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?