presence of Adrian Peterson.  What is your impression of Coach Childress and what he's done over the last three years in Minnesota?

Well, you also have to consider the personnel involved. Without a great quarterback (although that's got a lot to do with Childress), an all-around excellent receiver (although they're paying Bernard Berrian to be one), or a great pass-blocking offensive line, you sort of have to keep things simple in the passing game to avoid having your whole offense break down.

I think that as a coach, Childress is eminently reasonable. As a personnel guy? I'll pass. I think he might, truthfully, end up being one of those offensive coordinators who is too good to be an offensive coordinator, but not good enough to be a head coach. Think Scott Linehan.

7) Since you've broken down all of the film from the 2008 Vikings, what are some of the things that jump out at you about the team that regular fans might hear and go, "Whoa, I had no idea?"

I liked the stat about Berrian's pass interference penalties drawn. If you look at the 964 yards Berrian gained last year on 48 catches, it isn't particularly impressive, especially considering what he's being paid.

What that analysis fails to consider, as you might gather, are pass interference penalties. While you can't give 100% of the credit for them to Berrian, he sure deserves a lot closer to 100% of the credit for those plays than 0%, which is what he gets now. They move the ball just as effectively and earn a first down, so why not include it in his stats?

Last year, Berrian led the league in both pass interference penalties drawn and yardage gained on pass interference penalties, with six "catches" for 127 yards missing from his totals. Include them and Berrian's line moves up to 54 receptions and 1091 receiving yards, a much more impressive campaign.

That's not the first time he's had pass interference penalties depress his numbers, either; during his breakout 2007 season, Berrian lost 115 yards on pass interference calls, the second-highest total in the league.

If you think Berrian's agent didn't include that information during contract negotiations, well, you'd be naive.

8) According to the Football Outsiders Almanac. . .and anybody that actually watched them perform last year. . .the Vikings' punt return unit was one of the worst in the DVOA era, which spans 15 seasons.  They have to be better in 2009. . .don't they?  How much will the Vikings improve if this unit simply rises to the level of "not putrid?"

You have to figure that they'll get better, yeah, if only by the "sticking-your-finger-in-the-socket-hurts" methodology.

Last year, we estimated that the Vikings cost themselves 24.6 points (due to field position and return touchdowns) on punt coverage. A difference of 25 points is worth about one win, so if the Vikings improved to league average in that situation, it could be worth -- by itself -- one whole win.

If they just get to "not putrid", though? Well, the second-worst team in the league on punt coverage was Washington, who was at -15.3 points. 9.3 points doesn't sound like a lot, but it could very well be the difference between winning or losing a game.

9) Antoine Winfield made a little bit of noise about his contract this off-season, and was rewarded with a new extension.  Where would you rank #26 in the heirarchy of NFL cornerbacks?

As an all-around corner, I'd put him right up there in the top five or so, although he's not quite at the level of Nnamdi Asomugha. Winfield's a very good cover corner, although the bump in his performance last year had a lot to do with the improvements in the pass rush.

What makes him so great is his all-around ability. Consistently, year after year, Winfield ranks as the best run defender in the league at corner. That doesn't sound like much, but it helps shut down teams trying to run away from the Williams Wall. His numbers in pass defense aren't as great, but rank in the top 20.

That doesn't mean he'll necessarily be as good this year -- cornerbacks can age awful quick -- but based on last year's form, Winfield deserved the cash.

10) Without giving away what's written in the Almanac, what are your expectations for the 2009 Minnesota Vikings, and what's your absolute "best case" scenario?


We project the Vikings to go 9-7 (technically 8.8-8.2), but there's a lot of variance involved; based upon 10,000 simulations of the NFL season using our projection for the team, we see them with a 2% chance of winning 0-3 games, a 12% chance of winning 4-6 games, a 28% chance of winning 7-8 games, a 36% chance of winning 9-10 games, and a 23% chance of winning 11+ games. Those 2% chances can come through, of course -- just think about the Dolphins last year.

The absolute "best case" scenario? No one should doubt that this team has most of what it needs to get to the Super Bowl and win it. If everyone stays healthy, Tarvaris Jackson merely holds serve at quarterback, the Williams Wall stays unchained, and Jay Cutler struggles to adapt to Chicago, the Vikings could win 12 games and ride a first-round bye with home field advantage to the Super Bowl. It's impossible to project a realistic scenario for a fair amount of the teams in the league to win their conference. Not so for the Vikings.
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