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.
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.