Friday, December 31, 2004

And This Year, I Promise to Make a Tackle

The Vikings have had numerous struggles this season. At the beginning of the year, a rash of injuries hit the team. First there was Michael Bennett, still recovering from surgery. Then there was the curious case of starting cornerback Ken Irvin, who was snagged by some poorly laid turf. Next were Mike Rosenthal and Jim Kleinsasser, both sidelined for the season with leg injuries. And the injuries seemed to keep coming, with Randy Moss pulling a hammy, Matt Birk pulling both groins (ouch!), SOD slipping a joint, Raonall Smith hurting his head, Chris Claiborne hurting something/everything, and Antoine Winfield wrenching his ankle.

While the Vikings were able to overcome, to a degree, injuries to Bennett, Rosenthal, Kleinsasser, Birk, and Moss, as well as the vacation of SOD, they were completely overwhelmed by the losses of Irvin, Claiborne, Smith, and Winfield. Need a sub for Kleinsasser? No problem, take Jermaine Wiggins. Need a sub for Bennett? Use SOD. SOD out fishing? Try Mewelde Moore. What about Rosenthal? How about a couple of nobodys? Sounds good. Birk still hurtin'? Slip in Corey Withrow. Moss down? Use Burleson more.

And the changes on offense seemed to work, at least when the Vikings gave themselves a chance by calling sensible plays and committing a less-than-absurd number of offensive penalties (see, e.g., false start penalties).

The same cannot be said of the defense, however, where every injury seemed to magnify itself. For every one injury, the Vikings played as though they had just incurred injuries to three All-Pro starters. That meant one injury was bad. Several? Well, that was simply impossible to overcome.

But it hasn't merely been the injuries that has hurt the Vikings' defense this season. It also has been the lack of performance by last year's starters and second- and first-year players whom the coaching staff expected to make a difference.

Failed Promise

It wasn't supposed to be this way. The Vikings were not supposed to be the team that allowed nobody quarterbacks to set personal bests for passer rating, TDs, and completion percentage. No, the Vikings' defense was not supposed to look like it has for the past four season.

At the beginning of the season, Vikings' head coach Mike Tice stated that the Vikings were "very deep at linebacker" and finally stocked with a "full stable" in the secondary. The Vikings were so giddy about their defense, in fact, that Tice stated that, had the Vikings not signed Winfield they would have gone with what they had. [Shudder.] Tice added that the first-year linebackers were really going to push the starters. Cottrell chimed in that, given the depth at linebacker, the Vikings would even use some 3-4 packages. Everything sounded rosey.

But the smell did not match the pontificating.

We understood that Tice and Cottrell were a bit affected when they made their statements. They had to be, we assumed, if they thought that they could put four legitimate linebackers on the field, or if they thought that the secondary was tight. But if the coaches were still buying their own pitch, Claiborne's and Irvin's absence immediately demonstrated how misguided the promo was.

Without Claiborne in the lineup, the Vikings were forced to start two second-year players and a rookie. One of the second-year players, E.J. Henderson--he of less than one year of experience at a position usually manned by a player with five or more years of experience--started at middle linebacker. His back-peddaling at the two-yard line against Green Bay pretty much sums up how well Henderson has played that position.

Flanking Henderson for much of the season were Donterrious Thomas, a rookie, and Raonall Smith/Mike Nattiel/Willie Offord/Chris Claiborne/etc. The recipe for disaster had been written before the season began, when the coaching staff saw fit to enter the season with a linebacking corps so green that they made green appealing. But the disaster did not hit full force until the regular season began. That's when Vinny Methuselah dissected the middle against Minnesota. Then Donovan McNabb did the same. And the rest of the opposition followed suit. All setting records.


But, as inexperienced (Tice's word) as the Vikings' linebackers have been this season, the utter disaster that they have been through most of the season is, in large part, the result of a near-complete lack of pass support. The defense is allowed, after all, to use 11 players. That helps them match up with the 11 players on the offensive side of the ball. Sometimes the Vikings opt to use only 10--once using only 9. But they are permitted to use 11 and generally do so.

A head count of the front four and the 3 linebackers, however, shows that the Vikings still have 4 openings on the defensive side of the ball. Those openings, the Vikings tell us, are reserved for 2 cornerbacks and 2 safeties. And sure enough, the Vikings trot out 2 corners and 2 safeties for every game.

But if the Vikings have 2 corners and 2 safeties in the game at all times (sometimes as many as 4 corners), where is the support? Where are the safeties and the corners on running plays? Where are they on pass plays? Do they make plays?

That is the critical question. And that is the question that I answer today with an emphatic. . . almost never.

The NFL lists 344 cornerbacks and safeties on team rosters this season. Most starters fall within the top 120 of the league in all categories. The league's interception leader has 9 picks this season. That's one more than the Vikings' entire secondary. The Vikings' INT leader is Winfield, who has three picks this season. That ties him for 40th in the league. Brian Williams is next, tied with a host of others for 61st with 2 picks. Corey Chavous, Brian Russell, and Terrance Shaw all fall outside the top 100 with one pick each. Dreadful.

And it is not as though these guys are picking up the slack elsewhere. The only other meaningful statistic that the NFL provides for the secondary is tackles. And none of the members of the Vikings' has exactly blown away the field in this category. Winfield ranks 23rd in tackles (84) and Russell pulls in at number 30 (79), with Chavous close behind at 33 (77), and Brian Williams bringing up the rear at 65 (66). But even these relatively gaudy numbers are misleading for the Vikings.

Lest you think that these numbers show promise, that these numbers reflect a respectable performance by the secondary, consider that the Vikings' linebackers are dead last in the NFL in tackles made by a linebacking corp. That means one of two things, either the linemen are making all the tackles--which never happens, particularly when teams rely heavily on the pass as they often do against the Vikings--or the secondary is making the tackles. But if the line is not making the tackles, and the linebackers are not making the tackles, and the secondary is not making the tackles. . . .

Well, you get the point.

The Vikings' undoubtedly have problems at linebacker this year. Henderson currently appears unable to handle the middle linebacker duties, Claiborne cannot stay healthy, and the starters are most other teams' taxi squad players or end-of-the-benchers. This group has upside, but they clearly were not ready to assume linebacker duties this season. And they clearly have provided much opportunity for the secondary to put up some outrageous tackle numbers. But that has not happened.

The poor play of the linebackers could have been off-set enough to make the Vikings' defense competitive if only the secondary had done something. Anything. Instead, the Vikings have a secondary that either over-achieved by leaps and bounds last year or simply is not very good. I suspect the answer is somewhere between these two possibilities, though, given the evidence to date, it appears that it weighs more towards the latter. Which means that, if the Vikings are to improve next season, they not only need to upgrade the linebacking corps--how do Ian Gold and Jeremiah Trotter look now?--they also need to upgrade their secondary.

Fred Smoot anyone?

Up Next: Preview of the 'Skins game. Can the Vikings find a way to exploit a Washington team missing three of its key players?

Tuesday, December 28, 2004


Since week eight of the NFL season, the Vikings' coaching staff has resorted to a familiar old cliche. "If we had just made one more play--one more play--we would have won the game." The staff has carried this cliche forward, trotting it out after losses in six of their past nine games. Viking players have even gotten in on the act, mimicking proudly the coaches' favorite new line. Even Bud Grant, upon whom Vikings' head coach Mike Tice called to give a pre-game pep talk, suggested--as the story goes--that the Vikings simply make that one more play.

I would be remiss if I failed to note that, at least figuratively, the Vikings' coaches and players largely have been correct in their assessment of needing to make one more play to turn what was a loss into what would/could have been a victory. This undoubtedly applies to the loss at Indianapolis, the loss at Lambeau, the loss to Seattle, and the loss, at home, to Green Bay. Each of those losses involved late scoring plays by the opposition and each loss was by less than one touchdown--less than "one play."

But while it likely is true that the Vikings have been the victims of their inability to make "one more play," the cliche is both tiring and disingenuous. It is tiring because it is used after every loss and the losses continue to mount. It is disingenuous because it both states the obvious and oversimplifies the context.

Virtually every team that loses a game in the NFL--save for the lowly 49ers--can state that if only they had made one more play they would have emerged victorious in nearly every one of their losses. That's true because the winning margin of victory in the NFL is less than a touchdown and nearly every team can point to at least one touchdown per game as the "losing score."

But this also means that teams can stretch the point even more and still fall within the realm of theoretic correctness. If, for example, a team turns the ball over inside the red zone when trailing by a touchdown, and the opposing team marches for a TD, the losing coachcan contend that, had his team made just one more play--the play, presumably, that would have knotted the score, but for the turnover--his team would have won. This sounds good. It appeals to the fans' desperation. It soothes things over. But it doesn't really make much sense because it presumes an outcome that we cannot know.

But the statement becomes even more ridiculous when one factors in the fact that most NFL games have between 90 and 100 plays. Are the Vikings contending that, but for one play out of the 90 to 100 plays, they would have won the game? No. What the Vikings are contending is even more ludicrous, as they are claiming that their losses really came down to a failure to stop the opponent on just one more play.

But the Vikings' losses have been attributable than far more than the inability to make just one more play, unless we have the luxury of holding constant all other outcomes in the game. And the game against the Colts provides the perfect vehicle to demonstrate the point.

After the Indianapolis game, Tice claimed that the Vikings lost because they did not make one more play. Really? Which play was that? Was it the first TD? The second TD? The third TD? The fourth TD? Or was it the final dagger, the game-winning FG?

Presumably, Tice meant that, had the Vikings stopped the Colts on their game-winning drive, the Vikings would have won (Tice implies that the Vikings would have won, but, of course, that would have required the Vikings to make at least two more plays. So I will stick with Tice's intention, even if what he intended was also impossible).

But even on the game-winning drive, Tice's claim is improbable, if not impossible. To what play in that drive could Tice have been referring? Was it Peyton Manning's 15-yard run to the Minnesota 41? Was it the Lance Johnstone 15-yard roughing penalty on the same play? Was it the 6-yard completion to James on 3rd and 5 from the Minnesota 21--already well withing Vanderjagt's field-goal range. Or was it the failure to block the field goal attempt--a virtual non-occurrence on field goal attempts of less than forty yards?

The answer is that, in truth, it was none of the above. The Vikings lost to the Colts because they failed to make numerous plays. And their failure to make numerous plays was spread throughout the game. This is the same reason that they lost any of their other games. Whether being blown out by the Giants, beaten at the wire by the Colts and Packers, or losing by some other method, the Vikings have lost games this season because, despite numerous opportunities to make routine plays, the Vikings failed.

No one play sealed a loss for the Vikings in any one game this season. Instead, the losses have resulted from an amalgamation of missed plays. What was true against the Colts was true of the losses to Green Bay. The Vikings did not lose because they failed to make one more play, they failed, much more precisely, because they failed to make numerous plays. And that goes to as much to the performance of individual players as it does to coaching.

Up Next: Vikings' Defensive Personnel. Playmakers or Shot Takers?

Bending and Breaking

As the Vikings struggle to make the playoffs this season, there are several flaws to which they can look with regret. First and foremost, of course, is the consistently poor play of the defense. Second is the erratic performance of the offense. Third is the heretofore poor play of the special teams. And fourth is the questionable coaching at critical moments.

That, in a nut shell, is how a team with enough talent to beat any team in the NFL has also shown a remarkable ability to lose to any team in the NFL. And that is how a team that should have sewn up a high playoff berth several weeks ago enters the final week of the season gasping for its playoff life.

While examining the macro issues helps make quick sense of what has brought the Vikings to the precipice of playoff extinction circa 2004, examination of the micro issues sheds light on how the macro issues have come to be. And that might shed some light on how, next season, the Vikings might find themselves in a more comfortable position one week removed from the opening of the NFL playoffs.

I begin, today, with Part I of my macro/micro analysis of the defensive play. I follow with Part II tomorrow, focusing on individual players and plays. On Thursday, I delve into an analysis of the offensive play. I conclude Friday with an analysis of the special teams' play. As for coaching, well, that merits either an entire month of commentary or a single word. I'll leave that to the readers to determine.

The Mac on D

The Vikings have been a season-long nightmare on defense, surrendering an average of 24.93 points per game. That is good enough, or bad enough, to rank the Vikings 25th out of 32 teams in points allowed per game. Only Cleveland, Dallas, New Orleans, Kansas City, Tennessee, Oakland, and San Francisco allow more points per game, and only the latter four allow more than one point more per game than does Minnesota. Not coincidentally, those seven teams have a combined record of 34-71. Leave it to the Vikings to join such company despite superior talent and a winning record.

In contrast, the team that allows the fewest points per game, Philadelphia, allows only 14.8 points per game, eleven teams allow fewer than 20 points per game, and the league average is approximately 21 points per game. In a league in which the average margin of victory is less than a touchdown, the Vikings' defensive weakness is thus even more glaring, forcing the Vikings to score nearly a TD more per game than the league average merely to keep pace, let alone to win.

But if that is not enough to make your eyes water, the Vikings' numbers actually look far worse when adjusted for the futility of the opposition's offense. Of the Vikings' 2004 opponents, only Indianapolis (33.9), Green Bay (26.2), Philadelphia (25.1), and Seattle (22.9) average more points per game than the league average. Against those four teams, the Vikings allowed 31 (Colts), 34 (Packers), 34 (Packers), 27 (Eagles), and 27 (Seattle) points, all, with the exception of the Colts, above each respective team's season average. And the 31 points allowed the Colts hardly constitutes a defensive bloodletting.

But Minnesota has not been content to merely suffer the offensive onslaughts of the league's bettter offenses, deferring even to the most miserable of miserable offenses. Against the rest of its opposition in 2004, Minnesota has held only one opponent--Tennessee--below its season average, and that result was largely the consequence of facing a QB by the name of Billy Volek. Dallas hit its season average, Chicago outscored its season average by totals of 8 and 10 points, Houston outscored its season average by 8 points, New Orleans by 10, the NY Giants by 14, and Detroit by 1 and 9.

That's not just bending, as Tice contends. That's breaking.

Tomorrow, I look at how this has been possible--what, specifically, has caused the Vikings' defense to break so consistently. And perhaps we shall uncover what changes need/should be made to ensure that the Vikings' 2005 defense merely bends.

Sunday, December 26, 2004

"It's Not How You Start But How You Finish. . . "

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.

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.

Friday, December 24, 2004


Putrid is as putrid does.

In the first half of the Vikings'-Packers' game today, there have been several things that merit reconition as putrid. And, for the first time in recent Vikings' history, the Vikings do not figure in any of the top three most putrid game moments.

The Putrid:

1. Green Bay's Defense. What else can be said about a unit that has allowed three long plays in the first half? The Packers gave up the first Vikings' TD courtesy a Jermaine Wiggins 13-yard reception, when the Vikings were buried deep in their own end, and a 42-yard Burleson reception. Daunte's roll-out TD pass to Moss capped the waltz.

Green Bay's defense outdid itself on the Vikings' next two possessions, however, permitting two long scoring plays. The first TD came on a 68-yard pass to Burleson, a play during which Moss provided just enough interference with Al Harris to ensure that Harris could not make the play on Burleson and that Moss would not receive an illegal blocking penalty from the penalty-happy officiating crew.

The Vikings' third TD also came courtesy of a porous Green Bay defense, as Michael Bennett broke a tackle and juked two defenders en route to the endzone. On the play, Green Bay's last line of defense (#24) looked like a whirling dervish as he feigned an ability to make the tackle.

2. Packers' Head Coach Mike Sherman. Sherman had so little respect for the Vikings' ability to stop his team in the clutch that he opted to use both challenges in the first half despite having visual evidence that the challenge would not stand. The first challenge of the Favre fumble was ridiculous and recalled similar Tice challenges made out of sheer desperation. The second challenge was almost as bad if for no other reason than that the replay made clear that the ball did not touch the endzone line. We shall see if the loss of both challenges hurts the Packers in the second half. My guess is that it will.

3. Officials. The officiating crew for today's game has taken it upon itself to focus on ticky-tack calls while ignoring the egregious. On Burleson's 42-yard gain, the crew missed the Packer defender's mauling of Burleson prior to the pass. Had Burleson not righted himself, this would have been a more significant oversight. Fortunately, it is just a bitching and moaning point, made even more poignant when, on a subsequent play, the officials called the Vikings for lining up in the neutral zone--a call virtually never made.

The officials also ceded the Packers three points with the ridiculous time out for measurement that they called at the end of the half. The Packers may have been able to set and spike the ball, but that should be on Green Bay, not on the officiating crew.

4. Vikings' Pass Defense. Bad. Nothing else need be said. This better improve or the Vikings may be home for the playoffs.

5. Rushen Jones. Come on!

Up Next: Rewind.

Disinterested Interest?

Despite the ramifications, it is difficult to get too excited about today's Vikings'-Packers' game. A Vikings' victory means that the Vikings win the NFC North and play at home in the first round of the playoffs. A Vikings' loss means that the Vikings still will probably make the playoffs but that any Vikings' first round game will be on the road.

The Vikings stand a good chance of defeating the Packers today at the Metrodome. And I am far from the only party to believe this to be the case. Vikings fans sense a victory is in the offing, odds makers have the Vikings as minus 3, and even the Packers' coaching staff seem to believe that they are in for defeat. In his weekly press conference, Packers' head coach Mike Sherman sounded desperate when speaking of this contest in the wake of Green Bay's demoralizing home loss last week to the Jacksonville Jaguars. "We need to find a way to win that game," the coach somberly stated, hardly eliciting much cause de celebre in Packerland.

But do we truly have any more reason to get overly excited in Viking country? Not really.

The Vikings ought to win today. Some consider that a reason for celebration. But if the Vikings win today, they enter the playoffs as the number three or four seed. That means that the Vikings likely will host Seattle, St. Louis, Green Bay, or a team coming off of a winning streak into the playoffs. How would the Vikings fair against any of that competition? Seattle has already beaten Minnesota, St. Louis always beats Minnesota, Green Bay seems to pull out the games that most matter against Minnesota, and a team on a winning streak usually has an edge against this version of the Vikings.

But I will leave for later the even more sobering possibilities should the Vikings emerge victorious from the first round of the playoffs. Because, at least for a day, I will bask in the pre-glow of what should be a Vikings' victory over the Green Bay Packers on Christmas Eve.

Friday's Tilt

When the Vikings and Packers last met, the Packers emerged with a 34-31 victory, on the strength of a solid kicking game, an adept two-minute offense, solid quarterback play, and the generosity that was the blindness of an NFL-officiating crew. But even more important in sealing the Vikings' fate in the last match-up of these two teams was the weakness of the Vikings' defense. There will be significant differences in personnel this week, however, differences that should tilt the game in the Vikings' favor.

Unpack the Bags

The first difference between this week's game and the Vikings' last game at Lambeau Field is that this game is at the Metrodome. The Packers mostly have played horribly at the Dome, with a record of 2-4 in the past six seasons under Brett Favre. Many of the Vikings' wins have been routes. Although the Vikings have not exactly held serve on their home field this season--losing to the Giants and Seahawks in games in which the Vikings were even bigger favorites than they are against the Packers today--neither the Giants or Seahawks can be counted on to go down for the count upon entering the Dome.

But while the home field advantage is admittedly less of an advantage for the Purple this year than it has been in past seasons, there are other distinctions between the game today and November's game at Lambeau that favor the Vikings. And each of these advantages has a name.

Randy Moss

In the November match-up between NFC North rivals, Randy Moss was unavailable due to a hamstring injury. Nevertheless, Daunte Culpepper threw for 363 yards and four TDs. In Moss' absence, Culpepper's favorite target was Nate Burleson, who caught 11 passes for 141 yards.

In today's game, Culpepper will not only have Burleson, but also Moss, who appears nearly fully recovered from his hamstring injury. Moss' 82-yard TD reception last week should frighten the secondary-challenged Packers, who are certain to play cover-two and three against Moss, lest they be burned early and often for long TDs. And that should open up the field for Burleson, and maybe even for Marcus Robinson and Kelly Campbell.

Am I the only one licking my chops at the prospect of Ahmad Carroll "helping" in coverage?

Jermaine Wiggins

Moss' presence will not only leave Burleson in single--perhaps even in a virtual no-coverage zone--but also should leave Jermaine Wiggins wide open in the flat the entire day. The key for the Vikings is to use Moss and Burleson to clear out space for Wiggins. Typically, the linebackers cover the tight end. But Wiggins has proven that he is not the typical tight end, and the Packers have proven that their linebackers are below the standard for a typical cover linebacker. The mismatch that Wiggins creates, particularly in the 10-15 yard range, is a potential nightmare II in the making for the Packers. The only hope for the Packers against Wiggins is that the Vikings simply fail to call Wiggins' number or that the officials permit the Packers to mug Wiggins, neither of which is entirely unlikely.

Kevin Williams

In the first ten games this season, Kevin Williams had 6 sacks and 41 tackles, for an average of .6 sacks and 4.1 tackles per game. In the last four games, Williams has recorded 4 sacks and 19 tackles, for an average of 1 sack and 4.75 tackles per game. Largely on the strength of this uptick in defensive performance, Williams earned his firt trip to the Pro Bowl in just his second season. Williams should help stop the Packers' running game and put pressure on the suddenly vulnerable Favre. And that could give the Vikings' just enough defense to keep ahead of the Packers' offense.

Spencer Johnson

Williams should receive help from the Vikings' mid-season find, tackle Spencer Johnson. Johnson, who split time in the first Vikings'-Packers' match-up with Chris Hovan, is now the full-time starter. Johnson appears to be a significant upgrade over Hovan, eclipsing Hovan's season tackle totals even though inactive for the first seven games of the season, and should help draw double coverage away from Williams. Additionally, at 6-3, 286 pounds, Johnson offers fair quickness, combined with height, range, and girth, all of which allows him to block passes at the line, put pressure on the quarterback, and stuff the run--things that Hovan has not done for the past two seasons.

Mewelde Moore

Mewelde Moore's season essentially started when he was named the starter at running back against the Houston Texans. In his debut, Moore rushed for 92 yards on 20 carries for a 4.6-yard average. In his next two games, Moore rushed 35 times for 237 yards, a 6.8-yard average. With that, Moore looked to be quite a find.

But against the Giants, the Vikings assumed an early and large deficit and Moore carried just 9 times for 29 yards. The following week, Moore was inactive. Vikings' head coach Mike Tice insisted that Moore's status was the result of injury. Moore had no comment. For the next six weeks, Moore was inactive, Tice claimed Moore was injured, and Moore had no comment.

Against the Lions in week 15, with Burleson and Campbell struggling to return kicks, Tice started Moore as the return man. And Moore dazzled. If not for a phantom call on a 62-yard return, Moore easily would have had the best stat lines of the day. As it was, Moore's stats were merely refreshing, as was his up-field, hard running approach on kick/punt returns. And where Moore succeeded against the purportedly strong Detroit cover teams, he should flourish against the less capable Packers' coverage teams, which should only emboldened a well-positioned Vikings' offense and create more nightmares for an already suspect Packers' defense.

Many Happy Returns

Along with the new faces and improved play of certain Vikings' players, the Vikings welcome back two significant players this week, Matt Birk and Antoine Winfield. Birk should help settle what has become an erratic offensive line and allow the Vikings to use fewer two tight end sets. That will allow the Vikings to employ more three-receiver sets, stretch the field more, and provide Daunte more time by forcing the Packers to limit their blitzing.

Winfield's return, though no panacea for the weak secondary, is better than the alternative of Derek Ross. At a minimum, Winfield poses an obstacle to Favre. Ross could not make anywhere near the same claim. Unfortunately, Ross' release earlier this week will mean that his replacement, Rushen Jones, will be required to play in dime situations, and the Packers can dictate dime coverage--because Tice and Cotrell refuse to deviate from how others play defense--by using three-receiver sets. Even without the injured Robert Ferguson, the Packers will be able to put a sufficient specimen of a human being on the field to beat Jones. And, if I were the Packers, I would use that set and that play until the cows came home. At least in the dime, Jones will have some help as the secondary cover man in most situations. And that is better than what the Vikings had to deal with when Winfield was out. Of course, that all assumes that Winfield is even healthy enough to play in the base set.


I offer no prediction today except to predict that whichever team wins today's game will win the NFC North. And that tells you just how confident I am in the abilities of either of these two teams, either today or in the near future.

Up Next: First Half Analysis.

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Putting the Dead Horse to Rest

With two games remaining in the NFL regular season, the list of things about which we are certain regarding the Minnesota Vikings is much, much shorter than is the list of things about which we are otherwise. What we know at this point is that the Vikings are both capable of beating any team in the NFC and capable of losing to any team in the NFC. Thus ends the list of certainties.

What we do not know is: (1) whether the Vikings will win the NFC North; (2) whether the Vikings will earn a wild-card berth should they fail to secure the NFC North title; and (3) whether Vikings' fans truly want to watch the Vikings muddle their way through a playoff game, knowing that the Vikings are capable of winning, but cognizant of the fact that they likely will not.

Somewhere between the solitary item of certainty and the list of unknowns rests the status of Vikings' head coach Mike Tice. After the loss in Chicago, his status as Vikings' head coach appeared to be on life support. After the even more disappointing loss at home to the hapless 'Hawks, the end appeared certain. But after the victory in Detroit, coupled with Green Bay's home loss to the Jaguars, Tice once again seems in control of his own fate.

It now appears increasingly certain that, should the Vikings host a home playoff game (and make Red some extra cash), Red will retain Tice under the terms of Tice's current contract (Red has an option to renew for one season). But even if the Vikings merely make the playoffs, Tice may be in good shape, if what Tice wants is to remain the Vikings' head coach.

Given the continuing atrocious play of the Vikings' defense, particularly the secondary, it is conceivable that the Vikings will finish 8-8. That would probably be sufficient for a wild card road game, which would leave Red out of the home green. But Red would still get a cut of the gate in the first round, and a cut is better than no cut. Whether the cut from one road playoff game would suffice for Tice to retain his job is another issue.

But the fact that the Vikings may be on the road throughout the playoffs suddenly became less daunting this week. The Vikings already were capable of beating any team in the NFC, but the injury to Terrell Owens really opened the door in the NFC. Now, the most daunting prospect might be playing at Atlanta. And after witnessing Atlanta play two of the most horrific games ever played in the NFL and watching Atlanta accrue home field advantage on the back of one the softest schedules known to NFL schedule makers, I am not persuaded that Atlanta is any better than any other team in the NFC. With Philly and Atlanta appearing beatable, and the rest of the NFC looking disinterested, Minnesota arguably has as good a shot at getting whipped in the Super Bowl as any other NFC team.

Which brings me back to the issue of Tice's coaching status.

Last week, Red sounded like a man who had already decided to bring Tice back, absent on 0-3 finish. The worst Tice can do is 1-2 over the last three games, which means, assuming my read on Red is correct, that Tice will be head coach of the Vikings next season. And the further into the playoffs the Vikings can get, the more certain I am of that prediction, not because a deep run in the moribund NFC validates the Vikings, but because a deep run in the NFC playoffs means more money in Red's till. And that means more coin to pay Tice's 2005 salary. In the end, what matters to Red is whether Tice justified his salary. A deep NFC playoff run would certainly justify Tice's salary in Red's eyes.

Horse to Rest

All this makes speculation about a new head coach academic. I discussed in a previous post some of the possible replacements for Tice, most notably Jim Fassel, Dick Jauron, Lou Saban, and Kirk Ferentz. All have demonstrated an adroit ability to manage both sides of the ball, but all but Fassel come with restrictive buy-out clauses or performance issues in past head-coaching stints. That's why Fassel would be near the top of any list that I would offer for new head coaches. But, as I said, it is likely that nobody in the Vikings' organization will be looking at such a list prior to next season.

Up Next: Packer Preview.

Monday, December 20, 2004

Higher Road

There are two ways to characterize the Vikings' performance on Sunday. One way is to continue lamenting the poor play of the defense, a defense that once again made a less-than-stellar quarterback look like Joe Montana and Steve Young wrapped into one. The other is to focus on what went well for the Vikings.

For one day, I will take the higher road.

What Went Right

There were two things that were much improved for the Vikings this week in contrast with previous weeks. The first is special teams play. The second is the offensive play-calling, at least for quarters 1 and 4.

Special Teams' Play

The Vikings appear finally to have found themselves a punt and kick return specialist in Mewelde Moore. Moore, taking over the return duties from Nate Burleson and Kelly Campbell, provided the type of production that neither of his predecessors had.

Against Chicago and Seattle, Burleson returned 9 kicks for a total of 154 yards. That 17-yard average is not bad, but it is right around the league average. As punt returner in the same two games, Campbell returned 4 punts for 21 yards, or a 5.25 average. That number is well below the league average and looks even worse when factoring in that one of the four returns was for 18 yards while the other three netted a mere three yards.

On Sunday, Mewelde Moore, looking both comfortable and aggressive, bashed through openings on punt and kick returns. Moore returned 3 punts for 27 yards and 5 kickoffs for 94 yards. The kickoff average of 9 yards is impressive for a rookie punt returner. But even more impressive is Moore's nearly 19-yard average on kickoff returns. Although this is a mere two yards greater than Burleson's two-week average against Chicago and Seattle, it excludes a 62-yard return nullified for a phantom holding penalty.

Moore looks like the return guy that the Vikings have been looking for for half a decade. And with improved starting field position, the Vikings' prospects of scoring increase and their chances of incurring a false start penalty on any given drive decrease. And, as Chris Liewinski undoubtedly would attest, that's all good.


While the return game looked to be improved on Sunday, so, too, did the coverage unit. Against Seattle, Minnesota allowed 122 return yards on 5 kickoff returns, nearly a 25-yard average (Seattle did not return a punt against Minnesota). On Sunday, Minnesota allowed 83 return yards on 4 returns--not great, but a noticeable improvement at 20.75 yards per return. Minnesota also allowed 15 yards on two punts.

The numbers, though not gaudy, suggest that Minnesota's special teams' play has improved this year. Some of that is due to the coverage, which finally appears capable of filling gaps, breaking wedges, and tackling the ball carrier. But even more evident is the improvement of the kicking. Jose Cortez, a guy that the Vikings picked up only because he had been with the team on a previous occasion, consistently kicked the ball to the 6-yard line or deeper on Sunday, and kicked two into the endzone--something Tice earlier this season implied was not possible on a routine basis with the new K-balls.

Not to be outdone, Darren Bennett put on his own show, punting high and deep or higher and inside the 20. Only once did Bennett have what one would construe to be a poor kick on Sunday, when he lofted a 37-yarder into the endzone for a touchback. Even that, however, is preferable to where the Vikings' punting game was at the beginning of the season or, shudder, at any point last season.

Offensive Playcalling

A second noticeably bright spot for the Vikings against the Lions was the offensive playcalling, at least in the first and fourth quarters. In both quarters, the Vikings mixed playcalling between the run and pass and used a variety of passes--dump, play action, screen, slant--and pass options--running back, tight end, tight end who never catches a pass (Berton), and all receivers not named Campbell--as well as a variety of running plays, to overwhelm the Detroit defense. That healthy blend kept Detroit off-balance and looking as inept as does the Vikings' defense.

If only the Vikings took an interest in following through on the mixed-playcalling approach for an entire four quarters, they might have the unstoppable offense that they believe they have.

Short Take

Many fans today have suggested that the Vikings did not deserve to beat the Lions because the Vikings won only after the Lions botched a PAT. But that observation misses the point. As poorly as the Vikings played in the third quarter (on offense) and fourth quarter (on defense), the Lions played even more miserably. If not for two phantom penalties--one calling back a long kick return by Moore, the other calling back a long reception by Wiggins--the Vikings probably would have won handily and the missed PAT, had it even occurred, would have been a non-issue.

The Vikings did enough to beat a bad Lions team on Sunday, mostly on the strength of the offense. Which means that there should be grist for the mill regarding the play of the defense--tomorrow's topic.

Sunday, December 19, 2004


Thank god the opponent is the Lions. If not, this game might be a two or three TD deficit at halftime.

Despite a solid opening drive in which the Vikings mixed the pass and the run and even mixed up the run play calling, the Vikings reverted to bad offensive habits beginning with the second drive. Yes, the Vikings scored on their second possession, but it required a desperation heave on 3rd and 24, combined with atrocious Lions' defense, to make that possible. A false start penalty, poor blocking, and hesitation on the part of Culpepper really stifled the Vikings from this point on.

But It Is the Lions

After the Vikings took a quick 14-3 lead, the Lions showed why they have come close yet lost so many games this season as they made their way deep into Vikings' territory, with a great chance to take the lead, only to settle for 10 points. Not that that is bad, just that it would have taken little to score a second TD, especially the way that Sean Bryson was ripping through the Vikings' line and linebackers.

But the Lions are the Lions and the Lions did what they always do, they found a way to settle for less than they should have. That settling culminated in a certain, though dropped, INT by Dre Bly, an INT that quite possibly could have been returned for a touchdown and certainly would have given the Lions great field position with sufficient time to run a few plays against the gassed Vikings' defense.

Second Half Needs

The Vikings need to return to what made the first drive a success--taking what the defense gives while mixing the plays. And, quite surprisingly, this includes making use of Michael Bennett on screen plays, quick hitches, and dump passes. The Lions appear utterly incapable of containing either Bennett or SOD.

On Defense, the Vikings need to tackle the runner head on in the gap. It is not clear why the Vikings are having more difficulty with Bryson than they had with Kevin Jones, but they need to fix the problem, whatever it is. Tackling head on, rather than from the side, would be a start. It would also help if the Vikings put five in the box as they did at the beginning of the game. After Harrington began finding open receivers, and the receivers began delivering receptions, the Vikings dropped the fifth man out of the box. This opened it up a bit more for Bryson, as did Bryson's ability to run outside (something Jones has been unable to do).

Up Next: Rewind.

Here We Go Again?

Today, the Vikings square off with one of the NFL's least successful franchises, the Detroit Lions, in a season in which poor quarterback and receiver play and injuries on defense have slowed that franchises' efforts to escape from the clutches of morbidity. Not surprisingly, then, the Vikings are once again favorites this week.

But Vikings' fans know better. In games in which they have been favored this season, the Vikings are 7-3. That looks pretty good. Equally impressive is the Vikings' 2-1 record in road games in which they have been favored to win. Yet, as is most often the case, these numbers do not tell the entire tale.

If a team shows its mettle through its ability to win on the road, the Vikings have shown some mettle this season. But that mettle has become less evident when faced with doubt--whether external, in the form of the Vegas odds, or internal, in the form of self-doubt. In the Vikings' three meaningful road tests this season, at Philly, Indianapolis, and Green Bay, the Vikings have fallen flat. Worse yet, in the past four home games, games in which mettle is not even supposed to be an issue, the Vikings have dropped games to Seattle and the NY Giants. If the Vikings had any giddiness resulting from road wins over patsy teams this season, that giddiness ought to be tempered by road failures against formidable opponents and home losses to mediocre to bad teams.

And if the Vikings are a bit down about their performance in the clutch, they ought to be absolutely frightened by the prospect of playing Detroit on the road. After all, Detroit has the one thing Minnesota cannot stop--a quarterback. Not a good quarterback. Not an adequate quarterback. Just a quarterback. Someone who straps on the pads, pulls on a jersey, and calls the plays in the huddle.

There is no magic in the arm of Joey Harrington. There are no hands on those things that the Lions call Harrington's receivers. But that, as we know, does not matter when facing the Vikings' secondary. Harrington will probably get his share of yards, at least as measured in terms of a Harrington success. And, like most quarterbacks before him this season, Harrington may even set personal bests against this sorry pass defense. And that might be enough to drop the Vikings to 2-2 in road games in which the Vikings are favored.

But how, you might ask, can the Vikings lose to Detroit? How will Detroit score? How will they stop Minnesota from scoring?

All fair questions. But, of course, you already know the answer. And I say "answer" because the retort is the same for each question. The answer is that the Vikings will let them.

The Vikings will let Detroit score just as they let Seattle and Chicago score--through the air, on the ground, and maybe even on special teams even if Eddie Drummond is not around to torment the Vikings on kick and punt returns. We know this to be the case because, despite playing lousy competition week in and week out, the Vikings continue to allow teams to amass season records in yardage and points and continue to fall short of their own goals offensively and on special teams.

One of Mike Tice's post-game gems last week was that the special teams played "extremely well." That suggests how far the standard for Vikings' special teams play has fallen during Tice's tenure as coach. Seattle returned the Vikings' first kickoff of the game 34-yards to the 35, and the Vikings' fourth kickoff 33-yards to the 40. The kicks were fairly deep, but the coverage stunk. Yes, there was a touchback and there were two returns under 20 yards, but when two thirty plus yard kickoff returns merits an "extremely well" evaluation it calls for a re-evaluation of the term.

But as much as the Vikings' special teams is not the force that Tice painted it to be after last week's loss, it may be the shining glory for the team this week.

Despite facing the lowest ranking starting quarterback in the NFL this week, there is reason for pessimism for the Vikings' defense. It is true that Harrington completed only 22% of his passes last week, albeit at a blustery Lambeau Field. It is also true that his completion percentage for the season is only 54% despite playing in the control-passing West Coast offense. In fact, on paper, Harrington looks as bad as they get in the NFL boasting a thoroughly unimpressive 77.2 rating.

But if the Vikings are looking at Harrington's numbers and smacking their lips they may want to reconsider and save themselves the post-game embarrassment. Consider these numbers, 51.5% completion rating and 55.2 passer rating. More Harrington numbers? No, those even-less-gaudy-than-Harrington numbers are the numbers for Bears' QB Chad Hutchinson last week against the Jaguars. Against Minnesota, Hutchinson, playing his first game in nearly two years, had a completion percentage of 60 and a passer rating of 115, along with his career high 3 TD passes. Still think Harrington is not formidable against this defense?

Don't hold your breath.

The Vikings contend that they have few options left on defense. That they have tried all players, all formations, and have even thrown in the kitchen sink. I'm not buyin' this line, however. Other teams continue to do much more with much less. Other teams continue to hold opponents' offenses down despite injuries and youth at critical positions. One need only look across the division for a prime example, as the Bears, despite key injuries on defense, including the loss of their safeties for the season and their one bona fide defensive star, continue to shine on defense.

I agree with Tice that the Vikings have potential playmakers on defense, and not just on the defensive line. In addition to Lance Johnstone, Kevin Williams, and Spencer Johnson, the Vikings have seen flashes from Chris Claiborne, E.J. Henderson, Mike Nattiel, Corey Chavous, Brian Williams, and Brian Russell. The question is why the Vikings have not seen more than mere flashes from these players. At leastpart of the answer is attributable to a lack of imagination.

Last week, Derek Ross was left to cover a man in the slot that the Vikings not only knew Ross could not cover (it could have been me and the Vikings would have known the same), but whom they also knew Ross could not cover to the tune of a huge gain. Yet, despite this knowledge and the ability to adjust, Ted Cottrell refused to make any changes because the man that Ross was covering was "his man." And, as Cottrell stated, if you belong in the NFL, you need to make that play. Earth to Ted, we already know that Ross does not belong in the NFL, so what's the point?

Resolution to Defensive Ailments?

But there is a potential solution. A possible remedy for what ails the Vikings' defense. And I say this only partly tongue-in-cheek. That solution is to pull a Patriot--to use offensive players on defense. What? You say we already use several offensive players on defense? No, no. I mean players from the offense. And I mean using them for their speed and tackling ability and in formations that play to these strengths.

The Vikings typically play a 4-3 defense. That means that they use four defensive linemen and three linebackers (the Vikings' word, not mine). The remaining defensive players are corners and safeties.

I propose playing a 4-5-2, with Michael Bennett at free safety, Corey Chavous at strong safety, and Moe Williams and SOD added to a five-man linebacking corps. Dare the Lions to go over the top against Michael Bennett. Dare the Lions to try to run through Moe Williams and SOD. It won't happen, at least not as often as it has been happening.

Offensive Game Plan--Follow the Leader

On offense, the Vikings should have a simple game plan--have Daunte roll out of the pocket. Last week, Daunte rolled out of the pocket a grand total of three times. Two of the three times, Daunte ran for a first down. The third time, Daunte came up just short of the first down marker (the challenge play) and snuck across for the first down on the next play.

The Vikings make far too little use of the roll out. This failure takes away from the Vikings' offense the ability to force the opposing team to shift its defense and move the middle linebacker out of the slot. If the Vikings can move the middle linebacker out of the slot--particularly toward the sideline--they will find success with the screen and, heaven forbid, a reverse to the opposite side. But it all starts with Daunte rolling out of the pocket.

Once screens and reverses begin to work, the defense will be forced to play closer to the line. This will open up slant passes, dump passes, and, eventually, the deep pass. Once the deep pass opens up, the running game will open up, particularly the draw play. And all of this will set up the play action and enhance Daunte's ability to call which play he wants. Which would make the Vikings' defensive woes largely irrelevant.

But, of course, this all assumes that the Vikings will take what the Lions give them. And that the Vikings will work the Lions' defense in a methodical fashion. And that probably won't happen because, since week one, it has yet to happen. But if it does....

Up Next: Halftime.

Friday, December 17, 2004

Defining a Market

Ah, the holiday season is upon us. That means an opportunity to watch "It's a Wonderful Life" and "Scrooge" on every channel offered by your service provider of choice, endless holiday jingles, and bells ringing at every store. It also means hearing stories about some scam involving toys for tots or money for mommies in which the toys don't get to the tots and the money never reaches mommies.

But that's the good side of the holidays--television shows showing human spirit, music intended to put visions of sugar plums in your head, and gestures that, though at times fraudulent, are sometimes also genuine.

The bad side of the holiday season is the mindnumbing, ever-increasing commercialization of the season. Don't get me wrong, I'll take the genuine bargains, even if it means pretending that it is Christmas in November or that there is a "holiday season" after January 1st. But enough with the incessant pandering to our "needs." I don't "need" a chicken rotisserie, or the first three seasons of Seinfeld on DVD, or an NFL replica football with my team's insignia on the side. I might use those things if I had them, but I definitely do not need them.

Which brings us to the point of this article as it pertains to the Vikings. Much as marketers of the holiday season continually attempt to expand the borders of our perception of the holiday season, much as these same marketers also attempt to convince us that we or our loved ones need an item--that the item is indispensible, that our lives would be shambles without it, that foregoing a mortgage payment or two to purchase the item is prudent--marketers of professional sports, albeit a bit johhny-come-lately to the marketing party, are now fully in on the gig. And this reality begins with the NHL, detours through the cesspool that is MLB, and stops at the doorstep of the NFL.

With the NHL owners and players seemingly at a by-pass, and the NHL season likely lost, NHL owners are attempting to stir public resentment toward the player's union by taking public positions on the players' union's most recent proposal. In essence, the NHL has adopted the Sprewell Doctrine, claiming that the players' proposal will run the owners out of house and home and ruin the league. To which most observers simply shrug their shoulders. After all, if the NHL really is run by such dunderheads--and there is reason to believe that this is the case--there is little hope for fans that the issues that the fans really care about--rules to improve an increasingly boring product, reasonable ticket and concession prices, and fan-hostile ownership groups--will ever be addressed by the NHL.

In the end, we see through the NHL the way most people see through the Christmas spray-on hair ad. We simply don't need it. So we dismiss the NHL with well wishes and an indifference as to whether it ever returns.

But other professional sports groups have done a much better job of appealing to the masses and making their product appear to be a necessity. And, in so doing, these groups have made sports fans believe that their town needs professional sports of all shape and hue. That their town will suffer unbearably without such franchises. That their own lives will become insufferable without a home team for which to root.

MLB has long played this card. Just a few short years ago, exhibiting the near-height of arrogance, MLB threatened to contract the Twins if Minnesota did not build a new stadium for local curmudgeon Carl "I'm Takin' It With Me" Pohlad. MLB one-upped this near-pinnacle performance by acting on the threat, thwarted only by a local court with a soft spot for the Twins.

We thought that the entire contraction deal was dead after that, as MLB agreed with the players' union not to attempt contraction again until 2006--a concession that the players' union repaid by agreeing not to challenge any 2006-or-beyond contraction attempt. With the Twins consistently winning the American League Central and the Expos moving to D.C., there would be no need, no possibility for contraction.

But with the Expos'--the Nationals'--move to D.C. now in doubt MLB is at it again.

The problem in D.C. is that the D.C. city council, apparently concerned about high unemployment rates and declining graduation rates, is more interested in attempting to address these problems than it is interested in putting up $400-600 million dollars to finance a new stadium for MLB.

And why shouldn't the D.C. city council feel this way? Why should it build a stadium at city expense to make the Expos/Nationals more appealing to a buyer so that MLB can make more money off of the sale of the team?

MLB has responded to the city council's position by establishing a position of its own, setting a December 31st deadline for the city council to agree on a stadium funding measure. Of course, MLB has no recourse should the city council refuse to oblige, because MLB has no other place to go. Puerto Rico did not work, Montreal did not work, Las Vegas has no field, and California is already beyond the saturation point for professional baseball teams.

That leaves only contraction. But contraction is not possible until 2006. And even then, MLB has work to do. It must convince the Twins to tank it in 2005 as it would look pretty bad--if MLB and Selig are really concerned about image--if the four-time defending ALC champions were mothballed. And MLB must convince another city that they need baseball. That their lives have been incomplete without a MLB team.

That is one angle.

The other angle is that MLB, in its own pathetic way, is trying to market baseball in D.C., even as it threatens to pull MLB out of D.C. The real reason behind the recent contraction talk is not really to warn of possible contraction or a move to another city that has somehow managed into the 21st century without their own team, but to attempt to highjack two cities--Minneapolis and D.C. MLB wants both cities to build new ballparks on the public dime. That's what this is all about. And MLB is feeding on the public sense of need--as in, "we need this team."

And you either buy what MLB is selling or you do not. So far, we have resisted in Minnesota. We like the Twins. We wish the Twins well. We would like a new stadium that allows us the pleasure of outdoor games during the summer month and indoor games during the late and early winter seasons that buttress July. But not any just any cost.

We have certain sensibilities in Minnesota that usually restrain us from paying with our emotions what our heads tell us we do not need or can and should obtain, if at all, at a better bargain. Part of that sentiment informs us that an owner who is worth over $1 billion dollars, who has had a sweetheart stadium lease for over twenty years, who has used the Twins as either a tax shelter or an outright profit-making tool for that same period, and who has made his money off the sweat of others in an industry well-known for its pariah nature, ought to make a sizeable contribution to the endeavor.

Failing that, our sensibilities tell us, there ought to be no stadium deal. Because we do not sense that the stars are yet so aligned in Minnesota, we are not buying that the Twins are a must have in the state. And we are not buying MLB's threat to once again attempt to contract teams that do not cave in to owner demands. If it happens, it happens. C'est la vie.

But where MLB has failed to move the passions of Twins' fans, the NFL might soon move the passions of Vikings fans. Like MLB, the NFL is wont to threaten to allow a team to move if it is in the interests of the NFL and the owners. The NFL is committed to Minnesota through 2011--the final year of the Vikings' current lease on the dome. After that, all bets are off.

With the passing of time, we can expect more public posturing from the NFL and Red regarding the open LA market. The NFL will say that it cannot stand in the way of an owner residing in a market unwilling to build a new stadium to replace an aging facility (NFL-speak). And Red will say that he is losing money in Minnesota (Red's way of saying he is getting loaded off Minnesota fans but could get even more loaded off of Southern California fans), and that he has no choice but to look West.

This is the NFL's way of saying that Minnesotans ought to begin early the soul-searching regarding the value of the NFL to Minnesota, that the Vikings are a necessity for Minnesota.

But we need to see behind the marketing. We need to understand that we can live without the Vikings. And we certainly can live without a carpetbag-owned team. There may be an adjustment period, but we will survive.

And, in its heart of hearts, the NFL understands this. It understands that the Vikings in Minnesota are more valuable to the NFL--particularly with Red threatening a move to LA--than the NFL is to Minnesota. We can do without this team because we have options in Minnesota. We can spend time outdoors, travel up north, or take in some other sporting event.

But what of the NFL without Minnesota? The NFL needs Minnesota for at least three reasons. First, the Twin Cities are the 13th largest television market in the United States. That's money for the NFL that they cannot recapture by moving to any other city currently without a team and with a viable stadium and willing locals. Even a move to Los Angeles is less beneficial than the NFL makes it appear as the LA market is currently served by the increasingly popular San Diego Chargers, who play a short drive from LA. Second, a Vikings' move to Los Angeles threatens the NFL's coffers by allowing Red to take the entire pot. The NFL would prefer to put an expansion team in LA, thus giving the NFL a cut of the expansion fee and Red only a small part of what he otherwise would reap. Third, the NFL has already dealt with the move of two storied franchises in the Colts and Browns and the fallout did not help the image of the league. And, in the end, the NFL was compelled to ensure teams in both cities, albeit in circuitous fashion.

Yet the NFL is selling us a different picture. And being more adept at marketing than MLB ever can hope to be, the NFL likely will continue the soft sell with subtle pressure. The NFL will hire locals to rally public sentiment in favor of a new stadium and to juxtapose a picture of Minnesota with the NFL against Minnesota without the NFL. Not surprisingly, the former picture will be one of hope and glory, while the latter picture will be one of bleakness and despair. And the NFL, like holiday-season vendors, will attempt to persuade Minnesotans that they cannot, and should not try, to live without their product.

And the NFL might succeed. Not because we need the Vikings, but because they have been here so long that we think we need them. But we do not.

As much as I enjoy the Vikings, I can live without them. I liken them to Mountain Dew. Mountain Dew offers three things--caffeine, sugar, and carbonation. All useful ingredients at times, but mostly ingredients that one probably would be best to cut back on rather than intake more of. And while foregoing the Dew might be difficult at first, particularly given the caffeine withdrawal, in the end, it ain't so bad.

I like the Vikings, but I can give them up. And I suspect that, whether fans recognize it, they have it within themselves to give up the Vikings if the alternative is to be highjacked into buying something that we don't really need and, possibly, cannot afford. We like the Vikings in Minnesota, but we do not need them. We would like a new stadium for the Vikings, but we do not need it. What we need is to understand that, as the stadium issue heats up, we are in the driver's seat, not the passenger seat.

Up Next: Pregame. What the Vikings Ought to do on Sunday (and probably will not).

Thursday, December 16, 2004


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)

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.