Monday, December 25, 2006

Make That Zero Percent Chance of Robinson Returning

It didn't look good prior to Christmas Day. Today, it is fact. Marcus Robinson is no longer a Minnesota Viking. In a brief phone conversation with Vikings' personnel director Rick Spielman, Spielman informed the receiver that he was being given his release from the Vikings with one week left in the season.

It was yet another classy move for the Vikings' organization which, less than one year ago, vowed to become the class of the NFL. Last week, head coach Brad Childress publicly benched former starter Brad Johnson in favor of starting rookie Tarvaris Jackson without first informing Johnson of the decision. At the time, Childress referred to Jackson as "the team's best hope of winning in 2006." Jackson finished the game with 27 yards passing and produced zero offensive points.

In a post-game interview session, Childress defended his offensive play-calling and system as "kick ass if properly executed." The insinuation was that, despite Childress' genius, the Vikings' personnel was too inept to absorb and execute brilliant game plans. Childress did not respond to questions seeking clarification regarding how his brilliant system might be adjusted to acknowledge the personnel at his disposal.

Robinson's dismissal, an unusual move at this point in the season, apparently is tied to his comments regarding Childress' failure to adjust his game plans to the personnel around him.

It Depends on What Your Definition of "Is" Is

After posting 27 passing yards and 104 total yards of offense with zero points against a Green Bay team that had allowed 340 yards of offense and a league worst 26 points per game, Minnesota Vikings' head coach Brad Childress revealed one of this nation's best kept secrets.

"This is a kick-ass offense," the coach charged, causing virtually all within earshot to choose between vomiting and applying a vice grip to their sides to keep them intact.

When discussing Childress' offense in Minnesota, several things come to mind--dysfunctional, plodding, bankrupt, mind-numbing, to name a few. What does not enter the mind is that Childress' offense is "kick-ass." Unless, of course, what Childress means when he says that the Vikings' offense "is" a kick-ass offense is that the Vikings' offense "is not" kick-ass.

Throughout the 2006 season, Childress increasingly has intimated that his offense--whatever that really is--is not well-suited for the personnel that the Vikings' have. Actually, what Childress has intimated, and is now outright contending, is that the personnel at his avail is not a good fit for his offense.

The distinction, at least to Childress, is relevant and significant. By contending that the personnel is ill-suited to running his offense, Childress is attempting to shift the blame for his failures to his players. That's not new for Childress who has employed similar blame-shifting exercises throughout the season, routinely throwing his players and coaches under the bus and then pretending to accept the blame for the team's struggles.

But when the comical routine continues even after all is lost for the season, the doubt increases about whether Childress is capable of correcting, or even recognizing the short-comings of his system.

Heading into the off-season before the 2006 season is officially over, the Vikings have several decisions to make. And the decisions that are made will shape the team for the long-term and determine whether, in 2007, Childress has the players he needs to make his system work or the Vikings are again searching for the coach that can lead them back to the Super Bowl after a three-decade absence.

With his Thursday decision to start at quarterback a rookie not yet ready to win a meaningful game--despite Childress' contentions to the contrary, to his decision not to utilize several offensive players that have contributed in Minnesota and elsewhere prior to Childress' arrival in Minnesota, it is difficult to gauge where the Vikings are headed in 2007 with respect to personnel.

Here's a look at some of the names that the Vikings will be reviewing in the off-season:

After signing a very generous contract for what is essentially a blocking tight end, Jim Kleinsasser, already off most radar screens, fell off the face of the Earth under Childress. Kleinsasser fell so far out of view that nobody even mentioned his name after the first few games of the season.

With a large contract (5 years, $15 million, $5 million in bonus) signed in 2004, and a minimal contribution in the best of times, Kleinsasser's days clearly are over in Minnesota. Minnesota will eat a couple million of Kleinsasser's bonus by releasing him this year, but they will off-set that hit by saving about $3 million in cap. Odds of returning: zero.

Despite some decent numbers, quarterback Brad Johnson had more than a 2:1 interception to touchdown ratio in 2006. Some of the blame is attributable to a porous and overpaid offensive line. Some of the blame is attributable to an offense that routinely features short running plays on first- and second-down leaving the team in third and long on a regular basis. And some of the blame falls on a receiving corps led, at Childress' behest, by a second-year receiver, Troy Williamson, who is in the NFL only by the grace of a workout obsessed drafting team and by virtue of the fact that NFL teams are loathe to admit first-round mistakes.

But some of the blame for Johnson's failings in 2006 clearly rest with Johnson. Too often, particularly late in the season, Johnson threw the ball up for grabs in situations calling for patience (again, as was the case on two late-game, drive-killing passes, some of the blame for this falls on Childress). And too often, Johnson opted for the short pass rather than attempting a longer pass for the first down.

Johnson has never had a particularly strong arm, but it has never mattered so much in the past. This year, with all the other maladies that afflicted the Vikings' offense, arm strength was a must. There's no reason to suspect that will change next year. After getting benched against Green Bay in favor of a green rookie, the handwriting on the wall has become a blare. Despite being under contract for two more seasons, Johnson's low signing bonus (1.2 over four years) makes cutting him a non-issue in cap terms. Odds of returning: zero.

One year and change after signing a five-year deal and leading the team in receptions over a two-year stretch (139 receptions in 2004-2005), tight end Jermaine Wiggins has been a virtual non-entity in 2006 with a mere 44 receptions. Rarely did the Vikings throw to Wiggins and, when they did call his number, it usually was on one of Childress' patented one-yard routes.

Wiggins has no speed, but does possess some of the better hands in the NFL for a tight end. Unfortunately for Wiggins, Childress seems much more enamored with another tight end, Jeff Dugan, whom the team recently signed to a long-term deal for just a bit less than Wiggins is slated to earn next year and for much less than Kleinsasser would earn in 2007. With Tony Richardson out with an injury, Dugan filled in as both blocking fullback and tight end. With a mere five receptions all season, Dugan's signing ought not be viewed as a threat to Wiggins' tenure with Minnesota, however, and as more of a sign that Kleinsasser is already gone.

There's no sign that Wiggins cannot continue to be a productive NFL receiver, if given the opportunity. But there's also no sign that Childress has any interest in using Wiggins in the passing game, despite Childress' contention that the Vikings lack receivers. Wiggins' long contract would help his cause were this the NBA or MLB. But the low cap hit and non-guaranteed contract make Wiggins expendable, if not because of his talent then because of his contract. Odds of returning: 1 in 2.

At receiver, virtually everyone is a question mark. Marcus Robinson, who led the team in receiving touchdowns in 2006 with a mere four TDs, has been inactive the past two weeks. Childress maintains that Robinson has been inactive because of a hip flexor. Robinson says he is fine, however, and has "no comment" regarding the suspicion that he simply is in Childress' doghouse.

Robinson has not been great for Minnesota, but he has been serviceable in the red zone and he's been better than the alternatives--at least the alternatives that Childress has tried. Whether Robinson returns is almost certainly already decided. The question remaining is whether what replaces him will represent an upgrade. Odds of returning: 1 in 100.

Like Robinson, Travis Taylor has been in and out of Childress' doghouse. Unlike Robinson, however, Taylor's predicament is almost entirely a function of his poor on-field performance. From game-turning penalties to dropped passes, Taylor has not lived up to his billing as a proficient, ball-control receiver. Though it's difficult to know how much of Taylor's futility is atributable to Johnson's checkdowns and Childress' short-of-the-chains passing philosophy, Taylor's miscues have not helped his cause. Whether he returns will be determined more by what the alternatives are than any production that he has offered since arriving in Minnesota. With his 52 receptions and 597 yards both team-leading figures, and a soft to dead free-agent market for wide receivers, it will be difficult for the Vikings to let go of the cap-friendly Taylor. Odds of returning: three in four.

The final member of the Vikings' starting trio of wide receivers in 2006, Troy Williamson, is both the worst receiver on the Vikings' roster and the receiver most likely to remain with the team in 2007. Despite an improbable one-to-one ratio (37:37) of receptions to dropped passes for the season, Williamson has breathed new life into the term "wasted high draft pick."

As the number seven pick in the 2006 NFL entry draft, Williamson is virtually assured of hanging on through the end of 2007. Williamson also has the added advantage of having a cap onerous contract. With nearly $16 million in guaranteed money on a five-year deal, cutting Williamson would cost the Vikings approximately $7 million in cap space in 2007. Even for a team with considerable cap space next year, that's a big hit. And that likely means at least one more season of waiting for something that probably will not happen. Odds of returning: ninety-percent.

With Matt Birk, Steve Hutchinson, and Bryant McKinnie all inked to long-term deals with cap-onerous bonuses, and with the play of the left-side of the offensive line relative stable, the Vikings will enter 2007 focusing on the right side of the offensive line. With yet another dismal season, Mike Rosenthal almost surely is on his way out. If Childress were honest in his assessment, Artis Hicks and Marcus Johnson would be close on Rosenthal's exiting heals. Because Childress brought in the much-penalized Hicks and committed to Johnson, however, he might stick with both just out of stubborness. That would be unfortunate for Minnesota which desperately needs a measure of respectable play from the right side of the line.

Hicks has been nothing short of brutal and Johnson has been worse. Big young players get second, third, and fourth chances. Big, old players just cut cut. Odds of Hicks returning: 1 in 4. Odds of Johnson returning: 4 in 5. Odds of Rosenthal returning: 1 in 100.

At running back, Chester Taylor appears entrenched as the starter. Despite blocking issues and a telegraphed offensive script, Taylor managed to rush for 1136 yards on 276 carries in 14 games in 2006. With improved blocking, and a return to health, those numbers should improve. With a four-year, $14 million contract and only $5.6 million in guaranteed money, Taylor is not only a solid player, but also a solid cap player. Odds of returning: 1 in 1.

More of a question mark are the status of backup running backs Mewelde Moore and Ciatrick Fason. Fason has rushed for 161 yards on 50 carries in two seasons with Minnesota. Though he often gets the ball in tougher red zone situations, Childress did give Fason a two-game audition in 2006, with mixed results. With a low cap hit whether they keep Fason or release him, the Vikings can go either way with Fason. The determinative factor probably will be whether the team picks a back early in the draft--a near-certain death knell for Fason. Odds of returning: 2 in 5.

While Fason has had mixed reviews, Moore has mostly done well when allowed to play. That's led many to wonder aloud why Childress has not used Moore more extensively. Childress has called it a "numbers" thing. But the numbers don't bear out this contention.

Moore has a mere 121 rushing yards on 23 carries in 2006, but boasts an impressive 401 receiving yards on 41 receptions. The numbers indicate a player the likes of which Childress contends the Vikings need. Why didn't Childress use Moore more often in 2006? Nobody seems to have the answer. And that makes one wonder about the longevity of Moore in a Vikings' uniform.

With a cap-friendly contract (four-year deal with a paltry $400,000 bonus) the Vikings can keep or cut Moore without cap concerns. As with Fason, the question will be whether the Vikings find an off-season replacement for Moore. Moore seems like the prototype for Childress' offense. But having others tell him that when he appears non-cognizant of that fact probably will only widen the mysterious chasm between Moore and Childress. Odds of returning: 3 in 4.

The final offensive players of significance are quarterbacks Brooks Bollinger and Tarvaris Jackson. Bollinger has respectable numbers after nearly a full season at the helm of the N.Y. Jets. But, despite a respectable showing in garbage time near the end of the 2006 season, Bollinger had little opportunity with Minnesota. And, judging from Childress' comments, that's unlikely to change in the future. Bollinger has a minimal contract through 2008 that makes him both retainable and expendable. The Vikings currently have no backup plan, making Bollinger safe for now. Odds of returning: 4 in 5.

While there is almost no question but that Jackson will return, the real question is whether he will open the season as the starting quarterback. With a strong arm and decent speed, Jackson could be the Vikings' quarterback of the future. Telegraphed passes, a fidgety release point, and scary interviews, however, make one wonder not only about Jackson's status in 2007 but about his long-term prospects. For fans critical of the play of Daunte and Brad, Jackson still has a long way to go to meet even those standards. Odds of returning: 1 in 1. Odds of starting: 3 in 4.

Up Next: The Defense. Plus, playmakers for the 2007 team.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Swampland in Florida

In the 2005 NFL entry draft, the Minnesota Vikings selected wide receiver Troy Williamson with a pick the equivalent of an NBA lottery level pick. Vikings' fans were told that the pick, though not intended to replace departed wide-receiver Randy Moss, would provide the deep threat that the Vikings' offense lacked with Moss' departure.

Though skeptical about the Williamson selection, I deferred to those who claimed to have their finger on the pulse, to those who claimed a greater authority, to those who claimed to have inside knowledge, and to those who contended that Williamson would bear fruit.

Two years later, Williamson looks like he looked coming out of college. With one reception for one yard against a bottom-feeding Green Bay secondary, Williamson looks every bit the bust that he appeared headed for on draft day.

Similarly skeptical about the hiring of Brad Childress as head coach given Childress' lack of experience at the head-coaching level, his decision to bring aboard a novice offensive play caller, and his commitment to a stable of quarterbacks that literally required a dominant running game, I nevertheless deferred to those claiming greater command of the head-coach hiring landscape.

With almost nothing on the line on Thursday night at Lambeau Field, Childress substantiated my initial reservations regarding his hiring, once again opting for the mind-numbing, virtually unthinkable, and clearly untenable offensive play-calling that got the Vikings to 6-8 heading into the game and that delivered them to 6-9 by game's end.

When the putrid stench of the game had wafted out of Lambeau field and into the packing plants, and Favre had waved his triumphant wave in honor of god knows what, the Vikings were left with some stark numbers the likes of which have not been witnessed since the pre-forward pass era.

For the game, the Vikings amassed 104 total yards of offense, 27 passing yards, and three (!) first downs, all on the strength of the arm of the quarterback that Vikings' head coach Brad Childress today called "the team's best chance for victory" and the team's quarterback of the future.

In addition to these mind-numbing numbers, the Vikings produced exactly zero points on offense in yet another horrific display of Childress' offensive "genius" that is run on first and second down and pass short of the sticks on third down. As icing on the cake, Childress' "disciplined" team kicked in 10 penalties for 68 yards to pad its already sizeable lead as the NFL's most penalized team.

For Vikings' fans looking at the Tarvaris Jackson era as the route to Super Bowl nirvana, it might already be time to make contingency plans. With four years left on his contract, Childress undoubtedly is here for the long haul. And, as long as he remains, frustration clearly will abound.

As one famous actor once said, if you think you've seen it all, baby, you ain't seen nuthin' yet. And for the Brad Childress' led Vikings, the future looks pretty miserable.

Up Next: Who Must Stay, Who Gets to Leave.

Monday, December 18, 2006


The post mortem on the 2006 Minnesota can all but be written. Because, even if the Vikings somehow manage to climb into the playoffs--a faint possibility that the Vikings will probably put to rest in convincing fashion on Thursday at Lambeau Field, there is little reason, if any, to get excited about this football team.

The Vikings' short-comings over the past three seasons have been well-documented. They included an inability to run the ball, an inability to catch the ball, an inability to pass the ball, a porous offensive line, a defense that cannot stop the pass, and coaching decisions that make the most hardy squeamish. On Sunday, 14 games into the season, the Vikings displayed each of those failings.

All of which raises the question whether the Vikings have made any meaningful improvements since their infamous 41-0 loss to the New York Giants in the 2000 NFC Championship game.

The short answer is that the Vikings have made some improvements. They have more depth on defense, a solid interior to the defensive line, some capability in the secondary, and improvement at linebacker.

But the Vikings have also failed to address the short-comings on the right side of their offensive line, continue to struggle to stop the pass, continue to play too far off of receivers, and continue to struggle in the passing game. Worse yet, in one year, the team has regressed at several positions, most notably at quarterback, wide-receiver, tight end, cornerback, safety, left offensive tackle, right offensive tackle, right offensive guard, and on kick returns.

Add to these problems the fact that a rookie coach surrounded himself with rookie assistant coaches, that the best coach has found the formula for obliterating the running game but has no answer for stopping the more dangerous passing game, that the rookie head coach is more stubborn than the veteran coach who he replaced and who lost his job, in large part, because he was stubborn, and you have a team that has six wins in 14 games, all but one of which came against a team picking in the first ten of the 2007 draft.

Tarvaris Jackson might provide some excitement along with his certain growing pains the remainder of this year and next year, but there's far more that ails this team than merely the quarterbacking position. And odds are that the Vikings have no clue how to address these ills.

Up Next: Who's Out in 2007 and Who Will Stay In Spite of Themselves.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Weak NFC Keeps Door Ajar For Vikings

In most NFL seasons, a 6-7 start would be cause for little more than hot stove chatter regarding the next head coach and the multitude of changes that the team faces in the off-season. In the NFC of 2006, a 6-7 start, however, is cause for optimism.

So it goes for the Minnesota Vikings who, at 6-7, enter the fifteenth week of the 2006 NFL season with reasonable prospects of making the playoffs in the awful NFC. Though Seattle's surprising home loss to the San Francisco 49ers on Thursday evening might actually hurt the Vikings' chances of making the playoffs in a tie-breaker system.

Where They Stand

Were the season to end today, the Vikings would be on the outside looking in. At 6-7, they would finish one game out of the playoff hunt behind the New York Giants, Philadelphia Eagles, and Atlanta Falcons. The finish would mark a disappointing end to a disappointing season.


Fortunately, the season does not end today. And while reality suggests a 1-2 finish for the Vikings, in the interest of fanning the flames of fans' playoff hopes, I'll temporarily suspend disbelief and assume a 3-0 finish.

The Vikings are virtually assured of a playoff spot if they can manage to finesse victories in each of their last three games. With a 9-7 record, the Vikings would finish no worse than tied for seventh in the NFC. That wouldn't be good enough to make the play-offs, but it also probably is unrealistically low of a finish given the other contenders' remaining schedules.

With games remaining against Philadelphia, New Orleans, and at Washington, the New York Giants have a difficult finish in 2006. There recent play does not instill the bettor's confidence that they can pull off a trifecta, but, given the play in the NFC this season, anything is possible and nothing would be surprising.

More likely, however, is that the Giants lose at least one of their remaining three games. That would leave them at 9-7 for the season with an 8-4 Conference record. Should Minnesota win out, they would equal these numbers.

Philadelphia is in a similar situation to that of the Giants, with games remaining at the Giants, at Dallas, and against the Falcons. As with the Giants, the Eagles have been up and down all season and hardly strike fear in opponents or rustle up images of a 3-0 finish against a decent slate of competition.

Like the Giants, the Eagles are likely to lose at least one of their remaining games, leaving them at 9-7 for the season with an 8-4 Conference record. Three Minnesota wins in the final three games would match this record.

Atlanta, too, has a relatively challenging closing schedule that is unlikely to lead to a 3-0 finish. Moreover, of the Vikings' three main competitors for one of two wild-card spots, the Falcons arguably have struggled the most of late. With games remaining against Dallas, Carolina, and at Philadelphia, an 0-3 finish would not be surprising.

Even with a 2-1 finish, however, the Falcons would finish 9-7 but with a 7-5 Conference record. That would leave the Falcons on the outside looking in at a possible three-way tie-breaker scenario involving Minnesota, Philadelphia, and New York.


If Minnesota finishes the season tied with more than one other team for the final playoff spot, the team advancing to the playoffs would be determined by Conference record then by common competition. After that, things get more complicated.

Among Philadelphia, New York, and Atlanta, Atlanta faces the longest odds of making the playoffs in a multi-team tie-breaker system as it already has four Conference losses with three Conference games remaining. The loser of this week's Philadelphia/New York tilt will also have four Conference losses, but with only two Conference games remaining.


Of the four teams currently in the hunt for two wild-card spots in the NFC, the Vikings have, by far, the easiest remaining schedule. That's meant little for the Vikings up until now, but at least it's something upon which to hang playoff hopes for another week. With games remaining against the New York Jets, at Green Bay, and against the St. Louis Rams, the Vikings can at least claim a reasonable opportunity to win out. Unfortunately, even if the Vikings triumph in their remaining three games, their strength of schedule during that stretch could doom their playoff prospects.

Philadelphia has played the best of late of the Vikings' main competitors for a wild-card berth and is the odds-on favorite of the four to capture one of the wild-card berths. If Philadelphia wins out and the Giants finish 2-1, that will mean that Atlanta finished no better than 2-1. In a three-way tie-breaker between Minnesota, Atlanta, and New York, with all three teams at 9-7, Atlanta would be eliminated based on Conference record. The tie-breaker between Minnesota and New York would then be determined by strength of victory as both teams would finish with .500 records against common opponents.

Strength of victory is determined by calculating the combined winning percentages of the teams that a team has beaten. Under the above scenario, the Vikings would finish with a strength of victory value of approximately .372 and the Giants would finish with a strength of victory value of approximately .436, beating the Vikings out for the final wild card berth.

In short, the Vikings' best prospects for making the 2006 playoffs hinge on Philadelphia beating New York, New York losing at least two of its remaining games, Atlanta losing at least one more game, and the Vikings' winning out. Minnesota can still qualify for the playoffs with another defeat, but the odds clearly get much longer and the amount of help that the Vikings would need under such a scenario would increase substantially.

Up Next: Pre-game.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Chicken Or Egg?

There's no denying that Minnesota Vikings' quarterback Brad Johnson has had a tough year at the helm of a struggling offense. With a mere eight touchdown passes to fifteen interceptions, Johnson's scoring production has mirrored the team's offensive futility.

For some, Johnson's TD to INT ratio fully explains the Vikings' scoring problems. Others have suggested, however, that Johnson's futility is largely the product of an inferior receiving corps. Still others insist that both Johnson's futility and the lack of production by the receiving corps are a by-product of head coach Brad Childress' conservative play-calling. Which is it?

To determine where the blame lies for the Vikings' offensive struggles this season--and to assess how best to address the problem in the off-season--it is helpful to draw some comparisons between the 2006 Vikings and other teams and between the 2006 Vikings and the 2005 Vikings.

League Comparisons

Most Vikings' fans undoubtedly would be shocked to discover that Brad Johnson has attempted more passes this season (421) than has Cincinnati Bengals' quarterback Carson Palmer (414) and that Johnson has attempted only thirty-six fewer passes this season than has Indianapolis Colts' quarterback Peyton Manning (457). Nearly equally as surprising is that Johnson ranks twelfth in the league in passing yardage (2642) and fourteenth in completion percentage (61.5).

Johnson's yardage total and completion percentage rankings, however, don't tell the entire story. Equally important are the decisions that Johnson has made at critical junctures in games. Johnson's 15 interceptions rank him near the top of this futility category with only four quarterbacks faring worse.

Johnson's production, combined with his interceptions and a fairly high sack total (26) suggest how it is possible for the Vikings to rank sixteenth in passing yardage, eleventh in rushing yardage, but only twenty-second in scoring. And the blame for the Vikings' offensive failures begins to take shape.

But Johnson is only part of the picture. For, despite his high futility ranking for interceptions--Johnson's greatest statistical liability this season--Johnson has thrown only six more interceptions than has Peyton Manning and only four more than has Carson Palmer. That's still a significant difference, but not so significant so as to explain all, or even necessarily the bulk of the Vikings' offensive futility.

Without question, the Vikings' receiving corps deserves some of the blame for the Vikings' scoring difficulties this season as Vikings' receivers have had a number of critical dropped passes throughout the season. From Troy Williamson's (unofficially) league-leading 32 dropped passes, to Marcus Robinson's absence and inability to lay out for balls when he is present, to Travis Taylor's seemingly benign route-running, to the utter lack of speed on the wing, the Vikings receiving corps of 2006 will never be confused with the arial arsenal that the team had at its avail in 1998.

Despite the failures, however, the receiving corps has hauled in enough passes to rank the Vikings twelfth overall in receiving yardage. That's not the first-place position to which Vikings' fans have become accustomed to seeing their team contend in the past, but it's better than average.

While Johnson's picks and problems with the receiving corps thus help explain why the Vikings have had difficulty scoring this season, they do not offer a full explanation. While factors such as weather conditions, field position, and turnover ratio are significant determinants of team scoring in the NFL, the Vikings fare favorably in each of these categories having played all but one of their games either in nice weather or inside, ranking among the league leaders in starting field position for the season, and ranking in the middle of the pack with a -1 turnover ratio.

If all one knew were the statistics mentioned above, the Vikings' scoring frustrations might be understandable. But surely someone would wonder. Someone inevitably would ask the question. Someone would want to know how the Vikings get their yards in different circumstances. Someone would want to know who calls what plays under what circumstances.

Brad Childress has called his offensive philosophy conservative. That's both an exaggeration and an understatement. For, despite the Vikings' mix of the pass and run, despite Johnson's relative success throwing the ball, the Vikings' still rely predominantly on a short dump-off passing system in most situations and more predominantly on the run--particularly in the red zone.

Last week's game against Detroit offers a microcosm of Childress' season-long conservative approach on all but the rarest of occasions. On each of their first three drives, the Vikings reached the red zone. From the twenty-yard-line in, the Vikings ran nine plays, combined, in those three drives. In the first, they ran five plays--two short passes, one run up the middle, and two runs left. On the second, they ran left on their only play. On the third, they ran three plays--a run up the middle, a short pass, and a run right.

Childress undoubtedly will defend his decision not to throw one pass into the end zone on any of the Vikings' first three drives by pointing to the results--three drives, three touchdowns. But that confuses the issue for Childress has been equally as conservative in his play-calling in the red zone in virtually every game this season. And the Detroit game not only highlights this but suggests why that is a problem going forward and why, despite contentions to the contrary, Childress' conservative ball is actually high risk ball in the long run.

After forcing a Jon Kitna fumble in the red zone in the third quarter, the Vikings were in position to turn a close game into a blowout. A field goal virtually was assured starting at the Lions' 18-yard-line, but now was the time to go for the jugular. Instead, Childress played it conservative. After running Artose Pinner right for a loss of one yard, the Vikings dumped the ball off to Pinner over the middle. Facing a third and four, the Vikings called a quick hit to Mewelde Moore, well short of the first down even if it had been completed.

The result on the drive was two-fold. First, Childress' conservative approach ensured the Vikings of a field-goal attempt, which they converted. Second, the approach made clear to Detroit's defenders that, even with an opportunity to blow the game open, the Vikings were going to stick with the small ball approach and refrain from testing Detroit's suspect secondary.

Early in the fourth quarter, the Lions finally seized upon this realization, overplaying the flat. The result was a pick for a TD on a poorly thrown Johnson pass.

2006 Versus 2005

If the Vikings hope to improve their offense this year or beyond, they clearly need better decision-making from Johnson whose performances have cost the Vikings dearly in at least three games this season. The Vikings will also need better production from a receiving corps that too-often appears disinterested in running proper routes and/or incapable of making the reception if and when the ball is placed on target.

But even with better decision-making from the quarterback position and better play-making from the receiving corps, the Vikings will continue to have difficulty scoring if Childress persists in his refusal to challenge the opponents' secondary and linebacking corps.

In 2005, with a far more suspect offensive line, the same quarterback, and a similar receiving corps, the Vikings averaged just over nineteen points per game almost entirely on the strength of the offense.

In 2006, the Vikings are averaging just over eighteen points per game but with just over six points per game directly attributable to the defense or special teams. The differential of over seven points per game from 2005 to 2006, considering the moves that the Vikings made in the off-season, strongly points to play-calling philosophy as being a hindrance rather than an asset to the Vikings' scoring production in 2006. And it is that philosophy which will need to modify if the Vikings hope to change their scoring fortunes in the future--regardless of personnel changes.

Up Next: Playoff Bound?

Monday, December 11, 2006

Lion Meat Only Marginally Tasty

For the tenth time in ten games, the Minnesota Vikings defeated the NFL's model of futility on Sunday, handing the Detroit Lions a 30-20 set-back. The defeat, the Lions' eleventh in thirteen games, virtually ensures Matt Millen's Lions the opportunity to blow yet another top-three draft pick on an overrated offensive player, while the victory keeps alive the Vikings' narrow playoff prospects.

Despite the victory, however, there was much to shake one's head about in the Vikings' performance. Some of the concern pertains to what the Vikings failed to do against one of the league's true bottom feeders. The rest, unfortunately, revealed itself even in the team's Sunday successes.

The Vikings took the opening drive down the field and quickly into the red zone on the strength of the running game and the short pass. Once in the red zone, however, Vikings' head coach and ostensible offensive coordinator Brad Childress reverted to form, calling even more conservative plays on the shortened field than he had called earlier in the drive.

After an incomplete Brad Johnson dump-off pass to tight end Jeff Dugan--for whom, unlike Jermaine Wiggins, there apparently exists a semblance of a role in the Vikings' mundane offense, a Ciatrick Fason run up the gut, and a dump-off pass to Mewelde Moore left the Vikings with a fourth and one from the Lions' nine-yard-line, it appeared that the Vikings would settle for yet another opening drive field goal attempt.

As in the first two games of the season, however, Childress elected to gamble a bit, calling upon Artois Pinner to pick up the necessary yardage for the first down. Pinner obliged, Childress looked like a seasoned play caller for a play, and the Vikings proceeded to convert the first down into a touchdown two plays later.

Fortunately for the Vikings, Childress' decision to go for the first down on fourth and one on the opening drive was the last decision that Childress had to make during the game. Because after that call, Childress went into prevent offense mode, handing the ball off on virtually every first- and second-down play and resorting to the dump-off pass with which the Vikings' offense has become synonymous for third-down plays needing six yards or more--ever careful to ensure that the play called was for a dump-off of two yards or less and never throwing beyond the sticks.

Childress' automatic pilot mode was enough to ensure a Vikings' victory for several reasons. First, there was the fact that the Vikings were facing an opponent that had surrendered an average of 159 yards rushing to its opponents since losing defensive stalwart Shaun Rogers for the season. That played nicely into Childress' never-changing offensive philosophy of running the ball no matter the odds, no matter the competition, no matter the circumstances. The Lions' porous defensive line made Pinner, cut by the Lions in the pre-season and a non-factor on the season for the Vikings, look like the Vikings under former head coach Mike Tice routinely made opposing quarterbacks look--dominating.

The Lions aided Childress in other ways, as well, dropping passes, committing turnovers on seemingly every possession, and refusing to take the Vikings' offer to climb back into the game despite a golden opportunity to do so.

All of which suggests that, before the Vikings get to proud of their accomplishment on Sunday--before Childress lauds his ability to "make adjustments" to the offensive play-calling--it is worth considering the opponent.

It is also worth considering what might have been had the Vikings been playing a team other than the Lions--as they will the remaining three games of the season. The Vikings continued to surrender ground in the passing game, particular in front of cornerback Fred Smoot, Brad Johnson made another horrible decision throwing a weak pass into the flat, and Childress continued to make weak passes into the flat vulnerable to the pick by calling nothing but short passing plays.

The latter point bears further comment as it ostensibly could derail both the Vikings' 2006 playoff hopes and Childress' career as a head coach. At some point, the light bulb simply must go on and Childress must recognize that, while the dump-off pass has a role in any good offense, it need not--and ought not--be the staple of any offense.

The reason should be self-evident. But for those needing actual evidence of the harm caused to an offense by running a dump-off exclusive passing game, the Vikings' past two games provide ample case studies. In both games, the opposing defense routinely stacked nine defenders in the box, leaving only two defenders to cover beyond ten yards in the secondary.

The logic is simple for opposing defensive coordinators. If the Vikings refuse to pass beyond five yards, there's little point in defending ground beyond that five-yard territory. And there's much to be gained by stacking the box and taking a chance at jumping a pass play on occassion. That's what the Bears did last week and what the Lions did this week. And it bore fruit for both teams.

Against better competition--i.e., against the rest of their schedule--Childress will have to show an offensive competence that he has shown only in rare glimpses this season. That might be like asking a zebra to change its stripes. But, at this point in the season, there's little point in playing things close to the vest with every game requiring a Vikings' victory for the Vikings to have a chance to make the playoffs. And, despite Zygi's assurances to the contrary, a change in modus operandi might even be a pre-requisite for Childress to retain his current position.

Up Next: More post-game. Plus, comparing receiving corps--some surprising numbers?

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

At Least I Saved Money on My Car Insurance

At the end of the 2005 regular season, Minnesota Vikings' owner Zygi Wilf summoned then Vikings' head coach Mike Tice to his office and summarily dismissed him--or at least he did so through an agent. The move was hardly surprising, for, despite a 9-7 record that included a season-ending victory over a Chicago Bears' team that was resting most of its regulars, Tice had failed to make the progress with the Vikings that he had promised and that the team appeared to warrant.

In the 2006 off-season, the Vikings and new head coach Brad Childress, arriving in Minnesota with zero NFL head-coaching experience, promised an improved 2006 team. Childress, capologist Rob Brzezinski, and personnel man Scott Studwell, identified the team's primary weaknesses as running back, offensive line, linebacker, and strong safety. The team addressed these weaknesses by adding Ben Leber, who apparently has difficulty getting on the field, Dwight Smith, who's most prominent feature is his back side, and Chester Taylor and Steve Hutchinson, the two meaningful additions outside of the draft.

Despite the limited contributions of the Vikings' newcomers, the 2006 Vikings still looked noticably better on paper going into the season than did the 2005 version of the team. E.J. Henderson looked like a good fit on the edge at linebacker, anyone at middle linebacker had to be better than the space that the Vikings' designated for the person intended to play MIKE last season, Chester Taylor and Mewelde Moore looked like a nice tandem in the backfield, at least compared to Michael Bennett and nobody, and the offensive line presumably had to be better than last year if only because Matt Birk was returning, Hutchinson was arriving, and the right side couldn't be worse--or so we thought.

But not only did the offensive line play worse this season, Childress virtually guaranteed such a result by playing the most obnoxiously conservative--no offense to conservatives intended--form of offense imaginable. Childress' offense is so conservative that the running play is the explosive play call. Though one expects a mere three yards per running play in Childress' system, the returns are far less generous in the passing game where one to two yard gains are commonplace. That's not West Coast offense, that's just bad coaching.

Long Road to Anywhere?

In 1977, the Vikings faced John Madden's Oakland Raiders in the Super Bowl. It was the Vikings' fourth appearance in the game in a span of just over a decade. Since their drubbing at the hands of the Raiders in that Championship game, the Vikings have come close to returning to the Super Bowl several times with the most notable runs ending in close defeats to Washington in the late 1980s and Atlanta in the late 1990s.

In that time span, the Tampa Bay Bucanneers have won the Super Bowl, the Carolina Panthers nearly won the Super Bowl, and the New England Patriots have become perennial contenders. Only finishing below the once taken-for-granted Bears and Packers could be more disheartening...

For fans hoping to taste a championship in 2006 the window was, if not fully open, at least ajar heading into this season. The team looked to be better than the 9-7 team of last season and the NFC looked as weak as ever. Unfortunately, only the latter was an accurate assessment of reality.

More disheartening for those looking for hope on the horizon, however, is that the Vikings' current roster is not made for the long haul as might be said of the Chicago Bears', San Diego Chargers', Denver Broncos', Houston Texans', New Orleans' Saints', or numerous other solid to rising teams. Instead, the Vikings have a roster stocked with aging veterans at key positions--players with a handful of seasons left and players unlikely to see through to the end of a transition period with a rookie quarterback. Those players include Pat Williams, Antoine Winfield, Darren Sharper, Matt Birk, and Marcus Robinson.

To be certain, the Vikings have several good young players around which they can build a solid team somewhere down the road. But few of those players play in the vital middle of the field or at skill positions, save, perhaps, Chester Taylor. And with Childress offering no glimpse of the coordination skills that purportedly made him a must-have head coach, there's little reason to suspect that addressing even personnel issues will necessarily earn the Vikings a long-awaited return trip to the Super Bowl.

Up Next: Second-Guessing Everything--Or Is It Just Re-Stating?

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Predicting An Upset

The Minnesota Vikings travel to Soldier Field today in search of redemption for an early season loss that was well within their grasp for victory before a late-game meltdown led to a Rex Grossmann game-winning touchdown in a close contest. If tradition means anything, the Vikings ought to win today as the two teams have been fairly consistent in splitting their regular-season games in previous years.

Since tradition really has no bearing on today's game, however, other, more tangible matters merit consideration. And, upon further review of such matters, today's game very well could lead to a Vikings' victory.

Of all the things that will determine the outcome of today's Vikings' game against Chicago, several stand out. There's the possible absence of defensive lineman Pat Williams whose run-stuffing ability has been unparalleled in the NFL this season. There's the Bears' defense which has posted 24 sacks this season despite relying on several young defenders and a sometimes suspect secondary that makes pass rushing less effective. And there's the home-field advantage, at three points to the home team a meaningful item given the tendency of the Vikings and Bears to play each other close.

But more telling than those items for today's game probably will be the play of the respective quarterbacks. Vikings' quarterback Brad Johnson is coming off one of his better performances of the season while Bears' quarterback Rex Grossman is coming off one of his worst performances of the season in a loss at New England. And if you think that's just a one-game blip for each quarterback, other numbers might be worth considering.

For the season, Johnson has thrown for 2410 yards, 8 touchdowns and 10 interceptions with a 77.3 quarterback rating. Hardly gaudy numbers, to be certain, but consider the opposition's equally unimpressive numbers. For the season, Grossman has thrown for 2390 yards, 18 touchdowns and 14 interceptions with a quarterback rating of 77.6.

Now, factor in one additional statistic. For the season, the far-from-nimble Grossman has been sacked a mere 13 times for a loss of 90 yards. Johnson, meanwhile, has been sacked 24 times for a loss of 169 yards. In a league in which most games are decided by less than a touchdown, drive-killing sacks often are the difference between winning and losing. And drive-killing sacks--not to mention the ever-present pass pressure that Johnson has felt game in and game out--have been one of the Vikings' leading problems this season.

Last week against Arizona, the Vikings inserted Jason Whittle and Mike Rosenthal into the right guard and right tackle positions, respectively. And while the tandem's best days likely are behind them and Rosenthal, at his peak with the Vikings, has been a revolving door on the pass rush, the two offer a semblance of run blocking and at least a modicum of an obstacle to the pass rush that neither Artis Hicks nor Marcus Johnson appeared to offer, not to mention a greater penchant for abstaining from costly false-start and holding penalties in the red zone.

The presence of Whittle and Rosenthal rather than Hicks and Johnson should mean less pressure on Johnson and should translate into greater success in the red zone than the Vikings were able to muster in their first meeting with Chicago this season. That, and Grossman's modest-at-best performance behind the highest paid and, arguably, sound Chicago offensive line, should provide the Vikings an opening for victory on Sunday.

If Williams sits, look for the Bears to try to run the ball to open up the passing game. If Williams plays, the Bears will be forced to lead with the pass. And that could make things dicey from the outset for Chicago. Beyond Cedric Griffin and Antonio Winfield, the Vikings' secondary has been highly suspect this season. But with Griffin likely to get his second start in place of the very disappointing Fred Smoot in the base package, and Grossman as their quarterback, the Bears should find it difficult to replicate the middle-of-the-field passing scheme that other teams have so successfully employed against Minnesota this year.

A win won't change the division race, one long ago conceded to the Bears. But it will spur the Vikings' playoff hopes and should provide confidence that the offense can accomplish the modest and that the team can play with the best in what is a mediocre to weak NFC.

Up Next: Post game.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Denny's Futility Felt From Afar

Sitting on a rickshaw in the South of India, I found access to the Vikings' recent victory over the Arizona Cardinals only in the post-game reviews. That's unfortunate given that this game looked promising from the moment that it was scheduled and, judging from the play by play, lived up to its billing as a close Vikings' victory.

From the outset, two certainities availed themselves with respect to the game's outcome. The first was that, no matter the teams' respective records or on-field performances leading into the game, the Vikings would prevail. And no matter what the Vikings did to assist the Cardinals, Denny Green would do just enough to fall short--just enough to be able to blame the loss on his players rather than on a running attack that featured a mere six rushing attempts.

We knew these two facts at the time that the Vikings' game was scheduled because we knew that the game meant something to Denny. Nothing would have satisfied Green more than to return to the Metrodome and to end the Vikings' modest playoff prospects.

But Denny doesn't win when it matters. And that spelled doom from the outset for the Cardinals. The result was a much needed Vikings' victory that, combined with the continuing inadequacies of enough other NFC teams, gives the Vikings renewed hope for crashing the post-season party.

Offensive Line Shows Up

In the aftermath of Sunday's game, former Vikings' and current Cardinal's offensive line coach Steve Loney commented that the Vikings' offensive line played well. "When things go wrong, the offensive line is an easy target," Loney commented, "mostly because most people don't really understand how an offensive line works."

Loney's point was that an offensive line takes cohesiveness to work. The implication was that the Vikings finally have some offensive line cohesiveness and that that cohesiveness spurred the Vikings' offensive attack.

Loney's suggestion might be accurate, but what Loney knows about offensive line play can not account for most of the Vikings' season-long problems along the offensive line. For the cohesiveness intangible of which Loney speaks can only exist if the players on the line also do the tangible things--like blocking, avoiding senseless penalties, and showing a semblance of positive technique.

Whatever Tice saw in Marcus Johnson and Childress saw in Johnson and Artis Hicks, the Vikings are noticeably stronger along the line with Jason Whittle and even the suspect Mike Rosenthal manning the guard and tackle positions, respectively. That says less about Whittle and Rosenthal, however, than it says about the inadequacies of Johnson and Hicks.

If the Vikings can continue to get remotely serviceable play out of Whittle and Rosenthal, even with the continued poor play of Bryant McKinnie on the left side, they need not worry about Johnson's play at quarterback. The constant on-slaught that Johnson faced prior to the Arizona game--an on-slaught, Childress strongly implied, for which there was no answer along the offensive line--was what created the need for a rolling quarterback. Without the onslaught, Johnson need not worry about constant blindsiding and can resume form as a quarterback unlikely to change the game in either direction.

Suddenly, with changes that could have been made weeks ago, things look a bit closer to what was expected at the beginning of the season. And the offense looks at least reasonably competent, albeit against the likes of the Cardinals. That bodes well for the Vikings, even if the next opponent promises a much stauncher test of the Vikings' offensive line.

Up Next: Looking for Viewing Spots in Bombay. Plus, pre-game (assuming the power doesn't go out and the internet system I find cooperates).

Friday, November 24, 2006

Vikings' Quarterback No Match for Childress' Scheme and Team's Offensive, Offensive Line

At the beginning of the season, the Vikings faced an ugly conundrum. The problem was how the team could craft a three-deep quarterback rotation from Brad Johnson, rookie Tarvaris Jackson, and two quarterbacks whom nobody any longer believed capable of performing in the NFL. After considering retaining only two quarterbacks, with Jackson as the backup--an unthinkable move even in the world that is that of Vikings' head coach Brad Childress--the Vikings made their decision. Out were J.T. O'Sullivan and Mike McMahon, in was Brookes Bollinger as backup to starter Brad Johnson.

At the time, the decision to sign Bollinger looked savvy given the dearth of anywhere near proven quarterbacking talent on the free-agent market. As the season began I wrote:

"For all intents and purposes, the Vikings signed Bollinger to take the place of Mike McMahon and J.T. O'Sullivan. During his unremarkable run in the NFL, McMahon has posted some fairly jaundiced numbers, including a 44.5% career completion percentage, a 55.1 career passer rating, and 15 TDs to 21 INTs.

O'Sullivan's stats look gaudy in comparison but only because O'Sullivan has no career stats. That's because, in five NFL seasons, O'Sullivan has yet to throw a single regular- or post-season pass.

Bollinger easily bests both quarterbacks in these categories with 2005 numbers, alone, including 1558 yards passing with a 56.4% completion percentage, a 72.9 passer rating, and 7 TDs to 6 INTs. But, even without the benefit of competing against McMahon and O'Sullivan, Bollinger's numbers look pretty good.

Bollinger is not Elway reincarnated, but he is much more palatable as a 26-year-old backup than are McMahon or O'Sullivan. And that makes his signing, serrindipitous or not, a solid one."

The theory, of course, was that Bollinger would prove capable if Johnson ever became injured. Johnson's relative health has meant that Bollinger has yet to play for the Vikings. But, with Johnson's poor play now the equivalent of playing with an injured quarterback, the time has arrived to test Bollinger's worth to the team.

Bollinger brings two things to the Vikings that neither Johnson nor Jackson can match at this point in their respective careers. Compared to Johnson, Bollinger is a gazelle, able to evade 400 pound linemen the way a 38-year-old Johnson once merely dreamed he could.

And while Bollinger does not possess the speed of the clearly quicker and faster Jackson, he has demonstrated an ability to pass with accuracy in the NFL. Jackson has yet to do that on a consistent basis even in practice, still showing too late of a release and not yet even at the stage of over-compensating by releasing too early. Arm strength is no problem for Jackson, but accuracy is not currently a strength. And with the Vikings' modest receiving corps, that makes the somewhat experienced Bollinger the better fit at this point of the season.

With Bollinger under center, the Vikings would have the luxury of rolling out the quarterback and even sticking with Childress' bizarre fixation with the no shotgun offense. Even a glimmer of foot speed would make the Vikings' offensive line look considerably better, much the way a hint of quarterback mobility would put pressure on opposing teams to play the pass equal to the run.

Jackson, meanwhile, is at least one more full season from being NFL ready. And for Vikings' fans who believe that inserting Jackson now will only facilitate his NFL progression, there are ominous graveyards across the NFL to suggest otherwise. For every Peyton Manning there are players such as Ryan Leaf, Kyle Orton, Cade McKnown, Alex Smith, and even Eli Manning. And consider, as well, that with veterans at several key positions, the Vikings are not exactly in a position to begin re-building around an inexperienced, former I-AA quarterback.

For Childress and this version of the Minnesota Vikings, any extant window of opportunity is fast closing and a change at quarterback, if one is to be made, calls for at least modest experience at the position. If, by this time next year, that solution fails, more wholesale rebuilding likely will be in order. And Vikings' fans will then have the uneviable experience of looking forward to having yet another expansion team win the Super Bowl before they take home the Lombardi Trophy.

Up Next: Arizona Down?

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Well Past Time to Change Shoe

After yet another telling and stale loss attributable to inept offensive playcalling and execution, Minnesota Vikings' head coach Brad Childress was asked whether now was the time to make changes. His response, predictably, was that the offense was just a play or two away from being a very good offense.

Stop me if you've heard that line before.

Better yet, let me stop myself. Not only have Vikings' fans heard that line numerous times over the past five seasons, they have heard that line numerous times this year. And, as we near the conclusion of year five of the Vikings' three-year pledge to return the team to Super Bowl contention, year one of the sorry plan suddenly looks more promising than does the present.

What's worse than the play on the field, however, is the coaching at the helm. Childress' comment that he intended to stand pat with a lineup filled with players that he believes can "get it done," misapprehends the thrust of the question which is whether Chilly intends to change things from either the personnel side or the coaching side to give the Vikings their best opportunity to win.

It's one thing to lose without talent. It's quite another to take a 9-7 team that, in 2005, arguably played a tougher schedule and had less physical talent at key positions and to turn that team into a losing team. That speaks volumes about the coaching. The Vikings are losing not because they do not have the ability to win, but because they are encumbered with an egomaniacal and myopic coach intent on shoving square pegs into smaller round holes and professing ignorance--behind the security of a five-year contract--as to why the endeavor continues to fail.

Childress is intent on running a version of the West Coast offense never before seen--a version that makes the 49er's version of West Coast offense look more like the old Houston Oilers' four-receiver offense or the Don Coryell offenses in San Diego.

Chilly, of course, has a rejoinder, if not a very satisfactory one. Contrary to his pre-season self-congratulations on putting this team together, Childress now contends that some of his players don't fit the system that he is running. Yet, despite this insistance, Chilly insists on running that system rather than modifying the system to meet the personnel at his avail.

It should be no surprise that Chilly is putting the lion's share of the blame for his team's poor performance in his system on his players, a la Glen Mason. After all, that's been his M.O. since the current losing skid began.

Three weeks ago, Brad Johnson was the culprit. Last week, Childress offered up that rookie offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell called a few plays. The insinuation was that those were the critical plays--the plays that cost the Vikings a victory in spite of the genius of Chilly's calls. Childress refused to elaborate, pretending to stand by his coordinator who is too beholden to Childress to be able to note that Childress retains full control over the final playcalling or that Childress continues to call one of three plays--Chester Taylor off tackle left, Johnson two-yard pass right, or duck to opposing safety.

Yesterday, Chilly outdid himself, suggesting that the defense was as culpable in the loss as was the Vikings' pathetic offensive scheme. "Those guys have a few things to improve on as well," Chilly commented, apparently intent on fomenting a division between the offense and defense that he claims does not currently exist.

Ultimately, Chilly might be right about some things. He might be right that he doesn't have the personnel for his system (whatever that is). He might also be right that the offense will improve, especially if his view of what constitutes improvement is the ability to find the endzone from first and goal at the three. And he might be right that the defense, which continues to play far too soft in the passing game, has sizeable room for improvement.

In the final analysis, however, it is utter folly to suggest that this Vikings' team is failing for the reasons that Chilly cites. The team is failing because it continues to lead the league in fewest points per yard gained, because it continues to be among the league leaders in three and outs, because the offense continues to sputter after the opening drive, and because the offensive playcalling does not work. And it's the head coach's job to make it work.

Mike Tice did it with less. Are we to buy that a self-proclaimed offensive guru is unable to do so with more against even lesser comptettition? If so, then surely the end is nigh.

Up Next: A View From India

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Another Day, Same Song?

The Minnesota Vikings travel to Miami this Sunday to take on the Miami Dolphins. Unfortunately for the Vikings, the Dolphins suddenly have discovered the defense that was to have made them contenders in the AFC this season and they've added a dose of reasonably good play from the formerly suspect Joey Harrington for good measure. The result has been two straight victories over two of the NFL's better teams, at Chicago and against Kansas City.

At 4-5, the Vikings need a victory on Sunday to keep alive their suddenly fading playoff prospects. With their recent struggles on offense and on pass defense, that might be too much to ask of Brad Childress' team.

For the season, Miami is averaging 16 points on 319 yards of offense. That's approximately six points below their EPT per game. On defense, the Dolphins are allowing 19 points per game on 277 yards of offense--right at their EPY.

The Vikings, meanwhile, average 16 points per game on 310 yards of offense--approximately six points below their EPT. On defense, the Vikings allow 18 points per game on 292 yards of offense--approximately three points less than their EPY.

The season averages suggest a tight game with the slight edge to Minnesota. But the play of the Dolphins and the Vikings over the past two weeks bodes more ominous for Minnesota.

In week nine, against Chicago, Miami scored 10 points more than its EPT while holding Chicago eight points below its EPT. Last week, Miami's offense faltered against Kansas City, finishing with eight points less than its EPT. The defense, however, remained solid, holding Kansas City to seven points less than its EPT. More impressive was that Miami held Kansas City's formerly formidable offense to a relatviely meager 265 yards.

At it's peak--if there has been such a thing, Minnesota's 2006 offense has struggled to meet its EPT. With an average offensive output of 11 points per 300 yards of offense and facing a team that is playing as well defensively as are the Dolphins, Sunday could be a long day for the Vikings.

The Vikings' one possible avenue of salvation, not surprisingly, appears to be through the defense. Having faced Joey Harrington when he quarterbacked the Lions, the Vikings are familiar with his tendencies and his penchant for throwing the blind-look pass into the flat. If the Vikings can take advantage of Harrington, they might squeeze out a victory. Otherwise, it's time to start thinking about the draft.

Prediction: Until last week, the Vikings always played their best when I picked against them. Last week suggested a new trend, however. Miami 17 over Minnesota 13.

Up Next: Postgame.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Box of Rocks

After the Minnesota Vikings opened the 2006 season with narrow victories over the Washington Redskins and Carolina Panthers, Vikings' fans believed that there was reason for optimism. After all, the team had brought in a new head coach who lauded himself on his commitment to detail and knowledge of the game and the team had defeated two of the consensus, pre-season favorites to challenge for the NFC crown.

In hindsight, those early season squeakers appear to be underachievements. With Clinton Portis in the lineup, Washington has been below average. Without Portis, the team has been hapless. That makes the Vikings' season-opening, low-scoring victory rather unimpressive now.

Similarly, the Panthers have been mediocre offensively with Steve Smith in the lineup and less so without the speedy receiver. With last year's demolition of Vikings' cornerback Fred Smoot still fresh in the mind, it is easy to envision Carolina having scored another touchdown or two against the Vikings' relatively soft pass defense.

Even allowing for the cliche that one takes one's opponents as one finds them, the victories against Washington and Carolina suggested numerous issues for the Vikings. Most notable of these issues were those along the offensive line.

"Just wait." Childress admonished skeptics in his more-knowledgeable-than-thou tone. "The line needs time to gel. And it will gel."

Eleven weeks into a seventeen week regular season, we are still waiting. Waiting for Bryant McKinnie to live up to his billing as an impenetrable pass blocker with sound run-blocking capabilities. Still waiting for Matt Birk to live up to his self-assessed clean bill of health. Still waiting for Marcus Johnson to play beyond the level of a rookie. Still waiting for Artis Hicks to demonstrate why the Vikings traded away a draft choice for him.

And as we wait, head coach Brad Childress continues to plead for patience, as though the line were filled with underpaid rookies instead of overpaid veterans. The question being, of course, what a wait is worth when it pays dividends only when the season is lost?

As Childress begs for the fans' patience for the offensive line to gel, he also pleads for patience for the emergence of an offense. Unfortunately, Childress' has the same approach to correcting the ills of the Vikings' woebegone offense that he has for correcting the ills of the offensive line--tap heals and wish for better.

When asked how the Vikings would fill the team's fullback hole in the aftermath of placing Tony Richardson on IR for the season, Childress scratched his head. "We might have to use Richard Owens back there. We don't really ahve a clear solution. I don't know."

Clearly, Childress does not know. Never mind that Owens rarely plays and probably is ill-suited for the role at this point in the season. All one really needs to know about Chilly's thought process is that he never even mentioned the possibility of using Jim Kleinsasser at fullback--despite the fact that Kleinsasser has played the position, purportedly specializes in blocking, and is one inch shorter and a few pounds heavier than Owens, giving him a lower center of gravity.

The solution at fullback is obvious for the Vikings. It's clearly Kleinsasser. If that means using Owens--who appears able both to catch and run with the ball--as a tight end, all the better. But that's not in Chilly's head. And that means that it probably never will be--particularly if he discovers that the move has been made in the past and that he might not get full credit for making it.

As any honest NFL head coach will admit, coaching in the NFL is not rocket science. Expectations of winning are high, the hours tend to be long, and there are quick decisions to be made. Overall, however, the job merely requires competence. That means making proper personnel decisions, having a sound game plan, and managing a game without overt gaffes.

To date, Childress has failed to meet this standard. He continues to make questionable personnel decisions. He refuses to adjust his game plans to meet that of the opponent. And he refuses to admit his short-comings or to learn appropriate lessons. His latest failure to identify the proper fullback to replace Richardson and his on-going love affair with four suspect offensive linemen only heighten the sense that Childress has not reached the modest level of competence required of him at this level. To date, there remain few signs that this will change anytime soon.

Up Next: Is Brzezinski Still A Cap Genius?

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Come to Jesus Time

Following the Vikings' third loss in as many games, there was little to be said that had not already been said. In previous Vikings' games this season--both wins and losses--the Vikings' offense has sputtered, the offense line has been unable or unwilling to block at the line or down field, receivers have dropped passes, the quarterback has thrown ducks, the defensive line has been unable to pressure the opposing quarterback, and the linebackers have been unable to cover on passing plays. Predictably, all that continued on Sunday in the Vikings' home loss to the Green Bay Packers.

And it was predictable because Childress all but told us to expect it. Just as he has all but told us to expect more of the same against the Dolphins in Miami this week.

That's Childress being Childress. Despite being a rookie head coach, he apparently is too old to change his stripes. His stripes, of course, depend on the comfort of the very well known--like an offensive coordinator with no experience at the position in the NFL and retreads from Philly joining the former Philly coach in Minnesota.

But more than on matters of personnel, Childress has earned his stubborn stripes refusing to admit that his offensive scheming is outdated, at best. Need five yards? Chilly's call will get you three. Need twenty? Ditto. Need one? Chilly will up the ante and show you a loss. That's how Chilly rolls. And, clearly for the worse, that's how the Vikings now roll. Increasingly uphill.

For Zygi and the rest of the Wilf entourage, the results are deserved, though they cannot be welcome. Rather than hiring someone acquainted with modern-era NFL football, Wilf went with a guy who pledged to "win ugly," less than a year removed from firing a coach who, more often than Chilly, did just that.

What has to concern Wilf and company most of all, however, is not the wins and losses, but the style of play and the effect that that style has on the fan base. There is little doubt that an average offensive output just slightly over 11 points per game will drive away fans. And that would be true of a team that routinely won games 11-7 nearly as much as it soon will be true of Vikings' teams routinely losing games 17-12.

Fans of the NFL watch not just to see their favorite team win, but to see their favorite team make professional caliber plays. And if Chilly wants to advance beyond rookie head coach, it might just be time for Zygi or one of his cronies to clue Chilly in on that fact of life.

Up Next: Captain Takes the Life Boat.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Writing for Cheesehead

This is the point in the season that Cheesehead Craig of Oracle of Cheese fame would contribute to this column offering up some way that the Green Bay Packers could steal won from the local team. Though I am certain that he would have offered a similar column this week, I'm saving him the trouble by writing such a column myself.

Prior to last week's appearance in San Francisco, the Minnesota Vikings mostly had played to form, yielding offensively to their opponents' defenses and holding their opponents' offenses to the Vikings' expected point yield (EPY). The Vikings' result against New England looked like a case of a struggling offense facing a solid defense and a young linebacking corps facing a sharp offense. The latter bears monitoring. The former appears true against all comers.

Green Bay is averaging 358 yards and 20 points per game this season. The 20 point return is approximately four points below the Packers' average EPT for the season and primarily is attributable to a horrendous start and recent turnovers.

On defense, the Packers are yielding 343 yards and 25 points per game. The 25 points is slightly higher than the Packers' EPY of 24 and suggests that the Packers have been losing the battle of field position this season.

The Vikings average 310 yards of offense and 16 points a game. Of those sixteen points, nearly five are accounted for by the defense. That gives the Vikings' offense a miserable average point total of 11 per game, well below the EPT of 22 per game.

With the exception of the New England game, the Vikings' defense remains consistently good, holding the opposition to 279 yards and 17 points per game. The point yield remains below the opponents' EPT by one or two points and offers the primary bright spot of this year's team.


In 2005, prior to adding Steve Hutchinson, Matt Birk (back from injury), Chester Taylor, and Artis Hicks, jettisoning Michael Bennett, Daunte Culpepper, Adam Goldberg, Chris Liewinski, and Mike Tice and staff, and purportedly stealing an offensive guru in new head coach Brad Childress, the Vikings averaged 290 yards of offense and 19 points per game.

Among the primary criticisms of former head coach Mike Tice was that his playcalling was too predictable. Tice, himself, was criticized for being overly stubborn and incapable of making the necessary in-game changes to meet changing circumstances.

In 2006, despite a defense that contributes nearly five points per game and a host of changes intended to shore up last year's offensive issues, the Vikings' offense clearly has regressed. And the contention that things "need time to gel" no longer carries any meaningful significance.

After scoring a mere three points last week against the NFL's worst offense, the Vikings need to change their offensive philosophy dramatically if they hope to compete again this season. Unfortunately, all signs suggest that Childress remains intent on showing that his way is the best way and that three-yard passes are the wave of the future in the NFL.

The Packers have a rejuvenated running game with the return of Ahmann Green and a respectable passing game led by Favre, Donald Driver, and rookie Greg Jennings. Despite the Vikings' strong run defense, the Packers should be able to generate enough of a rushing attack to keep the Vikings' already sluggish pass rush at bay. That will mean numerous slant passes and dump offs against the Vikings' young linebacking corps. That crippled the Vikings against New England and could hurt them as much this week.

Offensively, the Vikings appear to have no answers. Rather, they appear to have answers, just not any that Childress will employ. Mewelde Moore remains on the sidelines most of the game, despite his pass-catching ability and the Vikings remain intent on playing a pocket-passing game despite the constant collapse of the pocket. That means that the Vikings' defense will have to save the day yet again.

Barring a Brett Favre meltdown, something that is known to occur when the Packers play at the Metrodome, the Vikings are at risk of enduring a season-crippling loss today. There will be little pressure on Favre to force the issue today, which should mean smoother sailing than normal for the Packerland favorite.

Prediction: Packers 20 over Vikings 12.

Up Next: Postgame.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Chidress Can't Decide Whether to Go In or Stay Out

In Sunday's inexcusable loss to the San Francisco 49ers, Minnesota Vikings' head coach Brad Childress demonstrated that, no matter the outcome, he's sticking to his plan. One former Viking with the team all of pre-season noted that Childress' pre-season plan was to win low-scoring games with defensive plau, a la the Baltimore Ravens of three years ago. And Childress apparently is sticking to that absurd and pointless commitment.

What Childress apparently has failed to grasp is that one need not avoid scoring to win in the NFL. In fact, most NFL organizations actually espouse scoring over not scoring. The Ravens won with defense and little offense not because that was the best recipe for success but because they had yet to figure out how to make the offense work. That's not something to which others, save Childress, have elected to emulate.

It's almost as if Childress is intent on proving the point that he can do things his way even if that means rejecting reality and refusing to adjust to the prevailing circumstances. And, by that token, it's almost as if the Vikings are stuck in a coaching time warp with one stubborn coach succeeding the last.

In the Box?

There are three general approaches to coaching any team at any level of any sport. One is to adopt the conventional wisdom and what has come before. This approach is regarded as thinking inside the box. Adherents to this philosophy of coaching typically rely on cliches as a guide, "establishing the run" and playing things "close to the vest."

Adherents of the in-the-box approach include former Vikings' head coach Jerry Burns and current Minnesota Gopher head coach Glen Mason. These coaches generally win the games that they are favored to win but rarely surpass expectations. The latter condition, of course, is predictable.

A second coaching philosophy is out-of-the-box coaching. This philosophy turns conventional wisdom on its head, shaking out all the canards and irrelevancies. Adherents of this coaching philosophy include current New England Patriots' head coach Bill Bellichek and former Pittsburgh Penguin head coach Bob Johnson.

Out-of-the-box coaching clearly requires coaching acumen for it requires that coaches identify the fraudulent from the valuable. For the surprisingly few who succeed at this endeavor, the rewards are high. For the remainder, the demise is swift.

A closely related third philosophy of coaching is the in-and-out-of-the-box hybrid, sometimes referred to as the jack-in-the-box approach to coaching. Coaches who follow this approach attempt to select the best of the conventional while sprinkling in elements of out-of-the-box thinking. That's a deadly combination in the wrong hands--hands possessed by far too many of today's head coaches.

Childress clearly aspires to be considered in the mold of Bellichek. To date, however, far too many of his decisions leave him stuck in the beginner's stage of the jack-in-the-box method of coaching. That's because Childress has yet to demonstrate that he is capable of the pre-requisite to thinking outside the box--the ability to think inside the box. Thinking outside the box only works, after all, if the opponent buys the alternative and, most critically, the deception has a legitimate prospect of success.

Childress undoubtedly was spoiled with an early season bit of tom foolery when the Vikings converted a fake field goal attempt for a touchdown. That gave him pause to think that he had the pulse of what worked and what did not, of how to set the table for the gamble. It was one non-conservative call in a game of ultra-conservative playcalling. And it worked because it was unexpected and it had a chance to work. The right players were on the field and there were no penalties on the offense.

But in two subsequent games this season, against Chicago and this week against San Francisco, Childress has followed with two additonal non-conventional plays that failed miserably. Both plays came on fourth and short. Both plays could have won the game had they been successful. But both plays failed because they had no chance to succeed in spite of any extant element of surprise.

The two plays, both deep pass plays, meant eschewing the short yardage that the defenses were conceding that would have given the Vikings four more downs with ample time left on the clock. Both failed because Vikings' receivers were covered--one man to man, the other by two defenders.

These deception plays did not work for Minnesota because Childress did not first ensure that the opponent had to guard against the conventional. Instead, teams knew that they could play the Vikings straight up because even straight up the Vikings either are unwilling or simply unable to use all the standard plays. teams are content that they can stop the Vikings' offense without an edge. That means that opponents need not bite on play-action, which means few, if any, uncovered receivers.

Childress' version of outside the box thinking is unsuccessful primarily because he employs such a thoroughly outdated offense. One need look no further than with Chidress' consistently calling third-down plays short of the first-down marker. The logic, of course, is that the receiver will pick up additional yards after the catch. But with eight defenders in the box and a consistent diet of underneath dump-off passes, receivers have virtually no chance to add yards after the reception.

True Outside the Box Thinking

What the Vikings need at this juncture is some meaningful outside the box thinking. The kind that Childress can deal with outside of the game, when the premium on quick decision-making is lesser. I refer, of course, to personnel changes and designing an offense befitting an NFL team.

There is little that the Vikings can do to upgrade their offensive line this season. But they can mitigate against the porous blocking by improving their passing game and moving the quarterback out of the pocket. That requires changing quaterbacks and finding capable receivers. Both options currently exist.

With a more mobile, stronger-armed Brooks Bollinger, the Vikings have a capable alternative to the steadily deteriorating Johnson. Tarvaris Jackson is not ready for the NFL nor is he likely to be ready before 2008. That leaves Bollinger. And, as I chronicled in a previous column, the Vikings could do worse.

The solution to the receiver dilemna is four-fold. The first step is to make better use of Jermaine Wiggins as an option. The second step is to switch to a two-back system with Chester Taylor and Mewelde Moore figuring more prominently as receiving targets. The next step is to roll the quarterback, in this case the more mobile Bollinger, out of the pocket. The final step is to move Troy Williamson to the bench.

A more dramatic move would be to line up Moore in the slot and to use him in a fashion similar to the way the Eagles use Brian Westbrook. That's undoubtedly far too risque for the staid Childress, but it certainly would be an upgrade over relying on Travis Taylor and Wiiliamson to stretch the field and move the chains.

Change for the sake of change is usually a bad thing. But when what you have is as bad as it gets, change is required. For an offense that has made personnel upgrades at several positions from a team riddled with purported underachievement last season, the backslide into Raiderlike offensive irrelevancy is astounding. And that's on Childress either as the architect of the team or of the offense. At some point, even the stubborn Childress will have to admit his course needs more than mere tweaking.

Up Next: Draft 2007.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Duh Zzzzzzz'd

For what might be the final time this season, there will be plenty to write about the Vikings' miserable offensive showing in a 9-3 snoozer in the Bay Sunday afternoon. That's because, for the second straight week and the forth time this season, the Vikings' offense failed to score a touchdown. For those counting, that's 26 of 36 quarters in which the Vikings have failed to score an offensive touchdown. And that might be enough to drive away most fans in hordes.

The Vikings accomplished their most recent heroics against arguably the worst defense in the NFL. Prior to Sunday's game, the 49ers had been allowing 33 points per game and nearly 400 yards a game--almost 275 of that in the passing game. The Vikings responded to this gift horse by staring it straight in the mouth, accumulating a meager 103 yards passing and 238 total yards of offense.

What's worse, if you any longer hold out hope that the Vikings can figure out a way to correct everything that offensive football requires after the snap, is that both quarterback Brad Johnson and head coach Brad Childress are of the opinion that all that is necessary to right the ship is to make some minor adjustments.

If by "minor adjustments" Johnson and Childress mean finding a better quarterback, right tackle, right guard, left tackle, and two receivers, then they are dead on. Artis Hicks has a place on the Vikings only because of his Philadelphia ties to Childress, Marcus Johnson is a starter only for utter lack of an alternative, McKinnie continues to be the Vikings' answer to the Hindenberg, and the receiving corps, beyond awful, is stocked with mistakes up to which nobody wants to own.

But it's not just Williamson's constant dropped passes, Travis Taylor's inane, drive-killing penalties, McKinnie's inability to block, Marques Johnson's and Artis Hicks' overall pitiful play, nor Brad Johnson's downward spiraling performances. It's all of that combined with myopic playcalling by a stubborn, first-year head coach who, for advice in a pinch, can turn only to first-year offensive coordinator who, apparently is most comfortable watching the game. The result is a dump-off, up-the-gut offense more befitting of the 1930s NFL than of today's modern pro offense.

And all indications are that that's just fine with the head coach who believes that it "gives the team a chance to win every game." And, it should be added, it also gives the team a more than fair shot of losing every game.

Up Next: Time to think outside the box--or even inside the box!

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Too Many Olesons for Vikings' Liking

In one of the many episodes of Little House on the Prairie, Charles Ingalls, the hard-working, bad-luck, father extraordinaire, endures yet another financial downturn as the result of someone else's incompetence. Though crushed and in dire financial straits, Charles refuses to admit defeat.

With Charles digging ditches, Mrs. Ingalls strapped to the horses in the dusty, wind-blown fields, and the couple's three children providing what assistance they can provide at their age, the Ingalls are able to scrape together just enough money to pay off their debts and buy some sugar, tea, and coffee. Quite a payoff for weeks of back-breaking work. As Charles leaves the Oleson's store, Nels Oleson comments that his family has been lucky to always have money but that Charles truly was the luckier of the two men.

Nels' comment to Charles was a juxtaposition contrasting wealth and Charles' fortune of having a good family. And that was the moral of the episode--good family trumps wealthy, rotten family every day. Good show, but fairly silly insinuation that wealth necessarily begets unhappiness while poverty begets happiness.

The real lesson of that Little House episode for the modern era is that, too often, those who work hard get little to nothing for their efforts while others fall into money working less than others or working hard but without a clue.

This is a lesson that applies, at least in part, to certain members of the Minnesota Vikings--players who either play as though they have no clue or who simply have decided that, since they've hit the jackpot, it's no longer necessary to put in the effort.

Several Vikings' qualify for this ignominious designation in 2006, explaining both why the Vikings' offense continues to sputter and why the Vikings' defense can founder as it did against the New England Patriots.

Among those deserving of the aforementioned distinction are left tackle Bryant McKinnie, wide receiver Troy Williamson, tight end Jimmy Kleinsasser, cornerback Fred Smoot, and safety Dwight Smith. With every passing game, these guys look more and more like Nels Oleson, with apologies to Nels Oleson, and less and less like players intent on showing that their respective pay days were worth the gamble for the Vikings.

The Book

Bryant McKinnie came to the Vikings as a first-round draft choice with the label of being unbeatable. Prior to playing in the NFL, McKinnie purportedly had never allowed a sack. Apparently, he is now looking to make up for lost time as he wallows under the weight of a hefty new contract extension.

Despite looking serviceable compared to the frightening likes of Mike Rosenthal, Adam Haayer, Adam Goldberg, and Chris Liewinski in recent years, and despite consistently receiving Pro Bowl consideration, McKinnie has been anything but a rock at left tackle.

In pass protection, McKinnie is soundly beaten at least a handful of times a game--astounding given the limited number of downfield plays that the Vikings have run in recent memory. And on running plays, McKinnie cannot be bothered to get downfield--no chance he ever gets confused with the likes of Orlando Pace.

And it appears only to be getting worse for McKinnie, thus earning him top dog honors on this year's unimpressive offensive line. Honorable mention goes to Artis Hicks and to Marcus Johnson for their consistent penalties in the red zone and their otherwise inept blocking.

Lurking not far behind McKinnie in the race for least bang for the offensive buck are two members of the Vikings' purported receiving corps--Troy Williamson and Jim Kleinsasser. With virtually no pass-catching ability on deep routes and no demonstrated ability to gain separation in man coverage despite his purported speed, Williamson might trail McKinnie as most disappointing offensive performer for the buck, but he clearly heads the list of offensive players with one foot already out the door in 2007. One more TD drop might even seal the decision this season.

Despite leading the team in receptions, Williamson has foundered as the Vikings' top deep threat and continues to look more like a mediocre college receiver than a bona fide NFL receiver. No matter what becomes of Williamson, two years dedicated to nurturing a top ten pick officially qualifies as a wasted pick. With proven receivers available every year in free agency, taking a project as high as the Vikings selected Williamson ranks right up there with taking Demetrius Underwood in the first round.

Not to be outdone, tight end Jim Kleinsasser is quietly turning in yet another wasted season for a tight end being paid the big bucks. When the Vikings selected Kleinsasser, they gushed over his ability both to catch the ball and to line up in the backfield. Now, he does neither.

In seven games this season, Kleinsasser has a mere six receptions for 33 yards. That easily ranks him near the bottom of the league among active tight ends. And the fact that Kleinsasser has averaged 5.5 yards per reception tells you all you need to know about this $3 million-per-year player.

With the addition of Tony Richardson, the presence of Jermaine Wiggins, and the existence on the roster of other blocking tight ends with a seeming touch of agility, Kleinsasser's production was bound to be limited this season. But with the struggles of the offensive line, Kleinsasser has been kept in to block on virtually every play on which he participates. And that's only made his presence less evident and his value as a multi-million dollar blocking tight end that much more questionable.

Some thought 2005 would be Kleinsasser's final season in Minnesota. That wasn't the case. but it almost certainly is the end of the line for Kleinsasser in Minnesota in 2006.

Offensive Defense

While at least three high-paid offensive players continue to perform below their salaries, at least two base defensive players humble their offensive underachieving counterparts in spades. Leading the list of Vikings' sub-par performers in 2006--in a run-away--is cornerback Fred Smoot.

Smoot has tallied 36 tackles in 2006, good for third among Vikings' defenders behind Antoine Winfield and E.J. Henderson. While tackling has been an issue for Smoot at times, however, it is not what has most betrayed him this season. Rather, what makes Smoot's performance so miserable this season is his utter lack of meaningful plays.

In part, Smoot's zero interceptions on the season help explain his relatively solid tackle total. For Smoot has a high tackle total for the same reason that he has no interceptions--he gives a 10- to 15-yard cushion on virtually every passing play. That equates to easy catches and solid gains for opposing receivers, and plenty of room for Smoot to size up the object of his tackle. Ultimately, the ploy does little to stop the opposing offense and makes Smoot's $12 million salary in 2006 a bit hard to swallow. Bye-bye Smoot in 2007.

Smoot is joined in heisting salary on the defensive side of the ball by new addition Dwight Smith. Smith, like Smoot, has a respectable tackle total with 34 for the season in one less game. And Smith even has contributed an interception with a nice return. But what pairs Smith with Smoot by way of heisting payroll is Smith's utter lack of presence when it matters most--particularly against credible oppositon.

It's teams like New England--teams with solid quarterback and receiver play--that compel safeties to prove their mettle. Smith failed against New England. And, more telling, he failed to impress even against the likes of the much less talented J.P. Losman and Jon Kitna. That might be fine were Smith a rookie or receiving the league minimum. But for a safety earning nearly $5 million in 2006, that's not nearly enough.


With no useful free agents waiting in the wings and the trade deadline passed, the Vikings have no choice but to try to get through the season with what they have. Already, the team is feeling the pinch at corner, having to use an unprepared Ronyell whitaker in the nickle package and having to eschew the dime altogether. New England adeptly showed the consequences of such a predicament.

One solution is to put Smoot into the nickle package and to promote the steadily improving Cedric Griffin to starting right corner. The Vikings could also promote Greg Blue to starting safety and demote Smith to nickle and dime packages as an extra corner.

On offense, the Vikings remain short on options. The organization clearly sees upside in McKinnie as it recently signed him to a mammoth extension. But the reality is that, even without the show of confidence, there is little alternative to McKinnie with the lack of depth along the offensive line. Ditto the deep threat, though newcomer Bethel Johnson might be worth a try.

What's most frustrating to most Vikings' fans regarding the performances of McKinnie, Williamson, Kleinsasser, Smoot, and Smith, is that each of these players is hauling in a good chunk of the team's salary cap. That makes decisions on how to resolve the continuing problems at the respective positions that much more problematic and might force team capologist Rob Brzezinski not only to account for budgeting in these cases but also to prove that he is what he has always let others claim he is--a solid cap manager.

Up Next: From Somewhat Unimportant to Absolutely Necessary.

Racism and Numbers

Last season, when former Vikings' quarterback Daunte Culpepper struggled to do anything right on the field, fans called for Brad Johnson. Some members of the local media, either attempting to establish their credibility in certain circles or simply trying to garner some attention, immediately seized on the race card. Without so much as a hint that anyone calling for the quarterback change last season cared a whit about the race of the Vikings' quarterback, these media pundits jumped on the race bandwagon excortiating those who "want Daunte out because he's black." No evidence was offered to support these claims of racism despite the fact that ample statistical evidence supported Culpepper's benching for his horrendous on-field performance.

Today, the Vikings' rumor mill is already churning with fans rightfully critical of quarterback Brad Johnson's recent play. The irony is that, rather than calling for the insertion at quarterback of the experienced Brooks Bollinger--a quarterback who has had some success in the NFL--more fans, and even some local pundits, are calling for Tarvaris Jackson to be the Vikings' starting quarterback.

Nobody is suggesting, however, that these cries for Jackson's insertion or Johnson's removal are race-based. They might be in some circles. But the numbers, just as with Culpepper's numbers last season, make clear why there is so much angst over Johnson. I'll leave to others the discussion of why anyone would prefer Jackson over Bollinger at this point in the 2006 season.

Like Culpepper last year, Johnson has become a liability at quarterback. And there is little evidence to suggest that Johnson's performance is a short-term bit and much to suggest otherwise.

Against New England on Monday, Johnson was brutal. After the Vikings' promising opening drive fizzled with a mind-numbing Johnson interception at the Patriots' goal line, things went south in a hurry. From that point on, Johnson seemingly could do nothing right. After the game, head coach Brad Childress and Johnson coyly attempted to spread the blame by implying culpability on the part of the offensive line and the receivers. But the truth of the matter is that Johnson simply stunk, twice throwing picks despite the utter lack of defensive pressure and a clear view of the defender who would make the pick.

The bigger picture regarding Johnson's play is even more troubling, however, than was the performance on Monday night. On Monday, Johnson threw two interceptions that mattered and another that was meaningless. As bad as the interceptions were, though, Johnson looked even worse throwing passes deeper than twenty yards--with the exception of the pass that bounced off of no-hands Williamson's chest. Johnson routinely threw ephis pitches to suprised Patriot defenders, who could have and should have had another three or four picks in the game, and had so little zip on most of his deep passes that they would have blown back into his hands owing to the collective gasp of fans at his back but for the concurrent collective gasp of horror of fans to his fore.

But Monday was just one of many bad performances for Johnson in 2006. With the exception of last week's modest performance against the defenseless Seahawks, Johnson has done next to nothing after the opening drive of any game, save for an occasional burst in hurry up mode with the Vikings trailing against Detroit and Buffalo.

The Vikings can continue to contend that Johnson's poor performances are coming against good defenses, but, at some point, the ostrich has to pull its head out of the sand and accept its lot. It is becoming painfully obvious that Johnson's better days are behind him. And if his better days were caretaker days, that, along with his recent play, suggests what lies ahead.

Up Next: If the draft were today...