Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Assuming the Best Leaves the Vikings Stuck

In Mike Tice's final season as head coach in 2005, the Vikings finished 9-7 fielding an offense that started Brad Johnson at quarterback, Moe Williams, Mewelde Moore, and Michael Bennett at running back, Jim Kleinsasser and Jermaine Wiggins at tight end, Mike Rosenthal, Bryant McKinnie, Adam Goldberg, Corey Withrow, and a host of other offensive, offensive linemen, and Nate Burleson, Marcus Robinson, Travis Taylor, and Troy Williamson at wide-receiver. The offense finished tied for 19th in the league in scoring, accumlating 28 touchdowns on just under 5,000 yards of offense.

Enter current head coach Brad Childress, who rode into town promising discipline and an improvement over prior years. Fans took Childress' words to mean that the Vikings would make fewer penalties on the field, the Vikings' coaching staff would have the team prepared to face the competition on the field on any given day, and the Vikings would win more games than they did under Tice.

Instead, in year two of the Childress regime, the Vikings, though improved defensively, appear to be treading water or regressing in other areas, particularly on offense. Despite signing arguably the top left offensive guard in the game, getting center Matt Birk back from a string of injuries that kept him out in 2005, trading up to take current right tackle Ryan Cook in the mid-second round of the 2006 draft, trading for former Eagles' offensive guard Artis Hicks, signing running back Chester Taylor, trading up to obtain quarterback Tarvaris Jackson, and revamping the wide-receiving corps, the Vikings' offense is more dysfunctional in 2007 than it ever was under Tice.

In 2006, the Vikings slipped to 26th in the league in points scored, accumulating 25 touchdowns despite posting 200 more yards of offense than did the 2005 team. While the rest of the league was taking advantage of new, offensive-friendly rules, the Vikings were busy learning an offense best suited for the pre-1980s rules that rewarded tough defense and a limited offenses.

That education has, it appears, continued into 2007, with the Vikings ranking in the bottom four teams of the NFL in points scored by the offense and Tarvaris Jackson ranking dead last in the NFL with a 40 quarterback rating--more than 15 points behind the next lowest-rated quarterback, Rex Grossman.

Those who defend the current head coach's system make two points when clamoring for patience with the West Coast offense strain that Childress has introduced in Minnesota. First and foremost, they contend, the system must be allowed time to take hold; talent needs time to gel and players need time to learn the system, proponents chide.

Second, though not nearly as often articulated, Childress' offense should be viewed for its holistic approach, proponents admonish. While the offense might seem to plod at times, that plodding helps milk the clock, keep the defense off the field, allow the defense to stay fresh, and virtually ensures tight games, giving the Vikings the opportunity to win any game on their schedule.

There are, of course, some flaws in the logic of those who support what is currently happening on the field under Childress' offensive system. Among those is the fact that the offense, though plodding, has not been milking the clock, going three and out well-ahead of the league average and having the ball less than the opposition in each of the first two games. Also disconcerting is the fact that, while the offense has had opportunities to win the team's first two games this year simply by doing the bare minimum, it has managed to do less than the bare minimum, accounting for twenty points in two games.

Defenders of the system contend, however, that the critical element is time. Give the system time, they bellow, and good results will follow. The question remains, however, for whom the good results will flow?

Assuming the Best

Last year, in a fit of pique, Childress responded to criticism of his offensive system by pointing out that his system would yield "a kick-ass offense" that would give the Vikings the opportunity to win every game. There is no reason to believe Childress thinks any differently of his system today.

Giving Childress every conceivable benefit of the doubt, the question remains where that leaves the Vikings going forward? Assuming that the Vikings rectify their offensive line issues, that Jackson begins throwing more to his teammates and less to the opponents, that the wide receivers become relevant for more than just their run-blocking ability, and that the tight ends become a functioning part of the offense--asssuming all of that--what changes?

Childress has made no secret of the fact that his offense is intended to yield the bulk of the yards after the catch in the passing game and that the passing game is set up by the running game. For the sake of argument, assuming that the Vikings at least occasionally run to their strength using Adrian Peterson behind the clearly stronger side of their offensive line, the Childress system could be very effective at limiting the amount of time that the opposing offenses have on the field and giving the Vikings a chance to win most any game.

For less accommodating fans, the salient point regarding Childress' offensive system, however, is that the offense merely keeps the Vikings in almost every game. Clearly, against superior offensive teams paired with strong defenses, the current system is futile. The current offense is intended to win games in the teens. With a strong defense, that's a possibility. But even a strong defense is unlikely to make consistent runs through the playoffs without the benefit of something more than a clock- and life-sucking offense that scores the occasional touchdown.

To be sure, other teams have ridden variations of Childress' system to Super Bowl victory. But while the Ravens and Bucs won championships running similar offensive systems, they did so not as a matter of choice but out of necessity. And they were fortunate to each have the top defense in the league in the years that they respectively won championships.

The Vikings' current defense is good, among the best in the NFL against the run and improving somewhat against the pass. But this defense is nowhere near as stifling as the Bucs' or Ravens' Super Bowl defenses, while the offense fails to meet even that low bar set by those two championship teams.

More informative than comparisons to similarly situated teams, however, is the contrast that the Vikings pose compared to other Super Bowl teams of the modern era. The teams that have had the greatest longevity among the upper echelons of modern-era NFL teams have been teams that have reversed Childress' formula, fielding good if not great defenses and great offenses. Whether one is discussing the Montana-Young 49ers, the Smith-Aikman-Irvin Cowboys, the Elway Broncos, the Manning-Harrison Colts, or the Warner-Faulk-Bruce Rams, modern era teams, playing under the pro-offense rules that the NFL has adopted, have stood the test of time while plodding offensive teams that have had occasional success have failed to repeat.

For Childress, the end appears clear. He might win the argument only to lose the battle. For, in today's NFL, teams that build time-sucking offenses predicated on keeping the games close, do so firm in the knowledge that those close games tend to fall on both sides over time. And while there will be blips favoring the home team at times, possibly long enough to result in a Bucs'- or Ravens'-type run to the Super Bowl, longevity is not the trademark of such offenses.

Up Next: Around the NFC.

8 comments:

Travis said...

Wow. Your posts are always good, but I think you've outdone yourself on this one. We need to go to Winter Park, tie Childress down, and force him to read it. Excellent analysis.

trayf said...

What about the Patriots? Just espionage, or great defense and good offense?

Danielle said...

It's been 2 games. TWO games. Childress isn't to blame for everything. If the style of offense that Childress uses is executed correctly, then it will work. That's were the team and the players needs to step up. We don't exactly have the best personnel to get this done, but there's only so much money to spend on free agents and only so many draft picks you can get in a year. (It's hard to recover after a dud for a first round draft pick like Troy Williamson)
We're rebuilding. It can't all be done in 1 season plus 2 games. Childress walked into a tough situation left by the screw ups by Dennis Green, Red McCombs, Mike Tice and whoever else you want to blame. I'm not saying that everything Childress does is golden, but give it a little time.
Comparing season stats from last year to this years 2 game stats isn't exactly a good comparison. If you want to look at some stats, take last years NFC champs the Bears. They have 2 TDs this season - one on a punt return and one by an offensive lineman. The Vikes even have more than that. The Bears had a dismal offense last year (to say the least, thanks to Rex "I like to throw to the other team" Grossman) and they had a stingy defense that won them games. The Vikings are in the same situation. I'm not saying they'll become the NFC champs this year, but a .500 year is a good goal for a rebuilding team.
I like reading your posts, but geez a little positivity never hurt anyone!

Vikes Geek said...

Danielle,

Thanks for reading and posting.

I think you're missing the point of the column. The central point is that even if Childress' offense achieves what he has said he hopes it to achieve, it is not a good enough offense to compete for a championship on a regular basis. There's more to it than that, but that's the central premise.

Regarding the Bears' 2006 season, I think you're perpetuating a misnomer about that team. The Bears did not have an awful offense, they had a up-and-down-more-often-down quarterback, but the offense, on the whole, was above the league average. The team ranked 11th in TD passes, 12th in rushing TDs, 16th in total yards, and 2nd in the league in points scored. Even adjusting for the numerous special teams and defensive touchdowns, the Bears were, at worst, an average offensive team in 2006. And even with that offense, they lost the Super Bowl in convincing fashion.

The Vikings' defense and special teams are nowhere near where the Bears' defense and special teams were in 2006, and the Vikings' offense is not even in the same league as last year's Bears' offense.

As for negativity, call it what you will. I've heard worse. As a loyal reader, however, you should know by now that I do not write to pep up the fan base. Instead, I attempt to identify trends, problems, and issues (good and bad) and suggest what they mean for the organization. Where possible, I suggest changes.

On a final note, Tice did not leave the Vikings in shambles--far from it. On purchasing the team, Zygi Wilf even commented that he was most interested in the Vikings because the cupboard was loaded. Childress echoed those sentiments in explaining why he chose Minnesota. What's remarkable is that Childress actually had much more talent last year--as he again does this year versus last year--than Tice ever had. Yet, Childress has done less with more than a coach who deservedly was let go after the 2005 season. Childress can continue to maintain that success is around the corner, but there is little evidence to support that claim as yet in a league in which it appears all but the Vikings play for today rather than planning for three years from now (a virtual impossibility in today's NFL).

VG

Vikes Geek said...

Trayf,

The Patriots clearly are the class of the NFL right now. Great offense, good defense. The Patriots also happen to be a great team to juxtapose with the Vikings. Why would a team aspire to run Childress' offense when there are far better models from which to choose? It simply makes no sense, particularly when the Patriots and Colts so accutely have demonstrated that better offensive models are available at the same price.

VG

Vikes Geek said...

Thanks Travis. I suspect Childress is not interested.

VG

Danielle said...

VG
Thanks for the reply. I see your points better now and they make sense. I just have a problem with the big knee-jerk reaction that a lot of people have that it's the coach's fault and that something needs to change immediately. Obviously something needs to be different after that horrible game in Detroit, but it was only one game. I just have a hard time suggesting changes in coaching because those coaches see these players day in and day out and they have to be seeing things that we don't. (Or at least we hope that's going on for T-Jack's case. Brad MUST be seeing something in Jackson during practice or he wouldn't be the starting QB.)
I guess I just get the knee-jerk reaction to try and defend anything the Vikings do because that's one of the ways I can justify being a fan of the Purple after games like these.

Sam said...

Good post. Although you've touched on it before, the biggest flaw and misconception about this offense is that it is cautious and conservative. But it only seems boring. The reality is that it is very high risk because it consists of loads of short passes to stationary receivers in traffic, and requires consistent, bad-luck/mistake-free, 10-play drives. The more short plays and plays per drive, the greater the likelihood of bad bounces, bad decisions, and basic entropy toward chaos. Receivers on short routes in traffic drop balls, create deflections, get injured, and fumble. In addition, they don't gain yards or first downs. Touchdowns? Never. If wily old Brad Johnson couldn't make this pig dance, it sure ain't happening with a jumpy novice asked to drop the ball into a middle screen three times a game.