The Vikings backup quarterback controversy brings into focus the importance of preseason game performance, and game performance in general, as part of the overall player evaluation in determining depth charts and roster spots.
Conventional wisdom is that while practice matters and is an important part of a player’s evaluation, performance on game day is paramount. At the end of the day, if the team loses in part because of poor performance by one or more players, there is little consolation in explaining, “yes, but he’s good in practice....”
Most coaches would agree, however, that players who practice well tend to play well, and vice versa, although there are exceptions. There are plenty of players who practice well, but other factors limit their success on the field. There are also many veterans that play at a high level without practicing much at all.
In any case, there is no comeback or substitute for Al Davis’ famous injunction: “Just win baby.” Particularly in the not-for-long NFL.
And so while practice matters, and competition among players for starting jobs and roster spots can lead to improvement, game performance is the only source of job security - for players and coaches alike. The key for coaches is to figure out which players can play on game day - not simply who sounds good in the meeting room, or works hard on the practice field - although that can be a factor.
The Bud Grant Way
The most successful and only Hall of Fame head coach the Vikings have had is Bud Grant. He had more of a minimalist approach to coaching and practices, which collective bargaining agreements seem to be making more of the norm. He didn’t work his players too hard in practice, didn’t like to repeat himself as a coach, and yet expected a lot from his players. He also had a eye for talent, and evaluating personnel he considered the most important part of his job.
“I’ll decide who makes the team, who starts, who plays. I could look at film and get as much out of it as a guy who sits down for four hours and documents everything, puts it in a computer and spits out tendencies. I relied more on what I saw and what I felt. It was not 100 percent accurate, but it was in my gut. I knew who the best players were, and I didn’t need three weeks of training camp with a bunch of rookies to tell who the players were. That’s what I was getting paid for.” - Bud Grant
Of course in today’s information age, the last way organizations want to make personnel decisions is relying on one man’s gut instinct. Millions of dollars are spent on evaluating players and prospects, trying to come up with some repeatable system for successfully selecting and coaching players into championship teams. That system still hasn’t been found. Good head coaches, and talent evaluators, are still pretty scarce.
It’s interesting that although Grant was often seen as a more conservative style coach in many ways, the two quarterbacks that started the most games for him were Joe Kapp and Fran Tarkenton - both ‘gunslingers’ in QB vernacular. For Grant, if they were starters, that had to mean they were both ‘players.’ And so they were. Not sure how well they did in practice.
The Bill Belichick Way
Belichick’s style of coaching has been examined quite extensively, as he’s the most successful active coach in football, and arguably the most successful of all time. While he has a similar demeanor in some ways to Bud Grant, his approach is different.
First, Belichick is a big believer in preparation and practice. How you practice is usually indicative of how you’ll play in a game. But preparation goes well beyond practices, which are intense. Extensive film study of opponents, scheme, tactics, tendencies, and game planning are high on his list for himself and assistant coaches. A battle is won or lost before it’s fought.
When it comes to evaluating players in preseason, there isn’t much value placed in past experience or draft status. It’s all about performance. Two recent examples:
WR N’Keal Harry, the Patriots first round draft pick, lost first team reps to an undrafted WR Jakobi Meyers, who’s performed well for them.
Another example: in the Patriots 3rd preseason game, after Tom Brady, Belichick played Jarrett Stidham, a rookie 4th round draft pick. His veteran backup, Brian Hoyer, didn’t play. Overall, Stidham has had over 3 times the preseason game reps as Hoyer. Hoyer had a 150 passer rating in the Patriots first preseason game, and a 53.6 rating the second - both in limited reps.
Stidham hasn’t played nearly as well as Sloter in any preseason game, and yet Belichick gave him 2nd team reps over his veteran backup.
Belichick typically keeps only two QBs on the 53-man roster, and has only 3 on the 90-man roster so they can each get enough reps in training camp.
The Mike Zimmer Way?
Apparently Mike Zimmer has a different approach to the off-season, training camp, and preseason evaluations - at least for starters: he picks the starters before OTAs begin in May, and that’s who starts in September.
Even the backup QB job was never really up for grabs. At least not based on Zimmer’s comments from early in training camp onward.
Kyle Sloter and the backup QB ‘competition’
The last two years, free of injured QBs on the roster, Mike Zimmer had 4 QBs on the 90-man roster: Cousins, Siemian/Mannion, Sloter, and a UDFA Browning/Pujals. Both years the veteran backup got most of the practice reps over Sloter, who ceded some to the UDFA.
Similarly, the veteran backup, regardless of performance, got the 2nd team reps in preseason games, and Sloter all but a handful of the 3rd team reps. Both years, Sloter significantly outplayed the veteran backup during the preseason.
And yet... nothing. The fact that Sloter has had passer ratings north of 120 in 6 of his 7 preseason games as a Viking, including a 146.9 passer rating over three games this year, has generated no curiousity from Mike Zimmer about what he might be able to do with the 2nd team, not to mention even the slightest consideration of being the primary backup.
Instead, he’s repeated what he did last year: basically shut the door on Sloter advancing.
Elsewhere around the NFL, coaches are giving 2nd team reps and extended looks at backup QBs that haven’t done nearly as well as Sloter in preseason games.
The Patriots with Stidham, the Packers with Tim Boyle, the Saints with Taysom Hill, Trace McSorley with the Ravens, the Chiefs with Kyle Shurmur. They’re all being praised by their head coaches, and none of these guys have played even remotely as well as Sloter.
Instead, Sloter and the media get a Zimmer lecture:
“I don’t know that you guys know all the little details about everything, you just see how he goes and does in the game. He’s got to get a lot better in a lot of the other parts of being a quarterback.
Making the right checks, getting people in the right formation, making sure the motion is there, not missing the time clock when it’s eight yards in front of you. There’s a lot of things that he has to get better at if he wants to be the backup quarterback.”
But after the Arizona game, in which Sloter earned a perfect 158.3 passer rating, Zimmer had this to say about his performance:
Every time he’s come in the game he does well. He makes plays, gets the team going, he’s done a good job the whole pre-season.
Zimmer’s tone in making the comment was somewhat dismissive, and he didn’t bother to update his earlier comments that had all but closed the door on Sloter’s chances at becoming the primary backup.
Meanwhile Zimmer has had nothing but praise for Sean Mannion since he was acquired.
Going back to the first few days in training camp this year, Zimmer had this to say about Sloter:
“Sloter’s always been a guy that hasn’t looked very good in practice and he’s played pretty good in games”
Sloter said this in response:
“I’m not one to make excuses, but it’s tough because right now they’re giving Sean the reps. I know I’ve got to be on point with the few reps that I do get. But I think that there’s a pretty clear reason why practice isn’t necessarily always 100 percent smooth is because I’m not out there getting the reps.
It’s not an excuse. I’ve got to go out and perform my best no matter what the circumstances. But I’m a rhythm player. I feel like I’m a pretty instinctual player. I feel like when I get in the flow of the game … it’s easier to make throws rather than throwing one ball and then waiting 45 minutes to throw another.’’
There is certainly a point to made there. If practice reps are few and far between, it’s difficult to get into any sort of a rhythm. Sloter also said coaches have told him he needs to have less of a ‘gunslinger’ mentality. He also went on to say:
“I feel like there’s a narrative for some reason that I’m not a good practice player, which I think if you’re in our building and you see the grades we get every day, that couldn’t be further from the truth. I think that there’s a lot of situations where the coaches are telling to do stuff in the helmet because they want to see us do things, and I feel the media and people see the things that you wouldn’t necessarily do on the football field, but the coaches are just trying to get a look.
I’m just kind of tired of that narrative because I’m a good player, and at the same time the (practice) reps are the way they are. It’s tough when you’re not getting as much work as some other guys. It’s not always easy but that will never be an excuse for me.”
All that points to the reality that there was never a real competition for the backup quarterback spot - either last year or this year. Zimmer wanted a veteran, a veteran was acquired, and that was that.
Preseason performance didn’t matter.
Pat Elflein at center, Pat Elflein at left guard
Last year, Pat Elflein missed the entire off-season and training camp rehabbing from multiple injuries. He had a decent rookie campaign at center in 2017, but the Vikings acquired Brett Jones from the Giants to compete at center. Jones had started at center in 2017 for the Giants, and had a good season - slightly outperforming Elflein overall and significantly in pass protection, according to PFF.
Anyway, Mike Zimmer had said after OTAs that he expected Elflein to be ready for training camp at the end of July. As it turned out, he was out another two months, missing all of training camp and the first two regular season games. Jones had done well in preseason games, and replaced Elflein at center while he rehabbed. Elflein replaced Jones at center about half-way through the Buffalo Bills game. At that point Jones hadn’t allowed any sacks, but 5 pressures in his 2 and a half games. Elflein allowed 5 pressures in his first start the following week, en route to being the worst graded offensive lineman at any position in the NFL in 2018 by PFF.
I documented Elflein’s struggles last season in this piece. The last game of the season - against the Bears with a playoff birth on the line at home - was perhaps his worst performance of the season - although there were other games graded about as bad.
In any case, the Vikings felt an upgrade to their interior line was essential. They didn’t extend Tom Compton, fired Mike Remmers, and drafted Garrett Bradbury in the first round and acquired Josh Kline and Dakota Dozier in free agency. Elflein, however - the worst performer of the bunch- was given the starting reps at left guard from the get-go in OTAs without competition. This despite being literally the worst performing offensive lineman in the league just a few months previous. Nobody else has had more than a handful of first team reps at left guard ever since.
So far this preseason, Elflein has been the worst graded offensive lineman on the team. Brett Jones, who can also play guard, is the best graded. Elflein has a 49.9 overall grade (poor), while Jones is graded at 92.0 (elite).
Dakota Dozier, who’s played left guard with the 2nd team, grades at 73.5 overall, and has improved steadily from 54.4, to 64.3, to 87.2 over the course of the three preseason games.
Dru Samia, who also plays guard, started slow but has also steadily improved over the preseason, going from 43.0, to 56.8, to 82.2 overall grades during the preseason so far.
Even Danny Isidora, who also plays guard, is graded higher than Elflein. And all of those guys are graded higher than Josh Kline too so far this preseason. And Garrett Bradbury.
Okay, granted the backups are playing against backups, and if they went against the first team opponents they wouldn’t be likely to grade as high.
But wouldn’t it be worthwhile to give a couple of those guys some reps against the first team - just to compare - particularly as Elflein’s performance over the past year has been so bad ?
From Day One of OTAs this off-season, the starting offensive line was set. Reiff, Elflein, Bradbury, Kline, O’Neill. Done. Literally no competition for any spot all year. The only first-team reps given to anyone else were basically due to injury.
Performance didn’t matter.
Meanwhile, Pat Elflein’s former linemate at Ohio State - Billy Price - who was drafted by the Bengals #21 overall last year, and played better than Elflein both last year and this preseason, but still not well, has been benched in favor of 2014 undrafted center Trey Hopkins, who replaced him for some games last year due to injury. Huh. Imagine that. Competition. Performance.
Isn’t that what we hear from coaches all summer- something about competition and making players better ? What happens if there isn’t any? Or if backups outperform starters to no effect?
Has there been any competition, for any starting job this year outside of specialists?
I guess Mike Zimmer thinks he’s got a helluva good starting lineup.
They came out flat though in the big preseason dress rehearsal game.
I wonder why?