Can the Minnesota Vikings Fix Their Passing Attack?
During the offseason, the Minnesota Vikings were a chic pick and preseason darling of many.
Was it the months of football withdrawal that deluded and caused the synapses in our brain to attach to the shiny Vikings narrative?
To be fair, Adrian Peterson was set to return from suspension, the front office traded a seventh-round pick for wide receiver Mike Wallace, Charles Johnson flashed potential and chemistry with Teddy Bridgewater at times last year, tight end Kyle Rudolph was entering the season healthy, and Bridgewater was expected to take that next step in his development.
Through five weeks and four games, though, none of those have really mattered.
The Vikings currently rank 22nd in Adjusted Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) per play (0.02). The Bengals currently pace the league at 0.41.
For those new to numberFire, NEP is our signature metric that factors in situational variables such as down-and-distance in order to compare a team or player’s production to historical expectation levels. A positive number indicates how much the team or player would score above expectation, while a negative number shows how much below.
Bridgewater has a Passing NEP of -14.28, meaning he's lost about two touchdowns worth of expected scoring with his play so far. He ended 2014 with a 22.77 Passing NEP.
What’s Been the Problem?
According to ESPN Stats & Information, Bridgewater has been under duress on more than 20 percent of his attempts. Those deep shots to Mike Wallace? Not enough time for routes to develop. Bridgewater currently has a 6.7 yards per attempt, after posting a 7.3 number in 2014. Per drop back, his Passing NEP is just -0.11.
Among 35 quarterbacks with at least 75 drop backs through Week 5, Bridgewater ranks last in Passing NEP per drop back.
The Vikings currently have the second best rushing attack according to Adjusted Rushing NEP per play (0.15). Peterson has a Rushing NEP per play of 0.02, which places him 16th among 38 running backs with 40 or more carries. His Success Rate, the percentage of carries that add to Minnesota's NEP, is 41.33%, which is 18th among those running backs.
In the two wins, Peterson carried the ball at least 20 times while Bridgewater did not attempt more than 24 passes. In the two losses, he carried 10 and 16 times while Teddy threw more than 30 passes each game.
This brings us to head coach Mike Zimmer. In his final year as the Bengals' defensive coordinator, he led a unit that finished second in our Adjusted Defensive NEP metric, while the Vikings were 30th at 118.90. In his first year as head coach of the Vikings, the defense improved to 21st with an Adjusted Defensive NEP of 60.35.
Zimmer's blueprint for success is to run the ball and play good defense. In his first year as head coach of the Vikings, the offense passed 590 times (20th) and rushed 423 times (18th). Remember, that was without Adrian Peterson.
Currently, the Vikings are on pace to throw 460 times and rush 444 times. It is not unprecedented for Norv Turner to coordinate a conservative offense. In 24 seasons as either a head coach or offensive coordinator, a Norv Turner-led offense has thrown fewer than 460 times three times: 2002 Dolphins (455), 2003 Dolphins (450), and 2006 49ers (444).
Buy or Sell?
In a lot of ways, it all comes down to game script. We have established that coach Zimmer is going to play to his defense and keep things close to the vest. The passing game will only be opened up when the team needs to chase points.
So let’s look at the Vikings' remaining schedule. Of the 12 remaining games, there are five matchups with teams in the top 10 of our Adjusted Defensive NEP rankings: Packers twice, Falcons, Cardinals, and Giants. The other seven are against the Chiefs (19th), Lions (25th), Bears (32nd) twice, Rams (27th), Raiders (14th), and Seahawks (18th).
Visions of aerial purple grandeur are likely kaput for the time being. It's very possible that Bridgewater improves from his current Passing NEP of -14.28, but the overall philosophy of the team will stunt any real upside.
Back to those three Norv Turner-led offenses that threw fewer than 460 passes. The 2002 Dolphins were led by Jay Fiedler (29.01 Passing NEP) and Ray Lucas (-24.88). The 2003 Dolphins had Jay Fiedler (-15.82) and Brian Griese (-37.91). The 2006 49ers were quarterbacked by Alex Smith (-15.21).
Sell the Vikings passing offense -- at least for now but likely for the rest of the season, as Bridgewater is our 22nd-ranked quarterback for the rest of the season and no receiver cracks the top 38.