Thursday, March 05, 2009

The Childress Way

On Wednesday, former Minnesota Vikings' center Matt Birk announced that he was accepting a free-agent tender from the Baltimore Ravens. The deal is worth $12 million over three years with half the money guaranteed and $9 million due the first two years of the contract.

With $32 million banked in his past seven years playing for the Vikings, Birk had the luxury of looking beyond the dollar figure that the Ravens' deal offered. And, as he made clear after signing with the Ravens, despite his close ties to Minnesota, Baltimore simply was a more sensible fit for him at this point in his career, particularly given where he felt the Ravens were in relation to the Vikings.

Birk's decision speaks volumes not only about his soured relationship with Vikings' head coach Brad Childress, but also about Birk's impression of where the Vikings are headed in year four of the Childress-regime. It also speaks volumes about Childress' continuing inability to adapt.

Without giving too much credit to a center who, at best performed slightly above the league average last season and suffered through two related injuries over the past three years that caused him to miss significant playing time, Birk's absence will be felt in Minnesota if for no other reason than that the Vikings currently have no experienced player to replace him. Given Childress' oft-used crutch that the problems with the Vikings' offense in his time at Minnesota have been attributable to the "lack of cohesiveness along the offensive line," there is little reason to believe that the Vikings' offensive line will do anything other than struggle next season, barring a surprise veteran addition.

The Vikings even seemed to acknowledge their likely predicament in the absence of Birk, reportedly offering the center a nearly identical contract to that offered by the Ravens. That, of course, would have been a salary cut for Birk and, despite his age and recent issues, yet another example to Birk of the Vikings being run the Childress way rather than the rational way.

The Childress way is to form an opinion, wed oneself to it despite abundant support for a contrary view and approach, and make certain that alternatives are suffocated.

Vikings' fans have seen countless instances of the Childress way playing out on special teams and on offense. Childress' refusal to see the short-comings of his team's special teams' play has haunted the Vikings under this tenure, as has his weddedness to a rotating scheme of backup quarterbacks. Now, Childress will attempt to show that the Vikings can win the Super Bowl with a journeyman quarterback, playing behind a rookie center and a non-entity at right tackle.

Not all of the blame for Birk's departure or the Vikings' lack of an experienced backup center in a window year rests at the feet of Childress, of course. For whatever reason, the Vikings' front office elected neither to make a bona fide offer to center Jason Brown, who accepted a deal to play with the basement-dwelling St. Louis Rams, or to make a stronger offer to Birk. Perhaps, despite $32 million in salary cap space in 2009, more in 2010, and need still to spend $10-12 million just to reach the salary cap floor, that's by design.

Perhaps the Vikings' front office has knowledge of a player that is or will be available this off-season that will fill Birk's role. Or perhaps it was a move based on Childress' assessment of the team's current options, with Childress recently suggesting that Anthony Herrera could slide to center or that John Sullivan, who has yet to play in the NFL, is ready to start for a team with a quickly closing window of opportunity. Whatever the case, the Vikings' loss of Birk, like the Vikings' failure to develop or identify a starting quarterback or right tackle, leave an otherwise talented Vikings' team with questions at three of the most important positions on the team entering 2009.

It wasn't supposed to be this way. Nor need it have been.

In any professional sport, the consistently good teams not only sign the right free agents and draft well, they also make proper and timely assessments of the players on their roster. The Vikings' current predicament was avoidable had the Vikings properly assessed the landscape and come to terms with Birk prior to last season. That they did not is understandable given Birk's injury history and age. To not have a reasonable backup plan is inexcusable, however.

Across the river, the Minnesota Wild have made a habit of selling low, buying high, and skirting the line between playoff and non-playoff team. Barring the emergence of a heretofore unknown center, the Vikings' loss of Birk, along with other non-moves and moves, inches the Vikings ever closer to their NHL counterpart.

Up Next: Is Free Agency Over for the Vikings? Plus, stadium issues.

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