Thought of the Day
My first thought of the day is a massive thank you. There's nothing else I can add to that.
The second has to do with the utility of complex offenses that you cannot really practice in the preseason, especially with a young team.
In Bill Musgrave's presser from today, he responded to my question about the preseason opener by talking about the delicate line between getting the offense comfortable with the scheme and revealing too much on film for an offense oriented around deception.
Well, that is a fine line. You want to breast your cards somewhat but you also want to be good enough at your concepts that it's not the first time you run them when it really counts. We're always trying to balance that. Remain tough to defend, but also be good at what we do.
This was an issue that was discussed last year, as well, where the offense didn't reveal some of the more interesting wrinkles of their game. Obviously, it is a bit different here as Musgrave has a year of film out there with the Vikings now, but it's clear that the Vikings are pretty comfortable with innovation and new concepts.
At some point there's a clear tradeoff between adding new concepts or having a complex offense and making things simple enough for the offense to consistently execute. What's most interesting is that the two most successful offenses of the last decade take completely opposite approaches.
The New England Patriots run an offense that is notoriously difficult to pick up. Below is an example of a play progression they may go through:
Against a Cover-1 defense (or Cover-3), nothing about the play changes. If the defense blitzes, the "H" or halfback will stay in to block while the slot receiver ("U") runs a short hitch. If the defense is a Cover-2 (or Cover 0-the read is on the "Y" to determine if there is a safety in the middle), then the "X" receiver will turn their post route into a "sluggo" route, functionally going towards the corner-the seam between the safety and cornerback. The "Y"-the tight end in this case-will run up the seam.
Further, the "Y" and "Z" have matchup options as well. If the linebacker covering the "Y" decides to jump underneath, then the "Y" should transition to a speed out, unless the defense is in a cloud zone, in which case the "Y" should let the linebacker jump underneath and they'll switch to a slant.
The "Z" will option out of the corner route if it looks like the corners are playing off, a deep zone, or if it's clear they will have help up top. They will, in this play concept , turn their corner into a comeback route.
That amounts to 8 or 9 different potential offensive plays in one drawn up play. Tom Moore's version of this same play looks a lot different.
The enduring wonder of the Manning-Moore offense was not only its incredible success, but the way that success came about: by running the fewest play concepts of any offense in the league. Despite having one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time under center, the Colts eschewed the conventional wisdom of continually adding volume to their offense in the form of countless formations and shifts.
"I can give [you] the playbook," said former Manning backup quarterback Jim Sorgi in 2010, Manning's last full season in Indianapolis. "There is not that many teams they're going to play who don't know what they're going to do. It's all about execution. Their coaches are like, 'We'll tell the other team what we're doing. They got to stop us.' That's what they do. That's what they're all about. And not many teams have been able to stop them yet."
Sorgi was not kidding. Out-executing opponents is easier with no. 18 and the veterans around him, but the offense Moore developed for Manning drew its strength from its simplicity. By using a small number of personnel groups - typically either three wide receivers and a tight end, or two wide receivers and two tight ends - it limited the number of possible responses from the defense and made it easier for Manning to diagnose its weak spots from both a speedy no-huddle (used whenever a defense tried to substitute) and a regular pace of play.
The small number of plays essentially put the full offense at Manning's disposal at any time, and by combining few formations with few plays, both veterans and newcomers to the offense had their acclimation eased by the small number of tasks. There were just a handful of routes, typically from one side of the field or the other, run just the way Manning liked them. Despite media intimations to the contrary, the most sophisticated quarterback in the NFL ran what was arguably its simplest offense. It also just happened to be the best.
Yet the Colts and the Patriots were the gold standards of offensive play. What's most interesting is that while the Patriots boasted perhaps 500 offensive plays, the Colts may have had 18, 3 of which were run plays.
That's not to say the Colts didn't have adaptive concepts built into their playbook, but they don't often have multiple types of passing options, just a global shift against certain coverages.
Almost every team is somewhere in between, and they themselves have decided to weigh particular factors specifically with knowledge of the tradeoff. Somewhere between complexity and execution is a sweet spot for NFL offensive coordinators.
That sweet spot is different for every team, but the pressures are simple to imagine. The problem is that "execution" is a really easy concept to drive towards when you already have great players. Schematic innovation is generally (but not always) borne out of having inferior players.
Think about it: why would you have to outscheme your opponent if your talent was just superior? The option concept that took college by storm (and its opposite, the Air Raid) both evolved out of recruiting mismatches, as did Jimmy Johnson's 4-3 in Miami.
Bum Phillips, Keith Fairbanks, Bill Arnsparger and other innovators shifted to their 3-4 because they didn't have good personnel on the line to truly field a 4-3.
So while it may be easy to say that focusing on execution on a young squad with already a lot on its plate in terms of education and absorption is critical to success, it may not always be the case. Young squads are often "young" because they are the remains of a blown up roster, an indication that the talent there isn't necessarily top tier.
Staying simple and merely out-executing opponents may have appeal in its simplicity, but basic underdog strategy might dictate that systems more likely to fail-but also more likely to do well if they succeed-are valuable for teams with questionable or developing talent.
High-variance strategies tend to produce bigger blowouts as well as higher scores. If you're a team that will score fewer points on average than the typical opponent, there's no reason to choose a low-variance strategy that keeps you close to your average score. A high-variance strategy that allows randomness to more radically shift the results may reduce your average score but increase your likelihood of winning.
Advanced NFL Stats put together a though experiment on the concept. If you choose a "safe" strategy, what you're doing is making sure that you don't let randomness interfere and everybody is "executing to their ability". That means minimizing the distribution of scores to more likely represent the mean.
If you chose a "risky" strategy, it means you're willing to accept the risk of blowouts in order to accept the higher likelihood of winning by flattening the score distribution and widening the possible outcomes.
Below are point distribution scales that demonstrate the concept.
In this first graph, everyone is playing a traditional strategy. The underdog wins 31.5% of the time.
Here, they've chosen a more aggressive strategy. The underdog wins 35.3% of the time.
Here, they demonstrate that even if high-variance strategies reduce the average number of points scored, it helps. The underdog wins 33.2 percent of the time despite lowering its average score-better than the standard strategy by 1.7 percent.
In many ways, the Vikings already do this. They are a team that is committed to reducing the total number of possessions by running out the clock by using Adrian Peterson often. It reduces the average score of both opponents, but each random event has a greater significance because there are fewer drives to cancel out mistakes and unexpected happenstances.
In the case above, the complexity of the offense would increase variance while the execution of an offense would increase its mean. Because the Patriots for quite some time already had high execution values, their variance was wide but irrelevant (sometimes they would win by 5, sometimes by 50).
That's not a perfect hypothesis.
When the Patriots had a combination of high complexity and high talent (2007 being a good example), their variance was low simply because there was not a likelihood that high-talent players would make mistakes as a result of complexity. They scored an average of 36.8 points a game, and were 9.9 points away from that average in a typical game.
When the Colts had a combination of low complexity but high talent (2004 is the best example here), they scored an average of 32.6 points a game, and were 10.4 points away from average in a typical game.
For the most part, however, it seems to be true: the "more" complex an offense, the more likely the variance in points scored is wider, but complexity does not only increase variance. The variables are mixed up because complexity also increases the average score by a margin for well-executing teams. It is simply harder to get there because the standard for excellent execution is higher as well.
Too many variables confound the results for individual teams, but for the most part seems to be true.
The challenge Musgrave faces in implementing a relatively complex scheme with a young team is multifaceted. It is more than simply having to teach new players, but taking with it the risk of individual failure and greater blowouts with the benefit of a higher win percentage.
I know the Vikings released their unofficial depth chart, but they only do it because they have to. In terms of who gets what reps, some things seem a little off. For example, Lawrence Jackson has been getting more 2nd team snaps at LDE than D'Aundre Reed, but things are admittedly screwed up with Everson Griffen moving around so much.
The "X" and "Z" designations don't seem to matter too much, with how often they move the receivers around. I will defer to their listed depth chart there, however.
Unless I see changes, I will just use their listed depth charts.
QB: Christian Ponder, Matt Cassel, McLeod Bethel-Thompson, James Vandenberg
LT: Matt Kalil, Kevin Murphy, DeMarcus Love
LG: Charlie Johnson, Jeff Baca, Tyler Holmes
C: John Sullivan, Joe Berger, Camden Wentz
RG: Brandon Fusco, Seth Olsen, Travis Bond
RT: Phil Loadholt, Brandon Keith, Troy Kropog
SE: Jerome Simpson, Cordarrelle Patterson, Joe Webb, Chris Summers, Rodney Smith
FL: Greg Jennings, Jarius Wright, Stephen Burton, LaMark Brown, Adam Thielen, Erik Highsmith
*SL: Jarius Wright, Greg Jennings, Stephen Burton
TE: Kyle Rudolph, John Carlson, Rhett Ellison, Chase Ford, Colin Anderson
HB: Adrian Peterson, Toby Gerhart, Matt Asiata, Joe Banyard, Bradley Randle, Jerodis Williams
FB: Jerome Felton, Zach Line
Incidentally, the rosters they hand out list Rhett Ellison as a fullback. But we weren't fooled!
I am hearing that I was the only member of the "media" critical of Ponder's performance In Day 9. Aside from the fact that this means that I am media now, it also means that my assessment is more likely wrong than right. I'm not modifying it in light of that, but do take it with a grain of salt.
I thought Ponder showcased a few excellent throws, but I am getting the feeling he's much better at intermediate throws than he is deeper ones, and the gap in that skill difference is larger than it is for most short-game quarterbacks.
Today I found some similar anticipation problems from Ponder, who executed on some deep throws but consistently under- or over-threw his targets. Nothing extraordinary; most of the time they caught the ball; but he killed YAC opportunity.
The ball on those throws had wobble, but when he switched to throwing the tough intermediate passes, the ball had zip again, and was well-placed.
But for the most part, his practices weren't great. His third-down conversions were great catches by Jerome Simpson, although on at least one of them it was necessary because of coverage, not because of Ponder's bad throw.
What was interesting was that the offense ran consistent Cover-2 beaters against a base Cover-2 defense, but didn't get as much done as you would hope for in that situation. This is an example of a moment that I would give the defense a pass, but Ponder still didn't get much done. The first scrimmage of the day culminated in a march downfield, but not a lot of it was due to Ponder, who forced the third down situation by questionable first down play.
He did have a number of good throws including, notably, a great leading throw to Greg Jennings down the sideline.
The practice wasn't all that bad and the offense moved down the field, but given the difficulty of what he was asked to do, I was disappointed. It showed more of the inconsistency that worries me, but I would not mark this as a day that is evidence that he's had an up-and-down camp. These past few days have been good and this won't take away from that. I'm still happy with Day Five, even this far out.
Incidentally, he ended the practice on three straight passes that should have been interceptions, but were dropped. Obviously Sanford was one of them. One of them was clearly Ponder's fault, one of them was a tight window that was probably worth throwing, and I couldn't tell on the other one.
As for my thoughts on the scrimmage, it's much the same. I thought Ponder did an OK job at best, having some troubles with ball placement. He had some beautiful throws, including a few in 7-on-7 drills, as well as good overall throws, like the deep ball to Jennings.
The criticism that that particular throw was "easy" is irrelevant to me, but the argument that it was underthrown is. It was indeed underthrown, but that makes it a "not great" throw, not a bad one. The best QBs will consistently anticipate their receivers and throw to lead them. He didn't do that, but I suppose none of us are expecting he is the best QB (yet?), but it is an example of an area he needs to grow.
He had a few bad throws as well. The best QBs will do that, too, but perhaps not to the extent that he did. He exceeded my expectations, but my expectations were low. Overall the scrimmage was a positive event, but not very much so.
Day Ten was a different day for Christian who varied his passes for a number of completions not just within easy striking distance, but down the field. The next step for the Vikings offense is to throw passes that are difficult to defend. Those also happen to be either the passes that are the most difficult to throw or to catch.
There were a number of solid throws with anticipation, speed and accuracy. He threw a few back shoulder fades over covered defenders, took chances, played the tough passing angles and moved the offense.
There were times when he made the wrong decision or didn't do enough, particularly at the beginning of 11s, where he made the completion but did not convert the first down. On his first play he was able to do so with a smart pass to Jennings but then floundered after that for a bit. But he picked it back up and looked great in drills.
Matt Cassel had a bad time in the scrimmages and a better time in the practice that I saw. Cassel started off without any particularly good or bad performances, and was harassed early by the defensive line. But he tailed off, starting with a poor performance in 7-on-7s, including some poorly placed passes to any number of people in the receiver corps. He started off with good arm strength, but couldn't complete his passes. Later, passes sailed.
He did end, however, on a good decision to scramble and get yards.
In Day 9, his passes had more to them, driving instead of floating. He did float a few passes still, but got the ball around and protected it decently well. He had a much better day under pressure, finding areas to sit or scrambling for good gains. Things still weren't great for him, however, as he couldn't get the right touch on the ball. Regardless, he was more the victim of drops than his own play on Day 9.
Day 10 saw a reversion to form, where Matt Cassel crumbled under the pressure of the defensive line. Aside from being victim to a number of sacks (both on the edge and interior), he telegraphed his throws to allow defenders to deflect or even intercept him.
Once he figured out the pocket, he did better moving around and avoiding the rush, but it was too late to make up for his poor performance-particularly because even after finding ways to avoid the pass rushers, he didn't place the ball well.
McLeod Bethel-Thompson didn't have a lot of reps, but he commanded the pocket well enough. Didn't note much in the way of good or bad play in scrimmage or Day 9.
Day 10 saw MBT reading the field and making plays, with a number of third down conversions to start off 11s. His first few plays were good reads of the defense, where he exploited blown coverage and seams in zones to convert to LaMark Brown and Colin Anderson.
Sometimes he fit passes in tight windows, including a tough conversion to Joe Webb under tight coverage. He even made good decisions when checking down, throwing to a player in space when others were covered. There was one instance of an overthrown pass, but it was otherwise good.
Day 9 may have been James Vandenberg's best day. I enjoyed watching him, and he made good decisions, backing them up with good throws. Most impressive was the way he stood up in the pocket and avoided pass rush pressure. Lots of completions, and only a few incorrect progressions.
He didn't get involved a lot on Day 10, and the only notable play was an impressive scramble away from a free Collins Ukwu, who closed in on him quickly after breaking free of Troy Kropog. He was able to throw on the run and get a touchdown passing to Jarius Wright, who was covered pretty well.
John Carlson may be showing the promise he was signed for, as he continues to have good camps. His showing in the scrimmage was more significant than his Day 9 practice, because I didn't see much of him in the practices. But he consistently got open and found the ball, particularly in the end zone. He showed well in sevens and found ways to get open and was even responsible for a touchdown in scrimmage.
Kyle Rudolph... well, I don't imagine anyone is worried about him. I didn't note too much about him in scrimmages, but he was not on the field too often. His expansive catch radius is obvious though, and he'll be any QBs best friend. In Day 9, he made good on his promise to improve between the 20s and created separation more than once in the field. He hauled in a few passes, but unfortunately bobbled a catch on the sideline after getting open, which was the most notable play I'd seen from him.
I did not see much of Rhett Ellison.
Chase Ford is looking smoother every day, and the gap between him and Colin Anderson is growing. He seems to be catching most of the passes thrown his way, but more importantly he's doing a good job getting open. Notably, he's been praised for his blocking and was able to get open a bit further downfield.
I didn't get much of a bead on Toby Gerhart in the scrimmage or Day Nine, but I did note one thing-he is doing a better job on runs assigned to the outside than I've seen in previous years. Any opportunity for Gerhart to be a more complete back is a great one. Day 9 wasn't happy to Toby simply because the offensive line wasn't performing up to the standards of the backup defensive line. Again, not really a surprise.
He did start off the day well with an excellently read run for a run of at least 15 yards. He was an asset in the passing game, but for the most part did what you would expect
Asiata continues to display good vision, but he's not getting a lot of second-level yards, like last camp. There aren't a lot of third running backs that will consistently get yards that the offensive line will get him, and he is a stable running back to have. Because of that, he should have the best shot at grabbing the third running back spot. Day Ten saw more of why Asiata has a decent shot as the third running back, as he ripped off a few more runs.
In Day 10, Asiata didn't get the type of yardage he's used to, but was almost limited to a TFL if not for some drive that got him a yard.
Joe Banyard makes plays in space, but importantly made two good plays in the scrimmage. One was to get open deep on an overthrown ball, and the other was to break into space for good yardage and the conversion.
Bradley Randle was extremely impressive in the scrimmage, bursting off a long touchdown run on a pitch, while also contributing in the passing game as well. Day 9 was the best pure running I've seen from him. I've been concerned about his runs for loss in previous days, but I didn't see one in Day 9. Given his explosive potential and relative versatility, he could challenge Banyard. Again, the preseason will be important because Banyard has the 4th spot well in hand right now, and deserves it.
In Day 10, he showcased some of his excellent pass protection, and was difficult to move as a blocker despite his size. He's been responding to defensive play better and has displayed vision when running, something that was difficult before without a lot of holes.
Jerodis Williams isn't showing enough lateral agility to separate himself from the pack. He's more of a plugger it seems, even though that wasn't his reputation going in. Without a particular type of play to hang his hat on, he needs to be good at everything, and I didn't see that in scrimmage or on Day 9.
There's not much to say on the offensive line, as I didn't see much of them in either the scrimmage or the Day 9 practices.
I noted that Fusco has been moving a bit better on his feet, and this should bode well for pass protection. Naturally, we'll know more in actual play, but if Fusco improves half again as much as he did the previous year, the Vikings should be happy with him. He is still powerful and mean at the line of scrimmage in the run game, although that wasn't his issue with run blocking last year-it was consistency. My sense is that improved conditioning will resolve this issue.
There were still issues, particularly in the run game, that I noted in Day 9, however, and Fusco couldn't finish as well as he has at other times in camp.
Brandon Fusco had a good day on Day 10, and was opening up big holes in the run game, not just getting to the second level well but also doubling down at the line and peeling off at the right time. I didn't note him giving up pressure, but I'm not sure he had a clean slate in pass protection anyway.
Matt Kalil had a tough day against Jared Allen and was caught out of position in consecutive plays by Allen. So far, Kalil's camp has been worse than it was his rookie year. There's no reason to be alarmed right now, but if I had never seen Kalil play before, I'd have some concerns about his play. It's not so much that he's having a bad camp, but he's not having a great one as far as I can tell either.
Lining up against Jared Allen is obviously going to help him, but it also makes evaluation just a little difficult as you'd expect Allen to do better than most DEs.
I missed the one-on-ones, so all I was able to see was DeMarcus Love play extremely well against Collins Ukwu and Chase Baker on stunts and twists. I also noticed that Tyler Holmes wasn't doing very well.
On the same day, 10, Seth Olsen and Travis Bond were having trouble with Sharrif Floyd all day, who kept making trouble in the backfield. Brandon Keith had some issues as well and isn't as fleet of foot as you hope a tackle to be. He's still doing a good job in the run game, and may be the only second-team offensive lineman who can get something done against the run.
Jerome Simpson had a fantastic day in practice Day 9 and had a very good day in scrimmages. We often make fun of players like Simpson for showing up on the practice field and failing to deliver, but it's hard to imagine that the skills he showed on those two days would not translate at all. It's not that I expect him to push for 1000 yards, but I think we'll see some highlights from him, even if it means only a 300 yard season.
In Day 10, he continued to perform, but didn't have the highlight day he experienced earlier. He found holes in the zone coverage to exploit and continued to adjust and read the defense well.
Greg Jennings isn't flashing as much as he did early on in camp, although I think that has more to do with defensive backs getting up to speed and keeping up with him than it does any "drop off" in play from him. He's still putting on moves to get open, although he doesn't have quite the package of deep routes with the Vikings that he had across the border.
Jarius Wright has yet to repeat the excellent two day stretch where he was the highlight of camp, but he's still playing well. He's doing more at the break to generate separation and clearly has mastered more of the technical skills that so often hold receivers back. He isn't only getting open deep, but finding ways to create space on intermediate and short routes as well.
Particularly impressive is his work in the red zone, where he can still create exclusive space for himself regardless of how cluttered the field is.
Cordarrelle Patterson had his first display of strong hands, holding on to a catch from Cassel despite Sherels' best efforts to deflect the pass or dislodge it after the catch on Day 9. He still needs to stay in tune with the play, as he did drop one the next day after Brandon Burton seemingly deflected it.
Patterson still needs work creating separation throughout the route, as he can be eliminated from plays fairly easily at this point. Over the two days, he didn't have any highlight catches, although he had a great showing in the scrimmage as a returner. He didn't really stand out in any way, and I didn't watch his one-on-ones. From what I hear, he wasn't lighting things up.
There are also a lot of things for Joe Webb to work on, but one thing I noted was that his release has been great. Getting off the line is usually difficult for rookie receivers to do, but he can get open early in the route because of it. Generally speaking, press coverage would be a good bet against a raw receiver, and he might get a deep play or two off in the season because of it.
He needs to adjust better to wearing pads, however, as he hasn't been reeling in as many catches. It looks like he's getting more comfortable, as he's shown a little more today, but he wants to establish himself. He has better awareness for the ball than I thought, and had a few smart plays between the three days, particularly in Day 10.
He's been able to pluck the ball out of tight spaces and generally gets his hands on it, but now he's working on making sure touching the ball leads to catching it, and he also has to read defenses a bit better (or perhaps differently, given his experience).
Adam Thielen continues to impress observers with some great catches, but he's also got a few drops on his resume as well. He's also shown some chops as a route-runner, but still shows too much throughout the route. At this point, Thielen would make a very good practice squad candidate. He did get some attention from other teams (including teams that don't have depth at wide receiver), so it's a risk to cut him and put him on the practice squad, but it may be worth it.
Rodney Smith has surprised me, and it looks like he's already improving throughout his route as a route-runner. Right now he's my dark horse to make the roster above the rest of the undrafted free agents. Still having problems with stride length, Smith doesn't seem used to his height yet. But he's played fast and has begun to set up defensive backs to get open. More of that and he could even leapfrog Stephen Burton.
Speaking of which, Burton is impressing in camp once more, and we'll have to see if that translates into onfield performance. He doesn't have the type of suddenness you might want in a receiver, but he's strong, fast and relatively versatile. I don't necessarily like him as a split end, but he can play the position. He's also taken snaps in the slot. He isn't completely comfortable there, but it's a start.
One thing about Burton is that he's had his moments, including a good sideline catch downfield from Matt Cassel on Day 9. He later opened up on a drag route (which he's run a few times) and seems to be doing a good job with underneath work.
LaMark Brown looks better now than he did before. He still made some incorrect moves throughout the route and hasn't been helping the quarterback, but he's also found ways to exploit holes in coverage or at least take advantage of defensive miscues. I still think he's too slow to be a wide receiver, but we'll see.
Chris Summers and Erik Highsmith have not impressed me, but Summers definitely looks the better of the two.
There you go! Hopefully, I'll have the defense up tonight. In between then and now, I'll have a podcast up and publish a preseason preview at the Bleacher Report.