Monday, December 25, 2006

Make That Zero Percent Chance of Robinson Returning

It didn't look good prior to Christmas Day. Today, it is fact. Marcus Robinson is no longer a Minnesota Viking. In a brief phone conversation with Vikings' personnel director Rick Spielman, Spielman informed the receiver that he was being given his release from the Vikings with one week left in the season.

It was yet another classy move for the Vikings' organization which, less than one year ago, vowed to become the class of the NFL. Last week, head coach Brad Childress publicly benched former starter Brad Johnson in favor of starting rookie Tarvaris Jackson without first informing Johnson of the decision. At the time, Childress referred to Jackson as "the team's best hope of winning in 2006." Jackson finished the game with 27 yards passing and produced zero offensive points.

In a post-game interview session, Childress defended his offensive play-calling and system as "kick ass if properly executed." The insinuation was that, despite Childress' genius, the Vikings' personnel was too inept to absorb and execute brilliant game plans. Childress did not respond to questions seeking clarification regarding how his brilliant system might be adjusted to acknowledge the personnel at his disposal.

Robinson's dismissal, an unusual move at this point in the season, apparently is tied to his comments regarding Childress' failure to adjust his game plans to the personnel around him.

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.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Swampland in Florida

In the 2005 NFL entry draft, the Minnesota Vikings selected wide receiver Troy Williamson with a pick the equivalent of an NBA lottery level pick. Vikings' fans were told that the pick, though not intended to replace departed wide-receiver Randy Moss, would provide the deep threat that the Vikings' offense lacked with Moss' departure.

Though skeptical about the Williamson selection, I deferred to those who claimed to have their finger on the pulse, to those who claimed a greater authority, to those who claimed to have inside knowledge, and to those who contended that Williamson would bear fruit.

Two years later, Williamson looks like he looked coming out of college. With one reception for one yard against a bottom-feeding Green Bay secondary, Williamson looks every bit the bust that he appeared headed for on draft day.

Similarly skeptical about the hiring of Brad Childress as head coach given Childress' lack of experience at the head-coaching level, his decision to bring aboard a novice offensive play caller, and his commitment to a stable of quarterbacks that literally required a dominant running game, I nevertheless deferred to those claiming greater command of the head-coach hiring landscape.

With almost nothing on the line on Thursday night at Lambeau Field, Childress substantiated my initial reservations regarding his hiring, once again opting for the mind-numbing, virtually unthinkable, and clearly untenable offensive play-calling that got the Vikings to 6-8 heading into the game and that delivered them to 6-9 by game's end.

When the putrid stench of the game had wafted out of Lambeau field and into the packing plants, and Favre had waved his triumphant wave in honor of god knows what, the Vikings were left with some stark numbers the likes of which have not been witnessed since the pre-forward pass era.

For the game, the Vikings amassed 104 total yards of offense, 27 passing yards, and three (!) first downs, all on the strength of the arm of the quarterback that Vikings' head coach Brad Childress today called "the team's best chance for victory" and the team's quarterback of the future.

In addition to these mind-numbing numbers, the Vikings produced exactly zero points on offense in yet another horrific display of Childress' offensive "genius" that is run on first and second down and pass short of the sticks on third down. As icing on the cake, Childress' "disciplined" team kicked in 10 penalties for 68 yards to pad its already sizeable lead as the NFL's most penalized team.

For Vikings' fans looking at the Tarvaris Jackson era as the route to Super Bowl nirvana, it might already be time to make contingency plans. With four years left on his contract, Childress undoubtedly is here for the long haul. And, as long as he remains, frustration clearly will abound.

As one famous actor once said, if you think you've seen it all, baby, you ain't seen nuthin' yet. And for the Brad Childress' led Vikings, the future looks pretty miserable.

Up Next: Who Must Stay, Who Gets to Leave.

Monday, December 18, 2006


The post mortem on the 2006 Minnesota can all but be written. Because, even if the Vikings somehow manage to climb into the playoffs--a faint possibility that the Vikings will probably put to rest in convincing fashion on Thursday at Lambeau Field, there is little reason, if any, to get excited about this football team.

The Vikings' short-comings over the past three seasons have been well-documented. They included an inability to run the ball, an inability to catch the ball, an inability to pass the ball, a porous offensive line, a defense that cannot stop the pass, and coaching decisions that make the most hardy squeamish. On Sunday, 14 games into the season, the Vikings displayed each of those failings.

All of which raises the question whether the Vikings have made any meaningful improvements since their infamous 41-0 loss to the New York Giants in the 2000 NFC Championship game.

The short answer is that the Vikings have made some improvements. They have more depth on defense, a solid interior to the defensive line, some capability in the secondary, and improvement at linebacker.

But the Vikings have also failed to address the short-comings on the right side of their offensive line, continue to struggle to stop the pass, continue to play too far off of receivers, and continue to struggle in the passing game. Worse yet, in one year, the team has regressed at several positions, most notably at quarterback, wide-receiver, tight end, cornerback, safety, left offensive tackle, right offensive tackle, right offensive guard, and on kick returns.

Add to these problems the fact that a rookie coach surrounded himself with rookie assistant coaches, that the best coach has found the formula for obliterating the running game but has no answer for stopping the more dangerous passing game, that the rookie head coach is more stubborn than the veteran coach who he replaced and who lost his job, in large part, because he was stubborn, and you have a team that has six wins in 14 games, all but one of which came against a team picking in the first ten of the 2007 draft.

Tarvaris Jackson might provide some excitement along with his certain growing pains the remainder of this year and next year, but there's far more that ails this team than merely the quarterbacking position. And odds are that the Vikings have no clue how to address these ills.

Up Next: Who's Out in 2007 and Who Will Stay In Spite of Themselves.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Weak NFC Keeps Door Ajar For Vikings

In most NFL seasons, a 6-7 start would be cause for little more than hot stove chatter regarding the next head coach and the multitude of changes that the team faces in the off-season. In the NFC of 2006, a 6-7 start, however, is cause for optimism.

So it goes for the Minnesota Vikings who, at 6-7, enter the fifteenth week of the 2006 NFL season with reasonable prospects of making the playoffs in the awful NFC. Though Seattle's surprising home loss to the San Francisco 49ers on Thursday evening might actually hurt the Vikings' chances of making the playoffs in a tie-breaker system.

Where They Stand

Were the season to end today, the Vikings would be on the outside looking in. At 6-7, they would finish one game out of the playoff hunt behind the New York Giants, Philadelphia Eagles, and Atlanta Falcons. The finish would mark a disappointing end to a disappointing season.


Fortunately, the season does not end today. And while reality suggests a 1-2 finish for the Vikings, in the interest of fanning the flames of fans' playoff hopes, I'll temporarily suspend disbelief and assume a 3-0 finish.

The Vikings are virtually assured of a playoff spot if they can manage to finesse victories in each of their last three games. With a 9-7 record, the Vikings would finish no worse than tied for seventh in the NFC. That wouldn't be good enough to make the play-offs, but it also probably is unrealistically low of a finish given the other contenders' remaining schedules.

With games remaining against Philadelphia, New Orleans, and at Washington, the New York Giants have a difficult finish in 2006. There recent play does not instill the bettor's confidence that they can pull off a trifecta, but, given the play in the NFC this season, anything is possible and nothing would be surprising.

More likely, however, is that the Giants lose at least one of their remaining three games. That would leave them at 9-7 for the season with an 8-4 Conference record. Should Minnesota win out, they would equal these numbers.

Philadelphia is in a similar situation to that of the Giants, with games remaining at the Giants, at Dallas, and against the Falcons. As with the Giants, the Eagles have been up and down all season and hardly strike fear in opponents or rustle up images of a 3-0 finish against a decent slate of competition.

Like the Giants, the Eagles are likely to lose at least one of their remaining games, leaving them at 9-7 for the season with an 8-4 Conference record. Three Minnesota wins in the final three games would match this record.

Atlanta, too, has a relatively challenging closing schedule that is unlikely to lead to a 3-0 finish. Moreover, of the Vikings' three main competitors for one of two wild-card spots, the Falcons arguably have struggled the most of late. With games remaining against Dallas, Carolina, and at Philadelphia, an 0-3 finish would not be surprising.

Even with a 2-1 finish, however, the Falcons would finish 9-7 but with a 7-5 Conference record. That would leave the Falcons on the outside looking in at a possible three-way tie-breaker scenario involving Minnesota, Philadelphia, and New York.


If Minnesota finishes the season tied with more than one other team for the final playoff spot, the team advancing to the playoffs would be determined by Conference record then by common competition. After that, things get more complicated.

Among Philadelphia, New York, and Atlanta, Atlanta faces the longest odds of making the playoffs in a multi-team tie-breaker system as it already has four Conference losses with three Conference games remaining. The loser of this week's Philadelphia/New York tilt will also have four Conference losses, but with only two Conference games remaining.


Of the four teams currently in the hunt for two wild-card spots in the NFC, the Vikings have, by far, the easiest remaining schedule. That's meant little for the Vikings up until now, but at least it's something upon which to hang playoff hopes for another week. With games remaining against the New York Jets, at Green Bay, and against the St. Louis Rams, the Vikings can at least claim a reasonable opportunity to win out. Unfortunately, even if the Vikings triumph in their remaining three games, their strength of schedule during that stretch could doom their playoff prospects.

Philadelphia has played the best of late of the Vikings' main competitors for a wild-card berth and is the odds-on favorite of the four to capture one of the wild-card berths. If Philadelphia wins out and the Giants finish 2-1, that will mean that Atlanta finished no better than 2-1. In a three-way tie-breaker between Minnesota, Atlanta, and New York, with all three teams at 9-7, Atlanta would be eliminated based on Conference record. The tie-breaker between Minnesota and New York would then be determined by strength of victory as both teams would finish with .500 records against common opponents.

Strength of victory is determined by calculating the combined winning percentages of the teams that a team has beaten. Under the above scenario, the Vikings would finish with a strength of victory value of approximately .372 and the Giants would finish with a strength of victory value of approximately .436, beating the Vikings out for the final wild card berth.

In short, the Vikings' best prospects for making the 2006 playoffs hinge on Philadelphia beating New York, New York losing at least two of its remaining games, Atlanta losing at least one more game, and the Vikings' winning out. Minnesota can still qualify for the playoffs with another defeat, but the odds clearly get much longer and the amount of help that the Vikings would need under such a scenario would increase substantially.

Up Next: Pre-game.

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?

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?

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

At Least I Saved Money on My Car Insurance

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?

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Predicting An Upset

The Minnesota Vikings travel to Soldier Field today in search of redemption for an early season loss that was well within their grasp for victory before a late-game meltdown led to a Rex Grossmann game-winning touchdown in a close contest. If tradition means anything, the Vikings ought to win today as the two teams have been fairly consistent in splitting their regular-season games in previous years.

Since tradition really has no bearing on today's game, however, other, more tangible matters merit consideration. And, upon further review of such matters, today's game very well could lead to a Vikings' victory.

Of all the things that will determine the outcome of today's Vikings' game against Chicago, several stand out. There's the possible absence of defensive lineman Pat Williams whose run-stuffing ability has been unparalleled in the NFL this season. There's the Bears' defense which has posted 24 sacks this season despite relying on several young defenders and a sometimes suspect secondary that makes pass rushing less effective. And there's the home-field advantage, at three points to the home team a meaningful item given the tendency of the Vikings and Bears to play each other close.

But more telling than those items for today's game probably will be the play of the respective quarterbacks. Vikings' quarterback Brad Johnson is coming off one of his better performances of the season while Bears' quarterback Rex Grossman is coming off one of his worst performances of the season in a loss at New England. And if you think that's just a one-game blip for each quarterback, other numbers might be worth considering.

For the season, Johnson has thrown for 2410 yards, 8 touchdowns and 10 interceptions with a 77.3 quarterback rating. Hardly gaudy numbers, to be certain, but consider the opposition's equally unimpressive numbers. For the season, Grossman has thrown for 2390 yards, 18 touchdowns and 14 interceptions with a quarterback rating of 77.6.

Now, factor in one additional statistic. For the season, the far-from-nimble Grossman has been sacked a mere 13 times for a loss of 90 yards. Johnson, meanwhile, has been sacked 24 times for a loss of 169 yards. In a league in which most games are decided by less than a touchdown, drive-killing sacks often are the difference between winning and losing. And drive-killing sacks--not to mention the ever-present pass pressure that Johnson has felt game in and game out--have been one of the Vikings' leading problems this season.

Last week against Arizona, the Vikings inserted Jason Whittle and Mike Rosenthal into the right guard and right tackle positions, respectively. And while the tandem's best days likely are behind them and Rosenthal, at his peak with the Vikings, has been a revolving door on the pass rush, the two offer a semblance of run blocking and at least a modicum of an obstacle to the pass rush that neither Artis Hicks nor Marcus Johnson appeared to offer, not to mention a greater penchant for abstaining from costly false-start and holding penalties in the red zone.

The presence of Whittle and Rosenthal rather than Hicks and Johnson should mean less pressure on Johnson and should translate into greater success in the red zone than the Vikings were able to muster in their first meeting with Chicago this season. That, and Grossman's modest-at-best performance behind the highest paid and, arguably, sound Chicago offensive line, should provide the Vikings an opening for victory on Sunday.

If Williams sits, look for the Bears to try to run the ball to open up the passing game. If Williams plays, the Bears will be forced to lead with the pass. And that could make things dicey from the outset for Chicago. Beyond Cedric Griffin and Antonio Winfield, the Vikings' secondary has been highly suspect this season. But with Griffin likely to get his second start in place of the very disappointing Fred Smoot in the base package, and Grossman as their quarterback, the Bears should find it difficult to replicate the middle-of-the-field passing scheme that other teams have so successfully employed against Minnesota this year.

A win won't change the division race, one long ago conceded to the Bears. But it will spur the Vikings' playoff hopes and should provide confidence that the offense can accomplish the modest and that the team can play with the best in what is a mediocre to weak NFC.

Up Next: Post game.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Denny's Futility Felt From Afar

Sitting on a rickshaw in the South of India, I found access to the Vikings' recent victory over the Arizona Cardinals only in the post-game reviews. That's unfortunate given that this game looked promising from the moment that it was scheduled and, judging from the play by play, lived up to its billing as a close Vikings' victory.

From the outset, two certainities availed themselves with respect to the game's outcome. The first was that, no matter the teams' respective records or on-field performances leading into the game, the Vikings would prevail. And no matter what the Vikings did to assist the Cardinals, Denny Green would do just enough to fall short--just enough to be able to blame the loss on his players rather than on a running attack that featured a mere six rushing attempts.

We knew these two facts at the time that the Vikings' game was scheduled because we knew that the game meant something to Denny. Nothing would have satisfied Green more than to return to the Metrodome and to end the Vikings' modest playoff prospects.

But Denny doesn't win when it matters. And that spelled doom from the outset for the Cardinals. The result was a much needed Vikings' victory that, combined with the continuing inadequacies of enough other NFC teams, gives the Vikings renewed hope for crashing the post-season party.

Offensive Line Shows Up

In the aftermath of Sunday's game, former Vikings' and current Cardinal's offensive line coach Steve Loney commented that the Vikings' offensive line played well. "When things go wrong, the offensive line is an easy target," Loney commented, "mostly because most people don't really understand how an offensive line works."

Loney's point was that an offensive line takes cohesiveness to work. The implication was that the Vikings finally have some offensive line cohesiveness and that that cohesiveness spurred the Vikings' offensive attack.

Loney's suggestion might be accurate, but what Loney knows about offensive line play can not account for most of the Vikings' season-long problems along the offensive line. For the cohesiveness intangible of which Loney speaks can only exist if the players on the line also do the tangible things--like blocking, avoiding senseless penalties, and showing a semblance of positive technique.

Whatever Tice saw in Marcus Johnson and Childress saw in Johnson and Artis Hicks, the Vikings are noticeably stronger along the line with Jason Whittle and even the suspect Mike Rosenthal manning the guard and tackle positions, respectively. That says less about Whittle and Rosenthal, however, than it says about the inadequacies of Johnson and Hicks.

If the Vikings can continue to get remotely serviceable play out of Whittle and Rosenthal, even with the continued poor play of Bryant McKinnie on the left side, they need not worry about Johnson's play at quarterback. The constant on-slaught that Johnson faced prior to the Arizona game--an on-slaught, Childress strongly implied, for which there was no answer along the offensive line--was what created the need for a rolling quarterback. Without the onslaught, Johnson need not worry about constant blindsiding and can resume form as a quarterback unlikely to change the game in either direction.

Suddenly, with changes that could have been made weeks ago, things look a bit closer to what was expected at the beginning of the season. And the offense looks at least reasonably competent, albeit against the likes of the Cardinals. That bodes well for the Vikings, even if the next opponent promises a much stauncher test of the Vikings' offensive line.

Up Next: Looking for Viewing Spots in Bombay. Plus, pre-game (assuming the power doesn't go out and the internet system I find cooperates).