Coaches love to trot out the pat cliches. In part, this is the result of the reporters' need for a quick take. Realizing that the reporter can/will only use the juiciest part of the interview, coaches simply do the editing for the reporters and try to ensure that what comes out the other end is a sanitized, safe statement.
But coaches also resort to cliches to explain away the inexplicable and the unforeseen. And it is in this respect that Vikings' head coach Mike Tice has so often trotted out the refrain that "it's not how you start, but how you finish that matters."
This year, however, Tice has refrained from using this old stand-by. And that is no surprising turn of events. For if the finish is what makes the difference, what defines a team's mettle, then this Vikings' team is one of the poorest performing teams of all time. After last season's collapse, a collapse not cemented until the miraculous come-from-ahead defeat to the Arizona Cardinals, Tice chided members of the local media for writing off the Vikings too soon. Tice's favorite cliche was that the Vikings still controlled their own destiny.
Tice stuck with that line this year, even after a 5-1 start soured to a 7-6 record. From the Giants' game through the dismal performance in Chicago, Tice insisted that this year's Vikings' team was different from the team that collapsed last year and missed the playoffs. And, despite the home loss to Green Bay on Friday, Tice continues to imply that the Vikings are on track to accomplish their ultimate goal--winning the Super Bowl.
Despite this genuine/feigned confidence, there is little reason to believe that the Vikings are capable of winning the Super Bowl this year, even if they make the playoffs. Despite playing in the Sisters-of-the-Poor Conference, the Vikings appear far too inept to quash any marginally competent competition, particularly on the road. And opposing teams understand this all too well.
Opponents have two options against the Vikings. The first option, preferred by the Giants this season, and the Rams in past seasons, is to elicit a Vikings' surrender early. Atlanta and Philly are two playoff teams that have the potential to take this approach this year. Should the Vikings make the playoffs, the other NFC playoff contestants likely will need to opt for the second approach. Under this latter approach to defeating Minnesota, the key for opposing teams is to simply stay close enough to win the game on the final possession. The Vikings' offense has colluded with the defense to ensure that, whether a high- or low-scoring affair, the Vikings will be close to their opponents in the waning moments of any meaningful game. And the defense, not to be relegated to mere co-conspirator status, has ensured that such games will end in defeat.
Recent Vikings' history not only supports the collusion theory, but also a more devious scheme. Under this scheme, the Vikings' coaching staff is even in on the fix, ensuring that a team capable of going 5-1 to start the season collapses under the weight of questionable decision-making and lack of attention to fundamentals.
Whether judged from a game by game or season-long perspective, the Vikings have not finished well. Not by their standards. Not by the NFL's standards.
For the past two seasons, the Vikings have taken a near-certain, season-starting, winning record, and turned it into a scramble for the remaining playoff spot. Last year, the Vikings began 6-1 and, despite playing the dregs of the NFL in the latter half of their season, finished the season a dismal 3-6. This year, the Vikings again started quickly, building a 5-1 record. And, again, the Vikings have finished meakly, with their loss last Friday sending them to a 3-6 record since their 5-1 beginning. The cherry on top of this year's collapse was head coach Mike Tice's comment after the Jacksonville game that the Vikings should be able to "run the table." Instead, they barely made it to the table.
That's not how the Vikings' sold this year's team. Instead, from the front office, to the coaches' office, to the lockerroom, the Vikings promised that this year would be different. And they promised that the difference would be measurable not only in moral victories, but in absolute victories. That has not happened.
And while the playoff bound teams are making their case to be in the playoffs with late-season pushes, the Vikings, yet again, are crossing their fingers and hoping that someone else messes up, that someone else steps on their own throat and lets the Vikings into the playoffs.
The Vikings have adopted this agenda because it is now clear that they are incapable of winning games that matter, particularly if they are playoff-spot clinching games. So, it undoubtedly is with a sense of looming failure that the Vikings prepare for their game at Washington next Sunday. Win and they are in the playoffs. Lose and they probably go home.
And if the Vikings are left soul-searching next Sunday evening, they need look no further than the nearest mirror, because they will have nobody to blame but themselves. For once in the history of sports, a team will be able to resort to this cliche and everyone around will nod in agreement. Three times in their past six losses, the Vikings have lost on a game-winning, length of the field drive capped by a field goal. And in each of those three losses, any one of which would have put the Vikings in the playoffs by now, the Vikings made critical, fundamental mistakes on offense and defense.
And that might be the difference between a playoff season and finishing another season at home.
Up Next: Daunte's Pocket Penchant, Penalties, and the Playoffs.