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?
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