Why the Minnesota Vikings will not overtake the Lions in the NFC North


One can’t tune into televised programs, streaming radio or netcasts covering the NFC North without hearing some ‘expert’ espouse the virtues of Mike Zimmer and the team being developed in Minnesota. The Minnesota Vikings have become the popular choice among the ‘talking heads’ to emerge as division finalists destined to meet Green Bay at the end of the season. While it’s almost inconceivable to form an argument against an Aaron Rodgers led Packers team competing for the division title, I see a multiplicity of reasons to disqualify the Minnesota Vikings.

Teddy Bridgewater vs the Sophomore Slump

Dec 28, 2014; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater (5) passes against the Chicago Bears in the first quarter at TCF Bank Stadium. The Vikings win 13-9. Mandatory Credit: Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

One of the reasons ‘analysts’ have chosen Minnesota over Detroit is the play of Teddy Bridgewater. According to Sid Hartman of the Star Tribune “Bridgewater posted an 85.2 passer rating this season to rank 22nd in the NFL, right behind Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford (85.7) and in front of playoff quarterbacks such as Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton (25th, 83.5) and Carolina’s Cam Newton (26th, 82.1). But it was Bridgewater’s play over the final five weeks, when he threw for 1,230 yards, eight touchdowns and five interceptions, that he really showed signs of being the Vikings’ franchise quarterback.”

What analysts fail to account for is the dreaded ‘sophomore slump.’ RG III, Colin Kaepernick, Nick Foles and several other quarterbacks experienced tremendous successes during their first seasons in the NFL only to find varying levels of success thereafter. Teddy Bridgewater acquitted himself well in 2014, but that certainly does not guarantee his success in 2015 and beyond. While some members of the media have fallen in love with Bridgewater, good play in six games does not make a player a proven commodity – just ask Mark Sanchez or Tim Tebow. In truth, the Lions hold the contractual rights to the best quarterback within the division not named Aaron Rodgers.

While much maligned even within his own fanbase Matthew Stafford has established himself as a top 12 QB. After a couple of injury shortened seasons to start his career, Stafford played sixteen games in a season for the first time in 2011. His performance that year was so great the Associate Press voted him NFL Comeback Player of the Year. Since then, Stafford’s gone on to break franchise and NFL records. Some of his accomplishments include:

  • Surpassing Kurt Warner for the best 50-game start to a career
  • Breaking Dan Marino’s record to become the fastest ever to reach 20,000 passing yards
  • Re-writing franchise records long held by the legendary Bobby Layne
  • First Lions QB to make a Pro Bowl since 1971
  • 2015 Pro Bowl MVP

NFL defensive coordinators analyze tendencies and create scouting reports based on opposing QBs strengths and weaknesses. Elite quarterbacks have an almost obsessive compulsion with improving/eliminating weaknesses. Quality starter-caliber quarterbacks tend to spend most of their time honing their strengths, but largely ignore weaknesses.  Poor quarterbacks are eventually exposed for failing to identify and correct their flaws. Time will tell where Bridgewater inevitably ranks.

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In 2014 there wasn’t much of a pro scouting report on Bridgewater so defensive coordinators didn’t have many player specific keys to use in crafting a game plan to attack Bridgewater. Rest assured that changes for Bridgewater in 2015 as defensive coordinators will have performed exhaustive study on Bridgewater’s tendencies and will repeatedly expose him to situations that exploit his weaknesses. How Bridgewater responds to the challenges he faces in 2015 will shape his career. Whether Bridgewater ends up as an all-time great, a complete bust or something in between is soon to be determined. It’s far too early in the process to make definitive declarations one way or the other which is why it’s quite presumptive of ‘experts’ to ascribe Viking success with assumed play from Teddy Bridgewater.

Adrian Peterson vs Father Time

Jul 27, 2015; Mankato, MN, USA; Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson (28) takes off his shoe and blackens it with a pen at training camp at Minnesota State University. Mandatory Credit: Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

Father time is undefeated. Father time claimed the careers of all-time greats like Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan and Jerry Rice. The proverbial ‘he’ of time will eventually claim the careers of dominating contemporary persons like Ronda Rousey, Serena Williams and each member of the World Cup Champion US Women’s National Team.

In like manner, Adrian Peterson’s (30) career will succumb to time as well. The question isn’t if this will occur, but when. One of the worst things that could have happened to the Vikings as it relates to making a decision on Adrian Peterson was having their All-Pro runner absent for most of the season. The team has no idea whether the ravages of time have already begun to erode his skills. Additionally, there’s a mountain of research that validates the premise erosion may have been already been apparent had Peterson played a full schedule in 2014.

Tristan H. Cockcroft of ESPN studied the drop in production of the top 50 running backs of all-time after they reached age 30. His research showed the NFL’s greatest running backs lost greater than 33% of their touchdown production between the ages of 29-31. Additionally, his findings showed those same runners lost 10% of their scrimmage yards each year beginning at age 29.

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In fairness, there have been notable exceptions to what I am dubbing the ‘rule of 29.’ For example the NFC North’s (NFC Central at the time) own Walter Payton & Barry Sanders proved immune to the ravages of time. Peterson could well follow in their footsteps. However, the odds are heavily stacked against him.

If Peterson isn’t the dominant force he’s been over the better part of the past decade, the organization may have dug itself by signing Peterson to a 3-year $42M extension. His cap hits are reported by Spotrac as 15.4, 11 and 18 Million dollars per season over the next three years. In 2017, a 32-year old Adrian Peterson will count $18M against the Vikings salary cap. The trend advanced by Cockcroft’s research suggests the Vikings will not get enough return on investment to justify those numbers.

Jim Caldwell vs Mike Zimmer

Oct 12, 2014; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer greets Detroit Lions head coach Jim Caldwell after the game at TCF Bank Stadium. The Lions win 17-3. Mandatory Credit: Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

One of the largest factors in the assumed rise to power of the Minnesota Vikings over the Detroit Lions is based on the premise Mike Zimmer is a better coach than Jim Caldwell. The facts, however, simply do not support this supposition.

In Re: Experience

In terms of experience the facts show Jim Caldwell holds the edge as he possesses four years of NFL head coaching experience while Mike Zimmer only has one.

In Re: Wins

In three of his four seasons as head coach, Jim Caldwell’s teams have reached at least ten wins on the season. Mike Zimmer on the other hand posted a mere seven wins in his first season as head coach. Additionally, Jim Caldwell has won two Superbowls as a coordinator and coached his team to a Superbowl appearance as head coach of the Indianapolis Colts. Meanwhile, Mike Zimmer was part of a Bengals coaching staff that lost three consecutive playoff wildcard games.

In Re: Distinctive Contributions

Jim Caldwell’s forte has been in developing quarterbacks. Biographers’ for the Detroit Lions’ official website have astutely noted: “Two of his [Caldwell’s] quarterbacks, Manning (Super Bowl XLI) and Ravens QB Joe Flacco (Super Bowl XLVII) were named Super Bowl MVPs following their teams’ respective championship runs.”

Jan 25, 2015; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Team Irvin quarterback Matthew Stafford of the Detroit Lions (9) after the 2015 Pro Bowl at University of Phoenix Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

What’s more, in one season with Lions Jim Caldwell helped quarterback Matthew Stafford become the franchise’s first pro bowl quarterback since 1971. Stafford represented himself and his coach well in the game earning offensive MVP honors. While it is true the pro bowl doesn’t hold any relevance on a season it is still significant that Caldwell’s tutelage once again led to a quarterback being named MVP.

Defense is Zimmer’s calling card and on his influence was apparent on the team’s defense in 2014. As noted by the team’s official website “the Vikings defense made vast improvements over the previous season, highlighted by [the team] jumping from #32 in the NFL in offensive points allowed to #13 and going from #31 in pass defense to #7.”

Zimmer deserves credit for Minnesota’s defensive improvements, but anticipated heavy reliance upon 2015 draft picks Waynes, Kendricks and Hunter will simultaneously infuse both youth and inconsistency into his defensive unit. Unless we limit the discussion to how the roster appears on paper, I am not sure how it’s reasonable to deduce these additions automatically upgrade Zimmer’s team.

In conclusion

Barring injury, the Vikings will be a strong and competitive team in 2014.  Mike Zimmer should be acknowledged for his team’s accomplishments in 2014 and the Vikings fanbase has sufficient reason to believe he will field an equally formidable defense in 2015.

That said, the NFL is a quarterback-driven league and the rules are structured such that superior quarterback play trumps all but the most exceptional of defensive performances. As such, if all other things are considered equal a coach who can coax superlative play from a quarterback invariably trumps one who can only improve a defense. Detroit possesses a significantly better and more accomplished head coach/quarterback tandem than their rivals in Minnesota and as such, MUST be favored over the Vikings in head to head competition.

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