Friday, November 27, 2015

I’ll admit it.  I’m viewing things through purple-colored sunglasses these days, with Mike Zimmer making me an optimistic fan yet again, and finding five things I loved about our first preseason victory was much easier than this post.

Afterall, “hate” is a mighty strong word.

So, it might be best to consider this more of a list of things that annoy me.

5.  Kluwe Shadow Still Looms Large

As I stated, I’m loving this new regime and all of the excitement that comes with it. Paul Allen, a homeristic homer, navigated away from the harsh truths of the Chris Kluwe versus Mike Priefer saga during his broadcast, but the national guys will not be so kind to the Vikings organization.  During those first few weeks, when Priefer is serving his suspension, the new coaching staff will have their debut games tainted by this distracting drama and the talking points that are sure to follow.

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Zimmer and his staff seem to be committed to the idea of “process over outcomes” when evaluating players, and he keeps emphasizing these themes without saying the words. It’s something I’m a big fan of, and I detailed the idea of prioritizing process over outcome in evaluation when I broke down Johnny Manziel a few months ago. To restate at length:

At a fundamental level, people understand the divide between evaluating a process and evaluating an outcome. From a football perspective, it’s easy to find examples everywhere. The most obvious example, of course, is measuring quarterbacks (or coaches) by wins instead of anything else.

A lot of other measures of quarterbacks can come to different conclusions, and process-oriented measures, like net yards per attempt (which is in itself an outcome-dependent measure, but it gets complicated when we talk about second-order outcomes and whatnot so for now this example will do), do a significantly better job predicting future outcomes than past outcomes. In fact, net yards per attempt is a far, far better predictor of future winning than past wins—which is honestly terrible at predicting future wins.

Despite all that, it’s very easy to get caught up in accomplishment. It Might Be Dangerous, a blog about baseball, talks about this when it comes to draft analysis (in a different way), and to open the discussion (as many process v. outcome discussions do), the author talked about gambling:

Many years ago I was playing blackjack in Las Vegas on a Saturday night in a packed casino. I was sitting at third base, and the player who was at first base was playing horribly. He was definitely taking advantage of the free drinks, and it seemed as though every twenty minutes he was dipping into his pocket for more cash.

On one particular hand the player was dealt 17 with his first two cards. The dealer was set to deal the next set of cards and passed right over the player until he stopped her, saying: “Dealer, I want a hit!” She paused, almost feeling sorry for him, and said, “Sir, are you sure?” He said yes, and the dealer dealt the card. Sure enough, it was a four.

The place went crazy, high fives all around, everybody hootin’ and hollerin’, and you know what the dealer said? The dealer looked at the player, and with total sincerity, said: “Nice hit.”

I thought, “Nice hit? Maybe it was a nice hit for the casino, but it was a terrible hit for the player! The decision isn’t justified just because it worked.”

. . .

As tough as a good process/bad outcome combination is, nothing compares to the bottom left: bad process/good outcome. This is the wolf in sheep’s clothing that allows for one-time success but almost always cripples any chance of sustained success – the player hitting on 17 and getting a four. Here’s the rub: it’s incredibly difficult to look in the mirror after a victory, any victory, and admit that you were lucky. If you fail to make that admission, however, the bad process will continue and the good outcome that occurred once will elude you in the future. Quite frankly, this is one of the things that makes Billy Beane as good as he is. He is quick to notice good luck embedded in a good outcome, and he refuses to pat himself on the back for it.

. . .

Championship teams will occasionally have a bad process and a good outcome. Championship organizations, however, reside exclusively in the upper half of the matrix. Some years it may be on the right-hand side, most years should be on the left. The upper left is where the Atlanta Braves lived for 14 years – possibly the most under appreciated accomplishment by a professional sports organization in our lifetimes. In short, we want to be a Championship organization that results in many Championship teams.

Interestingly, Barry Ritholtz of a wealth management firm uses the example of an NFL team that has prioritized process over outcome at the behest of their head coach, Tom Coughlin. Ritholtz goes on to argue that this process-oriented focus has led to long-term gains for Coughlin, and is a lesson that can be applied to investing.

Generally speaking, good processes will lead to good outcomes in the long-term. A short-term focus on outcomes is itself a bad process, lends itself to high variability and can cause some serious problems.

Zimmer has mentioned similar themes throughout camp, and the message seems to have trickled down to the players.

Anyone who watched the broadcast of the preseason game saw Ben Leber interview Xavier Rhodes, and he brought up a curious incident, where Zimmer chewed out Rhodes shortly after Rhodes had made a play by picking off Cassel. Rhodes responded:

“I just had to stay on top of my man. I wasn’t supposed to work so hard to make the pick, he just wanted me to make it easier on myself”

It’s a little similar to a few anecdotes he mentioned in the pressers today. “If I know what routes Kyle Rudolph likes to run, it doesn’t help me as a defender to guess and be right. When I go against somebody I don’t know, I’m guessing, I’m cheating, I’m playing it differently, I think it’s important that we learn how to play football first.

“I had Terence Newman back when he came back to Cincinnati, and he jumped in front of a route and intercepted a ball. I said, ‘Terence I don’t want you doing that yet. I want you working on your technique, I want you working on what you need to do to get better. And then, when you get that part down and then you can use your intelligence about where you’re at playing football. Then you become a much better player,’ and he understood and went from there.

To me, it’s about getting us better. It’s not about defeating the offense or defeating our defense. It’s about getting us better. That’s what will stand the test in the long run. When we have to go play 16 ballgames and a guy can jump a route two times and get an interception and get beat ten times, that’s not a good day”

Similarly, when Zimmer was asked about Derek Cox and his fine play in camp up to this point, Zimmer responded by pointing out that there are issues with Cox’s play thus far. “He’s doing a good job. He’s still got a lot of technique to work on but he’s a smart guy and a tough guy.”

Cox, the clear leader in camp in training camp interceptions and pass breakups, still hasn’t made the first team. When I asked him about it, Cox responded by saying that he wasn’t holding tight in coverage to his man. Indeed, I recall a few plays where he let the receiver get open and Cox made a play on his recovery instead of deterring the ball thrown. It wasn’t like Richard Sherman or Charles Woodson baiting a quarterback into thinking a receiver was open, but a genuine set of mistakes he recovered well from.

Similarly, when I asked Isame Faciane about his good game against the Oakland Raiders in the preseason game (at the time not knowing that he ended up as Pro Football Focus’ highest-rated player), he didn’t even acknowledge that he thought he had a good game, saying “I feel I didn’t rush, to the best of my ability. I rushed to the middle of the man a little too much during this game. You know, that’s been my problem a little bit through camp, rushing the middle of the man. I feel like I learned from this and to fix it through practice for the next game.”

It’s not so much that outcomes don’t matter, simply that the best way to guarantee future outcomes is to focus on correct processes. Derek Cox is athletic enough to recover against the people he’s playing against. Often these are players like Rodney Smith and Adam Thielen—good but not good enough to be considered starters in the NFL. The question is if he can do it regularly against people who do a better job of attacking the ball and boxing out receivers—and it explains why he hasn’t worked with the first team. Same for Faciane, who shined against third-string offensive linemen but with incorrect technique.

As an outside observer, evaluating training camp is ridiculously difficult. Sometimes we get too caught up in the outcome, and don’t talk about the process.

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EJ Henderson - Cropped

The Vikings have named former linebacker EJ Henderson the director of youth football for the Minnesota Vikings. Henderson, who was drafted in the second round by the Vikings in 2003, has been with the Vikings his entire nine-year career, both as a player and post-playing executive.

The one-time Pro Bowler and should-have-been Comeback Award Winner has played 125 games for the Vikings and continued his involvement in the organization and USA Football as a promoter of youth football and development. Henderson was selected out of a rotation of 150 applicants.

Said Vikings Vice President of Public Affairs Lester Bagley, “We’re very excited about it—we’ve been working on this for a couple of years, creating a role. It’s a huge issue for our ownership and the NFL.”

“We’ve put together a position description and put together a gameplan and did an exhaustive search, and we’re very excited to welcome EJ back into the fold. He’s always done a great job in our community as a player and since he was a player.”

The Vikings have been working with Henderson for some time in regards to youth football. Owner/president Mark Wilf said in a statement released by the Vikings, “E.J. has been a special part of the Vikings organization for many years as a player and alumni member, and we are thrilled to have him join us as part of our front office staff.”

In 2007, EJ Henderson founded the EJ Henderson Youth Foundation and partnered with the NFL’s Play 60 message in order to keep children healthy and active. He was later selected as the Vikings Community Man of the Year. After his career, he spearheaded YouthPro Fitness and Nutrition (YoPro).

Henderson says the two primary focuses of the organization will be player safety and health along with expanding the outreach of Minnesota youth football initiatives outside of the Twin Cities area to outstate Minnesota. “[We] want to make sure the coaches, parents and players know that the Vikings leadership are serious about [player safety].”

When asked, Henderson mentioned his work with the Heads Up Football initiative sponsored by USA Football as a means of reducing concussion incidence and encouraging player safety. He said there was “no question” that this is how he envisioned his post-playing career, and that his experience watching his dad work with youth at his local youth center (where his dad still works) helped inspire him to take this role. “I love to mentor kids. I love to give them the knowledge I’ve learned, not only in football and through sport but life lessons. It keeps me young, it keeps me running around.

“Those are the big three reasons. I’m used to it, I love working with kids and I love to give that mentorship that I have learned in my 30-plus years.”

Of the hiring, Bagley said that EJ brings “instant credibility and visibility in this role and position,” while Brad Madson pointed out that EJ’s “charisma, confidence and ability to connect with kids” allowed EJ to stand out among the other applicants. EJ’s experience working with youth football programs played a significant role as well.

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(photo by Chris Price)
(photo by Chris Price)

Last season, Gerald Hodges met criticism for a lack of focus. This season is a whole new story.

There has never been any doubt as to Hodges’ athletic ability. When Minnesota drafted him in the fourth round in 2013, Hodges was coming off his junior season at Penn State. That year he started all 11 games, earning first-team All-Big Ten honors from the coaches and and second-team accolades by the media. He also was named a Pro Football Weekly honorable-mention. Hodges led the team with 106 tackles (60 solo) and ranked in the top 15 in the Big Ten in hits (eighth) and sacks (14th tie with 4.5).

At 6’2”, 243 lbs, Hodges is a machine of a linebacker. He is a safety convert, which brings its own set of advantages. However, Hodges didn’t stand out as fans hoped he would as a rookie. In an Aug. 3 interview, he explained to ESPN’s Ben Goessling part of the problem:

“Last year, I don’t think I came in as focused [as I should have been],” Hodges said. “I was coming from the combine. I wasn’t studying my plays in as much detail as I’m doing this year. I think last year I was focusing on too much instead of focusing on my job.”

Coming into the 2014 season, Hodges has made some adjustments—including working to be in better physical shape this offseason.

“I just [want] to be as healthy and in shape as I can be,” Hodges said. “I feel as if I’m ready to run around on the field more effectively, able to get to the ball.”

Hodges expressed a confidence in playing the nickel defense, and says his team mentality has improved.

“Each day I come in and work hard […] work on improving the team and improving myself as well.”

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I-sem FA-shawn.

That’s how you pronounce his name, and if he has his way, you probably won’t need to ask to find out. It’s evidently the third in his line, because you’ll often see the signifier “III” appended to his name, though no one calls him that. Like many of the undrafted free agents, it’s not easy to find information on him, though defensive line coach Andre Patterson, who worked with him at Florida International, has no shortage of praise for him.

As a defensive line coach who has worked with the Vikings in 1998 and 1999, as well as the Patriots (1997), Cowboys (2000-2002), Browns (2003-2004) and Broncos (2005-2006) it means a lot that he called Faciane among the “top ten percent of defensive linemen” he’s ever worked with.

The 2013 FIU season did not draw plaudits, going 1-11 in a relatively weak conference. But grabbing attention doesn’t mean missing out on the opportunity to compete in the NFL, where Faciane fielded offers from several teams before choosing the Minnesota Vikings. He says he chose Minnesota in big part due to Coach Patterson, who is implementing something similar here as he did there.

“I knew his system same type of play style at FIU. I had a little step forward on everything, and I was real comfortable with Coach Patterson. I only had him for a year him and [we] became real close throughout the season. The relationship helped me come here.”

It’s a system that has seen him change his role several times over the course of the offseason. Starting off OTAs and minicamp as a nose tackle, Faciane has been tried at the under tackle three-technique role for a significant amount of time in camp. To that end, he’s been tasked with keeping a specific weight, one that seems less fit for the nose tackle role than at three-technique.

“I came in at 300 and through OTAs and minicamp and through that process I gained like 16 pounds. I had to drop that and come back at 300. You know, stay smaller and lighter so I can play that 3-tech better, quicker steps.”

“Quicker” is something that he’s been told a few times is a key word for him. Working at  Fourth and Inches Performance Group in Dallas before the draft, Faciane worked to hone his technique and add burst to his game. Draft analyst Tony Pauline identified it as a weakness of his, but he doesn’t think it’s a big deal.

“I feel like, you know, my first step in here has been quicker but you know people have their own opinion. I just keep working and do what Coach Patterson tells me to do.”

It’s been working. Pro Football Focus gave Faciane the highest grade for the preseason game against the Oakland Raiders among all the Minnesota Vikings. At +2.6, it’s 0.8 higher than the next player—a significant difference. What’s unique about that game for him, though, is not that he was able to log a batted pass and put some pressure on the quarterback (drawing a hold in the process), he did it from both the three-technique and nose tackle positions, switching with Kheeston Randall at times along the line.


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