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.


Cabrito said...

Yes, VG, your depressing analysis hits the target, or I should say targets, once again. But let's talk about hope, and pose a simple question. This is indeed a more interesting NFL season than most. We see recent habitual powers like New England, Indianapolis, Dallas, and San Diego beginning to slip, with one even going into the tank (Seattle). On the other hand, there's a long list of previous "marginal teams" that have suddenly turned into serious contenders, like Tennessee, Buffalo, Carolina, Washington, Miami, Arizona, and Tampa Bay, and even Atlanta. Such is the state of the NFL these days -- what a difference a year can make! So here's my question. If Childress is retained as coach next season, what hope can be entertained that the Vikings can emulate these seven and make the move from "marginal" to "contender"?

comet52 said...

Why would one think that Childress can get the team to emulate winners? He has had nearly 3 years with better personnel, bigger staff, improved facilities, ownership that will spend and spend some more, and he's not even in Mike Tice territory at this point. The team is worse off, especially if you consider what Tice had to work with compared to Chilldog.

I don't get the dream of optimism, it's as pointless as the preseason dreams of as Super Bowl visit were in Minnesota. There's no basis for thinking that Childress, TJack or Frerotte are any part of or likely to be any part of a march to a championship. It's just silly.

Cabrito said...

My question about hope was a rhetorical one, Comet52. I agree with you completely -- with Chili around next year, there's no hope at all. Ditto for Gus and TJ. The Vikings have to find a quarterback and coach, it's as simple as that -- or at least the requirement is simple to state. Unfortunately, satisfying the requirement may not be. There's been some scuttlebutt on the Trib blog about the Vikings offering Cleveland a couple of first round picks for Brady Quinn. Hmm, mortgaging the future for an unproven rookie QB? Doesn't sound sensible to me, but then, it's the Vikings we're talking about.

tazzard said...

I couldn't imagine giving Cleveland a couple of 1st round picks for Brady Quinn. Instead, after replacing Childress at the end of the season, they should pursue Brett Farve for a temporary fix. Then, we could use our 1st round pick on a legitimate QB of the future and let him sit and learn for a year or 2.