Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Bending and Breaking

As the Vikings struggle to make the playoffs this season, there are several flaws to which they can look with regret. First and foremost, of course, is the consistently poor play of the defense. Second is the erratic performance of the offense. Third is the heretofore poor play of the special teams. And fourth is the questionable coaching at critical moments.

That, in a nut shell, is how a team with enough talent to beat any team in the NFL has also shown a remarkable ability to lose to any team in the NFL. And that is how a team that should have sewn up a high playoff berth several weeks ago enters the final week of the season gasping for its playoff life.

While examining the macro issues helps make quick sense of what has brought the Vikings to the precipice of playoff extinction circa 2004, examination of the micro issues sheds light on how the macro issues have come to be. And that might shed some light on how, next season, the Vikings might find themselves in a more comfortable position one week removed from the opening of the NFL playoffs.

I begin, today, with Part I of my macro/micro analysis of the defensive play. I follow with Part II tomorrow, focusing on individual players and plays. On Thursday, I delve into an analysis of the offensive play. I conclude Friday with an analysis of the special teams' play. As for coaching, well, that merits either an entire month of commentary or a single word. I'll leave that to the readers to determine.

The Mac on D

The Vikings have been a season-long nightmare on defense, surrendering an average of 24.93 points per game. That is good enough, or bad enough, to rank the Vikings 25th out of 32 teams in points allowed per game. Only Cleveland, Dallas, New Orleans, Kansas City, Tennessee, Oakland, and San Francisco allow more points per game, and only the latter four allow more than one point more per game than does Minnesota. Not coincidentally, those seven teams have a combined record of 34-71. Leave it to the Vikings to join such company despite superior talent and a winning record.

In contrast, the team that allows the fewest points per game, Philadelphia, allows only 14.8 points per game, eleven teams allow fewer than 20 points per game, and the league average is approximately 21 points per game. In a league in which the average margin of victory is less than a touchdown, the Vikings' defensive weakness is thus even more glaring, forcing the Vikings to score nearly a TD more per game than the league average merely to keep pace, let alone to win.

But if that is not enough to make your eyes water, the Vikings' numbers actually look far worse when adjusted for the futility of the opposition's offense. Of the Vikings' 2004 opponents, only Indianapolis (33.9), Green Bay (26.2), Philadelphia (25.1), and Seattle (22.9) average more points per game than the league average. Against those four teams, the Vikings allowed 31 (Colts), 34 (Packers), 34 (Packers), 27 (Eagles), and 27 (Seattle) points, all, with the exception of the Colts, above each respective team's season average. And the 31 points allowed the Colts hardly constitutes a defensive bloodletting.

But Minnesota has not been content to merely suffer the offensive onslaughts of the league's bettter offenses, deferring even to the most miserable of miserable offenses. Against the rest of its opposition in 2004, Minnesota has held only one opponent--Tennessee--below its season average, and that result was largely the consequence of facing a QB by the name of Billy Volek. Dallas hit its season average, Chicago outscored its season average by totals of 8 and 10 points, Houston outscored its season average by 8 points, New Orleans by 10, the NY Giants by 14, and Detroit by 1 and 9.

That's not just bending, as Tice contends. That's breaking.

Tomorrow, I look at how this has been possible--what, specifically, has caused the Vikings' defense to break so consistently. And perhaps we shall uncover what changes need/should be made to ensure that the Vikings' 2005 defense merely bends.

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