Through nearly 53 minutes of Monday night's game against the Green Bay Packers, the Minnesota Vikings clearly were the better team on the field. Jared Allen did what any self-respecting defensive end does these days by ripping off 4.5 sacks against a pitiful Packers' offensive line, Brett Favre picked apart a short-handed Packer secondary, and Antoine Winfield made the most of his blitz- and route-jumping opportunities. On both sides of the ball, the Vikings were humming. And that, with little contribution from Adrian Peterson.
With just over 7 minutes remaining in the game, the Vikings took what should have been an insurmountable 30-14 lead following a safety of Packer quarterback Aaron Rodgers. The subsequent free kick gave the Vikings the ball at their own 40-yard line. Two first downs and the Vikings would be near field goal range with the opportunity to turn a two-possession game into a three-possession game and foreclose any prospect of a Packer comeback.
Rather than winning the game on offense, however, Vikings' head coach Brad Childress opted to force the Packers' offense to make a comeback. And they nearly did.
After giving the ball to Peterson for a one-yard loss, Childress pulled Peterson for Taylor. On the next play, the Vikings went short to Dugan for one yard. They followed that with a hand-off to Taylor for five yards.
Evoking memories of Denny Green's run in Minnesota, the Packers shredded the Vikings' defense on the ensuing drive en route to touchdown. A missed two-point conversion attempt left the score 30-20 in favor of Minnesota.
On the Vikings' subsequent drive, Childress went back to the drawing board. Peterson was back in the game, but the Vikings still were playing it safe. Following a run up the middle for no gain and a run around the end for no gain, however, Childress audibled. And he did so the one time that he should not have.
With just over three minutes left in the game, Childress called a fly route down the right sideline. It was the type of safe deep route that has become synonymous with the Childress era in Minnesota--deep, requiring a miraculous catch by the receiver, and virtually impossible to intercept.
The problem with the call was not necessarily that Childress opted to "take a shot," however half-hearted it might have been. Rather, the primary problem was the timing. On the previous series, the Vikings played it as close to the vest as is possible without taking a knee. Ditto the first two plays of this series. A deep shot thus introduced an element of surprise--even shock--to the Packer defense prepared for a Childress offensive hold, but the timing was illogical.
As a general rule of thumb, deep routes with a low probability of completion are disfavored on third-down plays with three minutes remaining in the game and a ten-point separation. Even a run up the gut made more sense as the Packers had just used their final timeout.
By going deep, the Vikings stopped the clock, saving the Packers valuable time on the game clock. And the Vikings were forced to punt. It was the worst of all possible scenarios, other than a pick or fumble returned for a touchdown.
The deep play notwithstanding, what remains confounding about Childress' system is why he retains such a reluctance simply to put away opponents? This reluctance was on full display over the last two Vikings' drives, but particularly on the first drive of the sequence when, with the controlled passing game with which Favre had been eating up the Packers' defense the entire game, the Vikings could have readily moved into field-goal range and sealed the game.
The deep route was a tacit acknowledgment of the over-conservativeness of the previous five play calls, but even the deep route was highly conservative. Less conservative, but with a much higher probability of success, would have been a screen, post, or slant, particularly with the Packers stuffing the box.
The Vikings won the game on Monday, but coaching decisions at the end of the game made what should have been a blow-out far too tight. That did not matter for the Vikings' last night, but, as has become a common refrain in Minnesota, it very well could in the future if Childress continues to play not to lose rather than playing to win.
Up Next: Establishing the Run.