Monday, January 12, 2009

Three New and Two Old Men Who Ought to be in the Vikings' Kitchen in 2009

It's no secret that the Minnesota Vikings have some of the best talent in the NFL. The team tied for the NFL lead with four players named first-team All-Pros and added another to the second-team. And the Vikings achieved those numbers despite not having defensive lineman Pat Williams named to either team.

In addition to their All-Pro numbers, the Vikings will send six players to the Pro Bowl one year after sending seven. Clearly, the Vikings have talent.

What the Vikings lack, however, is the proper use of that talent. Part of the problem in Minnesota is that the Vikings play an ultra-conservative, disconnected, brand of football.
While other teams prosper with first-year quarterbacks and rookie head coaches, Minnesota continues to use quarterback Tarvaris Jacksons' youth and head coach Brad Childress' limited (three years) on the job as a crutch for underachieving.

And the Vikings continue to excuse their underperformance as high success, despite evidence to the contrary. After securing the title to the sub-par NFC North with a 10-6 record, with two, narrow victories coming courtesy the 0-16 Lions, Childress had the temerity to state that "double-digits wins do not come along too often in the NFL" and to argue, unsolicited, that he had done more with less than did former Vikings' head coach Mike Tice.

For the record, Childress has done the same with substantially greater resources--better assistants, better players, and better facilities--than Tice ever had in Minnesota. And, for the record, that makes his 10-6 feat in year three seem substantially underwhelming, particularly when last year's 1-15 Miami Dolphins were able to go 11-5 this year with a rookie head coach, a retread at quarterback, and no receivers. That made Miami one of ten teams in the NFL this season to post double-digit victories, with only Minnesota, among that group, failing to exceed ten victories.

Clearly, Childress is attempting to paper over the near-disastrous finish that the Vikings nearly endured. While the 8-3 record at the end of the season against teams with a combined .420 winning percentage made the season finale against the Giants' B-squad less tense, the loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, at home, in the first round of the playoffs laid bare the problems that continue to face the Vikings.

With a wholly weak schedule in 2009, the Vikings ought to be able to perform on the field next year no better than they did this season and still win the division and wrap up a two seed with a 12-4 record. That, of course, won't make them any better than they were this year if they are unable to play well in the playoffs. And that will require either a seismic shift in how Childress approaches his dismal offensive scheming or much improved play from the offense, in spite of Childress.

Placing my eggs in the latter basket, I'll opt, first, for upgrading three positions on offense. With $20-23 million available in cap space before accounting for LTBEs, the Vikings should have the room they need to improve their offense, though it will require some intelligent shopping.

The most pressing offensive needs remain what they were one year ago. The Vikings still have difficulty in the passing game for the same host of reasons--they don't protect the passer well, particularly on the right side of the line, they don't throw well, they don't catch well, and they don't exploit opposing defenses' allowances and miscues.

Though Jackson might someday accomplish something in the NFL, he appeared out of his league against playoff caliber defenses in the Vikings' final two games of the 2008 season. While the Giants exposed him but did not convert on easy interceptions, the Eagles made Jackson look mostly horrible and did convert. Against the Eagles, Jackson appeared hesitant to leave the pocket when the rush came, threw awful passes to the turf that would have been worse if completed, and generally seemed dazed and confused.

Assuming Childress continues to influence the offensive playcalling, the Vikings need to bring in a quarterback who can dissect defenses in a flash. In 2008, Kurt Warner has been just such a quarterback. Despite limited mobility, no running game, and an average offensive line, the 37-year-old Warner threw 30 touchdown passes in 2008 versus 14 interceptions and an acceptable 26 sacks. Adding Warner for next season would either vastly improve the Vikings' quarterback play or further demonstrate the limitations of Childress' offense.

But Warner ought not be expected to go it alone. In Arizona, Warner has been the beneficiary of one of three best trios of receivers in the NFL this season, having Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin, and Steve Breaston as targets. Combined, those receivers had 262 receptions and 26 touchdowns. The Vikings' top three receivers in 2008, Bernard Berrian, Bobby Wade, and Visanthe Shiancoe, combined for 143 receptions and 16 touchdowns. In the playoffs, Arizona's top two receivers have yielded 16 receptions, 339 yards, and three touchdowns, the Vikings' top two receivers had seven receptions, 72 yards, and zero touchdowns.

Adding a possession receiver who also has deep speed thus should be another of the Vikings' aims in free agency this off-season. Among the free agents, no other stands out as much as T.J. Houshmandzadeh. One year removed from a Pro-Bowl season, Houshmandzadeh finished sixth in the NFL in receptions with 92, despite catching passes from a rookie quarterback. While Houshmandzadeh's yards-per-catch, total yards, and touchdowns all were down in 2008, the decline in these statistics are the by-product of a highly controlled passing game and should only make him that much more of a bargain in free agency.

Even with their passing and receiving needs met, the Vikings will need to add some help on the offensive line. The two most obvious holes remain on the right side of the line, a chronic issue for the Vikings. Anthony Herrera played reasonably well at right guard, but was injured at the end of the season. Injury notwithstanding, Herrera remains closer to average than great at guard and likely could shift to tackle if the Vikings identified a serviceable guard.

Enter Mike Goff of the San Diego Chargers. One of the more reliable guards in the NFL for eleven seasons, Goff likely will be looking at his final NFL contract when he signs as a free agent this off-season. Goff could provide the run blocking that the Vikings lack on the right side of the line and establish the pass-blocking presence from the right side that the Vikings have been lacking for several seasons.

Center is another point of concern for the Vikings in 2009. With current center Matt Birk seemingly at odds with the Vikings' front office over his value going forward, Birk might be a tough signing in 2009. The ace that Birk has up his sleeve, however, is that the Vikings have no clear alternative at center should he leave. Thus, while Birk clearly played better prior to his groin injuries, he remains a necessary target of the Vikings' off-season plans, as does similarly situated tight end Jim Kleinsasser.

Adding Warner, Houshmandzadeh, and Goff, and resigning Birk and Kleinsasser won't entirely mitigate against the flaws of the Childress system, but the additions certainly would go a long way in that direction. And, with cap room to spare, the Vikings ought to make the moves happen.

Up Next: After Offense, Defense. The Draft.

No comments: