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!

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