Tuesday, November 30, 2004

The Encroachment Factor

With a victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday, the Vikings accomplished something that they had not done all season, they defeated a team that currently has a winning record. In so doing, the Vikings scored 27 points against a team yielding an average of approximately 15 per game. More signifcant, the Vikings limited the Jaguars to 16 points. These accomplishments have led beat writers, fans, and some within the organization to speculate that the Vikings have finally turned the corner. And there is some reason for such optimism.

On Sunday, for most of the game, the Vikings' defense looked better than it has in recent memory. Yes, Brian Williams again missed interception opportunities. Yes, Brian Russell continued to miss tackles in the backfield. And, yes, Brian Russell looked out of his element on a play in which he (1) missed a tackle on Jaguar's running back Fred Taylor; (2) recovered for another missed tackle opportunity; and (3) ultimately decided to pirouette his way away from the play in the apparent hope that another defender would come to his assistance.

Yes, yes, yes. There were mistakes.

But there were also stops, and backside help, and second efforts, and some solid run support--all missing in the Vikings' recent skid, and all missing for the better part of the past half decade. Not on Sunday.

And so there is renewed hope in Minnesota that the Tice/MoComb's three-year-return-to-playoff-prominence pledge may yet be intact. Maybe the defense is strong enough to latch onto the coattails of the Vikings' offense. And, undoubtedly, most suspect, the offense is strong enough to carry any additional weight that it is asked to carry. Yet there is a nagging suspicion, one held by most long-time Vikings' fans, that there remains plenty to sort out.

This is a suspicion apparently shared by Vikings' head coach Mike Tice. When asked whether the victory over the Jaguars, a victory that put the Vikings two games to the good in the race for a playoff spot in the NFC, eased his concerns about whether Minnesota would make the playoffs this year, Tice breathed deeply and said, "brother, not after what happened last year."

And Tice has reason for concern or, at a minimum, reason for lack of sanguinity, for the Vikings have yet to show much. Despite the performance on Sunday, the Vikings have still only beaten one team that currently possesses a winning record. And that victory looks a bit less impressive once we consider the numbers.

As noted in the pregame preview, the Jaguars, with or without Byron Leftwich, are no offensive force. Without Leftwich, the Jaguars have averaged 14.5 points a game. With Leftwich, the Jaguars have averaged 16 points a game. Thus, on Sunday, the Vikings did what the average 2004 Jaguar's opponent has done by yielding 16 points to a Byron Leftwich-led Jaguar offense.

But it is not enough simply to note that the Vikings hit the average in yielding 16 points to the Jaguars. Of greater interest is against whom the Jaguars have produced their 2004 offensive averages. The Jaguars have averaged their 16 points against Buffalo, Denver, Tennessee (twice), Indianapolis (twice), Kansas City, Houston, San Diego and Detroit. Buffalo and Denver are in the top 10 for total defense, Tennessee and San Diego are in the top 15, and Detroit, Houston, Kansas City, and Houston are in the bottom seven. But each of the Jaguars' opponents yields, on average, over 17 points a game.

This raises the suspicion that the Jaguars have a below average offense. And additional numbers bear this out. The Jaguars have scored an average of 3.55 points fewer per game against their opponents than have their opponents' opponents ("encroachment average"). If not for the benefit of an overtime victory against Detroit and an inexplicable 27-point outburst in a victory over Indianapolis, that number would be closer to six. And that is about as bad as it gets in the NFL for teams considered playoff worthy.

The Vikings did hold the Jaguars outside their encroachment average and that is promising. It is also promising to see the Vikings' defense make four big plays in clutch situations at the end of the game. So, despite the fact that the numbers take some of the shine off of the victory, there is some reason to be optimistic about the defensive trends evidenced in Sunday's victory.

It is also important to consider, however, what the Vikings' offensive output means. The Jaguars have yielded an average of 9.25 points less to their opponents than their opponents have been scoring against other teams. That's very impressive. And the Jaguars have accomplished this feat despite playing the number one offense in the NFL twice this season and the number two offense once.

What is disturbing for Jaguar fans, however, is that the 9.25 encroachment number that the Jaguars have established defensively this season is built largely on early season successes and the ability to hold otherwise very high scoring teams to merely high scores. Over the past few weeks, against Houston, Detroit, Tennessee, and Minnesota, the numbers are trending toward the mean, with the Jaguar's defense producing encroachment numbers of -.8, -.5, -.8, and +.5 (meaning that Minnesota outscored its average by .5 points on Sunday). This is in stark contrast to early season numbers of -9.8, -17.4, -7.6, and -11.5, and suggests that Jacksonville's defense may be getting a bit fatigued as the season wears on or that opponents have adjusted to Jacksonville's schemes.

Whatever the case, Minnesota's 27-point performance calls for mixed reviews. Take away a defensive touchdown and the Vikings scored nearly a touchdown less than their season average. That's still better than the defensive encroachment number Jacksonville has averaged this season (-9.5), but it is worse than Jacksonville's defensive encroachment number as reflected over the past few weeks.

What all this means is that, while the victory over the Jaguars on Sunday was nice, it was something that the numbers suggested should have occurred. Moreover, the numbers suggest that an average defense would have held the Jaguars to fewer points and that the Vikings' offense should have produced more points.

Although the Vikings face few quality opponents (cf. challenges) the remainder of the regular season, how theyperform on the encroachment scale will matter once the playoffs begin. Underperforming the mean will no longer be the concern, however. Instead, the question will be whether the Vikings are able to outperform the playoff competition. To reach this goal, the Vikings will need to continue to make defensive improvements. Of that, there is little question. More surprising, however, may be the charge that to succeed in the playoffs the Vikings also need to make improvements on offense. And the less the improvements on defense, the greater will be the need to make improvements on offense.

Up Next: Considerations of Drafts Past.

Sunday, November 28, 2004

Money Isn't Everything

Money isn't everything, but the riches that money can bring are great when the money is properly spent. Nowhere are these statements more true than in the NFL, where teams are bound by player salary caps and floors, but where teams may spend freely on coaches and front office personnel.

It is thus dismaying that one of our very own, someone purportedly attuned to the Vikings, today writes of the Vikings' money matters in a dismissive manner. With reports swirling that Vikings' owner Red McCombs is cutting corners in hiring non-player personnel and scrutinizing every penny as if it were his last, one local writer has determined--through the most cursory of reviews--that money doesn't matter in the NFL.

Though the writer does not expressly contend that money does not matter in the NFL, he does conclude that there is no necessary correlation between revenue and winning on the field. To which those who understand the NFL's salary cap requirements respond--"No shit Sherlock."

I would be fine with the correlation argument if it just ended there, but the writer extrapolates his conclusion, implying that revenue is irrelevant to winning in the NFL. In support of this insinuation, the writer notes that while Dallas and Washington are among the top revenue-grossing teams in the NFL, they are also near the bottom of the NFL in victories. And while the Vikings and Jaguars are at the bottom of the NFL in gross revenue production, they are among the better teams in the NFL--even if that is a fairly watered-down distinction.

But what is the point of the writer's column? Is it to argue that teams that spend less are destined to be better than teams that spend more? It could not be, as there is even less correlative evidence to support such a proposition than the writer offers to support his supposition.

Is the point that the wealthy have an inate inablity to refrain from overspending? If so, who cares? If not, what then is the point?

It would appear that the point is to simply relate what the writer views to be Vikings' news. But here's a news flash for our writer--this is not news! Since Red struck out on his bid to move the Vikings, he has tightened the spending clamps. This can be traced to Tice's hiring and subsequent personnel decisions made on the cheap, in particular the failure to bring in available, proven players at key positions.

Our writer notes that the Vikings have made personnel decisions with cost-saving in mind, but that such moves have led to the hiring of young and bright minds. A case in point, the writer notes, is Red's hiring of the Vikings' capalogist, Rob Brzezinski.

But Brzezinski's hiring merely seals the suspicions, confirming that Red wants to hire someone young, to save salary, but someone talented to crunch numbers to tell him how to cut corners. In fact, it is Brzezinski who found ways for the Vikings to manipulate the salary cap so that the Vikings could actually spend below the cap this season and not get busted for it (see cf. the way other teams try to spend over the cap without getting busted).

The real question, however, is not whether the Vikings are spending as much as other teams. And it never has been. The real question is whether the Vikings are spending their money more wisely than are other teams. Answering this question requires a far more investigative piece than what our local writer has trodded out in the name of journalism. It requires, for example, consideration of whether the Vikings have filled the needs that they have identified as an organization.

Going into the off-season, the Vikings identified several needs, including acquiring a punter, a placekicker who could kickoff and attempt field goals, a middle linebacker with experience, an outside linebacker, a defensive end, a pass-catching tight end, and a cornerback. While the Vikings did obtain a cornerback in Antoine Winfield and a very good pass-catching tight end in Jermaine Wiggins, they failed to sign experienced linebackers and are relying on a rookie at right end. The three-for-one deal on placekickers was also not what the Vikings said they were looking for, and the punting has been sporadic, albeit cheap.

With only a bit more research into the issue than that provided by our local writer, it is evident that the Vikings are 7-4, not because of, but in spite of their penny pinching ways. And it is clear that the Vikings have not spent as they have because they thought that they were spending wisely, but because they thought they could keep the fans hopeful of a championship without adding any more salary.

But, of course, the ultimate question, the question that truly cannot be answered, is whether the Vikings would have been better off spending more of their cap allowance. But our fair writer ignores this question as if it did not exist.

And Hell Froze Over

The Vikings defeated the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday by the score of 27 to 16. Though the final score was indicative of the quality of play put forth by each team, the final score was not settled until the Vikings made two defensive stands in the waning minutes of the fourth quarter.

The first stand ended with just over two minutes remaining in the game. The Vikings were leading by four with Jacksonville facing a third and long. After the Vikings' defenders flushed Jaguars' QB Byron Leftwich from the pocket, Kenechi Udeze forced Leftwich to fumble and Kevin Williams scooped up the loose ball and ambled for a 76-yard touchdown. As pigs began flying throughout the Metrodome, one was overheard commenting that it was the Vikings' first fumble returned for a touchdown in an eternity.

That should have been that for the Jaguars. The Vikings were up 26-16 and Vikings' head coach Mike Tice was faced with a decision for which, as he assured us last week, he had the incontrovertible cheat sheet. The question for Tice was whether to kick the extra point or to go for two. Tice elected to kick the extra point. The kick was automatic for Andersen, but the decision was still dubious.

Nine times out of ten, NFL coaches make the wrong call in electing to attempt a two-point conversion. Conversely, rarely do coaches err in electing to kick the extra point rather than attempting a two-point conversion. But after taking a ten point lead with just over two minutes remaining on Sunday, Tice inexplicably--though predictably--confounded the odds.

After converting the extra point attempt, the Vikings led Jacksonville by 11 points. Had the Vikings attempted a two-point conversion and failed, they would have led by 10 points. Under either of these scenarios, the Jaguars would have trailed by a field goal, a touchdown, and a conversion (either one or two points). Even trailing by 11, as they did when they received the ball with about two minutes remaining, the Jaguars thus could have tied the game with a touchdown, two-point conversion, and a field goal.

If the Vikings had converted a two-point attempt after Williams' touchdown, however, they would have forced the Jaguars to score two touchdowns to win. And even if the two-point conversion failed, the Vikings would have had the comfort of knowing that Jaguars' coach Jack Del Rio would not attempt a two-point conversion after a touchdown when trailing by four. The extra point would ensure that an on-side kick recovery and subsequent field goal would tie the game, whereas a missed two-point conversion attempt would force Jacksonville to score another touchdown to win.

Cynics will argue that if Tice had gone for two and made it, Jacksonville undoubtedly would have scorched the Vikings' defense to score the necessary touchdown and would have won the game in regulation. But the way that the Vikings' front four were playing against the underwhelming, overmatched, overhyped Byron Leftwich, there is every reason to believe that a two touchdown lead with two minutes to play (and with Del Rio having already blown one timeout on a questionable challenge) would have sufficed. But why leave anything to chance? Is chance not what ended last season?

As it was, a one touchdown lead was sufficient to ensure victory and Tice's decision became academic. Despite the re-emergence of the Denny Green-era prevent D on a long pass to Jimmy Smith in front of the siestaing Terrance Shaw, the Vikings' front four again put sufficient pressure on the awkward looking Leftwich to force consecutive bad passes and to seal the victory.

And the pigs were overheard saying that they will wait a few weeks to suggest a list a potential successors to head coach Mike Tice.

Up Next: Draft day misses.

Coming and Going

The Vikings face the Jacksonville Jaguars this week as former Vikings' linebacker Jack Del Rio--the last known Vikings' linebacker to record multiple games of a tackle or more--returns. Del Rio brings with him a hobbled but willing quarterback in Byron Leftwich and the yet to be hobbled running back, Fred Taylor. Leftwich's return means that, rather than relying exclusively on the running of Taylor, the Jaguars will be able to balance their offensive attack.

But whether with Leftwich or without, the Jaguars essentially are a team built around their defense. In their first ten games, the Jaguars have averaged 18 points, while allowing 15.5 points per game. With Leftwich, the offense averages 16 points. Without Leftwich, the offense averages 14.6 points. The 1.4 points with Leftwich matter to the Jaguars given that they allow 15.5 points per game, but Leftwich's presence is unlikely to determine the Vikings' fate on Sunday. Instead, that distinction will be left to the Vikings' offense.

The Vikings will have some assistance in breaking the Jaguar's defense this week, as Randy Moss is expected to return to action. While the Vikings have put points on the board in Moss' absence, they have done so primarily against second- and third-rate NFL defenses. Last week against the Lions, the Vikings scored 22 points against a team that ceded 41 points to the Colts this week, including six touchdown passes by Peyton Manning.

Moss' return should help the Vikings in two respects in particular. In Moss' absence, teams initially single-covered the remaining Vikings' receivers. In three receiver sets with one tight end and one running back, that left six players to pressure Daunte Culpepper. Nate Burleson's recent success has forced teams to use more double-coverage, at least on him, but Kelly Campbell's and Marcus Robinson's disappearing acts have made it possible for teams to pay scant attention to the other two receivers in the Vikings' offense. If Moss is healthy, he should draw double coverage and free up Burleson, who Culpepper now appears interested in finding. This will force the Jaguars to withdraw at least one potential blitzing corner or linebacker and should reduce the pressure on Daunte.

Moss' return is even more significant this week with injuries to Nat Dorsey and Matt Birk, who will be replaced by Adam Goldberg and Corey Withrow, respectively. Injuries to the Vikings' front five on offense have forced the Vikings to use offensive pass-protection schemes that greatly inhibit the Vikings' ability to incorporate longer pass routes into their offensive game plan. With Goldberg and Withrow in, expect the Vikings to employ more two-tight end sets, and to possibly use two backs. This will come at the expense of the wide receiver corps with the Vikings being forced into more one and two receiver sets. Such limitations place a premium on strong receivers who can get open no matter the coverage, and Moss meets this bill much more so than does Robinson or Campbell.

The second situation in which Moss' presence should help the Vikings is when the Vikings are in the red zone, particularly when they are inside the 10-yard line. Last week, the Vikings missed an opportunity to score a touchdown in this area because of miscommunication between Kelly Campbell and Daunte Culpepper. The result was a poorly run route and an equally poor pass out of bounds--well over Campbell's head. With Moss in the lineup, the Vikings have the goal line element that they have not had for several weeks. And that should pay dividends this week against a tough Jaguars' defense that jams well at the line and can stop the run in goal line situations.

Birk's Injury

With injuries throughout the offensive line, probably none will be more evident than that to Matt Birk, who is out until the Vikings' Christmas Eve game against the Green Bay Packers. Though Moss' return will open up the passing game and relieve some pressure on the Vikings' pass protectors, Moss presence cannot so greatly mitigate the loss of Birk in the rushing game. When Birk is in the lineup, the Vikings have one of the best pulling offensive linemen in the game--one of the few things that saves the Vikings' rushing attack from the depths of despair in the midst of weak run blocking on the right side of the line.

Without Birk, the Vikings have a capable pass protector in Corey Withrow, but there is a reason that Birk starts over Withrow, and that reason, primarily, is that Birk is a much more exceptional run blocker. The loss of Birk means the loss of any semblance of a running attack to the right, particularly with the inexperienced Goldberg manning the right tackle position. The only hope is to use the two tight end sets on running plays as well as on passing plays, which puts even more of a premium on Moss' return.

Up Next: Rewind.

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

When Winning is not Comforting

OK. I admit it. No matter how much a wanted to see the positive in Sunday's victory over the Lions, I can no longer contain myself. We all know that, but for Joey Harrington and a slew of idiotic penalties by the Detroit Lions, the Vikings would not have won the game on Sunday. Of course that does not matter right now. As Tice is wont to say, "a win is a win." And looking ahead, the Vikings may well find themselves saying this several more times this season.

But, if the game against Detroit is any barometer, the Vikings will not be rejoicing a game well-played for four quarters and by all units of the team in future wins this season. More likely is the scenario whereby individual players and coaches, in turn, will stare into the gaze of the camera lens, shrug their shoulders, raise their eyebrows, and offer us the line that "a win is a win."

And that is what we got on Sunday. A win. Not a well played game. Just a win. And if you are in the midst of a three game skid, maybe that's enough.

But a close home victory over the clawless Lions is hardly the makings of a championship caliber team. Yes, the Vikings won in spite of themselves. Yes, the Vikings won in spite of offensive line issues. Yes, the Vikings won despite trailing early and appearing out of the contest late. And, yes, the Vikings won by shutting down the Lions offense for virtually the entire second half.

Yes, yes, yes, yes. But think about that.

The Vikings scored seven points in the first half despite possessing the ball for nearly one quarter (pretty good by Minnesota's first-half standard). The Lions, possessing the ball for just slightly more time and relying on offense that would make John Shoop look like the second coming of Bill Walsh, scored 17.

[Yes, Detroit scored a touchdown on special teams, but 10 points by Harrington and Co. is like 80 by Peyton Manning and Co. It just should not happen.

And don't get me started on special teams. It wasn't as if Eddie Drummond was running through holes created by Steve Tasker. He was running behind teammates. And that meant that he was running behind Lions--many of the same players that Mariucci features on offense on a weekly basis. If that is not cause enough for Rusty Tillman to lose his job, a sufficient cause escapes me.]

Part of the blame for the Vikings' first half offensive woes, assuredly, rests with the woeful play of certain members of the Vikings' offensive line. Bryant McKinnie looked luck an overstuffed sack of potatoes with a head, leg, and arms attached to him as he woozied to and fro mesmerized by what sped by him--psst, Bryant, those things are the object of your future income.

And when McKinnie was not wincing at his own mishaps, he was watching his neighbor, guard Chris Liewinski, continue his streak of false start penalties.

How bad was it? McKinnie did not get his legs moving properly until the Vikings changed the definition of proper movement, giving him a couple extra linemen to help stem the on-slaught of Lions' defenders (all four against seven of Minnesota's "best"). But the move, coming only after Adam Goldberg was beaten for a safety, was not soon enough to mask yet another poor performance by the Vikings' former first round selection.

You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet

But if the offense looked bad--and I will reserve judgment on the play of Marcus Robinson until I actually see him play--the defense was mostly horrid.

The Vikings' coaching staff is looking at the defensive play in the Lions game a bit too cheerfully for my liking. Though head coach Mike Tice noted the lack of playmaking in the first half, he complemented the defense for its play in the second half, noting Lance Johnstone's sacks, E.J. Henderson's tackling in the second half, Spencer Johnson's overall play, and Antoine Winfield's interception.

Question, coach. Where were the rest of the defensive players? Where was Kenechi Udeze? Where was Kenny Mixon? Where was Kevin Williams? Where was Chris Hovan? Where was Chris Claiborne (the guy upon whom whose injury recovery the Vikings were pinning their defensive resurgence)? Where was Corey Chavous? Where was Brian Russell? Where was Brian Williams? In fact, where have Mixon, Hovan, Claiborne, Chavous, Russell, Udeze, and Brian Williams been all year?

The Vikings continue to lament the play of the linebacking corps, and it is horrendous. Going into last week's game, the Vikings' linebackers had the fewest tackles of any NFL linebacking corps and had a combined total nearly 2/3 less than the NFL leader. It's difficult to defend that level of poor play.

But almost as bad is the production of the Vikings' secondary. Take away the production of Antoine Winfield, a player accumulating tackles at an alarming rate largely attributable to the failure of the defensive linemen and linebackers to make tackles, and the secondary has done very little this season. Tice will argue that they don't get burned like they did in the Serwanga Era, but that's hardly a measuring stick for success.

Entering Sunday's game, the Vikings' secondary had four INTs the entire season. 11 NFL players have 4 or more INTs. The Vikings did add one to that tally by picking Harrington on Sunday, but taking one from Harrington is like scoring one touchdown against the Chiefs--it counts, but you ought to have many, many more.

While the linebacking corps is an easy and very deserving target, it is plain that the Vikings' defense, as a whole, has played below an reasonable NFL-caliber standard.

While the Vikings have one of the kindest remaining schedules in the NFL, facing teams with a combined record of 29-31, Vikings fans are not and will not be content with continued performances a la Sunday's victory over the Lions. Because, while every win counts, wins only come about when teams play better than their opposition. The Vikings played better than the Lions on Sunday, because, well, they could not help it. But other teams--most playoff teams--are much less forgiving than are the Lions.

Up Next: New Rankings. Plus, Tice's thin skin and previewing the Jaguars. Roar!

Monday, November 22, 2004

Abra Cadabra?

While Vikings' coaches, players, writers, and fans continue to lament the woes of the team's defense, a subject that has received little attention is the success of the offense in the face of several setbacks. Not only have the Vikings lost Mike Rosenthal and Jim Kleinsasser for the season, it now appears that Rosenthal's replacement, Nat Dorsey, may be lost for the remainder of the season.

The news on Dorsey's injury is particularly halting as it comes on the heals not only of other serious injuries to offensive linemen, but also on the heals of continuous sub-par to poor performances by right guard Chris Liewinski and rigth tackle Bryant McKinnie. Add to this the left and right groin pulls of center Matt Birk and it is a wonder there is any offense at all.

The fact that the Vikings continue to produce on offense is, in part, a testament to the fact that the Vikings have taken precious care of their offense for several years running. When Michael Bennett went down, the Vikings could turn to SOD. When SOD took a four-game break this season, the Vikings had Mewelde Moore waiting in the wings. And when all else failed, the Vikings have had the luxury of turning to one of the best running backs in the NFL, Moe Williams. Each of these backs has turned in credible performances in spite of the run-blocking problems of nearly every lineman other than Birk, suggesting that talent will take you pretty far.

But talent without guidance is usually a recipe for disaster in the NFL. The Vikings have learned that in other facets of the game, but seem to have averted disaster on offense by adapting. Nowhere is this more evident than in the passing game.

With Moss out with an injury, Daunte Culpepper has been forced to resort to a more controlled passing game, a predicament made even more difficult by the fact that the remaining receivers have had very limited success stretching the field and thereby opening up the middle. But Culpepper has largely risen to the challenge, looking off primary targets and taking what the defense yields. The result has been a much more efficient offense with fewer three and outs.

But Culpepper's emerging patience in the passing game is but one reason for the Vikings' success in light of their line problems. Another reason for the success is the emergence of tight end Jermaine Wiggins. The Vikings signed Wiggins in the off-season with the intention of pairing him with Kleinsasser to have a blocking-receiving tight end duo; Kleinsasser would block, Wiggins would catch.

When Kleinsasser went out with an injury, the Vikings initially thought that Wiggins would have trouble finding playing time. The thought was that, with Kleinsasser out, the Vikings would need to employ two tight end sets to compensate for the blocking that Kleinsasser did on his own. And, with Wiggins considered a non-blocking tight end, Wiggins appeared to be the odd man out.

But after the Vikings experimented with several inexperienced tight ends, and suffered numerous false start and holding penalties that cost them dearly in field position battles, the Vikings decided to give Wiggins a full audition manning the tight end position alone. The result has been as good as the Vikings could have hoped. On the season, Wiggins has 43 receptions for 410 yards--a decent season for most tight ends.

Over the next few weeks, ith injuries likely to play an increasing role in how the Vikings play offense, we shall see if this is all a magic act destined to be uncovered or evidence of good coaching.

In two weeks, given the injuries to Dorsey and Birk, there is a very real possibility that the Vikings will start Bryant McKinnie, Chris Liewinski, Corey Withrow, David Dixon, and Adam Goldberg on the offensive line. At the beginning of the season, few teams would have offered much for any of these players other than perhaps McKinnie. Today, few teams would even want McKinnie. And while Withrow has been a serviceable substitute for Birk, of these five, only Dixon has played well all year. Only Dixon appears immune from being beat on passing downs. And only Dixon appears immune from the penalty bug.

But, like each of the other four linemen, Dixon has a critical flaw. He cannot run block. In fact, he is so bad at run blocking that the Vikings rarely run to his side, opting to run either outside or behind Birk or McKinnie. Which completes the faulty offensive line. And which brings us back to the question of how the Vikings have prospered despite their offensive line issues.

The answer at this juncture is that the Vikings have adapted. They have run where they know they can run, often pulling the center to aid in blocking. And when the go right, they go outside, often after running a screen play that has forced the defense to think about overplaying the run. And they have gone to short passes, but without eschewing the long ball--even if it means hoping that the diminutive Campbell can break up errant passes.

And, as I suggested yesterday, this is where the Vikings' coaching staff deserves considerable credit, because they are doing things that they thought they could only do if the had Randy Moss, Jim Kleinsasser, Mike Rosenthal, a healthy and productive Michael Bennett, a healthy and productive Matt Birk, and a healthy and productive Marcus Robinson. The Vikings have had little of what they thought they would have, yet they continue to strive on offense. And, if the Vikings can continue this offensive output--and add to it with Moss' return--it will be quite a remarkable accomplishment and not merely a magic act.

Coming from someone intending to write about the Vikings' woes today, that is a compliment.

Up Next: Where or where have the linebackers gone?

Sunday, November 21, 2004

Something Good

In a refreshing break from the recent trend, the Vikings rallied for a victory today. And with that victory came a few things that were good. While it is undoubtedly true that there was more that was troubling about a 22-19 home victory over a bad team struggling to win a game, as promised, the first column after a victory is time for fond reflection (at least as far as such reflection is possible).

The game started off...oops, that's tomorrow's column.

On their first possession of the game, the Vikings mixed the run and pass and marched down the field against the purportedly stalwart Lions' defense to tie the score. And the drives kept coming throughout the half--not to be followed by any points, but that, too, is a topic for tomorrow.


OK. I need to end this madness here. For me even to attempt to fill a column with the good plays, good coaching decisions, and reasons for optimism resonating from the Vikings' game against the Lions would be utter lunancy. I won't pretend it is possible.

Instead, I offer a half-column of that which was good about the Vikings on Sunday and will resist, with all my might, the desire to note the myriad issues yet facing the Vikings in all facets of the game--from issues that receive much attention to issues receiving virtually no attention.

The Good

I'll begin with the deservedly maligned defense. There were some bright spots on this side of the ball today and they merit recognition. The most notable bright spots today were Antoine Winfield and Lance Johnstone. Winfield finished the day with 6 tackles and the game-sealing interception, an interception that Winfield was able to pick-up because he properly read a route and jumped it. What a novel concept. Winfield's tackling left announcers referring to him as "the Vikings' most capable tackler." Yes, that he is, but that's what most other expect and receive from each of their defensive players (but that is for tomorrow as well).

Lance Johnstone, the player whom Tice did not want back this year and the only player on the defensive line capable of a multi-sack game for the past three seasons (oops, more of tomorrow), also had an outstanding day on Sunday, sacking the Lions' hopeless Joey Harrington three times (three more times than did any other Viking). Johnstone continues to put pressure on the quarterback and remains one of the only reasons to watch the Vikings' defensive line, unless you are masochistic or need to time a three-minute egg (about the time it takes Hovan to get off his block).

I would have included E.J. Henderson in the good-defensive-performance category if not for his utterly putrid first-half performance on Sunday. Throughout the first half, Henderson looked like he was playing the game for the first time. He was a virtual non-factor in the half, save for the significant role he played in aiding the Texans.

The second half was a different story, however, as Henderson looked more than capable of at least fielding his middle linebacker role. Henderson ended with 7 tackles and appeared to have a revelation that he has an assignment on each play and that it behooves him to fill that assignment. He did not do so in the first half, but did in the second. Even though that is the minimum asked of him, his meeting that minimum is an upgrade over his performance every other week this season and reason for at least some optimism.

The offense has less reason for optimism this week than does the defense, in part because the expectations for the offense are considerably higher than they are for the defense. Daunte had a few good drives but was not consistent today, contributing mightily to a couple awful drives with poorly thrown passes and a sack that he simply should not have taken.

While Burleson looked good making several catches, he was not spectacular. He and Wiggins were the best options today with Robinson a virtual non-factor, but neither was much above their norm today.

But Moe Williams was spectacular, despite having little opportunity to play. Moe, as he always does (and come on Tice, I mean always!), produced when called upon, whether asked to make a key reception or to score the go-ahead touchdown. Moe Williams got it done. Unfortunately, Moe was relegated to emergency duty yet again, and the Vikings will never know how much more he could have contributed today.

The final good "play" of the day was turned in not by a player but by the coaching staff. No, not the special teams' coach (tomorrow), or the defensive coordinator (tomorrow, the day after, the day after that, etc.), but by the head coach and the offensive coordinator.

Since Mike Rosenthal went on injured reserve for the season, the Vikings have had troubles at the right tackle position. Adam Haayer, the Vikings' answer to a revolving door, was not the answer. That left Nat Dorsey and Adam Goldberg. Though both players are rookies and lack some of the necessary fundamentals at this point in their careers, the competition between the two to replace Rosenthal was not close. Dorsey clearly was better than Goldberg, and Dorsey won the position battle.

When Dorsey left the game with an elbow injury on Sunday, Goldberg was forced into the game. Nobody wanted this, but there was no alternative. Goldberg responded by immediately allowing his player to beat him and to tackle SOD for a safety. SOD had no chance. Sadly, neither did Goldberg.

But what was good about the situation, as it evolved, was that, rather than throwing their hands up in the air and admitting defeat or doing something absurd--as the Vikings always seem to do on special teams and defense (again with tomorrow)--Tice and offensive coordinator Scott Linehan made adjustments. And the adjustments worked!

By keeping seven players in to block, and having a late-release player, the Vikings were able to overcome Goldberg's (and McKinney's) blocking deficiencies to a degree sufficient enough to allow the Vikings to put 15 points on the board in the second half. The change was significant for the fact that the Vikings were able to move the ball effectively despite essentially surrendering the use of an additional wideout. See coach, adaptation to the circumstances on short notice is possible.

If only that were the case on defense and special teams.

Tomorrow: The bad.

Saturday, November 20, 2004

Looking for Answers

For what seems like an eternity, Vikings' head coach Mike Tice has promised improvement on defense. In making such a pledge, Tice has acknowledged that the Vikings' defense is not what he expectedit to be when training camp broke. Why the defense has struggled, however, the coach has had difficulty pinpointing.

Tice has alternatively relied on the theory that the defense has been porous because the defense is young; the defense is leaving plays on the field; and injuries are plaguing the defense. To date, however, it is evident that, while all of these issues may be plaguing the Vikings' defense to some degree, there is something more fundamentally wrong with the Vikings' defense.

The defense is young at key positions, but it was young at key positions during training camp and the coaching staff nevertheless brimmed with confidence. "What we lack in experience," Tice beamed, "we will compensate for with speed and quickness." That has not happened. Despite being faster and quicker than last year's defense, this defense is merely faster and quicker getting to the wrong spot or getting to the right spot at the wrong angle or too late. That's not better, it's just a different version of bad.

The claim that the defense is leaving plays on the field is also unsatisfactory. While the Vikings have left several plays on the field, most notably missed interception opportunities, such plays do not explain why the defense routinely allows running backs to rush for over 100 yards, receivers are routinely wide open on 3rd and forever, and quarterbacks have time to write tomes in the pocket. Even if Brian Russell had hauled in each of his nine or ten dropped gimmes this season, the Vikings defense would still be left answering these questions.

And most dissatisfying of all is the contention that the Vikings just need to get healthy on defense. To which one might ask "Who's hurt that would make a difference?" Tice undoubtedly would point to injuries to Raonall Smith, E.J. Henderson, Mike Nattiel, and Chris Claiborne. But let's be real about this. While Smith showed promise in the two games before sustaining a serious concussion, he was so bad at the beginning of the season that the Vikings were hoping to be able to cut him. The only reasons he stuck with the squad was because he was already here, the Vikings had invested a second round pick on him in 2002 and did not want to admit reaching after touting their draft success under Scott Studwell, Tice, et. al., and there was nobody better after the viable free agents had signed with other teams.

The same can be said of Nattiel. The Vikings loudly touted their uncovering of Nattiel in the 2003 draft, but he has failed to live up to expectations. Though he showed flashes of ability prior to his most recent injury, he still remains low enough on the depth charts that the Vikings appear willing to resort to him only as a stop gap measure, preferring a hobbled Claiborne to a healthy Nattiel.

Which brings us to Claiborne. Some have noted that Claiborne started off strong in 2003, but the jury is out on that one. The jury is in on whether Claiborne has contributed since then, however, with the verdict being a resounding "no." Although Claiborne has been injured much of the season, there is little difference in the linebacking corps when he plays and when he does not. In fact, when Claiborne plays, the defense looks just as bad except with a conspicuously slow outside linebacker playing. Claiborne's health is clearly not what drives this engine.

And then there is E.J. Henderson, who has missed a few games this season. Henderson has been so predictably awful (see summer column) playing with little experience at a position at which teams generally employ a linebacker with 5+ years of experience, that Tice has tried to get him out of the starting lineup. If Henderson's health issues have cost the Vikings' defense this season, it has been when he is healthy and playing, not when he is sidelined.

It is thus evident that many of Tice's explanations for the poor performance of the Vikings' defense to date have been insufficient. Tice appears to recognize this as he has resorted to two new explanations this week. One is that the defense is relying on instinct rather than coaching and, coupled with inexperience, that player instinct is leading the defense to make false reads and overplay situations. The other is that the defensive play calling is too sophisticated.

The first argument is particularly interesting because it goes to the heart of a communication problem on this team. In the aftermath of the loss to the Packers, Tice contended that the defense is trying to free-lance too much, relying on instinct rather than what they are taught. "We saw several plays in the Green Bay game where, if the players line up like we coached them to do, they would make the plays." Tice said. "But the players, thinking they knew better than the coaches, went where they thought that they should go, rather than where we told them to go and the result was bad," he added.

That, alone, would be fine. We could deal with that with modest criticism, noting, for example, that the coaches ought to do a better job making the point in practice or get players that are a bit more receptive to coaching. But that is not where the issue ended.

On Thursday of this past week, Vikings' defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell stated that the problems on defense are mental. "The players need to go out and make plays," he said. "The only way to do this is to rely on instinct."


By arguing that the players need to rely on instinct, Cottrell is directly contradicting Tice's mandate that players play according to what they are told--not what their instinct tells them. Cottrell could explain this away by arguing that he meant that players should rely on their instincts to inform them of where they were coached to be given a certain set of circumstances, but that's not what the coach said.

And that leads us to Tice's contention that the defense is too sophisticated. This week, Tice stated that the answer to remedying the Vikings' poor defensive performance was to simplify the playcalling. "We went through the defensive playbook and took a bunch of plays out. We simplified the thing. It was just too complicated for some of the younger guys," he said. This confirms that Tice was wrong to conjecture that youthful speed and skill would overcome lack of experience, but it is also silly. What does sophistication have to do with tackling or taking the proper angle to the ball or ball carrier? What does sophistication have to do with bumping or not bumping a receiver off the line of scrimmage? What does sophistication have to do with contributing something, anything, to the defensive effort?

Not much, which is why Tice finally may be admitting what most of us contended at the beginning of the season--namely, that the Vikings' defense has unqualified players playing at critical positions. In particular, the Vikings have a woefully inadequate middle linebacker in E.J. Henderson. That's not Henderson's fault. He was asked to play a position he should not have been asked to play at this stage of his career.

Tice responded to his latest epiphany by announcing that Henderson would split time this week. But that might just make matters worse as Henderson's sub is Rod Dixon, a rookie.

Tice also announced that he will finally move Chris Hovan out of the starting rotation, a change long overdue. Yet, rather than going with the veteran Steve Martin--a player who has played well when given an opportunity--Tice is going with Spencer Johnson, another rookie.

Undoubtedly, Tice would make other changes--at corner, outside linebacker, and left end, to name a few positions (and we shall save discussion of the kicking game for next week)--but he has created a team with few veterans at any position and even fewer veterans on the sidelines. It's as if Tice actually prefers youthful inexperience to the play of a veteran (see also, e.g., his refusal to use Moe Williams).

Tice clearly either has no clue how to form a cohesive defense or he is without the pieces to do so. But if he is lacking in players, he has only himself (and Red) to blame as he made no motion to obtain better players in the off-season and even went so far as to congratulate himself for standing pat.

We shall see what happens against the inept Lions' offense, but let's not be surprised if, despite Tice's revelation of the "true" problem with the Vikings' defense, even the Lions are able to move the ball against Minnesota. Even if the Vikings stop the Lions, however, there is reason to believe that much of what is wrong with the defense is on the coaching side--either a failure to evaluate talent properly, a failure to teach technique, or a failure to communicate in general. And if that is the answer, the solution will not arrive in 2004.

Up Next: Post Game.

Thursday, November 18, 2004

Who He?

After each game, as per NFL mandate, Vikings' head coach Mike Tice addresses the media. When the cowering group works up the courage to ask the question that must be asked--"Uh, coach, what happened to the defense today?"--Tice is quick to respond. Increasingly, the response is as follows: "We did not get it--IT--done today. We left some plays on the field. We lined up wrong in some cases. We did not get it done. And we need to get it done, if we want to win football [ed. note--not baseball] games."

During these post game interviews Tice usually identifies specific shortcomings in his attempt to be brutally honest (something the media does not yet understand is that Tice is always brutally honest immediately after the game when his emotions are at their peak. It is not until the following day that Tice chastises reporters and dismisses legitimate inquiries). One name that Tice has consistently singled out for post game criticism is Vikings' nose tackle Chris Hovan. "We need more out of him," Tice states. "We need him to make a difference. Right now, he is not making a difference."

But give Tice a day to cool down and the tone changes dramatically. Not only is Hovan no longer the coach's favorite media punching bag, he is suddenly the one thing that is going right on defense. And Tice can be heard extolling from the rooftops that "he" has returned. "He" being Chris Hovan. He of the big reputation and poor output.

As members of the media assemble for what have become "Don't Ask Mondays," Tice starts out by saying that he has reviewed the game film and likes what he sees. "I thought, I didn't think I thought, but now I know what I thought is what I thought I think, that we didn't play too bad on defense. We still are not playing consistent. And we need to be consistent, because if you are not consistent then you won't be. But I still took some things from the film--which the coaches and I watched (lest you thought he hired some temps to watch the film for him and the coaches and to break the film down)--and our nose tackle, Hovan, made some plays. He, Hovan, is progressing."

Uh oh. It looks like Tice has another warm fuzzy about a player, a player from which he just cannot distance his emotions (see, e.g., Aaron Elling, Eddie Scissorhands Johnson, Keenan Howrey, Darren Bennett, Morten Andersen, E.J. Henderson, Nick Rogers, Willie Offord, etc.). Tice claims that Hovan's play bears out his claim that Hovan is becoming a force in the middle. But the numbers suggest otherwise.

Through the Vikings' first nine games this season, Hovan has 10 tackles, 7 assists, and 1.5 sacks. None of these numbers are sparkling and the 1.5 sacks is made worse by the fact that Hovan collected a full sack by simply being in the right place at the right time when Texan QB David Carr literally fell into his open arms. But counting that sack still leaves Hovan with eminently feckless production.

A comparison with other NFL nose tackles demonstrates just how weak the numbers are for Hovan, a player on whom the Vikings depended heavily going into last season and, for unknown reasons save lack of options, entering this season.

Vince Wilfork, the player on whom the Vikings passed to take Kenechi Udeze, has 15 tackles, 6 assists, and 2 sacks. Other nose tackles equally or even more substantially outpace Hovan's production, some in fewer games. Ryan Pickett of the Rams has 16 tackles, 3 assists, and 1 sack; Seth Payne has 18 tackles, 6 assists, and 2 sacks; Kelly Gregg has 21 tackles, 7 assists, and 1.5 sacks in 7 games; Jason Ferguson has 20 tackles, 15 assists, and 3.5 sacks; and Russell Davis has 26 tackles and 4 assists. Projected out, each of these players will outpace Hovan's production for the year. Only Casey Hampton has poorer production among the league's nose starting nose tackles with 8 tackles and 6 assists. But Hampton has recorded his numbers over six games and in a 3-4 set that generally leads to lower tackle and sack production from the nose tackle.

Despite Hovan's clear lack of production, one could excuse Tice's comments on Hovan as an attempt to motivate a player who could help the Vikings if he merely played to the average level. But Tice has gone beyond mere motivational tactics, apparently intent on showing critics that he can will a player to improve.

Several weeks ago, Tice promised--in another of his moments of brutal honesty--to replace Hovan in the starting lineup with Steve Martin to "get some production out of the nose tackle position." As Hovan's sparingly used backup this season, Martin has 7 tackles, 6 assists, and one-half sack. In total, Martin has played the equivalent of 2 games this season, yet his statistics nearly mirror Hovan's.

Hovan's numbers project to 18 tackles, 14 assists, and 3 sacks for the season, but only if one projects that Hovan will not tail off at the end of the season as he is wont to do. Martin's numbers project to 56 tackles, 48 assists, and 4 sacks, ahead of his 2003 totals (over 14 games) of 45 tackles, 17 assists, and 1 sack. It thus would appear that the Vikings are worse off with Hovan in the middle than they would be with Martin. Add to the mix the fact that Martin has blocked a couple passes and seems to hold his lane much better and you can understand why, after the Giants game, Tice announced that he would start Martin and spell him with Hovan.

That never happened, however, and prior to the Green Bay game, Tice even deactivated Martin. Tice stated that he deactivated Martin because he believed that Martin was more vulnerable against the run than Hovan. The result? Green Bay ran for 206 yards (and threw in 236 yards passing). Of those 206 yards rushing, 116 were up the middle. Hovans' line? One tackle, zero assists, zero sacks.

Some of this is on the non-existant linebacking corps, particularly E.J. Henderson. But when you contribute a single tackle and are run over the entire game, you are not getting the job done. And when the coach says "he" is getting it done, one needs to ask "Who he?"

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Critic's Choice

Since the Vikings began losing games this season--three in a row for those counting--Vikings' coach Mike Tice has increasingly resorted to a tired retort to fan criticism. "Tell me," he asks, "have you played the game?"

If the answer is "no," Tice has his confirmation. Clearly, the coach implies through his guffaw, the critic is not sufficiently informed to question the head coach's playcalling. "Stick with Madden football," he chortles.

If the answer is "yes," Tice still has an end route to his most cherished refuge, as he can push the would be critic regarding the highest level of football that the critic has played. To date, nobody--other than Daunte Culpepper--has called Tice's weekly show to critique the coach, so the coach's inner child routinely has had a safety blanket in the face of criticism.

But even when a former or current professional football player offers criticism of Tice, the coach finds his blanket.

On Sunday, FOX analyst Cris Collinsworth noted that, despite having eight first or second round draft choices starting on defense, the Vikings continue to field one of the worst defenses in the NFL. Tice angrily dismissed Collinsworth's comments as made by someone without knowledge of the team.

But what knowledge of the team did Collinsworth need to have to make his comment? Was something more than knowledge of the starting defense and the draft required? Tice did not say. Instead, Tice fell back on a common prop for coaches with their backs to the wall--he implied that there is much behind the scenes that would explain the Vikings' defensive woes. Stuff to which the outsider is not privy. And, of course, stuff that must remain in house.

Surely Collinsworth, a former All-Pro football player for good and bad Cincinnati teams, knows the difference between good and bad football performance. And surely Collinsworth has some understanding of what makes an NFL team successful. But was this even required, given the mere mention of facts? Of course not. And, in that respect, Tice's criticism of Collinsworth is silly.

But Tice's dismissal of criticism from fans who have not played football in the NFL is even sillier and borders on the childish.

Tice can be understood, if not excused, for lashing out against Collinsworth's criticisms for a couple reasons. First, Collinsworth's comments were on national television and it would be understandable if Tice resented being upbraided by a fellow NFL-alumnus in that setting. Second, Collinsworth's recent MO has been to run his mouth as quickly and loudly as possible, hoping to hit a nerve and generate some publicity. Given these realities, Tice might have a legitimate reason for resenting Collinsworth's criticisms, whether or not the criticisms were justified. But he still showed a lack of poise in falling for Collinsworth's bait.

Tice's out-of-hand criticism of fan critics is nowhere near as warranted, however. For every critic who feels the need to ask why the Vikings don't run the statue of liberty play more often, there is a critic who has a legitimate question. And the legitimate questions, amazingly enough, can include questions about the offense, even if the offense produced 31 points.

Tice implies that to know football one must have played the game, preferrably in the NFL. But that is akin to saying that to know politics one must have been a politician (preferably a President), which, of course, is sheer idiocy. Tice does this, of course, to so narrow the field of potentially viable critics that he will never need to answer a tough question. The only valid critics, once he draws the circle tightly enough, will be current Vikings' players. And once that happens, it's too late to address the problem.

The reason Tice's dismissal of all fan criticism is nonsensical is because it dismisses not only what we know about sports, but also the generalizable life lessons that coaches so often preach to players that they should take from sports to other areas of their lives. There are many traits that bridge sports and define good and bad play--effort, physical talent, mental alertness, attention to detail, and preparation, to name a few. These are traits that, when absent, lead to poor team play, and, when present, lead to solid play. Most anyone who has played a sport is capable of identifying whether such traits are evident on a football team, even if that person has never played football at any level. Moreover, anyone who has worked in an environment in which coordination with others is required can surely relate to these traits. My assumption is that this encompasses the vast majority of football fans. As a consequence, even those fans who have not played football, even those fans who have not played any sport, are still qualified to offer certain criticisms of a football game. And that makes Tice's dismissal of criticism even more disturbing, because it suggests that the coach does not get the bigger picture.

Part of what is going on with Tice right now is that he is upset about losing three games in a row despite continuously assuring fans that the Vikings will not go into a slide. "This is not 2003," he rages. And he is right, but only in form, and only in part. The Vikings are not losing big to bad teams as they did in the slide of 2003. Rather, the Vikings are losing close to good teams (minus the Giants' game).

But, whether or not this year is 2003 redux, the Vikings continue to lose games because their offense consistently is bested in the first half of games and their defense is bad whenever it matters. And one need not be a former NFL player to recognize these trends.

Tice may be responding on an entirely emotional level, but that only makes the response worse as it suggests that he is unable to martial his own emotions in a profession in which such an ability is paramount to success.

Tice's recent outburst is reminiscent of the final years of Dick Jauron's tenure in Chicago. To the end, Jauron was fairly accountable for the team's shortcomings, but the host of his weekly talk radio show preferred to forestall fan criticism. When critics called the show, the host would pull out the "have you played the game" card. There was no sufficient answer for the host who routinely used the line to dismiss valid criticism. Tice has taken this one step further by usurping the screening process and defining valid criticism on his own.

In Tice's world it is increasingly apparent that tough questions do not make valid criticism. Instead, the only valid criticism is the criticism of something over which Tice can laugh (such as why he went with the ketchup-stained tie) or criticism that cannot possibly be aired.

Tice seems to believe that this is the best approach. But, as Jauron and countless others have borne witness to, even fans who have not played the game can tell whether the Emperor has clothes.

Up Next: Draft Review.

Monday, November 15, 2004

A Penny for Your Thoughts

A Penny for Your Thoughts

Following the Vikings’ third loss in three weeks, Vikings’ head coach Mike Tice repeated the statements that Vikings’ fans have heard too often. “We made some good plays but failed to make the big plays on defense when given the opportunity.” Tice was specifically critical of dropped interception opportunities by Brian Russell—keeping Russell on pace to drop at least one interception opportunity every game this season—and Brian Williams, who was taking a break from poor coverage, missed tackles, and bad angles when he achieved his failure.

And if that sounds like a broken record, expect more. Expect tomorrow to hear Tice say that after reviewing the game film: (1) the offensive line graded out extremely high—the highest of the year for some linemen; (2) the defensive line, particularly Chris Hovan, had a strong presence; (3) Daunte played a great game; and (4) Burleson showed that the Vikings do have a go-to receiver with Moss out of the lineup.

Tice will say these things tomorrow because he is working through his natural progression and because they will divert our attention from things that had a negative impact on the game and things that are more readily quantifiable from the home office.

After a loss, Tice displays dismay and anger. Initially, this dismay and anger is focused on the players. Then it moves to the fans, as Tice selects fan comments—real or fictitious—that deflect focus from the source of the team’s most recent downfall (see dismay and anger focused on players). Tice entered phase two of his post-game rewind by noting that he is “tired of the fans’ criticism of Daunte” (said as if to suggest that the primary post-game criticism centered on Daunte’s performance) and that fans who ask if the Vikings scored too soon are “idiots.”

Of course, what Tice was attempting to do is shift the focus from the poor performance at Lambeau to criticism that could be deflected. Most fans will acknowledge that, on balance, Daunte had a fairly good game. Sure it would be nice if Daunte operated with a sense of urgency in the first half and if Daunte were able to get the players to the line in under thirty seconds when time was of the essence, but those were the tidiest of the Vikings’ shortcomings on Sunday.

And most fans would agree that, while it would be nice to have no time on the clock after scoring the tying touchdown, it was not something over which the Vikings had much control. They tried to run time off of the clock, they just happened to have scored. That’s preferable to what the Gophers did against Iowa, when Mason had so cowered to Iowa’s mediocre-at-best pass defense that he refused to throw a pass on 3rd and 12 so that he could “give his kicker a chance to kick the winning field goal”—from 51 freakin’ yards! How absurd!

I get Tice’s angst in the face of such questions, because those are not the questions that, even if answered, will help understand the meaningful shortcomings in Sunday’s loss to Green Bay. But Tice gets that most fans will dwell on those issues if he leads them in that directions.

But some of us will ask more poignant questions. We will ask, for example, why the Vikings continue to play poorly in the first half?

On Sunday, the Vikings were outscored 24-10 in the first half. In the second half, the Vikings outscored the Packers 21-10. Is it poor game planning? Are the Vikings too predictable on offense and defense coming out of the gate? Why is it that teams always seem to be prepared for what the Vikings show them on offense and defense but the Vikings do not appear similarly prepared for the opponents’ game plan? Do the Vikings rely too much on pre-game scripting? Is the coaching staff too slow or too stubborn to make changes? These seem like relevant questions.

And we would also ask which came first, the commitment to this group of defenders or the commitment to a below-salary-cap-floor team salary? This commitment left the Vikings not only thin on defense but also bare at critical positions, including all three linebacker positions. Did Tice tell us that the defense looked better because he was trying to sell his own players on their potential or because he actually believed his defense was good?

We might also ask why, despite assurances that the Vikings’ coaching staff points out team tendencies and proper coverage schemes and tackling techniques, the Vikings continue to overplay the screen, fail to recognize an opponent’s basic tendencies, and fail to take proper routes to the ball?

There are only a few possible answers to these questions and none are particularly appealing.

One possibility is that the Vikings are simply top heavy in dull players. If this is the case, everyone looks bad as the coaches and front office worked to bring the players to Minnesota and the players, well, they play for the Vikings.

Another possibility is that the coaching staff is in over its head. Tice came to the job with no head coaching experience and has used several assistants in numerous areas. The Vikings’ defense has been near the bottom of the league for several years running and the special teams are atrocious (think the Vikings wish they had used a second round draft pick on Nate Kaeding rather than Donterrious Thomas now?). The only position that has demonstrated even a shred of consistency has been the offense, and even that has taken entire games off and routinely sleepwalks through the first half.

No matter the answer, we would feel obliged to ask the coach one last question. Is it possible to address your teams’ evident shortcomings prior to the game, rather than at halftime, for the remainder of the season?

And we would pose that as a non-rhetorical question.

Up Next: More Rewind, the next state of Tice, and Moe.

Saturday, November 13, 2004

Pressure Begets Pressure

Last season, when the Vikings played on the road, Vikings’ coach Mike Tice quipped early and often that the Vikings would take a different approach. Tice argued that the best way to meet the challenge of road games was to play conservative. This meant running the ball more, passing less, and milking the clock.

The conservative approach failed miserably last season as the Vikings not only failed to control the flow of road games, but also emerged from those games with ignominious losses. Yet, despite the continuous road failures, Tice maintained that the conservative approach was the correct approach. And it was difficult to form a cogent argument in the face of such obstinacy because the Vikings had not effectuated an alternative game plan the entire season.

This year, Tice vowed to be less stubborn in planning road games, pledging to use his entire arsenal. To some extent, Tice’s promise appeared to come to fruition. Though the Vikings gained the distinction of lowest-scoring first quarter team, with 13 points the entire season in the first quarter, from the second quarter on things looked better. And the apparent changes to the offensive schemes appeared to bridge both home and road games. The new approach produced road victories over Houston and New Orleans and Vikings’ fans thought the coach had learned a valuable lesson and had abandoned his obstinate ways.

But when Randy Moss went down with a hamstring injury in the New Orleans game, Tice reverted to last years’ form, offering a more conservative game plan and refusing to use his entire arsenal until forced into a corner. And, to make matters worse, Tice extended application of his conservative game plan to home games. The result was a low-scoring victory over Tennessee, a blowout loss to the NY Giants, and a close loss to the Colts on the road. All set up by a coaching mind-set that said the Vikings cannot compete the same way without Moss in the lineup.

Though Moss’ presence clearly changes the coverage that the Vikings’ offense faces, the proposition that the Vikings need to play conservative football in Moss’ absence is utterly absurd. Without Moss in the lineup, the Vikings scored 21 offensive points against the Colts, despite essentially refusing to run the offense in the first half.

And say what you will about the Vikings’ running game. The Vikings can run the ball with SOD, Moe, Mewelde, and maybe even Bennett, but when the other team knows that you plan to begin the game with nine running plays, they know that they have three series to gain the lead in the battle for field position and the lead on the scoreboard. Unfortunately, Tice appears willing to make that concession.

And before reaching for the Moss card, Tice may want to consider how other teams approach the game of football.

Consider, for example, the Chicago Bears. The Bears have arguably one of the worst offenses in the NFL. Unlike the Vikings, who purportedly have an MVP-caliber quarterback, depth at wide receiver, blocking and pass-catching tight ends, and one of the best running back corps in the NFL, the Bears are relying on a third-string quarterback, a rookie running back, and a receiving corps of Bobby Wade, Justin Gage, David Terrell, and Bernard Berrian.

Tice contends that the landscape has changed since the team lost Moss to injury, but that the conservative approach is aimed at keeping the Vikings’ defense off the field, not at corralling the Vikings’ offense. This, too, is an absurd defense of his game schemes.

While the Bears have a better defense than do the Vikings, consider that the Bears lost nearly their entire secondary, two defensive tackles, a linebacker, and have their top defensive player playing with an injury. The injuries have left the Bears thin and inexperienced in the secondary, much more so than are the Vikings (though, unlike the Vikings’ coaching staff, you won’t hear Lovie Smith fault his youthful defense for losses).

Yet, despite these clear comparative disadvantages, the Chicago Bears remain aggressive on offense (and defense!). And, despite these clear disadvantages, the Bears are winning games against teams that they are not supposed to beat. Has it been pretty? No. But had the Bears adopted Tice’s approach, their season would have already been over. Instead, with road victories over the Giants and Packers, the Bears have at least remained competitive despite serious flaws.

The Vikings insist that they have everything that the Bears do not—strong quarterbacking, a stable of running backs, a deep receiving corps, a talented offensive line, a pass-receiving and blocking tight end, an experienced secondary, and a deep defensive line. Yet the Vikings continue to curl up in the fetal position in the face of winning opposition. Despite their flaws, the Bears are 2-2 against teams with winning records, 2-0 on the road. Minus these flaws, the Vikings are 0-3 against teams with winning records, 0-2 on the road.

Consider, as well, the Vikings’ opponent on Sunday, the Green Bay Packers. Were the Packers to adopt Tice’s approach to football, they would have reigned in Brett Favre for the past five years. But, despite the fact that Favre has had a revolving door for a receiving corps, the Packers continue to attack opponents, at home and on the road. And the Packers continue to win the division. Might they be on to something?

Against the Colts, Tice played ball control in the first half. For all intents and purposes, the Vikings did not open up the playbook last week until their backs were against the wall, despite playing against the worst defense in the NFL. When the Vikings finally decided to attack the Colts, they discovered that they not only had success but that the offensive success translated to added pressure on the Colts’ offense to produce. The pressure was palpable as the Vikings stopped the Colts on successive drives.

And what the Vikings did to the Colts in the second half last week they are equally able to do to the Packers’ defense this week, for the entire game. The Packers rank just ahead of Minnesota in overall defense, allowing 23 points, 220 yards passing, and 116 yards rushing per game—numbers that prompt most offensive coordinators to froth through all orifices. But that assumes that the Vikings emerge from their self-imposed offensive cocoon in the first half of the game this Sunday.

Tice laments that the Vikings must be more conservative without Moss in the lineup. We heard the same line when Jim Kleinsasser and Mike Rosenthal were injured, but soon discovered that such concerns were unwarranted. Moss is a greater loss as a playmaker, but that hardly settles the matter. Others have done much more seemingly with much less.

Brett Favre has moved the ball this season with the likes of Donald Driver, Javon Walker, Robert Ferguson, Kelvin Kight, Antonia Chatman, and Bubba Franks. Surely Marcus Robinson, Nate Burleson, Kelly Campbell, Jermaine Wiggins, and the Vikings’ corps of pass-catching running backs can match such an effort when paired with Daunte Culpepper. If not, the Vikings have vastly oversold Daunte’s abilities.

But this is not a call for a bombs-away approach this week or any week. Instead, it is a call for a balanced attack. Tice points to last week’s final totals as evidence of a balanced attack, as the Vikings ended the game with nearly equal passing and rushing attempts. But the numbers don’t tell the entire story. They don’t tell us, for example, that the Vikings did not use the pass in the first half until they were compelled to do so—on 3rd and 2, 3rd and 15, and during the two-minute drive at the end of the half. Nor do the final totals tell us that the Vikings declined an opportunity to take a shot into the endzone prior to half out of fear of failure.

If the Vikings truly have an MVP-caliber quarterback in Daunte Culpepper, there is no justification for throwing the ball twice on the first two series of a game. If Culpepper is as good as the Vikings continue to say that he is—or even half as good—the Vikings will let him do what the Packers have let Favre do; they will let Daunte find open receivers and make decisions.

Maybe Tice learned a lesson last week. Maybe he learned that you use the players you have and you play to the opponents’ weaknesses rather than playing to conceal your own. If so, the Vikings could roll in Green Bay this week. If not, look for more of the same waste of talent that we have witnessed the past two weeks—limited yards through the air against a suspect secondary, few points when it matters, and a late coaching epiphany leading to a belated offensive surge that falls short.

Up Next: Rewind.

Thursday, November 11, 2004

For Want of a Nail

For want of a nail, the shoe was lost,
For want of a shoe, the horse was lost,
For want of a horse, the rider was lost,
For want of a rider, the battle was lost,
For want of a battle, the kingdom was lost,
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

As the kingdom was lost for want of a horseshoe nail, so might the Vikings' fortunes this season turn on the Vikings' failure to secure an essential element of a winning team--a credible linebacker. I'm not talking about a failure to find three credible linemen to play in the Vikings' 4-3 defense, I'm talking about a failure to find even one credible lineman to play in that set. One.

At the end of last season, the Vikings made their off-season agenda plain. Their goal was to shore up a flagging defense. To that end, the Vikings listed their priorities as follows: (1) find a cover corner; (2) find a pass rushing end; and (3) add depth to the defensive line.

During free agency, the Vikings addressed their first need by signing Antoine Winfield. We were told at the time that he was not a shut down corner but would be a very good cover man. Though Winfield certainly is no shut down corner, he has been an upgrade at corner. Problem addressed, if not completely solved.

The Vikings addressed their second stated defensive need by selecting Kenechi Udeze in the first round of the 2004 draft. Udeze was among the D-I sack leaders in his final season at USC and, though he has not shown the overpowering moves that he demonstrated against his PAC-10 foes, Udeze has been more serviceable at end than were his most immediate predecessors. Again, problem addressed.

In addition to Winfield and Udeze, the Vikings added defensive tackle Steve Martin, who was intended to add depth but who, instead, essentially has replaced Chris Hovan, who is now the "depth" on the defensive line.

And that was that. The Vikings told us that they had filled the cupboard and that no more additions were necessary. And those involved put on their broadest of beaming smiles as they played to the public, informing all who could hear that the Vikings' defense was good enough to support a Super Bowl run.

But they forgot the nail. Or in this case, the linebacker. And for want of a linebacker, the Vikings' Super Bowl aspirations appear in peril. Not just this year, but for the foreseeable future.

Alternatives to Present Course

There were at least two alternatives to the current predicament facing the Vikings. First, the Vikings could have shored up the defensive line, bringing in Grant Wistrom or Jevon Kearse to ensure that opposing quarterbacks had so little time to steady their aim that the linebacking corps largely would be irrelevant. Both players were expensive, but the Vikings were well under the salary cap and could afford to outbid other teams for their services. The Vikings also had the option of trading Michael Bennett for Adewale Ogunleye but passed on that offer.

But the most obvious option, of course, was to improve the linebacking corps.

After the 2003 season ended, Ian Gold of the Denver Broncos appeared to be the type of linebacker that would fit the Vikings' needs, a linebacker with sufficient experience to play middle linebacker and assume the duties of the retiring Greg Biekert. But when asked whether the Vikings had any interest in pursuing Gold, Tice responded that the Vikings already had their middle linebacker, E.J. Henderson. Tice touted Henderson as a quick, strong player who might struggle with the defensive play-calling duties "at times" but who would compensate for any shortcomings with his natural abilities and a sharp learning curve.

And Tice predicted that the other linebackers would aid Henderson along his learning curve. Specifically, Tice noted the emergence of Mike Nattiel, Raonall Smith, Chris Claiborne, and Donterrious Thomas as legitimate NFL linebackers. When camp broke, Tice sang the praises of the linebacking corps, asserting that the Vikings were "blessed to be so deep at linebacker."

Halfway into the 2004 season, there is no sign of the linebacker prowess about which Tice so proudly crowed prior to the season. Instead, there is a vacuum. A hole so large in the middle of the Vikings' defense that all teams dare to enter and few teams leave without piling up easy yards and easy points.

And who is to blame for this predicament?

There are indications that the blame rests with Tice. After all, he did offer glowing praise of the linebacking corps in the preseason. And he continued to pump up Henderson, Nattiel, and Thomas as the season went along--even as both missed time with injuries or due to the "numbers game" (see Thomas). And even now, Tice continues to insist that all will be well with the linebacking corps once Claiborne and Smith return to the lineup. Yet, we know that Henderson, Nattiel, and Thomas currently are incapable of playing linebacker in the NFL. And we know that, while a Vikings' defense with a healthy Claiborne (is there such a thing?) and Smith are an improvement over what the Vikings currently have, that means little when what we currently have is essentially nothing. If with Claiborne and Smith in the lineup, the Vikings are left to rely on the defensive play-calling of Henderson, a player that Tice criticized for failing to follow plays called from the sideline in recent games.

For that, Tice is guilty of either overhyping a bad product or of having limited ability to judge the ability of his linebacking corps. And while the jury is still out on this riddle, there is evidence to suggest that Tice primarily is guilty of the former. First, as we have come to know the coach, Tice lives to build up the impossible, but inevitably betrays this inclination after the fact. In an interview this week, Tice was asked about some of his post-game comments that led listeners to believe that the Vikings had won the game against the Colts. Tice responded that he had to "build it up a bit because the players were listening." I can buy the psychology (though, Earth to Tice, it doesn't work if you announce the ploy to the players), but this revelation raises a suspicion that Tice has all along recognized that his linebacking corps is not up to NFL standards.

But if Tice knew this all along, why did the Vikings not sign someone like Ian Gold? Or Jeremiah Trotter, who crawled back to the Eagles begging for a job at bargain basement prices? Why did Tice not say "We need better players"?

The likely answer is that the Vikings had already hit the salary cap floor and did not need to sign additional players. Yes, they could sign additional players. They could have even signed Gold, Trotter, and Wistrom, and still had money left under the cap. But they did not go that route, one suspects, because the NFL only requires that they meet the salary cap floor. And the Vikings crawled over that floor kicking and screaming, not when they signed Antoine Winfield, but when they altered Winfield's contract to include a roster bonus rather than a signing bonus. While the signing bonus is pro-rated, the roster bonus counts against the cap entirely in the year in which the contract is signed. And that let the Vikings count Winfield's entire bonus against the 2004 cap, pushing the Vikings a few pennies over the salary cap floor.

As a consequence, while Tice may well have known about his team's linebacking corps deficiencies, a near certainty, his best option was to put a good face on the situation and try to coax talent from what he was dealt. And this was his best option because the other option--improving the linebacking corps--would have required the Vikings to spend more money. And that was something that team owner Red McCombs apparently was unwilling to do.

It doesn't seem like much for Vikings' fans to ask for, but Vikings' fans, despite the barrage of imagery to the contrary, are not a concern of this ownership.

Up Next: More rewind. Plus, new rankings!

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Missed Opportunity

The Vikings missed a golden opportunity to win a road game over a playoff team on Monday night. Much of the blame for this missed opportunity, as was the case in last week's loss to the Giants, falls squarely on the offense. With several penalties and an almost unbelievable, save for the fact that it happened to the Vikings, fumble. But the critical mistakes in this game, the mistakes that turned the fortunes of the Vikings from the outset, were committed by the coaching staff.

Mistakes Kill

The Vikings began the game in a manner reminiscent of their 41-0 loss to the NY Giants in the NFC Championship game. After winning the coin flip, the Vikings returned the opening kickoff to their own 34-yard line.

But the good opening field position soon became awful field position. On the first snap of the game, Matt Birk snapped the ball short of a Daunte Culpepper's hands as Daunte began moving back just slightly. The result was a fumble, but no ordinary fumble.

The Vikings had the first crack at the loose ball, but Daunte could not corral it. The ball moved back several yards where several Colt players collided attempting to scoop up the ball and run with it. The ball moved several more yards back where another Colt player botched a pick-up attempt. Finally, after two Viking players collided with several Colt players, the Vikings recovered the bounding ball at their own 10-yard line. There, the Vikings continued their opening drive staring down a 2nd and 34.

Vikings' fans know two things about such scenarios. First, if the opponent has their back to the wall after a botched play and is facing second and forever, they will probably pick up the first down. Second, if the Vikings are facing such a scenario they very likely will not pick up the first down and may even make matters worse. That's just how it seems to go for the Vikings these days.

And what happened? The Vikings failed to pick up the first down and Coach Tice made the situation worse. The daily double.

Tice made the Vikings' predicament worse, and sealed his fate on the Vikings' atrocious 2-minute drive at the end of the first half, when, on 3rd and 23, Tice called a timeout with 1 second remaining on the play clock.

Apparently, though we do not yet have confirmation, Tice believed that the Vikings were not going to get the play off in time. Although the Vikings snapped the ball with 1 second on the play clock, Tice could not have known that this would happen when he signaled for a time out. And Tice might rely on just such a justification for explaining the use of the Vikings' first time out.

But no matter the explanation, it cannot be satisfactory. Facing 3rd and 23, the Vikings clearly were resigned to moving the ball out of their end for a better punting position (which must have helped Bennett given the 28-yard beauty he subsequently unleashed). If the Vikings had been called for delay of game they would have faced a 3rd and 28 from their own 6. This would have been tough, but, given that the Vikings had already conceded any attempt to gain a first down on the drive it would have been preferable to facing a 3rd and 23 from their 11 with one less time out. The point is that Tice unnecessarily burned a time out, a time out that he certainly could have used at the end of the first half.

The Vikings burned a second timeout just a few minutes later when they had too many men on the field. It was the third time in the drive that the Vikings had trouble getting extra players off of the field, but the first time that the Vikings were caught. Using a time out to avoid a five yard penalty might be justifiable in this situation, but the Vikings had already burned one time out and were now left with only one time out to use at the end of the half.

But the second time out raises a more significant issue than whether the time out was necessary, and the issue is one of preparation. And that falls on the coaching staff.

The Vikings had an extra day to prepare for the Colts this week. The Vikings surely knew that the Colts run a no-huddle offense that limits the amount of substitutions the opposing defense can make, as the Colts have run the offense for years. Yet, despite the additional preparation time and knowledge of the Colts' system, the Vikings consistently appeared befuddled about who was to be on the field and whether a player should be coming or going. This was particularly true in the Colts' first three series. And that's on the coaching staff.

Had Tice had his team properly prepared--not just prepared--the Vikings' defense would have been adjusted to the no-huddle offense before the game even began. Instead, the defense took at least one full quarter to make this adjustment. That delay caused the Vikings to burn a second time out and left them with just one time out to use on their half-ending two-minute drive.

The Vikings almost overcame Tice's time out gaffes on the last drive of the half. Almost. And the Vikings almost reached the Colts' endzone on the final drive of the half with only one time out. But they did not.

They did not because the offense took too long to get to the line of scrimmage to run plays. They did not because the offense took too long to get to the line of scrimmage to spike the ball. They did not because, even with one time out, Tice inexplicably waivered on whether to use his final time out of the half with 11 seconds remaining.

While we will not know until tomorrow what was going through Tice's head as he refused to call a time out until too much time had run off the game clock to assure the Vikings a shot at the endzone with a play in hand should that not succeed, the only explanation is that Tice did not want to leave time on the clock. And, of course, that explanation is absurd.

The Vikings knew that they would need to use their time out on the drive. When they used it did not particularly matter, as long as they used it to save time. Instead, Tice let precious seconds run off the clock as he held his hands over his hand and restrained himself, his assistants, the players, and viewers at home from signaling a time out early enough to allow the Vikings at least one shot at the end zone on first and goal.

The result was a field goal. What was ceded was an opportunity for four more points. And while we cannot determine what would have happened had the Vikings scored a touchdown on that drive, it is difficult to look at that two-minute sequence, set-up by two burned time outs earlier in the game, without lamenting a significant opportunity lost in what was a close finish. And it is difficult to view that two-minute sequence without wondering why it is that when Mike Tice's teams face difficult challenges they tend to melt like they did in the first half. Yes, the Vikings made a game of it in the second half, after deciding to attack the worst defense in the NFL, but coaching mistakes before the game and in the first half of the game made a comeback necessary and may have made a tight loss out of less tight victory. We will never know, but it would have been nice to have had the opportunity to find out.

Up Next: More rewind.

Monday, November 08, 2004

Time For Change

When the University of Kansas decided to usher football coach Glen Mason out the door several years ago, the Lawrence newspapers welcomed the change. When news broke that the University of Minnesota had hired Glen Mason to resurrect a dying program, those same reporters offered Gophers' fans two bits of wisdom: (1) Glen Mason will make your program respectable in a short period of time and (2) Glen Mason will wear out his welcome in slightly less time.


No truer words of prophecy ever were spoken. Glen Mason took over a Gopher football team that successive Gopher coaches had run into the ground. And, after several years, Mason produced a respectable team, a team that could produce an occasional upset against a highly ranked team and a team that could win games that they were favored to win.

Then came 2003. After early season victories over also-rans and never-rans/never-will-runs, the Gophers hit the heart of the schedule and collapsed. Mason excused the collapse as the result of inexperience (on the part of the players) and unreasonable expectations. Many agreed with Mason and gave the coach a pass.

At the outset of the 2004 season, Mason proclaimed that this was the year. This was the year that the Gophers would challenge for the Big Ten title. This was the year that the Gophers would challenge for a BCS bid. And, shudder, this was the year that the Gophers might even contend for a national championship. These were high expectations, but Mason did not waiver.

The media applauded. Fans warmed to the idea. Mason and his suddenly media-accessible players continued to tout the improvements of the team. And Mason continued to speak in high terms of his "seasoned team."

Then came Michigan. After a narrow loss in a game that was the Gophers' for the taking, Mason spoke of the difference between this years' team and last years' team. This year, the Gophers had the benefit of perspective, experience, maturity, and improved leadership, Mason said. "Last year," he commented, "we were lacking in those areas." Mason assured the Gopher faithful that last year was last year (as it almost always is) and that the Gophers would finish the season in winning fashion, despite an eerily similar, disheartening loss to Michigan.

Gophers' AD Joel Maturi offered his support for Mason stating that season was not a loss merely because the Gophers failed to defeat Michigan. Maturi even stated that he would be satisfied with a three loss Big Ten season. At the time, the Gophers had one Big Ten loss with games remaining against Michigan State, Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, and Iowa, and the Gophers were expected to be favorites in all their remaining games except for the game at Wisconsin--a game that most expected would nevertheless be a close game.

To whom did Maturi expect the Gophers to lose? Maybe Wisconsin on the road, but at lowly Michigan State or Indiana? At home against Illinois or Iowa? Unthinkable at the time. Did Maturi know something we did not? If so, he still knew less than we now know, but he still clearly anticipated a top three or four Big Ten finish.

But few focused on the odd implications of Maturi's vote of confidence, preferring to ride Mason's promise of improved play.

The Gophers responded to Mason's rhetoric with a forgettable bludgeoning at the hands of the Spartans. Mason was dismayed. At first, he suggested that coaching played a role in the defeat. "Maybe we just weren't as prepared as we thought we were," he opined.

But the coach's tone quickly changed to one of greater introspection betraying the side of Mason that makes first among buck passers. Rather than accept responsibility for the debacle in East Lansing, Mason quickly reverted to form, suggesting that the coaches "put the players in the right spots" and "had them ready to play." The problem, the coach now understood "after looking at game film," was that the Gophers simply did not make the plays. That's Mason speak for "our players let us down." Mason did allow that some of the coaches needed to make some adjustments, but the buck certainly did not stop with the head coach.

The following week, the Gophers shut out a wretched Illinois team in a manner that most Gophers' fans expected of the Gophers at the beginning of the season. Mason was once again beaming, even suggesting that there was still room on the bandwagon for all those who had jumped ship after consecutive losses to teams the Gophers also were favored to beat. Some jumped aboard the Mason float ready for a certain victory over the equally wretched Indiana Hoosiers.

But Mason's self-congratulatory parade was soon cancelled, perhaps for good, when the Gophers laid an egg in Bloomington. As bad as the loss was at Michigan State, the loss at Indiana was worse as Indiana had only one prior Big Ten victory over the past two seasons and had a much longer pedigree of ineptitude (dating to their last bowl appearance in 1993) than the short run of ineptitude shown by the Spartans.

This time, Mason accepted some blame, but he again noted the shortcomings of the players and other coaches. "We have to coach better and play better, period," the coach commented. There was a sense that the coach was accepting some responsibility for the loss. But even then, it was clear that Mason was deflecting criticism from himself onto others, as opposed to how most upstanding coaches approach the media by deflecting criticism of players onto themselves.

Mason suggested that, despite the problems, the Gophers would rebound with a good showing against the Wisconsin Badgers. They did not, as they were blown out after trailing 31-7 at halftime.

A dismal performance in a dismal season led by an increasingly dismal coaching staff. A staff operating on the public dime to the tune of a few million dollars a year.

And when we thought that the abysmal product on the field would dwarf any other concerns with this team, Mason again showed the trait that made his dismissal from Kansas welcome. When asked about the season, Mason said, "if we win at Iowa, we finish 7-4. That might not be great, but by Minnesota standards, that's pretty darn good."

No, coach, by Minnesota standards, that's pretty darn bad. You began the season with victories over Toledo, Illinois State, and Colorado State. Toledo, the crown jewel of your pre-Big Ten schedule, is 5-1 in the Western Division of the MAC, modest considering the MAC's ineptidue this year. Colorado State is 2-3 (3-6) in the Mountain West Conference and Illinois State is 3-4 in the I-AA Gateway Conference. Of 117 Division I-A teams, Toledo is currently ranked 64th. Colorado State is ranked 77th. Illinois State is not ranked in the top 20 in Division I-AA. Not exactly murderer's row.

The Gophers followed their 3-0 start with victories over Northwestern and Penn State. Despite a winning Big Ten record, Northwestern is currently ranked 35th. Penn State is ranked 85th. Again, not murderer's row.

In their next four games, the Gophers lost to Michigan, Michigan State, Indiana, and Wisconsin, and defeated Illinois. Michigan State is ranked 53rd. Illinois is ranked 83rd. Indiana is ranked 84th! The best that can be said is that the Gophers had their junk handed to them by two top 10 teams. That's not good by anybody's standards and certainly falls below the standards of a Big Ten school that prides itself on quality athletic programs and has significant enough athletic aspirations that it bids with the big schools for the services of a coach.

But if Mason's myopic self-assurances after deflating defeats are not enough to make the University reassess its commitment to the coach, maybe the fact that this is prime recruiting season ought to. While it is difficult to convince good athletes to play for a losing program, it is even more difficult to compel such athletes to play for a coach that is unwilling to accept blame, offers the same tired responses in assessing the same old failures, and now appears to be taking the program in reverse.

If this is not time for change, we are all in the wrong profession. For, if the standard for earning over $1 million per year is to fail miserably at one's profession, there is no better job than to be head coach of the Minnesota Gopher's football team.

Up Next: More Gopher talk and post game.