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.


Anonymous said...

Reasons to Fire Mike Tice

1. The penalties

2. The failed challenges

3. The failure to make challenges

4. Poor use of timeouts

5. Poor play in first quarter

6. Team chokes in big games

7. Entire team except Daunte gives up when down by 2 TDs

8. Conservative play calling despite explosive offense

9. Defense not getting turnovers

10. Team makes the same mistakes week after week

11. Linebacking corps not beefed up after years of mediocrity

12. Feared running attack yet play action rarely called

13. Defense almost never makes a goal line stand

14. Tice thinks he knows NFL rules, but doesn't

15. Time mismanagement

16. Indecesiveness

17. The draft day fiasco

18. Tice has never shown he can develop a rookie into a talented veteran

19. Using Kleinsasser as a fullback when he is really a tight end

20. Playing Moss when he is hurt

21. Team full of talent, but can't win the division

22. Delay of game penalties

23. Tackling is inferior and undisciplined

24. Team only improves when it signs a free agent

25. Team has already maxed out potential under Tice, still not going anywhere

Vikes Geek said...

I agree with much of your criticisms. We know that the Vikings have awful linebackers (and to think that Ted Cottrell considered playing a 3-4--yeesh). Tice deserves criticism for his input in drafting Donterrious Thomas (I wanted to use the 2nd pick to take Kaeding out of Iowa, but anybody would have been better than Thomas--more on that later this week). He also deserves criticism for his input in drafting EJ Henderson, who looks terrible and even incurs the wrath of his coach seemingly on a weekly basis. On the other hand, the Vikings drafted Kevin Williams instead of Ryan Sims (thank god) and Kenechi Udeze looks like an upgrade. Tice also lobbied to bring back Lance Johnstone (though that did not help last week and to bring in Corey Chavous, Steve Martin and Antoine Winfield. On the other hand.....Claiborne, Russell, Williams, Elling, Eddie Johnson, Keenan Howrey.

And Tice does deserve credit for putting together a good offensive line. Despite the continuing gaffes by Chris Liewinski, the line has been fairly solid and that is saying something.

Unfortunately, that seems to be the limit of Tice's expertise. While Lovie Smith has taken the Bears to within one game of the NFC North Division lead, minus nearly his entire starting secondary and without a true QB, Tice can't seem to make similar adjustments outside of the offensive line.

I still place considerable blame on ownership for refusing to bid on quality free agents. They had no choice but to pursue at least one free agent--Winfield--because they could not otherwise reach the salary cap floor. But after applying several accounting gimicks, the Vikings were able to meet the cap floor--about $20 million under the ceiling (against which most NFL teams abut)--without signing players they needed. And, in the short-term world that is Red McCombs' ownership of the Vikings, that was all that was needed to ensure sellouts for at least one more year.


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