The Minnesota Vikings reached the NFC championship game in 2009 as Brett Favre experienced a late career revival playing with Adrian Peterson and Sidney Rice, and the team finished 2nd in scoring with 470 points. In 2010, it went horribly wrong, as Rice was injured, Brett Favre aged faster than it takes to send a text, and the team floundered in scoring 281 points, 189 fewer than the previous year.
How precipitous was the fall? It was the largest decline in the 16 game era. I found the ten other largest declines from one season to the next, where a team was above average in points in one season and dropped to below average in points the next. (This condition excludes teams like the 1999 Vikings and 2008 Patriots, who naturally regressed after the two highest scoring seasons of all-time, but were still in the top 8 in the league). Let’s do a quick inspection of those teams and some key personnel issues that may have been involved in the decline.
1. 2002 Rams: (503 points previous year, dropped to 316 points)
Issues in 2002: Kurt Warner was awful early, and played only 6 games, as Marc Bulger moved into the lineup. Marshall Faulk missed 6 games, Orlando Pace missed 6 games, Torry Holt missed 4 games, and LG Tom Nutten missed 5 games.
Next year: Rebounded back to 2nd in league in points at 447. Bulger was the starter all year, offensive line started all 16 games together, Faulk still missed games, but Holt healthy.
2. 1999 Broncos: (501 points previous year, dropped to 314 points)
Issues in 1999: John Elway retired, replaced by Brian Griese. Terrell Davis blew out a knee in 4th game, Shannon Sharpe played 5 games, and LT Tony Jones missed 4 games.
Next year: Rebounded back to 2nd in league in points at 485. Griese’s 2nd year as a starter, discovered Mike Anderson at RB, somehow managed to overcome injuries to Mark Schlereth, the primary cause of the Broncos’ winning Super Bowls, as rest of line stayed healthy.
3. 1999 49ers: (479 points previous year, dropped to 295 points)
Issues in 1999: Steve Young career ended in game 3. Jeff Garcia replaced him, but missed 3.5 games, and in those with Steve Stenstrom, team scored 22 total points. Garrison Hearst blew out knee, replaced by Charlie Garner. Had a new LT and RG, as Derrick Deese missed entire season.
Next year: Recovered on offense to finish 6th in points at 388. Garcia’s 2nd year starting, and Deese returned at LT.
4. 2003 Oakland: (450 points previous year, dropped to 270 points)
Issues in 2003: Rich Gannon got hurt and wasn’t playing well, and was replaced by Rick Mirer, who started 8 games. Charlie Garner missed 7 games. Offensive line starters Middleton, Collins, Robbins and Kennedy combined to miss 27 games.
Next year: Slight recovery to near league average with 32o points scored. Brought in Kerry Collins at quarterback, but Brown and Rice done as starters, and massive offensive line turnover from 2 years earlier, including two rookies (Grove and Gallery) starting in 2004.
5. 2008 Bengals: (380 points previous year, dropped to 204 points)
Issues in 2008: Carson Palmer played in only 4 games. Chad Ochocinco missed 6 games, as did LT Levi Jones.
Next year: Split the difference to score 305 points and win division. Carson Palmer returned, Cedric Benson was full starter after coming to team in trade previous year. TJ Houshmandzadeh left in free agency but Ochocinco returned, while Andrew Whitworth replaced Levi Jones at LT.
6. 1984 Cowboys: (479 points previous year, dropped to 308 points)
Issues in 1984: Gary Hogeboom started 10 games in place of Danny White. Drew Pearson retired. LT Herbert Scott missed 7 games.
Next year: Improved to back above league average with 357 points. Danny White returned as starter. Core was aging (Dorsett was 31), and left tackle still an issue, but rest of line stable and healthy.
7. 2000 Redskins: (443 points previous year, dropped to 281 points)
Issues in 2000: Brad Johnson missed 5 games, replaced by Jeff George. Michael Westbrook played in only 2 games, rookie Chris Samuels replaced veteran Andy Heck at LT.
Next year: Declined even further, to 256 points (28th in league). Tony Banks was the starting quarterback, and I don’t think I need to elaborate further.
8. 1996 Cowboys: (435 points previous year, dropped to 286 points)
Issues in 1996: Michael Irvin missed 5 games. Offensive line stayed healthy, but 3 starters 36 years old or more.
Next Year: Basically the same as in 1996 with 304 points as the Cowboys missed playoffs for first time since 1990. Mark Tuinei missed 10 games and C Ray Donaldson retired. Added Anthony Miller at WR and Michael Irvin healthy.
9. 1985 Cardinals: (423 points previous year, dropped to 278 points)
Issues in 1985: RB Ottis Anderson missed 8 games.
Next year: Declined further, finishing dead last in league with 218 points scored. WR Roy Green missed 6 games; Anderson gone, replaced by Stump Mitchell. Offensive line turnover, including two rookies starting, and only Luis Sharpe started more than 13 games.
10. 1994 Oilers: (368 points previous year, dropped to 226 points)
Issues in 1994: Let Warren Moon go before season, replaced by the trio of Cody Carlson, Billy Joe Tolliver and Bucky Richardson. OG Mike Munchak retired.
Next year: Recovered to score 348 points (though that was good for 15th compared to 4th in 1993 in scoring, thanks to overall scoring going up after expansion). The Oilers brought in Chris Chandler as QB and drafted Steve McNair to try to atone for thinking 3 quarterbacks from Baylor, Texas Tech, and Texas A&M was a good idea.
So, what does this mean for the Vikings in 2010?
The teams that bounced back the strongest had quarterbacks from the high scoring season that were either retired, traded, or hurt for the majority of the year. Seven teams had these issues, and they bounced back more than halfway, improving by 100 points again after the decline. The three that had the same starter at QB for most of the decline season continued to decline, scoring even fewer points the next season.
Favre was playing hurt last year, and he was 41. I have no doubt that his play was much worse. However, the fact that he played in 13 games (and the points per game was similar in those 13), suggests that the problems were much deeper than “Brett Favre aged really quickly”.
In addition, teams where the decline could more easily be explained by other key players missing games also bounced back toward the previous performance. In this case, Sidney Rice was the key injury. However, he won’t be back after leaving for Seattle, so the receiving group will be largely what it was in 2010. Steve Hutchinson also missed 5 games, but he’s not getting younger at age 34 and there’s no guarantee he bounces back. Now, the team has to deal with the release of Bryant McKinnie, who played all 16 games at left tackle, and replacing him with Charley Johnson is not an upgrade, despite McKinnie being over-rated as a pro bowler.
Donovan McNabb could stabilize the position from what Favre offered in 2010, and Percy Harvin might be more productive if the migraines are not an issue. But in looking at other teams with similar declines, the Vikings’ problems are much more serious than just replacing the old graybeard, and the high scoring days of 2009 seem like a decade away. I don’t expect this team to score more than 300 points in 2011, and any hopes for the playoffs probably depend on the offense approaching average, while the defense rebounds in 2011. But that’s a whole ‘nother post for a team with an average age of 29.0 years for last year’s starters, and the best players older than that.
[photo via Getty]