Posted by Jason Lisk on July 26, 2010
When I was looking at the career AV of offensive starting units for last Thursday's post, I also looked at the top overall offensive units (as measured by career value) and one of them stuck out like a sore thumb. The top 20 units mostly matched up with teams we generally think of as great offenses. Half of them were 49ers teams from 1986-1996. A couple of Colts teams with Manning/James/Harrison were on the list. Three versions of Air Coryell. The 1995 Cowboys. The 1996-1997 Broncos. The 2002 Chiefs.
Then there were the 1991 Minnesota Vikings, sitting at #14 on the list with an average career AV per offensive starter of 74.3. That team went 8-8, and finished 13th in points scored (out of 28 teams). The other top offenses on the list averaged 11.5 wins and an average finish of 3.7 in points scored. The Simple Rating System (SRS) score of -2.0 also shows that the Vikings were roughly an average team in 1991. This team also had above average defense by career AV, with a defensive line that included John Randle, Chris Doleman and Henry Thomas. But it was on the offensive side of the ball that this team should have been so much better. So why were they so mediocre in 1991?
Let's start with a look at the lineup.
QB: A 32-year old Wade Wilson started the season opener, but gave way to 26 year old Rich Gannon in the sixth game (more on that in a minute). Gannon had started 12 games the previous season, and started 11 games in 1991. Gannon was out of football and experienced a career revival late in the decade, culminating with winning Offensive Player of the Year in 2002 and leading the Raiders to the Super Bowl at age 37.
RB/FB: A 29-year old Herschel Walker was the starting running back for the Vikings, and he played in 15 games. 23-year old Terry Allen was a rookie, and played as Walker's backup, started the one game Walker missed, and started five games alongside Walker as fullback. A 30-year old Alfred Anderson was in his final season and started five games at fullback.
WR/TE: Cris Carter was 26 years old and was in his second season with the Vikings, his first as a full-time starter. Anthony Carter was coming off 3 straight 1,000 yard seasons from ages 28-30, and would start for two more seasons. Hassan Jones had been the starter before Cris Carter, and also started 7 games in 1991 as the third wide receiver. At tight end, Steve Jordan was 30 and still going strong, and was selected for the pro bowl.
OL: The line had 2 Hall of Famers playing side by side in LT Gary Zimmerman and LG Randall McDaniel. Zimmerman was 30 and McDaniel was 27 in 1991. The Center was Kirk Lowdermilk, who was 28 years old and would be a 10 year starter in the league with the Vikings and Colts. Tim Irwin was the RT, and at age 33 was the oldest starter. He had been the starting RT in Minnesota since 1982, and would continue to start for 2 more seasons. The RG position was split between Todd Kalis and Brian Habib. Kalis was 26 years old and had been the starter the previous two seasons. He started for five seasons in the NFL and has the lowest career AV of any starter on this team. Brian Habib was 27 years old, and would go on to start 8 seasons for Minnesota, Denver and Seattle. The five starters had been together for the previous two seasons, and Zimmerman, McDaniel, Lowdermilk and Irwin had started together since the 1988 season, and all of them started 16 games in 1991.
My first guess about why a team could underachieve compared to their career AV total is age-related, since I did not age-adjust the numbers. That does not appear to be the case here. None of them were in their final year as a starter, and only Allen had never started before in the NFL. The average starter age was 28.1, which is slightly below the average compared to other top 20 offenses on the career AV list. In fact, several of the key players were in their prime years, especially the left side and center of the line, with Zimmerman, McDaniel and Lowdermilk.
The obvious answer, then, is the quarterback position. That's certainly part of the answer. Wade Wilson was a disaster to start the season, throwing 10 interceptions in the first 5 games as the Vikings averaged only 10 points a game in a 2-3 start. After Rich Gannon took over as the starter, the team averaged 22.9 points per game, which over the full season would have equated to 366 points. That would have been good for 5th in the league. Still, while Gannon avoided interceptions, he only averaged 6.1 yards per attempt in 1991. Even if we accept that Gannon had an unusual career arc and was a much better QB after age 32, could he have been that bad, worse than replacement level? Elvis Grbac, Steve Bono, Jeff Kemp and Mike Moroski--hardly a murderer's row of QB's--averaged 7.16 yards per attempt in 23 starts for the San Francisco 49ers between 1986-1996.
The team appeared to be healthy in 1991, with 4 of the linemen starting every game, the receivers combining to miss 1 start, and the running back missing only 1 game. I'll throw it open to our resident Minnesota fans. Which ones are most overrated by career AV? Was it chemistry, coaching, key players who were playing while injured? Why was a team that had 2 Hall of Fame linemen and a likely soon to be Hall of Fame receiver (all in their primes), a QB who would win an Offensive Player of the Year award, a talented backfield, a top five tight end, and solid starters everywhere else, so unspectacular in 1991?