In the 2007 NFL Entry Draft, the Minnesota Vikings had the glorious fortune of having Oklahoma running back Adrian Peterson fall to them with the seventh overall pick. To their credit, the Vikings took Peterson, thus cementing offensive opportunity for what should be the next several years.
One year before selecting Peterson, the Vikings made a change in coaches, going from the understaffed and seemingly over-matched Mike Tice, to an offensive coordinator from Philadelphia who did not call offensive plays while with the Eagles and who was best known for "molding" one of the best college quarterbacks ever into a good, if inconsistent pro.
Brad Childress' first game as Minnesota's head coach, a 19-16 victory at Washington, suggested that the Vikings had turned the corner and were moving toward greater coaching professionalism. But that first season, following a non-playoff 9-7 season, ended in a non-playoff 6-10 season and included numerous questionable moves by a coach seemingly intent on square-pegging round holes.
Peterson's arrival was to have marked the coming out party for Childress' otherwise staid offense. Instead, Peterson's presence gave Childress more reason to eschew the passing game and to put an improbably lower significance on the role of the quarterback.
Last season, the Vikings made the playoffs, earning a first-round, home match-up against the Philadelphia Eagles. That's when square-peg quarterback Tarvaris Jackson failed to fit Childress' round-hole offense and failed to do so to such alarming degree that the Vikings finally admitted the need to forestall the Jackson quarterback experiment.
The Vikings' search for a quarterback that would help sell tickets and lead the team past the first round of the playoffs led the team first to trade for Houston Texans' quarterback Sage Rosenfels and finally to coax former Green Bay Packer quarterback Brett Favre out of retirement. With Jackson staying as a backup, the Vikings seemed finally to have a competent and properly ordered corps of quarterbacks, one capable of making a playoff run, on their roster.
Yet unanswered, however, was whether Childress would remain an obstacle to his own design or accept the bounty at his doorstep, a basket of riches that includes an improved offensive line and a speedy slot receiver in Percy Harvin.
In yesterday's 34-20 victory at Cleveland, Childress answered this question--at least in part.
In previous seasons, Childress would have yanked Adrian Peterson in goal line situations and opted for a combination of Naufahu Tahi runs, corner fades to Sidney Rice, and a last-ditch hand-off to Chester Taylor in the face of a stacked defensive line. The result, as the Vikings' 28th-place ranking inside the red zone last season indicates, was a predictable field goal and a missed golden opportunity.
Against the Browns, Childress did what any sensible coach would do when facing first and goal. He gave the ball to Peterson. Then he gave it to Peterson again. And again. And again.
Peterson did not succeed on every carry, but he succeeded at a high enough rate to merit getting the ball in every first and goal situation going forward. And once teams start guessing Peterson and showing an actual ability to pair guessing with stopping Peterson, the Vikings have Favre and his ability to feather or bullet a pass to any number of receivers in the end zone.
In addition to giving Peterson the ball on the goal line, Childress inserted a screen to his gifted back and kept Peterson in the game when he ought to have been in the game. That, despite Peterson having to take IV fluids for dehydration at halftime.
When Childress was not making the single most important, albeit obvious, personnel decision, he was making astute challenges. Those challenges, one that, through no fault of Childress', cost the Vikings a third challenge, the other that changed the complexity of the game, represented substantial upgrades to the types of challenges that Childress too often made in the past, even as recently as last season.
While it is difficult fully to gauge the Vikings' and Childress' improvement from last season on the basis of one game played against one of the league's rebuilding teams, the performance of both team and coach on Sunday at least suggests that a corner now truly has been turned. Yes, we've seen this opening game bit before from Childress' Viking teams, but, yesterday felt more like a prelude to greater things than a window into more of the same, or even more of less.
Up Next: Charging Up the Depth Chart.