When Minnesota Vikings' head coach Brad Childress arrived in Minnesota, he did so fortified with the strong belief that he brought with him an unbeatable brand of the West Coast offense. That brand, Childress noted at the time, was the very brand that had propelled the Philadelphia Eagles to the Super Bowl and was the one that would carry the Vikings to similar fortunes, and beyond.
Three years into the Childress regime, Minnesota Vikings' fans are still waiting.
Luke-warm advocates of Childress--because there are few if any true advocates of the much-maligned coach-turned-wiseman--will point to games against Chicago, Houston, and Green Bay as evidence that the Vikings' offense is beginning to turn the corner. Others will note games such as the most recent loss to Tampa Bay, in which the Vikings were able to muster only 13 points as evidence that, at best, Childress is overseeing an offense capable of good or bad results against any opponent on any given week.
That Childress' close-to-the-vest offense is capable of wildly swinging moods should come as no surprise, as everything that the Vikings do on offense is predicated on keeping things close. That means that if everything goes according to plan, the Vikings' offense can look good. Not great, but good.
But when things start to fall apart, as things have done on several occasions in 2008, things look bad. Sometimes very bad.
Quasi-apologists will point to the Vikings' lack of depth at wide receiver and limitations at quarterback--arguments that teams such as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who also have limitations along the offensive line and in the backfield, have made of themselves--as reasons for the Vikings' offensive mood swings.
While there is little doubt that the Vikings are without a number one receiver, using Bernard Berrian in that role when he is more suited to the number two role, are without a number two receiver when Berrian lines up as the number one receiver, using Bobby Wade as the number two when he is more suited to the number three or four role, and lack consistently good play at quarterback, these issues fall squarely on ownership and coaching.
For his part, Vikings' owner Zygi Wilf passed on an opportunity to pick up Randy Moss after making comments to the local media that he "never would have signed off on the trade of Moss" had he had had full control of the Vikings when the Moss trade was inked.
And for his part, Childress moved a capable number three receiver in Hank Baskett for a player no longer on the team, went with his "gut" in starting Tarvaris Jackson for nearly two seasons when Jackson was nowhere near ready to play in the NFL, made an amateurish move attempting to sneak a more capable rookie quarterback, Tyler Thigpen, onto the practice squad to preserve a roster spot for a player in whom he had virtually no confidence, Brooks Bollinger, and eschewed the opportunity to sign a capable Jeff Garcia.
But of all the errors that Childress has made in his time in Minnesota, none has been more glaring and more persistent than his refusal or inability to adjust to the realities of the modern NFL. For a coach who harps on offense and considers himself a great offensive mind, there is little evidence in the record to suggest that Childress understands what it takes to put a consistently capable offense on the field. For Vikings' fans who see numerous adjustments that could be made to effect the offense positively, consternation is only increasing.
As evidence of the Vikings' primary offensive shortcoming, the failure to move opposing teams' defenses off of the line of scrimmage, one need look only at one of Childress' oft-cited statistics, explosive plays--plays gaining 20 yards or more. The play of the Vikings' and Arizona Cardinals' offenses against one of the better defenses in the NFL, the Carolina Panthers', highlights the discrepancy between the Vikings' modest and the Cardinals' robust offense.
Excluding plays on which there was a sack, penalty, or turnover, the Vikings ran 49 offensive plays against the Panthers. Of those 49 plays, 22 gained less than five yards, 24 gained five yards or more but less than 20 yards, and 3 gained 20 yards or more. The numbers are consistent with a Vikings' game plan that routinely attempts two to three deep plays a game and occasionally picks up a long run from Adrian Peterson.
Against the same defense, running an identical 49 plays, the Cardinals had 13 plays of less than five yards (two for touchdowns), 30 plays over 5 yards but under 20 yards, and six plays of 20 yards or greater.
At first blush, the numbers might appear close. But as a percentage of the whole, they suggest a wildly divergent offensive approach. The numbers reveal that Arizona picked up 5 or more yards on 61% of the team's plays as opposed to 49% for Minnesota and that Arizona had explosive plays on 12% of its plays compared to 6% for Minnesota. Equally, if not more telling is that 45% of Minnesota's plays went for less than five yards while only 26% of Arizona's did so.
While it is undeniable that Arizona has far superior receivers and a superior quarterback, it is also true that Minnesota has far better offensive linemen, warts and all, superior running backs, and superior tight ends. That the distance between Minnesota and Arizona, against identical and solid defensive opposition is so wide, is not the function of who is playing as much as it is a function of the offensive system.
Minnesota's offense produces less because Childress expects it to produce less. The team takes as few offensive risks as any in the NFL, preferring not only low-risk plays to the higher risk ones but also the extremely low-risk plays to the merely low-risk ones. That, and Childress' general risk-averse, status-quo nature are sound recipes for a .500 season.
Up Next: Tice versus Childress.