Friday, September 29, 2006

Boredom Setting In?

From 1998 to the beginning of last season, the arrival of Fall meant certain fixation among those tuned into the Minnesota sport's scene with the Minnesota Vikings. The Vikings' uneven, at times miserable, performance last season began to change fan affinity with the team with fans increasingly evidencing a general disenchantment with the Vikings' play, the team's failure to meet its own modest goals, and the general incompetency of the organization.

After last season's failings, the Vikings brought in a new coaching staff with a different approach to dealing with players and a different view on how properly to prepare for games. On the field, the results have been acceptable--two victories and one loss against three teams that many pre-season prognosticators believed would be in the playoff picture at the end of this season.

Off the field, however, success is more difficult to gauge. But judging from the last-minute push to sell seats against the Chicago Bears and the continuing availability of tickets for home games this season, it appears clear that solid coaching and success on the field do not necessarily create the week-long hype that sells the weekend tickets. And talk about the Vikings has taken a backseat to the more interesting local baseball team.

The reason for the Vikings' early-season mundane offense is partially evident as the Vikings have played three successive games against teams with a defense-first approach to football. The Vikings, coincidentally, have decided on that approach as well this season, if not merely coincidentally by necessity. The combination of defensive-minded game plans between the Vikings and their opponents in the first three weeks has meant offensively dull, low-scoring football.


There is little reason to expect the Vikings to deviate from their dull offense, decent defense trend in week four at Buffalo. In the Bills, the Vikings face a team that has allowed an average of 18 points per game against three questionable opponents--the New England Patriots, the Miami Dolphins, and the New York Jets. In building a 2-1 record against this competition, the Bills have allowed an average of 280 yards of offense. That put their opponents right at the expected scoring return of 18-19 points.

On offense, the Bills have been more suspect. In their first three games, they have averaged 295 yards of offense per game. That's against one decent defense--largely as the result of its play against Buffalo, one subpar defense, and one truly awful defense. The result has been an offensive output on par with expectations at 17.7 points per game, but a total offensive output below what would be expected against the caliber of teams that the Bills have faced this season.

Minnesota, meanwhile, has averaged 310 yards of offense per game against teams widely regarded as among the top five in the NFL on defense. The Vikings have converted, however, four points below their expected scoring of 21 points per game.

On defense, Minnesota has yielded an average of 287 yards per game and two to three points less than expected at 16 per game against teams that, whether due to missing personnel or the mere lack of personnel, were not expected to score large numbers of points against Minnesota. Buffalo appears to have an offense similar to what the Vikings have faced in the first three weeks with a decent running attack and a mediocre to below-average quarterback and receiving corps.

If the Vikings insist on taking the minimal number of shots downfield, they will continue to dwell below their expected scoring level. If this tendency persists against Buffalo, Minnesota should expect another 13-16 point output.

If, however, the Vikings commit to making the receiving corps a relevant element of their offense, the Vikings ought to be able to improve on their scoring against the Bills by plus four over their expected scoring level. With Brad Childress' stated commitment to getting the offense going sounding more serious than in weeks past, look for the Vikings to open it up--i.e., throw to the recievers--a a little bit this week. Vikings 24 over Buffalo 17.

A win shakes fan boredom. A loss...

Up Next: This, That, and T'Other.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Vikings Add Quarterback

On Wednesday afternoon, the Minnesota Vikings filled their immediate need for a third-string quarterback, signing former Michigan Wolverine and Dallas Cowboy quarterback Drew Henson. In three NFL seasons, Henson has played in seven games, starting one. His career statistics include 10 completions in 18 attempts for 78 yards, one touchdown, and one interception.

The Vikings signed Henson to take the place of former third-string quarterback Tarvaris Jackson who suffered a knee injury last week and is expected to be out a minimum of four to six weeks. With Jackson out, the Vikings had only two quarterbacks remaining on their 53-man roster, Brad Johnson and the recently signed Brooks Bollinger.

While the Vikings currently have Henson listed as a practice squad player, indications are that he will be added to the Vikings' 53-man roster in time to make him available as the emergency quarterback against Buffalo. That move would require the Vikings to release a player currently on the 53-man roster.

Given his potential, Henson could be a very nice pick-up for the Vikings and will certainly provide a better option as an emergency quarterback than would have whichever receiver or member of the secondary currently is regarded as the "out-of-options" quarterback. And should the Vikings elect to place Jackson on injured reserve, the team could ride out the remainder of 2006 without using Jackson or cutting Henson and leave to 2007 a determination of which three quarterbacks remain with the team long term.

From a season that nearly began with Mike McMahon and J.T. O'Sullivan as the backups to Brad Johnson, to one in which Henson is the third-string quarterback behind Johnson and Bollinger, the Vikings' quarterbacking situation, though somewhat ordinary, is at least no longer tragic beyond the starter.

Up Next: Around the league and numbers.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Chinny, Chin, Chin

In the early stages of their game against the Chicago Bears on Sunday, the Minnesota Vikings had the Bears right where they expected to have them--trailing and on the defensive. Then the Vikings self-destructed. First came the fumbled handoff. Next came former Vikings' coach Mike Tice's favorite call, the desperation heave in a non-desperation moment. Finally, down came the curtain on what just as easily could have been a Vikings' victory rather than a Vikings' loss.

In a game in which the cliche that wins and losses are determined by inches is so often borne out, of no team is that line probably truer than the Minnesota Vikings, circa 2006. Because, while the Vikings' defense appears finally capable of keeping the Vikings in games, the Vikings' offense now seems incapable of taking advantage of that improved defensive play, seemingly content to play along the margins.

For the Vikings, that means wins will result primarily, if not exclusively, from relatively mistake-free ball. Presumably, the Vikings will have opportunities to exploit a team or two that is not NFL worthy this season. But looking down the schedule, the Vikings will be hard-pressed to identify precisely when that moment will arrive. Probably not next weekend in what could be a cold, damp, and windy Rich Stadium. And probably not even on the road against the as yet winless Detroit Lions.

Going into the season, Vikings' fans understood that the Vikings' offense probably would lag behind the defense. But few fans would have hazard the guess that, three weeks into the NFL season, the Vikings' offense would post no offensive touchdowns in two of the team's first three games.

The culprits in this game were the familiar ones for the Vikings. Bad penalties, conservative calls, and poor play at critical moments. Yet again, the offensive line led the list of the Vikings' problems.

Artis Hicks has become the new Mike Rosenthal and Todd Steussie rolled into one--slow blocking on the right side with a flair for the unnecessary, untimely penality. Not to be outdone, Bryant McKinnie is now doing even more frequently what he did far too often last season--getting beat on passing downs and feigning interest on running plays. Throw in the continuing inability of nearly the entire line to block on passing downs and the building blocks to the conservative offense are firmly in place.

Then there is the coaching. In the first two weeks of the regular season, Vikings' head coach Brad Childress seemingly could do no wrong, save for a poor challenge. This week, however, Childress made his first game-losing call. Then he made the decision and the loss worse with his post-game comments.

Facing a fourth and two near mid field, with ample time remaining and timeouts in the bank, the Vikings were poised to continue their final drive with a simple short pass to the receiver, the likes of which the Bears' backs had demonstrated no interest in covering throughout the game. Instead, perhaps harkening back to his bold week-two fake field goal converted into a touchdown, Childress went deep. And all Vikings' fans flashed back to one of the worst elements of the Tice era.

That decision, despite anything that might have gone against the Vikings earlier in the game, was the wrong decision at the time. And it was the wrong decision not only because it did not work, but also because the alternative clearly were better.

After the game, Childress defended the call. "We liked the one on one that they were showing against Troy. I'll take that any time." Except, one would like to think, when the situation strongly argues for any number of alternative plays with infinitely greater likelihood of prolonging the game for the Vikings.

Childress' schizophrenic ping-ponging between ultra conservative and high risk play calling that he has demonstrated in consecutive weeks--once with success, this week without--is odd in at least two respects. Strange is that a coach with a conservative bent and a dedication to seeing the game plan through would switch gears at such a critical time. Even odder, however, is that the coach who made the decision also stocked the roster with players who could deal with the strain of playing in such a conservative offensive scheme, yet that very coach called upon those very players to execute a play that requires at least one flashy player on the executing end. The Vikings clearly have no such player currently on their roster.

In and of itself the Vikings' loss to Chicago is not so much troubling as it is disappointing. The Vikings had a lead, the defense was playing well, and the Vikings seemingly gave the lead away by making mistakes. The comeback attempt was similarly side-tracked.

But, as another tried and true cliche goes, how a team handles defeat is almost always the surest sign of a team's character. And after only one loss--to a team widely regarded as one of the few solid teams in the mediocrity that is the NFL, a surprising culprit has evidenced a willingness to foster divisiveness--the head coach, himself.

During Monday's press conference, Childress was asked whether the defense was down about the performance of the offense. "Not at all. They don't see it like that. We didn't get it done today and they [the defense] did. Some weeks, that role will be reversed."

That sounds innocuous enough. But what's lurking behind that comment is Childress' desire to demonstrate that he is a quality offensive coordinator. And in attempting to deflect criticism of his offense, and, thereby, his play calling, Childress unwittingly already has divided the team into two clear camps, offense and defense. Childress also noted that the plays were in place and that, in particular, Johnson "had the option of checking out of the fourth down play" that essentially ended the game for the Vikings. This from a coach who is all about team.

It's one loss and it's a loss that was not unexpected by most. But it's also a game that the Vikings could have and should have won. Maybe that's what strained Childress' comments after the game. But if that's where you go after one tough loss, where next do you go in defeat?

Up Next: Around the league. Plus, number, numbers, numbers.

Sunday, September 24, 2006


The Minnesota Vikings enter Sunday's home game against the Chicago Bears as slight favorites. Discounting the home-field advantage, however, the Bears are the favorites. And if you ask many Vikings' fans, this is a game in which the Bears could win big.

The impressions of the Bears as a team that could run up the score on the Vikings is based, in part, on performance to date. In two games, the Bears have destroyed their opponents by a combined score of 60-7. That suggests not only dominate defense, but an added offensive capability the likes of which the Bears have not had since the pre-Shoop era.

While the Bears were waltzing through their first two opponents, the Vikings were scraping and clawing for their two victories--both decided by field goals at or near the end of the game. That the Vikings have allowed twenty-two points more in two games than have the Bears is cause enough for concern for a Vikings' team now facing a Bear's team that has averaged more than double the points of either of the Vikings' first two opponents. Throw in the fact that the Vikings have averaged one-half the points that the Bears have averaged this season and the prospect of a Vikings' victory over Chicago on Sunday seems highly implausible.

When Numbers Lie

But numbers often betray--or at least mislead. And in the case of the Chicago Bears' offense, the numbers suggest a conclusion that is not yet warranted.

While the Vikings were earning their keep playing Washington and Carolina, the Bears were whiling away the first two weeks of their 2006 season against Green Bay and Detroit--two teams currently residing at the bottom of the league. And that reality suddenly suggests a different perspective on the Vikings'-Bear's tilt on Sunday.


The Vikings have had difficulty running all season. Though the final statistics have looked decent, the difficulties running have been evident at critical junctures in the first two games. Most notably, the Vikings have been unable to pick up first downs on third and short, bringing up the rear in league-wide third-down conversion rate.

The Vikings have been able to off-set their running problems and their abysmal third-down conversion rate by not turning the ball over and by controlling field position--the fruits of conservative play-calling, reasonably solid defensive play, and key opponents' injuries.

On Sunday, the Vikings will need to play better than they have in the first two weeks to beat the Bears, who will have all of their players. That means being called for fewer penalties, particularly in the red zone, blocking better in both the rushing and passing game, and exploiting a suspect Bear's secondary--particulary Mike Brown and Charles.

In their first two games, the Vikings allowed an average of 330 yards but held their opponents slightly below their expected point totals of 21 and 24, respectively. That's a tribute to strong red zone defense and solid, if not spectacular, overall defense.

While rolling over the currently winless Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions, the Bears averaged 370 yards of offense and allowed an average of 250 yards. That suggests an average expected margin of victory for the Bears of 24-17. And that suggests that the Bears' 30-3 average margin of victory over two games is highly inflated.

With the Vikings holding their opponents to nearly a touchdown less than their expected point total, wielding what appears to be a tougher defense than Chicago has faced against either Green Bay or Detroit, and showing the propensity to score at least at their expected production level when controlling for penalties, there is every reason to expect that the Vikings and Bears will have a close game on Sunday.

Add to the mix the fact that Chicago usually loses in Minnesota and the Vikings have some good karma on their side. And it never hurts to be playing the team possessed of so many players willing publicly to express their impression that their team is nearly unbeatable.

Avoiding penalties in the red zone, the Vikings defeat the Bears 17-16. And if the Vikings are able to pick apart Brown and Tillman with Travis Taylor and Troy Williamson, the Vikings might even emerge with their largest margin of victory under head coach Brad Childress, 24-16.

Up Next: Post Game. Plus, does everyone play D now?

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Some Mud in Joysville

This was going to be a column about what went right in the Minnesota Vikings' victory over the Carolina Panthers last Sunday. But that's a subject that has been too thoroughly reviewed, digested, and regurgetated at this point to merit much more attention. Instead, it should suffice to note--if for no other reason than for the sake of posterity--that the Vikings both made and received breaks in their game agains the Panthers. And those breaks led to a Vikings' victory.


Of the many breaks that the Vikings received on Sunday most notable were the Panthers' pre-game losses of Dan Morgan and Steve Smith. Morgan, a terror on defense might have been what Carolina needed to ensure that the Vikings did not drive down the field on the final series of overtime. And Smith might have been enough offensively to make overtime unnecessary. That the Panthers had neither for their game Sunday meant Minnesota had that much more room for error--and they used every bit of that space.

The Vikings also received the benefit of two rookie subs when Panther defensive players had to leave the game at critical junctures of the game. Those substitutions helped the Vikings make at least two critical first downs and aided the Vikings on their game-winning drive.


But as much as the Vikings stepped into a good situation against a good team and received some help during the game, that good team was no pushover. And the Vikings had to make as many breaks as they received just to ensure overtime. Those breaks included turning around a negative field-position battle, making a solid goal line stand the likes of which had become foreign in Vikingland long ago, and forcing a fumble in overtime that led to a fourth down punt.

The result was a solid victory over a team that was considered an early-season favorite to win the Super Bowl.


But not all was joyful on Sunday in the Metrodome. There were problems.

The problems begin with an offense having a difficult time finishing drives and, at times, even getting drives going. While most observers considered the Panthers to have a better defense this year than last, the Vikings were able to move the ball at times. Finishing, however, was another matter.

After two field goals and a fake field-goal attempt converted into a touchdown, the Vikings had the three overtime points, the Vikings had scored three points less against a Morgan-less Carolina team than Carolina had yielded, on average, over the past year and two games with Morgan. That has a ring of sub-mediocrity to it.

More telling, however, is that, despite racking up 365 yards in offense, the Vikings had only thirteen points. The standard in the NFL is seven points per 100 yards. That translates to approximately 24 points for the Vikings--eight less than they scored.

Scoring alone, however, is only the symptom of the underlying problems. Much of the scoring problem is attributable to long-standing problems along the offensive line--problmes that have created other issues for the offense.

On Sunday, the line had a less difficult time opening holes for the running game than in game one, but had an even more difficult time blocking in the passing game. Artis' Hicks' holding penalty inside the Panthers' five-yard line symbolized the difficulties of the right side of the line. And Marcus Johnson provided several missed blocks of his own, including one haul-down of a Panther defender that would have negated Troy Williamson's overtime catch that set up the winning field goal, but for the official's inexplicable oversight of the mauling.

The lack of sufficient pass blocking and penalties have created additional problems for the Vikings' offense, most notably a difficulty passing the ball. Despite a quick-release West Coast system, Johnson continues to face strong pressure from opposing ends and tackles. The result has been even quicker releases than presumably planned, generally to the short-yardage release man. That, in turn, has led to several passes behind the line of scrimmage for zero or negative yards and has been as crippling to the offensive flow as the running game was in week one.

The Vikings' solution to the issues on the line has been, like last year, to line Jim Kleinsasser up on right end and keep him in as a blocker with Tony Richardson serving as the release player. That's not a good recipe for a dynamic offense, but the alternatives, short of finding a more capable right guard and right tackle, are no more palatable.

For better or worse, the first signs of change along the line might be evident as early as this week. On Monday, the Vikings reported an injury to Hicks, who finished the game on Sunday. No details of the injury were released, raising the suspicion that Vikings' head coach Brad Childress might be using injury as pretext for replacing the disappointing right guard. Who might replace Hicks that is any better than Hicks is anyone's guess, however.

In addition to offensive line problems, the Vikings continue to have issues getting constant pressure on the quarterback. The Vikings' coaching staff believed that facing a drop-back passer like Jake Delhomme would give the Vikings' ends an opportunity to tally some sacks after having to remain patient against the purportedly quick-releasing Mark Brunnell. The Vikings did register two sacks against Delhomme, but none were by defensive ends. Worse yet, the ends accounted for only two tackles against a make-shift Carolina offensive line.

In addition to the line issues, the Vikings' coaching staff contributed at least one significant gaffe in Sunday's game when Childress challenged the ruling on an incomplete pass. According to reports, Childress decided to challenge the call only after his receiver insisted that he jhad caught the ball and had been pushed out of bounds. The problem, of course, is that the receiver caught the ball out of bounds and was pushed only after already being out of bounds. The challenge was Ticelike and inconsistent with an otherwise well-coached game. One suspects that Childress has already learned his lesson on this count and will not repeat the offense.

What It Means

The Vikings' flaws against the Panthers were overshadowed by the team's merits against solid competition. This Sunday, however, the Vikings clearly will need to improve on their disappointing penchant for accumulating penalties and will need to move the ball more consistently and with greater attention to finishing drives to defeat what appears to be the best team in the NFC at present in the Chicago Bears. That means better pass protection, better run blocking, and more pressure from the defense. That might be more than the Vikings can deliver at this point.

Up Next: Bear Meat?

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

The Difference A Coach Makes

Last year at this time, Minnesota Vikings' fans were bemoaning the start to a woeful stretch of Vikings' football that legitimately resurrected deeply recessed memories of Les Steckel roaming the Vikings' sidelines. By the end of 2005, former Vikings' head coach Mike Tice had made sufficient progress from the early season so that the Vikings were no longer being blown out of games on a regular basis and were even winning games--albeit against predominantly weak opposition.

The reason Tice was let go and Brad Childress brought in was not that Tice had looked so bad coaching in the early weeks of 2005, but that, even in winning in the latter weeks of 2005 there was a sense that Tice was not capable of readying his team to play equal or superior competition.

After the Pittsburgh game last season, I noted that, in spite of the score, the Vikings could have and should have been in the game to the very end. Among the coaching gaffes in that game were the ill-advised pass play called inside Pittsburgh's ten-yard line, the botched special teams' plays that crystalized the need for a greater veteran presence on special teams, another ill-conceived and costly challenge, and the general commitment to meeting Pittsburgh's stout run defense with a far inferior running attack despite clear issues evident within Pittsburgh's secondary.

It did not help Tice's cause that the team was virtually non-competitive for the first six weeks of the season. But that lack of competitiveness could have been forgiven were there real signs that the Vikings, in year four of Tice's tenure, were making progress towards Tice's three-year plan to return the team to the Super Bowl. Instead, what the Pittsburgh game showed was that the team was far away from meeting such a goal, not in personnel, necessarily, but certainly in coaching aptitude.

During the 2005-2006 off-season, Vikings' owner Zygi Wilf expressed his commitment to hiring a coach who could do what Tice had promised. Wilf was intent on bringing in a coach who, at a minimum, would cross the "t"s and dot the "i"s. He settled on Childress, signing the former Philadelphia Eagles' offensive coordinator just as Green Bay beckoned.

Two weeks into his tenure as a head coach in the NFL, Childress has brought many of the attributes to the Vikings that his predecessor brought. He has brought a promise of commitment to winning and dedication to playing the game properly. He has brought a promise to learn from mistakes. And he has brought a learning curve.

Where Tice and Childress differ is in effecting the promises and in the slope of their respective learning curves. And the evidence is borne out on the field of play.

Where Tice cowered in the face of stiff opposition, Childress already has thrived. This week, against the defending NFC Champions and the favorite of many to return to the Super Bowl in 2007, Childress called a trick play that led to a touchdown.

What was telling about the fake field goal with respect to Childress' coaching acumen was not that it succeeded but that Childress, prior to the game, had considered the appropriate time to use the play against a team for which his special teams' coach coached last season. With the Vikings trailing by seven and with eight minutes remaining in the game, a field goal was unlikely to give the Vikings the boost that they needed even if they had gotten the ball again after stopping Carolina. That fact, and the fact that failure would only leave the Vikings in the very same predicament that they would be in were they to kick a field goal, and the fact that the field position was appropriate for such a play, led Childress to call a play that only a select handful of players and coaches had any knowledge existed in the Vikings' playbook.

After the game, when asked about the secrecy surrounding the play, Childress stated that he learned the routine from Eagles' head coach Andy Reid. "We had an opener against Dallas when I was with Philadelphia during which our kicker went out for the opening kickoff. I looked at him and noticed that he was turned a bit different than normal. It looked like he was going to try an onside kick to start the game. I thought that it couldn't be right, though, because I hadn't heard anything of it. But it was an onside kick. And, other than Andy, only the kicker and the players on the kicking side of the ball knew what play was coming. It was a good lesson for me."

Some, like Childress, learn the easy lessons. Others do not.

Despite the continuing problems with the offensive line--the penalties, the poor run-blocking on the right side, the poor pass blocking this week--the team appears to be improving. The running game looks better by the week, as does the passing game. Special teams now routinely does its job rather than routinely failing. The defense is actually spoken about in fantasy football circles as a "top defense." And the coaching staff does what needs to be done to give the team a chance to win the games in the end.

This isn't the Vikings' squad of the late 1990s, but it arguably is more compelling of a team and more of a draw for fans who want to watch an entire game--offense and defense, beginning to end. And a large reason for that is the change in coaching from Tice to Childress. Imagine Childress as head coach of the Vikings on a blustery day in Chicago with the Vikings' offense holding the ball deep in Chicago territory, time running out, field goals ties the game, touchdown wins it. Or Childress in the same position but with playoffs on the line, needing only to avoid a hail mary pass by a bad Arizona team on the last play of the regular season to advance to the playoffs.

Would Childress run a wide-receiver option against that Chicago defense in that situation? Would Childress fail to ensure that the endzone was fully guarded against the one play that Arizona could run in that situation?

The early returns suggest a negative response to both questions. And that might make the Vikings good enough to compete with any team in the NFL this season--not just in the head coach's rhetoric, but also on the field.

Up Next: What Went Right.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Vikings Have Edge Over Panthers

When the Minnesota Vikings face the Carolina Panthers today, they will face a team without one of its better defensive players, Dan Morgan, and a team either without its best offensive player, Steve Smith, or a team using Steve Smith in diminished capacity. No matter which scenario plays out, it has to be better than facing Smith at full speed--a phenomenon that destroyed the Vikings last season.

The Panthers are coming off of a disappointing opener against the Atlanta Falcons and are certain to have some new wrinkles in their game plan to help jump start what was a rather anemic offense last week. With a steadily improving defense, however, the Vikings should be prepared for an offense absent its primary offensive threat, particularly when that loss makes the Panthers a more run-oriented team.

Even with Smith in Carolina's lineup, however, the Vikings appear sufficiently competent on pass defense to at least keep Smith's production to normal levels. Whereas last week the Vikings faced a quick-release offensive scheme, this week they face more of a drop-back offense in the passing game. That should allow the Vikings' ends to put more pressure on Delhomme than they were able to put on Brunnell last week. And pressure on Delhomme will mean fewer deep patterns for Carolina. Assuming an ability to tackle--something the Vikings last week demonstrated they could do throughout the defense--that should mean fewer long gains and a game that evolves into a battle for field possession.

On offense, the Vikings will again focus on the quick hits and spreading the ball with Chester Taylor carrying the ball 20-25 times. If Troy Williamson is able to catch the easy balls today, the Vikings' offense could produce not only the mundane field goals and hard-yardage touchdowns, but also one or two longer touchdowns.


With a Williamson of last week, the underdog Vikings win another close contest 19-17. With a more focused Williamson, the Vikings prevail 24-17.

Up Next: Post Game.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Trickle Down Effect

Entering the 2006 NFL season, the Minnesota Vikings were certain about two things regarding their offensive line. One was that the line would look dramatically different from that which finished the 2005 NFL season, with Matt Birk returning, Artis Hicks, and Steve Hutchinson arriving, Chris Liewinski and Adam Goldberg released, and Mike Rosenthal demoted to hope-we-never-need-to-use-him status.

The other certainty regarding the Vikings' offensive line in 2006 was that it would be a work in progress. After one game, it is clear that there is much work left to do.

The Problems

Among the most glaring problems facing the Vikings' offensive line this year is the continuing inability of those on the right side of the line to block in the running game. The problem already has reached such proportions that even the Vikings' coaching staff appears unconvinced that the right side of the line is even worth trying to run behind.

Of the Vikings' thirty-two running plays against Washington, twenty were to the left side of the line, two were up the middle, and ten were to the right. Of the ten running plays to the right, only two came before halftime, compared to nine running plays to the left or up the middle in the first half.

Evident from the first-half statistics is the Vikings' coaching staff's own trepidation about sending a back right rather than left. That trepidation was evidenced not only in the first half of Monday's game, but also--and perhaps more telling--on the Vikings' final offensive series. Despite the fact that everyone in the stadium expected the Vikings to continue to run left, the Vikings ran left.

The reason for the early game and late-game decision to stay left is apparent from the numbers. Last year, the Vikings routinely failed to move the ball running right. When they attempted to do so against Washington on Monday night, they again failed.

On ten running plays to the right on Monday, the Vikings averaged 2.6 yards with a long of eight, seven carries for three or fewer yards, and four carries for one yard or less.

One might conclude that the Vikings' woes running right were simply a matter of a small sample and that, with more attempts, the Vikings will improve their right-running average. So far, however, there is little reason to view Monday's performance as a probable aberration over the course of the season as the right side of the Vikings' offensive line has simply not moved defenders off the line the way that the left side of the line has, at times.

Equally problematic is the domino effect that an inability to run right has for the rest of the offense. Because the Vikings are unable to run right, they are forced to run left more often. Opposing teams realize this and stack the defense over the left side of the Vikings' offensive line in run situations. This makes McKinnie, Hutchinson, and Birk less effective than they would be were the defense required to play the offense straight up.

But an inability to run right also has a negative effect on the Vikings' passing game. With teams loading up against the run to the left and the Vikings' inability to take advantage of what subsequently should be mismatches to the right, the Vikings are forced to pass more than they would like and more than they ought to. That, too, makes defending the Vikings easier and makes controlling field possession and the clock more difficult for the Vikings.

The continuing run-blocking troubles on the right side of the line should not serve to mask the very real improvement that the Vikings' offensive line has shown over last season. Despite two false starts--one by Artis Hicks, the other by Bryant McKinnie--the line looked uniformly solid in pass protection. In part, that's a reflection of Brad Johnson releasing the ball quickly in the West Coast offense. But it is also a sign of maturation for players like Marcus Johnson and Bryant McKinnie, both of whom looked like a revolving door at times last season.

Unquestionably, the presence of Birk and Hutchinson forces teams to play the Vikings' offensive line more honestly--something that could not be said of last year's patchwork offensive lines. But that only points out even more the necessity for continuity and production across the entire offensive line.

Good health and increased familiarity with the system and each other should help the Vikings' offensive line progress. But not every player brings the same abilities to the game. And that latter fact might continue to haunt the Vikings' running game and, as a consequence, their offense, no matter how much time the current linemen spend together.

Up Next: Will Panthers be the First Team to 0-2 in 2006?

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Competency Arrives

When former Minnesota Vikings' head coach Mike Tice became the team's coach, he pledged accountability, attention to detail, and a return to the Super Bowl in three years. None of these pledges came to fruition under Tice.

Enter Brad Childress.

Brad Childress came to Minnesota with less boisterous promises than those that Tice had offered, promising merely to find quality players who were also quality people. In the world of the NFL, the latter is subjective and, even at that, elusive, while the former is abundant and more readily attainable. As the good teams have demonstrated, however, the key to success is locating the proper mixture of talent and character throughout the team.

Childress recently has received accolades for holding players accoutable for their off-field actions. Specifically, people have pointed to his dismissal of Koren Robinson and his one-game suspension of Dwight Smith.

While these moves are laudable in some sense as demonstrating a commitment to team character, they are probably just as explainable by the realities of the game that have nothing to do with character. Robinson, a curious addition by the Green Bay Packers on Monday, likely faces a full-year suspension for his third violation of the NFL's substance abuse policy. That made him worthless to the Vikings in 2006, no matter his abilities. And Smith, even without his recent stairway encounter, was on thin ice with Childress for his overall play--the very problem that made him available to the Vikings earlier this year.

Then there are three players on whom the Vikings plan to rely heavily this season and, apparently, beyond--Mewelde Moore, Bryant McKinnie, and Fred Smoot--all of whom, by all accounts and by admissions by Smoot and McKinnie, were involved in off-field incidents at least the equivalent of that in which Smith was involved, but who received no playing suspension. Smith was expendable because his backup, rookie Greg Blue, has outplayed him. For better or for worse, nobody is outplaying either McKinnie or Smoot at the moment and Moore is needed on special teams.

Thus, while Childress clearly desires to have a team of character, he also clearly desires to have his starters play the full schedule of games absent a viable substitute. And that creates a conflict for his commitment to character.

More attainable and more apparent than Childress' commitment to character is his pledge of accountability. Childress included in this pledge a promise of personal accountability for himself and for the coaching staff. That's something that Tice forever claimed existed during his tenure despite considerable evidence to the contrary.

With one notable exception--one that ought to be addressed this week--Childress so far has met his pledge of coaching accountablity. For, with the exception of the decision to have punter Chris Kluwe hold on field goal attempts, the Vikings' coaching staff performed nearly flawlessly.

Even the decision to have Kluwe hold for place-kicks was defensible, if not necessarily the best option. The logical choice to hold is Brooks Bollinger, but Bollinger, as third-string quarterback, was not eligible to play unless the second-string quarterback went down with injury. And the second-string quarterback, Tarvaris Jackson, is not a holder. That made Kluwe, a sure-handed punter, the next best option. With one exception.

Clearly the best holder on the Vikings is quarterback Brad Johnson. Johnson not only has sure hands, but also has served as holder for each of the teams for which he has played in the NFL. And with Kluwe's extra-point miscue on Monday night--a miscue that could have cost the Vikings a victory--Childress might well and reasonably be considering a move to Johnson as holder for the remainder of the season.

The rationale for having Johnson hold is bolstered not only by Johnson's experience and resume as a solid holder but also by the fact that Johnson has the ability to pass if confronted with a bad snap. Kluwe, as we learned tonight, does not.

What's nice about this dilemma for the Vikings is that it is relatively minor and it is about the only thing for which the Vikings' coaching staff can be criticized after the Vikings' sound 19-16 victory over Washington. In previous years, Vikings' fans would have spent this time wondering what might have been had the head coach not wasted timeouts on silly challenges, failed to challenge blatantly blown calls, had the right number of players on the field at critical junctures of the game, not played prevent defense, not called a gimmick play when more traditional plays already were winning the game, and not curled up in the fetal position once the scripted plays had been called.

In short, while in previous years the outcome of the Vikings' games owed as much to predictable coaching gaffes as to players' talent, the current team appears to have coaching leadership that is intent on ensuring that talent and execution finally will determine the outcome of the game. And that's a refreshing change from recent years.

Up Next: Inside the numbers--coaching competency has yet to translate into competency at all positions. Plus, market value?

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Short Is Better Than Long

For Vikings' fans old enough to remember the Daunte Culpepper era, yesterday's Miami loss undoubtedly brought back some fond memories--promising drives early in the game, checking out of running plays into ill-advised pass plays leading to critical turnovers late in the game. Ahhh, the good old days.

No matter your impression of the Vikings' decision to trade Daunte to the Dolphins in the pre-season--a move that yielded Ryan Cook when, had the Vikings merely bided their time, a healthy Daunte probably would have yielded a bona fide starter and a first round pick--there is little doubt that the quarterback currently leading the Vikings is more suited than is Daunte to run a patient offensive game plan the likes of which
Vikings' head coach Brad Childress appears intent on running.

Despite success running and throwing the ball over the middle and in the flat in the first half of Thursday's game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Daunte had already signaled that that approach did not interest him. In fashion reminiscent of far too many drives with the Vikings in 2005, Daunte reverted to forcing the ball where he could not possibly thread it. That gambit went without repercussion in the first half but swallowed Daunte and the Dolphins in the second half--particularly in the closing minutes of a still winnable game.

By contrast, Johnson has neither the inclination nor, perhaps the arm strength, to attempt what Daunte cannot resist. And for a Vikings' team that is without a burner on the wing, that's just as well.

Lost in any discussion of the difference between Johnson and Culpepper, however, is not so much that Johnson's abilities virtually require that he be a patient quarterback to succeed in the NFL but that the NFL almost exclusively rewards the patient, plodding teams. In fact, in the history of the post-merger NFL, only one pass-first, deep-passing team has won the Super Bowl--the Kurt Warner led St. Louis Rams. And that team was quite willing to win on the ground with Marshall Faulk if only other teams would have let them. But even the opponents of those Rams teams believed that their best option was to attempt to take away the control game--it just didn't work out.

The purported knock on the Vikings' offense in 2006 is that it lacks star power at the skill positions and will have trouble moving the ball. That's the conventional wisdom.

History and logic suggest, however, that methodical offenses--ones which employ all of their components--are the ones that succeed. That's the Dallas, Oakland, Pittsburgh, New England, and Denver model, and it will be the Vikings' model in 2006 for the first time for, perhaps, ever.

Despite a lack of superstars on offense, the Vikings have several fine offensive players this year, including two tight ends that will have several passes thrown their direction in each game--a welcome change from last year owing to a chang in coaching philosophy and the entrenchment of a quarterback willing to abide by a system that makes highlight reel passes nearly anathema.

And that means that, despite lingering issues about the abilities of three offensive linemen, including the purportedly dominating but often beaten or turned around Bryant McKinnie, the lack of a strong running game, and the absence of a deep threat at receiver, the Vikings, with a steadily improving corps of defensive players, shuold be good enough on offense this year to improve upon last year.

And that improvement should begin Monday in Washington.

Up Next: My team's better than your team.

Thursday, September 07, 2006


The 2006 season begins tonight with the Miami Dolphins traveling to Pittsburgh to take on the Steelers. Last season, I debuted a new system for picking winners and point spreads. That system, which relies on performance to date, clearly will not work for the first week of the season and is particularly poorly suited for use with a team such as the Dolphins which has a new face and looks to be much improved over last season. Hence, a different approach for tonight's game.

The Steelers enter the season as the slight favorites to repeat as NFL Champions in 2006. That stature, largely the result of the fact that the Steelers have yet to lose a game since their Super Bowl victory, is, of course, virtually meaningless. Despite the Steelers' status as reigning NFL champions, they face several obstacles to repeating.

Among the Steelers' immediate concerns are the health of two of their key offensive players, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and wide receiver Hines Ward. Roethlisberger is out for tonight and that means that Charlie Batch is in. That can't help the Steelers who already struggle with the Bill Cowher offensive choke chain around their collective necks. And though it appears that Ward will play, his effectiveness will not be what it would have been were he healthy.

The only thing helping the Steelers right now is something that most have predicted will be their achilles--at least compared to last season--the running game. With Jerome Bettis retiring too early, the Steelers will be forced to give the ball to Willie Parker more often--even more so with Batch running the offense in Roethlisberger's absence. That should lead to more explosive runs at some point this season. Unfortunately for the Steelers, that might not happen until Roethlisberger returns as teams will key on the run with Batch at quarterback.

The Miami Dolphins, meanwhile, are suddenly a team without major issues. Gone is the running back by committee approach of last season with Ronnie Brown ready to assume control. Also gone from last season, by all accounts, is the long-running misery that the Dolphins have realized since Dan Marino left the team--the lack of a legitimate starting quarterback. In is the rehabilitated Daunte Culpepper.

Vikings' fans undoubtedly will attest to two things about Daunte Culpepper--he has a cannon for an arm and hands to fit a miniature watch. Sometimes, that combination pays dividends as it allows Daunte to make deep and short passes alike. Other times, however, it leads to alligator throws and fumbled snaps. Unfortunately for Daunte, the latter tends to happen far too often in the clutch. Still, Daunte is a huge upgrade over anything that has stood in the pocket for the Dolphins for some time now and his presence should pay immediate dividends.

Along with a solid running back and quarterback, the Dolphins have a legitimate All-Pro receiver in Chris Chambers and a still good, one-time star at number two receiver in former Chicago Bear Marty Booker. The offensive potential, combined with a steadily improving Nick Saban defense that yielded twenty points per game last season, should spell double trouble for the conservative Steelers on opening night of the 2006 NFL season.

Prediction: Dolphins 23 over Steelers 16

Up Next: What we care about--more Vikings' talk.

Vikings Leading Candidate to Land George

Yes, it's a teaser, the Vikings do not currently have any plans to sign free-agent quarterback Jeff George. The point, however, was not to lure readers in under a false pretense. Rather, the point was to highlight one of the rituals of free agency that recently has risen to absurd heights in the land of 10,000 lakes.

While the line about the Vikings being the leading candidate to land George is ludicrous it is only slightly more ludicrous than those offered up by the agent for recently released wide receiver Quincy Morgan.

Unprompted, Morgan's agent offered two delicious, if utterly fallacious statements to the local press. The first comment was that the Vikings were the leading candidate to sign Morgan. That not only presumes that the Vikings have an interest in Morgan--which they purportedly do for some reason--but also that someone else has an interest in Morgan. The latter presumption is a bit hard to swallow given Morgan's lackluster recent performance and the general lack of need around the league for a number seven receiver with some baggage.

Morgan's agent also stated that Morgan would solve Minnesota's search for a kick/punt returner. The evidence supporting that contention is nowhere to be found, but that didn't stop Morgan's agent from making the claim. Nor did it stop the locals from queing up already for Morgan jerseys. Sigh.

More Receiver Curiousity

When the Vikings inked former Eagles' wide receiver Todd Pinkston to a deal last week, Vikings fans initially responded with a collective yawn. After awaking from their slumber, however, they undoubtedly began to wonder--and wonder quite seriously--about the state of the Vikings' receiving corps.

For the past two seasons, Vikings' fans have been told that the Vikings' receiving corps was set. While the meaning of the term "set" has not yet been properly conveyed from the team to the fans, the best guess is that by "set" the Vikings' coaching staff meant that the Vikings had what they needed to compete in the NFL at the wide receiver position.

Some fans wondered aloud last year whether the Vikings actually did have the necessary receiving corps to both stretch the field and maintain ball control. That was after the Vikings had parted with Randy Moss for a bag of beans, but before fans had the benefit of seeing what the Vikings actually had--or did not have--in purported field stretcher, aka big bean, Troy Williamson.

Again this season, Vikings' coaches contended that the Vikings' receiving corps was set. That was after the Vikings lost disappointing Nate Burleson to a ludicrously high bid from the Seattle Seahawks, but before the team lost Koren Robinson.

The math thus suggested that, despite losing their number one and number two receiver from the 2004 season--with, as yet, no noticeable replacement having arisen--the Vikings' believed that they had a full stable of receivers heading into 2006. Robinson would be the stretcher and Wiggins and Taylor would keep the chains moving.

Assuming that Robinson was the Vikings' number one receiver--a contention that the Vikings have denied since KoRo arrived in Minnesota--the Vikings' coaching staff can be forgiven if they found the need to upgrade the receiving corps after Robinson's dismissal.

What is mystifying, however, are the Vikings' recent wide receiver moves. The addition of Morgan, should that come to fruition, is meaningful only if one substitutes Morgan's agent's opinion of his client for the actual on-field performance history of Morgan. Because only a delusional flight of fancy can change the fact that Morgan is neither a deep threat nor a punt/kick returner.

Even more mystifying is the evolving Pinkston affair. When the Vikings signed Pinkston, they said that they were looking to sign a player who could stretch the field and keep defenses from pinching up. In his hay day--if he had one--Pinkston was not that receiver. He certainly is not today. Yet the Vikings' front office claimed that he was and is just such a weapon.

What's odd, however, is that not even Pinkston believes that he can stretch the field. Interviewed yesterday, Pinkston said that he was "here to contribute" and that he was "not here to be the deep threat."

That we knew. One wonders if the Vikings' brass understands that yet.

Vikings' fans hoping for some field-stretching ability will have to content themselves with the possibility that the newly installed West Coast offense will produce more slants and quick hits that will prove more frustrating to cover than the garden variety post and fade routes. Because, unless Williamson shows something that he has yet to show, the Vikings do not have a legitimate deep threat on their roster.

That's not meant to suggest that the Vikings will not have a very capable passing game. In fact, quite the contrary. Under Tice, the Vikings were so enamored with the deep ball that it seemed that it was attempted every other play. The more tempered short passing game offered under Childress should not only prove more sustainable, but should actually have the ironic consequence of opening up the deep game.

If only the Vikings had a deep threat.

Up Next: Additions and losses. Plus, who's still out there?

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Pinkston Decision Curious Even for Former Eagles' Coach

On Friday, the Vikings made a move purportedly intended to bolster their receiving corps when they signed disgruntled, former Philadelphia Eagles' wide receiver Todd Pinkston. Even for a coaching staff quickly and assuredly establishing itself as one more likely to gamble on a former underling than on some other, possibly more polished or skilled player, the move was curious in several respects.

At first blush, the Vikings' signing of Pinkston is strange because it comes on the heals of the Eagles' determination that Pinkston was no longer healthy enough to play in the NFL. The Eagles, already strapped for receivers wanted very badly to believe that Pinkston had returned to his pre-injury serviceable receiver form. This week, they determined that he had not.

On Friday, Vikings' doctors cleared Pinkston. The trouble, of course, is that the Vikings had no opportunity to watch Pinkston play in a game. Even now, new Vikings' personnel man, Rick Spielman--a story for another day--is laying the ground work for his response to any fallout if and when the Vikings decide that Pinkston really is not ready to go.

In addition to Pinkston's injury, there is the curious issue about why, precisely, the Vikings signed Pinkston. The general suggestion throughout mainstream media upon the Vikings' signing of Pinkston was that the Vikings were in need of receivers. That, to a degree, is true given that the Vikings have no bona fide number one receiver currently on their roster. But that fails to explain the signing of a bona fide number three or four receiver, as is Pinkston.

In an attempt to clear up this mystery, Spielman offered an explanation for the signing stating that the Vikings wanted a deep threat to spread the field. That explanation not only added to the mystery of the hobbled Pinkston's signing but further called into question Spielman's credentials as a talent evaluator--a question that has been raised at every stop of his suspect NFL managerial career.

Even if one were to buy that Pinkston has some juice left in the tank, there is little reason to believe that he fits in with Minnesota. He is not particularly tall, fast, or gifted, he has a history of playing below his own talent level, and, to the extent that he does perform, his performance is akin to that of Marcus Robinson--a healthier, more productive version of Pinkston in 2006.

Spielman appears already ready to admit that the Vikings' signing of Pinkston makes little sense as he has hinted that Pinkston's deal is contingent upon not how Pinkston performs in the first few games of the season, but how Pinkston performs in practice next Monday. That doesn't sound like a very significant vote of confidence. And that, added to everything else, makes one wonder why the Vikings even bothered signing Pinkston, particularly if it makes attracting a more legitimate free agent receiver more difficult over this critical free agent weekend.

Up Next: Players available to fill the Vikings' needs at linebacker, cornerback, safety, and receiver.

Friday, September 01, 2006

The Devil You Know

With pre-season winding down, first-year Minnesota Vikings' head coach confronted a stark reality. That reality was that he had made at least one significant personnel error before the season had even begun when he opted to sign Mike McMahon as his backup quarterback.

Not surprisingly, McMahon, who has struggled at every stop of his miraculously long NFL career--save for a two-week period of mild success while with the Detroit Lions--was struggling mightly as the Vikings' backup quarterback in 2006. The struggles reached such heights this pre-season that even the man who had touted McMahon's signing--the man that had been credited with making McMahon who he was while in Philadelphia, had to pull the plug.

The result was the insertion of first-year quarterback Tarvaris Jackson as the number two quarterback. No coach in the NFL, not even a rookie coach, is foolish enough to rest their season's fortunes on the play of a rookie quarterback, particularly in the wake of Chicago's failed 2005 experiment with Kyle Orton.

Realizing the need for a backup quarterback with some experience, Childress thus went to work locating a veteran backup. The result was Thursday's signing of former New York Jets' backup quarterback Brooks Bollinger.

The Vikings' signing of Bollinger should come as no surprise--except, perhaps, to Michael Bennett fans--as Bollinger hails from the same school as Vikings' offensive coordinator Darrell Bevill. As the Vikings tell the story, the familiarity that Bevill has with Bollinger should breed both comfort and a smooth transition to Bollinger should Brad Johnson sustain an injury in 2006 and Bollinger's services be needed.

Others might question whether the signing was more a matter of convenience owing to familiarity and, if so, whether the signing improves the Vikings in any discernible fashion.

Fortunately, the NFL offers some reasonably realiable measures for weighing the relative value of quarterbacks. And, as the statistics suggest, the Vikings probably went with the player that they knew for the sake of knowing that player, while also picking up a reasonably good backup--even if by mere good fortune.

The Search

When the Vikings realized that they could not enter the season with a rookie as backup to Johnson, they immediately turned to A.J. Feely--another of Childress' "prodigies." The logic was that Feely knew the basics of Childress' offensive system, having played in Philadelphia when Chidress was offensive coordinator for Andy Reid, and that Feely's signing would not create an untenable situation of having a number two quarterback with a higher base contract than that held by the current number one quarterback.

But Feely, a never-really-has-been in the NFL, balked at the Vikings' offer. That left the Vikings with few options that fit their criteria of finding a quarterback both willing to sign for less than Johnson currently makes under his number-two-quarterback contract and a quarterback that had played for either Childress or Bevill.

Bollinger was the one exception. The Vikings' jumped when Bollinger became available and, it appears, the Vikings got lucky. And that might be better than being smart.

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. (compare to Brooks and others).

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.

That, before the season began, the Vikings corrected a glaring error in judgment regarding their quarterback situation already places Childress in better stead than was situated his predecessor. Of course, if he'd figured out a way to get through his own issues with a semi-belligerent, already-under-contract-on-the-cheap-recovering quarterback, none of this would have been necessary. But it was, and the result was better than could have been expected in recent seasons. And for that, at least, Vikings' fans can be grateful.

Up Next: Comings and Goings. Questionable Signing, Questionable Cut, and Many Options for Additions.