After much anticipation, I have now finally gotten my hands on Ned Macey's answers to my questions. In case you had forgotten, Ned is in charge of the NFC North portion of the 2007 Pro Football Prospectus, brought to you by the good folks at Football Outsiders. I gave him half a dozen questions to answer, and here's what his responses were. The questions will be in bold, while Ned's responses will be in italics. Any comments from me will appear in the standard typeface.
This is my first year covering the Vikings. I've been writing for FO and PFP for three years now, so I'm obviously familiar with the Vikings, but I covered the AFC South the past two seasons. So, while I certainly watched the Vikings a couple times a year in the past, I largely came into this season with a clean slate. So, the name Ted Cottrell does not give me nightmares, and I think E.J. Henderson is an excellent player, not an inconsistent one who finally flourished.
Well, the name Ted Cottrell sure as heck still gives me nightmares, so it's nice to have gotten answers to these from someone who is unafflicted by such things.
1) Let's start by taking a look back at the 2006 Vikings. Everything we see from conventional wisdom says that the Vikings pass defense was terrible last season. Do you think the pass defense was as bad as the general perception tells us it is?
The Vikings pass defense was not terrible last year, unless you compare it to the Vikings run defense which was amazing. Teams just stopped running on the Vikes, so they piled up gaudy conventional numbers in the passing game. Attempts tend to correlate pretty strongly with yards. Football Outsiders had them ranked 16th in our main stat, DVOA. What is so funny about the pass defense is that their cornerbacks -- at least those not named Fred Smoot -- played pretty well. The pass rush was obviously terrible, and the linebackers and Dwight Smith struggled in coverage. The insertion of Greenway for Harris and the elimination of Smoot could go a long way to helping the pass defense.
See? SEE!? I was right after all. (-:
2) We know that the 2006 Vikings' offense was one of the absolute worst in team history. How much of that do you feel falls on the shoulders of Brad Johnson, and how much of that falls on the shoulders of head coach Brad Childress?
I am no fan of Brad Johnson. I didn't think he was playing all that well in 2005 when he almost "saved" the season. That being said, he does have some talents, and Childress failed to play into them. Johnson is terrible against a fierce pass rush, and too many second or third and long situations completely ruined him. Another problem was that the receivers seemed to pick up the new system slowly, which meant Johnson had little confidence they would be where they were supposed to be. When Johnson looked and his first read was covered or in the wrong place, he panicked and was a disaster. Teams start stacking eight in the box, and Johnson doesn't have the arm to beat them over the top. So, to answer the question, all parties (including the receivers) appeared equally inept.
3) Moving on to the 2007 version of the Vikings, one of the keys to the offense is going to be the development of Tarvaris Jackson at QB. His teammates seem to have all the faith in the world in him. How much, if at all, do you see the Vikings' offense improving with Jackson having a full off-season to prepare and be "the guy" as opposed to what we saw at the end of last year?
Nobody obviously knows if Jackson will play well, but (and you guys may not like this opinion) I see no reason to believe that Jackson will be a competent NFL quarterback. He likely will be better than last season, but he has a questionable pedigree. Some Cleveland fans got mad at me last season when I basically wrote the same thing about Charlie Frye, but just because someone is young and has some talent does not mean he will be successful. Jackson may very well be one of the 65-70 best people in the world at his job, but he needs to be one of the 20 best to create a competent offense with these wide receivers. No recent small-school, late second-round pick has developed into a quality NFL quarterback. The last good quarterback, and I use good loosely, taken between picks 50 and 100 was Brian Griese. All our information on the field is that he isn't ready. I'm just not willing to buy the PR coming out of camp, especially when his competition is Brooks Bollinger. I hope that Jackson is or soon will be a better player than Bollinger. Really, all we have to base a positive expectation is Childress' faith in him, and Childress just doesn't have enough of a track record for me to take that too seriously. Until Jackson proves it on the field, I think expectations should be extremely low. As with everything, there are exceptions -- Tom Brady, Matt Hasselbeck, Marc Bulger -- but all signs point towards Jackson not being a starting-quality quarterback, and certainly not a playoff-caliber one. Childress obviously thinks differently, and loathe as I am to place so much importance on one player, he better be right or the Vikings offense will struggle again.
Well, I agree with Ned on one thing. . .Childress had better be right on this one. I, however, think that he is. From everything that all the vets have said about him at this point, I've got confidence in the guy.
4) How much of an impact do you think Adrian Peterson will have on the Vikings' offense this season? Could he and Chester Taylor make up for the Vikings' inexperience at wide receiver?
Unfortunately, neither Taylor and Peterson has Reggie Bush's receiving skills. That makes up for inexperienced wide receivers. Those two guys will be running into eight man fronts all season. Peterson has the chance to be special, but he can't break two tackles every carry. The Vikings offensive line is good but not great, so I just can't see them carrying an offense without help from the passing game. Sure it is better to have good running backs than bad ones; it should at least give the passing game a fighting chance. I just don't think they'll be able to carry an offense. Look at Cadillac Williams and Ronnie Brown, the last two highly drafted backs who have played. Both show flashes of brilliance but basically play for dysfunctional offenses.
5) With Mike Tomlin stepping out and Leslie Frazier stepping in as defensive coordinator, do you think the Minnesota defense will have a drop-off, or will they continue to improve?
I think some drop-off is likely only because that level of run defense will be impossible to match. I worry, in particular, about Pat Williams' age, as obviously the run defense will not be the same without him. I'm cautiously optimistic about Frazier. He is interesting to me because he learned under the blitz-happy Jim Johnson and then got fired as defensive coordinator in Cincinnati for blitzing too much. Cincy's defense, of course, hasn't exactly improved without him. Also, Frazier spent the past two seasons with Tony Dungy who almost never blitzes. Hopefully, Frazier can meld the two to have a creative defense but not give up too many big plays. If the D-line fails to get pressure, however, I worry he'll get a little blitz-happy. With that run defense, opposing offenses will struggle to move the ball consistently, so preventing big plays is crucial.
The blitzing is a big part of the reason I like Frazier. Last year, there were plenty of times where it seemed like Mike Tomlin was allergic to the blitz. But with Greenway back and an upgraded secondary (as mentioned earlier), the personnel might be in place to allow us to blitz more often.
6) Overall, do you think the Vikings have what it takes to compete with Chicago for the NFC North title this year, or at least make a run at a playoff spot in a wide-open NFC?
The good news is that Chicago has a number of question marks, and I think they'll struggle to get 10 wins this year. That certainly opens the door for someone in the NFC North. Unless I'm wrong about Jackson, I just don't see how Minnesota will be the team to take advantage of that opening. I fear that Childress learned some bad lessons in Philadelphia -- namely that you don't need good wide receivers. I think you guys should send him daily emails saying "Tarvaris Jackson is not Donovan McNabb." He needs decent receivers to develop. Could it happen? The good news is that the NFC North is super-weak, and the rest of the schedule does not look too bad. If the defense can get even better, Baltimore has gotten into the playoffs with offenses this bad. It is just really a shame to waste this defensive talent. I was backing a move for David Carr or any proven NFL quarterback. They don't need Donovan McNabb, but they do need someone at least a little more proven than Jackson. And if you are putting all your eggs in Jackson's basket, you need a better solution at wide receiver than improving Troy Williamson's vision. I hope I'm wrong because I love to watch the defense play, and it was sad to watch them by the end of the year.
I appreciate Ned taking the time to sit down and answer these questions for me. I hope you folks enjoy it as well.
Be sure to check out Football Outsiders when you get a chance, including Ned's latest "Four Downs" column on the NFC North. Oh, and grab your copy of the Pro Football Prospectus 2007 when it comes out in a few weeks here, too.
That's all for now, folks!