Thursday, December 16, 2004

Tiring

Yesterday, Vikings' offensive coordinator Scott Linehan related the story of his child having to bear Sean Salisbury's savaging of the elder Linehan on ESPN. "My son used to be a big fan of ESPN. Not any more," Linehan sighed.

Linehan went on to add that, in spite of the numerous criticisms of his trick play that essentially ended the game for the Vikings in their loss to the Seahawks on Sunday, this week has been one of the best of his life. Linehan noted that, in addition to the letters and e-mails that he has received criticizing the particular call, he has also received numerous letters from other coaches around the league telling him, essentially, to keep his chin up. "It's times like this that make you realize who your true friends are," Linehan commented.

These comments, reported on local radio and airwaves, were both made and reported with a sense of redemption. Linehan found redemption in the support of his colleagues. Those reporting the story used the story as an opportunity to do what members of the ratings media do best--rebuild what they spent two days tearing down. Ah, sweet redemption. Even sweeter redemption story.

Or is it?

Lost in all of this tiring blather about Sean Salisbury's nonsensical contention that Linehan's call was the worst of the season--spare us Sean, it wasn't even the worst of the season for the Vikings--is what all of the discussion should be about. The valid criticism of Linehan's game-sealing trick play is three-fold. First, the Vikings had been moving the ball very well on the drive and there was no apparent need to run such a play. Second, the Vikings, particularly under Tice, have a history of failure running trick plays in the clutch. Third, and most important, the trick play was but one of several questionable play calls in the game.

One Play

After Mewelde Moore returned a Seahawks' kickoff to the Vikings' own 27, the Vikings immediately went to work on the weak Seahawks' defense. They began the drive with a short, but nice, nine-yard pass to Kelly Campbell. They then went deep for the fifth time in the game. And, while there was again no chance to complete the pass given Moss' inability to gain downfield separation, the Seahawks' defender inexplicably bumped Moss. The play resulted in a 33-yard gain to the Seattle 31-yard line. On the third play of the drive, the Vikings handed off to Michael Bennett who broke through the Seattle defensive line, as SOD had so capably done earlier in the game when given the opportunity, for an 11-yard gain. And the Vikings appeared poised to ram it down the Seahawks' throats for the remaining twenty yards, eating up game clock en route to handing the 'Hawks their second straight come-from-ahead defeat at the hands of their rushing defense.

But Linehan had other plans. Though traditional pass and running plays clearly were enough to confuse Seattle's defense, Linehan wanted to make sure that Seattle looked not just silly, but really silly, the kind of silly that derives from falling for a fake punt or a reverse pass-option. The result, as we know, was a terrible pass from Moss to the Seattle defender in front of, as opposed to the Seattle defender beside, Moss' target.

Linehan and Vikings' head coach Mike Tice defended the play call, claiming that the Vikings had struggled trying to score throughout the second half. For Tice, and Linehan, this was an appropriate response to such struggles. Then again, appropriateness is defined by one's view of the problem, and Tice, Linehan, and I apparently do not share a common view of the root problem.

One Play With A History and No Future

Part of the problem with the reverse play to Moss at the end of the game is that the Vikings have a terrible history--particularly under Tice--of running reverses. Rarely do the reverses fool the opponent and the Vikings are usually left with a greater yardage deficit than what they faced prior to running the play. Tice defends the use of the reverse, arguing that it keeps the defense honest and helps set up the next play. Fair enough, except when the expected outcome is a game-saving touchdown in the red zone. In such a scenario, there is no next play to set up and there is no chance of keeping a defense "honest" because the field is so short that the defense can easily recover. Which is why teams rarely run reverses in the red zone.

For years, I have pleaded with the Vikings to put the reverse play in mothballs. Undoubtedly, my plea will remain unrequited. Perhaps, however, if there is a silver lining in Sunday's foible, it is that Tice will at least mothball the reverse pass-option in the red zone. Though, again, I am assuming that Tice's lesson learned for week 14 of the 2004 NFL is that such plays rarely work, not that better judgment would have led to a better result on the same type of play.

Broader Context

But the reverse pass-option to Moss, as poorly conceived as it was under the circumstances, was merely symptomatic of a greater problem--Linehan's penchant for traveling down the road of greed. The first and 10 play from the Seahawks' 20-yard line was merely the last in a string of poorly conceived series that the Vikings ran in the second half. Linehan could be criticized for any one of the series, but such criticism ought not miss the fact that the entire second half was poorly called, offensively, at critical junctures. In the end, it was not the failure on the second-to-last drive alone that cost the Vikings on Sunday. Rather, it was the failure in all the drives in the second half--a failure derived from greediness, stubbornness, or mere obliviousness--that led to the Vikings' loss.

Second Half Possessions

The Vikings had six possessions in the second half on Sunday. In total, they ran 24 plays in those six possessions and tallied a single field goal. The rundown of the playcalling suggests why the Vikings had such a limited return in the second half.

The first series of the second half started at the Seahawks' 14-yard line following a rare interception by Brian Russell. The Vikings ran three plays before settling for a Morten Andersen field goal. The first play was a run right--a play that had been successful in the first half and appeared to be a good call. But when the play yielded a mere yard, Linehan, rather than rolling Daunte out of the pocket or using Daunte in a manner in which he has proven eminently effective throughout his career, immediately dialed up two TD-searching passes. Both failed.

The second series of the second half witnessed the most egregious playcalling of the game. After succeeding with a 6-yard run to the left, a 10-yard quick pass to Burleson, and another Bennett rush, this time for four yards, the Vikings were moving the chains at will against the tired, overmatched Seahawk defense. And what did Linehan do? Did he continue mixing the pounding runs with the quick hits? No. Linehan instead called two deep bombs. Neither pass was even in the same area code as a Viking receiver and the Vikings were forced to punt.

On the third series of the second half, Linehan again called for a deep pass, this time on 2nd and 10. Again, the pass fell harmlessly to the turf. The Vikings were again forced to punt.

On the fourth series of the second half, Linehan appeared intent on going back to what had enabled the Vikings to move the ball against the Seahawks, namely, taking what the Seahawks were giving. That meant no bombs to non-existant deep threats and more running and short passing. And it was working until SOD and Daunte botched an exchange.

The final two series of the second half included the reverse pass option series and the poorly managed two-minute drill. Clearly, no points resulted from either drive.

Because the reverse pass-option was bad a bad call in and of itself, the play became a lightning rod for criticism of Linehan. Unfortunately, nobody bothered to meander far enough away from the lightning rod to discuss the reasons why, for the Vikings, operating in the red zone, against a weak defense, Linehan's trick play ought to have stirred up such a hornet's nest.

The pity of the fact that the focus of discussion on the Vikings' trick play on Sunday is on the play itself, rather than on the circumstances and context of the play and other offensive plays in the game, is two-fold. First, it leads the sheep to echo Salisbury's idiotic squeals for Linehan's head on the basis of a single play. Linehan has underperformed this year, but one cannot adopt Salisbury's conclusion on the basis of the information that Salisbury has provided.

Second, and clearly related, focusing exclusively on the reverse pass-option lets Linehan off the hook for what is an increasingly backward moving offense. Over the past two games, the Vikings' offense has scored fewer points after halftime than any team in the NFL, despite the quasi-return of Randy Moss and ample time for Daunte to dance in the pocket. That's fewer points than San Francisco, Detroit, Chicago, Baltimore, Cincinnati, and a whole host of teams that purportedly have nowhere near the "firepower" of the Vikings' offense. And that's deserving of criticism.

Linehan's take on the situation is to dismiss the criticism. "I've learned to block it out," Linehan said, preferring to view the criticism in narrow fashion. "When it [the reverse] works, those same people who are my critics now are calling me a genius."

But Linehan is missing the point. The endeavor should not be to block out criticism, but to weed out valid from invalid criticism. Moreover, the endeavor should be to learn from the criticism, not to twist the criticism into something that it is not for the sake of explanatory convenience. Unfortunately, Linehan has opted to view fan criticism of his playcalling last week in myopic fashion. Rather than consider the broader context of the criticism, Linehan has comforted himself with the view that the criticism is misguided criticism, because "it focuses on one play." But it doesn't just focus on that one play, it focuses on the panoply of questionable playcalling. By dismissing the valid criticism of his playcalling writ large, Linehan runs the risk of blinding himself to his own playcalling mistakes today. And that might cost him in the future.

Up Next: Time to Trade in the Grandfather Clock (Management)


3 comments:

brofro said...

What would your grandma think of this abysmal performance? I think my grandma would concur! Your columns are great. Keep it up.

Vikes Geek said...

Yo yo yo, bro fro.

VG

Anonymous said...

Remember when Jerry Burns would call five statue of liberty plays per game? Remember how they would fail miserably? Burnsie was in a rut.

Linehan is in his own rut now. He wants ten deep balls and three trick plays per game, despite most of them failing miserably.

McCombs, Tice, and Linehan: they're all drinking from the same Kool Aid.

There's still hope. The Lions are up next.

Favre and the Packers might have an off-day. Then the Redskins might give up on the last game. Then the Vikings could pull out a home playoff win. Then they go to Atlanta, and beat the Falcons as the Bucs and Chiefs did, with offensive speed. Then the Eagles have another bad NFC Championship game. The Vikes are in the Super Bowl. The Patriots finessed their way past the Steelers, but the New England secondary is now full of injuries. Culpepper and Moss torch their way to Super Bowl glory.

Yeah right.

The Vikings are stuck in owner and stadium limbo. Until that is resolved, this team is going nowhere.