Monday, December 06, 2004

Been There Done This

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?


Anonymous said...

Again, as I constantly state, I don't know much about football. So... what would you do to fix the team given the situation Tice finds himself in?

I mean, what coaches would you add/fire players add/fire, how would you go about convincing the fans that next year they should see the team etc...

Anonymous said...

Hey Vikes Geek, Couldn't agree more! To expound a bit on your apt assessment of Tice and that unit that plays opposite the offense (sorry, I can't bring myself to call them the "D" word), what of the horrendous time management? Week in and week out calling time outs to get the right plays, personal, etc. Why is this an issue EVERY week? What of the 4-5 false starts EVERY game? What of the questionable replay requests by Tice? What of the continual disasters on special teams? What of the underachieving and poorly coached defense? Ladies and Gentlemen, we were duped! We were led (falsely) to believe the 2004 version of the Vikings was a good team. They in fact, are not. They lack heart, quality coaching, and good excuses after losses to very beatable teams. Indeed, they did lose close games to very good teams (packers, colts, and eagles). However, these are the teams to beat to achieve credible status in this league. The fact that they are 7-5 is testimony to an occasionally brilliant offense and an incredibly schizophrenic NFC. We can almost predict the rest of the season: rebound win against the Seahawks, lackluster play and a loss at Detroit, rebound win against Packers on X-mas eve, disappointing loss to an over-matched Redskin team with nothing play for and nothing to lose. Unfortunately, at 9-7, the vikes will make the play-offs (with the same satisfaction the Gophers football team must feel about their "bowl-bid") and quietly bow out on the road to a team that is deserving of the playoffs. The season will be proclaimed a success, with a record over .500 and a playoff birth, but, brother, WE KNOW BETTER.

Vikes Geek said...

Amen. But I disagree on one point. I've read the script and, as of now, it says Vikes finish at 8-8. Their one victory? A win against the hapless Seahawks (and we dislike our defense? That is some sorry excuse for D in Seattle. Good-bye Mike).

I was convinced three weeks that the road games at Chicago, Detroit, and Washington would be difficult for the Vikings to win. Tice has shown zero ability to prepare the team when the going gets tough and this is particularly evident when the team is playing on the road. It was more evident in Chicago against a good defense and Detroit and Washington have good enough defenses to sink this ship. It would not surprise me if the Vikings lost three of their final four games, including the game at home against Green Bay.

8-8 might still qualify the Vikings for the playoffs--and I will probably watch the game--but does anyone really care what happens? Inevitably, the Vikings will face a real team and they will lose. They simply are not good enough to beat teams that do not implode.


Vikes Geek said...

As to what changes the Vikings should make. . .

I undoubtedly will run several columns on this topic at the end of the season. But here's a preview.

Assuming Tice does not pull a miracle out of his hat, it is probably time for a change in the coaching staff. Tice is a nice guy, cares about the team, appears to understand the fans' concerns, and makes an effort to respond to those concerns. That is a vast improvement over Denny Green. But, like Denny's personality or not, his results were better than have been Tice's. No Denny never fielded a competent defense, but neither has Tice. What Denny did do, however, and what Tice has been unable to do, is milk the offensive resources to their potential. You can blame the players, the youth of the team, whatever, it still comes down to, as Tice would say, X's and O's. And the Vikings have not overcome their defensive liabilities by taking advantage of their offensive potential. Had they done so, the Vikings would still have a bad defense, but fans would at least feel as though the head coach had a handle on the strength of the team.

I also would not hesitate cutting ties with nearly every defensive player not playing on the defensive line--and I would throw in Kenny Mixon, who is one DUI away from a season-long suspension. The only players of worth on defense at this point are Kevin Williams, Lance Johnstone, Steve Martin, Antoine Winfield, and Spencer Johnson. I would keep Kenechi Udeze a bit longer, despite his slow start in the NFL, as I think he has potential.

Linebackers? Out with the bathwater (though I might give EJ Henderson a shot at outside linebacker). Corners? Ditto. Safeties? Do we have any? Ditto.

At the end of the season, I will look at the free agents to be and tab those that the Vikings--with their $30 million plus salary cap room--should target next season. We don't need stars, but we do not competency. And we ought to be able to buy two competent corners and two competent linebackers for $15 million or so per year. I would not count on the draft for much, particularly given the Vikings' track record in "spotting talent" in the draft. What a steal Donterrious Thomas was in the second round, right? Much too good to pass up on in favor of the never-miss Nate Kaeding.

Oh, and it may be time to invest in a new trainer.


Lichty said...

I think the linebackers picked (Henderson and Thomas) were good picks, but the problem is that with rare exceptions, Linebacker is a experience position. You cannot expect Henderson and Thomas to run a bad defense. Clearly an impact Mike and OLB are necessary for next year.

Although a coaching change is warranted, what coach is going to want to come to an organization that has to use trickery to meet the salary cap minimum? Until the "new owner" comes along and dedicates this team to winning while the offensive pieces are in place there is no future for this team and as you say they will be running in place.

New coaches are not going to make Derek Ross be able to cover anyone or give EJ Henderson three years of experience. If you believe Cottrell, it is simply these guys missing their assignments (although I do see a Jeff Brady like inability to get off a block as well as credit card tackling). It is amazing to me that this defense can look good on first and second down and then go into vapor lock. Maybe that is inexperience or maybe the other team is just saving themselves for third down.

The Vikings are really not that many players away from getting back into that top echelon. Brian Williams is having a bad year, but is a good cover corner. Winfield is a top flight corner. Chavous is done. Russell was the Jeff Brady of the secondary (an opportunistic never-had-it). Linebacker is the true gaping hole. I agree that if we can add two linebackers and two safeties this will be a servicable defense, one that should at least give the offense all the chances it needs to put games away early.

On the offensive side of the ball, clearly even when healthy a legitmate receiver is needed. Robinson is erratic. Burleson is good, but needs another to support him.

Offensive line we are stuck with what we have. A healthy Birk will help along with hopefully an improved McKinney and Lewinski who are both having sub-par years. Dixon is almost done and Rosenthal is not even that good when healthy so Right tackle may continue to be a problem. With the Rosey extension last year don't look for any changes (even though all the guaranteed money came with this year).

At the Skill positions it looks like SOD. Bennett will be gone, but I think they should at least try to squeeze Miami's or Arizona's second rounder. SOD, MeMo and Moe will be the backfield. Kleinsasser and Wiggins the primary TE's.

Kicking is in need of a major overhaul as well. Bennett should be gone as well as Cortez. Would not like to see Elling back.

Vikes Geek said...

I will certainly have more to say about the kicking game at the end of the season, but, at this point, it is clear that Tice has yet to identify the future of the Vikings' kicking game.

Darren Bennett was intended to be a veteran who could punt under difficult circumstances. In his prime, Bennett was one of the best. Today, he simply is not dependable. It is telling when he is praised for a 50-yard punt indoors. That's the norm for most indoor punters when distance matters.

Morten Andersen is also clearly past his prime and well down the valley. Tice contends that the Vikings trust him from 40 in. Huh? Whom do the Vikings trust from 40 out? What happended Sunday from 37? This was a mistake from the beginning. And by beginning, I mean when Tice, et. al. refused to abandon their box-type mindset that told them--and we have this from Tice's mouth prior to the draft--that he could not "waste" a second round pick on a place kicker such as Nate Kaeding. I wonder if San Diego views its selection of Kaeding as a waste?

I don't even know what to make of Elling. He goes from terrible to bad to serviceable on kickoffs to the injury list. At the time of his injury, his deep kick looked pretty good, but what about field goals? Tice said that Elling was the 40+ man for field goals, yet he never attempted a field goal in 2004. Is this just more of Tice trying not to damage the fragile psyche of yet another player?

We need a kicker but where will be find one? Probably free agency. There should be some decent kickers on the heap this year. And by "decent" I mean merely better than what we have, not great.

It is amazing that the Jaguars can find a booming kicker like Scobee and the Vikings continue their refusal to admit that they simply erred in not re-signing Mitch Berger. The one million they saved on that deal has cost them several games in the standings and even more money signing washed up vets mid-season to take over for injured players.

I agree that Brian Williams could be good, but he clearly needs some coaching on technique. Williams is consistenly taking the wrong angle to the ball and on tackles and never looks back for the ball. He also gives a 10-yard+ cushion on every pass play. Why? He looks like he is doing the same thing all the time which suggests that he is following instructions. Chavous has been a non-entity this year and Russell is the Waswa Serwanga of the 2004 Vikings (or is that on Derek Ross?).

I agree about the linebackers and absolutely agree, as I have noted in the past, that much of the blame for the Vikings' poor linebacking corps--and the entire defense--is on Red for refusing to bring in free agent linebackers with sufficient experience. The Vikings signed Claiborne because he was relatively cheap, but they knew he was a bust in Detroit. Ergo, the Vikings deserve only criticism for that pickup. But that criticism pails in comparison to that which the Vikings' front office deserves for entering the season with this sorry corps of linebackers. If Smith ever recovers from his concussion, he might do some good things. Henderson might also do some good things down the road, as might Nattiel. But check out the linebacking corps of the good defenses. They are loaded with veteran players--particularly at MLB. That's how it works. You gain experience outside and move inside later--unless you are Ray Lewis or Brian Urlacher. The Vikings are playing Willie Offord--a safety!--at linebacker, despite claiming to have "one of the deepest linebacking corps in the NFL." How sad is that?

In the best of worlds, two things would happen with the Vikings. First, they would have a full complement of competent players on both sides of the ball. Second, we would get to see how Tice would handle this talent. As it is, it is difficult to tell where the flaw rests. Is it with coaching? Is it with personnel? The argument that it is coaching is that Tice has so little experience as a head coach and Cottrell was fired last year for not getting it done with the Jets (a team that happens to have one of the top defenses in the NFL this year using mainly the same personnel that Cottrell had). On the personnel side, well, all the above.

But replacing Tice is tricky because it requires finding someone willing to work under the conditions that Tice is forced to work--bad players at key positions on defense, an ownership that is unwilling to sign the talent necessary to improve the defense, and an ownership that is unwilling to pay for a veteran coach. This all weighs in Tice's favor, because it means that his replacement must be either an unknown entity or a some good, though not "star" coordinator. Probably someone like Scott Linehan. And that doesn't really ensure season-ticket renewal. But the continual mistakes on both sides of the ball--false starts, misuse of timeouts and challenges, bad clock management particularly in the two-minute drill, missed tackles, poor angles on the ball/ball carrier, failure to look back on the pass--all go to coaching. These are eminently correctible mistakes and, yet, every week, Tice laments their reoccurrence. That sounds like the pot calling the pot black. And that bodes ominously for Tice.