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!


4 comments:

Anonymous said...

From a Cheesehead:

I am very happy that 2 years ago the Packers passed on Henderson (who was my favorite) and went with Barnett. He was great last year and has been great this year as well and is on pace to have better numbers than last year. Now that I poured lemon juice on that wound, I just want to wish you a good game on Sunday. Here's to no injuries and a fun game to watch.

Anonymous said...

So the question is: Why don't the Vikings spend more money?

Do they want a stadium (which the Twins deserve more) or do they want to move to the South?

Vikes Geek said...

Thanks Cheesehead. Though I am not sure that the Packers are a shining example of draft day proficiency (see draft column from last season on footballoutsiders.com).

The Vikings contend that this game means more to the Packers. Despite the fact that the Vikings get the Pack at the dome in December, that a Vikings' loss would merely push them into a tie for first, and that a Packer loss might be demoralizing to a team that is on the verge of recovering from a horrible 1-4 start, this game means as much to the Vikings. A loss would be the third in a row and could lead to the same slide that the Vikings experienced last season (whether or not the Vikings are willing to admit as much). Moreover, a victory would move the Vikings two games up on the Pack with a the tie-breaker.

VG

Vikes Geek said...

The answer is both. Red wants to sell the team or move the team. At the beginning of his ownership of the Vikings, Red spent lavishly--even foolishly--to resign players. Now that Red has decided to sell or hold out until the NFL permits him to move (probably 2011), he apparently has decided to spend as little as possible. This has resulted in the Vikings being more greatly under the cap than any other team in 2004 with a certainty of being approximately $30 million under the cap in 2005. Ostensibly, that means that the Vikings must spend more next season, but Red might still have some gems up his sleeve. For example, in addition to relying on the roster bonus for Winfield to get the Vikings up to the league minimum, Red included a $3.5 million bonus in Kleinsasser's contract should he appear in 75% of the team's special teams' plays. The bonus applies to 2004's salary cap because it is deemed "legitimate" (i.e., it is attainable). Yet, the Vikings knew that Kleinsasser would not reach the bonus because they did not intend for Kleinsasser to play much on special teams. That means that $3.5 million that is currently on the books under the cap is a mere artifice, and the Vikings are arguably well under the minimum. This is great for a prospective owner, but terrible if Red continues to own the team because, while it ostensibly requires greater spending next year, there is no reason the Vikings cannot be just as creative with bonuses next season. That could mean that, while the Vikings will probably lose a couple big contracts (most notably Bennett's and Hovan's), they may not replace those contracts with anything other than "paper" dollars.

VG