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.

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