Saturday, May 26, 2007

Turning Around a Laggard Offense

In 2006, despite making several key additions, jettisoning some dead wood, replacing the head coach, and losing only one player who meant anything at all to the offense in 2005, the Minnesota Vikings' offense ranked near the bottom of the NFL in points scored per game. New head coach Brad Childress blamed the team's failure to convert a "kick ass offense" into points on the learning curve of the new system.

As several often subservient starters revealed, however, the problems with the Vikings' 2006 offense were directly correlated to the predictability of the Vikings' playcalling. No matter the variation of the West Coast the Vikings purported to be running last season, one thing was clear when the dust settled. Running on first down to set up a run on second down to set up the desperation pass on third down behind the sticks is no recipe for offensive success in the NFL.

At least, that was the lesson that most previously unwitting fans of Childressball came to draw. Never one to concede a fault, Childress, however, remains obstinate, convinced that, at the core of things, it was his aged quarterback who was to blame for the team's offensive failures in 2006. Enter Tarvaris Jackson.

Jackson finished an abbreviated 2006 season with more interceptions than touchdown passes, an erratic passing arm, an alarming nervousness in the pocket that would have made Tommy Kramer appear the model of poise under pressure, and a fantasy value entering 2007 that would make Joey Harrington blush. Missing for Jackson in 2007 were the signs of player that the Vikings' consider their franchise quarterback.

To be fair to Jackson, the Vikings offered little in the way of support to the rookie signal caller. The receivers dropped passes, the line failed to protect or block, and the offensive coordinator, well, the offensive coordinator was the very same head coach who pinned his offense's failures on an aged quarterback.

Even if, being as optimistic as one can be given his limited performance to date, one viewed Jackson as the second coming of Michael Vick or a veteran Rich Gannon, the question is what that would get the Vikings? The Vikings' offense will remain stunted without better playcalling that recognizes game situations and that plays to the talent on the field. And even those changes from form will amount to little if the offensive line continues to be one-sided and receivers continue to drop easy passes.

Last year, the Vikings' offensive talent included Jermaine Wiggins, a player relegated to near non-existent status under Childress in 2006 after leading the Vikings in receptions over a two-year period from 2004-2005. It also included a red zone threat in Marcus Robinson, known for hauling in corner-of-the-endzone lob passes, but given virtually no opportunity to do so in 2006. And it included a speedy, pass-receiving running back in Mewelde Moore, who was relegated to third-string for much of 2006, despite fitting to a 'T' the mold of a West Coast running back. Of the three, only Moore remains, and in an uncertain role. Yet to be filled are the holes left by the jettisoned Robinson and Wiggins.


While fans rightfully lament the Vikings' failure to sign an offensive lineman capable of playing right guard or right tackle and legitimately bemoan the team's slew of mediocre wide receivers, the team is not entirely bereft of options either at offensive line or at receiver. On the roster are two players who could make a considerable difference in these two areas, if only the coaching staff would allow.

The Vikings' current starting offense is as follows: Tarvaris Jackson (QB), Adrian Peterson (RB), Tony Richardson (FB), Bryant McKinnie (LT), Steve Hutchinson (LG), Matt Birk (C), Artis Hicks (RG), Ryan Cook (RT), Jim Kleinsasser (TE), Troy Williamson and Bobby Wade (WR).

With strenghts at running back, left guard, center, and (blocking) tight end, the Vikings are still soft at left tackle, weak at right tackle and right guard, below league average at wide receiver, and certain at quarterback only in that even a vastly improved Jackson will not be able to do much if the Vikings' offensive line doesn't block, receivers do not catch the ball, and the offensive play callers don't adjust their thinking.

That's a lot of 'ifs' for one offense. But at least two of those 'ifs' could be helped along greatly by three adjustments to personnel. The most obvious of the three is to get Moore into the offense game plan. With good hands and quick moves, Moore was saddled in 2006 by a coaching staff disinterested in his abilities and content on relying on Chester Taylor to run the ball. With a need at receiver, however, Moore would offer a nice option in Childress' short-passing game and might be just the player to convert third-and-sixes into first downs rather than last year's fourth-and-twos. If used properly, he might even help avert the Vikings' now routine third-and-six dilemma.

A second change that the Vikings could make to improve their offense in 2006 is to rely less on a fullback and more on two running backs. Lining up Peterson and Taylor in the backfield would give the Vikings more power out of the backfield than they ever had last year with a good blocker in Taylor still capable of pounding out yards. The move to a Peterson and Taylor tandem in the backfield would limit Richardon's playing time in the backfield but need not limit his playing time, because...

The Vikings still are without a solid plan on the right side of the offensive line. For the past two seasons, the team has thrown rookies and otherwise overwhelmed players into the right guard and right tackle spots and crossed its collective fingers. The gimmick has not worked. Artis Hicks looked competent only by way of comparison with his utterly awful predecessors, Mike Rosenthal and Jason Whittle. And nobody has come close to looking good at right tackle.

The Vikings' solution to the team's right-side woes the past two years has been to keep Kleinsasser on the line to help block. At 6-3, 275 pounds, Kleinsasser is both large enough and quick enough to block defensive ends and blitzing safeties and corners. And, as he has demonstrated, he is certainly more dependable as a blocker than are the alternatives that the Vikings currently have at right tackle or right guard, and he is more of a blocker than he is a tight end.

Converting Kleinsasser to right tackle would allow Kleinsasser to play essentially the same role that he has played the past two seasons with Minnesota. And, as that would open up a slot at tight end, it would allow the Vikings to slide blocking back Richardson into the tight end position, thus having a tight end who not only can block, but who also can catch and run after the catch.

The changes to the offense would result in the following starting lineup: Jackson (QB), Peterson and Taylor (RB), Troy Williamson/Bobby Wade and Mewelde Moore (WR), Tony Richardson (TE), Bryant McKinnie (LT), Steve Hutchinson (LG), Matt Birk (C), Artis Hicks/Marcus Johnson/Road Kill (RG), and Jim Kleinsasser (RT). The changes not only would produce a more efficient line and a more lethal backfield and wide-receiving corps, it also would allow Jackson to learn on the run---literally.

With a better offensive line and a two-headed running game, the Vikings could allow Jackson to use his legs more while he adjusted to reading and reacting to pass defenses and worked out the kinks in his passing game. Relying, initially, on safer, short routes to Moore, his running backs, and his speed would open up deeper passing options without subjecting Jackson to complicated defenses.

A veteran offensive guard, quarterback, and receiver with some gas left in the tank would look good in Minnesota next year. But, if the team is going to move ahead with the players currently on the roster, some modest changes in where players play could do wonders for what has been an anemic offense. Of course, the implication is that Childress not only would be open to changes in player positioning, but also in meaningful changes to his playcalling. At this point, neither assumption looks all that promising.

Up Next: Defensive changes. Plus, around the league.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Early Season Out-of-the-Box Time

After a free-agency period filled with non-descript signings that did little, if anything, to address the team's most pressing needs and a draft that appears likely to produce one productive starter and, possibly, two or three spot players as early as this season, the Minnesota Vikings remain in need of players at several key positions heading into the 2007 season. Barring an unexpected windfall in the post-June 1 free-agency pool, the Vikings' predicament requires some immediate outside-the-box thinking.

Players Wanted

Prior to free agency and the draft, the Vikings were in desperate need of a right offensive tackle, a right offensive guard, two to four wide receivers, a pass-catching tight end, one or two defensive ends, a cornerback, a safety, and a starting quarterback for 2007.

The Vikings filled their off-season needs by signing little used, journeyman wide-receiver Bobby Wade, little-used tight end Visanthe Shiancoe, and injured safety Mike Doss. In the draft, the Vikings picked up several wide receivers, most with more promise than proven ability and one with the dual affliction of having played at the other USC and being widely regarded as an immature pain in the ass, a defensive end, and a cornerback--all of whom the Vikings believe can make a contribution in 2007.

Assuming that the Vikings' signees and picks pan out and that the right ones pan out in 2007, the Vikings still have gaping holes on the offensive line, at wide receiver, and at defensive end. Assuming, as well, that the team will be unable or unwilling to spend some of the team's remaining $28 million in salary cap space on a veteran free agent that becomes available on June 1st, the Vikings' predicament thus requires some creative engineering.

Filling the Holes

To fill their remaining holes in 2007, the Vikings have more options than they give themselves credit for. Beginning with the most important position on the field, the Vikings still have a very good option for filling their quarterback vacancy.

With Tarvaris Jackson at least another season away from being prepared to lead an NFL team to any meaningful victory total and Brooks Bollinger apparently further behind than that--or given no chance by a coaching staff intent on proving itself right for banking on Jackson so early--there is a veteran presence that remains on the market for as little as a fourth- or fifth-round draft pick that would fit nicely onto the Vikings' roster. That player is current Kansas City quarterback Trent Green.

When healthy, Green is one of the more capable passers in the game. In 2005, Green passed for over 4,000 yards and had 17 TD passes despite presiding over an offense that featured a TD-scoring machine in running back Larry Johnson. Given Green's history with concussions and Kansas City's other options at quarterback, however, Kansas City is ready to cut ties with its former Pro Bowl quarterback.

With Kansas City intent on starting Brodie Croyle or Damon Huard next season, with the other serving as the number two quarterback, the writing has long been on the wall for Green in Kansas City. Green's agent has already informed Kansas City that the quarterback will not return to the team next season and has requested a trade. Kansas City seems all too willing to part with Green but is said to be asking for something more than the sixth-round draft pick that the Dolphins have offered for Green in return. The only question remaining is whether Kansas plays petty for a mess that it created and refuses to trade Green for less than the team had hoped, once upon a time.

Green would give the Vikings the veteran presence they so desperately need at quarterback and would provide the team with a legitimate starting quarterback that could mean the difference between four more wins or four more losses. Odds are Childress would veto this move, not only because it is not his brain child but also because it would preclude him from showing everyone that he was right and everyone else was wrong about Jackson's NFL timeline.

Up Next: Other Moves That Make Sense. Plus, buzz around the league.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

The Difference One Pick Makes

Entering the 2007 NFL draft, the Minnesota Vikings had the makings of a team poised to challenge for last place in the four-team NFC North. Having lost its defensive coordinator of last year, without a bona fide starting quarterback, and absent any talent at wide-receiver, the Vikings appeared destined for a repeat of their miserable 2006 season, or worse.

One Pick

Then came the draft. Most draft experts thought they knew at least two things about this year's draft. One was that every team in the NFC North would at least keep pace with the Vikings on draft day. The other was that the Vikings would wait until round two to address their offensive needs. They were wrong on both accounts.

That Minnesota selected Adrian Peterson with the number seven pick in the draft was as much a function of which players were selected before Peterson as it was a function of the Vikings' infatuation with the Oklahoma back. By most accounts, the Vikings had Peterson ranked third or fourth overall in the draft, with Calvin Johnson, LaRon Landry, and, possibly, Gaines Adams, ranked higher on the team's big board. When Peterson fell to seven, the Vikings followed through with their pledge to take the player that they most highly ranked.

The selection of Peterson, if healthy, improves the Vikings' offense in a manner that adding a player like Brady Quinn probably could not have done in the short term. While Quinn would have taken time to grow into his role, if ever that happened, Peterson should be counted on to contribute immediately and significantly.

With Peterson in the backfield, teams will be less prone to blitzing which should mean fewer defenders in the box and less pressure on the weak right side of the offensive line. And that should, more often, give the Vikings time to find the receiver, albeit one yard shy of the sticks.

The Vikings likely will continue to struggle in key areas this season, but having a player the caliber of Adrian Peterson touching the ball 25-30 times a game should greatly reduce the pressure up front. And in two-point ball games, the type of which the Vikings are likely to endure against all but the top teams in the league in 2007, that could make the difference between a Childress-like season of 2006 and a Tice-like season of 2005.

Up Next: Who Failed to Keep Pace in the NFC North. Plus, some reasonably objective views of the Vikings' draft.