Monday, November 01, 2004

When the Sum of the Parts is the Whole

By losing to the Giants on Sunday, the Vikings accomplished two things. First, they demonstrated that, where Vikings' fans are concerned, no season is complete without confounding losses. Second, the Vikings demonstrated that attention to detail matters greatly in the NFL, where minor lapses accumulate to seal defeat.

Whether it is a quality team, such as the Giants, or an inept team, such as the Cardinals, NFL teams seem to know when the Vikings are ripe for the picking. Vikings' opponents understand that they are being presented with a golden opportunity for victory whenever the Vikings are the favorites at home or the Vikings are the visitor.

While road victories over Houston and New Orleans seem to have changed the perception of the Vikings as road patsies, nothing has changed the perception that the Vikings are most likely to lose when they are at home and favored to win. And Sunday's abysmal performance against the Giants only points this out. But this time, there is no doubt why the Vikings lost. It was not over-confidence or looking ahead--two cliches that are often trotted out to explain such Vikings' defeats. No, this time the Vikings lost because they did all the little things, and some of the big things, wrong.

In his Monday afternoon press conference, Vikings' coach Mike Tice noted that the Vikings "left a lot of plays on the field" and "failed to make plays." That, as we know, is standard form for NFL coaches, whether following a victory or a loss. And, usually, neither phrase means much. But that is not true of these cliches as they pertain to the Vikings' performance on Sunday.

In Minnesota's first eight possessions on Sunday, the common theme was self-destruction. On the opening kickoff, Mike Nattiel was tagged with a holding call that forced the Vikings to begin the drive on their own 17. The Vikings moved the ball to their own 38 before Moore and Company failed to cover a backward pass. The Giants recovered the ensuing fumble and, after a good defensive stand by the Vikings, settled for a field goal.

Tice compounded the Vikings' woes on the opening drive by challenging the ruling that Daunte's pass was a backward pass and that the resulting loose ball was a consequently a fumble. Tice made this challenge despite the absence of any angle that would definitively require reversal of the play (i.e., Tice challenged the play with sufficient information to realize that the challenge would fail). The challenge was overruled and Tice was out one challenge early in the game.

On their next series, the Vikings appeared to have an opportune scenario, facing a 2nd and 3. The Vikings could run virtually any play in their playbook knowing that they would be able to do the same on third down if their second down efforts failed. Unfortunately, the Vikings failed on the first attempt and threw short on the second, with the receiver having no opportunity to pick up the first down even if the pass had been completed, which it was not.

That brought Darren Bennett out to punt. And the wily veteran--the trait Tice most admired about Bennett when he signed him during the off-season--responded with a pedestrian put of 35 yards. The punt gave the Giants good starting field position at their own 35-yard line.

The Giants began their second drive of the game, outmatched, for a moment, by Minnesota's improving defense. That continued until Corey Chavous was flagged for pass interference to the tune of 38 yards, moving the ball to the Vikings' 22. That one play was largely responsible for the Giants' subsequent TD.

The Vikings responded with another 3 and out series, highlighted by a false start by Minnesota center Matt Birk.

E.J. Henderson was flagged for defensive holding during the Giants' subsequent drive, but the Vikings defense once again forced the Giants to punt. The Giants downed the punt at the 1-yard line and, despite the visual evidence and situational prudence, Tice used his second, and last, challenge to challenge the spot of the ball. At the time, the Giants were ahead 10-0 with 3.16 left in the first quarter. The 1-yard line is a tough place to start a drive, but even tougher is relinquishing challenges for the remainder of the game in what, at that point, was still a tight contest.

Tice's two challenges call into question who it is that is advising Tice to challenge plays. At times, Tice gets the challenge right. But far too often, it appears that Tice's emotions get the better of him and he challenges a play with his fingers, toes, ears, and eyes crossed, hoping that the replay monitor will show the play as Tice envisions the play in his best-case-scenario, inner-mind, rewind. Absent clear evidence, it is foolhardy to use both challenges in the first quarter of a game. And the loss of his challenges came back to haunt Tice in the second quarter when the Giants were credited with a reception that clearly should not have been. Tice could have and probably would have challenged the reception that kept alive the Giants drive at the end of the half, particularly given that it was a defining play in the game, but he had no challenges remaining. That led to a Giants' field goal.

And to make matters worse, following Tice's second challenge, the Vikings proceeded to move the ball to the Giants' 39, showing that starting at the 1-yard line is not disconcerting enough to warrant use of a final challenge early in the game. Unfortunately, however, the Vikings again self-destructed as Daunte threw the first of his two interceptions on what was a miserable day for the Vikings' QB. The Giants returned the pick to the Minnesota 36 and promptly proceeded to take a 17 to 0 lead.

The Vikings picked up on their next drive where they left off on their previous, by making mistakes. The Vikings began the drive with good field position, but Adam Goldberg--he of the oft-penalized Dorsey-Goldberg duo--committed a false start that helped stunt a Vikings' drive. The drive ended, appropriately enough, with a missed 38-yard field goal attempt that left some dreaming of a return to the Aaron Elling year.

On the Vikings' seventh drive of the game, Dorsey was flagged for a false start. The penalty once again created long-yardage situations for the Vikings, who appeared unable to convert such situations without Randy Moss. Owing to Dorsey's penalty and the Vikings sudden offensive inabilities, Minnesota was forced to punt on the stalled drive.

With halftime approaching, the Giants used the clock to produce another field goal, despite their own attempts to self-destruct.

The second half was more of the same for the Vikings. On their first possession of the second half, the Vikings drove deep into Giants' territory before Daunte made a poor pass to the flat. The pass was picked and returned to the Giants' 45. The Giants converted this mistake, Daunte's second interception of the game, into a quick touchdown and essentially ended the game.

And, as if to remind us of what quickly is becoming every Vikings' fans 2004 master lament (in a season full of lamentable issues), the Vikings' defense once again squandered several turnover opportunities as defenders dropped at least two interceptions and failed to recover two fumbles that were in their grasp.

As Tice said, and as this time rings true, the Vikings lost because they did not make plays on Sunday. Although it is true that the Giants played some decent defense and converted on their opportunities (4 of 5 times in the red zone), the Vikings did little to stand in the way of the Giants on the offensive side of the ball. Instead, the Vikings' offense committed miscue after miscue with at least one glaring miscue--either by the players or the coaching staff--in each of its first eight series. That's how games are lost in the NFL, as seemingly sufferable miscues accumulate.

The Vikings are not as bad as they looked on Sunday, but if they do not eliminate the mistakes that cost them the field-position battle on Sunday, it is unlikely that they will meet their goal of a deep playoff run this season, when the teams that they face will be at least the equal of the Giants.

Up Next: Spilled Milk.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I think the Vikings season will hinge on Moss's hammy. The offense has turned in 2 pedestrian efforts the last 2 weeks without him. The defense is not good enough to stop teams consistantly. Nothing I'm sure you haven't heard or read lately.