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!

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