Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Will Eliminating Moss Lead to Championship?

Heading into the off-season, the Vikings have as many question marks as they have answers. And there is no bigger question mark than the fate of wide receiver Randy Moss. Should the Vikings trade their star receiver or should they not? That is the question.

Moss' Trade Value

Last season, the San Francisco 49ers were given a gift. Because the agent of their star receiver and lone asset, Terrell Owens, failed to perform his duties in a timely manner, Owens was denied free agency and the 49ers retained his services for an additional season. Cognizant of the fact that Owens wanted out of San Francisco, and concerned that Owens might make good on his pledge to tank it, the 49ers began shopping for suitors. They found one in the Baltimore Ravens, who offered a second-round draft pick.

The deal was great for two of the three sides. The Ravens obtained a talented, albeit dissatisfied, wide receiver at a discounted price and the 49ers received a return that they did not anticipate going into the off-seaons while relieving themselves of a cap-burdensome contract in what looked like year 10--going on 20--in the rebuilding process. Even TO got something out of the deal as he was finally out of San Francisco and had a promise of a long-term contract.

But TO was not satisfied. Nor was TO's agent. And that led TO's agent to file a grievance with the NFL Players' Union. Following a hearing, the NFL essentially granted TO free agency and TO signed with the Philadelphia Eagles. The price tag for Philly? A fifth-round draft selection to Baltimore and a hefty, long-term contract commitment to TO.

What Moss Would Fetch

While Moss and TO have similar on-field capabilities, Moss' value on the NFL market is markedly different from that of TO in 2004. Moss is the undisputed NFL property of the Minnesota Vikings. And Moss' contract, once considered exorbitant for a receiver, is viewed in a much different light in the post-Marvin Harrison contract-extension era. All of which makes speculation regarding Moss' market value to the Vikings highly intriguing.

To deduce Moss' full market value, however, it is necessary to define what Moss means to the Vikings and what he is likely to mean to another team. Moss is the Vikings' primary offensive weapon. That doesn't mean that the Vikings necessarily look to Moss on every offensive play or even that they need to. What it means is that when Moss is in the game, particularly when he is healthy, Moss commands attention. And attention is what opposing teams pay to Moss.

This is not news to anyone who follows the Vikings. In fact, it is so much not news that it is almost tiring to hear the words spoken. But facts are facts. And the fact that Moss receives additional attention when he is on the field--attention few others in the NFL receive--must be at the fore of discussions regarding Moss' trade value to the Vikings.

Most in the local media have suggested or stated outright that the time has come to trade Moss. "Too tempermental," they claim. "Too immature," they crow. "Too much of a distraction," they lament. True, true, and true. Each of these claims supports trading Moss, but only if the price is right.

Moss' continuing maturity lapses and poor team vision undoubtedly would require his dismissal from any team were he less of an athlete. That fans, media, and, apparently, even some Vikings' officials are contemplating moving Moss in spite of his athletic prowess suggests just how difficult Moss can be to have around. This consternation has led some to speculate that the Vikings will move Moss for the sake of "addition by subtraction."

But it is pointless to move Moss without receiving market value, because at least one NFL team, probably more, will be willing to deal with Moss' sophomoric behavior in exchange for having a player that can change the outcome of the game--usually in a positive manner.

We know that when Moss is on the field, he commands double, sometimes triple coverage. And that means an awful lot to the offense. It means that at least one other player is unaccounted for. It means fewer blitz packages. It means bigger holes for the running game. It means that the quarterback has the option of running or hanging out in the pocket a bit longer. In short, it means that whomever has Moss on their offense essentially has one or two extra players, at least until teams figure out how to single-cover Moss. And that, barring injuries, probably won't happen until Moss nears retirement.

And all of this needs to be thrown in the hopper to determine Moss' market value.

Based on his near-unique ability to command double and triple coverage, Moss is worth at least as much in a trade as any other non-quarterback in NFL history. Does that mean that he is worth Herschell Walker bait? Not likely. No player, as the Vikings' discovered, is worth that asking price. But, if Keenan McCardell is worth a 3rd and 6th round pick, Moss is worth at least a couple of starters and a couple of draft picks.

What the Vikings Should Ask

Before determining what they will ask for Moss should they elect to enter trade talks for Moss, the Vikings need to determine with whom they will be trading. The most likely trading partners are Baltimore and the NY Jets. Both teams need receivers; both teams can work Moss' salary under their caps in 2005; and both teams can offer a bundle of draft picks and defensive players to assuage the Vikings' needs.

Baltimore Trade Possibility

Baltimore finished the season with a dismal offense, predicated on Brian Billick's mistaken belief (undoubtedly adopted from his former mentor, Dennis Green) that any quarterback can play in NFL under the proper circumstances. Either Billick has yet to establish the "proper circumstances" for Kyle Boller to flourish in the NFL or quarterbacks truly must have some inate qualities to perform well in the NFL.

While Boller's poor play undoubtedly contributed mightily to the Ravens' offensive woes in 2004, the lack of a go-to receiver also clearly crippled the Ravens. For the season--the entire season--the Ravens' leading receiver, Kevin Johnson, had 35 receptions. 35! Five Vikings' receivers had more than 35 receptions in 2004. Even Moss, who missed five games and was hobbled in several others, hauled in 49 passes and 13 TDs.

Clearly, Baltimore is in dire need of a receiver. And the fact that Billick and Moss appear to have a rapport (at least that's what both of them now believe), suggests that a Moss to Baltimore deal would be great for both Moss and the Ravens. But what would it do for Minnesota?

For a deal with Baltimore to make any sense, Minnesota would need to obtain players and draft selections. The player options are various. With the Ravens likely willing to part with any defensive players not named Boulware or Lewis, the Vikings would feel like little kids in a candy store. "Mommy, mommy, I want Will Demps! And, and, Edgerton Hartwell! And, ohhhh, moommmmy, pleeeeease can I have Terrell Suggs and Ed Reed. Please, please, please?"

Baltimore GM Ozzie Newsome is too cunning to give up all four of these players, even for Moss. But imagine a Vikings' defense with even two of these players with two first round picks over two seasons to toss into the mix. How about Reed (78 tackles, 9 INTs, 2 sacks) taking over for Brian Russell at safety with Terrell Suggs (60 tackles, 11 sacks, Minnesota native) taking over one of the outside linebacker positions? How about Will Demps taking over for Corey Chavous? How about forgetting even considering Hartwell in a trade because he might be available as a free agent anyway?

The possibilities, from the perspective of a Vikings' fan who has known no quality defense for at least a decade, appear limitless. All are intriguing. All worth the price of departing with Moss. Even if it means more scores in the high teens and low 20s.

Up Next: What Else is on the Table.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Will Trio Be Kind to Tice?

For the past two seasons, the Vikings have made it clear that the team is for sale. After spending lavishly in his first few seasons as owner--including giving unnecessary and highly questionable contract extensions to Todd Steussie and Randall Cunningham--Red has officially thrown in the towel on the past two seasons, spending just enough to reach the NFL's mandatory salary floor.

Three seasons ago, current Vikings' head coach Mike Tice was the recipient of Red's decision to put the Vikings' on the market. Having permitted Dennis Green to walk, Red considered his options. In Denny's final season, the Vikings were clearly running their course. Key veterans needed to be replaced, others soon would be similarly situated, young players were not able to fill their expected roles, and Denny had left the cupboard nearly bare on defense. Add to that the fact that the Vikings' market value had increased appreciably under Red, and every opportunity for Red to position the team for a sale was present.

Red put the sale process in motion by ushering Denny out the door. In Denny's place, Red brought in Tice for a paltry sum. Many believed that Red was making an astute business and football move by bringing in Tice to lead a purported three-year march to the Super Bowl. Those individuals saw in Tice an undervalued coaching prospect who would keep the order in the clubhouse--something Denny was roundly criticized for failing to have done.

Though Red's initial intent is fuzzy, one thing is now evident. No matter Red's intentions in hiring Tice, his sole reason for bringing Tice back this season was to make the team more attractive to a potential buyer without entirely alienating the Vikings' fan base by attempting to hire someone for even less than the $700,000 that Red will owe Tice this season (approximately $150,000 less than the Dolphins will pay their new offensive coordinator in 2005).

Last night, two potential suitors to be the new Vikings' owners took in a half of basketball at the Target Center, no doubt plotting their next move. The two men, Reggie Fowler and Denny Hecker, have long been rumored to be in the mix to purchase the Vikings. And the NFL, interested in increasing minority ownership, is said to be working with Fowler, who signed a 60-day exclusive negotiating deal with Red just recently. Hecker and Fowler are said to have a third well-healed partner.

No matter who buys the Vikings, if the sale goes through prior to the opening of summer camp Tice's job could be in grave jeopardy. A new owner will face only the buy-out clause in Tice's contract as an obstacle to releasing the coach and would gain immediate fan suppor by bringing in an experienced coach and making a commitment to that coach and his staff. But that Tice's job would be in near certain jeopardy should Fowler and Heckler purchase the Vikings there is little doubt.

Hecker, like Red, made his name in the used car business. And what do used car dealers do to promote sales? They make crap look good by putting on glossy finishes and ensuring that the product passes the sound test. Fowler has made his money making land investments look good--a natural fit with a used car dealer in a good cop bad cop ploy to win over fans.

And how would a used car dealer and land speculator approach the Vikings? The used car dealer would make a bunch of noise about a need for change and would promise to make whatever changes necessary to win a Super Bowl. The land speculator would try to convince everyone that the product was already good, but would relent on the used car dealers demands of cosmetic changes. And the most obvious cosmetic change that a team can make and claim that the team was "headed in the right direction?" Well, that would be a change in the head coach, of course.

Which should scare Tice more than does the prospect of facing a 3-12 on the road.

Up Next: Whither Moss?

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Out With The Old, In With The Old

On Wednesday, the Vikings opted to sever ties with offensive coordinator Scott Linehan. While Linehan's 2004 performance may have justified a decision by the Vikings to look in another direction next season, it was not Linehan's performance that sealed this deal. Instead, it was the Vikings' pocketbook.

What Happened

Three days after the Vikings' season officially ended, Miami Dolphins' new GM/Head Coach, Lou Saban, placed a call to Linehan inviting him to Miami to interview for the vacant offensive coordinator's position. Linehan, not assured of returning to Minnesota next season, hopped aboard the plane.

Upon touchdown, Saban offered Linehan a three-year deal worth in excess of $2.5 million, or roughly $150,000 more per season than Vikings' head coach Mike Tice earned in 2004. When Linehan informed Vikings' budget man, Rob Brzezinski, of Saban's offer, Brzezinski let Linehan walk. According to Tice, the Vikings' did not even put an offer on the table.

What It Means

Losing Linehan as an offensive playcaller will be nowhere near as dramatic as some in the local media would have us believe. In 2004, despite having four solid running backs, the Vikings ranked near the bottom of the NFL in rushing attempts. Last Monday, Linehan quipped that the Vikings' abandonment of the running game was the result of necessity rather than of design, and he noted that the Vikings abandon the run only when they trailed by enough to require resort to the passing game. Linehan also suggested that the Vikings' offensive line woes limited the Vikings' running attack.

On both counts, Linehan appears incorrect, and betrays why Vikings' fans should question his offensive playcalling abilities for the Vikings. In only three games did the Vikings trail by more than ten points in the fourth quarter. Yet in virtually every game this season, the Vikings abandon the running game after the first half. This is one of the primary reasons why the Vikings had so little success in the latter half of the season scoring in the second half and, correlatively, one of the main reasons that the Vikings lost so many close games this season.

Linehan's contention that the offensive lines' woes crippled the running game also fails to hold water. Despite numerous injuries along the offensive line, the Vikings' offensive line backups appeared to hold their own in the running game, allowing the Vikings to finish second in the NFL with 4.7 yards-per-carry. And this, despite finishing 28th in the league in rushing attempts. The problem was not that the Vikings could not run the ball. The problem was that the Vikings elected not to run the ball. And from all accounts, including Linehan's, that decision came from the offensive coordinator.

To Whom the Vikings will Turn

The Vikings have already made their decision on Linehan's replacement. Not surprisingly, it will be Steve Loney, last year's offensive line coach. Loney did a herculean job patching up the offensive line so that it could both run block and provide Daunte pass-blocking protection. Loney also has collegiate experience as an offensive coordinator so he will not be learning entirely on the job. In fact, Loney's experience and his understanding of the offensive line might well usher in a breath of fresh air to what had become a stagnant, predictable, under-performing offense.

Why Vikings' Fans Should Be Concerned

Despite the reason for optimism with the switch to Loney, Vikings' fans should be concerned about Linehan's departure on at least two fronts. The first concern is that Linehan's departure will require a period of adjustment for the Vikings' offense. The Vikings will need to change the playbook and the players will need to become familiar with the new plays and a new coach. Notwithstanding the fact that Loney has been with the Vikings for the past few seasons and that he likely will employ a very similar offense, thus reducing the adjustment period as the Vikings transition to his tenure as offensive coordinator, an adjustment period nevertheless will follow. And that could mean some growing pains next season.

Of greater concern than the adjustment period to Loney's tenure as Vikings' offensive coordinator, however, is what Linehan's departure signals to Vikings' fans. The Vikings' front office, under instruction from owner Red McCombs, clearly was persuaded to allow Linehan to depart as a money saving measure. The fact that the Vikings' could move Loney to offensive coordinator for approximatley $500,000 less per season than it would have cost to retain Linehan makes this point abundantly clear.

All of which means that the writing is on the wall. Red is in full sell mode and has no intention of spending more than he is required to spend on the 2005 team. This means that Red has instructed his minions to cut costs and to implement another round of salary-cap-room-savings measures. Which means that we should expect the Vikings to make one legitimate defensive free agent signing. And that signee, as did Winfield, will receive a nice contract and a hefty roster bonus, a bonus that will be off the books by 2006.

By signing one big-time free agent, the Vikings can spend up to the required salary cap floor and leave so much room under the cap that any incoming owner who wants to hire a championship-caliber team--if only for a season--should have no problem doing so. That makes the team attractive to a purchaser. Of course, that assumes that Red is willing to sell the team at a market price not adjusted upward to include use of a stadium not already built.

Up Next: Why Tice Should Be Concerned.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Life of Brians

When one thinks of the abysmal performance of the Vikings' defense this season, one of the first players to come to mind is Brian Russell. He of the one to two missed interception opportunities per game. He of the two missed such opportunities against the Eagles in the playoffs--one in the endzone. He of the comical missed tackle, pirouette, second missed tackle and backpedal toward his own endzone to avoid a third missed tackle on the same play against the Bears. He of the restricted free agent status.

The second name that comes to mind is Brian Williams. He of the ten to fifteen yard cushion. He of the oft-missed tackles. He of the no-sack blitz with the QB in his grasp. He of the defender who too often failed to turn to frame the pass and make the pick. He, also, of the restricted free agent status.

And when one thinks of these two Brians, one thinks of the life of these Brians next season. One thinks about how their lives might be different out of the NFL. Then one thinks about how the Vikings might perform on defense absent two of their most critical 2004 secondary liabilities.

In 2004, Brian Russell contributed 62 tackles and 1 interception to the Vikings' defensive cause. Brian Williams contributed 61 tackles and 2 interceptions in 2004. Lest we get too excited about the tackle numbers for Russell and Williams, a couple of items are worth noting. The first is that the statistic says nothing about defended plays. The fact that Russell and Williams made tackles merely denotes that they were able to stop a player before that player entered the endzone or ran out of bounds. The more lasting memory of Russell's and Williams' 2004 play is not of a game-saving tackle (or even of a tackle) but of a game-breaking breakdown in pass coverage, often to the tune of a touchdown for the opposing team.

It is also informative to consider the tackle statistic in the broader context. Russell's tackle total, for example, was only second best on the Vikings among members of the secondary. Williams' numbers were third best. Only Corey Chavous, among Vikings' secondary starters, had worse numbers, and only slightly worse at 59. And Russell, Williams, and Chavous all trailed the Vikings' secondary leader in tackles, Antoine Winfield, who tallied 70 tackles. Moreover, unlike Chavous, Russell, and Williams, who each started every one of the Vikings' 16 regular-season games, Winfield played only 14 of 16 regular-season games and played only in nickle packages in 2 of the 14 games. Prorating Winfield's tackle numbers puts him in the neighborhood of 84 tackles on the season.

While both the numbers and first impression support the contention that Russell and Williams have some catching up to do, that fact is even more evident when comparing Russell's and Williams' numbers to the rest of the league. Robert Griffith--the guy who was too expensive for the Vikings--tallied 118 tackles for the Cleveland Browns this season.

To put the tackle figures in perspective, at their 2004 pace Russell and Williams would need to play an additional 15 games to match the tackle total of Robert Griffith. Even to match the tackle total of Winfield (based on Winfield's 16-game projection), Russell and Williams would need to play an additional 6 games. That's an alarming statistic given that so many teams threw the ball against the Vikings and that the Vikings' linebackers were at the bottom of the league in tackles.
Which all bodes ominously for the brothers Brian, as starters for the Vikings next season.

What to Expect

Since mid-season, Vikings' head coach Mike Tice has intimated that he is unhappy with the performance of Brian Russell. As the season drew to a close, Tice's unhappiness with Russell's performance became more evident, with Tice unequivocally stating that the Vikings may have gotten what they could out of the undrafted free agent signee.

Tice's sentiments, along with Russell's poor performance nearly every week, virtually ensures that the Vikings will not tender Russell in the off-season. That means that the Vikings might be in the market for a free safety.

Williams is another matter, in part because the Vikings have more invested in him as a high-round draft choice and, in part, because Williams showed some signs of play-making ability this season. Against the Packers in the playoffs, for example, Williams, for perhaps the first time all season, looked back at the quarterback on a pass play and was able to adjust to the play to make an easy pick. Williams has also shown a propensity to hit hard. All of which suggests that the Vikings may still be interested in Williams. But that interest, given Williams' generally weak play throughout the season, is probably limited to having Williams serve as the nickle back.

Where the Vikings are Likely to Turn to Fill Gaps

The Vikings cannot afford, nor will they have the opportunity, to fill their secondary needs through the draft. Relying on the draft is what put the Vikings in their current predicament. On a team laden with young defensive players, the Vikings need a reliable veteran safety. And they may already have one on their roster.

After the loss to the Eagles, Tice spoke of the need for change in the secondary. Tice specifically made clear that the free safety position was up for grabs next season. And Tice intimated that the Vikings' 2005 free safety was already on the roster in the person of Ken Irvin. Irvin undoubtedly lacks Russell's speed, but cannot conceivably have worse tackling or interception abilities. That makes Irvin an upgrade at free safety. There are other options in free agency, such as the Ravens' Will Demps, but Irvin is a comparable player and probably cheaper.

Moving Williams to nickle creates a vacancy at corner that the Vikings cannot fill from within, however. And, while there are several cornerbacks who will be free agents this off-season, one should stand at the top the Vikings' list of free agent priorities, Washington's Fred Smoot. The Redskins have made it fairly clear that they do not plan to pursue Smoot and Smoot is precisely the type of tough-cover, heavy-hitting, tight-on-the-line corner that the Vikings need. Smoot won't come cheap, but he fits a dire need of the Vikings and should fit in under the Vikings' mandatory spending level. We'll look more closely at the other available corners as the free agency period revs up. But for now, suffice it to say that the answer to the Vikings' cornerback quandry is ripe for the signing. And the Vikings should have the inside track.

Up Next: Tuning Out? Plus, finding a linebacker.

Monday, January 17, 2005

Open Door Policy

As the Vikings enter yet another off-season without the Vince Lombardi Trophy, they are left to consider their prospects under their current no-defense, too little offense approach. In the 2004-2005 season, the Vikings played five games in which the opponent possessed a playoff worthy defense. In those five contests--two against Chicago, two against Philadelphia, and one against Washington--the Vikings' purportedly high-powered offense amassed a total of 89 points, just under 18 points per game, and approximately what the rest of the league averaged against the same opponents. The Vikings faired a bit better than the league against the defensive have-nots, but only marginally so, and not nearly well-enough to compensate for their defensive short-comings.

With these all-around shortcomings in mind, it is appropriate to turn to the Vikings' off-season plans. The Vikings have several unrestricted free agents this off-season. The list includes Morten Andersen, Chris Claiborne, David Dixon, Gus Frerotte, Chris Hovan, Keith Newman, and Jermaine Wiggins.

The Vikings are highly unlikely to bring back Andersen or Hovan. Andersen can no longer be counted on in the clutch making his short range and inability to kick-off too great of a liability (as some would have argued was the case this season). Hovan was de-activated for the Philly game and clearly has become persona non grata in the clubhouse and will not be offered a contract.

More interesting are the cases of Gus Frerotte, David Dixon, Chris Claiborne, Jermaine Wiggins, and Keith Newman. Although the Vikings would like him back, Frerotte has made it clear that he would like to start for someone next season. And there will be plenty of suitors. There have been some rumblings that the Vikings should rid themselves of Daunte's long-term contract and go with the less-expensive Frerotte, but that probably will not happen. The Vikings remain committed to Culpepper and like his upside. Frerotte, though good when called upon, has not played a full season for several seasons and would be a risk in that regard, and a risk that the Vikings cannot afford to take.

Dixon appeared to be in top condition this season for the first time in two or three years. That, and the troubles that the Vikings had along the offensive line this season, made Dixon's presence all the more valuable. That value will not be lost on the Vikings' personnel people and should earn Dixon at least a one-year deal to remain in Minnesota.

Claiborne, when healthy, showed the potential about which he frequently has spoken during his career. Despite the fact that this potential shone only for two or three games, the Vikings' lack of depth at linebacker, and the prospect of shifting Claiborne to middle linebacker, virtually ensures that the Vikings will attempt to re-sign Claiborne. And Claiborne's market price, given his injury history, should suit the Vikings' to a T.

At the top of the Vikings' list of re-signees, however, should be Newman and Wiggins. Newman was one of the few Vikings' linebackers who appeared capable of staying with his assignment and making plays this season. That makes him worth his weight in gold on this team. Likewise, Wiggins, when utilized, always performed. Only when the Vikings ignored him did Wiggins fail to put up solid numbers and, even then, he demonstrated an ability to block down field--an unexpected bonus. That, and their professional demeanor, make Newman and Wiggins solid 2004 additions and necessary 2005 re-signees.

Even if the Vikings re-sign all of their unrestricted free agents, however, they will be left with a bevy of open positions and money not only to spend, but money that must be spent. After re-signing their own free agents, the Vikings will be in the neighborhood of $25 million under the NFL's salary cap. Thanks to the NFL's salary floor, Red will be required to spend approximately $11 million more on player personnel after signing their 2005 draft picks. That means that, absent several union and NFL-acceptable performances clauses that the relevant Viking players most certainly will not attain, the Vikings will be forced to add two or three free agents.

Tomorrow, I'll begin reviewing possible player personnel changes for 2005. Who will be gone? Who will take the place of the none-too-soon departed?

Return to Form

We now know the answer to the question of whether the Vikings' game against the Packers last weekend was an aberration. It was. While losing to the Philadelphia Eagles 27-14 on Sunday, the Vikings turned in yet another dredful performance reminiscent of 2004 performances against the Giants, Bears, Seahawks, and Redskins, to name a few, and worthy of mention in the same breath as their 41-0 loss to the Giants in the 2000 NFC Championship game.

And while the Vikings demonstrated that they are a team that is short in several areas--particularly, but not exclusively, on defense, special teams, and in the area of coaching--their performance on Sunday did their previous duds one better.

On defense, the Vikings committed costly penalties, failed to cover open players, failed to put pressure on a drop-back quarterback, and failed to take advantage of what should have been a one-dimensional team. In a game laden with critical Vikings' defensive failures, one of the more prescient moments came just after an Eagle receiver ran behind three Vikings' players into the wide open reaches of the end zone for an easy touchdown. As the three Vikings' defenders looked at each to determine who would make the post-game confessional for blowing coverage on this particular play--as if such a mea culpa actually carried any consequences on this team--the Fox announcers noted that the Vikings were beaten on the play because they got caught in man zone against the receiver while double-teaming Eagles' running back, Brian Westbrook.

Just so we are clear on this, the announcer was correct. A Vikings' unit that has been routinely burned by the pass devised this game plan for the Eagles. The plan, apparently, was to double-cover the running back, no matter the route. No matter the route! On this particular play, Westbrook barely left the line of scrimmage. But he sure was covered. Of course, even that is a bit deceptive since Westbrook probably would have broken "containment" had his number been called on the play, just as every other Eagle player broke "containment" on Sunday.

But even if the Vikings' defense had made more plays, it may not have mattered given the play of the Vikings' special teams. Not content with its flawed regular-season play, the Vikings' special teams decided to show why Rusty Tillman almost certainly will be on his way out as Vikings' special team's coach, by giving the Eagles short fields on nearly every drive.

The offensive players, apparently concerned that they would be left out of the post-game discussion, did their best to contribute to the entire abysmal affair. Whether Daunte was short-arming passes, Moss was short-arming would-be receptions, or an offensive lineman failed to heed a fake field goal call (extra points for serving on special teams), the offense did little to justify its claim that it is any better than an average NFL offense.

And the cherry on top of this debacle was the coaching. Tice made two great challenges and earned a third had it mattered, but, notwithstanding these calls, the Vikings' coaching staff appeared well over its head in the NFL on Sunday. Blame the player who failed to listen to the fake field goal call on the sideline, but something of this nature seems to happen every week to the Vikings. That' on the coaching staff.

Blame the offense for failing to convert in the red zone, but, as in nearly every game this year, the Vikings' coaching staff persisted in its refusal to take what the defense was giving. The Eagles were vulnerable to the run, particularly Daunte's keepers. Predictably, the Vikings passed. Blame? Coaching staff.

I could go on and on, but one need only read any post-loss column from this season--or last week's column after the win over Green Bay--and change the name of the opponent for more analysis. For what the Vikings did against Philly on Sunday was what they have done virtually all season. They melted down on defense, self-destructed on offense, played poorly on special teams, and showed significant inability to adjust game plans and have players in position to make plays.

Up Next: Who's staying. Who's going.

Sunday, January 16, 2005

Opportunity Knocks

The Vikings enter today's playoff game against the Philadelphia Eagles as a prohibitive underdog. Though the early line of the Eagles -9 has shrunk somewhat since last week, it still remains better than a one-touchdown spread. Despite this perceived disparity favoring the Eagles, however, the Vikings have more than a theoretical chance of winning today's game.

How the Vikings Can Win

Whether the Vikings are able to defeat Philly today hinges on the same three elements that have huanted the Vikings the past three seasons. Broadly writ, these three elements are special teams, offense, and defense. This, of course, says virtually nothing and absolutely everything that you need to know about the Vikings, circa 2004-2005.

While sounding more like a lead-in to any one of the national pregame shows during which "analysts" throw out every possible cliche in an attempt to ensure that they have something onto which they can latch after the game has ended, when applied to the Vikings, the seeming cliche--that how the team plays on offense, defense, and special teams will determine the outcome of the game--is quite apt. And the Vikings have reached this point, the point at which such a statement can be made about their team in earnest, because they have had critical failures in each of these three areas throughout the season.

After last week's victory over Green Bay, most Vikings' fans were at least content to enjoy another week of the season with visions of revenge against the T.O.-less Eagles dancing in their heads. Those visions have been fueled by the Vikings' purported discovery of a defense within their ranks. Few fans concerned themselves with the missed opportunities on offense or any special teams gaffes. And why should they? The Vikings had won handily. And they had done so largely as the result of four picks.

But that was last week. Against an inferior defense. Against a quarterback who begged the Vikings to pick him. This week promises different pressures on the Vikings' defense--namely, a shifty back who can catch and run after the catch. And that is something that the Vikings, and most teams, have difficulty defending.


Last season, Donovan McNabb registered a fairly meager 79 passer rating in a league averaging close to 90. McNabb often looked flustered and, when pressured by the blitz, became his own worst enemy. This season, McNabb has looked like an MVP candidate, finding open receivers, making the right audible call, and even turning in some clutch runs. As a result, McNabb's passer rating has soared to 104.

Of course, there are significant differences between this year's and last year's Eagles' team. This year McNabb had Terrell Owens as a primary receiver. Last year, he did not. This year, opposing teams could not play man on the Eagles' receiver. Last year they could. This year, opposing teams could not load up the box to defend against the Eagles' running game. Last year, they could. This year, opposing teams could not keep a spy on McNabb. Last year, they could.

But all of a sudden, this year looks more like last year. With Owens' season-ending injury in week 15, the Eagles suddenly find themselves without a deep threat. They suddenly find themselves under more blitz pressure. And they suddenly find themselves in a position of having to prove that their offense is more than a one-receiver show.

Does that mean that McNabb will be unable to go deep against the Vikings' secondary? Absolutely not. After all, this is a secondary that gave up the deep ball to Vinny Testaverde, Chad Hutchinson, Joey Harrington, and Patrick Ramsey. This is a secondary that allowed each of the above named quarterbacks to achieve career marks in what is certain to be the final season in the NFL for most, if not all. And this is a secondary that will start Willie Offord at safety today in place of the injured Corey Chavous.

The issue, however, is not whether McNabb will be able to go deep today, but how often he will be able to go deep and how accurate his throws will be when he finds a streaking receiver running freely between three overwhelmed, befuddled Vikings' covermen. Without a blitz presence, the under/over without Owens is two times. The under/over with Owens would have been five times. If the Vikings put modest pressure on McNabb, they may even lower today's under/over to one time. And that would provide a boost to an offense that is certain to need the support.


On offense the game plan should be simple. Set up the run and the pass with screen plays. Once the screen play is in play, stretch the defense with some slant and post passes. Then incorporate the run. Then incorporate the play action roll-out in which Daunte has the option of dumping off or galloping for 25 yards.

In the red zone, keep it simple. Give Daunte the ball, pull right, and have Daunte barrel into the end zone. The next trip down, try the same ploy. If it works, go with it. If the Eagles stack the line, lob it to Moss at the back of the endzone. Simple.

Special Teams

Pray for more of a Chris Walsh influence.

Up next: Post Game.

Friday, January 14, 2005

It Aint Easy Bein' Pleasy

The common rephrane is that there are only two certainties in life--death and taxes. I will add two additional certainties to that finite list. The first is that, no matter how demoralizing, nauseating, or pathetic a loss by the local sports team, some local fan will find a silver lining. Likewise, no matter how exhilarating, dynamic, or up-lifting a win by the local sports team, some local fan will find a dark cloud.

But there is a nuanced category between these two inevitable fellows. That category is one in which the fan considers the play of the local team and points to ways that the team might be able to improve its performance. After all, that's what most fans want. They want to see their team make logical progress. And, to that end, they want to understand--even in victory--what the potential pitfalls might be on the road ahead.

It is at this juncture that the fan in the nuanced category--a category into which I place myself--walks a fine line. Few Vikings' fans have an interest in the eternal pessimist, because the message is predictable. "The Vikings will lose because they always lose when it matters," the eternal pessimist will predict. That's not only predictable, it is also useless information unless bolstered by analysis of how past mistakes will weigh on future play.

But just as most fans abhor the eternal pessimist, many fans find fault with the eternal optimist. Our local scene has one such optimist, a writer upon whom one can count to explain how a 41-0 whitewashing "could have gone the other way;" a writer who can praise the play and "leadership" of a malcontent of a player who has played his way out of a starting job and, likely, off of the team; and a writer who can suggest that the Vikings were only "one play in several games away from being 15-1.".

It is that type of optimism, an optimism that borders on the naive, that prompts pessimism. That pessimism, in turn, prompts some to search for the dark cloud. And that pessimism prompts some to adopt a contrarian perspective if only for the sake of balance.

My goal is not to be a contrarian for the sake of being a contrarian. Instead, my goal is to provide a perspective on performance that gets lost in the shuffle. Beat writers tend to go with the sound bites. Columnists tend to go with the optimist/pessimist approach in an attempt to stir pashions (and readership). I attempt to view the games in context, without respect to whether it matches the euphoria or despair of the moment.

At times, I have been accused of being overly optimistic, such as when I looked at the last half of the Vikings' schedule last season and suggested that the Vikings had the talent to run the table; or that the Vikings should beat the Bears this year at Soldier Field; or that the Vikings should beat the Seahawks this year at home; or that the Vikings should beat Washington this year to ensure a playoff spot. I did not say that the Vikings would accomplish the relevant feat, but I was optimistic enough to suggest that they could and should.

At other times, I have been accused of being overly pessimistic, such as this week, in the afterglow of the Vikings' unexpected victory over the Packers, when I suggested that it is too early to get too giddy over one victory.

But in neither my optimistic or pessimistic states have I strayed from my goal of dissecting the Vikings' play to identify areas that need improvement. That might mean that I short-change the positive at times. But there are many others dwelling on that aspect. So many, in fact, that few bother to consider whether the positives are a mere aberration.

Why does this matter? Consider the following.

Four poker players meet each week for a year to play poker. Of the four players, three are relatively adept at playing and one is a complete incompetent. When the three competent players recognize the incompetent's faults, they pounce and the incompetent loses miserably.

Frustrated, the incompetent player takes his game to a new table with three unfamiliar faces. The incompetent, as he did among his previous mates, bluffs often, usually, but for the grace of chance, without support for the bluff. Initially, the incompetent's new mates fail to pick up on the incompetent's dim approach to the game. The incompetent thus bluffs his way to victory for several weeks.

When the incompetent's new mates realize that the incompetent truly is incompetent, however, they begin to call the incompetent's bluff. And they are virtually always rewarded for doing so.

After the win against Green Bay last Sunday, the Vikings' coaches and players spoke as if all was right for the team. As much as I would like to believe that that is the case, it is not supported by the evidence. Defense aside, the Vikings' continued to make some of the same critical mistakes that they made all season. They took false start penalties at critical junctures. They refused to unleash one of their primary weapons by insisting (apparently) that Daunte remain in the pocket. They refused to run a no-huddle or quick-count offense despite being ideally suited for such an offense. And they insisted on running from script rather than adjusting to the gametime weaknesses of the opposing team.

I realize that games are filled with miscues by victors and vanquished alike. Some of the miscues can be forgiven. But it is difficult to overlook errors or acts of omission that occur on a regular basis and that are readily correctible.

My Ray of Sunshine

And if that is still too pessimistic I'll give you this. When the playoffs began, the two worst matchups for the Vikings were the St. Louis Rams and the Green Bay Packers, in that order. Philly, without T.O., was a distant third. That the Vikings were able to defeat their second biggest obstacle on the road bodes well for them as they prepare to play what should be a less formidable opponent this weekend. And if Atlanta can knock off St. Louis....

How's that?

Up Next: Preview of This Weekend's Playoff Matchup Against the Eagles.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Same Old, Same Old?

While the Vikings' victory over the Packers on Sunday gained them new followers and even won the conviction of some NFL playoff prognosticators that the Vikings are destined for Super Bowl glory this season, there is reason to believe that much of this week's celebration is a bit premature. At the top of the list for doubters--a.k.a., those still awash in recollections of the Vikings' 3-7 finish crowned with an apathy-laden finish against a team long out of the playoffs--are the persistent offensive issues and the inescapable conclusion that, if the Vikings need to rely on their defense to win at Philly defeat is almost certainly in the cards.

Starting Quick...

The Vikings began the first quarter of the Packer game in aberrational style by putting points on the board early and often. Throughout the regular season, the Vikings were one of the lowest scoring first quarter teams in the NFL, often enduring stretches of games without a first-quarter TD. Against the Packers, that ignominy ceased, as the Vikings scored TDs on their first two drives of the game. Following a third-drive field goal, the Vikings forged an early 17-0 lead.

Then came the rest of the game.

Second Quarter Wisdom

Vikings' fans have grown accustomed to a certain offensive trend. The Vikings tend to put a field goal or less on the board in the first quarter, move the ball well in the second quarter, a quarter in which they tend to amass most of their points for the game, and finish with a fizzle in the second half.

On Sunday, the Vikings began the fizzle a bit earlier. Despite converting a TD on a second-quarter drive, that conversion was largely the consequence of having to move the ball a mere 28 yards, following a pick of a Brett Favre pass. On the only other drive in the second quarter, the Vikings drove the ball well only to have Morton Andersen's chip-shot field goal attempt blocked.

It may appear nit-picky to chastise a team for failing to convert a TD on 100% of its second quarter drives. But the criticism, which I am about to level, is founded not on mere statistics, but also on the more damning history of the Vikings' 2004 offensive play-calling in goal-to-go situations. Thus, although it is difficult to fathom how a 27-yard field-goal attempt can get blocked, more disconcerting (given my near-absolute disinterest in attempting to explain why the Vikings continue to rely on a kicker that is less than automatic even from short range--forcing the team to activate two kickers and to deactivate a quality running back or defensive lineman--rather than relying on Jose Cortez for kickoffs and field goal attempts) is the fact that the Vikings were even attempting a 27-yard field goal. How did this happen?

It happened because the Vikings once again reverted to form. Which means that offensive coordinator Scott Linehan relied on the same ploys that have gotten the Vikings where they are today--a wild card team with no hope of a home playoff game.

On first and goal from the Packers' nine-yard line, the Vikings ran SOD up the gut for a generous yard. Sound familiar? It should. The Vikings run the same play on first and goal virtually every week. I would argue that such a play makes sense, if it ever worked for the Vikings. Unfortunately, it never does. But that doesn't stop Linehan and Co. from banging their heads against the same brick wall. Nor does it stop the Vikings from scoring on 1st and goal yet again.

On second and goal, the Vikings ran a pass play to the left. That's fine if it works, of course, but it is also highly predictable from this offense. Presumably, the thinking is that Daunte receives (marginally) better pass protection from the left side of the line and the inexperienced right side is less likely to jump the count and false start on a play to the left--a la Adam Haayer or Adam Goldberg--so the Vikings like to try the left-side pass in 2nd and goal situations. Again, that's fine. If it works.

But it usually does not work for the Vikings. Not because the opponent sacks Daunte, but because the Vikings sack themselves before the play is even run. The Vikings commit this self-infliction by telegraphing their plays. It is, after all, the play that the Vikings virtually always run on 2nd and goal following a SOD up-the-gut-for-a-yard play on 1st and goal. If the Vikings insist on running this play on 2nd and goal, how about running a no-huddle offense with a quick snap. That might just work. Alas, it is not part of the script.

And when the Vikings failed on the pass left on 2nd and goal, they decided to really pull out all of the stops. How? Simple. They ran the same play that they nearly always run after the failed 2nd and goal pass to the left. They ran a pass to the right. Sneaky.

Yes, the pass was completed. But the receiver, Moe Williams, really had no chance to score. In part, he had no chance to score because the pass called was well outside the five-yard line, allowing the defenders ample opportunity to adjust given the short field. But, in greater part, the play failed because, like the two plays before it, the Vikings ran a play on 3rd and goal that they typically run on third and goal--a pass right. The only more predictable play would have been a corner-of-the-endzone lob to Moss or Burleson. And teams are increasingly hip to the routine.

Maybe Tice and Linehan simply thought that, on the road, in the playoffs, with a comfortable lead, there was no reason to risk a turnover. A field goal was still pretty good, they likely agreed.

But there was an alternative, an alternative that is nearly as good as gold. And that alternative was to put the ball in Daunte's hands three straight plays and to challenge the Packers to stop Daunte. No, not three straight passing plays, three straight running plays. Three straight QB keepers.

On the play that set up the 1st and goal at the Packers' nine-yard line, facing 3rd and five, Daunte romped 27 yards to the right. Given this display, was there any reason not to have Daunte keep the ball on three straight plays? Not really. Except that Linehan's script--one etched in stone for the season--calls for two things. The first is to follow the script. The second is that, despite having a gargantuan QB that is virtually unstoppable on the ground, particularly if given three attempts to gain a paltry 9 yards, Daunte must not run unless running for his life.

Which raises the burning question. For what are the Vikings saving Daunte from the small possibility of injury? Even granting that it is in the long-term interests of the team and the QB to limit the QB's running, is there any justification for eliminating running plays from Daunte's repertoire when the environment clearly calls for such a play? Only if the offensive coordinator and head coach refuse to deviate from what is etched in stone.

As a result of the Vikings' commitment to script, rather than leading the Packers 31-10 at the half, they settled for a 24-10 halftime lead. Yes, the Vikings held the lead. But will continued predictable playcalling pass muster against the more defensively formidable Eagles. Likely not.

Second Half Baubles

Even more disconcerting than the dismal 1st and goal failure in the second quarter was the Vikings' continuing second-half dry spell. Once again, the Vikings were unable to generate much offense in the second half of a game. And the blame appears to fall squarely on the coaching staff and Daunte Culpepper for failing to instill a second-half game plan and failing to stick to a game plan or to take what the defense was giving.

The Vikings had three third quarter possessions and ran a total of 13 plays. One of the three drives included a charming three and out that started at the Green Bay 23 and concluded with a punt from the Green Bay 30. Apparently there is no kicker on the Vikings' team capable of converting a 47-yard field goal. And, even more apparent, is that there is no offensive force on the Vikings capable of calling a drive in the clutch.

On three straight plays, the Vikings ran pass plays. All three plays failed.

The two subsequent third-quarter drives met similar fates. And only a 6-play, 66-yard, fourth-quarter TD strike and a clock-grinding drive to end the game--a drive the likes of which the Vikings could have and should have employed in the third quarter--salvaged the Vikings from offensive embarrassment in the second half.

Given these failures, failures that repeat from game to game, it is a wonderment that some prognosticators actually favor the Vikings to beat the Eagles. Can the Vikings win? Yes. The Vikings can win the same way any playoff team can beat any other playoff team. But, given the continuing trends--the predilection to predictable playcalling, the inability to control the offensive tempo at critical junctures in the game, and the helter-skelter approach that appears to seize Linehan's and Culpepper's approach to the game at critical moments--there is reason for concern.

But that concern is not relegated to the Vikings' offensive predictability, it also permeates onto the defensive side of the ball. Despite what the statistics show from last Sunday's game--four INTs and a number one defensive-unit rating among playoff teams--contrary to what the NFL's statistics "show," the Vikings enter Sunday's round of games with the usual suspect defense. And that is the subject of tomorrow's column.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Glass Half Empty

Ahh, it's nice to be back from the land of forever sun. A place where temperatures consisently hover between 75 (night) and 90 (daytime) during "winter." No longer do I need to worry about overexposure to the sun, pool chlorine, or sea salt. Nor need I, for now, worry about relative humidity.

That is how the optimist would view a return to the tundra from a trip to the Caribbean. That is how one views things from the perspective of the glass being half full.

But, as much as I can put a good spin on a return to winter, I find it more difficult to be the optimist about other, seemingly more comforting concerns. Namely, I find it difficult to get too dialed up about the Vikings, even given their thrashing of the Green Bay Packers last Sunday.

It came as no surprise to Vikings' fans, on the heals of a 3-7 finish, that the Vikings were picked to lose to the Packers last weekend. The odds makers had the Vikings losing. The Packers had the Vikings losing. Vikings' fans had the Vikings losing. Even the Vikings appeared willing to concede.

But that was before Brett Favre pulled out one of his truly ugly performances. Despite pasting the Vikings for 34 points in two previous meetings, despite facing a team that had allowed all but one opponent to exceed yearly scoring averages, despite having the personnel to assist him, Favre reached back, way back, back on his heals, and, with the assistance of his ever plunderable defense, pulled out defeat.

A glass half full person would look at the Vikings' victory on Sunday and pronounce the Vikings healed. Tice claimed that the Vikings had been "playing tight" all season. Randy Moss, Matt Birk, Bryant McKinnie, and other Vikings' players contended that the tightness had been cured at a hair-letting-down ceremony during a spirited week of practice. For these hale fellows, and doubtless other Vikings' fans, the cup now runneth over. And the new mantra, rather than the former lament of "woe is us," is now "look out world!"

But that's not good enough for this Vikings' fan.

All along, most Vikings' fans have suspected that the Vikings were capable of beating one-dimensional teams. At this point of the season, that includes virtually every team in the NFC. That's what made the season-ending, 3-7 slide so disappointing. That's what made most fans skeptical that a team that could lose to Chicago and Washington on the road could beat an offensive team on the road, particularly one that had already delivered two defeats to the Vikings this season.

The conclusion regarding the likely winner of the Vikings'-Packers' playoff game was inaccurate, but the reasons for that conclusion were sound. The Vikings' defense is among the dregs of the league; the Vikings' offense endures long stretches, often in the second half of games, during which it appears utterly befuddled; and the coaching staff generally appears unable either to make the proper adjustments on the fly or to coax apparently unwilling desciples into buying the game plan. Despite emerging victorious on Sunday, those elements once again reared their ugly head.

The Vikings beat the Packers on Sunday because they did what they have been incapable of doing all season, they took advantage of opportunities on defense. When Favre chucked one into the Vikings' mitts on Sunday, as he did four times, the Vikings picked it. That did not happen in two previous games against the Packers this season, games in which the Vikings had a minimum of six pick opportunities that they failed to convert.

The four picks against Favre represent more than 33% of the Vikings' regular-season pick total of 11. That suggests that the Packer game is an aberration. That suggests that more of Philly's drives will extend further down the field this week. And that suggests that, barring a continuation of last Sunday's aberration, the game against the Eagles on Sunday will be, at a minimum, tight.

But before I get to far ahead of myself, a bit of half-cup analysis of Sunday's game against the Packers is in order. And that is what is on tap for tomorrow.

Monday, January 03, 2005

Early Preview

I may be incommunicado for the next week, so here is the early take on next Sunday's playoff game at Lambeau. Predictably, the preview is brief. This is not because I have nothing to say about the game, but because I have already said it.

I have noted, for instance, that the Vikings have the personnel to defeat the Packers. Most teams do. I have also noted that the Vikings have the personnel to lose to the Packers. We have not seen the former package very often in recent weeks, but we have seen plenty of the latter--seven takes in the past ten weeks to be precise. And the show is becoming old, but I'll keep trying.

I cannot resist the temptation to point out that the Vikings could feast on the Packers' defense by employing a steady diet of screens, slants, shovel passes, Daunte roll-outs (and, preferably, roll-out running plays). And neither can I resist the urge to note that containment of Favre should be the goal on defense. That a 3-4 defense, despite the Vikings' lack of linebackers, is better when played with Spencer Johnson or Chris Hovan or some mobile body, than is any formulation of the 4-3 that the Vikings have tried to date.

I could state all this, but it would not matter. It would not matter, because, despite what we all see from week to week, the Vikings' coaches apparently see something else--I'll call it a mirage. And this mirage has compelled the Vikings to continue to do what they have been doing, to continue to beat a drum that long ago wore out.

The Vikings continue to draw up ridiculous plays (such as a play action pass with time running out and no time on the clock--Hello? Is anyone buying that a team will run in that situation? Anyone other than a "defender" in purple?). The Vikings also continue to rely on the bomb in an attempt to salvage poorly conceived game plans. They continue to enter the game with an apparent disinterest in the opponent and with an apparent absence of a game plan. They continue to speak of taking what the opponent gives them, only to proceed to attempt to pound square pegs into much smaller round holes. And they continue to show an inability to adjust and an astonishing ability to make the same mistakes over and over and over and over again.

But even with all that, even with all of the futility, the Vikings have played two close games against the Packers this season. And that would give some fans reason to predict a Vikings' victory on Sunday. Not me.

It would be overly optimistic to predict a Vikings' victory next Sunday for several reasons. First, the Packers have already beaten the Vikings twice this season. In previous playoff games involving a team beaten twice in the regular season by their playoff opponent, the team losing both regular season games has lost the playoff game 10 of 15 times. This looks like number 11.
The Packers have been running up the score on teams lately and that should continue against the Vikings, purveyors of the "run up the score" defense. If the Vikings do not eliminate the critical mistakes that have become endemic to the team's offense this season, they not only cannot win, they probably cannot even stay close. And there is no indication that the mistakes will cease in the near or distant future.

The Packers have another advantage over the Vikings in that the Packers play games with a sense of urgency, from beginning to end. Even though their game on Sunday was meaningless, the Packers played to win. And, as the Packers often do under Favre, they won big by striking early. Against a team that Minnesota recently lost to--big. And against a team that expected to win this week, at home.

The Packers win these games because they understand that plays are cumulative. A big play at the beginning is as big as a big play at the end of the game, possibly bigger given the momentum early big plays help to forge. The Vikings appear to lack awareness of this element of the game, causing them to start flat and to make errors throughout the game. As for the late big plays, well, I shall leave for now discussion of the atrocious two-minute (ten minute?) offense and the Vikings' constant failure in clutch situations.

At least one other decided advantage that the Packers have over the Vikings is that the Packers win games they are supposed to win. They also tend to pull out games that are supposed to be close. On Sunday, the Packers likely will do what the current Vikings' team is utterly incapable of doing. The Packers likely will beat a team that they are favored to beat. And if Sunday's game turned your stomach, don't bother watching the playoffs, because this game might be nowhere near as close as the regular-season games.

Up Next: Post Game.

Message in the Mail

When the Vikings began the season at 5-1 and looked down the schedule to the game against the Giants, Vikings' head coach Mike Tice said that his team was prepared for New York and would exact revenge for two previous defeats at the hands of the Giants. Tice was wrong. Very wrong. Not only did the Giants beat Minnesota, they beat Minnesota badly.

Tice told us not to worry. He told us the Vikings would not crumble this year as they had after a similar demoralizing loss to the Giants in 2003. Tice was wrong again. Very wrong. Not only did the Vikings crumble after this year's loss to the Giants, they crumbled mightily, losing seven of their final 10 games in what Tice termed "the light part of our schedule.""We expect to get healthy here," the coach predicted. "If we don't, my butt should be on the line," he quipped.

Unfortunately, Red is not going to hold Tice to his words. And we know why. We know Red supports Tice for one reason only. Not because Tice is the best coach for the team. Not because Tice has made the most of his opportunities. Not even because Tice has demonstrated a steep learning curve on the job. No, those possibilities are eliminated from consideration if for no other reason than that they are quantitatively falsifiable.

But understanding Red's motivation for keeping Tice next season at $1 million requires much less work than would sifting through the numbers. The reason that Red opted to keep Tice this season is, of course, that keeping Tice saves Red money.

No, keeping Tice as head coach next season doesn't save Red money the way Bob Kraft "saves money"--by hiring an astute, experienced coach that gives the team a chance to win under any circumstance, thus ensuring a growing legion of loyal fans. Instead, keeping Tice as head coach next season saves Red money because Red understands that: (1) he needs someone that he can call his head coach; (2) Tice is willing to work for less than the league average despite having four years of "experience" as a head coach; and (3) Vikings' fans are so fanatical about the Vikings that they succumb to the annual tradition of applying blinders to the woes of the team.

The result is that the Vikings have an overwhelmed head coach with a packed stadium. And that's all good to Red. That's the bottom line.

And the bottom line here is that, if you really are a diehard Vikings' fan and a season-ticket holder, you will promptly send the Vikings' ticket office a letter stating that you are no longer interested in reserving season tickets--even if the price gauging ceases--until there is a change in ownership or ownership philosophy. That change, you will note, must include a focus on hiring quality coaches and qaulity (read "experienced") player personnel. Absent these changes, you will note, you will be happy to spend your season-ticket dollars elsewhere. Like on paying down the mortgage. Or taking the family on a vacation. Or even buying bags of rocks.

Sooner or later, Red should get the message. Sooner or later, the fans' decision not to renew season tickets will hit Red where it needs to--in the pocketbook. And if we are to accept that football is a business, and I do, then we should treat it as one. We should spend for a good product and turn up our noses at a bad product. And this team currently falls in the latter category.

You can cower and concern yourself over the prospect that the NFL will let Red take this team to LA if fans fail to gobble up season tickets, but why would you care? Your options are to: (1) continue to pay homage to an ownership that has no interest in bringing a championship caliber team to Minnesota or (2) refuse to pay homage and risk seeing the owner take his team to another city, where he will play his same used car game. merely do there what he has done here. As anyone so enamored with the Vikings that a lifetime of Les Steckel-like seasons is of value? Come on!

Send Red a message by not renewing your season tickets. Then we'll find out whether the used car salesman truly understands his audience.

Up Next: Packer Preview.

Sunday, January 02, 2005

Great Start!

Although the 14-3 start certainly should come as no surprise to Vikings' fans, the utter lack of performance by the Vikings should give rise to concerns about next year, as it suggests that the Vikings, rather than progressing, are going in reverse.

After yet another false start penalty by the Vikings, radio color commentator Joe Sensor declared that he could not understand how anyone could blame the Vikings' coaches for the Vikings failures this season. "It's the penalties that have doomed the Vikings," Sensor protested, "not the coaching."


When a team continues to make stupid mistake after stupid mistake, the blame most certainly rests with those overseeing those making the mistakes. In this case, the blame falls squarely on the Vikings' coaching staff. And, as last week's fatal 4th quarter drive was a microcosm of the season, the Vikings have one-upped that one-drive performance by performing miserably for nearly the entire first half.

Fourteen points in the first half by a team averaging about that for an entire game? A quarterback rating nearing the century mark for a quarterback with a season rating near the bottom of the NFL? An offensive output of a single field goal and drives stunted by penalties and curious playcalling from a team purportedly capable of blowing out any team in the NFL? Leave it to the Vikings. And, more specifically, leave it to the Vikings' coaching staff for putting inadequate rookies in critical positions.

Jeff Dugan and Other Mistakes

Trailing 7-0 with the ball on Washington's 1" line, the Vikings brought in an extra tight end to block what was certainly going to be a running play. That extra tight end was little used, error prone, Jeff Dugan. Predictably, Dugan jumped the play count for a false start and the Vikings, unable to convert from the 7 on third and goal, were forced to convert a chip-shot field goal.

But why was Dugan even on the field? In the few instances in which Dugan has played this season, his number has been called often. And his number has not been called by the Vikings, but by the officials, usually for holding or a false start. I've said it before and I'll say it again, had Dugan not lettered at Maryland and were Dugan not a tight end, Tice would have never considered him for a spot on this team. Just another indictment of the poor decision-making by the Vikings' personnel staff this year and for years prior. And this indictment begins with Tice.

But personnel decisions, as wide and varied as they are, are not the Vikings only glaring sore spot in this game. Mistakes by the usual suspects are equally culpible.

Not to be outdone by a 56-yard return on the Redskins' first kick return, the Vikings' special teams permitted another long return to midfield on the second kickoff. The cherry on the top of the Vikings' second kickoff was an offsides on the Vikings.

When the Vikings' were returning kicks, the result was equally as abysmal. On the Redskins' second kickoff of the game, a lousy return in its own right, rookie Dontarrious Thomas was flagged for an illegal block in the back and the Vikings were backed up near their goal line. That the field position did not result in a safety, as it nearly did, was merely an atavistic blip. That Thomas made a mistake in a game, sadly, was the norm.

And even when the Vikings were not officially making mistakes they were making mistakes. On Kevin Williams' interception, Kenechi Udeze clearly hit Washington quarterback Patrick Ramsey late. The officials missed the call. When Daunte Culpepper faced a blitz in the second quarter and threw the ball away despite being in the pocket and, therefore, still subject to the grounding rule, the officials demurred, opting to flag Washington for a very questionable roughing-the-quarterback penalty. And, on the lone occasion that Brian Williams made a tackle--albeit after an easy 15-yard gain--the officials looked the other way when Williams nearly wrenched off the receiver's head with a brutal facemask.

From a critic's perspective, these mistakes, mistakes that the Vikings continue to make week after week, is on the coaching staff. There apparently is no accountability, and there is certainly poor preparation week in and week out, on this team. That should give Red reason to eat Tice's $1 million contract and hire Gregg Williams, Jim Fassel, or someone who can prepare a team to play and coax the team to follow the lead.


The Vikings cannot win today playing as they did in the first half. No team could. Not at any level. Not against any caliber of opposition. But if a miracle strikes, and the Vikings pull their collective heads out of their collective derriers, the Vikings might yet pull this one out.

I won't be holding my breath.

Up Next: Post Game.

Just Win Baby

As the Vikings enter their noon game against the Washington Redskins today, with the knowledge that winning puts them in the playoffs, they face a familiar foe--themselves. Presented a similar challenge at the end of the 2003 season, the Vikings collapsed mightily. That collapse came against the lowly Cardinals, in front of mostly friendly snowbird fans, and against a feeble offense. With the possible exception of having to face a more partisan hometown crowd, the Vikings' face a similar challenge today in Washington.

Washington enters today's game with one of the worst offenses in the NFL, led by one of the lowest-rated starting QBs, and has little reason to give the Vikings a game today. In fact, the Redskins have such little reason to win today that they have decided to hold out three of their best players--cornerback Fred Smoot, linebacker Lavar Arrington, and running back Clinton Portis, a move that should help the Vikings move the ball on offense and focus the defense on what, by necessity, should become a one-track Washington Redskins' offense.

Conventional Wisdom

The conventional wisdom is that the Vikings should blitz Patrick Ramsey early and often. The theory is that if the Vikings permit Ramsey to get in a groove and establish some confidence, Ramsey will believe he can do against Minnesota what he has been unable to do against every other team.

The conventional wisdom has merit. Ramsey has proven that he is easily rattled and is susceptible to making throwing mistakes and turning over the ball when flustered. That suggests that the blitz approach might work.

The Contrarian Approach

The skeptic of the blitz approach would note, however, that the Vikings have had very limited success with the blitz this season. This has been particularly true of the Vikings' defense when faced with a West Coast offense.

I cannot say with any certainty exactly what offense it is that the Redskins are attempting to run this season. Despite purportedly having one of the best running backs in the NFL (a.k.a., a product of the Denver offense), the Redskins have been a pass-first team this season. This might suggest a wide-open offense, but the Redskins are without an experienced deep threat. That suggests the WC offense (yes, ironic abbreviation).

In the end, watching the Redskins' offense on the field will not help determine the style of offense that Joe Gibbs has implemented for Ramsey to run, primarily because Ramsey is still the one running whatever offense it is. And Ramsey has been awful.

Ramsey's awfulness has come against all-walks of NFL clubs. It has come against teams that blitz frequentlyand against teams that spare the blitz. So it does not seem imperative for the Vikings to blitz today.

In fact, one contrarian thought is that the Vikings might even want to play a modified 3-4 defense today. I know, the Vikings are at least one linebacker short of being able to field a 3-4 package. But that doesn't mean that the 3-4 is impossible. Instead, the Vikings can slide Spencer Johnson back to linebacker or, perish the thought, insert Chris Hovan at one of the outside linebacker spots. We are always told that Hovan has speed and quickness, but that he has trouble against double teams. This would be a golden opportunity for Hovan to display his assets without leaving himself vulnerable to his weaknesses.

The 3-4 could ensure that Ramsey has no mid-range targets. That would force Ramsey to look deep, where he has often made mistakes this season. If the Vikings' d-backs find last season's ability to make picks, today's game could be big for the Vikings' secondary.

The 3-4 is also appealing against the Redskins today because the Redskins are so vulnerable across the offensive line. Lining up in the 3-4 would permit the Vikings to gauge the particular vulnerabilities of today's version of the Redskins' offensive line and allow more linebacker blitzes. Such blitzing likely would be more beneficial and more productive than the weak safety and corner blitzes that the Vikings have attempted in previous weeks and would ensure that the secondary is not left in precarious man-to-man situations.


On offense, the Vikings need to do what they continually refuse to do. Namely, the Vikings need to spread the wealth and take what the Redskins give them. That should mean plenty of work for Jermaine Wiggins, Michael Bennett, and Nate Burleson, and probably less action for Randy Moss. If the Vikings accept this, they should have solid success against a banged up defense. If not, well, it may be Arizona all over again.

While we know that the Vikings are still far from a cinch to salt this game away in the face of such overwhelmingly positive odds, they should still pull this one out. And, in the final analysis, if they do not beat a team that long ago packed in the season, should we really care?

Up Next: Halftime.