Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Chicken Or Egg?

There's no denying that Minnesota Vikings' quarterback Brad Johnson has had a tough year at the helm of a struggling offense. With a mere eight touchdown passes to fifteen interceptions, Johnson's scoring production has mirrored the team's offensive futility.

For some, Johnson's TD to INT ratio fully explains the Vikings' scoring problems. Others have suggested, however, that Johnson's futility is largely the product of an inferior receiving corps. Still others insist that both Johnson's futility and the lack of production by the receiving corps are a by-product of head coach Brad Childress' conservative play-calling. Which is it?

To determine where the blame lies for the Vikings' offensive struggles this season--and to assess how best to address the problem in the off-season--it is helpful to draw some comparisons between the 2006 Vikings and other teams and between the 2006 Vikings and the 2005 Vikings.

League Comparisons

Most Vikings' fans undoubtedly would be shocked to discover that Brad Johnson has attempted more passes this season (421) than has Cincinnati Bengals' quarterback Carson Palmer (414) and that Johnson has attempted only thirty-six fewer passes this season than has Indianapolis Colts' quarterback Peyton Manning (457). Nearly equally as surprising is that Johnson ranks twelfth in the league in passing yardage (2642) and fourteenth in completion percentage (61.5).

Johnson's yardage total and completion percentage rankings, however, don't tell the entire story. Equally important are the decisions that Johnson has made at critical junctures in games. Johnson's 15 interceptions rank him near the top of this futility category with only four quarterbacks faring worse.

Johnson's production, combined with his interceptions and a fairly high sack total (26) suggest how it is possible for the Vikings to rank sixteenth in passing yardage, eleventh in rushing yardage, but only twenty-second in scoring. And the blame for the Vikings' offensive failures begins to take shape.

But Johnson is only part of the picture. For, despite his high futility ranking for interceptions--Johnson's greatest statistical liability this season--Johnson has thrown only six more interceptions than has Peyton Manning and only four more than has Carson Palmer. That's still a significant difference, but not so significant so as to explain all, or even necessarily the bulk of the Vikings' offensive futility.

Without question, the Vikings' receiving corps deserves some of the blame for the Vikings' scoring difficulties this season as Vikings' receivers have had a number of critical dropped passes throughout the season. From Troy Williamson's (unofficially) league-leading 32 dropped passes, to Marcus Robinson's absence and inability to lay out for balls when he is present, to Travis Taylor's seemingly benign route-running, to the utter lack of speed on the wing, the Vikings receiving corps of 2006 will never be confused with the arial arsenal that the team had at its avail in 1998.

Despite the failures, however, the receiving corps has hauled in enough passes to rank the Vikings twelfth overall in receiving yardage. That's not the first-place position to which Vikings' fans have become accustomed to seeing their team contend in the past, but it's better than average.

While Johnson's picks and problems with the receiving corps thus help explain why the Vikings have had difficulty scoring this season, they do not offer a full explanation. While factors such as weather conditions, field position, and turnover ratio are significant determinants of team scoring in the NFL, the Vikings fare favorably in each of these categories having played all but one of their games either in nice weather or inside, ranking among the league leaders in starting field position for the season, and ranking in the middle of the pack with a -1 turnover ratio.

If all one knew were the statistics mentioned above, the Vikings' scoring frustrations might be understandable. But surely someone would wonder. Someone inevitably would ask the question. Someone would want to know how the Vikings get their yards in different circumstances. Someone would want to know who calls what plays under what circumstances.

Brad Childress has called his offensive philosophy conservative. That's both an exaggeration and an understatement. For, despite the Vikings' mix of the pass and run, despite Johnson's relative success throwing the ball, the Vikings' still rely predominantly on a short dump-off passing system in most situations and more predominantly on the run--particularly in the red zone.

Last week's game against Detroit offers a microcosm of Childress' season-long conservative approach on all but the rarest of occasions. On each of their first three drives, the Vikings reached the red zone. From the twenty-yard-line in, the Vikings ran nine plays, combined, in those three drives. In the first, they ran five plays--two short passes, one run up the middle, and two runs left. On the second, they ran left on their only play. On the third, they ran three plays--a run up the middle, a short pass, and a run right.

Childress undoubtedly will defend his decision not to throw one pass into the end zone on any of the Vikings' first three drives by pointing to the results--three drives, three touchdowns. But that confuses the issue for Childress has been equally as conservative in his play-calling in the red zone in virtually every game this season. And the Detroit game not only highlights this but suggests why that is a problem going forward and why, despite contentions to the contrary, Childress' conservative ball is actually high risk ball in the long run.

After forcing a Jon Kitna fumble in the red zone in the third quarter, the Vikings were in position to turn a close game into a blowout. A field goal virtually was assured starting at the Lions' 18-yard-line, but now was the time to go for the jugular. Instead, Childress played it conservative. After running Artose Pinner right for a loss of one yard, the Vikings dumped the ball off to Pinner over the middle. Facing a third and four, the Vikings called a quick hit to Mewelde Moore, well short of the first down even if it had been completed.

The result on the drive was two-fold. First, Childress' conservative approach ensured the Vikings of a field-goal attempt, which they converted. Second, the approach made clear to Detroit's defenders that, even with an opportunity to blow the game open, the Vikings were going to stick with the small ball approach and refrain from testing Detroit's suspect secondary.

Early in the fourth quarter, the Lions finally seized upon this realization, overplaying the flat. The result was a pick for a TD on a poorly thrown Johnson pass.

2006 Versus 2005

If the Vikings hope to improve their offense this year or beyond, they clearly need better decision-making from Johnson whose performances have cost the Vikings dearly in at least three games this season. The Vikings will also need better production from a receiving corps that too-often appears disinterested in running proper routes and/or incapable of making the reception if and when the ball is placed on target.

But even with better decision-making from the quarterback position and better play-making from the receiving corps, the Vikings will continue to have difficulty scoring if Childress persists in his refusal to challenge the opponents' secondary and linebacking corps.

In 2005, with a far more suspect offensive line, the same quarterback, and a similar receiving corps, the Vikings averaged just over nineteen points per game almost entirely on the strength of the offense.

In 2006, the Vikings are averaging just over eighteen points per game but with just over six points per game directly attributable to the defense or special teams. The differential of over seven points per game from 2005 to 2006, considering the moves that the Vikings made in the off-season, strongly points to play-calling philosophy as being a hindrance rather than an asset to the Vikings' scoring production in 2006. And it is that philosophy which will need to modify if the Vikings hope to change their scoring fortunes in the future--regardless of personnel changes.

Up Next: Playoff Bound?

6 comments:

Vegan Viking said...

Can you assume that BJ in 2005 is the same QB as BJ in 2006? Sometimes the old QBs fizzle quickly, and the difference bewteen 37 year old BJ and 38 year old BJ looks noticeable to me. There is just no zip on the short passes, and no accuracy on the long passes.

Vikes Geek said...

Pacifist,

It's difficult to defend BJ's play this season. He's been pretty bad in the clutch. But, as I noted, his numbers are not as bad as one would suspect. There clearly is plenty of blame to go around here. The key will be for all culpable parties to acknowledge their share of the blame and for the team to correct the extant mistakes.

VG

Anonymous said...

Vikes Geek, I again agree with pacifist viking. I don't believe the play calling has been as horrific as you suggest week after week. I think we have a QB that just can't zip the ball in there anymore.

I also can't fault Childress for going with Johnson. He certainly was the best available option at the time.

PJW said...

If you look at the game log from the first game of the season against Washington, you will not believe it is the same play caller. The Vikes passed deep 11 times during the game.

It appears that as the schedule moved on Childress was somewhat forced to use the gameplan he employs now. Poor route running, dropped balls, no velocity on short or accuracy on long passes coupled with the o-lines maturing ability to excel in run blocking pretty much leaves no other option than to play the "field position" game.

I wonder though if Childress refuses to stretch the field or if Johnson has lost all confidence in his ability to throw a good pass longer than 8 yards.

In my opinion, Childress might have been better served to pull Johnson during or after the Packer game in an attempt to back up opposing defenses and maybe even score some points.

It's a damned if you do or don't situation now and he most likely won't pull the trigger while in the playoff picture unless there is a repeat performance like the Bears game.

If Johnson has lost all confidence, a change needs to be made now to energized this team. I don't think Childress will travel that road and will rely on a strong defense and running game to take this team as far as possible in the cold of winter.

Vikes Geek said...

PFW,

Whether Johnson has lost confidence is a good question. Clearly, he has eschewed the deeper pass in favor of the dump-off in situations in which it was evident that the deeper pass was open. What nags me, however, is not just the pass plays but the predictable running plays on first and second down and nearly always to the same two slots with virtually no draw plays or any hint of misdirection. That, combined with the dump-off exclusive passing game, suggests Childress has a very heavy hand in what play is actually run, not just in what play is called.

As for who should start at quarterback for the rest of 2006, with Bollinger out there is no question that Johnson must start. Jackson is nowhere near ready to start in the NFL. But what will the Vikings do in the off-season? Vikings' fans who consider Jackson the 2007 starter will be thoroughly frustrated if that comes to fruition. By his own admission, and otherwise by common sense, Jackson is a good year away from being ready to start in the NFL. That means the Vikings need a starter for next year. And it probably will not be Johnson.

VG

Anonymous said...

BJ in 05 started strong out of the gate, then noticeably lost both arm strength and accuracy with every game. He was and is too old to recover from the rigors of game day in one week. He needs to be a backup.

As far as the running plays, maybe Childress knows what he's doing. In effect he's challenged the line. We are going to be a team that can run when we want, where we want. No tricks. Just smash mouth stop-us-if-you-can football. There are signs it's beginning to pay off, although I'm sure he expected good results sooner, and certainly had hoped the young M.Johnson would be part of the success. I think we win the second Bears game if we eschew the pass and simply run it down their throats in the second half.