Monday, December 25, 2006

It Depends on What Your Definition of "Is" Is

After posting 27 passing yards and 104 total yards of offense with zero points against a Green Bay team that had allowed 340 yards of offense and a league worst 26 points per game, Minnesota Vikings' head coach Brad Childress revealed one of this nation's best kept secrets.

"This is a kick-ass offense," the coach charged, causing virtually all within earshot to choose between vomiting and applying a vice grip to their sides to keep them intact.

When discussing Childress' offense in Minnesota, several things come to mind--dysfunctional, plodding, bankrupt, mind-numbing, to name a few. What does not enter the mind is that Childress' offense is "kick-ass." Unless, of course, what Childress means when he says that the Vikings' offense "is" a kick-ass offense is that the Vikings' offense "is not" kick-ass.

Throughout the 2006 season, Childress increasingly has intimated that his offense--whatever that really is--is not well-suited for the personnel that the Vikings' have. Actually, what Childress has intimated, and is now outright contending, is that the personnel at his avail is not a good fit for his offense.

The distinction, at least to Childress, is relevant and significant. By contending that the personnel is ill-suited to running his offense, Childress is attempting to shift the blame for his failures to his players. That's not new for Childress who has employed similar blame-shifting exercises throughout the season, routinely throwing his players and coaches under the bus and then pretending to accept the blame for the team's struggles.

But when the comical routine continues even after all is lost for the season, the doubt increases about whether Childress is capable of correcting, or even recognizing the short-comings of his system.

Heading into the off-season before the 2006 season is officially over, the Vikings have several decisions to make. And the decisions that are made will shape the team for the long-term and determine whether, in 2007, Childress has the players he needs to make his system work or the Vikings are again searching for the coach that can lead them back to the Super Bowl after a three-decade absence.

With his Thursday decision to start at quarterback a rookie not yet ready to win a meaningful game--despite Childress' contentions to the contrary, to his decision not to utilize several offensive players that have contributed in Minnesota and elsewhere prior to Childress' arrival in Minnesota, it is difficult to gauge where the Vikings are headed in 2007 with respect to personnel.

Here's a look at some of the names that the Vikings will be reviewing in the off-season:

After signing a very generous contract for what is essentially a blocking tight end, Jim Kleinsasser, already off most radar screens, fell off the face of the Earth under Childress. Kleinsasser fell so far out of view that nobody even mentioned his name after the first few games of the season.

With a large contract (5 years, $15 million, $5 million in bonus) signed in 2004, and a minimal contribution in the best of times, Kleinsasser's days clearly are over in Minnesota. Minnesota will eat a couple million of Kleinsasser's bonus by releasing him this year, but they will off-set that hit by saving about $3 million in cap. Odds of returning: zero.

Despite some decent numbers, quarterback Brad Johnson had more than a 2:1 interception to touchdown ratio in 2006. Some of the blame is attributable to a porous and overpaid offensive line. Some of the blame is attributable to an offense that routinely features short running plays on first- and second-down leaving the team in third and long on a regular basis. And some of the blame falls on a receiving corps led, at Childress' behest, by a second-year receiver, Troy Williamson, who is in the NFL only by the grace of a workout obsessed drafting team and by virtue of the fact that NFL teams are loathe to admit first-round mistakes.

But some of the blame for Johnson's failings in 2006 clearly rest with Johnson. Too often, particularly late in the season, Johnson threw the ball up for grabs in situations calling for patience (again, as was the case on two late-game, drive-killing passes, some of the blame for this falls on Childress). And too often, Johnson opted for the short pass rather than attempting a longer pass for the first down.

Johnson has never had a particularly strong arm, but it has never mattered so much in the past. This year, with all the other maladies that afflicted the Vikings' offense, arm strength was a must. There's no reason to suspect that will change next year. After getting benched against Green Bay in favor of a green rookie, the handwriting on the wall has become a blare. Despite being under contract for two more seasons, Johnson's low signing bonus (1.2 over four years) makes cutting him a non-issue in cap terms. Odds of returning: zero.

One year and change after signing a five-year deal and leading the team in receptions over a two-year stretch (139 receptions in 2004-2005), tight end Jermaine Wiggins has been a virtual non-entity in 2006 with a mere 44 receptions. Rarely did the Vikings throw to Wiggins and, when they did call his number, it usually was on one of Childress' patented one-yard routes.

Wiggins has no speed, but does possess some of the better hands in the NFL for a tight end. Unfortunately for Wiggins, Childress seems much more enamored with another tight end, Jeff Dugan, whom the team recently signed to a long-term deal for just a bit less than Wiggins is slated to earn next year and for much less than Kleinsasser would earn in 2007. With Tony Richardson out with an injury, Dugan filled in as both blocking fullback and tight end. With a mere five receptions all season, Dugan's signing ought not be viewed as a threat to Wiggins' tenure with Minnesota, however, and as more of a sign that Kleinsasser is already gone.

There's no sign that Wiggins cannot continue to be a productive NFL receiver, if given the opportunity. But there's also no sign that Childress has any interest in using Wiggins in the passing game, despite Childress' contention that the Vikings lack receivers. Wiggins' long contract would help his cause were this the NBA or MLB. But the low cap hit and non-guaranteed contract make Wiggins expendable, if not because of his talent then because of his contract. Odds of returning: 1 in 2.

At receiver, virtually everyone is a question mark. Marcus Robinson, who led the team in receiving touchdowns in 2006 with a mere four TDs, has been inactive the past two weeks. Childress maintains that Robinson has been inactive because of a hip flexor. Robinson says he is fine, however, and has "no comment" regarding the suspicion that he simply is in Childress' doghouse.

Robinson has not been great for Minnesota, but he has been serviceable in the red zone and he's been better than the alternatives--at least the alternatives that Childress has tried. Whether Robinson returns is almost certainly already decided. The question remaining is whether what replaces him will represent an upgrade. Odds of returning: 1 in 100.

Like Robinson, Travis Taylor has been in and out of Childress' doghouse. Unlike Robinson, however, Taylor's predicament is almost entirely a function of his poor on-field performance. From game-turning penalties to dropped passes, Taylor has not lived up to his billing as a proficient, ball-control receiver. Though it's difficult to know how much of Taylor's futility is atributable to Johnson's checkdowns and Childress' short-of-the-chains passing philosophy, Taylor's miscues have not helped his cause. Whether he returns will be determined more by what the alternatives are than any production that he has offered since arriving in Minnesota. With his 52 receptions and 597 yards both team-leading figures, and a soft to dead free-agent market for wide receivers, it will be difficult for the Vikings to let go of the cap-friendly Taylor. Odds of returning: three in four.

The final member of the Vikings' starting trio of wide receivers in 2006, Troy Williamson, is both the worst receiver on the Vikings' roster and the receiver most likely to remain with the team in 2007. Despite an improbable one-to-one ratio (37:37) of receptions to dropped passes for the season, Williamson has breathed new life into the term "wasted high draft pick."

As the number seven pick in the 2006 NFL entry draft, Williamson is virtually assured of hanging on through the end of 2007. Williamson also has the added advantage of having a cap onerous contract. With nearly $16 million in guaranteed money on a five-year deal, cutting Williamson would cost the Vikings approximately $7 million in cap space in 2007. Even for a team with considerable cap space next year, that's a big hit. And that likely means at least one more season of waiting for something that probably will not happen. Odds of returning: ninety-percent.

With Matt Birk, Steve Hutchinson, and Bryant McKinnie all inked to long-term deals with cap-onerous bonuses, and with the play of the left-side of the offensive line relative stable, the Vikings will enter 2007 focusing on the right side of the offensive line. With yet another dismal season, Mike Rosenthal almost surely is on his way out. If Childress were honest in his assessment, Artis Hicks and Marcus Johnson would be close on Rosenthal's exiting heals. Because Childress brought in the much-penalized Hicks and committed to Johnson, however, he might stick with both just out of stubborness. That would be unfortunate for Minnesota which desperately needs a measure of respectable play from the right side of the line.

Hicks has been nothing short of brutal and Johnson has been worse. Big young players get second, third, and fourth chances. Big, old players just cut cut. Odds of Hicks returning: 1 in 4. Odds of Johnson returning: 4 in 5. Odds of Rosenthal returning: 1 in 100.

At running back, Chester Taylor appears entrenched as the starter. Despite blocking issues and a telegraphed offensive script, Taylor managed to rush for 1136 yards on 276 carries in 14 games in 2006. With improved blocking, and a return to health, those numbers should improve. With a four-year, $14 million contract and only $5.6 million in guaranteed money, Taylor is not only a solid player, but also a solid cap player. Odds of returning: 1 in 1.

More of a question mark are the status of backup running backs Mewelde Moore and Ciatrick Fason. Fason has rushed for 161 yards on 50 carries in two seasons with Minnesota. Though he often gets the ball in tougher red zone situations, Childress did give Fason a two-game audition in 2006, with mixed results. With a low cap hit whether they keep Fason or release him, the Vikings can go either way with Fason. The determinative factor probably will be whether the team picks a back early in the draft--a near-certain death knell for Fason. Odds of returning: 2 in 5.

While Fason has had mixed reviews, Moore has mostly done well when allowed to play. That's led many to wonder aloud why Childress has not used Moore more extensively. Childress has called it a "numbers" thing. But the numbers don't bear out this contention.

Moore has a mere 121 rushing yards on 23 carries in 2006, but boasts an impressive 401 receiving yards on 41 receptions. The numbers indicate a player the likes of which Childress contends the Vikings need. Why didn't Childress use Moore more often in 2006? Nobody seems to have the answer. And that makes one wonder about the longevity of Moore in a Vikings' uniform.

With a cap-friendly contract (four-year deal with a paltry $400,000 bonus) the Vikings can keep or cut Moore without cap concerns. As with Fason, the question will be whether the Vikings find an off-season replacement for Moore. Moore seems like the prototype for Childress' offense. But having others tell him that when he appears non-cognizant of that fact probably will only widen the mysterious chasm between Moore and Childress. Odds of returning: 3 in 4.

The final offensive players of significance are quarterbacks Brooks Bollinger and Tarvaris Jackson. Bollinger has respectable numbers after nearly a full season at the helm of the N.Y. Jets. But, despite a respectable showing in garbage time near the end of the 2006 season, Bollinger had little opportunity with Minnesota. And, judging from Childress' comments, that's unlikely to change in the future. Bollinger has a minimal contract through 2008 that makes him both retainable and expendable. The Vikings currently have no backup plan, making Bollinger safe for now. Odds of returning: 4 in 5.

While there is almost no question but that Jackson will return, the real question is whether he will open the season as the starting quarterback. With a strong arm and decent speed, Jackson could be the Vikings' quarterback of the future. Telegraphed passes, a fidgety release point, and scary interviews, however, make one wonder not only about Jackson's status in 2007 but about his long-term prospects. For fans critical of the play of Daunte and Brad, Jackson still has a long way to go to meet even those standards. Odds of returning: 1 in 1. Odds of starting: 3 in 4.

Up Next: The Defense. Plus, playmakers for the 2007 team.

1 comment:

Lichty said...

Childress' patented one-yard routes

Clearly, you fail to appreciate the kick-assedness of a perfectly executed one-yard pass on 3rd and 9.