Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Is It Favre or Is It Memorex?

On Monday night, the Minnesota Vikings' first-team did a solid job against the Houston Texans' first team. The Vikings' defense was mostly stout and the offense moved the ball at times. The result was a 17-10 halftime lead for the purple.

Several performances stuck out in this game, some general, some more particular. Of these performances, none was more notable than Vikings' quarterback Brett Favre's ability to step up in the pocket in the face of pressure and deliver a pass on the money--a play he made on at least four occasions in the first half. That ability, something that the Vikings largely have lacked during Brad Childress' run as Vikings' head coach, is the difference between a fourth-quarter collapse in the play-offs and moving on. On Monday, Favre was able to deliver.

Favre's play seems also to have inspired backup cum after-thought, Tarvaris Jackson, to pay greater attention to detail. Against the Texans, Jackson again rolled away from, rather than into pressure, delivered the short pass in stride for the receiver, rather than at the receiver's feet, and appeared reasonably poised, albeit against the Texans' second-team defense. The performance made the Vikings' quarterback decision all the more difficult and raised the possibility of the Vikings working out an extension of Jackson's contract in the near term--a near implausibility just two weeks ago.

The Vikings' quarterback play, and the consistent play of Adrian Peterson and Chester Taylor in the backfield, was tarnished somewhat by numerous offensive penalties, including more penalties from left tackle Bryant McKinnie, Percy Harvin's failure in twice misreading his position on the field--once costing the Vikings a first down, the other time costing the team a touchdown after a perfectly thrown pass from Favre, and Ryan Longwell's short and low-hang-time kickoffs.

Perhaps standing out more than some of the correctable issues, however, was one of the persistent themes of the Childress era--the penchant to go short no matter the circumstances. And the crusade appears even to have affected Favre.

Of his 18 passes against Houston, only four of Favre's passes were for more than 10 yards. Of those four passes, only one was thrown beyond 15 yards.

Part of the problem for Minnesota was that, with Bernard Berrian still out, the team's only deep threat appears to be tight end Visanthe Shiancoe. Bobby Wade remains best relegated to that of a slot, possession, third receiver and Sidney Rice seems no longer even a red zone threat--if ever he has been one under Childress. That essentially leaves Percy Harvin to spread the field, something the rookie receiver has yet to do.

Some of the problem for the Vikings' intermediate- to long-range passing game thus rests with the receivers. But some, too, clearly rests with the play-calling. Favre can check down all day long, but with the personnel on the field best suited for short plays, it likely will not matter.

The result, in addition to the non-existent deep game, was a slew of short and ultra-short passing on Monday. In addition to the limited "deep" passes, Favre attempted 4 passes from 6-10 yards, 4 from 0-5 yards, and, in quintessential Childress/Bevell play-calling fashion, six passes behind the line of scrimmage. In other words, the Vikings' first-team offense attempted half of their passes from negative 5 yards to 5 yards from the line of scrimmage. That's highly conservative when the game matters, it's almost excruciatingly so in a pre-season game.

Putting the frosting on the tight play-calling was the Vikings' rendition of the wildcat offense. Twice, the Vikings ran the formation. Both times, the team ran. If that's going to be the constant for the Vikings out of this formation, its fairly pointless, particularly with Favre and Peterson otherwise in the backfield, even to run the set. The whole point of the wildcat offense is to keep opponents guessing. But there's no guessing required if run is ensured.

On the whole Monday, the Vikings showed that they can play well against reasonably good teams on the road. Of course, we already knew as much. What we have yet to find out is whether this team, under this coach, will let loose all the offensive talent the team reportedly has. One has the sense that this offense under a coach such as Denny Green would score 35 points per game and that the offense is being held back by Childress' tentative design.

Childress will argue, of course, that winning is more important than looking good. But there's nothing wrong with doing both--and giving the fans a reason to rise from their seats for more than a handful of Adrian Peterson runs a game.

Up Next: Who's In, Who's Out? Plus, Extending Jackson?

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