Friday, January 16, 2009

Either Childress Doesn't Get It Or, Sadly, He Does

After yet another season of unfulfilled promises, it is tempting simply to move on and trust that the Minnesota Vikings will learn from their failures of 2008 and improve to a level commensurate with the talent on their team in 2009. Unfortunately, learning lessons seems to be a difficult thing for current Vikings' head coach Brad Childress. Either that or he simply is the most stubborn man on the planet.

Responding to yet another round of questions on the future of the Vikings' quarterback position, Childress offered several illuminating responses.

Regarding the play of current starting quarterback Tarvaris Jackson and his poor performance in the clutch during the Vikings' playoff loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, Childress provided the following observations for our local scribe:

"For some guys it takes a year, two years, three years, four years. You look at guys like Jake Delhomme and Kurt Warner. Some of the better guys, it just takes a while. Look at a guy like Rich Gannon. Rich Gannon was out of football for a year ... [sometimes] it takes a while to develop," Childress said, expanding his response to consider the quarterback position in more general terms.

There are, of course, several problems with Childress' response. First, and foremost, there is the that Childress tabbed Jackson an NFL-ready starter last season and called his starter "much improved" this season. Childress never said that he was drafting a quarterback that eventually would be good, he claimed to be drafting a quarterback who was near-NFL ready.

Then there is the matter of selecting the pool of those to whom one compares one's own quarterback. While it's convenient to draw analogies to other quarterbacks who floundered before making their mark in the NFL, it is conspicuous that Childress has never acknowledged the 99% of NFL quarterbacks who start their careers as inauspiciously as has Jackson and fail ever to become a bona fide starter in the NFL. Just as Childress can point to Warner's career arc as an apt early-career comparison, he also could point to the early career arc of Akili Smith.

Moreover, is there not reason to have expected a greater return--or an alternative course of action--by this point in Jackson's career? While Childress points out that Marino had a great first season, he made the statement in an attempt to suggest that the occurrence is rare. But that is not at all the case. Numerous first-year, and even more second- and third-year quarterbacks have succeeded in the NFL, including several first-year quarterbacks this season. Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco, and Matt Cassel all have shown far more in one season than has Tarvaris in his two plus seasons in the NFL. And before Ryan, Flacco, and Cassel, there were other fine first-year quarterbacks, including Troy Aikman, Peyton Manning, Terry Bradshaw, Steve Young (USFL), Aaron Rodgers, and Joe Montana.

The problem with Childress' estimation of Jackson's talent is multi-fold but begins with Childress' insistence on changing the terms of the discussion by forever rewriting Jackson's starting point. The games Jackson played in his first season did not count because they were at the end of a losing season. The games in the second season had to be discounted because they were in Jackson's "first full season." And the games this season had to be considered in light of Jackson's pre-season injury, his mid-season benching, and his progress at the end of the season.

This clearly is a game that could continue in perpetuity. Childress can continue to offer suggestions that Jackson could end up being as good as some of the best ever to play the game. He can continue to argue the obvious that we won't know until we know. And he can continue to change the timeline--next year arguing that it is year one of Jackson's first full year as a full-time starter without the burden of the rookie label or having a veteran looking over his shoulder and that Jackson still deserves two more years as a starter before we evaluate him as a starter. None of which matters, of course, for the past or for the immediate future.

One of the classic economic paradoxes pertains to when to cut bait. Some argue that the bait should be cut, despite sunken costs, when the bait fails to yield a return. Others argue that, because of sunken costs, the bait should be kept on the prospect of a rebound.

What Childress and others in the latter camp too often fail to consider is the opportunity cost of waiting on a return from a heretofore failed project. As the Vikings wait for Jackson's promise to blossom into NFL talent, the talent on the team continues to age. After 2009, if not sooner, that talent might well be absent Antoine Winfield, Pat Williams, Chester Taylor, Matt Birk, Jim Kleinsasser, and Darren Sharper, as well as one or two other players likely to be lured away by better offers or who falter through injury.

Three years ago, despite no apparent competition, the Vikings traded up in the draft to take Jackson, only a handful of picks after using another pick to select Ryan Cook. Whether Jackson some day becomes a quality starting quarterback is irrelevant. He clearly was not of that caliber when the Vikings drafted him and has not yet matured to that point, leading the Vikings to waste three seasons of otherwise strong talent on the field. Either Childress now understands this and is attempting to massage what is going on or he does not understand the significance of wasting time in the NFL. It's not clear which is a worse predicament.

Up Next: Free Agency.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Three New and Two Old Men Who Ought to be in the Vikings' Kitchen in 2009

It's no secret that the Minnesota Vikings have some of the best talent in the NFL. The team tied for the NFL lead with four players named first-team All-Pros and added another to the second-team. And the Vikings achieved those numbers despite not having defensive lineman Pat Williams named to either team.

In addition to their All-Pro numbers, the Vikings will send six players to the Pro Bowl one year after sending seven. Clearly, the Vikings have talent.

What the Vikings lack, however, is the proper use of that talent. Part of the problem in Minnesota is that the Vikings play an ultra-conservative, disconnected, brand of football.
While other teams prosper with first-year quarterbacks and rookie head coaches, Minnesota continues to use quarterback Tarvaris Jacksons' youth and head coach Brad Childress' limited (three years) on the job as a crutch for underachieving.

And the Vikings continue to excuse their underperformance as high success, despite evidence to the contrary. After securing the title to the sub-par NFC North with a 10-6 record, with two, narrow victories coming courtesy the 0-16 Lions, Childress had the temerity to state that "double-digits wins do not come along too often in the NFL" and to argue, unsolicited, that he had done more with less than did former Vikings' head coach Mike Tice.

For the record, Childress has done the same with substantially greater resources--better assistants, better players, and better facilities--than Tice ever had in Minnesota. And, for the record, that makes his 10-6 feat in year three seem substantially underwhelming, particularly when last year's 1-15 Miami Dolphins were able to go 11-5 this year with a rookie head coach, a retread at quarterback, and no receivers. That made Miami one of ten teams in the NFL this season to post double-digit victories, with only Minnesota, among that group, failing to exceed ten victories.

Clearly, Childress is attempting to paper over the near-disastrous finish that the Vikings nearly endured. While the 8-3 record at the end of the season against teams with a combined .420 winning percentage made the season finale against the Giants' B-squad less tense, the loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, at home, in the first round of the playoffs laid bare the problems that continue to face the Vikings.

With a wholly weak schedule in 2009, the Vikings ought to be able to perform on the field next year no better than they did this season and still win the division and wrap up a two seed with a 12-4 record. That, of course, won't make them any better than they were this year if they are unable to play well in the playoffs. And that will require either a seismic shift in how Childress approaches his dismal offensive scheming or much improved play from the offense, in spite of Childress.

Placing my eggs in the latter basket, I'll opt, first, for upgrading three positions on offense. With $20-23 million available in cap space before accounting for LTBEs, the Vikings should have the room they need to improve their offense, though it will require some intelligent shopping.

The most pressing offensive needs remain what they were one year ago. The Vikings still have difficulty in the passing game for the same host of reasons--they don't protect the passer well, particularly on the right side of the line, they don't throw well, they don't catch well, and they don't exploit opposing defenses' allowances and miscues.

Though Jackson might someday accomplish something in the NFL, he appeared out of his league against playoff caliber defenses in the Vikings' final two games of the 2008 season. While the Giants exposed him but did not convert on easy interceptions, the Eagles made Jackson look mostly horrible and did convert. Against the Eagles, Jackson appeared hesitant to leave the pocket when the rush came, threw awful passes to the turf that would have been worse if completed, and generally seemed dazed and confused.

Assuming Childress continues to influence the offensive playcalling, the Vikings need to bring in a quarterback who can dissect defenses in a flash. In 2008, Kurt Warner has been just such a quarterback. Despite limited mobility, no running game, and an average offensive line, the 37-year-old Warner threw 30 touchdown passes in 2008 versus 14 interceptions and an acceptable 26 sacks. Adding Warner for next season would either vastly improve the Vikings' quarterback play or further demonstrate the limitations of Childress' offense.

But Warner ought not be expected to go it alone. In Arizona, Warner has been the beneficiary of one of three best trios of receivers in the NFL this season, having Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin, and Steve Breaston as targets. Combined, those receivers had 262 receptions and 26 touchdowns. The Vikings' top three receivers in 2008, Bernard Berrian, Bobby Wade, and Visanthe Shiancoe, combined for 143 receptions and 16 touchdowns. In the playoffs, Arizona's top two receivers have yielded 16 receptions, 339 yards, and three touchdowns, the Vikings' top two receivers had seven receptions, 72 yards, and zero touchdowns.

Adding a possession receiver who also has deep speed thus should be another of the Vikings' aims in free agency this off-season. Among the free agents, no other stands out as much as T.J. Houshmandzadeh. One year removed from a Pro-Bowl season, Houshmandzadeh finished sixth in the NFL in receptions with 92, despite catching passes from a rookie quarterback. While Houshmandzadeh's yards-per-catch, total yards, and touchdowns all were down in 2008, the decline in these statistics are the by-product of a highly controlled passing game and should only make him that much more of a bargain in free agency.

Even with their passing and receiving needs met, the Vikings will need to add some help on the offensive line. The two most obvious holes remain on the right side of the line, a chronic issue for the Vikings. Anthony Herrera played reasonably well at right guard, but was injured at the end of the season. Injury notwithstanding, Herrera remains closer to average than great at guard and likely could shift to tackle if the Vikings identified a serviceable guard.

Enter Mike Goff of the San Diego Chargers. One of the more reliable guards in the NFL for eleven seasons, Goff likely will be looking at his final NFL contract when he signs as a free agent this off-season. Goff could provide the run blocking that the Vikings lack on the right side of the line and establish the pass-blocking presence from the right side that the Vikings have been lacking for several seasons.

Center is another point of concern for the Vikings in 2009. With current center Matt Birk seemingly at odds with the Vikings' front office over his value going forward, Birk might be a tough signing in 2009. The ace that Birk has up his sleeve, however, is that the Vikings have no clear alternative at center should he leave. Thus, while Birk clearly played better prior to his groin injuries, he remains a necessary target of the Vikings' off-season plans, as does similarly situated tight end Jim Kleinsasser.

Adding Warner, Houshmandzadeh, and Goff, and resigning Birk and Kleinsasser won't entirely mitigate against the flaws of the Childress system, but the additions certainly would go a long way in that direction. And, with cap room to spare, the Vikings ought to make the moves happen.

Up Next: After Offense, Defense. The Draft.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Patriots' Bind Makes Cassel Appealing Target for Vikings

Since the Minnesota Vikings lost at home in the first round of the playoffs to the Philadelphia Eagles, much speculation has centered on the Vikings' plans for starting quarterback next season. That necessary evil, the consequence of an abysmal performance by Tarvaris Jackson when it most mattered, appears to have put the Vikings on the trail of New England Patriots' starter Matt Cassel.

In their closing statements on the 2008 season, Vikings' head coach, Brad Childress, and Player Personnel Chief, Rick Spielman, echoed each other's sentiments on the Vikings' quarterback outlook for 2009, with both stating that the team would "leave no consideration unturned." That comment followed, for each, the statement that the Vikings would be looking at free agency and the draft to see what is available and how what is available will fit with what they have.

The implication was that the Vikings would consider the only other option not mentioned for addressing their quarterback needs--a trade. There is no question but that the Vikings remain interested in trading for Philadelphia quarterback Donovan McNabb, who played for Childress while Childress managed the offense in Philly.

McNabb likely is going nowhere, however, absent an overwhelming/absurd trade offer. That leaves two other starting quarterbacks who have drawn the Vikings' interest. One is Derek Anderson of the Cleveland Browns, the other is Matt Cassel of the New England Patriots; Cassel's inclusion in trade discussions is explained below.

Anderson showed some promise in his Cinderella season in 2007. In 2008, he came back to Earth, showing why poor reads and a weak arm are the demise of NFL quarterbacks. Cleveland has announced that it is "willing to trade" Anderson. The hunch here is that they will be equally "willing to cut" Anderson when nobody bites on trade requests.

New England is playing a similar game with Cassel, though arguably with far more chips with which to play. Playing in New England's favor is the fact that Cassel had a great season despite having no running game and no experience playing at either the collegiate or NFL level. On the season, Cassel threw 21 touchdowns and 11 interceptions, but the statistics looked even better as the season progressed.

Operating against New England is reality. Cassel's numbers look good on one level, more pedestrian on another, and awful on a third. The touchdown numbers are good, the interception numbers are average, and the sack numbers, 47, are horrible. Having no running game logically means taking more sacks, but 47 is still high.

Then there is the fact that New England has no choice but to move Cassel now or lose him for nothing. And the whole issue is going to be one gigantic gamble for the Patriots.

The Patriots began their ploy to maximize their return on Cassel late in the season when the team let slip (read: planted in the media for consumption) that Tom Brady might not be ready to return in 2009. That revelation was a complete 180 both on what the team had stated earlier and what those near Brady have said publicly for months.

Adding to the team's attempted subterfuge regarding Brady's readiness for 2009 was the Patriot's contention last week that they plan to franchise Cassel.

Franchising Cassel would require the Patriots to commit over $14 million to their cap in 2009--in addition to the nearly $15 million that Brady will cost the team next year. That's more than 20% of the team's salary cap and clearly absurd, unless the Patriots then plan to trade Cassel.

The real question for the Patriots, however, is why they would risk franchising Cassel and being stuck with his franchise salary in 2009 should the Patriots be unable to move him? The better option would be to slap the transition tag on Cassel, thereby accruing a lower salary-cap burden. And, of course, the best option would be to sign and trade Cassel, though that seems an unlikely option given Cassel's probable high assessment of his own value.

Clearly, the Patriots either must trade Cassel or let him go through free agency. That means he has limited trade value compared to what he would have were the Patriots in a seller's market. And that makes Cassel an affordable trade target, particularly if the Patriots slap the franchise tag on him.

Which brings the issue back to the Vikings. Knowing that the Patriots are in a bind, and knowing that Cassel's trade value is far lower than was, for example, the trade value for Jared Allen in 2008, the Vikings have the luxury of sitting back and waiting for the free-agency period to play out enough to suggest what other offers the Patriots receive for Cassel. Much, of course, will be determined by whether the Patriots apply the franchise tag to Cassel. If they do not, Cassel will be an unrestricted free agent and a much clearer target for the Vikings.

Up Next: The NFL's Court Battle Versus the Williams'. Plus, Other Free Agent Targets.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

What Would A Monkey Have Done?

One would think that the Minnesota Vikings had narrowly lost their fifth Super Bowl--their first since 1977--the way the Vikings' owners and some members of the local media are congratulating Vikings' head coach Brad Childress on the "progress" that the team made this year.

"We like where we are," Vikings' owner Zygi Wilf monotoned to mostly adoring interviewers. "We've improved each year and now we are NFC North Division Champions." Zygi slipped in stating that fans should appreciate the feeling as it is an evanescent one, but few, if any in the adoring assembly seemed to notice.

Instead, the fixation was on winning a division championship. That is what fans now are being told they should consider a sign of progress--that and moving from a 6-10 record, to an 8-8 record, to a 10-6 record this year.

On paper, without further evidence, the line seems logical. The Vikings have improved by two games in each of the past two seasons under Childress. And this year, for the first time ever, the Vikings won the NFC North.

Details, as always, offer a different version of the truth.

In 2006, Childress inherited a team that finished 9-7 the previous season under then head coach Mike Tice. In his inaugural season, Childress took Tice's final team, added free agents Chester Taylor, Steve Hutchinson, Ben Leber, and Ryan Longwell and rookies Chad Greenway, Cedric Griffin, Ryan Cook, and Tarvaris Jackson. Childress also welcomed back from injury center Matt Birk.

In 2007, the Vikings added free agents Bobby Wade and Visanthe Shiancoe and rookies Adrian Peterson, Sidney Rice, Brian Robison, Marcus McCauley, Aundrae Allison, and Tyler Thigpen.

In 2008, the Vikings added free agents Jared Allen, Madieu Williams, and Bernard Berrian.

In 2006, the Vikings finished with the 26th best record in the NFL, down from 16th best record in the NFL in 2005.

In 2007, the Vikings' 8-8 record left them with the 16th best record in the NFL, an improvement over the 26th best record and back to where the team was in comparison to the rest of the league in 2005.

In no season since Childress' arrival in Minnesota have the Vikings lost a single free agent of note--a remarkable stroke of fortune about which virtually no other NFL team can brag, not even the Detroit Lions. That, along with the upgrade in talent at numerous key spots, suggested improvement if only by virtue of the upgrade in talent.

This year, the Vikings' 10-6 regular-season record left them with the 10th best overall record in the league. But the Vikings' loss in the first round of the playoffs to the team with the 11th best record in the league, and Arizona's and San Diego's survival, coupled with first-round losses by teams that proved themselves better than Minnesota during the regular season provide a valid case for arguing that Minnesota had, at best, the 13th best team in the NFL in 2008.

That's still progress, just not on par with the hyperbole that now eminates from Vikings' headquarters and from out of the mouths of some of the local Vikings' cheerleaders.

And it does raise the question whether, given the talent added to the squad and the comparatively and increasingly light schedules that the Vikings have encountered in Childress' first three seasons in Minnesota, any other coach would have done any worse than Childress has done? In other words, assuming improvement, have the Vikings improved because of Childress or in spite of him?

Bad Call Explanation of the Week:

Explaining why he declined to accept a holding penalty on a first-quarter drive that would have moved the Philadelphia Eagles into questionable field-goal range from clear field-goal range, Vikings' head coach Brad Childress stated that his special teams coach had informed him that Eagles' field-goal kicker David Akers would have hit from 53 anyway, having hit from 60 in warm-ups, that there was no certainty of stopping the Eagles on what would have been 3rd and 17, "given that the Eagles had been moving the ball."

For the season, Akers was 2-5 from 50 yards or more and 8-10 from 40-49 yards. If you're going to rely on statistics to justify your decision, then you ought to rely on them in making your decision. 80% versus 40% seems to suggest taking the penalty. Then there is the fact that, contrary to Childress' contention, the Eagles had not "been moving the ball well." On their first drive, the Eagles moved the ball 22 yards before punting. On the second drive, the one that led to the gifted field goal, the Eagles moved the ball a total of one yard before kicking the field goal. The only reason the Eagles were in field-goal range was because Paul Ferraro, the guy who counseled Childress on whether to accept the holding penalty, again saw his special teams unit blow up, allowing a 62-yard punt return to DeSean Jackson.

Up Next: Decisions.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Debunking Defense of Childress' Offense

It's getting thick and it's getting heavy. After a trickle of mention last week in one of the local papers, the line is getting too much to take.

It began with a simple, if misguided, contention that the Vikings lead the league in explosive plays for touchdowns. Let us leave aside, for the moment, the fact that this statistic is a completely artificial construct. Let us also leave aside the fact that, even if accepted as accurate and proof of the greatness of an offense, it does little to mute the reality that the Vikings ranked from the middle to the bottom of the NFL in numerous more telling offensive statistics (e.g., 12th in points per game, 17th in yards per game, 25th in passing yards per game, 18th in first downs, 19th in 3rd down conversions, 12th in receiving touchdowns, and 14th in rushing touchdowns).

Instead, let us merely see how the explosiveness breaks down.

For the season, counting yesterday's home playoff loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, the Vikings had 20 explosive scoring plays. Of the 20, six were running plays, five were off of dump passes of five yards or less, and nine were on deep passes.

It is evident that the purpose of the comment regarding the Vikings' explosive scoring plays is to defend the Vikings' offensive playcalling and to suggest that, despite what everyone sees, it not only is a solid offensive system, but also getting the most out of the talent it has. Instead, it merely shows the futility of the Vikings' system.

In 17 games this season, the Vikings scored 37 offensive touchdowns. That means that over half of their scores came on explosive plays (54 percent). At first blush, it's tempting to jump to the conclusion that the results suggest a strong performance.

What the results suggest, however, is quite the opposite. Though it is nice, even necessary, to have big-play capability, and while it is good that Childress finally appears to understand this need, the Vikings' inability to sustain such a performance not only over the course of the season but even within games, merely suggests that the Vikings' offense has potential but lacks guidance. While other teams sustain drives with short- and intermediate range passing, the Vikings have to rely on the rare surprise pass beyond the sticks.

Although having the most dominant running back in the league, the Vikings have parlayed that advantage into a mere nine deep pass scoring plays. Yesterday's game merely highlighted this shortcoming in the Vikings' offense.

Routinely facing an Eagles' defense that employed one defender more than five yards off the line of scrimmage, the Vikings could do nothing in the passing game. If the explosive scoring plays statistic is to have any meaning, particularly the meaning suggested by those beholden to Childress and the Vikings' organization for their jobs, such plays ought to be made in abundance when they matter and when the opposing team dares the Vikings to try an explosive play. Until that happens, the stat is as utterly meaningless as the continuing attempts to defend Childress' record in Minnesota.

Up Next: Would Anyone Do Less?

Childress Delivers

For three seasons, Minnesota Vikings' head coach Brad Childress and his dwindling band of supporters have preached patience. "Just wait," the skeptical fans have been told, "the payoff is coming." Part of that payoff was to have been Sunday's playoff game against the Philadelphia Eagles--not necessarily in the form of a victory, but at least in the form of a well-played game.

The payoff never arrived.

Aside from two series by running back Adrian Peterson, during which the elite running back demonstrated for all who do not already know, why it is that he is the most poorly utilized player in the NFL, the Vikings' offense was mind-numbingly simplistic, boring, and feeble. That's how it's been drawn up for three years under Childress and that, not surprisingly, is how it has been executed for three years under Childress.

At no point in the game was the Childress stamp of approval on the Vikings' offense more apparent than when, down 12 with just over three minutes to go and the ball deep in their own end, the Vikings resorted to the short passing game--two yards, then three, then none, and then none some more.

The sequence merely crystallized the ineptitude of Childress' offense against a capable defense. In the entire game, the Vikings threw just two passes beyond the first down marker. Two. That's almost a statistical impossibility. By chance alone, teams ought to stumble upon more than two forward passes beyond the sticks. But apparently determination can improve upon chance.

And when the Vikings were busy not throwing deep, they were working their short running game to utter imperfection, refusing to run outside the tackles if at all possible and opting, instead for the cozy confines up the gut. It was pure genius for a coach intent on turning back the clock.

While it is true that Tarvaris Jackson was doing a solid impression of an errant Spurgeon Wynn in the second half, that the Vikings' offensive line was incapable of picking up the blitz, and that the Vikings' receivers looked thoroughly disinterested in the game plan, such as it was, the Vikings' loss on Sunday demonstrated the returns on ChillyBall when the least little thing goes awry. And there's zero reason to believe that anything will be any different next season.

Up Next: The Numbers. Plus, wheat and chaff.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

The Better Passive-Aggressive

The Minnesota Vikings face a near-mirror image of themselves today when they take on the Andy Reid-led Philadelphia Eagles in the first round of the NFL playoffs. Like Minnesota, the Eagles employ a stout defense and a tightly wound offense. Both teams feature a premiere running back tandem--the Vikings, Adrian Peterson and Chester Taylor, the Eagles, Brian Westbrook and Correll Buckhalter, modest receiving corps, and enigmatic quarterbacks.

Both the Eagles and the Vikings also have head coaches who love to play close games, passive-aggressively hint at the genius in their systems that have yet to yield a single Super Bowl victory, and equally passive-aggressively nudge their local media contingencies to cast aspersions on fan bases who do what fan bases do--root for a winning team and call for improvement when results fail to meet aspirations.

As such, there is but one certainty on Sunday--whichever team emerges victorious between the Vikings and Eagles, one coach will be making passive-aggressive statements regarding the fans who "did not believe" in the system, while the other will be making passive-aggressive comments about how the team "overcame adversity" when "nobody gave them a chance to do much." The fan base in the former city rightfully will rejoice reservedly, while the fan base in the latter justifiably will call for change, despite their local team having made the first-round of the twelve-team NFL playoffs.

For the Vikings to put their fan base squarely in the former category and give head coach Brad Childress an unwarranted opening to hint at the genius of his system, the Vikings need to accomplish five things, at least four of which are feasible; the Vikings need to play well on special teams, run well, put pressure on Donovan McNabb, stop the Eagles' running game, and make the occasional deep connection.

The Vikings should have some success putting pressure on the older-than-his-years McNabb. On the season, McNabb has been sacked 23 times and thrown 11 picks--about the middle of the pack for starting quarterbacks. While McNabb put up some decent fantasy points last week against a horrible Dallas defense, those points came largely on the strength of three plays rather than his overall performance which produced far less gaudy numbers of 11 of 21 for 189 yards. If the Vikings can hold McNabb to those numbers, they should feel good about keeping the Eagles' quarterback from passing and rushing for multiple touchdowns, as he also did against the Cowboys.

Though the Vikings will miss the five sacks that has been Ray Edwards at left defensive end this season, they will make do with either Otis Grigsby or Brian Robison who combined for half that total. Whomever plays left end, the Vikings will rely on right defensive end Jared Allen to apply the bulk of the pressure on McNabb. If Pat Williams is able to play and draw double coverage, Allen's job will be easier. If not, the Vikings will have to hope to keep McNabb in the pocket and to force the errant passes that McNabb is sometimes known to throw when his receivers are not open.

Stopping the Eagles' running game also clearly hinges on Pat Williams' status. With Williams, the Vikings have the top run defense in the NFL. Without Williams, they have been a bit more ordinary, yielding 98 and 135 yards rushing in the final two regular season games against Atlanta and the New York Giants, respectively. Those aren't terrible numbers against two of the league's better run offenses, but the difference between those numbers and the Vikings' 72-yards-per-game average with Pat Williams in the lineup might be the difference between a win and a loss in this matchup.

To stop the Eagles' rushing attack, the Vikings will need to be solid not only up the middle, but also on the edges. That will put a premium on the tackling of cornerbacks Cedric Griffin and Antoine Winfield and the pursuit and tackling by outside linebackers Chad Greenway and Ben Leber. Missed tackles haunted the Vikings at times last year and early this year, but seem less of a concern of late.

On offense, the Vikings clearly need to get the ball to Peterson and Taylor in space. Despite Peterson's pedigree, Taylor actually appears the greater matchup problem for the Eagles, not only because he holds the ball better than has Peterson lately, but also because he runs well behind blocking. Though Peterson is a better bet to break a run from behind the line of scrimmage, the Eagles' defense ranks fourth in the league against the run.

Clearing out the short pass will require the Vikings to go deep on occasion. That's been a problem for Tarvaris Jackson since he arrived in Minnesota. Despite increasing zip and accuracy on his intermediate passes, Jackson still tends to miss by wide margins on his deep passes. Whether Jackson will choose today to overcome what can only be a mental issue clearly remains to be seen.

If the Vikings can pressure McNabb, limit the Eagles' running game, and clear space underneath for Childress' short-game attack, they have every chance to do the Cincinnati Bengals one half-game better and beat the Eagles. If, however, the Vikings special teams collapses under the weight of its recently encouraging mediocrity, the Vikings will have problems even if they succeed in the other phases of the game.

Playing well on special teams is something that, once seemingly impossible for the 2008-2009 Vikings, now seems at least possible. But it still will be a chore for the Vikings.

The Vikings' kicking and punting has been solid most of the season, the concern has been the coverage. Minnesota ranks last in the NFL in kick and punt coverage, yielding four touchdowns, 14.9 yards per punt return, and 23.5 yards per kick return. As a consequence of the Vikings' poor coverage on punts, only four teams have faced fewer fair catches than have the Vikings--none of those teams are in the playoffs.

Philadelphia is a poor punt-return team but a much more formidable kick-return team. Quintin Demps has returned 52 kicks for 1314 yards and one touchdown this season. And though rookie wide-receiver DeSean Jackson has a less gaudy 440 return yards on 50 punt returns, his numbers were stunted by early season indecision and 16 fair catches. Against the Vikings, Jackson likely will be aggressive.

The maddening thing about this game for Vikings' fans is that the result could go one of four ways. The Vikings could win big, lose big, or win or lose close. That pretty much covers the gamut of options. And that's what both encourages and cautions Vikings' fans.

Under Childress, the Vikings perform best when they take an early lead. An early one-touchdown lead generally ensures a close game, though not necessarily a victory. An early two-touchdown lead usually ensures one of the Vikings' rare lop-sided victories. Everything else falls under the category of things giving rise to the defensive, passive-aggressive, post-game Childress. It is a home game, but so were the last two games of the season.

Prediction: None.

Up Next: Happy Trails to Whom?