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.


Anonymous said...

I view the defense as pretty much a lost cause again this season and think the Vikes' best defense is a great offense, in the hope that they can simply outscore other teams. And so my question for coach Tice (I haven't played the game beyond the high school level and so what?)is if Daunte Culpepper is an MVP candidate playing at an ultra-high level, why not let him call his own plays? He is probably more aware of his fellow offensive players strengths and limitations than anyone. And he has played the game in the 21st Century, which, by Tice's own standard should make him more qualified than those (the head coach included) who have not.

Vikes Geek said...

That's a valid point. And one that the head coach consistently dodges.

What troubles me is the suspicion, confirmed by yesterday's revelation by offensive coordinator Scott Linehan that the Vikings "dumbed down" the playbook when Moss went out with an injury, that the Vikings still feel the need to micromanage the offensive playcalling. Either Daunte is a $10 million/year QB or he is not. If he is, he should have the latitude to call his own plays and determining how conservative the playcalling will be under a given set of circumstances. If not, well, time to move on to plan B.

Anonymous said...

I work evenings after classes, and I was listening the radio while working. I don't remember what station it was but it was during Tice's weekly radio show during a night when there was no playoff baseball. The host was trying to pin Tice down on exactly what your wrote about today. Since I am a hard-core Twins fan and use the Vikings as comic relief, I found it hillarious how Tice was trying to defend or duck or dodge the very thing you wrote about.

It was on that day that I realized the Vikings needed a different coach. Because Tice was clearly an ego-driven man in WAY over his head.

Vikes Geek said...

It became clear very early in Tice's tenure as head coach of the Vikings that he and Red had sat down and had a heart to heart regarding how Tice should handle media and the fans. The message that Red sent was that Tice should make every effort not to alienate either group. Red made this a point with Tice knowing that Denny Green's "us against the world" mentality was wearing thin among those that matter in making money for the Vikings.

Tice has tried hard to live up to this mandate. For two years, he swallowed his pride and made self-effacing comments about his coaching and personality. And we bought it, in part, until the seams fell apart at the end of last season and Tice had so much pent up frustration that he had to vent.

That venting has carried over into this season and has led Tice to evidence an ever shorter fuse. One can sense when he is trying to refrain from attacking his critics by his resort to joking around with the media. One of his favorite "jokes" is that the fans can do what they want on playstation. OK, it's not really a joke as far as the listener is concerned, but Tice thinks it is, or at least he thinks fans think it is.

But what many fans perceive is a coach who is having difficulty dealing with his situation. And it is a difficult situation. Head coaches are paid to produce in the NFL and, given the high expectations of most fans, rightly or wrongly, most coaches are on the proverbial hot seat every year.

Tice could approach this in a different manner, however. He could, for example, acknowledge that his team is flawed (something he does in odd ways, such as by saying that "the players are put in the proper position but fail to make plays....but the talent is there"), without hurrying to mask the flaws by challenging phantom critics of the Vikings' offense (there are valid criticisms of the offense but most fans agree that this team is losing because the defense remains pitiful). And it would help matters if Tice did not lead off the season in Glen Mason-like fashion by proclaiming this the year that the Vikings challenge for a Super Bowl Championship. I mean, come on, if you sell yourself long and don't produce you deserve the heat.

Tice has tried to be amiable and has succeeded at times. His downfall has been his inability to understand human nature more fully, however. That carries over into personnel decisions, such as believing that one can will a punter/placekicker/kick returner/punt returner/middle linebacker/outside linebacker/nose tackle to be of NFL caliber. That clearly has not worked, but it is also clear that Tice believes that it still might work. Should he have a downfall, that will be it.

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