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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