Thursday, December 27, 2007

Old Habits, Off-Season Shortcomings Rear Head in Vikings' Loss

Following a suspect victory over the Chicago Bears last week, the Minnesota Vikings, while acknowledging their mistakes, congratulated themselves for showing resiliency in the face of adversity and perservering for a victory. Sunday, against a measurably better Washington team, the Vikings showed that all the mettle in the world is no match when faced with competency. And little mettle at all is even worse.

In the aftermath of a second, consecutive disappointing on-field performance, Vikings' head coach Brad Childress lamented his hesitancy to pass the ball down the field against a Washington defense clearly poised to stop the run and begging the Vikings to pass. Unfortunately, Childress' epiphany occurred to him only after the fact rather than when the game was still in reach. The result was a well-earned drubbing at the hands of Washington and what will probably be yet another season without even an appearance in the playoffs.

As Childress' laments suggest, the Vikings' problems on Sunday night were largely the consequence of the Vikings' inability and unwillingness to challenge Washington's secondary. Through one quarter, the Vikings had attempted but one pass of any meaningful distance beyond the line of scrimmage; an implausible way to stretch the defense and a particularly confounding approach to matching a defense that the Vikings understood prior to the game would stuff the defensive line of scrimmage to stop the Vikings' running game.

The results were predictable. The Vikings gained virtually no yardage in the first quarter and surrendered a safety. The second quarter offered more of the same with the Vikings building a tidy 0-22 deficit by half.

As coaches with job security are wont to do, Childress accepted responsibility for the conservative play-calling. As coaches with a sense of limited job security are wont to do, Childress refused to defuse questions about the play of his quarterback as a contributing factor in Sunday's meltdown.

There is no question that Jackson, for the second straight week, played below the level of that required of a starting NFL quarterback. Of course, that's often what happens to rookies, save for the truly exceptional ones. Unfortunately, as with his post-game epiphany regarding the team's offensive game plan, Childress has waited far too long to realize what most rightfully and readily recognized last Spring, namely, that experience at quarterback is a prerequisite to success at the position in the NFL.

What the 2007-2008 season will bring for the Vikings is anyone's guess. The team continues to lament its lack of depth at wide receiver, using the contention as a crutch to explain away everything from lack of offensive line protection for the quarterback to Tarvaris Jackson's spotty, sometimes poor play. The truth of the matter, of course, is that, as goes the quarterback, so goes the offense. And right now, the quarterback play is regressing.

Up Next: Numbers. Plus, free agency.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Repercussions of the Eight Man Box

As a prime component of their defensive strategy against the Minnesota Vikings on Monday night, the Chicago Bears lifted a page from the playbooks of each of the Vikings' post-San Diego opponents, placing eight defensive players in the area commonly referred to as "the box" and daring the Vikings to run. The Vikings took the Bears up on that challenge and, though the team posted reasonably successful rushing totals, fell far below the rushing totals to which they and their fans have grown accustomed this season.

The lingering question is why the Vikings, despite having some success against the eight-men-in-a-box defense for the better part of the 2007 season, have suddenly found the running more difficult against two teams that have had their difficulties stopping the run this season? The answer to that question, as well as to a corollary question regarding Chicago's too-often ease of access to Vikings' quarterback Tarvaris Jackson, is one and the same.

To answer the question of how two teams can bottle up a Vikings' rushing attack that other teams, using similar tactics, found difficult to address, it is useful, first, to answer the question of how a team successfully attacks a defense that stacks eight defenders within ten yards of the line of scrimmage? The answer, of course, is that the offense must show an ability and a willingness to pass, particularly when the down and distance suggest a running play.

On Monday, as was also true against San Francisco the previous week, the Vikings simply did not evidence a strong enough passing presence to compel the opposition to withdraw defenders from the box. Clearly, the Bears were content that players such as Bobby Wade and Robert Ferguson could do little damage if they did get free in the resulting man coverage, that others such as Visanthe Shiancoe and Jim Kleinsasser posed no threat in the passing game, and that the blitzing pressure that they could put on Jackson with eight men in the box would be sufficient to rattle an inexperienced quarterback. The Bears were correct on all counts, save for slow-man Ferguson's improbably long, painful-to-watch plod down the field.

As he had done earlier in the season, Jackson made some poor decisions early in the game against the Bears and had difficulty putting air under the deep pass. That cost the Vikings some valuable separation from the Bears that resulted in a tight game which, subsequently, kept the pressure on Jackson and compelled the Vikings' coaching staff to tighten the reigns somewhat.

Because the passing game never stabilized, despite decent overall passing yards for Jackson, the Bears continued to keep their defensive players loaded in the box. That, along with the blitzes that the eight-man-front enabled, made rushing difficult for Minnesota.

The suggestion has been offered that to relieve the pressure of the blitz, the Vikings need to resort to more screen plays. The difficulty with relying on the screen play is that opposing defenses are staying home and staying locked on the Vikings' running backs, realizing that the offense runs through the Vikings' running backs and not through the quarterback. That makes screen plays difficult, at best, on most downs.

The better solution is to get the backs and receivers moving both vertically and on slant routes, relying on intermediate passes to set up the deep pass and both passes to set up screens. All of which, if executed, would compel opposing teams to drop defenders into coverage, once again making it possible for the Vikings' offensive line to create running holes.

That's the short answer to the Vikings' recent rushing predicament. But to accomplish the goal set forth above, i.e., to remove the current impediments to the Vikings' rushing attack, the Vikings need to commit themselves to being a threat both to pass and to run. And, for the Vikings, that means convincing teams that they have the ability and desire to pass in a fashion that matters to the outcome of the game--a steady diet of dump-off passes, the type easily defended by defenses that already have eight players in the box, will not do the job.

To improve the passing game, the Vikings need to give Jackson sufficient time in the pocket. Several times on Monday, Bears' players were in the Vikings backfield on the snap. Two plays, in particular, stand out, with Bears' linebacker Brian Urlacher running freely past otherwise occupied Viking center Matt Birk.

Birk has received strong criticism for the holes in the Vikings' offensive line Monday night, but is too much of a party-line player to point out that, though he might have been able to slow the Bears' defenders more than he did in certain instances, the responsibility for many of the gaping holes availed to the Bears' defenders on Monday night was Jackson.

It is the responsibility of the quarterback to check the defense and to alter the snap count and direct running backs to pick up a blitzing defender when the quarterback sees the play developing. In two instances in particular on Monday night, Jackson misread the blitz, allowing his back to leave the pocket and snapping the ball on what appeared to be the normal count. The result was a back out of position to assist in picking up the blitz and, rather than a defender guilty of encroachment, a defender lauded for jumping the count.

As Jackson gets more experience under center, he will become more adept and at picking up the hot blitz and directing his backfield on proper assignments. Until that day arrives, however, teams will continue to seize on Jackson's inexperience, creating more clear shots to Jackson. Keeping a proper balance between the passing game, including the form of the passing game, and the running game, will help alleviate this presure by affording the defense fewer blitzing opportunities and making blitzes more difficult to disguise. The rest, however, will have to come through the maturation process.

Up Next: Postgame from Bombay. Plus, can Williamson fill the need for a speedy slant receiver?

Monday, December 17, 2007

Searching For That Mother

In what can most generously be described as one of the uglier NFL football games of the 2007 season, the Minnesota Vikings prevailed over the hapless Chicago Bears on Monday night by a deceptive score of 20-13. In which direction that score is more desceptive, however, depends upon your point of view.

On one hand, the Bears' defense did a respectable job forcing the Vikings to go with plan B--anything involving quarterback Tarvaris Jackson--far more often than Vikings' head coach Brad Childress appeared comfortable with so doing. The result was, by Vikings' standards, a second straight week of sub-standard rushing as the Vikings' running backs tallied a well-below average 109 yards rushing on 25 carries, and three picks for the hurried, harried, and harrassed Jackson.

Jackson's errant passes, sometimes off his back foot, often in a crowd, offered a glimpse of what Vikings' fans might be witness to in the short term should the Vikings, any time soon, be compelled to rely on Jackson to lead a comeback--something Jackson has yet to do in the NFL.

Unlike the past two weeks, when Jackson had ample time to sit in the pocket and no pressure to resurrect a flagging offense, against Chicago the opposite was true. Trailing for much of the game and mostly stymied by the Bears' run defense, the Vikings turned to Jackson to move the offense. In some respects, the gambit worked, as Jackson passed for 249 yards. In other respects, it failed to reveal the progress that Jackson hinted at the past two weeks as two of Jackson's three picks were squarely the result of ill-advised passes.

While the Bears' defense and Jackson conspired to make the Vikings' offense look its plodding worst for most stretches of the game, the Vikings' offense shone as a veritable blueprint for offensive success in the NFL in contrast to the woeful, nearly non-existent entity to which some unabashedly refer as the Bears' offense. Whatever that entity actually is, it surely is one of the uglier sights the modern NFL era has witnessed.

With third-string quarterback Kyle Orton starting for soon-to-be-releasedfirst- and second-string quarterbacks Rex Grossman and Brian Griese, and no running game of which to speak, the Bears' offense truly was something for which only the mothers of those associated with that offense could muster any positive sentiment.

Putrid hardly describes the Bears' offense on Monday. On the night, the Bears had a measly 11 first downs, were 1 of 14 on third-down attempts, averaged 1.9 yards per rushing attempt, and, in a statistic that would make even Childress blush, averaged 8 yards per completed pass against the 32nd-ranked passing defense in the NFL. Orton's unbelievable heave down the field with the game still in the balance and no need to panic merely highlighted the Bears' offensive dysfunction, with Vikings' safety Darren Sharper mercifully putting the woeful show of ineptitude out of its misery with the Vikings' sole pick of the game.

If ever a team should hang its head in victory, this victory comes close for the Vikings. It's nice to win a tight game. It's nice to show some fortitude in the face of unexpected adversity--even if it is the backup quarterback that is showing the lion's share of that fortitude. And it's nice to win a game that was a near must-win. But it really could not have been any less pleasing of a game to watch had it been scripted as such.

Up Next: Stubborn or Realistic? Plus, whither Williamson?

Friday, December 14, 2007

The Other Shoe

In the wake of the Minnesota Vikings' victory over the San Francisco 49ers last Sunday, one stat line leapt out more than did others for the Vikings. That line--116 rushing yards for Minnesota--seemed improbably low for the well-healed Vikings' rushing game, especially coming against the 49ers.

One explanation for the Vikings' low rushing total against the 49ers is that the 49ers simply improved their defensive play, particularly against the rush. Under that theory, the one commonly supported around local water coolers, the 49ers blitzed the Vikings' running backs, attempting to force the Vikings' offense into the hands of Vikings' quarterback Tarvaris Jackson. That led to more passing plays that resulted in either missed opportunities by Jackson or dropped passes by Vikings' receivers in the face of single- or no coverage.

The play of the 49ers' defense--and the schemes that the 49ers ran against the Vikings' offense--unquestionably offers a partial explanation for the 49ers' success stopping the Vikings' running game. But other explanations are required, as the 49ers confounded the Vikings' running attack even without resorting to the blitz.

The second explanation for the Vikings' relative rushing woes against the 49ers on Sunday is that, in the second half of the game, the Vikings simply reverted to the offense that led them to their 2-5 start. That reversion limited the running backs' total number of rushes to 22 for the game and, not surprisingly, stunted the rushing totals for the game.

Against the Detroit Lions the previous week, the Vikings' running backs rushed 33 times for 192 yards and three touchdowns. Despite holding a 35-10 lead at halftime, the Vikings entered the second half of the game with the plan of attacking the Lions' defense. The result was 184 yards of offense and one touchdown on 30 plays over three second-half drives--the fourth and final drive resulting in two kneel-downs.

With a similar half-time lead against the 49ers, the Vikings went into an offensive shell in the second half, running a meager 21 plays for 47 yards and no points, despite having six second-half possessions. The opening drive of the second half was indicative of the type of plays that the Vikings ran in the second half against the 49ers, with Jackson throwing two passes short of the sticks for four yards total and Peterson attempting a run up the middle on second down for zero yards. The result was five punts in the second half.

As running backs tend to fair better in the second half of games than in the first, it is not surprising that, facing fewer Vikings' offensive plays and less-threatening play-calling, the 49ers limited the Vikings' rushing attack to almost nothing in the second half of Sunday's game.

In the end, the Vikings won by a comfortable margin. But one has to wonder what the second half was all about. If it was about milking the clock, the Vikings' failed, holding the ball for just over 12 minutes. If it was about continuing to establish an offensive rythym, that, too, clearly failed.

About the only thing that can be said of the second half of Sunday's game for the Vikings' offense is that, aside from being ineffective, it did not produce any turnovers. In a must-win, conference road game, perhaps that was the goal of the second half. And that might be just fine. But it might also go a long way to helping explain why it was that the Vikings' running attack never got on track the way that most Vikings' fans have grown accustomed to over the bulk of the 2007 NFL season.

Up Next: Vikings' Greatest Improvement from Last Year. Plus, the Millen Gallows?

Monday, December 10, 2007

Running Issues

One of the confounding results in the Minnesota Vikings' 27-7 victory over the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday was how a Minnesota team, averaging nearly 180 yards rushing per game entering the game, could finish the game with 116 yards rushing? Take away the 80-yard rumble by Chester Taylor and the Vikings had a meager 36 yards rushing for the game, three for Adrian Peterson on 14 carries.

As spectators left scratching their heads, two explanations were offered. The most common refrain was that the Vikings simply were up against one of the league's better run-stopping defenses. That explanation clearly is inadequate, however, as the 49ers rank in the bottom six of NFL teams in stopping the run, allowing 123.5 yards per game on average--seemingly fertile ground upon which the number one rushing offense should flourish.

The other explanation was that the 49ers sold out against the run, giving up the passing lanes. That explanation appears more plausible, but not entirely satisfactory. While the 49ers clearly cheated up with their corners and focused on Peterson, on several Vikings' offensive downs on which the play was not dictated by down and distance, they did not. On those plays, the 49ers blanketed the Vikings receivers, forcing Jackson, who had received ample time in the pocket, to scramble.

That suggests strong overall defense by the 49ers, rather than a defensive scheme that sold out against the run.

There are two other explanations for the Vikings' atypically average rushing performance on Sunday. The first, an old nemesis, is that the Vikings simply are continuing to have problems on the right side of the line.

Of the Vikings' 23 running plays by either Chester Taylor or Adrian Peterson on Sunday, seven went to the left, ten went up the middle, and six went to the right. Taylor gained 97 of his rushing yards running to the left, 4 running up the middle, and 11 running outside of the right tackle. Peterson gained -1 yard on three carries to the left, 8 yards on six carries up the middle, and -4 yards on five carries to the right.

While the numbers look bad across the board, with the exception of Taylor's 80-yard touchdown run to the left and his 11-yard scamper around the right end, it is telling that the Vikings ran only five plays behind the right guard and right tackle and that four of those five plays resulted in negative or zero yardage.

The problem thus appears to be two-fold for the Vikings with respect to executing running plays. The first is that the team's coaches still lack confidence in the right side of the line, calling plays to the right only in the hope of forcing the defense to at least respect runs to the right.

The other is that, when called upon to provide run support, the right side of the line still has problems. Had the Vikings been up against Pittsburgh's or Green Bay's rushing defense, that might have been more understandable, but against the 49ers' defense, it is not.

Up Next: A Second Explanation.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Vikings Beat Up On Little Sisters of the Poor

On the strength of another strong defensive performance against another underwhelming offensive opponent, the Minnesota Vikings moved to 7-6 on Sunday, solidifying their prospects for making the 2007-2008 NFL playoffs. While the 27-7 drubbing of the San Francisco 49ers should lay to rest concerns about the Vikings not being prepared to win games that they should win, the victory was not without its reminders that the Vikings still have several things on which they must improve before they are ready to challenge the two or three heavy-weights in the NFL.

The primary area of concern for the Vikings in the big picture is that, while they have been winning of late, and while they have been winning by sizeable margins, the team's victories have been coming mostly at the expense of the league's decidedly lesser teams. While these trends were positives on Sunday, the Vikings will have to show that they can continue their trend of positive play against the lesser teams when facing the league's better teams.

The Vikings' seven victories this season have come over teams with a combined winning percentage of .416. The team's six losses--two against the Packers--have been against teams with a combined winning percentage of .585.

Should the Vikings make the playoffs this season, they would be facing a field with an approximate winning percentage of .719. That's a sizeable improvement in the caliber of team that the Vikings would be facing in the playoffs over what they have faced in all but one of their victories this season.

All of which is not to suggest that the Vikings are incapable of beating some of the better teams in the NFL. They might very well have made some of the adjustments necessary to stop strong passing attacks and to maneuver through stalwart passing defenses. But whether they have made the adjustments to address weaknesses most dramatically laid bare several weeks ago in a loss to Green Bay, however, will not be answered until the playoffs, as the Vikings face three more weak teams in their final three games of the regular season.

Up Next: Some Good Signs and Some Continuing Concerns. Plus, is it the end of the Millen Era in Detroit?

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

What the Vikings Have That the Patriots Do Not

With the NFL playoffs nearing, the New England Patriots stand at 12-0 and remain the pick of most NFL wonks to win the Super Bowl. Odds aside, however, the Patriots remain sorely lacking in two critical phases of their game--two phases in which the Minnesota Vikings largely excel.

In their past two games, both narrow victories over otherwise struggling teams, the Patriots have begun to show some vulnerability. Analysts have noted the Patriots' inability to stop the pass and the ability of smart defensive coordinators to create unfamiliar blitz packages to put pressure on Patriots' quarterback Tom Brady. And while those two ingredients appear to have been part of the make-up of the Patriots' past two games, there are two far more troubling common themes from each of those two games--at least for the Patriots--that extend beyond the past two weeks.

Against both the Eagles and the Ravens, the Patriots had difficulty making defensive adjustments. Against the Eagles, a team starting the suspect A.J. Feeley at quarterback in place of the injured Donovan McNabb, the Patriots clearly game-planned to stop what appeared to be the Eagles' only offensive threat, Brian Westbrook. The Patriots had modest success against Westbrook, holding him to 52 yards and one touchdown on 17 carries, but much less success against the far-less threatening Feeley, allowing 345 passing yards and three touchdowns.

Facing a similarly challenged Ravens' offense, the Patriots appeared not to game-plan at all on defense, allowing Kyle Boller to pass for 210 yards and two touchdowns--a quiet triumph for the former first-round pick turned benchwarmer. Not to be outdone, the Patriots' defense surrendered 138 rushing yards and a touchdown to Willis McGahee, who surpassed 100 yards rushing for just the fourth time this year and bested his previous season-best rushing total of 114 yards attained against the Buffalo Bills.

For many NFL teams, the Patriots' flaws would be welcome. But for a team with designs on the NFL Championship, the Patriots' flaws could be crippling. With four-touchdown leads in numerous games this season leading opponents to eschew the running game, the Patriots have had the luxury for most of the season of rushing three or four linemen and cherry-picking opposing quarterbacks. In tighter games, however, such as the games against the Eagles and Ravens, the Patriots' defense has been forced to play honest defense and, at times, even to blitz when a pass play was not a certainty. The results have been revealing.

But it hasn't just been the past two weeks that the Patriots have evidenced vulnerability. Against the Indianapolis Colts, the Patriots focused on Manning and left Addai to run wild to the tune of 114 receiving yards and 112 rushing yards. In the absence of Marvin Harrison, the Patriots eked out a victory over the Colts, but, in so doing, they appeared far less invincible than they had against the very numerous dregs of the league that they have pummeled this season.

Equally disconcerting to Patriots' fans as the Patriots' defensive issues should be the Patriots' most glaring short-coming, the inability to run the ball. Whether Laurence Maroney is hurt or Patriots' head coach Bill Belichek simply is so intent on overtaking the Vikings' regular-season points' record that he refuses to coordinate a running game, the Patriots simply have not been able to run the ball when it has mattered most.

Against the Eagles, Maroney led the Patriots in carries and yards with 10 and 31, respectively. He also led the Patriots in these categories against Baltimore, with 13 carries and 44 yards, and against Indianapolis, with 15 carries and 59 yards. As the numbers accurately reflect, the Patriots not only have struggled to establish a running game in their close games, they have also failed even to attempt to establish a running attack.

Price of Tea in China

What all of this has to do with the Vikings should be evident to Vikings' fans. What the Patriots lack, the Vikings' most have, with a sublime running game and a defense that has shown an ability to adjust in most games, despite having to play mostly in tightly contested games.

As most NFL coaches will concede, what matters most in the playoffs is a team's ability to run the ball, stop the run, and slow down the passing game. While the Patriots are on pace to set the single-season record for points scored in the regular season, that record will be meaningless if the Patriots fail to shore up their weak rushing attack and suspect defense before the playoffs begin. If Belichek does not make those adjustments, Patriots fans will be justified in questioning their head coach's seeming dismissiveness of the running game in favor of an aerial show.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Fundamental Changes Pay Dividends

Three weeks ago, after a demoralizing 34-0 loss to the Green Bay Packers, the Minnesota Vikings appeared headed for a second straight dismal finish to their season. The loss to the Packers was complete in every sense of the word with the Packers running rough-shod over the Vikings' previously celebrated defense and the Vikings' offense clearly doing nothing. The loss put the Vikings at 3-6 and well on the outside looking in--if even looking--at the playoff picture.

Three weeks later, the Vikings' situation is much changed. After successive victories over the Oakland Raiders, New York Giants, and Detroit Lions, the latter two by wide margins, the Vikings have positioned themselves in the driver's seat for one of the NFC's two wild-card spots. With the weakest remaining schedule of any team in the NFL, the odds appear strong that the Vikings will make the playoffs in 2007. And with a fundamental change in how things are done on offense, the Vikings now might be an unwelcome opponent for NFC playoff teams.

In week one of the 2007 season, the Vikings beat the Atlanta Falcons 24-3. In that victory, the Vikings had 23 first-down plays. Of those 23 first-down plays, the Vikings called eight passing plays and 15 running plays. Of the eight passing plays, the Vikings did not throw a ball more than five yards beyond the line of scrimmage until the 13:12 mark of the third quarter.

In week ten of the season, the Vikings' 34-0 loss at Lambeau Field, the Vikings had a meager 11 first-down plays in the first three quarters of the game, by which time the score already read Green Bay 27 and Minnesota 0. Of those eleven plays, the Vikings threw six passes and ran the ball five times. The Vikings' first pass thrown more than five yards beyond the line of scrimmage did not occur until the 2:12 mark of the third quarter, with the game in desperation mode.

This week, the Vikings ran 22 first-down plays by the 2:34 mark of the third quarter, the point at which the Vikings took a comfortable 28-10 lead and the point at which the Vikings rightfully opted to shift to a run-first mind-set to manage the game clock. Of the 22 first-down plays, the Vikings ran 11 pass plays and 11 running plays.

The shift in emphasis from the run to the pass between week one and week 13 is readily noticeable. But that shift in emphasis is only meaningful because the shift led to results that a similar shift in emphasis to the more balanced offensive playcalling did not lead to in the Vikings' week 10 loss to Green Bay.

While the Vikings did not attempt a non-dump-off pass in the week 10 loss at Lambeau Field until nearly the fourth quarter, on Sunday against the Lions, the Vikings threw several passes beyond the sticks in the first half alone, and many more for the game. Those passes forced the Lions to honor the option of the intermediate and deep routes opening up the running game and swing passes. The Vikings' long-overdue unshackeling of Jackson as a running threat only added to the Lions defensive concerns. The result was a much more explosive Minnesota offense than Vikings' fans have seen under head coach Brad Childress. And it was a welcome sight.

Opening up the offense not only paid dividends for the Vikings on offense, it paid equally significant dividends for the Vikings' defense. Unable to rely on the Vikings playing for a close victory, the Lions were forced to adhere to more predictable offensive schemes, thus giving the Vikings' defense an opportunity to work blitzes and normal rushing techniques more effectively. While it always helps to play a Mike Martz offense, particularly one that loses a key receiving weapon such as Roy Williams, the Vikings' game plan on Sunday likely would have shone against any opponent.

The lessons from Sunday are evident. After much resistance, Childress has finally come around to the notion that a balance between a meaningful passing scheme and a running attack are more formidable than is the dump-off game best left in the 1950s. If the Vikings continue with the formula employed today--particularly when it incorporates wide-receivers Sidney Rice and Aundrae Allison into the game plan--they could be looking not only at the playoffs, but an opportunity to mean something in the playoffs.

Up Next: What the Vikings Have that the Patriots Do Not.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Clearing Up Some Misconceptions

Following the Minnesota Vikings' 41-17 defeat of the New York Giants on Sunday, Vikings' owner Zygi Wilf commented that he had full confidence in Vikings' head coach Brad Childress and has "never waivered" in this confidence. While Zygi can be forgiven his exuberance, his remarks ought to be taken with a grain of salt and a dash of reality.

Prior to the 2007 season, reflecting on a sour finish to 2006, Wilf commented that the Vikings were operating under a three-year plan of returning the team to championship-contending status. That was news to many Vikings' fans and, undoubtedly, to the several, key Vikings' veterans who dotted each side of the line of scrimmage, who expected a much earlier return to form.

The purpose of Wilf's statement was two-fold. First and foremost, he was attempting to provide damage control for a fan base on the verge of tuning out--or at least refusing to turn out at the Metrodome on game day. From a PR perspective, Wilf's comments were not well thought out, as the majority of the Vikings' fan base rebelled at the notion of paying more money and investing more time in a team promising only incremental improvements while the rest of the league was operating under a win-now philosophy.

From a bottom-line perspective, however, Wilf had another reason to set forth a three-year plan. That reason was the long contract to which he had recently inked first-time head coach Brad Childress. With his chosen coach inked to a five-year deal at a considerable sum of money, Wilf clearly felt the need to provide to the fan base a timeline for team success while giving his head coach an opportunity to learn on the job.

Entering the 2007 season, Wilf thus clearly sought from Childress nothing more than the thinnest of reasons to retain his head coach beyond 2007. When the Vikings began the season 2-5, Wilf remained silent.

Wilf's silence came to an end, at least behind closed doors, however, after the Vikings' 34-0 loss at Green Bay. Despite what Wilf is now contending--that his support for Childress has never waivered--nothing could be further from the truth as Wilf seriously contemplated replacing Childress mid-season in the wake of the Lambeau debacle.

The cost of making such a move, however, clearly was too great, and the alternatives too slim, for Wilf to act on his impulse in week 11. Then there was the fact that the Oakland Raiders were coming to town and likely would be fodder for whatever the Vikings could put on the field, and Wilf decided to wait it out.

The Vikings' home victory over the Raiders gave Wilf the peace of mind of knowing that his team was better than the worst team in the NFL. The road victory over the Giants, one that Wilf celebrated with the team on the sidelines, merely convinced the Vikings' owner that he could sell Childress to the Vikings' fan base at least for the remainder of this season and possibly through next season.

While the Vikings' victory over the Giants was unexpected both in absolute terms and with respect to the margin of victory, it should not be lost on Vikings' fans that the Vikings defeated a team that is very much like the Vikings in key respects, but for how it appeared on Sunday.

With a team built around establishing the passing game with the running game, the Giants were exposed as at least momentarily one-dimensional on Sunday when they attempted to set up their passing attack without the services of either of their top two running backs, Brandon Jacobs and Derrick Ward. Jacobs and Ward had combined for over 1,100 yards rushing on the season, despite both missing time to injury. The tandem's replacement against Minnesota, Reuben Droughns, had amasses a less stellar 222 yards on 67 carries.

Droughns' inability to establish the rushing attack against Minnesota forced the Giants increasingly to rely on their quarterback, Eli Manning, to move the offense. For the Giants, that's become akin to the Vikings asking Tarvaris Jackson to set up the Vikings' rushing attack with the pass--it simply isn't in the cards.

When Manning began to press, the Vikings pounced. And when the pouncing worked, the Vikings pounced more, forcing Manning into uncomfortable decision-making territory. For those familiar with Manning's history under such circumstances, the results were predictable.

As Wilf congratulated Childress on the victory over the Giants and used the moment to express his unwavering support for Childress, he clearly either ignored or was blinded to what team it was that the Vikings were facing on Sunday. The Giants, relying on Manning to win the game, were what we thought they were--a team that could still win the game, but a team that was just as likely to implode. That undoubtedly matters little to Wilf, who is just happy to have a "big win" in which to ensconce the coach to which he signed a long-term contract.

Up Next: How Hubris Beats Even the Best of Teams.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Returning the Favor

Two weeks ago, in the wake of a 34-0 drubbing at the hands of the Green Bay Packers, the Minnesota Vikings appeared destined for their second head-coaching change in as many seasons. After the team's 41-17 evisceration of the New York Giants, however, things look decidedly different.

The Vikings achieved their victory over the Giants, a seven-point favorite at the Meadowlands on Sunday, despite being outgained on offense by the Giants 309 to 251 yards.

On the day, the Vikings' offense outscored the Giants' offense 20-17. But the tale of the game was the play of the two quarterbacks. While Giants' quarterback Eli Manning looked as hopelessly lost as any quarterback has ever looked in the NFL, throwing four picks, three of which were returned for touchdowns, Tarvaris Jackson looked decidedly better than his counterpart.

Though Jackson finished the day a meager 10 of 12 for 129 yards passing--60 of which came on the second play of the game--he did show an ability finally to hit the deep pass. And, though he again held the ball too long in the pocket with Giants' defenders honing in on him, he also finally made use of his scrambling abilities, picking up large chunks of yardage on two separate plays to pick up first downs when the game was still in the balance.

The result of the quarterbacking play in Sunday's game was that, while Jackson did not cost the Vikings the game, doing what he ought to have done in most circumstances, Manning did the opposite, ensuring his team no chance of victory in spite of playing against the 32nd-ranked pass defense in the NFL.

Sunday's game might have marked nothing more than another baby step in Jackson's progression as an NFL quarterback, but it certainly is preferable to going in reverse. And with his team having unquestionably the softest remaining schedule in the NFL, it might suffice to propel the Vikings into the playoffs in 2007.

Up Next: Improved Defense or Awful Giants' Offense?

Monday, November 19, 2007

Winning But Not Really Gaining

Given that most Minnesota Vikings' fans rightfully expected the Vikings to handle the wrong-way streaking Oakland Raiders on Sunday, it's not exactly letting the air out of the euphoria bubble to point out that, win notwithstanding, the Vikings have a considerably long way to go to catch up to the second-tier of teams in the NFL and forever to go to catch up to where the New England Patriots currently stand.

The statistics from Sunday's game support what we already knew to be true about the Vikings. For the game, the Vikings gained 228 net yards rushing and 250 net yards passing, with Vikings' quarterback Tarvaris Jackson netting 171 passing yards and Vikings' rookie wide-receiver Sidney Rice netting 94 passing yards on two passes. The Raiders countered with 61 net rushing yards and 311 net passing yards--344 gross passing yards.

Entering Sunday's game, the Raiders had been riding a five-game losing streak during which they had averaged just over 11 points per game. They doubled that on Sunday and might have tripled it if not for numerous mistakes in Vikings' territory. That doesn't measure well for the Vikings' defense. Nor do the Raiders' passing statistics.

With 344 gross passing yards, the Raiders nearly doubled their season-long, per-game, passing yard average. Part of that result can be blamed on the departure of injured cornerback Antoine Winfield. But, for a team purportedly deep in the secondary to give up 344 yards to the 29th-ranked pass offense in the NFL is difficult to accept, even with a key personnel loss.

While the Vikings have suggested all season that their secondary problems have been the result of an inability to maintain pressure on the quarterback, that inability does not appear a suitable explanation for Sunday's coverage issues as the Vikings sacked Raiders' quarterback Daunte Culpepper four times and hurried him nearly a dozen more times, and forced an intentional grounding that resulted in a safety.

Nor does it suffice to say, as the Vikings' coaching staff and players have argued in the past, that the passing yardage is a by-product of a good rush defense. For, while the Vikings kept the Raiders' woeful rushing offense in check on Sunday, the Raiders still ran 31 rushing plays to 39 passing plays.

What it all suggests is appeared to be true entering Sunday's game. Namely, the Vikings' pass defense isn't very good.

On offense, the Vikings measured up to their billing, relying on back-up running back Chester Taylor to run rough-shod over the Raiders' woeful defensive line and linebacking corps. The Raiders entered the game allowing 144 rushing yards per game, 29th in the league. The Vikings ensured that the Raiders left town with prospects of moving even lower in that category.

The problems for the Vikings' on offense on Sunday were entirely at the quarterback position. Though Jackson had a high completion percentage of 77%, he had a very modest passing-yardage total of 171 yards. The only two times the Vikings' quartback went deep was when the Vikings' quarterback was the Vikings' rookie wide-receiver, Sidney Rice--who amassed with two nicely thrown passes, more than half what Jackson amassed with 22 passes.

Jackson's 171 passing yards, 24 yards less than what the Raiders have been allowing per game this season, were augmented by a poor decision inside the Raiders' ten-yard line that resulted in an interception and a turnover near mid-field resulting from a lack of pocket awareness. That's what one typically gets with a rookie quarterback. And that's what the Vikings are left to rely upon this season despite otherwise having reasonable talent on offense.

In short, the result on Sunday was predictable in nearly every sense of the word. The Vikings ran well, passed below average, stopped the run, and allowed too much in the passing game. The result against a dysfunctional Raiders' team that is as bad as any in the NFL was a victory.

The victory moved the Vikings' to 4-6, ensured them of winning a post-season tie-breaker with the Raiders for drafting priority, should such a tie-breaker be necessary, and, with the continuing below-average play of the pass-defense, probably ensured that Vikings' owner Zygi Wilf will not make a change to defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier this season, if ever.

But the victory certainly did not cement any notions that the Vikings are anything other than what they appeared to be last week at Green Bay. The team still relies on the running game for meaningful yards and has grave difficulty stopping the pass. Against the Raiders, those are passable offenses. Against the Packers, Cowboys, Colts, and Patriots, they are the ingredients for a long afternoon.

Up Next: What the Patriots Have that the Vikings Do Not.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Bringing Up the Rear and Arrogance a Bad Combination

When, in the aftermath of the Minnesota Vikings' 34-0 loss at Lambeau Field last Sunday, word leaked that Vikings' owner Zygi Wilf was contemplating buying out the remaining contract of Vikings' head coach Brad Childress, Vikings' fans were put on notice of what appears to be a suddenly tenuous relationship between Wilf and Childress. The fact that nobody is denying the essence of the leak is telling regarding the extent of the strains between Childress and others within the Vikings' organization, including Vikings' players.

Sunday could well prove to be the denouement of this saga, as the Vikings host the addled Oakland Raiders. Against a team that has averaged 11.2 points per game during a current five-game losing streak, the Vikings should be able to take advantage of home field and polish off the 2-7 Raiders. If not, Zygi might well act on impulse and make a coaching move.

Among the hitches in any plan to relieve Childress of his coaching duties mid-season are Wilf's ability to work-out an acceptable buy-out plan and the Vikings' ability to identify Childress' successor. That successor is likely to be someone from within, with Wilf reportedly favoring relatively fan-friendly defensive coordinator, Leslie Frazier.

Every Vikings' coach has had his issues. Bud Grant's teams never could win the Super Bowl, Les Steckel took pride in his boot camp approach to training camp and quickly turned the veterans, with the exception of punter Greg Coleman, against him, Jerry Burns kept offensive coordinator Bob Schnelker employed, Denny Green couldn't win when his team was favored to win in the playoffs, and Mike Tice made too many foolish mistakes. Of these coaches, only Grant, who retired, then returned to bridge the gap between the disastrous Steckel season and the Burns era, remains virtually untarnished in Vikings' lore.

Despite the blemishes of past Vikings' head coaches, no Vikings' head coach has been a greater lightening rod for fan disenchantment than has been Childress--not even Steckel.

The reasons for the fan disenchantment are evident. After a 4-2 start in 2006, following a 9-7 record in Tice's last season as Vikings' head coach, Childress has guided the Vikings to a 5-14 record. Only Oakland, at 3-16, has a worse record in that stretch of games.

Added to the results on the field has been Childress' cool, often arrogant approach toward media and fans. During a recent call-in show, Childress responded to one fan's inquiry about the wisdom of signing Koy Detmer to a ten-day contract, only to cut him after three days--a move that cost the Vikings $90,000.

Childress replied that the "ten-day contract is not a term that is used in the NFL, so we don't speak in those terms," and continued to speak down to the by now disconnected caller, noting that the team did what it had to do under the circumstances and implying that the entire process was beyond the comprehension of someone who did not deal intimately in the affair.

The point that Childress could have addressed, however, was whether, if former Eagle compadre Detmer were worth signing as a backup, he was also worth signing as a replacement not for Ronyell Whitaker, whom the Vikings cut to make room for Detmer, but for Kelly Holcomb, who appears to have no future whatsoever with the Vikings.

The bigger issue posed by the caller, however, was lost on Childress, who nevertheless was able to spot an insignificant flaw in the caller's question. That's the type of arrogance, in addition to the arrogance of forcing into the starting lineup a quarterback not ready to take snaps in the NFL much less lead a team to the playoffs, that distinguishes Childress from his equally arrogant, though successful, counter-parts, such as Bill Bellichek. And it is the type of arrogance that justifiably does not sit well with Minnesota fans.

If the Vikings manage to lose to the 2-7 Raiders on Sunday, Childress' arrogance combined with his on-field results might just trigger the move that now seems necessary from an organizational standpoint.

Up Next: More on the Childress-Wilf saga. Plus, comparing their ills to ours.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Childress Out?

A source close to Vikings' owner Zygi Wilf has indicated that Wilf is contemplating buying out the remainder of current head coach Brad Childress' contract. The buyout would elevate current defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier to head coach for the remainder of this season. Wilf is said to be displeased not only with Childress' on-field results but also with the second-year coach's lack of appeal among the fan base. The move could come as early as this week.

If true, the move to Frazier likely would provide the rookie defensive coordinator an opportunity to audition for the full-time position of head coach. Though the performance of the Vikings' defense has been mixed in 2007, Frazier has proven much more comfortable speaking to the media than has Childress, providing straight answers to clear questions and offering insight where Childress has refused to do so.

The move to Frazier, a move that would have been more popular prior to last week's defensive collapse at Green Bay, would nevertheless fare the team no worse than where it currently stands under a coaching regime that appears lost in time.

More updates to follow.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

At Least Tice Was Affable

When the Minnesota Vikings made their hasty decision to hire Philadelphia Eagles' offensive coordinator Brad Childress following the 2005 NFL season, there was reason for concern among the fan base. Childress had never called offensive plays in a game under Andy Reid and, at best, had helped orchestrate an offense that always seemed to muddle at the worst possible times.

That did not deter new Vikings' owner Zygi Wilf, who jumped on Childress the way Childress jumps on washed up former Eagles. Stopping for a brief photo op on his way back to Philadelphia after agreeing to terms of a head-coaching contract with the Vikings after less than a day of vetting by the Vikings' organization, Childress pointed out that he picked Minnesota more than Minnesota picked him. "This is the most ideal opening in the NFL," Childress commented, clearly indicting Green Bay's organization--an organization with which he was to have met but for his agreement with the Vikings.

Unfortunately, Childress either was bad at assessing talent at the time he was hired or he has been bad at coaching that talent as head coach as the Vikings have now gone 9-16 under the overmatched coach. Sunday's 34-0 white-washing by the Packers was merely the dung at the bottom of the retaining pool.

The Vikings' blunder in selecting a head coach in 2006, as it turns out, was Green Bay's gain. After a rocky first season under new head coach Mike McCarthy, Green Bay has solidified its offense and improved on a defense that appeared adrift after the departure of defensive coordinator Jim Bates. No such issues were evident on Sunday, when the Packers even seemed to solve their running back woes despite facing a purportedly stout rush defense.

The Packers have improved under McCarthy while the Vikings have regressed under Childress in spite of McCarthy's installation of a new offensive system, one that quarterback Brett Favre initially resisted, and far more personnel concerns at several positions than the Vikings have ever had under Childress. While the Vikings lament their offensive line woes, continuing to receive mostly unacceptable play from three-fifths of the offensive line, the Packers continue to put up points behind an offensive line consisting of two guards and a center with combined NFL experience of six years prior to this season. And while the Vikings bemoan their lack of depth at receiver, the Packers throw virtually anyone in the slot and march down the field slinging the ball. The fact that that production is mainly on Favre says what one needs to know about Childress' approach to identifying quarterbacks that can "manage" a system, rather than finding a quarterback who can play with the talent on the field. The difference, of course, is vast, but clearly is and always has been lost on Childress.

Tiers of Coaching

There are four levels of coaches in the NFL and most any sport. At the highest level are coaches who can take lesser talent and get positive results. One rung below are the coaches who can take good talent and make it even better. Below that level are the coaches who struggle with below-average talent. And below that level, at the bottom of the hierarchy of coaches, are the coaches who struggle to get results from talented players.

In the highest category of NFL coaches are coaches such as Tony Dungy and Bill Bellichek. Both coaches have taken teams with lesser talent than their opponents and won. At the lowest level of NFL coaches are coaches such as Norv Turner and Brad Childress, coaches who have struggled to get positive results from a talent pool that excceds the performances on the field.

The common denominator for coaches in the highest category of NFL coaches is their willingness to fit their play-calling and to make adjustments to fit the situation. Both Dungy and Bellichek have excelled in this regard.

The common denominator for coaches at the lowest rung of the NFL coaches' hierarchy, conversely, is their commitment to a system that does not fit the talent on the field or the circumstances of the moment. Turner and Childress each excel at this.

If there were any doubt about where Childress fell in the hierarchy of NFL coaches, consider his post-game comments on Sunday. "If the team was not ready to play," Childress stated, "I take responsibility. If they didn't come out with fire, that's on me." That's coach speak these days for "I'll take responsibility as long as it is understood that it's not my fault--it's the players' fault."

But even if one were to accept at face value Childress' post-game mea culpa, the statement is equally damning for what it says about Childress' understanding of the Vikings' primary faults on Sunday. What Childress seems not to understand is that the Vikings' horrific performance on Sunday was not the result of the team not being "hyped" to play. Rather, it was the result of a stale formula for playing football that has been rejected by organizations that embrace changes in the rules and in the speed, size, and quickness of the players on the field. The YAC offense of Y.A. Title is simply not appropriate for the modern NFL, but that's what Childress wants to run and what, to his dying day, he appears prepared to shove down the throats of fans unfortunate enough to benefit from his tutelage of their favorite team.

After 25 games of the same system, and ample time for his players to "adjust" to the purported intricacies of an offense that appears to have none, Childress' willingness to accept blame for his players' performance is thus beyond the point of wearing thin.

Up Next: Scouting Childress' Successor.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Keeping It Real

Throughout the week, Minnesota Vikings' head coach Brad Childress has repeated his new favorite cliche that he will "play the quarterback that gives us the best chance to win." For most head coaches, that means actually playing the quarterback who gives their team the best chance to win. For Childress, unfortunately, it appears that it means something quite different.

Despite outshining Tarvaris Jackson in every meaningful category, it appears that Brooks Bollinger remains secondary--or tertiary--in coach Childress' mind. Rumors out of Winter Park suggest that Jackson still could be the starter at Lambeau Field on Sunday. And, with the signing of yet another washed-up, never-was former Philadelphia Eagles' quarterback, Koy Detmer, it appears possible that Bollinger could fall as far as to be named the emergency quarterback against Green Bay.

While Childress might offer some elucidation on how Jackson provides the Vikings their best chance to win on Sunday, it's likely to be as unsatisfactory as the decision itself.

Those who side with Childress' continuing support for pushing a clearly unready Jackson at quarterback have been fond of noting the early-career struggles of other quarterbacks who have now become household names. The problem with these comparisons, of course, has been their complete lack of basis in reality.

Two quarterbacks most commonly compared to Jackson for purposes of showing early-career struggles have been Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, with proponents of the comparisons pointing to the Colts' record in 1998 before resting their case. A fuller comparison, clearly is in order.

In 1998, Peyton Manning's first in the NFL, the Colts' quarterback completed 326 of 575 passes for 3,739 yards and 26 touchdowns. He followed that performance up by completing 331 of 533 passes for 4,135 yards and 26 passing touchdowns--and two rushing touchdowns--in 1999.

Through his first nine starts with the Vikings, Tarvaris Jackson has completed 98 of 191 passes for 1,075 yards, four passing touchdowns, and one rushing touchdown. Over a sixteen game season, that prorates to 174 of 339 pass completions for 1,911 yards, seven passing touchdowns and two rushing touchdowns.

Clearly, Manning was far superior to Jackson statistically speaking at the beginning of his career. The comparison to early struggles between the two, a comparison intended to show what Jackson might become, thus appears specious, at best.

A comparison with Tom Brady appears equally problematic. In the first nine games of his career, Brady completed 140 of 221 passes for 1,426 yards and 11 touchdown passes. In his first full season, the Patriots' quarterback completed 264 of 413 passes for 2,843 yards and 18 touchdowns. Even adjusting for Jackson's fewer pass attempts, the comparison to Brady's early career appears weak.

There are two quarterbacks with whose early careers Jackson's early career does more favorably compare. Those two quarterbacks are former Chicago Bears' starting quarterback, Rex Grossman, and Baltimore Ravens' quarterback, Kyle Boller.

In his first nine NFL games, Grossman completed 123 of 221 passes for 1,565, with five passing touchdowns and one rushing touchdown. Grossman's numbers are slightly better than are Jackson's, but so too are Grossman's attempts. On the other hand, Grossman had the unfortunate experience of incurring an injury that forced him to accumulate the statistics for his first nine games over four seasons. If Jackson is to be given some leeway for his injuries, so too should Grossman be given similar leeway.

Kyle Boller had no such unfortunate experience, playing the first nine games of the 2003 season. In those nine games, the Ravens' quarterback completed 104 of 212 passes with six passing touchdowns. Those numbers look like Jackson's numbers. And those numbers make Boller an apt comparison with Jackson, at least in terms of early-career statistics.

If the Vikings intend to win now--a good idea in today's NFL that rewards the moment--Bollinger is the better choice at starting quarterback at Green Bay than is Jackson. And if Vikings' fans want a real dose of reality, Bollinger might be the better choice as the starter in the long run, barring the edition of something better. That is, unless the Vikings plan to win with a quarterback that is showing more the progression of Grossman and Boller than Manning or Brady.

Up Next: Tough Road Match.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Actions Speak Louder Than Words

For the third time in as many months, one of our local scribes has repeated a comment that he purportedly took directly from the mouth of Minnesota Vikings' owner Zygi Wilf. According to our scribe, Wilf stated that he wished he had finalized his purchase of the Vikings prior to the Randy Moss trade, presumably so that the trade never would have occurred.

Wilf's claim is plausible, though inconsistent with his recent actions. At the end of the 2006 season, it was clear that the Oakland Raiders were taking offers for the disgruntled Moss. Three months after the off-season began, New England closed a deal with the Raiders, obtaining Moss for a fourth-round pick in the NFL draft.

If Wilf truly was so entirely constipated by the loss of Moss prior to his finalization of the purchase of the Vikings, one would think that he would have stepped forward and offered a third-round pick for Moss this off-season. That would have been nice for all involved. Though it probably would not have done much for the Vikings' offense, absent a quarterback and a system that envisions downfield plays, at least it would have spared us the octogenarian ass-smooching of Zygi and the re-telling of Zygi's purported laments.

Having it Both Ways

When our local scribe is not too busy waxing the puckerhole of the Vikings' owner, he's dutifully carving out a laundry list of excuses to which any number of local coaches, managers, and sports franchise owners can turn to explain their woes. Not surprisingly, none of the excuses suggested by our scribe require any admission of poor decision-making or self-responsibility in any form on the part of the local decision-makers.

This week's installment of ready-made excuses included the following:

After noting what even our local scribe can no longer deny, namely, that the Minnesota Gopher football team's defense is statistically one of the worst in NCAA Division I play, our scribe continued to portray the problem as exclusively one of talent. Not surprisingly, he did so by turning to a local athlete with ties to one of the coach's apparently not responsible for the U's defensive woes.

On Everett Withers, the former secondary coach for the Tennessee Titans, for whom current Vikings' receiver Bobby Wade played in 2006, Wade said he thinks Withers, who is now the secondary coach at the U, is a good coach. Undoubtedly after being prodded by our local scribe, Wade noted that Withers "developed" the Titans' seventh-round corner, Reynaldo Hill, into a top back.

While it's always special to hear a player's public take on a coach for whom he played and for whom he might well play again, it's especially nice in this instance. For, while Withers might be a good coach, he has done nothing to improve the Gophers' secondary in 2006, at least not from any statistically measurable standpoint. Maybe that's why he's at the U now instead of still in the NFL.

There's more, of course, but it will have to wait for a rainy day. Or for the next major let-down in local sports that our scribe did not see coming and for which our scribe will steadfastly refuse to blame anyone involved--at least until they leave the team and are now longer of any use to him.

Up next: Packer Weak?

Monday, November 05, 2007

Hoping Childress Does Not Miss the Forest for the Trees

In Sunday afternoon's unexpected Vikings' romp over the San Diego Chargers, Vikings' rookie running back Adrian Peterson rushed for an NFL record 296 yards en route to ensuring the Vikings a victory and himself the rookie of the year award.

More substantial, however, than the Vikings' in-game accomplishments are the possible long-term repercussions of the solid victory. For, with the win, the Vikings likely saved head coach Brad Childress' job not only for next year, but for several years to come. Because, although Childress did little other than ride his best player, he at least showed the common sense finally to do that much on offense. And it might be all that the Vikings need in a terrifyingly awful NFC.

Things could still return to pre-Sunday form, however, if Childress does not take at least three significant lessons from Sunday's game. The first and most apparent being that Peterson needs to get the ball early and often. Far surpassing his highest carry total to date on Sunday, Peterson showed the ability to carry the load with little more than a sweat.

Is there concern that Childress will again pull back his ace offensive player in favor of a more even rotation system with backup Chester Taylor? Given that, despite running rough shod over the Chargers throughout much of the game, Peterson stood on the sidelines in favor of Taylor on what was then a critical redzone sequence certainly raises that possibility. But surely even Childress is aware that his career now rests squarely on acknowledging Peterson's value in the game versus on the sidelines.

The second lesson from Sunday's game is one for Childress as head of the coaching staff, but probably more properly directed at defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier. That lesson is that pressure makes loose coverage seem quite a bit tighter. Despite allowing several Chargers' receivers to get free, second-year cornerback was beaten not once (at least not once that counted) on Sunday as Chargers' quarterback Philip Rivers received a healthy dose of pressure from all angles.

Not content to simply rely on his defensive ends to apply pressure on Rivers, Frazier more than once sent middle linebacker E.J. Henderson into the backfield, with one such episode leading to one of the better Vikings' defensive efforts since the Purple People Eaters roamed the field, with Henderson leaping over LaDainian Tomlinson into a stunned Rivers. That play was a microcosm of what the Vikings did well on defense on Sunday and what they will have to continue to do well against more experienced quarterbacks this year if they hope to get back into the race for a playoff spot.

The final lesson from Sunday's game, and the one lesson that seems most lost in the excitement over Peterson's outstanding performance, is that in the modern NFL the ability to complete a deep pass is a pre-requisite to an effective offense. For the Vikings, that lesson leads to the conclusion that that the team's starter for the remainder of the season must be Brooks Bollinger.

In the first half of Sunday's game, prior to Tarvaris Jackson's game-ending injury, Peterson rushed for sixty yards and one touchdown. Those are respectable numbers for many running backs in the NFL, but well below what Peterson has proven he is capable of producing if given an opportunity and even a modicum of breathing space.

In the second half of the game, with Bollinger at quarterback, Peterson ran for 236 yards and two touchdowns.

In the first half, the Vikings had seven possessions, averaged just under five plays per possession, going three and out twice and four and out twice en route to seven first-half points.

In the second half, the Vikings had six possessions (excluding their final possession during which they ran out the game clock), averaged just five plays per possession, never once going three and out, en route to four touchdowns.

After punting five times in the first half, the Vikings did not punt once in the second half, ending four drives with touchdowns and two others with fumbles.

The difference between the first and second half was the dominance of Peterson. But that dominance was made possible by the Vikings' ability to force the Chargers to respect the deep pass. The Vikings accomplished this very necessary task by showing pass on the first drive of the second half and proving it indelibly on the second drive of the second half when Bollinger hit little-used, rookie wide receiver Sidney Rice for a 40-yard touchdown. That play, along with the completed passes during the first drive of the second half, forced the Chargers to play honest defense. And that opened holes in the line for Peterson.

Childress has proven stubborn in the past, relenting only this week to calls to use Peterson more extensively. We shall soon know if he remains as stubborn about foisting upon the team a rookie quarterback who's not nearly as ready to start in the NFL as is the team's purported third-stringer, Bollinger. If Bollinger gets the nod in Green Bay next week, the Vikings just might turn a season that only last week appeared destined for one filled with ignominy into a possible playoff berth. If not...

Up Next: More Numbers.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Return to the Greasy Grass

Native Americans referred to it as The Battle of the Greasy Grass. Others more commonly refer to it as The Battle of Little Big Horn or Custer's Last Stand. In either parlance, the battle between the U.S. Seventh Cavalary and the Lakota and Northern Cheyenne Indians readily came to mind during Minnesota Vikings' head coach Brad Childress' most recent press conference in the wake of the team's most recent loss.

When asked about his team's morale, Childress commented that the players are "professional" and that they would "be ready to play on Sunday." That insight aside, Childress offered more, noting that he reminded his players that working together through the rough stretches would make the team stronger in the future.

The question, of course, is what gives Childress reason to believe that the future is significantly brighter than the present? Following Sunday's loss to the previously 2-4 Philadelphia Eagles, the Vikings have lost 13 of their last 17 games. And, while Childress continues to preach patience, even Custer's men abadon such hope at some point.

The 800 pound gorilla for the Vikings remains whether Childress' system offers promise even for the future? It appears that, despite a finger injury that kept Tarvaris Jackson out last week, Childress is now willing to test the finger and put Jackson back at the helm of the offense, suggesting that Childress is resigned to not making the playoffs this season.

Assuming, however, that Jackson shows progress this season, is there much more reason for optimism in 2008 even with a better Jackson? Childress' comments suggest that he believes next year, or some year in the near future, will be a better year for the Vikings. But considering Childress' approach to the game, that seems doubtful at this point.

The recipe for returning the Vikings to success appears two-fold. First and foremost, the team needs better quarterbacking play. Brooks Bollinger appears to be the most equipped current Vikings' quarterback to meet that need. Instead, however, Jackson will be given a chance to learn the position and, presumably, audition for his return to the starter's role next season.

If Jackson succeeds, however, the Vikings still will have one large obstacle to returning to the status of championship contender. That obstacle is the mind-set of the head coach. It is improbable, if not impossible, to win an NFL championship with the approach that Childress currently is employing. Teams that play not to lose, keeping the game close in the hopes of snatching victory at the end, are, as precedent demonstrates and probability supports, destined, at best, for mediocrity.

If Childress changes his mindsight--something that sounds implausible given his most recent remarks, and the Vikings identify a bona fide starting quarterback, be that an improved Jackson or someone other, the Vikings might have coaching and ability to add to the ability strewn throughout the rest of the squad. That, at least, would allow the team to compete for a championship--assuming they straighten out their deficiencies on pass defense and don't age too much in the process. But, to argue that perserverance will out without changes in the team's offensive philosophy is a recipe for continued failure.

Right now, it looks like smoke signals on the horizon.

Up Next: Good and Bad Comparisons

Return to the Greasy Grass

Native Americans referred to it as The Battle of the Greasy Grass. Others more commonly refer to it as The Battle of Little Big Horn or Custer's Last Stand. In either parlance, the battle between the U.S. Seventh Cavalary and the Lakota and Northern Cheyenne Indians readily came to mind during Minnesota Vikings' head coach Brad Childress' most recent press conference in the wake of the team's most recent loss.

When asked about his team's morale, Childress commented that the players are "professional" and that they would "be ready to play on Sunday." That insight aside, Childress offered more, noting that he reminded his players that working together through the rough stretches would make the team stronger in the future.

The question, of course, is what gives Childress reason to believe that the future is significantly brighter than the present? Following Sunday's loss to the previously 2-4 Philadelphia Eagles, the Vikings have lost 13 of their last 17 games. And, while Childress continues to preach patience, even Custer's men abadon such hope at some point.

The 800 pound gorilla for the Vikings remains whether Childress' system offers promise even for the future? It appears that, despite a finger injury that kept Tarvaris Jackson out last week, Childress is now willing to test the finger and put Jackson back at the helm of the offense, suggesting that Childress is resigned to not making the playoffs this season.

Assuming, however, that Jackson shows progress this season, is there much more reason for optimism in 2008 even with a better Jackson? Childress' comments suggest that he believes next year, or some year in the near future, will be a better year for the Vikings. But considering Childress' approach to the game, that seems doubtful at this point.

The recipe for returning the Vikings to success appears two-fold. First and foremost, the team needs better quarterbacking play. Brooks Bollinger appears to be the most equipped current Vikings' quarterback to meet that need. Instead, however, Jackson will be given a chance to learn the position and, presumably, audition for his return to the starter's role next season.

If Jackson succeeds, however, the Vikings still will have one large obstacle to returning to the status of championship contender. That obstacle is the mind-set of the head coach. It is improbable, if not impossible, to win an NFL championship with the approach that Childress currently is employing. Teams that play not to lose, keeping the game close in the hopes of snatching victory at the end, are, as precedent demonstrates and probability supports, destined, at best, for mediocrity.

If Childress changes his mindsight--something that sounds implausible given his most recent remarks, and the Vikings identify a bona fide starting quarterback, be that an improved Jackson or someone other, the Vikings might have coaching and ability to add to the ability strewn throughout the rest of the squad. That, at least, would allow the team to compete for a championship--assuming they straighten out their deficiencies on pass defense and don't age too much in the process. But, to argue that perserverance will out without changes in the team's offensive philosophy is a recipe for continued failure.

Up Next: Good and Bad Comparisons

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

When Bad is Worse

It's no secret that, despite head coach Brad Childress' implementation of a "kick ass offense," the Minnesota Vikings' offense continues to struggle. Those struggles have come despite a respectable upper-half-of-the-league average of 5.1 yards per down gained and Adrian Peterson's league-leading rushing total of 740 yards.

The problem for Minnesota, of course, has been the inability to coordinate any semblance of a passing game. Tarvaris Jackson was to have been the helmsman for a maturing offense, but has failed so far as a leader, looking more and more like a lost follower. Kelly Holcomb amazingly fared worse, leaving the Vikings to pin their hopes either on Jackson and his injured finger or on previous third-string quarterback, Brooks Bollinger.

How bad have things become in the land of once proud and mighty passers and receivers? Quite bad.

Consider the Vikings' current positions. Among the top 30 statistically ranked quarterbacks in the NFL, none wear Vikings' purple. Brian Griese, Joey Harrington, Chad Pennington, Kurt Warner, Trent Edwards, Cleo Lemon, and Daunte Culpepper all rank higher than any of the Vikings' current trio of QBs.

And while the Vikings' passing problems begin with the quarterback, they extend to the receiving corps. Most realistic Vikings' fans realized that, in Troy Williamson, Bobby Wade, Robert Ferguson, and Sidney Rice, the Vikings did not have a true number one receiver and, arguably, were without a legitimate number two receiver. Not content with the general sentiment, however, the receiving corps--with generous assistance from the team's quarterbacks, has made it a mission to prove the point.

Some frightening numbers stand out for this year's Vikings' wide receivers. Through seven games, the Vikings' wide receivers have accumulated 675 total yards and two touchdowns. The Miami Dolphins' wide receivers, meanwhile, despite catching passes from Cleo Lemon and having plays called by Cam Cameron, have amassed 1,016 yards of offense and three touchdowns.

If losing the comparison to what should be the worst passing offense in the NFL does not make Vikings' fans' hearts crumple, perhaps the bigger picture will. For in the NFL, as Childress forever reminds us, the goal is to win championships. And in a league in which the soon-to-be champions currently go by the name of New England, there are significantly more discouraging numbers for the Vikings.

While the Vikings struggle to keep up with the Dolphins' offense, they lag eons behind the standard-bearers with no visible prospects of closing the gap in the near future. The Patriots top three wide receivers have amassed 1,803 yards of offense and 20 touchdowns in eight games. If you want a window to the future of this offense, that seems like an insurmountable gap.

The even bigger picture, of course, is the decision-making at the top. Despite all the warning signs that suggested the moves were imprudent, the Vikings' entered the 2007 season with three unproven quarterbacks in their rotation and no play-maker at wide-receiver. Those were Childress' calls. So, too, has it been Childress' call to play it tight, leaving for after games laments about how if only one of four mid-range passes had connected, the outcome might have been different.

The Vikings face many of the same offensive issues that all teams in the NFL face. Receivers drop passes, quarterbacks throw errant passes, and plays are missed. But when the game is called not to lose, rather than to win, the errors are magnified because there is so little opportunity for redemption. That makes average-at-best players far worse than they ought to be. And it leaves the Vikings hanging out with the likes of the Dolphins and nowhere near the likes of the Patriots.

Up next: Good and Bad Comparisons.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Micro- and Macro-managing a Team to the Bottom

In the aftermath of the Minnesota Viking's 23-16 home loss to the previously 2-4 Philadelphia Eagles, there were many things to which one could point for affirmation that the Vikings are, at best, treading water, and doing so in the deep end. The persistence of these issues suggest that despite the Vikings' purported commitment to "doing things the right way" (a poor choice of words for any rookie coach or owner even if not nauseatingly cliched to begin with), the Vikings continue to do anything but do things the right way.

On the field Sunday, Vikings' head coach Brad Childress committed yet another peculiar error in judgment in what has become an inexplicable trend. Following an Eagle kickoff that Vikings' rookie Adrian Peterson took out of bounds on the Vikings' one-yard line, Childress threw the challenge flag. On a play for which it would have been difficult to conceive of a camera angle that might have given Childress even pause to consider challenging the play on the field, Childress was convinced that what he hoped was the case would be proven upon review.

Every camera angle offered by the national network showed Peterson catching the ball in play and stepping out. Childress was not buying what his eyes--with the aid of the Vikings' jumbotron and other monitors in the Vikings' booth--saw. The subsequently upheld call cost the Vikings not only a timeout, but their final challenge, as Childress stared up at the dome ceiling.

Not to be outdone, Vikings' players joined their coach in making questionable decisions. In addition to Peterson's decision, Bobby Wade opted to field an Eagles' punt at the Vikings' one-yard line late in the game instead of letting the punt bounce out of the endzone for a touchback while preserving some time on the game clock. Wade's decision cost the Vikings valuable time on the clock as well as better field position, with the Vikings forced to begin their drive from their own nine-yard line, rather than their own 20-yard line, with about nine fewer seconds on the clock.

Wade compounded his judment error by his post-game remarks. Responding to sideline and lockerroom reporter Greg Coleman's unusually frontal question about his thought process in fielding the punt, Wade confided that he was "trying to make something happen" because he "knew [we] needed two scores."
The problem, of course, is that the Vikings needed only one score to tie the game, raising the question of how closely Childress' purportedly key players are paying attention to the game on the field.

The errors on the field are bad enough for a team trying to win by not losing. But Childress compounded those errors by making an additional error before the team even took the field, relying on his third-best/first-worst quarterback on the roster to not lose the game. With Tarvaris Jackson out with a finger injury, Childress inserted the immobile, poor-throwing , former Eagle, Kelly Holcomb, as the starter over the more-mobile, better-throwing, former Badger, Brooks Bollinger. The results were as predictable as Childress' offense.

As Childress continues to struggle with rudimentary decision-making, the Vikings' organization plods on in its ill-fated commitment to it's first meaningful decision involving the team. Though much earlier in time, the Vikings' organization, led by the quick trigger of football neophyte and Vikings' owner, Zygi Wilf, opted to hire a rookie head coach with limited playcalling experience, largely in the belief that Childress could make a boring brand of football exciting. Unfortunately, Childress proved to be neither the offensive guru nor the quarterback mentor that he still professes to be and the team and fans have suffered as a result.

Though it is quickly becoming too late for Childress, it ought not to be for the Vikings' organization. But, in the search for a new stadium, will the light go on for Zygi anytime soon?

Up next: Good and Bad Comparisons. Plus, teams that are worth their salt.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Patently Poor Decision Makes Evaluation Difficult

At the end of the 2006 NFL season, Minnesota Vikings' head coach Brad Childress benched struggling quarterback Brad Johnson in favor of raw rookie Tarvaris Jackson. The results were predictable, with the Vikings struggling down the stretch, largely as the result of poor quarterback play.

"Be patient," Childress replied to agitated Vikings' fans, "the fruits of the change will be evident soon enough." So confident was Childress in his assessment of the progression of his rookie quarterback that he entered the 2007 season with Jackson as his starter ahead of two backups with limited and mostly uneventful playing careers in the NFL.

When Jackson went down with an injury against the Detroit Lions in overtime this season, Childress summoned backup number one, the guy who purportedly knew "the system" and was prepared to run it, Brooks Bollinger.

After an inauspicious showing in limited playing time against the Lions, including a sack and a fumble, Childress had seen enough. "Calm down," he again told the Vikings' fan base, "the guy who really knows how to run the system will be ready to go next week."

For the next two weeks, Vikings' fans got a glimpse of journeyman Kelly Holcomb, who, for those delusional enough to believe otherwise, quickly demonstrated why he has been nothing more than a backup for most of his overly long NFL career.

"What now, coach?" The fans implored.

"Look, we've got our guy ready to go," Childress replied. "Tarvaris will be ready to go after the bye week. He's the guy we need in there. He's the guy that gives us the best chance to win."

The bye week came and went and, as promised, Jackson returned to the helm as quarterback of the local squad. With his head coach holding his breath from the sideline, Jackson led the Vikings' down the field for an 11-play, 69-yard, touchdown, featuring 27 yards rushing from Adrian Peterson, 21 yards rushing from Chester Taylor, 6 yards rushing from Jackson, and 15 yards passing from Jackson. Childress wiped his brow. He should have waited.

For the remainder of the game, the Vikings totaled 127 yards of offense, with 50 yards of passing offense on 4 of 16 passing. The results proved one of two things. Either Jackson is not capable of running Childress' system and should not be in the game or Jackson is not capable of running Childress' system but is less incapable than are either Bollinger or Holcomb.

Either conclusion is sobering, if anyone needed any sobering of their expectations about the Vikings, but neither is very satisfying. If the problem is the quarterback, the Vikings have wasted a season of good defense to push a quarterback not ready to play in the NFL. If the problem is the system, the Vikings have wasted two seasons, and possibly more, on a coach seemingly unwilling to or incapable of making the necessary changes.

Up Next: The Price of Performance. Plus, behind the numbers.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Measuring Jackson's Progress

In the aftermath of the Vikings' narrow victory over the Chicago Bears last Sunday, much of the attention rightfully was on the performance of rookie running back Adrian Peterson. But, as fans and reporters began assessing the other attributes of the game, most came away with another similar point of praise--the performance of second-year quarterback Tarvaris Jackson.

While some of the praise was outright ridiculous, with one local radio homer more than suggesting that, but for dropped and misthrown passes, Jackson would have had three or four touchdown passes, most of the praise was far more sensible. The most common remarks were that Jackson played a good game, showed some improvement, and, cover your ears if you're tired of hearing stupid football cliches, managed the game well while giving his team a chance to win. Vikings' color analyst, Pete Bercich, even threw in his favorite cliche that Jackson "decided to live to play another day."

Six weeks and three games into his first full season of quarterbacking the Vikings, and seven games into his NFL career, it is worthwhile to assess where Jackson is in his progression toward becoming a bona fide NFL starter. And, while some figures point to Jackson's growth, at least one suggests that views of such growth ought to await review upon Jackson having faced stiffer competition.

Against Chicago, Jackson completed 9 of 23 passes for 136 yards, one touchdown, zero interceptions, and finished the game with a quarterback rating of 73.8. Of the 136 passing yards, all but 76 were accounted for on a single touchdown pass to Troy Williamson.

Vikings' head coach Brad Childress was quick to point to three figures when asked to assess Jackson's performance. The first was the absence of interceptions from Jackson's stat line. Win the battle of turnovers, Chilly likes to say to those who have never before heard the line, and you usually win the game.

The second figure Chilly referenced was that of dropped passes--three or four, depending on who's counting. Convert those dropped passes into completions, Chilly suggested, and you're looking not only at a well-managed game without quarterback turnovers, but also one with a fairly good looking stat line for the starting quarterback with an above-average quarterback rating.

Finally, Chilly observed, Jackson contributed in a manner in which his predecessor, Kelly Holcomb, was unable to contribute. Namely, Jackson, relying on his pocket awareness and adroitness in the pocket, succumbed to but a solitary sack against the Bears' vaunted defensive line.

Vikings' fans who, through the years have seen both highly mobile quarterbacks and slothfully slow quarterbacks at the helm, are unquestionably well-schooled in identifying which of the two lots of quarterbacks is the preferred. And Jackson clearly falls into the preferred lot when it comes to mobility and pocket awareness. Against Chicago, a team so woefully beat up on defense that the Vikings did not need to rely on the arm of Jackson despite needing 34 points to win, Jackson showed pocket presence and elusiveness that suggested his maturation as a quarterback.

The lingering question, however, is what Jackson will do if and when he is called upon to be more than an afterthought in the offense? Jackson's stat line against Chicago was quite similar to his stat line against an arguably more formidable defense at the moment, the Atlanta Falcons. Against Atlanta, Jackson was 13 of 23 for 163 yards, one touchdown, one interception, and a quarterback rating of 75.1. As in the Chicago game, 60 of Jackson's total passing yards against Atlanta were the result of one touchdown pass. That's not to suggest that Jackson has regressed by putting up lesser slightly lesser statistics against a depleted Bears' defense, but it does raise the question of the extent of Jackson's maturation at this point in his career.

The next six weeks will tell much more about Jackson's progress than did the game against the Bears. While Chicago's defense currently ranks 26th against the run, five of the Vikings' next six opponents are much more stout against the run, with all but Oakland ranking in the upper-half of the league in run defense.

The point, of course, is that against stronger run defenses, even a team blessed with perhaps the best running-back tandem in the NFL this year probably will need to lean on its quarterback more than the Vikings leaned on Jackson in a relatively easy outing in Chicago. Against the likes of Dallas and San Diego, and, to a lesser extent, Philadelphia, Green Bay, and the New York Giants, 9 of 23 probably won't get the job done.

Since Jackson first stepped onto the Vikings' Eden Prairie practice field to take part in mini-camp in 2006, it has been evident that he possesses both quickness and a strong arm. Against Chicago, Jackson flashed both his quickness and his arm strength, as well as a measure of poise in the pocket. What he has yet to demonstrate, however, is touch. And, though it would seem to be the easiest of all the necessary quarterback tools for a quarterback to assimilate, it seems to be the toughest in coming for Jackson.

Up Next: How Much is Too Much for a Proven Player? Plus, it's not the top, but it's much better than the bottom.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Gulliver Pounds Lilliputians

It wasn't against the best Bears' defense or against a vaunted offense, but, on a day when the Vikings' defense faltered, it was enough. And, in the aftermath of successive games in which the Vikings' coaching staff inexplicably left rookie running back Adrian Peterson on the sidelines in crunch time, Peterson made sure that staff did not make the same mistake thrice.

With touchdown runs of 67, 73, and 35 yards, and an eye-popping yards-per-carry just north of 11 yards, Peterson demonstrated why he, rather than Chester Taylor, is the guy around whom the Vikings need to tailor their offense. In previous losses to Kansas City and Green Bay, Vikings' head coach Brad Childress found himself attempting to explain why he had kept Peterson on the sidelines with the game hanging in the balance and the Vikings on offense.

After the loss to Kanas City, Chilly contended that Peterson was not as able to pick up the blitz as was Taylor. That explanation was unacceptable. After the loss to Green Bay, a game in which Peterson again was forced to watch his team's final drive from the sidelines, Chilly contended that Peterson had been kept out of the game, not so much because of blocking concerns, but because he needed a break having been on kick return all day. That explanation was even more unacceptable.

On Sunday in Chicago, Childress demonstrated his ability to change, however limited, keeping his rookie running back in a starring role through the end of the game. Despite rushing for over 200 yards, and threatening to best the rushing mark of 275 yards that Sweetness set against the Purple in one of the Vikings' more horrific defensive efforts in team history, Peterson not only entered the game to return the kickoff following the Bears' improbable game-tying touchdown inside of two minutes, he also stayed in the game for the game-winning drive.

Not surprisingly, Peterson, who looked like Gulliver surrounded by Lilliputians for much of the game, but particularly as he ran up the middle for a 53-yard kick return inside of two minutes left in the game, made Chilly's change of perspective pay dividends. Though he contributed a 4-yard loss in his only carry from the line of scrimmage in the ensuing, four-play drive capped by a game-winning, 55-yard field goal, his mere presence showed that Chilly has now conceded his value to the team in such situations.

If Chilly continues to call Peterson's number and challenges the numerous suspect defenses of the NFC to stop the running back, the Vikings could well ride the back of their rookie to a respectable season, regardless of whether quarterback Tarvaris Jackson figures out how to put air under the ball. And that might be enough to permit Vikings' fans to overlook some of the team's other short-comings and even help alleviate those short-comings.

Up Next: Defensive Issues. Plus, some signs of coaching improvement.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Stop the Madness

If you've never before had root-canal surgery without anaesthesia and want to experience the pain without paying the price, you're in luck. Every Thursday throughout the 2007 NFL season, Vikings' play-by-play announcer, Paul Allen, hosts a weekly radio show, with Vikings' head coach Brad Childress as the weekly featured guest. After a brief listen, you will be left with the inescapable conclusion that it cannot get any worse than what you have already heard. You will be wrong--very wrong.

It is difficult to decide with whom to place one's sympathy, the listener, Allen, or Childress. Childress is a sympathetic figure for having to deal with inane question after inane question, with nary a follow-up in sight, and weak attempts by the show's host to cajole information from the head coach that the head coach has made abundantly clear he does not intend to divulge.

But Chilly is also an unsympathetic figure for feeding the appetite of the host, thus allowing the show painfully to crawl forward, and for refusing to give anything more than tightly couched responses to virtually every question that the host poses.

And that makes Allen a sympathetic figure, as he is forced to ask questions that Chilly will answer. That frequently leads Allen to ask such questions as "Does it make you feel good when your football team performs well on the field?" Allowing Allen his penchant for using extraneous words, is this really a question that can lead to anything anyone cares to hear?

At best, it's a rhetorical question, but Allen makes the question worse by rephrasing it, as if it were not clear to begin with and as if there were a deeper question at the core. Alas, there is not, as the re-phrasing typically follows something along the lines of "What I mean is, do you get some extra satisfaction from seeing your football team--guys that you put into position to make football plays--make those plays and help your team to a victory?"

That makes Allen an unsympathetic figure and leaves only the listener for whom to have any sympathy. For the unwitting listener, some sympathy is in order. But for the fan that has listened to this in the past and still come back for more of the same, there can and should be none. And Vikings' fans who tune into this mush will have to content themselves merely with knowing that it is done for the week.

In spite of the routine pablum of the coach's show, there are, from time to time, some nice tidbits to be gleaned by listening to Chilly's consistent themes. Thursday night, Allen, pushing the envelope a bit for a guy who usually seems most comfortable sharing a pair of pants with the head coach, almost accused the coach of making a mistake by not getting Sidney Rice, Adrian Peterson, and Chester Taylor on the field together for numerous plays throughout the game.

Though Allen immediately back-pedaled, acknowledging his deep, dark secret that Chilly "knows more about this stuff than I will ever know" (sound of lips smooching butt cheeks in the background), he nevertheless remained bold enough not to withdraw the question. And Chilly's response was as telling as anything that Chilly has ever publicly said while head coach of the Vikings.

"There are times when we can get all three of those guys on the field, yes," Chilly replied. "But, you know, you only have one ball, so you can't get it to all of them."

There was a pause as Allen processed the response, thinking he could not possibly have heard what he just heard. He could not possibly have heard the Vikings' head coach suggest that it was pointless to put Rice, Peterson, and Taylor on the field together when there was only one ball, could he have?

"But, coach," a stunned Allen replied, pulling his upper lip away from Chilly's sphincter, "um, you could use two of them as decoys, right?" Again, Allen offered that the coach knew "way more about this stuff" than did he, but, again, he refused to withdraw the question.

"Sure, you could," Chilly replied, still not realizing his gaffe. "But there's a lot that goes into that."

Not clear what Chilly meant, Allen moved on.

For fans waiting to see if the light will go on for Chilly, the wait might be long. The Vikings clearly have some offensive talent at this point that the coaching staff simply refuses fully to utilize. While the implication once was that those players were not ready, the suggestion from the head coach now appears far more ominous--it is the coaching staff that is not ready to use the players. With such laggardly use of talent, fans can expect the coaching staff to catch up to the talent about the time that the talent decides to leave.

Up Next: Blues for the Vikings?

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Leagues Behind the Standard

When the Vikings lost their third game in four tries this season and their thirteenth game in twenty games under head coach Brad Childress, there was less surprise than there was dismay at how the team managed its way to the loss. That dismay is amplified when the performance of the Vikings' coaching staff, specifically that of the head coach, is contrasted with that of the standard in the NFL, New England head coach Bill Belichick.

In 1991, Belichick entered the ranks of NFL head coaches much the same way that Childress entered the ranks last season, finishing his first season with a 6-10 record. Belichick followed that up with a slight improvement the next two seasons, guiding the Browns to 7-9 records in each season before making the leap to 11-5 in 1994. Following a dismal 1995 season, Belichick was let go by the Browns.

Five years after receiving his pink slip from the Browns, Belichick re-emerged as a head coach in the NFL. In his first season at the helm of the Patriots, he guided the Patriots to a 5-11 record. He has not won fewer than nine games in any one season since then.

For Vikings' fans convinced that Childress is anywhere near the coach that Belichick once was and on his way to the coach that Belichick now is, the most sobering question is whether it is worth the wait for a similar coach to establish himself in the NFL. For Belichick, the gap between entering the ranks of NFL head coaches and becoming a consistent winner was ten years. In a league that truly rewards teams that attempt to win today and punishes teams that work with building blocks year after year, that decade gap looks even larger today.

Hinting at how far behind Belichick Childress currently stands as a head coach are four key decisions from week four's games, two from the Vikings' game and two from the Patriots' game. While Childress withheld from play his best offensive player when he most needed that player on the field--the second time in two weeks that Childress has opted to keep Adrian Peterson on the sideline in crunch time--and refused to take shots into the endzone until the game was virtually out of reach, Belichick was making intelligent decisions at critical junctures.

Absent the services of injured running back Laurence Maroney, Belichick did what he seems to do best; he found a player to fill the void. Tabbing backup running back Sammy Morris, Belichick road his sub for 21 carries and 2 pass receptions for a total of 132 yards and a touchdown. At no time did Belichick express any trepidation about wearing out his sub by having him in the backfield for the majority of the game, despite Morris' previous high of 12 carries.

More telling of the difference between Childress and Belichick, however, was the red zone offense that Belichick employed that resulted in the Patriots' second touchdown of the game. Employing what was essentially a nine-man offensive line that featured three tight-ends and the starting fullback, Belichick lined up his backup fullback in the tailback spot. The ploy gave quarterback Tom Brady all day to find a tight end and a monstrous wall to run a monstrous tailback behind. The result, predictably, was a touchdown.

Ultimately, Belichick is not such a genius for doing things that seem incredible. Rather, he is intelligent for doing things that make sense under the circumstances when his counterparts, too wedded to the script and too afraid of failing when not following the herd, refuse to do so.

Childress has shown no inclination to stray from the herd, even refusing to stay at the front of the pack. That mindset, as much as problems on the offensive line, questionable decisions to trade up in the draft to take unproven talent, trades for players that have not worked, and a bottom-line losing record, not only marks Childress as leagues behind the standard for head coaches in the NFL, it also marks him for early extinction, absent an immediate epiphany.

Up Next: Inside the Numbers.