Thursday, November 18, 2004

Who He?

After each game, as per NFL mandate, Vikings' head coach Mike Tice addresses the media. When the cowering group works up the courage to ask the question that must be asked--"Uh, coach, what happened to the defense today?"--Tice is quick to respond. Increasingly, the response is as follows: "We did not get it--IT--done today. We left some plays on the field. We lined up wrong in some cases. We did not get it done. And we need to get it done, if we want to win football [ed. note--not baseball] games."

During these post game interviews Tice usually identifies specific shortcomings in his attempt to be brutally honest (something the media does not yet understand is that Tice is always brutally honest immediately after the game when his emotions are at their peak. It is not until the following day that Tice chastises reporters and dismisses legitimate inquiries). One name that Tice has consistently singled out for post game criticism is Vikings' nose tackle Chris Hovan. "We need more out of him," Tice states. "We need him to make a difference. Right now, he is not making a difference."

But give Tice a day to cool down and the tone changes dramatically. Not only is Hovan no longer the coach's favorite media punching bag, he is suddenly the one thing that is going right on defense. And Tice can be heard extolling from the rooftops that "he" has returned. "He" being Chris Hovan. He of the big reputation and poor output.

As members of the media assemble for what have become "Don't Ask Mondays," Tice starts out by saying that he has reviewed the game film and likes what he sees. "I thought, I didn't think I thought, but now I know what I thought is what I thought I think, that we didn't play too bad on defense. We still are not playing consistent. And we need to be consistent, because if you are not consistent then you won't be. But I still took some things from the film--which the coaches and I watched (lest you thought he hired some temps to watch the film for him and the coaches and to break the film down)--and our nose tackle, Hovan, made some plays. He, Hovan, is progressing."

Uh oh. It looks like Tice has another warm fuzzy about a player, a player from which he just cannot distance his emotions (see, e.g., Aaron Elling, Eddie Scissorhands Johnson, Keenan Howrey, Darren Bennett, Morten Andersen, E.J. Henderson, Nick Rogers, Willie Offord, etc.). Tice claims that Hovan's play bears out his claim that Hovan is becoming a force in the middle. But the numbers suggest otherwise.

Through the Vikings' first nine games this season, Hovan has 10 tackles, 7 assists, and 1.5 sacks. None of these numbers are sparkling and the 1.5 sacks is made worse by the fact that Hovan collected a full sack by simply being in the right place at the right time when Texan QB David Carr literally fell into his open arms. But counting that sack still leaves Hovan with eminently feckless production.

A comparison with other NFL nose tackles demonstrates just how weak the numbers are for Hovan, a player on whom the Vikings depended heavily going into last season and, for unknown reasons save lack of options, entering this season.

Vince Wilfork, the player on whom the Vikings passed to take Kenechi Udeze, has 15 tackles, 6 assists, and 2 sacks. Other nose tackles equally or even more substantially outpace Hovan's production, some in fewer games. Ryan Pickett of the Rams has 16 tackles, 3 assists, and 1 sack; Seth Payne has 18 tackles, 6 assists, and 2 sacks; Kelly Gregg has 21 tackles, 7 assists, and 1.5 sacks in 7 games; Jason Ferguson has 20 tackles, 15 assists, and 3.5 sacks; and Russell Davis has 26 tackles and 4 assists. Projected out, each of these players will outpace Hovan's production for the year. Only Casey Hampton has poorer production among the league's nose starting nose tackles with 8 tackles and 6 assists. But Hampton has recorded his numbers over six games and in a 3-4 set that generally leads to lower tackle and sack production from the nose tackle.

Despite Hovan's clear lack of production, one could excuse Tice's comments on Hovan as an attempt to motivate a player who could help the Vikings if he merely played to the average level. But Tice has gone beyond mere motivational tactics, apparently intent on showing critics that he can will a player to improve.

Several weeks ago, Tice promised--in another of his moments of brutal honesty--to replace Hovan in the starting lineup with Steve Martin to "get some production out of the nose tackle position." As Hovan's sparingly used backup this season, Martin has 7 tackles, 6 assists, and one-half sack. In total, Martin has played the equivalent of 2 games this season, yet his statistics nearly mirror Hovan's.

Hovan's numbers project to 18 tackles, 14 assists, and 3 sacks for the season, but only if one projects that Hovan will not tail off at the end of the season as he is wont to do. Martin's numbers project to 56 tackles, 48 assists, and 4 sacks, ahead of his 2003 totals (over 14 games) of 45 tackles, 17 assists, and 1 sack. It thus would appear that the Vikings are worse off with Hovan in the middle than they would be with Martin. Add to the mix the fact that Martin has blocked a couple passes and seems to hold his lane much better and you can understand why, after the Giants game, Tice announced that he would start Martin and spell him with Hovan.

That never happened, however, and prior to the Green Bay game, Tice even deactivated Martin. Tice stated that he deactivated Martin because he believed that Martin was more vulnerable against the run than Hovan. The result? Green Bay ran for 206 yards (and threw in 236 yards passing). Of those 206 yards rushing, 116 were up the middle. Hovans' line? One tackle, zero assists, zero sacks.

Some of this is on the non-existant linebacking corps, particularly E.J. Henderson. But when you contribute a single tackle and are run over the entire game, you are not getting the job done. And when the coach says "he" is getting it done, one needs to ask "Who he?"

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