Entering the 2004 season, the Vikings were certain of two things regarding their running back situation. First, they knew that they had depth. With SOD returning from a promising finish to his rookie season, the ever-reliable Moe Williams returning as the featured blocking back and as a near-automatic first-down rusher/receiver, and Michael Bennett scheduled to return from a lengthy injury, the Vikings were brimming with confidence about their running-back stable, certain that SOD, Williams, and Bennett could and would carry the load during the 2004 season. That Mewelde Moore turned into a gem of a back only bolstered this confidence.
But the Vikings' confidence over their running backs' abilities was met by another conviction, the conviction that the Vikings had absolutely no idea how to use their rushing arsenal. That conviction lingered throughout camp, into the regular season, and right through the playoffs. And that conviction, as much as anything else, resulted in critical offensive failures this season and to a less-than-teary fairwell to former offensive coordinator Scott Linehan.
It did not need to be this way. The Vikings had several opportunities to settle on a featured back. But that did not happen. Bennett's late return from injury did nothing to settle the minds of the Vikings' staff on a pecking order for the running backs. Nor did SOD's four-game suspension for violation of the NFL's substance-abuse policy. Nor did Mewelde Moore's sparkling play. Nor did Moe Williams' ever-tremendous play and ability to block in passing situations. Nor did Bennett's awful play upon his return from injury. Nor did SOD's strong running upon his return from suspension. Nor did Moore's spectacular play following two "DNP Coach's Decision" games and limited repetitions in several other games. Nor did Bennett's sparkling performance at the end of the season.
In short, the Vikings' coaching staff, despite numerous opportunities to name any one of the Vikings' four running backs the primary back, opted, instead, to recognize the ability of each of the four running backs. In so doing, the Vikings gave each back so few carries that none had the opportunity to establish the type of rhythm the likes of which coaches and backs, alike, forever insist is necessary at the professional level.
That might explain why Linehan so frequently abandoned the running game in crunch time. When in doubt, coordinators tend to fall back on the familiar. And the familiar for the Vikings was the passing attack, and, unfortunately, for the Vikings, that meant resorting to the deep bomb to either nobody or to a crowd of four--three of whom were certain to be wearing the opponent's uniform. Without a routine at running back, Linehan undoubtedly eschewed the running attack just when the running attack was most vital.
That spelled doom for the balanced attack at critical moments in games and spelled trouble for the Vikings' offense. It is therefore no surprise that, as the season progressed and opponents realized the Vikings' tendency to abandon the running game--particularly when the game was tight (despite Linehan's contentions to the contrary)--the Vikings had little chance for offensive success.
What Needs to Be Done in 2005
Prior to the beginning of the 2005 season, the Vikings need to establish a clear pecking order for their running backs. In part, this decision will be predicated on what the Vikings elect to do in the free agency period.
Before his end-of-the-season mad dash, Bennett appeared to be the most logical candidate to be traded. With his initial return-from-injury performances, Vikings' fans were lamenting the Vikings' decision not to swap Bennett for Miami Dolphins' defensive end Adewale Ogunleye last Fall. While that trade still sounds pretty good, Bennett's end-of-the-season performance at least offers promise that the Vikings retained sound value in not making the deal.
With a burst at the end of the season, Bennett bolstered his case for remaining with the Vikings and perhaps even for being their featured back in 2005. His sudden strength running through openings in the offensive line were revealing and his blazing speed in the flat made him a terror for opposing defenders.
But, notwithstanding his tremendous potential, Bennett has a well-known downside. The greatest concern among Vikings' personnel people is Bennett's propensity to sustain injuries throughout his career. Given this history, and Bennett's diminutive size, future injuries appear likely. That makes Bennett a risk as a featured back.
Bennett's small frame also makes blocking a task for him. Under the Vikings' offensive scheme, as is the case with virtually every team in the NFL, the running back is called upon to block in passing situations. Bennett is a better blocker than SOD or Moore, but his size still portends injury should he be called upon to block frequently.
Some of this concern disappears if Mike Rosenthal and Jim Kleinsasser return to the Vikings' lineup next season in top shape. The return of the starting right tackle and the starting blocking tight end should reduce the need for a pass-blocking running back and free up a running back like Bennett to focus on rushing, thus permitting him to prolong his career by avoiding injury situations. And that would make Bennett a good candidate, as unlikely as it would have sounded just three months ago, to be the featured back for the Vikings in 2005.
The alternatives to Bennett as the featured back are SOD and Moore. Both are strong and quick. Both have demonstrated an ability to be the featured back. And both can play special teams, a tremendous plus on a team in as much need of extra bodies as the Vikings have been in recent seasons.
But being featured as a special teams player automatically puts one at risk of losing a starting offensive assignment. This is particularly true of SOD and Moore, who return kickoffs and punts, given their success at their respective special teams positions, the Vikings' previous woes at those positions, and the correlative heightened need to keep SOD and Moore healthy. The Vikings can afford to lose one starting running back. They can even, to a degree, afford to lose their starting kickoff or punt return specialist. But they certainly cannot afford to lose two of the three as a result of an injury to one player. And that suggests that, barring the signing of a legitimate return specialist, neither SOD nor Moore should be considered the front-runner for a featured back role.
But in the hierarchy of the remaining backs, SOD's experience temporarily gives him the slight nod over Moore, based on experience and previous production. SOD's status, however, ignores the fact that SOD comes with some pretty heavy baggage. Because SOD has already served one four-game suspension for violating the league's substance abuse policy--meaning that SOD has actually violated the NFL policy on two occasions--any future violations will cost SOD an entire season of play. SOD is good on the field, but not good enough to overcome such sanctions. And the risk of losing SOD for an entire season, a risk that appears high at this point, must give Vikings' brass pause as they ponder their running back options for 2005.
In addition to being a risk as a repeat substance abuser, SOD is also shoddy blocker. In fact, SOD is such a poor blocker that, on pass plays, the Vikings routinely bring in the dependable Williams, despite clearly understanding that by doing so they are tipping the play. If SOD does not improve on his pass protection, Moore will surpass him as an equally capable, tough running back with at least modest pass-blocking skills.
This leaves the Vikings with several considerations. Should they bring back each of the four running backs? Is one back more expendable than the others? Is there a good trading partner out there? All of which brings us squarely to the subject of tomorrow's discussion.