Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Vikings Need to Focus on Offensive Line

On Monday, former Cincinnati Bengals' wide-receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh announced his decision to sign with the Seattle Seahawks. That decision left the Vikings on the outside looking in but perhaps in a better situation than they would have been had they signed the sure-handed receiver.

What the Vikings lose out on in Houshmandzadeh is a player who caught 92 passes last season for a team featuring now-departed, former back-up Ryan Fitzpatrick. The 92 receptions were 39 better than former All-Pro Chad Johnson's figures for the season, 61 better than the next best reception total, and comprised roughly 33% of the Bengals' receptions for the season.

Houshmandzadeh's 2008 numbers speak well not only of his receiving abilities but also of his determination, albeit in what was likely his final big contract season, to attain lofty goals in spite of a limited surrounding cast.

Minnesota could have used a Houshmandzadeh last year. In 2008, the Vikings had 267 completed passes, good for 26th in the NFL and 146 fewer than the league-leading Saints. Only Baltimore, Tennessee, Cincinnati, Seattle, Oakland, and Cleveland had fewer completed passes.

Of the 267 pass completions, only one Viking player, Bobby Wade (53) had more than 50 receptions. Bernard Berrian, the Vikings' number one receiver, had a mere 48 receptions in 2008, 27 more than Adrian Peterson and 32 more than Naufahu Tahi.

But while the Vikings clearly could use a receiver capable of producing at high levels under adverse conditions, the Vikings' 2008 numbers suggest that wide receiver nevertheless is an afterthought in Brad Childress' offense--how else can one explain the narrow margin between Berrian's numbers and those of Tahi? Clearly there is little need to spend significant cap space on a player that will only be incorporated into the offensive scheme at the margins--particularly if the team already has invested in one such player in Berrian.

While it might have been interesting to see how opposing teams dealt with a backfield of Chester Taylor and Adrian Peterson with Visanthe Shiancoe, Bernard Berrian, and T.J. Houshmandzadeh running routes, what might have been never would have been anyway. Almost assuredly, Childress' game plan would have continued to eschew the use of a two-back set and just as assuredly Childress would have opted to pass to Tahi over Houshmandzadeh, if and when Tahi found himself open behind the line of scrimmage. The Vikings thus are probably better off spending their cap money where it will make a difference.

With Houshmandzadeh out of the picture, the Vikings ought to turn their focus to what matters most for a team that relishes the lateral pass and up-the-gut running game and that is the offensive line. Even with the left side of the line intact in 2009, the Vikings have few certainties entering next season. Bryant McKinnie continued his sloppy play of 2007 last season and the Vikings still are without established players at right guard and right tackle. Only left guard Steve Hutchinson appears worth his current salary, and even that's relative.

All of which begs for the return of center Matt Birk. Birk's return will require Childress to swallow his pride, but there is little alternative at this point. Failing to re-sign Birk almost certainly will mean even more of an offensive disaster in 2009 than what was on display against the Eagles in the final game of last season. That, too, rightfully would fall on Childress' shoulders.

Up Next: Offensive line. Plus, stadium issues.

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