Monday, December 01, 2008

Contrary to Unpopular Wisdom

Popular belief has it that Adrian Peterson is the best running back in the NFL and ought to be given every opportunity to show it. On Sunday night, Minnesota Vikings' head coach Brad Childress spent the better part of the first half against the equally addled Chicago Bears, attempting to disprove popular wisdom. Fortunately for the Vikings and their fans, while Bears' head coach Lovie Smith opted for the Childress playbook, Childress broke ranks.

After spending one full quarter running the conventional Childress road-to-nowhere offense, the Vikings caught a break early in the second quarter on Sunday when Adrian Peterson ripped off a 59-yard-run to the Bears' 6-yard-line. The Vikings then called a Peterson run to the Vikings' weak side for one yard and followed with two poorly devised and even more poorly executed jump-ball passes to the left corner of the end zone, the first of which should have been and nearly was intercepted.

The obvious playcall so close to the Bears' endzone was to stack the left side of the line with two tight ends and to give Peterson the ball. Predictably, however, the obvious playcall was not even a possibility on third down as the Vikings removed Peterson--the one guy for whom the Bears had no answer. The equally predictable result was a fourth-down field-goal attempt that the Vikings converted to pull within four.

Without belaboring the point, it is evident that Childress has become fixated with proving to anyone watching and/or listening that he has no need for conventional wisdom or even subtle derivations there of. Rather than the no-brainer, what the Childress playbook generally calls for is a common-sense call thrice removed. On this set of downs, that meant using option four when the Bears had failed to show that they could shut down option one.

Not to be outdone--in fact, as an apparent point of one-upmanship pride--Lovie Smith followed Childress' playcalling with some equally inept playcalling of his own.

After rookie running back Matt Forte scorched the Vikings for a 26-yard run around the left end, and Ray Edwards and Benny Sapp chipped in drive-saving penalties, the Bears found themselves at the Vikings' one-yard-line.

The natural call would have been Forte around the left or right end or a play-action pass--two plays that the Vikings had shown an inability to defend. Smith called the proper play on first down, but went to the wrong side and too deep, calling a pass to tight end Greg Olsen in the right corner of the endzone.

The first down miss apparently emboldened Smith to resort to the least viable alternatives. Instead of using a variation of what should have been a successful play, Smith opted to run up the gut against Minnesota. And he did so not once, not twice, but three times, the second play during which Smith inserted previously unused, practice squad fullback Jason Davis for the fullback's only carry of the game and season.

Naturally, the Vikings' stone-walled the Bears, turning Lovie's team over on downs at the one. The Bears never recovered and Lovie was left to explain to an incredulous Chicago media contingent why running three straight times at Pat and Kevin Williams seemed like the best option from the one. In classic Childress fashion, Lovie replied that the Bears "thought they saw something that they could exploit." In common parlance, that translates to "I thought I was smarter than everyone else."

While Lovie and the Bears continued their head-scratching play--typified by their failure to play a safety deep on Bernard Berrian's side when Childress' playbook clearly calls for one of his team's two deep passes of the game to be thrown from the Vikings' one-yard-line, as it did on the very next play--Childress, after possibly taking a few well-placed knocks to the head during halftime, either conceded the long-standing error of his ways or made one last ditch effort to show why his way is better.

Following a Chester Taylor rush for no gain from the Bears' one-yard-line, Childress inserted Peterson into the game calling on 28 to run up the gut. The logic, it appeared, was to prove to all that Peterson simply cannot get it done in goal-line situations. Never mind what wisdom suggested, Childress would show the World that he was right. Only he was wrong and the Vikings benefited courtesy an AP waltz into the endzone.

The victory over the Bears on Sunday was important, even critical, for the Vikings who, with a loss, effectively would have stood two games behind the Bears in the standings with but a slim chance of making the playoffs. But, perhaps equally as important to the team as the victory is the fact that Peterson walked into the endzone from the one-yard-line. For that play showed what all but Childress already knew--that Peterson is a goal line back.

If only Peterson had caught a pass out of the slot in a third down situation.

Up Next: Misdirection.

3 comments:

Cabrito said...

Some interesting comments, VG. You never tire of lambasting Chili's stubbornness, and as usual your critique is right on target.

But leaving this aside, I'd like to register a small dissent to the euphoria that seems to have gripped Vikingland in the wake of a lopsided victory. There's no question that the Vikings did some good things on Sunday night. The special teams played better than usual, and the defense finally managed to get to the passer consistently as the game wound down. With some temerity, however, I'd like to point out a number of weaknesses in the team's overall performance. On offense, Gus played a little better than he has recently, but he's still unable to mount any kind of consistent intermediate passing game of the quality demonstrated by many other teams in the league. As for AP, well, I continue to feel sorry for him. I watched an NFL Network highlight film of his best runs on Sunday, and sad to say, not a single one was accomplished with the benefit of a decent hole opened by the offensive line. AP does it all by himself, and suffers the punishment for his tenacity. The result of all this -- poor downfield passing and AP being held to 1 or 2 yard runs most of the time -- meant that as usual, the offense was incapable of sustaining long drives. Most of their points came off turnovers or spectacular plays (e.g., a 59 yard run, a 99 yard pass). Without the ability to move the chains with regularity, this team has to rely on breaks and big plays to win. Not a recipe for success, especially in the playoffs, should they make it.

Turning to the defense, the Vikings were indeed fortunate that some of the Bears' receivers couldn't hold onto the ball when Orton put it right in their hands. If they had, the game might have been a blowout the other way. As usual, then, the defense had trouble defending the pass, though things improved when the pass rush materialized in the second half. Hester's touchdown was a classic example of the Vikings' ineptness at pass defense. With the pass being so important in the modern NFL, I can't see this team going very far.

Pardon my pessimism, but the final score was misleading. If a few breaks had gone the other way, the Bears would be basking in first place, and Chili's tenure would be on the bubble. I'm not so sure I wouldn't have preferred the latter outcome.

vikes geek said...

Cabrito,

I suspect that most critically thinking fans would agree with you. When you consider what went right for the Vikings on Sunday and what went wrong, virtually everything went right. The only bad break was the missed roughing call. And the Vikings did such a lousy job calling goal-line offense prior to the missed call that it was tempting to forgive the referee.

The Vikings typically throw deep two times a game, hoping to hit the pass. On Sunday, they hit. Next Sunday, they might not.

The Vikings typically give AP the ball just enough to tease the fans. On Sunday, they gave it to him just enough to break a long run and score a touchdown. Next Sunday, they may opt to pull him before he has the chance to do either.

Frerotte finished with over 200 yards passing for the first time in over a month. Nearly half of the passing yardage came on the 99-yard pass. That counts, to be sure. But how often should the Vikings count on Frerotte hitting the homerun play? If he doesn't connect on Sunday--and he almost underthrew a wide open Berrian--he finishes with some of his worst numbers of the season.

AP made some nice runs, but, as you note, few were made easier by the offensive line--particularly the right side of the offensive line where the Vikings continue to run Peterson more often than not. Late in the game, Peterson took two particularly hard hits while trying to squirm through the non-existent holes. His limping told the story.

How determinative were the goal-line stand and subsequent TD heave? Had the Bears scored, there was every indication that the Vikings were done--for the night and for the season. That they were not done for the night, that they actually prevailed, merely gave them the opportunity to make the playoffs. To succeed, however, they still will need to beat at least one superior team. And that's something that Childress' teams rarely do.

VG

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