Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Difference a True Caretaker Makes

It's no news that, when the Minnesota Vikings were wining and dining current head coach, then Philadelphia Eagles' Coordinator, Brad Childress, the Green Bay Packers were patiently awaiting their turn to wine and dine Childress. The Packers, as the story is now told, never received even a courtesy visit from Childress, however, as the Vikings offered Childress a whopping five-year contract that Childress simply could not refuse.

The Vikings' loss was the Packers' gain, even if, at the time, some wondered whether both NFL franchises had taken a wrong turn. Rather than being led by Childress, the Packers settled for Mike McCarthy. While Childress has guided the Vikings to a two-season record of 14-18 and no playoff appearances, after what appears to have been a one-off, McCarthy has guided the Packers to the NFC Championship and what appears to be a likely trip to the Super Bowl.

Already, some of the local pollyannas have begun pointing to the Packers as an example of where the Vikings would have been this year, but for, in their minds, some misfortune. The obvious starting point for such a soliloquy is the Vikings' seven-point loss to Green Bay early in the 2007 season.

That's the starting point and, of course, the end point. For, in 2007, the separation between Minnesota and Green Bay mirrored much more closely the Vikings' 34-point loss at Lambeau Field than it did the seven-point home defeat to the Packers.

In September, the Vikings were at home facing a Packer team that had yet to identify either its go-to receiver, Greg Jennings, or its starting running back, Ryan Grant. Prior to that early Fall game against Minnesota, Jennings had four receptions for 82 yards and one touchdown. Since the Minnesota game, Jennings has added over 800 yards receiving and 11 touchdowns.

Grant was even more invisible for the Packers by week four of the regular season than was Jennings. And while Jennings had the excuse of having been recovering from an injury for the first two weeks of the season, Grant had an even better excuse--he wasn't even on the Packers' roster until late August when the Packers made the trade of the year for him with the New York Giants.

After primarily watching Vernand Morency and Brandon Jackson display their lack of rushing skills for the better part of half of the 2007 season, Grant was finally given a chance to start. The returns have been bountiful and are one of the primary reasons that the Packers now stand a realistic shot of knocking off the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl.

In his eleven games as a starter, including one playoff game and a cameo appearance in the regular-season finale against the Detroit Lions, Grant has rushed for 929 yards with 8 touchdowns on 182 carries. Vikings' fans think they can relate, but they cannot.

Vikings' rookie Adrian Peterson finished the season with 1,341 rushing yards on 238 carries with 12 rushing touchdowns. But while Peterson was spectacular at times, he was not the difference-maker for the Vikings that Grant became for the Packers. And that has more to do with who played quarterback for the respective teams and the philosophy that that engendered for each team.

While Childress preached the caretaker approach to quarterbacking, the Packers relied on Favre to open holes for the running game. And Favre responded, and continues to respond in a manner that Tarvaris Jackson simply cannot at this stage of his career.

With Favre at the helm, the Packers finished number two in total offense and number two in points per game. They also finished with nearly 1,700 more passing yards on the season than did Minnesota, greatly explaining how it could be that an offense with Adrian Peterson could fall apart in the midst of a playoff drive.

The Vikings openly have lamented several things about their 2007 season, but, what appeared to be true in August to even casual observers appears even more evident now. Namely, the Vikings relied on a model of play that only through the benefit of greater other parts has proven successful even rarely in the NFL. For in the modern NFL, Childress' understanding of what is required of a quarterback simply does not suffice.

The only definition of a caretaker quarterback that is relevant is one that begins with the qualification that the quarterback be the most valuable asset on the offense. That's what Favre is to the Packers' offense and what Brady is to the Patriots' offense. They take care of their offenses. And that's why they're on course to meet in the Super Bowl.

Up Next: Packers versus Patriots--What Could Not Have Been. Plus, Who's Coming, Who's Going?


Bill From Arlington, VA said...

Good call, VG. Much has also been made of Joe Gibbs winning three titles in a less than a decade with three different starting qbs including Doug Williams and Mark Rypien but that too is an inapt comparison as both were light years ahead of where TJ is now.

Chili sold the Wilfs a bill of goods. He wasn't hired to come in here and have a five year rebuilding program while he experimented with a I-AA raw prospect who never should have been drafted higher than the fourth round and squander the benefit of top talent on both sides of the ball entering into the middle or late middle age of their careers.

Unless a miracle happens and Chili lets Jackson play more instinctively next year as he did in the Denver game or Jackson somehow raises his game considerably in the offseason I see a Viking team next year that might regress and regress badly against a very tough schedule with AP facing 8 and 9 in the box every game.

The only saving grace there is that it might result in Childress's firing.

Cabrito said...

Your comparison between Ryan Grant and Adrian Peterson neglected some other factors in Grant's favor, VG. Not being a heralded future superstar, and not being required to play against a team (namely his own) with a definite interest in neutralizing the danger he might pose in the NFC North for many years to come, he escaped the danger of being deliberately injured (or perhaps I should say, bounty-hunted).

Joe said...

I'm pretty sure Childress' expectations of the QB position mirror those of most other people that know a thing or two about football. This is sort of put forth like Childress prefers something like Jackson over something like Favre.

Give an honest look at the choices Childress has had for resolving the QB problem since Culpepper bolted leaving him empty handed and try to temper that against all the Chilihate.

Bringing in Schaub (likely the best available option) would have likely precluded the acquisition of Peterson and perhaps that argument could be made. Outside of that what viable longterm solution was out there? Getting Garcia might have won us a few more games this year (and this year only) and probably should have been given more thought but that also delays any reasonable evaluation of Jackson's potential. At what point are the fans going to accept that we need a new quarterback that will be here for more than a season or two?

I'm sure there are other scenarios and players to consider but to suggest that any of them are some magic bullet seems pretty silly. Look at the QB's across the league - probably less than 20% of the teams are able to take the field with full confidence in the position. The rest are plugging holes while they try to find a solution that lasts more than 1 season or trying to develop one that can. Most people around here just want to plug the hole every year. People were calling for Holcomb and Bollinger after week 2!

It will always be fashionable for a good swath of Vikings followers to hate on Childress and this feels like more of the same. The Packers beat expecations and their coach deserves credit but people need to quit acting like they saw where they (the Pack) are at now coming last spring. Nor did people see last night's outcome as a possibility even 48 hours ago. They don't have all the answers there either apparently.