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Fun with hindsight: 5 Vikings what-ifs from 2016

By Matthew Coller

NFL: Detroit Lions at Minnesota Vikings - Sun, 06 Nov 2016 13:52:16 EST

Football fans move forward pretty quickly.

When the Vikings’ season game to an end on New Year’s Day, the fanbase collectively turned its focus to the upcoming free agent class, the draft and even trade possibilities. The NFL has turned the offseason into almost as much entertainment as the season. But as the playoffs carry on and the Vikings sit at home thinking about 2017, it’s hard not to wonder what could have been.

You could go game-by-game and find all the plays that would have changed the outcome of the season. For example, what if Mike Zimmer had managed the clock better against Detroit? What if Adam Thielen didn’t fumble against the Cowboys? Every team – playoffs or not – can do that. With the Vikings’ collapse from 5-0 to an 8-8 finish, there are bigger and more burning what-ifs. Because the most interesting part of what-ifs is asking: Should they have done something differently?

What if the Vikings had cut Blair Walsh earlier?

After Blair Walsh missed wide left from 27 yards out to lose a playoff game against the Seattle Seahawks, we wondered how any kicker could recover from such a gaffe. Many kickers in the past like Scott Norwood, Nate Kaeding and Mike Vanderjagt saw their careers come to an end shortly after an important miss.

In the preseason, there was writing on the wall that Walsh was not bouncing back, at least while he was in Minnesota. He went 2-for-6 in the first three preseason games – though he did hit a 27-yarder. In Week 1, he went a total of 5-for-8 against the Tennessee Titans, missing two field goals and an extra point.

The Vikings continued to be patient, especially because they gave him a we-believe-in-you-still contract extension in the offseason.

Eventually, it bit them from behind. Walsh missed an extra point against the Detroit Lions in the first matchup between the two which opened the door for Detroit to tie the game late and win in overtime. It was one of four extra point misses in only 19 tries.

Kicker happens to be the only position where you can sign a really good player after the season has started. The Vikings waited too long to get long-time Bears kicker Robbie Gould, but picked up former Washington leg Kai Forbath, who made 15-of-15 field goals. If Forbath had been the kicker against Detroit, would the Vikings have gotten that extra win they needed?

What if Teddy Bridgewater hadn’t gotten hurt?

This is an extremely difficult question to answer because the Vikings changed offensive coordinators, so you have to take a guess at how Bridgewater would perform in Pat Shurmur’s offense – and with no running game and a struggling offensive line.

Bridgewater was more effective in the short and intermediate passing game in 2015 than Bradford was in 2016. Bridgewater averaged 7.4 yards per attempt on throws under 20 yards, including 11.1 YPA on throws between 11-20 yards. Bradford averaged just 6.2 YPA on throws under 20 yards and 9.1 on passes from 11-20 yards.

The natural assumption might be that Bridgewater would have been more effective under pressure because he is more mobile. There might be truth in that. Bridgewater isn’t a running quarterback, but his pocket presence is better. However, Bradford was one of the league’s better passers under pressure.

NFL: Preseason-San Diego Chargers at Minnesota Vikings - Sun, 28 Aug 2016 13:21:28 EDT

Where Bridgewater may have been better at making plays in the intermediate passing game, Bradford’s deep passes were far more effective than Teddy’s in 2015. Bradford had incredible numbers between 21-30 yards, going 15-for-29 with 16.0 YPA and three touchdowns compared to Bridgewater’s 9-for-29 for 9.5 YPA, two touchdowns and three interceptions.

The impossible question to answer is whether Bridgewater could have improved on his deep ball. Bradford benefited from the emergence of Adam Thielen as a big part of the downfield passing game.

For the most part, it seems the strengths and weaknesses of the two quarterbacks would have evened out. The Vikings would just have a first-round pick this year instead. However, Bridgewater did make big plays on third downs, averaging 7.9 YPA, compared to Bradford’s 5.8, third worst in the NFL.

What if the Vikings had drafted a tackle instead of Laquon Treadwell

The Vikings went into the draft thinking they wanted a playmaker to help out their offense, particularly in the red zone. They selected Laquon Treadwell, who had been projected by some as a top-15 pick. At the time, the Vikings received A-plus grades for the pick, but in Year 1 the move didn’t pay off. Treadwell caught just one pass for 15 yards and rarely saw game action outside of special teams.

It turned out they had much bigger needs. The Vikings lost both their left and right tackle to injury, then saw replacement Jake Long go down for the season as well.

NCAA Football: Mississippi at Memphis

It is easy to say that the Vikings should have drafted a tackle instead of Treadwell, but it’s hard to find one past the 23rd pick that played well in 2016. The next tackle wasn’t selected until the Packers selected Jason Spriggs with the 48th overall pick. In 240 snaps this year, Pro Football Focus gave Spriggs a poor 47.6 grade, which would have ranked him 62nd of 81 if he had enough snaps to qualify. The next tackle wasn’t taken until the 76th overall pick.

So even if the Vikings had selected the next best tackle, it probably would have turned out poorly. However, Minnesota did miss badly on the receiver they picked. At 47th overall, the New Orleans Saints grabbed Michael Thomas, who caught 92 passes for 1,137 yards in his rookie year.

Peterson played the entire year

In 2015, Peterson led the NFL in rush attempts and yards, but toward the end of the season, he saw his yards per attempt start to slip. The Vikings came into this season expecting to use Peterson heavily to provide relief for Sam Bradford, who was acquired 10 days before the season. It didn’t exactly work out that way when Peterson was in the lineup. He was stuffed in the backfield on eight of his 37 total rushes, which was the highest percentage in the NFL for any back with more than 30 carries.

So his numbers would have been better than 1.9 yards per attempt, but the offensive line’s struggles with Jerick McKinnon and Matt Asiata in the lineup suggest that AP still would have had a tough time repeating his rushing title.

NFL: Green Bay Packers at Minnesota Vikings - Sun, 18 Sep 2016 21:41:46 EDT

The difference may have been in home run plays. The Vikings were dead last in the NFL in rushes of over 10 yards. Even if age was starting to catch up to Peterson, it’s hard to think he wouldn’t have broken a few special runs.

The two fill-ins didn’t add much more in the passing game as was expected and they didn’t do an exceptional job of blocking for Bradford. But the toughest question is whether interim offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur would have forced the ball to Peterson and caused the offense to struggle even more than it did. Against Indianapolis, when Peterson returned from his torn meniscus, the first two plays went his way, which is enough to make you wonder if he would have gotten 300 carries whether he was succeeding or not.

What if the Vikings had fired Norv Turner after last year

There isn’t much question where the Vikings’ season took a turn for the worst. Coming out of the bye week, they mysteriously turned back to more seven-step drops and deep-developing routes, which resulted in Bradford being eaten for lunch by the Philadelphia Eagles and Chicago Bears. Following the Halloween nightmare against the Bears, Turner resigned, presumably because he did not want the offense going in Shurmur’s West Coast direction.

If the Vikings had simply hired Shurmur and fired Turner, there is a good chance they would have avoided the post-bye meltdown.

Norv Turner

Of course, it’s hard to say how much Turner played into the Vikings going 5-0 to start the year. He was calling the plays during that time, so even if Shurmur’s concepts were used more often because of Bradford’s history with him, Turner was under control. Who knows, maybe if Turner stayed, the Vikings would have done better on third down or taken a few needed risks that they didn’t otherwise.

We’ll never know. That’s the fun of what-ifs.

If you’d prefer to look forward instead of backward, read the Future of the Vikings series here

The post Fun with hindsight: 5 Vikings what-ifs from 2016 appeared first on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.

Source:: 1500 ESPN Sportswire

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