In the wake of yesterday's dismal, though not surprising loss to the Chicago Bears, Vikings' head coach Mike Tice lamented that the Vikings "did not make enough plays" and that the performance of the Vikings was "awful." What more needs to be said?
Tice is in his third season as Vikings' head coach. This is the season that the Vikings were supposed to be on the verge of Super Bowl glory. That was the promise of the owner when he hired Tice and the promise of Tice upon being hired. It is not going to happen. Not this year. Maybe not for a long time. But if that does not sour your mood on the Vikings, there is plenty more that should.
While Tice inherited a good offense and a bad defense three seasons ago, in his three years as head coach, the team still has a good offense (most of the time) and a bad defense. By all indications, this is a team that is treading water. No, the Vikings have not been blown out by a bad team this season (unless you consider the pre-Manning Giants a bad team). No, the Vikings have not lost all of their road games this year. And, no, the Vikings have not fallen out of playoff contention. Not yet, anyway.
But that's not what this season was supposed to be about. It wasn't about that when Tice was hired and it wasn't about that at the beginning of the season. Instead, it was about making the playoffs and advancing to the Super Bowl. If this team makes it to the Super Bowl, it will have done so on the basis of making the playoffs in a watered-down (can you water down water?) Conference, defeating equally awful teams prior to pulling a stunning upset (or beating someone who has pulled a stunning upset) of the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC Championship game. The result, barring another stunning and underserved upset, would be a white-wash akin to the 41-0 loss to the Giants in the 2000 NFC Championship game.
Tice admits his flaws and those of his team. He does so every week. And every week his is correct. His team lacks players on defense. His team makes too many mental mistakes. His team has key injuries. Tice tells us all of this, every week, and every week we agree.
But we also wonder, every week, why the Vikings cannot make adjustments. Tice has made some adjustments with several key injuries to the offensive line, but the offense is viewed as correctible whenever problems arise. Fans at least believe that the Vikings can outscore most teams if the offensive players merely play up to their potential. Coaching is merely an exercise with this unit.
Where coaching is critical is on defense, a near-vast wasteland for the Vikings with the possible exceptions of Lance Johnstone, Kevin Williams, and, maybe, Spencer Johnson and Steve Martin. But the Vikings' coaching staff appears incapable of making necessary adjustments. Week after week it is the same tired story--"we did not make enough plays," "we need to get off the field on third and long," "we made too many mental mistakes."
We know. We know. We know. And we are tired of it. We are especially tired of seeing other teams take rookies and second year players and mold them into a cohesive defensive unit. We are tired of seeing teams with even more excuses to give up on their defense than the Vikings have at their avail and make roses out of vomit, while the Vikings consistently throw up their hands and trot out the same tired cliches.
How the Other Half Lives
On the other side of the field on Sunday stood Lovie Smith, a first-year coach who is making something of nearly nothing. Smith inherited a Bears' team that was a complete mess on offense and teetering on defense at the end of last season. Although Smith has had the luxury of turning to a standout linebacker in Brian Urlacher, he has been forced to overcome numerous injuries to defensive players, including injuries to Urlacher and nearly the entire secondary. With some exceptions, Smith has held the defense together. On Sunday, with the return to form of Urlacher (and in spite of the return of Charles Tillman), the Bears' defense ate the Vikings alive.
We knew that, when healthy, the Bears had the personnel to have one of the better defenses in the NFL, so it is no surprise that they ambushed a tattered Vikings' offensive line on Sunday, though Lovie still deserves credit for putting it together. What is surprising, however, is that Lovie Smith was able to coax his sad sack offense to produce 24 points against any team.
Smith inherited an atrocious offense when he arrived in Chicago, an offense made even worse by the Bears' decision to keep David Terrell over Dez White and their need to part with Marty Booker to obtain Adewale Ogunleye. As bad as the offense was, it became even worse when starting quarterback Rex Grossman was lost for the season early in the year at Minnesota. In fact, the situation was so dire that the Bears picked up Chad Hutchinson and Jeff George off of the free agent scrap heap.
Although George may prove to be a respectable addition to the 2004 Bears, it should not have been possible to say the same of Chad Hutchinson, who (1) last threw a touchdown pass in 2002; (2) had never thrown more than 2 touchdown passes in the same game; and (3) was bad enough to get released by the Dallas Cowboys in the off-season. Lovie Smith knew this of Hutchinson, which is why he lobbied the Bears to sign George.
But even with George's signing, the Bears were forced to start Hutchinson against Minnesota. Hutchinson knew the offense better than did George and had some comfort level having been with the team longer than had George. Faced with the choice of starting Hutchinson or George (or, god forbid, turning the ball over to the Bears' off-season "star" free agent signing, Jonathan Quinn), Lovie opted to go with Hutchinson, leaving himself the option to turn to the suited George should things turn ugly.
Things did turn ugly, but not for the Bears. Instead, as is becoming a constant for QBs starting against the Vikings, Hutchinson set career highs for touchdown passes (3) and passer rating (115). Despite a clear willingness to go down at first touch and an affinity for gravitating toward the pass rush, Hutchinson was able to weather the storm long enough for the Vikings to pack in the rush. And, as Vikings' fans know all too well, at that point, the game was over. Once the Vikings stopped pressuring Hutchinson with blitzes, the defensive house of cards collapsed.
Tice claims that the Vikings could not get pressure with the blitz once Winfield went out with an injury and that Winfield's injury made the pass defense even more vulnerable on the blitz. I do not contest the latter claim, but it is a bit dismaying to have a coach admit that his staff cannot figure out a way to pressure what is essentially a slow-release, slow-moving, otherwise inept quarterback who is protected by a five man front. The Bears, after all, were able to feast on Daunte employing four and five man rush packages against a six and seven man offensive pass-blocking scheme.
It makes you wonder a bit about the processing power of the Vikings' coaching staff. Perhaps the Vikings' coaches simply are overmatched. This is especially a concern when a third year coach cannot find answers to a problem for which he has had three years to identify a solution, while a first year coach is able to identify a solution to a problem that has plagued the Bears for eternity but for which he has had less than a season to resolve.
It makes you wonder. And it should make owner Red McCombs wonder how many season-ticket holders will be excited about renewing their season tickets at certain-to-be jacked up season ticket prices. Vikings fans have weathered worse storms, but will fans really be willing to shell out the big bucks to see the same old crap when it is free on TV and the vomit bin and remote are readily at hand?