The Minnesota Vikings are halfway through the inaugural season of the Mike Zimmer era, and they've had to deal with as much as adversity as any team in recent memory, save the 2010 team that saw a midseason coaching change, a snowstorm that moved a game in Philadelphia to Tuesday, a Metrodome collapse, and a 'home' game in Detroit.
At times, it's been a three ring circus, with clowns, elephants, monkeys, clowns, and even a high wire act or two on the field. A very positive off-season and training camp blew up shortly after a week one win against the Rams, and the loss of Adrian Peterson quickly snowballed into Jerome Simpson getting cut, and injuries to TE Kyle Rudolph and RG Brandon Fusco. But the Vikings managed to get to 2-2 after a big win at home against the Falcons before dropping three in a row. They somewhat righted the ship against the flailing Buccaneers on Sunday, and sit at 3-5 at the halfway point for the season.
So let's take a look at this season that's been, up to this point, bizarre. How bizarre, how bizarre.
Ring master steps out and says "the elephants left town"
People jump and jive, but the clowns have stuck around
TV news and camera, there's choppers in the sky
Marines, police, reporters ask where, for and why
Pele yells, "We're outta here," Zina says, "Right on"
We're making moves and starting grooves before they knew we were gone
Jumped into the Chevy and headed for big lights
Wanna know the rest? Hey, buy the rights...
How bizarre, how bizarre
Ooh, baby (Ooh, baby)
It's making me crazy (It's making me crazy)
Every time I look around
Every time I look around (Every time I look around)
Every time I look around
It's in my face
Your halfway point SMR that's also failed to live up to pre-season expectations follows.
Blue Chip Stocks:
Xavier Rhodes, CB: Rhodes, if he already hasn't, is quickly becoming a true shutdown corner. After struggling most of last year and early this year, he has rounded in to form and is quickly becoming dominant. How dominant? Well, he's starting to get matched up against the top receiver the opponents trot out, and he's done a good job of neutralizing them. Opposing QB's are only completing 55% of their passes thrown to Rhodes, and he has yet to give up more than 70 yards receiving in a game. That's due in large part to him being a good tackler. When a pass is completed, he only gives up, on average, 5 yards after the catch. So, not only is he not getting beat, he keeps guys in front of him and prevents an okay play for the offense from becoming an explosive play.
Jerick McKinnon, RB: I think a lot of people looked at McKinnon and said 'you know, in a couple years this guy could be pretty good', not knowing that 'a couple years' would turn in to 'a couple weeks'. Were this a normal set of circumstances, it might be tough to put McKinnon in a blue chip category based on stats alone. But this is far from a normal set of circumstances, and McKinnon has responded in a way I didn't think was possible for him this early in his career. He leads the team in rushing, and has 141 yards rushing more than Matt Asiata with just two more carries (76 to 74). He's third in the NFL in rushing yards per attempts (5.2, and I used 50 carries as a minimum. Put that number at 75 carries, and he's second the NFL), and seems to be getting better and better each week. He was put in about the toughest spot you could imagine, and he's responded better than anyone expected.
Anthony Barr, LB: I think I can sum up the feelings everyone has on Anthony Barr. On draft night, I wasn't angry that the Vikings selected him ninth overall, I was angry at who they didn't draft--namely a quarterback named Johnny Manziel or Teddy Bridgewater. I liked Barr, but I thought QB was a bigger need, and as the first round progressed and it looked bleaker and bleaker for the Vikings to get either Manziel or Bridgewater, I was pretty upset. Then Rick Spielman pulled off the trade with Seattle that netted Bridgewater, and I was happy again. After watching Barr play, I apologize for feeling that way, because had the Vikings just come away with Barr in the first round, it still would have been a very good draft. A very good rookie season went up a notch on Sunday with his strip/fumble recovery/TD to beat Tampa Bay in overtime, and people are starting to take notice.
Everson Griffen, DE: After a relatively slow start, Griff is starting to bring it from the right edge, and the Vikings, at least right now, look every bit as wise now as they did when they re-signed him and let Jared Allen walk in the off-season. If ever there was a physical specimen made for defensive end in a Mike Zimmer defense, you could argue that it would be Griffen. On they year, he has eight sacks, six QB hits, and 13 QB hurries. All of those numbers are better than, or as good as, Allen, and when you consider that he's going to be playing in five years and Allen won't, keeping Griffen was a good move for the Vikings.
Harrison Smith, S: For as good as Xavier Rhodes has been to this point, the Vikings secondary wouldn't be experiencing the renaissance it has been without Harrison Smith. He's currently the #2 ranked safety in the NFL by Pro Football Focus, and is arguably the best player on the Vikings defense. He is a big time hitter, a solid tackler, and his pass coverage skills seem to be better this year than last year.
Teddy Bridgewater, QB: After his first start it could only go downhill, at least to an extent. It was just unrealistic to expect over 300 yards passing every week, and in some ways that game might have hurt Bridgewater more than it helped. It gave credence to what were already unrealistic expectations amongst the fan base, and when it all came crashing down to earth in his next start against Detroit two weeks later, we were forced to come to the conclusion that Bridgewater is, in fact, a rookie who is going to have his ups and downs. Still, he's been getting better and better since that Detroit game, and he lead the Vikings to the game tying drive against the Bucs, a game which the Vikings ultimately won. He's going to need to get better protection from his offensive line, but Bridgewater has the look and feel of a legitimate NFL quarterback moving forward.
Shariff Floyd, DT: Floyd, like Rhodes, was a guy that struggled in his rookie season last year, but has come on strong in 2014. He probably had the best game of his career against Tampa Bay, recording five tackles, a sack, and generally creating mayhem in the middle of Tampa Bay's pocket. One of the reasons the Vikings rushing defense has gone from league worst to league average is due in no small part to Floyd, who is developing into a very solid defensive tackle.
Josh Robinson, CB: For all the raving we've done on Xavier Rhodes, on of the most criminally underlooked players on the defensive resurgence has been Robinson. If you want to talk opposing QB numbers against defensive backs, look no further than here--opposing QB's are only completing 51.6% of passes, for 205 yards and a QB rating of 67.3. If he had been a full time starter, he would have been a cinch for a blue chip stock, but since he's a nickel back, let's call him a strong solid investment. Is that fair to him? Probably not, but I give Rhodes the edge because he's being manned up on the opponents number one threat more often than not, and well, it's my SMR. So there.
Jeff Locke, P: Locke just isn't getting the job done. As to drafting him, I really don't care whether he was drafted or signed as a street FA. Fifth round picks flame out with more regularity than Rosie O'Donnell's career, so whatever. A punter has two jobs: don't allow the kick to be blocked, and flip field position. He's been good with the first, but let's face it, a punt in the NFL hardly ever gets blocked. As to the second point, he doesn't do it consistently, at all. Now that this defense is rounding into form, it's difficult for teams to sustain 80 yard drives on them...imagine trying to go 90 or 95 yards on them. Sadly, I don't know that we'll know that on a regular basis.
Matt Kalil, T: It's sounding like a broken record, but at what point does Kalil become 'a good player that's in a slump' to 'not that good of a player?' Depending on what your opinion of Pro Football Focus is, he's the second worst tackle in the NFL based on their grading system, and hasn't graded out in the green through eight games. If you take it with a grain of salt, like his head coach does, his traditional stats are still troubling--eight sacks given up to go along with four QB hits and 20 QB hurries. Regardless of what your measurement is for Kalil, the bottom line is this--he's not very good, and it's debatable as to whether or not he can return to his 2012 form.
Vlad Ducasse, G: If Vlad Ducasse and Matt Kalil were on the same side of the o-line, it might make things better for Teddy Bridgewater, as he would know that as soon as he snapped the ball he'd need to roll right to prevent getting killed. I get that Ducasse is a backup, but a backup needs to step in and at least not be terrible. Ducasse has not even managed to do that, and it's a race to the bottom for him and Kalil to be the worst starter at his position in the NFL. Kalil has a good head start, but I have every confidence that Ducasse can match, if not beat Kalil by season's end.
Captain Munnerlyn, CB: I honestly thought that Munnerlyn would be the top dog cornerback at this point in the season, and although he's had some good games, he's had some dog games, too. It's been a very inconsistent start for one of the Vikings high priced free agents, and although I think he'll eventually come around and have a solid season, his first half has failed to live up to expectations set when he arrived.
Buy: This team was hurt with the loss of AP. This is probably the easiest 'buy' I've ever written. When you essentially build an offense around a guy, and then that guy isn't around after the first game, it's going to affect how the ball gets matriculated down the field.
Sell: The offensive struggles are on AP's loss alone. That said, McKinnon and Asiata have done a good job replacing what was arguably the most irreplaceable player on an offense in the NFL, save for the two or three elite QB's in the game. At times, the offense has run and passed the ball effectively, just not consistently. It's better than the three and out cavalcade we saw last year, but it's still frustrating watching most drives die somewhere between the 20 and 35 yard line.
Buy: Teddy Bridgewater is getting better each game. Is that completely accurate? In a sense, no, because he had that coming out party against Atlanta, then really struggled against Detroit. But yeah, since he first took the field against the Saints, he has improved. He's cut down on his interceptions, going from three, to two, to none, and has thrown a TD pass in consecutive games. His yardage is going up, and his internal decision making clock seems to be speeding up. He's progressing, and that's encouraging.
Sell: Teddy Bridgewater is a franchise quarterback right now. All those good things aside, it's easy for us to forget that as fans, Teddy's a rookie. I mean, we know he is, but we expect more than what a rookie can bring to the table. Part of that is hype, and part of that is the dearth of quality QB play in recent years. Those two things have lead to lofty expectations, maybe too lofty for this year. They'll come, just not right away.
Buy: The offensive line struggles will ultimately doom this team. We talked about it before, but when a supposed strength really isn't a strength, then you're going to have issues moving forward. It started unraveling with the injury to Brandon Fusco, but in reality, every offensive lineman has had issues, off an on, for the entire season. Teams are built from the lines out, and if this line doesn't figure things out over the course of the second half of the season, they might need something close to a full blown re-construction.
Sell: There is a quick fix for the offensive line. But fixing the line is easier said than done. We've bandied about swapping Matt Kalil and Charlie Johnson, subbing out Vlad Ducasse, or starting David Yankey in place of Johnson, or throwing Joe Berger in the mix. Well, Berger got thrown in the mix, as did Mike Harris. Neither of them are long term answers, and Yankey has yet to be activated for a game. The only thing that can be deduced from that is that he isn't ready for prime time. So the bottom line in all this is that the Vikings are going to have to ride out the storm and see if they can get things figured out. If they can, great. If they can't, it's going to be a long eight games.