Saturday, December 25, 2004

Microcosm of a Season

With 3:34 remaining on the game clock and the Vikings and Packers tied at 31-31, the Vikings began a drive that would encapsulate their season. No, the drive would not end in a score. Nor would the drive end in a three and out. And we know that, where appropriateness is concerned, neither of those types of drives would suffice to capture the futility that has been the Vikings' season.

Instead, with the game on the line, the Vikings managed to achieve something that eclipsed both a scoring drive and a three and out series. The Vikings embarked on a drive that demonstrated all that is both good and bad with this team. And they accomplished this feat by doing something the Vikings have grown quite adept at over the past three seasons; they accomplished this feat by collapsing on all cylinders after appearing unstoppable.

The Vikings' final drive started well enough, as is often the case with this bunch. Minnesota's newest bright star, Mewelde Moore, returned Green Bay's post-easy-touchdown-against-a-ridiculously-backpedaling E.J. Henderson 22 yards to the 33-yard line. Prior to the first snap of the drive, Green Bay, as it is inclined to do this season, granted the Vikings 5 extra yards courtesy of a defensive penalty.

All to the good, some Vikings' fans thought. After all, with three minutes and change left, and facing a porous defense, what could stop the Vikings from running time off the clock before settling for a game-winning field game? Surely the Vikings could move the ball the forty yards or so necessary for Morten Andersen to squeeze a field goal out of his leg. That's how the young fans approached the drive.

But such is not the mindset of the ardent Vikings' fan. The ardent fan frets that, no matter the circumstances, no matter how good things appear, there is always time to blow a sure thing. And, true to form, the ardent fan proved prophetic.

After Michael Bennett galloped for 11 yards in what is becoming a very interesting come-back performance, Sean Berton picked the most critical drive of the season, to date, to pick up yet another false start penalty. The penalty pushed the Vikings back to their 45. Not to be outdone, the Vikings' offensive anchor, Matt Birk, pulled out a holding penalty that caused even Joe Sensor, the grandest of all homers, to admit that Birk's holding penalty was "blatant." The penalty moved the Vikings back to their own 35 and put them in 2nd and 25.

Despite repeating the mistakes of past games on a critical drive by committing two unnecessary penalties, there was still hope. Notwithstanding the odds against converting a 2nd and 25, the Vikings were facing, after all, one of the sorriest defenses to play NFL football. In the first half, the Vikings routinely cut through the Packers' defense any which way they pleased. And the Packers had done nothing in the second half to demonstrate that they were capable of stopping Minnesota.

Packers' fans hoped against hope that their sorry excuse for a defense could find the ability to make a stop. Knowing better, the Packers instead relied on their ace in the hole, their trump card, for stopping the Vikings. They relied on the Vikings.

On 2nd and 25, needing a field goal to win the game and, presumbaly, understanding that the clock was their ally, the Vikings had options. They could run a screen to Bennett. That had been good for big chunks of yardage all day. They could throw a pass to Wiggins in the flat. That was left uncovered all day. Or they could run a slant to Burleson, a play on which Burleson ate up the opposing defense all day long.

Or, the Vikings could do what the Vikings always do when faced with a bit of pressure in the clutch. They could close their eyes, click their heals, chuck the ball deep into double coverage, and pray for a miracle. Not because they needed a miracle. Not because there were not numerous prudent alternatives. But because that is what this Vikings' team does. Rather than make the wise choice, this team makes the choice that will make them look like savants only if the play--against all odds--somehow works.

On Friday, the deep bomb into tight double coverage, for the umpteenth time this season--out of umpteenth and one tries, did not work. And that left the Vikings to ponder an approach to 3rd and 25.

On 3rd and 25, the Vikings ran one of the many plays that they ought to have considered running on 2nd and 25, dumping a short pass to Wiggins. Wiggins did his best to destroy the Vikings' march toward destiny, rambling, hurdling, and stretching for as many yards as he could accrue. But it was all for nought, as he crumpled to the ground a good five yards short of a first down.

Vikings' fans understood all too well what that meant. We were witnessing a "coaching moment." One of those rare instances in the course of the season when a single decision by the head coach literally can make or break the season. To nobody's suprise, Tice chose the easy path, the path toward the broken season.

Few people are likely to call out Tice for opting to punt on 4th and 5 from the Green Bay 45 with 1:35 left in regulation and the score tied. After all, if the Vikings failed to pick up a first down, the Packers would need only twenty yards to get within range for a game-winning field goal attempt by Ryan Longwell. Moreover, Darren Bennett had been having a spectacular game punting and the cover teams were mostly covering. Maybe Tice was thinking that Bennett could pin the Packers deep in their end and force another erratic pass from Favre.

But that gives Tice too much credit, because Tice, having experienced this scenario week-in and week-out for nearly three years, should have known better. He should have known what ardent and new Vikings' fans alike know and understand all too well. Tice should have known that there was only one way to win the game at that point. And that one way was to convert on 4th and 5.

The Vikings could not, would not, and will not stop any quarterback in the league on a game ending drive for a clinching field goal. Not this year. And Tice had ample evidence to understand this. He could harken back to the Houston game when David Carr rallied the Texans for a game-tying touchdown to send the game into overtime. He could have recounted the Indianapolis game when the Colts marched down the field for the game-winning field goal with no time remaining. He could have recall the first Green Bay game when the Packers did the same. Or he could have recounted the Detroit game in which the Lions, on the back of Joey Harrington, marched down the field to nearly tie the score. Tice even could have recollected the Bears' furious charge in week three in which only the expiration of the game clock kept the Bears from winning. But he did not.

But why would Tice think that this game was any different? Why would he believe that the Vikings would keep the Packers, with one of the most dependable quarterbacks and most accurate kickers in the game, out of field goal range? Why?

The answer is that Tice is a to-form coach. "I have charts," Tice is wont to say, "that tell me what to do in [insert the situation]." Undoubtedly, if Tice is asked the question this week, he will derisively laugh off the insinuation that he should have tried to convert the 4th and 5 from the Packers' 45. "That," Tice would surely snap, "is plain stupid.""Alls I've gotta do is look at the stats," he will scowl. "And I'm pretty good at reading stats. They say punt in that situation. Bennett had kicked well. Our defense had just picked Favre. It would be crazy to give the Packers the ball at the 45. Stupid football [emphasis on "football"]."

But, as is often the case, Tice would miss the forest for the trees. What Tice would fail to grasp is that statistics are nice for identifying possible trends in such situations, but they are particularly unreliable when applied to a specific situation and a specific team. Yes, the average NFL team, with an average NFL defense, facing an average NFL offense, and an average NFL quarterback, should punt in that situation. But the Vikings are a well-below-average NFL defense and were facing a well-above-average NFL offense. And that required Tice to look at the statistics in a different light, to recognize that the statistics lied as they applied to the Vikings with 1:35 remaining in a tied game against the Packers.

Tice should have picked up the stats on that call and thrown them in the garbage, because, as we knew--as every single NFL fan, young or old, wise or naive, alert or comatose knew--the Vikings were not going to stop Green Bay no matter how far Green Bay had to go. It was not going to happen. We knew this not just on gut instinct, but because, in an unfathomable four similar circumstances this season, the Vikings' defense has failed to make the necessary stop at the end of the game.

We no longer care about the reason--whether the defense was too slow, too stupid, too tired--it just doesn't matter. What matters is mitigation. Tice had a chance to mitigate the damage to the Vikings' season on Friday by trying for the first down on 4th and 5 from the Green Bay 45. He had a chance to play to win, rather than praying not to lose. Tice elected to go by the book, the book written for other teams in other situations, and to punt. The outcome was not only predictable, but nearly etched in stone pre-punt.

And that pretty much sums up the season to date.

Up Next: Penalties, Bennett, and the Secondary.


Jamison said...

Thank you, VG! I've been preaching the exact same thing to anyone that would listen (and a few who wouldn't, but I didn't care) about that 4th down call. There was not a moments hesitation after that great, gutsy effort by Wiggens before Tice sent out the punting unit. I yelled, "Vikes lose!"

Some extra points of emphasis. Even if Vikes "defense" had managed to somehow miraculously stop them on the final drive, there would not have been enough time to get the ball back and score. So they only had a 50% chance of getting the ball back again in overtime with the coin flip. Much more importantly, there was absolutely no reason to even hope that the Vikes would stop Favre and the number three offense in the league one week after flu-ridden Joey-freaking-Harrington marched the ball down the field against them in the same situation WITH NO TIMEOUTS REMAINING AND NEEDING A TD, not just a field goal.

Even more importantly, this is for a championship. You play to your strengths. Do you want to put the ball in the hands of Culpepper and your top-rated offense against one of the worst defenses in the league or rely on your sad excuse for a defense that has failed you in this exact same situation every single time and is going up against the third best offense in the league, with a future hall of fame QB that has made a career of succeeding in situations like this? This was the championship. Play to your strengths. Play to win. TMQ's "mincing, fraidy-cat punt" phrase came to mind.

Infuriating. What is strange is that I haven't found anybody else talking about this. Not a word in the Strib about it. I didn't hear anybody ask Tice about it in any post game shows and no word of a righteous, torch-bearing mob meeting at Tice's house to run him out of the state (odd, that).

Anonymous said...

Tice will stay another year, reports are saying. McCombs picked up the extension on his contract.

Well, the upside of this is that Tice will probably keep Linehan, who is good, and Cottrell, who is not bad. Cottrell in particular needs to stay so the defense will finally get some continuity. They've had too many DCs in recent years.

Next year, the defensive personel will get more experience, which will help in the post-Tice era, beginning with the 2006 season, and the offensive line might improve slightly.

The other upside of this is that in this year's Wild Car round the current crop of players will get some playoff experience, unless the Eagles lay an egg against the Rams tonight.

There is no chance the Purple & Gold can win another game this year.

All that we can hope for now is that we get a good draft, keep our good players, and that Red sells the team by the end of next season. That way we can get an owner who cares about winning and therefore one who inevitably fires Mike Tice.

Next year the Vikings will go 7-9 at best.

Go Vikes. Rah.

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