Monday, December 11, 2006

Lion Meat Only Marginally Tasty

For the tenth time in ten games, the Minnesota Vikings defeated the NFL's model of futility on Sunday, handing the Detroit Lions a 30-20 set-back. The defeat, the Lions' eleventh in thirteen games, virtually ensures Matt Millen's Lions the opportunity to blow yet another top-three draft pick on an overrated offensive player, while the victory keeps alive the Vikings' narrow playoff prospects.

Despite the victory, however, there was much to shake one's head about in the Vikings' performance. Some of the concern pertains to what the Vikings failed to do against one of the league's true bottom feeders. The rest, unfortunately, revealed itself even in the team's Sunday successes.

The Vikings took the opening drive down the field and quickly into the red zone on the strength of the running game and the short pass. Once in the red zone, however, Vikings' head coach and ostensible offensive coordinator Brad Childress reverted to form, calling even more conservative plays on the shortened field than he had called earlier in the drive.

After an incomplete Brad Johnson dump-off pass to tight end Jeff Dugan--for whom, unlike Jermaine Wiggins, there apparently exists a semblance of a role in the Vikings' mundane offense, a Ciatrick Fason run up the gut, and a dump-off pass to Mewelde Moore left the Vikings with a fourth and one from the Lions' nine-yard-line, it appeared that the Vikings would settle for yet another opening drive field goal attempt.

As in the first two games of the season, however, Childress elected to gamble a bit, calling upon Artois Pinner to pick up the necessary yardage for the first down. Pinner obliged, Childress looked like a seasoned play caller for a play, and the Vikings proceeded to convert the first down into a touchdown two plays later.

Fortunately for the Vikings, Childress' decision to go for the first down on fourth and one on the opening drive was the last decision that Childress had to make during the game. Because after that call, Childress went into prevent offense mode, handing the ball off on virtually every first- and second-down play and resorting to the dump-off pass with which the Vikings' offense has become synonymous for third-down plays needing six yards or more--ever careful to ensure that the play called was for a dump-off of two yards or less and never throwing beyond the sticks.

Childress' automatic pilot mode was enough to ensure a Vikings' victory for several reasons. First, there was the fact that the Vikings were facing an opponent that had surrendered an average of 159 yards rushing to its opponents since losing defensive stalwart Shaun Rogers for the season. That played nicely into Childress' never-changing offensive philosophy of running the ball no matter the odds, no matter the competition, no matter the circumstances. The Lions' porous defensive line made Pinner, cut by the Lions in the pre-season and a non-factor on the season for the Vikings, look like the Vikings under former head coach Mike Tice routinely made opposing quarterbacks look--dominating.

The Lions aided Childress in other ways, as well, dropping passes, committing turnovers on seemingly every possession, and refusing to take the Vikings' offer to climb back into the game despite a golden opportunity to do so.

All of which suggests that, before the Vikings get to proud of their accomplishment on Sunday--before Childress lauds his ability to "make adjustments" to the offensive play-calling--it is worth considering the opponent.

It is also worth considering what might have been had the Vikings been playing a team other than the Lions--as they will the remaining three games of the season. The Vikings continued to surrender ground in the passing game, particular in front of cornerback Fred Smoot, Brad Johnson made another horrible decision throwing a weak pass into the flat, and Childress continued to make weak passes into the flat vulnerable to the pick by calling nothing but short passing plays.

The latter point bears further comment as it ostensibly could derail both the Vikings' 2006 playoff hopes and Childress' career as a head coach. At some point, the light bulb simply must go on and Childress must recognize that, while the dump-off pass has a role in any good offense, it need not--and ought not--be the staple of any offense.

The reason should be self-evident. But for those needing actual evidence of the harm caused to an offense by running a dump-off exclusive passing game, the Vikings' past two games provide ample case studies. In both games, the opposing defense routinely stacked nine defenders in the box, leaving only two defenders to cover beyond ten yards in the secondary.

The logic is simple for opposing defensive coordinators. If the Vikings refuse to pass beyond five yards, there's little point in defending ground beyond that five-yard territory. And there's much to be gained by stacking the box and taking a chance at jumping a pass play on occassion. That's what the Bears did last week and what the Lions did this week. And it bore fruit for both teams.

Against better competition--i.e., against the rest of their schedule--Childress will have to show an offensive competence that he has shown only in rare glimpses this season. That might be like asking a zebra to change its stripes. But, at this point in the season, there's little point in playing things close to the vest with every game requiring a Vikings' victory for the Vikings to have a chance to make the playoffs. And, despite Zygi's assurances to the contrary, a change in modus operandi might even be a pre-requisite for Childress to retain his current position.

Up Next: More post-game. Plus, comparing receiving corps--some surprising numbers?


Vegan Viking said...

Now for my token weekly defense of Childress.

The Vikes are 14 for 19 on fourth down, leading the league in both categories. Childress has made more gutsy calls than you credit him with.

How are the Vikings supposed to call anything BUT short passes when the QB is gimp-armed Brad Johnson? If Childress should be blamed for anything, it should be going into the season with no better option than Johnson, then sticking with Johnson throughout the season.

Anonymous said...

You act as if when Johnson dumps a 3rd and long pass off to the check-down that the play is designed to throw to the check-down. It's not like Childress is calling plays that mandate Johnson throw a pass that nets less yardage than is required for a first down. The problem lies in a combination of an inferior receiving corps' inability to run routes effectively and Johnson's lack of arm strength. Even though Bollinger and Jackson's PT is not a sufficient sample to gauge anything from, I don't think it is coincidence that we moved the bsll downfield through the air much better with them than we ever have with Johnson. It's implausible to believe that Childress simply called better plays when they were in the game. Bollinger and Jackson had the arm strength that allowed them to take the chances that Johnson will not ever think about taking.


Vikes Geek said...

I suspect that, as weak as Johnson's arm is, he has the wherewithall to muster some zip for a ten-yard pass every now and then. Also, unless Johnson is also checking out of pass plays on first and second down, no matter on whom you place the blame for the short passing game--I'll stick primarily with Childress, Childress continues to call predominantly routine running plays on first and second down. That's as conservative as it gets in the NFL and it simply does not bode well for any offense against better competition than the Vikings faced on Sunday.

I'll have more on the Vikings' receiving corps in the next column.