Friday, November 24, 2006

Vikings' Quarterback No Match for Childress' Scheme and Team's Offensive, Offensive Line

At the beginning of the season, the Vikings faced an ugly conundrum. The problem was how the team could craft a three-deep quarterback rotation from Brad Johnson, rookie Tarvaris Jackson, and two quarterbacks whom nobody any longer believed capable of performing in the NFL. After considering retaining only two quarterbacks, with Jackson as the backup--an unthinkable move even in the world that is that of Vikings' head coach Brad Childress--the Vikings made their decision. Out were J.T. O'Sullivan and Mike McMahon, in was Brookes Bollinger as backup to starter Brad Johnson.

At the time, the decision to sign Bollinger looked savvy given the dearth of anywhere near proven quarterbacking talent on the free-agent market. As the season began I wrote:

"For all intents and purposes, the Vikings signed Bollinger to take the place of Mike McMahon and J.T. O'Sullivan. During his unremarkable run in the NFL, McMahon has posted some fairly jaundiced numbers, including a 44.5% career completion percentage, a 55.1 career passer rating, and 15 TDs to 21 INTs.

O'Sullivan's stats look gaudy in comparison but only because O'Sullivan has no career stats. That's because, in five NFL seasons, O'Sullivan has yet to throw a single regular- or post-season pass.

Bollinger easily bests both quarterbacks in these categories with 2005 numbers, alone, including 1558 yards passing with a 56.4% completion percentage, a 72.9 passer rating, and 7 TDs to 6 INTs. But, even without the benefit of competing against McMahon and O'Sullivan, Bollinger's numbers look pretty good.

Bollinger is not Elway reincarnated, but he is much more palatable as a 26-year-old backup than are McMahon or O'Sullivan. And that makes his signing, serrindipitous or not, a solid one."

The theory, of course, was that Bollinger would prove capable if Johnson ever became injured. Johnson's relative health has meant that Bollinger has yet to play for the Vikings. But, with Johnson's poor play now the equivalent of playing with an injured quarterback, the time has arrived to test Bollinger's worth to the team.

Bollinger brings two things to the Vikings that neither Johnson nor Jackson can match at this point in their respective careers. Compared to Johnson, Bollinger is a gazelle, able to evade 400 pound linemen the way a 38-year-old Johnson once merely dreamed he could.

And while Bollinger does not possess the speed of the clearly quicker and faster Jackson, he has demonstrated an ability to pass with accuracy in the NFL. Jackson has yet to do that on a consistent basis even in practice, still showing too late of a release and not yet even at the stage of over-compensating by releasing too early. Arm strength is no problem for Jackson, but accuracy is not currently a strength. And with the Vikings' modest receiving corps, that makes the somewhat experienced Bollinger the better fit at this point of the season.

With Bollinger under center, the Vikings would have the luxury of rolling out the quarterback and even sticking with Childress' bizarre fixation with the no shotgun offense. Even a glimmer of foot speed would make the Vikings' offensive line look considerably better, much the way a hint of quarterback mobility would put pressure on opposing teams to play the pass equal to the run.

Jackson, meanwhile, is at least one more full season from being NFL ready. And for Vikings' fans who believe that inserting Jackson now will only facilitate his NFL progression, there are ominous graveyards across the NFL to suggest otherwise. For every Peyton Manning there are players such as Ryan Leaf, Kyle Orton, Cade McKnown, Alex Smith, and even Eli Manning. And consider, as well, that with veterans at several key positions, the Vikings are not exactly in a position to begin re-building around an inexperienced, former I-AA quarterback.

For Childress and this version of the Minnesota Vikings, any extant window of opportunity is fast closing and a change at quarterback, if one is to be made, calls for at least modest experience at the position. If, by this time next year, that solution fails, more wholesale rebuilding likely will be in order. And Vikings' fans will then have the uneviable experience of looking forward to having yet another expansion team win the Super Bowl before they take home the Lombardi Trophy.

Up Next: Arizona Down?

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Well Past Time to Change Shoe

After yet another telling and stale loss attributable to inept offensive playcalling and execution, Minnesota Vikings' head coach Brad Childress was asked whether now was the time to make changes. His response, predictably, was that the offense was just a play or two away from being a very good offense.

Stop me if you've heard that line before.

Better yet, let me stop myself. Not only have Vikings' fans heard that line numerous times over the past five seasons, they have heard that line numerous times this year. And, as we near the conclusion of year five of the Vikings' three-year pledge to return the team to Super Bowl contention, year one of the sorry plan suddenly looks more promising than does the present.

What's worse than the play on the field, however, is the coaching at the helm. Childress' comment that he intended to stand pat with a lineup filled with players that he believes can "get it done," misapprehends the thrust of the question which is whether Chilly intends to change things from either the personnel side or the coaching side to give the Vikings their best opportunity to win.

It's one thing to lose without talent. It's quite another to take a 9-7 team that, in 2005, arguably played a tougher schedule and had less physical talent at key positions and to turn that team into a losing team. That speaks volumes about the coaching. The Vikings are losing not because they do not have the ability to win, but because they are encumbered with an egomaniacal and myopic coach intent on shoving square pegs into smaller round holes and professing ignorance--behind the security of a five-year contract--as to why the endeavor continues to fail.

Childress is intent on running a version of the West Coast offense never before seen--a version that makes the 49er's version of West Coast offense look more like the old Houston Oilers' four-receiver offense or the Don Coryell offenses in San Diego.

Chilly, of course, has a rejoinder, if not a very satisfactory one. Contrary to his pre-season self-congratulations on putting this team together, Childress now contends that some of his players don't fit the system that he is running. Yet, despite this insistance, Chilly insists on running that system rather than modifying the system to meet the personnel at his avail.

It should be no surprise that Chilly is putting the lion's share of the blame for his team's poor performance in his system on his players, a la Glen Mason. After all, that's been his M.O. since the current losing skid began.

Three weeks ago, Brad Johnson was the culprit. Last week, Childress offered up that rookie offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell called a few plays. The insinuation was that those were the critical plays--the plays that cost the Vikings a victory in spite of the genius of Chilly's calls. Childress refused to elaborate, pretending to stand by his coordinator who is too beholden to Childress to be able to note that Childress retains full control over the final playcalling or that Childress continues to call one of three plays--Chester Taylor off tackle left, Johnson two-yard pass right, or duck to opposing safety.

Yesterday, Chilly outdid himself, suggesting that the defense was as culpable in the loss as was the Vikings' pathetic offensive scheme. "Those guys have a few things to improve on as well," Chilly commented, apparently intent on fomenting a division between the offense and defense that he claims does not currently exist.

Ultimately, Chilly might be right about some things. He might be right that he doesn't have the personnel for his system (whatever that is). He might also be right that the offense will improve, especially if his view of what constitutes improvement is the ability to find the endzone from first and goal at the three. And he might be right that the defense, which continues to play far too soft in the passing game, has sizeable room for improvement.

In the final analysis, however, it is utter folly to suggest that this Vikings' team is failing for the reasons that Chilly cites. The team is failing because it continues to lead the league in fewest points per yard gained, because it continues to be among the league leaders in three and outs, because the offense continues to sputter after the opening drive, and because the offensive playcalling does not work. And it's the head coach's job to make it work.

Mike Tice did it with less. Are we to buy that a self-proclaimed offensive guru is unable to do so with more against even lesser comptettition? If so, then surely the end is nigh.

Up Next: A View From India

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Another Day, Same Song?

The Minnesota Vikings travel to Miami this Sunday to take on the Miami Dolphins. Unfortunately for the Vikings, the Dolphins suddenly have discovered the defense that was to have made them contenders in the AFC this season and they've added a dose of reasonably good play from the formerly suspect Joey Harrington for good measure. The result has been two straight victories over two of the NFL's better teams, at Chicago and against Kansas City.

At 4-5, the Vikings need a victory on Sunday to keep alive their suddenly fading playoff prospects. With their recent struggles on offense and on pass defense, that might be too much to ask of Brad Childress' team.

For the season, Miami is averaging 16 points on 319 yards of offense. That's approximately six points below their EPT per game. On defense, the Dolphins are allowing 19 points per game on 277 yards of offense--right at their EPY.

The Vikings, meanwhile, average 16 points per game on 310 yards of offense--approximately six points below their EPT. On defense, the Vikings allow 18 points per game on 292 yards of offense--approximately three points less than their EPY.

The season averages suggest a tight game with the slight edge to Minnesota. But the play of the Dolphins and the Vikings over the past two weeks bodes more ominous for Minnesota.

In week nine, against Chicago, Miami scored 10 points more than its EPT while holding Chicago eight points below its EPT. Last week, Miami's offense faltered against Kansas City, finishing with eight points less than its EPT. The defense, however, remained solid, holding Kansas City to seven points less than its EPT. More impressive was that Miami held Kansas City's formerly formidable offense to a relatviely meager 265 yards.

At it's peak--if there has been such a thing, Minnesota's 2006 offense has struggled to meet its EPT. With an average offensive output of 11 points per 300 yards of offense and facing a team that is playing as well defensively as are the Dolphins, Sunday could be a long day for the Vikings.

The Vikings' one possible avenue of salvation, not surprisingly, appears to be through the defense. Having faced Joey Harrington when he quarterbacked the Lions, the Vikings are familiar with his tendencies and his penchant for throwing the blind-look pass into the flat. If the Vikings can take advantage of Harrington, they might squeeze out a victory. Otherwise, it's time to start thinking about the draft.

Prediction: Until last week, the Vikings always played their best when I picked against them. Last week suggested a new trend, however. Miami 17 over Minnesota 13.

Up Next: Postgame.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Box of Rocks

After the Minnesota Vikings opened the 2006 season with narrow victories over the Washington Redskins and Carolina Panthers, Vikings' fans believed that there was reason for optimism. After all, the team had brought in a new head coach who lauded himself on his commitment to detail and knowledge of the game and the team had defeated two of the consensus, pre-season favorites to challenge for the NFC crown.

In hindsight, those early season squeakers appear to be underachievements. With Clinton Portis in the lineup, Washington has been below average. Without Portis, the team has been hapless. That makes the Vikings' season-opening, low-scoring victory rather unimpressive now.

Similarly, the Panthers have been mediocre offensively with Steve Smith in the lineup and less so without the speedy receiver. With last year's demolition of Vikings' cornerback Fred Smoot still fresh in the mind, it is easy to envision Carolina having scored another touchdown or two against the Vikings' relatively soft pass defense.

Even allowing for the cliche that one takes one's opponents as one finds them, the victories against Washington and Carolina suggested numerous issues for the Vikings. Most notable of these issues were those along the offensive line.

"Just wait." Childress admonished skeptics in his more-knowledgeable-than-thou tone. "The line needs time to gel. And it will gel."

Eleven weeks into a seventeen week regular season, we are still waiting. Waiting for Bryant McKinnie to live up to his billing as an impenetrable pass blocker with sound run-blocking capabilities. Still waiting for Matt Birk to live up to his self-assessed clean bill of health. Still waiting for Marcus Johnson to play beyond the level of a rookie. Still waiting for Artis Hicks to demonstrate why the Vikings traded away a draft choice for him.

And as we wait, head coach Brad Childress continues to plead for patience, as though the line were filled with underpaid rookies instead of overpaid veterans. The question being, of course, what a wait is worth when it pays dividends only when the season is lost?

As Childress begs for the fans' patience for the offensive line to gel, he also pleads for patience for the emergence of an offense. Unfortunately, Childress' has the same approach to correcting the ills of the Vikings' woebegone offense that he has for correcting the ills of the offensive line--tap heals and wish for better.

When asked how the Vikings would fill the team's fullback hole in the aftermath of placing Tony Richardson on IR for the season, Childress scratched his head. "We might have to use Richard Owens back there. We don't really ahve a clear solution. I don't know."

Clearly, Childress does not know. Never mind that Owens rarely plays and probably is ill-suited for the role at this point in the season. All one really needs to know about Chilly's thought process is that he never even mentioned the possibility of using Jim Kleinsasser at fullback--despite the fact that Kleinsasser has played the position, purportedly specializes in blocking, and is one inch shorter and a few pounds heavier than Owens, giving him a lower center of gravity.

The solution at fullback is obvious for the Vikings. It's clearly Kleinsasser. If that means using Owens--who appears able both to catch and run with the ball--as a tight end, all the better. But that's not in Chilly's head. And that means that it probably never will be--particularly if he discovers that the move has been made in the past and that he might not get full credit for making it.

As any honest NFL head coach will admit, coaching in the NFL is not rocket science. Expectations of winning are high, the hours tend to be long, and there are quick decisions to be made. Overall, however, the job merely requires competence. That means making proper personnel decisions, having a sound game plan, and managing a game without overt gaffes.

To date, Childress has failed to meet this standard. He continues to make questionable personnel decisions. He refuses to adjust his game plans to meet that of the opponent. And he refuses to admit his short-comings or to learn appropriate lessons. His latest failure to identify the proper fullback to replace Richardson and his on-going love affair with four suspect offensive linemen only heighten the sense that Childress has not reached the modest level of competence required of him at this level. To date, there remain few signs that this will change anytime soon.

Up Next: Is Brzezinski Still A Cap Genius?

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Come to Jesus Time

Following the Vikings' third loss in as many games, there was little to be said that had not already been said. In previous Vikings' games this season--both wins and losses--the Vikings' offense has sputtered, the offense line has been unable or unwilling to block at the line or down field, receivers have dropped passes, the quarterback has thrown ducks, the defensive line has been unable to pressure the opposing quarterback, and the linebackers have been unable to cover on passing plays. Predictably, all that continued on Sunday in the Vikings' home loss to the Green Bay Packers.

And it was predictable because Childress all but told us to expect it. Just as he has all but told us to expect more of the same against the Dolphins in Miami this week.

That's Childress being Childress. Despite being a rookie head coach, he apparently is too old to change his stripes. His stripes, of course, depend on the comfort of the very well known--like an offensive coordinator with no experience at the position in the NFL and retreads from Philly joining the former Philly coach in Minnesota.

But more than on matters of personnel, Childress has earned his stubborn stripes refusing to admit that his offensive scheming is outdated, at best. Need five yards? Chilly's call will get you three. Need twenty? Ditto. Need one? Chilly will up the ante and show you a loss. That's how Chilly rolls. And, clearly for the worse, that's how the Vikings now roll. Increasingly uphill.

For Zygi and the rest of the Wilf entourage, the results are deserved, though they cannot be welcome. Rather than hiring someone acquainted with modern-era NFL football, Wilf went with a guy who pledged to "win ugly," less than a year removed from firing a coach who, more often than Chilly, did just that.

What has to concern Wilf and company most of all, however, is not the wins and losses, but the style of play and the effect that that style has on the fan base. There is little doubt that an average offensive output just slightly over 11 points per game will drive away fans. And that would be true of a team that routinely won games 11-7 nearly as much as it soon will be true of Vikings' teams routinely losing games 17-12.

Fans of the NFL watch not just to see their favorite team win, but to see their favorite team make professional caliber plays. And if Chilly wants to advance beyond rookie head coach, it might just be time for Zygi or one of his cronies to clue Chilly in on that fact of life.

Up Next: Captain Takes the Life Boat.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Writing for Cheesehead

This is the point in the season that Cheesehead Craig of Oracle of Cheese fame would contribute to this column offering up some way that the Green Bay Packers could steal won from the local team. Though I am certain that he would have offered a similar column this week, I'm saving him the trouble by writing such a column myself.

Prior to last week's appearance in San Francisco, the Minnesota Vikings mostly had played to form, yielding offensively to their opponents' defenses and holding their opponents' offenses to the Vikings' expected point yield (EPY). The Vikings' result against New England looked like a case of a struggling offense facing a solid defense and a young linebacking corps facing a sharp offense. The latter bears monitoring. The former appears true against all comers.

Green Bay is averaging 358 yards and 20 points per game this season. The 20 point return is approximately four points below the Packers' average EPT for the season and primarily is attributable to a horrendous start and recent turnovers.

On defense, the Packers are yielding 343 yards and 25 points per game. The 25 points is slightly higher than the Packers' EPY of 24 and suggests that the Packers have been losing the battle of field position this season.

The Vikings average 310 yards of offense and 16 points a game. Of those sixteen points, nearly five are accounted for by the defense. That gives the Vikings' offense a miserable average point total of 11 per game, well below the EPT of 22 per game.

With the exception of the New England game, the Vikings' defense remains consistently good, holding the opposition to 279 yards and 17 points per game. The point yield remains below the opponents' EPT by one or two points and offers the primary bright spot of this year's team.


In 2005, prior to adding Steve Hutchinson, Matt Birk (back from injury), Chester Taylor, and Artis Hicks, jettisoning Michael Bennett, Daunte Culpepper, Adam Goldberg, Chris Liewinski, and Mike Tice and staff, and purportedly stealing an offensive guru in new head coach Brad Childress, the Vikings averaged 290 yards of offense and 19 points per game.

Among the primary criticisms of former head coach Mike Tice was that his playcalling was too predictable. Tice, himself, was criticized for being overly stubborn and incapable of making the necessary in-game changes to meet changing circumstances.

In 2006, despite a defense that contributes nearly five points per game and a host of changes intended to shore up last year's offensive issues, the Vikings' offense clearly has regressed. And the contention that things "need time to gel" no longer carries any meaningful significance.

After scoring a mere three points last week against the NFL's worst offense, the Vikings need to change their offensive philosophy dramatically if they hope to compete again this season. Unfortunately, all signs suggest that Childress remains intent on showing that his way is the best way and that three-yard passes are the wave of the future in the NFL.

The Packers have a rejuvenated running game with the return of Ahmann Green and a respectable passing game led by Favre, Donald Driver, and rookie Greg Jennings. Despite the Vikings' strong run defense, the Packers should be able to generate enough of a rushing attack to keep the Vikings' already sluggish pass rush at bay. That will mean numerous slant passes and dump offs against the Vikings' young linebacking corps. That crippled the Vikings against New England and could hurt them as much this week.

Offensively, the Vikings appear to have no answers. Rather, they appear to have answers, just not any that Childress will employ. Mewelde Moore remains on the sidelines most of the game, despite his pass-catching ability and the Vikings remain intent on playing a pocket-passing game despite the constant collapse of the pocket. That means that the Vikings' defense will have to save the day yet again.

Barring a Brett Favre meltdown, something that is known to occur when the Packers play at the Metrodome, the Vikings are at risk of enduring a season-crippling loss today. There will be little pressure on Favre to force the issue today, which should mean smoother sailing than normal for the Packerland favorite.

Prediction: Packers 20 over Vikings 12.

Up Next: Postgame.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Chidress Can't Decide Whether to Go In or Stay Out

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.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Duh Zzzzzzz'd

For what might be the final time this season, there will be plenty to write about the Vikings' miserable offensive showing in a 9-3 snoozer in the Bay Sunday afternoon. That's because, for the second straight week and the forth time this season, the Vikings' offense failed to score a touchdown. For those counting, that's 26 of 36 quarters in which the Vikings have failed to score an offensive touchdown. And that might be enough to drive away most fans in hordes.

The Vikings accomplished their most recent heroics against arguably the worst defense in the NFL. Prior to Sunday's game, the 49ers had been allowing 33 points per game and nearly 400 yards a game--almost 275 of that in the passing game. The Vikings responded to this gift horse by staring it straight in the mouth, accumulating a meager 103 yards passing and 238 total yards of offense.

What's worse, if you any longer hold out hope that the Vikings can figure out a way to correct everything that offensive football requires after the snap, is that both quarterback Brad Johnson and head coach Brad Childress are of the opinion that all that is necessary to right the ship is to make some minor adjustments.

If by "minor adjustments" Johnson and Childress mean finding a better quarterback, right tackle, right guard, left tackle, and two receivers, then they are dead on. Artis Hicks has a place on the Vikings only because of his Philadelphia ties to Childress, Marcus Johnson is a starter only for utter lack of an alternative, McKinnie continues to be the Vikings' answer to the Hindenberg, and the receiving corps, beyond awful, is stocked with mistakes up to which nobody wants to own.

But it's not just Williamson's constant dropped passes, Travis Taylor's inane, drive-killing penalties, McKinnie's inability to block, Marques Johnson's and Artis Hicks' overall pitiful play, nor Brad Johnson's downward spiraling performances. It's all of that combined with myopic playcalling by a stubborn, first-year head coach who, for advice in a pinch, can turn only to first-year offensive coordinator who, apparently is most comfortable watching the game. The result is a dump-off, up-the-gut offense more befitting of the 1930s NFL than of today's modern pro offense.

And all indications are that that's just fine with the head coach who believes that it "gives the team a chance to win every game." And, it should be added, it also gives the team a more than fair shot of losing every game.

Up Next: Time to think outside the box--or even inside the box!

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Too Many Olesons for Vikings' Liking

In one of the many episodes of Little House on the Prairie, Charles Ingalls, the hard-working, bad-luck, father extraordinaire, endures yet another financial downturn as the result of someone else's incompetence. Though crushed and in dire financial straits, Charles refuses to admit defeat.

With Charles digging ditches, Mrs. Ingalls strapped to the horses in the dusty, wind-blown fields, and the couple's three children providing what assistance they can provide at their age, the Ingalls are able to scrape together just enough money to pay off their debts and buy some sugar, tea, and coffee. Quite a payoff for weeks of back-breaking work. As Charles leaves the Oleson's store, Nels Oleson comments that his family has been lucky to always have money but that Charles truly was the luckier of the two men.

Nels' comment to Charles was a juxtaposition contrasting wealth and Charles' fortune of having a good family. And that was the moral of the episode--good family trumps wealthy, rotten family every day. Good show, but fairly silly insinuation that wealth necessarily begets unhappiness while poverty begets happiness.

The real lesson of that Little House episode for the modern era is that, too often, those who work hard get little to nothing for their efforts while others fall into money working less than others or working hard but without a clue.

This is a lesson that applies, at least in part, to certain members of the Minnesota Vikings--players who either play as though they have no clue or who simply have decided that, since they've hit the jackpot, it's no longer necessary to put in the effort.

Several Vikings' qualify for this ignominious designation in 2006, explaining both why the Vikings' offense continues to sputter and why the Vikings' defense can founder as it did against the New England Patriots.

Among those deserving of the aforementioned distinction are left tackle Bryant McKinnie, wide receiver Troy Williamson, tight end Jimmy Kleinsasser, cornerback Fred Smoot, and safety Dwight Smith. With every passing game, these guys look more and more like Nels Oleson, with apologies to Nels Oleson, and less and less like players intent on showing that their respective pay days were worth the gamble for the Vikings.

The Book

Bryant McKinnie came to the Vikings as a first-round draft choice with the label of being unbeatable. Prior to playing in the NFL, McKinnie purportedly had never allowed a sack. Apparently, he is now looking to make up for lost time as he wallows under the weight of a hefty new contract extension.

Despite looking serviceable compared to the frightening likes of Mike Rosenthal, Adam Haayer, Adam Goldberg, and Chris Liewinski in recent years, and despite consistently receiving Pro Bowl consideration, McKinnie has been anything but a rock at left tackle.

In pass protection, McKinnie is soundly beaten at least a handful of times a game--astounding given the limited number of downfield plays that the Vikings have run in recent memory. And on running plays, McKinnie cannot be bothered to get downfield--no chance he ever gets confused with the likes of Orlando Pace.

And it appears only to be getting worse for McKinnie, thus earning him top dog honors on this year's unimpressive offensive line. Honorable mention goes to Artis Hicks and to Marcus Johnson for their consistent penalties in the red zone and their otherwise inept blocking.

Lurking not far behind McKinnie in the race for least bang for the offensive buck are two members of the Vikings' purported receiving corps--Troy Williamson and Jim Kleinsasser. With virtually no pass-catching ability on deep routes and no demonstrated ability to gain separation in man coverage despite his purported speed, Williamson might trail McKinnie as most disappointing offensive performer for the buck, but he clearly heads the list of offensive players with one foot already out the door in 2007. One more TD drop might even seal the decision this season.

Despite leading the team in receptions, Williamson has foundered as the Vikings' top deep threat and continues to look more like a mediocre college receiver than a bona fide NFL receiver. No matter what becomes of Williamson, two years dedicated to nurturing a top ten pick officially qualifies as a wasted pick. With proven receivers available every year in free agency, taking a project as high as the Vikings selected Williamson ranks right up there with taking Demetrius Underwood in the first round.

Not to be outdone, tight end Jim Kleinsasser is quietly turning in yet another wasted season for a tight end being paid the big bucks. When the Vikings selected Kleinsasser, they gushed over his ability both to catch the ball and to line up in the backfield. Now, he does neither.

In seven games this season, Kleinsasser has a mere six receptions for 33 yards. That easily ranks him near the bottom of the league among active tight ends. And the fact that Kleinsasser has averaged 5.5 yards per reception tells you all you need to know about this $3 million-per-year player.

With the addition of Tony Richardson, the presence of Jermaine Wiggins, and the existence on the roster of other blocking tight ends with a seeming touch of agility, Kleinsasser's production was bound to be limited this season. But with the struggles of the offensive line, Kleinsasser has been kept in to block on virtually every play on which he participates. And that's only made his presence less evident and his value as a multi-million dollar blocking tight end that much more questionable.

Some thought 2005 would be Kleinsasser's final season in Minnesota. That wasn't the case. but it almost certainly is the end of the line for Kleinsasser in Minnesota in 2006.

Offensive Defense

While at least three high-paid offensive players continue to perform below their salaries, at least two base defensive players humble their offensive underachieving counterparts in spades. Leading the list of Vikings' sub-par performers in 2006--in a run-away--is cornerback Fred Smoot.

Smoot has tallied 36 tackles in 2006, good for third among Vikings' defenders behind Antoine Winfield and E.J. Henderson. While tackling has been an issue for Smoot at times, however, it is not what has most betrayed him this season. Rather, what makes Smoot's performance so miserable this season is his utter lack of meaningful plays.

In part, Smoot's zero interceptions on the season help explain his relatively solid tackle total. For Smoot has a high tackle total for the same reason that he has no interceptions--he gives a 10- to 15-yard cushion on virtually every passing play. That equates to easy catches and solid gains for opposing receivers, and plenty of room for Smoot to size up the object of his tackle. Ultimately, the ploy does little to stop the opposing offense and makes Smoot's $12 million salary in 2006 a bit hard to swallow. Bye-bye Smoot in 2007.

Smoot is joined in heisting salary on the defensive side of the ball by new addition Dwight Smith. Smith, like Smoot, has a respectable tackle total with 34 for the season in one less game. And Smith even has contributed an interception with a nice return. But what pairs Smith with Smoot by way of heisting payroll is Smith's utter lack of presence when it matters most--particularly against credible oppositon.

It's teams like New England--teams with solid quarterback and receiver play--that compel safeties to prove their mettle. Smith failed against New England. And, more telling, he failed to impress even against the likes of the much less talented J.P. Losman and Jon Kitna. That might be fine were Smith a rookie or receiving the league minimum. But for a safety earning nearly $5 million in 2006, that's not nearly enough.


With no useful free agents waiting in the wings and the trade deadline passed, the Vikings have no choice but to try to get through the season with what they have. Already, the team is feeling the pinch at corner, having to use an unprepared Ronyell whitaker in the nickle package and having to eschew the dime altogether. New England adeptly showed the consequences of such a predicament.

One solution is to put Smoot into the nickle package and to promote the steadily improving Cedric Griffin to starting right corner. The Vikings could also promote Greg Blue to starting safety and demote Smith to nickle and dime packages as an extra corner.

On offense, the Vikings remain short on options. The organization clearly sees upside in McKinnie as it recently signed him to a mammoth extension. But the reality is that, even without the show of confidence, there is little alternative to McKinnie with the lack of depth along the offensive line. Ditto the deep threat, though newcomer Bethel Johnson might be worth a try.

What's most frustrating to most Vikings' fans regarding the performances of McKinnie, Williamson, Kleinsasser, Smoot, and Smith, is that each of these players is hauling in a good chunk of the team's salary cap. That makes decisions on how to resolve the continuing problems at the respective positions that much more problematic and might force team capologist Rob Brzezinski not only to account for budgeting in these cases but also to prove that he is what he has always let others claim he is--a solid cap manager.

Up Next: From Somewhat Unimportant to Absolutely Necessary.

Racism and Numbers

Last season, when former Vikings' quarterback Daunte Culpepper struggled to do anything right on the field, fans called for Brad Johnson. Some members of the local media, either attempting to establish their credibility in certain circles or simply trying to garner some attention, immediately seized on the race card. Without so much as a hint that anyone calling for the quarterback change last season cared a whit about the race of the Vikings' quarterback, these media pundits jumped on the race bandwagon excortiating those who "want Daunte out because he's black." No evidence was offered to support these claims of racism despite the fact that ample statistical evidence supported Culpepper's benching for his horrendous on-field performance.

Today, the Vikings' rumor mill is already churning with fans rightfully critical of quarterback Brad Johnson's recent play. The irony is that, rather than calling for the insertion at quarterback of the experienced Brooks Bollinger--a quarterback who has had some success in the NFL--more fans, and even some local pundits, are calling for Tarvaris Jackson to be the Vikings' starting quarterback.

Nobody is suggesting, however, that these cries for Jackson's insertion or Johnson's removal are race-based. They might be in some circles. But the numbers, just as with Culpepper's numbers last season, make clear why there is so much angst over Johnson. I'll leave to others the discussion of why anyone would prefer Jackson over Bollinger at this point in the 2006 season.

Like Culpepper last year, Johnson has become a liability at quarterback. And there is little evidence to suggest that Johnson's performance is a short-term bit and much to suggest otherwise.

Against New England on Monday, Johnson was brutal. After the Vikings' promising opening drive fizzled with a mind-numbing Johnson interception at the Patriots' goal line, things went south in a hurry. From that point on, Johnson seemingly could do nothing right. After the game, head coach Brad Childress and Johnson coyly attempted to spread the blame by implying culpability on the part of the offensive line and the receivers. But the truth of the matter is that Johnson simply stunk, twice throwing picks despite the utter lack of defensive pressure and a clear view of the defender who would make the pick.

The bigger picture regarding Johnson's play is even more troubling, however, than was the performance on Monday night. On Monday, Johnson threw two interceptions that mattered and another that was meaningless. As bad as the interceptions were, though, Johnson looked even worse throwing passes deeper than twenty yards--with the exception of the pass that bounced off of no-hands Williamson's chest. Johnson routinely threw ephis pitches to suprised Patriot defenders, who could have and should have had another three or four picks in the game, and had so little zip on most of his deep passes that they would have blown back into his hands owing to the collective gasp of fans at his back but for the concurrent collective gasp of horror of fans to his fore.

But Monday was just one of many bad performances for Johnson in 2006. With the exception of last week's modest performance against the defenseless Seahawks, Johnson has done next to nothing after the opening drive of any game, save for an occasional burst in hurry up mode with the Vikings trailing against Detroit and Buffalo.

The Vikings can continue to contend that Johnson's poor performances are coming against good defenses, but, at some point, the ostrich has to pull its head out of the sand and accept its lot. It is becoming painfully obvious that Johnson's better days are behind him. And if his better days were caretaker days, that, along with his recent play, suggests what lies ahead.

Up Next: If the draft were today...