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.

5 comments:

Lichty said...

Wow, this is what its like to have a real coach.

Due to the NFL's pact with the devil (direct TV) I cannot get the games every sunday but it seems as if the offense moved the ball reasonably well until the 5 yard line. Is that accurate?

Special teams play has been a real nice surprise so far too. Another sign of a coach's preparation and attention to detail.

Even had Childress lost both those games, he excudes a calm and confidence that we have not seen since maybe Bud Grant. I was skeptical, but he has won me over so far.

Oh, and I love the stache!

PJW said...

One man's devil is another man's god. I have been a Vikes fan since the 60's and being in Oregon was lucky to see 3 regular season games a year. With directv I've seen them all the last 10 years or so.

Get a dish, point it south, and be happy my friend.

Lichty said...

Get a dish, point it south, and be happy my friend.

I should clarify my comment. I have comcast and I am able to get Major League Baseball package, NHL package, College Football package and even the NBA package should I care to pay for such boredom, but Direct TV has an exclusive with NFL which means I would have to buy a dish, direct tv service just to watch the NFL games (I wish I had the money to justify that), so if they would just be like the other sports and make the NFL ticket available on digital cable I would buy it. Now I just have to curse the exclusive deal.

PJW said...

lichy,

I traveled that road. I use to have directv and comcast just to get local channels on cable. (the local channel that carried NFC games wouldn't make a reasonable deal with directv pre-directicket.) I love comcast for an internet isp but cancelled my tv service and have never regretted it. Cost is about the same and satelite may have more channels including all the sports packages. They use your existing cable wiring so the switch is easy, unless you are in an apartment complex that won't allow it. Wouldn't hurt for you to take a look, I recommend it. (I own bars in the Portland area and use it in the businesses also)

pa viking said...

VG, I agree with your points. I know it's been said before, but we would've lost both our games if ol' pencil ear was still around.

I can't wait for the direct tv deal to end. Does anyone know when that glorious day is?