As the Minnesota Vikings made their way Sunday to what eventually became a relatively easy victory over the Cleveland Browns, the rightful focus was on the play of Vikings' running back Adrian Peterson. After a lackluster opening half, during which he produced a meager 25 rushing yards, Peterson ran through the Browns' defenders in the second half, en route to 180 yards rushing. For good measure, he displayed his catch-passing abilities out of the backfield on a nice screen play.
Perhaps it is no coincidence that Peterson's second-half screen play came courtesy of a Brett Favre audible. For Vikings' head coach Brad Childress has long been of the mindset that the screen play and Peterson present a contradiction of terms. Watching Peterson everywhere else on the field, that logic has been difficult for Vikings' fans to accept. Now, there is evidence to bolster fan opinion.
In keeping with his normal modus operandi, Childress declined the opportunity to elaborate on his day-after comment that "number four called some things that weren't according to script and we just have to deal with that." As a result of Childress' silence, fans likely will never know whether that screen play was one of Favre's frustrating audibles. If it was, fans ought to hope for numerous Favre outbursts this season.
Even if Childress was fine with Favre's use of Peterson on that particular screen play, however, there are concerns that Childress and his offensive coordinator, Darrel Bevell, remain intent on playing far too close to the vest given the offensive personnel at their disposal.
All pre-season, Vikings' fans were told by the Vikings' coaching staff and on-air personalities that the Vikings were running vanilla in the pre-season but would unleash the offense in full force in the regular season. That line has been a common one during Childress' run in Minnesota. Unfortunately, it has also been the case that the vanilla offense of the pre-season has become the very same vanilla offense of the regular season.
Against the Browns, a sensible case could and has been made that it was unnecessary, perhaps even would have been foolhardy, to attempt the sublime when the ordinary was nearly as good and far less risky. By running the ball and not turning it over, the Vikings were able to throttle the Browns in a game that was enjoyable to watch and led to a victory. Those two components, necessary elements in today's NFL, were achieved without resorting to anything even remotely resembling a deep passing game.
That won't be the case against some of the NFL's better teams, however. And that fact begs the question whether Childress and Co. finally will open up the offense to that passing game and the further question of whether the Vikings have the means to do so.
Only one game into his NFL career, Percy Harvin already stands head and shoulders above his wide-receiver mates as the most dependable receiving target on the team and the player most likely to gain yards after the catch. Sidney Rice looks only marginally better than Troy Williamson at a similar point in both players' careers, Bernard Berrian seems to be hindered by his injuries, and no other receiver on the roster appears much better than replacement level. That is, at least as things currently are operating on offense.
Questions about talent aside, the larger question is whether the Vikings' system is hindering the passing game and, if so, to what extent. In past lives, Favre has made stars out of far lesser receivers than Berrian and Rice. Presumably, at least some of that success resulted from Favre's on-field recognition and audibles. Some, too, however, clearly derived from the offensive systems run in Green Bay and New York--two systems that emphasized the pass. Will it be enough for Favre to audible on occasion in Minnesota or will the Vikings need finally to concede the need for a deep and intermediate passing attack?
Against the Browns, the Vikings were able to do what they wished on the ground. That meant giving Peterson the ball on the goal line and on key third-down plays even when every defensive player knew that he was going to get the ball. That could be a nice way of putting the league on notice that the Vikings will go to Peterson in any situation, even down after down after down. And that would work to the Vikings' advantage should they decide to take advantage of the nine- and ten-men boxes that opposing defenses apparently will have to run to stop Peterson--but only if the Vikings take advantage of the opportunity.
Up Next: Better Than The Numbers.