Thursday, October 30, 2008

No Gotcha Media Here

It's confirmed. Now, it appears, the "truth" can be told.

After a narrow victory over the hapless Detroit Lions and a loss to the Chicago Bears, there was no confirmation. Two weeks later, following the team's bye week and the expected lull in interest that surrounds a team that has not played a game in what only seems like an eternity, Minnesota Vikings' fans have their answer--an unnamed member of the Wilf family has assured our ever-probing local scribe that Childress is the man.

How revealing.

The secondary source of this information, our local scribe, found it necessary to run with this "story" at a time when criticism of Vikings' head coach Brad Childress is likely to be at its highest ebb, when there is no sense to replacing the head coach having stuck it out this far into the season and past the bye week, and when the most plausible mid-season replacement, defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier, just endured his most dubious outing as a defensive coordinator.

The crux of our scribe's pabulum is that the Wilfs, all along, have considered Childress their guy--the guy who can and will return the Vikings to the championship level that the team last experienced in the late 1970s. If that were true, one would think that our scribe would have run with this story before or immediately after the 12-10 victory over the Lions. Or after the loss at Chicago. Running the story at either moment would have shown that, in spite of the vitriol in the air, the Wilfs stood by their man.

Our scribe chose not to run the story when it would have mattered. Instead, our scribe elected not only to wait until a dead period to report this news, but also to report the news at a time when it already is evident that the Vikings likely will ride out the season with Childress.

Worse yet, while news of the Wilfs' purported infatuation with Childress should be cause for public disclosure--even by the Wilfs--our scribe feels compelled, as he has so many times in the past given similar dubious contentions, to retain the privilege of his source. Sources are kept confidential when the information is damning and the source does not want to be the one to whom the disclosure is attributed. Not to reveal the source of information that is supportive of the status quo and that also purportedly is consistent throughout an organization simply is absurd--unless no such source actually exists.

We know the modus operandi for our scribe. Love the incumbent until they have gone. Then love the new incumbent. This is merely more of the same. And while it might cause some angst among those who believe that the Vikings are headed nowhere significant under Childress, there is solace, at least, in understanding that there is little, if any, reason to read much into what our local scribe has reported.

From the beginning of the 2008 season, Zygi Wilf has viewed the year as a referendum on Childress, not only from the perspective of Childress as coach but also as someone who can engage a fan base. At present, Childress the coach is sub-par, and that's leagues ahead of where he stands as someone able to engage fans. If Childress does not turn it around in both categories by the end of the season, not even our Pollyanna scribe will be able to ignore the obvious or report otherwise. Of course, by then, he'll probably already be shining the new pair of shoes in town.

Up Next: Houston Calling.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Underscoring the Ridiculousness of the Squib Kick Ploy

Following a tight victory over the New Orleans Saints, Minnesota Vikings' head coach Brad Childress vented early and often over punter Chris Kluwe's failure to punt the ball out of bounds, thereby giving Saints' return man Reggie Bush numerous opportunities to scorch an already tenuous Vikings' cover team. On each occasion, Bush obliged, returning two punts for touchdowns and one to midfield, stopped short of the end zone only by Bush's unsure footing.

In his criticism of Kluwe's failure to heed his instructions to punt out of bounds, Childress made clear how adamant he had been in his instructions and that such a failure on the part of his punter would be catastrophic against the Bears and Devin Hester.

Entering the game against Chicago last Sunday, it therefore would have come as no great surprise to any Vikings' fan should they have been informed that Childress had made clear to his kickers that Hester was not to be kicked to. And, as the first half progressed, it became clear that not kicking to Hester was a significant part of the Vikings' game plan.

On three of the Vikings' first four kickoffs on Sunday, place-kicker Ryan Longwell squib-kicked the ball just barely into Chicago territory. The Bears returned the three kicks an average of twenty yards and started drives on their own 46, 48, and 41, respectively. The three drives resulted in 17 points for the Bears.

Clearly, the Vikings' kickoff strategy backfired. That might be forgivable if the strategy were the best option for dealing with Hester's explosiveness. Alas, it was not. And it wasn't even the second best option.

The best option for the Vikings was simply to kick the ball as deep as possible. Longwell averages kickoff placement inside the five-yard-line. Hester averages kickoff returns of 22.1 yards. Assuming a kickoff to the five and an average return of 22.1 yards, Hester would be expected to return the ball to the 27-yard-line. Even measured by Hester's season-long kickoff return of 51 yards, the Vikings would be giving the Bears the ball near their own 45-yard-line--not far from where they gave the Bears the ball as a result of the squib-kick ploy.

That this was a good option was demonstrated by the Vikings relative success covering Hesters' return of Longwell's third kickoff, a deep kickoff to the six that Hester returned 16 yards to the 22. Despite that success, the Vikings opted for a third squib kick as the seconds to halftime ticked off of the clock, leaving the Bears just enough time to go the short distance necessary to attempt a successful field goal.

The second best option for the Vikings to avoid a long kickoff return would have been to kick the ball out of bounds at or inside the Bears' 40-yard-line. The penalty would have given the Bears the ball at their own 40-yard-line. That's not great, but it would have been an improvement over the ploy that the Vikings adopted.

There is no question but that the Vikings have problems covering kick returns. But squib kicking was not a viable solution to the coverage problem, even given the threat of Devin Hester. That seems to have been lost on Childress, however, who clearly was still seething from Kluwe's mis-punts against New Orleans and Bush's subsequent return success.

Where does the blame for this ploy rest? Some have suggested that Childress is merely accepting blame that rightly should accrue to special teams coordinator Paul Ferraro. Given his response to Kluwe's failures in New Orleans--and his contention that he personally instructed Kluwe to kick the ball out of bounds against the Saints--is there any doubt that Childress made the call to squib kick? And is there any need to discuss further the failure to employ either of two more viable options than that upon which Childress and Ferraro ultimately settled?

Up Next: More Numbers.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Fulcrum for a One-Punt Loss

At the half-way point of the 2008 season, it is now officially too late in the season to continue to claim that it is "still early." It is also too late in the season for NFL teams, with the possible exception of St. Louis, for any team to call for its fan base to let things play out and see where they go. At the midway point of the season, as in most other seasons, we have a pretty good snapshot of where things are and where they are going.

With a 3-4 record heading into the bye week, the Minnesota Vikings are about where they have been every season under head coach Brad Childress. They are not great. They are not awful. In other words, they are right about where about seventy percent of NFL teams currently are.

It was not supposed to be like this, of course. The cupboard was supposed to have been stocked when Childress arrived in Minnesota and was to have been fortified many times over in the years since that time. On offense, the Vikings lost Daunte Culpepper. On defense, the team lost virtually nobody that could play the game. Added to the mix were bona fide players such as Adrian Peterson, Chester Taylor, Steve Hutchinson, Bernard Berrian, and Jared Allen.

Despite the additions and the retention of talented veterans, the Vikings continue to tread water, in some areas even reverting to forms last seen in the low-budget Mike Tice era. In particular, the offensive line looks a mess, the linebacking corps without E.J. Henderson is porous, the secondary suddenly is sieve-like, the punting game is disastrous, and kick coverage is worse.

There are some positives, of course, to go along with all of the foibles. Those positives include an improved and more consistent running game than that offered in the Michael Bennett-Onterrio Smith days, a slightly improved pass rush, and improved play at the cornerback position, particularly in nickel and dime packages.

Yet, with the improvements, the errors not only persist, they seem to be mounting. And, at some point, someone ought to stand up and accept accountability. Who that ought to be can be gleaned from a long list of possible culprits. Take your pick--and feel free to mix and match.

Coaching. Harry Truman once said that when it came to the ramifications of policy implementation, the buck stopped with him. To date, we have yet to hear Childress utter anything even remotely resembling these words, save for the few instances in which he has uttered words near these only to insert the caveat that he "cannot play the game for the players."

We could run through the season and point to numerous coaching miscues that good coaches tend not to make, but let's reserve comment merely for yesterday's loss for the moment. Whether it was the decision to use Vinny Ciurciu at linebacker at any point in the game, the decision to use squib kicks on kickoffs that put the Bears in better field position than where they normally would begin play following the average Devin Hester kickoff return (and in a better position than if the Vikings had merely kicked the ball out of bounds!), the decision not to attack a Bears' secondary missing its two starting cornerbacks and its nickel back, or the decision not to employ a hurry-up offense when down by seventeen (the Bears went with a no-huddle offense on their opening drive en route to an easy touchdown), Childress and his staff had their worst game of the season and their worst game in Childress' tenure. It was a game that, from a coaching perspective, should signal the end of Paul Ferraro's tenure as special team's coach in Minnesota and ought to give pause to any thoughts that Zygi might have had about tabbing defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier as even an interim coach.

Childress already has laid the excuse framework for yesterday's loss, pointing to Chris Kluwe's drop of a punt snap and the unfortunate bounce of a ball into return man Charles Gordon's arm, with both plays resulting in Chicago touchdowns, as key plays. What he likely will not say, however, is what he says whenever the Vikings eke out an ugly win--you make your breaks and you earn your results. We know no win is a bad win. But is any loss a bad loss? And, more to the point, does coaching effect outcome or is coaching just a necessary process that affects games only at the margins? We await a reply.

Linebackers. Without E.J. Henderson, the Vikings' linebacking corps is a mess. Ciurciu is hopeless virtually anywhere on the field, but particularly at linebacker. Why he was in the game on Sunday remains a mystery. Suffice it to say that even the recently cut (Kansas City) Napolean Harris is a substantial upgrade over Ciurciu--a point that should have been abundantly evident to Frazier well before the Bears scored their second offensive touchdown.

Quarterback. As bad as the linebackers were on Sunday, quarterback Gus Frerotte was far worse. We undoubtedly will hear about how Frerotte was constantly under pressure and how receivers did not always run the right routes--two issues that seem to have cropped up every week for nearly three years now--but the truth of the matter is that Frerotte was brutal on Sunday. Even easy scoring tosses were thrown wide, but the worst of his passes clearly were the four picks.

None of Frerotte's four picks were the consequence of pressure on the quarterback. They all simply were bad passes. For a veteran quarterback to have four brutal picks in one game, against backup corners, is tough to understand.

Offensive line. No surprise that the offensive line continues to struggle as the Vikings continue to rely on the likes of Ryan Cook and Bryant McKinnie to block far superior football players. The Vikings have few options on the ends, but re-inserting Artis Hicks for McKinnie would be a good start.

If you want to take away something positive from yesterday's loss, there were some things that fit the bill. Visanthe Shiancoe continued to hold onto the ball and even made a difficult catch of a poorly thrown pass. Adrian Peterson finally broke a run. And Ryan Longwell looked solid. Outside of that, everything was pretty much as it has been under Childress, but worse.

Up Next: Some Numbers.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Will Can Meet Will for Childress?

Of all the players in the NFL with which Minnesota Vikings' head coach Brad Childress is smitten, none has more garnered his favor than Philadelphia Eagles' running back Brian Westbrook. Nary a press conference or interview passes without Childress gushing about Westbrook's flexibility and accomplishments. Nor without Childress commenting that Vikings' running back Adrian Peterson is no Brian Westbrook.

There is no argument here. Peterson certainly is no Westbrook. But that's not because he cannot be. Rather, it is because Childress insists that he is not and refuses to use him in the manner that the Eagles use their versatile, if oft-injured back.

In 2003, his second season in the NFL, Westbrook caught 37 passes for 332 yards and ran the ball 117 times for 613 yards. In 2007, he improved those numbers to 90 receptions for 771 yards and 278 rushing attempts for 1333 yards.

In his rookie season with Minnesota, Peterson caught 19 passes for 268 yards and had 238 rushing attempts for 1,341 yards, despite missing two games to injury and returning early from his injury leave. This season, Peterson has caught 11 passes for 56 yards and rushed 129 times for 561 yards.

The numbers suggest that, despite Childress' curious statements to the contrary, Peterson not only is very much like a young Brian Westbrook with respect to his ability to serve not only as a running back but as a receiver, but also that Peterson might even be more like Westbrook than is even Westbrook.

What appears to be limiting Peterson's success is not, as Childress continues to offer unprompted, that Peterson simply does not have the skill set necessary to catch the ball, but Childress' unwillingness to break from the mold that is his ultra-conservative brand of the West Coast Offense. Unlike the West Coast brand of offense run in Philadelphia and previously in San Francisco, two offenses that rely heavily on the running back in both the rushing and passing game, Childress simply cannot imagine such a scheme working with the likes of pedestrian backs such as Peterson and Chester Taylor.

For the Vikings to succeed beyond the mere humdrum that has become their .500 pace, Childress must accept what is so clear to even the most casual of observers. Namely, he must accept that he has talent on offense that, despite the warts of the offensive line, can change games dramatically. If only given the proper opportunity.

Childress seems to have some sense of what is happening on the field. Unfortunately, he continues to sabotage his own efforts by refusing to capitulate when it comes to making better use of Peterson.

In the field of clinical psychology, stubbornness is correlated with passive-aggressive personality types. Anyone who heard Childress' latest press conference no doubt would have little trouble associating either attribute with the Vikings' head coach. Fortunately for Childress, the symptoms are treatable. Unfortunately for Vikings' fans, the trait-holder must acknowledge the characteristics and then endeavor to address them. It's not at all clear that Childress is desirous or capable of either. And that probably means more of the same for the Vikings' offense.

Up Next: Bears With Us.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Tenuous Post Leads to Startling Contentions

Following last Sunday's narrow victory over the winless Detroit Lions, Minnesota Vikings' head coach Brad Childress quipped that he was tickled over the victory. Childress added a line that he had offered on at least two occasions the week prior to the game against the Lions, contending that "there are no easy victories."

Whether there are any "easy" victories in the NFL, depends, of course, on one's definition of "easy." By most barometers, and I intend to be quite generous in this assessment, a two-touchdown victory with a larger lead at some point in the game would be regarded as a relatively easy victory. Perhaps not in Childress' lexicon.

Prior to facing the Vikings on Sunday, the Lions had lost their first four games of the 2008 season by two touchdowns, three touchdowns, three touchdowns, and four touchdowns (rounding to the nearest touchdown), in order. In those four losses, the Lions held the lead for precisely zero seconds and trailed at halftime by 7, 18, 18, and 17 points, in succession. Not only were the Lions playing poorly, they were playing increasingly worse each week.

By virtually no measure, were the Lions deemed a good football team when they entered the Metrodome on Sunday. And in virtually no quarter, were they expected to give the Vikings any challenge on the road.

Despite the overwhelming numbers, Childress opted to trot out a pat line used by NFL head coaches for decades in the face of an overmatched opponent. "We take no team lightly. On any given Sunday any team can win. There are no easy victories in this sport," the coach went on, lathering up the audience with one football cliche after another.

What is curious about Childress' pre-game admonitions--statements that coaches generally reserve to guard against a let down by their players--is that Childress carried the comments over into the postgame. "We're just happy to get a win no matter how it comes about. Obviously, we have many things to work on, just like any other team," he added, "but, like I said, there are no easy wins in this league."

Pre-game, Childress' comments are accepted vernacular. Post-game, those same words not only come off as desperate but also make the pre-game words seem desperate, as if Childress was attempting to frame the post-game discussion by diminishing expectations.

The even more curious part of Childress' post-game statements, however, is that Childress' comments are verifiably false, particularly, and importantly, with respect to the very opponent that Childress was so tickled to have beaten. If every there was a team that offered an easy victory, it was the Lions. That the Vikings failed to capitalize on the Lions' dysfunction says much more about the Vikings than it does about the Lions. And it suggests as much about the unbending nature of a head coach that simply appears incapable of altering his offensive philosophy in the face of all reason to do so.

Up Next: Debunking the AP Myth.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Tickled or Pickled?

After last week's narrow victory over the New Orleans Saints, Minnesota Vikings' head coach Brad Childress declared that he was tickled to have a victory, no matter how that victory came to be. When quizzed as to Adrian Peterson's frame of mind after the second-year running back rushed for 32 yards on 21 carries, Childress added his back to the tickled club. "He's just happy to get the win, we all are," Childress monotoned. "He's tickled to death."

Today, the Vikings entered their home game against the winless Detroit Lions, a team that had surrendered 34, 48, 31, and 34 points to Atlanta, Green Bay, San Francisco, and Chicago, respectively, in their four previous games. The Vikings left with a 12-10 victory and Childress, flop-sweating, insisting that he was again tickled.

The problem for the Vikings was not the lack of rushing by Adrian Peterson, who, despite still being routinely pulled from the game in third-down situations and being a virtual non-presence in the short-passing game, finished the game with 111 yards rushing. Nor was the problem the inability of quarterback Gus Frerotte to find open receivers, as Frerotte connected on 18 of 36 passes for 296 yards--nearly making him the first quarterback in the Brad Childress era to reach the 300-yard passing plateau.

Rather, the problem for the Vikings continued to be poor offensive line play and poor offensive execution, in general. Of the team's 14 offensive possessions, the Vikings had a mere four possessions with neither a sack, penalty, or turnover; five of the 14 series had multiple transgressions.

Of the Vikings' four sack-, penalty-, and turnover-free series, only one resulted in points, that a one-play drive leading to an 86-yard touchdown pass from Frerotte to Bernard Berrian. The other three flawless series resulted in a combined 12 plays with two three-and-outs and one six-and-out.

On the three "error-free" series that did not lead to a score, the Vikings opted to shoot themselves in the proverbial foot with the predictable play calling that has become Childress' calling card. On the fifth series of the game, the Vikings ran Peterson right, Peterson up the middle, and heaved it deep with a prayer on third and long. On the thirteenth series, the Vikings opted for a variant on the run, throwing short, then running Chester Taylor right for negative yards then passing short of the first-down marker.

It was classic Childress play calling.

The problem for Childress, and the issue that had hordes of Vikings' fans at the stadium calling for Childress' dismissal despite the victory, is that what Childress considers innovate wrinkles, others see as a variation on a transparent theme. Whether the Vikings run or pass on first down, they virtually always opt for a low risk, low reward play. That means running behind the line or passing just beyond the line of scrimmage. While one play is a pass and the other a run, they both allow opposing defenses to cheat up. And that means that, rather than complement, the plays duplicate one another and make defense relatively easy.

The result is a plodding offense built to beat the worst, compete with most, and struggle against the best. Sunday's result was simply further confirmation of that fact--a fact that could leave Childress in a pickle sooner rather than later.

Up Next: More Evidence of Plodding.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Chestnuts Again Pulled From Fire, Childress Must Focus on Lessons

The Minnesota Vikings entered half-time on Monday night at the New Orleans Superdome with 140 yards of offense to the Saints' 222 yards of offense, 34 offensive plays to the Saints' 42, 11:03 in time of possession to the Saints' 18:57, and a ten-point lead.

That lead, the result of a blocked field-goal-attempt returned for a touchdown, the one creative Vikings' offensive play of the season that led to a five-yard wobbler from Chester Taylor to Visanthe Shiancoe following a fumble return to the Saints' five-yard line, and two Ryan Longwell field goals, was just enough to propel the Vikings to a last-minute 30-27 victory of the Saints.

In addition to earning an apparent reprieve from what could have been an early season dismissal, Vikings' head coach Brad Childress was the beneficiary of some other good fortune on Monday night. The question now is whether he will make use of the revelations to which he bore witness.

What Ought to Have Been Learned

Among the lessons that Childress should take away from Monday night's victory is that it is acceptable to run an unexpected play, particularly in the red zone. Calling upon Taylor to pass to the heretofore rightfully maligned Shiancoe was a solid call at a time when everyone expected a conservative call--like the sweep around the end that the Vikings sold to set up Taylor's pass. That's a smart call, especially since it came on the heels of two loathfully predictable calls.

The Vikings also should have learned the value of experience on special teams. With special teamers Heath Farwell and Vinny Ciurciu out with injuries, the Vikings have struggled to stop opposing return teams from exploiting the gaffes made by the young players filling their own coverage teams. It's time for Childress to role the dice and put some starters on special teams' coverage units. That's not an ideal solution given the injury risks facing those on coverage teams, but these are not ideal times for the Vikings' coverage teams. And unusual times call for unusual measures.

Childress also should have learned that the team's passing woes have not been primarily the product of the players, but, rather, of the system. While the Vikings, like many teams across the league, employ less than all-star caliber wide-receivers, there is quite a bit to be said for calling plays that give receivers room to gain separation and that require opponents to guess whether the route is an in or a go. On Monday night, the Vikings called three deep seam routes and capitalized on two. Imagine what running that play just a couple more times a game might do.

And imagine, if you will, what incorporating Adrian Peterson into the game plan for something other than a run up the middle might do. Happy to take advantage of those poor souls that struggle with Adrian Peterson as the top pick in their fantasy football drafts, knowing that Peterson is capable of so much but asked to do so little, I nevertheless would prefer to see the Vikings utilize their running back for what he is worth. The Vikings ran zero screens for Peterson on Monday and failed, yet again, to use Peterson in the slot, despite even lining Taylor up in the slot on at least one occasion. And, yet again, on critical third-down plays, Peterson seemed to be kept at bay on the sideline.

The Monday victory was a nice one for the Vikings to get in a situation ripe for a Vikings' loss. With that said, the formula for victory looked very much like it has for each of the past two seasons under Childress--rely on the defense to score and toss in just enough offense to eke out a victory. If Childress elects to build on the lessons of Monday night, Vikings could still be good this year and Childress could still have a job in Minnesota in 2009. If not, the only difference between this year and last year will be the change looming at the top when the season tolls.

Up Next: Tough for Some, Worse for Others.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Must Perform for Childress, Not Must Win for Team

The Minnesota Vikings travel to the Bayou this week for a Monday night match-up against the New Orleans Saints. At 1-3, the Vikings are encroaching upon must-win territory, though, with a game next week against the hapless Lions, at home, and a relatively light schedule for much of the remainder of the season, the team likely can afford to lose a game in which they are road dogs.

What the Vikings, in particular head coach Brad Childress, cannot afford to do in the French Quarter is lay an egg. With winds blowing out of Winter Park that Vikings' owner Zygi Wilf is watching this game intently for signs of surrender, anything less than a competitive showing might signal an abrupt end to Childress' run with the Vikings.

On offense, the Saints have averaged 27.8 points per game this season against opponents allowing an average of 23.35 points per game. On defense, the Saints have allowed 25 points per game to opponents averaging 25.9 points per game. The numbers reveal a plus 4.5-point differential on offense and a plus one-point differential on defense or a plus 5.5 differential overall.

The Vikings, meanwhile, have averaged 17.8 points per game against teams allowing an average of 19.15 points per game. Defensively, the Vikings have allowed 20.5 points per game to teams averaging 22.53 points per game. The numbers reveal a minus 1.5-point differential on offense and a plus 2.5-point differential on defense, or a plus one-point differential overall.

Assuming the averages already account for the homefield advantage, the numbers suggest a tight Saints' victory of 4-5 points, somewhere in the neighborhood of 24-20. That should be close enough of a loss to spare Childress at least until the bye week, but probably not close enough to change any opinions among Vikings' fans about the general direction in which this team is headed.

Up Next: Marching In or Marched On?