Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Colts and Vikes and Yikes!

This is the toughest one of these I’ve ever done, and I could easily be convinced that it could go the other way. So if you totally disagree, realize that I do, too … half the time.

It’s always smart to bet the under when the Vikings are playing because – well, because they are the Vikings, and the Vikings never seem to quite get there. Theirs is the classic case of the Jaguar, the Triumph, the Pontiac Solstice and all the other underpowered sports cars that have struggled to hit 60 in less than a fortnight. They look damned nice in the showroom, but get them out on the open road and the promise of performance takes on a downright political air. A balanced budget by 2012, anyone?

Like the aforementioned vehicles, the Vikings’ problem has never been hitting 60 – i.e., winning football games. The team’s problem has been akin to Tom Wolfe’s description of the times leading up to the breaking of the sound barrier. Before the sound barrier was broken there were all sorts of scary stories being swapped about what would happen to a plane if it broke the sound barrier – gauges going haywire, pilots blacking out, engines stalling, that sort of thing. Well, the Vikings play football with the absolute assurance that their sabrejet will disintegrate into smithereens if they win a Super Bowl.

That fact cannot be left out of the calculations as we ponder a matchup between the Vikings and Colts. The Vikings are the better team record-wise over their history, but that’s mainly because they have had no prolonged stretches of badness. The Colts, on the other hand, have had two – once at their inception, and once again in the Frank Kush/Ron Meyer days of the ‘80s and ‘90s.

As the editorial we have repeatedly noted in these matchup reports, stretches of badness are not a horrible thing. A team that has been biblically good and bad fares better than a mediocre team because the moments of bliss supply great players to the all-time teams , making up for the fact that the moments of bleccch supply Spain Musgrove and other assorted pillars of salt.

The Colts have had their bleccch, but no one is touting Marty Domres as the solution to any problem on the all-time roster, or looking to plug holes with Roosevelt Leaks. (I know. Clever.)

The Vikings, meanwhile, have been populated year after year by good players, lots of good players, with 10 bona-fide greats. According to pro-football-reference.com’s Player Value Ratings, Alan Page is the fifth-best player to have played since 1950, Carl Eller is 11th, Fran Tarkenton is 12th, Paul Krause is 28th, Ron Yary is 44th, John Randle is 86th, Randall McDaniel is 111th, and Gary Zimmerman is 123rd. The Vikings’ best non-HOFers, Randy Moss (33rd) and Chris Doleman (57th) are right up there (and if you’re wondering why Randle is in the HOF and Doleman isn’t, you’re not alone).

Looking at that lineup opened my eyes. The Vikings have 7 percent of the 125 best postwar players. Could the Colts match that?

Here’s the result:

Vikings     Rating    Colts   Rating

Page          5             Manning 3

Eller           11          Unitas 10

Tarkenton  12          Faulk 19

Krause       28          Harrison 30

Moss         33           Marchetti 39

Yary          44           Hendricks 49

Doleman    57           James 57

Randle       86           Wayne 111

McDaniel   111         Parker 123

Zimmerman 123         Berry 123

Additional Players Additional Players

Tinglehoff 102          Kunz 166

Marshall 107            Moore 179

Carter 159               Boyd 228

Foreman 332           Dickerson 228

                                Curtis 242

                                Mitchell 242

                                Saturday 242

                                Donovan 262

                                Mackey 436

Actually, when you figure in the non-HOFers (wouldja put in Marshall and Tinglehoff already?), the Vikings have 9 percent of the best postwar players, and the Colts have 8 percent. But the Colts do better in the depth department.

The stars are relatively equal. What about the teams?

Here are the black marks against the Vikings. Tarkenton was a great quarterback but not a horribly efficient one. He has the same career passer rating as Jeff George and Ken O’Brien, and his closest career comp is long-lived but inefficient QB John Elway. He has no running game to work with, no tight end, and marginal depth at wide receiver.

On defense the Vikings are weak in the secondary beyond all-time centerfielder Paul Krause and their linebackers are the Sons of Jeff Siemon – which is to say, square-jawed white guys. Punting is a problem, the return game is nil, and the placekicker lacks range.

The Colts are plagued by an iffy O-line (though having George Kunz check in at 169th all-time is an unexpected boost), a shallow D-line and a secondary comprised of the Sons of Rick Volk. Punting and returning are sub-par, and the placekicker lacks range.

One the other hand, Tarkenton was Michael Vick with book-learnin’, and the Vikings line up Steve Hutchinson, Tinglehoff, McDaniel, Yary, and Zimmerman across the offensive front. That’s a tough line. The pass rush is a real pass rush, not a random assortment of HOF names. You have to believe that Eller, Marshall, Page, Randle, Doleman, Jared Allen, Keith Millard, and Big Cat Williams could bring some heat. If the truism is universal that lines win games, the Vikings look Ford tough.

The Colts have more offensive weapons without question. Their top three receivers consist of one HOFer and two more sure things. They have three HOF running backs and a mercurial fourth, an HOF tight end and the current game’s most productive tight end, and their backup QB is arguably the best at his position in history.

The linebackers are okay, too.

The stars are relatively equal, and so are the teams. This is not a situation where our best guys can beat up your best guys (expect for John Mackey, who could beat up anyone). This is one drum-tight matchup. So how in the world do you translate it to the field?

Here’s one way:

Tarkenton, working behind the John D. Rockefeller of offensive lines, takes advantage of a relatively weak Colts pass rush and a so-so secondary to lob bomb after bomb down the field in the direction of Randy Moss. Banzai Pipeline waves of Vikings’ pass rushers breach the earthworks, forcing Peyton Manning into numerous mistakes. The Vikes capitalize, Fred Cox kicks three short field goals (are there any other kind?), Adrian Peterson runs out the clock and the Vikings win 37-17.

Here’s another:

The Vikings, grind-it-out team no longer, play long-ball from the opening kickoff, momentarily stunning the Colts. A 47-yard Tarkenton-to-Moss rainmaker is good for six, and Cox tacks on the extra point. After a Krause interception, the connection repeats itself from 63. Vikings 14-0.

At this point, and after a commercial break, Ray Scott issues forth with the Bud Light Overriding Fact of the Game: The Colts have the most productive offense in pro-football history. Despite having the mobility of Westminister Abbey and playing behind an offensive line that classifies Tony Ugoh as indispensible, Peyton Manning has been sacked less than almost any other modern-day QB. He is to beating the blitz what Perez Prado is to the mambo, and in this setting he has a magic cupboard overflowing with weapons. Double tights with Mackey and Dallas Clark? Check. Pound the ball with Eric Dickerson? Check. Four wides with Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, Ray Berry, and Jimmy Orr? Double-check. Flares to Lydell Mitchell, Lenny Moore, or Marshall Faulk? Yep. Halfback-option pass with Tom Matte? Even got that.

And it all works.

Manning chews up 78 yards in 11-yard bites before throwing the perfect post route to Marvin Harrison.

Time elapsed: two minutes, 22 seconds.

The Vikings come right back, riding a couple of 40-yard passes down to the Colts’ 8, where the jump-pass to Cris Carter is a fait accompli that pushes out the Purple People Eaters to a 21-7 lead.

Manning charges back, skillfully mixing the seam route, the out route, the flare pass, and the draw play. However, after Chris Doleman sniffs out a Lenny Moore screen pass on third-and-four and drops him for a loss of three, the Colts have to settle for a 36-yard Adam Viniateri field goal. 21-10 Vikings.

And wouldn’t you know it? The Vikings blow right back.

Passes to Anthony Carter and Ahmad Rashad get Minnesota across midfield, and when Bob Boyd makes a TD-saving tackle on a Randy Moss post-corner route, the Vikings are left with a first-and-goal from the six. A TD would make it 28-10 Minnesota, and with a D-line like the Vikings’, you can pretty much mark this one down in the Great Big Scorebook In The Sky.

Ah – and I’ve been waiting a long time to say this -- but these are the Vikings.

Bubba Smith and Gino Marchetti sandwich Tarkenton, he fumbles, and Dwight Freeney recovers. It takes Manning less than three minutes to march the Colts 87 yards, with Faulk taking it in from the 11. 21-17 Vikings.

The Vikes try to strike back, but the Colts’ secondary makes a big play at long last. Jerry Logan wrestles the ball away from John Gilliam, and the Colts are in business on their 32. This time it takes Manning four minutes to get the Colts a TD, with Wayne making an acrobatic grab in the back of the end zone.

The half ends with the Colts on top 24-21.

The second half starts like the first. After a rare three-and-out from the Colts, Tarkenton-to-Anthony Carter from 43 puts the Vikings back ahead, and after a Lydell Mitchell fumble Robert Smith runs it in from 16. 35-24 Vikings.

Ah, but these are the Vikings, and Peyton Manning lives for rush moments like these. In slightly more than three minutes he has the Colts back in the end zone, and after back-to-back sacks from Marchetti and Freeney he’s back in business. With the Colts on the doorstep Manning is forced into three straight incompletions, leaving it to Viniateri to get the Colts close. He nails the field goal, and the Vikings still lead 35-34.

The Vikings get the ball with the lead and five minutes left. They promptly get hit with an illegal-procedure penalty, quickly nullified after Adrian Peterson breaks off a 17-yard run, injuring his shoulder in the process. At this point, a holding penalty combined with three ineffectual runs brings the clock down to the two-minute warning and puts the Vikings in a punting situation.

You know the rest. Colts 37, Vikings 35.

The numbers are well-nigh staggering. Tarkenton goes 22-for-47 for 487 yards and four TDs. Manning goes 32-for-50 for 436 and three scores. Harrison catches seven, Berry six, Wayne five, Faulk five, Mitchell three, Clark three, Mackey two, and Moore one.

Players win these games, no question. But teams with historical proclivities to not win big games do not win these big games, everything else remaining relatively equal.

These are the Vikings, in other words. And they are.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Ultimate Battle For The Really Big Bay

Funny how life works. Conduct your life on and off the field with the courteous restraint of a Tasmanian devil and eventually you get nailed for steroids. Match up football teams by all-time win-loss percentage and play them through a bracket, and the ‘Niners meet the Raiders in the second round.

This one shapes up as a barnburner, in part because the teams are simultaneously of an era and not of an era. Many of the teams’ best players played against each other, but the games they played scarcely resemble one another. The ‘Niners played a pass-first, controlled-passing, athletic-defense game. The Raiders ran first, beat you up in the lines, and had a passing game that could beneficently be called uncontrolled.

I know this sort of analogy descends into cliché faster than Lindsay Lohan can go from house arrest to rehab, but the two teams really reflect their communities. Oakland is gritty and nasty, a black vision of doom set to a soundtrack by N.W.A.; San Francisco has been so wide-open you’d almost expect to see Jerry Garcia rolling numbers on the sideline and Steve Young marching out of Candlestick arm-in-arm with Harvey Milk.

Furthermore, there is no clear-cut favorite between the two. Both have mystique, both have a resume, and both have a relatively limited past, so unlike the Cardinals, they can’t dredge up an Ernie Nevers to make up for six decades of Marcel Shipp and Elmer Angsman.

So let’s set the scene: The Raiders trot out an offense featuring Marcus Allen, Fred Biletnikoff, Tim Brown, and a massive line to face a defense consisting of Ronnie Lott and some bodies. The Niners counter with Steve Young, Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, Terrell Owens, Joe Perry, and Hugh McIlhenny (and not much of a line) versus a defense consisting of Ronnie Lott and some bodies. (Actually, Ronnie Lott does not make the all-time Raiders roster, and the bodies include Howie Long, Lyle Alzado, and the vastly underrated Greg Townsend. But it makes for nice symmetry.)

It sounds reasonable that like the Bears, the Raiders could ride their up-front superiority to a grind-it-out victory over a high-flying offense.

Well, no.

The devil for the Raiders is in the details. They have no quarterback, and you need one to win one of these games, especially when you’re playing a team where the guy holding the Sharpie cap for the guy holding the Sharpie for the guy holding the clipboard (John Brodie) threw for 12,000 more yards than the Raiders’ No. 1 (Ken Stabler).

The Raiders’ secondary is likewise a little light – el baddo when you’re playing a team like the ‘Niners that hooks up more than Bret Michaels on South Beach. It’s not that the secondary is missing HOF-quality talent; it’s that the talent outside of Willie Brown is either past its prime (Lott), before its time (Charles Woodson), not quite ready for prime time (the soonly departed Nnamdi Asomugha) or star-crossed in some other way (Lester Hayes, Jack Tatum).

Worse yet for a team playing a West Coast passing offense, the linebackers are highly suspect. It’s asking a lot of Phil Villipiano for him to chase around Brent Jones, run down Roger Craig, and basically be the guy back there.

The offensive challenges are likewise daunting. The Raiders’ long-bomb passing game plays right into the hands of a talented secondary that includes Jim Johnson, Eric Wright, Tim McDonald, Merton Hanks, and Abe Woodson in addition to Lott. The 49ers’ D-line is a potent mix of run-stuffers (Dana Stubblefield and Leo Nomellini) and pass-rushers (Bryant Young and Fred Dean). And the linebackers are rangy and athletic enough to chase down Marcus Allen (and who else? Mark van Eeghen? Justin Fargas?).

Still, the Raiders put up a good fight. They take the opening kickoff and pound the ball down the field, running Marcus Allen right and left and mixing in little bits of Biletnikoff and Todd Christiansen. The drive bogs down inside the 20 and the Raiders settle for a short Sebastian Janikowski field goal.

As it turned out, that was all the opening the ‘Niners needed.

Young marches the ‘Niners down the field at head-spinning speed, capping the drive with a short TD toss to Brent Jones. A booming Ray Guy punt pins back the ‘Niners against their goal, but Young could care less. He rolls out for 16, Perry and Craig crack off big runs, and then Rice splits the defense from 43 yards out. The first quarter ends with San Francisco on top 14-3.

The Raiders come back on a Stabler-to-Branch bomb set up by a long Tim Brown kick return, but the ‘Niners strike yet again. This time it’s Montana doing the honors, swinging one out to Perry and watching him jet it in from 27.

The remainder of the half follows the same pattern. The teams trade scores unevenly, the ‘Niners score their fourth straight TD, and the first half ends with San Francisco up 28-13.

Things change little in the second half. San Francisco’s superior depth wears down the Raiders, even Y.A. Tittle plays a few snaps, and the 49ers move on 42-23.

The stats tell the story. Marcus Allen runs for 121, but Stabler completes only 14 of his 33 passes for 278 yards, a score, and two interceptions. Young, Montana, and Tittle throw 39 passes, complete 25, and roll up 407 yards passing, with four TDs and only one pick. Rice catches 11 and Jones seven, and everyone else pitches in. Perry runs for 67 and Craig 51, and that’s more than enough.

The tough paper matchup turns out to be not so tough after all. The Raiders’ greatest weakness meshed with the ‘Niners’ greatest strength, and the result was carnage.

The Silver and Black still have their swagger (and not the Old Spice swagger, either). Nothing can take their swagger. But what they could really use is a few more good players.