Sunday, January 21, 2007

With Tomlin Gone Will Childress Pull Another Bevell?

Just when Vikings' fans were settling in for another off-season of promising rebuilding, it appears that one of the primary bright spots of the 2006 team will be leaving--possibly as soon as Monday. On Saturday evening, reports began circulating that Vikings' defensive coordinator Mike Tomlin had been offered the head coaching position with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Predictably, given the league's desire to showcase its championship games, the Steelers, on Sunday, denied the reports, going so far as to post an ambiguous statement on their official site.

With the Steelers stating that they would have no statement on their head coaching vacancy until at least Monday and Tomlin denying that he had accepted or even been offered the position, more telling was Tomlin's seeming uneasiness that all of the media attention might somehow give the Pittsburgh management team cause to reassess their offer. Clearly, Pittsburgh has made an offer. And, just as clearly, Tomlin already has agreed, at least in principle.

If Tomlin does leave, he will leave behind a defense that was greatly improved last season. But with that improvement seemingly the result not only of coaching but of an additional year of experience for several players, increased continuity at certain positions, and an influx of young, ready-for-the-NFL talent, whomever replaces Tomlin will be in an eviable position.

And Tomlin's departure might just give the Vikings the push they need to bring in a seasoned coordinator or defensive specialist who is able to control both the running and passing game. To be certain, the Vikings' difficulties stopping the pass in 2006 were not all attributable to coaching. But, as coaches accept blame at all other positions when things fall apart, so, too, must Tomlin accept some blame for the Vikings' seeming inability to adjust to opponents' passing games. Tomlin never did make the adjustment and never was able to come up with any semblance of a pass rush. And, in that respect, and perhaps only in that respect, Tomlin came up a bit short as a defensive coordinator--still a nice showing for a first-year coordinator, however.

The only obstacle to the Vikings' search for a seasoned defensive mind to replace Tomlin--somebody like Mike Singletary, for example--is head coach Brad Childress' ego. Already clearly disturbed by the plaudits that Tomlin received for his work with the defense, Childress might very well pull a Bevell in his hiring of the Vikings' new defensive coordinator. If that happens, Vikings' fans not only will regret that the Vikings opted for Childress over Tomlin but also that next year wasn't as good as last year.

Up Next: Still Building a Better Mousetrap.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Taking Time Out To Rip Maturi

On Wednesday, January 17, 2006, University of Minnesota Athletic Director Joel Maturi put another notch in his string of poor decisions when he introduced his solution to the Gopher football team's decades long malaise, former Denver Broncos' tight ends coach Tim Brewster.

In a season when the Gophers' football program needed the type of boost that only the hiring of a recognized name would serve, Maturi missed the boat--and he wasn't even close. As Maturi acknowledged during his introductory press conference, "even I didn't know who Tim Brewster was when his name was first brought up." Huh?

How is this possible? How is it even conceivable that Maturi hired a no-name to rejuvenate the fan base in time for the opening of the new, and poorly planned, stadium in 2009?

It's possible, let alone conceivable, because it is how business is conducted these days in the University of Minnesota athletic department when it comes to the revenue-generating sports--sports that only merit continuation if they show a profit. Based on the early indications, there is little reason to expect the Gophers' football team to contribute positively to that bottom line.

Among the nuggets tossed out by Maturi at the press conference, in addition to his admission that he did not even know who Brewster was when the name was first proposed by someone within his group of unofficial advisors, was that it was important to make sure that Brewster was the kind of guy that fit with Minnesota. Maturi was Zygi like in lauding Brewster as a "good person" and a person with "character." And Maturi claimed that he even asked the groundskeepers at Mile High Stadium about Brewster's character and received glowing reports.

Of course, there really has never been any reason for Brewster to be haughty, given that he has yet to accomplish much of anything in his chosen profession. Nevertheless, Maturi might have asked someone other than a member of the coaching inner-cirlce why Brewster left Texas or why Brewster left an assistant head coaching position in San Diego to take a tight end coaching position in Denver. But Maturi, instead, went to those who would offer the glowing reports that Maturi hoped to be able to relate to the Gophers' dwindling fan base to help explain away a signing that appears motivated more by financial considerations and rejection of Maturi's program by other would-be candidates than anything else.

One of those whose opinion Maturi chose to solicit was Brewster himself. In Glen Masonlike fashion, Brewster consistently referred to his ability to recruit--citing his recruitment of Vince Young (all the way from Houston) while at Tezas--and his general abilities.

When Brewster wasn't lauding himself, he was busy repeating the themes drilled into him by Maturi and his coterie of advisors. "We're going to recruit this state. I'm going to recruit this state. That's my top priority. Making sure that Minnesota kids understand why this is the place for them to play football. That's my priority." As an after-thought, apparently aware that he had just committed to a recruiting class of roughly seven players a season, Brewster added that he would "recruit the rest of the country as well."

Look out rest of country.

When asked why he left a good job in San Diego for a fairly meaningless job with Denver, Brewster trotted out another clearly rehearsed line contending that the move was one made in the pursuit of "knowledge." "It's about learning, knowledge," Brewster claimed. "I got the call from Shanahan and I couldn't turn it down." Why, precisely, that was the case seems unlikely to be solely about learning, particularly at this stage of Brewster's career.

When another reporter asked Brewster what type of offense he intended to run, the response was chilling. "Tough. Determined. Hard-working," came the reply. "Our kids are going to work hard, play with passion, and do it the right way." Did Brewster think he was auditioning for a vacancy with the Twins? Or maybe he thought he was taking over a scandal-ridden program. Whatever the rationale, the answer was trite, cliche-ridden, and the sign of a coach without a plan.

Brewster might work out for Minnesota just like Troy Williamson might have worked out for the Vikings or Brad Childress--incidentlally, one of Brewster's close personal friends and a guy to whom Brewster referred as an "excellent coach." But the time had come for the U to hire a coach that would work out, not one that merely might work out. And based on early indicators, even the wishful thinking might be wishful--if that's possible.

Up Next: Vikings. More mousetrap rebuilding.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Building A Better Mousetrap: Part I

Heading into the 2006 season, most observers considered the Vikings' two biggest challenges to be getting better play out of their linebacking corps and obtaining a semblance of pass protection and run-blocking out of the right side of their offensive line. With the addition of Ben Leber, continuing improved play from E.J. Henderson, and flashes of run-stopping ability from Napolean Harris, the Vikings markedly improved their linebacking play in 2006, a primary reason for their vaulting into the top ten of NFL defenses.

The Vikings' defense remained susceptible to the pass in 2006, however, particularly against schemes that took advantage of Harris' pass-coverage short-comings. But, even against the pass, new defensive coordinator Mike Tomlin's defense was much improved over 2005. And with the expected return of rookie Chad Greenway in 2007, things should only improve for the Vikings' linebacking corps in 2007--even with the probable departure of starting middle linebacker Harris.

Unfortunatley, the improvements that the Vikings made in the linebacking corps were not matched along the offensive line. Despite the addition of Steve Hutchinson as starting left guard and the introduction of a purportedly line-friendly, quick passing system, the Vikings' offense regressed remarkably under first-year head coach and primary play-caller Brad Childress.

The offensive line's problems were not surprising given the moves that the Vikings did and did not make in the 2005-2006 off-season. Adding Hutchinson and returning center Matt Birk merely fortified a left and center of the line that were already at least stable. The real problem in 2005, in addition to Birk's absence in the middle, was the utter lack of players who could play on the right side of the line. Childress' 2006 solution was to re-insert a struggling Marcus Johnson and to acquire right guard Artis Hicks in a trade with his former team, Philadelphia.

Marcus Johnson continued to struggle in 2006, actually regressing to near-Rosenthal levels. And Hicks' play made Johnson's play look sterling in contrast. To make matters worse, veteran backups Mike Rosenthal and Jason Whittle only made Vikings' fans pine for the return of Johnson and Hicks, as the pair demonstrated their renowned familiarity with each other by routinely false starting and/or holding opponents in tandem.

If performance were all that mattered and cap issues and matters such as who would replace an ousted player were non-sequiturs, the Vikings would enter the 2006-2007 off-season with vacancies at both right guard and tackle and at their respective backup positions. With a hefty chunk of the team's salary cap already committed to the left side of the line for the long haul, however, at least one of the two starters from 2006 likely will return in 2007. Childress' cronyism favors Hicks. Upside favors Johnson.

But even if the Vikings are able to replace only one of the members of the right side of their offensive line, they ought to see improved pass protection and run blocking in 2007, if only because it's virtually impossible to find something worse than what they entered games with in 2006. The Vikings are said to be smitten with Wisconsin offensive tackle Joe Thomas, but so, too, presumably, are each of the teams selecting ahead of the Vikings in the 2007 draft. At 6'6", 310 pounds, and with a 40-time of 5.10, it's easy to understand why. And it's easy to assume that Thomas probably will not fall to Minnesota at number seven.

With a fixation on building the team's strength from the line--a fixation that led the Vikings to blunder in giving underwhelming left tackle Bryant McKinnie a windfall contract extension in 2006--expect the Vikings to look for offensive line help in the draft, even if Thomas is gone when they select in the first round. That help could come in the form of Sam Baker, 6'5", 305 pounds, out of USC, Levi Brown, 6'5", 325 pounds, out of Penn State, or Jake Long, 6'7", 338 pounds, out of Michigan, with all but Thomas likely second round options, assuming Baker and long declare for the draft as underclassmen.

But before the Vikings plan their big board for the 2007 NFL draft, they likely will be among the teams bidding for the services of one of several free agent offensive linemen on the market this season. At the top of that list is Pittsburgh tackle Max Starks, a 6'8", 338 pound behemoth.

If Pittsburgh opts to retain Starks, a restricted free agent, the Vikings would still have two other nice free agent targets in unrestricted free agents Leonard Davis of Arizona and Mike Gandy of Buffalo. At 6'6", 365 pounds, it's difficult to ignore Davis. The problem for Minnesota, however, is that Davis plays left tackle. If he's able to adapt to right tackle--and Childress re-considers his zone-blocking scheme--Davis would be an ideal, if expensive, addition to the Vikings' offensive line in 2007.

At 6'4", 310 pounds, Mike Gandy might better suit the zone-blocking scheme that the Vikings run, but he, too, plays left tackle. And, though an upgrade over anything the Vikings currently have on the right side of the offensive line--assuming Ryan Cook progresses at merely a normal rate--if Gandy can play on the right side he would be a useful addition. The greater caveat on Gandy than his suitability to the left side of the line is that, despite joining the Bills as a free agent in 2005, Gandy has already lost his starting job to Jason Peters. That might make Gandy less expensive if there were higher quality free-agent offensive tackles on the market this year, but, since there are not, it might just make him a large risk.

Whether through the draft or via free-agency, the Vikings must address their offensive line issues in the 2006-2007 off-season if they intend to be serious contenders in 2007. With decent salary cap space, the Vikings should be in position to land one of the three offensive tackles on the market, if they want to commit big dollars and up-front money in 2007. If not, they'll be searching for a diamond in the rough or hoping for good fortune in the 2007 entry draft.

Up Next: Passing Game.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Man In The Mirror

For Minnesota Vikings' fans searching for the silver lining in the dark cloud that was the 2006 season, the options presumably would be numerous. After all, silver linings are what losing teams build on. And with a 6-10 final record that included a woefully inept 2-8 finish, this Vikings' team clearly earned its loser label.

Losing teams typically point to the future and the changes that will be made to better the team in the coming season. That's particularly true of NFL teams whose fortunes rise and fall on the slimmest of margins given a 16-game season the financial fortunes of which turn on season-ticket subscribership.

Among the platitudes that the front offices and ownership groups of losing NFL teams typically trot out to re-invigorate the hopes of a waning fan base are that the team "is committed to making the changes necessary to reach the Super Bowl," "the team is closer to the Super Bowl than evidenced by the recent losing record," and "the status quo is not acceptable."

Even if these platitudes fail to bear fruit when put into action, they nevertheless buy the front office one more year of advance ticket sales, the accompanying interest on the sales, and sales of team paraphenalia. If the team fails in year one, promises can again be made in year two, year three, year four, and so on with success on the field only required after a string of unfulfilled promises no longer can be explained by the ownership group.

When Zygi Wilf purchased the Vikings, he promised to run a class organization that recognized the entertainment value of the team to Minnesotans. And, rather than taking the opportunity to throw out the trite cliche that new ownership meant changes which meant a process of returning to the Super Bowl--something that would not have played well in Minnesota after former head coach Mike Tice failed in four years to meet his and former owner Red McCombs' three-year pledge to return to the Super Bowl--Wilf acknowledged that the pieces were in place for immediate improvement.

Upon accepting the head-coaching vacancy created when Tice was fired, new head coach Brad Childress echoed Wilf's sentiments. "I took this job because this team is the most prepared to make a playoff run," Childress stated. No mention of a bare cupboard. No mention of deficiencies in the coaching ranks or among the personnel. No lack of confidence in his own abilities. Everything was set, we were told. And, after a 9-7 season under Tice, that promise seemed reasonable even if Childress chose merely to be a caretaker coach.

When Childress failed to produce on the field in spite of his assets, suddenly his once-touted assets became liabilities, however. In particular, Childress found the personnel lacking, particularly at wide receiver.

There is no question that the Vikings' receivers are not among the NFL's elite. But neither are they the reason that the Vikings failed in 2006. Childress initially was willing to spread the blame to quarterback Brad Johnson. But, when Childress' own hand-picked, best-opportunity-to-win quarterback floundered in two starts, Childress withdrew his criticism of the quarterback as a culprit in the teams' season-long offensive failures and focused on the receivers.

What's most unsettling about Childress' end-of-the-season appraisal of his team's failures is not that Childress vowed to continue calling plays in 2007, nor that he considers the still raw Tarvaris Jackson a viable starting quarterback for next season, nor even that there exist few alternatives for shoring up the position that Childress currently blames for the teams' failures.

What's most unsettling is that Childress continues to live in a fantasy world of his own creation. In that world, no blame is due the man in the mirror. Everything works as long as everything is properly executed.

In 2006, the Vikings had three primary problems at wide receiver--two of which stemmed from one player's inclusion on the starting roster. Troy Williamson's inability to get behind defenders in single coverage and/or catch the ball cost the Vikings points in several games. Never mind that Childress force fed Williamson into the offense. That was merely a symptom. The root problem was more troubling, as Childress' own playcalling meant few opportunities for most of the receivers and magnified the missed opportunities lending the impression that the Vikings' receiving corps was worthless.

Prior to Childress' arrival, the Vikings boasted three receivers who, at some point in their career, had led their respective teams in receptions for at least one season. Those receivers, Jermaine Wiggins, Travis Taylor, and Marcus Robinson were made virtual non-entities not by Brad Johnson's throwing arm, but by Brad Childress' refusal to call plays beyond the line of scrimmage, into the territory where the receivers tend to run their routes.

With Robinson's dismissal, Taylor's recent run-in with police, and Childress' disdain for using a pass-catching tight end, the Vikings very well could begin the 2007 season with only Bethel Johnson and Troy Williamson as returning members of the 2006 receiving corps. And, given the dearth of free-agent receivers in this years' free agent market, that should give Childress another season during which he can blame turnovers and lack of offensive scoring on his woeful receivers.

For Vikings' fans looking for improvement in 2007, there is hope that an improved pass rush will generate more points which, in turn, might lead to more close victories. But, barring a much-needed revelation by the head coach, there is little reason to expect improvement on offense and much reason to expect regression.

Up Next: A Proposed Recipe for Success in 2007.