Monday, September 29, 2008

Zygi Poised to Dump Childress if Vikings Flop in Big Easy

Last year, the Minnesota Vikings went to Lambeau Field in week ten of the NFL season and laid a 34-0 egg. Following the game, an irate Vikings' owner, Zygi Wilf, gave Vikings' head coach Brad Childress an ultimatum--win or pack your bags. Childress responded to Wilf's dictate, leading his team to five successive victories.

Childress' late-season winning streak in 2007 saved his job. It now appears that Wilf has handed down another ultimatum to his struggling head coach, this time much earlier in the season. One day after the Vikings' 30-17 loss to the Tennessee Titans, Wilf strongly indicated that he would be using next Monday's game at New Orleans as a barometer on Childress' future with the team. The implication is that a sound defeat at the hands of the Saints would compel Wilf to sever ties with Childress.

The move, two weeks in advance of the team's bye week, would allow Childress' replacement a relatively nice four-week cushion to ease into the job as the Vikings face Detroit, Chicago, and, Houston, after the bye week, in succession. It's not ideal, but neither is starting 1-4 in a season preceded by free spending by an ownership group intent on leveraging success on the field to the payday that would be a new stadium.

Wilf is said to have a list of four prospects for replacing Childress. Should Childress fail to make it through this season, the odds-on favorite to assume the head-coaching duties would be defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier. With talent at critical positions, Frazier has not had to demonstrate substantial mettle in the face of adversity. But with constant game day pressure on his unit resulting from a malfunctioning offense, he has still guided an otherwise talented squad to the top of the NFL, something Childress has been unable even to approach on the offensive side of the ball.

If Childress the season, he nevertheless will remain on the hot seat in Minnesota should the Vikings fail to make the playoffs or should the team show a continuing downtrend in fan support. Under either scenario, Wilf is said to have in mind three additional head-coaching prospects, former Pittsburgh Steelers' head coach Bill Cowher, former San Diego head coach Marty Schottenheimer, and former New York Giants head coach Jim Fassel. It is unclear if, other than Frazier, Wilf would consider any young coordinators for a head coaching vacancy, but, given the heretofore disappointment that has been Brad Childress, and the stock of aging veterans at key positions on the Vikings' team, it is presumed that Wilf would opt for experience over youth.

That Wilf again would be contemplating a move on Childress should come as no surprise as the head coach has languished through his first 36 games in the NFL with an uninspiring 15-21 record. This, despite inheriting of a 9-7 team with talent on both sides of the ball and the Vikings' continuing addition of talent, most notably at linebacker, defensive end, safety, and running back.

Adding pressure to Wilf's calculus is the fact that, even in victory, the Vikings' fan base is nonplussed with Childress' handling of the team's lethargic offense. That disenchantment has manifested itself in one of the more truly astounding poll results of the season, even for a struggling head coach. As it does every week, ESPN polls fans on their views of NFL head coaches. At number 32, behind recently fired Scott Linehan and under siege head coach Lane Kiffin, sits Childress with a lowly 5% support.

Sometimes, statistics don't lie. And, sometimes, owners pay heed.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Contrast in Conservative Styles Highlights Vikings' Shortcomings

Sunday's match-up between the Minnesota Vikings and the Tennessee Titans offered the best glimpse yet of the inherent problems with the Minnesota Vikings under head coach Brad Childress. Facing a near mirror-image team--a team employing a veteran quarterback as a substitute for a struggling young quarterback, a team favoring the run over the pass, and a team with a stout defense--the Vikings were rolled.

Vikings' apologists, to the extent that there are any remaining, will note that the Vikings had several opportunities to score but that the team routinely shot itself in the foot. While it is true that turnovers and dropped passes hurt the Vikings on Sunday, those plays are magnified by the lethargy and lack of ingenuity that is the Vikings' offense on most downs.

While the Vikings opened the game with 37-year-old Gus Frerotte under center, the Titans countered with 36-year-old Kerry Collins. Both quarterbacks are relatively immobile outside of the pocket with Frerotte, as would any quarterback, having greater mobility in the pocket. That should have given an edge to the Vikings. And it did. The Vikings, however, elected not to take full advantage.

For the game, Collins was 18-35 for 199 yards passing and a 5.7 yard average. Frerotte was 25-43 for 266 yards and a 6.2 yard average. That's a near wash between the two pocket passers.

What brought Collins closer to Frerotte, and Frerotte closer to Collins in final statistics for the game was Collins' use of the speedy Chris Johnson on several screens and out of the slot and the Vikings' near-refusal to use the more veteran Peterson in a more expanded fashion.

Despite his rookie status, Johnson has done for Tennessee equal what Peterson is now allowed to do for the Vikings. For the game Peterson had 18 carries for 80 yards and two touchdowns along with four receptions for 21 yards. Johnson had 17 carries for 61 yards and two touchdowns along with 3 receptions for 14 yards. The numbers are nearly identical despite the Titans' reliance on Len Dale White in goal line situations and Peterson's status as a second-year player. Either Johnson simply is a much quicker study than Peterson or the Vikings are woefully underutilizing their primary offensive threat.

The results suggest a close game, and, subtracting turnovers, the Vikings did play close to one of the better teams in the AFC. But, more than explanatory of Sunday's loss, the Vikings' turnovers are a further indictment of the offensive system favored by Childress. Of the three fumbles, two were the result of predictable plays that allowed the defense to cheat up and opened up the play to a hard hit. Tahi's fumble was in the flat on a short dump play that Childress has so often run that it is second in the coach's playbook only to the play that led to Peterson's fumble, the up-the-gut-for-nothing call.

Turnovers ravage offenses in the NFL, but turnovers are made more possible by predictable playcalling.

The formula for Minnesota has passed the point of becoming stale and neared the point where it is driving fans away from the team. It's one thing to invest three plus hours of a day in a team that is trying to win. It is quite another to invest that time in a team that fears losing. Sunday's performance, from the silly timeout before a challenge call to the punt near the end of the game with no timeouts remaining merely crystallized that the Vikings are in the latter category. That's neither a recipe for championship play nor one likely to maintain a fan base.

Up Next: How West Coast Offenses Succeed. Plus, Birk not making a case for himself.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Lingering Impressions

Two days after the Minnesota Vikings' 20-10 victory over the previously undefeated Carolina Panthers, two impressions remain of the Vikings. One of the impressions, that of E.J. Henderson leaping over an offensive lineman to break up a play in the backfield, is positive, the other less so.

Intent on showing the Panthers that, under newly installed quarterback, Gus Frerotte, they both willing and able to pass the ball, the Vikings called passing plays on six of their first seven offensive plays. FOX's announcers, apparently unfamiliar with Minnesota's lack of offensive success under head coach Brad Childress, derided the Vikings for "getting away from what the team does best."

What the Vikings have done best, as most any Viking fan can attest, is run the ball to a close defeat. In the first two games of the season, the Vikings proved both their ability to run and their ability to lose winnable games. In week one, against the Green Bay Packers, Adrian Peterson ran for 103 yards and the team lost 24-19. Last week, against the Indianapolis Colts, Adrian Peterson ran for 160 yards and the Vikings lost 18-15. The key, then, is not merely demonstrating an ability to run, but pairing that ability with a demonstrated ability to pass.

Contrary to the contentions of the FOX analysts, the Vikings' offense has been defined not by its ability to run the ball, but by its near refusal and utter inability to pass the ball. By opening the game primarily throwing--including throwing a pass to a back out of the backfield--the Vikings established that they have the potential to enter the modern era of NFL offenses.

The FOX analysts should have saved their criticism of Childress and his offensive coordinator, Darrell Bevell, for later in the game, when the Vikings reverted to some of the same old offensive hijinx.

After starting the game with passes on six of the team's first seven offensive plays, the Vikings lurched back to conservative mode, passing just 21 times in the team's remaining nine series, a span of sixty plays. No more conservative were the Vikings than inside the Panthers' ten-yard line in the last two minutes of the game. Leading 20-10, the Vikings ran one play up the middle for two yards before calling on Frerotte to kneel three straight times.

The Panthers subsequently received the ball on their own fourteen-yard line with thirty-four seconds remaining in the game. Given that the Vikings' defense had been holding the Panthers in check for much of the game, the ploy was defensible. But it was also debatable, at the least, and highlighted Childress' play-not-to-lose over play-to-win mindset.

A field-goal meant little for the Vikings except to make the game a two touchdown rather than a touchdown and field-goal differential. It, therefore, made little sense for the Vikings to attempt a field goal and risk having the kick blocked and returned. A touchdown, however, would have been virtually impossible to overcome.

Childress' gamble of running down the clock and giving the ball back to the Panthers paid off. It is difficult to shake the notion, however, that, against a better offensive team, Childress would still make the same call rather than attempt to score a touchdown. That's not necessarily bad. Rather, it is a reflection of the coach's mindset--the type of mindset that permeates an entire offensive system and game plan and makes winning it all far less probable.

Up Next: Inside the Numbers.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Sunday's Early Takes--Linehan Done

A bit over half-way through week three's match-ups, we already know several things about the 2008 NFL season:

1. It's not the system in New England, it's the quarterback. Since replacing the injured Tom Brady with Matt Cassel, the Patriots have struggled. That's not entirely shocking, except that many have suggested that Brady was the beneficiary of Bill Belichik's system rather than the other way around. Sunday's resounding thumping at the hands of the heretofore hapless Miami Dolphins ought to put to rest that misguided logic.

2. The Minnesota Vikings have spent two years and gobs of money on talent to surround a player that is not the answer to their quarterback question, only to spend considerably less for a player who just might be the answer to that question. While not spectacular on Sunday, Gus Frerotte was what the Vikings needed him to be--capable and competent against a very good Carolina Panther's defense. Where Tarvaris Jackson routinely threw balls into the ground, Frerotte guided them into the waiting arms of his teammates. And where Jackson missed wildly on deep passes, Frerotte was close enough, hooking up with a not-too-speedy looking Bernard Berrian on a key play in the game. The difference between Frerotte and Jackson need be measured not simply in numbers, which were better than Jackson's numbers over two games, but also in leadership. Where Jackson seemed to be on his own planet, nearly comatose at times, Frerotte was energetic and commanding. Given Minnesota's stout defense, Frerotte might prove to be just enough to make Minnesota a contender. Not that anyone told Vikings' head coach Brad Childress so.

3. St. Louis Rams' head coach Scott Linehan will be fired after today's game. Already pathetic looking in their first two games, the Rams appear intent on showing they are one of the more putrid teams in the NFL in decades. With two minutes left in the first half, the Rams trail a team with no receivers and no real running threat by nearly three touchdowns. No chance Linehan escapes this disaster.

4. Not far behind the Rams on the crud meter are the Kansas City Chiefs. Herm Edwards might last the season, but only if tightwad owner Carl Peterson cannot find a replacement from within that will make the team modestly presentable to the fan base. It's difficult to imagine anyone doing worse than Edwards, but whomever does replace Edwards would have to rely on the team that Edwards assembled. Yuck.

Up Next: More on the Vikings' Victory over Carolina

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Childress on Hot Seat

Minnesota Vikings' head coach Brad Childress' Wednesday announcement that he would be replacing erstwhile starter Tarvaris Jackson with journeyman backup Gus Frerotte came as little surprise to those who have followed events at Winter Park this week. The move follows a procession of owner frustration and fan disenchantment with an uninspiring 0-2 start to what Vikings' officials believed was a season that could have started 2-0.

With one shoe having dropped--and a significant shoe at that with Childress noting that the move to Frerotte is "for the remainder of the season"--there is one very heavy shoe still left clinging.

There is no question but that the decision to change to Frerotte was, for all intents and purposes, signaled from above. Jackson was Childress' hand-picked quarterback, a reach in the 2006 draft who Childress gleefully referred to as "unmolded clay." Despite Childress' self-professed background as a molder of quarterbacks, a questionable pedigree even without consideration of his tenure in Minnesota, Childress has been unable to mold Jackson into a starting NFL quarterback. Now, that failure could cost him his job.

As of Wednesday, the Vikings still had several thousand tickets remaining for their Sunday home game against the Carolina Panthers. For Wilf, the concern is two-fold. Not only does the owner desperately want to avoid the continuing embarrassment of having to seek extensions to sell out home games and ensure the telecast of the team's home games in the home market, but he also must concern himself with maintaining a positive public image of his team as he pushes for a new stadium.

Hand in hand with Wilf's pressuring of Childress to make changes, including making the change to Frerotte, a change that Wilf strongly suggested would be a positive change for the team, is the understanding that Childress needs to begin producing in the win column and that he needs to do so now. There is also a looming frustration among the Wilfs that Childress does not offer a brand of football that fans want to watch.

With the exception of the post-Packer blowout loss last season, Wilf has been incredibly patient with Childress, generally accepting the coach's refrains that the team "needs to gel," "get on the same page," and "continue to progress." For a coach that inherited a 9-7 team that has only added talent over the past three years, it all has become nearly too much for Wilf to continue to bear. Having spent over the cap floor for the first time since taking over the Vikings, Wilf is now expecting more. Much more. And it is clear that if he does not get much more, he soon will get another coach.

Up Next: Is Frerotte the Answer to Anything?

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Wilf Upset, Childress Ready to Move

Following the team's collapse from a 15-0 halftime lead to an 18-15 loss to the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday, Minnesota Vikings' owner Zygi Wilf was visibly and audibly upset. Wilf expressed dismay not with the team's 0-2 start but with the team's continuing penchant for playing tight football.

Outside Wilf's inner circle, the owner's response to the Vikings' come-from-ahead loss should be viewed as a sign that Wilf again is losing patience with his third-year head coach, Brad Childress. Though Wilf suggested no inclination to replace Childress at this point--a la last year's denouement following the team's 34-0 loss to the Green Bay Packers--Childress, himself, offered at least one sign that has received a cue from the owner to turn things around. And quickly.

After standing firm behind his hand-picked quarterback for the past season and one-half, Childress yesterday stated that the Vikings' coaching staff would be evaluating the team's quarterback position throughout the week. Shortly after Childress made his statement, rumors began circulating that he had already decided that backup journeyman quarterback Gus Frerotte either will start Sunday's game at home against the Carolina Panthers or be called on on short notice should Tarvaris Jackson struggle out of the gate.

Whatever happens on Sunday, it is clear that Wilf has Childress on nearly as short of a leash as Childress now has Jackson. For Vikings' fans who long ago grew weary of Childress' penchant for hyper-conservatism in all but the face of the most dire of straits, this should be good news. For, at Winter Park, it increasingly appears that undue patience finally is giving way to the type of urgency under which virtually all other NFL coaches, particularly those with so many talented and highly paid players, operate.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Two Leagues Behind

There are several levels in the current composition of the NFL. At the bottom are teams such as Miami, Kansas City, and Oakland. These teams not only have no shot at winning a championship, they have little chance of winning any given week.

At the top of the heap are teams such as Dallas, New England, Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, and Green Bay, all teams that expect to win each week and have realistic expectations of playing for a championship at the end of the season.

One rung below the top teams in the NFL are the teams that are favored to win more often than not but lack a key ingredient necessary to become a bona fide contender for a championship.

In the third rung, just above the bottom-feeders, are the teams that want desperately to join the top rung of teams but which show too little attention to what matters to be taken seriously.

In which level do the Minnesota Vikings currently reside? At the beginning of the season, head coach Brad Childress and the chearleading members of the Vikings' coverage team attempted to convince Vikings' fans that the Vikings were ahead of Green Bay and Indianapolis in the top tier of teams. That take was based on the assumptions that Bernard Berrian would replace the deep threat that the Vikings have not had since the departure of Randy Moss, that Visanthe Shiancoe would begin to catch the ball, that the offensive line would improve, that the additions of Madieu Williams at safety and Jared Allen at defensive end would improve the pass defense, and that Tarvaris Jackson would return to the team a much improved player over last season.

To date, all of those assumptions have proven false. Chester Taylor has more receptions and Shiancoe more yards than does Berrian, Shiancoe has more drops than receptions, the offensive line continues to sieve, Madieu Williams, following his trend in Cincinnati, has yet to play in the regular season, Jared Allen has one of the team's two sacks, the team ranks 24th in the league against the pass and eighteenth in points allowed, and Jackson mostly looks hopeless, ranking 26th among NFL starters behind such NFL luminaries as Brian Griese, JaMarcus Russell, and J.T. O'Sullivan.

The result might be a Vikings' team clinging to its slot in the second tier of NFL teams, still well outside the top tier of teams, but for one additional short-coming, that of coaching. The 14-20 record aside, and notwithstanding his purported recognition that Jackson simply might not be a viable NFL starter right now, Childress continues to dismay. Forever banging the "play it close" drum, Childress seems utterly incapable of taking the type of risks that the heretofore most risk-averse coaches assumes as a matter of course. The result on Sunday was yet another conservative loss with yet another series of laments about "one play here, one play there."

With a different coaching philosophy, Jackson might mature into an NFL player, the Vikings' receivers might catch the ball, the running game might become unstoppable, and the Vikings might rise to the second or even first tier of NFL teams. Under the current coaching philosophy, a philosophy that seems as stuck in neutral as ever before, however, movement seems unlikely.

Up Next: What Pete Said, But the Opposite.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Childress' Numbers Lie

Following his team's loss to the Green Bay Packers on Monday night, Minnesota Vikings' head coach Brad Childress was asked whether star running back, Adrian Peterson, had had enough touches in the game. Childress replied that Peterson "probably had about the number of touches that he ought to have had."

Asked the number of touches that Peterson could be expected to have against the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday, Childress answered "about twenty--probably twenty, give or take one, maybe two. We think that's about right for Adrian. Chester has another ten or twelve. That's about what we're looking for in the running game."

Pressed as to whether Vikings' fans could expect to see Peterson more involved in the passing game, Childress responded that "AP might get a couple of passes. We had him in on a couple plays against Green Bay and we'll probably have him in on a couple of passes on Sunday."

Childress clearly was comfortable with Peterson's limited receptions on Monday, hinting, as well, that Peterson's limited involvement in the passing game meshed well with the coach's philosophy of a close-vested, ball-control, run-dominated game plan.

What's remarkable about Childress' commitment to a conservative game plan is not that he remains wedded to the philosophy despite having, in Peterson, a potentially game-breaking player, but that his commitment to playing it close and "giving the team a chance to win at the end" seems a less successful strategy than playing a more open style of ball.

In 2006, the Vikings played nine games that were decided by seven or fewer points. In those nine games, the close-to-the-vest type of games with which Childress appears enamored, the Vikings were 2-6, a .250 winning percentage.

In 2007, the Vikings played eight games decided by seven or fewer points. In those eight games, the Vikings were 3-5, a .375 winning percentage.

Conversely, between 2006 and 2007, the Vikings played fifteen games decided by more than seven points--the type of game that Childress seems morbidly petrified by. In those fifteen games, the Vikings were 8-7 for a .533 winning percentage.

Clearly, a .533 winning percentage is not the stuff of which championships are made. Even more evident, however, is the fact that a .533 winning percentage is preferable to a .375 winning percentage.

What Childress appears to be banking on is the prospect that he can improve upon his team's winning percentage in close games while maintaining his team's winning percentage in other games. Needless to say, that's a highly conservative angle to take in a league in which few teams cut above .500 in close games and even fewer enjoy the potential to have games with greater score separation.

The frustration for Vikings' fans is not that Childress wants to give the Vikings a chance to win at the end of the game, but that his methodology is at odds with what gives the Vikings the best chance to win at the end of the game. More plays involving Peterson would logically appear to equate to more opportunities for game-breaking plays and more opportunities for greater score separation.

Childress seems to think otherwise. But Childress' numbers appear to lie.

Up Next: Stopping the Pass.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

One or Two Plays or an Entire Game Plan?

For two years, Minnesota Vikings' fans have waited for what was to have been a return to championship caliber play. When head coach Brad Childress arrived in Minnesota, he made a point of noting that he picked the Vikings rather than the Vikings having picked him. "The cupboard is not bare here; we're close," Childress gushed. "That's why I chose this team to be my team."

Childress made clear that, had he felt any differently, he would have stepped on the next available charter flight to Green Bay and signed on the dotted line to become the next head coach of the Green Bay Packers. Perhaps that comment, along with Childress' fifth consecutive loss to the presumably lesser Packers, helps explain why Childress passed on the traditional post-game, midfield handshake with Packers' head coach Mike McCarthy in favor of massaging quarterback Tarvaris Jackson's purportedly fragile ego in the runway back to the locker room.

What the Vikings offered on Monday in losing to the Packers was more of what Childress has offered since his arrival in Minnesota, but less. While Childress had used previous season openers to showcase his ability to gameplan in situations in which he is given months to prepare for an opponent, Monday's game plan looked the same as virtually every game plan that Childress has employed en route to leading the Vikings to thorough mediocrity--neither a step up nor a step down from where the team stood with far lesser talent in Mike Tice's final year in Minnesota.

The losses fans can take in stride. The explanations for the continuing boring mediocrity are less palatable.

Among the constant refrains which most Vikings' fans undoubtedly would prefer to hear less of in favor of better results are some of the very lines that came from various quarters following Monday's loss. Sadly, not only have the team's excuses become cliched, they also have become suspect.

Some Vikings' starters pointed to injuries to cornerback Cedric Griffin and Tarvaris Jackson and the absence of left offensive tackle Bryant McKinnie as reasons for the Vikings' struggles in the passing game on both sides of the ball. While it might be true that McKinnie is an upgrade over Artis Hicks, that Griffin is the best option at right cornerback, and that Jackson was still recovering from his preseason injury, the injuries and McKinnie's absence clearly were not the Vikings' Achilles' heal on Monday.

McKinnie and Griffin might be better than their replacements, but the difference is measurable in small rather than large increments. Where Hicks failed on Monday, McKinnie, too, has stumbled, drawing inopportune penalties and missing blocks in the passing game. And while Charles Gordon was bad as Griffin's sub, he was subbing for the weakest link in the Vikings' base defense.

When Vikings' players were done making excuses, Childress took over. After saying that he did not want to make any excuses, that the team simply needed to be more consistent, Childress went on to make several excuses. Among the excuses was that the Vikings' offensive line was not together, that Jackson needs to get comfortable with his receivers, and that the Vikings would have won, if not for one or two big plays.

As Childress lamented the loss of McKinnie, the Packers replaced their starting center without missing a beat. And that was with a rookie quarterback who, despite starting his first game ever in the NFL, was comfortable enough with his receivers, taking snaps from and throwing behind his backup center, to call an audible at a critical juncture in the game--an audible that would have led to a touchdown, but for an illegal man down field.

Clearly, either the Packers have a better system in place for nurturing rookie quarterbacks and getting them up to speed with veterans, rookies, and backups, alike, or the Packers simply have a better quarterback than does Minnesota. Neither offers a very flattering assessment of Childress' self-professed prowess as a quarterback coach and mentor. But either suggests why it is that the Packers have been able to take five straight from the Vikings.

If not once again requesting more time to show the genius of his big picture plan, Childress is lamenting the one or two big plays that cost or nearly cost his team. This week, we heard how it cost his team.

The fallacy of the claim is evident, of course. Yes Minnesota gave up two big plays for scores, but the Packers also failed to convert on two big plays due to penalties away from the play. The Packers could argue that, but for a poor field goal attempt, two untimely penalties, and two missed assignments on defense, the game would have been a blowout in their favor.

But of all the post-game posturing, the most tiring is the one that every member of the Vikings has offered up in the aftermath of Monday's loss, that it's still early in the season. With but sixteen regular season games, there is no "early" in the NFL season. Every game counts and every game matters, losses to division and conference rivals all the more so. After next week's game, the Vikings will have played one-eighth of their games. After week three, they will have played nearly one-fifth of their games. At what point should Vikings' fans start to worry that this is more of the same old same old rather than a prelude to greater things?

The concern for Vikings' fans after a season-opening loss on the road should not be over the loss itself. Rather, it should be over Childress' parting postgame commentary and what the comments portend. When asked whether the Packers did anything special to limit Jackson to seven yards passing in the first half, Childress was blunt. "No, I think it was just that we were in more of a running mode at that time--throughout the half."

Why were the Vikings in "running mode" throughout the first half? Because that's how Childress gameplans every game. Run until you have to pass. We've said it before and we'll say it again, that type of game plan is suited for teams intent on hanging around .500; keep it close and lose or win close. Predictable, boring beyond tears, and a brand of football not made to produce championship caliber teams.

Up Next: Give Him the Damn Ball!

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Errors of Omission Surpass Errors of Commission

The Minnesota Vikings entered Lambeau Field on Monday night a 2.5-point underdog. Nearly three and one-half hours later, they left the field five point losers, having fallen to the Green Bay Packers 24-19.

The Vikings' loss left current Vikings' head coach Brad Childress 0-5 against the Packers. Among those five losses have been three at Lambeau. In those three games, the Vikings have scored two offensive touchdowns--both this year.

That the Vikings' offense showed some life should not be surprising. After all, in the last two seasons, alone, the Vikings have added Adrian Peterson, Sidney Rice, and Bernard Berrian. On Monday night, each of these additions made good on some of their paycheck. Unfortunately, mistakes on the field and on the sidelines kept them from contributing more.

The mistakes began early for the Vikings with left tackle Artis Hicks getting flagged on the Vikings' opening drive, continued through poor coverage by Charles Gordon, and Ryan Cook's abysmal night, and finished with Tavaris Jackson serving up a gift to Green Bay safety, Atari Bigby.

The Vikings nearly survived their mistakes of commission thanks, in large part, to numerous Green Bay penalties, and some strong defensive play in short-field situations. The mistakes of omission were too much to overcome, however.

The most glaring mistake of omission was one that has become a constant of Childress' tenure in Minnesota, the failure to seize an opportunity when presented one on a golden platter.

The Packers did all that they could to make clear to Childress that they had no ability to stop Adrian Peterson in the flat or out of the backfield. Despite the Packers' kind gesture, Childress was adamant. Peterson would run up the gut and into a wall or not play.

And so Peterson obliged, running into eight, nine, even ten Packer defenders right behind the reverse-impenetrable Hicks, the nearly invisible Matt Birk, and the ever obstructive Cook. It was a recipe for limited yardage. And limited yardage, at least between the tackles where Peterson was asked to spend the bulk of his night running, is what Peterson amassed.

Outside the tackles and beyond the line of scrimmage, in the rarefied air into which few Vikings' plays go, the area of the plus-three-yard-pass, Peterson shone. There, Peterson made the Packers look silly and feeble, knocking Packer corner Al Harris five yards back on a tackle attempt in the first quarter.

But when the Vikings most needed Peterson, when everything about the game said that Peterson should be the focal point of any attempt to come from behind and steal victory, Peterson was on the sidelines, with his helmet off. Ron Jaworski attempted to paper over Peterson's absence, arguing that NFL players were not ready for a full game in week one given that few played any minutes in the final week of preseason. That, fortunately, was not Peterson's issue.

Instead, what ailed Peterson in the waning moments of Monday night's loss was his coach's inexplicable determination not to incorporate him into the passing game.

The argument has long been that Peterson is too young and too inexperienced to be incorporated into a passing game that requires him to block. There are, of course, two immediate queries to such a nonsensical contention. The first is whether Peterson, a second-year player, should be entrusted with running plays that first-year players Matt Forte and Felix Jones ran in week one for their respective teams? The second is why Peterson needs to be a skilled blocker when he's the object of the pass?

Not having Peterson in the game at a critical juncture is an obvious error of omission. Not using him in the passing game is another. Equally disconcerting an error of omission was Childress' continuing design of running the ball up the gut, calling plays short of the sticks, and using the pass only as a last resort.

How bad was it on Monday night? Late in the fourth quarter, with the Vikings down by two scores, Jaworski commented that he liked the fact that "Jackson was opening up his game with the deeper pass." Jackson had just attempted a seven-yard pass. That he missed the target horrifically was secondary to the stark reality that the Vikings' offense remains what it has been the first two seasons under Childress, mostly gutless and boring beyond description.

As a result, the outcome of the game never seemed in doubt. Though the Vikings forced the Packers to punt in the final minute of the game, Jackson's interception was a most appropriate ending, highlighting the lack of emphasis that the Vikings place on the passing game, with or without Peterson.

Up Next: SOGOTP.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Yo, Adrian!

With the opening game of the 2008 NFL regular season only four days away, Minnesota Vikings' head coach, Brad Childress, undoubtedly has had the team's opening game game plan ready for the past six months. That, after all, has been Childress' modus operandi in his first two seasons in Minnesota.

In 2006, the Vikings went on the road and beat an improved Washington team, 19-16. Last year, the Vikings stayed home and crushed the hapless Atlanta Falcons, 24-3. While neither victory stood as a monumental feat, both at least suggested that, given time, Childress can fashion a solid game plan.

Monday nights' season opener at Lambeau Field offers Childress his greatest season-opening challenge yet as the Vikings face last year's Super Bowl runner-up, the Green Bay Packers. Despite replacing last year's starting quarterback, Brett Favre, essentially with a rookie in Aaron Rodgers, the Packers still return a solid team in all other respects.

As Childress likely has etched his game plan in stone, there is little reason to believe that he will or even is capable of altering the plan at this late date. Given the little that we have seen from Adrian Peterson in the preseason, Peterson's quiet finish to the 2007 season, questions along the Vikings' offensive line, and Childress' desire to showcase quarterback Tarvaris Jackson in what might be a make-or-break season for both coach and quarterback, there is reason to suspect that Peterson will be spared a heavy work load at Lambeau.

That would be a mistake.

As far lesser teams have demonstrated, the value in having a multi-talented play-maker such as Peterson is in using that player. For the Vikings, making use of Peterson means not only handing the ball off to their strongest offensive threat, but finding Peterson in the passing game, as well.

Passing is anathema enough to Childress. Passing to Peterson borders on heresy. But if the Vikings are to have success in 2008, if the team is to move beyond the mediocrity that tends to move hand-in-hand with the close-to-the-vest play-calling for which Childress has become known, the offensive playbook must begin to include heavy doses of passes out of the backfield to Peterson.

The benefits of passing to the running back are multi-fold. Not the least of these advantages is that the running back turned receiver either draws coverage away from a wide-receiver or gains coverage from a much slower linebacker or end. Drawing coverage away from a receiver allows more room for the receivers to move and provides more of a passing cushion to the quarterback. Eliciting coverage from a linebacker or end merely creates the type of mismatch that leads to points in the NFL. Either would be a good result for a Vikings' team short on offensive line skill, light on wide-receiver speed and experience, and ever in search of a release valve for Jackson.

In 2007, Peterson had nineteen receptions for the Vikings, only four in the team's last five games. The numbers reflected Childress' increasingly conservative game plans as the season drew to a close and the Vikings struggled, and failed, to clinch a playoff spot.

Peterson's limited receiving total in the final five games of the season manifested itself not only in receptions, but in rushing yards. As the choke collar tightened on the Vikings' play calling, so, too, did Peterson's rushing numbers dwindle. After rushing for 1,018 yards in the team's first 9 games, a 113.11 yards/game average, Peterson rushed for only 260 yards in the team's final five games, a 50 yards/game average.

A portion of Peterson's dwindling statistical showing undoubtedly is attributable to Peterson's mid-season injury, with another portion attributable to his having averaged six fewer carries per game than he averaged in his first nine games of the season. But a significant portion of Peterson's late-season decline also, unquestionably, is directly linked to the Vikings' shrinking-violet play calling that diminished Peterson's role in the offense and virtually eliminated from consideration using Peterson as a receiving option out of the backfield. That's the kind of mindset that would have kept Marshall Faulk a secret to his grave and the kind that could sabotage the Vikings' greatest stroke of draft-day good fortune in team history.

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