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?
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