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.
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.