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More On The Vikings From The Football Outsiders Almanac

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My apologies for not having moved on with this piece a little sooner than I have. . .I'm at a different location for the next couple of weeks, and the internet connection is sketchier than a guy selling Rolex watches in Times Square. (You know, the ones that spell Rolex with three x's?) But, I think I've finally gotten a handle on things and we can get to this.

We spoke with Football Outsiders writer Mike Tanier about the Minnesota Vikings, as he wrote the section about our favorite football team for this year's Football Outsiders Almanac. (Which you can get in either PDF form or hard copy in time for the start of this season or any fantasy football drafts you might be taking part in.) I wanted to take a look at a couple of things that Mike touched on in the course of answering the questions I posed him.

The 2013 Minnesota Vikings were the worst second-and-short team in the NFL since 1989 (when FO started keeping stats)

That's not an exaggeration. That's honestly and truly what the numbers say.

The "numbers" I'm referring to are Football Outsiders' trademark statistic, DVOA (or Defense-Adjusted Value Over Average). There's a bigger explanation of it on their website, but for purposes of brevity, I'm going to cite this one particular paragraph.

To use DVOA, you have to know what numbers represent good performance and what numbers represent bad performance. We've made that easy. In all cases, 0% represents league-average. A positive DVOA represents a situation that favors the offense, while a negative DVOA represents a situation that favors the defense. This is why the best offenses have positive DVOA ratings and the best defenses have negative DVOA ratings. In most years, the best and worst offenses tend to rate around ± 30%, while the best and worst defenses tend to rate around ± 25%. For starting players, the scale tends to reach roughly ± 40% for passing and receiving, and ± 30% for rushing. As you might imagine, some players with fewer attempts will surpass both extremes.

So, in short, a rating of 0 in a particular situation means that a team would be perfectly average in that particular category. How bad was the DVOA in second-and-short situations for the 2013 Minnesota Vikings?

How about -77.2%?

(In my best Garrett Morris School for the Deaf voice. . .that's NEGATIVE. . .SEVENTY-SEVEN. . .POINT. . .TWO!)

That means that, in second-and-short situations, the 2013 Minnesota Vikings performed 77.2% worse than an average offense would be expected to perform. Now, the usual definition of "short" at Football Outsiders is 1-2 yards to go. Mr. Tanier explains how it could have been worse. . .and, in fact, was.

Peterson and the other rushers managed just eight first downs on 15 second-and-short carries, but the passing situation was brutal: 19 attempts, 11 completions, nine first downs, two interceptions, two sacks-and here's the kicker-just 66 yards. Imagine a second-and-short pass for a moment. Did you see a fake handoff, followed by a bomb? The Vikings didn't. It looks even worse if we expand "short" past our usual definition of 1 or 2 yards to go. Thirty times, the Vikings put the ball in the air on second down with less than five yards to go. Only four of those passes were thrown over 10 yards through the air, and only one of those four was actually caught: a 57-yard bomb to Greg Jennings that didn't even start with a play fake. When you think of the personnel at their disposal, the inability to generate a single deep play-action pass on second-and-short is just ridiculous.

For the record, the worst team in that category prior to the 2013 Vikings was the 2003 Detroit Lions, who clocked in with a -64.0% DVOA in second-and-short situations. So, the Vikings "beat" them by a pretty sizeable margin. The 2003 Lions also finished with a similar record to the 2013 Vikings, going 5-11.

How bad was the third-down defense, really?

It was pretty bad. Surprising, huh?

The Vikings, in terms of DVOA, had the worst third-down defense in the NFL last year, according to Football Outsiders. They came in at 36.1%. . .remember, for defenses, negative numbers are better. They were about average on first and second downs, but on third downs they were pretty horrific.

However, according to the Almanac, there's plenty of reason for optimism where that's concerned. From the "Pre-Game Show" section of the almanac, we see this:

Defenses which are strong on first and second down, but weak on third down, will tend to improve the following year. Defenses which are weak on first and second down, but strong on third down, will tend to decline the following year.

Now, calling the Vikings "strong" on first and second down might be a bit of a stretch. . .they were 18th in DVOA on first down and 16th in DVOA on second down. . .but they were pretty awful on third down. As Mike touched on in the piece he did for us, there are plenty of reasons that the defense should be significantly improved this year, owing largely to a new scheme, upgrades on the defensive line, and new faces in the secondary. Hopefully this finding from Football Outsiders will hold true to form for this year's Minnesota Vikings.

So, how does Football Outsiders see the Vikings doing this year?

The answer is. . .right about average.

The Football Outsiders Almanac has the Vikings projected for 7.4 wins this year. Now, obviously, that doesn't mean they're going to win .4 of a game at some point. The folks from Football Outsiders run, literally, a million simulations (1,000 simulations based on 1,000 different sets of DVOA data), and that's the average number of victories those simulations showed for the 2014 Minnesota Vikings.

Football Outsiders put the 2014 Vikings' post-season odds at 23.8%, with a 2.4% chance of them representing the NFC in Super Bowl XLIX. (For comparison's sake, they had the 2012 Vikings as having a 6.7% chance of making the playoffs, and the 2013 Vikings having an even worse 5.6% chance of making the post-season.) They also break the team's probability of having a certain range of record into four different categories, with the Vikings' ratings as follows:

On the Clock (0-4 wins): 13%
Mediocrity (5-7 wins): 39%
Playoff Contender (8-10 wins): 37%
Super Bowl Contender (11+ wins): 11%

So, it doesn't appear that this team will be the disaster that some "experts" out there are predicting, but we may have to wait for the big payoff until next season. Of course, this team could surprise like the 2012 team did, but this team appears to be better set for long-term success than that bunch was.

Best Quotes From Mike Tanier On The Vikings

In no particular order. . .

-On the Vikings' signing of quarterback Josh Freeman: "The Vikings claimed Freeman off waivers from the Buccaneers after Greg Schiano threw all of Freeman's clothes and vintage vinyl onto the front lawn. . ."

-On the team's 2013 coaching issues: "By juggling quarterbacks and installing panicky game plans, the outgoing coaches concealed just how much infrastructure had been built over the last two seasons. This was not a desperate team. It just acted that way."

-On new offensive coordinator Norv Turner: "Turner knows how to use second-and-short to his advantage, for example, and history shows that terrible second-and-short teams typically improve in offensive DVOA the next year. It's an easy fix, and Turner is good at easy fixes."

-On the Vikings' offensive line and QB situation: "The Vikings committed just ten holding penalties last year, the lowest total in the NFL. That's pretty impressive for a line that had to block for three different quarterbacks who looked downfield with the confused apprehension of toddlers entering their first amusement park."

-And, last but not least, on everyone's favorite position on the Vikings' roster: "Jeff Locke replaced Chris Kluwe and provided reliable punting without uttering a single sociopolitical theory; it's debatable whether that final point was what the Vikings were really seeking, though those of us who tired of Kluwe's increasing Olbermannization enjoyed the respite. (We may agree with your opinions, but we defend to the death our right to ask you to STFU about them.)"

So, there you have some of the more intriguing parts of Mike Tanier's write-up of the Minnesota Vikings for the 2014 Football Outsiders Almanac. It really is a great read overall, and if you like football, you should grab yourself a copy before the season gets underway.