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.