Monday, December 13, 2004

Grandma Knows Best

At a family gathering last Saturday night, my grandma came up to me with a scowl on her face. I thought she was going to give me another lecture on relaxing, on how I should not be so concerned that flexible medical accounts are so ridiculously contrived that they actually operate as a disincentive to sock away medical-expense money for people for whom they are most necessary. But my grandma, nearly ninety years old, was much more interested in something else.

"Why is it," she asked with a grave expression scrawled upon her face, "that the Vikings are having so many problems this year?"

"How much time do you have, grandma?" I replied.

But my grandma wasn't really interested in my litany of explanations for the Vikings' failures this season. She was not interested in hearing, for example, that the Vikings have had numerous injuries this season, or that the Vikings' carpet-bagger owner refuses to bid for quality free agents unless required to do so by NFL by-laws. No, my grandma was more interested in giving me her impression of the Vikings' main problem. That problem, according to my grandma, rests with the coaching staff.

"He's just so laid back," my grandma noted of Vikings' head coach Mike Tice as she forlornly shook her head and looked at a spot on the floor as if searching for the 21st century version of Bud Grant in the living room carpet. "It just seems like he puts too little weight on things that matter with the team." I agreed, and not just to make my grandma at least feel some comfort, if not in the Vikings' play, then in her prognosis of their ills, but because it is true.

It is not that Tice does not care about or recognize the problems with the Vikings. As evidenced by his receding hairline, graying hair, and increasing paunch, he clearly has let the team's problems weigh on him.

Instead, it is that Tice does not understand the weight of his response to the Vikings' problems. He does not understand that he has to play the heavy. Not just today, for one play, but for the rest of his head coaching career. That's why the head coach gets the big bucks because they are asked to make the tough decisions, to sever relationships of players and coaches with the team, and to be the hard ass. Tice has tried to avoid this function of his head coaching job, however, by resorting to an oft-tried, oft-failed approach to relating to NFL players and assistant coaches--the coddle approach.

Tice has a very difficult time holding players and coaches under his watch accountable for their actions. Rather than criticize a player or coach for failing, Tice prefers to dismiss failures and note that "we need to move forward." With Tice, players and coaches know that they have multiple chances to get it right, or to at least try to get it right. They know this because they know that Tice prefers to be buddies with players rather than to be viewed as a veteran of the game who is willing to cut ties with players and personnel who are no longer getting the job done.

This side of Tice was most evident immediately after the Vikings' loss to the Seahawks when Tice refused to criticize the ridiculous offensive play-calling of Scott Linehan. Instead of criticizing Linehan, Tice nearly bent over backwards to praise his coordinator, essentially stating that it was the right call sabotaged by uncharacteristically poor execution. By making this statement, Tice even refused to criticize the player most responsible for culminating a truly poor play-calling decision by throwing into double coverage. Instead, Tice continued his thought by criticizing those who questioned the call as "second-guessers." "That was one play," he groused, "and we needed a touchdown (emphasis) to win the football (emphasis) game (emphasis). Not a field goal. A touchdown."

But it was more than that. It was a culmination of two weeks of horrific offensive play-calling and sub-par play-calling for the past twelve weeks. It was a question asked with two related questions in mind: "Why not just run to the right until you reach the end zone, they haven't stopped you yet? More generally, why not do what you always say you plan to do--take what the other team gives you?" Tice knew this, but did not want to go there because that would have required him to question the play-calling of Linehan. And that would betray his deference to avoiding confrontation.

Clearly, we do not know what Tice said to Linehan behind closed doors, not this week, last week, the week before, or any of the weeks after their lone solid offensive performance in week one this year. But that does not change the fact that Tice's public persona, and his laid back demeanor, have created difficulties for him in his management of personnel. For, even if Tice is tougher on failure behind closed doors than he is in public, taking public stances that dismiss criticism of bad decision-making makes it virtually impossible for Tice to rectify problems that are on-going. If a player persists, for example, in making similar mistakes, as several Vikings' players appear to be doing, there is no satisfactory public explanation for any subsequent benching because the coach has maintained all along that all is fine (see, e.g., Hovan's benching and Tice's public rationale). The result is that the coach appears incompetent and loses credibility, first in the public eye, then in the eye of his players. The snowball effect undermines everything the coach believed he was accomplishing by maintaining the laid-back facade.

And we know this about Tice because we have seen it from him since he became head coach. He did not want to criticize Daunte when Daunte was playing like a deer caught in the headlights. Only, apparently, after much outside instigation, did Tice hint to Daunte that he needed to be a student of the game, rather than merely someone who likes playing. Miraculously, while the laid-back approach/patting on the back after failures did not work with Daunte, Tice's calling out of Daunte led to Daunte playing better--much better.

Tice also refused to hold Randy Moss accountable for off-the-field actions and dismissed Moss' shenanigans with the hamstring injury as "part of the game." On Sunday, Tice even let Moss call his own number on two plays at the end of the game, first as a passer with a tight spiral and no eye for defensive double-teams, then as a proven-to-be-no punt returner. The first call led to a game-losing interception, the second to a fair catch (a la Moss circa 2001, 2002, and 2003 as a punt returner). Tice let Moss call his number, not becaue it made sense, but because, as is the case with Tice in dealing with his team, it was the path of least resistance and later could be, and was, explained away in the following manner: "Look, if it works, we're geniuses."

Tice has been guilty of the laid-back approach with others as well, such as when he refused to hold Hovan accountable for his lack of production on the field until Hovan's play became so awful that it could not be ignored. And Tice made similar decisions, attributable perhaps to his sense of loyalty, but also to his misplaced sense that it is best to not upset the apple cart, when he long refused to cut Eddie Scissorhands Johnson or Aaron Elling.

Unfortunately, despite Tice's insistence that he learns from his mistakes, there is no evidence that Tice will take any different approach if asked to resolve the mess of a secondary or linebacking corps that he has orchestrated. Instead, Tice will demurr to Red, then to his defensive coordinator, then to the players. And we will continue to see the same results on the field on Sunday.

Whether talking about a football team, a small business, a large corporation, or a family, someone needs to make clear who is in charge and who takes the orders. And that someone needs to make clear to all what the consequences of repeated failures will be. Tice appears to want none of this, preferring, instead, to downplay consistent mistakes and team gaffes (ironically, with the exception of his own mistakes and gaffes). If that is Tice's preferred modus operandi, and the one that he insists on going with as long as he is head coach, my grandma might be right in saying that Tice is not cut out to be an NFL head coach.


Anonymous said...

Right on.

Anonymous said...

I have asked several other fans this question: What is Tice's specialty, or what is he known for? Most head coaches are either defensive (Smith, Bellichick, Del Rio) or offensive (Vermeil, Holmgren, Sherman). Tice does not run the offense and it is not his system. He sure as heck is not a defensive coach and special teams is not even in his vocabulary. He stresses nothing in particular. So other than wearing pencils as earings and berating those who publically question or criticize him, what does he do for this team? There is a reason beyond Red's frugal ways as to why he is the lowest paid coach in the NFL, he's the least qualified coach ever and has no real identity for this team.

Vikes Geek said...

Tice is an offensive line coach and appears to be pretty good at it. He has taken a line that should be sub par and made it credible. For that, both he and Linehan deserve credit. Of course, as you note, his discrete specialty--as opposed to being an offensive/defensive specialist--meant that Red could pay him less. It also means that relating to managing an entire team will take much more time than it would for a similarly situated coach with broader experience. We suspected this at the outset, now we know it to be fact.


Lichty said...

It is important to note that Tice is not a disappointment. He is about what you would expect -- an enthusiastic, not very good head coach, who is the lowest paid coach in the league. This should not surprise anyone. When you couple that with the fact that he is saddled by the salary-cap minimum philosophy of an owner who will not spend to plug obvious holes on the league's worst defense despite the leauge's best cap health, that does not create a recipe for success.

When Tice was hired, I, like all Vikings fans, were so tired of Dennis Green's games and underacheiving that Tice, despite what we knew would be growing pains, was at least a breath of fresh air. Yeah he was terrible from the outset with his wacky Randy Ratio, and killing Corey Stringer and all that, but at least he wasn't a conspiracy freak like Green, and we always hoped that he would improve, not become great mind you, but improve. He has not.

I think many of us hoped that Tice could at least be an average coach who sometimes outcoached his opponent and sometimes made the right call when it could go either way, and certainly at least had a disciplined team that did not hurt itself. Well I think after three years we know that is not true, but we really couldn't have honestly expected much more, although we did hope. Oh, yes we hoped. Just like most low priced players do not pan out, so do most low paid coaches also fail.

This is not as if he was some whiz-kid like Spurrier, or a bronzed genius like the Tuna failed. Tice was hired because he cost nothing, and you get what you pay for.

I do not expect Tice to be retained, nor do I expect a coaching savant to replace him. Red has proven that he is happy with mediocrity and he will continue to pay for mediocrity. Red will hire on the cheap and continue to use Breszinski to find new and inventive ways to spend the cap minimum and the Vikes will continue to squander their offensive talent and close any window of opportunity this team has.

Vikes Geek said...


I agree whole-heartedly. Though it now appears that, barring an 0-3 finish, Red will retain Tice.

There are some options--Saban (who looks like he is Miami bound), Ferentz (who just signed a huge extension and likely has an expensive by-out clause), Jauron (who is doing well as a coordinator this season), and Fassel (who wants to coach next season and has no coaching contract at present). But you are probably correct in stating that Red will not pay to lure that kind of talent to Minnesota. From a business perspective, it would only make sense for Red to pay the extra $300-500k if fans stopped gobbling up the season tickets regardless of the Vikings' performance. Of course, when you can recover your season ticket expenses by selling your tickets to the Green Bay game to some Packer fan it is tempting enough for fans who drink the koolaid that Red is dishing out.