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.