Prior to the beginning of the 2004 NFL season, Vikings' defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell stated that he would like the Vikings to play some 3-4 defense from time to time. Cottrell made that statement when he was still under the delusion that the Vikings were loaded at linebacker.
As the 2004 season unraveled, it became more than abundantly evident that not only were the Vikings not loaded at linebacker, they were downright awful throughout the linebacking corps. Initially, fans were left to gauge the true carnage through impression only. It appeared that the linebackers were having difficulty maintaining containment; it appeared that running backs were blowing holes through them on runs up the middle; it appeared that Vikings' linebackers were making few tackles; and it appeared that Vikings' linebackers were completely out of position on critical plays.
By season's end, we had confirmation of our season-long impressions. In 2004, the Vikings' linebacking corps tallied 1/3 fewer tackles than the league-leading Steelers. And while the Vikings get a discount for playing the 4-3 to the Steelers' 3-4 (in which we would expect a higher number of tackles by virtue of having one more potential tackler on every play), the disparity cannot be explained by numbers alone. Because, not only did the Vikings have fewer tackles from their linebacking corps than any other NFL team, they also made those tackles farther downfield. And that resulted from the fact that the Vikings simply lacked playmakers and playcallers at linebacker.
Frustration over the play of the Vikings' linebackers led Vikings' head coach Mike Tice to tinker early and often with his linebacking corps. It even compelled Tice to use still-gimpy Chris Claiborne instead of the healthy, though uncorralable Donterrious Thomas, at outside linebacker. By seasons' end, Tice admitted that the Vikings had to address their linebacker situation. And the implication was that they would do so through free agency, where they could find an experienced middle (MIKE) linebacker.
Free Agency Numskullery
As the free agency period got underway, the Vikings worked behind the scenes to recruit two potential defensive starters, Pat Williams (DT, Buffalo) and Antonio Pierce (LB, Washington). The Vikings had hooks on both players from the outset in three respects. First, the Vikings could pay both what they were seeking in the open market. Second, the Vikings could assure both players significant playing time at their preferred position. Both Williams and Pierce also looked forward to playing for Cottrell--Williams, because he had played for Cottrell in Buffalo, Pierce, because he respected the defensive coordinator's philosophy and handling of players.
Williams sought $13 million over three years with a commensurate signing bonus. It is unknown what Pierce requested in terms of a contract, but Vikings apparently were willing to meet his demand. Almost.
With the deal all but sealed on both players, the Vikings--still nearly twice as much under the cap as the next closest team--added an unusual request; the Vikings asked each player to relinquish rights to a signing bonus until May. This would have allowed Red to escape from any signing bonus obligations--prorated for cap reasons but paid at the time of signing--should the sale of the team to the Fowler group go through. It was yet another of Red's continuing efforts to disgorge any obligations that he has to run a business that he purports to run.
Williams reached terms with the Vikings, though it is not clear if he accepted Red's overture. Pierce immediately balked at the preposterous proposal and left the Vikings without what the Washington Redskins described as their "most intelligent player." That left the Vikings not only without an intelligent player at middle linebacker, but without their purported prime off-season free agent target.
In the end, the Vikings touted their signing of Williams. But Williams was the minor deal. The Vikings betrayed as much by stating that they would split time between Williams and Spencer Johnson, bringing in Johnson in passing situations. Given that teams will remain prone to passing against the Vikings until the Vikings figure out how to defend the pass, that says a mouth full.
Which brings us to the critical issue. Cottrell envisioned the Vikings playing 3-4 defense last season not because he saw in the Vikings a stud linebacking corps, but because he hoped that the Vikings would be able to rise to the challenges presented by the changing division dynamics. Those dynamics saw the Lions moving to a West Coast/middle of the field passing game, the Bears claiming a similar move (despite not having the talent to meet that charge), and the Packers already playing a West Coast variation.
Under the West Coast system, quarterbacks release the ball quickly. So quickly, in fact, that the fastest defensive ends have difficulty putting pressure on the quarterback. That puts a premium on coverage. And, when faced with the West Coast offense, the premium is on linebacker coverage. That makes the 3-4 invaluable.
But the Vikings not only did not have four capable linebackers last season, they had zero linebackers (with the possible exception of Chris Claiborne) who were capable of playing middle linebacker and making proper reads. At no time was this more evident than in the playoff game against the Eagles when E.J. Henderson inexplicably retreated behind the goal line on a play from the 2-yard line. Henderson's retreat made a quick play over the middle possible. A more experienced middle linebacker--and one with more adept instinct--would have held his ground and forced the play over the top, into the arms of the waiting safeties.
The Vikings could not address the MIKE issue last season, but thought that they could in 2005 by adding Pierce, a player with four years of NFL experience. And since no team has ever won the Super Bowl with a MIKE with less than four years of experience (unless, as Tampa Bay did, they surrounded that player with several All-Pros), the change--potentially allowing Henderson to take his tackling ability to the outside--boded well for the Vikings.
But by making a ridiculous request that a highly sought free agent defer rights to a signing bonus--rights that, were something to happen to the player, might never materialize--the Vikings ensured that they would not get their number one off-season target. That doesn't mean that the Vikings are without options, but an upgrade at linebacker is increasingly in peril.
Vikings' Current Linebacker Situation
On Friday, Chris Claiborne bid adieu to the Vikings. That relieves the Vikings of the potential of signing Claiborne to a big contract only to see him miss time with injury yet again, but it also puts the Vikings in a bind in terms of experience. Without Claiborne, the Vikings' most experienced linebacker is Napoleon Harris. That won't cut it.
The Vikings could pursue Edgerton Hartwell of the Ravens. Hartwell has four years of experience and has some impressive numbers (see previous column), but he also will command a high salary. And the Vikings appear unwilling to scale that mountain at this juncture, despite having to spend at least $15 million or so more to reach the NFL's salary floor for 2005.
The Vikings' missed the opportunity to sign the guy they wanted in Pierce. Pierce would have brought intelligence and a measure of experience to a linebacking corps desperately in need of both. He also would have come at a lesser price than will some of the remaining quality linebackers. That means the Vikings likely will once again be sifting through the remains pile for any semblance of a linebacker.
This issue, if not miraculously resolved, will manifest itself in gruesome form throughout 2005. Not only will the Vikings have a bad linebacking corps (too young, too thin, too inexperienced, too undisciplined), they will be without Claiborne to boot. That sounds like a recipe for disaster, no matter how many "shut down" cornerbacks the Vikings are able to sign. Shut down corners don't shut down the West Coast, they merely slow it down. Linebackers are the key.
Up Next: Come out, come out whomever you are.