Tuesday, September 21, 2004

No Defense for Offensive Defense

After an off-season of promoting his newly minted defense, Vikings' Head Coach Mike Tice may finally be getting the message. It is one thing to promote a good product, it is quite another to promote a bad product. The problem for Tice is that he has banged his drum so loudly touting his "much improved" defense (his words, surely nobody else's), that anything less than a clear and dramatic improvement over last year's "defense" (again, Tice's words alone), are bound to disappoint. Even more disappointing, however, is the discovery that this years' version of Vikings' defense may even be worse than last year's version.

The poster child for the Vikings' defensive shortcomings this year is defensive lineman Chris Hovan. Following what appeared to be a breakout season in 2002, Hovan spent the summer bulking up with former Vikings' long-snapper Mike Morris. The added bulk made Hovan look big, but it did not help him play big. Instead, Hovan routinely failed to track the QB and, equally routinely, failed to record tackles.

Despite an effort to slim down and tone up, Hovan's 2003 downward spiral continued into 2004. After a reportedly tense confrontation with Vikings' coaches in the wake of a disappointing performance against the Dallas Cowboys, Tice believed Hovan had been motivated to move out of his "rut." Of course, to move out of a rut, one must be in a rut. Hovan's numbers suggest that his rut is more of a routine that we should expect to see continue--at least until Tice pulls the plug on him.

And Tice may be losing patience with Hovan. On Monday night's halftime show, Tice was shown in a meeting with other Vikings' coaches discussing approaches to motivating Hovan. Tice understood that ABC would be airing the conversation and clearly took the opportunity to try to reach Hovan from another angle. Given that Hovan was not privvy to the halftime show, maybe Tice planned to give Hovan one more shot to show he should start for the Vikings, no matter how Hovan performed against the Eagles.

If that were Tice's thinking, the thought process may have changed given the lows of Hovan's performance on Monday night.

The key Hovan play etched in the Vikings' fan's memory of Monday night--and perhaps the only play that Hovan figured into in a statistically meaningful way--was McNabb's touchdown scramble. On that play, a play in which McNabb ran 20 yards with nary a brush against his jersey by a Viking defender, Hovan was sent flailing across the field by a single blocker. Despite how it looked, the blocker did not have a running start or catch Hovan from the blind side. Rather, the blocker merely destroyed Hovan on a straight up block, carrying Hovan across the field--arms flailing over his head--as Andre the Giant might have tossed around a raggedy anne doll.

For the night, Hovan recorded the following statistics: zero sacks, zero tackles, and zero assists on tackles. Mind you, the Vikings are not asking for miracles from their highest paid defensive lineman. They merely want competence. The standard on most teams for the purported team sackmaster is that that player record an occassional sack. The Vikings have long since dropped this request of Hovan and now seek the mere occassional tackle. . . or assist.

Hovan is perplexed. Did he not have numerous sacks in college? Did he not have some sacks at the beginning of his career? Does he not bleed purple and gold? Does he not idolize John Randle? Have the Vikings not invested an awful lot of time in him to give up now?

Hovan also claims that he is double, even triple teamed. I might not have the best vantage point watching from at home, but the coaches appear to agree with me that Hovan is not even beating one-man blocking schemes. The McNabb TD scramble was the perfect example. And Hovan's laments sound a bit implausible even to someone who does not have the benefit of viewing the entire game from several angles. Why, after all, would any team commit two blockers to Hovan when Hovan cannot even record a tackle, even though he plays in the middle of the defensive line? That's a tough sell.

But maybe Tice is still sympathetic. As with Elling--who, by the way, had one more tackle than Hovan on Monday night--the Vikings have indeed invested quite a bit in Hovan to simply cut and run. And removing Hovan from the starting unit would be yet another admission that the Vikings' off-season moves were a bit less genius than Tice et. al. let on. Maybe, in fact, Jevon Kearse or Adewale Ogunleye would have been an upgrade to the Vikings' defense.

But maybe Tice is starting to get the real deal. His job is on the line, both with the Vikings and in the NFL. His past success working with offensive linemen is no guarantee of future job security if he continues to ignore the deficiencies of those with whom he is charged. It is not clear who would replace Hovan, though it would probably be Steve Martin who batted down a pass as Hovan's sub on Monday. Tice claimed the Vikings were "very deep" on the defensive line. Now it is time to show this depth. And, if it is not there, Tice will have some explaining to do.

Mo Moe

It is time that Moe Williams received his due. He is the Leroy Hoard Plus of today's Vikings' team. All he does is get chunks of yardage, make smart plays, block, and put the ball in the end zone. Think the Vikings missed Moe on the goal line Monday night?

Monday Night Blather

During the Dennis Miller days of MNF, I longed for a return of Boomer Esiason to the MNF booth. When it became evident that Miller's days were numbered, Miller inexplicably became a reasonable color man, deciding that it was not necessary to color every statement with an analogy to Greek sheepherders (Freud would go nuts with Miller). Nevertheless, I was content with ABC's decision to pull the plug on Miller, not because I thought Miller was an egghead out of his element doing football color analysis, but because Miller was clearly too uniformed about the NFL to make sensible, relevant comments. And that says a mouthful.

Then ABC hired John Madden to team with Al Michaels with the intention of getting back to basics--at least, the Madden basics. ABC thought they they finally had a winning combo--its first since Dandy Don, Frank Gifford, and Howard Cossell. Alas, it has not worked.

Madden rambles about nothing more than ever and Michaels goes along for the ride while pretending to weigh in Madden's point--a difficult task given that Madden never really has a point.

On Monday night, before I could hit the mute button for the umpteenth time, Madden saluted Pat Tillman for the millionth time. It's as if Madden wants to assure everyone that he is a true patriot, not to be mistaken with all the non-patriots who do not sleep with Tillman's jersey tucked under their pillow. Not to be outdone, Michaels intoned that "Tillman was a true hero, embodying everything that is right and good about America." It might mean something if either Michaels or Madden were saying it for the first, or even merely the 100th time, but to hear this refrain ad nauseum gets old. How about the game, boys?

Up Next: The Bears think they got it. They are right, but "it" isn't what they think it is. Plus, so much to do and so little time in which to do it.


Anonymous said...

Actually, this was Pat Tillman Weekend in the NFL, with a tribute presented by each home team and every player wearing a sticker with Tillman's #40 on his helmet. So Madden's salute wasn't so unwarranted.

Far worse was Michael's salute to Philadelphia fans, how they are so astute and pick up on every nuance. Gag me. They cheer touchdowns and rip on everything else, just like fans in every other city.

Dennis Miller certainly wasn't uninformed about the NFL, he had numerous insightful comments every week. The reason he is no longer working is that the bulk of the MNF audience has a 5th-grade IQ and his observations went over their heads. Madden's BOOM, POW, BANG is something they can understand.

Vikes Geek said...

I could not disagree with you more about Dennis Miller. He rarely, if ever, had valuable insight to contribute to the show and, by his own admission, he had merely a passing interest in the NFL. He did not know the players, the history of the teams, or the rules of the game. That might be healthy for the average individual, but it makes for awful color commentary for NFL games. Your take that Miller's wit was simply too heady for the average MNF viewer is precisely the spin that ABC put on the bad ratings. From my perspective, it was not too heady, it simply was too irrelevant to the game and, ultimately, an annoyance. Instead of adding to the call of the game or the viewers' understanding of the game, Miller was focused on making increasingly more obscure references to players, their fashion, their family lineage, etc. Even when appropriate, a little bit goes a long way. And Miller made a lot go nowhere. Undoubtedly, some of Miller's lines did go over viewers' heads but that made Miller's continuing antics even more ridiculous, particularly if Miller was smart enough to understand his audience. But while we are castigating the viewers' collective intelligence, how about the intelligence of Miller's fellow analysts on MNF and the ABC execs who shoved Miller down viewers' throats (or compelled them to tune out altogether)? A typical MNF game included numerous quips from Miller (usually rehearsed lines that Miller was so anxious to get out of his mouth before he misspoke that he spoke over Michaels' and Fouts' playcalling if the calls interrupted his delivery) followed by a nervous laugh from Michaels--who clearly understood Miller was trying to be funny, knew he was supposed to establish a banter with Miller, did not understand Miller's jokes, but did not want to let escape this fact. Worse yet was Dan Fouts, who merely held silent. When pressed further, Fouts simply admitted he did not know what Miller was talking about. The focus thus became Miller and his "jokes" rather than the game. That ABC thought this was what viewers wanted was evidenced by the poll that ABC ran every Tuesday morning on ESPN's website, in which ABC solicited viewers' input as to their favorite Dennis Miller line from the night before (my favorite line was always the five seconds when Miller was not speaking). And if I understood the lines and was annoyed, imagine how the typical viewer felt.

In the end, ABC did a 180, hiring the equally annoying, say-nothing Madden. Surely there is a middle ground--a commentator who does not speak to the lowest common denominator but who understands that there is a game to be called and that that, after all, is the reason that viewers are watching. I will not hold my breath that ABC will discover such a commentator, however.

Anonymous said...

I think the bad ratings had a lot more to do with bad football games than with Dennis Miller.

Considering that most analysts add about as much 'color' as the audio equivalent of watching paint dry, I don't expect ABC will improve on Madden, much less Miller, anytime soon.

Anonymous said...

Wow, so much said about a subject that has absolutely no impact on a game. Hmmm. Let's talk defense. Well, we've now gotten some information out of Winterpark to shed some light on what's going on. Like most, I was shocked to hear what the coaches were saying about Hovan on Monday Night Football. To sit there in a meeting and state that his psyche might be adversely effected by being called out in front of teammates and to then let those statements air at half-time in front of a national audience. Talk about irony! Obviously, either the coaches absolutely wanted the whole world to know about their displeasure with Hovan, thinking it would motivate him, or Hovan will become the scapegoat for the defense that never was. Time will tell. Interestingly, they've now come out stating that he had a "better" game this past week, but still needs to improve his "numbers". I know one thing, I saw our offensive and defensive lines getting outplayed by the Eagles offensive and defensive lines Monday night. Also, interesting to hear that Dontarrius Thomas is having difficulty and is likely to be replaced. Guess that's why Brian Westbrook was constantly seen running wild with nothing but green staring him in the face 5 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. I shudder to think that Claiborne will be the answer. He's never lived up to his 1st round hype and looked painfully slow at times on Monday night. Final thought: initially, upon learning that Rosenthal had gone down and seeing how one defensive end can disrupt our offense so mightily, I thought about the possibility of moving Birk to RT and starting Withrow at C. Wasn't it just a year and a half ago that they were considering making Birk the starting LT??? Seems we're going to go with the combo of Haayer/Dorsey instead. Just seems to me that sometimes a coach might have to think "outside the box"

Vike in Iowa

Anonymous said...

I like that Birk/Withrow idea, Iowa. I think it's worth a try just on the basis of it making as much or more sense than the Haayer/Dorsey alternative.

I think if the defense continues to be underwhelming, it will make a good offensive showing all the more important. If Birk and Withrow can repair the hole left by the loss of Rosenthal on the offensive line, then the team can get to the next order of business, trying to patch the hole left by the loss of Kleinsasser. I believe he is/was a very key part of what makes the running game go and it will be difficult to patch together a fill-in. I think the season may already be in the balance. Maybe the Eagles are just that good--but if the defense makes the Bears look unstoppable and the offense can't finish drives against Chicago, I will be even more pessimistic by late Sunday afternoon.

Jamison said...

My theory on Hovan is that he was always a one trick pony. His only success came in his first season when teams were not exactly studying film on some kid named "Hovan". His one trick was anticipating the snap count and getting the jump on the guy lined up in front of him. If you watch any good play he has EVER made, it was always because he was quicker off the ball. He does not seem to have a big swim move or spin move. He can't get his guy going one way and then quickly change direction to beat him the other. Once opponents learned this, it became pretty easy to contain him.

Vikes Geek said...

I agree. Hovan relies initially relied on his jump off the snap. Last year, it appeared he was trying to become a bullrushing type of lineman. That clearly did not work. My guess is that Hovan is about as good as most people suspected when he came out of college--good enough to spell an NFL starter a few plays a game.

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